CIM405.1 Case Study Analysis — Peter Kalisch: The Prince of the LA Underground Art Scene

This case study further develops ideas that were discussed in the wiki entry of the same name for the Masters of Creative Industries course at SAE Australia, it can be found at


Performance art has stayed relevant through out the past few decades despite the number of times it has been declared dead. Creative practitioners and academics in the field of performance art disagree as to what constitutes performance art. Through performance art people are able to experience through the creative practitioner, ‘other possibilities of visual, political and even sexual freedoms that they may be absent from their own life. ‘ (Goldberg, 2001.)

Who is Peter Kalisch?

Peter Kalisch has been able to create his own aesthetic when it comes to his unique take on modern performance art. Combining the disciplines of performance, music and video installation proving that ‘performance art is interdisciplinary and has no boundaries when it comes to representing performance art in the contemporary world’ (LADA, 2009.) His performance pieces have been called everything from ‘aggressive to dogmatic, but with a political edge’ (Kalisch, 2017.) Blurring lines and creating new boundaries based around ideas that shed light on the danger and blindness that he associates with first world culture. Peter’s creative process is based around emotion and psychology. His work is generally autobiographical pulling from his experiences growing up through his German heritage and about confronting narcissism in contemporary culture.

Still from Peter Kalisch performance ‘Inline.’

Smashing creativity

When coming up with new creative projects Peter approaches his projects with a level of spontaneity. He looks at each project as an opportunity to better understand himself psychologically, taking people’s perceptions of what performance art is, and showing them what it can be. Starting with looking at each task and deciding on what elements of performance best suit the subject takes time, whether that be sculpture, performance, music, or a combination of all three.

No matter which option is presented when an audience attends one of Peter’s performances they will be forced to experience physical connections with other people. This is because he believes that one of the biggest problems we face as a society is social fracture, and our social skills have been hindered by technology. A Peter Kalisch performance will either make the audience to connect physically with him, or with each other. His performances are a way for Peter to experience transcendence, it is a very freeing form of creativity. People are often forced to make some kind of emotional connection when they are invited to infict physical pain on Peter as a performer, this can be seen is one of his most popular performance pieces entitled ‘Denial,’ where audience members were invited to use bondage whips to strike him with and the sounds that were made on contact were recorded and turned into a noise track later released as a cassette tape. This was Peter’s most intense experience as a performer, not because of the pain, but due to the lack of control he had. Seeing how far people would go to inflict pain on another person when they knew there would be no repercussions, he was seriously injured and used it as a learning experience.

Peter being whipped during a performance of ‘Denial.’

This is an extreme example of Peter’s spontaneous creative process, while he says it is important for the artist to have a set framework, there needs to be enough breathing room for magic to occur. Performance art scholar RoseLee Goldberg describes these kinds of creative practices as ‘the authenticity of an activity, that frames it as Performance Art… the live presence of the artist, and the focus on the artist’s body, became central to notions of ‘the real’.’ Summarising Peter’s creative process he said ‘for me creativity is like working out, you have a muscle and you need to nurture it in order for it to grow.’

Pain is a strategy… Right?

While Peter admits that he hates the anxiety that comes hand in hand with performance art, he uses this anxiety as a vulnerability and believes this to be an important part of his work. Without this vulnerability there is no pay off in his performances. By showing a physical struggle, or even physical pain in his performances, he is putting his audiences in a place of power over the artist. As without an audience what would the performance artist be? This power role is important in Peter’s work, like Scottish performance artist Kira O’Reilly, performances involving self-harm offer the viewer an empathetic human-to-human encounter, placing the performer and audience in the same reality the work becomes an intersubjective experience. This makes sure that not only are both parties are satisfied, the artist believes that if there wasn’t some kind of perspective shift the lack of accomplishment wouldn’t be there at the end of the performance. Peter believes that it is important for his audience to experience some sort of catharsis during his performances so that they are able to perceive what they have just seen in a part of themselves.

Peter being ‘scarred’ by artist Sheree Rose

Does royalty have problems? Even if they are really, really ridiculously good looking.

Peggy Phelan has said that performance art’s only life is in the present. Director Adrian Heathfield claims that performance art is a contradiction of two impossible desires: ‘to be present in the moment, to savour it, and to preserve its power long after it has gone.’ And many people believe that this is the only problem that exists for performance artists.

Self portrait by ‘Peter Kalisch’

Peter Kalisch disagrees with these statements, with technology playing a big part in the LA art scene, his performances are uploaded to the internet and shared with the world. He also states that performance art is a more ‘first world problem’ creative outlet, saying that the lack of money and resources are a much more realistic problem than being remembered. These two things put constraints on him as an artist, he believes that constraints are healthy for an artist as they push you to be more creative. If an artist has all the opportunities handed to them they won’t know how to be creative, an artist needs restrictions. As an example of this, Peter showed me a ball gag he had made out of quartz and leather straps, he was trying to make bondage gear out of various crystals until he spent 8 hours drilling through a piece of quartz.

In more recent years Kalisch has done more physical performance projects to relinquish the vanity that he had accumulated over the years. Doing pieces with LA artist Sheree Rose where she would push surgical needles though his eyebrows, or cut into his chest while he was performing have helped him realise that it is more important for himself to have a transcending experience rather than be physically attractive. Scarring his body reminds him that he wasn’t important, that he was equal to everyone else in the room, making a statement that there is a didactic quality about people witnessing others being vulnerable and altering their physical appearance.

So, we have to suffer for our art?

The examples mentioned in this study of Peter’s are an extreme form of performance art. While it is considered almost common practice for artists to suffer for their work, and in extreme cases have had to die for people to take notice of their work. Peter speaks a lot about transcendence when he talks about his creative practices, so I would like to end this case study with a quote from a chat I was able to have with him a few weeks ago
‘I’m transcending in a way that is my own, and you can too, all you need to do is own yourself.’

I believe that this is great advice, as creative practitioners it is important that we find ourselves before we put ourselves out there for the world to see.


Goldberg, R (2001). Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present, London: Thames and Hudson.

Heathfield, A (2004). Live: Art and Performance, London: Routledge.
Live Art Development Agency (2011). live_art.html (accessed 19/6/2017).

McPhee, W. (2017). Peter Kalisch: Prince of the Underground LA Art Scene. Campus Online. Retrieved 23 June 2017, from

McEvilley, T. (2003). Stages of Energy: Performance Art Ground Zero?. Milan: Charta.

Phelan, P (1993). Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London: Routledge.

Schechner, R (1994).Theatre/Archaeology, in TDR, Vol. 38, №4, Winter.

Zerihan, R (n.d.) ‘Revisiting Catharsis in Contemporary Live Art Practice: Kira O’Reilly’s Evocative Skin Works’, in Theatre Research International, Vol. 35, №1, pp. 32–42.

Like what you read? Give Wayne McPhee a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.