Dorothea von Hantelmann: The Experiential Turn (2014)

In: Elizabeth Carpenter (ed): On Performativity.
Living Collections Catalogue, Vol.1.
Walker Art Center 2014.
Dorothea von Hantelmann: The Experiential Turn.


URL, seen 1 July 2019.


How are experiences shaped in and by specific artworks? How do they produce meaning for viewers? And how might experience be understood as an artistic medium? Linking the notion of experience to recent cultural and economic transformations in Western society, art historian and curator Dorothea von Hantelmann advances a new critical position to frame contemporary art’s evolving and experiential nature.


In the past ten to fifteen years the word performative has advanced from a theoretical term used by a few linguistic philosophers to a key rubric within the discourse of contemporary art and aesthetics. Today any artwork that in some formal, thematic, or structural way alludes to ideas of embodiment, enactment, staging, or theater is called performative. Any visual artwork that relates to a here-and-now, and thus in some way or another refers to the idea of performance without being a performance, is called a performative artwork. Yet this misunderstanding of performative as meaning “performance-like” has led to considerable confusion, mainly because it is impossible to clearly define what a performative artwork actually is. As a category it remains stubbornly slippery—and with good reason, because the use of the term is based on a complete twist of the word’s original meaning.

There is no performative artwork because there is no nonperformative artwork. The notion of the performative was introduced into linguistic theory by the British philosopher John Langshaw Austin in his lecture series “How to Do Things with Words,” given at Harvard University in 1955. Austin coined the term performative in order to point to the actlike character of language. He argued that in certain cases something that was said produced an effect beyond the realm of language. In other words, under certain conditions signs can produce reality; one can do things with words. The classic examples of what Austin at first thought would constitute a particular category of utterances—the “performatives”—originate in legal discourse: “I now pronounce you man and wife” and “I hereby sentence you to six years imprisonment without parole.” Although Austin had originally planned to isolate certain utterances under the notion of the performative, he soon understood that a clear-cut distinction between a constative (reality-describing) and a performative (reality-producing) way of speaking could not be made. If every utterance contains both constative and performative aspects, it is tautological to speak about “performative language.” And the same principle applies to artworks. It makes little sense to speak of a performative artwork because every artwork has a reality-producing dimension.

To speak about the performative in relation to art is not about defining a new class of artworks. Rather, it involves outlining a specific level of the production of meaning that basically exists in every artwork, although it is not always consciously shaped or dealt with, namely, its reality-producing dimension. In this sense, a specific methodological orientation goes along with the performative, creating a different perspective on what produces meaning in an artwork. What the notion of the performative brings into perspective is the contingent and elusive realm of impact and effect that art brings about both situationally—that is, in a given spatial and discursive context—and relationally, that is, in relation to a viewer or a public. It recognizes the productive, reality-producing dimension of artworks and brings them into the discourse. Consequently we can ask: What kind of situation does an artwork produce? How does it situate its viewers? What kind of values, conventions, ideologies, and meanings are inscribed into this situation?

What the notion of the performative in relation to art actually points to is a shift from what an artwork depicts and represents to the effects and experiences that it produces—or, to follow Austin, from what it “says” to what it “does.” In principle, the performative triggers a methodological shift in how we look at any artwork and in the way in which it produces meaning. Understood in this way, it indeed offers a very interesting and challenging change of perspective. Used as a label to categorize a certain group of contemporary artworks, however, it makes little sense.

Every artwork produces some kind of (aesthetic) experience. But as I would like to argue, from the 1960s onward, the creation and shaping of experiences have increasingly become an integral part of the artwork’s conception.

Yet the fact that the performative is not a label does not mean that we cannot use it to shed light on those art phenomena to which it is most often applied. A concern with an artwork’s effects on the viewer and with the situation in which it takes place has indeed become a dominant feature of contemporary art since the 1960s. Although I am aware that a new notion will cause new problems, I want to suggest the experiential turn as a term that might be more appropriate and useful to describe these ongoing tendencies in contemporary art. The competing hypothesis, then, would be that for a few decades visual art has increasingly turned toward the production of experiences. What does this mean? Every artwork produces some kind of (aesthetic) experience. But as I would like to argue, from the 1960s onward, the creation and shaping of experiences have increasingly become an integral part of the artwork’s conception. A 1960 Minimal installation by Robert Morris hardly produces meaning—if one understands meaning in the traditional sense as something that is located within the object and needs to be “read” or “discerned” by a viewer. It certainly produces an experience, though, in the way that it relates to the space and to the viewer’s body. Referring to works such as Bruce Nauman’s corridors and reflecting on their tactile-kinesthetic involvement of the viewer, art historian Oskar Bätschman introduced the term “experience shaper,” a notion that could easily be applied to a variety of contemporary artworks. Daniel Buren, for example, speaks of his works as “exemplary experiences,” and in the 1990s an entire generation approached the experiential dimension of art, in works such as Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s experiential spaces and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s staged intersubjective experiences. What happened? How could “experiences” become something like an artistic medium in contemporary art? How are experiences created, shaped, and reflected in artworks, and how do they produce meaning?

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