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What Is_?Performance Art

The What Is_? Programme provides an introduction to some of the key concepts and themes in modern and contemporary art for all audiences.

Performance Art

This introductory text provides a brief overview of Performance Art. Art terms are indicated with an underline and their definition can be viewed by hovering the cursor over the term. They can also be found in the glossary. 

Performance Art is a form of arts practice that involves a person or persons undertaking an action or actions within a particular timeframe in a particular space or location for an audience. Central to the process and execution of Performance Art is the live presence of the artist and the real actions of his/her body, to create and present an ephemeral art experience to an audience. A defining characteristic of Performance Art is the body, considered the primary Medium and conceptual material on which Performance Art is based. Other key components are time, space and the relationship between performer and audience.

Primarily an Interdisciplinary practice, Performance Art can employ any material or medium across any discipline, including MusicDanceLiteraturePoetryArchitectureFashionDesign and Film. While Performance Art employs strategies such as Recitation and Improvisation associated with Theatre and Drama, it rarely employs plot or Narrative. Performance Art can be spontaneous, one-off, durational, improvised or rehearsed and performed with or without scripts. Performances can range from a series of small-scale intimate gestures to public rallies, spectacles or parades presented in solo or collaborative form. In contrast to conventional methods of theatre production, the visual artist is the performer, creator and director of the performance. Performance Art can be situated anywhere: in Art MuseumsGalleries and alternative art spaces or in impromptu sites, such as cafés, bars or the street, where the site and often unknowing audience become an integral part of the work’s meaning.

Performance Art can trace its early influences to medieval performances by poets, minstrels, troubadours, bards and court jesters and also to the spectacles and masquerades of the Renaissance. However, the origins of Performance Art are more commonly associated with the activities of early twentieth century Avant-Garde artists, in particular those associated with Futurism, ConstructivismAgitpropDadaSurrealism and the Bauhaus.


Celebrating all things modern, Futurist artists devised new forms of art and artist-led events, such as repetitive actions, lectures, manifestos, mass demonstrations, and live street tableau x, to express the dynamism of modern urban life. Artists drew inspiration from all forms of performance, including popular entertainment formats, such as the variety show, circus, cabaret and opera. Live public engagement was paramount and performances involved improvised, unpredictable and often chaotic programmes delivered by artists, poets, actors, architects, critics and painters, frequently accompanied by discussions and debates to spread and initiate new cultural ideas.

Other formative influences on the development of Performance Art include the socially-orientated, utilitarian ethos of Constructivism with its emphasis on audience participation; the underground theatre of Agitprop; the nihilistic, antiart agenda of Dada with their anarchic collaborations, cabarets and performances; the experimental performances, films and theatre productions of the Surrealists and the innovations of the Bauhaus school and its influence on interdisciplinary arts education. These experimental and innovative art movements contributed to the displacement of the art object as the locus of artistic engagement and the establishment of performance as a legitimate form of artistic expression. They also set a new precedent for interdisciplinary Collaboration, where artists employed a range of art forms to create new modes of performance and artist-led events.

The influx of European artists into America in the 1930s and ’40s, in particular those associated with Surrealism and the Bauhaus, contributed to the emergence of Abstract Expressionism and Action Painting as the dominant modes of artistic expression during the 1940s and ’50s. The development of Performance Art is associated with the photographic and film documentation of action painters. Artists perceived the action of creating the art object as a potential for performance in itself, and reinterpreted this through live painting performances using the human body as a paint brush.

The Multidisciplinary events and performances known as Happenings in the late 1950s and early ’60s had a significant influence on the development of Performance Art. Happenings emphasised the importance of chance in artistic creation, audience participation and the blurring of the boundary between the audience and the artwork. Similarly, the interdisciplinary approach employed by Fluxus artists sought to blur the distinction between art and the everyday.


Prompted by the social, cultural and political changes during the 1960s, artists became concerned with the increasing Commodification of art and the relationship of the art institution to broader socio-economic and political processes. Informed by new developments across a range of theoretical and practical disciplines, such as FeminismPostcolonialism and Critical Theory, and drawing on earlier strategies of disruption, artists devised new forms of practice, such as temporary, Text-BasedDidactic and performative work, to complicate the perception of the art object as commodity.

By the 1970s the term Performance Art had come into general usage and was closely associated with Conceptual Art, which emphasised the production of ideas over art objects. The ephemeral, corporeal and radical potential of Performance Art appealed to artists committed to destabilising the material status of the art object. The potential for Performance Art to bypass the museum or gallery and mediate directly with the public instigated a surge of Artist-Led Initiatives and alternative spaces in which experimentations in performance could be devised. Performance Art employed many of the tendencies of Site-Specific Art and Institutional Critique in its consideration of space, context, site and intervention.

The proliferation of Performance Art in the 1970s resulted in the emergence of new forms and categories of Performance Art. Prompted by the political and social upheaval of the 1960s, activist-based performances, such as Activist ArtStreet Art and Guerrilla Theatre, sought to draw attention to political and social issues through satire, Dialogical and protest techniques. Body-based performances were influenced by the emergence of feminist theory and critique in the 1960s and ’70s which re-evaluated traditional representations of the female body. Artists used their bodies to challenge restrictive definitions of sexuality, actively exhibiting their own naked bodies to undermine conventional notions of female nudity. Similarly, artists used their bodies to test the limits of the performing body, pursuing themes of endurance, self-control, transformation, risk and pain. The body was interpreted as a universal Readymade which gave rise to offshoots of Performance Art, such as Body ArtFeminist Art and Living Sculpture.

PhotographyFilm and Video played a central role in the Documentation of Performance Art and these mediums became the primary means by which Performance Art reached a wider public. By the 1980s, performance artists were increasingly incorporating technological media into their practice, such as Slide ProjectionSoundDigital Media and Computer-Generate Imaginery to create associated art forms such as Video ArtSound Art and Installation Art.

Having circumvented the museum and gallery for decades, more and more Performance Art is situated and performed within museum and gallery spaces. The ephemeral and transient nature of Performance Art presents challenges with regard to its conservation, archiving and re-presentation. However, many contemporary museums and galleries are restaging early works, presenting new work, adopting interdisciplinary programming and acquiring live performances into their collections. There are numerous organisations, training programmes and festivals dedicated to Performance Art and an increasing body of professional practitioners continue to address its boundaries, relevance and significance as a form of Contemporary Art.


Reading List

Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, 2nd edition, London and New York: Routledge, 2008.
Christopher Bannerman, Joshua Sofaer and Jane Watt (eds.), Navigating the Unknown: The Creative Process in Contemporary Performing Arts, London: Middlesex University Press, 2006.
Daniel Brine (ed.), The Live Art Almanac, London: Live Art Development Agency, 2008.
Marvin Carlson, Performance: A Critical Introduction, 2nd edition, New York: Routledge, 2003.
Nicky Childs and Jeni Walwin (eds.), A Split Second of Paradise: Live Art, Installation and Performance, London: Rivers Oram Press, 1998.
David Davies, Art as Performance, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004.
RoseLee Goldberg, Performance: Live Art, 1909 to the Present, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979.
RoseLee Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, 3rd edition, New York: Thames and Hudson, 2011.
RoseLee Goldberg, Performance: Live Art Since the ‘60s, New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004.
Adrian Heathfield (ed.), Small Acts: Performance, the Millennium and the Marking of Time, London: Black Dog Publishing, 2000.
Adrian Heathfield, Live: Art and Performance, New York: Tate Publishing, 2004.
Adrian Henri, Total Art: Environments, Happenings, and Performance, New York: Praeger, 1974.
Leslie Hill and Helen Paris (eds.), Performance and Place, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Jens Hoffman and Joan Jonas, Perform, London: Thames and Hudson, 2005.
Amelia Jones and Andrew Stephenson (eds.), Performing the Body/Performing the Text, London and New York: Routledge, 1999.
Amelia Jones, Body Art: Performing the Subject, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
Jill Lane and Peggy Phelan (eds.), The Ends of Performance, New York: New York University Press, 1998.
Live Art Development Agency in collaboration with Live Art UK (eds.), In Time: A Collection of Live Art Case Studies, London: Live Art Development Agency in collaboration with Live Art UK, 2010.
Live Art Development Agency, The Live Art Almanac Vol. 2, London: Live Art Development Agency, 2011.
Thomas McEvilley, Triumph of Anti-Art: Conceptual and Performance Art in the Formation of Post-Modernism, Kingston and New York: McPherson & Co. 2005.
Kathy O’Dell, Contract with the Skin: Masochism, Performance Art, and the 1970s, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.
Sally O’Reilly, The Body in Contemporary Art, London: Thames and Hudson, 2009.
Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, London and New York: Routledge, 1993.
Paul Schimmel, Russell Ferguson and Kristine Stiles (eds.), Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979, London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998.
Rebecca Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance, London and New York: Routledge, 1997.
Joshua Sofaer, The Many Headed Monster, London: Live Art Development Agency, 2009.
Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.
Nato Thompson and Gregory Sholette (eds.), The Interventionists: Users’ Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life, Cambridge, MA: Mass MoCA/MIT Press, 2004.
Les Vergine, Body Art and Performance: The Body as Language, Milan: Skira, 2000.
Tracey Warr (ed.) and Amelia Jones (survey), The Artist’s Body, London: Phaidon Press, 2000.




We invited Amanda Coogan, artist and researcher, to write an essay on Performance Art entitled What is Performance Art?, which makes reference to artists and artworks in IMMA’s Collection as a means of describing and contextualising this area of contemporary arts practice. We hope to draw attention to the body of artworks in IMMA’s Collection by artists associated with Performance Art, such as Marina Abramović, Nigel Rolfe, Dennis Oppenheim and Gilbert & George. We also hope to draw attention to the potential of IMMA and its Collection as a growing resource for further exploration and consideration of this subject.




Important Notice


We would like to advise our visitors that our Main Reception area is closed for renovation from 22 April until mid-June. A temporary reception is open on the ground floor next to the original main entrance. There are three exhibitions to visit  Hilary Heron: A Retrospective; Derry Film & Video Workshop and Self: Determination: Artists Commissions. IMMA’s shop, café and gardens are all open.