rethinking why performance matters through the matter of performance
3. Potentials of Performance

30 May 2012

Introducing Of Things in Motion and Things at Rest

(click here to enlarge)


   Today, we hear, performance is everywhere. It has become an everyday word, heard in every corner of the world, from the black box of theatres and the white cube of galleries to the billboards outside advertising the latest model of sport car or, at an ever-increasing rate, as part of the guidelines of our higher education funding councils. However, regardless of all the nonhuman behaviours increasingly measured or grasped in terms of performance – e.g. rituals of animal courtship, fluctuations of stock market indexes, or the behaviour of computer viruses – we, performance theorists, are still used to thinking about performance from a humanist standpoint, to see it as the exclusive domain of humans and their displays of behaviour.

   Performance, in our habitual work theorising human rituals or our actions on stage, has very rarely been pushed beyond its actualisation as performance-by-us. In the very few occasions we have looked beyond the human in search for instances of performance, e.g., Nicholas Ridout writing about animals on stage (Ridout 2006), Richard Schechner reflecting on animal performances in the wild (Schechner 2003), or Jon McKenzie trying to intersect cultural, organisational, and technological performance (McKenzie 2001), our concerns have still been on the side of the human: what can animal performances tell us about our own? What can performance reveal about our societies when it is used as an indicator of the speed of our computers? Even if performance has gone beyond performance-by-us in these cases, by its always referring back to the human as its ultimate referent, it has never really become something other than performance-for-us: this being the farthest we have allowed it to go. In the end, we are the masters, we are at the top of the food chain, we are the lords of the land, the conveyors of meaning. Surely, performance must stick with us if we are to keep our titles.

   However, while we obsess with ourselves, like Narcissus by the lake, the world around us seems to have become increasingly unpredictable, unapologetically strange, unforgiving. Stuff has been happening that we cannot seem to be able to control: economies have crashed, hurricanes have destroyed cities, previously curable diseases have now started killing millions, and airplanes have become the new bullets. Everywhere, from the glaciers of Greenland to the computers that literally keep us alive and well, from the devalued dreams of a single European currency to the viruses that have started learning how to resist our chemical attacks, the world has become foreign, and all the certainties claimed hitherto by the men of science and those of letters have, slowly but surely, started melting away. Our reign as masters of the universe has never before been questioned to such an extent. Progressively, we have started realising that the world exists and that it will keep on existing despite us.

   In recent years, academia itself has become increasingly aware of the faults in our current paradigms of knowledge, in the way we seem to justify the existence of the world with our own existence. From Manuel DeLanda's work on assemblage theory to Bruno Latour's development of Actor-Network Theory; from a recent renewed interest in panpsychism to the increasing popularity of Speculative Realism; from the new materialism of Jane Bennett to the several conferences on the so-called “nonhuman turn” that are popping out everywhere around the globe, academia seems to be fi�rmly en route to think a world in which we are not present or, at least, not in control.

   Given all that, what is left for Performance Studies? How can we, performance theorists, contribute to the current academic debates that seem to posit our main object of study, the human actor, out of the equation or, at least, to make it share with fellow nonhuman actors a newly found and widely distributed notion of agency? How can performance think a nonhuman world or, most importantly perhaps, how can performance survive it? If the whole world is a stage, can there be a theatre without humans? What happens when performance becomes not only the way through which humans give shape to their world but also the way through which the whole world is able to both experience and express itself regardless of there being humans present at the scene or not?

   These are some of the questions that will be explored in our dialogue project; this is the context from which it springs. Through regular blog posts and a live event happening in October 2012, Of Things in Motion and Things at Rest will attempt to set the thoughts in our heads and our actions on stage in motion, in a path towards a speculative performance encounter with the realm of the nonhuman and the secret lives held within it. Through sonic exploration of mundane objects, we aim to highlight how existent ideas of performative agency can be re-applied and re-thought with and through objects. Where Cage’s opening of the sonic field was historically important for rethinking the role of audiences as receivers of sound – the subjective response to new and different sonic experiences – we aim to utilize Cagean inquiries as a way of placing objects centre stage as makers and receivers of sound. For us, Cage’s silent piece becomes less about human perception of all possible sound, and more about all possible sound regardless of our human perception.

   Devin King, my collaborator on this project, is a writer, musician, and teacher working in Chicago. He has recently been working with Lady Rollins, a collaborative performance group with Jess Speer, Peter Speer, and Caroline Picard. In Lady Rollins, King plays mundane objects: slide carousels, straight razors, tape, and cassette holders amongst others are all played improvisationally as a means to think about the objects as sonic agents separate from his own interaction with them. He also has a poetic practice deeply focused on words as objects: their sound and arrangement on the page. He received an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and currently teaches in the Liberal Arts department. He curates performances, readings, lectures, and movies at The (New) Corpse. A new chapbook, The Resonant Space, is out from Holon Press. He has exhibited installation work in Dallas and Philadelphia.

For more information on Devin King see

The image, by Caroline Picard, is the score for 'EAEEEAOEAO', recorded by Lady Rollins, live on April 14th, 2012, and performed by Caroline Picard, Jess, Peter, and Devin King.
You can listen to it here.

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