Doing Performance Art History

Doing Performance Art History

An Introduction and Interview with Amy Bryzgel (Zurich/Aberdeen, February 2020)

Sylvia Sasse
Performance art history; Eastern Europe; archive; happening; action; re-performance; re-enactment.


“History is not given, please help construct it!”, was the motto of the Slovenian artist group IRWIN in 2003 to create a “reversed genealogy” or a “retro-principle”1 of art history. The resulting “East Art Map”, a collaboration of IRWIN with other artists, curators, and art historians, not only wanted to “intervene in the grand narratives of a Western-dominated art history”,2 but also to make clear the contingency of art historiography in general. A few years ago, art history reacted to such interventions by artists – to their maps, archives, performances, and narratives – and historicised their works with a powerful term, the “historiographic turn” in the arts. This meant not only the artistic intervention in art history but in history as a whole. But the “historiographic turn”3 is now also history. The view into the past is replaced by a demand for more future – with a new “after” or “post”. Thus, after 1989, (art) historiography took a rapid and varied course from the initially proclaimed “end of history”, from “post-communism” or “post-utopia” to “historiographical” and finally to the “post-historiographical turn”.

The proclamation of “turns” or the assertion of an “end” are among the most powerful speech acts of history writing – at least as long as the turns did not follow each other like day and night. Thus, the theories or concepts are not those that merely describe or analyse the observed situation, rather they create what we understand by historiography. Usually, these concepts and terms are reproduced in exhibitions, at festivals, and in the arts; they rotate, are parodied, exhaust themselves, and are replaced by contrary or alternative concepts. However, as Yurii Tynianov described for literary evolution in the early 1920s, this hardly happens in a linear fashion, but almost simultaneously and multi-directionally.

In short, art historiography is itself performative, it works with concepts, narratives, rhetoric, and staging, it presupposes a history that constitutes it conceptually and analytically. It is this performance of historiography that interests us in our publication. We do not look at it in art history in general, but rather in the genre that is – because of its ephemeral quality – most clearly at the mercy of art historiography, performance art. We have therefore asked very different actors to reflect on their artistic, curatorial, theoretical work as performative processes of art historiography. In doing so we concentrate on four key areas, some of which are universal, others concern the specific situation in Eastern Europe between 1950 and 1990: 1. Documenting, 2. Archiving, 3. Exhibiting, 4. Re-performance. These areas are meant to bring together questions that are central to the historiography of performance art.

Historiography of Performance Art: Performances of/as Historiography

Historiography of performance art has also been an artistic activity in Eastern Europe from the beginning. Not only did it reflect the principal problematic nature of documenting events; self-documentation was moreover a strategic means for nonconformist/underground artists to compensate for being excluded from exhibiting to the general public and thus from the narrative of art history. In this context, self-archiving, self-commentary, and self-theorisation assumed the roles of art theory, art criticism, and historiography – areas that in other cultures were covered by the art sector and by academic research. Not only did the artists take these functions on, but they made them into artistic, aesthetic processes. As a result, documentation-art, archive-art, and also artistic performance theory as a part of actions, happenings, or performances developed. The “historical turn,” which was noted in the 2000s, is thus not at all new, but has, in relation to Eastern Europe, produced artistic procedures of documentation and archiving much earlier. This included documenting as an artistic activity in Moscow Conceptualism, e.g. by the Collective Actions, which in turn conceptualised this activity as a factographic field of actions.4 This factographic field contains all documentation, comments, rules, photographs and videos taken during and after the actions. In contrast to experienced space, the factographic field describes the represented space during the action and the representation of the action. The documentations of performances from the circle of Moscow Conceptualism were collected in the MANI (Moscow Archive of Contemporary Art) and shown in the MANI Museum founded by Nikolai Panitkov.5 Other examples are Zofia Kulik and her Pracownia Działań Dokumentacji i Upowszechniania (Studio for Action, Documentation, and Popularisation, or PDDiU) located at her home in Łomianki on the outskirts of Warsaw, or the Budapest Archive for Visual and Performance Arts (Artpool), which has documented and recorded nearly 2000 Hungarian performance events since its founding.

After 1989, projects emerged that not only ‘filled in’ the gaps in national historiography at the time of the dictatorships, but also aimed at Western art historiography, in which Eastern Europe is often missing. Lia Perjovschi inserts herself into historiography using classical procedures in her project Subjective Art History (1997-2004). With timelines, maps and diagrams she historicises herself and thus indirectly refers to Roselee Goldberg’s exhibition timelines,6 in which Eastern Europe between 1950 and 1990 is almost completely missing. The interactive Portable Intelligence Increase Museum installed by Tamás St. Auby in the Dorottya Gallery in Budapest in 2003 takes a different approach. It’s less about subjective history and more about national history, his museum is based on his own database of artists working in Hungary, in order to criticise not only the official old but also the new Hungarian “art historical falsification”.7

Zdenka Badovinac described these processes after 1989 as artistic procedures of “self-historicisation” and underlined that the artists “become the subject – the agent – in their own development”, they act not only as an archivist but also as an ethnologist of their own art scene.8 In this sense, performance artists have participated in the reconstruction and archiving of performance art after 1989: Barbora Klímová, for instance, did performance research herself for her project Replaced-Brno-2006, worked with archive material and re-enactments: “By re-enacting the same performances I had found in the archives in different locations, I attempted to test the way in which certain conventions and rules relate to certain locations and are projected on the behaviour and actions of its inhabitants.”9 Re-performances thus become an analytical category in the reconstruction of a genre, the artists acting like art historians. In doing so, they not only link artistic and ethnological or historiographic activity, but they themselves deal with re-enactments as practices of historiography.

But working artistically with re-enactments of performances can also pursue another idea, namely to explore the repeatability of ephemeral events. Marina Abramović is the best example of this when, in a performance entitled Autobiography, she first reenacted her own works and then, in 2005, with Seven Easy Pieces at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, repeated six historical performances that made performance history in the 1960s and 1970s: Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1972), Joseph Beuys’ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), Valie Export’s Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969), Bruce Nauman’s Body Pressure (1974), and Gina Pane’s The Conditioning (1973). Abramović also shows ‘old’ performances – Imponderabilia (1977) – in her exhibitions, whereby she does not perform them herself but casts art students.

In this sense, performances, actions, and happenings are not simply the subject of art historiography but are events that quote, interpret, comment on, perhaps even parody art history, and in this way, they explore the differences between performance and theatre, between uniqueness and repeatability.

In Eastern European performance art history, how it is made and written by artists and art historians is closely linked. In our publication, we have in mind how various players in either the public or private spheres (curators, critics, photographers, filmmakers, researchers) accompanied the making of performance art history between 1950 and 1990, and how this history – after 1990 – is shown and narrated afresh. But we also ask about the aspect of ‘doing’ performance art history and theory that has been developed in Eastern Europe over the last 30 years, for instance by Ileana Pintilie for Romanian performance art (Actionism in Romania during the Communist Era, Cluj 2000), by Andrea Bátorová for performance art in Slovakia (The Art of Contestation: Performative Practices in the 1960s and 1970s in Slovakia, Bratislava 2019), or by Pavlína Morganová with her book Czech Action Art: Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art Behind the Iron Curtain (Prague 2014).

With one of these pioneer researchers, Amy Bryzgel, who has written a history of performance art in Eastern Europe since 196010 featuring over 250 artists from 21 countries, we start our publication.

Writing Performance Art History: Interview

SS: Your book about performance art in Eastern Europe since 1960 was published in 2017.11 It is the first historically oriented and comparative study of performance art during the Cold War and after 1989. Until now, there had only been studies of individual artists or on ‘national’ performance art, for instance on Slovakian or Romanian action art. Why was it important to you to write a transnational work on performance Art in Eastern Europe?

AB: This is a book that I have always wanted to write, and I suppose part of the impetus came from the field of performance, which has a number of standard and survey texts, for example by Roselee Goldberg, Amelia Jones and Adrian Heathfield,12 but the omission of Eastern European artists even of Marina Abramović and her cohort in Belgrade in the 1970s, was glaring. The more research I did on the subject, the more I found that many artists used performance as a form of experiment, but would not otherwise consider themselves “performance artists,” and then went on to produce a body of work unrelated or only partially related to performance. So in some ways, the book was a recuperative gesture, to recover these histories and tell these stories.

But the idea of a regional study also appealed to me as a way of teasing out the differences and nuances between contexts, and I hope that my book does enough to particularise the various circumstances in which these artists worked. I remember giving a talk about a Latvian artist, Miervaldis Polis, and his performance Bronze Man (Bronzas cilvēks), about which I have written extensively. Someone in the audience asked how it was even possible for him to walk around Riga painted bronze in 1987, because in the 1980s in Romania, there was no way that could have taken place. I realised that even within Eastern Europe there are assumptions and misconceptions about the different national contexts and histories, and a book that set up a comparative study would be able to highlight those distinctions. I have always maintained that the region can be looked at as a whole, in terms of its shared communist past and being separated from the rest of Europe by the Iron Curtain, but that the individual experiences have to be locally contextualised as well.

SS: How did you go about it? Which sources did you work with, which private archives did you evaluate?

AB: My first book really laid the foundation for it. Performing the East: Performance Art in Russia, Latvia and Poland Since 198013 was a set of three case studies, with two artists from each of the three countries in each chapter. Because that was my first research project, which grew out of my PhD, I spent a lot of time in each country, interviewing the artists, working with whatever archives were available. Some of that was really about learning how to do the research, how to work with living artists, since I really had no training in that.

For Performance Art in Eastern Europe I knew I wanted to meet and speak to as many artists as possible to get an overview of the region. Much of the research was accomplished thanks to the strengths of the networks there, and the generosity of artists, art historians and curators with their time. Usually one initial contact in each country or city led to myriad other meetings with artists. And just like networking in the region under communism, much of the connections were based on chance or luck – whoever this or that curator art historian or artist recommended. I found that the best way to understand the history was to sit with the artists as they showed me their portfolios of performance activity. Some kept archival folders, others had digitised their archives, but my interviews were semi-structured, which enabled discussions to go in directions I may have not thought possible.

Archives were a different story. As you are aware, there are not a lot of public archival sources. The archives in the art centres that were the legacy of the Soros Centers were valuable, especially for information as to when and where a performance happened, who documented it, and if there was any press interest. Many of the artists, as you know, maintain their own archives of their work. I didn’t deal with any of the state security archives or artist files, because the political aspect of their work and the attention it received from the state was not specifically my focus of interest. I was really more interested in what the artists were doing, why they were doing it, how they made the choices and decisions they did, and the context in which they were working. So speaking with artists was really important for this.

Narratives of Performance Art History

SS: You emphasise at the beginning of your book that although it is important to you to have Eastern Europe as the subject, the development of performance art took place “in parallel and in dialogue with practices in Western Europe and North America, despite its exclusion from the canon of that history”. Apart from isolation, what are other narratives about performance art in Eastern Europe against which your book also writes?

AB: I think I was surprised by how little work I found that was overtly political, meaning work that addressed political issues, repression, freedom, etc. Of course, it did exist, but on the whole the notion of antipolitics holds up – I would say that artists were generally more interested in freedom and experimentation than making any obvious political statement with their work. And we know that art was instrumentalised by the state for its own political agenda, so it makes sense that artists would equate freedom with developing their own ideas to incorporate into their art.

It was also interesting to learn how artists arrived at performance and body art. In many instances they found evidence of similar activity elsewhere after they had already started creating actions. And most artists who traveled abroad had already been working in the genre. For example, after they began working in performance art, Milan Knížák, Tadeusz Kantor and Natalia LL all travelled to New York and met Allan Kaprow and Carolee Schneemann. And despite the notion that artists craved the West because of its freedoms and the fact that experimental art was supported, Knížák commented that he felt what artists in Eastern Europe were doing was more pure, and less commercial and institutionalised, which he praised as a good thing. So the socio-political conditions both restricted freedom but also opened up different avenues of freedom – with no pressure from the market or institutions, artists were free to create what they wanted (in private).

SS: Some of the artists not only travelled but later emigrated or moved (Marina Abramović) and have left their mark on international performance art; others were forced into exile (Lev Nussberg, Tamás St. Turba alias Tamás St. Auby) and have (temporarily) disappeared in emigration. What role does emigration play for the reception of Eastern European performance art (theory transfer, knowledge transfer) and thus for historiography?

AB: This is something that I think needs to be explored much more. Once I learned more details about the tremendous amount of contact between artists in Eastern Europe and the rest of the world, one of the questions I had is how we can trace the role of both contact and emigration on artistic production elsewhere. I can give one small example. Paul Neagu emigrated from Romania to the UK in the 1970s and eventually naturalised as a British citizen. I wouldn’t say he is a household name in the UK, but he is known. His work is not yet part of the art historical canon and probably quite rarely taught in art history courses. A number of Russian artists emigrated to New York, like Komar and Melamid and Alexander Kosolapov, but I really think that they existed there as émigré artists and continued to be spoken about and written about as such. I think that it has to do with the way that art history labels artists. Because performance artists from Eastern Europe are a relatively ‘new’ thing in the contemporary art world, insofar as it only truly opened up for artists from the region in the 1990s, they get labelled as such. People don’t know about performance art from the region, they don’t know how to discuss it or treat it, so they label it as ‘other.’ I unfortunately think it will be this way for a few more generations, until we have a truly global understanding and approach to art and its histories.

SS: I would like to return briefly to the political aspects of art historiography. Milan Knižák’s statement touches on a myth of art historiography, which I find problematic: here the constraints of the market and the freedom of democracy, there the freedoms of the planned economy and the constraints of autocracy. Performance art in the West has always been – historically speaking – a criticism of the market, because it did not circulate as an object of purchase. This aspect of performance art was not relevant in planned economies, and we know today that documentaries, leftovers and performances are themselves marketable. But we would never say about the market (in analogy to autocracy) that it restricts and can also be liberating if one refrains from being bought (received)? But my question aims at something else.

You said you were surprised at how little artists made overtly political art and mentioned anti-politics and thus Klara Kemp-Welch’s study.14 But I’m sceptical whether the term can be used to capture the political dimension of performance art. Even if some artists rejected or did not dare to do something political in terms of content, the choice of the genre itself was already political in the sense of an aesthetic critique. In other words, the choice of happening, performance, action as a genre was read politically in individual states such as Hungary, the Soviet Union, the GDR, the Czech Republic and Romania. They were regarded as decidedly Western genres, as a link to the historical avant-garde, as explosive because they were unpredictable. We have read hundreds of pages of secret service files, which make it clear that the genre alone was the problem, that the choice of the genre was already seen as a political gesture. In Poland, however, this distinction was not made; it was not the genre itself that was at stake, but the question of whether happenings conveyed political content. To what extent do the political or critical dimension of the genre play a role in your study or research?

AB: I absolutely agree that performance art, and the choice to work in it, was a political one. And yes, if it wasn’t problematic then the artists would not have been monitored by the secret police, such as Stasi, KGB, etc. Perhaps it is a semantic argument. What I am referring to is the assumption, by many in the West (including Roselee Goldberg, whom I have criticised on this point) that performance and experimental art was used by artists to address political issues in their work.

I also find Knížák’s statement problematic, but I have had a number of conversations with artists who harken back to the ‘halcyon days’ of life under communism, when they received a stipend and paid trips to the seaside (mainly in the USSR). Of course, we all remember our past with nostalgia, a point to which Komar and Melamid’s painting I Saw Stalin Once When I was a Child (1981–82) alludes quite eloquently. But I think it is important for us working in the field to counter the traditional narratives of ‘repression.’ That is one of the things that I liked about the “Left Performance Histories” exhibition at nGbK in Berlin in 2017, and Andrea Bátorová’s work on Slovak performance – which focuses on the jouissance of performance art that was experienced in the region.

In my work I try to look at the wider context of the work – where it took place and why, who participated and why, what was the response to it, by viewers, participants and the authorities, and why. I think (at least I hope) that in my research and writing this contextualisation does provide a view of the political dimension of the work of which you speak, that artists were always operating in a highly politicised environment that affected the work in various ways. For some, it meant moving their activity to the countryside, for others it meant performing for the camera – these are all political aspects of the work, but I do like the term antipolitics for putting a frame around it. In my understanding, many artists used performance art as a zone of freedom, an escape from the otherwise politicised space, a genre in which they could express themselves relatively freely.

SS: In terms of art history, Eastern Europe before 1989 is much more inhomogeneous than the ‘block’ idea suggests. Performance art, in particular, functions as an indicator of the possibilities of the art scene. What national differences have you noticed in your research? What consequences does this have for art historiography?

AB: One thing is a temporal difference. So, for example, Martial Law was instituted in Poland in 1981, yet in other countries, the 1980s was a time of increased freedoms, especially leading up to Perestroika. The 1970s was a period of relative freedom in Poland, but in Czechoslovakia, that was the period of Normalization. So, the limits of what was possible not only varied from country to country, but from year to year and decade to decade. I had expected to find some national differences in terms of topics or themes addressed, or connections with local traditions – in the same way that performance art and the neo-avant-garde in North America drew on the Dada and experimental activity in Europe in the early 20th century. But many countries in Eastern Europe didn’t have that Dada tradition. The immediate post-World War I period was a time of nation building, and Constructivism was predominant. Of course, there are exceptions, for example the strong Dada traditions in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

Generally I found that artists across the bloc were interested in new forms of expression. There was the art that was endorsed by the state, varying from forms of socialist realism to modernist abstraction, but the point wasn’t how liberal the state’s approach to art-making was; the point was that there was a state-prescribed way of doing things. Institutions were governed and guided by that. Artists, as you well know, thrive on freedom of expression and experiment, and often the most radical thing you could do would be to abandon paint, brushes and canvas and use other materials – these could be found objects, or it could be the ultimate “found object”: the body. And when you work with the body, then naturally certain themes follow: gender, identity, and the body as a political subject – and these were themes I noted that artists were addressing across the region.

Art as History Writing?

SS: Since performance art in Eastern Europe was under observation in some countries or could only take place underground, an excessive documentary art has developed within the performance scene. At the same time, this means that it was not so much the art market (criticism, galleries) as the artists themselves who worked on their own history and archivisation from the outset. What consequences does this have for writing a history of performance art? What examples can you cite that were relevant to you as artistic ‘history writing’?

AB: This is a really important question, and it absolutely has consequences for the writing of the history of performance art. Take, for example, some of the Czech body artists from the 1970s – Petr Štembera, Jan Mlčoch, Karel Miler – they have archived their own work, but they also deliberately terminated their performance work at the end of the 1970s, and rarely talk about it nowadays. Of course, Pavlína Morganová has worked extensively with them to capture that history, but as they now refuse to discuss their 1970s performance works my history of that scene is largely based on her work on those artists.

Also, I was very well aware, throughout my research, that the choice artists I discussed was often the result of who I had the fortune to come across or have recommended to me by someone else. If I hadn’t come across their work in a catalogue, or heard of them otherwise, they might have been excluded. This was the case in some areas where I didn’t have sufficient connections, which made it difficult to get in touch with people. There are some artists whose work I only found out about late in my research, and would have liked to give more attention to in my book but couldn’t.

Then there are artists like Zofia Kulik, part of the duo KwieKulik, and her work on the Studio of Art Activity, Documentation, and Dissemination. She amassed, carefully preserved and cared for an extensive archive, and has been working to have it preserved in a state institution. She now has an archivist working with her, and the archive is open to researchers. But that is not the case with every artist.

SS: An example of a hermetic artistic historiography is the NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst / New Slovenian Art). They apply their retro principle to historiography by sampling existing material from art history, quoting it and bringing it into new connections. On the other hand, they write themselves into history, as in their book Neue Slowenische Kunst,15 a self-portrait published in 1991. What role does artistic historiography play in your history of performance art?

AB: In many ways writing the history of ephemeral art in the region is an exercise in historiography, and I am sure that future historians will look back on what we have written and challenge, critique and amend it. And despite our criticisms of the art historical canon, many artists I encountered were creating work that responded to, tried to erase, or challenged the exclusion of Eastern European art. There are a number of artists writing themselves into the canonical history of art in various ways, either by responding to or re-performing historical works of performance, like NSK, by literally painting or writing themselves into these histories, which I view as performative. Milija Pavićević is an interesting artist from Montenegro who has this series of works where he paints himself or creates a photographic performance of himself as Manet’s The Fifer (Le fifre, 1866). And Miervaldis Polis has an entire series of paintings where he paints his image into canonical works of art. But again, there was a tension: on the one hand a desire for the West and inclusion, and on the other a distrust of capitalism and its coopting of the visual arts.

SS: We must also talk about the role of re-performance or re-enactment in the genre of historiography. There are many examples of this. Among others again Marina Abramović, who in 1998 began to repeat some of her early performances in Berlin under the title Biography. In 2005, she then restaged six historical performances, which wrote performance history in the 1960s and 1970s, in Seven Easy Pieces at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, : Vito Acconci (Seedbed, 1972), Joseph Beuys (How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965), Valie Export (Action Pants: Genital Panic, 1969), Bruce Nauman (Body Pressure, 1974), Gina Pane (The Conditioning, 1973). She also re-staged her own performance from 1975, Lips of Thomas. Conversely, Abramović’s performances are also re-staged by other artists. For example Eva and Franco Mattes’ Synthetic Performances (2007) used the virtual world of Second Life to recreate Abramović’s Imponderabilia (1977), as well as Beuys’ 7000 Oaks (1982–87) and Valie Export’s Tapp und Tastkino (1968–71). Imponderabilia was also restaged in the most recent Abramović retrospective in New York and Moscow, but rather than reenact the performances herself, she cast art students.

AB: I think the performances are not repeated in order to restage the original effect, but to show performance art as part of art history. Or, to put it another way, in a genre-specific way: Abramović shifts the site of the art historical memory of performance art from the photo to the theatre, and thus also to another, repeatable form of storage. Performance becomes theatre. The theatre becomes an archive or a medium of memory.

SS: In the meantime, Re-performance has developed into a genre of its own, especially in Eastern Europe. From your perspective, what role does re-performance or re-enactment play in the genre of historiography?

AB: Just as Abramović aims to canonise herself as part of the history of performance art with Seven Easy Pieces and other re-performances, other artists across the region have done the same. For example Ewa Partum, for her 2006 retrospective in Poland and, in Tallinn, Leonhard Lapin, Ülevi Eljand, Ando Keskküla their Trio for Piano, which they had originally organised in 1969. They did this at a time when younger artists were starting to work in this ‘new, experimental’ art-form of performance and, as artists who had been doing such work since the 1960s, wanted to make clear that this was not new, and that they were the ‘original’ avant-garde artists (I am paraphrasing from an article by Anu Allas in ArtMargins online). So re-performance and re-enactment has an important role to play for the artists themselves, but I also think it can produce some interesting discussions and understandings around life during and after communism. There are a number of artists and groups who have staged re-performances for this very reason. When Barbora Klímová restaged the work of several Czech performance artists from the 1970s and 1980s, the present-day performances put the similarities and differences between them into sharp focus. And I think it is important to look at those similarities, not just the differences, which is usually the focus. Kontejner, the bureau of contemporary art practice, based in Zagreb, staged a series of re-performances of Yugoslav performance art, with the aim of presenting a performance of art history, as a research project in and of itself, in place of a written study. We talk so much in performance studies about embodiment and the visceral experience of performance, but I think we forget the role performance and re-performance has to play in embodying and understanding history, which has the potential to be quite instructive. And this is how I teach my visual culture students about performance. Rather than simply lecturing then on Knížák's work, I have them perform his Walk Through Prague on the university campus, and we discuss the impact their participation had on them, and then try to compare that to their understanding of the historical performance. It goes without saying that it brings the history, and the performance, to life in ways that a lecture or description never could. So I think re-performance has a very important role to play in terms of historiography and could perhaps even enhance or change the way we think about writing, doing or understanding the history of performance art history.

SS: If one looks back at the history of performance art theory, it is directly linked to the history of performance art itself. Theory can only develop on the objects it deals with. This was essentially American performance art from the 1960s onwards. What new theoretical impulses have made artistic works or performances from Eastern Europe possible for the history of theory?

AB: This is in fact what I am working on now. I have challenged those who have written the theory of performance art from this perspective, and it is not only East European performance art that is excluded, but Chinese, South African, Chilean, Israeli, Portuguese, etc. I think the task now is for historians of performance art to take a closer look at the theory that has developed and expose its limitations. Right now I am looking at the various marginal performance art histories (like those mentioned above) and seeing what theory can be developed from those shared histories that come from being on the periphery.

SS: This is an exciting project. So you intend to develop a kind of historiography and theory from the margins? In Dominic Johnson’s book about Critical Life Art, 2013,16 I read that sometimes the margin starts where we don’t expect it, for example in Great Britain.Citing Amelia Jones, Kathie O'Dell, Rebecca Schneider, he writes that performance art theory is focused on America and is: “interested in what might happen to (American-centric) histories of experimental performance when confronted by Life Art in the UK.” I think it’s clear that we need a more global art history. Does that also mean we need a more global view so that theory doesn’t make history? Perhaps only in this way can theory be perceived not as universal, but itself as different, local, relational?

AB: It is really difficult to shift these paradigms. Once a canon or a body of theoretical work is established, everything happens in relation to it. I was once criticised for mentioning the ‘artistic canon’ at a conference, but the fact is that artists in the region are well aware of that canon and where they sit, or do not sit, within it. And I agree with Dominic that the UK is one of those margins that we don’t necessarily think about, similar to Portugal, Switzerland or Israel. And as far as I can see, art historians from these places do refer to the existing theories because they are what exist – it is almost ingrained in us to refer to the centre.

Amy Bryzgel
University of Aberdeen

Sylvia Sasse
University of Zurich


1 Inke Arns (ed.), Irwin: Retroprincip, 1983–2003 (Revolver: Frankfurt am Main, 2003).

2 Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, “Innovative Forms of Archives, Part Two: IRWIN’s East Art Map and Tamás St. Auby’s Portable Intelligence Increase Museum” in: E-Flux, Nr. 16, May 2010. Online: [4.05.2020].

3 Dieter Roelstraete, “After the Historiographic Turn: Current Findings” in: E-Flux, Nr. 06, May 2009. Online: [4.05.2020].

4 See, among others, Sylvia Sasse, Texte in Aktion. Sprech- und Sprachakte im Moskauer Konzeptualismus (München: Wilhelm Fink, 2009).

5 MANI Museum: 40 Künstler im Frankfurter Karmeliterkloster: eine Ausstellung Moskauer Avantgarde-Kunst der achtziger Jahre (Frankfurt am Main: Magistrat der Stadt Frankfurt am Main, Amt für Wiss. und Kunst, 1991), exhibition catalogue. Vgl. etwa Julia Scharf, Das Archiv ist die Kunst. Verfahren der textuellen Selbstreproduktion im Moskauer Konzeptualismus, Arbeitspapiere und Materialien der Forschungsstelle Osteuropa an der Universität Bremen, Nr. 78, 2006; Julia Fertig, “Die Archivfalle” in:, Nr. 1, 2011, p. 14. Online: [4.05.2020]; Sven Spieker, The big archive. Art from bureaucracy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008).

6 See RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (third edition London: Thames & Hudson 2011).

7 Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez, “Innovative Forms of Archives, Part Two: IRWIN’s East Art Map and Tamás St. Auby’s Portable Intelligence Increase Museum” in: E-Flux, Nr. 16, May 2010. Online: [4.05.2020].

8 Zdenka Badovinac, “Interrupted Histories”, in e-cart, Nr. 7, March 2006. Online: [4.05.2020].

9 Quoted in Adam Budak, “Barbora Klímová About Her Recent Manifesta Project”, ArtMargins, last modified April 14, 2009. [4.05.2020].

10 Amy Bryzgel, Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017) and Amy Bryzgel, Performing the East: Performance Art in Russia, Latvia and Poland since 1980 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).

11 Amy Bryzgel, Performance Art in Eastern Europe Since 1960 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017).

12 RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (London: Thames & Hudson, 2011); Heathfield, Adrian and Amelia Jones (eds.), Perform, Repeat, Record: Live Art in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

13 Amy Bryzgel, Performing the East: Performance Art in Russia, Latvia and Poland Since 1980 (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013).

14 Klara Kemp-Welch, Antipolitics in Central European Art 1956–1989. Reticence as Dissidence under Post-Totalitarian Rule (London: IB Tauris, 2014 (paperback 2016)).

15 Darko Pokorn (ed.): Neue Slowenische Kunst (Zagreb: Grafički zavod Hrvatske and Los Angeles: Amok Books, 1991).

16 Dominic Johnson, Critical Life Art. Contemporary Histories of Performance in the UK (London: Routledge, 2013).


Amy Bryzgel is Professor and Personal Chair in Film and Visual Culture and Director of Postgraduate Studies in the School of Language, Literature, Music and Visual Culture at the University of Aberdeen. Her research is focused on performance art in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe. Performing the East: Performance Art in Russia, Latvia and Poland since 1980 (London: IB Tauris, 2013), Miervaldis Polis (Latvia: Neputns, 2015), Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960 (Manchester University Press 2017).

Sylvia Sasse is Full Professor for Slavic Studies at the University of Zurich. Published about the theory of literature, theatre, and performance art in Eastern Europe. Artists & Agents. Performance Art and Secret Services (ed. with Kata Krasznahorkai, Leipzig: Spector Books 2019).

Suggested Citation

Sasse, Sylvia. 2020. “Doing Performance Art History. An Introduction and Interview with Amy Bryzgel.” Sandra Frimmel, Tomáš Glanc, Sabine Hänsgen, Katalin Krasznahorkai, Nastasia Louveau, Dorota Sajewska, Sylvia Sasse (eds.). 2020. Doing Performance Art History. Open Apparatus Book I. DOI:


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