This article is focused on the exploration of the theoretical framework—intermedial appropriation—that can be applied to the analysis of genealogy and legacy of performance art in Latvia, taking into account the socio-political and cultural circumstances in the late socialism period. This was the time when the everyday life was saturated with ideology and state-forced collectivism that was constantly celebrated with military displays and parades. In this atmosphere, accompanied by the sense of paranoia and surveillance, artists sought for survival strategies and microenvironments, where collaborative and participatory projects could be put in place among the most trusted friends and companions.
It is crucial to emphasise that the art produced in the Soviet Union was heterogeneous both in terms of the countries where it was created and in terms of the artistic means. Even the official artistic doctrine—Socialist Realism—was not strictly dogmatic in its manifestations, and, in fact, underwent numerous mutations and deviations. The unofficial art scene in Latvia provided an opportunity for the artists to operate in power-free reflection zones, where they created works of art with plurimedial structures as a result of synthesis and intermedial transformations. For performance artists, the cultural and territorial periphery was an alternative to institutionalised, officially acknowledged places. In this marginal position, performance art, which was never recognised as a legitimate art discipline, developed as a form of participatory art, where the participants were engaged in collective, hybrid projects leading to various new works of art: paintings, photographs, serigraphy. These new works of art cannot be considered as mere forms of documentation, but rather as cases of intermedial appropriation, that is, examples of transformation processes, when the moving, temporal, multiple, transient performance was turned into a still, silent, permanent and two-dimensional image by more than one author. Not only artists appropriated different motifs and styles based on aesthetics, but performance art itself underwent a process of change and turned into a hybrid consisting of different media in order to emerge in a “camouflaged” form such as exhibition catalogues, photographs, paintings or interior design objects. This process of metamorphosis, intermedial appropriation, demonstrates the unique symbiotic relationship between a process-based art and a fine art object without assuming the superiority, authenticity, originality or authority of either mode. Moreover, the participatory projects enabled artists to express their creative agency in a democratic atmosphere—something that the state denied.
As regards the theoretical framework of intermediality, it can be employed as the central theoretical axis in the analysis of hybrid works of art. In performance studies, the concept of intermediality becomes a useful interpretative framework to avoid the polarisation between the live and the mediated, since it provides a lens through which to explore the patterns manifesting across media within the theatrical frame. The “inter” of intermediality implies a between space, and the intermedial exists between previously assumed ideas of medium specificity. It therefore extends the historical dynamic of hybridisation and cross-disciplinary fertilisation. Intermediality can be both a creative and an analytic approach based on the perception that media boundaries are fluid and acknowledging the potential for interaction and exchange between the live and the mediated, without presuming the authenticity or authority of either mode.
Essentially, we can speak of intermediality when pre-existing medium-specific conventions have been altered, allowing for the exploration of new dimensions of perception and experience. The borders between media thus become the zones of experimentation where “we can test and experiment with a plethora of different strategies.” In a nutshell, at all times when the properties of all respective media intersect, the in-between state or intermediality occurs and intermedial phenomena emerge. If interrelations of various arts have been examined extensively in the art discourse, intermediality has become a popular concept only recently. A shift in academic research has occurred as a result of the emergence of electronic and digital media. As noted by scholars from various academic disciplines, “in the past two decades, ‘intermediality’ has proved to be one of the most productive terms in the field of humanities generating an impressive number of publications and theoretical debates.” By applying the concept of intermediality as a research axis, it is possible to study the intermedial relationship in theories of literature, art history, music, communication and cultural studies, philosophy, theatre and film studies, etc. Scholars are increasingly interested in the intermedial relations between various arts and media. The examples of intermedial phenomena include, but are not limited to, filmic writing, musicalisation of literature, film adaptations of literary works, novelisation, visual poetry, illuminated manuscripts, Sound Art, opera, comics, multimedia shows, multimedial computer installations, etc.
However, the migration of media from performance to photography and painting, as witnessed in the case of performance art in Latvia, and the intentional borrowing among several artists involved in such hybrid works of art also highlights another phenomenon—appropriation, which from the Latin appropriare translates as “to make one’s own.” In the context of art, appropriation can be unconscious and is almost inevitable, because, as indicated by James O. Young, “almost all artists engage in some sort of appropriation in that they borrow ideas, motifs, plots, technical devices, and so forth from other artists.” However, appropriation can also be deliberate, because artists can intentionally borrow, copy or alter pre-existing images and objects. In the 1970s, the power and agency to re-contextualise an existing artwork, and thus, to charge it with a new meaning, was especially pursued by American artists such as Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger and Jeff Koons, so much so that their artwork was termed as Appropriation Art. They engaged in the practice of appropriation or art of copying quite provocatively and controversially giving rise to numerous lawsuits regarding copyright. In this context, appropriation as a gesture of stealing, copying, and quoting deconstructs the notion of original, emanates the sense of déjà vu and is considered a very postmodern practice, since Postmodernism is “the discourse of the copy.”
However, in Soviet Latvia, the appropriation in art during the 1970s was different from the one in the West and performance art has an especially rich history of the occasions, when the works of art or their motives migrated from one author or medium to another. Yet, although the act of borrowing was deliberate, this choice was not rooted in postmodern critical thinking. Rather, the acts of appropriation resulted, first of all, from the restrictions imposed by the political regime to performance art. In a system of ideological commitment and strict art hierarchies, only “traditional” art disciplines, such as painting and sculpture, were considered politically correct and serious, suitable to serve the ideological purpose of the Soviet ideologues. According to Latvian art historian Vilnis Vējš, the Soviet system discriminated not only specific individuals, but entire artistic forms by denying them the status of a professional art or ranking them low in cultural hierarchy. Performance art belonged to these genres and, consequently, existed as a hybrid “in-between” of diverse media, such as photographs, silk-screen prints, and paintings. This intermediality was a result of a process of change that performance art underwent in order to adapt to external political factors: the totalitarian regime, which did not tolerate unrecognised art disciplines that did not serve the propaganda purpose. All these media were not mere forms of documentation, but intermedia—a “combinatory structure of syntactical elements that [came] from more than one medium but [were] combined into one and [were] thereby transformed into a new entity.” They existed in parallel echoing and reemploying each other, hybridising and growing “into forms that [became] effective and convincing media in their own right.” Secondly, appropriation in Soviet Latvia occurred as a result of community actions and participation in joint, hybrid projects. Due to the socio-political circumstances, which demanded unconditional conformity to the social system, artists in Latvia sought ways how to escape the political indoctrination and apathy resulting from the suppression of creative agency. A freethinking community, consisting of close acquaintances, friends and family members, was one of the solutions. This microenvironment ensured that through networking in the cultural periphery it was possible to implement certain creative freedom avoiding the ideological pressure and censorship, and thus to be innovative, inventive, spontaneous and experimental. Performance art particularly attracted many creative individuals of diverse and interdisciplinary backgrounds: fashion designers, theatre actors, film students, painters, writers, poets, musicians, photographers, etc. The process of generating performance was often implemented as “collaborative creation,” uniting all members in non-hierarchical creative expression and democratic participation—something that the political regime undermined. Among these circles of friends, the issues of authorship were not perceived as the violation of copyright; it was the possibility for alternative, autonomous and uncensored action that mattered most.
The character of intermedia is to be witnessed in the case of performance art pioneer Andris Grinbergs who always had his performances documented via photography. Among the participants of his artistic actions there were always professional photographers, capturing events with snapshot-like aesthetics. Nearly all Grinbergs’s performances were photographed by Jānis Kreicbergs, a well-known fashion photographer. When off-duty, Kreicbergs often joined Grinbergs and other participants of his performances, and together they created a hybrid work of art, which transformed from a process-based, one-time action, into a fine art object which was easily transportable and adaptable. Kreicbergs appropriated the plots, characters and aesthetics from Grinbergs’s happenings and presented the resulting images as a new and original work of art. He did so, because he never considered himself as only a photographer invited to document the process-based events under a strict guidance of an authoritarian director. Instead, Kreicbergs saw performances as a collaborative project with an element of spontaneity and improvisation providing him with an opportunity to co-produce free creative expression. Similar acts of appropriation occurred in the case of photographer Atis Ieviņš, who experimented with merging painting and photography. This way he produced several silkscreen prints by appropriating Grinbergs’s performances—the outcome was presented as serigraphy, echoing the strategic approaches of Andy Warhol. Whereas the performance of Imants Lancmanis, carried out as his actual wedding, was appropriated by a prominent Latvian painter Maija Tabaka, who created a large-scale painting Kāzas Rundālē [Wedding at Rundālē, 1974], based on a photograph of Lancmanis’s wedding.
Another example to be discussed in terms of intermediality is the artists’ collective The Workshop of Restoration of Unfelt Feelings (NSRD), who actively pursued performance art in the 1980s, albeit from a different perspective than Grinbergs. As stated by Māra Traumane, “the interest of the NSRD in the environment, perception, atmosphere and technologies contrasts with the anthropocentricity of the 1970s happenings.” As opposed to Grinbergs, performances of the NSRD were intentionally intermedial, the key participants Hardijs Lediņš and Juris Boiko describing them also as “a kind of lifestyle somewhere between Zen Buddhism and California high-tech philosophy, avant-garde in terms of interests and postmodernist in terms of stylistics.” The NSRD “drew their inspiration and creative opportunities from contemporary music and architecture, creative fields that were more open to experimentation, and studies of the internationally topical movements and theories of avant-garde, Postmodernism and New Wave.” The NSRD organised discos, lectures, actions, video performances, multimedia exhibitions and concerts, expanding “the boundaries of understanding what art is [and creating] a new kind of art—uncertain, ambiguous, unconventional, ironic and paradoxical, and with blurry boundaries in time and space,” and also by mastering new technologies—they were the first to use video and computer technologies in their projects.
Moreover, the NSRD also contributed to intermediality not only practically, but also theoretically. In this context, the concept of Approximate Art, which was coined by the NSRD in 1987 and aimed at blurring “boundaries between music, video, performance, text, different genres and the desire to create new forms of artistic expression,” must be mentioned as the first theoretical basis, which addresses the question of intermediality in Latvian art discourse. Besides, Approximate Art supports the idea that the boundaries of art can be fused with media that had not previously been considered art forms. Thus, Approximate Art, similarly to intermedia, can also exist in a quite Postmodern and eclectic “in-between” state, oscillating between art and non-art. These and other instances of performance art and its parallel (inter)media, which occurred as a result of hybridisation and adaptation, illustrate that intermediality and appropriation were integral parts of performance art in Latvia allowing it to migrate from one author and medium to another.
As regards the junctures between performance art and other media/arts, it is evident that such a relationship may occur on a one-on-one basis, in which a media form or a media product is transposed to another media form or product undergoing the process of transformation, as, for example, the photographs of Andris Grinbergs’ performances that were used as a “raw material” to create silk-screens on canvas. Or, intermediality can occur in a more multimedial basis, in which a complex transposition involving several media takes place at once. The result is a new work of art, which is different from the original and yet has not lost some of the original properties as a result of media intersection. One must admit that an integral idea of intermediality can never be maintained, since the term is as varied as are the discourses in which it is being produced. It is justifiable to refer to these cases as intermedial appropriation. However, it is important to recognise that performance art is a case of synthetic intermediality when a new art form or medium is created due to the process of a fusion of several media into a new medium with plurimedial structure. Intermediality, thus, is an inherent and integral part of performance art. Moreover, the in-between zones of media prove to be productive spaces open for experimentation and creativity.
Laine Kristberga is an art historian and scholar based in Riga.