Donnerstag, 31. Dezember 2015

The Radicality of the Moment

written by Ilka Theurich, 2015
Published 2015

Does a passer-by in public space have to recognize that the action is performance art in order to be able to encounter the artist’s idea poetically at all? In the performance practice, as I have operated within my research, the passer-by does not know the circumstances. There is neither an official start nor an end to observe, there is no advertising and no announcement. I have defined public space as my research frame and as a pre-condition for my research.

– But what happens if the recipient does not know what performance art is?
– How can the action as such be recognized and perceived by passers-by?
– How will they understand these artistic actions?

The German philosopher Kurt Wuchterl argued that "the act of understanding consists in both horizons being 'merged', meaning that the significance of that historic intention and its basic conditions are built into the interpreter’s structure of meaning.” (1) In the hermeneutic science, the process of understanding is based on pre-understanding. From this preunderstanding, the interpreter´s horizon of understanding is manifested. What happens, however, if the passer-by on the street does not have a pre-understanding in terms of performance art?
Owing to his focus on three basic hermeneutic questions, Wuchterl gave me the idea not to direct the process of understanding towards performance art but, in answering the question how a random passer-by understands performance art in public urban space, to concentrate on the pre-understanding he or she has of this space. "While natural scientists observe and explain natural objects, hermeneutics start from linguistic signs and from cultural creations which are conceived as an expression or manifestation of the human spirit. The place of explanations is taken by the answers to the following three basic hermeneutic questions: What is the original form of the manifestation? Which intention did the creator pursue with the manifestation? How do efficiency and intention of the creator relate to the truth according to the interpreter?" (2)

So when two different horizons of understanding meet unprepared, I come to realize from my practical work on the street that the interpretation of an action always starts from the context of place. Therefore, the interpretation of the action is always based on the question: in which surrounding is the performance artist located?
During my long duration performance in Helsinki, I was in a neighborhood of dealers, junkies, alcoholics and homeless people. Therefore, I can imagine that I was categorized as a confused homeless woman. In Seoul, on the other hand, I performed in a neighborhood where I was immediately apparent as a foreigner. As it was later reported to me, the question “What does this foreigner want from us?” was the first thing that came to the mind of the passers-by. There, the aspect that I was not one of the old-established neighborhood residents was to the fore at once - even before the actions themselves. My assumption that the context of a place largely influences the interpretation of an action was confirmed in the city center of Nicosia in Cyprus on 28th/29thJune 2014. In Europe´s last divided capital, people approached me during my 24-hour performance and told me their very own interpretations of my actions. While an approximately 50-year-old Greek-Cyprian gave priority to the suffering and the endurance in his descriptions, a circa 70-yearold female Greek-Cyprian interpreted the action as a gleam of hope. She understood the object I carried around and dragged around behind me as a ritual object to which one could tie one´s wishes and recognized a visual similarity to an old Cyprian tradition. An about 60-year-old Turkish Cyprian again came to a completely different conclusion. For him, the object was a symbol of merging, and he interpreted my actions as a direct call to the population to work on this emerging actively and together. All three Cyprians had never before heard the term “performance art”. The process of understanding during a performance builds up from an interaction which is fed from the intersection of three influences. Following Wuchterl, I would say that the artist’s action (subject I = creator) here encounters the perception of a random passer-by (subject II = interpreter), and that these two thinking spirits faced with each other exchange messages which are conveyed by means of the external context (in this case the public urban space). (3) The different life perspectives (horizons) of the subject I and subject II need the external context in order to be able to merge.
The respective horizons of these two subjects are composed of many different life impressions. If we assume the sequence of images of a day as I laid out in "Action as Image Creator - Observation as Action", and start thinking in units that slowly become bigger, then the experiences of a week, a month, a year or even several decades add up to a huge wealth of experience. This treasure consists of a multitude of individual actions and individual images and contains a historical character of storage. (4) And only through this specific storage or retention of experiences can I understand why actions and images can appeal to some people, who in turn arrive at quite different interpretations. Or why other people remain unimpressed by the same actions and images, get annoyed or even really angry. 

There is one observation I could make in every city so far: on the one hand, accidental recipients of performance art in public urban space often stop with a look of astonishment and start to discuss with each other. They strive for ways to classify this phenomenon. They search for words but do not know how to read the goings-on. On the other hand, though, I have also observed that these people discussing with each other react quite differently to their failure to make sense of what they are seeing. Some give up and go away aggressively, while for others, a new perspective of seeing opens.

Based on the historic character of our practical education, Gadamer assumes that the artist always encounters or finds him or herself an audience that can understand his or her works. Thus, the artist does not freely choose contents and their artistic realization. According to Gadamer, the artist wants to make a statement and chooses a form for it which he or she hopes the audience will be able to read. “Reading”, in any case, does not only refer to written texts but means any artistic expression. Gadamer points out many different actions during the process of reading: „Reading has manifold reminiscences of: collecting, picking up, selecting, and sorting out as in vintage, i.e., the harvest which provides something that endures. But reading also means explicit doing that has to be learned, that starts with spelling. The same applies to seeing, which includes an explicit ability, i.e., a reading, whenever it wants to be more than an everyday noticing and concerns subtle phenomena (of nature, especially in fine arts)." (5)

For me personally, art is a means of communication in the first place. But my stated aim is certainly not for everyone to understand my artistic actions right away. After all, as a performance artist, I cannot choose my audience on the street. Although I have very deliberately chosen the diversity of public urban space, it would be presumptuous to believe that everybody passing by would understand my performative images. It has been brought home to me again and again within my own artistic practice that different cultural backgrounds influence the reading of art essentially. However, Gadamer was certain in 1960 that the artist never only creates unfamiliar worlds. In his opinion, art will always connect with reality. I myself would not generally claim this for every artist and every art movement. But performance art is usually based on human or animal action and therefore, of course, implies an extreme closeness to reality anyway. In my specific case, I first examine public urban space and the associated everyday actions in order to secondly establish interventions there which relate directly to the found everyday situations. What interests me is dealing with the question how we want to live together in the future. The urban space is a first, assessable starting point for this. Hence, I can agree with Gadamer in my case. I want to connect with reality through my art. So, how are my interventions and performances read by passers-by with different background and education? 

By way of example, I present a performance concept here which has convinced me of the strong influence the context of place and time has on the interpretation of an action. It is Valie Export´s “Aus der Mappe der Hundigkeit –communication action together with Peter Weibel” (6), in which Export walks Weibel through Vienna on a leash in 1968, a time when women took to the street for equal rights and women´s liberation in the big cities in Germany, France, and Austria and when an atmosphere of political change prevailed. This performance was commented on and interpreted by passers-by within this concrete feminist context of that time.

Another interesting performance concept in regard to public urban space and the context of reception connected with it comes from Santiago Sierra: “133 Persons Paid To Have Their Hair Dyed Blond, which was organized in June 2011 behind the closed doors of a warehouse, situated in the Arsenal, during the opening of that year's Venice Biennial”. One could almost say that Sierra handed the dark haired “illegal street vendors, most of them immigrants from different parts of the world” (7) back to the public urban space as bright blonde signals.

For Gadamer, “the flow of reading, (…) in which the image shows,” is a carrying out, not an objectified circumstance of cognition.” (8) Here, the time factor enters the picture. Gadamer defines a synchronicity in which the aesthetic consciousness, the historic consciousness, and the present meet as “the temporality of the aesthetic” (9). He assumes that the interpretation of a work of art is only possible in this synchronicity. For me, the radicality of the moment lies exactly in this uninterrupted stretch of time. And here I come back to Rilke´s poem which I have placed in front of this thesis: ”Sometimes the curtain in his eye lifts inaudibly. An image enters fully, travels the tautened quiet of the limbs - and in the heart ceases to be.” (10) Occasionally, just a single blink of the eyelid is required, the fraction of a second in which an action permeates our body as an image. Inspired by the action, all our foreknowledge collides with our present in this short moment. And only a breath later our heart beats faster because we are in the middle of an encounter. It is diametrically for the caged panther in the poem, who has ceased to be able to feel much. But Rilke could formulate it only through an incoming image. Heidegger describes this correlation between the preunderstanding and the understanding as seeing follows: “Any understanding, though, puts that which is to be understood into a context of meaning, the horizon, awards its place to it by recognizing 'something as something'.” (11) The passer-by can only perceive the performance as relating to an everyday action because something already exists inside the passer-by –that is, he or she has a pre-knowledge.
In Venice, for example, the gondolas and their gondoliers belong to everyday life. Hans Winkler´s performance concept “un incidente in gondola” builds on exactly this circumstance in Venice in 2002. During a round trip on the canals of the lagoon city, the gondolier and the artist sank into a canal in their gondola which had been specifically prepared for sinking. I was not on site, but from regarding the documentary photos alone I at once had associations with the sinking of Venice, with the Venetian traditions and with the doom of art, also with the saying “The water is up to my neck”. All these are thoughts that could not have come to me without my foreknowledge. For Gadamer, there is a correlation between pre-understanding and understanding which he calls merging of horizons and which has a circular character. (12) Keller goes one step further and calls the merging of horizons a hermeneutic spiral. In his opinion, our foreknowledge extends, too, to every process of understanding, and so we never return to the same spot. In this point, I agree with Keller, drawing the knowledge from my own journey through life. From one process of understanding to the next, one can reach a higher level of comprehension. (13) But before such an extended comprehension, there are often times with a rather circular character –which can change into utter chaos now and then. In my opinion, the process of understanding is not continuous and linear but one gains comprehension in stages. And before such a stage of comprehension, I myself need practical education with an ensuing time of taking a step back. During the latter period, I carry the chance in me to regard the practical education just experienced from a distance and to reflect on it through a change of perspective.
Coming back to the example of the sinking gondola, I must say that the documentary photos allow only a sketchy reflection of the action. I miss being present. The temporal process of the sinking and the simultaneous experience cannot be replaced by any documentary photo in the world. I have no way to participate and to linger. The merging of horizons in the moment of being present is partly kept from me here. And this participation in a performative idea which reveals itself in a state of permanent becoming – this is, for me, a prerequisite for a qualitative moment of encounter to be able to form. For Gadamer, the concept of the watcher is only fulfilled through his or her being there „(Dabeisein). Being present does not simply mean being there along with something else that is there at the same time. To be present means to participate. If someone was present at something, he knows all about how it really was. It is only in a derived sense that presence at something means also a kind of subjective act, that of paying attention to something (Bei-der-Sache-sein).Thus watching something is a genuine mode of participating.“ (14)

The random passer-by on the street may perceive the performance as an everyday action at first sight, but only by his or her participation, his or her being present is he or she enabled to notice another quality in this everyday action which distinguishes this specific action from “normal” everyday actions. In my opinion, Wiesing’s summary of this increase in quality a work of art features in Gadamer's sense is also applicable to performance art: "Actually, in Die Aktualität des Schönen (Stuttgart 1977), Hans-Georg Gadamer also underlines 'that a presentation, which a work of art is, is not about the work of art representing something it is not' (…). Instead, it is the specific artistic achievement 'that in the work of art something is not only referred to, but what is referred to, is really there within it'. (…) In other words: for Gadamer, the work of art does not provide veneer, but
“means an increase of being”. (15)

The way I see it, this “increase of being” Gadamer describes here lies in the merging of horizons between work of art and recipient. Only in being present and only through the merging of horizons influenced by it can a poetic encounter occur which implies an “increase of being”. I am convinced that without a recipient, there is no increase of being. Art as such only exists if it is recognized as art. And it can only be recognized as such if a recipient is present to read it. The work of art becomes art only by means of the merging of horizons of at least two subjects.


1.) Wuchterl 1992, p. 103.

GERMAN ORIGINAL VERSION: “Der Verstehensakt besteht nun darin, daß beide Horizonte 'verschmolzen' werden, das heißt, die Bedeutsamkeit jener historischen Absicht und ihre Rahmenbedingungen in das Sinngefüge des Interpreten eingebaut werden.”

2,) Wuchterl 1992, p. 101.

GERMAN ORIGINAL VERSION: “Während die Naturwissenschaftler Naturobjekte beobachten und erklären, gehen die Hermeneutiker von sprachlichen Zeichen und kulturellen Schöpfungen aus, die als Ausdruck oder Manifestation des menschlichen Geistes aufgefasst werden. Anstelle der Erklärungen tritt die Beantwortung der folgenden drei hermeneutischen Grundfragen: - Welches ist die ursprüngliche Form der Manifestation? - Welche Absicht hat der Urheber mit der Manifestation verfolgt? - Wie verhalten sich Leistung und Absicht des Urhebers zur Wahrheit im Sinne des Interpreten?”

3.) cf. Wuchterl 1992, p. 102.

4.) cf. Gadamer 1960/2010, p. 17.

WM: “In der Bildung dagegen wird das, woran und wodurch einer gebildet wird, zwar auch zu eigen gemacht. Insofern geht alles, was sie aufnimmt, in ihr auf. Aber in der Bildung ist das Aufgenommene nicht wie ein Mittel, das seine Funktion verloren hat. Vielmehr ist in der erworbenen Bildung nichts verschwunden, sondern alles aufbewahrt. Bildung ist ein echter geschichtlicher Begriff, und gerade um diesen geschichtlichen Charakter der >Aufbewahrung< geht es für das Verständnis der Geisteswissenschaften.” (p. 17)

TM: “In Bildung, by contrast, that by which through which one is formed becomes completely one's own. To some extent, everything that is received is absorbed, but in Bildung what is absorbed is not like a means that has lost its function. Rather, in acquired Bildung nothing disappears, but everything is preserved. Bildung is a genuine historical idea, and because of this historical character of “preservation” it is important for understanding in the human sciences.” (pp. 11-12)

5.)  Gadamer 1994, p. 101.

GERMAN ORIGINAL VERSION: “Lesen hat vielfältige Anklänge von: Zusammenlesen, Auflesen, Auslesen, und Verlesen wie bei der Lese, d.h. der Ernte, die Bleibendes liefert. Aber Lesen meint auch ein ausdrückliches Tun, das gelernt sein will, was mit dem Buchstabieren anfängt. Entsprechendes gilt für das Sehen, das dann, wenn es mehr als alltägliches Bemerken sein will und sich auf subtile Phänomene bezieht (der Natur, vor allem der Bildenden Kunst), ein ausdrückliches Können, d.h. ein Lesen einschließt.”

6.), last visit 01.08.2014

7.), last visit 01.08.2014

8.) Gadamer 1994, p. 102.

GERMAN ORIGINAL VERSION: “Der Fluß des Lesens, (…) in dem sich das Bild zeigt, (…) ein Vollzug, kein vergegenständlichter Sachverhalt der Erkenntnis.”

9.) Gadamer 1960/2010, pp. 126-139.

WM: Die Zeitlichkeit des Ästhetischen (pp. 126-139)

TM: The temporality of the aesthetic (pp.121-129)

10.)  Rilke 1990, p. 451, „Der Panther. Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris“, 1902

11.) Keller 1982/2006, p. 87, Heidegger according to Keller

GERMAN ORIGINAL VERSION: “Alles Verstehen stellt aber das zu Verstehende in einen Bedeutungszusammenhang, einen Horizont, erkennt ihm da seinen Platz zu, indem es 'Etwas als Etwas' erkennt.”

12.) cf. Wuchterl 1992, p.103.

13.) cf. Keller 1982/2006, p. 88.

14.) Gadamer 1960/2010, p. 129.

WM: “Vielmehr ist umgekehrt das Sein des Zuschauers durch sein >Dabeisein< bestimmt. Dabeisein ist mehr als bloße Mitanwesenheit mit etwas anderem, das zugleich da ist. Dabeisein heißt Teilhabe. Wer bei etwas dabei war, der weiß im ganzen Bescheid, wie es eigentlich war. Erst abgeleiteterweise bedeutet Dabeisein dann auch eine Weise des subjektiven Verhaltens, das >Bei-der-Sache-sein<. Zuschauen ist also eine echte Weise der Teilhabe.” (p. 129)

TM: “Rather, the contrary is true: the being of the spectator is determined by his “being there present” (Dabeisein). Being present does not simply mean being there along with something else that is there at the same time. To be present means to participate. If someone was present at something, he knows all about how it really was. It is only in a derived sense that presence at something means also a kind of subjective act, that of paying attention to something (Bei-der-Sache-sein). Thus watching something is a genuine mode of participating.” (p. 124)

15.) Wiesing 2000, p. 114.

GERMAN ORIGINAL VERSION: “In der Tat unterstreicht auch Hans Georg Gadamer in Die Aktualität des Schönen (Stuttgart 1977), 'daß es sich bei der Darstellung, die ein Kunstwerk ist, nicht darum handelt, daß das Kunstwerk etwas darstellt, das es nicht ist' (…). Vielmehr ist die spezifische künstlerische Leistung, 'daß im Kunstwerk nicht nur auf etwas verwiesen ist, sondern daß in ihm eigentlich da ist, worauf verwiesen ist'. (…) Mit anderen Worten: Das Kunstwerk liefert für Gadamer keinen Schein, sondern 'bedeutet einen Zuwachs an Sein'.”


Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Wahrheit und Methode. Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik. Tübingen:J.C.B. Mohr, 1960/2010.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method, Second, Revised Edition. Translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 1975/2004.
Keller, Albert. Allgemeine Erkenntnistheorie, Grundkurs Philosohpie II.Stuttgart: W.Kohlhammer GmbH, 1982/2006.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Die Gedichte. Stuttgart: Insel Verlag, 1990.
Wiesing, Lambert. Phänomene im Bild.München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2000.
Wuchterl, Kurt. Lehrbuch der Philosophie, 4. Auflage. Stuttgart: Uni Taschenbücher für Wissenschaft, 1992.

Edited Work or Several Editors
Rilke, Rainer Maria and Vilain Robert (ed) Selected Poems: with Parallel German Text. New Translations by Susan Ranson and Marielle Sutherland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.87

Article in an Edited Work
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Bildkunst und Wortkunst. In Boehm, Gottfried (ed.) Was ist ein Bild?München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag (1994): 90-104.

Web Sites
Valie Export. (last visit 01.08.2014)
Santiago Sierra. (last visit 01.08.2014)


WM = Wahrheit und Methode
TM = Truth and Method