The Artist Book as a ‘Performative’ Act

by Anne Thurmann-Jajes


This text will be devoted to the investigation of the phenomenon of performativity in artists’ books. To this end, I will concentrate on artists’ books that

“… are the tangible outcome of what artists do with/about/for/against books. Artists’ books are related to forms of conventional books, either through their design, format, materiality, or function. The artist’s book as a whole manifests and visualizes a conceptual context, which is based upon the artistic intention of the respective artist, evincing this as an autonomous work of art. The artist’s book develops—as a published, printed, and multiplied stand-alone artwork—through a process of artistic conceptualization that could not be brought to expression in this way using any other artistic form. The artist’s book is not the carrier of the artistic message but rather the medium.”1

Accordingly, the focus of my remarks will be artists’ books produced all over the world since the 1960s. Within the context of these artists’ books, the aim will be to examine not only the importance of performativity, but also the boundary between the perfromance in general on the one hand and the art performance on the other. To the extent that the concept of performativity defies blanket definition, I will make reference to those aspects of performativity that are relevant for the context of artists’ books.

The question to be posed here is to what degree the artist’s book per se, or individual artist’s books, is or are performative, in what performative actions or processes they are incorporated, and whether those actions/processes lend themselves to generalizing descriptions. In the process, it will also be necessary to look at the nature of the relationships that exist between art performances and artists’ books. In order to localize the artist’s book per se – or individual artist’s books – in the context of performative actions or processes, the first step will be to shed light on what, exactly, performative actions are.

John L. Austin coined the term “performative” in 1955 within the framework of his lectures on the theory of speaking acts. Those lectures were published in Oxford in 1962 with the title How to do things with words. The coinage derives from the verb “to perform” in the sense of “to carry out”, in other words to carry out an action. Austin’s discovery was that actions are also carried out with linguistic utterances; in other words there are performative utterances.

Certain sentences are associated with already existing sets of circumstances, for example: “I now pronounce you man and wife.” Fischer-Lichte recapitulates this context as follows: “The sentences not only say something, but also carry out precisely the action of which they speak. They are self-referential; in other words they refer only to themselves to the extent that they mean what they do, and they are reality-constituting in that they create the social reality of which they speak. These are the two attributes that characterize performative statements.”2 The performative statement is also always directed to a community and can be conceived of and described as the performance of a social act: With it, the marriage is not only carried out, but at the same time also publicly performed.3

Jacques Derrida expands on Austin’s approach by arguing that an act of speaking can only be considered successful if it can be quoted repeatedly and finds application in different contexts.4 “It is not the context that determines the meaning, but the repetition.”5

The cultural philosopher Judith Butler also applies the concept of performativity to physical actions.6 The physical actions that can be designated performative acts do not make reference to a prescribed identity, but are that which create identity as their meaning in the first place.7 “That which is brought about by performative acts only comes about in that these acts are consummated.”8

Finally, the theatre studies specialist Erika Fischer-Lichte advocates an approach to performativity in which the area of linguistic philosophy is overcome and performativity / performance is associated primarily with representation or performance in the sense of a physical staging.9 “The performance is not a dependent realization of the content prescribed by a text, but must be understood as an independent category.”10

Taking this idea as her point of departure, the media theorist Sibylle Krämer distinguishes between “three conceptions of the performative – the weak, the strong, and the radical. The weak concept comprises quite generally the action and utilization function of language, gestures, etc. By speaking, gesticulating, moving in space and manipulating objects, a person does something. Here ‘performative’ refers to the aspect of acting and doing. The strong concept refers to an utterance which consummates that which it puts into words. … The radical concept points to the capacity of the performative to fulfil an operative-strategic function that reveals and subverts the boundaries of dichotomous classifications, typologies and theories.”11 This third concept “no longer explains the performative force primarily in linguistic terms, but concentrates on the effect of a performance in consummation. Seen from this perspective, performativity is not a purely linguistic effect, but the result of an experience brought about by the performance.”12

Here we must distinguish between the performance as a theatrical event and the art performance. “Against the background of the development and spread of the performance arts since the 1960s, the concept of performance can ultimately be generalized to the point where it departs entirely from any attachment to a basal, foundational text. Artistic performances are ‘self-referential’ in the sense already claimed by Austin for linguistic performativa: they show what they themselves produce performatively. The meaning of such independent performances is and remains inseparably linked with its consummation.”13 In this context, the meaning of the performed work can on the one hand no longer be separated from the experience of the performance itself, and on the other hand the audience which contributes to the consummation of this experience participates in the production of the meaning.14 Unlike the performance in the classical sense, the art performance is a unique and unrepeatable action bound to the specific situation, the artist, the audience and its perception.

On the basis of the three concepts of the performative as defined by Sibylle Krämer, I would now like to endeavour an explanation of the various performative levels and references of artists’ books. To that end, I will develop three levels of performativity that are of relevance for artists’ books: the level of the general performativity of artists’ books, that of their direct performativity, and that of their radical-aesthetic performativity.

Generally speaking, artists’ books are performative in and of themselves because they bring about performative actions in the recipient. Within the category of general performativity we can distinguish between spatial, textual and visual performance.

According to Ulises Carrión, the artist’s book represents a series of spaces or rooms. “Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment.” Each page is different, and “every word exists as an element of a structure”. “In the new art every book requires a different reading.”15 Already on this level of general performativity, the reader or viewer becomes a protagonist and transforms into an agent or into the entity that, through the act of paging, creates or completes the work. In order to be able to read or view the book, he must page through it and thus open up the book space. The artist’s book can be read/viewed from back to front, from the middle outward, or every which way. It thus spreads out in space and time and brings about a performative action intended by the artist’s concept. This spatial performance is particularly evident, for example, in the cloth books by Franz Erhard Walther bearing titles such as Handlungskörper (Action Body) (1969). In order to view his books, they not only have to be paged through, but also used, discovered and tried out. It is only through the consummation of this use, this action on the part of the viewer, that the book comes into its own. It is self-referential and reality-forming. The use of the artist’s book by Franz Erhard Walter is an action in and of itself. The books by Axel Heibel likewise represent a spatial performance due to the nature of their prescribed use. The paging through, folding out and trying out as well as the experimentation with the pages of Buchobjekt (Book Object) B1 by Axel Heibel moreover generate not only three-dimensional space, but also a visual painterly event.

The form of the textual performance is illustrated by the example of the artist’s book Ich bin ein Buch, kaufe mich jetzt (I am a book; buy me now) by A. R. Penck. The act of following this instruction brings about precisely the action of which the title speaks. The statement is self-referential; that is, it refers only to itself to the extent that it means that which it instructs, and it is reality-constituting because the purchase of the book creates a new reality. The artist’s book On the next page I shall say something by Endre Tot is likewise a textual performance. In contrast to the artist’s book by Penck, however, the performative statement fails from the outset. Because of the fact that the same sentence is printed on every page of this artist’s book, the consummation of the statement is postponed again and again to the next page, ultimately never to take place. This is a case of playing with expectations that are ultimately never satisfied.

The artist’s books by Ida Applebroog can be cited as examples of visual performance. Each of her books measures approximately 20 x 16 centimetres and consists either of a single or of very few reductive drawing or drawings which is or are repeated in the book several times. Each title describes the theme of the respective book and is followed by the subtitle “A Performance”. The viewer becomes the author in that the artist offers him materials which he can interpret as he wishes. Thought – the act of thinking, the imaginative act – does not recede behind the object but becomes a fundamental parameter of understanding. The performance or action takes place in the mind of the viewer, who, like a voyeur, looks into ‘virtual’ windows and imagines the actions and dialogues.16

On the second level, which I would like to call direct performativity, the artist’s book becomes the artist’s actionist tool for bringing about actions in or by the recipient. The artist works with direct prompts for action. George Brecht prompts the reader to continue writing or to complete his artist’s book Teaching and Learning as Performance Arts and provides him with the same amount of space he has used himself. Hans-Peter Feldmann offers the reader the means of designing the artist’s book Ferien (Holiday) according to his own ideas. The illustrations are supplied in a separate little paper bag and can be pasted in. Feldmann calls upon the viewer to act and provides instructions for pasting in the pictures on the first page of the book. Dieter Froelich tells the reader to collect pages of the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung featuring pictures of the city over a long period and to paste them into a separate book which bears the telling title Hannover. Colouring books by visual artists represent another form of direct performativity. An example is Richard Prince’s Coloring Book. The act of colouring, if it is carried out, becomes a performative action. Allan Kaprow, in his artist’s book Match, provides instructions for altogether six thirty-minute actions. Kaprow writes: “The photos here are not documents but are posed to illustrate the text. Together, text and pictures can be read as a ‘score’ or plan of action.”17

The level I have dubbed radical-aesthetic performativity forms the third level on which performativity can be perceived in artists’ books. Here the artist’s book itself becomes a manifestation of an art performance that has not taken place in front of an audience. In other words, the artist’s book represents the art performance. The performance comes about through the book. It is only through the performance with the aid of the book that the action becomes reality for the viewer, only thus that the consummation has really taken place. The viewer is referred back to his own experience and thus involved in the production of meaning. He carries out the performance through the projection of remembered ideas and experiences. The book as a manifestation of the performance becomes the actual art performance and thus an autonomous artwork.

Christian Boltanski, for example, performed scenes from his fictional childhood in front of painted backdrops. The viewer consummates the actions with the experiences of his own childhood, and it is only thus that the (art) performance comes about. Anna and Bernhard Blume’s actions take place in a virtual space. Both the space and the actions only become reality in the artist’s book. Giorgio Ciam draws his own portrait while looking into a mirror, looking directly at the viewer or onlooker in the process, as if he were drawing his self-portrait precisely in the moment in which the viewer looks at the book. An action is announced which is then carried out within the actual time in which the book is read or viewed. The actions of the artists’ group Gelatin, which take place in a casual, incidental manner, are only perceived as art performances through their manifestation as an artist’s book.

This category does not include artist’s books that list art performances or document them pictorially. The documentation of an art performance describes a concluded event in the past, and thus does not represent a performative action. An example of this type of artist’s book is the book Performan DDV by Danny Devos.



The artist’s book thus differs from the conventional book not only with regard to its design, conception and artistic intention, but also on account of its performativity. This special characteristic means that artists’ books generate performative actions which presuppose the reader or viewer as an acting subject. Artist’s books are self-referential because they refer only to themselves; they are action-triggering because they animate the viewer to become active; and they are reality-constituting because they create new realities for the viewer.



1 Thurmann-Jajes and Vögtle 2010, p. 51.

2 Fischer-Lichte 2011, p. 38.

3 Fischer-Lichte 2011, p. 39.

4 Derrida 2001.

5 Volbers 2014, p. 27.

6 Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997).

7 Fischer-Lichte 2011, p. 41.

8 Fischer-Lichte 2011, p. 42.

9 Fischer-Lichte 2004 and 2011.

10 Volbers 2014, p. 30

11 Fischer-Lichte 2011, p. 44.

12 Volbers 2014, p. 29.

13 Volbers 2014, p. 30.

14 Volbers 2014, p. 30.

15 Carrión 1992, pp. 51.

16 On this subject, also see Sayre 1991.

17 Kaprow 1975, p. 2.


Carrión, Ulises (1992): "The new art of making books." In: Guy Schraenen: Ulises Carrión. "We have won! Haven't we won?"Amsterdam: Museum Fodor, pp. 51ff.

Derrida, Jacques (2001): “Signatur Ereignis Kontext”. In: Jacques Derrida, Werner Rappl and Peter Engelmann (eds.): Limited Inc. First German ed. Vienna: Passagen-Verlag (Passagen Philosophie), pp. 15–46.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika (2004): Ästhetik des Performativen. 1st ed. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp (Edition Suhrkamp, 2373).

Fischer-Lichte, Erika (2011): Performativität. Eine Einführung. 1st ed. Bielefeld: transcript (Edition Kulturwissenschaft, 10).

Kaprow, Allan (1975): Match. Wuppertal: Kunst- und Museumsverein.

Sayre, Henry (1991): “Ida Applebroog and the Book as Performance”. In: Visible Language 25 (2/3), pp. 303–15.

Thurmann-Jajes, Anne; Vögtle, Susanne (2010): Manual for artists' publications (MAP). Cataloging rules, definitions, and descriptions. 1st ed. Bremen, Ljubljana, Chatou: Research Centre for Artists' Publications at the Weserburg / Museum of Modern Art; Mednarodni grafični likovni center (MGLC); CNEAI = Centre national de l'édition et l'art imprimé.

Volbers, Jörg (2014): Performative Kultur. Eine Einführung. Wiesbaden: Imprint: Springer VS (SpringerLink : Bücher).