From Joseph Beuys cozying up with wolves to Amalia Ulman doing a Kardashian-grade Instagram takeover, "performance art" appears to only be limited by what the audience is willing to accept as artistic practice.

Outside the traditional art world, the title of performance art has been taken by the celebrity (Solange's much advertised Guggenheim takeover).

And the infamous (the lawyer of alt-right fake news king and Infowars creator Alex Jones trying to offload his customer's on-air hate speech as an intricate performance piece).

So how can you separate out the real from the inauthentic, and why does performance art continue to straddle these borders?

Is it the synchrony in between our increasingly fast-moving lifestyles and the ephemeral, responsive nature of performance art?

Is it due to the fact that the medium is specifically well suited to the protest movements, urgency, and uncertainty framing our global politics?

And how have post Internet aesthetics and new media redefined the appearance, feel, and political capacity of performance art in the 21st century?


  • ​Performance art has come a long way and have adapted with emerging technologies while also keeping its cutting-edge appeal.
  • Artists such as Yoko Ono, Marina Abramović and Joseph Beuys are recognised as the figures who developed performance as a modern art movement.
  • 21st Century iterations of performance art have utilised new media such as the internet and reality tv.
  • Concepts of Post Internet art has naturally merged with the movement such as an expression of internet aesthetics and real-time events.

Addressing these myriad concerns implies mapping the background of performance art.

Starting with the so-called "performative turn" of the 1960s, which built up the medium's (literal) street cred as a boundary-defying art movement that would drastically redefine the future of art in the 2nd half of the 20th century.

We track the advancement of performance art and discuss the factors behind its effect today.


Performance art Yoko Ono

Cut Piece (1964) performance art by Yoko Ono in New Works of Yoko Ono, Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, March 21, 1965, 1964 -1965

It's secure to say that after the 1960s, performance art was never the same.

Heralding political freedom and financial possibility, post-war United States became the world's centre for all things avant-garde.

Europe's aspiring art celebrities - from Eva Hesse to Claes Oldenburg - landed right into New York City to take part in this cultural trend.

The bohemian rock-n-roll style ushered in by the likes of the Velvet Underground integrated with the experimental performances of Pop Art icons like Andy Warhol and his 'Exploding Plastic Inevitable' events to develop an unmatched public demands for happenings that took over the streets of New York.

Most significantly, the "performative turn" of the 1960s arised from an unique era of cultural and political turmoil throughout America.

From the rising civil rights movement as well as race riots that tore through its cities, to the blossoming of sociology with Jane Jacobs's 'Death and Life of Great American Cities' (1961), to seismic political events like the murder of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

The United States in the 1960s exposed the pretension and weakness in the federal government's handling of both domestic and global events.

And, like always, crisis became a catalyst for the art world.

Performance art tore down walls and broke perceptions of taboo to develop itself as all that was unusual, instilling the perspective of Euro-zone Fluxus (a movement that shunned commercialisation and conformity) with American politics.

With the figures of Yoko Ono, Marina Abramović, Carolee Schneemann, Yayoi Kusama, Nam June Paik, and  Wolf Vostell, whose artworks produced moments of solidarity on the street, but additionally exposed the cruelty of post-war America's military-industrial complex.

The 1970s saw performance art mature but still maintained its provacative side. Stricter guidelines entered into play, with the artists involved developing credibility for the medium and cemented it within more moneyed art circles.

The primary 1970s strand of performance art saw its icons going back to the white cube, if only to function inside these four walls to undercut the establishment and critique everything taking place beyond it.

An great example: 'I like America and America Likes Me' (1974). On a scorching summer season day in 1974, the roads of New york city brightened with the whirr of an ambulance’s sirens, this one on a beeline from JFK International Airport to Soho's René Block Gallery.

Its cargo consisted of the German Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys. Masked in what would certainly become his famous shamanistic garb for the revolutionary performance art piece, Beuys was supplied by stretcher into the back room of the West Broadway gallery.

It is right here that the artist spent the following 3 days both recovering and being healed by his temporary roommate: a wild coyote, in a move that would transform performance art permanently.

Joseph Beuys's performance art was not just groundbreaking because of the severe lengths the artist went to express the significance of his art.

He further tested the limits of what was already an extensive performance piece, politicizing his own access right into America while revealing the internal physical violence and social erasure, specifically of Indigenous Americans, at the heart of the American identity.

In performing both the healer and the recovered, Beuys simultaneously became the perpetrator and the sufferer.

Establishing the rate for the future of performance art that, greater than other medium, would progressively politicize the personal to critique its contemporary society.


Performance art by Tehching Hsieh

Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance 1980-1981, New York. The First Five Hours of Images and the Last Five Hours of Images in the Year.

In the 1980s and also 1090s, globalization and the digital superhighway advertised performance art as an open-access system rooted in the body's relationship to technology and new measures of exposure.

As mainstream society clocked into the movement, the brave-new world of internet cultures highlighted global connectivity, further internationalizing the performance art scene.

From China's Zhang Huan to the Russian Actionism movement that arised from the debris of the Soviet regime.

Performance art's uncertain connection to materiality as well as commodification confidently dealt with consumerism, accepted popular culture, and pixelated itself with joy.

But the impact of new (technology driven) media on performance art of the 1980s and '90s was a two-way street.

Confronted with a progressive object-oriented world of insatiable supply and demand, some performance artists like Tehching Hsieh dug further into emerging personal attachment to the present.

Hsieh's artwork with collaborator and life partner Linda Montano, 'One Year Performance' (1983-1984), integrated a sensational feat of human bondage, seeing the duo attached at the waist by an eight-foot rope for a whole calendar year.

This extreme exposure of personal life escalated in the initial years of 21st-century performance art, where the blogosphere progressively politicized the individual.

Crossing the needle-thin edge between performance and popular culture, artist Marisa Olson transformed her audition for American Idol's 2004 season into a 'performative exploration of the norms bound up with the show,' thoroughly documented via the personal blog website.

Her anthropological-grade examination ran alongside to the presidential election, for which Olson hoped to bump-up enrollment for amongst her (mainly) young fans by conducting opinion polls for every single element of her Idol persona.

From shade of blonde to footwear choice, in addition to voter enrollment cards to her IRL auditions.

The review of 'performing for the camera' struck Instagram with Amalia Ulman's 'Excellences and Perfections' (2014) collection (a five-month digital performance of a semi-scripted severe makeover recorded via selfies).

As well as Molly Soda's Youtube "makeup tutorial" - influenced visuals to tap in to the mysteries at play in online based performance art.

Both pieces question the supposed affection afforded by the internet, and the credibility of performance art.


Amalia Ulman and performance art

Amalia Ulman Excellences & Perfections (Instagram Update, 18th June 2014) Screenshot, 2016

Exactly how, then, can we divide purposeful performance from the lazy and flatline?

“Bad performance art is a prescriptive, single-channel vision,” says Soda. “Good performance can be subtle or over the top… but not like, someone pouring chocolate all over themselves and screaming. It has to be self-aware.”

Marissa Olson recommends the difference exists within the intents of the artist instead of any type of unbiased reading of the quality or composition of the performance.

Excellent performance art “creates a mood and a moment to collectively take an audience to a space where we consider the edges of our expectations and our highs and lows,” Olson says.

“Bad work is making a bunch of assumptions about who’s in on your clever inside jokes with yourself…in a way that you can’t see is hubristic.”

Opacity and the ability for numerous reads arises as the crucial attribute of performance done right.

Olson's 'American Idol Audition Training Blog' art project suggests that its broad reception was independent of whether or not her audience "knew or cared that I was doing a performance art piece," she discusses.

Molly Soda's read of the cybernetic free-for-all is rather even more sad.

“It’s cool to see activism on your news feed,” Soda says, “but then we have to ask ourselves, who rules these channels and what are they mediating?”


The unstable economy of performance art and its quick-reaction politics primes the medium to be the art world's most convincing critique of modern global culture.

The increasingly obscured boundary between performance and protest further politicized art fairs this year from the controversy with holding 'documenta 14' in Athens, which Greek economist, academic, and politician Yanis Varoufakis described as an event of "disaster tourism," to the 'Black Death Spectacle' of the Whitney Biennial.

In I Can’t Work Like This (2017), a new reader on the relationship between protest, politics, and performance art today, curator Joanna Warsza recommends that the "glamour, symbolic, and financial concentration" of these huge art occasions is tactically co-opted by art world protest.

Which similarly relies on social networks's constant documentation for publicity to spread its message and effect.

In the end, the internet places a two-way mirror up to performance art as a system for demonstration, tearing down the boundaries of exemption that generally fenced off the high art world from average viewership and daily criticism.

While the errors and scandals of the art world are now relayed, live-streamed, pinned, tweeted, hashtagged and boomeranged right into oblivion with an echo of angry faces, what bigger problems might fly under the radar?

Performance art operates a comparable "currency of immediac," states Olson, describing that it inhabits “a liminal state between the categories established for tangible art media by capitalism.”

In this era of ambiguity, performance art can respond instantly, assimilating right into the very point it critiques to become contemporary art's most effective medium.

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