rethinking why performance matters through the matter of performance
Performing Idea

19 February 2010

Introducing 'Performing/Knowing'

Author: Gavin Butt



Our specific focus today is on matters of performance, and in particular an exploration of the place of performance in the production of knowledge. This focus stems from my own interests as a writer on contemporary performance. When I was originally approached by David Burrows to take part in his Arts Writing network by putting this day together, I thought it might be a good opportunity to open up a space for considering the relatively recent confusion of genre and practice within recent arts writing: namely, to consider how the traditional boundaries between critical and scholarly writing on the one hand, and creative practice on the other, have been broken down or traversed by forms like artists’ writings, the performance lecture, the talk event, and by critics, academics and curators who increasingly think of themselves as artists or creative practitioners of one kind or another. My intention in putting together today’s event is to provide a space to think about what such artistic forms suggest about contemporary understandings of knowledge in its multiple forms.
   The traditional forms of art writing we perhaps most readily think of - like the received and established forms of art criticism and art history - are evidently "about" art, which is to say that they are both broadly in the business of producing knowledge of art. The presentations gathered together today at this event will also be "about" art to some degree, but they will also open up to matters as diverse as the ontologies of theatrical presence and absence; the life of a 17th century Jewish false messiah; the quasi-philosophical question of experience; and the limitations of language in meeting a world beyond the frame of intelligibility. This will necessarily lend today’s proceedings a seemingly arbitrary range of subjects. However what hopefully unites all contributions will be the experimental ways in which our speakers strive to recast the ways in which writing might be considered to be, in a precise way, "about" its subject. To cite one of our speakers, Kate Love, today’s event might best be characterized as being ‘about about-ness’ in showcasing some differing approaches that artists and writers have adopted in making work "about" something. Our contributors will pose the seemingly simple question of what is it that one might do in the pursuit of knowledge: What types of things should we say, and how should we say them? How might we best orient ourselves towards that which we desire to know? How might we feel, and value what we feel, about an experience beyond the frame of language? And how does the mode of address to a reader, or to an audience, affect the success - or otherwise - of an act of communication? All of these questions are questions of performance: ethical questions of how we might act or conduct ourselves; epistemological questions of how cognition and its limits might feel in our bodies; and relational questions of how we might perform in front of an audience.
   The fact that we are talking about such issues of performance at an event like this, at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, is testament to the changed status accorded to performance in visual arts institutions. This is because as recently as ten or fifteen years ago, performance was still, as Peggy Phelan so memorably put it in 1993, considered to be 'the runt of the litter of contemporary art'. Since then there has been a widespread embrace of performance in the visual arts sector: whether through museums and galleries putting on exhibitions about performance art (one such milestone event, Live Culture at Tate Modern, being organized by Adrian Heathfield), live art seasons and scholarly symposia, and through the general embrace of processual, relational and participatory forms in contemporary art practice.
   Alongside this embrace in the artworld, performance, and more particularly its specialized conceptual cousin "performativity", has been adopted broadly within scholarly discourses in academia. This has been evident in disciplines well beyond the confines of performance and theatre studies and includes gender and queer studies, anthropology, art history, and literary and media studies. This adoption of performance practice in the artworld, and theories of performance and performativity in academia, we might refer to as the institutionalization of performance. Such talk of institutionalization raises many questions, some of which may surface during the course of today’s event. Namely, how is it that a once delegitimated form of cultural practice can suddenly enjoy such a shift of status? And does this change actually indicate the waning of its power, as some critics of institutionalization would have us believe? Or is performance immune to such processes by dint of its evanescent, immaterial and fleetingly affective ontology? This is to signal the tip of an iceberg of debate in contemporary performance studies which I don’t have time to do justice to here in these brief opening remarks.
   Suffice to say there are those who hold that performance can still be seen as resistant to institutionalization, and to capitalism more broadly, by being resistant to easy circulation alongside other objects within a capitalist economy of exchange. For such people performance has a radical edge. For others, performance – rather than being resistant to capitalism – has actually come to embody the developed form of capitalist economic and social relations, at least as they currently pertain in the West. For such commentators, steeped in Italian Marxists philosophies of immaterial labour and the service economy, performance actually comes to be seen as the form of capitalist business as usual, where the production of immaterial goods like convivial affect – of service with a smile - is of a piece with the affective immateriality of contemporary performance art. As the performance studies academic Nick Ridout has argued, there is a homology between the consumption of such affects in the service economy and the kind of affective production of a contemporary artist like Tino Sehgal.
   But I’m less interested in getting caught up in such macro debates today, and such either/or forms of reasoning and argumentation, of performance as either resistant to capitalism or a capitalist way of going about doing things. Instead I would like today’s event to be situated in a less macro, and more micro way of thinking about the possibilities of contemporary performance, and performance in the place of scholarship; to be open to what happens in the forms and textures of the individual presentations you are about to see and hear; and to find the “/” between performing and knowing articulated in the live, fleshy engagement with the body, voices, and images that will comprise our event.
   One more framing before I make way for the first presentation. It is worth mentioning that the issues addressed by today’s event have longer histories than that of the last ten to fifteen years. It might be useful to think of 'Performing/Knowing' as being situated in longer histories of both performance and performativity: specifically of the performance lecture, and debates about the performativity of knowledge. It might be generative, for example, to think of contemporary forms of the performance lecture and the talk event, such as those practiced by Adrian Heathfield, Hugo Glendinning and Tim Etchells, in relation to histories of experimental theatre and performance, as instanced by John Cage’s ‘Lecture on Nothing’, for example, and even a postmodernist artist like Andrea Fraser with her parodic museum talks. Further it is interesting to note that this event comes at a time when "talk" is increasingly, and less exclusively, that which frames the art object, as a discourse "about" it. Instead we are now at a point where talk itself becomes the thing, the speech act as the work itself – witness the recent ICA Talk Show exhibition.
Similarly today’s lectures open out to broader postmodern debates about the condition of knowledge as set out originally by the French philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard in his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition. Particularly relevant to our event today is his idea that in a contemporary postmodern world, knowledge is no longer ratified by meta-narratives of absolute truth, but rather by the performativity of the operations of knowledge - by the way it acts, and the effects it has in making things possible both within differing orders of discourse and modes of life. Both of these histories – of experimental performance practice and debates about the performativity of knowledge - inform our present. And perhaps that's a good place to turn over our first presenters …

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