In the foreword of Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, even famed art historian and Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg is unable to fully define performance art. Perhaps it’s simply because performance art is so difficult to understand. It’s no secret that performance art is tough: many of its most famous practitioners, like Marina Abramović, Chris Burden, and Vito Acconci, have conceived of performance or body art as a means of testing the audience's limit rather than as a form of highbrow entertainment. But because artists keep performing—and because mainstream artists like Lady Gaga are turning to performance art for inspiration—it's becoming increasingly likely that performance art will be “the medium of the 21st century,” as Goldberg herself told us in an interview. For those looking for an introduction to the evolution of performance art, here's a brief chronology of its history, from Ancient Greece to the present day.
4th Century BCE: Diogenes walks backwards and then forwards across an agora to show the ability of humans to change, causing his fellow Greek citizens to laugh. It’s not quite as esoteric as what you might see at MoMA, but even the ancient Greeks were skeptical of early performance art.
16th Century: Renaissance-era Italians hold performances in which humans interacted with machines (which were supposedly engineered by Leonardo Da Vinci himself.)
1909: Filippo Tommaso Marinetti publishes the “Futurist Manifesto” on the front page of Le Figaro, a major Italian newspaper. Marinetti’s act of publishing the manifesto was a performance in itself, testing the movement of an idea through space and time, much like the Futurists’ dynamic paintings and sculptures. The Futurists were also known for their wild concerts, in which members of the group would read manifestos, berate the audience, play ear-bending noise music, and carry paintings across the stage.
1916: Hugo Ball makes some noise in Zurich with “Karawane,” a sound poem written in gibberish and first recited at famed Dadaist hangout Cabaret Voltaire. Ball’s performance becomes the first of many to place an emphasis on the properties of sound.
1919: As Freudian psychoanalysis begins to take hold in Europe, André Breton and Philippe Soupault let their unconscious minds perform instead of their bodies. For Les Champs Magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields), Breton and Soupault practiced automatism, a performative form of writing in which they wrote whatever came to their heads, hoping to create a form of writing (and drawing) that was uninfluenced by the conscious, rational mind and instead would resemble the structure of a dream.
1924: László Moholy-Nagy writes “Theater, Circus, Variety,” a prophetic essay that promotes an exploration of the relationship between humans and space, and also brings mass culture into performance.
1950: Abstract Expressionism reaches the height of its popularity with Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm No. 30. The painting, like many other Abstract Expressionist canvases, involves performative gestures to spread paint across a large canvas: instead of standing at an easel, the artist tacked his canvases to the floor and moved around them, using his entire body as he applied the paint.
1952: John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and Merce Cunningham perform together at Black Mountain College in an event that, according to Cage, was “purposeless.” That same year, Cage performs 4’33”, a concert for which the pianist David Tudor sat at a piano for exactly four minutes and 33 seconds without playing a single note.
1954: In Japan, Jiro Yoshihara starts Gutai, a fledgling art movement devoted to using audience participation as a way of orienting lost post-WWII viewers in space once again.
1958: In his famed Art News essay “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” Allan Kaprow promotes “happenings,” art events that are designed to disturb the flow of everyday life. One year later, Kaprow gets proactive and does his own 18 Happenings in 6 Parts. These events were meant to transform the viewer into an active participant, and involved a loosely choreographed structure of movements, gestures, and actions.
1960: Yves Klein performs his first Anthropometry, in which he used nude women as paintbrushes as ways of bringing his signature IKB blue into the world.
1961: Niki de Saint Phalle shoots paint pellets at a canvas for the first of her Shooting Pictures, further emphasizing the performative nature of the painting process—and playfully subverting the associations of painting with male virility.
1963: George Maciunas forms Fluxus, a loose international art movement in which performance is based largely around textual scores or simple instructions. At "Fluxconcerts" and in "Fluxkits," the scores were distributed to audiences, who were then asked to interact with everyday items in new ways.
1964: Andy Warhol films Empire, a static, eight-hour-long shot of the Empire State Building, and claims that his films are based on performance art.
1968: Bruce Nauman tests the relationship between art and viewers’ experience with Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square, a video of the artist performing in his studio. As Nauman has stated about his studio films and photographs, all of which depict him manipulating his body or various everyday objects within his studio space: "My conclusion was that if I was an artist and I was in the studio, then everything I was doing in the studio should be art….From that point on, art became more of an activity and less of a product.”
1969: In a decade in which radical art had received a good deal of mainstream acceptance, the Viennese Actionists still manage to get themselves into hot water with Art and Revolution, a performance in which they use their bodies as sites of grotesque, ritualistic art—and subsequently get arrested for public masturbation and violence.
1970: Gene Youngblood publishes Expanded Cinema, a book that forcefully argues for video as an art form. Soon after, performance artists such as Gilbert & George begin incorporating video into their work.
1971: John Baldessari performs I Will Not Make Any More Boring Art, for which he writes the titular phrase repeatedly, like a child being reprimanded. Later that year, Chris Burden films Shoot, for which Burden’s assistant shot him in the arm. Burden's performance, along Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1972), which involved Acconci masturbating underneath a ramp and audibly fantasizing about the gallery visitors above him, show an increasing interest in the body and the ways it can be used to exert power over others.
1973: Showing inspiration from Acconci and Burden, Marina Abramovic becomes a pioneer in body art with her Rhythm series, several performances in which she inflicted pain upon herself, sometimes by asking the audience to help her do so.
1974: Former Fluxus member Joseph Beuys performs Coyote: I Like America and America Likes Me, an allegory for the relationship between America and Europe. For the performance, Beuys came to America wrapped only in felt and then spent seven days in a gallery with a coyote. Ultimately, Beuys and the coyote learned to coexist, but only after they switched roles. Beuys successfully brings a social aspect into performance by indirectly addressing political issues.
1975: Feminist performance art gets shocking with Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll, for which Schneemann wrote critics’ misogynistic responses to her work on a scroll, inserted the scroll inside herself, and stood nude in front of an audience while unraveling the scroll and reading it aloud.
1977: Cindy Sherman begins photographing herself in Hollywood-influenced positions for her Untitled Film Stills. The series has become a touchstone in its consideration of the performative aspects of both gender and photographic portraiture.
1979: RoseLee Goldberg writes Performance Art: From Futurism to Present, the first complete history of performance art. We couldn’t have written this chronology without it.
1983: Experimental musician Laurie Anderson performs her epic United States, an eight-hour concert at BAM that focused on dissatisfaction in America. Anderson is regarded as one of the first to help performance art go mainstream—in 1981, she signed a six-record deal with Warner Brothers.
1987: ACT UP forms in response to the AIDS epidemic and uses performance strategically as a means of raising awareness about AIDS in the face of public and governmental indifference.
1991: Maurizio Cattelan sets up a foosball game as a performance, suggesting the turn towards what curator Nicolas Bourriaud called "Relational Aesthetics," for which the artist stages temporary, everyday situations meant to facilitate convivial interactions between individuals.
1994: For 12 Square Meters, Zhang Huan, covered in fish oil, and sits naked in a latrine filled with flies as a commentary on the harsh living conditions of many people in Asia. Huan and many other East Village performers responded to Chinese censorship and dictatorship, and helped to bring performance artist to the East.
1995: Gene Youngblood’s theories on video are finally realized as Matthew Barney and Paul McCarthy hit it big after filming their performances.
2000: Francis Alÿs demonstrates that social performance art is still alive and well with Re-enactments, a video of Alÿs showing the police’s reaction before and after they knew he was buying a gun in Mexico City.
2005: Performa 05, the first biennial for performance art, is launched by RoseLee Goldberg.
2010: MoMA’s Marina Abramović retrospective, “The Artist Is Present,” the institution's first major show devoted to the medium, becomes one of MoMA’s most successful exhibitions and even spawns its own meme, a Tumblr depicting visitors crying while sitting with the artist.
2012: Members of the politically-oriented art and music collective Pussy Riot get arrested performing Punk Prayer, an anti-Putin protest song, galvanizing international support and drawing attention to conditions in contemporary Russia.
2013: Jay Z performs Picasso Baby, a six-hour performance of his song of the same name, at Pace Gallery to polarized reviews from art critics and Twitter users alike. Jay Z’s performance marks a continuing absorption of performance art into mainstream culture.