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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Diamela Eltit

Interview with Diamela Eltit (2011)

Diamela Eltit is one of Latin America’s most daring writers and is highly regarded for her avant-garde initiatives in the world of letters. Eltit began her engagement with literature in her native Chile during the years of the Pinochet dictatorship, when she participated in the collective CADA, which staged art actions against the dictatorship, and published her first novels, Lumpérica (Seix Barral 1983) and Por la patria (Las Ediciones del Ornitorrinco 1986) to universal acclaim. Since then she has published, among others, El Cuarto Mundo (Planeta 1988), El padre mío (Francisco Zegers 1989), Vaca sagrada (Planeta 1991), Los vigilantes (Editorial Sudamericana 1994), Los trabajadores de la muerte (Editorial Planeta Chilena 1998), Mano de obra (Editorial Planeta Chilena 2002), Jamás el fuego nunca (Editorial Periférica 2007), Impuesto a la carne (Seix Barral 2010), and Fuerzas Especiales (Seix Barral 2013). She has been honored repeatedly by international organizations, among them the Modern Language Association in the United States and Casa de las Americas in Havana, and has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the Fondo Nacional de Investigaciones, the Social Science Research Council, CONICYT, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In 2010, she received the Jose Donoso Iberoamerican Prize for Fiction. Eltit has also held positions as writer-in-residence at Brown University, Washington University in St. Louis, Columbia University, UC Berkeley, University of Virginia, Stanford University and Johns Hopkins University. For the 2014-2015 academic year she was appointed Simón Bolívar Visiting Professor at Cambridge University. She is currently the Distinguished Global Professor of Creative Writing in Spanish at NYU.X

Diamela Eltit: I can tell you that I arrived at the word “performance” though another term, which was “art actions.” That was my point of entry to these less formatted, more interdisciplinary practices. More, in certain ways... I wouldn’t say confused, but perhaps polysemic, like that space is, right? My first approach to performance was in the sense of producing certain aesthetic and artistic acts by utilizing multiple disciplines drawn from the gesture, the city, voice, that is to say, the body and all its stagings with other spaces, and especially those with a political function. But sure, I think that political functions are everywhere; there are no practices, be they individual, artistic, or occupational that do not have a political component. But in the most intense sense of performance, I think it is these aesthetic, fluid programs—some may be rigid but basically fluid—that will establish any given narrative. Many times it is a very open narrative that can be thought and rethought by its participants. But also, especially since a conversation with you, Diana [Taylor], I broadened my understanding of performance to think of it as an activity that can accompany life itself, in all its dimensions. Even life practices could be thought of as performatic because life practices are inserted in protocols and rituals—in familial, personal, or work rituals, and so on. And I think that it is there, in that protocol, where we could also talk about a performatic life, or about performatic lives unified to the multiplicity of the “I’s” that we carry, that is, each “I” of the multiple “I’s” that make up our identities, always ongoing, always difficult, complex and multiple. I believe that it is in that multiplicity where this performatic is inscribed in order to be able to operate in life in a possible way, because otherwise it would be very difficult.

Thus, by thinking of life itself as united to the concept of performance, we are also able to see the entire exterior space and its nodes of performatic, from the sometimes difficult or anguished to the most liberating. The most difficult might be those life practices that are more repressive or coercive, and the most liberating might be a ritual celebration, for example. Thanks to these insights I was able to think more broadly about performance and the performatic; from institutional performance, which is the way in which the institution generates its own space which can only emerge from certain rituals, to significant events that shake up history itself, conforming and confirming it, and sacralizing it, as well. So in this sense I think that it is very fertile territory. Thinking along these lines empowers not only people’s lives, but also gives them divine status, not in a religious sense but in the sense of staging—each person’s life becomes divine in its staging, acquiring a status linked to theater, to representation, mutation, in the sense that, yes, we are theatrical, yes, we mutate, yes, we obey the legacy of protocols and requirements, to the point of thinking history in a more precise way, also more complex, more mobile, more fluid: history and its movements.

Performance is also a specific praxis that is itself a very precise matrix, but I don’t think that it is the only space; performance is not reduced to what we have understood as performance, which is the staging of a event, an issue, or a problem. Moreover—and we already spoke about this, Diana—the Chilean student movement has been a historical milestone, and will remain a historical milestone for a century or more because it marked a breaking point with the status quo. Because the question is the following: If the student leaders have been saying the same thing for the last 40 or so years—if their demands, their needs, their skills, the beauty of their leaders in general, was the same—why did their message reach its most intensively effective point now? There are surrounding issues to consider, like the fact that the right triumphed and paradoxically liberated bodies, liberated them from a commitment to the Concertación, with which the majority of people did not identify. Nevertheless, it was the Concertación that guaranteed that the dictatorship was behind us. I believe that this is how, for many years, silence was maintained.

Secondly, Chile’s inequality is deepening; it is becoming the most unequal country in the world in some categories, and that is very dangerous. There is a social cauldron that is now mostly subdued, but it is going to explode because there is an element of discontent. But that was already there. Inequality has been a fact since the dictatorship, yet 20 years of inequality did not cause a social movement. So I think that what the students did was accept diversity. That was their great intelligence. And what was the diversity they accepted? It was to make collectives, small student collectives, in order to show themselves, or represent themselves within the movement; so that the movement, which is very big, could have focal points of self-representation. And that was their intelligence. How did they self-represent? They did it through performatic presentations. So it also had a carnivalesque element, in the broadest sense of the word, carnivalesque because in the presentation’s homogeneity there was a diversification of self-representation, and I think that this is what allowed it to grow.

On the other hand, that plurality of self-representation gave families security. Families worry about their children being in conflict with the State; they will worry that it could... well, perhaps we would all worry about our children being on the front lines of public protest, especially because the machinery of repression will inevitably turn against rebelling citizens. But that multiplicity of self-representations also allowed the parents themselves to self-represent in the self-representations. It seemed acceptable to some parents because it ranged from the lightest of tactics (balloons, kiss-ins, greetings, and so on, the most light, most simple, what comes through as the most basic instruments of media domination) to more complex issues, such as students—perhaps the most decisive ones—running for days and days around the Presidential Palace; while politicians wanted to enter the palace, they surrounded it, interrogated it, guarded it, and so on.

I think that this performatic strategy is an element that gave citizens some security, a certain security, and in another ways they always felt self-recognized: not only the students in their practices but also their parents, and later, citizens in general, who saw what was called the “good vibe” of the movement, with all that that implies, which could also open many questions on what is understood by “good vibe.” I’m not saying... there is always a point where one could make a critical intervention about the movement, celebrating it, but also making a critical intervention.

And in that sense there was another, parallel anti-movement space, which was that of the encapuchado. The students who wore hoods over their heads, broke with the performatic tactics of the broader movement, and displayed their own, which were more hardcore. These same hardcore students that attracted the condemnation of citizens and of the government, et cetera, confirmed the “good vibe” of the broader movement. For the others, it was even positive that this faction was there. And on the other hand, while the police had encapuchados as their target, they freed the others... and so on. There were many issues within this movement. I think it is complex to speak about with any closure. It has many issues pending.

Now, the other element is that [the student movement] was led by a militant Communist woman; we know that citizens everywhere reject the Communist Party. It has a following, but it also has high levels of opposition. But she nevertheless managed to transgress the barrier of anti-Communism for various reasons: because the students had already found a methodology, and that methodology of was the assembly and not a single leader. They were avoiding a rupture, they would not be broken, thus the leader’s militancy was controlled by the structure of the assembly. She was... Camila [Vallejo] is a great beauty, but her beauty was put at the service of the cause. She didn’t play into the usual places where women redeem beauty for its own sake. She put her beauty behind beauty. And on the other hand, she is cold-blooded, that is to say she always stood by her word, by what she said; she is a woman who controls her emotions very well. So in that sense she did not represent the feminine, even though she was very pretty. She did not cry, nor scream; she never made a scandal, which is how femininity is traditionally judged or condemned.

Vallejo also managed to go beyond the national. She was transformed into a Latin American icon, appearing in Time magazine as one of the 100 most important people, but she lost the election. I mean, that a person with such media capacity, such importance, with such capacity for international insertion, lost the election. So we could also think about gender issues, that a system could not support a woman like her. Now, she was a Communist analyst, but her legacy was so strong—her media, cultural, and political legacy—that she should have won, just as the system supported a Communist who led the movement, she should have been elected by a wide margin. I think there was a practice, a simultaneous movement within the students themselves, to limit their participation because of issues, gender issues; that’s how I see it.

Beyond establishing Vallejo’s leadership, a methodology was also established which is the plural. That is to say that is what we are seeing, which I think is also the case here in the US. That there are groups that self-represent in different ways. That is the matrix of the new; groups that are no longer so militarized, protest is no longer a militarized protest under the same signs, but driven by an issue or issues through which each group self-represents according to their cultural knowledge, which can range from the simplest to the most complex. I believe that this is what is new and that we must pay attention to the performatic, because it will also serve to narrate the stories of the 21st century, because, without thinking of centuries as definitive, or having such abrupt breaks, I think each change of century also brings new paradigms, precisely because the conventions are effective.

Something I have been thinking about is what the new stories and narratives of the 21st century will be. I think that we have one of them here, which is about joining forces, but not in that militarized fashion of the 20th century, where everyone followed a pre-assigned format. Instead what is assigned here is the demand, and the bodies construct the format. I think that is something that personally intrigues me. But of course, it is not resolved. I don’t have the answer, but I think that perhaps it presents a way to decompress the social and give it a new texture (or not a new texture, that may be too pretentious). Rather, to place it as one more texture among other politics would keep opening the performatic to all places of existence. I insist, from the most micro, from one class, unrepeatable and performatic, on a way of building alliances so that their voice may be heard by those who need to hear them. And for that, then, one should understand the other as Other, as diverse, but with that diversity you can build alliances; maybe not all, but some alliances.

So, in the Chilean case, it is a case that... here I saw it relatively, from the diversity of people in the plaza [Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street], also with the idea of the plaza as the center, as a center of sight, the need to be seen in public spaces. So I think that in this sense perhaps, well, the Chilean case is not one of the Outraged [Indignados], because the Chilean case is driven by a clear outrage which is visible in the students’ very subversive demand – free education. That is their issue: gratuity. So they are not outraged, they are calm; they are not completely at peace, but they are fighting to get to that point. The outrage has already passed, so they calmed down and organized. I think about that structure of the assembly mixed with self-representation and aesthetics—bodies, sayings, fits of images, of public spaces; they acted out Michael Jackson songs, and so on—they tended to the mass media more fully, even with tribal issues, indigenous issues, or science fiction issues. They did it all, but they got there. And the result was hundreds of thousands of people in the street, which has not been seen in a very long time.

"My first approach to performance was in the sense of producing certain aesthetic and artistic acts by utilizing multiple disciplines drawn from the gesture, the city, voice, that is to say, the body and all its stagings with other spaces, and especially those with a political function."

Diana Tayloe: And what, do you think, was the role of the traditional media and the new media?

: Look, the traditional media is generally in the hands of the right, so on the one hand they have to maintain an informational capacity, but on the other, they also produce it: they produce social reality. There is a social reality that produces itself and this, the other, produced by the media. The traditional media tries to downplay the protests, their permanent task was to discredit the leaders, but on the other hand it was news, it was a news story. So they focused on the most disruptive students, obviously on the most disruptive, understanding that this is relative because there is conflict. So the students who would throw stones became part of the aesthetic of the images of conflict. But they couldn’t break them either.

And on the other hand, the media has this very fluid discourse that is between the private and the public; between friends, affinities, motives, I believe we can see where the networks are going. Because there are still networks, and even though they are public, there is a private factor that has to do with affinities, with friends (how to make friends, as in Facebook) that pass through those structures that belong to a private universe. So I believe that there is still one more step to take, which has been very effective, but it remains at a curiously clandestine point. Curiously clandestine, although it is public. I am referring to the affective component that these very networks assign to themselves, which impedes that displacement of public journalistic discourses. I believe that is the reason they haven’t demarcated them, because otherwise they would be meaningless, it wouldn’t make sense for them to exist.

: Now when speaking of performance, one always has to consider efficacy, if it is an effective act, if it produces something. So how would you judge this whole student movement in terms of effectiveness?

: No, they managed to destabilize public imaginaries, political imaginaries, and social imaginaries because they cornered politics. They put traditional politics in a dark place, they corralled it, they denounced it, and in some way it lost its function. So the whole political spectrum had to be thought with the students, by the students, for the students. And the students, in turn, responded by showing precisely that professional politics was ineffectual. So first they controlled professional politics; the students completely controlled professional politics, given that deputies, senators, and ministers were sometimes placed in ridiculous situations, and that is very interesting, that efficacy, to say that politics itself has to redefine itself from there. And it has to redefine itself because it ended in a very dramatic place. And second is its latency; I believe that its efficacy is its latency. In all issues: it could be healthcare, it could be any of the contested areas. It is latency. And that is the most interesting thing in a system.

Diana: Super interesting. Thank you, Diamela.

: Thanks for speaking today, Diana.

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