Video Still from Raphael Montaˆnnez Ortiz's <i>Introspective</i>
The Death of White Henny and Black Penny, Raphael Montañez Ortiz

Arte ≠ Vida: A History and Reflection on the Project

In this essay, the curator of the exhibition Arte ≠ Vida: Actions by Artists of the Americas, 1960–2000, first presented by the Museo del Barrio in New York City in 2008, offers a history of the project and its relation to the earlier landmark exhibit on Latin American performance art, “No lo llames performance.” The essay discusses the important presence of U.S. Latino/a artists—particularly those based in New York City—in the history mapped by the exhibit, and discusses the reception of that work when the exhibit travelled to Mexico and to Colombia.


El Museo del Barrio presented Arte ≠ Vida: Actions by Artists of the Americas, 1960–2000 in our galleries in New York City from January 31 to May 18, 2008. The project focused on the performative contributions of 117 artists and collaboratives from throughout the Americas, paying particular attention to Latinos in the United States—especially Puerto Ricans on the island, in New York, and elsewhere—as well as artists hailing from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, Central and South America, working internationally. Arte ≠ Vida hoped to establish a chronology of key works, created by fine artists with a trajectory of performative actions, from 1960 to 2000 (when “performance art” seemed to explode). The exhibition sought to address the lack of information on this important strand of Caribbean and Latin American artistic production. The gallery presentation and its publication documented how these artists prefigured, linked to, and differed from, the received history of “performance art”—which rarely includes more than a few Latino/Latin American figures. Arte ≠ Vida shone a very bright spotlight on the deep and historical contributions of many diverse and important artists.[1]

Arte ≠ Vida was generated as the natural continuation of research conducted during El Museo's presentation of a special version of the traveling exhibition, No lo llames performance/Don’t call it performance. Co-curated with Paco Barragán, this earlier exhibition (showcased at El Museo del Barrio from August 18 through November 7, 2004) included the work of over 60 international contemporary artists working in performative practice, captured on video.[2] No lo llames performance was an experimental undertaking for the museum, but it struck a particular chord with our audiences and our history that we sought to expand upon with Arte ≠ Vida.

After our presentation of Arte ≠ Vida closed, and at the request of international venues, we travelled a very minorly adjusted version to Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil, Mexico City (June 2 to August 16, 2009); Museo Amparo, Puebla, Mexico (September 25, 2009 to January 4, 2010); and El Museo de Arte del Banco de la República, Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango, Bogotá, Colombia (December 9, 2010 to February 25, 2011). Unfortunately, we were unable to secure venues in Argentina or Brazil, despite strong interest there as well. In the following notes, I will describe the two projects, examine why El Museo was motivated to undertake this primary research, and discuss what happened when Arte ≠ Vida travelled outside our galleries.

No lo llames performance

Image: Gigi Otálvaro-Hormillosa, <i>Inverted Minstrel</i>, 2001
No lo llames performance / Don't Call it Performance
Image: Gigi Otálvaro-Hormillosa, Inverted Minstrel, 2001

The original exhibition No lo llames performance/Don’t call it performance was curated by Paco Barragán for the Audiovisual Department of the Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid, under the direction of Berta Sichel. He derived the exhibition title from a statement made by artist Vito Acconci: “We hated the word 'performance.' We couldn’t, wouldn’t call what we did performance because performance had a place, and that place by tradition was theater, a place you went towards like a museum" (Rush 2005, 52). The title reflected the persistent ambiguity surrounding the notion of performance art, including its very definition. By framing the exhibition according to what it is not, and foregrounding the difference between theatrical traditions and actions as a continuum of contemporary avant-garde fine art practice, Barragán insisted upon the new and still somewhat undefined genre being forged by these types of live practice.

The opportunity to bring the contemporary project to El Museo del Barrio arose suddenly as a space opened in our exhibition calendar on short notice and with virtually no budget. Nonetheless, I built upon it rapidly to reflect our specific constituencies, suggesting to Paco the addition of over 30 Latino, Caribbean and Latin American artists. To maintain the clarity of the original program format, and to coincide with the tight budgetary constraints under which the show was presented, we chose to maintain the “all video” sectioned format. This was the first, entirely on-video project ever presented by El Museo. At twice the size (and length) of the original enterprise, I was faced with the challenge of making all this video accessible to our visitors as an exhibition. With the help of the fine video artist, Claudia Joskowicz, as well as the permissions of all the artists involved, we edited the videos documenting or representing their performances to (on average) no more than five minutes each (and preferably shorter). These were organized into ten video programs, each running approximately one half-hour each, clustered under the following five curatorial constellations (one for each of our five Temporary Exhibition galleries): Memory and Devotion; Mass Appeal; Commitments; Art/Form; and Audioscapes. The first set of videos was swapped for the second program halfway through the exhibition’s tenure, thereby effectively entirely refreshing it. Visitors were handed a program with all times as they entered, and told that if they started at the beginning and watched everything, they would spend up to half an hour in each gallery, and two and half hours in total to view it all. The galleries contained only large video projections and speakers, benches and beanbag chairs. At the end, a resource area contained books and other videos. An active schedule of live performances was presented. A simple catalogue was produced in collaboration with Domus Artium 2, Salamanca, Spain, where the project travelled after El Museo del Barrio.[3]

The exhibition at El Museo thus situated Latino and Latin American artists within a wider international context and, as an educational component, began with a selected timeline of Latino and Latin American artists' contributions to historical performance art over the 20thcentury, which I compiled from—I suddenly realized as I worked—the scant resources available. RoseLee Goldberg’s seminal Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (2001), the “textbook” for the field, only mentions few Latino/Latin American practitioners, while generally highlighting European, North American, and select South American and Asian creators.[4]Coco Fusco’s Corpus Delecti (2000) was one of the only publications that focused on Latino/Latin American practicioners, and yet it reflected an episodic rather than a surveying or chronologic structure.[5]It was very difficult to gather a simple, big picture: key events and their dates, by decades. I realized that we held much privileged information at El Museo, as many Latino and Puerto Rican performances took place here, or were chronicled in our artist’s archives and library. Pulling upon these many resources, we created an original document that privileged Puerto Rican and Latino actions in New York. Once the timeline was mounted, I received continual requests for it. After speaking with Goldberg and Fusco, as well as Michael Rush, I realized that such a comprehensive survey had never been done. With theirs and the encouragement of Julián Zugazagoitia, our then-Director, I used the original timeline to apply for an Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award. Receiving that prestigious grant in 2006 made Arte ≠ Vida possible in 2008.

Arte ≠ Vida

Images: Papo Colo in <i>Superman 51</i>, 1977 (right), and Nao Bustamante in <i>America the Beautiful</i>, 2002 (left).
Arte ≠ Vida
Images: Papo Colo in Superman 51, 1977 (right) and Nao Bustamante in America the Beautiful, 2002 (left).

Arte ≠ Vida marked El Museo’s 40th anniversary, and was the final exhibition presented in our galleries before they were closed for a long-awaited facility renovation. Like No lo llames performance, the exhibition Arte ≠ Vida was organized in thematic groupings that proceeded in a roughly chronological order. These were: Precursors, Signaling, Destructivism, Neo-Concretism, Burning Actions, The Medium is the Message, Happenings, Land/Body, Border Crossers, Junta No!, Diversions, Dreamscapes, Discovery Channels, TV Program, and The Enduring Body.

We[6] felt that for this deeper, more historical survey, it was important to create a layered and engaging environment that included various levels of material. As we parsed our checklist and investigated artists and their actions, we queried about what was available. In most cases, we found work by directly contacting artists, artists’ families, their colleagues, estates, or gallery representation. Since this type of live action is, necessarily, presented through its documentation, we also relied on the support of many photographers and filmmakers who generously documented other artists’ actions. Several sister institutions collaborated by opening their resources and archives to us, notably the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics-New York University, Franklin Furnace Archive, Exit Art, and the Americas Society.

Additionally, we counted with the support of curatorial advisors for each region, who also contributed catalogue texts.[7] We decided that a publication was crucial to this endeavor, to leave as a resource. However, we organized the anthology related to Arte ≠ Vida in a very different manner than the exhibit, with the fundamental belief that a museum/gallery encounter and the utilization of a publication are very different experiences. Artistic efforts have burgeoned by region, over time, depending on the surrounding support or antagonizing circumstances, and we felt that a regional focus would be most useful as a survey resource. Eleven essays were commissioned to review the significant but ephemeral bodies of work that came from (again, in waves, and somewhat chronologically): Brazil; Venezuela; Mexico; Peru; Chile; Cuba and Miami; New York, California, and Puerto Rico; Argentina; Dominican Republic; Central America, particularly Guatemala; and Colombia.

In this exhibition, we were very careful to include a combination of documentation—photographs, film and video snippets or stills, writings, ephemera, objects, props, and related materials—in order to foreground the selected artists and key actions through fleeting and often low-resolution, partial glimpses. Without actually attending the myriad actions that have transpired all over the globe in real time and space, the best a static exhibition can offer is glimpses into the fullness, depth, and emotional impact of each event. Particularly for the historical works, we only had a few poor, grainy choices from which to select. Later, into the 1990s, artists seemed to become more self-consciously aware of the importance of documentation. Initially, we asked a few artists if they might be willing to reprise their key historical actions or situations for within the gallery. But, as these were, typically, closely linked to precise historical or political situations to which the actions responded, the artists unanimously did not wish to do this. Out of respect for their wishes, we did not pursue the idea further. We were, however, able to present a number of new versions and new works by artists live in our space including Raphael Montañez Ortiz, Tania Bruguera, Tunga, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Nao Bustamante, and Lotty Rosenfeld.

Arte ≠ Vida provided an overview of creativity that often sprung up around particular conditions or concerns. Much of the works have subtle or overt political contexts and content. Over the four decades when “performance art” really began to flourish (the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s), Caribbean and Latin American communities endured military dictatorships, civil wars, disappearances, invasions, brutality, censorship, civil rights violations, immigration issues, demographic expansions, discrimination, and economic woes nearly unabated. Certainly, at times, the works refer to their specific circumstances, contexts, and reference points. But beyond this generalized comment, it cannot be said that there are any commonalities that serve to separate Latino/Latin American actions from those created by artists of any other cultural group. The works we included were diverse in content and approach, and by turns moving, provocative, funny, athletic, formal, and oneiric.

Actions are generally defined as interactive events, taking place in the street or another public space, in the museum, gallery, or privately, and they generally employ the body of the artist or his/her surrogate in a direct relationship to a live, or removed—witting or unwitting—audience. Actions differ from full-scale, narrative theatrical stage presentations (which separate the artists from viewers), dance, readings or spoken word, circus customs, traditional folk art activities, or direct political actions with no explicit artistic intention, although in many cases they draw from common roots and strategies. The actions focused on in Arte ≠ Vida were intentional acts staged by fine artists who had rich trajectories of performative practice, or who carried out events so important as to become landmark. From the beginning we decided not to include anyone who had already been in No lo llames performance, which addressed live works after 2000. Nonetheless, it was hard to narrow the list to fit our modest galleries.

Performance employs many media and intermedia, and prominent performance art historians including Goldberg, Fusco, and Taylor tend to be flexible and open in their definitions of the interdisciplinary genre. In Western culture, performative actions by artists generally trace their roots to the beginning of the 20th century, with the Dadists and their activities at Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire, founded in 1916. Arguably, live interventions by Latin American artists have taken place since pre-Columbian times, with non-western precursors that could include tribal rituals and cultural celebrations, or even their own bodies’ exhibition under colonial conditions (see Fusco 1995).In the latter twentieth-century, performance art (or actions more rigidly defined) is seen to be part of the continuity of the visual arts, normally related to avant-garde or conceptual practice.

In the publication, in order to view not only the precise contexts, but also the larger panorama of performative development, we provided an integrated chronology of key works (including all those presented in the exhibition, as well as anything mentioned in the publication texts). This initial effort and timeline synthesized transnational progressions; however, much scholarship remains to be done. Each action deserves an entire narration; many artists and movements require further study in dissertations or books. Many events should be added in. Finally, this separate yet rich chronology should be folded into the larger, global history of performative actions, compared, contrasted, and scrutinized. Only then will we begin to see a more complete picture.

Translating the publication timeline to a digital format is the next step in that process. It opens up the timeline for additions, corrections, and further research.

The Local and the Global

Video still from Raphael Montañez Ortiz's <i>Introspective</i>
Raphael Montañez Ortiz in Henny Penny Piano Destruction Concert
Video still from Raphael Montañez Ortiz's Introspective

In many ways, both No lo llames performance and Arte ≠ Vida celebrated and honored our founding director, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, whose avant-garde actions were renowned within the international artistic avant-garde long before he inaugurated El Museo del Barrio in 1969.

This 1960s period was a fertile one for the rising Latino/Latin American populations, particularly in New York. Numerous important actions by Puerto Rican artists in the city or on the island span from the 1960s. Chicano or Mexican-American artists were working on significant projects at the same time on the West Coast, while many Latin American artists were travelling—especially to New York—also from the mid 1960s to carry out important gestures. From a New York perspective, this vivid panorama of performative actions were not only part of larger artistic discourse, but also often integral and responsive gestures to the specific concerns of the community at that time, the one in which El Museo del Barrio was birthed.

In many ways Montañez Ortiz serves as the perfect symbol of these Latino—specifically Puerto Rican—performative artists: just as he stood in 1969 at the crossroads between influential, international currents and his specific educational purpose vis-à-vis his own Puerto Rican community in New York, they, too, have been historically trapped in a paradoxical position in which they are neither recognized and integrated as part of the “American” panorama, nor are they fully embraced within the Latin American scene. When and if they receive broad, Western criticism of their work, then they are rarely read also in terms of their cultural or community specificity. This difficult position leads to often missing half the meaning of their works.

Raphael Montañez Ortiz realized his first private destructions of ritually transformed materials between 1959 and 1961. During this time, he also authored the text, “Destructivism: A Manifesto” (1957–1962).[8] Coming from a background in abstract expressionist painting and recycled, experimental film, and with an active intellectual interest in philosophy, psychology, and non-Western cultures advanced by his MFA studies at Pratt Institute (completed in 1964). Montañez Ortiz created the Archaeological Finds series between 1961 and 1967, based in part on ritualistic processes he had employed in the mid-to-late 1950s to create cut-up films with a medicine bag and hatchet. Utilizing extant, domestic furniture primarily from his own home, these sacrificial elements—intimate, worn, and auratic of the body and personal sphere of the artist—were released from their form and function through a private process that transformed both the objects as well as the artist. Their remains alluded to transcendental, erotic energy, and the regenerative, creative, and positive practice of destruction in the wake of the Vietnam War protests. These works explored the liberation from social restriction, the ecstatic, mystical, and savage, during a period of renewed interest in the bodily instigated by newfound freedoms of expression. As well, both the method and its remnants acknowledge Montañez Ortiz’s continuing dialogue with the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp; his work, as was noted by the Berlin Dada artist, Richard Huelsenbeck, was “the opposite of the machine-completed object”[9] and therefore, divergent from the Pop art mechanical practice championed by the likes of Andy Warhol. Rather, the Archaeological Finds can be seen as advancing the individual, gestural action in which Robert Rauschenberg, in 1955, dragged his own bedclothes from his room and painted them into pictorial space;[10] in the same year of Rauschenberg’s key move, on the other side of the world, Kazuo Shiraga in Japan carried out Challenging Mud and Saburo Murakami broke through paper screens in actions meant to express a post-Atomic angst to push beyond previously normative boundaries. Brion Gysin’s shamanistic, hybrid and meditative experiments are also part of this trajectory. Montañez Ortiz’s ritual actions and the resulting, demolished bed, sofa, chairs, and yoga cushions can be understood within this international lineage.[11]

Video still from Raphael Montañez Ortiz's <i>Introspective</i>
Destruction in Art Symposium, London, 1966
Video still from Raphael Montañez Ortiz's Introspective

Carrying out public, performative Destruction Ritual Realizations between 1965 and 1970, Montañez Ortiz was a featured artist at the Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS), held in London in 1966. There, he presented seven public destruction events both around the town as well as during the symposium, involving chairs, mattresses, pianos, paper bags, and his own body. In London, Ortiz's performances were seen by a patient of psychoanalyst Artur Janov, and served as one catalyst for Janov’s “Primal Scream” theories. Montañez Ortiz became well-known for his Piano Destruction Concerts, which were filmed and televised by the BBC-TV, ABC, and WNYC. He performed live on the Johnny Carson television show in 1968; this same year, Moñtanez Oritz and Jean Toche co-organized a second Destruction in Art Symposium in New York at the Judson Gallery where, in October 1967, he had participated in the series, 12 Evenings of Manipulations.[12] These events, linked to the happenings enterprised by Allan Kaprow and others, many of which also were presented at the Judson Church and Gallery, involved ritual bloodletting, audio volumes, and cathartic mice or chicken sacrifices, such as The Death of White Henny and Black Penny. The bountiful media coverage succinctly elaborated the links between these contemporary artists’ works and the ongoing Vietnam War and other tumultuous events of the late 1960s. From the mid-to-late-1960s, artists from United States as well as Argentina were examining and theorizing the processes of destructivism. During the time of social change, class struggle, inner-city blight, strikes, the onset of the Vietnam War and Latin America’s military dictatorships, artists such as Montañez Ortiz, Marta Minujín (working in Paris), and the short-lived group “Arte Destructivo” in Buenos Aires channeled the forces of destruction and poverty that they saw all around them, harnessing it as a creative action that offered a springboard for a new approaches, unfettered by antiquated orders.

Video still from Raphael Montañez Ortiz's <i>Introspective</i>
Henny Penny Piano Destruction Ritual Concert 2, Judson Church, 1967
Video still from Raphael Montañez Ortiz's Introspective

Arguably, Montañez Ortiz’s greatest and most original contribution to the arts was still to come. An educator at the High School of Art and Design in early 1969, he crafted a sophisticated proposal for a new museum, El Museo del Barrio, to serve the Puerto Rican and Latino constituencies of New York, at the request of the Board of Education, which simply wanted an outline of educational materials. By creating El Museo del Barrio, and participating actively in the local struggles in New York, Montañez Ortiz was not only internationally recognized, but became a significant community-based artist within the emergent Nuyorican scene.[13] Unfortunately, however, most local readings of this artist’s work cannot seem to embrace and reconcile his Dadaist, Fluxist, and Actionist involvements alongside his specific, community-based concerns. For example:

Rafael (sic) Montañez Ortiz's Mattress (1963), in the Museum of Modern Art, is an example of this generation's abrupt entrance on the scene. The work consists of a sprung mattress, preserved as an archeological object by a covering of liquid plastic that freezes it in its decomposed state. It looks like the mattresses that populated the vacant lots of El Barrio, announcing in technique and image the poverty of the Latino community at the time [emphasis by the author]. The work of Ortiz staked a place outside the folkloric vision of Puerto Rican society, reflecting the experience of the poor throughout the city. It revealed the potential power of a throw-away object when viewed as a signifier of an historical experience, nailed to the wall of a museum. (Ballester, n.d.)

While this reading offers another valid layer of allusions to which the work potentially refers, unfortunately, it reductively discards the artist’s focus on the ritualistic and often days-long action in the creation of the mattress-object, thereby tearing him from his European and Asian colleagues and the theoretical underpinnings by which he worked. This was not a found object, signifying impoverishment, but rather a slowly and carefully laden work that channeled the deep wells to which the hybrid Nuyorican community could dip: from the Maya to the Japanese to Austria to Native American.Montañez Ortiz was equally, if not more so, concerned with the process by which these objects resulted than with the production of isolated objects per se. However, the preservation of these performance relics by museums (which, in Montañez Ortiz’s case, he does see as works in their own right, after the events which created them) and their presentation as singular objects without any contextualizing information, contributes to the illegibility of his complex, international milieu. El Museo, too, owns a Montañez Ortiz sofa which we exhibited in Arte ≠ Vida alongside many photographs, video compilations, and news clippings to provide the situation in which it was created. Equally, the numerous Fluxus, Destructivist, and performance art catalogues always include Montañez Ortiz, but rarely mention his important role within his specific community as the founder of a museum.[14] Must these two readings remain perpetually estranged?

Many of the actions presented in Arte ≠ Vida resonated with Montañez Ortiz’s twin concerns: the local and the global. At El Museo del Barrio, we are particularly interested in the often overlooked history of Latino artists in New York. While it is especially important to us, we believe this neglected production is equally relevant to the art world at large for the very fact that it speaks to the concerns and quests of this relatively new, ever-rising, increasingly significant populations within the U.S. Their work is complex, enriched by the very complicated “aquí y allá” (here and there), tensions which many of these artists maintain. Thus, it is distinct from that which is thought of as “American” art, as well as from those longer-standing traditions and trajectories in the lands of their origins. They are part and parcel of both, and, often, neither.

Puerto Rican artists are often the most disregarded. Considered by some to be the oldest colony in the world, Puerto Rico’s unusual status as a “commonwealth” of the United States allows them to carry U.S. passports and travel freely to the so-called mainland. Thus, the Puerto Rican population is currently split with 3.7 million on the island and 4.6 million now in the United States (primarily New York and Florida). Puerto Rican production, however, is rarely included within standard histories of American art, nor is it highlighted within Latin American trajectories, where countries with strong cultural apparatuses often reap the lion’s share of attention (Mexico, Brazil, Cuba and others). Puerto Ricans are caught in an interesting crossroads between the U.S., Central and South America, and the Caribbean, but only institutions such as El Museo del Barrio, founded precisely to represent this lapse, focus on their work.

Latino artists in the United States include a broader panorama than only Puerto Ricans. Mexican Americans are historically the strongest and largest community in the nation, along with a small but resilient segment of Cubans. Rising groups from the Dominican Republic, Central America, and elsewhere add to the mix. However, the whole idea of “Latino”, once outside the United States, becomes a somewhat fraught construction, and artists (and, unfortunately, scholars) working in Latin America tend to dismiss the distinction. However, those of us inside the country focusing on the material understand the distinction. The so-called “Nuyoricans” are rarely included with the islanders. Chicano production is not often considered alongside Mexican work. Dominicans working here have confessed to facing resistance and even rejection when trying to collaborate back on Hispaniola. Due the untiring efforts of my colleague, curator Elvis Fuentes, this was perhaps one of the very first museum projects that included Cuban work from the island alongside Cuban production from the Diaspora (primarily Miami). His essay focused on this too, viewing the history as a bifurcated but conjoined one.[15] This kind of all-encompassing view, however, is not the norm. Equally, many artists have traveled to “The Big Apple” to make works, and many were supported in extraordinary ways by our sister institutions, and we certainly paid special attention to those endeavors in the crafting of our exhibition.

Due to these concerns, when the project travelled, it suddenly appeared very New York-centric. We welcomed additions or parallel projects made by the venues, but for the most part, their resources did not allow it. Museo Amparo added works by Marcos Kurticz, to which they had ample access, and Bogota considered adding works by other Colombians, including Rosemberg Sandoval, but in the end, were not able to. Naturally, a question in both Mexico and Colombia was why, since—to them it seemed “so many” Puerto Ricans were included—more of their own artists were not. Of course, not every project can include everything, and it is natural that each site would want to have pride of place. However, I wondered about this frustration. Was it another form of erasure of the contributions of Puerto Ricans? Was it a dismissal of the importance of the Latinos to this history? Or a questioning of the inclusion of Latinos at all in this timeline? Is there still some prevailing prejudice that privileges those “indigenous” artists who have not made roots elsewhere? But why is this only true for artists in the United States? Why is there no question regarding the artists, who, for example, make their home in Paris? Is it a deep-seated reaction to what is considered the overpowering negative influence of U.S. culture? If this is the case, then all the more so for the Puerto Ricans, and all the more carefully we have to study their work.

From our perspective, it was important to diffuse our founding community of artists’ works, particularly that created by Puerto Ricans no matter where they are working. These artists should be more widely known, and as an institution that specializes on this, our mission was, in the end, well-served.


One of the biggest surprises to me was that people reacted strongly to its title, perceiving in it a negative tone. This was not at all my intention. Nonetheless, some (but not all) of the artists, students, viewers, and the broad public continually asked about the meaning of the title. Arte Vida (Art is Not Equal to Life; Art is Not Life) troubles the commonplace idea that art is equivalent to life, and life is art. What is proposed through these many works is that while art affirms and celebrates life with a regenerative force, and sharpens and provokes our critical senses, artistic actions that address inequalities and conflict are not equivalent to real life endured under actual repression. Arte ≠ Vida called attention to this blurred critical boundary by examining these deliberate and inventive actions within their varying contexts and discourses. As when Paco drew upon Acconci’s phrase (and perhaps, subconsciously, I was riffing on this in my title), the distinction is a difference that stops us with its negation, with its statement of what it is not. While it would have been easier to repeat the cliché that art is life, I did not want to take this easy way out.

The phrase, which was a favored slogan of Vladimir Tatlin, the Russian artist-leader of the 1920s avant-garde modernist movement, has become a commonplace, covering disparate topics including Japanese post-war work as well as progressive American mid-century developments. Wolf Vostell, a German artist and early progenitor of Happenings who worked closely with the Fluxus group, stated, “Art is equivalent to Life – Life equivalent to Art.” Another German, Joseph Beuys, formulated his central theoretical concepts concerning the social, cultural, and political function and potential of art. Indebted to Romantic writers such as Novalis and Schiller, Beuys was motivated by a utopian belief in the power of universal human creativity and was confident in the potential for art to bring about revolutionary change. Beuys romanticized and mythified the role of art and the artist. This translated into Beuys’s formulation of the concept of Social Sculpture, in which society as a whole was to be regarded as one great work of art (the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk) to which each person can creatively contribute. Beuys famously proclaimed (borrowing from Novalis), “every human being is an artist.”[16]

Robert Rauschenberg distinctively noted that he wished to work “in the gap between art and life.” However, avant-garde composer John Cage, who worked in a trajectory related to Rauschenberg, succinctly described the difference between art and life by discussing what he termed “critical” and “compositional” actions, regarding the Vietnam War:

You know, my tendency is to think of these activities—of protest, and of parades, and objections, and all these things—as being like critical actions rather than composing actions. I know, in my case and certainly in your case, that nothing that the critic said stopped me from composing. Now it seems to me that the war is not going to be stopped by critical action, or, if it is stopped that it will be succeeded by another war, et cetera. I think something like a composing action needs to be made rather than like a critical action, in order to bring about a world where these things to which we clearly and rightfully object will not take place. (Cage 1993, 153)

This idea has, incidentally, been examined elsewhere in modern music history. Greil Marcus has written about the tendency to conflate art with life in popular music. In his analysis of the 1960s American folk revival, which based itself on 1930s precursors, he noted that artistic actions during this time became bound up in concepts of authenticity, and the most valued form was suffering, deprivation, and exclusion. According to Marcus, a complete dissolution of art into life values the poor as the purest form of art, because they act without mediation and without reflection, without consciousness of capitalism or other over-determining factors. Marcus’s case study, Bob Dylan, struggled with this very issue, complaining that audiences mistook his artwork for a protest or political action, thereby confusing the object with the subject.

Marcus noted, “when art is confused with life, it is not merely that art is lost. When art equals life there is no art, but when life equals art there are no people” (Greil 2001, 28–29). The actual conditions to which much of the work responded is to be respected—although at times there were, certainly far too real crossovers and mergings of art and life for the artists within the exhibition.17 Artists craft responsive, thoughtful, composing actions that are extraordinary—out of our quotidian realities, opening doors, bringing about worlds, making connections. For me, art is not life. It is a part of it, but it is also so much more.

Deborah Cullen, Director of Curatorial Programs at El Museo del Barrio, New York, joined the museum in 1997, and has oversight of all temporary and travelling exhibitions, the museum’s permanent collection of more than 6,500 works, and all corollary scholarly publications. She will serve as the Chief Curator of the Trienal Poli/gráfica de San Juan (Puerto Rico, 2012). Other recent projects include Retro/Active: The Work of Rafael Ferrer (2010), Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis (2009) and the internationally-travelling exhibit, Arte ≠ Vida: Actions by Artists of the Americas, 1960-2000 (2008-2011) for which she received an Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award (2006). Cullen was a fellow of the Center for Curatorial Leadership (2010), and is also authoring Rafael Ferrer’s monograph for the A Ver: Revisioning Art History publication series of the Chicano Studies Research Center, UCLA.

She has also been a recipient of a J. Paul Getty Curatorial Research Fellowship, and a Curatorial Award from Faith Ringgold’s “Anyone Can Fly” Foundation. Cullen serves on the Board of the Association of Art Museum Curators; the Institute of Cultural Inquiry, Los Angeles; and the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop, New York. Previously, she was Curator at Robert Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop. Her dissertation, Robert Blackburn, American Printmaker, for The Graduate Center, CUNY, reflects her long affiliation with Blackburn’s legendary print studio.


 [1] The artists included in Arte ≠ Vida were: Adál, with Rev. Pedro Pietri; Rossana Agois, Wiley Ludeña, Hugo Salazar del Alcázar & Armando Williams; Carlos Altamirano; Francis Alÿs; ASCO; Arte Calle; Diego Barboza; Artur Barrio; Oscar Bony; Border Arts Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo; Jacobo Borges; Tania Bruguera; Maris Bustamante; Nao Bustamante; CADA; Miguel-Angel Cárdenas; María Fernanda Cardoso; Graciela Carnevale; Lygia Clark; Colectivo Sociedad Civil; Papo Colo; Eduardo Costa; Arturo Cuenca; Cyclona; Jaime Davidovich; Ángel Delgado; Eugenio Dittborn; Juan Downey; Jorge Eielson; Felipe Ehrenberg; Diamela Eltit; Marco Antonio Ettedgui; The Fabulous Nobodies; Eduardo Favario; Liliana Felipe & Jesusa Rodríguez; Rafael Ferrer; Teo Freytes; Coco Fusco; Regina José Galindo; Fernando García; Guillermo Gómez-Peña; Felix Gonzalez-Torres; GRAV; Alberto Greco; Víctor Grippo; Grupo Chaclacayo; Grupo Provisional; María Teresa Hincapié; Alfredo Jaar; Roberto Jacoby; Yeni y Nan; Kenneth Kemble; KMAN; Tony Labat; David Lamelas; Carlos Leppe; Silvano Lora; Richard A. Lou; Juan Loyola; Leopoldo Maler; Antonio Manuel; Liliana Maresca; Teresa Margolles; Daniel Joseph Martinez; Oscar Masotta; Alonso Mateo; Cildo Meireles; Ana Mendieta; Maldito Menéndez; Freddie Mercado Velásquez; Marta Minujin; Raphael Montañez Ortiz; Charlotte Moorman with Claudio Perna; NADA; No Grupo; Glexis Novoa with Grupo Cívico; Hélio Oiticica; Clemente Padín; Lygia Pape; Rolando Peña; Polvo de Gallina Negra; Proceso Pentágono; Geo Ripley; Ritual Art-De, featuring Juan-Sí González; Carlos Rodríguez Cárdenas; Lotty Rosenfeld; Elizabeth Sisco, Louis Hock & David Avalos; Santiago Sierra; Rodolfo Aguerreberry; Julio Flores, Guillermo Kexel, Antonieta Sosa; Leandro Soto; El Techo de la Ballena; Elena Tejada-Herrera; Pedro Terán; Todos Estrellas/ All Stars; César Trasobares; Carmelita Tropicana; Teresa Trujillo; Tucumán Arde; Tunga; Nicolás García Uriburu; Eugenia Vargas; Edgardo Antonio Vigo; Eduardo Villanes; Alfred Wenemoser; Carlos Zerpa; and Raúl Zurita.

 [2] The artists included in No lo llames performance were: Rolf Abderhalden; Carlos Amorales; Arahmaiani; María José Arjona; Gustavo Artigas; Perry Bard; Sandra Bermudez; Carlos Betancourt; Building Transmissions; Cabello/Carceller; Javier Cambre; Catarina Campino; Alejandro Cesarco; Sandra Ceballos y René Quintana; José Luis Cortés; Yael Davids; Claudia del Fierro; Elena del Rivero; Nicolás Dumit Estévez; Yan Duyvendak; Deej Faby; Alicia Framis; Michel Groisman; Pablo Helguera; Quisqueya Henríquez; Zhang Huan; Francesco Impellizeri; Kimsooja; Takehito Koganezawa; Longina; Cyríaco Lopes; César Martínez; Beth Moysés; Yoshua Okón; Kristin Oppenheim; Wanda Ortiz; Gigi Otálvaro-Hormillosa; David Pérez; Liza May Post; PRAXIS; Ernesto Pujol; Marialuisa Ramirez; Heli Rekula; Ana Rosa Rivera Marrero with Freddy Mercado; Luke Roberts; Miguel Ángel Rojas; Jesús Segura; Edra Soto; Suzanne Treister; Roi Vaara; Mikael Varela and Sebastian Paananen; Pedro Velez; Manuela Viera-Gallo; Júlio Villani; Paulo Vivacqua; Sandra Vivas; Tim White; Erwin Wurm; Pamela Z; and Ricardo Zulueta.

 [3] Live performances were presented by Edra Soto, Praxis, Pamela Z, Pablo Helguera, Carmelita Tropicana, Nicolas Dumit Estevez, and Gigi Otalvaro-Hormillosa. The catalogue included an introduction by El Museo’s Director, Julián Zugazagoitia, and texts by F. Javier Panera Cuevas (Domus Artium 2), RoseLee Goldberg, and a revised version of Coco Fusco’s introduction to her book, Corpus Delecti (2000). See Barragán 2004.

 [4] RoseLee Goldberg, 2001 and 2005. Goldberg’s deep passion for performance was developed into the biennial “PERFORMA” in 2005.

 [5] The publication evolved from Fusco’s curatorial project, Corpus Delecti, a season of performance by Latino/a artists in North and South America, for London's Institute for Contemporary Art, 1998. Other resources were Holy Terrors: Latin American Women Perform, edited by Diana Taylor and Roselyn Costantino (2003), which incorporates both theatrical and fine art performance, as well as Taylor’s The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (2003) which draws on a wide range of performative strands, from popular to political culture, as well as contemporary artists.

 [6] While I was the curator of Arte ≠ Vida, the project was all the better for the many contributions of the full Curatorial Department at El Museo del Barrio at that time, which included Elvis Fuentes, Rebeca Noriega-Costas, Trinidad Fombella, and Elizabeth Borne, as well as our patient Registrarial team of Noel Valentin and Melisa Lujan, and several dedicated interns but most especially Arden Decker and Marisa Lehrer.

 [7] In particular, Gabriela Rangel, Director of Visual Arts, The Americas Society, stewarded the Venezuelan selection. In Argentina, Ana Longoni, Professor, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Research Fellow at the National Research Council of Argentina, and independent curator and scholar Victoria Noorthoorn, who particularly aided us in selecting from the vast production of Marta Minujín, The Brazilian representation was aided by the advice of Claudia Calirman, independent scholar and curator, while the Chilean presentation benefited from the insights of Robert Neustadt, Professor, Northern Arizona University. In Bogotá, Maria Iovino, Independent scholar and curator, offered a discerning view, while in Perú, we were grateful to the scholars and curators Sharon Lerner Rizo-Patrón and Jorge Villacorta Chávez both professors at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Lima. In the Dominican Republic, we Sayuri Guzmán, artist and independent curator, provided insights while in Mexico, Maris Bustamante, artist and director, Centro de Artes, Humanidades y Ciencias Transdisciplinarias, México D.F., provided wise counsel. We learned a great deal from our dear colleague in Costa Rica, Virginia Pérez-Ratton, Founding Director, TEOR/éTica, San José, regarding Central American practitioners.

 [8] Later excerpted and published as, “Destructivism: Second Manifesto,” in Studio International 172, December 1966. Raphael Montañez Ortiz has gone by several variations of his name earlier during his career.

 [9] Unpublished statement by Richard Huelsenbeck, 1965; copy in the Raphael Montañez Ortiz artist file at El Museo del Barrio.

 [10] Robert Rauschenberg, Bed, 1955. Rauschenberg himself would shortly challenge the very meaning of such expressive, unique significance in his paintings, Factum 1 and Factum 2, 1957.

 [11] See Rafael Montanez Ortiz: Years of the Warrior 1960 - Years of the Psyche 1988, (New York: El Museo del Barrio, 1988), curated by Rafael Colón Morales with text by Kristine Stiles, or Unmaking: The Work of Raphael Moñtanez Ortiz, curated and with a text by Rocio Aranda-Alvardo (NJ: Jersey City Museum, 2007). Kristine Stiles has written extensively on Montañez Ortiz and destructivism. See also her Ph.D dissertation (Stiles 1987) or her essay, "Uncorrupted Joy: International Art Actions," (Stiles 1998). Stiles has noted that Montañez Ortiz was not the only artist working on this idea during this time. In Germany, the Polish artist, Gustav Metzger, wrote five manifestos between November 1959 and July 1964, regarding what he termed “Auto-Destructive-Art.” Stiles and others have also noted the related development in Argentina, where, in 1961, the exhibition “Arte Destructivo” occurred at Galería Lirolay, Buenos Aires. Shortly after the exhibition, this Argentine group dissolved, although their work was presented at DIAS. For more on the Argentinian development, see Longoni 2008, or “Posh Art and Post-Historic Art: Argentina (1957-1965),” in Mari Carmen Ramírez and Héctor Olea (2004).

 [12] 12 Evenings of Manipulations were presented from October 5 to 22, 1967, and included installations by Malcolm Goldstein, Al Hansen, Bici Forbes Hendricks, Geoffrey Hendricks, Allan Kaprow, Kate Millet, Raphael Ortiz, Lili Picard, Steve Rose, Carolee Schneemann, and John Toche; film and performances by Philip Corner, Takahiko Iimura, Ken Jacobs, Fred Lieberman, Charlotte Moorman, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Tomas Schmit, and Ken Warner (organized by John Hendricks). The DIAS USA “preview” took place at Judson Gallery, on March 22, 1968, and included Al Hansen, Bici Forbes Hendricks, Jon Hendricks, Charlotte Moorman, Hermann Nitsch, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, Nam June Paik, Lil Picard, and others. The symposium was cancelled in observance when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Finally, from May 10 to 18, 1968, the Destruction Art Group 1968 Presents was held at Judson Gallery, and included Bici Forbes Hendricks, Al Hansen, Charlotte Moorman, Nam June Paik, Lil Picard, Jean Toche, Jud Yalkut, and others.

 [13] Rafael Montañez Ortiz was an active leader of the Puerto Rican Art Workers Coalition, among other organizations.

 [14] Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979, ed. Paul Schimmel (1998) does not mention or offer a footnote regarding Montañez Ortiz’s key role as the founder of a New York museum. It would be hard to imagine, for example, a discussion of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s artwork without mention of her role in founding the Whitney Museum of American Art.

 [15] Elvis Fuentes, along with Glexis Novoa and Yuneikys Villalongo, curated Killing Time, and exhibition of Cuban artists from the 1980s to the present, at Exit Art, New York, in 2007. In this project, they also included Cubans working everywhere, and we were able to draw upon this model.

 [16] Along the same lines as Beuys, an important German art historian of the period, Udo Kulturmann, wrote the 1971 book Art into Life summing up the previous decade by proposing that artists were shaman or healers, leading society in new directions.

 [17] For example, Uruguayan artist Clemente Padin was arrested in 1977 by the then military dictatorship. He was released after 2 years, but had to live under surveillance until 1985, during which time he was restricted from making art, leaving the country, or receiving mail. Cuban artist Angel Delgado was imprisoned in 1990 for 6 months for defecating on Granma, the Cuban Communist party newspaper, as part of an action. Many other artists in the show also have had direct experiences with dictatorship, oppression, and censorship.

Works Cited

Barragán, Paco. 2004. No lo llames performance = Don't Call it Performance. Salamanca, Spain: Fundacion Salamanca Ciudad de Cultura.

Ballester, Diogenes. “Aesthetic Development of Puerto Rican Visual Arts in New York as Part of the Diaspora: The Epitaph of the Barrio.”

Cage, John, and Morton Feldman. 1993. Radio happenings I-V. Köln: MusikTexte.

Fusco, Coco. 2000. Corpus delecti: performance art of the Americas. London: Routledge.

-----. 1995. “The Other History of Intercultural Performance,” 37-64. In English is broken here: notes on cultural fusion in the Americas. New York City: New Press.

Goldberg, RoseLee. 1998. Performance: Live Art Since 1960. New York: Harry N. Abrams Publishers.

-----. 2001. Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Longoni, Ana. 2008. “Action art in Argentina from 1960: the body (ex)posed = Arte de acción en Argentina desde 1960: (ex)poner el cuerpo.” In Museo del Barrio, Deborah Cullen, and Maris Bustamante. Arte ≠ Vida: Actions by Artists of the Americas 1960-2000. New York: El Museo Del Barrio.

Marcus, Greil, and Bob Dylan. 2001. The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. New York: Picador.

Ortiz, Raphael Montañez. “Destructivism: Second Manifesto.” Studio International 172 (December 1966).

-----. 2007. Unmaking: The Work of Raphael Montañez Ortiz. Jersey City, N.J.: Jersey City Museum.

Ortiz, Rafael Montanez, and Kristine Stiles. 1988. Rafael Montañez Ortiz: Years of the Warrior 1960, Years of the Psyche 1988 / [Kristine Stiles]. New York, N.Y.: El Museo del Barrio].

Rush, Michael. 2005. New Media in Art. London: Thames & Hudson.

Stiles, Kristine Elaine Dolan. 1987. The Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS): The Radical Cultural Project of Event-Structured Live Art. Thesis (PhD in History of Art)—University of California, Berkeley, (Dec.)

-----. 1998. "Uncorrupted Joy: International Art Actions," 226-238. In Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979. Los Angeles, Calif: The Museum of Contemporary Art.

Schimmel, Paul, and Kristine Stiles. 1998. Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949­–1979. Los Angeles, Calif: The Museum of Contemporary Art.

Ramírez, Mari Carmen, and Héctor Olea. 2004. Inverted Utopias: Avant-garde Art in Latin America. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Taylor, Diana. 2003. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press.

Taylor, Diana, and Roselyn Costantino. 2003. Holy Terrors: Latin American Women Perform. Durham: Duke University Press.