Karmen Lara Brownson

Issues and Methods

Keyword: Performance

Prof. B. K-G.


Performance is action and stillness– the space between conception and perception, acted upon by the epistemologies of those involved in both the production and consumption of meaning. It is the relationship between the ideology or topic represented, and the "how", or method, of its presentation, incorporating the five senses in the reading of signs, bodies and spaces as texts. Display, play, ritual, drama and spectacle are characterized by this plural reality, that of the representing and the represented, the imperfect action and the ideal.

Defining performance raises questions about methods of representation and the nature of perception in contemporary thought. Searching for meaning in signs and language assumes a positivist stance, where the location of a final product is taken for granted. The very nature of performance discourse forces us to acknowledge the power of analytical language in the construction of socio-economic barriers. It may be more useful to consider performance as an interdisciplinary medium for the translation of sensation, in the commercial, political, theatrical and the everyday. It is an experiential phenomenon that hovers over meaning but never completely settles. In other words, our understanding is often visceral rather than visual or conceptual.

Both participants and observers of spectacle relate to an event posturally and viscerally. I call this extra sensory realm the skinesphere. The skin emits heat, senses heat, it communicates. Merleau-Ponty states: "it is impossible to decompose perception, to make it into a collection of sensations, because the whole is prior to the parts." The skinesphere projects and senses spacial relationships and movements in space, whether they be restricted in an opera house balcony, or free as in a lively baseball stadium. We relate to the objects in performance (dancers, athletes) through this postural schema. The skinesphere not only informs the body of the physical environment and its dynamics, but deeply planted cultural "realities" that speak from our histories, including our prejudices, sexualities, and desires.

While sensation and embodiment may supercede the intellectual, language and the manipulation of symbols often characterize performance, as in religious ritual. Foucault wrote of discourse as the central concept upon which communities and ideologies are built, maintained, destroyed and created. Performance and theatricality use discourse to expose, reverse and transform communities, and likewise create new discourses through embodied exposures, reversals and transformations. Participants do this through the use of signs and language, but also through negotiations in space and time, with dynamic gestural interaction. In the case of postmodern work, an involvement with the event of performance itself arises through a "hyperawareness" of technique. Artists are aware of an ephemeral supertext that locates a reality beyond the readable, tapping into the sensory. In other words, for many performance artists, performance is praxis.

Identity and sexuality are situated in contemporary thought as a type of gender performance, a social construction that is part of behavior learned by children at an early age. Females "perform" the proscribed roles of women in their society, often in accordance with or in contrast to hegemonic ideas about maleness and patriarchy. Thus, gender is performed by individuals, through body techniques and appropriation of stereotypes. Judith Butler writes about the performance of drag, and the distinction it draws between anatomy and behavior: "In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself– as well as its contingency" she continues, "In the place of the law of heterosexual coherence, we see sex and gender denaturalized by means of a performance which avows their distinctiveness and dramatizes the cultural mechanism of their fabricated unity."

Finding the place where performance intersects with everyday life, where history is embodied in people’s bodies and spaces as well as traditional texts and relics, requires an understanding or acceptance of being as performance, and performance as an act of social and bodily practice. "Life histories and performance both enact processes of self-fashioning; they are autobiographical, constructed in different symbolic modes." Performance illuminates the personal aspects of history and culture, using ephemeral, time based illusions to speak with other bodies about spaces, places and sentiments. By examining re-tellings and recreations of self through spaces and performances, both choreographed and quotidian, we re-create cultural knowledge as experiential and ever-changing.

Thus, the act of theater occurs in any space or body tangled in a system of gazes. Through display, museums perform ideas about history, heritage and culture often linked to hegemonic political systems and aesthetics. Representational forms can construct and reinforce memory on a national and even global scale. Alternative venues of representation arise in response to these institutions, raising questions about power, knowledge and aesthetics. These alternative venues may take the form of time-based, site specific exhibitions like performance art, or as permanent spaces or behaviors which display ideas and images that challenge hegemonic ideas about race, class, gender and interculturality.

"Performance" can also be situated historically within the context of capitalist consumerism, originating in the industrial revolution. As the public becomes more educated about financial markets and manufacturing industries, commercials target specific audiences about the "performance" of machines and products. This refers to the behavior of competitive new products and companies in the stock market. Performance enters economic discourse as commodities take center stage in the imaginations of the public and advertising enters further into the realm of spectacle. Performance studies and postmodern social theory therefore include discussions of spectacle and dramas in the public imagination that surpass traditional notions of theater.

Theories of performance cross over many disciplines into semiotics, polemics and philosophy– with ironically exclusionary discursive practices. Thus, the very nature of analysis raises questions about the issues performance praxis seeks to deconstruct– power and knowledge as pillars in the critique of spectacle and aesthetics of everyday life. Performance and display raise further questions about the kind of information are we negotiating through local and foreign sensing bodies: can it be traced to the historical and cultural? Has the exotic performing body become a commodity in the world market? What factors determine how we, as individuals or groups, engage in visceral learning, gazing or touching, and how does that affect our view of the world? Performance, therefore, relates not only to the spectacle of entertainment in the performing arts, but to a realm of communication and an awareness of being that informs theories of perception, space, embodiment and change.