Chairs are piled on top of tables and each other to create the side of a mountain. Performers (dressed appropriately) climb the chairs with buckets of water and sit there until they create a waterfall. It all looks quite precarious, but it was meticulously planned.
What is performance art compared to performing arts? The latter is staged, scripted and rehearsed and held in a performance venue. Viewers probably also have to buy tickets. Performance art may well be scripted, rehearsed and prepared, but it is generally set in an unusual or artistic environment, often allowing some involvement and participation by the audience and breaking with convention. Where does the definition move from the popular activities that take place in Covent Garden market every day into performance art?
As an art movement that should be recognised, performance art came into its own in the 1960’s and 1970’s and has developed from there. Tate Modern has, in its underground Tanks, a unique venue for performance art that engages the viewer. One of the early performance artist groups in England was The Theatre of Mistakes, the achievements of which are on show in an exhibition in the mid-18th century Georgian townhouses of 56 and 58 Artillery Lane, London, now the gallery space Raven Row, with archival photographs, drawings and videos, supplemented by performance activities.
The Theatre of Mistakes was active for a relatively short period from 1974 to 1981, in which time the group pioneered a structure and discipline to performance art which encapsulated architecture, choreography, free movement, poetry and visual art and is well-described in the archival material on shown including drawings, sketches and notes on planning the performances, alongside photographs and videos of the actual events which often involved local people. Those tubular steel chairs from the 1960’s, found in church halls up and down the country found many new artistic uses.
Fiona Templeton and Anthony Howell co-authored a publication which complied the artworks which had been developed, Elements of Performance Art (1976), which is suggested as the “first manifesto for performance art in the UK”, and a core group of performers agreed to produce works for a five-year duration, with opportunities for revision.
Live performances during the exhibition at Raven Row include members of the original group, performance workshops by Anthony Howell and performances of Going (1977), directed by Fiona Templeton with a cast of five artists acting out different aspects of departure in five acts, whilst pretending to be each other.
While the images of the performances make them look a little dated now, why did the group disappear at the end of the five years and not continue and develop? One of the interesting documents is a letter from Paul A Rolin, the Music Director and Academy of Prison Arts Coordinator for the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburg to the 99cent Floating Theatre which had performed Going with the prisoners in the prison. He welcomed further such activities, a very enlightened approach to prison management that might reap benefits today.