New Book on the Block: Object—Event—Performance

This blog post celebrates the publication of a new volume, Object—Event—Performance: Art, Materiality, and Continuity Since the 1960s, published from the Bard Graduate Center, New York this summer (2022) and distributed by The University of Chicago Press. The volume, which considers questions of conservation that arise with new artistic mediums and practices, features ten chapters by prominent scholars and thinkers and senior and junior academics in fields as diverse as art history, performance and dance studies, media studies, museology and conservation studies, artists, and museum curators. 

Below, I will provide a short introduction to the book and will subsequently discuss chapters that are particularly relevant to our research project Activating Fluxus.

It matters what ideas we use to think other ideas (with) . . it matters what matters we use to study other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts.

—Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble

In the 1960s, the art world and its objects began to experience a dramatic shift in what and how art can be. New modes of artistic expression— happenings, performance, video, experimental film, Fluxus activities, and the emerging practices of media art—questioned the idea of art as a static object that endures unchanged and might thus be subject to a single interpretation. In contrast to traditional visual arts, the blending of genres and media began to transform not only curatorial and museum collecting practices but also the traditional function and mandate of conservation, which became augmented to accept the inherent dynamism and changeability of artworks.

How do these artworks endure over time despite their material and conceptual changes? How do their identities unfold in relation to ruling knowledge, values, politics, and culture? Object—Event—Performance: Art, Materiality, and Continuity since the 1960s examines the physical and immaterial aspects of artworks at the intersection of art history with theory, performance studies, media studies, material culture studies, and conservation, focusing on artworks that evade the familiar physical stability of such traditional works as painting or sculpture, which are often conceived in a single medium and meant to last “forever.” Intrinsically changeable and often of short duration, these “unstable” artworks challenge art, conservation, and museological discourses. Not only do they test standard assumptions of what, how, and when an artwork is or can be, they also put forward the notion of materiality in the constant flux that plays a significant role in the creation and mediation of meaning.

This book builds on two strands that pervade current thinking about the material lives of artworks created in the second half of the twentieth century. It rests, first, on the premise that artworks such as installations, performances, events, videos, films, earthworks, and forms of intermedia involving interactive and networked components pose particular questions when it comes to defining what (and how) exactly the work is, both physically and conceptually, and what should be preserved. Second, this volume revisits the traditional notions of conservation and collecting practices, particularly in museums, that are built on a conception of static, fixed, inactive, and immobile artifacts, with the ambition to shed some light on the novel thinking developed in these fields.

This collection includes essays by Hanna B. Higgins, Hanna B. Hölling, Gregory Zinman, Andrea Gyorody, Alison D’Amato, Megan Metcalf, Rebecca Uchill, Susanne Neubauer, Beryl Graham and Johannes M. Hedinger.

In the reminder, I will briefly address chapters that either take on the idea of Fluxus directly or discuss Fluxus-related works and how they are troubling the conservation and the activation questions.

In the preface to the volume (pp.(vii-viii), the series editor and dean of the Bard Graduate Center Peter Miller contends: “The inherited values that post-1960s art movements such as Fluxus overturned were at the heart of art conservation as it had been practiced since the nineteenth century. But if an artwork is the outcome of a random process, then there is no artist’s intention to fall back on; if an artwork is an ongoing process happening in time, then there is no enduring thing to preserve; if an artwork is a collaboration between artist and materials, then there is no clear line between subject and object; and if art can be mechanically or even stochastically produced, then there is no way to identify, let alone police, the frontier between original and replica. The artwork here under consideration, by its own nature, seems to deny the familiar role of conservation. That these often-ephemeral works have since been preserved by collectors, for all sorts of reasons, poses something of an intellectual paradox but also very real material challenges. And beyond Fluxus—or rather, because of its impact—the challenge of conserving Fluxus objects has become the challenge of conserving contemporary conceptual art, installation art, and time-based media more generally.”

Chapter 1: “Introducing ‘Fluxus with Tools’” by Hannah B Higgins.

Although not directly linked with the traditional understanding of conservation, but rather with a meaningful activation of Fluxus, the two-part chapter, “Introducing ‘Fluxus with Tools’” (pp. 40-61), that opens the volume combines scholarship with performance. Hannah Higgins, Fluxus scholar and “witness” (she is the daughter of Fluxus artists Dick Higgins and Alison Knowles), enacts with her mother a lecture-performance that incorporates Fluxus events using food. Her essay combines an art his­torical analysis of performative learning with an experimental, scripted performance. She emphasizes the importance of primary experience in the reception and understanding of a work of art. Recognizing that conventional modes of lecturing are ill suited to multimodal experi­ential works, Higgins is interested in bringing critical analysis and live performance together “with common performers, in a common site, for a common duration, and before a common public.” Her performative lecture breaks with the conventional narrative of art historical writing by creating a script that makes the historian a performer and the artist a participant in making history creatively. The chapter traverses sixty years of art making, art curating, performance thinking, performance making, and the long-twentieth-century project of dismantling the no­tion that materiality and corporeality and also concept and enactment are mutually exclusive. Higgins calls attention to the deadening effect of placing documentary evidence of performances in archives—a fate shared by many of the performances of the 1960s and 1970s. Although she acknowledges the value of archives, she mourns the aspects of works that are “lost in the process of their historicization, theorization, and documentation on paper.” Performance, then, is a way to keep their structural and material aspects alive. As Higgins puts it, materials “reveal themselves through interactions with each other, with people, with a world ever in flux.”

Chapter “Video Art’s Past and Present ‘Future Tense’” by Gregory Zinman

Picking up the Fluxus strand, the chapter “Video Art’s Past and Present ‘Future Tense’” (pp. 85-116) is devoted to a close examination of Paik’s satellite works, Good Morning, Mr. Orwell (1984), Bye Bye Kipling (1986), and Wrap Around the World (1988). Media scholar Gregory Zinman considers Paik’s celebration of “onceness” in relation to the multiple rematerializations of his satellite pieces in single-channel videos, video sculptures, and multichannel video installations. Zinman guides the reader through the extended performance of Paik’s satellite works as they transmute from global broadcast to monumentalized works to an atomized form as museum installations and online viewing rooms. His account pays tribute to Paik’s prolific versatility, evident in his repurposing his satellite pieces in multiple variants in different media, but Zinman also mourns the loss of the vitality of the particular moment of their original broadcast. Observing Paik’s works in their constantly transmuting and vagrant form, Zinman asks whether such works can ever be regarded as final. Should a work’s variants be viewed as entirely autonomous, or are they subordinate to the satellite broadcast that gave rise to them? Zinman’s analysis poses challenging questions about preservation: If there is no “definitive” variant, are all Paik’s generative reworkings and borrowings equally significant? How does image mobility—not only through different kinds of display but also transfers from one medium or platform to another—affect meaning? The issues involved in creating and circulating satellite pieces offer fruitful ground for rethinking Paik’s works and the links between their exhibition, preservation, and interpretation. Zinman sees a form of preservation in Paik’s endowing the otherwise vanishing broadcast events—otherwise unrepeatable—with new life (or an afterlife) through “eternal returns.”

The materiality of Franz Erhard Walther’s Werkstücke (Work pieces) is the subject matter of “Exhausting Conservation: Object, Event, Performance in Franz Erhard Walther’s Werkstücke” by the present author (pp.62-84, download available here). Although Walther neither belonged to the Fluxus circle nor was particularly interested in categorizing his practice, his Werkstücke are reminiscent of Fluxus works and their cognitive/embodied realizations. Walther’s works cannot be approached as if their materials could be kept in an untouched form. They are neither simply objects nor simply performances; rather, they are fluid and heterogeneous assemblages—partly implements, partly sculptures—of activated performances and at the same time active physical artifacts. Inherently unstable, their completion in the mind of the viewer adds yet another level of complexity. Werkstücke are both relics a priori and remnants of a future. They are accompanied by instructions in the form of drawings, videos, photographs, scores, and the artist’s verbal directions. The chapter presents copying as performative learning: the works generate material and corporeal knowledge. The relationality of his work and its vital materiality, lively power, and efficacy challenge traditional approaches to conservation.

To explore the book remaining chapters, please visit this link and click on “Table of Contents.” We hope you will enjoy the reading and look forward to conversations spawned by its arguments.


Page count
360 pages

Publication date

Order the book here.


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