What is performance art?

Performance art has, during this century, become the term used to describe the new field of art born in the spaces between more established traditions of art. The roots of performance art are in contemporary theatre, performance and live art. Performance art has the ability to open complex themes into straightforward expression and thus emphasize the core of the subject. Performance is constantly seeking the surrounding reality for new points of view, new questions and new modes of existence.

Birth history

The birth of Performance art is usually linked to the turning point in art during the 1960s. In the background for this coming into being were action painting, happening, video art, conceptual art, the broadened field of visual art and the passing art forms questioning the commercial objectification of art.

The term Live Art was adopted in Great Britain in the mid 1980s, to describe practices that did not fit into any classifications in use. Where performance art was established as an art form in the USA in the 1970s, the term live art was an attempt to acknowledge the diversity of art conventions displaying live performing. In this aspect it comes close to the term used in Finland esitystaide. A frequent statement emphasises that live art is not an art form, but a cultural strategy.

The concept of performance (esitys)

“The Finnish word “esitys” covers a large area. It can be a representation, a presentation, a performance, spectacle, show or even an accomplishment.” Annette Arlander

Performance art is art that enacts. The definition of performance is under constant consideration and renewal – the creators, the audience and the theorists keep redefining performance through work and through text. Uniting factors, besides the diversity in form, are the different manifestations of contact with an audience, a conceptual approach to performance and the simultaneous emphasis on experience. Performance art develops new positions for viewing and for making, new means of creating audience and of understanding a theatrical encounter.

A good example of how the concept is in constant motion is the search for the smallest necessary confining. The smallest requirement in defining a performance is usually that a performer and a spectator share presence in the same space – and simultaneously performances are created where even this is contested. The best understanding of the concept can be attained by attending performances and exploring literature.

Performing Finland

The opening 2001 of the master’s programme for Live Art and Performance Studies at the Theatre Academy was the takeoff for the broadening of the notion of performance art into common use and the institutionalisation of the art form. Since then the field has expanded rapidly. In 2003 the only class from the study programme Crossing Borders in Performing Arts at the Art Academy of Turku graduated, in 2007 the Esitys magazine kicked off, in 2008 the information centre for performance and performance art Presentaatio was established, in 2009 Esitystaiteen keskus ry, and 2010 the BA programme at Satakunta University of Applied Sciences. In 2011 the Ministry of Education and Culture published an inquiry on future visions for financing performing arts, where performance and performance art were addressed as independent fields of art for the first time in planning state financing.

Performance art is living its heyday in Finland. About 150-300 artists, depending on how you count, and numerous groups are engaged in the field of Performance and Live Art in Finland. Festivals, clubs, events and performances are actively organised all around the country. Since the opening of Esitystaiteen keskus in Helsinki in the autumn 2011 the artists in the field finally have a permanent working space and meeting point.

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