David Levine, an artist working in theater, video, and performance, is Professor of the Practice of Performance, Theater, and Media at Harvard University.
Acting in art is generally understood to describe a performer’s behavior on a stage, whereas an action in art is generally understood to be a performer’s behavior in a gallery or within a larger “art context.” From the Renaissance through the late nineteenth century, acting was more broadly understood to be a question of gestures, of ritual postures, inflections, and poses. Although there was some critical debate (Diderot, Rousseau) over what exactly happened when an actor was acting, or whether it was even advisable for the actor to believe in or “lose himself in” his role, for the most part it was understood that an actor’s pose was something an actor put on or removed at will. There was no question of actors either vanishing into their roles or, more importantly, of adopting the subjectivity of their characters. A villain was played for villainy, a hero for heroism. That was all.
Around the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, ideas about acting in Western theater began to change. With Stanislavsky, the actor began to try to experience the subjectivity of his or her role. There is a saying I heard once that I have never been able to source: “Nothing was ever accomplished except under the auspices of good.” In other words, no villain is aware of being a villain. This shift toward the subjectivity of the character at the expense of that of the actor, along with Stanislavsky’s somewhat foggy emphasis on “truth,” initiated a decades-long trend toward trying to master the paradox of a “true” portrayal. In the United States this quest culminated with Marlon Brando and the Actor’s Studio, followed by a million clichés about “living the role” and so on, which in turn expressed themselves in movies about actors, such as The Goodbye Girl (1977), A Chorus Line (1985), and best of all, Tootsie (1982).
But even as acting tended toward an increased and almost parodic realism—as in the famous Olivier/Hoffman “My-dear-boy-just-act” episode—so too was performance developing from its early, more circus-like expressions in Gutai and happenings toward an increased minimalism and machismo in the work of, most notably, Marina Abramović, Tehching Hsieh, and Chris Burden. It’s instructive to compare Burden’s affect in Shoot (1971) with Brando’s affect in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951): the attitudes are the same, and both bespeak performances in pursuit of “the real.” Both the Method actors and the endurance artists made frequent distinctions between what they considered “mere theater” and what they considered “real performance.”
The insistence that both kinds of performance were “really real” of course bespeaks an enormous anxiety over whether they actually were. Stage acting—imbricated as it is in a set of rituals (commerce, buying tickets) and spaces (auditoriums, sites) designed to emphasize the falsity of the experience—must constantly struggle with what a “true experience” is in that context. By the same token, performance art—for all its emphasis on process, authenticity, and spontaneity—must deal with the fundamental ontological fact that shooting oneself (or carving oneself or starving oneself) as an event is a fundamentally different thing from getting shot, being starved, getting carved up as fact; the suffering may therefore be no less spectacular and no more authentic than getting “shot” by a prop gun onstage. And we must therefore ask, “Why bother, then, doing it for real at all?”—a question posed quite neatly (and messily) by Tony Tasset in his 1996 work Squib.
We must therefore look to the term act to save us. In a creative context, this term is generally reserved for forms of political action or artistic activism, or what we today term social practice, which, by stepping out of conventional institutional contexts, attempts to bridge this horrible divide between the performative and the real through actual interactions (and activities) with actual people.
And yet in much social practice art the obligation to perform winds up being displaced onto the nonartist participants, who must themselves “perform” in order to consummate the work, which is most often situated as some kind of (durational) event, thus leaving in doubt whether the “acting” in “actions” has been minimized or whether in fact it has metastasized to become our entire reality through the establishment of “active” spectatorship. In either case, there is always the sneaking suspicion that the acts of social practice may be infected by actions, on the one hand (and so be merely gestural), or by acting, on the other (and so be merely theater). And it is this very anguish over transcending mere performativity (whatever that is) that continues to drive the evolution of all three activities.
Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance 1981–82 (Outdoor Piece), 1981–82.
Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971.
Marina Abramovic, Lips of Thomas, 1975.
On the Waterfront (1954).
Constantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares (1936).
Suzanne Lacy, Between the Door and the Street, 2013.
Tino Sehgal, This Progress, 2010.
Duncan Campbell, Make it New, John, 2009.
David Levine, Bystanders, 2015.