TRACES OF THE PERFORMATIVE TURN
IN CONTEMPORARY THEATRE AND PERFORMANCE

This paper was presented at

 

III MEDITERRANEAN CONGRESS OF AESTHETICS

Imagination, Sensuality, Art
Portorož (Portorose, Slovenia), 20-23 September 2006



I.

The presentation's starting point will be the 1960s with its performative turn from textual to performative culture with the Viennese actionist’s issues of violence and sacrifice, Rudolf Schwarzkogler's violence to his own body and self sacrifice as well as Herman Nitch's sacrificial ritual of committing violence to a victim's body in Orgy mystery Theatre. In their actions the two artists involved the spectators and used them as performers. The infection of the participants with violence led to the transgression of the carefully watched and guarded confines of the taboo zone in public and should lead to the cleansing of the individual from violence. In their actions and happenings a provisionary community made up of individuals who dared to violate strong taboos publicly was established. In the act of symbolic dismemberment of their common cultural tradition Schwarzkogler and Nitch entered the domain of liminality and were transformed.

 

 

Dionysus in 69
based on the “Bacchae” of Euripes
Performed by “The Performance Group”.
Directed by Peter Schechner

© Photograhs by Max Waldman, 1969


As a second example of the performative turn I will take Richard Schechner's performance Dionysus in 69, a special fusion of theatre and the ritual that was supposed to bring about transformations both in the performers and the spectators. Schechner's understanding of the performative turn was linked to his critic of the textual culture and the contemporary industrial society. Thus it can be interpreted as a turn from text to performance, a deliberate opposition to the written tradition that has become a burden. As Erika Fischer-Lichte summons his views: 

»A new performative turn is needed that will transform the solid and fixed textual culture of the past into a fluid, ever-changing performative culture of the future that will grant the missing dimensions. Theatre can contribute to the performative turn required when it sets out to threat 'the text as is it were part of an oral tradition'. The fixed text has to be dismembered in order to allow the ever-changing performance to emerge.« [i]

Our presentation will try to locate some traces of the performative turn of the 1960-s and 1970-s in the theatre and performing arts of the last two decades. We will try to identify and describe the traces of this »cultural revolution« of the turn of the century in texts, performances and concepts of selected contemporary theatrical and performing art practicians. Within their work we will attemp to detect some provisionary answers to the big questions the performative revolution of the turn of the century proposed. Namely opening up the new possibilities for the theatricalization of politics, economics, law, arts and everyday life. Establishing theatre and performing arts as a cultural model.

II.

As we summoned up in the introduction, the specific turn from the referential to performative function resulted in various forms or explorations of physical as well as psychological limits in both the artist and the audience. Members of the audience thus found themselves in an in-between position, a state of liminality that produced a destabilisation of spectator's perception of himself, the others and reality. But – as Marvin Carlson states in his Performance, a critical introduction, when describing the unstable position of the resistant performance – the idea that in such performances »'real women, real presence and real time' could be separated from their 'representations' could not easily be reconciled with the growing feeling that so-called 'reality' was itself experienced only through representation. «[ii]

If a classical performance artists strongly believed that their actions enacted an authentic provocation against traditional values in society and represented the very foundation of the value of art and at the same time made one believe in its political provoking potential, the 1990's saw an increased disbelief in anything authentic. The 1990's became more and more interested in the performative as related to new media. They stressed the fact Philip Auslander defines as follows: 

»Mediatized forms like film and video can be shown to have the same ontological characteristics as live performance, and live performance can be used in ways indistinguishable from the uses generally associated to mediatized forms. Therefore ontological analysis does not provide a basis for privileging live performance as an oppositional discourse.« Thus following Benjamin, we can argue that live performance has today indeed been pried from its shell and became equal to other forms. Due to this fact it can no longer simply be understood as auratic or authentic.[iii] "

III.

Let us consider some cases. For a start, Elfride Jelinek and Thomas Bernhard, two contemporary playwrights that will represent the field of no more dramatic theatre texts (Gerda Poschmann) or postdramatic theatre (Hans-Thies Lehmann). Both dramatists constantly call attention to the performative nature of their plays and dramatize cultural and political institutions and events. By using various techniques (for example excessive repetition, sampling, quotations and misquotations, reapropriations of various texts and discourses, metatheatrical references) they subordinate the referential mode of their theatre and point to a performative nature of the theatre event. With some similarities to Peter Handke's play Der Ritt uber den Bodensee (namely the non matrix-representation, constant shift to the performative nature of a theatre event on one side and naming characters of the play after the famous actors of the German silent movies as Eric von Strocheim etc. Elfride Jelinek uses in her piece Burgtheater the stressing of the fact that the actual actors are performing the roles of the Burgtheater actors from the Nazi 1940-s. Thus she produces allusions and references to the acting and performance and together with the play's linguistic performativity symbolically enacts the Anschluss and its results. The audience is thus forced to face with the inevitable self-reflection of their role in the contemporary post-Nazi Austria.

In his play Heldenplatz Thomas Bernhard uses similar techniques and aims at the similar result Mark Anderson summons up in the following statement:

»The actual audience assembled for the performance, which no doubt included Austrians who had been part of the crowd welcoming Hitler, was thus forced to confront its own 'voice' when recorded chants of 'Sieg Heil' were piped onstage from the wings, as if this voice were coming from Heroe’s Square outside. The aesthetic sphere constituted by the theatre gives way to history and politics; audience members become actors in a play that takes them fifty years back in the past to confront what might be called the Urszene of Austrian politics: the body politics’ embrace of Hitler.« [iv]

Both plays take into account the fact stressed by the performative turn of the 1960-s, which Fischer-Lichte defines as body co-presence of actors and performers, the co-presence of the phenomenal as well as the semiotic body, which she considers a highly specific nature of a live performance in all its senses. More than this. They do not consider a performance as work of art in stricto senso but as an event that comes into being by way of interaction between actors and spectators, a process Fischer-Lichte defines as authopoetic in a sense that it exists only as event. As they write a piece for theatre they prepare a scenario for a specific constellation between actors and spectators they would like the performance to enact. Their aim being also to disable the spectators to have a complete control over the event, to put them in a state of instability. They expect the performances of their text to produce a specific collapsing of oppositions. The performers in it are supposed to live through the performance as an aesthetic, social and political process in whose course power struggles are fought and usual oppositions subject vs. Object, presence vs. Representation, art vs. Social reality collapse and dichotomies seem to dissolve. The spectators on the other hand are transferred into a state that alienates them from everyday life and norms of the society. The result of this is the destabilization of the perception of the reality due to the liminality of the performance event, which has for a consequence a re-orientation of the individual (in most cases with a limited time of effect).

What Jelinek and Bernhard are aiming at is a liminal experience for the spectators and the performers, which is specific for the genre of the performance and contemporary theatre. And although aesthetic experience does not result in a socially accepted change of status of identity, it may well cause in individual participants a change of their perception of reality, self and others.

IV.

As a second example of the destabilization of the perception of the reality due to the liminality of the performance event we will take a performance We are all Marlene Dietrich FOR (2005) by Emil Hrvatin and Erne Ómarsdóttir, which deliberately refers itself to the performative turn of the 1960-s. The performance creates a platform for a dialogue with essential premises of performance activism and oppositional art of Guillermo Gómez-Peña and his artistic collective La Pocha Nostra. Both artists are more than aware that the traditional boundaries between politics, culture, technology, finance, national security, and ecology are disappearing. In this situation they propose a concrete artistic answer to the question Richard Schechner asks in his book Performance Studies, an Introduction: “If a globalisation was treated as performance, what kind of performance would it be?”[v]

Among various competitive scenarios they choose one that undermines a postcolonial mimicry with its own humanitarian jargon. They subvert today hardly existing and highly blurred borders between art and politics. If Gómez-Peña’s Newly discovered Amerindians exposed uncomfortable parallels between international arts festivals, colonial expositions and tourist expeditions and thus created a parallel world of art commenting on the state of ethics in post-colonial society, Hrvatin/ Ómarsdóttir are trying to renovate the genre of the artistic program for soldiers on the front in order to change the potential public’s perspective on war. To achieve this goal they employ elements of dance, dance theatre, physical theatre, live concert and media event and constantly balance between the real and fictive event while using military binary system.

We are all Marlene Dietrich FOR (2005)

Emil Hrvatin and Erne Ómarsdóttir
photo by Marcandrea


We are all Marlene Dietrich FOR builds its form of “radical performance” on the extensive usage of “over identification”, a strategy practiced in all the consequences in the 1980-s and 1990-s by “the post socialist politicised art” of Neue Slowenische Kunst (Laibach). Thus it stresses the performative nature of a theatrical event and produces a feeling of “uneasiness”, raised in a spectator by various means. Firstly by hypertrophying the ideological impacts of the mechanism of the hybrid genre of the so-called “entertainment for soldiers”. Secondly by a deliberate bombardment with various signs, super saturation of various channels of a communication through representation. Performance thus creates a visible gap between signifier and signified. As a consequence new politics of the performance, understood in terms of Philip Auslander, are created, a live performance “exposing processes of cultural control”.[vi]

The strategies of the performance rise from a presumption that any cultural action is already inscribed into a global discourse of polis and therefore cannot exist outside the predominant cultural formations. The fact that meta-criticism is no longer possible and that no strategy of resistance can be employed outside this dominant system. In the performance all the rules are broken, public is exposed to the ‘violence’ of representation and repetition, which can be linked to the violence of the society of spectacle. The performative turn is re-enacted.

V.
To slowly conclude: The examples discussed are but a top of the iceberg of various strategies employed by artists as Einar Schleef, Sarah Kane, Frank Castorf, Societas Raffaelo Sanzio, Bojan Jablanovec, Jan Fabre, Christoph Marthaller, Forced Entertainment etc. In their works they trace, re-enact and reappropriate basic postulates of the performative turn. They point to the fact that the undeniable trace of the performative turn of the 1960's in the contemporary performing arts is without any doubt a new kind of unity of spectators and performers that brought a change to both parties. If the performers are constantly exposed to the fact that they have to question and requestion their representative function and open up as possible the theatrical or performative event to the performativeness, the role of the spectators changed from the expected role of a passive hermeneutic process of decoding the performer's articulation to something much more active, entering into a praxis, »in which meanings are not so much communicated as created, questioned and negotiated.

The audience is invited and expected to operate as a co-creator of whatever meanings and experience the event generates.[vii] And it is precisely this trace of the performative turn that can be identified in the work of some of the most prominent contemporary performance (theatre) artists of the last two decades.


[i] Fischer-Lichte, Erika. Theatre, Sacrifice, Ritual, London/New York: Routledge, 2005: p. 224.
[ii] Carlson, Marvin. Performance, A Critical Introduction, London, New York: Routledge, 1996:
p. 175.
[iii] Auslander, Philip. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. London/New York: Routledge, 1999: p. 159.
[iv] Anderson, Mark M.  »Fragments of deluge: The Theater of Thomas Bernhard’s Prose, « A Companion to the Works of Thomas Bernhard, Matthias Konzett, ed. Rochester: Camden House, 20002, p. 132.
[v] Richard Schechner. Performance Studies, An Introduction. London/New York: Routledge, 2002: p. 223.
[vi] Philip Auslander. »Toward a Concept of the Political in Postmodern Theatre.« Theatre Journal, 39, March 1987.
[vii] Carlson: p. 197.