Originally Published in Midway Journal, January 15, 2020
Attended by minimal props—and often within the heat and noise of urban settings—street performers create an atmosphere of risqué spectacle, something like carnival artists operating outside the boundaries of a fairground. Whether making music, transforming balloons into the likeness of animals, or demonstrating traditional circus acts, they blend artforms to create something vibrant and strangely beautiful, an ability unique to the mobile entertainer. To create a performance narrative that thrives on teeming streets is difficult, and certainly not for the faint of heart. Moreover, it implies the use of a variety of skills—some legal, some not—as well as an understanding of human behavior and the nature of spectacle, in general. By watching “Bubble Man,” a busker local to my area, I have seen elements of performance blend into environmental art, while simultaneously hinting at the rarified world of gallery exhibitions. Viewed within the wider context of art and art theory, the case of Bubble Man leads us into a realm of strange beauty. Here, we consider the relevance of visual art, and how its task can be related to the activity of street performance, the carnival that unfolds without boundaries.
Known for his innovations in painting, Vasilii Kandinsky called “the single task of art ( . . . ) the embodiment of its content.” Going further, he stated, in relation to form and content:
The greater or lesser degree of this embodiment or correspondence is the measure of ‘beauty.’ That work is beautiful whose form corresponds entirely to its inner content (which is, as it were, an unattainable ideal). (1)
The man in scruffy clothes, who moves with chaotic rhythm—flinging bubbles in a manic state of creation—is authentic in his execution of art; as he works, expressive form issues freely from inner content, accomplishing his objective to “fill the sky with bubbles.” Indeed, the general activity of busking offers an unadorned enactment of self; an artist who is often near indigence demonstrates a skill, and expresses creative vision, in exchange for a bit of attention and spare change. Everything about the performance, as well as the ongoing transaction between entertainer and audience, is raw and transitory, much like the urban spaces in which the activities transpire, day after day. Taken together, the performer and the work being offered can indeed embody the inner content of mind and experience. In this manner, an aural authenticity attends the street performer, each aspect of persona and activity being connected to urban life and its visceral qualities of noise, traffic, and the demands of physical survival. With this in mind, we can say that authenticity is a conduit of street/carnival art, inasmuch as it allows form and inner content to be simultaneously conveyed. Perhaps this is the great gift of a busker; such an artist speaks in the language of carnival exhibitions, merging form and content, and offering a unique take on Kandinsky’s “single task of art.” Beyond this, such enactments also address the relevance of place, the location where the work is presented and the audiences engaged.
Whether the art in question is plastic or related to performance—or a combination thereof—the environment surrounding it creates a defining aspect of the presentation. An effective space could be either open-air, free and dynamic, or indoors and circumscribed by walls, the latter offering its own set of problems. Related to Documenta 5, Robert Smithson said, “A work of art when placed in a gallery loses its charge, and becomes a portable object or surface disengaged from the outside world.” This disengagement removes the object from immediacy, to the degree that the outside world is excluded from it, and aesthetic stagnation occurs; in contrast, the street performance is able to sustain and convey this connection as an expression of beauty, being something of an installation—art captured on city streets—as well as an expression of movement and form. In the case of such work, which cannot be supported by the controlled atmosphere of a gallery, we find the performer acting as a fragile exhibit, laboring in an unpredictable environment to express a vision. What divorces this from performance art has to do with the authentic presentation of self and artistic labor the busker conveys.
In the case of Bubble Man, whose costume is nothing more than his daily attire, and whose work consists of placing himself in the public eye to propel soap into the air, there is a fascinating intersection between plastic and performance art. Were it not for his compelling interaction, and ability to present himself as a character of odd authenticity—plastic, in some ways—Bubble Man would seem less like a living gallery installation and more like a performance artist. However, something about the environment of his work, and the fact that his carnival persona is his genuine identity, blurs the distinction between these two artforms. As the unique embodiment of his own artistic content, this performer goes further, entering a realm I consider in relation to Giuliana Bruno and her view of materiality and aesthetics, in particular, a single notion:
In the design of space, a particular form of enfolding takes place as an internal-external movement, and this drives our sensible ways of inhabiting the material world. (2)
We have previously considered the busker as something of a carnival artist who operates outside the boundaries of the fairground, which makes the venue of his or her work all the more important. If we consider what Bruno says about the design of space, we can learn more about the importance of the busker’s performance zone. Indeed, the exchange between performer and audience—informed by the dynamic aspects of traffic and noise—creates the “form of enfolding,” the “internal-external movement” she describes as the impetus behind the ways in which we inhabit the world. As Bubble Man lays a heavy piece of rope (to separate his area from the walkways and performance zones of other buskers), places his buckets of soap, and begins to arrange members of the audience to his liking—often chiding the less willing until they comply—he designs his space for a very specific form of enfolding, a unique expression of performance combined with materiality. The results are compelling. And if all goes well, he enjoys the performance, receives audience validation, and earns enough money for lunch, a process to be repeated the next day. This is where life and art merge into a detailed tapestry of experiences, some of them aesthetic, and others merely practical, but all of them essential aspects of an artform that is often overlooked.
The strange beauty of street performance derives from many sources, not the least of which relates to the busker’s close relation to the carnival artist, both of them demonstrating spontaneity and risqué exuberance in their work, engaging audiences who often accept their irreverence passively. Consider how often unsuspecting audience members are jokingly ridiculed by buskers, and simply laugh along, as if the enfolded space of performance somehow shields their true identity and absolves them of embarrassment. Beyond this, we find that the street performer actually becomes the art, the dynamic embodiment of content, something like a living installation liberated from the constraints of a gallery. With strange beauty, indeed, Bubble Man moves through the audience he has assembled, executes his task, and speaks to the ways in which we inhabit the materiality—and aesthetic substance—of our world.
- Benois, Alexandre, “History of Russian Painting in the Nineteenth Century [Conclusion], 1902” p. 19 of Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism, edited by John E. Bowlt, Thames & Hudson Inc., New York, 2017.
- Bruno, Giuliana, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2014, p. 18.