~ Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett ~ Peggy Phelan ~

Unmarked (Book Cover) by Peggy Phelan
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. “Performance Studies.” The Performance Studies Reader. Henry Bial eds, New York: 2004.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett provides a summary overview of what comprises the term “Performance Studies”, and proposes a means of classifying the distinct emergent streams of practice and theory which fall under this umbrella phrasing. In particular, Kirshenblatt-Gimblett identifies three institutional approaches to the post-disciplinary and inclusionary nature of performance studies: Broad spectrum approach (treats all creatively infused performance-premised fields as positioned in a continuum of practices), Aesthetic communication approach (interpreting speach, literature, theory, and criticism in context with cultural studies and the ethnography of performance), and Ethnoscenology (transdisciplinary scientific exploration and analysis of human behaviour, with emphasis upon corporeal dimensions of performance). She also notes that new symbiosis are arising between these varied approaches, especially in context with the arts, where a rejection of conventional disciplinary classifications evoked increasing investigations into intercultural, inter-generic, and interdisciplinary intellectual projects.

While the author suggests that the umbrella classification may be qualified as distinguishing an embodied practice, live medium, or mediated event from other art disciplines, she adds that the theory reviewed and generated contributes to as many fields of study as it borrows from. In this way, it is a course of study that resists restriction and limitation. Cultural equity is noted as particularly concerning within the Performance Studies realms, intercultural issues, globalization, and social justice conceptions are seen to engage in “conversation and collaboration” through these varied investigations and experiments. Some streams of performance-premised studies and artmaking also contend that new technologies are increasingly challenging the assumption that performance centres around human agents and corporeal presence. Technologically interactive, cybernetic plotting, responsive immersion, virtual reality, and computational puppetry exemplify these newer conceptions of performance.

This and the authors reference to the more theatrical approaches museums are incorporating into their installations, denotes awareness of, but does not address, splintering conceptions of what is considered performativity, performance art, and theatricity. It is these latter uses of language and their intersecting histories that attempt to loosen their modernist footholds, in performance studies today.

Phelan, Peggy. “ Chapter 7: The Ontology of Performance: Representation Without Reproduction”. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge, London: 1993 / 1996.

The author asserts that performance (as an artistic discipline) which attempts to enter into the production and exchange economy is betraying the potentials of it’s own ontological premise (of non­reproductive-ness). To support this proposal, Phelan states that the promise and lessons inherent to such an ontology relate to “becoming itself through disappearance”. The author exemplifies her proposal by pointing to selected artworks by women artists. While taking a phenomenological approach to analysis, her reviews centre around the concept of making ‘the invisible visible’ through live art making processes. This has comfortable resonance with both the phenomenological philosophical tradition and contemporary theory surrounding performance attributes as a broader defined discipline. The author emphasizes the role of memory, imaginings, and the making of meanings through signification, as well as the temporality of a live act or engagement, while noting that the documentation of such moments represents an alteration of it’s passing. She also echoes the sentiment of philosophers in regard to the written word and it’s inability to reflect the plurality and mutuality of meanings characterized by the spoken word (speach acts, for example). With this in mind. written documentation may be viewed as a devaluation of the actual content of a performance, thus the author calls for differing means of preserving and reporting performance utterances. While the value of performance for attendees is preserved in their participation -their momentary and memorable subjective experience -the economy of performance work relies upon a “substitutional” evaluation of equivalencies that are both assumed and established on an interpersonal basis.

Among her first examples in this regard, however, Phelan’s inclusion of written objects which remain as performative traces exceeds the more usual demarcations of an instantiating performativity, so that the relationship between what is visible and what is invisible seems somewhat precarious. This exception in the text might be seen to mark distinction between an analysis in support of the artist’s own intent and experiences, and those which are provided from the experiential viewpoint of the spectator; but this is not addressed in this excerpt. The shift seems to be exemplified, however, in her review of works where a female is the subject of the performance (rather than trace objects). Here Phelan describes the grammar of the body as moving from a realm of metaphor to metonymy. In performance the body is metonymic of self, character, voice, and presence even while the performer herself disappears and comes to represent something else altogether.

A challenge for female performers surrounds the reception which can be attributed to ‘the gaze’, and to secure or displace the fixed meanings of signification (the emblematic Mother is provided as an example). An interplay between pleasure and pain is described as a means of displacing and / or challenging habits modes of engagements (examples include hardship, ordeal art, endurance work). She suggests that the ‘silent spectator’ dominates and controls the performance exchange by investing in or establishing for themselves a stable point of view which allows for projection, identification, and objectification. In the examples she provides, it is the spectator in fact whom must adapt and incorporate themselves into the environment, becoming agents in the physicality of the performance. The author adds that, with such examples in mind, critics need redesign their assumptions surrounding theatrical exchanges.

If what defines performativity is extended beyond affective alterity and instantiations, to include the referential to memory and imaginings we imbue objects and symbols with, and (as the author suggests) if sight is both an image and a word which fluctuates meanings for us, would this infer that all engagement and inter-relational contexts are performative in character? How does the authors experience inter-relate with similar such proposals (such as those provided by Mary Douglas and Michael Taussig)? Perhaps Phelan’s analytic position is unclear because her interpretation of the artworks is not consistent in identifying her own subjective self in, an anchored sensual and energetic, position to the artworks. I suspect this is precisely the insight this text is intended to provide us, if viewed moreso in light of Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s ethnoscenology, and as spectator’s report.


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