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What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, Author

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What is Performance Studies? Introduction

What is Performance Studies?

Diana Taylor, New York University
Marcos Steuernagel, New York University Abu Dhabi

What is performance studies? Is it a discipline, an inter-discipline, a post-discipline? How has performance studies become institutionalized in departments throughout the Americas? How do some of these ideas travel, and what happens to them as they do so? What are some of the common topics and points of conflict, and what are some of the more local concerns? This Scalar digital book asks these and other questions to 30 leading scholars from seven different countries throughout the Americas. As it does so, it addresses its title question not by answering it, but by providing a multiplicity of voices in the active process of engaging with an ever-changing and dynamic field from a variety of national, linguistic, and disciplinary locations.

During the early years of this project, Diana Taylor was Chair of the Department of Performance Studies at NYU and Director of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics (Hemi), which she had co-founded in 1998 with three colleagues from Latin America: Javier Serna of Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León (Mexico), Zeca Ligiéro of UNIRIO (Brazil), and Luis Peirano of Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. Both Serna and Ligiero had been PhD students in Performance Studies from NYU with tenured jobs at their universities—a common scenario in Latin America in a moment when universities were eager to increase the number of PhDs on their faculties. Peirano was Dean of the School of Communication and interested in promoting inter- and trans-disciplinary projects. Our conversations at the time focused on how to create what we then referred to as a “corridor” to exchange visual and video materials, share readings, and teach joint courses using a performance studies lens. Performance studies was not by any means a recognized “field” in Latin America back then, so one of the first tasks was to interview recognized scholars who could offer an array of definitions of what the term meant to them and their work.

In 2001 and 2002, Diana Taylor interviewed five colleagues from Performance Studies at NYU—Richard Schechner, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara Browning, José Muñoz, André Lepecki—asking them to identify the basic tenets, if any, of performance studies. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett interviewed Taylor. These interviews were short, definitional “takes” on an emergent field, intended to be shared with our Latin American colleagues. The idea was to upload them to the Hemispheric Institute website and continue to expand the series. Books do not circulate easily around the Americas. As Anabelle Contreras notes in her interview, “books are very expensive[...] we photocopy books, we clone them, we scan them, and we find ways to circulate knowledge...” Yet, as anyone who remembers what the Internet could and could not do back in the early 2000s can confirm, digital circulation was easier imagined than carried forward. NYU’s Information Technology Services and Libraries worked with us, and, after a couple of years, we were able to upload these first interviews into our old “archive” section. In 2002, we also interviewed the first Latin American scholar for this project, Jesús Martín Barbero, the major theorist of media and mediations from Colombia. But the technical difficulties of uploading video, combined with the radical instability of our website at that time, dissuaded us from vigorously pursuing the project, though we did not forget about it.

The long time period of this project, with interviews ranging from 2002 to 2013—usually made on-the-go in order to take advantage of other Hemi-related travel and events—comes through visually when watching the interviews today. Over the timespan of more than a decade, the access to high definition video equipment has changed significantly, but so has our relationship to the performance of recording, uploading, and watching video online. As Tavia Nyong’o points out in his contribution to this book, “Performance and Technology,” the act of uploading changes content as it changes our relationship to it. When we watch some of the older videos in this book, we can see how much the interviewees have changed, as their ideas have matured or as they have moved to different institutions or levels in their academic careers. But we can also see how we have changed as viewers, since the video-interview-as-performance has also transformed significantly over this period. To pay attention to this performance—to the differences in audio and video quality, or even in compression and resolution—is to contemplate what Nyong’o calls “the uncanny doubling of the digital archiving and its possible dissemination into the future,” starting from a time before phones with cameras were commonplace and before YouTube provided a digital site to post videos.

Back in 2007, when Performance Studies international (PSi) held its 13th annual conference once again in New York City, we at Hemi decided to resume the project: Joseph Roach, Tracy Davis, Rebecca Schneider, Patrick Anderson, Bill Worthen, and others were in town. Marcial Godoy-Anativia, Associate Director of the Hemispheric Institute, participated in the project. In the same year, we also interviewed other guests and visiting faculty such as Daphne Brooks, Kay Turner, and Holly Hughes, as well as new NYU faculty at the time: Ann Pellegrini, Jill Lane, and Tavia Nyong’o. Hemispheric Institute events throughout Latin America allowed for the inclusion of more Latin American scholars, first Anabelle Contreras in 2007, then Antonio PrietoLeda Martins, Beth Lopes, and co-founders of Hemi, Javier Serna and Zeca Ligiéro, in 2011. That same year we took advantage of visits by Rossana Reguillo and Soledad Fallabella. Diamela Eltit, a renowned practitioner and thinker about performance in residence at NYU as Global Professor of Creative Writing in Spanish, added another major Latin American perspective. Interestingly, if we had started interviewing these Latin American scholars earlier, this would have been a very different conversation—in the early 2000s, the small group of scholars who worked in performance studies hemispherically had to repeatedly remind interlocutors that we were not referring to performance art, as both Antonio Prieto and Zeca Ligiéro mention in their interviews. By the early 2010s, performance studies was understood as a methodology, a lens, “as an activity that can accompany life itself, in all its dimensions...” (see Diamela Eltit). 

As a project born out of the Hemispheric Institute and the Department of Performance Studies at NYU, the matrix of faces in the interviews page reflects a specific history and network of relationships, a network that has expanded and developed as the project unfolded throughout these 13 years. Much more than a claim to a specific genealogy of performance studies, however, this particular selection reflects our own history within the diversity of narratives that form this rich field, a diversity Sue-Ellen Case insists on in her interview. Case’s own addition illustrates the serendipity of this particular collection, recorded as it was during a visit of hers to Mexico in 2010. With that in mind, since its initial stages the interviews in What is Performance Studies? have expanded outwards to include important scholars who had time to meet with us, such as Catherine Cole in 2013, and finally Laura Levin, who added a much needed Canadian voice to the hemispheric dialogue. We hope that this expansion continues to happen, as our networks and connections continue to grow. Throughout these years, however, the focus and the format of the interviews has remained basically the same, producing a rich patchwork of diverse voices responding to similar issues throughout a long period of time.

What is Performance Studies?, however, is much more than a collection of video interviews; its format as a Scalar digital book allows for the multiplicity of voices to form an argument about the diversity of the field. After years of experimenting with digital publications, from the early web cuadernos we started in 2000 to the trilingual peer-reviewed journal e-misférica, Hemi decided to develop digital books. The breakthrough came in 2009 when we partnered with Tara McPherson at the University of Southern California. McPherson was developing the Scalar platform to allow scholars to publish their materials digitally, pulling from archives to integrate multimedia materials in various visual formats. Although Hemi originally joined as an archive (offering Scalar authors the possibility of pulling video directly from the Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library), it was clear from the beginning that this platform would allow us to publish our books in three languages—English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Translation has always been at the heart of the Hemispheric Institute, a network of over 40 institutions speaking three colonial languages (now four, with the addition of French) in addition to native languages from throughout the Americas. Since our very first Encuentro, held in Rio de Janeiro in 2000, our capacity to come together, share work, and build relationships of collaboration and exchange has depended on each individual’s ability to self-express in the languages that best capture the nuances of his or her thought and action. Academic books, on the other hand, tend to have a hard time crossing national and linguistic barriers. The possibility of not only publishing a digital book, but also making it simultaneously available throughout the Americas spoke directly to our mission of being a collaborative, multilingual, and interdisciplinary network of institutions, artists, scholars, and activists throughout the Americas. What is Performance Studies? is not only translated into three languages, it is a truly trilingual book. Each of the interviews, which were originally recorded in English, Spanish, or Portuguese, have been fully transcribed, subtitled, and translated into the two other languages, and the subtitles can be dynamically changed in both computers and tablets.

Beyond the benefits of a trilingual publication, the tags in this Scalar book also function as a kind of index in the digital—they identify the key concepts concepts of performance studies being discussed in each interview and are accompanied by anchors in the transcript, which offer the reader a visual guide to the exact moment when these concepts are first discussed: embodiment, protest, indigeneity, behavior, liveness, (post/de)colonialism, et cetera. Each of the transcripts also includes full references for books and essays cited in them, as well as links to institutions or artists that are mentioned throughout. These links offer a digital version of the networked nature of the work of the Hemispheric Institute, continuously opening up new possibilities to follow the genealogies of performance studies that the interviewees describe. These online networks are particularly relevant for performance studies, a field so deeply invested in the live presence of the body. In her contribution to this book, “Performance, Politics, and Protest,” Marcela Fuentes describes how, as protest performance travels online, it challenges “scholars to rethink their notions of embodiment beyond the biological body” and to “expand the ways in which performance is redefined as an embodied, live, and in-situ event.” This is just one example of how the four essays included provide critical entry points to these interviews from different yet complementary perspectives. The multiplicity of ways of navigating this book replicates its argument for a continuously expanding genealogy of the field.

As technologies change, then, we have found more tools to work together and link our perspectives. Yet every technological development raises its own new questions. Even a simple navigational structure such as a tag produces significant conceptual stumbling blocks and illustrates the complexity of this seemingly straightforward endeavor. How, for example, do you translate the tag "embodiment” into Spanish and Portuguese? Does the fact that “embodiment" does not have an exact equivalent in those (and many other) languages ask us to consider those qualities that prove central to the term—i.e., does embodiment = “the body?” (Corps, corpus, corpse?) Or does it refer to a knowing body or a memory body or even a muscle body? Could we use incarnation (no—rings of Catholicism) or incorporation (too much like business) to translate it? How about a “puesta en cuerpo” or “posto em corpo”–a mise-en-body as opposed to mise-en-scène? Does embodiment transcend the body? (We can think of Merleau-Ponty’s question of whether the blind man’s body ends with the skin or at the end of the stick.) Can “embodiment” extend to intercorporeality? Or the digital, as the protest performances discussed by Fuentes? To multiple, simultaneous forms of embodiment (a dream state, a traumatic flashback, spirit-possession)? Has the shift to the digital precipitated the current foregrounding of the term embodiment, asking other languages to adopt this productive multivalence? Much of the vocabulary in performance studies comes from English. This poses a fascinating issue for multilingual books. Not only “embodiment,” but the word “performance” itself, so central to theorizations of corporeal practice in the English-speaking academy, are not native to the other languages we work with. Of course, as Marcos Steuernagel points out in his contribution to this book “The (Un)translatability of Performance Studies,” “‘teatro’ and ‘dança/danza’ were once Portuguese and Spanish words trying as hard—and failing as bad—to grasp what we would now call performance practices of the pre-Conquest world.” So how far back do we have to go to say that performance studies is more “gringo” than, say, “Brazilian theater, or Colombian dance?” And are these words, then, necessarily, redundant? Or do they help expand our thinking to include the many ways that the “body” is itself a product of social regimes and performativity?

The advantages of adopting foreign terms such as "performance" may far outweigh the impossibilities of translation, so here we have rendered the tag “embodiment” as “corporeidade” and “corporalidad,” even if these do not capture all the possibilities of the English word. This usage signals not only a cultural awareness of the body, but also the awareness that the lens comes from English. We also, however, translate the tag “performático,” which Diamela Eltit uses in her interview in Spanish, to “performatic,” a use that, as Diana Taylor suggests in her contribution to this book “Acts of Transfer” (from The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas), signals the “performatic and visual fields as separate from, though always embroiled with, the discursive one so privileged by Western logocentricism.” We thus reinforce or critique a particular history of use. Certainly discussions about translating terminology date way back, but dealing with these issues on the level of tags pushes technologies as much as it pressures theorists to expand the underlying categories and structures of thought.

The cover of the book, then, reflects three different ways of entering it. Any of the three languages will include both original interviews and interviews in translation. But this also reflects the general purpose of the book, since as Steuernagel writes in his essay, “to ask the question in Portuguese or in Spanish is to ask it differently.” By doing so, What is Performance Studies? is able to reflect a multiplicity of voices and create a conversation among people who haven’t necessarily met, but who are thinking about similar issues in very different contexts. Finally, the book offers yet another instance of this multiplicity, an extensive (though by no means exhaustive) bibliography of different ways in which performance studies has been thought of and conceptualized throughout the Americas.

The interviews, the framing essays by theorists, the bibliography, and, yes, even the tags, anchors, transcripts, translations, and subtitles indicate the many points of dialogue and dis- or inter-connection among us as we consider “what is performance studies?” As Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett suggests in her interview, performance studies is an “organizing idea for thinking about almost anything.” We hope this Scalar digital trilingual book opens new paths for thinking through, in, and with performance studies in the Americas.

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