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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Interview with Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (2001)
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett is University Professor Emerita and Professor Emerita of Performance Studies at New York University. She is Chief Curator of the core exhibition at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, in Warsaw. She is the author of Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage (University of California Press 1998), a key book for understanding techniques of display and the performativity of objects—and persons—in exhibitions. She has also published Anne Frank Unbound: Memory, Media, and Imagination, with Jeffrey Shandler (Indiana University Press 2012), The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times, with Jonathan Karp (University of Pennsylvania Press 2008), and They Called Me Mayer July: Painted Memories of a Jewish Childhood in Poland Before the Holocaust,with Mayer Kirshenblatt (University of California Press 2007). Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has published many articles on the aesthetics of everyday life, food and performance, ethnography, world's fairs, museum theater, tourist productions, and intangible heritage. Professor Kirshenblatt-Gimblett coordinated the Working Group on Jews, Religion, and Media with Jeffrey Shandler at New York University's Center for Religion and Media. She also organized the Jews and Performance colloquium, jointly sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary and New York University, with Edna Nahshon. She was a fellow at the Getty Research Institute, the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University, the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences, and the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her many awards include the Guggenheim Fellowship, a lifetime achievement award from the Foundation for Jewish Culture, the Yosl Mlotek Prize for Yiddish and Yiddish Culture, the Marshall Sklare Award for lifetime achievement from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry, an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland from the President of Poland.X

Diana Taylor: Today we have Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, one of the professors in Performance Studies [at New York University], also known as BKG to her friends and students, who is going to talk to us about her role in performance studies. Our first question, Barbara, is: what are the basic tenets of performance studies according to your way of thinking?

: The first tenet is to use performance as an organizing idea for thinking about almost anything. So I would start with that: performance as an organizing idea. That means that I can think about museums, everyday life, streets, cities, architecture, space, worlds fairs, food... Performance as an organizing idea is a very, very powerful concept.

The second principle is to study events as performances. They may be performances or they may be usefully thought about as performances. So that, whereas, say, literature takes as its object literature, film studies takes as its object film, performance studies takes as its object performance, not exclusively, but I would say that as a point of departure. We may depart quite a long way, but as a point of departure, as a kind of anchor for our thinking, performances are very important. So performance as an organizing concept and performances as objects of study.

: What do you think performance studies allows us to do in a practical way in terms of methodologies, epistemologies, and so forth?

BKG: Well, first of all, the kind of performance studies that I like to practice, that I like to teach, involves the integrating of theoretical concerns with concrete observations of actual behavior. And I think this definitely distinguishes the field from a lot of other fields and in many ways allies it with anthropology, sociology, theater studies, music, the other performing arts. That is to say, paying attention to what people actually do is extremely important. And what I would argue is that... and the way I would like to think about it is that performances can be a source of theory and not only a site for the use of theory. And contemporary performance, experimental performance, the historical avant-garde, performance traditions that are other than the ones that have historically been the focus of theater studies, offer theoretical possibilities that have not been already formulated. So I feel there are tremendous possibilities: it’s very rewarding to look closely and concretely at actual behavior, and that, for me, is extremely important, and to discover theoretical possibilities there: what I would call “performed theory.” 

: Could you give me one example of one of the courses you teach? How you do these particular things in a specific course?

BKG: Yes, there are several of my courses that... there is a kind of, I would even call it a performance studies pedagogy, indeed, that would make good on these ideas. So, for instance, I teach a course called “The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.” This is a course that starts with the idea that performance as an organizing concept would be useful for thinking about the mundane, the ordinary; for thinking about that which does not occur on a stage, in a theater, in a framed situation. We then look for where would it be useful to use an idea of performance. The dinner table. Street life. Laundry. I would do a whole unit on laundry. I show a marvelous film called Clotheslines, and I like to take laundry as a case. I try to think to myself: “What’s the limit case? Sleep? What’s the limit case? Where, what’s the bottom line?” Because if we go to street performance, if we go to ritual, if we go to celebration, then my students say to me: “Well, that’s cheating! Those are obviously performances. You’re talking about everyday life. You’re talking about the mundane. So, you know, get mundane!” And laundry was a great example, and the Clothesline a fantastic example. It turns out that if you look closely at something very, very ordinary, you discover the degree to which it has the capacity to be symbolically rich, to be very much, if you will, a performance, as well as performative.

So in “The Aesthetics in Everyday Life,” we actually go to a number of sites: everyday conversation, ordinary activities, things that have to do with preparation of food, and food across the board. I teach a course on food and performance that goes all the way from the most ordinary aspects of food to the most elaborated. Tourist productions, field trips, going to actual sites, working on concrete cases, museum theater, finding sites that reward close study and analysis. And the papers that the students do for the courses all involve primary research, whether it’s historical or it’s contemporary; whether it’s observation or it’s archival. And I like research to be organized around a site, around an object, around something concrete that can be looked at in depth and analyzed in detail, where you can see actual behavior. And that’s a fundamental part of the pedagogy and it involves first-hand contact with the sources, with primary sources, with primary research.

"The first tenet [of performance studies] is to use performance as an organizing idea for almost anything... That means that I can think about museums, everyday life, streets, cities, architecture, space, worlds fairs, food... Performance as an organizing idea is a very, very powerful concept."

Diana: And what do you think performance studies contributes to a study of expressive culture in an international setting?

: Well, we like to think… I like to think of performance studies as being intercultural, interdisciplinary, and intergeneric. And by that I mean it’s interdisciplinary in the sense that [at New York University] we may have begun as a graduate department of drama, but we became a department of performance studies precisely because the disciplinary boundaries of drama did not allow us to go to the places and do the things we felt were important.

Now what does that mean? It means that intellectually we wanted to work with a much wider spectrum of concepts and approaches. But it meant also that drama, as it has traditionally been understood in theater departments, has tended to focus on only European and American theater, which is a tiny slice—it’s a blip on the map of human culture—of what I would call “performance.” So what performance studies does right from the outset is open out to the performance traditions of the world. And those performance traditions have... many of them have not been divided and parceled out up into something called music, something called dance, something called theater, something called puppetry. They have tended, by their very nature, to be multimedia, intergeneric. They’ve tended by their very nature to be, to exceed the limits of European... the ways in which we’ve traditionally thought about European theater and drama. So, interdisciplinary, intergeneric, and intercultural.

I think we’ve taken our lead in many ways from the historical avant-garde and experimental performance, which would be inconceivable without an encounter and an engagement with performance traditions and aesthetic traditions outside of Europe and the United States. And so performance studies by its very nature, from its inception, has this intergeneric, intercultural, interdisciplinary contour which I think has been extraordinarily rich and extraordinarily rewarding.

Diana: Thank you.

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