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Reflective Response to Diana Taylor’s Performance

As I’ve already detailed elsewhere on this blog, I’ve not currently got much time available to dedicate to research. In spite of this, I do have a work schedule to uphold as I have a monograph, on performance and politics in contemporary Spanish cinema, under contract (if interested, you can read the proposal here). The monograph is based in part on one of the chapters of my PhD thesis but it radically reworks and expands that material, also incorporating new research. The manuscript is due to be submitted in April 2018. Of late I’ve been trying to spend any research time I have reading as I have a wealth of sources I’m keen to work through prior to getting down to some serious writing. That said, I’d also ideally like to keep up something of a writing habit if at all possible. Inspired by a conversation on Twitter with Dr Nathan Ryder and Dr Helen Kara last week, I thought I’d write a wee reflective blog post on the source I most recently finished reading: Performance by Diana Taylor (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

Diana Taylor Performance Book Cover

Originally published in Spanish in 2012, Performance (2016) constitutes not just a translation but rather ‘part introduction and part reflection on some of the uses of performance that interest [the author] most – the power of performance to enable individuals and collectives to reimagine and restage the social rules, codes, and conventions that prove most oppressive and damaging’ (xiv). The original volume was, in the author’s own words, ‘a little glossy book on performance’ and won a design award (xiii). The reworked volume is also very visually appealing, a textual and visual performance in itself due to its layout. Rather than being presented in a conventional format, the book has an engaging textual interface that combines distinct fonts and font sizes alongside bold and capitalised text. There are in addition a plethora of images throughout the work. These images interact with the text in interesting ways, offering illustrative examples of the theoretical frameworks and ideas under discussion. From a disciplinary perspective, Performance presents a playful and innovative means of academic engagement with image and text.

 

In terms of content, Taylor focuses primarily on performance in the context of performance art though she does also consider other activities under this rubric. While my book project concentrates more specifically on cinematic representations of performance, Taylor’s interventions are still of interest to the material that forms the core of my analyses. Her first chapter, ‘Framing [Performance]’, offers an analysis of how she understands and defines performance. She begins by pinpointing the role of the body in art from the 1960s onwards (1) before stressing the wide-reaching character of performance: ‘PERFORMANCE is not always about art. It’s a wide-ranging and difficult practice to define and holds many, at times conflicting, meanings and possibilities’ (6). She offers an overview of how performance has been defined by various people including artists and theorists. She suggests that performance ‘is not limited to mimetic repetition’ but also ‘includes the possibility of change, critique, and creativity within frameworks of repetition’ (15). This therefore reserves a certain potency in performance. It is a mode that challenges existing paradigms precisely through the manipulation of those same paradigms. She also charts the value of performance as ‘vital acts of transfer, transmitting social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity through reiterated actions’ (25). She glosses Judith Butler in a discussion of the relationship between performance and gender (32) before defining performance as ‘a practice and an epistemology, a creative doing, a methodological lens, a way of transmitting memory and identity, and a way of understanding the world’ (39). At the same time, however, she acknowledges the importance of context: ‘Performances are neither universal nor transparent; their meanings change depending on the time and context and framing of their realization’ (40). This introductory chapter serves as a succinct and yet detailed overview of various definitions of performance and will be of interest to those seeking a way into thinking about performance in its diverse iterations.

 

Chapters 2, 3 and 4 are all of notable interest for my book project. Chapter 2, ‘Performance Histories’, surveys the history of performance art. Crucial for my purposes is her assertion of a strong historical link between performance and politics: she defines performance art as ‘anti-institutional, anti-elitist, anticonsumerist’ and contends that it is in this way that performance ‘came to constitute, almost by definition, a provocation and a political act’ (49). Again of interest to my work is her third chapter, ‘Spect-Actors’ in which Taylor unpacks the significance of spectatorship in relation to performance. She charts theoretical paradigms of spectatorship in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Artaud, Rancière among others, reaching the conclusion that ‘Performances ask that spectators do something, even if that something is doing nothing’ (86). Taylor’s fourth chapter is titled ‘The New Uses of Performance’ and surveys contemporary deployments of the rhetoric of performance with a particular emphasis on the political: ‘Political advisers know that performance as STYLE (rather than ACCOMPLISHMENT) generally wins elections’ (90). Through these chapters, the author charts both the emergence of performance as concept via the history of performance art and its contemporary deployments.

 

The middle section of Performance concentrates on the current status of performance art and performance more broadly. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 deal with distinct modes of performance. Chapter 5, ‘Performative and Performativity’, engages with the paradigm of performativity in relation to gender and the body, unpacking the role played by language with regards performance. Chapter 6 explores two key concepts, the scenario and the simulation, and analyses the ways in which performance facilitates the garnering of knowledge. Finally, Chapter 7, ‘Artivists (Artist-Activists), or, What’s to Be Done?’, provides detailed consideration of key works that subscribe to the notion that ‘Performance […] is the continuation of politics by other means’ (147). Read together, these three chapters outline the main conceptual paradigms at work in contemporary understandings of performance.

 

The final two chapters offer a nod to what awaits both performance as mode and performance studies as a discipline. Chapter 8 considers the future of performance, but of course to invoke the future is also to invoke the past. Taylor explores the significance of the archive in relation to performance and performance art, paying particular attention to the Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present as an instance of how both past and future are imbricated in performances. Chapter 9 continues with the notion of the future in relation to performance by surveying the discipline of performance studies. She proposes that ‘If the norm of performance is breaking norms, the norm of performance studies is to break disciplinary boundaries’ (200). After examining distinct ways in which performance is thought of within the field, she concludes that ‘What they have in common is their shared object of study: performance – in the broadest possible sense – as a process, a praxis, an episteme, a mode of transmission, an accomplishment, and a means of intervening in the world’ (202). Ultimately, Taylor contends that ‘performance constitutes a means of communication, a doing, and a doing with and to’ (208) and that ‘Performance is world-making. We need to understand it’ (208).

 

In sum, this is an engaging and insightful volume that offers a reflective overview of the concept of performance in contemporary society. Taylor does focus on the field of performance art specifically which, for my purposes, makes the work less relevant to my book project on performance and its representations in contemporary Spanish cinema. That said, the author does also provide an original take on the theoretical paradigms governing understandings of performance both historically and nowadays.

 

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