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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Performance, Politics, and Protest

Performance, Politics, and Protest

Marcela A. Fuentes, Northwestern University

Performance, defined as structured behavior, always carries with it a consideration of the politics of embodiment. Using performance as an analytic lens to study everyday behavior we are able to see how different notions of corporeality are produced and contested: from the practices and regulations that shape racial formations to the normative scripts that structure everyday performances of gender and sexuality, and from the carefully crafted presentations of politicians to equally crafted and equally contingent popular demonstrations. The relationship between performance and politics informs a wide range of behaviors, subjects, and agents, spanning from individual bodies to protest bodies.

As Diana Taylor mentions in her intervention in this book, performance is a concept that encompasses both normative protocols, as well as resistance to them. Both undertakings of performance may be present in one single event: while as protestors participating in a large-scale protest we may be disrupting structures of power, as subjects identified within the male/female spectrum we most likely would be playing by established gender norms.

Contemporary activism in both its “live” and online deployments exposes the intertwined relationship between aesthetics and politics. Though historically there have been numerous examples of tactical uses of embodied behavior within so-called civil disobedience events—for example, Gandhi’s peaceful sit-ins, Rosa Parks’ refusal to comply with segregationist rules, and the rounds of the mothers of the disappeared in Argentina and beyond—contemporary protests rely heavily on symbolic elements and uses of the body to communicate claims across borders and languages. Anchored in the society of the spectacle, demonstrators put in practice a variety of communicative styles and mobilizing techniques that include strategic uses of non-linguistic, embodied actions as statement. These practices, such as pots and pans protests (cacerolazos) and impromptu assemblies or consultas, which originated in Latin America, are appropriated by progressive and conservative movements alike, locally and globally. In some cases, such as within the Occupy Movement or in diasporic contexts, the fact of citing a specific protest tactic creates historical continuity and ideological affinity across borders.

This “performatic literacy” demonstrates how contemporary protestors are building on and expanding previous repertoires of protest. More and more we witness and participate in local and global acts of protest and solidarity that entail visual, aural, and behavioral figurations evaluated by demonstrators as effective ways of making claims, reclaiming spaces, and denouncing abusive conditions. For example, in 2011 in Chile, students danced Michael Jackson’s "Thriller" (now a classic Flash Mob choreography) to oppose the Chilean state’s policies of defunding public education. Jackson’s zombies clearly conveyed the protestors’ understanding of the embodied effect (drawing vital energy from otherwise youthful beings) of the government’s neoliberal turn regarding education. Similarly, in Canada, students appropriated the tactic of banging pots and pans that emerged in the 70s in Chile to reject impending tuition hikes. Both groups of students, Chilean and Canadian, considered these choreographed actions to be effective tools to get national and international attention and to put pressure on the government towards a favorable result. Both performances, the flash mob choreography and the pots and pans protests, are methods of amplifying the reach and tone of the local protests, and both carry the potential of being replicated in other parts of the world, creating networks of empathy and nodes within a larger social movement against neoliberalism and neoconservatism.

This replication of protest performances does not happen exclusively in synchronic time-space. While the aforementioned protests took place in situ, in public venues to which people converged, they also “traveled” and could be joined by supporters across the world. In addition to people forwarding information and “liking” the YouTube videos of these demonstrations posted on Facebook, pots and pans protests, for example, were replicated online. Sympathizers found each other on Twitter via the # sign and clicking on tags in other social media. This was the digital iteration of what the sound of pots and pans accomplish in street protest. These digital means made the protest noticeable and traceable just like the cacophonic sounds that emerge in public space. Protestors banging pots and pans and grouping around #cacerolazo or #casserole demonstrate how convergence today is achieved in different spaces and sites through techniques that include digital and networked modalities of affecting supporters. Online cacerolazos show how the digital is now an integral part of protest acts. Contemporary demonstrators find ways of connecting the live and the distributed, the in situ and the mediated by streaming events in real time, sharing documentation of past rallies, or (while in physical protests) carrying with them signs advertising social media sites where supporters may continue networking after the event is over. The physical and the digital are intertwined and feed on each other.

Contemporary multi-sited protests challenge scholars to rethink their notions of embodiment beyond the biological body, as well as their notions of in situ performance that complicate previous notions of site-specificity. Online performances expand the ways in which performance is redefined as an embodied, live, and in-situ event commenting on and intervening in current transnational digital capitalism.

Protest performances also bring up the question of the value and efficacy of embodied, symbolic events, online and offline. Scholars from different disciplines employ performance as an analytic lens to widen the parameters that seem appropriate to measure the role and impact of symbolic behavior in regards to social change. Taking performatic protests seriously, even if their longterm results cannot be immediately discerned, allows us to explore contemporary political subjectivities (not all necessarily progressive in their ends) and the ways in which the relationship between human action and politics is being redefined in postcolonial, neoliberal, and neoconservative contexts with overlapping systems and legacies of oppression and resistance.

This Scalar book covers a broad range of case studies, issues, and histories that have to do with the relationship between performance and politics in a general sense and with structured protests or dissenting acts in particular. The interviewed scholars discuss issues related to performance and politics in the context of the Iraq War (Schechner and Pellegrini), gender violence in Mexico (Reguillo), indigenous culture in Mexico (Serna) and Chile (Falabella), the aforementioned Chilean student protests (Eltit), the now historical interventions organized by ACT UP (Browning), and performances by artists contesting the normative policing of gender and sexuality (Case), amongst other examples. 

Coming from disparate disciplines and methodologies, the scholars featured in this book meditate on the politics of performance at different scales. They address the importance both of performance proper (a framed event) within social movements and activism, as well as the social relevance of performance as a critical lens. In order to study as performance behaviors and events not considered “performance” a priori, scholars draw from methodologies of analysis from theater, dance, anthropology, and visual and digital culture. They rely on these interdisciplinary methodologies to study, for example, what simulation, theatricality, and performativity accomplish when used as part of acts of protest.

In her interview, Mexican scholar Rossana Reguillo, coming from communication studies, brings out the concept of “dramaturgical action” (based on Jürgen Habermas' work) as the mid-1980s precursor to the current interest in the aesthetic dimensions of the political (a focal concern that within the social sciences today is called the “performative turn”). According to Reguillo, “dramaturgical action” referred to performative acts aimed to produce political effects. Reguillo characterizes the analytic attention paid to the link between the aesthetic and political dimensions of public protests as an effort to understand social mobilization “through the decomposition or deconstruction of its aesthetic, ethical components, the use of language, the use of the body.” Despite the fact that performance studies in her view has not consolidated as a field in Latin America, for Reguillo performance studies provides the methodologies needed to restore complexity to the study of actions employed by activists and demonstrators to raise awareness and effect change. Methodologies that are part of what we are calling here the field of performance studies provide the necessary analytical tools to avoid a superficial anesthetization of culture and to instead focus on the political implications and effects brought about by the use of aesthetic elements by protestors and activists. Reguillo conceptualizes the performative in political acts as “the languages of Others, other languages.” Without losing focus on the concrete agendas and messages conveyed by social movements, Reguillo is interested in their tactics, in the “capacity to laugh at power” and “the capacity of imagination” actualized by current mobilizations. Reguillo views “performance” as a useful term to characterize these operations and as a word that haunts and complicates traditional approaches from the social sciences.

Based on their work on persecuted minorities and “abject” bodies, Patrick Anderson, a US scholar of performance and communication studies, and Soledad Falabella, a theoretician who works on performance, literature, and indigeneity in Chile, link performance and politics to the question of ethics. While these scholars recognize the importance of performance in changing power dynamics, they are also very much concerned about “following up” with the communities they study (Anderson), as well as addressing those bodies that are framed as abject in terms of gender, sexuality, race, and/or ethnicity (Falabella). This means focusing not only on that which emerges through performance, but also in those moments and beings that fall out of view. These scholars stress the fact that performance is an empowering tool for those undertaking that path, as well as a frame that creates for scholars a responsibility to pay attention to the non-performed as well. In that regard, Anderson, who studies hunger strikes and other extreme performances, states that “performance isn’t merely an allegory for thinking about prison strikes, but requires that we pay attention to how scholarship has effects that impinge directly upon the scenes we’re thinking about.” As an analytic lens focused on the politics of behavior, performance demands that scholars reflect on their own practice as a performance of power/ knowledge, becoming accountable for the possible and actual effects of research findings and scholarly discourses on the performances and performers we study. Similarly, Falabella acknowledges performance as both an object of study and a lens through which to analyze the material and subjective constitutions of public space as a political space. Speaking from Latin America, she calls attention to the way in which certain “abject bodies” have not had this access to public space as a space of political constitution and remain cast as “infrahuman.”

Chilean artist and intellectual Diamela Eltit shares two approaches to performance. The first is as an artist who has produced “aesthetic acts,” staging the body in spaces with a political function. Eltit was a member of CADA (Colectivo de Acciones de Arte or Actions Art Collective), an artist collective that carried out multi-sited performances in non-artistic and artistic sites mostly during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Her first approach is then as a maker of performances that stress art’s social relevance by interpellating those in power, as well as the art market. Eltit’s second approach to performance in the interview featured in this book comes from her analysis of the use and effects of performance within the student protests of 2011 and beyond. Following an expanded notion of performance (seeing life as performance beyond what is itself a performance, such as the actions she created with CADA) Eltit analyzes how performance (structured symbolic acts) played a central role in the success of the Chilean student movement. Contrary to the way in which social movements are usually defined based on their homogenous constitution, Eltit locates the efficacy of the mobilized students on their multiple focal points: “[Students] formed collectives, small student collectives, in order to show themselves or to represent themselves within the movement; so that the movement, which is very big, could have focal points of self-representation.” According to Eltit, performance was a vital element used by students to represent their different focal points and political statements in ways that were easily graspable. Students’ protests employed carnivalesque elements and included materials and events considered “light” (especially vis-à-vis the Latin American repertoire of dissident political acts), such as balloons, kiss-ins, greetings, and big scale events involving the Presidential Palace (students ran around it, symbolically guarding it, questioning it, and the like.) These performances transmitted for Eltit a sense of safety in that they were confrontational in a non-violent way. The students’ performances shaped what Eltit characterizes as the “good vibe” of the movement, and this worked tactically as parents and other social sectors expressed their empathy with the movement and saw themselves represented in their claims even though the student protests initially only tackled the issue of education funding. These performances and the speeches by student leaders such as Camila Vallejo ultimately revealed in multi-layered ways the ideologies behind the government’s management of education as business and the protestors’ opposing view of education as a social good.

These examples of uses of performance as structured behavior and as analytic lens involving interdisciplinary methodologies demonstrate the richness of a concept and approach that is focused on the ways in which the aesthetic and the political intersect and ignite each other. The conversations and emphases I focused on here are just a few of the different political issues that performance opens up. In this book you can find many others, including the politics of oral culture and history, pedagogy, embodied belief, and historiography, as well as hemispheric dialogues about studies of performance and the (contested) constitution of an academic field which has a multiplicity of origins, re-tracings, and futures.

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