To deliberate life!

A history of performance art on the Riviera from 1951 to 2011.
By Éric Mangion, director of the National Centre of Contemporary Art Villa Arson (translation by Claire Bernstein).


“Performance art is the implementation of a variable expressive content before a potential audience; it aims to liberalize habits, norms, conditioning, and at the same time destabilizes and reformulates codes of representation, of knowledge and conscience. Performance art involves materials within a precise context, it cancels conventional relations and transforms stylistic categories. Performance art conveys cultural values and strives to define alternate potential loci amongst more or less institutionalized forms, according to the genre and to the need to affirm or negate. Some performances are based on practices such as the visual arts, poetry, music, theater... and others try to define methodological criteria outside conditioning and conventions, attempting to give functional originality to this type of positioning (...). Most of the time a performance is organized according to the context in which it is executed. In some performances the body is completely present, in others the objects account for most of the activity; at times the investigation presupposes theoretical questioning, at others performer and audience interact [1]”.


This text by Richard Martel, an expert on performance art, perfectly illustrates the content of performance art, as well as its many variations. The word “performance” appeared in the 70s. It came from the English word designating a gesture or action in the performing arts. Etymologically it evokes something that “is taking shape” or is tending “towards form”, which refers to an intermediary state. Even if there are frequent objections to the fact that the word also pertains to the world of sports or finance, it is now part of our daily vocabulary and includes many different styles of actions, from Allan Kaprow’s happening which elaborates collective and participative forms, to the Fluxus event based on simple everyday gestures, to body art in which the body becomes the material, to sound poetry, to street action and even to certain agitprop artistic proposals. The word “performance” then is to be understood as a generic term including every aspect of action art.


This variety of approaches has often led to misunderstandings. For example in the catalog of the Centre Georges Pompidou’s exhibition Hors Limites, [2], the text on contemporary performance art, dealing with the “blurring of art and life from 1952 to 1994”, refers mostly to works that are merely videos or studio photographs, produced without an audience, or at any rate with no relation to a potential audience. Associating Cindy Sherman, Charles Ray or even Absalon with the happening is a complete mistake [3]. In the same way, certain practices related to relational aesthetics, which became popular in the 90s, such as the meals served by Ritkrit Tiravanija during the opening, or mediation exercises initiated inside an exhibition, have nothing to do with performance art. Performance art deals with unsettling aesthetic conventions, and not with cultural empathy.


Another misunderstanding stems from the ambiguity between the English meaning of the word and its translation in French. For English speakers, any actor’s play or any musical or choreographic interpretation is called a performance. An “executant” is then a performer. In France, a “performance” is essentially linked to the practice of visual artists transgressing their universe, or at any rate to artists trying to cross genres, which seems much more logical if one considers the history and the basis of action art. In French calling any kind of show a “performance”, as is often done, confuses the meaning of the subject and the very object of action art. On the other hand, the word “performative” in French is originally completely unrelated to the vocabulary of aesthetics. The performative utterance is in itself the very action to which it refers [4]. In French it would be better to use the word “performantiel” [5]. Even if this misinterpretation is not much of a handicap and also has the advantage of being part of everyday language, in certain cases it can create confusion in the critical analysis of action art, notably when the word performative is used to refer to performances using language, without differentiating its semantic range [6].


Lastly, another misunderstanding comes from the common view of performance art as being a genre which necessarily involves challenging oneself, using bodily violence or immoderate behavior. Such a “style” is essentially maintained by a few keepers of the flame who still believe in a salvaging, demiurgic aspect of art. This is forgetting that performance art is a very variable medium, that sometimes a mere nothing can produce a great artistic gesture and that the body can disappear in favor of light and imperceptible devices. Likewise, certain purists, nostalgic for the 60s and 70s, believe that there can be no performance art without provocation and rumpus, alsoforgetting that ever since the advent of punk, shock andchic have gone hand-in-hand and that scandal is the bestway to be mediagenic. Performance art is essentially about “destitution” and “reformulation”, it can retain its political character without necessarily engendering offense and outrageousness.


A genealogy


Although the term performance art did not exist at the beginning of the 20th century, action art appeared little by little by incarnating the spirit of avant-garde in its attempt to break down the barriers between stylistic categories, to the point of seeming to be an “avant-avant-garde” [7]. Because we lack a major action identified as such, we cannot date its inception precisely. Nonetheless its roots seem to take form in the 1870s and 1880s inside the smoky cabarets that were hugely popular then in most European cities [8]. There people drank, sang, insulted each other, texts were read, scenes from daily life were played out in a spirit of revolt, joy or irony. The cabaret “entertainer” was neither an impressionist nor a “pompier” painter. He refused to be categorized. He was often an adventurous musician, a libertarian journalist, an unconventional poet, a bohemian inspired by the spirit of dandyism. In Paris for instance, such a phenomenon was linked to the appearance of several groups: Vilains Bonhommes, Zutistes, Vivants, Hydropathes, Hirsutes, Incohérents or Groupistes, who invented an attitude and behavioral art. This extraordinarily experimental era has not really become part of art history. Perhaps because its protagonists produced very few texts and images, deliberately taking on a certain lightness of existence. Nonetheless, a spirit was born which was to spread among the following generations, and first and foremost Futurists and Dadaists.


Futurism appears as the quintessence of avant-garde, because of its radical stance, but also because it was an art where action and creation were one and only thing. On April 30, 1911 the first group exhibition opened. Although no actions were planned, the exhibition’s introductory text reflected an epoch making stand: “For us the gesture will no longer be a fixed moment in the dynamics of the universe: it will become, in a decisive manner, a dynamic sensation made eternal.” One of the painters of the group, Umberto Boccioni, added: “painting is no longer an exterior scene, it is the frame for a theatrical show.” From then on, the Futurists organized countless performances aiming to play with the codes of modern life. Author, plot and actor disappeared in favor of moving objects and stage sets, several unrelated scenes were performed simultaneously, new technologies including the telephone were used, the action was fast, and of course there was scandal and provocation. Typically, as early as 1913 Luigi Russolo used enormous sound machines meant to chase the audience outside the room.


Around the same time Russian constructivism appeared. Its proponents invented the “synthetic theater” to exemplify what its authors called production art. To do this artists had to leave behind traditional activities such as painting with “its outdated tools, brushes and oil paints”, and to adopt “real space and matter”. All kinds of performances were involved: circus, music hall, puppet play, etc. in order to create a popular and multiple aesthetic corpus. Vsevold Myerhold radically changed methods of acting by developing a “biomechanic” style of interpretation, resolutely contemporary and physical, very different from the psychological caricatures that were popular then in Russian theater.


Dada was born on February 5, 1916 in Zürich at the Cabaret Voltaire. Dada is neither painting, nor music, nor theater, nor dance, nor poetry, nor cinema, it is everything at once and nothing in itself. What matters is not to produce art, but to “produce artists“ [9]. The Dada spirit was expressed by simple immediate action. “On the stage of a gaudy, motley, overcrowded tavern there are several weird and peculiar figures […]. The people around us are shouting, laughing, and gesticulating. Our replies are sighs of love, volleys of hiccups, poems, moos, and meowing of medieval Bruitists. Tzara is wiggling his behind like the belly of an oriental dancer. Janco is playing an invisible violin and bowing and scraping. Madame Hennings, with a Madonna face, is doing the splits. Huelsenbeck is banging away nonstop on the great drum, with Ball accompanying him on the piano, pale as a chalky ghost. We were given the honorary title of Nihilists [10]. »


The Dada spirit was abundantly represented at the Bauhaus, a school which opened in Germany just after the First World War. Just like the preceding movements, the Bauhaus wanted to embrace creation as a whole, by going beyond the formatted contingencies of each form of art, in particular with Oskar Schlemmer’s invention of the visual theater. “Those who strive to discover something behind all this will find nothing [...]. Everything is here, in what you can see immediately! No feelings are expressed, rather feelings are provoked. The whole thing is a game. It is a free and liberating game. An absolute and pure form. Just like music.”


The experimenting came to an end when Nazi officials closed the Bauhaus in 1932. New forms reemerged only after World War II. In 1952 two events marked the renaissance of avant-garde ideas. The best known was produced at Black Mountain College in the United States. Young artists working with John Cage organized an event reminiscent of Dada’s finest hours. The audience was sitting in a square room divided into four triangles by diagonal aisles. Each member of the audience was holding a white cup which had been previously placed on his or her seat. Completely white paintings by Robert Rauschenberg were used for screening films rather than for decoration. Cage read a text on Buddhism and excerpts from Meister Eckhart, and played one of his scores. Robert Rauschenberg played old records on a gramophone. David Tudor played on a prepared piano or poured water from one pail into another. Jay Watt interpreted incongruous sounds. Charles Olson and Mary Caroline Richards read poetry, while Merce Cunningham danced in the middle of the aisles with an excited dog chasing after him.


The less famous of the two manifestations was the screening of a movie with no film and no screen by François Dufrêne: Tambours du Jugement Premier, during the Cannes Film Festival. Marc’O, Gil Wolman, Guy Debord and François Dufrêne, sitting in various seats in the audience, uttered aphorisms, talked about “atomic” cinema [11], produced noises, while the lights were constantly turning on and off, creating kinetic effects [12]. Lettrist cinema was in the process of inventing action in place of the image.


There was no concrete link between these two events. Nonetheless a new spirit of freedom was beginning to pervade creative actions. The rediscovery of Dada in the United States, thanks to a book published by Robert Motherwell in 1951, contributed to this. In the same way, the provocative disposition of Isidore Isou and his Lettrist friends helped give more exposure to certain avant-garde methods, while in Japan the Gutaï group started experimenting new forms using matter and live events in 1954.


IHowever it was only when John Cage started teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York in 1956 that the idea of action art began to spread. Texts by pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, hitherto forgotten, were rediscovered. In his book Art As Experience published in 1934, Dewey invited artists to go beyond the object, towards what he called “actual life-experience”. He described “human experience” as being the original source of art in life, using as an example “the fire engine rushing by; the machines excavating enormous holes in the earth; the human fly climbing the steeple-side; the men perched high in air on girders, throwing and catching red-hot bolts.“ [13] Obviously the idea was not to ask the artist to play at being a fireman, or to climb a skyscraper. Rather it was to take into consideration the experiences making up our existence by restoring their mode of emergence, including through gestures, sounds or images. For the first time a philosopher conferred meaning and aesthetic significance onto action art.


Many young artists were enrolled at the New School for Social Research, like Allan Kaprow and George Brecht. With a few friends [14] Kaprow invented the happening and the notion of a composite and participative performance. Along with Fluxus Brecht created the event, simple gestures from our daily lives which became scores to play over and over again. In their wake, groups such as the Viennese Actionists, the New Realists or Arte Povera regularly produced performances full of “vital energy” [15]. Body art, as its name says, used the body as material and quickly developed in the art world as a political or existential claim. Even conceptual art, with its reputation for being rigorous and rigorist, used action art as a major mode of expression.


A propitious place for experimenting


A part from these now well known movements, certain territories completely appropriated the spirit of action art. The French Riviera is a perfect example. No other place in France can boast of such a constant activity in performance art, during so many consecutive decades, with that many protagonists, gestures or spaces dedicated to its practice. And mostly, one rarely finds so many various styles of actions sometimes contradictory interacting in such a joyous profusion.


Here also it is difficult to point to the precise origin. The screening of the film Tambours du Jugement Premier in Cannes in April 1952 cannot be said to have started a great movement of action art in the area. The Lettrists came and went. Furthermore, their radicalism was somewhat vague and in fact 60 years later it still functions like a ghost haunting our minds, whose impact on art history is difficult to define. Perhaps its influence lay in the political conscience of the 60s and 70s, rather than in the teaching of aesthetics. For perhaps we might see a foreshadowing of May 1968 in the magazine Le Soulèvement De La Jeunesse (Youth Revolting) published in 1952 by a few Lettrists already breaking away from themselves.


In any case the presence of the Lettrists in Cannes in 1952 was not just a chance happening. They were programmed officially following the success the year before of the screening of Isidore Isou’s film Traité de Bave et d’Eternité (Treatise of Slime and Eternity) at this same Festival. The screening, organized alongside the Festival thanks to the support of Jean Cocteau did not include performances, even if legend has it that Isou showed only half of the reels of his unfinished film, the second part of the show including only the soundtrack [16]. Nonetheless several micro events radiated through the following years. In spite of the uproar provoked by the screening, the film received the first and last “Avant-Garde Audience Award” and even the “Festival Margin Prize” awarded by a few seceding members of the jury, amongst whom Malaparte. The young critic Maurice Schérer, also known as Eric Rohmer, discovered the film a bit later and wrote an article for the Cahiers du Cinéma in April 1952. Even if the text was ambiguous, Lettrist cinema - and especially Traité de Bave et d’Eternité -strongly influenced the New Wave. And lastly Guy Debord, who was preparing his baccalaureate at the lycée Carnot in Cannes, was present at the screening and befriended the Lettrists whom he joined the following summer in Paris. The big adventure of International Lettrism and International Situationnism began in this way.


The link with the Riviera might have appeared insignificant if Yves Klein’s mother, Marie Raymond, hadn’t invited these same Lettrists at her home in Paris as well as many other artists for evenings/discussions confronting the ideas and the budding thoughts of the 50s. Yves Klein witnessed these meetings. His aesthetic project was influenced by them. He contributed to the first issue of the magazine Le Soulèvement De La Jeunesse (Youth Revolting). Every summer when he returned to Nice, he spread the atmosphere and the content of his recent discoveries. In the summer 1954, he asked his friends who were lying on the beach to produce glossolalia in the same key. Arman was there. His wife Eliane Radigue was in charge of tuning the voices [17]. Which is how the Monotone Symphony: Silence was born. A few years later, Eliane Radigue introduced Yves Klein to Louis Saguer and to Pierre Henry for a “definitive” composition of this symphony which was used as the basis and the accompaniment for the first session of Anthropométries organized in Paris on March 9, 1960 [18]. It is also in Nice that Klein conceived a great many of his Cosmogonies, paintings that were subjected to outdoor weather like number 10 (Wind Paris-Nice, 1960) or number 34 (April showers on a Monday morning in Cagnes-sur-Mer, 1960). For Yves Klein, art and gesture were the same thing. His charismatic influence gathered young artists around him. Under this influence Arman produced his first performance in the summer 1955, when he took his easel and his stamps to Notre Dame church in Nice one Sunday after mass, to create one of his Seals [19]. Five years later Arman created his first Accumulation by signing a pile of barrels forming a barrage in an old street near the Nice harbor. The same year, Martial Raysse appropriated the signs and the cosmetics of the Prisunic.


If the New Realists were not yet born [20], the seeds were there, in the way they embedded their action in life, borrowed their gestures from a reality which they reflected or contradicted. Once the New Realist group had been formed by Pierre Restany, on 13 July 1961 it organized a festival in the gardens of Roseland Abbey (on the east side of Nice). Before becoming a serial author of objects, Arman created what must have been one of his first Colères (Wrath) by destroying a Louis XIII chair and chest of drawers. Raymond Hains invited all the people present to share his Great Ritual Cake. Mimo Rotella interpreted a sound poem with his impressive tenor voice. Towards the end of the evening Niki de Saint Phalle orchestrated a series of rifle shootings on “target panels” equipped with glass objects, bags of colored paint and smoke devices, which became her Surprise Paintings. After this event the New Realists no longer returned to Nice in a collective and organized way. But their presence there had a lasting effect. Klein, Arman and Raysse were born there.


Meanwhile another story was unraveling. In 1956 Robert Malaval and Ben Vautier opened a discotheque in Nice, the Grac, where they exhibited their first paintings. The business remained open only a few months and closed because of its vague style of management. Also in 1956 Eliane Radigue introduced Ben to Arman under fantastic circumstances, unwittingly creating way ahead of time the first link between two of the leading movements of the 60s, Fluxus and New Realism, whose protagonists both hated and respected each other. But most important of all, the opening of Ben’s Magasin in October 1958 permanently energized the spirit of action art on the Riviera. Before closing in 1972, the shop changed names regularly: Laboratoire 32, then Galerie Ben Doute De Tout (Ben Has Doubts about Everything Gallery). It became the epicenter of an attitude and behavior art which spread like lightning in the following decades. For those who feel that Ben is nothing more than a buffoon who sells socks and schoolbooks in supermarkets, with an oversized ego, obsessed by his aging sexuality and lost in ambiguous regionalist discourses, one must remember how, between 1958 and 1972, he was the amazing inventor of Gestures as singular as they were universal, as magnificent as they were trifling, and how he worked better than anyone at the time on the study of behavior, including his own, which was constantly ambivalent. Most of his Gestures cannot be described, so numerous and diverse were they. But if we are to retain only one, it would be the one where he sat on a chair wearing a sign around his neck bearing only this inscription: Look at Me That’s Enough [21]. He remained stoical. The audience, confronted with this ambiguous attitude, seemed speechless. By his mere posture, he managed to express all at once his obsession with ego, his sense of the absurd, his relation to the world and especially his ability to create “scenes” in any kind of situation. He is one of the first artists to have been able to play with his own image, as we can see on the many photographs or films concerning his work that he began to produce in the early 60s.


Ben was also great at propagating ideas. He met George Maciunas -who was then exiled in Europe -in London in 1962 during the Festival of Misfits organized by Robert Filliou and Daniel Spoerri. He spent the week of the festival shut inside the window of Gallery One. Along with Maciunas he discovered the Fluxus spirit and its ever-changing organization. He was immediately fascinated by George Brecht’s events. He invited Maciunas to organize a Fluxus Festival in Nice in July 1963 [22]. The same year (with a group of friends including Robert Erébo, Dany Gobert, Pontany, Robert Bozzi and Annie Vautier) he created the Théâtre Total which continued until 1981 to produce actions aiming to unsettle the codes of representation, mostly at the Théâtre de L’Artistique in Nice.


During the same decade another Fluxus epicenter was born when the Cédille qui Sourit opened in September 1965; it had been designed by George Brecht and Robert Filliou as a place for creation rather than a place for showing. It was neither a gallery nor an art center, and still less a museum. Brecht and Filliou spent more time at the neighboring café with local or visiting friends than they did managing their place. The Cédille remained closed during opening hours. Its program: “Carefree exchange of information and experience; neither student nor master; total freedom, speaking at times, remaining silent at others.” It is therefore difficult today to know what really happened there. Most Fluxus artists, starting with Dick Higgins and his wife Alison Knowles, spent some time there. Erik Dietman who was then living in Nice stayed there regularly; the very same Dietman who had tried four years before (on July 28, 1962) to swallow five meters of bandage in a bar in Port-Grimaud. At any rate it was at the Cédille that Brecht and Filliou devised their series One Minute Scenarios, action microfilms for the television. But the editing was never finished and in the end the idea led to the 1970 film entitled Hommage à Méliès, Movie Re-invented, based essentially on the notion of gag rather than performance. La Cédille qui Sourit closed in April 1968. “There is always someone making a fortune, someone going bankrupt (especially us). Once again La Cédille qui Sourit is turning a page, and because The Party Never Stops, is announcing the forthcoming production of The Eternal Network, manifestations, meanderings, mediations, microcosms, macrocosms, mixtures, meanings.” In the same breath Filliou wrote: “In the category of alternative performances, we are also announcing events such as private parties, weddings, trials, funerals, factory working, bus tours visiting cities, demonstrations in favor of Blacks or against the Vietnam War, cafés, churches...”. He evidently felt that a performance shouldn’t be an organized show, but the spectacle of life itself. So that even though La Cédille qui Sourit did not produce real actions, we may consider its existence as the very incarnation of the spirit of action, at least in the imagination of two beings for whom art was a Permanent Creation and not just a succession of meetings.


Much quieter but just as legendary, and emblematic of an era, the fourth Free Expression Festival was organized by Jean-Jacques Lebel on the Riviera in the summer of 1967. It was based on Picasso’s text Le désir attrapé par la queue (Desire Caught by the Tail) which he offered to all the guests [23] as the score for a giant happening, yet leaving a large part to improvisation. The show was to be held at the famous discotheque Le Papagayo in Saint-Tropez. But the managers became afraid of the ensuing chaos and canceled at the last minute. Lebel then rented a circus tent in Gassin. All the witnesses concur in saying that the atmosphere was truly psychedelic, enhanced by all sorts of psychoactive drugs, and full of a freedom of play worthy of the Living Theater which was emerging at the time. The festival heralded - at least in France – the many works labeled “psyche” that were produced in the following months and years.


In a different style, it is impossible not to mention the Nights at the Maeght Foundation which began in the summer 1966 [24]. Even if they were entirely dedicated to music, we cannot deny that a great many of these concerts were akin to performance art. Their impact was huge. John Cage and Merce Cunningham performed together in July 1966 [25]. Later Terry Riley and Sun Ra participated, and many others who contributed forms that were out of the ordinary. In the 70s and 80s music and sound gradually started playing a major role in performance art. A few years later the MANCA Festival organized by the CIRM in Nice (National Center for Musical Creation) became the major contributor to relations between musical creation and the visual arts, notably by organizing concerts in unexpected places in a deliberately riotous spirit.


The permanent renewal of action


The atmosphere changed at the beginning of the 70s. The first energy crisis marked the end of the Glorious Thirty, of their utopias, as well as the end of the principles of the avant-garde, with its desire to change the world by subverting political and cultural values. Economic pragmatism became more important than ideals. At the same time, the notion of post-modernism was spreading in the art world. Many artists and critics took hold of this notion as a pretext for mixing all sorts of aesthetic equations. Mixing genres became a frequent aesthetic stance, whereas until then it had been considered only a marginal source of creation. The development of new technologies also contributed to this propagation, in particular through the commercialization of the first video cameras. A performance could now become an image, and thus an object of interest to the art market. Exhibitions were organized, festivals were created everywhere in honor of performance art. Performance art gained coverage in the media. It became a medium in itself, and the term became part of everyday language. It became banal.


In Nice Ben closed his shop in 1972, sold it to the National Museum of Modern Art, joined the Templon gallery and put a stop to his Gestures. The Fluxus spirit was blowing out. Most of the New Realists had already gone on to more commercial work. It seemed that the alternative spirit was destined to disappear, but instead action art kept reappearing. It would be impossible to mention all the names, all the groups or places that have contributed to its history. The documents and accounts published in this edition describe the content of these works more objectively. Nonetheless we must shed a chronological light on a few artists in order to highlight the richness and diversity of their actions. Serge III and Pierre Pinoncelli, although very different from one another, remain models of radicalism through their uncompromising gestures. Serge III became known for having played Russian roulette in public on May 28, 1964 [26], Pinoncelli for having sprayed André Malraux, the minister of culture, with red paint during the ceremony laying the first stone of the Chagall Museum in 1969. Dan Azoulay was a true situationnist who created psycho geographic deviations in all sorts of urban or rural spaces from 1967 to 1975. In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni. Along with René Gilles and Robert Erébo in 1975 he created Le Centre de Réflexion Intense whose goal was to consider art as a territory for live experience. As early as 1969 Noël Dolla was one of the first French artists to do Land Art, with his series Restructurations Spatiale. Between 1970 and 1974 the group Signe organized street actions in a playful agitprop and protest spirit. In 1974 Yoko Gunji started building and activating her “cells” in public, which were destined to be lived in temporarily according to “the principles of self regulation, self conservation and self reproduction”. In 1975 Olivier Garcin created Garage 103, an alternate space where numerous artists developed political works. Also in 1975 the CRIA’s activities began (Centre de Recherches et d’Intervention Artistiques, created by Jean-Claude Bussi), giving birth to the Théâtres-Exposés (Theater-Presentations), whose experiments were akin to theatrical free jazz. Until the mid-1980s, shows were produced without any constraints, following the rules of complete improvisation and freedom for the actors. In 1976 Bruno Mendoça remained for seventy six hours in the darkness of a cave, after which he elaborated unusual temporal actions. The same year Jean Mas climbed the North face of the Nice Theater, good humouredly exploiting the local cultural life. Starting in 1977 Jean-Pierre Giovanelli created actions linked to sociological art, which were championed by theoretician and art critic François Pluchard, then living in the area. At the same time Ruy Blas organized conceptual projects involving the banal, the intimate and the crowd, in contexts escaping traditional designations. In 1978 Elisabeth Morcellet was the first woman artist on the Riviera to proclaim her femininity through gestures linked to the body and to its attributes. The same year Calibre 33 regrouped artists with a common feeling for performance art. Daniel Farioli created actions with remarkable spatial poetry, playing with almost esoteric symbols. Gilbert Piedinelli disrupted official events by handing out leaflets on controversial social or political subjects. Dominique Angel created his own masked double, dealing in an ironic and ambiguous way with the attitudes of success. Along with Raoul Hébréard, Dominique Angel was also a member of the research group Médiastock, wich included Josée Sicard, Jean-Michel Bossini, Eric Watier, who were among the first in France to devise performances according to a multimedia logic. In 1986, supported by the association Verbes d’État (Michel Sajn, Evelyne Pampini and Gabriel Basso), Les Sales Gosses (The Brats)(Antoine Alvarez, Yves Fournier and Denis Martinel), truly deserving their name, started creating vitriolic farces supposed to loosen up the world of art.


In most Western countries in the 90s performance art went through a crisis of meaning. Many experimental artists of the 70s and 80s were forgotten. The advent of a new generation of artists with very different preoccupations completely changed the aesthetic field. Live video, which had helped make performance art known, was usually abandoned in favor of classic film editing, more inspired by the cinema. In the same way, photography became a “visual art” striving to create a form rather than to relate one. Action art was often limited to entertainment exercises performed during openings or parties, as if performance art had never been based on the questioning of aesthetic codes rather than on cultural empathy. The term performance art started meaning just about anything, often designating the slightest gesture using the body, ignoring such issues as the relation with the audience, the invention of forms and spaces, the destitution and reformulation of genres.


On the Riviera, the growing influence of the Villa Arson after 1986, both as an art school and as an art center, and the creation of the MAMAC (Museum of modern and contemporary art) in 1990 began to change the artistic and cultural scene. The art milieu concentrated on what was happening in these two major places. The Villa Arson upheld a modernist view of “art for the sake of art”, differing widely from the complex ontology of performance art. The MAMAC produced typical museum exhibitions inspired by the major movements of the preceding 40 years. In Nice and elsewhere the alternative spirit was overshadowed by institutional life. In spite of this normalizing phenomenon, some action artists managed to emerge. The most emblematic is Philippe Perrin, who in the early 90s became the bad boy of art with his spectacular gesture during the exhibition Principe De Réalité (The Reality Principle) in 1993, when he destroyed “for real” the toilets at the Villa Arson. The Guignol’s Band (Marcel Bataillard, Frédérik Brandi and Kristof Everart) gradually emerged with sharp and dynamic actions, maintaining the flame of an energetic and committed group of artists. During those same years Thierry Lagalla developed an original language which he used in public for philosophical -and somewhat outlandish - reflections on art, on the world or any other subject. Although he did very few real performances, Jean-Luc Verna created his own body in such a way as to be entirely geared towards action, referencing the most unorthodox attitudes in art from Caravaggio to Kenneth Anger. Starting in 2000 Hervé Courtain created a body of work whose main idea was to interfere with public life without organizing the slightest performance. Éric Duyckaerts fabricated over time a crazy scientist character with encyclopedic knowledge, the author of conferences based on the notion of serendipity. He and his accomplice Joseph Mouton have often been the protagonists of actions concerning language and knowledge, endlessly straying in their own meanderings.


In the mid 2000s there was a renewal of international interest in performance art, as well as a new exegesis of its history and foundations. Institutions began to understand that action art was not to be limited to the status of cultural entertainment for an opening night. Artists massively began to invent forms and to conquer new production territories. Exhibitions were used regularly for a setting, disrupting the usual conventions of the white cube. The reasons for this renewal of interest are various and complex. Contemporary artists have been progressively freeing themselves from the major figures of the 60s and 70s. Fascination for cinematographic editing has also petered out. Once again cameras are interested in the live and the immediate. The notion of experimentation has once again become essential in aesthetic preoccupations. By the word experimentation, we mean “experiencing”something in every sense of the word: experiencing at the heart of life but also testing limits, which is exactly what performance art is about. Similarly, there has been a recent renewal of public speech and discourse, of “actorality”, to refer to the famous Marseille Festival [27]. Lastly the success of new activists’ performative practices in the media [28], the vogue for flashmobs, or keen interest in Youtube with its amateur actions, have created a political and sociological context favorable to artists’ re-appropriation of performance art.


This is the context into which a new generation of artists has arisen: Anna Byskov inventing her own double, colliding with the world and its reality in a resolutely frontal and abrupt manner. Emmanuel Benichou placing himself somewhere between Buster Keaton and Robert Castel, creating a fanciful and Mediterranean character, clumsy and unsure. Caroline Bouissou playing with the gap between herself and her environment, for instance on June 19 2006 when she faced her audience for eight hours, singing out loud what she alone could hear on her headphones. Originally an opera singer, Sophie Taam has been staging actions where singing and searching for an aesthetic ideal are often contingent. Virginie Le Touze has interpreted the role of a romantic woman, fascinated by love songs, with a delicate and moving voice. DooHwa Gianton has produced enigmatic actions mixing her personal life and universal symbols. Lastly, Jean Dupuy, even if he has hardly produced any performances since he left New York for Nice at the end of the 70s, has been constantly renewing his vocabulary of forms and experiences, and wonderfully maintaining the spirit of permanent creation so dear to his friend Robert Filliou.


On top of all these artists living and working on the French Riviera, who were immersed in the local artistic life, action art also developed through the temporary presence of artists who created memorable lightning-performances, like all the artists related to Fluxus. There were so many we cannot name them all, who were influenced by Ben, Filliou or Brecht in the 60s, or who later organized concerts, like the one organized in 2003 to celebrate the 40th birthday of the first Fluxus Festival. In addition to the artists affiliated to Maciunas’ movement, we can also mention Bernard Heidsieck, ORLAN, Gina Pane, Michel Journiac, Julien Blaine, Joël Hubaut, Charles Dreyfus, Arnaud Labelle-Rojoux. Without forgetting such illustrious foreign performers as Stanley Brouwn, Carsten Höller, Paul McCarthy, Jason Rhoades, Jacques Lizène, David Medalla, or younger artists like Antoine Boute, Stéphane Bérard, Charles Pennequin, Jeanne Moynot or Aymeric Hainaux, who have represented the renewal of action art since the 2000s.


Such a renewal can also be explained by the exhibitions that were programmed in certain places, foremostly the Villa Arson, where Eric Duyckaerts (who joined the faculty there in 2001) and Arnaud Labelle-Rojoux (who joined in 2007) most certainly influenced the practices of their students and future artists. The exhibitions organized by the Villa Arson art center since 2006, for example Not to Play with Dead Things in 2008 or Bernard Heidsieck in 2011, attempted to analyze how performance art was able to adapt or not to the constraints of a museum like setting. Along with the Villa Arson one must mention La Station, which has been constantly exemplifying the close relation between art and life experience since 1997. This artists’ association, whose foremost quality is to be constantly renewing itself, has organized a long list of poetry evenings, concerts, performances, film screenings and parties. The Sous-Station Lebon also played an important role between 2005 and 2008, when it developed a series of events in an alternative spirit close to action art around its project Diligence (Émilie Pischedda and Valentin Souquet). Between 2007 and 2009 the Dojo organized the festival Indisciplines whose goal was to abolish the barriers between genres through common events. The gallery L’Espace à Vendre (Space for Sale) has been programming performances regularly, in or outside its own walls, since 2004, while the Villa Caméline and the Maison Singulière have also participated in this adventure.


Subjects for research


It is very difficult to explain the reasons for the longevity and diversity of action art on the French Riviera since the beginning of the 50s. Our goal in the research we have been doing since September 2007 is to reveal the important dates and to uncover the stories that belong to them. We now hope that this research will lead to more research, to historical, sociological and anthropological analysis, in order to understand the link between all these actions and their territory. Today we can already determine directions for reflecting on the reasons for such an infatuation. The first is the presence in the 50s of three charismatic artists (Yves Klein, Arman and Ben) who, in spite of some major differences in their conception of art, all built their work on experimental activities based on gesture and attitude, and not on a textbook of closed propositions. A few years later the presence of Robert Filliou and George Brecht at La Cédille qui Sourit completely established Behavior Art as a basis for creation.


The second element is a profoundly bored young generation, chronically failing to find its marks in a region sleepily turned towards its past, mummified and institutionalized by time. Paul-Armand Gette who lived on the Riviera from 1951 to 1962 perfectly explained this dull atmosphere and the need to have fun by the means of actions that he regarded as pranks. From the late 60s and throughout the 70s and 80s, this same youth revolted against an extremely conservative local political power, incarnated at the time by Jacques Médecin, Nice’s populist mayor. Like in most countries, the discourse of performance art in those years was extremely political, and new modes of production were invented thanks to alternative networks or groups.


Beyond such criteria, it is also important to take into account the area’s tradition of festivals and the existence of a centuries old carnival that takes over the urban space every year. Artists have often tried to express themselves alongside these emblematic manifestations, with deliberately contrary gestures which yet obey the same logic of self representation. When Anna Byskov or Caroline Bouissou walk the streets in Nice playing musical instruments, or having others play them, they are creating myriad sounds and forms as well as suggesting a way of staging their own gestures. Although he wasn’t exclusively a performer, in the 60s Robert Malaval developed a body of work on carnival aesthetics, which he diverted for the benefit of his own research.


Lastly, one must not forget the specificity of an area endowed with a beautiful climate and landscape, which certainly encouraged artists to occupy numerous territories, whatever the season. Action art was not restricted to alternate venues or to artists’ studios, museums and galleries; on the contrary it literally invaded urban, rural and coastal space. In fact it is amazing how many events were held on the seashore. One of the artists in this corpus, Michel Redolfi, even produced an underwater concert in 1989. This is highly unusual compared to the other major scenes of performance art, which were often restricted to dedicated spaces.


Of course we are not claiming that the Riviera has been the world’s capital of art for the last 60 years. Far from it. Those who talk about a “Nice school” grossly and artificially exaggerate its importance. However, it is fascinating to see how this area has rigorously mirrored, through time and diversity, the aesthetic and ideological evolution of action art over six decades: from the renewal of the avant-garde in the 50s, to the major aesthetic upheavals of the 60s, to the political activism of the 70s, to the reaction against the return of the academic in the 80s, to the crisis of performance art in the 90s when confronted with the institutionalization of art, and finally to the renewal of the spirit of action in the mid 2000s. In this sense, the Riviera has been a fantastic laboratory for performance art. The research we have been doing for five years has strived to make this little known history more visible, to study the evolution of action art since the end of the second world war and to reveal another image of the Riviera without necessarily erasing its conservative and artificial essence.


Éric Mangion

[1] - Richard Martel, “Performance”, Doc(k)s Action, Ajaccio, 2003. Richard Martel is an artist and has organized a great many performances in Québec.

[2] - November 9 1994 –January 23 1995.

[3] - Cf text by Robert Fleck, L’actualité du happening, pp 310-317.

[4] - In his book How To Do Things With Words (1962), John Austin refers to all the aspects and combinations of performative language.

[5] - “Notice de la performance au performantiel”, Art in Press 2, novembre, 2007.

[6] - The title of John Austin’s book evokes a great many artistic preconceptions linked to performance art, notably the Fluxus events produced with the help of short scores. Utterances can become actions.

[7] - Avant-garde is commonly defined as a series of artistic movements between 1860 and 1970 which strove to create a radical break with traditions, conventions and established schools.

[8] - Marc Partouche retraced this little known period of art history in La ligne oubliée (The Forgotten Line), published in 2004 by Al Dante editions.

[9] - According to an expression by Hugo Ball.

[10] - Hans Arp quoted by RoseLee Goldberg in Performance art. From futurism to the present, Abrams 1988, p.60.

[11] - Most of the Lettrists’ texts on the cinema were published in 1952 in the magazine ION directed by Marc’O.

[12] - According to Marc’o, who was questioned by the author in 1989, the four Lettrists played with flashlights during the entire show.

[13] - Quoted by Jeff Kelley, in the catalog Hors Limites published in 1994 by the Centre Georges Pompidou, p. 52; John Dewey, Art as Experience, Perigee 2005, p3.

[14] - Amongst whom Red Grooms, Robert Whitman, Jim Dine, Claes Oldenburg and Carolee Schneemann.

[15] - According to an expression by Yves Klein.

[16] - There are several completely different versions of this screening. According to Marc’O, questioned by the author in 2009, Isidore Isou was not in the room. According to other accounts he was. “When legend is more beautiful than truth, one must print the legend.”

[17] - Éliane Radigue related this story to the author during a conversation in 2010.

[18] - At the Galerie Internationale d’Art Contemporain, Paris.

[19] - Paintings made with administrative or commercial stamps applied to the canvas.

[20] - The New Realism manifesto was signed on October 27, 1960 in Paris in Yves Klein’s apartment.

[21] - He repeated this action many times, but its most emblematic interpretations were those enacted on the Promenade des Anglais in 1962 and 1963.

[22] - This was the last Fluxus Festival of his European tour.

[23] - The guests were: Jean-Jacques Lebel, Jacques Seiler, Ultraviolet, Rita Renoir, Katherine Moreau, Taylor Mead, Jacques Blot, Michèle Lemonnier, Dorte Oloé, László Szabó, Michel Asso, Soft Machine and Ben.

[24] - These were partly organized by Daniel Caux.

[25] - Ben staged a demonstration on this occasion, handing out leaflets at the entrance of the foundation, accusing John Cage of betraying his own ambition of radicalism.

[26] - During the Free Expression Festival organized by Jean-Jacques Lebel at the American Center in Paris.

[27] - The Festival was initiated and organized each year at the beginning of fall by playwright and director Hubert Colas.

[28] - On the subject one can refer to Un nouvel art de militer : Happenings, luttes festives et actions directes (A New Form for Activism: Happenings, Festive Battles and Direct Actions) published in 2009 at the editions Alternatives by Sébastien Porte and Cyril Cavalié.