Moving Bodies: An Anthropological Approach to Performance Art, pp. 87-91, Master’s Thesis, Vienna University
Alicja Khatchikian, 2016
“We enter the room and are invited to remain standing. At the center of the space, the artist stands motionless. Few meters in front of her, a plant in a vase is positioned on the floor. The two face each other, tracing an imagined diagonal line. Manuela starts moving: the body is shifted forwards; her arms fall along the hips. Steps are slow and controlled. The entire body is tensed towards the plant. I notice some expressions on her face but it takes me few seconds before I understand: a thin, long white thread connects the plant to her mouth. The thread is almost imperceptible. She chews it step by step, centimetres after centimetres, keeping it stretched. The more she ap- proaches the plant, the more her expressions become visible. She starts getting lower and low- er, until she kneels next to it. Her head confuses within the foliage; it shakes. Some soil falls on the ground. A small bag reveals a white reel. Manuela stands up and moves towards a man: she gives him the thread, walks to the opposite side of the room while unrolling the reel and gives the extremity to another man. She breaks the thread and offers it to another person; she walks on the opposite side of the room and gives the extremity to another person. My turn arrives: after some minutes keeping the thread, my fingers and my arm start hurting. It is not intolerable, but it bothers me. The man on the other side pulls the thread from time to time, as if he was also searching for a comfortable position for his arm. I remain in my position but wonder why am I doing it. Why am I not simply giving up? She moves through the net until most of us are connected. She then leaves the room. We remain in our positions for some seconds, maybe few minutes, till someone breaks the si- lence and starts walking towards the opposite side of the thread. Finally, I release.” (Fieldnotes, 30 May 2015)
How far am I free?
All the artists discussed so far largely confirmed the relevance and fundamental presence of a spectator: whether sympathetic or unsympathetic, more or less active, performance art proba- bly needs an audience more than the opposite. However, as in any kind of relationship, it is common to hear complaints coming from and targeting both directions: on the one side, the spectator in performance often feels disoriented and, when not used to its language, eventually runs into a crisis between sense and meaning. As Manuela remarked, “people generally don’t know how to behave during performances. They don’t know they can leave, for instance. They rather stay and feel bothered, in discomfort” (Macco, interview 11.11.2014). On the other side, performance artists need that antagonism in order to make their art provocative: Would there exist performance without it? I doubt so.
According to Rancière, this paradox is inherent to any “theatrical spectacle:” as clarified, he uses the term theatrical “to include all those forms of spectacle [...] that place bodies in action before an assembled audience” (Rancière 2007: 2) From this standpoint, even performance seems to not escape theatricality insofar that there exists no performance without audience. The kind and quality of relations triggered in performance nonetheless attempt, at least in inten- tion, to differ from those created by theatre.
In The Emancipated Spectator (2009), Rancière challenges traditional theatrical and conceptu- al binaries distancing the spectator from the actor/artist, i.e., seeing from knowing, activity from passivity, experience from thought, acting from thinking, teaching from learning, and so on (2009: 12). “These oppositions, ” he writes, “specifically define a distribution of the sensible, an a priori distribution of the positions and capacities and incapacities attached to these positions. They are,” in other terms, “embodied allegories of inequality” (ibid.; italics in original).
At the core of his discussion lies the fact that the actor-spectator relationship too often resem- bles traditional pedagogy: hierarchical, passive, and stultifying. The underlying assumption be- ing that the spectator needs to be educated or inspired by the artist-as-genius, who is gifted by a talent that s/he shares. Within this frame of reference, the gaze is unequally linked to knowledge: viewing as the opposite of knowing and acting presupposes and suggests that the spectator should remain immobile, passive (ibid.: 2).
Rancière firmly rejects this attitude since it inherently carries unequal relationships: in fact, artist and spectator should become equal participants in the verification of images and concepts, hence in the interpretation and elaboration of meanings too (Rancière 2009).
It is from this standpoint that performance art as critical art arises in its attempt to propose a dif- ferent engagement: as previously seen in the case of BRPT (Quattropani 2014), the artist’s hypo- thetical intentions question this attitude by saying that “anybody can be a performer / anybody can be audience / everybody is a performer and audience at the same time.” However, by pro- posing performance as a form of radical pedagogy through the aid of guidelines (e.g., by asking for the spectator to act) Quattropani fails in actuality.
Rancière would argue that her proposal is still somewhat rooted in the same paradox. So what does he suggest?
“Being a spectator is not some passive condition that we should transform into activity. It is our normal situation. [...] Every spectator is already an actor in her story; every actor, every man of action, is the spectator of the same story” (Rancière 2009: 17).
In other terms, we must firstly acknowledge and accept that action and spectatorship are two sides of the same coin: spectatorship is not passivity to be turned into activity; rather, a certain distance between source and receiver, actor and spectator, is the normal condition of any quo- tidian communication (ibid.: 10).
The meaning of emancipation lies in the equality of perception: “Intellectual emancipation is the process of verification of the equality of intelligence. [...] The ignorant schoolmaster17 [...] is named thus not because he knows nothing, but because he has renounced the 'knowledge of ignorance' and thereby uncoupled his mastery from his knowledge. He does not teach his pu- pils his knowledge, but orders them to venture into the forest of things and signs to say what they have seen and what they think of what they have seen, to verify it and have it verified. What is unknown to him is the inequality of intelligence” (ibid.: 10–11; italics in original). Rancière argues that similar dynamics are traceable in art and, as Bishop (2004, 2012) further elaborated, particularly in those formulations that attempt to trigger participation and involve- ment of the audience: even though todays’ artists deny using the stage (as the space where the action takes place) to dictate a lectio or to convey a specific
message, “[t]hey simply wish to produce a form of consciousness an intensity of feeling, an energy for action. But they always assume that what will be perceived, felt, understood, is what they have put into their dramatic art or performance. They always presuppose an identity between cause and effect. This sup- posed equality between cause and effect itself based upon an inegalitarian principle: it is based on the privilege that the schoolmaster grants himself” (Rancière 2009: 14).
17 Rancière’s emancipated spectator stems from his reflection on the story of Joseph Jacotot, a 19th-century school- master, who thought his pupils how to apply their intelligence to the learning process rather than enforce a mas- ter/student relationship of explication and stultification. His eccentric theory created a scandal at the time in “claiming that one ignoramus could teach another what he himself did not know, asserting the equality of intelligence and opposing intellectual emancipation to popular instruction” (Rancière 2009: 1).
This resonates with many ideas in contemporary art: the blurring zones between art and life, the scepticism that many artists feel about their privileged position of authorship, and the desire to create artworks that enact generosity, reciprocity and exchange.
However, performance and relational art are to be seen as two different and separate things: it is misleading to discuss contemporary performance in terms of generosity and reciprocity only because there is an exchange (Bishop 2004). Indeed, the limits of taxonomy are evident: even though a substantial distinction is to be traced between performance, theatre and other forms of spectacle on a theoretical level, if we focus the quality of relations they seek to establish with their audiences, it becomes harder and harder to always sustain a radical difference, especially when participation is sought.
A number of tensions and contradictions must be taken into account: if we consider Thread (Macco 2015) in terms of relational art, we misunderstand the artist’s intent, her theoretical groundings and self-theorization. Performance cannot be interpreted as participative art either: even though relation is a constant feature, it might be expressed in the form of a consensual participation but also as a deeper antagonism and provocation.
For instance, Macco explains how she is rather interested in a redefinition of her relation to the audience: “ I interested in a re-thinking of what is and should be the role of the audience; the role of the artist; the exchange that there can be between me and them and how. In this sense, my work is always provocative — I am not interested in giving to the audience what they expect from me. [...] It’s the audience that has to change its role” (Macco, interview 11.11.2014). Interestingly, in Thread (Macco 2015), the artist unrolls the thread and traces connections among the people: the choice in our hands is whether to accept the thread or not, whether to make our contribution or not. Despite the difficulties of not accepting (also negation has its cost and responsibility), if we do not consider the thread as merely an escamotage to activate the spectator, to include him/her in the artwork and mobilise, there might be a brighter perspective. In the logic of Rancière’s emancipation, in fact, there is always a third thing between the igno- rant schoolmaster and the emancipated spectator: it is the performance itself which stands in- between the artist and his/her spectator as well as between the spectator and the artist, being the artist’s own self often its first audience (Carlson 2004: 5). In other terms, performance is the same thing that links and separates them (cf. Rancière 2009: 14–15).
Under this light, the thread embodies relationships but not necessarily sympathetic ones — the thread becomes mediation: it translates my agreement or disagreement with the artist, as well as my relation to the unknown person on the other side; but beyond that, the thread firstly is mediation between me accepting to keep it and me willing to give up.
And this is what emancipation means in Rancière: the blurring of the opposition between the one who looks and the one who acts: it is “re-appropriation of a relationship to self lost in a pro- cess of separation” (Rancière 2009: 15).
Isn’t it the role of the artist to create bonds? (Macco, interview 11.11.2014).