I signed up for my first performance art class, Intro to Performance Art with Mark Jeffrey at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, some years ago. My husband had only one comment. “Please don’t do anything that involves you taking your clothes off.” Since the main ingredient in performance art is the artist, nudity is often part of the work. But being a modest forty-something with the body of a woman who’s birthed four children, I figured that it wouldn’t be a problem.

They key aspect to making heads or tails of performance art or any art, as a matter of fact, is understanding the artist’s intent. Why is the artist making this piece in this way? What is he trying to convey? That is the dealmaker in art. Let me explain: If you go to a museum and look at an all black canvas, you may say, “I could do that!” But what is your intent?

For example, in 1882, a painter named Jules Levy exhibited in France, an all black painting entitled Combat de Nègres dans un Tunnel by Paul Bihad. Bihad was a poet who was a part of the Incoherents Art Movement. Members of the movement made and exhibited work that was deliberately irrational, such as art made by children or people who couldn’t draw, in reaction to traditional artistic practices.

I’d venture to guess that most people think of art making as the creating of beautiful paintings or objects for others to enjoy. That is one aspect of creating art. But many artists, and especially performance artists, are making a statement about something, be it political, social or environmental, etc. They want their audience to think in new ways about something.

Performance art is not to be confused with the performing arts, which also consists of people using their bodies to perform in front of a live audience. These performances often involve a story plot and are focused on providing entertainment for a particular audience. This can be accomplished through the mediums of dance, music, opera, theater, comedy, puppetry, circus, magic shows, etc. The audience usually goes to the venue of the performance with an expectation of what they are going to experience.

Performance Art, on the other hand, is an art piece that consists of four basic elements: time, space, the performer’s body and a relationship between the performer and the audience. The actions of the artist or artists, at a particular place and time, are the work. Performance art can be planned or improvised with or without audience participation. Very nebulous, yes, I know.

Performance art pieces can happen anywhere, in any venue or setting, for any length of time. You could be exposed to or involved in a performance art piece and never know it. The confusing thing is that performance art can use all of the aspects and tools of the performing arts (in addition to all disciplines of fine art) but it’s not a performing art. Performance art pieces are not for sale but artists may charge admission or sell the documentation of the piece, such as photos or video.

It turns out that while I kept my clothes on during my final performance art project, one of my other classmates did not. She did a body image piece that consisted of us writing on her naked body with a sharpie, a first for me. My final project was an etiquette piece entitled, Why Etiquette Matters. It took place over a week while I traveled in and out of Chicago on the train. I would look for breaches of etiquette during my commute and hand out A Gentle Reminder… cards that I had created using Emily Post’s Etiquette book. I documented my piece in a blog where people could write about their experiences with me. I would not say it was a very successful piece, no one responded on the blog, but the exercise did give me a deep appreciation for performance art.

This past week, while I was visiting Manhattan and sitting in Union Square Park, I had the opportunity to participate in a performance art piece. I spotted two women dressed in sixties-inspired garb and wearing cat’s eye glasses. One woman, in a Jackie O inspired get-up, was dancing some sort of funky dance, while the other was typing up something on an old typewriter. Most of the people in the park seemed unfazed by the display. The women had a series of signs that read: Digital Secretaries – At Your Service – Ask Us A Question About Your Life – This Is A Free Service. So I asked a question. They did some sort of ritual and while one danced the other typed. They handed me the answer.

I later spoke with the performers, Jessica Harris and Andrea Haenggi, about their piece. They explained that their training was in art, performance and choreography. They were reinterpreting the role of the secretary. My take on the piece, having done secretarial work at one time, was that secretaries were the workhorses of men, foregoing their own dreams to make a living, while supporting these guys in the realizing of their dreams. Most of the questions, asked of these street oracles, involved a wish of some sort, and they gave positive, new age answers. It was fun and insightful and I’m going to run with my answer!

There are many ways to experience performance art in Chicago, and I think the best place to start is The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It is one of the few colleges in the country that has a Performance Art department and offers degrees in Performance Art. I suggest that you check out their Facebook page to see current performances. There is also the defibrillator performance art gallery on Milwaukee Avenue. Of course, my favorite is to happen upon something going on in the streets.

Kathleen Thometz is an artist, writer and board member of the Riverside Arts Center. She lives with her husband, kids and doodle dogs. You can experience more about her at www.kathleenthometz.com.

Kathleen Thometz

I am an artist, writer, and art instructor with four children, one husband, and two doodle-dogs. I have contributed articles to the mid.com and Chicago Parent Magazine and wrote the Artist's Eye column...