The Block

Art & Culture — 2 years ago

Feedback Loop: On Art And Audiences

Philomena Epps probes the relationship between performance art and audiences in the digital age.


In 2004, the Tate acquired their first performance artwork: Roman Ondák’s Good Feelings in Good Times. Appropriately for a British art collection, the performance was an artificial queue. Ondák was born in 1966, and the genesis of the work was his memories of growing up in former Czechoslovakia, witnessing the long queues for groceries. Initiated at London’s Frieze art fair, where the work was sold, it took on new cultural associations through the different references it held for the local audience, who perhaps recalled their cramped morning commute or the line for coffee.


Good Feelings in Good Times can be performed by seven to fifteen participants who convene and then disperse from a series of locations. In the instructions written by Ondák for an iteration of the performance in 2007, he noted that, “The queue should not be put on a pedestal or isolated from the everyday milling about that is typical for an art fair or a gallery, i.e. there should be enough audience around for the queue to blend in.” The participants were required to dress and behave like an average museum visitor. If someone enquired what they were waiting for, the uniform response was, “We’re just queuing” or “I don’t know.”

Philomena Epps
Photography by Tom Kavanagh

Ondák’s rejection of the conventional gallery “pedestal” – specifically his idea that the queue should be integrated and not isolated from the audience – demonstrated the potential for everyday interactions and visitor behaviour to be a performance in and of itself. By sidestepping the conventions of traditional spectatorship, the subtle nature of Good Feelings in Good Times is a far cry from the theatrics of the performance art made in the early 1970s, by Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, and Marina Abramović, among others. Abramović has said she was drawn to performance due to the potential to exploit the “energy” between herself and the audience. In 2010, some members of the public who participated in The Artist is Present performance at MoMA in New York were emotionally overwhelmed and reduced to tears, commenting that “time had stopped” or that they had felt “transformed” by sitting opposite her.

In 1974, Abramović initiated the six-hour performance Rhythm 0 at Studio Morra in Naples. The wall text read: “There are seventy-two objects on the table that one can use on me as desired.” The items included soap, feathers, lipstick, an axe, a candle, grapes, and a gun loaded with a single bullet. Her clothes were sliced off her body with razor blades. She was crowned with thorns. Others cut her, painted her, cleaned her. Fights broke out between the more protective and the more aggressive audience members. It was only when someone pressed the gun to her head that the crowd were spurred to finally halt the event. Abramović later commented, “In your own performances you can go very far, if you leave decisions to the public, you can be killed’’. A decade earlier, Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), enacted in venues in Kyoto, Tokyo, London, and New York, similarly staged victimisation through the act of spectacle, presenting a situation in which the audience would be implicated through participating in an act of violence. Ono knelt silently on stage while spectators were invited to cut away pieces of her clothing with a pair of scissors. As with Rhythm 0, the intensity of the violation accelerated over the duration of the performance.

content is being captured and circulated at rapid speed

These types of performances are dependent on the actions of the viewers. The audience is an intrinsic part of how the artwork functions, simulating a sort of feedback loop. As Catherine Wood, Tate’s curator of performance, wrote in Performance in Contemporary Art (2018), “If art, in its broadest sense, offers a way for us to look at ourselves and reflect on our time – a kind of symbolic mirror – then performance within art stages us in the act of observing ourselves: it produces a two-way mirror.” Her remark is particularly salient in the context of the digital era, where content is being captured and circulated at rapid speed, in addition to platforms like Instagram or TikTok providing the ideal environment in which to enact a performed persona to an audience of followers. 

In her book Performing Image (2019), the art historian Isobel Harbison cited a statement made by Mark Leckey around 2008, in which he identified with the economic dynamic of ‘prosumerism’: “I think of myself as a kind of ‘prosumer,’ where you produce and consume at the same time … [As a prosumer] you’re consuming it … sending it out and it’s coming back to you … a kind of loop or cycle.” Harbison argues that both artists and audiences exist within these circuits of image production, consumption, and exchange: a “highly regulated and homogenizing sphere of visibility” where the “instinct to perform images is so vigorously inscribed, or encouraged, by technology capital”.

A ‘prosumer,’ where you produce and consume at the same time

Comprised of choreographed sequences and tableaux vivant, Anne Imhof’s performances have a highly stylised aesthetic and are therefore extremely photogenic. Typically, both during and in the aftermath of an Imhof performance, one can expect the images and videos captured by the crowd to flood through social media. This has inevitably led some individuals to critique Imhof’s work for being shallow and narcissistic, rather than perceiving this particular act of witnessing as being embedded in the intent of the performance, a dynamic which has been dialled up in recent years. Writing for the Summer ‘19 issue of Artforum on Imhof’s four-hour performance Sex (2019), which took place in London, Chicago, and Turin, Jonah Westerman noted that “given the frequency with which commentators have noted the ‘grammability’ of Imhof’s work, it is remarkable that [they] rarely invoke the internet.” Technological mediation has continued to accelerate in the years between Sex and Imhof’s recent Nature Mortes (2021) at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. In their review, also for Artforum, Caroline Busta and Lil Internet mentioned the “four-hundred-plus outraged commenters” on the magazine’s Instagram video of the performance who were armed with “angry accusations that Imhof had ‘lazily’ leaned on fashion and youth culture”. Instead, the authors perceived themselves, the audience, as the ones who are “helplessly programmed to respond to charismatic stimuli with the botlike command of ‘capture, post, distill’.” As someone who attended Sex: same.

The spoken-word performances given by the contemporary artist Nora Turato offer an interesting linguistic, rather than image-based, example of the prosumer analogy. Her fragmented texts are mixed up with advertising slogans, viral Twitter posts, articles, popular clickbait, newspaper headlines, and quotes from TV shows, celebrities, or politicians, feeding into the production of an uncanny, overwhelming diatribe. Usually performed in the style of a rapid-fire tirade or as if possessed, Toratu’s delivery can range from high-pitched singing, to shrieks, stutters, and whispers. The impact on the audience is one of intense saturation, unable to fully interpret or decipher these statements, which is complicated further if they trigger some familiarity. It can feel like experiencing a form of perpetual déjà vu. Toratu’s work perhaps presents the culmination of the dissolution of the boundaries between audience and performer, fact and fiction. Rather than participate directly in the work, this onslaught of everyday media is being regurgitated and served back to them. 

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