Art in the Street: Public Performances across Time and Place

In most standard art-historical narratives, public performance art set in the streets is profoundly associated with contemporary art. If it is given a history, this dates back to the 1970s or, at best, to Futurist and Dada interventions in the 1910s and 1920s. But public performance art – for example in the form of civic or religious processions with floats specially designed by named artists – can in fact be traced back at least to the sixteenth century. Nor is it limited to Europe or the global north: for example, the Corpus Christi processions in the Hispanic empire were simultaneously civic and religious events and yet remained open to deliberate if small acts of Indigenous resistance despite colonial repression.

Our strand will explore what it means to study public performance art in a way that moves beyond standard art-historical forms of periodisation. How might art historians who work on medieval and early modern public performances learn from those who work on recent and contemporary interventions and vice versa? In particular, we wish to focus on how public performance art articulates, interrogates, confirms, reifies and/or challenges actual communities as well as the very idea of community. And we would also like to explore how and why it is that, in this process, public performance art often relies on intermediality and ephemerality, on artworks that refuse to fit into conventional categories, made to be destroyed or constantly reworked.

Session Convenors:

Kim Charnley, Open University

Margit Thøfner, Open University


Johan Verberckmoes, Katholieke Universitet Leuven

Laughing at Ommegangen in the Habsburg Netherlands

Ommegangen were public street performances organized by urban and religious authorities during kermis time. Satirical printed dialogues in Dutch of the late 17th and early 18th century Habsburg Netherlands poking fun at these parades provided spectators at the time and we today with a manual on how a parade comes alive and invites comment. The context of these dialogues is inter-city rivalry. The cities concerned are Antwerp, Lier, Gent, Brugge and Brussels. In the dialogues giants, animals and monsters speak. That is done in a variety of genres: exhortation, dialogue, song, poem or (mock) ordinance. Their expressions mix the personal and the public. The dialogues enhance the fun of the parade, but also signal disturbance and ambiguity. In the Ommegangen giants, animals and monsters, fabricated as human sized puppets or larger, were carried around and made body movements. The dialogues also gave them a voice. As a complement to elaborate prints and paintings of Ommegangen, the dialogues provide us with a glimpse of emotions and attitudes within as well as beyond desired conformity with the political and religious goals of the Ommegang to endorse peace and reverence to Church and Dynasty. In my analysis of the dialogues I look for the interstices of the performance. Combining the visual and the literary documentation, I aim to show that family, cross-cultural and human-animal relationships play with the ordered hierarchy of the Ommegang and laughingly invite alternative readings.

Lucy Byford, University of Edinburgh

Johannes Baader (1875-1955) and the ‘Dadaistic Bomb’: Reading the Public Dada Intervention as Art Form

On 17th November 1918, Johannes Baader was arrested for staging a public intervention in the imposing setting of the Berlin Cathedral. The Dadaist interrupted a sermon by high-ranking priest Ernst von Dryander with the cry, ‘Christ means nothing to us!’. Interventions such as these are regarded as integral episodes in the history of Berlin Dadaism; often held up as evidence of the group’s radical credentials. Yet the lack of scholarly consensus on suitable terminology to denote these events hints at how they repel easy categorisation and characterisation. Adopted nomenclature in the literature ranges from ‘Berlin Dada Happenings’ (Matthew Biro), and ‘action’ (Christian Weikop), to ‘art event’ (Stephen Foster), and the German term ‘Manifestation’ (Hanne Bergius).

Writing on their proximity to modes of protest, John Erickson links Dada interventions to the late nineteenth-century anarchist tactic of propaganda by the deed, a lineage pertinent to Baader given his self-description as a ‘dadaistic bomb’. Meanwhile, Anja Kanngieser traces uses of public space in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century protest cultures back to the Berlin Dadaists, among others. This begs the question of why this type of performative gesture appears to resonate with earlier protest tactics predicated on the use of violence, and much later tactics that view the act of occupying space and refocusing spectatorial attention as empowering in itself. To offer a rationale for these resonances, and identify points at which these comparisons are overdrawn, the paper offers a holistic and reconstructive reading of Baader’s intervention and its subsequent reception.

Mor Cohen, University of Sheffield

Deciphering Mizrahi public performance

The Mizrahi (Arab-Jewish) struggle of the 1970s is considered a milestone in the history of radical politics in Israel. Specifically, the public appearances of the Black Panthers and the Tent Movements produced a rupture in the spatio-temporal logic of Israel’s settler-colonial and ethnocratic regime. Yet, the aesthetic qualities of such appearances were not appreciated as a form of performance art. Moreover, during this period similar public interventions were produced by Israeli artists wishing to explore the intersection of conceptualism and political art. The absent of a meeting point between these two forms of performances testifies not only to the tendency to depoliticise anti-racist struggles, but also to the separate regimes of vision and decipherment allocated to marginalised and racialised communities. 

Following Sylvia Wynter’s work on aesthetics, this paper proposes a decipherment of Mizrahi public performance within a context of a struggle over the politico-cultural imaginary. It reads these performances as counter-signifying practices producing counter-politics of feelings, thus foregrounding aesthetics as a function and the act of deciphering as one that seeks to evaluate its “illocutionary force”. More specifically, this paper is concerned with the ways the public performances in discussion push to forms of expression and gestures that break through the sense of ethno-national unity and settler-colonial attachments to the land. The difficulty to locate these performances within a particular artistic genre, lineage or even a coherent political project will also be discussed as part of the challenges to move away from social conditioning towards a new onto-epistemological contract.

Bianca Andrade Tinoco, University of Brasilia

Walking backwards: the dialogue between public performance and cultural manifestation on the streets of Brazil

This paper proposal deals with public performances which, by making a movement contrary to what is expected, raise political and cultural questions. One of the precursors of performance in Brazil was Experience n. 2, by Flávio de Carvalho. Performed during a Corpus Christi procession in 1931 in São Paulo, the work consisted of walking in the opposite direction to the procession wearing a hat – an affront in the religious context.

Two artistic initiatives in the recent context are related to Carvalho’s experiment and cultural manifestations. One of them is the carnival block Vade Retro Abacaxi (‘Back Off,Pineapple’), which parades every two years, walking backwards. Founded by a group of artists in 2003, the block began as a protest following the announcement that a billion-dollar investment would be made by Rio de Janeiro City Hall to install a Guggenheim Museum in the city. Another street performance that exercised the movement in the opposite direction was Marcha à Ré (‘Reverse Gear’), by Nuno Ramos with Eryk Rocha and the Teatro da Vertigem group. Taking funeral processions and political car rallies as references, the artists organized in 2020 a motorcade in São Paulo in which 120 cars moved in reverse as a protest against the pandemic denialism practiced by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. By bringing these works together, and based on authors such as Augusto Boal, I intend to address the extent to which street performance is influenced by and, on the other hand, offers a counterpoint to cultural manifestations.

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