Julia Bryan-Wilson, associate professor of art history at UC Berkeley, recently co-wrote Art in the Making: Artists and Their Materials from the Studio to Crowdsourcing (2016, with Glenn Adamson).
Act now. Don’t act that way. It’s just an act. Stop acting out. We were caught in the act. It was an act of God. As a verb the word act contains multiple definitions: to do something, to exert agency, to function. Alongside these meanings are others that suggest artifice, subterfuge, and masquerade: to pretend, to stand in for, to play a role. As a noun act can refer to the thing done, a piece of legislation, a section of a theatrical production, a pretense. Originally used in fourteenth-century legal contexts (as in a decree or record of law), the term had taken on dramatic attributes by the fifteenth century, signaling exaggerated behavior or showy comportment. An act of a performance designates distinct temporal and conceptual segments as they unfold onstage. Samuel Beckett indicates the importance of a bipartite segmentation in the very title of his play Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts. When the artist Paul Chan staged Beckett’s play in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2007, he retitled it Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, de-emphasizing the work’s two-part structure and instead underscoring the site of its performance.
Few three-letter words contain as much ambiguity or gesture toward such directly conflicting notions. An act of Congress cements rules into law and operates with regulatory force. But to “put on an act” within the sphere of lived experience is to cloak oneself in artifice, to affect a guise, or to engage in simulation. As Alice Rayner has noted in her book To Act, to Do, to Perform: Drama and the Phenomenology of Action, the word act slides between the presumed field of the political “real” and the realm of the pretend.1 Sometimes those distinctions productively blur: in 1987 the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power consciously crafted its acronym, ACT UP, as an implicit directive to others to join its dissent, to speak out about the HIV/AIDS crisis, to participate in educative street demonstrations, queer organizing efforts, and spectacular bodily interventions.
Within twentieth-century art history, the term action art has several distinct connotations. It was first widely circulated in 1952 by US art historian and critic Harold Rosenberg to describe abstract expressionist paintings by the likes of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Rosenberg described the canvas as “an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or express an object, actual or imagined.”2 This corporeal method of painting—what Allan Kaprow referred to as “the so-called dance of dripping, slashing, squeezing, daubing”3—has been recognized as a forerunner to the performance-based use of the term action art, also called live art or body art to indicate that it takes as its primary medium both time and the physical presence of the artist.4 Paradoxically, some of these “action artists” have investigated the tactic of not acting. In Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, first performed in 1964, she sat on a stage and invited the spectators to cut off her clothes. Here Ono complexly set a relationship in motion within a designated set of rules—Rosenberg’s “arena”— utilizing the audience as actants and her own body as something to be acted upon. Though such events de-emphasize the materiality of art, many actions produce remains; the hybrid status of such objects (from leftover props to documentation) was illustrated in the 1998 exhibition “Out of Actions.”5
In some respects, since the 1960s act has become a threshold word between conventional theatrical works meant for the stage and performance art that desires to blur the boundaries between art and life. These are works in which there is a rejection of notions of character or script and a refusal to embody some other persona. The Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo, in her performance Angelina (2001), dressed as a domestic maid every day for one month but otherwise conducted her life “normally.” She observed how others reacted to her in this strongly gendered outfit of working-class labor, reporting that by the end of the piece’s duration she had been so persistently ignored and insulted that her self-esteem was “in the garbage.”6 In such works the “act” of acting is purportedly stripped away—or is it? What other types of dissimulation does Galindo’s occupational drag invoke?
Alice Rayner, To Act, to Do, to Perform: Drama and the Phenomenology of Action (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994). ↩
Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” Art News 51 (December 1952): 22. ↩
Allan Kaprow, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” (1958), in Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 2. ↩
Amelia Jones, Body Art / Performing the Subject (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998). ↩
“Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979,” curated by Paul Schimmel, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 1998. ↩
Regina José Galindo, interviewed by Francisco Goldman, BOMB 94 (Winter 2006). ↩
AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), “Stop the Church Action,” December 10, 1989.
Paul Chan, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, free outdoor performances in the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly, November 2007.
Regina José Galindo, Angelina, Guatemala, 2001.
Sharon Hayes, In the Near Future, 2005–. In New York, London, Warsaw, and Vienna, Hayes has carried signs with slogans borrowed from past protests.
Allan Kaprow, Yard, 1961. Original version at Martha Jackson Gallery, New York.
Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1964.