PRINT Summer 2007


FEW APHORISMS ARE MORE FAMOUS than the redoubtable “History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”—an observation typically attributed to Karl Marx. In fact, however, this assertion is merely a paraphrasing of the political philosopher. Opening his 1852 study of “bourgeois revolution,” The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx writes: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” What is obscured in the popularized adage, then, is the specifically theatrical character of Marx’s original formulation (along with some of its wry nuance). In addition to referencing two dramatic genres, tragedy and farce, he says that personages “appear,” as if they were making grand entrances on the world stage. And later in the same essay, Marx invokes still other theatrical tropes, noting that “epochs of revolutionary crisis . . . anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past . . . , borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” Indeed, he observes, the French Revolution of 1789 “draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire,” while the Revolution of 1848 “knew nothing better . . . than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793–95.”

While perhaps clichéd, the entire opening passage of The Eighteenth Brumaire, with its almost campy imagery of republicans festooned in the trappings of imperial Rome, might have a useful afterlife today as an allegory for contemporary art. It’s not too far-fetched to suggest that here we find a rather clear figuring of the tangled present-day relations of history and theater—or better, of politics and performance. In the latter field, adopting the “guise” of bygone “revolutionary traditions”—re-creating iconic historical works, particularly those of the 1960s and ’70s—has lately become standard practice. The most prominent recent manifestation of this impulse is probably Marina Abramović’s “Seven Easy Pieces,” a series of performances that took place in 2005 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where the artist restaged seven works epitomizing the transgressive ethos of the Conceptual era—among them, Vito Acconci’s Seedbed, 1972; Valie Export’s Action Pants: Genital Panic, 1969; and Bruce Nauman’s Body Pressure, 1974. But Abramović’s endeavor is only the apotheosis of a much broader international trend where, for example, an artist such as Catherine Sullivan incorporates into her theatrical performances (on stage and in film) elements of John Ford’s seventeenth-century tragedy ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore and the 1964 Fluxus Festival in Aachen, Germany; where the New York–based Clifford Owens performs the work of Fluxus member Benjamin Patterson; and where the collective Continuous Project reenact art-world panel discussions from decades before, as they did in the recent exhibition “Wieder und Wider: Performance Appropriated” at Vienna’s Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig—to say nothing of more general gestures toward art history by Lucy McKenzie and Paulina Olowska in their salon-cum-bar and performances evoking the early modernist avant-garde, and by Daria Martin in her films reflecting the strong influence of modern performance and dance.

In fact, the past few years have seen a flurry of exhibitions devoted to this phenomenon. “Life, Once More: Forms of Reenactment in Contemporary Art,” at Rotterdam’s Witte de With in 2005, queried the status of such representations of historical actions and events, and to this end included Sullivan’s aforementioned piece along with, for instance, the earlier example of Andrea Fraser’s Kunst muss hangen (Art Must Hang), 2001, a video depicting Fraser’s own performance of a drunken speech once given by Martin Kippenberger. Just in the past year, “Ahistoric Occasion: Artists Making History” at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, considered similar historical returns by artists including Jeremy Deller and Felix Gmelin; while “Wieder und Wider” made explicit a current running through most of these reenactments, aiming to consider performances restaged in such a way that they become independent of their original sources rather than being wholly determined by them.

But this last proposition only underscores the stakes inherent in all these artistic and curatorial efforts—or, at least, in the larger questions they prompt. If, to return to the example of Abramović’s “Seven Easy Pieces,” to be a spectator at the Guggenheim was to feel keenly the disjunction between actions performed then and now, then what was the implication of such self-reflexive historicization? Whereas, say, the original Seedbed was a famously awkward piece to experience—the gallery visitor uncomfortably aware of Acconci’s masturbatory pleasure below the floorboards—at the Guggenheim this piece seemed less disquieting, with any sense of taboo neutralized by the audience’s and institution’s general approbation. The radical content of the work was kept intact, but to reassuring rather than transformative effect—creating a pronounced difference from Acconci’s original, and so forcing us to ask what creative and critical potential there might be in such “conjuring of the spirits.” For Marx, some historical repetitions succeed in “glorifying . . . new struggles,” others merely in “parodying . . . the old.” Is there an analogous distinction to be made here? Which practices involving reenactments might be retrograde withdrawals from new aesthetic and political struggles, and which others are catalysts for them?

In seeking to answer these questions, we might start by noting that the apparent urge to revisit avant-garde performance has coincided with a radical diffusion of performativity itself. In recent years, the definition of performance art has expanded exponentially. The sphere of ostensibly traditional object-production now overflows with practices considered performative by dint of their execution or content; performance almost seems on the verge of achieving objecthood itself (judging by such recent indicators as a conference at London’s Showroom gallery last May dedicated to “the performance of new sculpture,” or, also in London, “Absence Without Leave,” an exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery focused on “performance as a material”). But performativity is more widely seen as inhering in the general comportment of artists, who are appraised, and praised, for their construction of a role. Here one thinks of Maurizio Cattelan and Jeff Koons, and especially of that exemplar of the contemporary-artist-as-performer, Kippenberger, who is lauded for self-consciously enacting an obsession with, and sardonic distance from, his own career.

At the same time, with the ascendance of relational and dialogic modes in particular, social interactions that may not actually involve the artist have come to be frequently redeployed in a range of practices that escape such appellations, yet are framed as performative. Social situations become readymades, if often very much “assisted” in Duchamp’s sense of the term (as in, say, Carlos Amorales’s Mexican wrestling match). “Actions and Interruptions,” an event presented in London at Tate Modern one weekend last March, bespoke the continuing prevalence of such strategies while offering some representative instances: Into the museum’s cultural-tourism maelstrom were inserted various actions closely resembling the everyday behavior of gallery visitors, with several too likelife even to garner an audience. Roman Ondák’s Good Feelings in Good Times, 2003, for instance—a queue leading nowhere—was camouflaged between actual, but similarly interminable, queues for elevators, tickets, and Carsten Höller’s slides. Elsewhere, Nina Jan Beier and Marie Jan Lund’s Clap in Time (All the People at Tate Modern), 2007, planted groups of people throughout the museum; commencing to clap wildly at an appointed time, they inspired other visitors, who had no idea what they were applauding, to follow suit. A common conceptual underpinning of work in this vein is a particular notion of the spectator’s activation—a dimension that has given rise, in turn, to a kind of paradox. Artists (and dramaturges) throughout the twentieth century sought to disrupt modern performance and theater’s dualism of actor versus spectator; now, they not only ask for an active spectator but also insist that such a viewer has, in fact, become a performer—and so must regard his or her own actions as, well, acting. (In this last point lies a crucial distinction from, say, Michael Fried’s famous formulation of theatricality, in which the viewer completes the work.) Not that we necessarily consider ourselves to be acting while standing in line at the Tate—or, for that matter, while climbing through a dirty fridge in a Christoph Büchel installation or embarking on a Janet Cardiff walking tour—but nevertheless, conventions of artmaking and viewing have shifted to elicit from the spectator a dramatic sense of self-conscious reflection.

Put another way, there seems to be an implied script, as a shift in the role of the spectator is accompanied by an aesthetic of exaggerated theatricality and a displayed impulse to invoke theater qua theater via elaborate set dressings, props, and stagey tropes. One might point in the latter regard to the recent work of Matthew Barney or Paul McCarthy; but particularly noteworthy as an influential progenitor of this tendency is Mike Kelley, who in 2005 aggregated the theatrical aspect of his practice into the overwhelming multipart installation Day Is Done at Gagosian Gallery in New York. The nexus of this exhibition was a series of videos screened in sculptural settings, both aspects having been inspired by photos in old high school yearbooks (also on display) of student theatricals. Wedging viewers between the immediacy of objects and the mediation of performances screened on video—and invoking memories of high school that are themselves mediated through representations of teenage life on television, in movies, and, of course, in yearbooks—Kelley’s installation placed the viewer not only on the stage of art but of culture at large. Culture is proposed as theater and the viewer is cast (frictionlessly) as a player in life. This, in effect, is a mise en abyme, exposing the structure of the frame to scrutiny: The theatricality of the video performances and of the prop- and scenerylike sculptures forces viewers to an awareness of their positions in a structure of nested theatricalities, nested mediations. What is produced is akin to an ambient form of Brechtian distantiation—which, one could argue, is how theatricality often signifies nowadays in contemporary art.

Kelley’s work may also suggest, or be symptomatic of, something else at play. Performance has lately acquired a central status in institutional programming, and occupies a similarly important place at art fairs, where it fills a critical inter-shopping-relaxation niche as the free aperitif that whets the appetite for the billed dish of painting and sculpture—the sexy supplement that makes everything else seem less run-of-the-mill. In each case, performance is valued for its potential to reimport a desired immediacy, albeit one often accompanied by caveats acknowledging the ubiquity of mediation. Yet in these contexts, the immediacy and immateriality of performance—once counterstrategies against commodification—aid rather than inhibit its functioning within the market. The medium has clearly moved past its historically antispectacular mission. By this logic, the spectator who is conscripted as performer is also conscripted as commercial-corporate functionary. We can all fairly say, “Le Spectacle, c’est moi!

While such dialectics of immediacy and mediation have of course always haunted performance, today they may be of greater consequence. Many contemporary theorists argue that performance has become a pervasive quality of everyday life—which would suggest that art, whatever its historical returns, may be rehearsing broader cultural trends. A consideration of one key turn in performance history—the transition from the West’s medieval model of theater to its modern one—offers some historical context, while resonating intriguingly with contemporary notions of all-pervasive performativity.

In the Middle Ages, a spectator at a play might sit on the stage or perambulate below it, socializing audibly and sometimes directly addressing the actors, who might well respond in turn. This porous relation between the stage and the audience, of course, is no longer common—largely due to the writings of Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot. One of the major modernizers of the theater, he devoted considerable energy to a critique of the medieval model, advocating its replacement with the naturalistic illusions that we now think of as theater’s most entrenched conventions: the imaginary fourth wall; the actors who behave as if the audience is not there; and the spectators who sit passively in darkness. It is somewhat jarring, then, to come across the following passage in Diderot’s 1762 dialogue Rameau’s Nephew:

Whoever needs someone else is a beggar and takes up a position. The king takes up a position before his mistress and before God; he performs his pantomime step. The minister goes through the paces of prostitute, flatterer, valet, or beggar in front of his king. The crowds of ambitious people dance your positions in hundreds of ways, each more vile than the others, in front of the minister. The noble abbé in his bands of office and his long cloak goes at least once a week in front of the agent in charge of the list of benefices. Good heavens, what you call the beggar’s pantomime is what makes the world go round.

It appears that in its new role as art-world entertainment, performance art itself has “taken up a position” in Diderot’s sense. (Notably, the French position, which may also be translated as posture, connotes artifice to a greater degree than its English cognate.) When most artists are considered performers of one kind or another, it becomes all too easy to imagine the art world as a similar and teeming tableau of actors. Indeed, looking at the work of Tamy Ben-Tor—who in her own performances assumes a succession of art-world positions, caricaturing figures like the deathly bland artist-in-residence or the relational artist who makes pad thai—one might speculate that at least one artist has already conceived of such a tableau, and made it her subject.

But what is most striking here is that Diderot, so intent on bracketing theater as a sphere separate from, and other than, that of everyday experience, seemed nonetheless to be grappling with the sense that theater was somehow rampantly unbracketed—that we are all potentially performing, all the time. And unlike Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage,” Diderot’s conception of all-encompassing performativity is not abstract, metaphorical, existential; it is structural, social, economic. The “we” in Diderot’s construction is not universal—his kings, ministers, and abbés, already invested with a degree of power that they struggle to maintain or increase, occupy a specific stage. Their backdrop is recognizably that of a nascent meritocracy where capitalism is introducing a new instability into the social order, imposing the imperative to compete and then unloosing the “ambitious crowds.” Embedded, then, in the origins of modern theater is a prescient awareness of where the economic developments unfolding in the eighteenth century might lead. The fourth wall was perhaps intended to hold back, like a dam, an encroaching performative imperative inherent in modernity.

If this is the case, then the consensus would seem to be that the dam has now burst, as theorists across disciplines have identified a generalized condition of performativity in contemporary labor—one emerging from the current regime of production, which produces and exploits communication and social relations in addition to conventional, tangible commodities. From the service sector to the white-collar firm, the social performance and communication skills of employees (e.g., “Have a nice day!”) are under close scrutiny and are often scripted. And we have our latter-day philosophe to parse some of the broader implications. Italian philosopher Paolo Virno, in describing this regime of production, which he calls post-Fordist, theorizes similarities between politics and performance: Both are communicative and require the presence of others as well as frequent improvisation, while as activities neither produces a physical finished product. For Virno, these similarities coalesce around the idea of “virtuosity.” As he defines it, a virtuoso is any performer whose “activity . . . finds its own fulfillment (that is, its own purpose) in itself,” and who doesn’t produce “an object which would survive the performance. . . . One could say that every political action is virtuosic.” However, Virno asserts that, in the current economy, labor has also become virtuosic (it is communicative; it requires the presence of others; etc.). Capital now reproduces qualities of political action as labor—and what this points toward is a neutralization of politics itself. At present, Virno suggests, “Political action . . . seems, in a disastrous way, like some superfluous duplication of the experience of labor.”

Of course, Virno and Antonio Negri’s theorizations of immaterial labor notwithstanding, much of the world is still very much engaged in Fordist or, indeed, pre-Fordist production: The physical “finished product” shows no signs of evanescing. In concrete terms, the notion of immaterial labor and Negri’s “cognitariat” both refer to relatively affluent workers in Western economies. But to the extent that post-Fordism is a significant tendency in contemporary capitalism, this economic regime and the arguments that address it are a significant influence on contemporary art. It hasn’t escaped observers that art production today, particularly its recent performative turn, echoes the move away from creation of tangible goods and toward the production or transmission of social relations. For example, in the essay “Progressive Striptease: Performance Ideology Past and Present” (from his 2005 collection, Secret Publicity: Essays in Contemporary Art), Sven Lütticken proposes that contemporary art à la Tino Sehgal, with his partly improvised group actions that cannot be documented and are sold via oral contract, has repurposed the ethos of dematerialization to emulate capital’s own dream of an immaterial economy that transcends the clumsy production of objects. Moreover, in the context of contemporary art, the tendency to designate any and every action—be it extravagant or banal—as performance appears a reification of everyday human activity, in much the same way that the immaterial-labor economy turns previously uncommodified activities into profit centers. In agreement with Virno and Negri before him, Lütticken (who curated the aforementioned “Life, Once More”) goes on to suggest that this vision of an immaterial economy permeates every facet of lived experience. Citing reality TV (he was writing before the rise of YouTube), he asserts that we live in a “participatory . . . performance culture.” Extrapolating, we could say that the gung-ho return to performance in the art world also participates in a certain duplication of the experience of (immaterial) labor—a proximity that threatens to annul whatever political dimension a given performance may possess.

Virno’s theorization of virtuosity, a key reference point in current art criticism, contrasts quite starkly with what might be called its chief competition—Jacques Rancière’s thought on politics and performance (which was examined in the March 2007 issue of Artforum). To briefly summarize: For Rancière, power is a function of what he terms “the distribution [or partition] of the sensible”—the social order that recognizes certain people or things as visible or perceptible and others as invisible or imperceptible. In any given society at any given moment, he says, there are always those who are invisible, nameless, denied a place in this order, a group he terms “the part of no part.” He describes political action as the constitution of an artificial, which is to say, theatrical, sphere, in which “the part of no part” performs in order to become visible, appropriating roles that are normally unavailable to them. (Rancière offers the example of nineteenth-century workers casting themselves as lovers of “high” literature.) The part of no part carries out these appropriations in fleeting, provisional ways, effecting transitory destabilizations of the order of the sensible—since any stable, long-term incursions would simply constitute a new, equally constrictive order. This model counters more conventional understandings of political action as direct and unmediated behavior, and—in opposition to Diderot’s array of beggars’ pantomimes or Virno’s ranks of laboring virtuosos—affirms the emancipatory qualities of role-play, much as Judith Butler does in her well-known discussions of performativity and gender. Rancière further designates the spectacle itself as the arena in which visibility, or equality, is fought for. He argues against Guy Debord’s account of the spectacle as a realm of appearances that separates subjects from themselves: For Rancière, subjects/ spectators are never wholly immersed in the spectacle, but retain a critical distance, actively and consciously engaging with what they see. This orientation toward the spectacle and belief in the possibilities embodied in performance align Rancière with a great deal of contemporary artistic production.

By way of a case study, we might look at Catherine Sullivan’s video installation The Chittendens, 2005, which figures, with remarkable succinctness, the intersections of performance, labor, and politics that Virno and Rancière take up in their different ways. Taking a disused office building for the work’s setting and her title from the name of an insurance firm, Sullivan directs a group of sixteen actors to perform a rapidly alternating sequence of “attitudes”—feigned emotional and physical responses ranging from the laconically understated (“mild amusement,” “smelling roses”) to the histrionic (“militant’s last stand,” “falling to pieces”). Like Marx’s republicans, the actors are literally draped in the costumes of a heroic past—in this case, America’s. There are a nineteenth-century sailor and a naval officer; a Southern belle; a swimmer and a muscleman from the early twentieth century; and a number of office workers in period clothing of various decades. All embody bathetic, or farcical, repetition. The actors go through their manic and comical paces in a convulsive, syncopated order scripted to emulate Fluxus scores, in a state of perpetual role traversal, not “glorifying . . . new struggles,” but “parodying . . . the old.” By serializing this stream of hyperbolic action, Sullivan severs any naturalistic link between the actors and their acts; instead we find a schizophrenic typology of hollow personae. Though these characters certainly are not working in any conventional sense, the office, and by extension the communicative post-Fordist labor performed there, is the horizon by which their activity is defined.

In putting this frenetic tableau on screen, Sullivan reproduces the formal and stylistic qualities of mainstream cinema and television, aping their tropes, from the look of film stock to conventional editing and camerawork—all of which imbue the work with what Debord referred to as the “general gloss” of spectacle. Commensurately, a certain similarity of interpretation pervades the performances. In order to dramatize sarcastically deployed clichés and absurd directions such as “see your tombstone,” “splashy entrance,” “mean showgirl,” or “intestines go postal,” the actors unsurprisingly adopt a caricatured and dissociated style. Their performances have the feeling of citations from Sullivan’s presumptive source material—American film and TV, from the classic (I Love Lucy) to the cheesy (Nine to Five). Each “attitude” is a fleeting fragment of a role that already exists. The personal itself comes to seem uncannily reified. The Chittendens thus reproduces a default tone already set by much contemporary media spectacle, both inhabiting and delineating a limited, homogenized arena of possibility.

Sullivan associates the atomized quality of the performances in The Chittendens with a specifically American drive toward individualism and self-determination, which she in turn blames for the present abysmal state of American politics. However, no political dimension appears to open up in these performances, which simply offer the spectacular mirror image of a post-Fordist demand for frequent and, as it were, surplus transformation. Of course, one could say that precisely therein lies the work’s criticality, but such mimesis makes for watered-down criticism. More to the point is the degree to which Sullivan’s characters seem almost to satirize the model of Rancièrean political struggle. Clearly situated within spectacle and adopting multiple roles, they nevertheless represent not the philosopher’s “part of no part,” but the American middle class, past and present (as immaterial laborers). This disjunction resonates with a crucial discrepancy within Rancière’s thought: Without taking economic conditions into account, it is difficult to see how “the part of no part”—the working class, immigrant laborers, slum dwellers—can actually stage an appropriation of roles without being condemned to enact the infinite repetition of their performances, much like the Chittendens’ actors, effecting, over and over, fugitive redistributions of the sensible. In this sense, Rancière’s notion of fleeting political events and transitory roles coincides perhaps too well with a model of accumulation dependent on movement, flexibility, and performative labor. Philosopher Peter Hallward puts it bluntly, noting that “Rancière . . . came to embrace the rhetoric of mobility and liminality at precisely the moment when newly mobile, ‘fragmentary’ . . . forms of production deprived them of any clear critical purchase.”

Also working to undermine the critical traction of Rancière’s ideas is the fact that redistributions and disruptions of the sensible are a primary operation of contemporary commerce. Advertising and media thrive on disruptive frisson; reorderings and subversions of existing visual, affective, and semiotic codes (e.g., guerrilla marketing) can generate revenue. The same logic is manifest in fields as diverse as urban planning (the adoption of Situationist-style psychogeography in gentrification strategies) and finance (financial instruments that derive profit from market instability). This is not to say that the political possibilities of assuming appropriated roles are foreclosed, nor does it mean that exceptional political and aesthetic events that qualify as true redistributions of the sensible cannot exist. One might even counter these caveats by arguing that for Rancière, the above examples would simply constitute aspects of the existing present order, rather than redistributions that reconfigure said order. Yet under deregulated, decentralized late capitalism, reclassifications and rearticulations of established representations are the norm, not the exception. Although Rancière seeks to vitiate modernist critiques of spectacle and spectatorship, contemporary artworks that attempt to reorganize conventional roles by activating the spectator evince a logic of performative redistribution similar to his own, functioning, more often than not, as explicit allegories for wider social reactivations and for participatory politics; and while such allegories poignantly suggest a longing for agency and empowerment, they look tragically flimsy in light of the difficulties of transforming existing roles within today’s theatrum mundi—in which roles may indeed be frequently reordered, but without really altering the script. Performative redistributions (a category into which, say, Acconci’s original Seedbed might fall) are absorbed and instrumentalized not only in the art world but in a wider social field greatly influenced by aesthetic strategies of unsettling and critique. This fact, although it does not negate concepts like Rancière’s, certainly makes their formulation trickier.

It seems fair to say, then, that both performative imperatives as illuminated by Virno and performative reorderings of the social field as theorized by Rancière are essential ingredients of contemporary capitalism. Much performance art at the moment appears influenced by the former, and uncertain how or whether to achieve the latter. Perhaps contemporary reenactments and reappraisals of performance’s history are attempts at a solution to this conundrum. While some performative recyclings have the whiff of structural necessity (the art-world show must go on), others attempt to realize what was latent in a given performance the first time around. One premise we can take as a given is that the unbracketing and expansion of the field of performance cannot be reversed. With the fourth wall effectively broken, the performers and spectators are unlikely to go back to their places—although as Rancière has said, it is worth reviving the notion that there is merit simply in being a member of an audience.

Also perhaps worth considering anew is performance’s status as a specifically communicative medium. No matter how much it approaches the level of Gesamtkunstwerk, performance will always make for relatively rudimentary spectacle and will necessarily foreground language and movement—the basic tools of communication. In one striking passage in The Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx interjects a linguistic metaphor among the theatrical ones: Referring to the 1848 revolution—for him, a failed parody of 1789—he observes that “the phrase went beyond the content.” But in the social revolution of the future, the one he hopes will come to pass, “the content goes beyond the phrase.” Performance’s communicative status corresponds, of course, with the post-Fordist paradigm—the medium speaks the social language of its time. But it has the capacity to exceed the constraints of the conditions that generated it, stretching that lingua franca, going beyond the phrase.

Melanie Gilligan is an artist and writer based in London.