Language Between Performance and Photography


Kotz, Liz. ‘Language Between Performance and Photography’ October. Winter 2005, Issue 111, 3-21.


Although there is a tendency to see language as something like the “signature style” of Conceptual work, it is important to remember that the turn to language as an artistic material occurs earlier, with the profusion of text-based scores, instructions, and performance notations that surround the context of Happenings and Fluxus.

This turn to language, I will argue, occurs alongside a pervasive logic structuring 1960s artistic production, in which a “general” template or idea generates multiple “specific” realizations, which can take the form of performed acts, sculptural objects, photographic documents, or linguistic statements.


In what follows, I would like to propose one trajectory through this art, in which uses of language vector toward the conditions of “photography,” on the one hand, or toward the conditions of “performance,” on the other—not that these are clearly separable, as we will see.

[Discussion of Brecht,  Three Chair Events]

Viewed in retrospect, from the perspective of late-sixties Conceptual art, one is struck by the relative repression of  photography in most proto-Fluxus and Fluxus-related work. Although many early and mid-1960s performances were photographed—by Peter Moore, Manfred Leve, George Maciunas, and others—photography was rarely systematically employed or addressed by Brecht or other Fluxus artists, who apparently regarded photographs as secondary, documentary records of an experience that was primarily perceptual and temporal—not representational and static.


An almost moralistic aversion to the photographic reduction of experience was widespread around Minimalist art as
well, as is evident in Carl Andre’s comment that “art is a direct experience with something in the world, and photography is just a rumor, a kind of pornography of art.”


In a sense, Cagean and Minimalist projects were united by an ambivalence to inscriptive technologies and representational media: despite Cage’s use of radio broadcasts and magnetic tape in certain compositions, he famously refused to own phonographic records, which he viewed as falsifications of music, and many of his own performance protocols (such as the orientation to the visual and theatrical, to environmental sound and so forth) focus precisely on those elements that evade sound recording.


[discussion of Joseph Kosuth’s Proto-Investigations]


For all its powerful referential dimensions and its capacity to indicate and describe objects and experiences, language structurally entails certain gaps, between “word” and “thing,” between “meaning” and “intention,” which cannot be
eliminated in even the most precise communicative act or philosophical proposition.


[…] the shifts between the two pieces manifest a crucial series of transformations that occur in 1960’s art: from the heightened perceptual attention to phenomena and participatory models of post-Cagean projects to the systematic and
self-reflexive investigation of representational media characteristic of self-consciously Conceptual engagements.


Unlike in photography, with its logic of original and copy, the relationship between a notational system and a realization is not one of representation or reproduction but of specification: the template, schema, or score is usually not considered the locus of the “work,” but merely a tool to produce it; and while the “work” must conform to certain specifications or configurations, its production necessarily differs in each realization.


If photography as a means of documentation is so ubiquitous in late 1960’s art, this is not simply due to the proliferation of Earthworks, Conceptual practices, site-specific projects, and ephemeral realizations, but is a result of the fact that the “work of art” has been reconfigured as a specific realization of a general proposition.

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