An ‘action’ has become part of the essential lexicon of contemporary art, yet it is not part of a defined movement or theory. Instead actions encompass performances and proclamations, events and intimate moments. They may be performed in isolation, or as part of gatherings in which the audience become participant. The artist’s body may be imperilled, or they may simply be the agent of some change in the environment. Yet this broad range of meanings declaring an action shifts attention away from physical work of art, to the act of its making. And while an action might be as simple as a gesture or a declaration, it does not exist only in the moment it is performed. As art historian Galina Yelshevskaya suggests: “What happens during the performance is one part. Another is what is documented. And yet another is the way in which the performance spreads in rumours and the news, and how it remains in people’s memories.” 1
The transformation of art into an action was conceived in the earlier 20th century through radical ideas of surrealists in France, Constructivists in Russia, and Futurists in Italy, among other Modern Avant-Garde groups, many of whom proposed violent and destructive acts that could be art, if not realizing them. In the Second Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton suggested: “The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd”. 2 Wolfgang Paalen’s 1943 text Totem Art, became a link between European Surrealism and “Action Painting” in the Americas, proposing that the artist enacted something akin to an ecstatic ritual when making their work. These means of understanding painting, particularly Abstract Expressionism, as distinct from any form of image or visual representation, put the making of the work as of equal importance to its final form, the canvas a record of the act. 3 This distinction influenced the new artistic developments in the 60s - Conceptual Art, Happenings, Performance, and even Land Art. In this trajectory, actions and how they are recorded and circulated became a fundamental part of contemporary art.