Insofar as performance art was not recognised as an art form by official art institutions in East-Central Europe, it remained a “zone of freedom” in which artists could experiment. Artists employed a range of approaches to the genre, from happenings and actions to body and live art performances, as well as photographic and video performances. The documentation of the performances was crucial, in that it enabled them, and their art work, to have a presence abroad, even if they were unable to travel. It also gave them a presence on the international art scene that many of them craved, due to their isolation behind the Iron Curtain. With some artists, the documentation took on an almost ritualistic process, a determined effort to preserve these ephemeral actions. Consequently, it also functioned as a form of communication with the outside world, beyond the borders of the East Bloc. The conservation of documentation, combined with the concerted efforts of the rare galleries or venues that supported and promoted performance art meant that performance art from Central and Eastern Europe could—and did—have a definite impact on the development of performance art worldwide.
While “presence” is often seen as one of the quintessential elements of performance art, in that the artist utilises their physical body as material, it was often difficult for artists in East-Central Europe to be “present.” For example, their presence in public, in a street performance or participatory action, was often stopped by the militia, if an artist dared to attempt a public action. Travel—a requirement for the artist to have presence at performance festivals and exhibitions—was also often difficult, and the authorities often used the granting and denial of passports as a way of controlling artistic expression. For example, Polish artists KwieKulik were denied passports to travel to a performance workshop in Arnhem, Netherlands, because the authorities objected to the content of some of their work that was published in a Swedish exhibition catalogue.
There was one solution to this problem, also to be found in another essential element of performance art: its documentation. Photographs conveyed the presence of artists both in an artistic action and enabled artists to “travel” to festivals abroad even if they could not be physically present. Romanian artist Lia Perjovschi did this with her photographic performance The Test of Sleep, which, in 1988, she sent to a Visual Poetry Festival in Mexico City. At the time, she didn’t identify the work with performance, but rather with mail art, which she described as “a way to travel (imaginary), a reason to read about different countries.” Describing the piece, she said that “in front of the photo camera, I imagined my body like a piece of paper.” Later, she met art historian Kristine Stiles, who called this work “performance art.”
For Philip Auslander, there is an ontological connection between performance art and its documentation, insofar as the event precedes and authorises its documentation. For him, the documentation of the performance is what constitutes it as a performance. This definition holds true for many artists in East-Central Europe, who were deprived an initial, live audience for their work, due to the socio-political circumstances. For example, artist Dan Perjovschi described the documentation of his performances as significant, as this enabled him to have a “witness” of it having taken place. Zofia Kulik also noted the importance of the documentation for that same reason. Most artists were conscious of documenting their work, which indicates the seriousness with which they regard their experimental art practice. Even if the documentation did not travel abroad contemporaneously, which it often did not, the photographs prevented the actions from being lost to time or memory.
However, photographs of performances often did allow performances to travel abroad. Therefore, the lines between performance and mail art become blurred when we consider the portability of the documentation of performance art—much like conceptual art—which can easily be sent through the post. In Central and Eastern Europe, such work was often overlooked by the censors who inspected the mail, because it wasn’t recognised as art. Another interesting example of this hybrid of mail art and performance can also be found in Romania—the 1982 action Contact. TRANS-IDEEA by Constantin Flondor, Iosif Király, and Doru Tulcan, all from Timișoara. The three created a human-sized envelope in which they could insert themselves, to be mailed abroad, as their art—or instead of their art. While the envelope could not actually be sent by post, it exists as an apt metaphor for the function of mail art in relation to performance during the communist period—in providing a way for the artist, their bodies, and their artwork, to travel abroad and be present at international exhibitions.
One of the most dedicated to the development and theorisation of performance art and its documentation was the artistic duo KwieKulik—Zofia Kulik and Przemysław Kwiek—based in Warsaw. KwieKulik crafted a systematised approach to performance art to include the preparation, execution and documentation, or dissemination, of the work, acknowledging the processual nature of performance. They called their work “działanie” [activities], and used the term “performance” only in reference to presentations of these activities at festivals or elsewhere—for them, performance was the live presentation, but their work expanded the concept of performance art to the work leading up to it and the work that followed its execution. For them, performance functioned as an intricate system of communication whereby a message is conceived, stated and preserved for future statement. They established Pracowni Dokumentacji, Działań i Upowszechniania [the Workshop of Activities, Documentation and Propagation] as a centre for this activity.
The labour of maintaining this activity was not only immense, but also performative in and of itself. KwieKulik would organise exhibitions and presentations in their small flat in Warsaw, and because of space limitations common in communist apartments, they had to prepare the living and workspace for a dinner with many guests, so Zofia Kulik often spent the entire day cleaning, cooking and setting up the room, only to have to convert it back to a living space once again after the evening was over. During these events, the artists would present the documentation of their performances and provide something akin to an art history lecture on their work, thus self-historicising and self-archiving their activity, another common component of the life of a performance artist in Central and Eastern Europe.
Much like in present-day business environments, networking was crucial to the dissemination and proliferation of the work. Since artists working in the Eastern bloc often felt isolated behind the Iron Curtain, many capitalised on each and every opportunity to network with those outside of their circle—mainly with those from abroad but also with others from the region. Kulik, an admittedly introverted person, had to perform the task of a networker, being sure to make the right introductions when the moment presented itself. In a letter to Gerard Kwiatkowski, Kwiek described one instance when Jorge Glusberg, director of Centro de Arte y Comunicación (CAyC) was in Poland, and the manner in which artists competed for his attention. Seeing that everyone was talking about themselves and promoting their work, rather than the collective work of the current experimental artists, he stated that they decided “to resort to the ultimate strike. As he was entering the cloakroom, Zosia rushed to him hurriedly making her way through the rows of artists and on the side, in English, she presented the situation to him, i.e., that what he had already found was not everything, and that she wanted to make an appointment with him to present the materials related to significant, worthy activities of a broad circle of artists.”
For Kulik, who characterises herself as reserved, as opposed to gregarious, this was truly a performance, an act of becoming something other than who she innately felt herself to be. Nevertheless, the artists utilised the dissemination aspect of their work to create and maintain connections with the art world abroad. Given the artists’ interests in cybernetics and praxeology, their tri-partite conception of performance functions as a method and model of communication.
While in Western Europe and North America it may have been individual artists who had the greatest impact on the performance art scene—for example, such “icons” as Allan Kaprow, John Cage, VALIE EXPORT, Carolee Schneemann—in Central and Eastern Europe it was often the organisers who had the most influence, in providing spaces and events in which performance could happen, thus providing visibility to this work. This includes both artists and museum and gallery directors. While much attention has been given to the pioneering activity of the Student Cultural Centre in Belgrade in the 1970s, one place that had perhaps the greatest impact on performance art globally was the Labirynt Gallery in Lublin, Poland, described in a recent interview with Zofia Kulik as “truly the centre of performance art.”
Established in 1974, Galeria Labirynt was a sub-section of the BWA Lublin— Biuro Wystaw Artystycznych [Bureau of Artistic Exhibitions]—a network of state-funded contemporary art galleries across the country. As official galleries, they were therefore subject to the censors and visits to the director by members of the communist party. Labirynt appeared at a time when artists across the globe were searching for new art forms and new types of art, and Poland was no exception. Director and founder of the gallery, Andrzej Mroczek, was drawn to performance after his first exposure to it in 1973, at a Festival of Student Theatre organised at BWA in Lublin. Among the presentations was a manifestation by Jerzy Bereś, Transfiguracja III (Ołtarz Autorski) [Transfiguration (The Author’s Altar)]. Mroczek recognised performance as the most contemporary of art forms and made it a key focus of Labirynt once he became director the next year.
BWA in Lublin hosted its first performative event in 1969, described as an “zdarzenia audiowizualnego” [audiovisual event]. Since then, the gallery has served as a meeting point for artists across both Poland and the world who were interested in or were practitioners of performance. Given that the first book on performance art was published in Poland in 1984, edited by Grzegorz Dziamski, and the first text on performance published by Roselee Goldberg in 1979 (in English), public presentations, talks and lectures were one of the only ways that artists could gain access to information about performance. And since performance was not taught in art schools, these events functioned as an alternative art history lesson—of the contemporary art being made at that time.
In 1978, Labirynt organised the festival Performance and Body—the title in English in the original—which featured artists from across Poland and abroad active in performance. The event almost didn’t take place, as permission from the authorities was not forthcoming. As art historian Tadeusz Mroczek, brother of the late Andrzej Mroczek, recalls, there were separate permissions required for the advertising of the event and for the opening, and with just a few days before the festival, they did not have permission for the opening. Since the advertising had gone ahead, the event went ahead, but, unusually for Labirynt, no catalogue was published.
Performance and Body was the first event in Poland to use the term “performance” deliberately, in English. At the time, artists categorised their performative activity in a range of ways, as with the duo KwieKulik above. But performance was an international term and its use in this event connected this small town in the East of Poland with the rest of the world.
In his essay, Performance – Traditions, Sources, Foreign and Native Manifestations: The Recognition of a Phenomenon, Grzegorz Dziamski traces the origin of the term “performance” in Poland to the festival at Labirynt and another event that happened in April of that same year in the Remont Gallery in Warsaw: I AM—International Artists’ Meeting. Organised by Henryk Gajewsky, an artist and founder of the Remont Gallery, the event is considered the de facto first performance festival in Poland, and involved a series of lectures, meetings and presentations. As Performance and Body took place seven months later, according to Tadeusz Mroczek, it was “more aware of itself” as a performance festival, as evinced in the title.
Events such as I AM and Performance and Body, along with other exhibitions, festivals and presentations of performances, were yet another way to provide presence for artists in the contemporary art world. Insofar as these were largely international meetings of artists, this was an opportunity for the Polish artists who could not travel abroad to meet and network with artists from across the globe, and enabled artists and organisers from abroad to see the work of Polish experimental artists that they were less likely to encounter in exhibitions abroad.
While performance art developed concurrently in Central and Eastern Europe with the rest of the world, the manner in which it did so varied according to the local socio-political circumstances. While in Western Europe and North America, artists claimed to want to create ephemeral artworks, which left no trace or saleable objects behind, artists in Eastern Europe craved presence and permanence for their work, which points to a different meaning and significance of performance art for artists in East-Central Europe. Rather than ephemerality, they sought stability. Rather than the dematerialisation of art, they wanted endurance. Knowing that the local audience for their work was quite small and select, they deliberately pursued strategies that would insure that their work was seen by the appropriate audiences, often elsewhere, which would be receptive to their work. The dissemination of this documentation, and the organisation of performance festivals enabled artists to remain connected with the art world beyond local borders. Galleries such as Labirynt, and independent operations like that of KwieKulik’s, are just two examples of the manner in which this work was disseminated for maximum impact.
Amy Bryzgel is researcher and Professor at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.