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What is Performance Art? What is Performance Art in Aotearoa? A beginning!

These are questions we have wrestled with variously over the fourteen years of The Performance Arcade, and we continue to think through today. We invite you to consider them with us.

What is Performance Art?

Performance Art emerged from various movements in arts practice over the 20th Century, where sculptors, painters, and photographers began to consider the implication of their own bodies and persona in the making of art. At the same time, theatre and dance arts explored ways of moving beyond narrative, character, and mimicry towards the same considerations of the body as material: treating the social/cultural/biological persona as a device in the work itself. It started gradually, through the liberation of dance from tradition with Isadora Duncan, the writings of Antonin Artaud, and the various innovations of the historical avant-garde, until we arrived at the 'happenings' of Allan Kaprow or the radical works of the Austrian 'Actionists' in the 1960s.

Today performance art still exists at a crossroads of various practices. It is hard to define, and it is understood differently in different communities worldwide. Some people prefer to use the term 'Live Art' to describe their work, especially where it doesn't conform with the stereotypical image of the solo performance artist working with their own body: maybe they work with multiple bodies, or make use of theatrical techniques. Elsewhere, the terms 'social sculpture' or 'performance installation' have been coined to account for art works that manipulate cultural contexts, especially where a the public becomes a performer or primary agent in the work. In The Performance Arcade, these terms are all used, allowing our artists to all choose terms that work for them, or to let their work sit between forms.

What is Performance Art in Aotearoa?

Te Ao Māori (Māori world views) and Mātauranga Māori (Māori ways of knowing and being) together mean that performance art is situated in Aotearoa in a wholly unique context. The long traditions of Toi Māori (Māori art forms) across visual, poetic, dance, storytelling, puppetry, and other performative registers inform discussions of the shape of Māori performance art today as well as Pākehā and Tauiwi relationships to it, and their own attendant questions of what their practice is.

Charles Royal offers a vision of Māori performance art where he brings together research on the Te Ao Marama worldview (translated variously as the world of light, the world of understanding, and the natural world, te ao marama is the physical level of being where humans live) and the whare tapere—traditional iwi/community-based 'houses' of performance. Drawing on creation traditions and cultural customs and the story of the historical whare tapere, Royal envisions a modern whare tapere that encompasses storytelling, perfumes, songs, dances, puppetry, and games. (For more see Royal's dissertation "Te Whare Tapere: Towards a New Model for Māori Performance Art")

Alongside, and embedded in, the context of a modern whare tapere are the whenua (land) and moana (ocean) of Aotearoa, their atua (deities), and wairua (spirits), and other qualities. The human manuhiri (guests) who have come to the land since the project of colonization began are challenged to consider their relationship and conception of performance art in relation to all of these elements.

For several years now The Performance Arcade has been asking the question ‘what is performance art in Aotearoa?’ and recognizing the non-fixity and changing nature of this question. We are guided in this questioning by research like that of Charles Royal as well as visions of Māori futurism by writers like Hana Burgess and Te Kahuratai Painting, and Pacific Futurism from an Aotearoa perspective, as in the work of Jessica "Coco" Hansell. Tiffany Lethabo King's Otherwise Worlds: against settler colonialism and anti-Blackness and Lana Lopesi (Ed.)'s Pacific Arts Aotearoa offer further guidance.

While the answering will never be complete, in 2024 we are finding exciting responses to this call, as artists share their visionary insights that are direct products of Aotearoa’s place on the globe, our way of being, our way of seeing, and this whenua. 

This kaupapa has been joined by international artists that connect this dialogue to concerns and viewpoints from around the globe. Together with local artists who regularly share their work overseas they make up a strong programme for the public of Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington) while continuing to leave open the question: what makes performance art in this place and time?

What is The Performance Arcade in 2024?

The result of these questionings in 2024 is an investigation of spaces between: city space, cultural space, between bodies, relationships with nature, and with and through Vā. In our contemporary situation there are many reasons to be concerned for the erosion of values that we thought were universal, such as human rights, climate safety, equality, and decolonisation. The rigorous care that each artist or group brings to their work helps us to hope in new ways about what may be just beyond the horizon.

—Contributions by Sam Trubridge, Melody Nixon, Lîm Fawine Kado


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