Jennie Klein. Peter Baren. Blind Dates With The History Of Mankind.
Blog text, 2016
Marga van Mechelen. Peter Baren. Silhouettes Like Shivering Ancient
Feelings. Essay, 2013
Alex de Vries. Peter Baren. Performance As Visual Grammar. Essay, 2013
Bart Rutten. Peter Baren. Coming Back To Mist And Light And One´s Own Presence. Interview, 2013
RobPerree. Peter Baren´s ARK series. A committed search for limits. Essay, 2008
Anne Stone. ARK (featuring Bridge Of Sighs, Sleep / Of Reason and Wailing Wall). Witness report in catalogue contribution (2006) together with Anthony Schrag. LIVE! Biennale, Vancouver 2005 (Helen Pitt Gallery).
[Published as blog text for RAPID PULSE #5. International Performance Festival, Defibrillator Gallery, Chicago, June 2016]
Peter Baren’s performance from his newest series Blind Dates With The History Of Mankind (Rage and Time) addressed politics as well, albeit in a less literal, more metaphorical manner. The performance, which takes its name from Barens’ book of the same title, references a history of revolutionary ideas and actions. Originally trained as a painter and visual artist, and also with a background in theatre productions, Baren created a Gesamtkunsteffect, or total artwork that involves all of the senses in a transdisciplinary spectacle of movement, language, text, and texture. Baren’s Blind Dates With The History Of Mankind addressed political language. In this case, it was the Socialist/Marxist language of the avant-garde. Blind Dates grew out of the Ark series. These performances, which harked back to the spectacles of the Vienna Actionists/Hermann Nitsch, included fog, saran wrapped performers, dervishes/dancers, blindfolded performers (including Baren), molasses, and mopping the floor. Blind Dates With The History Of Mankind drew specifically upon several of Baren’s earlier works, including Ark: Featuring Blind Dates, Orphaned Whisperings And Other Unknown Pleasures from 2007-12 and Blind Dates With the History of Mankind (Venice, Italy 2013–the first performance in the BDWTHOM series). The former included a man, eyes covered with a censor bar reading while riffling Peter Sloterdijk’s Zorn und Zeit (Rage and Time), in which Sloterdijk characterized rage as a psycho political force throughout history, while the latter distilled the earlier pieces into a molasses stained white shirt which Baren carried along with a texted wirra (Australian boomerang) for four days.
BDWTHOM (Rage and Time) began with Baren’s trademark fog. Entering the space, Baren, his eyes covered with a black censor bar, wrote the word Hope on the floor, in several languages, making a kind of spoked wheel-like diagram. “KEEP YOUR VACUUMS CLEAN!” (1) was heard during the process.
Periodically Baren would lead other performers into the space, at first two saran-wrapped and molasses drenched runners (PROGRESS PROGRESS), who move sideways alongside the asclepius (infinity sign) untill clashing into eachother, untill the next clash, again and again.
Next a figure, also with censor bar, in a suit who moved from spoke to spoke and read riffled fragments from Rage and Time. Shuffling from one spot to the next one, after every repetitive action this figure would finish the fragment with bringing the book towards the face and a deep sigh was produced. A (string of) white handkerchief(s) was pulled out of the chestpocket, one by one. At the end of performance the string ended up on the floor. When one of the runners would be in front of the reader while speaking aloud, this figure would stay running on the spot until no more text was exclamated… and continued sideways again.
“NOS, O POVO CEGO?!” [translated: ARE WE THE BLIND PEOPLE?! (2)] was heard in between actions. Last a sock clad whirling dervish was lead in to rotate slower and faster on the spot.
The performance ended when the man in the suit had completed the circle of spokes. Baren led the running figures out of the space first, then the reader and as last figure the dervish.
Baren’s performance concluded with a meditation on labor, ideas and political action. The audience began to clap, but it turned out that the performance had not yet ended–Baren returned with a mop and bucket, exhorting again the audience to consider “PEOPLE HAVE THE POWER!”(3) while cleaning up the mess. Dripping molasses, sweat, politics, rage and frustration–all was mopped up at the end, cleaned up and sanitized. But can rage, politics and revolution be so easily washed away with the sweep of a mop? The answer is NO. Baren emphasized his refusal to capitulate by singing aloud “THERE IS A GARDEN AT THE BOTTOM!” (4) when the mop and stained shirt were held up. As the audience huffled around, moving in and out of the space, unsure of whether or not the performance had ended and no doubt hoping to be included in the festivities that followed the final performance, Baren stood alone, continuing to insist that he will keep texting on!
(1) “KEEP YOUR VACUUMS CLEAN!” Songline by Nasmak
(2) “NOS, O POVO CEGO?!/ARE WE THE BLIND PEOPLE?!” Songline by Moyseis Margues
(3) “PEOPLE HAVE THE POWER!” Title of a song by Patti Smith
(4) “THERE IS A GARDEN AT THE BOTTOM!” Songline by The Associates
Silhouettes Like Shivering Ancient Feelings
Marga van Mechelen
(published in: Peter Baren – Blind Dates With |The History Of Mankind. Performances 1980-2013. De Zwaluw, The Hague, 2013)
What can have been the reason for an artist – Peter Baren in this case – to embark on a career as a performance artist in 1981? Why in that year, exactly, and why in the Netherlands? The artist has never been able to come up with an answer to these questions, but there is no doubt that the influence of the innovations in the theatre taking place at the time, played a part in it. We could point out that it was ‘pure chance’, that 1981 happened to be the year in which a new exhibition centre, The Living Room, was opened by artists he knew well, who invited him to perform the opening ceremony. We can put it into perspective, for was it possible for him to know at the time that he would still be doing performances over 30 years later, and even would almost exclusively be doing performances after 2004? But more important than answers like these is the question itself, in this context at least. And why this question? In order to put this into perspective, we should go through a few facts and observations first.
The performance artist
Peter Baren is one of the very few Dutch artists who came upon the stage as a performance artist around 1980 and one of the very few who has continually been doing performances to this very day and who is ‘still’ going at it. This does not mean that Peter Baren confines himself to doing performances only, his other works, like drawings, in the shape of sketches and ‘reports’, and photographic works and installations, are all closely linked to his performances. His installations show the performative traits that are regularly noted in relation to a great deal of contemporary art. The phrase ‘still’ is a curious one, because it is an observation that would not often be used with regard to a painter or sculptor, as it would be with regard to performance artists, especially if we imagine ourselves to be in the situation of that particular moment.
In 1975, de Appel was founded in Amsterdam, a foundation aiming at bringing the public into contact with performances. In three years’ time de Appel earned itself a considerable international reputation for being the hot spot for performance art and for what was then still called ‘environments’. However, within four years after its foundation, it became clear to both the management and the artists most closely involved, that artists were shifting their attention to other media, while performance art was seemingly wearing itself thin. Installations and multidisciplinary projects, as well as video productions, started to play an ever larger role. In retrospect, this seems to be a conclusion drawn too quickly, for a number of these artistst are still ‘performing’. One of these is Marina Abramović, undoubtedly the most influential and important advocate of performance art. However, this was the situation Peter Baren was confronted with. In 1975, when de Appel was founded, Baren was a student at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam, which in those days was an institute not exactly famous for being innovative. As far as I know, there was no – or hardly any – contact between the Rijksakademie and the circle of performance artists belonging to de Appel, whereas they did have contact with art institutes like AKI in Enschede and Jan van Eyck in Maastricht. Yet, Baren paid a visit to de Appel, attending Ben d’Armagnac’s performance, which took place in June 1975, two months after de Appel opened. D’Armagnac enjoyed a certain amount of fame with the Dutch art public, because of his performances and installations in Mickery Loenersloot and the Goethe Institute in Amsterdam, among other things. Two years later the Dutch contribution to performance art had expanded and actually consolidated itself at the same time. After 1976, hardly any new names of Dutch performance artists were added to the list, at least in de Appel’s stable. In 1981 de Appel underwent a far-reaching change of direction: the doors were to be open to the public for two days a week only and only for the purpose of consulting documentation on the spot. The staff concentrated on initiating and supervising – sometimes – ‘invisible’ projects that were realised elsewhere, in spite of the fact that many requests by performance artists were still streaming in. In 1981, the debut of a young Dutch artist like Peter Baren did not fit in de Appel’s new programme any longer.
The Living Room
One of the arguments de Appel used to base its change in direction on was that other presentation institutes had taken over the role that de Appel had played for six years. There is no question that this was the case, but the fact remains that performance as an art form disappeared from the centre of attention. Certainly, there are very few moments in the history of modern art that feature such a radical and visible change as took place in that year: from a widespread interest in performance art on the one hand, to a complete disappearance of said interest, especially in the media, on the other. De Appel’s change in direction may be said to lie at the root of the problem, but it was definitely not the sole cause. De Appel’s programme had always been able to count on the editors of papers like Museumjournaal, NRC/Handelsblad and de Volkskrant to show an enthusiastic interest, something which can clearly be seen on the covers of Museumjournaal, and this attitude completely changed practically overnight. An equally important reason was the increasing number of artists who sought out the old media – like painting and sculpture – again, and who could fall back on the well-known commercial channels, even though these were few and far between in the Netherlands at the time.
In 1981 the country was hit by a recession, which meant high inflation and unemployment rates and large budget deficits. The State Secretary of Culture, member of the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) André van der Louw, had to come up with an answer to all this, but the real answer came a year later, with Elco Brinkman becoming minister of Public Health and Culture; he started advocating top art unreservedly, which resulted in a narrowing of the art on offer and which forced the art market to shoulder a greater responsibility. Certain art circles, however, and not the smallest ones either, remained curious and eager to experience new initiatives. One of those new initiatives was The Living Room: Bart van de Ven’s and Peer Veneman’s living room on the third storey of 5 Wagenaar Street, which in 1981 was given the added function of exhibition centre. In fact, this was quite an urbane initiative compared to the many other initiatives that were launched in squats during the following years, which were usually named after the location, the street and/or house number or its original function. W 139, located on Warmoes Street in Amsterdam, and De Fabriek in Eindhoven are two examples of this, and were both established in 1980; V2 in ’s Hertogenbosch dates from the same year as The Living Room, but other initiatives, like Aorta in Amsterdam, de Paraplufabriek in Nijmegen, Hooghuis en Oceaan in Arnhem, were not in existence yet. It is true that artists had been living in squats for ten years, in Amsterdam especially, but it was not until the squatters had been violently evicted from Vondel Street in 1980 that the squat as a cultural hot spot really became the centre of attention. Two years later, The Living Room moved into an old plumber’s workshop, a place Bart van de Ven was able to rent cheaply – so it was not a squat. The fact that The Living Room came to be – in Tineke Reijnders’ words – ‘the talk of the town’, was perhaps due to its being bicoloured. It was an alternative gallery, where – just like at de Appel – it was possible to establish a personal contact with the owners, the artists and the visitors, and it was also a place where one had the feeling one could still come into closer contact with other subcultures as well as with the wider, typical Amsterdam art scene. A remnant of that homey smell also clung to the performance with which Peter Baren added lustre to the opening.
The Living Room Or Is The Approach Hardly More Important Than One Of The Objects?
Baren’s was not a beginner’s performance, even though all kinds of things went wrong. It was not well thought-out whether for the performer should be suspended in the air before the audience came in or whether that should happen after everybody had got inside. Actually, the performer was supposed to be no more than ‘a subject’ in space. Last minute decisions proved to be the deciding factor, meaning that Baren, secured in a trapeze harness, had to be hoisted into the air twice. Cabaret Voltaire, This Heat, Durutti Column, Eyeless in Gaza and Indoor Life had been chosen as background music, but the tape recorder literally worked back to front, spitting out a hellish, electronic splutter instead. These are but details, which we do not think all that important at present. Our focus is on the concept, rather – for I cannot speak from my own experience in this, having not been in the audience – as well as on Koos Dalstra’s rather detailed description, which was published in Metropolis M at the end of that year.
The location: the living room of an apartment at 5 Wagenaar Street. The date: Sunday afternoon, February 1. The props: rotary cases with slides projecting light images – of dune landscapes familiar to Baren – aslant upon the wall, a path made of blue glass shards on the floor, masks, a female torso (plaster cast), old yellowed photographs (stills of children playing with hoops), a tape recorder. The action: the performer smearing smudges on the wall with gold-painted hands and feet. Two times 20 minutes he is hanging there, like a cherub at times and sometimes also like ‘a desperate fly trying its utmost to escape from a spider’s web’. This information will do for the moment: it was enough to show me, as did his later performances, that with this performance he defined himself, even though certain elements reminded one of performances given by other artists. Undoubtedly, the most important feature of the performance was the way in which Baren framed a space within a space, the figure up high defining the vertical dimension, and the path made of glass shards defining the horizontal dimensions. In the large-scale performance Stations Of Nameless Energy – Silhouettes Like Shivering Ancient Feelings in De Fabriek in Eindhoven, six years later, the majority of performers, secured in harnesses, were hanging above scaffolding, thus creating a performance block in the surrounding space, which people could visit in shifts, each lasting a couple of hours; this framing of space could also be seen in We Want To Lose Our Heads For Anything In Time (Chisenhale Gallery and Dance Space, London 1988, Arti & Amicitiae, Amsterdam and Shedhalle Zurich 1989), in which scraps of paper covered – and hence demarcated – the floor, and bunches of balloons fastened to the long hair of the eight performers, defined the height. In a performance of his that I watched in 2009, in Frascati, during The Manifold (after) Lives of Performance, organised by de Appel and STUK kunstencentrum Leuven, Baren created this effect via a completely different route. There, (theatre) mist filled up the location of the performance. Baren’s aim was to achieve a paradoxical experience: a stimulation of all senses by obstructing vision. At times Baren strove for the higher levels in a more symbolical manner, by using ritual objects, like the wirra, a boomerang or, rather in a more literal sense, by choosing to work with towers – but that is quite another matter. The examples given here also show that a performance could be done by other performers than the artist – in these examples people of flesh and blood, but sometimes in other performances and installations, they could also be dummies. Is it possible that this has something to do with ‘the characterless compression in Baren’s work’, as Dalstra called it, in reference to Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities? For Baren, in any case, it does not necessarily have to be the artist himself who is doing the performance. But Dalstra’s observation goes beyond that: all he is concerned about is the post-romantic artist Baren for whom ‘doing performances is a profession and not life itself’. ‘No longer an emotional drama for the sake of a few of the initiated, taking place in a holy of holies.’
A performer of a new generation
Dalstra’s observations create a schism between Baren – as a performance artist – and the somewhat older type of performance artist for whom the performance indeed constituted life itself, in the shape of an emotional drama, to be seen in places manifesting themselves as sacred spaces. De Appel, maybe, that white cell(a) in the back of that warehouse on Brouwersgracht? Dalstra phrased it even more crudely: ‘Suicide as an artistic act is senseless, because it is taken from real life and stands in the way of the continuity of the profession.’ Dalstra, who was doing performances together with Baren at the time, seems to be talking here on Baren’s behalf as well. Strikingly, Albert van der Weide, a performance artist somewhat older than Dalstra and Baren, quoted Dalstra’s exact remarks in his review of the performance ‘Wirra’, performed for the Ennu Foundation Tilburg (GBK magazine, January 1983). So do the three of them want to emphatically distinguish, if not distance, themselves from an older generation of performance artists clearly modelled on Ben d’Armagnac? In what way and to what extent exactly are Baren’s performances different? Looking at his performance in The Living Room again, we are struck with the difference in context first. It is true,The Living Room, like de Appel, aimed at facilitating a more personal contact with its visitors, but this living room could not be called a sacred space by any stretch of the imagination. In addition, the context among artists working with different media – painting and sculpture – created a completely different atmosphere. As is obvious from his later career, Baren easily hopped from one art context to another, from for instance the theatre (on location) or dancing to the artists’ initiative, to more official art institutes like a museum or to public space. I think that the different atmosphere or mood, which the audience could definitely pick up on, was the determining factor in our feeling that we were indeed dealing with a new generation of performers here. This impression was undoubtedly strengthened by some objective factors as well, like the use of both contemporary music and music usually associated with the artist and his scene, and the use of ‘neutral’ assistants as performers. Yet we also come across various motifs that played a striking role in performances by the elder generation, though these were not always used in the period before Baren started out, and sometimes later. I am thinking of the boomerang, the hands painted gold, bandages, masks – spiritual elements, enhanced by titles like Western Mantra and Eastern Mantra, but set off by almost prosaic elements creating – in that particular context – an effect of both estrangement and irony at the same time, like a performer skiing down a path of green soap or the troating of a rutting buck issuing from the Mint Tower in Amsterdam, as was to be heard in a memorable light and sound installation during Century 87, for instance.
In the Eighties contemporary art went the alternative route. It was also a period in which artists’ initiatives came to be ever more important and numerous festivals were organised to accommodate the more contemporary media like video and performance art – quite often out of sheer necessity, by the way. A case in point was the festival PERFOTIJD (PERFOTIME), which took place in Rotterdam in Lantaren/Venster from 1983 onwards, with Wink van Kempen as its initiator. Baren was present at the first (with Koos Dalstra) and third edition PERFO 3: A kind of beauty. The theme of the second performance was Dutch Gravity and the first space flight undertaken by a Dutch astronaut: Wubbo Ockels. In addition to what I have mentioned earlier, I was struck by two things: whereas the first edition still featured a mixture of the older generation of internationally acclaimed performance artists like Chris Burden and James Lee Byars and younger, unknown artists, the third edition had a large number of both performances and installations and concerts on offer. The list of artists invited included only one name belonging to an older artist of international repute: Mierle Laderman Ukeles (1939). It is clear from Van Kempen’s words and from the words of the festival critics that people were eager to emphasize the difference between performances from the Sixties and Seventies and those from the Eighties: ‘the amusement component has become more important. References to television and to entertainment, as well as an ironic sense of humour, are important, new ingredients. Artful acting takes the place of hard action; the performance is allowed to be a “beautiful” theatrical product.’ (Jan Middeldorp in de Volkskrant, May 13, 1985). The difference between the theatre and the performance as visual art was still pointed out, a description that was well-fitted to Baren’s position in this. However, he did not shun the theatre, as may be inferred from his taking part in Hamlet (A Portrait) by Stuart Sherman, which was performed in Mickery Amsterdam at the Holland Festival (1981) and New China Reconstructs Domestic Kit, together with dancer and choreographer Truus Bronkhorst and poet and criminologist Koos Dalstra, at the Shaffy Theatre (1982).
The location commissioning the art work
One of the most important developments in Eighties’ art in general was the art work being commissioned by the location. First let me explain what I mean by this in order to then list a number of examples from Peter Baren’s oeuvre; the examples in point are (performing) installations mostly. The formulation comprises two different fields, which, however, completely and neatly overlap in Baren’s work: 1. Curators commissioning – for some manifestation or other- a work that is to focus on a certain theme or on a certain location, and 2. Institutes unrelated to art or government authorities commissioning a more permanent work of art for a public place. The development of both shifted the focus from art-immanent questions and personal, artist-bound themes, to themes with which the artist wanted to enter into a dialogue with a place, a client and an audience. As for the first category, the difference may perhaps be said to be a gradual one, in regard to the autonomy of the traditional situation, that is to say the artist exhibiting his paintings in a gallery or museum. However, this difference is more pronounced as soon as one focuses on the performance in this new context, comparing it to the performance of ten years before. The loss or absence of autonomy was intrinsic to the second category, but in Baren’s work both categories – government commissions and curators’ commissions for temporary manifestations – were in line. I have already mentioned his installation in the Mint Tower during Century 87; his contribution to a project organised by Franck Gribling, called Etant Donnés. Peepshows by artists (1988-89) in City Thoughts, situated on 131 Oudezijds Voorburgwal, smack in the middle of the Amsterdam red light district, also belongs in this category. Baren tried to lure the passers-by with the following text, written on the front door in giant letters: You’re My Baby, You’re My Favourite Waste Of Time. Between three peepholes in the door there was a ‘proviso’ written in block letters, in two languages: For Your Eyes Only. Through the highest peephole you could see a stone turning round and round, through the two other peepholes you could see two identical pictures of a schizophrenic mental patient, forming each other’s mirror image. The radio was on, tuned in to Hilversum 3. A much larger project in 1988, at which the social context was complemented by a politico-historical context, was Echo Of Histyria (Or The Man On The Clock) and Island Of Lost Souls in Graz, in which the Nazi history of this Austrian city was the predominant theme. Bezugspunkte 1938-1988 was the title of the main exhibition Baren participated in during this yearly festival called Steirischer Herbst – about the guilt and innocence of art (the theme of that year). Baren strung up a performer on one of the hands of the city clock, which had been stopped – this time the performer was a lifesize dummy dressed in an ordinary men’s suit. This caused the time to stop at five minutes to 12. In the station hall Baren would have loved to create – in the presence of the passers-by – ‘the island of Lost Souls’, a stained-glass picture based on an advertisement dating from 1938, discussing the question whether or not Arian people and Jews should be permitted to marry. It was the only work for which no permission was granted – by the Austrian Railways in this case. Eight years later he created another appealing work, Strelen van de Dijk/Caressing the Dike, commissioned by the province of Flevoland celebrating its tenth anniversary that year. It formed part of an art and poetry project, for which five artists and four poets/writers had been invited. He took a tractor, sought out people who had been working on the dikes, made casts of their hands and stuck these on to metal arms that were attached to the tractor, and in such a way that the dike was slowly caressed by the fingertips of these men’s hands. Lastly, I would like to give an example that should make it clear that the chasm between the commissions in which location plays a crucial role and those which Baren himself calls his ‘public works’, is not all that wide. I chanced upon it one time, when I did not get off the train at Amsterdam Central Station for a change, but travelled further north. The project was called Angel.Dust – We Want To Lose Our Heads, For Anything In Time (2001-2003) and consisted of a large number of photographs of performances, printed on sandblast foil and affixed to the transparent platform roofing of Sloterdijk Station. Photographs spanning twenty years of performances forming a collection and, at the same time a review of his career as a performance artist. Was this a personal signature after all? And, moreover, a signature in the shape of a work in the most public place of all – the station? These pictures were labelled ‘enigmatic’ and I realise that I have encountered this phrase in earlier texts about Peter Baren, or at least phrases that are more or less comparable, like ‘confusing’ and ‘alienating’. I had already noticed that there was not a single author who hazarded interpreting Baren’s work, even though it was suggested at times that interpretations were around somewhere. Does this characterize Baren’s performances or those of his generation? Or does it apply to the majority of the performances, which eventually makes the observer insensitive to the object of the performance and to the possible ways of interpreting it, replacing it instead with a personal, subjective interpretation of the event? I am well aware it sounds like a platitude, but the performance should just be experienced, felt, done.
 A case in point is the Dogtroep; members of the group were living in the same studio complex on Wittenburg as Peter Baren. Another case in point is the Festival of Fools. Further on in this article, more examples will be given of Baren’s closer involvement, shown by his contributing to several productions.
 For more information on the history of de Appel, see: Marga van Mechelen, De Appel. Performances, Installations, Video, Projects, 1975-1983, Amsterdam: Stichting de Appel 2006. In 1989, Frank Gribling, involved in de Appel right from the start, organised an exposition in Arti and Amicitiae Amsterdam, that was at the same time a looking back at the history of performance art and an account of the state of art; Peter Baren participated in this show entitled Beyond Performance.
 Although at the time de Appel was accused of being a closed circle, it did stimulate all kinds of initiatives, all over the country, in the field of contemporary art. It was involved in the launching of W 139, for instance, and also took the first step towards the founding of Time Based Arts.
 See Van Mechelen 2006, p. 307 ff.
 A good source of information on the Eighties’ art scene is Peter Giele’s monograph, which features contributions by Anna Tilroe, Marina de Vries, Tineke Reijnders, Koos Dalstra and many others (Peter L.M. Giele. Collected Works. Amsterdam: Aksant 2003).
 Koos Dalstra, ‘Peter Baren’, Metropolis M, Vol. 3, Nr. 2, December 1981, pp. 13-19. Peter Baren gave more information on this during an interview I had with him on Thursday February 14, 2013.
 Dalstra 1981, p. 13.
 This came up in the skype conversation I had with Peter Baren on March 11, 2013.
 Koos Dalstra, ‘Smaak en Macht; Macht en Smaak’, Metropolis M, Vol. 3, nr. 5, October 1982, p. 44.
 Dalstra 1982, p. 44.
 One of the three new media festivals that were launched in the Mid-Eighties, was the AVE festival in Arnhem; Peter Baren took part in 1986, together with Erszi Hatvari. Baren also had contact with – among others – with Time Based Arts and Jack Moore of Videoheads in Amsterdam.
 In the video conversation mentioned before (see note 8), he also mentioned having been inspired here by Rene Daniels’ work.
 His later contributions to theatre projects include: Zurich Theatre Spectacle (1988) and Macbeth (Only Fools Die) a Prix de Rome production of the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, Amsterdam (1989).
 This description is partly based on the one given by Mark Peeters in de Volkskrant, October 24, 1989.
 In Graz a festival was organised each year, but 1988 marked the 50th ‘celebration’ of the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. The festival’s theme was: the guilt and innocence of art. In the press, the bulk of the attention was focused on Baren and Hans Haacke.
 I would like to refer to the texts by Koos Dalstra and Albert van der Weide, mentioned before, and also to those by Desiree Raemakers, in Vrij Spel (Free Play), 1993, as well as to statements by Bert Jansen in ‘About The Exploitations Of Peter Baren’ [unpublished 1988], Geurt Imanse (Inszenierte Fotografie, Neuss 1989), Rob Perree (‘A Committed Search For Limits’ (Peter Baren’s ARK Series), 2008 and IJsbrand van Veelen (‘Peter Baren’, Hills and Mills catalogue, Amsterdam/Bratislava 1992).
Performance As Visual Grammar
Peter Baren’s personal visual language
Alex de Vries
(published in: Peter Baren – Blind Dates With The History Of Mankind. Performances 1980-2013. De Zwaluw, The Hague, 2013)
It is impossible to understand Peter Baren’s work within the exclusive framework of visual art. However, his performances do fit in with happenings, environments, installations, appropriation art and other forms of visual art in which the nature of the work is determined by the artist’s presence (whether it be physical or not) in a stage setting in time and space. But at a very early stage in his career, Peter Baren particularly concerned himself with the developments in the performing arts.
As early as the late seventies, when he was studying painting at the Rijksakademie (1972-1977) and gaining his first experiences as a visual artist, Peter Baren was already busily working on the creation and development of a personal idiom. At a later stage, in the eighties, he developed an autonomous and individual visual language in the performance, against the background of certain developments in the visual arts in which the earliest performance artists of the sixties and seventies were leaving their positions. The manifesto-like form cherished by performance art till the late seventies, was no longer tenable. Actually, until 1986 the conditions determining the creation of performances in visual art were of an extremely dominant nature, comparable to the principles ruling the first films made by the Dogma-company, like ‘Festen’, produced byThomas Vinterberg. In this basic performance practice a leading role was played by the work of Ulay and Abramovic. They intensively worked together for ten years (1976-1986), and put a definitive end to their collaboration two years later, in 1988, when they hiked the Great Wall for three months (‘The Lovers’ Walk On The Great Wall Of China’) walking towards each other from opposite ends, one from the west, the other from the east. After having met halfway, they each went their own way. The principles underlying the performance were: there are to be no rehearsals, there is to be one performance only, there are to be no other performers than us two, and we are to go on till we drop. This resulted in a distict visual language, with ‘body art’ – as it was labelled – proving to be mainly a matter of ‘mental art’. In spite of their transitory nature, these performances have remained manifest as an iconic memory, captured in documentary images in books, magazines, exhibitions and archives, like the one in the Time Based Arts institute, which later merged with Montevideo (specialising in electronical and video art) to become the Netherlands Institute for Media Art (Nederlands Instituut voor Mediakunst, NIMk), which had to close its doors in 2012.
The quality of both this powerful visual language of the performance and the extreme, revelatory intensity of performing had already worked their way into the performing arts at the end of the seventies. There was, in fact, an interaction between the theatrical form language of drama, dance and mime and the purely visual quality of the outward appearance of the performance. As far as content was concerned, the intentions of both disciplines differed more widely, yet these also started converging in the early eighties. This was particularly evident in the art of dance: examples are Pina Bausch, Krisztina de Châtel, Meredith Monk, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Beppie Blankert, Bianca van Dillen, Pauline Daniëls, Truus Bronkhorst, Koert Stuyf and Ellen Edinoff, Ton Lutgerink, Amy Gale, Bob Foltz, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Hans van Manen and many others. In Amsterdam this development had started early and it was boosted by the foundation of the School voor Nieuwe Dansontwikkeling (SNDO – School for New Developments in Dance) in 1975.
Both the practice of music and theatre saw the rise of interconnections with visual art, leading back to the cooperation between choreographers, visual artists and composers from the fifties. Peter Baren was particularly influenced by the work of Robert Morris (1931), who worked together with artists like choreographer Lucinda Childs (1940), for instance; but other remarkable interdisciplinary performances were of great importance to Baren, as well. An example in point is the cooperation between Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) and John Cage (1912-1992), who created their first ‘happening’ in 1952. In their turn, they were preceded by the trendsetting events in the Parisian avant-garde in the twenties, like the performances of the ‘Ballet Méchanique’ (1923/24) for instance, by the American composer George Antheil (1900-1959), the music of which was originally written as accompaniment to a movie by co-producer Fernand Léger (1881-1955), which was directed by Dudley Murphy (1897-1968) with the help of Man Ray (1890-1976). Antheil is known for straining his hands to such an extent while playing his piano pieces that between times he cooled them down in two fish bowls filled with water, standing on the grand piano, an act which, in a symbolical sense, might just as well be one of Peter Baren’s gestures. And perhaps we should – in 2013 – refer back to 1913, the year which saw the first performance of the ballet ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’, put to music by Igor Strawinsky (1882-1971), choreographed by Vaslaw Nijinsky (1889-1950) in a stage setting by artist and archeologist Nikolaj Rjorich (1874-1947).
In any case, in Amsterdam, where Baren was living and working, performance art was no longer a mere visual art discipline in the early eighties. It is true, Peter Baren’s work originated in the activities of the so-called artists’ initiatives emerging around that time, a setting in which many of his artistic friends and colleagues gave their first performances. However, the developments in the so-called ‘fringe theatre’ had at least as great an effect on the nature and shape that Peter Baren’s performances were to take on in the course of time. After the ‘Actie Tomaat’ in 1969, an event in which the established Dutch traditional theatre was drastically put in its place, a ‘rustling revolution’ had wound its way through the acting schools of Amsterdam, with the Mime school, founded in 1968 by Frits Vogels, as the prime initiator. At the school, students worked according to the style of movement as defined by Etienne Decroux (1898-1991): ‘corporeal mime’, i.e. not a silent ‘pantomime’, but a dramatic style of movement which he had laid down in a visual manual. The views of Jacques Lecoq (1921-1999) on the performer’s ‘physical intelligence’, based on the body’s movement through space, were at least as influential. At the time, anyone asking a mime player what his performance was about, would get the same answer nine times out of ten: ‘movement in space’. For that matter, anyone asking dancers and choreographers the same question, usually got the answer: ‘a process of attraction and rejection’, which quite often was ironically dubbed ‘addiction and reaction’.
The second circuit
Young theatre students founded unions and collectives and actively sought cooperation with composers, musicians, dancers, choreographers, visual artists, filmmakers, graphic designers and others, all seeking to work together on an equal footing, outside the established circuits. Besides the existing stages of theatres and concert halls the so-called ‘second circuit’ of ‘black box theatres’ came into being, to be followed a little later by a ‘third circuit’ of location theatre, the latter soon taking the form of festivals. The most obvious example of this may be said to be the ‘Festival of Fools’ (1975-1984), followed by ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ (1984-1987). Examples of ‘second circuit’ stages are the Shaffy Theater (1969-1989) in the Felix Meritis building on Keizersgracht, Amsterdam, which was founded by Steve Austen (1944), and the Mickery Theater (1965-1991), first located in the farm owned by Ritsaert ten Cate (1938-2008) in Loenersloot, and later in what is now called the Rozentheater on Rozengracht, Amsterdam. Another important fact to be mentioned here is that in 1968 Ten Cate was co-founder of Galerie Seriaal, together with Wies Smals (1939-1983), who in 1975 was to start up de Appel, the presentation institute which was to become of such great importance to performance art.
From 1979 onwards, an important stage for contemporary music was the Ysbreeker on Weesperzijde, founded by Jan Wolff (1941-2012), as a stage for the presentation of the more ‘performative’ music artists.
The art collectives of the time that were playing these stages and were part of international billings, had a great impact on the development of the art practice that embraced each and every discipline: literature, architecture, acting, dance, mime, music and visual art all played an equal part in a multitude of performances that were characterised by self-activation and self-organisation, improvisation and spontaneity, the creation of theories, research, accessibility and crowd participation, fun and a growing political and social awareness. Art companies like Het Werkteater, Onafhankelijk Toneel, Maatschappij Discordia, Neerlands Hoop in Bange Dagen, Will Spoor, Bewth, Griftheater, Hauser Orkater, Nieuw West, Stichting Dansproduktie, Vals Bloed, Funhouse, Waste of Time, Proloog, Studio, the Schönberg Ensemble, the Instant Composers Pool, Moniek Toebosch/Michel Waisvisz, Jan Fabre, the Dogtroep and many others all contributed to the drastic modernisation of the performing arts. It was a period in which no experiment was shunned, in which each performance and every presentation was a result of research and in which the laws of the art disciplines were invented anew.
Against that background and basing himself on the actual visual art practice of those days, Peter Baren was working on the idiom of the performances that he himself dubbed ‘temporary explorations’ and later ‘temporary exploitations’. He used this terminology to give his own personal interpretation of the English terminology of ‘performance’. To that end he developed a personal visual language. Right from the start his working method is characterised by his deploying visual elements that never stand alone; always, they are rotating around each other, interlocking and spiralling, and they are visible from all sides. It is as if you are looking at a clock-mechanism, with numerous cogwheels interlocking and propelling each other forward with the energy of a tightly wound mainspring.
The demolition of ‘the fourth wall’ – the impenetrable window within the frame of the stage had already been smashed to pieces in the so-called fringe theatre – resulted in there being absolutely no barrier between artist and audience in Baren’s performances, right from his very first show. The hanging figure in his 1981 performance ‘The Living Room Of Is De Toenadering Nauwelijks Belangrijker Dan Een Van De Voorwerpen’ [‘The Living Room Or Is The Approach Hardly More Important Than One Of The Objects’], on the occasion of the opening of The Living Room, was not meant to be an untouchable object, but a living presence in the middle of a social event, rather. In that sense, Peter Baren was at most a Fremdkörper with whom, as a participant in the opening of the exhibition, one had to try and enter into a relationship; on this occasion, ignoring the hanging figure’s presence also counted as entering into a legitimate relationship, by the way.
The blueprint for that first performance was still relatively simple in its design. The visual elements and the action were neatly arranged and the duration was dependent on Baren’s physical powers and hence quite limited. It was immediately clear to everyone that Baren was rising from – or crashing down in – the crowd like Icarus, displaying a total disregard for death bordering on a zest for living, fixated in the moment of appearing, a floating figure evoking wonder as well as a certain level of indifference, like a fly on the ceiling having taken on the Kafkaesque guise of Gregor Samsa.
At the time, Baren was still a loner, but he did have the desire to do performances together with other people. In 1980 he had performed together with the Dogtroep, at several festivals, including the Festival of Fools. He also did physical training with Truus Bronkhorst and Margie Smit of Stichting Dansproduktie. In 1981 he took part in Stuart Sherman’s play ‘Hamlet (A Portrait)’, with members of the British theatre company Theatre of Mistakes, in the Mickery Theater and the American Center in Paris.
In his own work he started searching for a way of presenting a multiple personage. To that end, he worked with Koos Dalstra in 1982-1984, in a series of performances entitled ‘Wirra’, one of the names used by the Aborigines to denote their traditional weapon and tool, the boomerang. ‘Wirra’ is the basis for the visual language Peter Baren uses, the boomerang’s orbit once it has been thrown, a movement of going out and coming back, like the first trajectory of a spiral, this is the movement he tries to capture and trace out. After the Wirra-series Baren and Dalstra were to work together again occasionally, in a number of projects.
After the ‘Wirra’-series Baren goes about entering into brief partnerships with artists and local performers on a completely different basis, inviting them to take part in his performances, much more like a director supervising the players than like a ‘performance duo’. His working method is more like that of the ‘Orgien-Mysterien Theater’ of Hermann Nitsch (1938), featuring numerous participants actively taking part in performing coherent sacrificial rituals, although Baren engineers condensed spiritual seances rather than the long-drawn-out re-enactment of the ‘totem meals’ sought after by Nitsch.
An important factor in bringing in numerous participants to take part in his performances, is the experience he gains in the 1989 competition for the Prix de Rome Visual Art & Theatre. The brief for the final competition of this event, organised by the Rijksakademie every year, was: “Make a draft on the basis of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Then choose a scene and give it shape and work out the details according to your own judgment.” Although the whole business proved frustrating for all artists – besides Baren these included Sanne Danz, Hans Klasema and Erik Kouwenhoven – because of the jury imposing upon the artists the exact straightjacket they were trying to free themselves from, it caused Peter Baren’s work to gain momentum. He managed to master the role of director, which was forced upon him in this project, and learned to use it to his own ends in his subsequent work. Never again did he force upon others his artistic plans, decisions and performances, like a distant outsider. His personal engagement, dedication and participation in a collective process took on the guise of a skipper taking on board his crew to sail towards a collective destination. Representative of this working method was the practice of the Polish theatre director Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990), especially his play ‘Dead Class’, dating from 1975, featuring Kantor himself as a teacher in front of a class of seemingly dead pupils.
Baren’s performance series ‘ARK’, started up in New York in 2004 – with several performances later on show in various places all over the world – is the most complete manifestation of this personal engagement, for the time being. The shape of the work, fanning out in all directions, always emerges from a practically impenetrable fog, with the participants being ‘possessed’ by Peter Baren, as it were, with Baren himself as the writer of spells that direct his people through the performance space towards a parallel world. ARK is the evocation of a multiple personality syndrome, not belonging to a god or a spirit, but to a shivering memory of a collective past in which we have lost our way. In his ARK Peter Baren is a guide who has become lost inside himself and who is freed by the people around him, so that together they may honour the intention of keeping watch together over what should never be lost: our memory as our expectation of the future.
The foundation for the power of this visual language was laid by Peter Baren in the eighties. The performance entitled ‘New China Reconstructs Domestic Kit’ in the Shaffy Theater in 1982, together with dancer/choreographer Truus Bronkhorst and, again, Koos Dalstra, was the pivotal point leading to the meaning of the theatricality of his work. The strong stage performance of Truus Bronkhorst, who was to become the most powerful solo dance personality in the Netherlands, combined with Dalstra’s intimidating intractability, proved to be pregnant human instruments adding even more poignancy to Peter Baren’s imagination. It was precisely the austere, ascetic character of the actions and objects that brought the whole performance into historical relief.
For a few years, the Shaffy Theater was to be a recurring stage for Peter Baren, especially from 1984 onwards, the year in which Dick Hauser (1952) became general manager. Together with his brother, saxophone player Rob Hauser, he gave the legendary theatre company Hauser Orkater (1972-1980) its name. An important role in the company was played by visual artist and future film director Alex van Warmerdam (1952), together with his brothers Marc and Vincent. Another important factor was the contribution of ‘loner’ Jim van der Woude (1948).
In his programmes for the Shaffy Theater Dick Hauser was keen to emphasise the interaction between theatre, music and visual art of a performative nature. He put on new work by Truus Bronkhorst, mime players like Trudie Lute and Marion van Wijk, composer/performer Harry de Wit, visual artist Peter Zegveld, theatrical producers Barbara Duifjes and Lisa Marcus, choreographer Bart Stuijf, Jim van der Woude, and others. Dick Hauser organised big multimedial manifestations in the Shaffy Theater, like ‘De Blauwbaardclub’ (The Bluebeard Club)’ by Dagan Cohen and the spectacular Christmas balls that were on every year, drawing each and every art lover in Amsterdam. He had radio producer Julie Smit organise a monthly, incredibly touching performance programme and for the television company VPRO he also produced the experimental television programme entitled Het Lab. Every month he had artists create a monumental mural in the foyer, measuring four by four metres. Together with Johan van der Keuken, Eric de Kuijper and Peter Delpeut he started up film workshops and organised the sound art festival ‘So und so und so’ twice.
Peter Baren’s work completely fitted in with these varied programmes, until the Shaffy Theater had to close down in 1989 because the city withdrew its funding for the theatre. In the meantime, Peter Baren had already given his work international scope in 1987, which was confirmed nationwide by his participating in Century ’87, an impressive, international art manifestation on location in the historic centre of Amsterdam, organised by Sjarel Ex, Els Hoek and Nicolette Gast. Baren’s contribution consisted of having the troating sound of a rutting buck issue from the Mint Tower, smack in the middle of town, which was glowing red for the occasion; according to Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen in his piece in Flash Art, this rutting, primitive call brought about ‘the most convincing disorientation in everyday life’.
Peter Baren’s work is acclaimed all over the world until this very day. He is invited to contribute to performance festivals in all continents. His oeuvre has exceptional imaginative powers, due to the intercultural intention he has brought to bear on his work right from the start. His early works already bore titles like ‘Oosterse Mantra’ (Eastern Mantra’) and ‘Westerse Mantra (‘Western Mantra’); ethnical and anthropological artefacts were part of his stock of visual instruments, especially the boomerang, mentioned earlier.
Every performance by Peter Baren is based on a handwritten and handdrawn score, in which he visualises all aspects of the presentation. They are complex graphic records of all visual elements, actions, patterns of movement, participants, the time schedule, the use of light et cetera. He reads these ‘scores’ like an orchestral score, which he can execute like a conductor, but which, to an outsider, is more difficult to read. They present themselves as picture stories that immediately bring out the enigmatic aspect of his performances. It is not until the actual performance that they are explained to the person watching and getting wrapped up in the spectacle. You never just watch a performance by Peter Baren, you never just look at it, but you are surrounded by it and become a part of it. You are free to remain detached, as was the case with Baren’s performance in The Living Room. In this way, you will be thrown back upon your own resources and your own responsibility regarding the things you choose to be part of. Baren, however, never judges the viewer, however harshly the latter may judge him.
After each performance Baren immediately draws up a second score in which he records the working method used and the actions chosen. He does not do so in order to stimulate possible re-enactments of his work, but to report on his working method, in which intent and execution are two different things.
Anyone striking up a conversation with Peter Baren, is bound to get lost immediately in the living score of his way of speaking: with him, question and answer never run along straight lines. For Baren, each question sparks the need to circle the assumption lying hidden in it, to stray from the subject, to run ahead of things, to start reminiscing, to ask a question in turn, to come up with a quote, to get out a book, to show some photographs, to maka a sketch, to draw a little map or to hum a tune, while talking to or handing something to his children, while checking his text messages on his mobile phone or opening the door to an unexpected visitor – and doing all this simultaneously. According to Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) Peter Baren has a rizomatic way of life. In everything he says and does, lurks the irrepressible desire to pass by every form of hierarchy. The philosophy of ‘nomadic subjectivity’, as coined by Deleuze, may certainly be applied to Peter Baren’s working methods.
In his performance scores he uses a visual language that represents this solitary drifting about – set off against the surrounding world – in full detail. This working method is related to what was called ‘the graphic gesture’ in the late seventies, with the action of creating something being at least as important as the result of that creative act. The way in which Baren writes and draws up these scores – you really should see him do it – is like the way in which wild brambles grow, endlessly branching off underground, sprouting enormously, bending towards the ground again, taking root there again, forming a network covered in little barbs that entangle you and scrape your skin. However, they bear fruit. You can pick them endlessly, make jams and jellies with them, hand these out to anyone who likes them – and they may keep the jars in the cellar and in cupboards for a long time. These jars all have written labels specifying the contents – in Peter Baren’s handwriting.
Coming back to mist and light and one’s own presence
An interview with Peter Baren
(published in: Peter Baren – Blind Dates With The History Of Mankind. Performances 1980-2013. De Zwaluw, The Hague, 2013)
My first introduction to Peter Baren and his work was in the late nineties, when I was working for the Netherlands Media Art Institute. I was fascinated by his work, because it was so completely individual, compared to all the interminable black-and-white recordings of videotaped performances that I had been all too familiar with till then. It was a real eye-opener for me to see an artist who was not afraid to use theatrical gestures, and who included enormous light effects in his performances. Yet, in spite of Baren manipulating the surrounding space in all kinds of ways – manipulations that characterised, or even facilitated his performances – in essence, his work remained remarkably simple. In this interview we shall discuss his position in relation to the canonical definition of performance art, which became generally accepted in twentieth-century history of art: the idea that performance is about bare spaces and minimal intervention. Moreover, we shall discuss the three stages in his art works: his intentions beforehand and the way in which his ideas develop, how these manifest themselves in a live situation and what is left of them afterward. Thus we are given an insight into the formative process underlying the performances by the artist himself.
In total, we talked together five times, looking again at the answers given earlier, questioning them again, with Baren reformulating them. I have tried to assemble all the different answers to form a complete interview in just the way in which Baren talks – giving answers that vary from short, pithy sentences to long stories in which he happily loses himself in anecdotes – thus the reader is offered the opportunity to roam with us through the various fields we visited in our discussions about his work. These discussions did not only feature details about his own work, but also important sources of inspiration, as well as co-artists crossing his path and the various venues where his performances took place.
You belong to the generation of artists for whom the performance had become an accepted medium. How did you end up in performance art?
PB: From ’72 to ’77 I was a student at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten (State Academy of Visual Arts). I did not hail from a very cultural background, hence even this training came as a considerable culture shock to me. Unlike the Academy nowadays, it offered a really classical training. You could choose between two- and three-dimensional work: painting and drawing or sculpture, a subdivision we would find it hard to imagine at present. At the time, someone suggested – as a joke – that one should opt for four dimensions, as formulated by Kazimir Malevich. I had absolutely no idea at the time that I was to apply myself to performance art later on.
But did you ever go and see performances while attending this as yet traditional academy?
From 1975 onwards, I occasionally visited de Appel. At the time, I saw Ben d’Armagnac, for instance, and Moniek Toebosch. But I also saw videos by Vito Acconci there. In those days, I came into ever closer contact with people doing modern dance, like the dancers of Gebouw de Liefde and people belonging to Dogtroep. It was a very fertile period, with impressions coming in from all directions.
In the early eighties I started doing what I called ‘public working periods ’. I came into contact with Peer Veneman in the ACA/HAL 1 ( Amsterdams Centrum voor Actuele kunst – Amsterdam Centre for Contemporary Art) where we were both working at the time. Through him I became involved in a new artists’ initiative called The Living Room, an alternative location where we took things into our own hands, in order to provide a niche for contemporary art. The following years, 1981 and 1982, were very important to me, because that was the time when everything fell into place for me.
Let’s go back to the beginning. How was it possible for you to reconcile this ‘different art’ which you encountered in these alternative locations with the traditional training at the respectable Rijksakademie (State Academy)? Were you not very confused, with this traditional State Academy already constituting such a culture shock?
The link was mainly forged by other artists attending the State Academy, people I felt a connection with, who took me along to these special places like de Appel; at the time, the latter was a tremendous incrowd spot, by the way. Yet, it offered me an alternative perspective on art, one which I found very appealing. It made me feel certain that I did not want to create work any longer which I could physically stand next to. I had not yet reached the point where I was going to use my body only, but I wanted more than what I could present on the flat plane. To be that confrontation myself. Perhaps this has also got to do with my father, who was an architect, for I wanted to include the space for which my art was meant, in the work of art itself. At a certain point you became space and created space. I wanted to influence people three-dimensionally, with the use of a wide scale of materials and objects, I never wanted to use my own body merely, something I saw quite often in the performance art of that time.
I sought to cooperate with other artists and dancers using their bodies, such as members of Dansproductie (Dance production), for instance, and became involved in Stuart Sherman’s performance called ‘Hamlet (A Portrait)’, which was put on at the Mickery Theatre in Amsterdam and which featured several Hamlets standing on the stage simultaneously. I was one of those Hamlets, working with members of the Theatre of Mistakes on this occasion. In those days I constantly alternated the visual art space – the white cube – with the theatre space – the black box. At the time I already knew that I did not want to choose only one of these worlds. Hence, my preference for always using props – apart from my own body – in my performances, props that afterwards still had a raison d’être. In my early performances these could be paintings, for instance; later on, I used existing objects that I had take on a different shape.
But to return to that Rijksakademie (State Academy), which, like a kind of monastery, demanded you to be present daily from nine till four, and even every evening from seven till nine, as well, while you were raring to go and hit the town, of course! The institute did not have any studios, we had to share. What a relief it was to leave the Academy, when we were able to create our own studios in squats, completely in tune with the spirit of the time, which was dominated by crisis and called for a do-it-yourself mentality. The period in the squat on Wittenburg was very special: this was where we lived and worked and this was the place where the doors to our studios were always open.
When you discovered this squatters’ scene, did you consciously choose to focus on performance?
I certainly did not have an ideal picture in mind of what my art practice was to be like. Coming from a middle-class background, I was extremely eager to sample the world opening up before me, I still am, actually. In my heart of hearts I knew: there has to be more in life than this classical training, but I never made a conscious choice to break away from the academic life. I found the developments in contemporary painting very interesting as well, for instance. But equally important for me was my introduction to the Japanese Butoh theatre, and to Gordon Matta-Clark, Bruce Mc Lean, Tadeusz Kantor, James Lee Byars, to the later works of Bruce Nauman and, more recently, Alistair MacLennan. In my opinion, it was a long series of introductions, fuelled by my greediness. And to continue to work, to find your own space in a squat, an old potato warehouse on Wittenburg, for instance. To be active, to experiment, all of this taking place on the sidelines, without any major social agenda. We just wanted our own space for our own art.
So, this greediness and quest of yours formed the basis for those first performing elements in your work. But it was never just about an artistic development focused on yourself only, with the audience taking second place.
That’s right, the people present played an important role right from the start. For instance, I have never done a solo performance in front of a camera, to be shown to an audience later. The live experience of the people present at my performances has always been extremely important to me.
Right from my first performance during the FRAME EXPERIMENT, which took place in the Willem II cigar factory in the town of ’s-Hertogenbosch, the audience has been very important. It was a very strong experience for me, taking place in a festival setting. In fact, I was subservient to the phantom – my body as a neutral entity – that had a role in this performance. I was just a presence, subservient to the overall picture I created.
I immediately knew I had presented something here that I wanted to continue with. I realised that, at that moment, it was not just about the experiment any longer. It was clear: I had a studio as a base, and used my body as personal material. Things could be taken further from there.
‘A body like a phantom’ also sounds a bit like the metaphor widely used in the theatre world: the actor’s body like a hollow vessel that can be filled up. Also because the audience and the festival setting were so important to you: was it never an issue for you, the question whether you were a theatrical artist or a visual artist?
No. Although I never wanted to choose between these two worlds, I have always kept regarding myself as a visual artist. One of the reasons for this was the experiences I had had playing Hamlet at the Mickery on Rozengracht. You were booked, did rehearsals and ended up doing the same thing twenty times over. Time and time again you had to find the strength to enter into a physical and mental marathon session. At the time, I did not want this to be my only method of working: also, I was desperate to find my own personal form. After that, in 1982, I started intensively cooperating with Koos Dalstra, at W 139 in Amsterdam, at first. This cooperation eventually resulted in our WIRRA-series.
Everything we did remained theatrical: exaggerating your movements, but at the same time feeling that urge to react to the space where the performance was taking place, and to the people being present there.
In the eighties many performance artists initially working with their own bodies, in an empty visual art space, switched over to the theatre. As if performance art had become socially acceptable.
It had definitely not become that. As a performance artist, you were always kept on the sidelines at visual art manifestations and exhibitions, hidden away in the fringe programme, for instance. An interesting case in point is an action by Charlemagne Palestine. He was asked to do a performance at the 1977 Documenta. He ended up making a sculpture, because that would yield him ten times the money he was going to get for a performance. This is still the case: as a performance artist you have to negotiate a lot harder in order to get a good spot for your work, an object will nearly always get a good spot as a matter of course.
Could we say that there is a hierarchy between the art disciplines still?
That has changed by now. I think Tino Sehgal is an interesting artist: in staging the public’s experience within visual art spaces, he is taking things ever further. He always uses that context in a very strong manner. Moreover, the enormous influx of film and video art has resulted in the public being more patient and more accepting of time based art.
What has induced you to do a performance? A movement, a space, music or a certain prop?
Actually, that varies a lot. For instance, an important factor in my first performance was the fact that I had a large, deserted factory hall at my disposal. It was a kind of tabula rasa. At the time, the idea to fill that hall with movement appealed to me. This had to do with my search, mentioned earlier: I literally wanted to experience the space. Willem II was a hard, industrial space featuring loads of pillars and a tiled floor. I used very loud sounds from Cabaret Voltaire: Western Mantra – extremely noisy eighties’ music from Sheffield, calling to mind the noise of the coal and steel industries. The music lasted twenty minutes and that determined the length of the performance: I wanted to move among the pillars in a taut line. It was very acrobatic and physical, whereas my body was not well-trained at all. But it felt natural to do something with that young body, it was a way of giving vent to the great urge I felt, to use that hall. Then I added light, more and more light, and my movements became ever sharper and more angular. At the end the lights had to be doused.
So the concept was quite simple, really: you had the place you were asked to do a performance in, you used Cabaret Voltaire because you thought it suited the environment, and within this framework you developed a choreography to traverse the space. In your work you connect different worlds.
The musical input was very important: I listened to Wire, Joy Division, Indoor Life, Durutti Column, Einstürzende Neubauten. After Western Mantra that I put on in the Willem II, I was asked more often and started working from one invitation to another, always using the identity of the location given as a strongly determining factor, to which I then reacted in my turn.
So right after Den Bosch you received an invitation for another location?
Yes, for Galerie Alto (Gallery Alto), on the third floor of a grand old house in Rotterdam. People had to go up the stairs, and then entered a white gallery space lit by numerous spotlights. The gallery specialised in applied art, there were glass cases with all kinds of stuff everywhere. I had these objects removed and replaced them with attributes of my own. In that way I used the space at my disposal in a completely different manner. As I did with deserted factories or the Belvedère in Sonsbeek in 1983, a space having completely different characteristics again. First, I would have a good look at the place on offer. I had a certain idea in my head, as a rule, but that could change again in the prepatory process and eventual execution of the work.
Then and there, I decided to do a contrastive performance/installation in this very gallery, entitled Eastern Mantra (after the Western Mantra, put on earlier). This time, the performance featured a softly pulsating sound track of Cabaret Voltaire, the heat of the numerous spot lights, the small dimensions of the gallery and myself, lying naked, face down in the sand surrounding me. All this as opposed to the cold, the large dimensions of the factory hall in Den Bosch and myself as a black silhouette, reacting to the loud noise.
After that you were offered to do performances in The Living Room. You did several things there.
I did the opening performance, and after that, in 1982, I participated in a group exhibition. However, it soon became obvious that Bart van de Ven, the owner, was unable to represent me: “How the hell am I supposed to sell a performance, can’t you just create things?” For me that was not an issue: I do not sell myself, I am a performer. That is completely different from a man like Peer Veneman, for instance, who was running The Living Room together with Van de Ven. In 1991 I came back there with a photographic work, on the occasion of their tenth anniversary – this work was later bought by the Stedelijk Museum. I also took part in the farewell exhibition ‘Kiss And Say Goodbye’ in 1993, as well as in the first retrospective in Neuenhaus: ‘Eine Amsterdammer Galerie und die achtziger Jahre/ An Amsterdam Gallery and the Eighties’ in 1995.
Did you continue to create work in your studio besides doing performances?
Yes, being classically trained, I was always busy creating things. The Stedelijk Museum, for instance, has a number of large works on paper, dating from the late eighties, in its collection. But I never put these on show in performances; they were studio pieces in the classical sense, waiting to be put on show one day. A number of photographic works, belonging to the same SM collection, did form part of several installations . I was more interested in integrating the drawing process in my performances. Sometimes it involved drawings leading to a performance, but at the time I also literally wrote down many performances. That meant writing out the complete action as soon as possible after the performance ended. I started making books, resembling scenarios.
Did you also make drafts for performances that had not found a venue yet?
Not at the time, not yet. I wrote ‘scores’ afterwards, like Merce Cunningham did at times. But these were certainly not your regular scenarios, enabling others to perform the work again after my death. Most of these were purely meant for my own use, to enable me to remember what I had done. Nowadays everybody records everything with a digital camera, but in those days footage was literally scarce. The footage I did have made, I used to edit and cut back to videos of a normal size. Sometimes these were shown at festivals for video art.
You were aware of being part of a tradition in which people look back as well. According to some, that is a big difference between dramatic art and visual art: the last is always created with the idea that it will be looked at again one day, and this does not necessarily apply to a theatre performance.
That’s true. Which is why oral history is very important, even though in that case you are dependent on the people who saw the performance. I have become ever more aware of the transience of performance and I continue to search for a way to deal with that in a challenging way, time and again. From 2004 I have worked with young people rather, artists mostly, who carry out the work together with me. In those cases I do work with a scenario. But a scenario like that does not comprise more than a number of catchwords and little instructional sketches on a piece of standard size paper.
To what extent did you allow chance to form part of the live performances? What was the ratio between the plans you wrote and outlined beforehand and the things that were happening then and there, new impulses and new inspiration?
In the 1981 performance ‘Grondruimte/Ground Space’ (LOST AND FOUND) chance played a decisive part. I had flooded the big cellar space of De Fabriek (The Factory) in the town of Eindhoven with a layer of water, resulting in a narcissistic reflection, with the space becoming even more gloomy. Broken umbrella’s were lying spread out on the floor. My actions were all impulses. I walked in a pattern through the space, then stopped and said: ‘Lost’. On an impulse, I walked on and then said: ‘Found’, and then I walked on towards the next point and repeated these same words. I used a certain hand gesture coined by Nijinsky, the dancer, which was very specific, but apart from that my gestures were spontaneous and my actions quite tranquil. The final image was me lying in the water, supported by my hand. I had not imagined beforehand that this would be a fitting ending.
Over the years I have left things to chance more and more often. This is mostly due to the fact that I started feeling a lot freer, because I had acquired a whole repertory of gestures and postures which I used in various performances. But even when employing an existing gesture, the latter could change then and there. For instance, I would destroy something, giving the performance as a whole a totally different twist. This happened in BEGGARS BANQUET (Discover Heaven), where I smashed performance stills in the shape of puzzles on the steps of a catholic monument. After that, the pieces were eagerly collected and taken away by little boys . Or in the ARK series (2004-2012): here, I tore my clothes several times, as a sign of mourning .
You have also performed in the public space, where you have less control over the situation, and where there are many more elements you have to react to. Maybe chance plays a much larger part there? When did you start performing in the public space?
In 1986 I took part – doing performances – in ‘The National Review of Live Art’ in Nottingham. A year later, I was invited to make billboards there, as an art project. For these billboards I used portraits of people living in the area and stills from various performances, to which texts were added. In this way, it was possible for me to give these images a second life in the public space.
Another example for ‘Century ’87’: a light and sound installation in the Mint Tower in Amsterdam, as part of the manifestation Amsterdam Cultural Capital of Europe. This work in the public space was time based and, in my eyes, strongly related to performance: I spread out unannounced sounds over the city.
I did not hear until only a month beforehand that I was permitted to make an installation in the tower. Mint Square is a strange place, you always have the feeling you are about to be run over there – it is a spot everybody wants to get away from as quickly as possible. I did not see myself taking up position in the middle of the square, and the tower was too small for the public to enter. Indeed, a performance did not seem the most viable option to do something in that spot.
The shape of the building suggested an animal to me, and I decided to spotlight its head, the steeple, in red light, and to replace the existing light bulbs with green light bulbs, temporarily. The sound of the troating of a rutting buck issuing from the tower fused everything to a whole. Due to a technical malfunction the work was only half-lit for days on end; it was the first time I realised my complete dependence on matters of technique. But even more important was the fact that it was a piece of performing in which I myself was absent.
A year later, the sound of the troating of a rutting buck resounded from a man-sized wooden crate, fitted out with a freight net and parachute; this was part of a touring exhibition that called in at a very wide range of places in Great Britain. Public art in the shape of a dropping . Also in 1988, I participated in a very politically charged exhibition entitled ‘Bezugspunkte 38/88/Focal Points 38/88’, in Graz, Austria, during the Steirischer Herbst festival. The question was to reflect on the political situation of 1938, which saw the rise of Nazism. Hans Haacke also took part and the discussions we had are among my fondest memories. The artists were asked to react to buildings that were burdened by history, but they had to do so out in the street in front: doing something inside was out of the question, these buildings being in normal use as residences or offices. I had worked on a plan for the central station, about the decree, issued in 1938, banning Jews from marrying Germans. I was struck by its similarity to a floor plan of a network and wanted to use that confusion in this very place of arrivals and departures. Eventually, various persons were to have painted this decree on to the big glass window. But obviously this was considered to be over the top, for my plan was refused.
A second proposal did come off, though: Echo Of Histyria (Or The Man On The Clock). I strung up a more than lifesize dummy on the hands of the clock on the central clock tower on the Schlossberg. It is one of the exhibitions that had the greatest impact on me, also because of the powerful historical component.
After that, I had other art works loom up in the public space: VANITAS BORDEN/8 Staties/VANITAS BILLBOARDS/8 STATIONS, Amsterdam 1994, plus RED HARING FOLLY and PINGUIN IN EXTASE/ PENGUIN IN ECSTASY, Wekerom 1996. However, I quit doing that in 2003. At the time, it was not so easy as it is nowadays to make a simulation of how a work was going to look in a certain location; that meant that you always had to go before yet another committee with a portfolio full of documentation under your arm. I quit doing that. No offence, but I could not get up the courage any longer to ring the doorbell of people living in modern, upmarket areas, or to bring matters together – on order – in underprivileged problem areas.
In the performances ‘Staties Van Naamloze Energie/Stations Of Nameless Energy’, dating from 1987, and ‘Echo Of Histyria (Or The Man On The Clock)’, dating from 1988, you also worked with hanging bodies. But this time these were real people, weren’t they?
I had other people perform ‘Stations Of Nameless Energy’. During two weekends it was on, for people to experience. I played with the fact that you have opening hours, like in a museum, where you can go in and out. There was no development at all in the actions. You could come in right at the beginning, or after one and a half hours, it did not matter when, essentially. But I did seek a large suspense curve. Here, the experience of the physical (overstretched body) was linked to the imagination.
In a sense, the same thing held good for the visitors: I gave them dyno torches for entering the dark space with. That meant they had to let go of their passive, consumer attitude and actually had to do something themselves in order to be able to view the work. They formed irregular light sources, , very maniacal. This shadowy light seems to prevent one from storing the image, so that one has to look again and again.
In ‘Echo Of Hystiria (Or The Man On The Clock)’ the lifelike male figure was attached to the hands of the clock in such a way that, like a station, it incorporated both hysteria and history.
It would seem that the role of light is always important to you: you expressly use it to manipulate the viewer’s perception. But in what way are these flashes of light related to the mist patches featuring in your later works from 2004 onwards, the ‘ARK’ series?
These flashes of light were a lot more confrontational. This also had to do with their function in the performances: to nail the people present to the floor, as it were, by harshly and irregularly lighting up frozen moments, resulting in a chain of hardened emotions and, eventually, resulting in people experiencing the whole as a huge delusion .
In the case of mist, too, the audience is forced to move around actively, for if you don’t move, you see next to nothing. Entering a mist patch has a certain quality, it is quite a subtle obstruction, forcing one to savour the actions while roaming around, more or less.
In this case, the circumstances the audience have to face are pretty extreme (Guangzhou Live 2010). You really call the shots as to the environment in which the performance is served up to them. There is an interesting friction in this somewhere, also in regard to your past as an actor and visual artist. To what extent is your performance a theatrical performance as well?
My performance is expressly linked to what I am experiencing as its creator. It is a direct experience, which I let take place in unusual locations, besides. I associate a performance with an action in front of the people present, with a certain distance between myself and them; at the same time it is very important to me to create a three-dimensional experience that completely surrounds the audience. With my performances I want to break through that distance, which is always there at theatrical performances. Nowadays, that takes less effort than I needed to put in back then in the eighties and nineties.
Your working-method is really theatrical, too: you strongly influence the image that the audience, once present, will see and experience. You are continually influencing the reception of your performance. The boundaries between seeing and not seeing, between absence and presence, they all cause a tension in the experience of a space for you and with you. Perhaps that constitutes the crux in your work.
Right from the start this has had my undivided attention. I keep looking for ways in which I can do a performance differently every time, and I am always interested to see how people, in their turn, react to that. But also eager to find out how I can make a performance, and how it may win a place in visual art, in museums and outside, as well.
For example: Boris Charmatz is working on a Museum of Dance. To give dance a permanent place in a museum. Whom do you encounter when you go in there? The only physical entity there is the encounter: people reacting to your coming in. Charmatz’s work, and Tino Seghal’s as well, are really good indicators that there is still a lot to be explored in performance art.
For instance, I have been quietly working on ‘The Pack Of Ting’ for quite some time. The Pack (Das Rudel) refers to Joseph Beuys’ pack of sleds in his similarly entitled installation. Ting signifies the reverberation of objects, ‘things’ becomes ‘Ting’. For this performance I would like to use several adjacent rooms, one opening out onto another, and without a fixed ‘performance’ moment. I would like to compose it in such a way that the rooms feature art works, selected by me, as the backdrop for performances that exist simultaneously and in connection with these objects, without the objects overshadowing the performance or vice versa. Beuys’ ‘Das Rudel/The Pack’ should play a large role in this, as should Gerrit van Bakel’s ‘Tarim Machine’, and two sculpture groups entitled ‘Crowd’ and ‘Heads’ by Magdalena Abakanowicz; likewise, it would be an excellent place for one of Kiki Smith’s nearly immaterial works like ‘Untitled (Semen)’, for instance. But I would also like to have other artists doing performances here besides myself. For me, one of the major components of this work is to create a complete equality between object and performance.
To put less and less on show, but with a greater power of expression, that is the challenge, time and time again. After a number of years my work has gone from objects back to performance again, I no longer do installations or commissioned work. So I have literally come back to light and mist and my own presence.
(1) During the Festival a/d Werf, Utrecht, 1989 – Inszenierte Fotografie, Neuss, 1989 and HILLS+MILLS, Bratislava, 1992.
(2) Transart Communication 2002, Nové Zámky. See page xxx.
(3) During The Manifold (after) Lives of Performance. Leuven/Amsterdam 2009 (page xxx) – Guangzhou Live, Guangzhou 2010 (page xxx) or Transmuted. Mexico City 2012 (page xxx).
(4) ‘THE DROP’, 1988-1989; this art event also included other artists – Stuart Brisley, Alistair MacLennan and Cornelia Parker.
(5) Like in the performance series Wij Willen Iedere Keer Opnieuw Het Hoofd Verliezen/ We Want To Lose Our Heads, Time And Time Again, 1989-1991.
Peter Baren’s ARK series
A COMMITTED SEARCH FOR LIMITS
New York/Amsterdam 2008
“Whatever you call it, performance art, live art, time based art, I think it’s alive and kicking. Performance art continues and will always continue as long as the primal desires underpinning theatre and dance and a live action in front of people has contemporary relevance. I think that need is even more necessary now than ever before.”
Mark Russell, 2005.
Performance is a medium that is not only on the move, but also a subject of discussion. Actually it has always been so. It arose in the 1960s and 1970s as one of the forms of expression of conceptual art, a form of art where “artists work with meaning, not with shapes, colors or material”, as Joseph Kosuth formulated it in 1996. There was, however, never any strict definition. In this way it granted itself the freedom to experiment. “Undefined, there were no rules to break. Artists were able to employ the widest range of subject matter, using virtually any medium or material; they could present their work at any time, for any duration of time, at the location of their choosing, in direct contact with their audience.”  It was art that served as a vehicle for ideas and actions, as Martha Wilson describes it on the Franklin Furnace website. Such ruleless forms of art are extremely nice and challenging for its practitioners, but are often experienced as difficult for art critics and others who have to deal with them professionally. Such people still have the tendency to trouble them with a definition so that they better lend themselves to being described and reviewed and to conform more to traditional forms of presentation. They want to determine the limits. These limits start to live a life of their own and then the remarkable fact arises that the practitioners of these forms of art are ultimately held to account for and to be judged by them.
The discussion that arose a few years ago in the Netherlands in connection with an issue of Metropolis M devoted to performance should also be seen in this light. In this, the editor-in-chief Dominiek Ruyters denied the medium the right to claim “the here and now, with every suggestion of authenticity and originality, let’s say the special line to life itself.” A remarkable reproach, since it was not the performance artists who had demanded such a definition, but art critics like Ruyters who imposed this restriction on the medium. He was passing over a history of performance in which there had always been much ground in common with theatre, dance and music; in which ‘static’, materialised art had never been sidelined; where recordings of performances in the form of videotapes, drawings or photographs had always led an independent existence. That artists were emerging in the late 1990’s who reenacted their own performances or those of others – by way of research or from the need to compare an earlier experience with an experience at a different age and in a different location or as an attempt at interesting a new public – was less strange for the practitioners of the medium than for the critics who followed it professionally. The common factor in the whole history of performance was never more than, and never wished to be more than, an “action for an audience”.
Peter Baren (b. 1954) has always occupied an idiosyncratic position within performance. His work cannot be captured in a simple description. From the outset his performances couldn’t have cared less about restricting definitions (for a long time he didn’t even want to use the word ‘performance’). He has always regarded the medium as experimental and open. He decided to use it in the early 1980s because he felt a need for more direct contact with the viewer and because he was fascinated by “stretching time”, so that you start seeing things that are actually not there.
Over the course of the years he has tried out a number of different variants. Sometimes he carries out an action on his own in a particular space. Usually he surrounds himself with others. In these cases he not only conceives and carries out the performance but also directs it. With a number of performance he feels that it is not necessary to take part himself. He then leaves all the actions to ‘occasional actors’ or even to a dummy. In this way he makes a contribution to the discourse about authorship. “Almost from the beginning he abstracted his personal problems, choosing a stylised or symbolic manifestation. For him, performance has always been ‘a profession’ rather than ‘life itself’. This is why it is always possible for his ideas to be expressed in other forms.”  The one performance is closer to the tradition of physically oriented, realistic body art, the other has more in common with the rules and laws of theatre. Usually the members of the audience are spectators, but in a number of cases he makes them participants. Indoors or outdoors, he never imposes restrictions. He always adapts himself to the local circumstances. While sound and light were important elements in his older works, this seems to be rather less the case in recent years. Almost all of Peter Baren’s performances leave traces behind in the space where they are performed. Sometimes he affixes photographs, paintings, drawings or texts in advance, but the writing of words or sentences is often part of the action and sometimes the space has the allure of an installation. In that case the performance is comparable with an inauguration ritual of a work of art whose task is then to live an independent life.
Although it is difficult to discern themes in his works, there are certain subjects that recur through the years in varying forms. He often gives a tilt to reality, so that confusion is created and the viewer is forced to reflect on his ideas. In addition, he shows people in vulnerable situations, situations of abandonment, oppression, fear or impotence. He lets them fight against the element of time that makes such things as enjoyment and pleasure finite. Since he carries out his performances in all sorts of locations in the world, he tries to evoke questions among his audience that are related to the location concerned. In recent years in particular, a greater role has been assigned to engagement.
In 2004 he started a series of performances under the title ARK, which is still ongoing. The word series is somewhat misleading, as it threads together performances that do have a number of elements in common, it’s true, but also many that differ from one another. They often start from a basic form: an oval which is usually literally drawn on the floor. This oval could refer to Noah’s ark, but in the symbolic rather than Biblical sense of the word. As a sign of a new beginning, as a sign of hope. Fragments of texts or words are often written around it. These can be explained in all sorts of ways but they are probably expressions of communication or miscommunication. In some of the ARK variants a man leads another man who can’t manage on his own as he is blindfolded. This could be a reference to the vulnerable, helpless man who often appears in Baren’s work. The idea of a ‘blind date’ likewise comes up, perhaps as an attempt at introducing an element of surprise. Or an incentive to make contact in one way or another. However, the blindfold can also symbolise introversion. That the man being led has satellites around his arms could be a way of making him part of the universe and thus even smaller than he already feels. Or more universal than the action suggested at that moment and at that place. Dangers that threaten man acquire the form of a boomerang: drawn with chalk, as an object attached to the wall or actually thrown at the conclusion of a performance.
Peter Baren wants his audience to be involved in and carried along by these performances. This is why they are never unambiguous and never allow of one interpretation only. They are by definition puzzles asking to be solved. For this reason, he intensifies them by having the actions performed in a sort of mist, in close proximity to the audience, or by rubbing the participants with a sticky, sweet substance and/or by wrapping them in transparent foil, so that on the one hand they awaken (erotic) desires and on the other hand ruthlessly ensure that these feelings do not stand a chance. In short, Baren tries to mobilise all the senses of his audience. It cannot and should not be that the spectators leave the location unmoved. A performance by Peter Baren is not a spectacle, but an emotional experience.
He also achieves this by adapting his ARK performances to the city or country where they take place. He always employs local ‘actors’ or artists. People who bring with them their own story, their own history and their own culture. Moreover, he implicitly incorporates the (political) circumstances that characterise the location. The performance in Tel Aviv – outdoors, along places where outrages had once been carried out – was hence different than the one in Vancouver or Burgh-Haamstede, for example. The Israeli public reacted more intensively than the Dutch one.
It is neither possible nor necessary to point to every element of every ARK performance. The series underlines all the more the proposition that, like few others, Peter Baren is seeking and extending the (alleged) limits of performance. He deals with it in such a way that the richness of the medium becomes visible. He turns it into a medium that does not bind itself to a particular period in (art)history and to a particular form. A medium that does not allow itself to be isolated or to be pushed into a pigeonhole. A medium that experts are unable to grasp. He brings performance back to its essence: an activity carried out at a particular moment at a particular place. And however paradoxical it may sound, he thereby gives the medium optimum space.
1. The Art of Performance. A Critical Anthology. Ed. Gregory Battock, Robert Nickas, New York 1984, p. X.
2. Rob Perrée. Peter Baren of hoe de werkelijkheid verbeelding wordt. Kunstbeeld, April 1989, p. 35.
ARK (Featuring Bridge of Sighs, Sleep of Reason and Wailing Wall).
By Anne Stone
Witness report of the Peter Baren performances during LIVE2005, Vancouver (Helen Pitt Gallery). Published in 2006, as festival catalogue together with Anthony Schrag’s contribution.
At regular intervals across the walls of the Helen Pitt Gallery, printed in smudged black charcoal, are the words, “earthling,” “meatjoy,” “crossfire,” “shoot,” “spirit.” Beneath each word or phrase, a boomerang is embedded in the wall, incapable of return, and beneath each boomerang, a shadow has been drawn with charcoal. Twenty minutes before the show begins, the artist Peter Baren walks through the gallery with a photographer, points out the places bodies will occupy during the performance. At uneven intervals, plumes of smoke blur the borders of the room.
I trace the powdery emissions to a little black box set in the crawlspace above the lobby door. The smell is slight, sweet. The box makes a rattling, ratchety noise. As the little black box emits fumes, there is the sound of old vertical blinds endlessly drawing to a close.
Peter Baren flags the ashen smoke with a white blouse. Sends it drifting through the gallery. The smoke is so thick, I can just read, ghostly, the writing on the wall closest. Long before he appears, white blouse in hand, I’ve begun to think about his performance. The e-mail sent out, announcing the show’s inclusion in the LIVE Biennial of performance art, had mentioned – along with the boomerangs and fog and text – Baren’s use of nude models and molasses. And so I’ve spent the day thinking about material-based practices, about the body, and mostly, about the use of viscerally evocative substances, like this dark reduction of cane sugar. Culturally, molasses is a rich material sign, one with associations that prefigure the glacial pace of this show and, in this context, is able to signpost seminal performances of the past, like Carolee Schneeman’s “Body Collage” or, as literally referenced by the writing on the wall, her 1964 performance, “Meat Joy.” But molasses is also a visceral fluid, a slant double for abject bodily emissions: literally, it is a shit-brown drizzle on skin. But the substance’s use in performance art signifies another way too. The laying on of this liquid acts to render a suspect tegument, but also strikes me with the full force of a cliché. In the pre-show gallery, every few minutes, the smoke begins to clear and the text is faintly visible, and once again, there is the sound of rattling blinds and clouds of sweet smelling stuff and near-blindness. The effect of the smoke, of seeing a little ways in, is both intimate and disorienting: It leaves me attuned to sound, sensing the incomplete edges of things. The show begins without a certain stroke of beginning, having a number of different starts, contingent on perception. The show starts when it is seen to begin. It will end, though, with a small but unmistakable gesture: Baren will return to the room, one of a dozen such returns, but this time, he will acknowledge, with a small movement of his head and bend of the back, that we are no longer a proximal wall, rimming the gallery, but bodies outside of a performance. In other words, that we can clap. Baren puts the first male model into position. The model’s arms are to his sides and he is naked except for saran-wrap. He has been drizzled with molasses and his eyes have been blacked out. Peter Baren’s hands rest on the model’s plastic-wrapped hips, and he presses the model forward into a pre-determined space.
Hanging from each of the model’s wrists is a large and flat silver circle, obscenely large earrings; each circle is cut into a series of smaller circles and so, each circular strip spins, and in spinning, cuts a third dimension. The model slowly circles in place as Baren retraces his steps, disappears into the back, and the circles dangling from the model’s wrists circle too. And again there is the sound of old metal blinds pulled to an endless close as smoke clouds vision, and all that can be seen is the model’s disembodied hand, outstretched, as it passes my way in the ashen fog, and a glint of orbital silver, and then that, too, vanishes for a cycle. The process with the first male model repeats with the addition of a second and third. In this careful orchestration and repetition of key elements, is a movement towards the ritualistic; there is something of the sacred, though touched by fetish. After the next two young male models are put into place, Baren returns with the first female. Each woman’s face is covered with a black and white gingham scarf. The scarves disturb me, erasing the women’s faces, reminding me of old medical photos from the 18th century, ones in which the faces of the naked specimens are covered, effectively struck from what is of interest, the bodies which display some deformity of interest to a medical (or other) gaze. Both women wear saran wrap over breasts and hips and like the male models, are smeared with the sticky brown trope of performance art. The saran wrap binding their hips and breasts is tight, cinching.
Peter Baren places his hands on the hips of the first female model, and with his hands, directs her to the place, earlier, he’d indicated to a photographer. It’s difficult to navigate in so small a gallery, what with the bodies of the audience lined up against the walls, and the male models, arms outstretched, rotating in place with such outlandishly large jewelry suspended from each wrist, circling satellites. Baren slowly carves a path through all of the bodies in the Helen Pitt Gallery, places the first female model near the front of the gallery. Over the next couple of minutes, he returns with the second. I wonder how the so-called models feel about their role in the performance. At the end of the night, as the last of the models leave, I recognize him as a local performance artist, whose work centres around abjectness, and, I later learn, explores the shaping of subaltern bodies under globalization. Perhaps, to this artist, molasses is a thing apart from its deployment in this show: Perhaps it is a substance that evokes colonialism. How does it feel, for these long minutes, to be one of three male bodies, his eyes blacked out, his body slowly spinning as his arms grow tired, weighted down and held perpendicular to his trunk as perceptibly, the molasses dries, tightens, and contracts on his skin.
Molasses isn’t just a cliché or a cultural sign, I’m reminded, looking at the model closest, it’s also a sticky mess that evokes real physical discomfort, that suffocates the skin. I find myself wondering, as the performance slowly progresses, if there is a shower in the back of the gallery, or even just a sink. Peter Baren circles the female models. In his hand he holds a strange looking machine, layered like a wedding cake, composed of different levels, and between each level, one or more pistons. Lights flash at the end of each piston’s cycle and the little machine makes the sound, over and over, that a Polaroid does when it cranks out a picture. The models, facing one another, hold the wedding-cake piston between them. Sometimes, all there is to be heard is the sound of the piston, and with all the smoke, there isn’t even the barest trace of circling satellites. Sometimes, there is a glint, but nothing of the human arms that suspend. And sometimes, above the silver rounds, there is a human limb, orphaned by smoke.
Baren walks the periphery of the gallery, a sign in hand. Baren makes eye contact and presents the sign to each person before moving on. The sign reads: Ark: Featuring Bridge of Sighs, Sleep of Reason and Wailing Wall. The second time Baren counter-clocks the periphery, he is holding out the other side of the sign – a jigsaw puzzle photograph. It’s impossible to take it in, entirely, but it looks to be a soldier holding a body. The body has been shaped into a backward arc, and the soldier’s arms support her. It is a black and white photo of a woman whose back is arched like a broken gymnast’s.
Baren takes the puzzle picture to pieces, walks the periphery and distributes pieces on the cool concrete flooring. The markings of his charcoal on the wall are audible. Only later, between smoke clouds, do I see Baren writing. As he writes, he whispers, sleep of reason, sleep of reason, and later, wailing wall, wailing wall. He writes right to left, “marah marah amal marah” and on around the walls of the gallery. He writes in an unfamiliar language on the floor at the feet of the female models, circling, and at the feet of the male models, distant from me, a spiral of familiar language opens outwards and traces the length of the gallery, “hope by force by far by far by far by far by far by force by far by far by far by far bye bye” and on.
And then slowly, over the course of long minutes, Peter Baren retracts the models, step by step, his hands pressing the male model’s arms to their sides, and guiding each by the hips to the back room. As the last model is taken from the gallery space, I can hear voices and running water from the back of the gallery. And for a moment, before Baren returns to indicate the show’s conclusion, all there is is the residue of this night, crazy white writings on the dark grey floor and on the white walls, black scribblings, and scattered at our feet, dozens of puzzle pieces, together forming a kind of prison-cell bedlam.