Independent of whether or not you can hum one of their tunes, you’ve probably heard of David Bowie or OK Go. Though the latter is a lot less well known, chances are you’ve still seen the treadmill video the band put out in 2009; it was featured on almost every available music channel and went viral on the web. Aside from being two of my favorite bands, I find something particularly extraordinary about their work, in the way it crosses over from the realm of being purely musical into the explosive area of performance art.
Performance art, as we know it today, emerged out of the molten chaos of Pollock’s paintbrush and the cigarette smoke of rebelling beatniks. It was and is an art form intended to manipulate time, space, and the body in order to challenge conventional norms and beliefs. And, much like sparks in the darkness, performance pieces — usually defined by bursts of originality — only lasted for short periods of time. Occasionally recorded by photographers, they were initially restricted to the street corners, small galleries, and black box theaters on which they were staged.
By the mid 1960s, however, musicians became intrigued by the art form’s ability to enhance their stage presence. So, they adapted and expanded on it. And, one of the people to do so most successfully was none other than the immaculate David Bowie. He burst onto the music scene at a time when early Beatles haircuts were still cool, created the ambient and androgynous alien being — Ziggy Stardust, and drew massive audiences with his vibrant hairdos and bizarre costumes that made him look like a cartoon. But, that’s not all.
A key aspect of Bowie’s performance art was his use of the media; capitalizing on the viewers’ penchant for content that shocks and awes, Bowie’s outlandish outfits, shows and incorporation of mixed media made him a new kind of superstar and musical sensation. This, of course, inspired other artists to follow suit. Unwitting or not, he used the core principles of performance art to transcend the music of his day and usher in something new and experimental — something that is still evolving today.
OK Go, on the other hand, emerged towards the tail end of Bowie’s career as a Chicago-based band struggling to begin. Like Bowie, it used the media to get attention. Its video for the hit song “Here It Goes Again” incorporated a very clever — yet simple — choreography sequence featuring a treadmill; it spread like wildfire once it hit mainstream media. Because of it’s success, the band soon realized that it could get attention by testing the format of the music video itself. Since then, it made videos using exploding paintballs and well-trained dogs, as well as floating in zero gravity.
Although both bands were talented enough to make it on musical skill alone, their use of performance art allowed them to stand apart from their contemporaries, test new ground, and experiment with the visual side of music. There was a purpose behind Bowie’s lightning face paint, just as there is one behind OK Go’s use of nearly 3,000 pieces of toast in the “Last Leaf.” So, as you can see, performance art did not die away in the 1960s, but has actually grown and evolved over the last few decades - shaping how we understand, interact with, and perceive the visual side of music today.