Performance as Improvisation: Aesthetics, Live Art, and the Problem of History

Amelia Jones

Performance as Improvisation: Aesthetics, Live Art, and the Problem of History
Public Talk
| Wednesday 14 July
Location | Artspace, Ground Floor


As articulated in its classic form by Immanuel Kant, aesthetics in the visual arts freezes objects or pictures in time and space in order to determine their value as putatively "inherent" and universalizable. Performance or live art in contrast has proposed art as durational and implicitly improvisational (its forms and expressions contingent to a greater or lesser degree on the vicissitudes of audience engagement, environment, and the passing of time). This presentation will explore what happens when performance gets put in the frame of aesthetics — an increasingly common move over the past decade as live art is presented and institutionalized in art galleries, bienniales, and other art spaces. For example, in 2005 Marina Abramović reenacted a series of six classic 1970s performance art works at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.  In doing so Abramović revitalized these works but by drawing on static documents and artifacts from their past incarnations; she brought them back to "life," but also returned them to the static and commodified forms of the art market (the photographic document; the glossy catalogue; the feature length, artist-made film). This paper pivots around this case study to argue that making "performance" as "art" is a category confusion that produces a range of contradictions, opening up a gap between aesthetics and the vicissitudes of the improvisational or the live event. 


Amelia Jones is Professor and Grierson Chair in Visual Culture at McGill University in Montréal.  She has organized exhibitions on contemporary art and on feminism, queer, and anti-racist approaches to visual culture. Her recent publications include the edited volumes Feminism and Visual Culture Reader (2003; new edition 2010) and A Companion to Contemporary Art Since 1945 (2006). Following on her Body Art/Performing the Subject (1998), Jones’s single-authored books include Irrational Modernism:  A Neurasthenic History of New York Dada (2004) and Self Image: Technology, Representation, and the Contemporary Subject (2006). Her current projects are an edited volume Perform, Repeat, Record: Live Art in History (with co-editor Adrian Heathfield) and a book tentatively entitled Seeing Differently: Identification and the Visual Arts.