rethinking why performance matters through the matter of performance
Performing Idea

25 June 2010

Some futures

Author: Joe Kelleher


Two stories for the end of an evening

In between the two stories some reflections on performance and promise

The first story takes place outside, in the open air

We’re on a piece of waste land near central Brussels

A massive scrap of land, the old canal-side port of the Belgian capital

Acres of grit and shale punctuated by a few derelict buildings, heritage architecture, late nineteenth century out-houses, roofless. Beyond that a vast expanse of scrub grass leading off towards a railway bridge in the far distance

On the far horizon beyond that, and all around, apartment blocks, office buildings, the shiny towers, the monoliths of the 21st century European city

We – the spectators – we are quite a crowd – there are a few hundred of us at least – we walk across this space from the old Royal Depot of Tour & Taxis, the base of the first European postal service, a palatial-looking industrial complex converted recently into a commercial site, ‘a surprising and relaxing venue’ as the Tour & Taxis website has it, of spas, restaurants, offices, apartments, of ‘deco and design’ and suchlike

As we walk we spread out – like figures in some sort of portentous pop video moving into shot –like some sort of coming community – like the human survivors of the twilight of the gods – or something

Or like a theatre audience, which is what we are

Here for a performance called Muur (the Flemish word, I believe, for ‘wall’) by a trio of Belgian artists Inne Goris, Pieter De Buysser and Dominique Pauwels, which was showing last weekend at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts

This audience is descending on a small group of children, four or five of them, all in brightly coloured clothing who are out there, playing, shouting and running around every which way

And also – we see when we get closer to where we are being led – three or four older people, men and women in their sixties, all of whom are encamped beside a weird, shiny, modernistic construction

A high, corrugated metal wall that is built in a circle of about 20 metres diameter, the thing just plonked there in the midst of this landscape, a wall in the shape of a ring, a metal ‘O’ with no way in or out, a big nothing really, a zero place that just goes round on itself, kind of obstinate, kind of pointless, and kind of detached from the activity that goes on in its vicinity

There are walls like this all over the world

We – the spectators – we are wearing headphones

The performers – the children and the older people – are speaking in Flemish, we can hear them on the headphones, along with some music that is mixed in now and then, and if you want to – or need to because you don’t speak Dutch – you can tune into a French-speaking voice as well that is doing simultaneous translation

It means you can hear the actors wherever you are – or wherever they are – like they are speaking in your head – you carry them around with you, even when you can’t see them, for example when the action is taking place on the other side of the wall

Or somewhere way off in the distance – or sometimes up close and right beside you

Which means also the spectators can wander wherever they want – we don’t have to pay attention, we don’t actually have to go up close and look and listen – although of course you can do that too if you choose – but you can also just let the action do its thing, be its thing, have it going on somewhere out of vision, and still be taking it in

Or sort of be taking it in

I have some knowledge of French but the mix of multi-lingual voices in my ears is too much and I can’t follow the dialogue most of the time, but basically as I understand it this is what is going on

A sort of fable, a future fable

The older actors are playing characters who, according to the fable, came to this place in 2010 as children, and built this wall – for whatever reason, I am not sure we are ever told

And now fifty years or so later in 2065 another group of children have turned up, and they are establishing various attachments to this place – attachments of fascination, fidelity, resentment, obsession, identification and dis-identification – and… well… a story develops around that set-up and, over an hour or so, the drama plays itself out to its conclusion

The drama, though, isn’t really what I want to speak about this evening

There is an idea, mixed into all this – and it’s maybe pretty much what you would expect from such a situation – about how over the past fifty years – since 2010 that is – people from the city have been coming out here to do stuff, to say stuff, and to leave stuff by the wall

Stuff that remains, and some stuff that doesn’t

Precious stuff, trivial stuff

To plant things, for instance

Or to write things on the wall

Or to tell stories

Or listen to stories that have been told by others

In short, people have been coming here over fifty years, from all parts of the city – I take the phrase from the programme for the show – ‘to unearth their personal archaeology of the future’

An ad hoc accumulation of futures, I imagine that would be, some of which are going to have more future about them than others

Many of which will have been long forgotten, by most, although remembered by some

Things anyway left outside – to be found, ignored, recognised and mis-recognised, appropriated, tripped over, studied and treasured, broken up, re-used, interfered with, left in peace, re-enacted, critiqued, recorded

Things exposed to examination

Things put out in the open in a very private kind of way

Or just put out in the open

The way we do when we make a performance

A place, then, for performances to happen, and not necessarily performed ‘for’ anyone

And not necessarily performed by artists either

And I am thinking – even as I tune in and tune out to the drama that is being played around me – as my attention drifts in and about the fable that is being enacted for us this afternoon – I am thinking there is something here, there will have been something here – something in this notion of things, acts, images, stories and so on being left in the open in a private kind of way, at the foot of a corrugated steel wall that encircles nothing that needs encircling – which might help me think about the topic of this text

Not thinking so much about the sorts of performances that would take place outside the wall, really they could be performances of any sort, as diverse a set of actions and events as you could imagine

But about the sorts of places and occasions and structures that attract futures to them, that provoke future imagining, that protect, or un-protect, future thinking

And thinking also about the sort of futures that the ‘art’ itself – if art is what it is – brings with it, how the thing –the ‘live’ thing – could be capable of extending so to speak beyond itself, in space and also in time

Through remembering yes, through documentation sure, through re-enactment and re-iteration and re-circulation and re-invention and all the rest of it and whatever various forms of obstinate remaining

But also somehow by seeding its future – and the future of other performances too – in its own existing, in its own insistence on existence, its own way of claiming space in the world

I’m thinking in part about the live in relation to broadcast

A friend was remarking to me that the live is a television category

And right here for sure, in this theatre we are attending, that makes sense – where something that is supposedly going on – whether it is going on now or in the past or in the future in 2065 – is not so much directly performed for or ‘to’ anyone in particular, but is dispersed amongst multiple receivers, many of them at some distance, who carry the performance around with them for as long as the broadcast continues, and who at the same time are never outside of it, however far we wander from the action, even when we take the headphones off and listen to the sounds – the ‘live’ sounds as it were – that actual being there makes, which includes our own being there, our feet on the gravel, the actors’ unamplified voices, traffic and birdsong in the distance, city sounds that have nothing to do with us, and our own immediacy and impermanence in relation to something – some material construction, some institution, some barrier, some enclosure – that has, or seems to have, more past – and more future – going for it than any of us could ever hope to lay claim to

And thinking also then, in that moment, about how that impermanence – not the impermanence of performance so much but of us ourselves, citizens of the live, those of us who make the performance, who curate the performance on, who enjoy and consume the performance, who teach and archive it, who live alongside it with whatever degree of attachment or indifference, - how our impermanence, our movements in and around things, might relate to the futures of it all

Futures that, to be named or conceived as such, would involve the structure of a promise


What is a promise?

If remembering is retrospective, promise is prospective

Between them memory and promise give breadth, depth, scope to self-recognition, to a life-story that is capable of reaching back into the past and forward into the future

Both memory and promise have fatal enemies – memory is up against forgetting, promise is up against betrayal

Remembering involves recognition, the recognition of sameness, the identity of things – images, memories, traces – that appear the same as each other

Promise involves what the philosophers – some philosophers anyway – call ipseity, this-ness, self-ness, and the continuance of something in its own peculiar being

That is one difference between remembering and promising

Another is that promises involve other people, I make promises to others, and others will be the ones who take the measure of how far the promise has been kept

Promising is a human capability, it is the structure of ‘capability’ as such

It involves, for example, a capability of speech, and of acting in the world, and of positing oneself as the origin of one’s own acts

Promising, we are told, engages performative acts

I commit to doing what I say, to what I will do in future and what I say that I am doing now

More than this, I commit myself to this doing

And, just as crucially, I make this commitment to someone else

This someone is not just the receiver of my promise

They are – or they will be – its beneficiary

Basically when I promise something to someone I am promising the other person that I will do them some good

Although I can only promise an action, an action or an object, I can only promise for instance to do something or to give something

I cannot promise to feel something – I cannot promise to love someone for example, love cannot be guaranteed by a promise

I do, though, promise to keep my word, and to be there where my word is being kept

That is, my promise is based upon my self-continuance

It matters that I stay true to form, it matters that I stay true, it matters that I stay

And that is no easy matter

Myself, yourself, herself, can be a discontinuous thing at the best of times

This part, this role, this action, this responsibility may be performed by different actors, at different times, in different places, or even at the same time, by different actors, performing in the same place, or on different sides of the same wall

What, then, might it mean to think – and to live with – the promise of performance in spite of these discontinuities?

What sort of identity, what sorts of recognition, what sort of interdependence with other people – what sorts of collaboration, what sorts of fidelity, to others and to ourselves – would that involve?

What about when our bodies are incapable of keeping up with our speech?

Or run ahead of our speech, outstripping our promise?

The point has been made by several commentators that a capacity to make promises is one of the things that makes us human, one of the things that is most human about us

If this is so, then any suspicion we might have about our capacity to keep our promises could be devastating

Nor is the problem necessarily about our betrayal of ourselves and each other, our failure to deliver, to enact what we say we will enact, to be who we say we are, or to turn up in the futures we imagine

There is danger too in our acts of obstinate will, our insistence on remaining, and in the things we do and continue to do to keep ourselves on track

In this respect promising may have nothing to do with staying faithful to a promise to provide a benefit for someone else

And everything to do with the attempts we make to ‘master’ meaning, to put a wall around things, to put a wall around everything and nothing at all


And then what are the particular ways that a performance enacts its promise, or cracks open into its future?

I offer just one example

This second story takes place so to speak inside the walls

It is April 2007

It takes place in an underground gallery in the centre of Bologna, towards the end of the last of four evenings of non-stop performance that made up an event called Wanted – curated and in part performed by the Italian performance collective Kinkaleri

Wanted was part of the 2007 F.I.S.Co festival, which in that particular year went under the title Today is ok

As curator Silvia Fanti wrote in her introduction to the festival catalogue, this title was not intended as a ‘judgement’ but a reference to ’the establishing of a between-times, an interval between different syntaxes… a position of open listening, a way of seeing things that have perhaps been forgotten or perhaps new things that activate fantasy or consciousness, even towards “evaporation”’

It is getting on for midnight

We have been down here, under the city, for three hours or so

Someone – it happens to be performer Marco Mazzoni – is still prancing about the space, wearing a fat-suit and nasty nylon trousers, with a tartan rug over his shoulders in the fashion of those followers of some national football team we’d been seeing on the streets those past days, from some country far away from here.

Spectators – if that is what we are – are scattered around the gallery, sat on the floor, leant up against walls, some in conversation with each other, others zoned out, beers in hand, ciggies too, it’s late, and everyone is pretty much past caring about health, or safety or the mess on the floor.

Marco meanwhile is still prancing around, pulling poses, like someone who never was, and never will be, a rock star, but is incapable of admitting it.

I’m watching him and I’m thinking I’ve seen his sort before. I don’t mean his sort of character or persona – I don’t mean some actual person like that, although I probably have come across such behaviour in my time. What I mean is I have encountered this sort of theatrical or performance figure before. He seems to have been left behind in the room from some other event, or from some previous phase in the whole business when the concern was – how to put this – when the concern was all to do with ‘representation.’ Specifically, theatrical representation. Look at him now. His tartan rug is a cape and he’s running around the room like a six year old tanked up on Spiderman gas. It’s like he’s survived himself, fetched up in his own after-life, his energies undiminished but functionally redundant.

Back in the days, years ago already, the work – the serious work of theatre-making and theatre-thinking – had been about uncoupling the representational means from the representational function, so that figures, objects and images that were put on stage in front of audiences might re-function somehow, as sources of delight and intrigue and consternation. These things you’d see on stage included objects such as clocks that weren’t there to tell the time but to tick indiscriminately; theatre lights that went on and off without illuminating anything in particular; recognisable actions – acts of violence for example – that were presented purely for their form; and expressions, messages, gestures, modes of address that refused any familiarity however familiar they might appear to be. These objects – these images, these acts – were like holes torn in the picture, the exact same shape as the things they were supposed to be pictures of, through which a world of existing things could be glimpsed, a world looking exactly like itself but slightly stranger. He, the performer, is one of those objects, like a left-over of those times, and as such rather vulnerable, rather exposed. Not that he does not belong amongst us, with his sweating, his sniffing, his put-on clumsiness, his heavy way of not quite looking you in the eye. It’s just that tonight, and in the company of this crowd for whom he has been refusing to perform whatever has been demanded of him, he seems like someone blatantly chasing down his own likeness, caught up in a future that isn’t ready for him yet, or has long had done with him.

This perhaps is why the other performer in the room – Barbara Manzetti, a young woman with a painted on beard who has spent much of the evening sticking post-it notes on the walls of the gallery, and who has been claiming out loud that she knows Marco well – crawls out from amongst the spectators like she does on her hands and knees, going up close to him for a moment or two, as if by getting within range she could return to him a way of appearing that had been leant him and snatched away again before he ever knew what to do with it.

Even later into the night – although the performance still isn’t finished yet – Marco and Barbara are way over in some other corner of the gallery, chatting. Their voices are mic’d up and mixed in with the hum of things, the low level music that is partly absorbed by the soft carpet that has been laid throughout the gallery for this evening’s event. There is anyway no need to get up, to go and watch, to see what is going on. That doesn’t seem to matter anymore. The place of performance – the place we’ve been showing up every evening these past three nights – has been re-configured, or something has been interfered with. Actions, gestures, messages don’t do what they used to do, or else we don’t care in the ways we used to. It’s like we are a different generation than the one who came in earlier this evening. We don’t want the same things, we don’t lack the same things maybe that we did before. I remember thinking – or so I made a note at the time – about the performances we make in places like this, the actions we perform, when we perform those actions not just for ourselves but for each other, how these performances might work like a drug against our impermanence, our degeneration, our perpetual falling from ourselves. Not in the form of a cure, I’m not sure anything gets cured by performance, but a messing up of the works that disturbs any promise we might have made or still be about to make. One interference provokes another, and the space – and the life that occupies that space – gets infected.

At one point in the evening, when Marco has wandered off somewhere else in the gallery, swallowed up perhaps by the ‘theatre’ of it all, Barbara stands in the centre of the room for longer than seems possible. Nothing gets done, nothing gets made, nothing gets represented. Her presence has the effect of pointing out on our behalf the small dents we make in the world just by leaning up against it; the ways too we make the atmosphere delicate in parts with the pressure even of our weakest hopes, our most unlikely and confused desires.


(A version on this text was recently presented as part of a ten-hour performance lecture curated by Tim Etchells as part of the weekend event ‘Futures and Pasts’ at the ICA, London, 22 May 2010; and, in a modified form, at the conference PSi#16 Performing Publics in Toronto, Canada, June 2010)

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