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?
BKG: 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.
Diana: What do you think performance studies allows us to do in a practical way in terms of methodologies, epistemologies, and so forth?
Diana: Could you give me one example of one of the courses you teach? How you do these particular things in a specific course?
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?
BKG: Well, we like to think…
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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