Bojana Kunst
On Strategic Interventions in Performance Art: Self-Representation of the Body

  • text by Bojana Kunst
  • First published in Frakcija, Zagreb, Croatia.

© Bojana Kunst

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“Exhibiting oneself is difficult for other people who don’t feel good about their bodies. I could not have been more humble – but if I’d been more humble, I wouldn’t have been an artist.”
(Hannah Wilke, 1985 in: Jones, 1998: 151)


In 20th century art, performance art was often interpreted as a complex of various kinds of interventions which primarily encroached upon the borders of the artistic medium. We can say that these interventions are mainly interested in what the (artistic) medium is not, and not in what it is. Works of performance art go under various names (actions, situations, happenings, environments, and live art). Anyway - tackled by this kind of performing is not only the communication within the artistic medium, a verification and transgression of ways and possibilities of artistic activity - on which popular interpretations of performance art have often focussed. Thankful as they may be, these kinds of interpretations do not allow us to actually reveal the power of self-representation of the body, the problem of reality, vividness, potentiality, or better even, the production of the body itself. Not only does performance art shatter the borders of art this way, but reaches deeply into the way of representation. Performance art is well aware of the moment of its own potentiality - precisely with its self-representing body. The main common feature of these events is therefore a basic strategizing, which constantly generates an openness of process. We can say that performance art follows, or in its own way, actualises a basic recognition which can be found in 20th century philosophy (and is especially clearly articulated in post-structuralism): Peggy Phelan describes it as a realisation that representation “always shows more than it means”. (Phelan, 1993: 27) Within this openness and volatile structure, the body has a special place: it shows as the problematic point of visibility and action which, although obsessively depicted all the time, has never had an actual representational value.

But despite it all – regardless of all this disclosure and understanding of the transgression of various regimes of visibility and power – a question remains; it tackles the tactic aim and strategic power of these kinds of interventions, and has constantly been probed by artists themselves in their search of new articulations. The question is how to articulate the inevitably multilayered effects of such visibility of the body, and how to discuss this dark abyss into which we are pushed by every visibility. This is especially true of the female body; throughout the history of art, it has always been placed within the rational dichotomies female / male, body / spirit, nature / culture, natural / artificial etc. Through self-representation in performance art, the female body is disclosed as the central and borderline point of subjectivity, which is far from coherent. It constantly verifies itself through ways of performing and presentation. It is never autonomous, but forever framed into the view of the Other, into the specific structure of visibility and interventions of the Other. For female bodies, which are already historically placed as “different, sinful, ruptured, this project has been deeply restless in its double connection.” (Schneider, 1997: 184). It can easily happen that this strategy emphasizes the difference and dichotomy even more, and empties the body into a manipulative image. Performance art is thus about a certain disclosure, a body representation which shows a lot more than it means, as it is always bound to produce something (which has nothing to do with value) at the same time.

How does the provocative and direct visibility of the self-representing female body manage to escape this doubleness of the body-displaying strategy? What is revealed by self-representation of the body, and what kind of performing takes place? How does performance art (tactically) produce corporeality, and disclose its dangerous connections? An insight into various articulations of the self-representing body can reveal various contexts of performing the body, and the political power of these contexts. I will try to present three strategic approaches of performance art, which we can observe through its main historical moments. These approaches can reveal various articulations of ‘dangerous connections’ in performance art, and at the same time, by discussing the visibility of the body, reveal a different understanding of corporeality. I will strictly focus upon the strategies and tactical effect of the works in question and on the way the body is produced - and not upon aesthetic categorisations and framing, which by no means capture the essentials of open and contradictory artistic interventions.


There are ample and colourful examples of works which, in the sixties and seventies, breached the gaze of the Other (especially the male gaze) by displaying the female body. They deeply problematised the traditional belief into the image, and disclosed the authoritative and institutionalised models of visibility. I will present only one example of such performance art, which nevertheless contains typical codes to recognise this specific body strategy of nature and its functioning, and also points out its possible effect.

“In 1975, the eminent American artist Carolee Schneemann presents her performance work Interior Scroll. First, she tells the audience naked that she will read from her book Cézanne, She Was a Great Painter. She then opens the front page and throws pieces of mud upon her body. She puts herself on a table and keeps reading from the book. In doing so, she strikes various poses of an art model. She throws the book away and slowly pulls a scroll of paper out of her vagina. She then reads the text written on it, taken from the feminist texts she had written for and used in her previous work.” (Warr, et Jones, 2000: 215)

Schneemann herself describes the central and at the same time, borderline point of her performance art in the following way: “The vagina as a place of ecstasy (…), a holy, ritual place (…), a source of rendering inner knowledge.” (Warr, et Jones, 2000: 215) In this artwork, we can naturally recognise many motives which appear in the feminist performance art of the sixties and seventies of the 20th century – e.g. direct criticism of modern painting, and a radical intervention into modernist ways of interpretation. The criticism of depicting (framing) the female body, which we can see in the association of Cezanne, intertwines with the criticism of self-disclosing and action painting (e.g. that of Jackson Pollock with his brush of excess, as a weak, yet still creative and autonomous extension of the body).

Such criticism, however, is continuously ruptured and rendered into an entirely different gaze. It is not only about a parody of more or less traditional ways of representation, but about establishing a different performative, or more suited in this case, ‘painting action’. What we first notice about this critical stand is a different hierarchy of the body; the authority becomes invisible and transmuted into a liquid and fluid centre of the body. Produced by performance art is the basic self-image of the body, which, in the case of Carolee Schneeeman, reveals as a sacred, ritual, and at the same time, markedly sexual core: the body is self-represented through an authentic, original point of (sexual) nature. In other words, what is created is a profound belief into the power of physical visibility, which, through its excessive, sexual, fluid, non-hierarchical, and diffused nature, can overturn the gaze and establish a different politics of the body, as well as the politics of the spectator’s perception. The excess body of nature, shown through the display, modulation, and study of the body’s limits, origins in the deep impulse of the sixties and early seventies. It can best be described in Marcuse’s terms, whose liberating philosophy deeply influenced performance artists in the sixties. The strategy of rebellion has its roots ‘in nature itself, in the biology of the individual, and it is on this basis that rebels will redefine the aims and strategy of political fight.’ (Marcuse, 1978) This reality, now brought to actualisation, i.e. this product, is thus the very nature of the body, the visibility of embodiment par excellence. Surfacing here is a certain disclosure which was banished into invisibility throughout the history of modernity, and only sporadically burst to the surface as both horrific and extremely alluring immobility of the indistinctive and the monstrous. The history of the body tells us that it is precisely this obsessive, fluid, abject nature that has never been let into depiction. It has indeed been part of the myth of the autonomous artist (who is forever torn between the weakness of the body and the autonomy of creativity), but has never been actually produced.

A great majority of especially female performance artists in the sixties and early seventies thus reveal self-performing as a unique intrusion of excess nature, as a utopian belief into an authentic interrelation of the body, and the political power of its strategy. On the one side, the strategy of nature establishes itself as a violent one (Viennese actionism). On the other side, however, as an extremely manipulative strategy which includes nature into the method of physical and actors training (modernist theatre and its ritual experiments), and last but not least, as a political tactic of visibility: nature is no longer ensnared and controlled, but reveals itself with all its abjection, and a different representation tactic - in feminist performance art.

The difference between still autonomous ‘male’ interventions and feminist performance art has its roots precisely in this surplus, this production of the body, where the result of the excess of nature directly reveals itself as an embodiment. In this depiction of the body, any uttering of the word ‘I’ is deeply linked with the female constitution as that of the Other. To put it differently: the female ‘I’ is always constituted as recognized in the mirror of the male I as the weak I, whose utterance of I has been taken away precisely by its constitution. The nature which reveals itself here, thus becomes extremely porous, a liquid nature of openings and fluids, a nature which provocatively returns our gaze. Here, self-representation of the body seems much more dangerous and efficient: it encroaches upon visibility and the gaze itself. The excess of nature reveals that female nature is always already the Other, and such, deeply abject. Although being a topos of authenticity, this kind of nature presents this authenticity as a refuse, or as Julija Kristeva said ‘there is always a sense of danger, loss, it is a denier of territories, languages (…), it is not respecting the borders, places and rules.’ (Kristeva, 1980: 12)

The surplus generated by the strategy of nature, is precisely the visibility of the body: it is the tactical, fluid, sexual and abject body, the excess body of nature, which overturns hierarchical models of performing, and is deeply intertwined with the belief into authenticity. The strategy followed by feminist performance art of the sixties and early seventies is that of obsessive self-representation of the female body, which radically overturns and erases the 7blurred place which the female body had throughout somatophobic modern history. Due to the utopian excess of nature, which drove the energetic and fluid articulations of the body in the sixties and seventies, this dangerous connection was always going along with liberation belief. Or to put it differently: the revelation of the body was directly connected with the belief into the (political) power of the visibility of the body itself. The belief into the power of visibility - the fundamental strategy of the enthusiastic, political and utopian sixties, still firmly trusted in the power of the oppositional standpoint. Here, the excess of nature functioned as intervention, provocation, resistance, re-questioning. Through these procedures, the subjectivity of performance artists and female artists is indeed constituted anew. But the problem is not only in the fact that every membership, also oppositional, always has its privileges, but that the dangerous connection always poses a double, if not multiple, threat. On the one side, it can overturn and reveal the gaze and intervention of the spectator (especially the gaze upon female nature, which, in this case, is present as a subversive and excessive ‘whole’). On the other side, however, the visibility of the body changes the body into a spectacle: every visibility of the marginality of excessive nature, regardless how excessive it might be, is primarily a spectacle and can empty the body quite quickly. When self-representing, revealing and performing, we thus always risk being perceived as a spectacle, and ending up as a powerless disclosure. Or, as Peggy Phelan somewhat humorously says in the introduction to her book: “If representational visibility equalled power, then almost-naked young white women should be running Western culture.” (Phelan, 1993: 10) The excess of nature, which connects itself with the power of visibility, is soon disclosed as a very problematic utopia, which only deepens with the development of the media and spectacle culture, and with the use of video and photography in the performance art of the late seventies and eighties. The body is basically disclosed as replicated and reproduced, and the visibility of the marginal is by far not as clearly connected with power and efficiency as this may initially have seemed in the utopian ways of oppositional activity.


This spectacle, which is always insidiously at work in the visibility of the body, is slightly ironically summed up in Harold Rosenberg’s comment on photography: “The photograph leads the mind to the actual world. ... If it is a nude, it will make one think on women, not on art.” (Rosenberg, In: Jones 1998: 157) Of course, it is not about one not being allowed to think of women, but about how to turn this spectacle of female visibility, how to use it in such a way that the sexual body is revealed in it, yet not interrelated with authenticity – because its sexual nature, too, is revealed as some kind of artificial pose. The body produced by these strategies of self-representation, is one with a totally different potentiality of power. No one is more aware of that than Hannah Wilke, the artist who obsessively photographed herself through her entire life, with self-representation forming a constant in her performance art and installations. Her work in no way attempts to solve this Roseberg’s dilemma ‘women or art’ (which can quickly be rendered as ‘spectacle or art’), but complicates and upgrades it even further. Wilke, we can say, obsessively takes to self-representation precisely because she is constantly aware of the problematic power of visibility, i.e. of the inability of making a connection between visibility and power.

“Who, after all, really ‘is’ Hannah Wilke? Her body art projects perform her multiply through the rhetoric of the pose: flashing her ass; cringing, nude, against a wall with a toy gun; flaunting her exquisite torso marked with bizarre cunt / cock-like kisses of chewed and twisted gum; sculpting her voluptuous naked likeness in chocolate; sitting provocatively on a stool in a gallery selling herself as a ‘sculpture’; standing in high heels, chest exposed, in protuberances; lying naked next to her emaciated, sick, but still lively mother; posing – gorgeous, hair tousled amorously – in bed with a male lover lolling in postcoital satisfaction; stripping methodically behind Duchamp’s Large Glass, her pubis aligned with the bachelor’s impotent love gas... (Jones, 1998: 171)

Wilke’s strategy – in her own words, “how to make yourself into a work of art instead of other people making you into something you may not approve of.” (Jones, 1998: 182) - leads her to endless series of artworks, with her body offered for numerous photographic, film and video portraits. If we return to Rosenberg’s statement once again, Hannah Wilke is well aware that it is always about both women and art (spectacle and art), yet in a special way. In her work, womanliness is a pose and fundamentally artificial, literally produced and replicated into infinity. In case of Wilke, it is not only about self-representation in the manner of an oppositional breakthrough, in which the excess of her exuberant nature would be revealed. The continuous repetition, the almost obsessive creation of her own spectacle, which she systematically and artificially constructs, constantly renders her as a pose: “Even in my sleep I was posing.” (Wilke in: Jones, 1998: 190)

According to A. Jones, Wilke’s work can only be ‘fixed’ as an “open-ended and unfixable ‘performance of femininity’. Or we can ‘fix’ her as quintessentially narcissistic and so not worthy of serious attention.” (Jones, 1998: 171) This is precisely what feminist discussions on Wilke’s work have done. In the period when Wilke photographed and displayed her beautiful and erotic female body, they mainly condemned her narcissism – in their opinion, she was doing nothing else but emptying the female body into a manipulative image. Later in her life, however, when the subject of her self-performing became her body affected by chemotherapy, the criticism turned into praise of now “active and radical” body visibility. I do not intend to venture deeper into the symptomatic character of these kinds of double reactions, which reveal a subconscious moralism inherent in every criticism, however radical and subversive it may be. I am interested primarily in how to describe and capture Wilke’s strategy, and in how to articulate the power and political tactics of this surplus production of the body.

At this point, we can lean on another strategy of visibility of the female body. It is quite old, and first excited one of the sharpest observers of approaching modernity, the decadent poet Charles Baudelaire: “To celebrate the cult of images, my great, my unique, my primitive passion.” (Baudelaire, 1998: Les Fleurs du Mal). Especially interesting is Baudelaire’s fascination with the cult of prostitute, which was later excellently analysed by Walter Benjamin, and discloses a fundamental visibility of the body as a commodity. The female body of the prostitute is basically commodified; it turns into goods, a serial body, as if it were factory-made. However, it also discloses itself as constantly excessive, fluid, and full of pleasure, with its desire continuously revealed and artificially imposed at the same time. It is the body that reveals how the advent of modernity brings about a constant intertwining of the topoi of the technological and the natural, the economic and the aesthetic, the female and the male. Its fluidity, however, is not that of nature and its excessive currents, but a cold flow of goods and production, of changeability, tactics, and position taking. It is a place where love and impotence flourish at the same time. It has a nature which disguises and produces itself into infinity, and a culture which constantly deforms and decays. This flow can be viewed as a mastery of tactical transformation, fluidity, and disclosure, as an articulation of new ways of representation and those of emancipating power. According to Mark Seltzer, “the privilege of relative disembodiment in consumption is not only life beyond the body, but primarily the aesthetisation of the body, the body as an artefact.” (Seltzer, 1992: 136) This is precisely what can now become one of the tactics of the new potentiality of the body. The new potentiality of the body does not necessarily represent only a one-way transition from substance to style, from things to images; it is a strategy which, in the second half of the 20th century, brings back the body and the discourse on its nature / culture. It is precisely the ruse of the body as an artefact that can show the obsessive commodification and self-representation of the female body as a new positioning strategy, which can also be summoned in the expression by Rebecca Schneider – as the strategy of “explicit bodies’. (Schneider, 1997). This is a strategy of tactic subjectivity, through which ways of contemporary production of the body, and ways of its representation, can be disclosed. The spectacle is artificially put on as a carefully chosen and opulent dress. It is also exaggerated and forced in its repetition, reduced to the empty essence of a pose - which, at the same time, represents the most radical strategy of the latter.

A similar way of posing, except that her poses are even more interrelated with contemporary commodifications of the body, can be found by the American photographer Cindy Sherman. In a series of her portraits, her pose is that of attending gallery openings in various costumes. In another series, Film-Stils, she impersonates classical images of women from popular movies. If Wilke obsessively undresses in order to pose, Sherman’s obsession is that of changing her clothes, with the pose having a similar strategic purpose by both of them. Obsessive repetition always reveals that the image of the I can only be captured through its most artificial surplus: it reveals that this phenomenon is actually its basic statement, and the principle characteristic of its self-representation.

Neither by Wilke nor Sherman, self-representation serves the purpose of disclosing the excess of nature. What they open with their obsessive repetition of the pose, is the powerlessness of visibility of the body. Exaggerating their images, they empty them into disappearance; this disappearance, however, is not empty, but always profoundly local, and bound to the complexity of the pleasure of the body. Also in their later works, this bound returns - as a horrific helplessness of the transition between the pose and the pleasure of the body, which can never really be together: towards the end of her life, Wilke displays her body afflicted with cancer, and, in her late works, Sherman displays her images of disgust, reducing her image to a distorted reflection on dirty sunglasses which lie between disgusting, yet colourful organic waste. What we see is the double strategy of self-performing the female body and emptying it into a manipulative image. This double strategy is conscious and radical, without a utopian belief into an oppositional replacement of strategies, into authenticity, a ‘natural’ point, an original excess and power of the body. Quite the contrary, the body present here is consciously artificial; its strategic power can only be displayed as that of invisibility, which at the same time, is also the power of withdrawal, loss, darkness, abyss, the in-between. The abyss reveals a constant awareness that the body in every self-representation is an emptied object, and quickly returns to the spectator as a disfigured shadow. The masquerades of nakedness and disguises (in both cases, it is a masquerade, regardless whether the skin is revealed or not), i.e. the self-representation strategies by Wilke and Sherman, talk about how strategicalness is always disclosed in advance; its tactical power lies in the fact that, as soon as it is established, it is already questionable. It is precisely in this way that the tactic of invisibility might work. The basic revelations here are those of the potentiality of the body, the process of its establishment, and its open artificiality. Works by Wilke and Sherman confirm that our identities have no authentic kernel, but are primarily a ‘dramatic effect’ of our repeating performances. (Butler, 2001) Every authenticity is already constructed, veiled, established through language, culture and networks through which the body is displayed in thousands of its artificial and repeatable images.

Considering that in this text, we are primarily interested in the tactical effect of performance art, that we try to read all these acts also as actions of strategic production of the body, which does not only echo within the sphere of art, we now have to estimate the efficiency of this tactic of the artificial. We must ask ourselves how the artificial of the body functions, and what kind of dangerous connection is revealed in this case. How could we describe this body surplus, this elusive image or pose which flashes and establishes itself through obsessive repetition? How could one capture the power of this kind of strategic production of the body, and at the same time, penetrate its dangerous connection? There is a difference at work here, and can also be disclosed as a different perception of the form of political activity. It is no longer about the former belief in intervention, in the power of visibility, which functions as an oppositional breakthrough with the visibility of nature and the excess of embodiment. If, in the sixties and early seventies, the body revealed itself primarily as an oppositional force of the margin (as a process of something which does not belong to representation and is only first brought to representation at that time), it now appears in the centre of an already established field, as produced and replicated by means of photography, film and media, and with an obsessive repetition and strategic shifting of its visibility. The tactic of artificiality functions as a pose of position: as adaptation, disguise, masquerade, exaggeration, repetition, and ceaseless movement. Here, the body shows itself as absent, and as a complex network of its numerous disguises. The pose through which the body is generated, always reveals itself as the frozen gaze in-between: as the basic presence, and at the same time, the basic negativity of the body. Its presence never fully lets us domesticate our gaze in the spectacle, or relax in the floating freedom of the simulacra (because this presence is always somehow partial, reproduced, exaggerated, ruptured, distant, excessively present). At the same time, it is precisely due to this negativity that we can never really pin our gaze anywhere, or search for ‘something’ behind it (nature, excess, authenticity) because the body incessantly recedes into the image, and generates itself in new disguises. Dealing with the work of Cindy Sherman, Peggy Phelan establishes an interesting opposition: the constant oscillation between pre-forming and per-forming moves the body into loss, absence, void, with its power revealed only in this (artificial) invisibility. “The visible body, then, like the word, conceals rather than reveals the real of its Being.” (Phelan, 2002: 69) This surplus is a fundamental artificiality of the body: although it shows as carefully chosen, and put on, it is never autonomous, but always ruptured, softened in its essence, always fundamentally human in its obsessive repetition, interrelated with the Other and his gaze.


Nevertheless, the multilayered dangerous connection renders this strategy as deeply problematic, and always makes it hit against the border of the tactic politics of invisibility. The familiar objections which arose in connection with such practices in the end of the eighties, already tackle this problem, but do so from a wrong perspective and thus also draw wrong conclusions. One of the critical interventions can be found in the book by Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism; the author draws a direct connection between the contemporary cultural obsession with the body, and artistic practices. (Lasch, 1991) In their case, it should thus be about one more expression of the narcissism of contemporary culture, obsessed with self-representation. The problem of the obsession of contemporary culture with the body is mostly stated in the manner of the well-known argument: despite the daily body-related activity (i.e. all cultural and commercial regimes of its cultivation, be it traditional – hygiene and fashion, or the most recent – diet, plastic surgery, genetic modulation), and despite the feeling that we are more in contact with our bodies than ever before, the body has never been more alienated a product than today. All in all, artistic self-representation with its performing of the body should be doing nothing but participating in this intolerable and complex commercial machinery. The problem of this viewpoint is above all in its missed perspective, the bias of which does not consider the tactical and political aspects of this kind of displaying. The criticism which reproaches cultural production with narcissism, and regards the display of the body primarily as a symptom of the omnipresent consumption, does not consider the fact that this relation, as far as the body is concerned, has at least two sides if not many. The arguments do not hold also because narcissism is understood in its traditional and not strategic meaning (i.e. as developed in various ways of self-representation of the body). Strategically, every narcissistic pose is already a reproduced pose, and reproduction shows as the only way of correspondence – or, as says Peggy Phelan; “for a woman, every correspondence is an answer, also a initial letter.” (Phelan, 1991: 65). Every pose is then a connection, we could say. The obsessive repetition of the body reveals a deep interrelation, a dark and painfully local transition. Within these practices, the body as a commodity indeed becomes an object, but it is exactly here that it can come back as an efficient strategy. This commodity reveals something surprising: in the centre of its artificial core, there returns the intolerable locality of the body, its interrelation and sensuality, fear and sympathy – like in the horrid pleasure of Baudelaire’s prostitute.

Despite this (political) power of re-production of the body, where the strategic power of connection is at work, we can not ignore the fact that there is a limit to this strategy which can not be transgressed. The problem is complex and I will only indicate a few contemporary digressions, which place us before a new discussion and reflection on the potentiality of tactical activity. The strategy of invisibility - in which the body detaches itself into emptiness for us to discover it again in a special way - seems extremely helpless in the contemporary spectacle society of myriad images, where the pose itself has become a cultural choice. The commercial strategy has taken over this kind of digression and rupture, the emptiness of the pose – and rendered it as a form of contemporary lifestyle. More even, it constantly changes and modulates it as a commercial and spectacular everyday ‘permanent performance’, repeating and producing it obsessively. How can the tactic tension be sustained within all this, in order for a different body to be revealed? Placed among the complex spectacular market machinery, do marginal fields really come to their articulatory power by employing similar strategies? Have their strategic and formal procedures not been exhausted in advance, from repetition, ruptures, exaggeration, masquerading, and actually do not achieve their immediate goal? Despite the fact that a lot of parallels can be found in those self-representation strategies which play with the elusiveness of narcissism and pose, we should not forget that this kind of strategy can be a double peril in its dangerous connection. On the one side, an insight shows how the body is constructed, how it flashes precisely in the moment of its greatest absence – which paradoxically occurs through thousands of its images; we are thus offered a chance to change and re-direct our gaze. On the other side, we can not get rid of the feeling that, also in this case, another dangerous trick might be at work, which will again empty the body into a manipulative image. As says Joan Riviere, the masquerade does not create a difference between the one who changes her clothes and the masquerade itself. (Riviere, 1991) It is true that this shift can help them achieve a political effect, discussed by feminist theorists (e.g. by Mary Ann Doane and Sue Ellen Case, who deal with the political effect of hyper-femininity). However, we must pay attention to the fact that, today, this kind of masquerade is part of contemporary choice of bodies, where, considering the cultural body, we are sort of used to the possibility of choice, difference, constitution of various bodies. To put it differently: how is it possible to be or persist on the margin and actualise individual radical tactics in the world today? As the performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña observes, in the last decade, “the blob of the mainstream has devoured the lingo and imagery of the much touted 'margins'—the thornier and more sharp-edged, the better— and 'performance' has literally turned it into a sexy marketing strategy and pop genre. I call this phenomenon 'the mainstream bizarre.'" (Gómez-Peña, 2003: 22) It seems that the very potentiality of tactical activity has completely weakened in comparison to the popular spectacular and commercial strategies, so that the potentiality of self-representation can no longer be ascribed either as the excessiveness of oppositional threat nor as the persistence of positional power. In addition, for quite some time now, this potentiality of self-representation has been classified and categorised inside the sphere of art as well, stored into the history of Western performance art and body art, and mythicized accordingly.

It would, of course, be too simple to ascribe this contemporary weakness of tactical activity to the all-encompassing centrifuge of spectacle, media, or art market, as it has been catastrophically established by some critics of post-modern reality (e.g. Baudrillard and Virilio). It is more about having to reconsider the boundaries discussed by contemporary performance art, as well as the way these boundaries are reconstructed. Is it still possible to persevere as a negative space of culture, when, despite it all, the strategic potentiality of a different tactic has been revealed? Is it possible to re-discuss one’s own space of activity? This brings us to the essential traits of the self-representation, which, despite their radical and critical stand, have often been overlooked in the history of performance art; this also happened due to their various ways of political activity, which were constantly led by a formation (dispozitif) of the body - natural, artificial, or cultural. These essentials of self-representation are first brought to attention by the critics and approaches to performance art that spring from the multicultural field; they especially highlight the overlooked fields of performance art, which, till the eighties, is still somehow reserved for ‘white Western nature and white pose’. Thus, performance art still does not have a direct cultural effect; despite all its tactical surpluses, it actually participates and communicates within the ‘Western’ art system only. It indeed moves the boundaries of Western art, but these do not become any less transparent for that reason. The mainstream performative orientation of the contemporary visibility of choice does not soften the field of performance art due to its omnipresence; it does so because its visibility of choice reveals a much deeper problem, which has been subject to artistic and theoretical discussion only over the last two decades. In other words, a reconsideration of the radical perseverance on the margin does not come up in performance art because of the omnipresent contemporary choice of bodies, but due to an urgent problematising of the choice itself– or better, the way that this choice is made in the first place. The criticisms that come from the multicultural field show that choice is not so autonomous at all, that this kind of process is deeply problematic and by far not as ‘self – dependent – although – interrelated – with another’ as artistic interventions would have us believe while participating in this seeming freedom of potentiality. It is not that the natural, authentic, even sexual body, into which the ritualisms of the sixties and seventies still believed, would entirely give way to the cultural body. And it is not that contemporary multicultural approaches of self-representation would really show that the body is always culturally inscribed, contaminated, culturally and discoursively determined in advance, also when we talk about its deepest intimacy: biology, sexuality, fears, diseases, pathologies, desires etc. This ‘cultural fundamentalism’ is no better than its ‘biological’ variant. It pictures the choice (and consequently the difference) as an insurmountable value, and generates an intolerable demand for transparency, which, of course, is far from the complexity that characterises the self-image of the body.

Multicultural inventions by performance artists (Adrian Pipper, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Coco Fusco, Mona Hatoum, Oleg Kulik, Vlasta Delimar, etc.), help reveal that tactics of performance art are always connected with body production, and that the latter is not nearly as innocent as it may seem. It is namely this production that has not let several ‘other’ bodies into the surplus, simply because the self-representation here has never existed as a choice, as a recognisable procedure. Self-representation is thus neither the excess of authentic nature nor a reproduction as a reply to the already given. As a prerequisite, self-representation requires a previous invention of an identity – and thus opens the question of authenticity and pose, nature and artificiality, in a completely other field which generates a new dialectic of (in)visibility. The body is no longer that final frontier, the more or less traumatic self-articulation that confronts the endless weight of its disclosure (which, of course, closely corresponds to the confrontation with the cultural history of the Western body as a beautiful object). First and foremost, the body becomes a material for various kinds of in(ter)ventions - cultural, existential, political, technological, biological, sexual, also strictly intimate. Only they can reveal how dependent, manipulative and interrelated the contemporary possibility of choice really is. It is also important to realise in what way this in(ter)vention takes place outside the artistic / cultural genealogy of performance art. In this way, it constantly shatters the artificial and consensual marginal position of performance art, assigned to it by mainstream artistic and cultural evaluation, as well as by the evaluation of the artists active in its sphere. According to Guillermo Gómez-Peña, the only chance for performance art might be to “occupy a fictional center and push the dominant culture to its own truly undesirable margins.” (Gómez-Peña, 2003: 20) In this way, the surplus not only produces the body, but the very place of performance art: authenticity and artificiality, originality and reproduction, presence and absence, action and approval, conservatism and progress, old and new, closure and openness – all at the same time.

The strategy of invention can also be observed in the performance art of the last ten years, which, with several excesses of nature, strongly reminds of the excess bodies of the sixties; however, its strategic politics and tactical power are completely different. It is only at first glance that these highly diverse invention strategies (Stelarc, Oleg Kulik, Gómez-Peña, Marcel-li, Orlan, Oreet Ashery, Kirra O’Reily, Ana Mendieta, Ive Tabar etc.) agree with the frequent contemporary argument that, today, the borders of the body are moveable and unstable. If we understand them from this way, we already in advance assign them the same place that they have been attributed in the transparent contemporary cultural discourse on the body, where radical undertakings are given a marginal function and, in a way, toned down as evidence of a certain cultural formation of the body. Quite the contrary, the plastic surgeries by Orlan, the biogenetic procedures by Symbiotica, the prothetic performance works by Stelarc, the medicine interventions by Tabar, the costumed identities by Oreet Ashery, the stereotypical identities by Gómez-Peña etc., take place in the complex field of self-performing as inventions. On the one side, we can observe that the process of choice is clearly performative, theatrical; on the other side, however, it is precisely this exaggerated theatricalness that brings us back to the question of our nature. The strategy employed here is a migratory one; it does not allow us to pin our gaze to the image of the body, but forces us to constantly invent the body together with the performance artist. Nonconformity, negativity, excess on the one side, and adaptability, along with sometimes nearly desperate cliché and normativity, go hand in hand in this case. The masquerade is indeed constantly at work, yet disclosed as constant self-invention, where we can not really avoid bringing up authenticity itself.

Similarly to Carolee Schneemann, who pulled a scroll out of her vagina in order to read the text on this paper ‘carrier of internal knowledge’ and displayed the visible core of the natural body, Orlan, in the nineties, operates on her face, this last untouchable narcissistic field, in order to transform into the well-known image from the history of Western art, reading abstracts from philosophical works (preferably those of Lacan) in the process. The series of plastic operations, if we take to Deleuze’s analysis of Bacon’s paintings, suddenly reveals the head rather than the face. Instead of the face – a structural spatial organisation which covers the head, there appears the head as an addition to the body: although situated on top of the body, the head shows the body as meat. (Deleuze, 1994) The effect of this has many layers and mirrors the very complexity of the self-invention strategy. Orlan’s work meets with numerous criticisms from various directions, which are not interesting because of their condemnation of her radical narcissism, but precisely because of their utmost resistance to the procedure itself, the choice that she makes in order to become the Other. Interestingly, it is this problematic character of the procedure that becomes one of the main arguments against self-representation of the body; this is especially obvious by the art that connects with powerful contemporary fields of knowledge on the body - medicine, biology, technology, politics, economy. Here, we can first observe how strictly contemporary fields of invention are divided, and how impassable the borders of such parallel, yet structured powers really are. Artistic works, especially those of performance art, which constantly attempt to transgress these borders, have been able to be extremely transgressive and provocative precisely due to their use and transfer of invention; they namely do not follow either the contemporary commercial structure of choice, or the authority of power of controlling those various territories. Instead, literally with its use of the borrowed procedures, performance art encroaches upon the privilege of knowledge and ways of contemporary activity, rejecting a structured dissemination of power. Of course, these transgressions make the structure of performance very vulnerable and open, and the result unreliable and unpredictable; it often returns to us as an intolerable realisation, a witness of a nearly existential materiality, which we can not really pin to anything. This kind of invention brings us to another important feature of self-invention. The body of Orlan is, of course, far from the natural one; it constantly shows itself to us as strictly chosen, transformed with well-considered commercial and medicinal procedures – the pose has gained a perfect apparatus, we could say. But at the same time, it always brings us back to the bloody part of its nature, showing that the self-invention procedure is not innocent at all. I am not only referring to intolerable pain and shock, but to an unbearable locality, an interrelated and singular body, which is suddenly revealed amidst all these choices and procedures.

What is then the nature of the dangerous connection which reveals itself in this procedure? In a fabricated world of bodies, which seem to be available non-stop, in a world of differences, simulated truths, multiplied and parallel viewpoints, an intolerably local nature returns. It is not that self-invention strategies replace and broaden the borders of the body; they tactically confront a lot deeper problem: this time, it is nature itself that is produced, replicated, transparent and reproduced, with the culture revealing itself as original, excessive, phobic and elusive. In such performance works, we can recognise a deep strategic position, which, in addition to broadening the field of the body, shows with strategic accuracy that self-invention is also an unbearably interrelated, dependent field, that the (sexual) body of today is confronted with the trauma of its own articulation and sensitivity to intervention, as it increasingly succumbs to the growing commodification and grows more and more efficient under the obsessive rational imperatives and structure of self-image. It is true that strategies of the artificial open a possibility of different accumulation of the body and its differentiation because they show that the formation of the sexual body is not a product of visibility, but above all, a freely floating becoming. Let us not forget, however, that this artificial trick / becoming of the body also entails an unbearably sensual and local transition. After all the interventions and disclosures of the body, the visibility of today’s body (sexual, female, other, marginal etc.), is not so much bound to a recognisable formation (dispositif) of the body, which brings back and re-discusses its “Western” image. Above all, it is connected with the identification of contemporary procedures of power, ways of and access to invention and choice, with the disclosure of materiality and the existential field, which always returns in this contemporary masquerade. Self-representation reveals the sexual body as a contemporary choice, but no less excessive, interrelated and bloody for that reason – despite all its purity, and the seeming transparency of contemporary procedures.


It is a fact that performance art can be connected with disclosing specific regimes of visibility, ways of performing and framing of artistic practices, which are all constantly embodied by the Western way of artistic production. The question remains, however, what kind of power these kinds of interventions have today. As we know, the history of performance art is already institutionalised and categorised - far from its original, nearly romantic idea of the guerrilla and oppositional interventions from the margin. With the institutionalization of the medium of performance art (following, archiving, framing and systematic studying), and especially with the inclusion of performance art into modernist museum and contemporary curatorial projects, we can no longer talk about performance art as a sort of guerrilla. For quite some time today, it has been impossible for us to imagine that performance art would work this way – i.e. encroach upon the centre from the margin and then recede again. The contemporary situation of art production is structured and transparent: today, the centre is well aware of the whereabouts of the guerrilla at all times – which is one of the essential traits of detecting and identification of novel and different things in today’s contemporary art. The situation is not nearly as utopian as it used to be at the beginning of performance art; it actually seems deeply dystopian. It is impossible to neither persist on the margin, nor survive in the centre; where, then, is the place for the contemporary cultural and social potency of performance art to move and operate? As we have seen, there is another trait of contemporary culture at work, which even further complicates this situation and the discussion on political power of performance art. Considering the development of the media, and consumer culture styles in the last two decades, the power of interventions and radicality also seems to have commercialised and also disguised itself in a unique style; its yearning for reality and a special kind of media 'happening', however, also provided it with its first media mirror.

There is something constantly at work in this tactical activity and can perhaps help us gain insight on the articulation of this power at the end of this text. Despite its mutation and various situations, this characteristic has actually granted performance art a specific place, which can not be captured by aesthetic or critical categories, but should be carefully detected time and time again along the traces of the situation that performance art gives rise, reacts, or relates to. Such contemporary works bring us back to the quintessential strategy, which is at work here. Performance art is well aware of its weak potentiality precisely with the production of the body itself. This kind of invention strategy forms the ethics of performing itself, over and over again. We thus come to the question of its perfomative politics, which is deeply interrelated with self-representation strategies. In addition of functioning both provocatively and conformably at the same time, as opposition and position, as open and closed, this politics shows performing as a procedure and an open constitution, and opens an insight into its own potentiality. In this way, performance art invents itself over and over again (as an event and a certain reality), although it frequently seems like a horrid repetition. In the process of self-representation, this performative politics revels itself to us precisely through the question of authenticity, which accompanies the beginnings of performance art, and is now returning through the use of procedures of the body. The ethics of carrying out performance art initially rejects authenticity, but only to tactically place this important question into the very centre of the process: only then, it is freed of its a priori constructed rubbish and sets itself as a question of potentiality. Every utterance of the I namely requires a truth, an interrelation, a stability, also that of the most fabricated and elaborately chosen I. It is actually about a strategic combat which becomes extremely important in our contemporary life, where we are constantly placed before the seeming freedom of choice and invention. This combat is open and multilayered, and through the positioning of performance art, shows us the problematic character and urgency of the resistance techniques, political articulation and constant connecting with the impossible. This is why I wish my article to have an open end, and thereby conclude with a witty text written by Gómez-Peña. It excellently shows that, despite the fact that the field of performance art sometimes seems unscannable and helpless, it is precisely in these direct and ironical self-recognitions that the power of tactical action and transgression can be revealed. “Question: “Excuse me, can you define performance art?”

  • “A bunch of weirdos who love to get naked and scream about leftist politics.” (Yuppie in a bar)
  • “Performance artists are...bad actors” (A “good” actor)
  • “You mean, those decadent and elitist liberals who hide behind the art thing to beg for goverment money?” (Politician)
  • “It’s just ... very, very cool stuf. Makes you ... think and shit.” (My nephew)
  • “Performance? It’s a heightened gaze ... a different sense of purpose in the handling of objects, commitments and words.” (Perfomance Artist #1)
  • “Performance is both the anti-thesis of and antidote to high culture” (Performance Artist #2)
  • “I’ll answer you with a joke: What do you get when you mix a comedian with a performance artist?..A joke that no one understands.” (A friend)”

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Translated by Urška Zajec