This chapter elaborates a key analogy between performance art and revolution: the struggle faced by both for a place in historical memory. It adapts the notion of the ‘survival’, linked to the ‘ghost-dance’, a term drawn from Native American rituals, and applied by Brisley to explain the links between a cultural understanding of performance and its use as a term of art. It discusses three films: Being and Doing (1984), notable for its focus on East European performance artists, Ghost-Dance (1983) and Resistance (1976). The chapter concludes by showing how performance behaviours can be used to recover not simply the past that was but also the past that was not, including the unfulfilled pasts of revolution.
This chapter contextualises Brisley’s performance art within the artistic and political ferment of the 1960s. It focuses on how his early performances were conceived as a type of tabula rasa, both artistically and politically. It then considers how the ten-day week of the French Republican calendar has framed a number of Brisley’s long-durational works from the 1970s to the 2010s, linking together the themes of republicanism, atheism and equality that run through Brisley’s oeuvre.
This chapter situates Stuart Brisley as a ground-breaking figure in the development of performance art in Britain. It sets out the striking homologies between performance and the revolutionary process as suggested by Brisley’s own artistic practice. It then shows how Brisley’s performances also address the question of what is to be done with the remains of revolution, including the remains of his own previous performances, in a context where revolution has supposedly died, and collective transformation is no longer deemed possible. Beyond Brisley’s work, the chapter also reflects on the impact of multiple layers of time in how we understand and write the histories of both performance art and revolution. It concludes by situating the book’s own approach within the more general rapprochement between performance and historical studies, evident across a range of domains.
This chapter considers the Cenotaph Project (1987–91), Brisley’s last public art project, made in collaboration with Maya Balcioglu. The Cenotaph Project involved exhibiting six small-scale models of the Whitehall Cenotaph, erected in London in 1919 to commemorate the end of the First World War, at six locations around the country, to instigate a public discussion about history. Expanding on this notion, this chapter shows how world revolution – and not just British imperial history – is an important discursive frame for examining the Cenotaph Project and, by extension, the Whitehall Cenotaph. It then adopts a wider trans-historical lens to consider how similar models were used during both the Russian and French Revolutions to express emergent ideas of public art and history.
Stuart Brisley is a pioneering English multimedia and performance artist who developed performance as a form of social action in the 1960s and 1970s. This book assesses Brisley’s seminal influence on British art through a focus on his lifelong engagement with the histories and imaginaries of revolution. It links together key aspects of revolutionary history with material gathered from a critical dialogue established between the author and Brisley over many years. Viewing revolution as a rupture in time, this book uses the ‘trope’ of the French Revolution to investigate Brisley’s own engagement with the idea of revolution as an ongoing, potentially permanent, process. Brisley’s work thus becomes a fascinating stage for addressing the relations between art, politics and historical discourse today. This book shows how to value political art even when the idea of revolution has supposedly died or is no longer deemed possible. It also provides a new historical model for situating the ‘afterlives’ of performance art, demonstrating how they can used to reveal latent aspects of the past, including the historical experience of revolution.
This chapter considers Brisley’s use of mise en abîme, increasingly prominent in his late works, which cover performances, installations, photography, painting and film. By nesting references to prior works in new works, Brisley reactivates past performances, making them come alive once more in some way. Expanding on the implications of this practice, this chapter shows how mise-en-abîme can be used to reveal a past excluded from officially sanctioned representations of sovereignty. Parallels are drawn between Brisley’s late work and the use of mise en abîme in Velásquez’ Las Meninas and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This chapter concludes by returning to the guiding questions of this book. Is there a way to re-experience the revolutionary past as an event with as yet undetermined outcomes? And what can performance art tell us about the debris left behind in the absence of collective transformation?
This chapter considers Brisley’s pioneering Peterlee Project: History Within Living Memory (1976–77). Peterlee is a town that was built after the second world war in the former mining region of the North East of England. As part of his placement with the Peterlee Development Corporation, Brisley helped the town’s inhabitants to document their own collective history in the effort to create a platform for future political action. This chapter evaluates the project’s successes and failures to recover the point at which performance ceases to be a ‘live proposal’ and becomes instead a collectible or archivable object.
This chapter asks what happens in the aftermath of an incomplete or failed attempt at revolutionary rupture, when the past has been declared dead yet continues to survive, either as detritus to be disregarded or as remains to be collected and preserved. The Georgiana Collection and the Museum of Ordure are Stuart Brisley’s longest durational works, consisting solely of detritus and waste. This chapter considers how Brisley’s self-instituted collections can shed new light on the aftermath of the French Revolution, when revolutionary rupture also gave rise to new institutions, including the Louvre, the world’s first museum established in the name of the people. For a cut in time does not just destroy an old past, it also creates a new one, a dynamic still reflected in art collections and practices today.
Beginning in April 1970, Adrian Piper executed a series of unannounced actions in New York City that she called Catalysis. The artist moved through public and private spaces confronting unsuspecting passers-by, having conspicuously stuffed her mouth with a towel while leaving parts of it protruding, or wearing odorous clothing or substances on her body, or with balloons bulging from various parts of her frame under her attire, or carrying a ‘wet paint’ sign over a shirt soaked in sticky white enamel. The street actions were meant to provoke Piper’s unwitting audience, and have been interpreted as the crucial link between the artist’s conceptual work and her later, more political interventions that address race and gender objectification, passive and active transactions, otherness, identity, and xenophobia. Piper has on several occasions attributed this shift in her work to the highly charged events of the period that promoted her growing political awareness and engagement ‘as an artist, as a woman, and black’. This chapter proposes that this perspective, while not wrong, is too limited, and argues that the spatial relations that characterised Piper’s 1970s actions and performances also evolve logically from the notion of space as a medium that the artist had developed in her conceptual art of the late 1960s.
Shortly after relocating to Paris in the late 1960s, the Romanian artist André Cadere embarked on his seminal artistic venture known as Barres de bois rond (Round Bars of Wood), a collection of wooden cylinders painted in bright colours and arranged following a permutational system set in advance. Moreover, the size of each bar was determined by the artist’s own body, while their circular shape allowed them to be exhibited in a number of spatial circumstances. Specific morphological features of these colourful sticks, or unlimited paintings, as Cadere once called them, were conceived with a programme in mind – to slip ‘everywhere, through the streets, galleries, houses, museums, etc …’ and thus challenge the art establishment and its power dynamics. In this chapter, I look at a spatial relationship between a bar and its support, as well as analysing an elaborate system of mapping, including announcements, photographs and communiqués, that Cadere produced in order to record and communicate his whereabouts. I claim that by introducing a mobile, rather than a site-specific, situation as a critical vehicle, Cadere captured the crux of institutional power as the art world was undergoing paradigmatic infrastructural, logistical and communicational changes in becoming an ‘international labyrinth’ that increasingly relied on the mobility of the artists rather than the artworks.