- Live performances and video projection
Helge Meyer / Marco Teubner
I write this text as a member of
a performance duo, whose work is a kind of reference point in this try
to analyze the use of video or slide projection in a live performance.
So sometimes my view is very personal and I will not try to hide this.
On the other hand I try to connect our work to a historical basis of
artists who used video long before us and for different reasons. This
text will jump back and forth. It will try to be objective on the one
hand but of course it cannot be, because I am part of what I am writing
about. I hope to find a balance between these facts.
The performance art duo System HM2T was founded by Helge Meyer (myself)
and Marco Teubner in 1998. In the beginning there were simple body tasks
that we performed for long durations to find an own language in the
wide field of the art form where we feel to fit in.
The series "perform" (1999) was done on five days. It included
a 12 hour performance each day. In the first day, we were walking a
choosen path for all the time, back and forth. No other action was added.
After 12 hours an alarm clock ended the work. In the second day, we
walked tied together so that one always had to walk backwards. On the
third day, each of us drank 9 litres of water continuously. A selfmade
pissoir was visible where we refilled the urine back into the emptied
bottles after we finished them. In this series (our first work as a
duo) we tried to free the work from all theatrical issues. There was
only a concentration on the simple body work and the change of the behaviour
because of the heaviness of the task.
After these 5 days series we worked more concentrated on the site specific
aspects of the places where we were invited to do our work. In China
("Clash", 2001) we used old bricks from a brick factory at
the performance space to carry them through the old brick oven where
they were made years before. They got a new definition of need at the
place of their origin. We wrote words from the chinese mythology on
half of the stones. The other half was covered with words of our western
culture. Each of us was pulling 10 heavy stones at ropes behind him
to meet in the middle of the oven and represent a „cultural clash“.
In Russia ("Russian
Variation no.1", 2001) we were shocked by the events of the 11th
of Septembre and changed our performance work into a simple action with
the books Koran and Bible. We carried them on long ropes through the
museum of Arctic and Antarctic, where a big globe was dominating the
Since the beginning of 2002, we often work with the idea of mixing video
projection with "real time" performance art. In a series,
first called "Peepshow" and later the "German Peepshow",
we had different aspects of time occurrence in the live work (later
in the article I will describe more detailed how the series worked).
Also the performance „Un concerto per il gas“ worked on
the aspects of live art and video.
But first I would like to go back into the history of projection and
use of video in performance art to find a background for our work.
The very start of projection in the performing arts can be seen in the
20s of the last century when artists like George Grosz and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy
used projections of their animated films on the Piscator-Stage in Berlin
(1926-29). They used complex settings on three-parted stages and different
light- and movieprojectors to invent a kind of "total theatre".
The actors were moving on the stage while projections gave the whole
theatre event another dimension.
In the year
1930 Lee Miller and Man Ray used the projection of movies more in a
sense that belongs to the way that performers are using it today. They
projected a coloured movie of Méliéis from a window on
the guests of a ball. Man Ray called the dancing guests "a moving
screen". The dancers were doing their movements while a projection
with a different storyline or a different aesthetic style was brought
into the scene. Two different ways of creating images were mixed in
this historical artwork. The dancers became another media inbetween
the media of projection. But they stayed passive and did not communicate
directly with the projections.
In all these examples there are no direct references between the projection
and the performers. They exist parallel without an interaction.
In the 1950s and 1960s the events of John Cage and others at the Black
Mountain College and the "Happenings" of Allan Kaprow started
to experiment more with the different appearances of shadows on and
through "canvas". In 1952 Robert Rauschenberg used his "White
Paintings" as monochrome canvasses for projections of different
movies. So they lost their value as "art" to become something
else: a surface for moving images.
This idea is interesting, because it shows a new way to treat sophisticated
art. Paintings are no longer the end-product of the artist but "only"
the source or the surface for a new image. They are nothing more then
the background or the material for moving, time-related works of art.
Kaprow used the projection of 16 colour
slides on a half-transparent wall in his work "16 Happenings in
Six Parts" in 1959. From one point of view the audience could see
the movements of three actors through the projection of the colour slides.
So here is maybe the first appearance of a mixture between the projected
image and the impression of performers "interacting" with
and being visually transformed through the projection. Another important
point is that the slides and the live action belong to two different
aspects of time: the slides were produced in a time that is already
the past. They are a product that was made "before" the audience
could watch them. The live performance of the three actors or performers
is ephemeral and exists in the same time while the audience is walking
through the different parts of Kaprows installation. This intermedial
mix is an important step for performance art in general.
I would like to take the time to make some short notes about my idea
of the concept of image: The image in performance art is a very special
one: It belongs to the same time and space its viewers breathe and live
in. So, we can say that the image in performance art belongs to the
Emmanuel Levinas talks about the special term of presence and a kind
of "original impression" (in german, we use the term "Urimpression")
in his book "Die Spur des Anderen" (engl.: „The trace
of the origin"). Feeling and perception do happen in time. As soon
as they come to our mind, they do belong to the past. But in the time
of the "here and now" we feel the sensation and it becomes
real. Levinas calls it a "stressed moment, alive, absolutely new-the
I think that
the image of performance art exists only in this moment of absolute
presence. This is the difference to all other appearances of images
like in photography or film. In performance art there is no chance to
rewind the happening or to come back on another day to research on the
image again. The image has got his very short, ephemeral life and then
it can only become a trace in the mind of the viewer. As this trace
it gets another quality, because each viewer watches a performance from
his own point of view. I would say that there are always so much interpretations
of a performance work as the number of viewers in the audience.
Another way of becoming a trace is the idea of relic. Some artists use
their performance material like relics. The "left overs" are
shown like pieces of art themselves and they should be loaded with a
kind of energy that came from the actions that were made with them (like
the shattered glass that Chris Burden crawled through in his performance
"Through the night softly" in 1973. It was exhibited more
then once in different museums.). I do not believe in the possibility
of representation in this case: Performance art can only exist in the
presence! Everything that comes after the performance, even documentation
in video or photography, is something else but not the performance work!
In 1963, Robert
Whitman connects action and projection to one plot in his performance
"Water". He shows an actress simultaneously in front of the
canvas and in life-size in the projection. She steps in front of the
projection, breaks the projection on her body and steps out of the projection.
Here the space of the projection becomes the second field of action
in the whole performance space. It becomes the vertical frame on the
horizontal frame where the actress moves on.
What is very
interesting in this case is the "framing". Normally there
is the horizontal frame that includes the whole space where a live performance
takes place (like the stage in a theatre). But in "Water"
there is a connection between the live performer and the image of the
performer in a vertical frame.
So I would
say that the use of projection in this way adds two things into a live
performance: First there is another time dimension (like said before
above), because the movie or the photos are done in a time that belongs
to the past. They interact with the "now" of the performance
event and connect two different aspects of time.
The second point is the space. Normally the action in a performance
happens only on a horizontal level. But through the addition of the
image of the performer that is projected onto a wall that is the vertical
frame behind the performer, we get a notion of the level that opens
our view for the vertical actions as well. Two different aspects of
perception appear in this early work. The viewer has to connect the
actions on the performance stage with the happening in the movie. And
again, like in other early works, the performer shares the quality of
being an object and a subject in this work with his own projection in
At this point I would like to describe the work "Peepshow"
of our performance duo System HM2T to connect it to the aspects above.
"Peepshow" was first performed in Münster, Germany, in
January 2002. I want to give a detailed description of the work to give
an insight into the concept of the performance.
When the audience enters the performance space, they recognize that
the room is seperated through white papers (each is 29,7 x 21,00 cm).
On this "new wall" you can see the normal view of the room
without the papers, because it is projected as a video on the white
papers, using them as a canvas. In the projection you can see a table
full of different materials. For example different toys, some brushes,
knives and other things. On the right and the left two ropes are hanging
from the ceiling. Suddenly you can see two men in black suits in the
very corner of the projection. They work with the paper that is now
the material of the "new wall". After some minutes the audience
recognizes that they are building the new wall with the papers. Right
at this time, huge shadows of two people appear in the projection. The
shadows start to perform different actions in the light of the projection.
Again after some time it is getting clear that the shadows are the same
persons that are building the paper wall in the movie. The two performers
are working "behind" the wall and "in" the projection
as the live element.
There are several
moments of disturbance in this performance work: First the new appearance
of the room: For those people who did not know the room before, it is
clear after some time that the room in the movie is the "lost"
part of the room they are standing in (the floor and the walls are made
of the same material). At this point the audience does not know if it
is "only" a movie that they are going to watch like in an
installation in a museum or a gallery. The second point of surprise
may be when it is getting visible that the action of how the installation
is made, is "shown" in the movie.
Here one of the most important aspects of performance art appears: The
audience is the witness of the origin of the art work in a double sense:
The whole process of the "wallbuilding" (ca. 45 minutes) is
visible. But it is still a movie. The movie was made in the past, without
any audience. They only watch a product and they cannot prove if there
are maybe any hidden edited parts in it.
But then the
whole atmosphere gets another twist: Suddenly the "shadows"
appear and it is getting obvious that the performers are doing a live
performance "in" the projection "behind" the wall
that is made in the movie. This is the second „origin“ of
an artwork, in this case a live performance. So in the whole performance
there are different aspects of reality, time and space that appear one
And there is another aspect: Generally performance art is searching
for a close relationship to reality. The formula "Art=Life"
was one of the earliest manifestos that proclaimed to stand for the
early happenings and Fluxus events. Our own experience in performance
art was getting into the same direction: we tried to exclude technical
help and were concentrated on simple body actions like in the series
"perform", as mentioned above.
Then we started to ask ourselves about the borders between life and
art and about the role of the audience. Performance art always wanted
to change the expectation of the audience. The difference between "world
observation" and "art observation" should point more
into the direction of "world observation". The performers
wanted to intervene into the allday life of their audience. They did
not want to stay in a kind of artistical ghetto, where their work was
only viewed by experienced art-viewers. Performance seeks the human
So the performers
left the galleries, left the museums and the theatre stages and went
into the public places, the street and even more unexpected areas. They
worked and still work „anti-phantasmagorical“. I borrow
this expression from Jonathan Crary and his book „Techniques of
the observer. Vision and modernity in the Nineteenth century“.
Phantasmagoria was the name of a version of the Laterna Magica that
worked with a kind of projection to hide the lanterns and keep the illusion.
The complete illusion of the whole projection should underline its reality
in the sense of the whole narration in which the machine was used. It
was the try to make the theatrical effect so perfect that its presence
was no longer doubted.
Performance art works in the absolute opposite direction: The process
of making, the process of doing something is visible throughout the
origin of the artwork. The body of the author breathes the same air
as the audiences bodies and they share the same space. So, in my opinion
we can call performance art an „anti-phantasmagorical“ art
form. And in our series „Peepshow“ we tried to play with
the phantasma and the experience of the irritation during the illusion
through our doubling of the projection and the real performance.
The author Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling was argueing early in
the year 1799 in his text "Entwurf eines Systems der Naturphilosophie
(Draft of a system of natural philosophy)" that irritation is one
of three characteristics of living systems: the ability of an organism
to get in contact with the outside world. The supposition for this is
excitability and irritability. So what keeps the living system alive
is the ongoing process of communication with the unknown.
Every living system, every viewer of the
audience, is a closed system that is seperated from the outside. The
irritations that excite the viewer are individual for everybody. Each
viewer has got his own selection of seeing and understanding. So we
can argue, with the help of ideas of Hans Dieter Huber, that watching
a performance is watching oneself as well: When a human being is confronted
with images, it is confronted with irritations that refer to the inside
of him or herself. Only in this way identity develops! An individual
has to work all time in a process that connects the unknown with his
own experience in his mind and find a way to negotiate each external
excitement with his own inside possibilities.
We are sure that we are not working in "new areas" and that
similar works were made before like mentioned in the historical references
in this text. What we want to do in our work is to find a kind of perfection
in clarity! We try to find a simple way to create images that transport
an aesthetical and cultural idea.
So we added
something else into the performance "Peepshow": we did cut
several holes into the paper wall during our actions. So the audience
got an invitation to take part into the work of art! Some material was
sent outside by us (like childrens toys: a walking pig or some balls
or small texts). Now the viewers had a direct way to intervene into
So now the work
opened up again to a whole lot of more possibilities. The interaction
between the audience/the performers and the video/the real performers
as shadows gave the performance some new dimensions.
When we talked to members of the audience after our work, they all gave
another interpretation of what they thought they saw in the whole performance
(The reasons for this are written above.) Through the interaction with
us as performers, the audience became internal viewers because they
lost their distance as external audience and stepped close to the wall,
gave things through the wall and grabbed inside the whole construction.
And they were willing to get into a special contract with us: Kathy
O´Dell writes in her interesting book "Contract with the
skin" about the way I understand the contract between audience
and performers in general:
"[...] it has to do with the highly
complex dynamic between the artist and the audience. In the case of
Burden´s Shoot, for example, audience members chose not to stop
the shooting, just as the sharpshooter himself chose not to turn down
Burden´s request. Each of the individuals involved, therefore,
agreed tacit or specified terms of a "contract" with the artist."
In our work this special agreement between the audience and us was made
to safe the very fragile structure of the whole work. The audience could
have destroyed the whole narration through a breakthrough of the wall
or the destruction of the fragile „border“ that was represented
by the paper-canvas. But this contract was not communicated. It happened
without any declaration.
After the whole
structure of the building of the wall was finished and the performance
was at the point that only a white canvas was visible (because the white
of the finished wall filled the whole projection), we jumped through
the wall and left the performance space.
Here again there are different references: Saburo Murakami from the
japanese art group "Gutai" was destroying big paper walls
in the 50s of the last century. He jumped or crawled through several
walls with his body. This was a very iconoclastic action in that time
and especially in Japan: For some art critics this was a kind of outbreak
out of cultural borders, because Murakami was destroying the traditional
japanese paper-wall-architecture with his performances. Others saw a
reference to the horrible events from Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Murakamis
is of course the cutting of canvas from Lucio Fontana. To destroy the
surface of an art work through cuttings with knives was a groundbreaking
attitude against the conservative understanding of art as something
sacred. With our jump through the fragile wall we underlined once again
the will to create an ephermal structure in the here and now.
Later in 2002, we did the first version of the "German Peepshow"
in Brno, Czech Republic, where we left the gallery space to perform
in the public space.
The idea was similar to the doubling of the realities in the first version
of "Peepshow", but it was done with a different aesthestic
and the content of private/public space.
In the morning, two men in black suits started to build a kind of hut
in the middle of a foodpath in front of a museum. A videocamera was
filming the whole action. 16 holes were drilled into the outside walls
of the hut. Inside, the men created a kind of living room atmosphere
that reminded viewers on a cliche of typical conservative german living
rooms: colourful wallpapers with hunting scenes, pictures of german
landscapes, beer tankards and false flowers.
In the late afternoon we entered the hut
through a small door that we closed from the inside. In the hut there
was a TV-Set. On this TV-Set the action of the building of the hut was
played simultanously from a videotape during the performance. Then we
started to act inside the "living room situation". First our
actions were very simple: listening to music, drinking beer or watching
ourselves on the TV-screen. It seemed to be a normal, private scene.
used the 16 holes in the outside walls to peep into our private space.
The longer the performance went on, the more our actions began to become
absurd. Marco Teubner started to eat hundreds of chewing gums at the
same time, I closed my eyes with adhesive tape and started to interact
with the audience outside.
The whole performance used the projection similar to the first version
of peepshow. What was new and very interesting was the mix between privacy
inside and the public outside. On one hand, we really felt safe inside.
Safe enough to do such private things as using a toilet, with the knowledge
of people watching it through the holes.
On the other hand there was a strong recognition of being observed from
the outside: sometimes people were shouting at us from the outside,
throwing things into our private space or even spit on us.
to us during the day. The building of the hut was happening in the middle
of the way of the people walking through the city. But as soon as the
people felt that they could observe someone without being watched back,
they started to cross borders of their „normal“ behaviour.
This kind of experience was made before by lots of performance artists:
Marina Abramovic was doing her performance „Rhythm 0“ in
a gallery in Naples in 1974. Her text for the performance that could
be read by the audience was:
„There are 72 objects on this table that one can use on me as
desired. I am the object. During this period I take the full responsibility.“
As I said before
there existed this kind of contract between the audience and Abramovic
and she was even fixing it in a text! But some people started really
to cross some cultural borders. The performance lasted around 6 hours
and after some time, the people started to „try“ things
out in a more provocative way. Abramovic was nearly undressed by some
men. Others painted her body with lipstick and slowly went from positive
things like feeding her with alcohol or grapes to more hurtful things
like cutting her skin with knives. At some point one man started to
touch her more sexistic and kissed her on the mouth or touched her naked
breasts. Abramovic once said in a lecture that this man would have raped
her if his wife has not been in the same space that night.
We could see similar changes in the role of the audience: the longer
our intervention in the public space took place and the more the people
recognized that we would stay in our private space and accept them as
the more active part, they started to provoke and cross the limits of
So more and more passersby broke the „silent
acceptance“ and started to intervene in our private space. Things
were thrown in, people hammered against the walls or tried to steal
things through the holes.
But for us
the feeling of safety was very mothering inside the hut: through the
construction during the day and the whole design of the inside, we were
able to create our own space in the middle of a public space. Normally
the footpath is a „non-space“. A kind of transit: people
use the way to get from one place to another. Normally there are no
longer rests planned on this way. Only people from the edges of societies
that seem not to have their privacy because of homelessness, choose
the footpath to live, sleep and eat. In some way our work was having
this reference as well but we broke it immediately through the sophisticated
black business suits in which we first built the hut and them lived
inside. But the political interpretation of this work was one way to
watch on it as well.
The last work I want to talk about in this article is „Un concerto
per il gas“ that was performed in June 2002 on the First Ilseder
Performance Evening in an old industrial hall in Germany.
First I would
like to give a detailed description of this performance because it uses
two very different spaces that are brought together through the used
material in the projection and the live performance.
A large screen
is put up at the front wall in a huge old factory building. Two simplistic
wooden stools are standing in front of the projection screen. The video
recording on the screen displays a scene of a quiet, idyllic landscape:
A path, located on the edge of a forest, a single tree and, in the background,
a hill lined with an avenue of trees can be seen, accompanied by the
sounds of birds chirping softly.
The birds' singing is accompanied by a metallic, grinding sound coming
from a different part of the old building. In the basement, two men
- dressed in black suits - drag along two huge metallic bottles. They
are dragging them all across the building to a metal staircase at the
other end of the building. Taking turns, they heave the bottles step
by step up the staircase. The echo of the bottles hitting the metal
steps resonates in a steady dull pounding sound. Having reached the
top of the staircase, the two men drag the bottles across the hall again,
to the two chairs in front of the screen. After removing the caps of
the bottles, they sit down on the chairs and place the bottles between
their legs like huge heavy musical instruments. When the two men open
the valves of the oxygen cylinders, the gas escapes with an unbearable
noise. While the gas escapes with a bluish stream, the two men are sitting
still in their chairs. Both men look tired from the physical strain
they have done, breathing heavily. The body is longing for the released
gas – the supply lack has to be regained.
the idyllic landscape is still visible on the screen. Yet, two men dressed
in black walk along the path located on the edge of the forest. Both
carry a heavy blue gas cylinder. The closer they get, the more evident
are their exhausting efforts to carry these cylinders. Constantly accompanied
by the hissing sound of the streaming gas, which drowns out the chirping
of the birds, the sonority of the sound fills out the old factory building.
When the two men on the screen have disappeared, and the peaceful and
quiet picture from the beginning is restored on the screen again, the
gas cylinders are almost empty and the fierce sound of the streaming
gas slowly vanishes until it finally ends. Through the now restored
soothing silence, the quiet, soft chirping of the birds can be heard
again. Both men put down their bottles, which are covered with a layer
of ice from the streaming gas, and leave the place. On the screen in
the background the larger-than-life shadows of the bottles are visible
and they are blending into the landscape motif.
Here we used the sound of the recording in the video for the first time.
The reference to musical Fluxus events was one reason for this. Another
reason was the changing of the atmosphere through the use of the three
different sounds: first there is the romantic, natural sound of singing
birds that corresponds with the image in the projection. It is all disturbed
through the metallic sound of the live performance that comes from a
different space in the huge hall and overlaps all other sounds in the
place. Here the audience made his way from the projection to the source
of the disturbing sound.
One of our aims was to keep the audience active in a way that they have
to make the decision whether they want to keep an eye on the movie or
following the more affecting sound of the metallic scratches.
At this point
there was no chance to make a connection between the video projection
and the live work.
After most people of the audience followed
us on our way through the whole length of the hall and reached the stools
with us, they were „shocked“ by the extreme sound of the
gas leaving the cylinders. The noise was so strong that most of the
viewers had to save their ears with their hands. At this point there
were small references in the video: viewers could see small figurs at
the end of the path in the wood that came closer to the camera. During
the „noise concert“ the audience started to recognize the
relation between the two persons in the projection and the performers
on the chairs.
After the gas was over, a variation of the metallic scratch was heard
in the video: here the gas cylinders scratched over the stony ground
of the woodpath. After the performers left out of the frame that was
visible in the projection, the live performers left as well and the
gas cylinders were standing „inside“ the projection as a
canvas „for“ the projection. Here the whole performance
became a unity: the connection between the corporal work with the heavy
cylinders, the industrial environment and the natural idyllic space
in the projection became one narration.
With these more recent performances we have always applied the method
of doubling by the means of video projection. Our watching habits, which
are determined by the media, and the mixing of film sequences and live
performance lead to interesting structures. Apparently, the displayed
video picture on the screen can be easily combined with the actual actions
of the performance and blend into a story. Behind this, the scrutinizing
of the basic structures of a performance is of utmost importance as
well as the questions about the preservation, the storage of the performing
act. After all, it is an artistic statement about the insubstantial
condition, the non-material existence of the performance as an art form.
The performance can only be present, it can only take place. Is the
performance consequently a piece of art, which blooms in the present
tense, in complete authenticity? And, in this form, can it actually
be categorised as fine arts at all, if the creative aspect of durabillity
is thus missing? It is not only these unanswered questions that lead
to a misinterpretation and false classification of the performance concept.
Even creative artists are trying to escape from the immaterial aspects
of art in various ways. The shadow play of our performance, depicted
on the video screen (in this case the shadows of the gas cylinders being
projected into the landscape, accordingly) should be a reflection of
In addition, our art work is often marked by highly exhausting physical
strains. "Strain" in the sense of doing work is not meant
here, it is rather acting out the physical nature of a body by stressing
our bodies. Strenuous efforts and states of exhaustion lead to an increased
body consciousness and a more differentiated expressiveness. It is our
intention to combine the physically dominated, strong actions with the
diametrically quiet, picturesque moments, to present the body as the
immanent and essential part of a performance in a conflicting area of
an aesthetic screen-production. Performance is thus a triad of image,
body and action.
Helge Meyer (with additional text parts from