"Peepshows" - 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 performance space.
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 absolute presence.

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 original impression".

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 the movie.


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 after another.
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 meeting.



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 the work.

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 action.

Another reference 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.

The audience 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.

Nobody talked 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 accepted behaviour.

 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.

Behind them, 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 these questions.
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 Marco Teubner)