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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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Soledad Falabella

Interview with Soledad Falabella (2011)
Professor Soledad Falabella Luco is the director of ESE:O, a nonprofit organization which promotes performative writing projects and the teaching and practice of writing to empower learning communities with effective skills for local and global participation in knowledge production and circulation ( She teaches feminist critical theory, performance, and poetry at the Magíster en Género y Cultura, Universidad de Chile. Dr. Falabella brings over 15 years of experience in academia and has taught and conducted research internationally. As an "academic and cultural activist," she is committed to developing creative ways to promote social change by combining pedagogy, research, activism, and the arts. Falabella holds a PhD in Hispanic Literature and Languages from the University of California, Berkeley. Books: ¿Qué será de Chile en el Cielo? - Poema de Chile de Gabriela Mistral (LOM 2003), Hilando en la Memoria: Curriao, Huinao, Millapan, Manquepillan, Panchillo, Pinda, Rupailaf, the first anthology of Mapuche women poets (Cuarto Propio 2006), Hilando en la Memoria, Epu Rupa (Cuarto Propio 2009), Cantando la infancia, Chile y la tierra Americana Poetic Anthology of Gabriela Mistral for boys and girls from 4-6 years old (Ministry de Education 2008).X

Soledad Falabella: Hello, my name is Soledad Falabella, I work at the Universidad de Chile. I am also associated with the Department of Creative Literature at Universidad de Diego Portales. In addition, I direct an NGO [nongovernmental organization] called ESE:O, which is dedicated to action-based research.

Diana Taylor: Thank you, Soledad. Tell me a little bit about how you understand performance studies.

: I understand performance studies from the perspective of literature, which is the discipline I come from. But I understand performance studies as a theoretical necessity that allows us to develop tools that go beyond the disciplinary. So, the first thing I would say is that I understand performance studies as an eminently interdisciplinary activity in which literature, anthropology, also theater and the study of dramaturgy, and the production—with questions of politics, memory, and human rights—all intersect.

: Described in this way, are there institutions in Chile where performance studies are taught?

: I would say that in Chile there are different schools of performance studies. I studied at the Universidad de Chile in the Literature Department, and that’s where we were introduced to performance and everything that has to do with the performative qualities of language, both through the line of psycholinguistics, where we worked with cognitive linguistics, [John] Searle, [J.L.] Austin, etc. and read all the “classics” of performative speech. I would also say that there was also a very interesting recovery of the older texts, such as [Jacques] Benveniste. I think it is Benveniste who speaks about the acts of enunciation, so that’s where we crossed into literature, and we focused on the idea of oral tradition, both in studies of the medieval period, as well as on authors and poets such as Violeta Parra, Gabriela Mistral, the whole indigenous aspect, pre-Columbian and post-Columbian, the colonization of indigenous cultures, how this gets translated into text, and what is left on the page, and what is left aside. And that is where I would say that the literary has a history that is constituted through the years, I would say starting from the 1930s, one can see theoretical texts that speak of these phenomena. This does not mix, however, with studies of performance that come out of the visual arts. There is another genealogy there, a genealogy that is much more linked to happenings, which identifies with a culture that is more Anglo and linked to England and the US in the 1960s and 70s. And there, for example, is CADA...

Diana: Art Collection…

: ...where this interdisciplinary enunciation occurs from different lines, and it is very much thought of as neo-vanguard and as a response to a particular political moment. Now, with respect to where this work, in particular, is situtated, I would say that it is pretty nomadic; it depends on the professors, where the professors are working from, where they are hired, where they are going. It’s a very migratory thing. There is another area that is also very important to mention, which is the area of memory linked to human rights. And there, everything that is performance considered through social psychology. For example, it was ARCIS University, [Universidad de Artes y Ciancias Sociales] where Isabel Piper was teaching, which organized, I believe, one of the first conferences on performance and memory in Chile in the 90s or at the beginning of the 2000s. So there is an area, also, that I would say is not very active today, which deals mostly with the question. What we mostly see is the issue of the visual arts. However, there are these other theoretical substrata installed there, but they have difficulty finding points of dialogue. I would say that in Chile performance studies has a certain fragility due to the lack of places that bring them together, and also lack of capacity for dialogue among us. For example, in this sense I would say that in the Theatre Department at the Universidad Católica, for example, María de la Luz Hurtado has done work documenting the performance of women’s bodies in different moments of Chilean history and how the constitution of gender is staged, linking it to a vision of civil rights, of access to the public sphere, and democratization, as well, which is marvelous work, very fine. She is there. Then there is Mauricio Barría who works the theme of performance more from a European perspective, which works with stage and the moment of appearance on the stage as a place of suspension, and he is at the Universidad de Chile. We still need more moments to come together, moments of encounter.

“What I like most about performance studies [is the] possibility to work public space as a political space of the constitution of materiality and subjectivity... thinking about the bodies that emerge in the public sphere as bodies that are valid, legitimate, and authorized to not represent, but to have power. And which are the abject bodies that are considered infrahuman”

Diana: But it’s interesting that you see performance in a comprehensive way. That is to say, that it includes both performance art, which is what is normally understood as “performance” in Latin America, as well as the interdisciplinary, theoretical part: performance as an epistemic lens to understand a series of relations. That seems interesting to me.

Soledad: Yes. I would say that that is what is most valuable: that all of us come with a strong theoretical background, and that this is precisely what allows us to find points of intersection and to link them to the political, which is what I like most about the performative and performance studies as a possibility to work public space as a political space of the constitution of materiality and subjectivity. From there, I would say that in my own seminars I work the line... I work with the intervention of the epistemic lens you describe, say, in your writing, and I mix that with Judith Butler’s works, also thinking about the bodies that emerge in the public sphere as bodies that are valid, legitimate, and authorized not represent, but to have power. And which are the abject bodies that are considered infrahuman. And in that sense, there is also the question of gender and sexuality that seems to be an urgent issue to discuss in Latin America because we have racial, class, and sexual discrimination, which are issues we have to address, which we need to tackle.

Diana: So in your own work, in your research, how do you use performance? It seems to me, then, like that epistemic lens or...

: Epistemic? Yes, I work it in two ways. On the one hand, I treat it as an epistemic lens to enunciate this opportunity; I see it as an opportunity to break, and to put in relation, and to become conscious of everything you bring in to the scene when you exercise theoretical and critical analysis. On the other hand, I also see academic work as a performance, where we constitute a scene in a classroom or wherever we choose to act, and we carry out acts which we should be taking charge of, as political activity and in terms of their materiality, I mean, what type of bodies are we constructing? In what language? How do we want them to circulate in society? How do we want them to appear and what are their political aims? How are we going to relate ethically with this flux that is part of the scene of performance? So I also think about the work of teaching and the activity of cultural management as an activity that is deeply, in my case, marked by performance studies, that has been fed by that debate, and that gives force to academia, that finds strength and also reason for being, as a back up to saying, “Look, what I am doing makes sense, it’s ok to push these limits, it is not crazy to invade the university with a performance that could be disruptive to the administration or to the authorities.” It’s also a bit about questioning academic ceremony as a prefigured space, with quite a sacred codification.

Diana: And your students, are they interested in performance studies? Is it something that they understand as an emerging field or something that they are looking at, little by little, in different ways, as a field of study?

Soledad: My students love it. The truth is that when I propose the possibility to read performance, I mean studies of performance, and make their own academic work as students, writers, and creators, in the end it is an invitation for them to be creators. To tell them, “What you do is important, and it is going to have repercussions; it is political, critical, and can be creative. Keep going. You are actors, this is an action.” Many things are released. We apply this to thesis writing, for example, and theses that are different from the traditional canon of theses have emerged, and they say, “Well, we must be consistent with what we are proposing in terms of content, what happens with language if I hold this theoretical position?” and some students have been very successful in carrying out projects, creating a new language from this impetus to take it seriously, to believe in it. So I would say that performance studies at the level of teaching itself, of day to day teaching, is a very vitalizing energy.

: Good. Many thanks, Sole.

: You’re welcome. Thanks to you, Diana.

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