When the Audience is Not Present

Live art evolves in the digital age as a result of the pandemic

Meant to be momentary and fleeting, performance art is by its very representation ephemeral, as most art historians and practitioners would concur. Historically, scholars have preserved the belief that photographs and videos diminish the live act to singular articles of presentation and exchange.[1] More recently though, discourse seriously argues for the valorisation of photographic and film documentation.[2] The documentary evidence of a live performance presented at an exhibition, although not without its complications, can be just as valuable as the live event itself.

In today’s art ecosystem, one could argue that the hardest hit casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic have been performance artists. Recently Filipina-Danish artist Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen was unable to travel to London to perform Mobile Mirrors as part of a duo exhibition with Filipina artist Rhine Bernardino, titled The Hybrid Guest.[3] Lilibeth is just one of many performance artists experiencing the pain of separation from their audiences, traditionally a key element of performance art.

Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen, Mobile Mirrors performance in Manila, 2012. Photo courtesy of Martin Vidanes.

Of course, there is always a way to be found for those willing to jump through additional hoops to travel and work around local restrictions. Anyone who has endured two weeks in quarantine, however, would understand a person’s reluctance to bear the toll it takes on one’s mental well-being to be cooped up indoors for so long without any human contact or fresh air. In fact, Indonesian performance artist Melati Suryodarmo recently braved quarantine in a Bangkok hotel in order to perform her seminal work Eins und Eins as part of the Bangkok Biennale 2020. She describes the experience as being very “traumatic”, and that a doctor had to be sent to her room to treat her for anxiety, prescribing her anti-stress medication. Quarantine is, understandably, an experience she does not ever wish to repeat.[4]

Melati Suryodarmo, Eins und Eins, 2020. Photos courtesy of the Bangkok Art Biennale.

Intended to be ephemeral and bound to the very moment in which it is executed, performance art is by its very characterisation, meant to be fleeting.[5]

Marina Abramović said:

 “Thinking about immateriality, performance is time-based art. It’s not like a painting; you hang the painting on the wall, and it’s there the next day. With performance, if you are missing it, you only have the memory, or the story of somebody else telling you…but you actually missed the whole thing…so you have to be there.” [6]

These words characterise what has been the dominant philosophy about the medium of performance art for decades; that one can only understand the true essence of a work if one is there in the flesh, present in the time and space of the performer.[7] With live performance being almost impossible to present at the moment in many cities, because of lockdowns and artists being unable to travel, digitally delivered performance art is presenting itself as a new paradigm, and in fact, already intrinsically valuable.

Moving against technology is futile. The pandemic accelerated the push towards the digital future, making it challenging for us to travel, to see our loved ones, to live. The art world has been forced to realign, rethink, and re-engage with its audiences through digital means such as video documentation, live streaming, and VR technology, to name a few of the more immediate approaches. Even before the pandemic obligated it onto the screen, performance art documentation was increasingly becoming more of a rule rather than an exception as part of curatorial agendas in art spaces. By definition, art documentation has historically not been considered art. It has instead, until more recently, been thought of as a tool for discussion and to indicate art, distanced from the live moment and allowing solely for recollection.[8] However, when performance art films or photographic documentations are exhibited in a commercial gallery space or museum for public viewing, their very presence inside the art venue ostensibly insists that the pieces inside are art, simply by virtue of their placement in an exhibition space.

Anida Yoeu Ali, The Buddhist Bug: A Creation Mythology performance. Photo courtesy of We-Ling Contemporary.

The relationship between performance art and its documentation is inherently linked. Not only offering added significance to the viewer for purposes of reflection, discourse, academic study, exhibition presentation and curation, and audience reach, the latter thrusts the visibility of performance art into the wider public domain for enjoyment by the masses and allows collectors to own a part of a performer’s legacy.[9]

Even in “normal” times, videographic and photographic works afford added value in that they allow the viewer in the space to contemplate a work without feeling intimidated, which is sometimes the case. An illustration of this took place at Wei-Ling Gallery in Kuala Lumpur last year. Cambodian-American multi-disciplinary artist Anida Yoeu Ali performed her captivating work The Buddhist Bug Project and many of the spectators expressed that they were unsure if they should approach the artist, when in fact, that is exactly what they were subtly encouraged to do.[10] As part of their curatorial strategy, the gallery presented videography and photography of the work, which were also for sale, alongside the live performance, giving viewers the opportunity to revisit performances for the duration of the exhibition to look for new nuances that they may have overlooked in the live performance. Collectors of the work also continue to enjoy the flexibility to view a performance in their own time, as many times as they wish, and have the ability to share the performance as a fragment of art history with institutions, giving rise to a potential of reaching mainstream audiences and enriching the lives of the community.

Ana Prvacki, Energetic Tickle, 2020, Single-Channel Video, Edition of 5, Commissioned by the 13th Gwangju Biennale shown at S.E.A Focus 2021 by Yeo Workshop.

Like so many exhibitions curated around a performance, this example establishes that photo and film documentations enter into a vital relationship with the performance artwork when taken into the entire curatorial context. It becomes clear that none of the mediums can exist in silo without the others if satisfaction and genuine comprehension are to be realised. If any of the components are read outside of their situations, without elucidation, they fail to communicate the complexity and framework of the exhibition. Thus, all cogs in the machine must work together in synergy and the videos and photographs stand on their own as artworks with intrinsic and commercial value.[11]As we recover from the marks that the pandemic has left on each of us, and as we figure out our new normals, artists are conceiving new ways of intimacy with their audiences. For example, in her video performance Energetic Tickle (part of one of the Artist Ads recently featured on Marina Abramović takes over TV), Ana Prvački brilliantly imagines a new means of achieving intimate contact with others while social distancing.[12] This performance-cum-video highlights that the superiority of a live event, in the essential presence of a live audience, is no longer automatically superior to a documented or even scripted iteration. It seems that any conclusion otherwise may soon become an antiquated point of view as the concept of live art continues to be redefined in a new digital world, especially as technology waits for no man.

Published January 2021.


[1] Amelia Jones, “The Now and the Has Been: Paradoxes of Live Art History,” in Perform Repeat Record: Live Art in History, ed. Amelia Jones and Adrian Heathfield (Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2012), 16.

[2] Adrian Heathfield, “Then Again,” in Perform Repeat Record: Live Art in History, ed. Amelia Jones and Adrian Heathfield (Bristol: Intellect, 2012), 31.

[3] Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen, email from the artist to Tanya Amador, November 30, 2020.  

[4] Melati Suryodarmo, WhatsApp message from the artist to Tanya Amador, 14 December 14, 2020.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Marina Abramović, An Art Made of Trust, Vulnerability and Connection, TED Talks, 15:50, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4so_Z9a_u0.

[7] Walter Benjamin and J. Underwood, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (London: Penguin, 2008), 21-22.

[8] Boris Groys, “Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation,” in Perform Repeat Record: Live Art in History, ed. Amelia Jones and Adrian Heathfield (Bristol: Intellect, 2012), 209-210.

[9] Tanya Michele Amador, The Valorisation of Photography and Film Documentation in Performance Art, Master’s essay, LASALLE College of the Arts, 2018.

[10] Art World Database, “Audience Reception of Anida Yoeu Ali’s The Buddhist Bug.” November 29, 2020, YouTube video, 7:12, https://youtu.be/fGNwiKQ6yTw.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sky Arts. “Marina Abramović takes over TV.” Sky TV, December 2020.


Abramović, Marina. An Art Made of Trust, Vulnerability and Connection. TED Talks, 15:50. 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M4so_Z9a_u0.

Abramović, Marina, performance artist. Sky Arts: Marina Abramović takes over TV. Aired December 5, 2020, https://www.sky.com/watch/title/programme/a41be046-287d-4fa1-9e69-f23d9b1a6021/marina-abramovic-takes-over-tv.

Amador, Tanya Michele. “The Valorisation of Photography and Film Documentation in Performance Art.” Master’s essay, LASALLE College of the Arts, 2018.

Art World Database, “Audience Reception of Anida Yoeu Ali’s The Buddhist Bug.” YouTube. November 29, 2020. Video, 7:12. https://youtu.be/fGNwiKQ6yTw.

Benjamin, W. and J. Underwood. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. London: Penguin, 2008.

Jones, Amelia and Adrian Heathfield. Perform Repeat Record: Live Art in History. Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2012.

About the Writer

Based in London and sometimes Singapore, Tanya is a freelance art writer, independent curator, and researcher specialising in contemporary Southeast Asian art.

She holds a Masters in Asian Art Histories from Goldsmiths University of London through LASALLE College of the Arts Singapore. In 2019 she was awarded the Winston Oh Postgraduate Research Grant in which she produced a short video on audience reception of Cambodian-American artist Anida Yoeu Ali’s performance, ‘The Buddhist Bug Project’.

Tanya has lectured at the Asian Civilisations Museum Singapore on contemporary Indonesian performance artist Melati Suryodarmo. In 2019 she was the Researcher-in-Residence for the event ‘performance plus’ by MoT+++ in Saigon. More recently she became a regional (APAC) nominator for The Sovereign Asian Art Prize, and she is currently the co-founder of Art World Database, a new online compendium of Southeast Asian artists set to launch in 2021.