How right is it to talk about art pieces in performance art? What is the difference between a work of art and a piece of art? Is the difference it refers to conceptual or material? Is an action an object? If so, what kind of object is it? This is not to ask what kind of objects it may produce, nor what kind of object relations it enacts or recalls, but I will try to answer these two questions in order to exclude false hypotheses.
In the case of objects, following an article by Noah Charney in Salon, I take Ulay and JAŠA as a paradigm for performance art becoming collectible, that is to say, producing its own marketable, auction-able, consumer objects – mostly recordings and relics. Notice that both of these are remainders. Other options are to create side objects such as the Sodium photographs I did with Toni Payan for an action that had not even taken place, or to invest objects in side actions. The latter is a properly “performantic” act that must not be confused with merchandising or commercial fetishes of any kind, such as Bert Rodriguez’s heavy product placement for Apple and bedmaker Bedaga, a marketing piece covered as performance art by Josh Chesler’s misguiding (or bluntly naïf?) piece in LA Weekly.
As for the case of object relations, and following the same article, I take non-tech reach as a paradigm. It includes –and is not limited to– reciprocal naked staring or actual touch.
If we strip performance art from the material objects it may use or create, including recordings or other documentation of the action, if we could even get rid of the object relations it needs and fosters, which are not tangible objects in themselves but are part of the action value, may we still talk about pieces of art in the case of performance? May we call an action a piece of art?
Let me turn to two of my favorite contemporary thinkers, an improbable match you might say, but here they are: J. L. Austin and J.-L. Marion. From the latter, I take the theory of saturation meaning that phenomena may be known conceptually or by intuition, and they can be epistemologically described according to the proportion of conceptual and intuitive knowledge that comes into play when we approach them. Saturated phenomena are those where intuition exceeds concept. Event is one such phenomenon. Not all phenomena are objects; but since objects are phenomena, the first hypothesis I want to make is that performance art creates the possibility of an event, and if it does so it is a saturated object. Of course no one can predict whether there will be an event. The announcement of a performance is only the promise of an object; anything else is a fraud, and unfortunately for performance art, many performers play on that fraud.
From Austin, I bring performativity theory to the fore to illuminate his distinction between perlocutionary and illocutionary acts of speech. To put it very simply, perlocution produces an effect (convincing, scaring, commanding) by uttering, while illocution does something (a demand, an assertion, a promise) by uttering. That most people don’t give a damn about the meaning or the purpose of their actions is not news. But as a performance artist I cannot not-know what I am doing. I would like to expect every performance artist to know what he is doing. This is an example of what Austin called a hedged performative, that is, talking shit while pretending not to. When I say: “I would like to expect”, I am modalizing the utterance “I expect”, which is properly illocutionary, i.e., the real thing. Hedged performatives are a speech structure performance art is not about. However, performance art is not about perlocution either, or at least not mostly, although there may be effects indirectly produced by verbal or non-verbal utterances (I am considering only the intended ones.)
An intended performed action is an object not if it is what it does (i.e. not because it is identifiable with its effect on the witnesses or with a tangible result) but if it does objectively, and can therefore be actually objectified and even appropriated. It does not mean, however, that it can be commodified or purchased. On the contrary: if you happen to purchase a performance art piece before it happens (because it is an event), it is a chance what you’ve bought, and the artist cannot be held responsible if it does not become a piece, an object (or an illocutionary, complete speech act, in Austin’s terms); it is as if you bought the promise instead of the advertised product. And if you want to buy it afterwards, you will be paying for something that does not exist anymore. It is no longer available. But it is because there is no objective piece of art that you should pay for it: your commitment with the chance is that which may make it material for you.
Freud knew it: that’s why you pay for someone to listen to you. Yves Klein knew it: that’s why you pay for immaterial art. The banks know it: that’s why they sell you money they don’t have in exchange for your promise of paying money you don’t have either.