Some things get twisted up in translation. The word performance in English connotes being in front of an audience (surrounded by an audience, behind an audience, somewhere in physical proximity to an audience) when speaking, playing, dancing etc. In German, the word Performance specifically denotes what we usually call performance art in English, an art form that lies somewhere in between theater, visual art, dance and music, touching all forms but not adhering to any of them. Playing a Schubert quartet for an audience is an English performance but is not a German Performance.
(Is that accurate? I certainly hope so. After so many years thinking and working in German, my understanding of English usage and command of its finer points of definition (and color, flavor, angle, intention) have been weakened by self-doubt. Who am I to explain language?)
In both worlds, the term durational performance refers to a piece of performance art of long duration. Morton Feldman's 2nd String Quartet is a masterpiece but it is not durational performance, it's just an inhumanly long concert. Probably the most well-known piece of durational performance is Marina Abramovic's The Artist is Present - her, sitting on her chair and gazing at all comers for 7 hours a day, 7 days a week, for months on end.
To be clear: I have never done anything like that.
In my civilian life as an audience member, I’m fairly sensitive to lengths of over 90 minutes. As a performer however, I am fascinated by durational performance. I am happy to be on view, exposed and struggling with myself for 4, 6, 12 hours. I am fascinated by the physical, mental, emotional challenges it presents and curious to know what I will feel like after having gone through the process.
I cannot do it on my own, I need a director to provide the structure and the content. And the success of it, or my feeling of success, depends deeply on the inner tools that the director provides us performers with. When working with a director who provides nourishment, instruction and a method of concentration, the journey of the performance becomes novelistic. It develops an inner life that is all-consuming.
Durational performance is, among other things, an attempt to ride a flow of awareness. And like meditation (or what I hear of the experience of meditation), it puts you through certain paces, making you struggle, search, fail and try again.
There are always moments when you step off the path and start thinking about laundry lists, wishes for the future, stupid things you’ve said or clever things you wish you'd said, wondering if you will physically make it though the piece, longing for the next break. Then you remember where you are and what you are doing (similar to driving long distances at night, automatically following the lights of other cars until you suddenly realise that you’re in control of a fragile metal box hurtling down the road at 80 mph).
You pull yourself together, sort your internal commands and begin the process of re-immersion in the piece.
A chain of tiny, important things happens in each performance.
Sometimes it flows, sometimes it falters. The audience projects a strange energy, one person might encounter an unexpected situation with an audience member, a string breaks and there’s no contingency plan, someone else makes a wrong entrance or is not tuned into the other’s timing. You notice all of these small, important moments as they happen and put them in the back of you mind to reflect on later, but in the gargantuan flow of time that we organise in these performances they invariably blend into one another and some experiences are lost.
The final impression of a long performance is a blur of moments, minutes and hours, a fluctuating awareness of having been brought to the limit of your physical and mental powers. These experiences cannot be held fast in any form, they go through and change you, pass on and are gone.
The memory of performance necessarily obscures much of what was. It is a snapshot, not untrue but far removed from the lived experience. Calling up the memory is like perceiving the landscape through a warped rearview mirror where edges blur together and the middle shrinks into an infinitesimal, dull horizon. There is so much detail in the blurred bits, if only that detail could be re-felt or re-lived. That space is one that lives on in the memory of the body as something akin to joy - a space that can never be duplicated, a wholly personal, wholly shared experience.