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Word.Sound.Power. – The expanded life-cycle of Performance Art

As a student in the hallowed halls of a History of Art department many thousands of miles away from here and now, I learned there were two ways to experience Performance Art. The preferred way, of course, was to have the privilege of witnessing a performance live- seeing hearing smelling sensing the body in space and in real time. The other way, was to retrace the living moment of artists’ actions through various forms of documentation and recording-such as photo, video, sound or text. But for those of us born after the hey-day of Performance Art, we’ve had to do the majority of our research experiencing archival footage and carefully annotated textbooks. This process always made me feel a bit like an archeologist or paleontologist, trying to resurrect details of the dead by intimately scrutinizing fossilized videos and the shards of photographic remnants. Reading about performance adds yet another layer of complexity, only distancing one further away from the so-called ‘life’ of a performance.

So far in my understanding, there existed this clear dichotomy in a performance’s life cycle- either living (breathing, moving, urgent), or dead (past, historical, memory). As a working member of the Khoj team however, this dichotomy has been broken open for me, and I am suddenly acutely aware of the other phases that exist as a part of the Performative life-cycle. Most distinctly, I have come to understand another phase in the life-cycle, that is the ‘pre-life’ of a performance.

During the course of the Word.Sound.Power. exhibition at Khoj, the audience had the opportunity to experience three live performances by artists Mithu Sen, Caroline Bergvall and Delhi Sultanate of Word Sound Power. What the audience was not privy to however, were the moments in which the artist carefully prepared themselves for their performance. Think back to your basic physics lessons, where we studied about the transitional states of energy. Energy cannot be either created nor destroyed, but occupies a fluid space where the artist is the catalyst that transforms potential energy into the kinetic, the magnetic and the mechanic.

For her electrifying recitation of I am a Poet, artist Mithu Sen chose to withdraw herself away from the gaze of the audience immediately prior to her performance, and use the time to transform into the personality that she was to embody in the coming minutes. It was then that I first realized that although she had not yet taken to the stage, the Performative moment had already begun, and that the pre-life of the cycle, was just as much a part of the complete work as the performance itself and the remnants that were to be created after. Although one may not as easily recognize this moment of silence or preparation as pertinent to the more contained ‘performance’ period , I believe that it is a crucial part of the creative process, and should perhaps be mapped, recorded and studied with the same diligence that is applied to a performance after its death.

Caroline Bergvall Performance - image by Vicky Roy for Khoj

Caroline Bergvall Performance – image by Vicky Roy for Khoj

Similarly,the conversations and interactions that I had with artists Caroline Bergvall (who performed a medley of her work including OSis and Untitled (Roberta Flack can clean your soul) and Delhi Sultanate (who performed and screened Blood Earth, a project by Word Sound Power), revealed to me the expanded performative experience, each in their own distinct and subtle manner. It is difficult to describe, or to ascertain the beginning of the transformation that signals the pre-life of a performance, but the chance to witness this occurrence was quite a revelation as I had never before considered this much excluded narrative of performance art. A highly recommended investigation into the study of Performance art- for those who come across such opportunities in the future.