Ever wondered how to go about collecting performance art? What about the questions surrounding re-sales and legality issues?
To cast light on this topic, we spoke with curator and researcher Rose Lejeune who works with public institutions and private individuals to explore collecting contemporary art with a specific interest in context-based, social and performative practices, as well as taking the role as an advisor for the Brussels-based stage for performance art, A Performance Affair.
Here, Lejeune speaks openly about the challenges that performative practice faces, how the current art market should claim responsibility for representing the medium, and what role collectors can take with supporting and circulating performance art.
This year you were on the curatorial team of A Performance Affair In Brussels – the new fair that presents performance art with the aim to stimulate discourse around the economies of performance. How did you get involved with APA and what did you want to achieve by joining the team?ROSE LEJEUNE
I am one of six advisors for A Performance Affair. I became involved with the fair as I’d already been thinking a lot about questions surrounding not just collecting performance but also the scope of the art market and ideas around the wide range of contemporary artistic practice that artists are interested in making and the ways in which the market, and particularly the model of the art fair, is not able to accommodate that. Together with Liv Vaisberg and Will Kerr, who founded the fair, we wanted to start a conversation about what they wanted to show at APA and how they wanted to develop the framework for supporting performance, as well as thinking about the questions that surround it and about ideas on the way in which it’s best to experience performance and the ways in which fairs are, and aren’t, able to accommodate those live moments.
In addition to talking about the framework and timetable of APA , we also discussed the idea of a hosting a sort of round-table at the end of the three days to engage in a public conversation about what is interesting about performance, to discuss the huge amounts of questions surrounding how to collect performance, and whether it’s actually possible to collect performance.
We’re in a time when there are hundreds of art fairs globally, so what did APA hope to bring that was different to many of the other fairs? Do you think it had a different goal?ROSE LEJEUNE
Yes, exactly that. There’s obviously been a huge boom in fairs over the last decade, and coming from the UK we are seeing that development of the art market in tandem with the withdrawal of public and government support for arts and education. So, whilst the art market has gotten stronger and more visible, museums and traditional public institutions are struggling more and more through austerity and the rising cost of real-estate which also especially effects artists and young galleries.
We’ve seen a re-definition of some of these roles, especially between the public and private institutions, public and private money, and ultimately what that has done is to prompt us to re-think about what can operate in the art market, with performance in particular having been supported and presented within “public” contexts over the last fifty years but with very little representation in the commercial field.
What we’ve also seen specifically with performance art is that the big institutions are now starting to think how to incorporate it into art history i.e. to say that unless these practices are collected and archived properly, they will fall away from the history of art that we will one day want to tell about the current moment. The conversation about how to collect performance in particular is not just about how these works get bought and sold – and I would want to say that many people don’t think it should be – but rather how they get remembered. It’s also not just how performance should fit into the fair structure as it is but how its incorporation might change the way we have to think about that structure so that it can be presented with integrity.
Let’s talk about performance art in art fairs and the difficulties in showing it. Do you think this factors into why art fairs have perhaps shy’d away from representing it in the past?ROSE LEJEUNE
For me this is what was really interesting about the questions APA was trying to ask. Very frequently when you go to an art fair and you ask the gallerist questions about performance practice they themselves have not thought how it might be sold – but instead they either use that performance as a way of marketing or entertainment. It’s not that they aren’t interested in the performance practice, or that they think it’s not important, but rather they haven’t gone that step further to think it through, and in that sense collectors can’t do the same until the gallerists take these questions seriously.
Do you think it’s the responsibility of the gallerists and art fairs to help educate people, not just collectors, about performance and to encourage people to ask the questions surrounding this practice?ROSE LEJEUNE
We’re absolutely at an interesting moment. These types of practices have been popping up at art fairs in different types of formats, sometimes as part of the “projects”, or sometimes incorporating performance into the whole program and booth of the fairs, but it’s still a young, evolving conversation. As I mentioned it’s not just how it should fit into the art market as it is. There are many contradictory pushes and pulls on these sorts of practices, but we’re also at the very beginning of the conversation that means there is a huge amount of scope for that conversation to develop in different ways.
So do you think gallerists aren’t taking performance as seriously as say painting, because there isn’t currently as much interest in it from collectors?ROSE LEJEUNE
It’s a chicken and egg scenario. Of the main criticisms one often hears about art fairs is the huge financial risk young galleries need to take in order to take part, so if you are travelling, putting staff up in hotels, paying the fair fees and the shipping costs etc., it’s very hard to take risks. In that sense galleries obviously go to fairs with works that they understand they have a good chance of being able to sell. It’s difficult for them to take a huge risk. However there a lot people I speak with, such as collectors and gallerists, who would really like to be working with performance artists and to think about the different ways in which they might support artists whose practices are more process-based, or experimental.
There’s a lot of interest from people who want to support performance but it often feels that we haven’t got to the point where that feels very clear what kind of responsibilities and legal issues might surround this type of work. For me, one of things that is very exciting about performance but what makes it very different to other kinds of practices is that each piece is different, and by that I mean of course, every painting is different aesthetically, but most people know how to ship them, store them, display them, sell and re-sale and circulate them in the traditional ways. With each performance requires a different package around it, each performance will have different requirements with objects, photography and the documentation, actors, as well as the questions surrounding moral and legal rights. As this will be different for every performance it means you need to think about these points every single time.
It requires the collector to think differently about their own collecting practice and it requires collectors to be open to engage with different works from an artists career and the different types of practices that they create rather than having a fear about how to approach it. With this in mind, how would you advise collectors to start collecting performance?ROSE LEJEUNE
The thing is that there isn’t a “normal” process so there are many possibilities of what owning a performance might look like. For example: it might be a set of instructions, it might be a contract between the collector and the artist, it might be a script or a score that needs to be activated, you might need props or physical objects that represent the performance in a particular way, or even a documentation such as a photograph or film. Each work is unique and so the question is always “what is the spirit of this work”, and how do we capture in language the essence of this particular work and translate it into something that can then be owned and re-sold. The question is “What responsibilities do you take on when buying this work?” and “How do you remain faithful to the work and what level of scope for interpretation do you and the artist want to give to this work?” Unfortunately, it’s not a question you can just say, “This is the framework and this is how it works”, but instead it’s much more about the different ways to decide what is appropriate for that specific work.
Is it important that once a performance piece has been purchased that the buyer receives a physical object, be it a photograph, film or another type of documentation?ROSE LEJEUNE
For me personally the answer to that is no, I don’t think so. I think in many contexts we’re becoming accustomed to owning things and buying things in ways that do not have a tangible object. For example, when was the last time you bought a DVD, or when was the last time you bought an actual physical CD? I think that within the realm of cultural mediums we are at the point now where we understand that it might be possible to own something without holding it as a physical object. Having said that, I think within the art market this relationship between ownership and object is very close and many artists are thinking about how their work might be translated though different types of mediums and are trying to create objects that stand in for performance when the performance itself isn’t being activated. The status of those objects always needs to be very clear and I think in that sense, the spirit of the work is the thing that’s of the highest importance.
Who owns the rights to a performance once it has been bought and the topic of re-sales. Does the work “die” once the artist is no longer here?ROSE LEJEUNE
Questions about re-sales are incredibly important and I think that it is becoming clearer that in order for performance art to be able to circulate in the broader art market, and again I want to stress that this isnt about saying that everything should fit into the art market as it but following the line of thought, is, then one of the questions that we need to ask is “What is the long term legacy of this practice?” and that includes what happens when the artist dies, what happens when you want to re-sell the work, and other questions about ownership beyond the relationship with the individual artist.
When an artwork goes into a museum collection the question is always about posterity because something that goes into a museum’s collection in theory needs to be there forever. There are certain performers, performance artists or performance practices that the work lies so heavily within the body of the artist, that once the artist is no longer here then the work ceases to exist. To give you an example from A Performance Affair, one of the artists that was showing work was a British artist called Tim Etchells. who works with Vitrine Gallery. Until now, his performance work has always been very reliant on him – he’s present in the space, often giving a speech or text works. Once he realized that he was unable to physically attend A Performance Affair he decided to use a strategy that he had already used in his theater work, which was to hire an actor to come in and do the work for him. Etchells sets up the parameters for that actor to work within, but apart form that, the actor operates on their own, meaning that this work will be able to continue, even without Etchells being physically present as it no longer relies on his body.
Many collectors find the act of loaning works from their collections to foundations and an important role in having a private collection, so the idea that performance art can sometimes be unable to travel due to the limitations of the documentation or the performance itself seems a shame, especially when talking about how performance needs to have an increased visibility.ROSE LEJEUNE
Absolutely. I think that is important for a lot of collectors, museum collections and gallerists. If you think about the history of the museum, they were set up during a time when art was solely painting and sculpture and since then the collecting frameworks, in a large sense, are still set up to accommodate painting and sculpture. Of course these frameworks can also accommodate things that act like painting and sculpture, such as photography and film, but ultimately everything is clear when it comes to display, storage and circulating. Performance art on the other hand asks very different questions. You’re absolutely right that this a medium that, without its incorporation into collections, the story that we will tell about the last fifty years of art will be a completely different story. It’s impossible to think about art since the 1960s without thinking of performance art and if we don’t ask questions on how it gets circulated, seen, collected and what economies support this type of artistic practice then we will end up with a strange and skewered version of art history.
Do you think platforms like Instagram and YouTube have had a helping hand in the growth of performance?ROSE LEJEUNE
The way in which we now circulate images and experiences has very obviously radically altered. Also what we expect from museums has radically altered: the traditional idea of going into a museum to stare at a painting in silent contemplation, is so far from what we expect from museums. It now incorporates all sorts of ideas of the social and community and entertainment, so in many respects performance is the most pertinent medium of our time. Instagram and social media have obviously been hugely useful in terms of circulating these experiences, but the question of “if it has supported performance art in the market” I think is a really difficult question to answer, particularly because the art market still holds onto objects in such a strong way. Collectors do also support the performance medium through patronage of public spaces and museums and I think the crossover of being a collector and a supporter of public spaces is very strong and should also be acknowledged.
In a way it links back to what we spoke about earlier regarding physical objects and the urge to want to share experiences with the world.ROSE LEJEUNE
A lot of artists are very aware and are very clear that what you see on social channels. It’s not documentation of the work for me to film a performance and upload it to my Instagram. I believe that the status of the documentation of a work of art needs to be very clear. Another example from APA is the performance artist Candida Powell-Williams who works with Bosse and Baum Gallery who does not produce any film footage of her work, but is very happy for you to film or photograph it and then upload as you wish, and says everything you see of her work that is not the live performance, is unofficial. She recognizes that the capturing of her work helps for it to circulate but you are never confused that what you are seeing online is the work of art. These different ways of disseminating need to be differentiated from the essence at the core of the artwork. It’s knowing the difference between looking at a photograph of a painting and standing in front of a painting: you never mistake the experience. With performance however it’s easier to mistake the film of the work for the work because film exists in its own right.
I wonder how many people on Instagram do see pictures of paintings or photographs and don’t realize that is what they are looking at…ROSE LEJEUNE
Gosh that’s depressing! Looking to the beginning of performance art, a great number of artists and theorists chose to work with the body and the ideas that surround being in the moment was precisely so it couldn’t be commoditized. Of course, fifty years later artists are finding themselves financially in a different moment but also it is this list of questions that surround how to capture and allow for interpretation that has actually become an exciting knot for some artists to untangle.
Nevertheless, the different ways of disseminating need to be differentiated from the essence at the core of the artwork.
Talking about collectors – what type of traits do you think a collector needs to posses to build a collection that includes performance?ROSE LEJEUNE
I always joke and say it’s the moment when your walls become full! Seriously though, as collectors spend longer in the art world, they often get more and more interested in artists and want to have conversations with them, they then inherently become more interested in questions around process and interaction. Very few contemporary artists actually define themselves by a single medium now – so yes of course you do still get some painters and some filmmakers who do nothing but that – but very often you see artists that have ideas, and it is those ideas that manifest themselves across many different mediums.
I think that if as a collector you become interested in an artists’ practice you inevitably start following the different threads and it is that type of acquisitiveness, or that decision to follow those threads of practice across all mediums, that make for a potentially exciting collection.
Do you think we will see an increase of more collectors purchasing performance in the future?ROSE LEJEUNE
I hope so! Of course not everything should necessarily be commercialised, and some things are an ephemeral moment but the market is playing an ever more important role in supporting contemporary art practice and as long as that is the future we’re looking at, then you’d hope that more and more people become aware of the breath of practice that artists make and want to support that both as patrons and collectors.