Performear o performear

From a personal analysis of the stages of training to the relationship of the university, the street, and the theater, artist Luis Garay presents a personal analysis of the scene around performance and institutions in Buenos Aires, in conversation with curator Santiago Villanueva.

Performear o performear [1]

Since the first appearance of Alberto Greco with his Vivo-Dito [2], we can understand performance in Argentina in its complex interactions with different social and political contexts. It is no coincidence that currently many actions that occur in public space are part of exhibitions, books, or presentations on performance in Latin America: without looking any further, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, or the Tupamaros in Uruguay. Luis Garay grew up in Bogotá in the eighties and developed his work in Buenos Aires in the aughts. Reflecting on his practice and the pedagogical program of the Laboratorio de Acción, Garay points out the possibilities of action through the body, having moved through dance to develop bodily practices in the field of visual arts.
Santiago Villanueva: I would like to begin by asking you about training for performance, both in view of your personal experience, and then in relation to a more global context; to pose the question of the difference and distance between how one trains oneself, be it physically or theoretically, and the body’s passage through institutions. For the body, being in an institution conditions its movements, ways of thinking, ways of seeing art, writing about art, and, in this particular case, the way in which we understand performance. What was your training like? After that experience, what is your position on performance training and institutions? And finally, what tools, references, or guides did you have in mind when creating the Laboratorio de Acción at the Teatro San Martín in Buenos Aires?
Luis Garay: I trained in dance at the Teatro San Martín in Buenos Aires. I danced from the age of 15 until I was 22 years old, when I started to invent my own works, focusing always on the grammar of movement, on the relationship with other temporalities, the alienating work and the alienation of the body in movement, and the body as a surface of desire. I was instinctively interested in the body and not the discipline around dance or performance. My current work is embedded in bodily practices, in ways of producing that push away from those techniques that I studied as a teenager.
Training for performance is not possible since, to begin with, there is no consensus on what performance is. Additionally, we should ask ourselves how we can reconfigure a history of the living arts in Latin America (while also taking into account the differences and similarities between performativity, performance, action, activation, etc.) in a way that isn’t temporally bound. Even when I think that it’s not possible to train, I think it’s good to be informed. Personally, I am interested in tracking some definitions that help me to understand the scope of the idea of performance and its genealogy, and including these studies into a history of local dance. In his iconic book Perform or Else, Jon McKenzie proposes an understaning of performance that does not stick to anthropological and cultural studies, but which instead extends out to ideas of performativity in the fields of technology and economics, where he also makes use of these concepts and argues that we are transitioning from an era of discipline to one of the performance paradigm. Likewise, the writings of J.L. Austin opened up the possibilities of the word as an action through his idea of language performativity; Helena Katz and Christine Greiner from Brazil have contributed the idea of Corpo-Media—the body as a generator and, at the same time, a product of the environment; and on another hand, Rebecca Schneider moves performance away from the idea of something ephemeral… So, there are many other theories that come from Estudios de Performance (Performance Studies) and also from Estudios en Danza (Dance Studies); for example, the idea of a performatic body inhabited by choreographers—like myself, who does not choreograph steps, but processes—where the interest is focused more on the production of an experience than on the idea of performance as an event, an experience tied to the history of performance and the happening in visual arts. Is all this important? No and yes. I am interested in studying, but studying does not come before the practice. It is never about legitimizing the practice. They are simply interconnections, possible alliances, translations.

The Laboratorio de Acción emerged as a platform for experimental artists interested in live arts and action art. I really like all these expressions that we used to use in Latin America before the incorporation of the word performance. It involves, first, studying our artists and history a little, and then analyzing if the theories of Performatic Studies serve us, or understanding how we use them and how they intersect with our context. The Laboratorio de Acción takes place in a public theater, the Teatro San Martín in Buenos Aires, an interesting space to question how to relate to the state apparatus and review what place experimentation occupies in that space. For said laboratory, I thought about moving away from the word performance and working with the Spanish translation acción (action) to broaden the field. I thought about generating a meeting place for experimental artists where generosity is generated through listening. A space outside of competitiveness. Likewise, the laboratory focuses on the local, not in order to promote ideas of “identity,” but in order to try to situate ourselves and realize what tools are at our disposal in this territory with all its particularities. The idea of this laboratory is, first and foremost, incomplete, not comprehensive. It is a specific cross section of things that I consider important: practicing the exercise of the word and generosity, small and ambiguous formats, and supporting artists who use strange formats and who are often unclassifiable. Working within the processes of others helps to demystify the figure of the artist. I also insisted that there be no obligation to produce at the Laboratorio de Acción, nor a final exhibition. In short, I insist that it be another type of space.

SV: Is the body conditioned by its passage through the university?
LG: The university systematizes knowledge and that can be very valuable. Even so, a non-method is also a method: we all generate forms of knowledge outside and inside institutions. The university, on the other hand, has the potential to link spheres of philosophical and scientific knowledge, necessary connections that complicate and distance the romanticism of the idea of art. It’s about adding things to the toolbox.
In Argentina—at least in dance, live arts, and performance—I do not think we should be afraid of the normative scope of the institution of the university, since we only have one devoted to these disciplines that themselves are in a continuous process of re-signification. It would be like being afraid of a norm that does not yet exist. The dance and theater degrees at the Universidad Nacional de las Artes are bachelor degrees with thousands of black holes, that, in spite of this, serve as spaces for encounters and thought. In Argentina there are many places of nonformal education. The Laboratorio de Acción is one of those places, except that it is part of the state system and therefore is free, unlike all other spaces of informal education.
In the spaces for training, listening, observation, and the creation of concepts are used to in turn promote, I insist, generosity. I looked at a lot of references from friends and colleagues that helped me to imagine how I wanted the space of the Laboratorio de Acción to be, notably: Centro de Investigaciones Artísticas (CIA, Roberto Jacoby); my colleague and friend Cristian Duarte’s project Lote in São Paulo; the Programa de Artistas at the Universidad Di Tella in Buenos Aires; the project ¿Por qué me muevo?, run by my colleagues from NAVE in Santiago, Chile; the residency space Campo Abierto in Uruguay, among others. I wanted to bring a spirit of curiosity and availability to young artists who serve as referents for language and experiments as fragile as they are powerful
SV: I would like for you to tell us more about the work you have been doing for several years now with the artist Diego Bianchi—with the project Under de sí [3], your production at the Teatro Argentino Centro de Experimentación y Creación (TACEC) in La Plata. Here, the presence of objects is invasive, unlike in your individual work. Throughout this time, did you develop any particular method of work? How did you participate in the construction of the objects, and Diego in the choreographic script?

LG: We collaborated with Diego on two of my works before Under de sí and Actividad mental. In the first one, the objects were literally the set design, but they had a certain degree of abstraction and estrangement. In the second one, we manipulated not sculptures of his, but objects that had started coming into contact with his ideas and with exercises that we had been working on: ideas of use, reiteration, materiality, and absurdity. So, we started to work with small objects that we began to see as ruins, as incomplete pieces (remains) of a spectral grammar. For my part, I have worked the body as linguistic material in other works such as Maneries or Ouroboro, inventing new possible combinations of syntax out of gestures, symbols, and signs. So, Under de sí is a very good example of how completely different aesthetics can share similar ethics. Working with Diego was very fluid, it was emergent, organic. We felt free to doubt, to fail the tests, to edit one another, and to err. We spent a lot of time at the drawing board before going into the rehearsal room or the studio. At no time did I feel like I couldn’t dive into the world of his objects—quite the opposite! And he always intervened in the rehearsals with the performers. We shared all responsibility. In Under de sí, there are no personal whims, there are situations in encounters with others and with the public; each object and each body is based on a very specific idea and I believe that this real hybridization, between ideas and materials, between objects and bodies, arose from that methodology of trust, play, freedom, as well as rigor.
SV: I would like to talk about the explicit link between protest and performance—a certain vice of art—especially since the incorporation of political groups into exhibitions as a historical reference point in relation to action art. How do you see this link in the exhibition? On the other hand, there is an appropriation of movements, forms in relation to the manifestation and disenchantment from the performance in an explicit way that reveals the reference. How do you see the relationship between appropriation and choreography in this case?

LG: Just as the Left claimed (and claims) a position of ethical superiority for knowing what revolution is, in many instances political art (I know I am generalizing) attributes to itself a position of ethical superiority for defining what resistance and the political are. There is a (conservative) tendency to fill all categories with the same signifier over and over again. You, me—we all face that danger, that’s why it is important to be attentive and to be able to relocate ourselves.

Protests or resistance can be perfectly normative if they do not break with the substrate of what they seek to criticize, and art that appears transgressive can be perfectly conservative.

This is one of the things that Judith Butler points out: habit builds, no matter what. Repeating a habit will always be double-sided and her idea of agency consists in placing ourselves precisely above the possibility of difference within repetition. In other words, for Butler, there is no morality in her idea of construction. The transgressive can be perfectly normative if it does not modify whatever patterns exist within it. Paolo Virno also argues that the political potential of art is never in its content, but in its capacity to generate forms and formats that redefine a category. Of course, he does not disdain protest, he just does not think that political art goes hand in hand with explicit political content. The mandate now is not to discipline, but to liberate. It is the era of possibility: performear o performear [to perform or to perform].
SV: In this same place, I thought about the creation in recent years of events that not only have brought more attention to performance, but of those that have been its central axis. This happens in the Biennial of Performance—with its more hierarchical and global structure—and Perfuch, an event that spans several days in UV Estudios and that is more connected to the underground scene of the eighties. The truth is that today performance is a front page for newspapers, for a magazine like Viva, and a focal point for the arteBA art fair. I think it is a phenomenon similar to the reception of the happening as a new avant-garde form in the Buenos Aires of the sixties. How do you see this appearance-reception in the Buenos Aires scene?
LG: In Buenos Aires there is a close history between friendship and performativity. An affective tradition, real and specific to artistic production (technologies of friendship, the pink movement, etc.,). Now, the overexploitation of the term performance has two or multiple facets: on the one hand, it becomes another attraction, functional to the machinery of commercialization. Precisely in times when the idea of an event is a specific form of state policy, we would only be collaborating to generate more and more events in an uncritical and generalized manner. But, in Buenos Aires (I can’t speak of Argentina as a whole for I need to do more research) there is an interesting and special understanding of criticism. Here, criticism is brazen, it comes from joy, and it’s not solemn. Also, performatic practices are taken more seriously nowadays and small projects have the possibility of developing into something. I do not necessarily think that seeing the underground performance on a magazine cover would be such a bad thing. Sometimes I think that the form of performance in Buenos Aires is indistinguishable from the digital form of the production of images, which is what I observed at Perfuch: it would seem that the production of an image is enough—or sometimes is enough—while sometimes it isn’t. And the production of an image does not account for a more uncomfortable question or a more complex experience. However, maybe what we see is not the important thing, maybe it is an excuse to generate ways of being together.
I see the current alternative scene in two places at the same time: on the one hand, quickly adaptable and on the other, lacking critical distance. An absolutely radical and independent project could be enforcing the Ley de Mecenazgo (Law of Patronage), instead of criticizing it. But taking a binary or moral position is not useful. The shape of critical thinking almost always comes from adapting (a kind of anthropophagy) to the forms of the neoliberal subject: the exacerbation of joy, the infinite multiplication of pleasure, the cancellation of the future. How can we account for the current unrest without falling into solemnity? It is from that place that I understand that the Biennial of Performance could be as powerful as the events that took place at Perfuch; in fact, many artists participated in both. These fluctuations and accelerated transitions of power, institutions’ capacity for flexibility and elasticity to operate in an alternative way, and of the most experimental artists to enter into institutional spheres inform the moment we are living in. I think we can bet on using that flexibility to make something uncomfortable, each format and each artist will see what it will be for themselves. For example, coming back to the Laboratorio de Acción, which I see as a crack, an infiltration that has the ability to modify the dynamics of the state from something very small without losing spirit. Every project and every unit of us will find ways to inhabit these edges.


  1. TN: To perform or to perform

  2. The Vivo-Ditos inaugurated a way of understanding the work of art that came out of a recognition of the formula art=life— that is, through the artist’s simple acts and his direct contact with reality. The possibility of decision and demarcation Alberto Greco proposed in 1962, from a discursive and procedural tactic such as the “signaling” about people or objects, proposes the negation of the creation of the artistic object and encourages its dematerialization.

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