The title of Kunsthaus Zürich’s recent exhibition Action! alluded to both its topic, performance art, but also to the institution’s framing the exhibition as a political statement in and of itself, taking an action of protest against the current ills affecting our society. Curator Mirjam Varadinis positioned the exhibition in contrast to other museums’ recent performance art exhibitions by arguing that, “Action! strikes out on its own by focusing on the moment of action not only formally but also politically.”
Performance art indeed has a history of literally embodying practitioners’ political responses to forms of injustice: it is situated along a trajectory of transformational art practices advanced, for example, by Wagner’s philosophy of Gesamtkunstwerk in the aftermath of the 1848 European revolutions, which called for the integration of multiple arts in performance (opera at that time) and criticized the sell-out commercialism, elistism, and entertainment-value of art. Also in this lineage is Dada and the short-lived Proletcult Theater of the post-revolutionary Soviet Union, which through shock made the spectators more aware of the condition of their own lives. In the fifties and sixties performance art was mostly undertaken on or with the artist’s body itself, thus transforming the artist into the site and tool of political action. It was also taken into the public space, where artists interacted with the anonymous masses, confronting them with poetic critique of the social and economic inequities afflicting the world, instead of restricting themselves to the exclusive audiences of the art institution.
How can we evaluate the political impact of performance art, meant to be radical, within an institution that caters to the privileged?
Since then, of course, performance art has entered the museum in its object—documented and archival—form, the remnants of ephemeral and potentially transformative experiences. This is the case, for example, of Austrian artist Valie Export’s famous Touch Cinema, a 1968 street performance during which the artist wore a box on top of her chest and invited women and men to fondle her breasts for a fixed time and price. In the filmed documentation form, included in Action!, this provocative and subversive action becomes yet another commodity to be stored and exhibited, even sold after the performance is over. It has been brought from outside to inside, from the public to the private—it has been tamed.
Valie Export, Documentation from Touch Cinema, 1968. Bildrecht VBK, Vienna/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York
How can we, then, evaluate the political impact of performance art, inherently meant to be radical, within the elitist sphere of an institution like a museum that caters to the privileged? In Toward a Third Cinema (1969), the quintessential text on revolutionary cinema, authors Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas propose that distribution, exhibition, and production are at the heart of the transformational potential of the work of art—not merely its ostensive content or subject matter. Furthermore, the work’s interaction with the public is the key to creating a change in our way of seeing. Revolution, according to them, “rather begins at the moment when the masses sense the need for change and their intellectual vanguards begin to study and carry out this change through activities on different fronts.”
Distribution, exhibition, and production are at the heart of the transformational potential of the work of art.
The works in Action! all contain social messages and some even invite the audience to “co-produce,” as has been the trend within the art institution in the last two decades. This collaborative turn has risen out of artistic theories of engaged practice (relational aesthetics) and conveniently overlaps with contemporary marketing strategies for audience development. At Kunsthaus Zurich visitors were invited to: write a message to the pope requesting asylum on behalf of migrants and put it in this box (Tania Bruguera, The Francis Effect: Postcards for the Pope); ride this art bike (if you dare to take it out of the museum, as visitors regularly did) and yell out some political statements at passers-by (Marinella Senatore, Protest Bike); press this remote control and some cars enclosing blond and brown haired wigs will move in response to your actions (Nina Beier, The Un-Dead Currency); carry out some physical exercises with these tires (San Keller’s reinvention of Allan Kaprow’s Yard); place a stamp on this map where you’d like to see peace (Yoko Ono, Imagine Peace); choose a particular historic action or event on the exhibition’s website that will be transmitted and enacted in the museum at a particular time by a group of performers (Alexandra Pirici, Signals); and put on the traditional clogs still worn by Syrian migrants and walk with them through the museum (Mounira Al Solh, Clogged).
Alexandra Pirici, Signals, 2016, Ongoing action, content ranking algorithm, Installation view, 9th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art. Courtesy the artist. © Alexandra Pirici. Photo: Timo Ohler
And yet, despite their subjects, which touch upon the serious issues of our day—the plight of the migrants, sexism and racism, deterioration of democracy, war and peace, the deep state and surveillance, and social inequalities more broadly—we are left wondering about transformational potential. Are these “actions” defanged in the museum? Sure, scribbling on a map that we want peace there can give us a warm feeling that we did something here, but frankly just as soon as we undertake this action we forget it—it was that inconsequential and superficial, as much relational art is nowadays.
The question of impact on the public and the transformational power of artwork is essential in an exhibition with political intentions. Yet an institution charging 26 francs per ticket (valid for two entries to the varying performances on the agenda) limits the distribution of the work—its reach—and appeals only to a specific demographic, members of a certain elite.
Koki Tanaka, Precarious Tasks #9: 24hrs Gathering, 2017, Performance at Kunsthaus Zürich. Photo: Nelly Rodriguez
As soon as we undertake this action we forget it—it was that inconsequential and superficial...
We find this situation during the course of a performance by Japanese artist Koki Tanaka, Precarious Tasks, a 24-hour “reality show” style experiment, with members of the public signing up to spend the night locked up in the museum, within the confines delineated by the artist; it’s a makeshift, artificially-generated community, within which the confrontation with the other—a stranger, with whom you are forced to socialize, eat, and even sleep next to—becomes a provocation. The participants in this action were not only few (seven in total, excluding myself and my son, both of whom left early), but also a select group—personally invited by a curatorial assistant—who accepted this relatively extreme scenario, willingly entering within a highly controlled “unknown.” They were asked to think about being stuck in a no-exit situation, for example, a space on emergency lock-down, as was the case in Japan after Fukushima, the point of departure for the artist's work; or to consider war zones where one is forced to make do under brutal conditions. The agenda, presented by the artist in the welcome introduction, included cooking a dish together from an army recipe book, watching a film, building improvised personal spaces if desired, and trying to get to know each other. Although in previous similar performances, for example at the concurrent Skulptur Projekte Münster, Tanaka has then shown the documentation of the events publicly, to be consumed by anyone who did not participate, in this situation he opted to rather focus on the intimate and ephemeral encounter. The artist raises crucial social questions, but when an “Action!” is so constructed and so exclusive, and one must pay an entrance fee to take part, has its real political efficacy become meaningless?
Rimini Protokoll, Top Secret International (Staat 1), 2016, Performance at Kunsthaus Zürich. Photo: Nelly Rodriguez
A more consciousness-raising project in Action! is the extraordinarily complex and truly engaging work by Rimini Protokoll, Top Secret International 1, an interactive audio guided tour through the museum that asks the visitor to answer personal behaviour questions. The participant’s answers affect the direction she is led and the artworks that she is shown and explained. Only later are the surveillance systems that she had been submitted to throughout the work revealed. Along the way, the participant listens to various experts present information about spy agencies, state secrets and their value, secret services, the traffic of information, and the impact of this post-democratic system on our daily lives. Top Secret International “makes the audience members watch and track one another, contact one another, form coalitions or refuse to connect,” thus offering transformative modes of taking action and triggering self-awareness, self-reflection, and a true analysis of the condition of our lives in the tradition of Proletcult Theater.
“...the area of permitted protest of the System is much greater than the System is willing to admit.”
So to return to the critical prescriptions of Getino and Solanas, the mode of production of the show must also be considered, as well as the exhibition’s format. How politically effective can an exhibition be that contains criticisms of man-made climate change, the resulting mass-migration and its correlated social problems, or draws attention to environmental disasters like Fukushima and its aftermath, when it is funded through corporate subsidies, like Swiss Re, which despite its public acknowledgement of the catastrophic impact of climate change, “continues its involvement in fossil fuel sectors… as an investor and underwriter,” according to Greenpeace Switzerland? The model of corporate-funded institutions exhibiting artworks that in broad strokes criticize capitalism and social injustices while avoiding direct criticism of their funders, or the institution's own complicity in the capitalist system (as we have seen at the Tate with the years-long BP sponsorship controversy that only ended recently, but also so many others funded by banks or corporations), is of course evidence of the flexibility of capitalism and its power to absorb all dissent. Advancing capitalism’s profit-generating interests in this way, the institution’s claim of a political impact falls flat and reveals a certain duplicity. Or as Getino and Solanas wrote, “the area of permitted protest of the System is much greater than the System is willing to admit. This gives the artists the illusion that they are acting ‘against the system’ by going beyond certain narrow limits; they do not realize that even anti-System art can be absorbed and utilised by the System.”
Therefore, we can argue that corporations like Swiss Re advance their marketing goals by associating themselves with shows that criticize climate change and its effects, thus demonstrating their stated commitment to raising climate change awareness—consider the relative effects of this dual action: funding an industry vs. “raising awareness.” In turn, the institution gives platform and credence to this corporate image by associating with the sponsor. But how can the institution liberate itself from the catch-22 of depending financially on those it should criticize?
Rimini Protokoll, Top Secret International (Staat 1), 2016, Performance at Kunsthaus Zürich. Photo: Nelly Rodriguez
Exhibitions must carry out analyses of how the art institution can be an enabler of social injustice.
The exhibiting of political art is another topic raised in Toward a Third Cinema. Although a certain effort was made during Action! to bring performances into the public sphere (Boris Charmatz, danse de nuit), they remained entertainment and fun. In response to lighter fare, Solanas and Getino would cite Chris Marker’s project with French workers “whom he provided with 8mm equipment and some basic instruction in its handling. The goal was to have the worker film his way of looking at the world, just as if he were writing it. This has opened up unheard-of prospects for the cinema; above all, a new conception of film-making and the significance of art in our times.” Bringing art to the community and co-producing with the people in those places where they live, to encourage them to become “creators of ideology,” not mere “consumers of ideology,” is seen by the Argentine authors as the authentic political act.
Institutional critique has been practiced since the 1960s, like performance art, and like the critique of all forms of social hegemony, has been analysed in much better and exhaustive ways than I have done in these few phrases. But while it is important to have museum exhibitions such as Action! as educational presentations of the history and current state of performance art, which I believe it achieved, if we want them to be sincere political statements of protest we must address the production and distribution methods. It is necessary that these exhibitions do not only present easy comments on social issues that lie outside the museum, cite Marx, and criticize capitalism while supported by capitalists. Instead they must carry out analyses of how the art institution can be an enabler of social injustice, through its unequal artistic representation, but also through its revenue-generating policies, its elite audience, limited reach, and restricted exhibition spaces. We need to ask of our institutions, just as our institutions need to ask themselves: what is the possibility of the museum to function as a truly democratic space for debate, and how can artists actually develop projects in that space, but also outside it, that are transformational, not just comments or gestures that further play into consumerist culture?
When public funding is dwindling and often extremely politicized; when voices (myself included) call for the museum’s democratization, which also includes free or symbolic admission prices (yes, further decreasing the museum's income); when conservation and production costs are increasing; and when the museum is so closely linked to the interests of the art market that even performances—the epitome of the temporal, immaterial, and ephemeral—become subject to commodification, the answers to these questions become harder to find. But I believe that they must be continuously sought through ruthless self-examination, especially when exhibitions aim for political impact through “action.”
Action! ran from June 23–July 30, 2017, at Kunsthaus Zürich.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to better describe works by Nina Beier, Marinella Senatore, and Koki Tanaka.
Olga Stefan is an arts writer, curator, and researcher based in Zürich.
(Image at top: Koki Tanaka, Precarious Tasks #9: 24hrs Gathering, 2017, at Kunsthaus Zürich. Photo: Nelly Rodriguez)