2. a. The accomplishment, execution, carrying out, working out of anything
ordered or undertaken; the doing of any action or work; working, action
(personal or mechanical);
3. spec. a. The action of performing a ceremony, play, part in a play, piece
of music, etc.; formal or set execution. (OED).
The Oxford English Dictionary definitions that I use, here and later in this text, can be read to represent a conventional view toward performance and performativity that is critiqued through the art and theories presented in this text. Performance in art moves from a theatrical model (in which a literary or symbolically notated work by another is performed faithfully – see mimesis and representation) to that of an artist’s self-actualized performance art. New theories of performativity explored here break with convention similarly: not only do they assert that performance is everywhere, but the very alternatives provided to the socially imposed scripted performances is to realize the body as a self-actualizing text (see body/embodiment).
The word ‘performance,’ by the definitions above, refers to the work carried out by performers of a prefigured text. In theatre, the performers are the actors, who perform the words of a playwright at the will of a director (see drama from narrative/lyric/drama). Dancers perform similarly, performing the actions dictated by a choreographer to music by a composer, guided further by a director (see movement). Musicians perform with their bodies, manipulate objects to produce sounds: they perform a piece by a composer, guided by a conductor. In all of these examples of performances, the author’s text is mediated through a director/conductor’s interpretation of it, and comes to pass in the performer’s body. Music in particular requires objects other than the body: namely, instruments. Theatre and dance can also incorporate objects in the form of sets and props – but these objects, though a part of the production, are not said to “perform.” Though directors and authors participate in their production, it is the movement of bodies before spectators that these traditional media consider as “performance.” Performance, then, is typically not thought of as a medium in itself – it is an element of certain media that manifests itself differently in different media.
Human bodies move, speak, sing and work instruments, and their presence is necessary even when we cannot see them (as in a musical recording). Performance art, some forms of which require only the human body in space, has elements that are present in the aforementioned media, but theatre, film performance, music and dance are not in themselves performance. The medium of performance art, in fragments, could be said to reside in these media (as per McLuhan’s comments that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” [McLuhan, 8]). Principally, though, the performers in these media act as conduits through which writers/composers and directors express a literary or musical point that does not have any necessary relation to the human bodies used for its expression. Performance in these cases less art than it is labor, the “working out of anything ordered.” Though performers engage in some interpretive process, they work under the text and for the director, to serve the text and the director’s interpretation of it. Unlike the painter, the performer cannot form the totality of the work, and instead produces and reproduces the director’s dictation of the text. Just as paint and canvas are materials and painting is the medium – and, just as paint and canvas lack agency in the medium of painting – performance is one of the many materials (see material, materiality) that goes into making a (text-based) play, a dance, or a musical performance.
There were moves in these art forms, however, to liberate the inherent performative characteristic of the media. Antonin Artaud was an actor, writer, director and theatre revolutionary in the first half of the twentieth century – he believed that the medium of performance does reside within theatre, for it originated out of sacred rituals that cruelly overwhelmed the senses (see senses). He wrote to Paule Thevenin in 1948: “[A]nd I will devote myself from now on / exclusively / to the theatre / as I conceive it, / a theatre of blood, / a theatre which at each performance will stir / something / in the body / of the performer as well as the spectator of the play, / but actually, / the actor does not perform, / he creates. / Theatre is in reality the genesis of creation: / It will come about.” (Artaud, online cite). Thus, the attempt to draw the emphasis of theatre back to the performative body, and to engage with the spectator to the point that the spectator was a participant in the drama: he “must anguish, be immensely and intensely involved; so deeply affected, in effect, that his whole organism is shaken into participation.” (Knapp, 46). (See reciprocity). Though Artuad was nearly singular in his era (he had notorious spats with traditional directors), “Artaud’s [characters] were thirty years ahead of their time; their descendants via Beckett, Ionesco, Genet, dominate the present day ‘theatre of the Absurd.’” (Knapp, 108).
In the United States, John Cage and his colleague Merce Cunningham created many performances in music and dance, respectively, that challenged and revised their genres. “An indeterminate piece,” Cage wrote, “even though it may sound like a totally determined one, is made essentially without intention so that, in opposition to the music of results, two performances of it will be different… The hearing of the piece is [the listener's] own action – that the music, so to speak, is his, rather than the composer’s.” (Goldberg, 124). In Untitled Event at Black Mountain College in 1952, Cage composed a score merely of “time-brackets,” alternately denoting action and silence, which various participants were expected to fill with privately prepared performances (see a href=”event.htm”>event, ether). Cage did not want participants to communicate with one another about their pieces: he strove for an absence of direction, leaving composition purely in the hands of the performer and leaving the spectator to understand a (lack of) unity between the pieces. Participants included Cage, Cunningham, David Tudor, Charles Olsen, Robert Rauschenberg, Mary Caroline Richards and “an excitable dog.” (Goldberg, 126-127). “If the structure of the symphony orchestra,” Cage wrote, “remains as it is, even conscientious musicians will not be able to follow my rule. They are merely employees who must do what the conductor tells them to do… ‘To play your music,’ one of them told me, ‘you have to change your mind about music itself.’” (Cage, xvi). Through employing chance and improvisation, Cage allowed the musician to be more performative, rather than simply an employee or laborer. In his silent pieces 4’33″ and 0’00″, Cage extended these ideas even further: the director’s and composer’s intent was removed entirely from the ‘music’ (‘noise‘) produced, and 0’00″ “doesn’t measure the time,” taking the idea of performance out of ‘duration.’ (Kaye, 19). Not only did Cage’s work transcend the music of the day, but it also critiqued what exactly performance is: we assume that performance requires the agency of human bodies (Cage often composed or performed according to the flip of a coin) and a duration of time (see time, space).
Though it must be strongly emphasized that performance art proper developed out of the visual arts rather than the performing arts, Cage and his associates did have a notable influence on the visual arts themselves. Rauschenberg worked closely with Cunningham and Cage before achieving fame, and later, in his work Map Room II, combined visual and performing arts (using dancers who were former students of Cunningham), “leaving no distinction between inanimate object and live dancer.” (Goldberg, 136). Other performing artists were linked to the visual arts: Robert Morris collaborated with a few members of the Judson Dance Group, Ann Halprin’s revolutionary company. Fluxus can also be historically linked to Cage, “with the reasonable premise that ‘sans John Cage, Marcel Duchamp et Dada, Fluxus n’existerait pas.’” With proper fluxus spirit, however, Williams responds to the way historical linkages have been used to de-emphasize invention: “You can say with equal conviction, and someone somewhere has probably said it already, that without Kaiser Wilhelm II, then Dada, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage would never have existed. Three cheers for the Kaiser!” (Williams, 28).
Perhaps the self-determination of visual artists (who, even when they collaborate in groups, have no “director” to answer to and no text to be faithful to) is what allowed them to create performance art within their discipline. Maria Abramovic discusses her move from painting to performance art: “It was very simple in a way… I know that I started painting the sky. First the clouds, then removing the clouds – just a kind of blue monochrome. At one point, looking at the sky, I saw planes massing and leaving this white track, which was almost like a drawing. I was so impressed with this that I wanted to make a kind of concert. What I was interested in was that you could see the process… So I went to the military base and asked for fifteen planes – and they sent me home.” (Kaye, 180). After abstract expressionism (see abstraction), which Clement Greenburg referred to as an expression of pure painting, the next logical step was not only to show paint on a canvas in a way that refers to its process (i.e. showing the brushstroke), but to show the process of painting itself. In Site , Robert Morris both showed the process of manipulation of space (the act of sculpture), and made the body (both his and the body of another) central to the visual impact of the work, “implying a relationship between the volumes of the static figure and that created by moveable boards.” (Goldberg, 143).
And the ideals of these movements were already changing: “at that time, conceptual art – which insisted on an art of ideas over product, and on an art that could not be bought and sold – was in its heyday and performance was often a demonstration, or an execution, of those ideas.” (Goldberg, 7). Conceptual art used concepts as its material, rather than paint (see material, materiality and form). Yves Klein’s work The Surfaces and Volumes of Invisible Pictorial Sensibility consisted of an empty gallery; the work was purchased for a bag of gold leaf, which Klein threw into the Seine. Fluxus took joy in simple actions, whether they were performed for audiences or not. In one performance Emmett Williams drew cards from a box which dictated actions to complete, such as “Soaking my head in a tub of water” and “smoking a cigar.” (Williams, 64). In Coyote: I Like America and America Likes Me, Joseph Bueys shared a room with a coyote for a week, introducing it to various objects. (Goldberg, 150). Throughout his career in the late 60s and early 70s, he incorporated objects and bodies into his conceptual art, drawing a line from conceptual art to the performance art of the 1970s.
Performance gradually moved away from its former life as an extension of painting/sculpture, and toward the centrality of the artist’s body and the artist’s life. It is difficult to say exactly what exactly ‘performance art’ is, but when it came to fruition as a genre of its own in the 1970s, it had several key characteristics: performances most often took place in time and incorporated the artist’s body as a material (again see body, embodiment). (Even when they broke these rules, pieces of performance art featured some action, series of actions or process central to the work of art.) Artists such as Vito Acconci concentrated on the body and autobiography: in Conversation, he “attempted to conceal his masculinity by burning his body hair, pulling at each breast… and hid his penis between his legs.” (Goldberg, 156); in Telling Secrets, he sat in a deserted shed whispering his most shameful secrets to his visitors. Trisha Brown disoriented the viewer’s sense of gravity by showing human bodies walking up walls in elaborate dances/performances.
Hermann Nitsch and the Viennese actionists engaged in rituals, often of self-mutilation on the part of the artist, seeking catharsis and purity of the self. Inspired by this, Maria Abramovic created Rhythm O, in which “she permitted a room-full of spectators in a Naples gallery to abuse her at their will for six hours… By the third hour, her clothes had been cut from her body with razor blades, her skin slashed; a loaded gun held to her head finally caused a fight between her tormentors, bringing the proceeding to an unnerving halt.” (Goldberg, 164-165). Abramovic forced the audience to perform upon her as her performance (see reciprocity); she provided them with no limits to their will against her, allowing her life to be possibly altered forever (or ended) because of the performance. Art is being taken into the realm of the artist’s life as it is lived day to day (see immediecy, unmediated) – often outside of the gallery. Not only do the “living sculpture” artists Gilbert and George stand as sculptures in galleries – they also plan to go out to dinner and invite a thousand people to “this important art occasion.” (Goldberg, 168). In the late 70s post-conceptual performance art, rock and roll had put performance art under its spell, and artists like Laurie Anderson created autobiographical glam rock performances.
In Art/Life One Year Performance (1983-84), Linda Montano and Tehching Hsieh spent a year tied together by an eight-foot rope around each of their waists, and were not allowed to touch each other. Montano often comments on the way that Art and Life intruded on one another during the piece, and how they both grew to be the same thing: “Linda said Tehching thought the performance was subsumed by the Art. But she was interested in issues like claustrophobia, and ego and power relationships – Life issues. They were as important as art.” (Carr, 5). Through their art, Montano and Hsieh challenge the traditional notion that performances take place before an audience, somehow separate from the artists’ (and audience’s) lives. Their everyday life is a performance; their audience is formed by both everyone they know and by the lack of a formal audience (that arrives at a performance, expecting to see art).
a. adj. Of or pertaining to performance; spec. designating or pertaining
to an utterance that effects an action by being spoken or written or
by means of which the speaker performs a particular act.
b. n. Such an utterance.
Performative speech – the “I pronounce you”s and “I do”s, the tiny speech acts that change out lives – has been written about a great deal by theorists like J.L. Austin and Judith Butler. Traditionally conceived, a performative utterance is one that changes reality, whereas a descriptive utterance merely describes reality [see reality/hyperreality, (2) ]. However, describing an object, person or phenomenon in a certain way forms it as an object (or subject), thus shaping reality through words. If both performative and descriptive speech acts change reality, then every speech act performative. And, through each of our actions, we perform a type of (typically “state-sanctioned” or socially normalized) human subject: through writing one’s name or checking off one’s gender on a job application, we are shaping who we are (just as much as we would be performing by filling these forms “incorrectly,” which could be considered a kind of performance art). We are always already performing through affirming identities that only exist because of our affirmations, and the affirmations of the social/legal sphere. The social/legal sphere is granted more authority, however, because any performative speech act that carries with it the voice of authority implicitly cites former speech acts for momentum – thus, a judge saying “I pronounce you…” carries weight because it has come (through a sort of rehearsal) to be expected for a judge to do such a thing (Butler, 13).
The performance of gender is a technology of the body (see cyborg), for it is formed mostly of the clothing and adornment that extend the skin, and the learned attributes that extend the motion of the body and possibly the mind. Just as passing drag can affectively perform femininity, so does gender “normalcy” (a woman going in drag as a woman) rely solely on performitive aspects for its validity in the social sphere (see show and tell proposal on drag). The biologistic two-gender model has momentum because it is always in a state of repeating itself. There is, then, a gender script that we are expected to follow and that only has authority because it is always already being performed. The gender identities, however, presented to us by society are archetypal ideals that cannot be ever embodied: it is where the body goes through the motions of these ideals without ever fully attaining them that performance resides. Butler’s alternative is to recognize the performativity of everyday life and to break with the gender script through performing gender roles in new (and often parodic, and often humorous) ways – in the terms of performance art, to engage in a subversion of the script, to disavow the repetitious control of the theatrical text and director, allowing for “self-determining” performance art rather than prefigured roles.
This is not, however, a Sartrean forming of a strong subject through action – since the human subject is constantly formed and performed, its existence is unstable. “[S]uch projection of the self is, rather, a marker of the instability of both self and other (of their chiasmic intertwining) and that this, from the point of view of those who have every stake in dislocating the mythological, transcendent self of modernism, is a positive thing.” (Jones, 48). Though our performances constitute ourselves,the multiple identities possessed and performed do not necessarily link up cohesively to one another – and they do not have to, either. Perhaps the lack of a strong-subject ‘self’ is mediated in society through that self’s creation: through the performance of ‘personality’ and through various performances that carry political weight. The media of the performative self discursively decides what the self is – performance, and performativity, are thus very important extensions of man.
Artaud, Antonin. quote from letter to Paule Thévenin, Tuesday 24th February, 1948. (Schumacher 1989, 200) February 2, 2003.
Butler, Judith. “Critically Queer,” p. 11-30 of Playing with Fire, ed Shane Phalan. Routledge: NY, 1997.
Cage, John. M: Writings ’67 – ’72. Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, 1973.
Carr, C. On Edge: Performance Art at the End of the 20th Century. Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England: Hanover, NH, 1993.
Goldberg, Rosalind. Performance Art: From Futurism to Present. Harry N. Abrams: New York. 1979.
Jones, Amelia. Body Art / Performing the Subject. Minnesota University Press: St Paul. 1998.
Kaye, Paul. From Art Into Theatre. Harwood publishing: Amsterdam. 1996.
Knapp, Bettina. Antonin Artaud. Ohio University Press: Athens, OH, 1969.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. McGraw Hill: New York, 1965.
Williams, Emmett. My Life in Flux and Vice Versa. Thames and Hudson: New York, 1992.