Neo-Harmonics: Notes on the Body in Post-Millennium Performance Art

A Manifesto by Starla Bontecou | Originally published in Steel Bananas 19

“The self-image of Modernity that is rooted in bodily experience cannot wholly be grasped in this current preoccupation with the emblematic character of the body as a kind of social advertisement. In fact, the quality of embodiment is almost entirely lacking from this perspective. We might argue that this is rightly so; that Modernity is all about the gradual erosion of qualitative distinctions in favor of universal quantities. Yet we all remain aware of ourselves as bodies in a quite peculiar way, irrespective of the specific qualifications that are, so to speak, added to it by the virtue of our particular social identities. We are aware of a certain weight and a kind of elastic resistance to gravity, a specific orientation in space, a characteristic directionality, and above all we are conscious of ourselves as a uniquely embodied self presence; we were made inseparably enfolded in our bodies. But these too are socially constructed and conventional modes of experience, and this provides us with an entry point into a more general historical understanding of the emergence of Modernity in terms of bodily categories. The manner in which the body becomes the central experience of our world, that is to say, is neither fixed nor ‘natural’ but is, rather, continuously subject to, and a source of, social and cultural change.”

“Body” | Modernity and Subjectivity | Harvie Ferguson

It has been nearly fifty years since Allan Kaprow reinvigorated modernity with happenings. It has been nearly forty years since Gina Pane’s Action Psyche, and Renate Bertlmann’s Pantomime re-shaped female bodies as active art objects; carriers of social critique. Pierre Molinier killed himself a quarter of a decade ago, after masturbating, with a gunshot to the head, and Istvan Kantor’s Blood Campaign ended in the 80s. Where are we now? The last two decades have seen a simultaneous disinterest in the capabilities of the body in physical reality, and a rise in the technologically externalized images of bodily interactions. Socially constructed in the climate of the avatar, the body now populates both sense and abstract identification in a wholly new way. Though the body has always existed as image, its connective perceptual qualities in physical reality still offer the unique and transcendental spontaneity of presence. As part of TransCanadada Motorway Services, I am in the process of investigating post-millennium humanism, a subject which, in its very theoretical constitution, defies a purely theoretical approach. As a short introduction to the forthcoming practice/theory Manifesto on Post-Millennium Humanism, I offer you the concept of Neo-Harmonics, a means of bridging perceptual reality with the expression of art through performance.

Neo-Harmonics is not to be misconstrued as a new form of the Renaissance body, searching for natural correspondence toward spiritual elevation. It is also not to be confused with traditional Harmonic Correspondence in art, though it functions similarly in its connection with the concreteness of presence. What Neo-Harmonics represents is the new emergence of bodily agency, something lost in the paradigm of representation in postmodernity, through the profound experience of touch and shared presence. But oh! Was it ever lost? Is this exactly what the nihilism of the age lamented to lose? I offer these few paltry points as an introduction to the forthcoming longer work, for pondering and discussion. Let it be noted that these are written notes on an entirely perceptual, bodily experience, and should be taken as incomplete representations of the totality of Neo-Harmonics’ existence within the body and presence.


A: The Body in Performance

  • The body should always be present. Film and photography, while offering documentation of the action, cannot be construed as the action itself, regardless of their status as images.
  • No aspect of the body’s natural transcendence should be overtly staged, meaning that no aspect of the performance should be augmented technologically to symbolize a transcendence outside of the body’s physical and cerebral possibilities.
  • The body’s limitations offer the greatest possibilities for evocative investigation, meaning its subjection to pain, the environment, other bodies, Other bodies, and its fallibility.
  • The surreal aspect of the body’s mystical properties is as natural as its physical properties.
  • Any expression of the body’s surreal qualities should be true to their perception, and seek to reproduce, rather than mimic or represent, the essence of bodily transcendence.
  • Bodily transcendence during performance does not occur if it is exclusively within the performer.
  • Touch transfers transcendence.
  • The audience is part of the performance.
  • The critical intent of the artist should not be abstract.
  • The post-millennium performance artist should seek a simultaneous harmony with its surroundings, its subjection to its audience, and its status as a self-conscious art object. This harmony should extend to the particular artist’s honest perception of reality, as only construed by his or her senses.
  • Intent and meaning should be present, though admittedly contingent upon the participatory aspect of transcendence.
  • Any performance functioning outside of this harmony is a lie.


  1. Curran wrote:

    Brilliant. Extremely Dense. I had to read it twice. If that tells you anything. This is very befitting of everything you are doing.

  2. Adèle wrote:

    I really hope you know how brilliant you are. I can’t wait to see you thrive in NYC.

  3. Guy wrote:

    This is fascinating. Please keep me informed about the longer work, and good luck with your research! This seems like an incredibly interesting project.

  4. Grant wrote:

    Bold and bare. I like the idea of exploring limitations in harmony with audience participation in these limitations. Very cool, Starla.