Low Performance

Nikita Alexeev
Moscow Conceptualism; Collective Actions; performing arts; low performance; deistvie.

At the end of the 1970s our friend, the art-historian Margarita Tupitsyn (who had emigrated to the USA some years before) sent us a copy of the New York magazine High Performance with her article on the Collective Actions group (I was a member at the time). We were perplexed because most of this magazine’s texts were on dance, theatre, and music. We simply did not know that ‘performing arts’ is a vague term which could mean anything and everything: what is important is that this act is performed publicly (or later shown in some way, by means of a corresponding medium). And of course, we couldn’t know that the name of this magazine is an ironic reaction to the famous magazine Hi-Performance Cars.

But what did we know about contemporary art in those days? It would not be correct to exaggerate the impenetrability of the Iron Curtain. Thanks to rare Western friends we had some information about what was going on outside; one could get some knowledge, with some efforts, at the State Library of Foreign Literature. But this information was fragmentary, chaotic, and thus inevitably irrelevant. We knew something about early American happenings, Viennese actionism, and conceptual performances in Europe – what is interesting is that we knew less about public activities of Russian futurists.

And we had to find a name for what we were doing. It was clear for us that it was very far from Kaprow’s or Fluxus happenings (although we liked them a lot). Nitsch was quite alien. We’ve been feeling ourselves much closer to people like Acconci, Hutchinson or Laurie Anderson but we did not like the word ‘performance’. It’s even difficult to explain why. I think, for phonetical reasons: it sounded too pretentious, too pompous for a Russian ear. So the word was found: action. But what is fundamental is that it was not ‘aktsia’ (it exists in Russian and has strong stock-market or supermarket sales connotations) but ‘deistvie’, a Russian equivalent for ‘action’. And it is worth noting that leftist artists of Moscow actionism (Osmolovsky, Kulik, Brenner) who emerged after the fall of Communism and at the advent of Capitalism have immediately adopted ‘action’ as a natural name for their art.

Some of our ‘deistviia’ were public, some not. In both cases documentation (which usually was the only material result) was necessary. It could be later shown at an exhibition, published, or even sold. But the medium did not have a strong importance. When only B/W photos were available, it was B/W. When it became possible to make colour photos, it was colour. When the video era arrived – all right, let it be video. By the way, Sabine Hänsgen was the first, at the beginning of the 1980s, to come to Moscow with a compact camera.

I’m not sure if I really am a performance artist: acting in public is rather on the periphery of my work. But over several years I have created works which I call ‘low performances’ or ‘soft interventions’ and which are based upon the same scheme. I prepare sets of drawings with different objects and beings accompanied by short texts apparently having nothing to do with the images. Then I put them on the walls in towns as different as Moscow, Thessaloniki, Istanbul, and Chanakkale in Turkey, Gyumri in Armenia, Bamberg, London or Shargorod, a small hamlet in Ukraine. The process is videotaped; I think it is a soft intervention into the urban fabric. Usually, people in the streets simply don’t pay attention (it’s normal, they have many other things to do), sometimes they think it’s a kind of illegal advertising or stupid political activity, sometimes they are scandalised; twice I was almost put under arrest. But occasionally, to my surprise, they are really interested in what’s going on. It’s clear that mostly these drawings are sentenced to perish and it is very important to me that they do. Nonetheless, in three cases drawings were made in two sets – second to be shown at an exhibition or published as a book.

Why ‘low performance’? Simply because it’s evident that this kind of artistic behaviour is of extremely low efficiency – 99,9% of the passers-by don’t even glance at my drawings. Several times I noticed that they were in place for days and weeks, fading away under sun, rain, and snow. But I’m not sure that a Ferrari is always more performant than a rusted Renault Quatrelle.

Nikita Alexeev, In the Lane of Mirrors, 2016

Nikita Alexeev
Artist, writer


Nikita Alexeev was a member of the Collective Actions group 1976–1983, co-founder and director of the AptArt Gallery, Moscow, 1982–84. Painter, graphic artist, author of artistic actions, objects and installations, curator of contemporary art exhibitions, journalist, art critic, author of numerous publications in Russian and international press. Riady pamiati (Moscow: Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, 2008), V poiskach Dereva-Metly. Korotkie mysli otshelʹnika iz Solomennoj storozhki (Moscow: Grundrisse, 2018).

Suggested Citation

Alexeev, Nikita. 2020. “Low Performance.” 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: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2020.0000.189

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

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