black and white picture of Marina Abramovic and Ulay, whose hair is tied to each other as if they were one head

Performance Art from the 1900s to Today

What do you do to interact with the exterior world surrounding you? What kind of alternative means are there outside to create spaces for intersubjectivity? Performance art comes into the picture to provide some answers to these questions. In particular, lived experience becomes the key aspect for many performance artists to investigate the different matrixes of life and challenges the concept of conventional art.

Performance art is about exploration of time, space and the limits of the human body and mind.  To serve this end, some performers really push themselves to transcend the physical limits of the body, even putting their lives under risk. The mental exercises of this journey go back to the 1900s.  This article explores the evolution of the performance arts and key figures of these acts. More specifically, it sheds light upon Futurism, Cabaret Voltaire and Dadaism, and the Bauhaus Movement, respectively, on a movement-based scale. In the following, it follows the traces left by experimental artists like John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Dan Graham, and Marina Abramovic.

Main points of performance art

First, performance art holds the intention of breaking the norms of conventional art. Secondly, it serves the interest of understanding the limits of the body-mind. Thirdly, it aims to compose an interactive space between the performer and audience.

a page from futurist's manifesto which exemplifies the futurist typographical revolution
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First Steps Toward Performance Art


It originated in the early 20th century and continued until the Second World War. In 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published a manifesto of Futurism and gathered painters majorly from Milano to be part of this movement. Futurism was more of a propaganda-based political and artistic movement.

Already painting in the cubistic style, the artists came together to find new ways to demonstrate dynamism, speed, danger, technology, violence and youth.  Their aim was to energize the public.

Futurism as an interactive practice

To start with, the audience and the reaction that came from the public was taken seriously. Marinetti asked the performers to infuriate the audience even if it required them to do anything they wanted, such as coating the seats with glue (Goldberg 12). They expected audiences to be active participants in the performances rather than mere passive spectators or buyers of art.

Furthermore, mechanical movements and noise were the main components of this performance. Geometric forms were prevalent. Even if we look at the typography of the manifesto, we will see some of the letters written in the capital, almost yelling and shouting at us. Words aren’t written in a linear line, following each other in a row. Rather, they are scattered on the paper in different directions. The dynamism of the words becomes a visual text and echoes with the spirit of the movement.

colored picture of the entrance of entertainment center called Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich
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Cabaret Voltaire and Dada performance

Cabaret Voltaire was a nightclub created for artistic entertainment in Zurich and also the birthplace of Dadaism, whose pioneers were Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, Hugo Ball, Georges Janco and Emma Hennings. The performances were very experimental, non-normative and anarchic, charged with political connotations. Among the most popular performances, we can count live recitations, particularly, simultaneous poems (three or more voices reading the different parts of a poem simultaneously).

Simultaneous poems

Hugo Ball stated “the subject of the poème simultané is the value of the human voice… The noises represent the inarticulate, inexorable and ultimately decisive forces which constitute the background. The poem carries the message that mankind is swallowed up in a mechanistic process. In a generalized and compressed form, it represents the battle of the human voice against a world which menaces, ensnares and finally destroys it.”  In other words, dadaism inhabited anti-war sentiments. It wanted to remind the people of their own individual voices getting together and stronger.

Also, Hugo Ball introduced the term “Gesamkuntswerk”, or a total work of art, which embraces all sorts of art forms. They borrowed their artistic elements from Expressionism, Cubism and Futurism and combined them into a comprehensive art medium. During the period of war, Cabaret Voltaire was an alternative space where people could come together and experiment with art which defied boundaries.

black and white picture of a group of dancing people dressed in geometric costumes at a Bauhaus party
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Bauhaus performance

Starting from the 1920s to 1930s, the Bauhaus programme aimed “to achieve the synthesis of art and technology in pure forms” (Goldberg 63) and“Unlike the rebellious Futurist or Dada provocations, Gropius’ Romantic Bauhaus manifesto called for the unification of all the arts in a ‘cathedral of Socialism’” (Goldberg 63). “All the arts” covered design, architecture, painting, dance, stage performances, and finally, experimenting with glass and metal.

The most prominent contributor to the programme of the Bauhaus school was Oskar Schlemmer. He had innovative ideas for theory and practise. According to Schlemmer, painting and theatre were complementary practises. Also, he interpreted painting as an intellectual exercise, while theatre was an absolute investigation of space. Stage costumes  designed as sculptural and geometric forms covered the human body. In a way, performers and things could switch places to explore space and the body in motion.

a black and white picture of the blindfolded artist Vito Accoci walking in the streets of 1970's New York s
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Performance art in America

In the Second World War, Europe lost its leadership in art. America became the new space for artists to discover new ways of self- expression. Objects ceased to be the occupations of newly emerging artists. Art objects weren’t in fashion anymore. Artists didn’t produce anything to preserve or exhibit in the museums. The body was more than a vehicle to create artwork. It inhabited a lived experience to represent art in the flux and happening.


black and white picture of black mountain college in North Carolina
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Black Mountain College, North Carolina

Located in North Carolina, this experimental institution, though started in the tradition of the Bauhaus school in the beginning, gained a unique voice thanks to artists like John Cage and Merce Cunningham.

John Cage

According to John Cage, everything was music. He developed his concept of “non-intentional music”. His prepared piano had wooden spoons, metals and different things attached to it to create various sounds which were not very musical in the conventional sense.

Most importantly, John Cage wanted music to belong to the listener rather than the composer. Silence and sound coexisted in his understanding of music. Thirdly, the movement, which could be a hand-rising, closing the lid of a piano and opening it, could be part of this music.  His performance 4’33” is one of the key examples of this.

Merce Cunningham

Sharing a very similar mentality with John Cage, Cunningham thought that dancing didn’t exist to accompany a certain rhythm around a narrative. Anything could be a dance, like leaping and walking.

These two artists, experimenting with the rules of art performances, constructed new forms of art around the following concepts: indeterminacy and flexibility. Last but not least, they left a huge impact on the next generation of artists.

Allan Kaprow and Performance Art 

black and white picture of the performance artist Allan Kaprow, sitting on a chair and smiling
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In the 1960s, the American artist Allan Kaprow was part of the art world both as a practitioner and a theorist. He studied art history. John Cage and his emphasis on chance and randomness influenced Kaprow at Black Mountain College. Car Crash, A Spring Happening, and 18 Happenings in 6 Parts are some of his well-known happenings.

The father of “happening”

Kaprow’s biggest contribution to the field of art performance is happening, which is hard to define. Thus, I will just try to explain what Kaprow expects from the audience and the performer to give an image of what it is like.

First of all, Kaprow doesn’t restrict the performance art to the stage. A street, an apartment house, an avenue could be a location for a happening. Therefore, his concept of happening goes beyond the conventions of the proscenium stage.

Secondly, happenings can be composed of events at different places and times. The audience is given tasks to follow during the performance. They are also on the move. There is no plot or narrative structure to follow. The performer doesn’t have to create anything or dress himself/herself in any character’s psychology. Only creation is the idea of action (Kirby 17). Kirby chooses the phrase “nonmatrixed performing” to define Kaprow’s happening (16).

Lastly, as Kaprow states in “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock”, performance art builds itself on “substances of sight, sound, movements, people, odors, touch” and for which,  “objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things… Young artists of today need no longer say, “I am a painter” or “a poet” or “a dancer”. They are simply “artists”’.

black and white picture of a woman watching a video of hers and a man behind a camera, which is photo taken from Dan Graham's two conscioussness performance
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Performance artist Dan Graham

Dan Graham pondered upon the passive spectatorship and sought for ways to change it. To this end, he included mirrors and videos in his art projects, aiming at making the audience aware of herself/himself.

To start with, Goldberg refers to the influence of German playwriter Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt or alienation effect on Dan Graham. In epic theatre, Brecht wanted to break the fourth wall between the stage and the audience by not allowing them to feel empathized with the characters and captivated during the performance. Graham’s intention to evoke a state of self-consciousness in the audience overlaps with Brecht’s alienation effect, as Goldberg suggests.

Secondly, videos employ the same purpose: to make the audience members watch themselves “performing”. Thirdly, as Goldberg points out: “Video techniques and mirrors were used to create a sense of past, present and future, within one constructed space” (104). Mirror represents the present time; video captures the present and offers it back as a past experience. Lastly, the past-present refers to a future time-event as well.

black and white picture of performance artist Marinia Abramovic, who is naked and holding a mirror a
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Performance artist Marina Abramovic

“I understood that I could work with the elements: I could work with fire, water, earth, the air, with anything I wanted. And this was the beginning of my performance art. The first time I actually put my body in front of an audience, I understood this as my media.”

                                  Marina Abramovic

Born in Serbia, Marina Abramovic is one of the most prominent figures associated with performance, immaterial and endurance art. She began her career in the early 1970s. According to her, performance is about living and sharing the moment with others and provoking a reaction, a shock effect on the audience.

During her performances, Abramovic exposed her body to pain and took lots of risks. Thus, she is associated with endurance art. In other words, she challenged her mind and body in many different ways.  black and white picture of Marina Abramovic and Ulay, whose hair is tied to each other as if they were one head

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Abramovic’s works with Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen)

In some of her performances, her former husband, Ulay,  accompanied her. They explored space, their relation to space and to each other in various performances. For example,  in Relation in Space, they ran into each other unceasingly for an hour.

In Breathing in/Out, they connected their mouths with a piece they developed and used each other’s exhaled breath to inhale. After seventeen minutes, they both lost consciousness and fell to the floor.

Additionally, their performances also included interactions with the audience.  One example of this is Imponderabilia. Abramovic and Ulay were both naked and stood in a narrow doorway. Then, the audience had to squeeze between them in order to pass the doorway.

Last but not least, they walked half of Wall of China, starting from the opposite ends to meet in the middle and to end their relationship.  This was their last performance together. Since then, Abramovic has been continuing her artistic performances alone.

The Marina Abramović Institute (MAI) 

Over decades, Abramovic developed her own method.  On MAI’s website, the method is defined as follows: “an exploration of being present in both time and space” and incorporation of “exercises that focus on breath, motion, stillness, and concentration. The audience plays a central role in this section of the exhibition”.

If you have an interest in Abramovic’s world, she is currently offering workshops open to everyone. She teaches some universal skills to gain long-term endurance and to discover the limits of body and mind.

Marina Abramovic and one of the audience sitting opposite to each other during the performance called the artist is present at the Museum of Modern Art in New York
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Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (2012) is a documentary about this experimental artist, who is getting ready for her upcoming performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2009. Also, this documentary gives more details about the artist’s life and her previous art performances through flashbacks.

This performance lasted for 716 hours. Over 750000 people came to see the performance. Some became active participants too.

The Artist is Present

The performance The Artist is Present included one member of the audience sitting on a chair placed in the opposite direction to Abramovic’s.  People from the audience came, one by one, to sit with her for a couple of minutes. The performer and the audience member stared at each other’s eyes. This mutual voyeurism evoked different emotions. In the documentary, the camera follows audience members’s faces as they leave and we see a range of emotions.

monochromatic picture of the cover of Anthony Howell's book called The Analysis of Performance Art, written in pink colork
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Book suggestions on performance art

Anthony Howell – The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to its Theory and Practice

The founder and director of The Theatre of Mistakes, Anthony Howell, investigates three key principles of performance art: stillness, repetition, and inconsistency. He employs the theoretical works of Deleuze and Guattari, Freud and Lacan, and explores the interrelationship between speech and performance. Furthermore, he even approaches the performance itself as a linguistic entity.

RoseLee Goldberg – Performance Art: from Futurism to the Present

As the title clarifies, RoseLee Goldberg traces performance art, starting from 1900s Futurism to 1970s’ contemporary art in a very detailed way. She explores the meaning of art and its experimental nature, especially in the aftermath of the 1970s.

Cultural Significance of Performance Arts 

All these movements and artists mentioned above changed the definition of art and artist. Art was not just a mere product anymore, but rather an activity, an event or happening that came out as a collaboration of the audience and the performer.

In particular, the legacy of the performance artists was not inscribed on the artworks. It was the body itself and the reaction of the audience that comprised an interactive space. Mainly, experimental movements challenged the status quo, like Futurism and Dadaism. Likewise, performance artists questioned the sense of self and ego, as is seen in the case of Dan Graham and Marina Abramovic.

Finally, the artistic and interactive process was more important than the outcome. Artists wanted the audience to have a unique experience that would stay with them forever as a lived experience, memory or a feeling rather than something material and concrete.

Works cited

Goldberg, RoseLee. Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present. New York: Harry N. Adams, Inc., 1979.

Kaprow, Allan. ” The Legacy of Jackson Pollock”. Essays on the Blurring Line of Art and Life, edited by Kelly, Jeff. California:University of California Press, 1993, pp.1 -10.

Kirby, Michael. Happenings. New York: E.P. Dutton, Co. Inc., 1965.

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