Carlson - :1 WHAT 13 P E R r o R M A N c E a,1 1"i‘...

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Unformatted text preview: :1 WHAT 13 P E R r o R M A N c E a ,1 1 "i‘ x.“ Marvin Carlson t .‘.n' :3 r '4’. a_'.'_ ,. :7, '4.) 'f' The term “performance” has become extremely popular in recent years in a wide range of activities in the arts, in literature, and in the social sciences. As its popularity and usage have grown, so has a complex body of writing about performance, attempting to analyze and understand just what sort of human activity it is. For the person with an interest in studying performance, this body of analysis and commentary may at first seem more of an obstacle than an aid. So much has been written by experts from such a wide range of disciplines, and such a complex web of specialized critical vocabulary has been developed in the course of this analysis, that a newcomer seeking a way into the discussion may Feel confused and overwhelmed. In their very useful i990 survey article “Research in interpretation and performance studies: trends, issues, priorities,” Mary Strine, Beverly Long, and Mary Hopkins begin with the extremely useful observation that performance is "an essentially contested concept.” This phrase is taken from W. B. Gailie’s Piiilosoply/ and the Historical Understanding (1964), in which Gallic suggested that certain concepts, such as art: and democracy, had disagreement about their essence huilt into the concepts themselves. In Gailie’s terms: “Recognition of a given concept as essentially contested implies recognition of rival uses of it (such as oneself repudiates) as not only logically possible and humanly 'likely,’ but as of permanent potentiai critical value to one’s own use or interpretation of the concept in question.”1 Strine, Long, and Hopkins argue that performance has become just such a concept, developed in an atmosphere of “sophisticated disagreement” by participants who “do not expect to defeat or silence opposing positions, but rather through continuing dialogue to attain a sharper articulation of all positions and therefore a fulier understanding of the conceptual richness of PCI‘fOI‘lhal‘iCC.”2 In his study of the “post-structured stage,” Erik MacDonald suggests that "performance art has opened hitherto unnoticed spaces” within theatre's representational networks. It “problematizes its own categorization,” and thus inevitably inserts theoretical speculation into the theatrical dynamic.3 The present study, recognizing Elflissemial contestedness..oilperforinance, wiil seek to provide an introduction to the continiiiiigfithaloéue through which it has recently been articulated, providing a variety of mappings of the concept, some overlapping, others quite divergent. Recent manifestations of performance, in both theory and practice, are so many and so varied that a complete survey of them is hardly possible, but this [study] attempts to \ 68 i i i E odor and the t have M then that will that “per usefi the 1 over 1 sh( othe is th. its it Amt how “I that Time theai even days i'act prac even and sugg who I sis in ti’ even a ki] Nor' visit: Diar peril later and dres 1_ a wide range arity and usage to analyze and ,cr'est in studying of an obstacle 'of disciplines, din the course I confused and performance Hopkins begin ly contested (ii Understanding democracy, allie’s terms: of rival uses ikely,’ but as 'e concept in ust such a ieipants who h continuing ; s r i i i WI-IA'I‘ iS PERFORMANCE? olfei' enough of an overview and historical background to single out the major approaches and sampie significant manifestations in this complex field, to address the issues raised by the contested concepts of performance and what sorts of theatrical and theoretical strategies have been developed to deal with these issues. My own background is in theatre studies, and my emphasis will be on how ideas and theories about performance have broadened and enriched those areas of human activity that lie closest to what has traditionally been thought of as theatrical, even though i will not be devoting a great deal of attention to traditional theatre as such, but rather to that variety of activities currently being presented for audiences under the general title of “performance” or “performance art.” Nevertheless, in these opening remarks it might be useful to step back at least briefly from this emphasis and consider the more general use of the term “performance” in our culture, in order to gain seine ideas of the general semantic overtones it may bear as it circulates through an enormous variety of specialized usages. I should perhaps also note that although I will include examples of performance art from other nations, my emphasis will remain on the United States, partly, of course, because that is the center of my own experience with this activity, but, more relevantly, because, despite its international diffusion, performance art is both historically and theoretically a primarily American phenomenon, and a proper understanding of it must, I believe, be centered on how it has developed both practically and conceptually in the United States. “Performing” and "performance” are terms so often encountered in such varied contexts that little if any common semantic ground seems to exist among them. Both the New York Times and the Village Voice now include a special category of “performance” m separate from theatre, dance, or films including events that are also often cailed “performance art” or even “performance theatre.” For many, this latter term seems tautological, since in simpler days all theatre was considered to he involved with performance, theatre being in fact one of the so-called “performing arts.” This usage is still much with us, as indeed is the practice of calling any specific theatre event (or for that matter specific dance or musical event) a “performance.” if we mentally step back a moment from this common practice and ask what makes performing arts per-formative, I imagine the answer would somehow suggest that these arts require the physical presences of trained or skilled human beings whose demonstration of their skills is the performance. ,. I recently came across a striking illustration of how important the idea of public display 9.13.26quisaislsill is to this traditional concept of “performance.” At a number of locations in the United States and abroad, people in period costume act out improvised or scripted events at historical sites for tourists, visiting schoolchildren, or other interested spectators w a kind of activity often calied “living history.” One site of such activity is Fort Ross in Northern California, where a husband and wife, dressed in costumes of the 1830s, greet Visitors in the roles of the iast Russian commander of the fort and his wife. The wife, Diane Spencer Pritchard, in her role as “Elena Rotcheva," decided at one time to play period music on the piano to give visitors an impression of contemporary cultural life. But later she abandoned this, feeling, in her words, that it “removed the role from iiving—history and placed it in the category of performance.”4 Despite taking on a fictive personality, dressing in period clothes, and “living” in the 1830s, Ms. I’ritchard did not consider herself 69 MARVIN CARLSON “performing” until she displayed the particular artistic skill Normally human agency is necessary for a “peri we do not speak of how well demonstration of particular skills can be offered i example, we commonly speak of “performing" < Despite the currency of this usage, Pritchard to be performing as 5 legs, elephants, horses or bears. a longudead Russian pioneer. Pretending to be someone other example of a particular kind of human behavior that Riel behavior,” a title under wl doing them theatre and other role playing, useful concept of “restored behavior" the display of skills, but rather points to a quality of performance not involved Wit analogous to that between an actor and the role the actor plays on stage. Even if an action on stage is identical to one in real life, on stage it is considered “i stage merely “done.” Hamlet, in his well—i (nown response to the Queen concerning his reactions to his father's death, distingui shes between those inner feelings that resist per- formance and the actions that a man might play” with a consciousness of their signifying potentiai. Hamlet’s response also indicates how the stage, from ritual, or from other everyday life. Everyone at some time recent sociologicai theorists [ . .l i performance. a consciousness of “performance" can move from special and ciearly defined cultural situations into or another is conscious of “playing a role” socially, and lave paid a good deal of attention to this sort of social The recognition that our lives are structured tioned modes of behavior raises the possibil considered as “performance," or at least al __ ._ _ itself. The difference between doing and performing, according toitliis way of thinking, iii-(inld seem to be not in the frame of theatre versus‘real life hut in an attitude % we may do actions unthinkingiy, but when we think about them, this introduces a conscio gives them the quality of performance. This phenomenon has been perhaps most searchingly analyzed in the various writings of Herbert Blau, to which we also will return later. So we have two rather different concepts of perfor skills, the other also involving display, but less of particular skills than ofa recognized and culturally coded pattern of behavior. A third cluster of usages takes us in rather a different direction. When we speak of someone’s sexua when we ask how according to repeated and socially sanc~ ity that all human activity could potentially be isness that mance, one involving the display of l performance or iinguistic performance or well a chiid is performing in school, the emph display of skill (although that may be involved) or on ti of behavior, but rather on the general success of th _ achievement that may not itself be precisely articulated. Perhaps evenflmore signiiicantiy,"the task ofjudgi‘ng the successofthe performance (or even judging whether it is a performance) is in these cases not the responsibility of thenperformer but of'the ohser Hamlet himseif is the best judge of who asis is not so much on 1e carrying out of a particular pattern e activity in light of some standard of ven Ultimateiy, ther he is “performing” his melancholy actions or 70 s needed to give a music recital 'ormance” of this sort (even in the theatre the scene” or the costumes )erformed , but the Jublic } l )y nonhuman “performers,” so that, for most of her audience probably considers Ms, soon as she greets them in the costume and character of than oneself is a common lard Schechner labels "restored iich he groups actions consciously separated from the person trances, shamanism, rituals.6 Schechner's h with a certain distance between “sell” and behavior, )erformed” and off 1 activity carried out with a consciousness of___ m m m WHAT is PERFORMANCE? ausic recital. truly “living” them, but linguistic, scholastic, even sexual performance is reaily framed and i the theatre ' ' judged by its observers. This is why performance in this sense (as opposed to performance t the bublic ' -- in the norlnai theatrical sense) can be and is applied frequently to non—human activity —-- TV so that, for ' ads speak interininahly of the performance of various brands of automobiles, and scientists S of the performance of chemicals or metals under certain conditions. i observed an amusing .nSiders Ms. conilation of the theatrical and mechanical uses of this term in an advertisement by the character of ' - MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) on the New York subway in October 1994-, a a common ‘ ' when the subway was celebrating ninety years of service. This was billed as “New York :13 “restored ' City’s longest running performance.” the person ' - If we consider performance as an essentially contested concept, this will help us to Schechner’s '- understand the futility of seeking some overarching semantic lieid to cover such seemingly .volved with ' disparate usages as the performance of an actor, of a schoolchild, of an automobile. Never— ifl bdilGI‘. theless, I would like to credit one highly suggestive attempt at such an articulation. This if an ac an ' occurs in the entry on performance by the ethnolinguist Richard Bauman in the International .ed” and off _ Engrc‘fopcdla (j Connnunications. According to Bauman, all performance involves a conscious— icerning his I of doubleness, through which the actual execution of an action is placed in mental tresist per“ '_ comparison with a potential, an idea], or a remembered originai model of that action. . ir signifying - ' Normally this comparison is made 73)}? an observer of the action — the theatre public, the I school’s teacher, the scientist but the double consciousness, not the external observation, move from is what is most central. An athiete, for example, may be aware of his own performance, nations into I placing it against a mental standard. Performance is always performancejbr someone, some i. socialiy, and audience that recognizes and validates it as performance even when, as is occasionally the l art of social ' case, that audience is the seif. ' I ““‘I - When we consider the various kinds of activity that are referred to on the modern Jcially sanc- ' cultural scene as "performance” or performance art,” these are much better understood itentially be _- . in relation to this over-arching semantic field than to the more traditioual orientation §9l4§¥??§_%£f_. I I' suggested by the piano~playing Ms. Pritchard, who felt that so long as she was not displaying of thinking, i. _ a virtuosic skill she could not be “performing." Some modern “performance" is centrally -we may do concerned with such skills (as in the acts of some of the clowns and jugglers included among fitness that the so~called “new vaudeviilians”), but much more central to this phenomenon is the 'searchingiy sense of an action carried outfor someone, an action involved in the peculiar doubling that ter. ' 1 comes with consciousness and with the elusive “other” that performance is not but which it, 6 display of Constantly struggles in'vainltg embody l H I i I agnized and ' WU Although traditional theatre has regarded this "other” as a character in a dramatic action, .' a different embodied (through performance} by an actor, modern performance art has, in general, not Ol'mance or been centrally concerned with this dynamic. Its practitioners, almost by definition, do {0 much on not base their work upon characters previously created by other artists, but upon their ular pattern ' own bodies, their own autobiographies, their own specific experiences in a culture or in the standard of world, made performative by their consciousness of them and the process of displaying ficantly, the them for audiences. Since the emphasis is upon the performance, and on how the body or Erforniance) '. sclf is articulated through performance, the individual body remains at the center of such .Ultimately, presentations. Typical performance art is solo art, and the typical performance artist uses r actions or little of the elaborate scenic surroundings of the traditional stage, but at most a few props, \ 71 i MARViN CARLSON a bit of furniture, and whatever costume {sometimes even nudity} is most suitable to the performance situation. it is not surprising that such performance has become a highiy visihle one might almost say emblematic art form in the contemporary world, a worid that is highly self-conscious, reflexive, obsessed with simulations and theatricalizations in every aspect of its social aware- ness. With performance as a kind of criticai wedge, the metaphor of theatricality has moved out of the arts into almost every aspect of modern attempts to understand our condition and activities, into almost every branch of the human sciences sociology, anthropology, ethnography, psychology, linguistics. And as periormativity and theatricality have been developed in these fields, both as metaphors and as analytic tools, theorists and practitioners of performance art have in turn become aware of these developments and found in them new sources of stimulation, inspiration, and insight for their own creative work and the theoretical understanding ofit. Performance art, a complex and constantly shifting field in its own right, becomes much more so when one tries to take into account, as any thoughtful consideration of it must, the dense web of interconnections that exists between it and ideas of performance developed in other fields and between it and the many intellectual, culturai, and social concerns that are raised by almost any contemporary performance project. Among them are what it means to be postmodern, the quest for a contemporary subjectivity and identity, the relation of art to structures of power, the varying challenges of gender, race, and ethnicity, to name only some of the most visible of these. . .‘5 _.~ 1, »-, ()‘o‘i i“ ’ “V 1. ' .i ., -. m 2:) (W ”WE n__/l'}\ \"’ , ., NOTES i W8. Gallic, Philosophy and the Historical Understanding, New York: Schocken Books, 1964, 187-n8. 2 Mary S. Strine, Beverly Whitaker Long, and Mary Frances Hopkins, “Research in interpretation and performance studies: trends, issues, priorities,” in Gerald §3hillips and julia Wood (eds), Speech Communications: Essays to Comincinomtc the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary ofthc Speech Connnunication Association, Carbondaie: Southern lliinois University Press, 1990, 183. 3 {Erik MacDonald, Theater at the Margins: Text and the Post-Structured Stage, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993, 1'75. 4 Diane Spencer Pritchard, “Fort Ross: from Russia with love,” in jan Anderson (ed), A Living History! Reader, voi. 1, Nashville, Tenn; American Association for State and Local History, 1991, 53. 5 Like most uses of“performance," this one has been challenged, particularly by the noted semioti~ cian of the circus Paui Bouissac. Bouissac argues that what seems to he performance is actually an invariable natural response to a stimulus provided by a trainer who "frames” it as performance. In Bouissac’s words, the animal does not "perform," but “negotiates sociai situations by reiying on the repertory of ritualized behavior that characterizes its species” (“Behavior in context: in what sense is a circus animal performing,” in Thomas School: and Robert Rosenthal (eds), The Clever Hans Phenomenon: Connnunication with Horses, Whales, Apes, and i’copie, New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1981, 24). This hardly settles the matter. As we shall see, many theorists of human performance couid generally accept Bouissac’s alternate statement, and moreover anyone who has trained horses or dogs knows that, even accounting for an anthropomorphic bias, these animals are not simply negotiating social situations, but are knowingly repeating certain actions for physical or \ 72 hum 6 Rich 1985 7‘ Rich Oxfu Sch eel G offm Faber, i’arkei ...
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