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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Performance and Technology

Performance and Technology

Tavia Nyong’o, New York University

To introduce What is Performance Studies? via a thread on "performance and technology" is to call attention to the digital book’s form as much as its content. It is also, perhaps, to unsettle the distinction between the two, insofar as digital formats are rapidly changing the very nature of the texts, images, audio and video recordings, and other media they preserve and circulate. Content isn’t simply “uploaded” to the internet; the act of uploading changes it, beginning but not ending with the change of various analog media into digital binary code. Such changes are not always immediately apparent on the surface of discourse about performance. For example, following the thread through this book offered by tags such as #digital and #virtual will only take you to a few references, at least as of this writing. Such scattered references to technology contrast with the thick cross-referentiality that one might discover by following tags such as #embodiment or #methodology, which quickly take you to the center of a performance studies debate. Technology, by contrast, appears to float at the margins. But it also serves as the margins, insofar as the specific technologies of digital archiving and internet publishing provide the enabling frame for this discussion, serving up video interviews and performance documentation and hyperlinking the texts together. So if the relative emphasis of the interviews tells you one story about the constitution of the performance studies project, the availability of those interviews in this present format—as a digital, multilingual text with rich media and multiple, non-linear pathways—will tell another.

Performance studies is oriented towards the #live, towards #affect and relationality, and towards the minoritarian, dissident, and #queer. Such a project will often, and understandably, fall out of step with the contemporary march towards all things digital. Google Books represents one technological vision of universal accessibility of the world’s knowledge, courtesy of one multinational corporation and scornful of the value of local, perspectival, #ritual, or otherwise privileged knowledges. Performance studies champions ways of knowing and ways of being that fall between the cracks and crevices of such a flattened epistemology; it seeks rather to pluralize and multiply, even when such pluralism includes the right for certain knowledges and practices to remain obscure, offline, partial, or ephemeral. Performance does not present easily pliable data for digital formats to capture, store, or analyze as information. Efforts at digitalization are thus necessarily also exercises in #translation (as Diana Taylor and Marcos Steuernagel explore in their Introduction).

For every performance studies practitioner who enthusiastically embraces technologies (and this embrace extends to all kinds of technologies, not solely the digital ones I focus on in this brief introduction), there is many a purist who resists the encroachment of machines with various degrees of passive and active resistance. There is a hotly contested tradition in performance studies of defining performance as a #live presence that escapes all attempts to record or preserve it. Even those who do not adhere to this definition of performance do sometimes adhere to a #methodology that takes the live as primary and its mediation as secondary. (Derrideans might describe this method as a vestige of logocentrism, or the metaphysical priority of #voice over its written trace, but that is a discussion for another time). With the increased scarcity of resources available to the humanities encouraging disciplinary retrenchment in many #departments, it is sometimes tempting to accede to the simplest and most legible of definitions of live performance. The success of such a maneuver, paradoxically, would be that performance studies would have little to do with and even less to say regarding the pervasive technological transformations of society, art, and #politics.

One consequence of the privileging of the live as an object of analysis in performance studies is that technology has been discussed and debated largely in relation to its role in documentation and #archiving, rather than what it constructs and creates in its own right. For at least some, technology is of interest primarily, even exclusively, as a matter of providing mediated access to the real object of performance studies: the live and embodied performances themselves. This tendency in performance studies judges technology as Nietzsche sought to judge history, in terms of whether it is in "the service or disservice of life." The problem with consigning technology exclusively to the archive is that, put most simply, technological change is at least as much a matter of the future as it is about preserving the past. While the role of technology in expanding access to cultural #memory is indeed crucial—and has been where the humanities have so far made their biggest digital footprint—equally crucial is the way in which technology is shaping subjectivity, artistic expression, everyday life, and the #body itself. It would be a missed opportunity for performance studies to defer the analysis of these matters to other fields.

As strong as the tendency to sidestep technology is, or to restrict it to a supplemental role, there has long been a counter-tendency that seeks actively to incorporate technology into performance—the so-called intermedial practices. And there is now a parallel move to do the same in performance research—the so-called digital humanities. Far from framing performance first, followed by its documentation and #archiving, this latter tendency embraces the use of technology at every stage, from conception through execution. In its artistic version, its progenitors lie in mail art, artist videos and television, radio plays, and even certain modes of experimental writing. In its academic version, its cognates and interlocutors lie in the diverse fields of cinema studies, new media studies, critical code studies, and science and technology studies. Often, a strong social or activist dimension is present in contemporary performance strategies that actively engage technology, such as those that engage in tactical media or media hacking. The interventionist thrust of many (not all) intermedial arts and digital humanities projects can be situated within the present context of academic research. Such interventions are both symptoms and critical engagements of the reality that science and technology are stated priorities for almost every major university, research foundation, and national government. Performance studies, having long cultivated the art of being in but not always of the institutions, will increasingly have to navigate the promises and perils of these new affordances.

Let me close on a personal note, since writing this preface has presented an affordance of its own: the prized possibility of revision. Watching my own videotaped interview presented in this volume more than half a decade after its original taping, I am confronted by the uncanny doubling of the digital archive and its possible dissemination into the future as my statement on what my field is and what I am doing within it. Why is the doubling uncanny? It is undeniably me on the recording, after all, looking not all that much changed between then and now. I am answering a question that remains topical. Indeed, I was asked it just yesterday. “What is performance studies?” “What is it exactly that you do?” And yet, I confess that I am very far from being satisfied enough with my documented answer. The performance of expertise I am visibly mustering dissatisfies me now. I am of the opinion that my past self is too aware of the public, even diplomatic, occasion of my interview. I have not practiced enough to appear natural; I have not rehearsed sufficiently to speak extemporaneously. In Schechner’s terms, it is neither “not me” nor “not-not me.” It is just me, a fact I find not very performative. I respectfully cite disciplines—history, anthropology, cultural studies, literature. I allude to debates and controversies. I carefully mention keywords. But the sum total of this effort, I am afraid, gets very little of what I am earnestly attempting across. And to cap it all, watching the interview again, I am repeatedly distracted by the enigmatic phrase “his eyes only see,” which is caught at the top of the camera person’s frame, and which floats above my head throughout the interview, as if mocking my attempt at eloquence or succinctness.

What seems so uncanny, finally, is not what I am saying or failing to say, but that I am saying it, that this particular vignette should be uploaded, translated, and nestled in metadata, to be preserved for posterity, for you, to see. It seems this occasion has something to do with the larger theme of “performance and technology,” an aspect we do not often broach. In Culture and Value, the philosopher Wittgenstein offers us the following scenario:

Engelmann told me that when he rummages round at home in a drawer full of his own manuscripts, they strike him as so splendid that he thinks it would be worth making them available to other people[...] But when he imagines publishing a selection of them the whole business loses its charm and value and becomes impossible. I said that it was like the following case: Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing a man who thinks he is unobserved performing some quite simple #everyday activity. Let us imagine a theatre; the curtain goes up and we see a man alone in a room, walking up and down, lighting a cigarette[...] surely this would be uncanny and wonderful at the same time[...] But then, we do see this every day without its making the slightest impression on us! True enough, but we do not see it from that point of view[...]

Wittgenstein goes on to associate the work of art and the work of thought as twin vehicles for reaching “that point of view,” at once “uncanny and wonderful.” “A work of art forces us,” Wittgenstein comments, “to see it in the right perspective.” Wittgenstein and his friend Paul Engelmann employ the technologies of their day—the printing press and the #proscenium stage—in their speculations on the means of arriving at that “right perspective”—is it called performance? Grasping for its mercurial form, they see the quotidian and ordinary transmogrify into the fantastic and otherworldly, and back again. They pursue the forgotten and failed through their virtual triumph before the eyes of the world before backtracking, suddenly, behind the curtain. To employ that same speculative force to the tools and networks of our day and the day after tomorrow would seem to be a future for performance studies that still lies beyond our horizon.

Works Cited

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1980. Culture and Value. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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