Rather than signaling the end of the labor regime that has marked the past decades, the current crisis is the becoming-explicit of its internal contradictions. As the Constructivist critic Nikolai Tarabukin put it: the future art under communism would be work transformed.], Le Dernier tableau (1923), translated from the Russian by Michel Pétris and Andrei B. Nakov (Paris: Champ Libre, 1972), 56.]From the 1970s on, this goal has increasingly been realized in unexpected ways, as new forms of labor have emerged that redefine work in performative terms. In recasting performance as action, the current activism not so much negates as modulatesthe by now quite aged “new labor.”
The term “performance” is slippery even within relatively well-defined contexts. In today’s economy, it not only refers to the productivity of one’s labor but also to one’s actual, quasi-theatrical self-presentation, one’s self-performance in an economy where work has become more dependent on immaterial factors. As an artist or writer or curator, you perform when you do your job, but your job also includes giving talks, going to openings, being in the right place at the right time. Transcending the limits of the specific domain of performance art, then, is what I would call general performance as the basis of the new labor. The emergence of new forms of performance in art in the 1960s was itself a factor in the emergence of this contemporary form of labor, which is, after all, connected to a culturalization of the economy. Some artistic practices from the 1960s and beyond can, as both exemplary and eccentric manifestations of the new regime, help to bring it into focus.
The work of John Cage and its reception by a young generation of artists around 1960 signaled a generalization of artistic performance. In the early versions of the score for Cage’s 4’33’’, which was written in different notational systems, the piece was presented as being “for any instrument or combination of instruments,” though the piano version would be the dominant one. The version in proportional notation consists of vertical lines indicating duration—pure time. Here one may wonder why there has to be “any instrument” at all, and in 1962 Cage radicalized the piece as 0’00’’, also known as 4’33’’ no. 2: this was now a “solo to be performed in any way by anyone,” consisting of the performance of “a disciplined action.” The written score clarifies: “No two performances to be of the same action, nor may that action be the performance of a ‘musical’ composition.” This score, it has been noted, can be seen as Cage’s response to the development of a new kind of performance by a young generation of artists associated with Fluxus and happenings—indeed, Cage’s score is dedicated to Yoko Ono and her then-husband Toshi Ichoyangi.This performance was generic in that it did not fit any disciplinary categories; it was also potentially general, no longer containable in traditional artistic frameworks.
If the 1960s were marked by a prolonged critique of medium-specificity and by the emergence of generic visual art, there were various routes to the post-specific. One, traced expertly by Thierry de Duve, centered around the modernist painting, which when reduced to a bare canvas, to its physical medium, turned into an “arbitrary object” among others. This, the triumph of the readymade at the heart of modernism, was the development that Greenberg and Fried desperately tried to stave off in the 1960s. By contrast, the impact of Cage—which the young artists, especially Kaprow, hybridized with their interpretation of “action painting”—placed the emphasis on performance as a form of intermedia. Various strands, both Cagean and more expressionist-actionist, intersected and become pop phenomena, thus enacting the transition from the artistic-generic to the general—from Yoko and John’s relationship performance, to Joseph Beuys’s media messianism, Wim T. Schippers’s Dutch Fluxus TV comedy shows, and the German Kommune 1, cofounded by sometime Situationist Dieter Kunzelmann,— which made it into many magazines and onto the cover of Wolf Vostell’s 1970 anthology of Aktionen.
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