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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Catherine Cole

Interview with Catherine Cole (2013)
Catherine M. Cole is Professor and Chair of the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Performing South Africa’s Truth Commission: Stages of Transition (Indiana University Press 2010) and Ghana's Concert Party Theatre (Indiana University Press 2001). Cole has co-edited the book Africa After Gender? (Indiana University Press 2007), a special issue of Theatre Survey on “African and Afro-Caribbean Performance,” and a special issue of TDR: The Drama Review entitled "Routes of Blackface” (2013). She also recently served as the editor of Theatre SurveyX

Diana: Hi Catherine.

Catherine: Hi.

Diana: Could you introduce yourself, please?

: Okay. I’m Catherine Cole, and I am a professor in the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies at UC, Berkeley.

Diana: So Catherine, we’re doing this project about performance studies and what is performance studies from several different points of view and different parts of the Americas. So, how would you define performance studies and what would be some of the key characteristics that you would point to?

Catherine: I think sometimes we put a lot of energy into defining performance studies, and I think that’s an interesting exercise, but it also can be a bit of a cul-de-sac. So I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from comments that you've made about: It's more interesting to me what can performance studies do? What can performance do? When I try to explain to people who are totally outside our fields, you know, why are we a department of theater, dance, and performance studies, you know, often I say: in a traditional theater studies or dance studies program, we would delimit what we’re going to look at, maybe just at what’s onstage, maybe we also include the audience, but somehow there’s a boundary there. And I think performance studies really explodes the frame, explodes the object of analysis in really interesting and exciting and productive ways and confusing ways—there can be productive confusion and unproductive confusion, and we work against that. So, I think for my own work, my most recent large projectCole, Catherine M. 2010. Performing South Africa's Truth Commission: Stages of Transition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. was on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. And I was really intrigued that their choice of mounting something in the wake of Apartheid, moving towards an aspiration of the future of a nonracial democratic vision—and they felt they needed to do something—was to embrace a truth commission model. It happened elsewhere in the world, but never had a truth commission embraced so overtly being on stages, in front of audiences, being broadcast on the radio, broadcast on television. And I just knew, as a performance studies person, that that profoundly shaped the experience of the event, the perception of the event. And yet I could see, even though all these people were writing on South Africa’s Truth Commission, nobody was really thinking through—other than a kind of “oh, by the way” notice of “isn’t this like theater?”—thinking more deeply about it. So, for me, with that project, I became very excited about being able to contribute from our field to a larger arena within the academy—legal studies, political studies, a lot of people who write on it are social scientists—to actually be able to come to the table and to say to people that in order to understand what is happening in this Truth Commission process, we actually have to all understand performance. And here are some ideas, and techniques, and methodologies, and insights, and possibilities that come from this field. So to be able to contribute to other disciplines, but even beyond that, what’s been so exciting about that project is to be able to contribute outside of the academy that, you know, people who are looking at transitional justice in other parts of the world. To be able to bring some kind of rich reflections to the table that come from our field.

Diana: I remember in Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in JerusalemArendt, Hannah. 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking Press., where she describes the trial as very much a theater with a stage like this, but she is so against that. She writes, you know, knocks it down as a kind of theatricality, as something that is distracting from the mission of justice. And here in your work, it’s as if that’s really where the mission of justice can be carried out, and there has to be something about the naming and the showing. So, how do you feel about justice and truth-telling and the theatricality, if you want to describe that?

Catherine: It’s always fraught. I think the really significant difference between Eichmann in Jerusalem is that it’s a trial. It’s a trial. And what she’s objecting to is in part also that this one person is being held to account for crimes that, yes, he perpetrated, but also crimes far beyond what he perpetrated. And that’s happening because in the wake of gross violations of human rights or crimes against humanity, there’s a need for a public memory to be reformulated. There needs to be a public discourse that reaches a national level or even beyond that, and trials should not be that—that is a corruption of justice in a way. That trial about one person should be about that person and their crime. And so I think this is, you know, that point of discomfort. Now even... And that’s also, of course, why often judges don’t want cameras in their courtroom and really control of what the media can do in there: it’s not wanting to distort justice by kind of bringing in all these other elements. That doesn’t mean that, nevertheless, that trials, even very traditional trials, aren’t highly theatrical and performative events and all of that is part of what they do, absolutely. But I think Hannah Arendt’s maybe anti-theatrical prejudice, or her recoiling from that aspect of Eichmann in Jerusalem, I’m sympathetic to that. I understand that. Whereas in the transitional justice, truth and reconciliation commissions, they’re not trials, right? I mean, that is the shift. It’s saying that the magnitude of crimes against—gross violations of human rights, crimes against humanity—actually our traditional understanding of the law cannot cope with the scale of this. So, something else has to be invented that performs these other functions in terms of shaping public discourse, and... so it’s not a trial. It has many different genres that influence it and juridical models are part of that, and there were components of the Truth Commission where something was at stake juridically, someone could be given amnesty for their crimes forever, so that has a legal component, something is at stake. But that’s different, I think, than a traditional court of law. So, you just... I mean, they’re all performance. It’s just, what is the nature of that dynamic and what work does it do and for what purpose, really changes for the context.

"I just knew, as a performance studies person, that that profoundly shaped the experience of the event, the perception of the event[…] So I became very excited[…] to actually be able to come to the table and to say to people that in order to understand what is happening in this Truth Commission process, we actually have to all understand performance. "

Diana: So what are some of the other debates, the big debates in performance studies that you follow, that you engage, and that you feel that there’s something at stake there and whether, you know, you think one way about something or another?

Catherine: You know, there are so many of them. We are a field of debates. I think at the moment... I feel like I need to regroup around your question.

Diana: Well, the internationalization is one.

Catherine: I feel we have blind spots. I feel we have blind spots, and it’s very frustrating to me often to go to conferences in my field as someone who works in the global south and to just feel that the global south is so often underrepresented. I feel there's sometimes... We have a dangerous slipping into a kind of formalism, or solipsism, or definitely North America centric-ism. So, those are directions that I really would like to see us move more into. I mean, your work has been such an inspiration to me in that regard. I think those are conversations we need to happen, we need to nurture and cultivate. At the moment, I have this whole crazy project that seems totally unrelated, working with photographs around public higher education. I’m using photographs as a kind of social practice to generate conversations that are sometimes difficult conversations, really necessary conversations, and I’ve come to... It’s this whole archive of photographs that Ansel Adams took of the [University of California] system: 6700 images in the 1960s. And he had this whole idea of negatives as being like a score, a musical score. And, even though he was highly controlling about everything with his prints, he wanted people to perform the score of his negatives in ways that you wouldn’t even recognize. So I’m kind of really interested in that idea: what does it mean to perform the score, to invite people to perform the score? So I suppose what I’m doing, I feel like I’ve moved into this whole new mode of scholarship that I now realize is almost multi-platform scholarship—I didn’t set out to do that, but—including websites, curating, and exhibits, doing all kinds of interactivity, also publishing. And the whole thing is a performance. It’s how do we perform the score of this institution? How do we perform the score of this archive and remake it, use it to remake the present, remake the future?

Diana: Sounds fantastic. And in terms of the internationalization, how do you think that we’re going to get different kinds of scholars, backgrounds, and so forth into a discussion, maybe not performance studies by name necessarily, but thinking about embodied practice? What kinds of projects that might illuminate in different parts of the world, do you think that’s going to be possible, or how do you think?

Catherine: I think what you’ve done with the Hemispheric Institute is really a model. I mean, I’m often jealous. Oh gosh, I wish I could be a Latin Americanist and enter that.

Diana: We could do Hemi Africa, you know?

Catherine: Yeah, I mean, it would be fantastic to have that in Africa. And I think new media is kind of making that possible in a way that was unimaginable 10 years ago, five years ago. There’s a lot more interesting artistic exchanges happening within the continent and different kinds of conversations going on. So, you know, it goes back to Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s work of moving the center, you know. Where the conversation happens determines so much, because it determines who can come and how they can come, and who sets the agenda. And so I feel every year what is possible is opening up, so we don’t even know yet where it’ll take us. But I think having these kind of different platforms that people are designing that help us move that center is really key.

Diana: I remember the first time I met you and the first conversation we had was in the very beginning of PSi [Performance Studies International], and trying to figure out what the international part was going to be.

Catherine: With a large “I,” a little “i"...

Diana: ...a little “i"... We had that conversation for long a time. I hope we’ll keep on having it for a long time, and we’ll see things moving a lot further than we can imagine today.

Catherine: Yeah.

Diana: Thank you so much.

Catherine: Thanks for inviting me.

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