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performativity A word I hesitate to use is performativity . Like so many half-words, devised through

A word I hesitate to use is performativity. Like so many half-words, devised through the inarticulate spiel-konstruction inherent in theoretical writing, it bears the hallmark of falsity, as do so many awkward non-words, made for the sake of illumination! Like the bookmark I found stuck in a corner of the dictionary, the word lacks the necessary roar required to express itself. Yet since the term has now become a catchall to corral the many promises made in speech, acts, and theory itself, it seems I fall to usage, although strictly speaking it’s no word at all! I promise to get it out of the way swiftly.

It’s in fact a mutation of performative:

per·for·ma·tive (pr-fôrm-tv)

adj. Relating to or being an utterance that performs an act or creates a state of affairs by the fact of its being uttered under appropriate or conventional circumstances, as a justice of the peace uttering “I now pronounce you husband and wife” at a wedding ceremony, thus creating a legal union, or as one uttering, “I promise”, thus performing the act of promising.


A performative utterance. Also called speech act.

Performative verbs mark the illocutionary force of an utterance, explicitly; locutionary acts are the act of saying, and perlocutionary acts define the effects they have on the hearer. This, of course, is all within the realm of linguistics and speech, but for me the term in question embraces much wider, more varied and often non-verbal movements.

In the meantime, my promise is already broken.

I draw your attention to performativity in order to consider a way of working that expands the ongoing practice of creating an artwork, whereby the artist and audience are made and unmade through engagement in sayings, actions and situations. And central to this concept is the idea of the reflexive or self-reflexive work – a mask that points at its self – and in so doing, reveals its inner workings, its entire apparatus and circumstance of being, but still continues to generate meaning within meaning. These works actively strive to be self-referential, self-regarding, self-recording, self-replicating, self-realizing and self-questioning: a highly acute and idealized state that very few works can attain. Returning to the task at hand, I’d like to mention, unchronologically, a few memorable incidents when this phenomenon felt incredibly tangible and close by, as pr-fôrm-tv- ité began to roar not like a lion, but as a sea.

n. A performative utterance. Also called speech act. Performative verbs mark the illocutionary force of an

“Life begets life. Energy creates energy. It is by spending oneself that one becomes rich.”

*Sarah Bernhardt

I992 – performance artist Annie Griffin prowls the stage as Sarah Bernhardt, the great

  • 19 th century French actress - The Divine Sarah. The event is billed as a one night only

audience with the notorious and celebrated thespian. The stage lays bare except for a divan and the backdrop of a blank screen. Prior to her entrance Griffin is heard, cursing in character, from her dressing room. She then bursts onto the stage, La Grande Dame, speaking in husky Gallic tones, and begins divulging tales of her memorable life and

times. Gesticulating wildly and speaking with an extravagant passion, she describes the boulevards crowded with her admires, the gentlemen, laden with bouquets, champagne, jewels, outside her dressing room, the triumphs, the roles, the lovers! The excessiveness of the performance is disarming yet seductive, the gestures large and exaggerated.

“For the theatre one needs long arms; it is better to have them too long than too short. An artiste with short arms can never, never make a fine gesture.” *

Over the course of her monologue the actress makes us aware of the physical effort of acting, of the tricks of her trade, the sleight of hand, the illusions, the stagecraft, particularly the larger than life, melodramatic style attributed to the late 19 th century theatre. We become privy to these secrets not only through the words spoken, but also in witnessing them in action. For a moment, Griffin slips out of character. In briefly breaking the illusion she points to her mask. We are drawn to feel what we know: we are already experiencing an actress pointing at her mask in the form of an actress playing an actress pointing at her mask. This queer doubling creates the beginning of a droste effect in performative terms; also it reveals the many psychological loops enacted and experienced by the performer, while prising open the spectator’s own investments in the spectacle.

“Once the curtain is raised, the actor is ceases to belong to himself. He belongs to his character, to his author, to his public. He must do the impossible to identify himself with the first, not to betray the second, and not to disappoint the third.” *

times. Gesticulating wildly and speaking with an extravagant passion, she describes the boulevards crowded with her

Increasingly Griffin slips in and out of character, telling the audience about her encounters on the streets running outside the theatre, the hassles earlier in the day. She seems to have broken the illusion most finally and goes on to introduce her cameraman as he walks onto the stage. She then stretches out on the divan and describes Bernhardt’s notable death scenes, the marvellous expressions of anguish, pain, loss. At this point her face appears on the screen. The camera has been turned on and the cameraman is leaning over the actress to get a good close-up.

Griffin prepares herself and does a run through of a death scene from a Bette Davis film, perhaps Dark Victory, a woman dying from a deadly illness and saying farewell to life. The first rendition is done in the raging style of Bernhardt – and suddenly the difference between the emotional range that can be expressed from the space of the stage and that of the screen is made strikingly and comically apparent. In close up, projected at a huge scale, the actress’s grimaces are totally over-blown and grotesque.

In the second rendition, Griffin changes her range and softens a little. “I think we need some tears for this,” she says, handing the cameraman a glycerine dropper. He supports the camera apparatus on his right shoulder and takes the bottle in his left hand. In much softer voice the actress intones. “The light is fading fast …” She goes on speaking, a dying woman courageously meeting her fate, her eyesight dimming as the cameraman leans over her, filming her face while dripping the glycerine drops onto her cheeks.

This strange sight upon the stage induces great hilarity amongst the audience but as their eyes travel between the physical set up before them and the close-up image upon the screen, a hush occurs. The performance taking place on the screen is deeply moving and utterly convincing. Griffin simultaneously appears to have broken several spells over the course of her performance, only to create others and we, the audience, are plunged into a mise en abyme, in which the mask declares its falsity only to reveal yet another, which is utterly compelling.

Griffin prepares herself and does a run through of a death scene from a Bette Davis

2007, during the run of a Hogarth Exhibition at Tate Britain, Jefford Horrigan is about to begin a performance. A crowd assembles in gallery 9: sitting and standing, they form at wide circle. If it were not for the indoor setting and the 18 th century masterpieces hanging on every wall, you might imagine you are about to see a cockfight or an exhibition of bare-knuckle boxing. Instead, within the circle emerges a solitary man, wearing a dark suit, amidst a selection of disparate objects that stand at its perimeter: a green metal cabinet, two dollies, a wooden CD player, a telephone, two chairs, two green lampshades, a long thin table, a stick, a black hat. The man walks around, examining each of the objects and items of furniture. He returns to a green metal cabinet and turns it upside down, kneels, and draws on the back a gibbet with a man hanging from it, under which he writes TOM NERO. Then elegantly pointing his toes, he uses a foot to pull one of the dollies into the centre. Gently and effortlessly, he picks up the cabinet, places it onto the dolly then steps away and, pressing a remote, causes the strains of Fly Me to the Moon sung by Doris Day to flood the gallery. He then approaches the cabinet, its door swinging open, and begins to dance gracefully with it, only to end the dance abruptly and abandon his partner.

Thus begin The Four Stages of Cruelty. The piece takes its title from a series of Hogarth engravings, their sequence a narrative, telling the story of Tom Nero, who after torturing animals, goes on to kill a woman and is eventually rewarded by going to the scaffold and ending up on the dissecting table of an anatomist. In his deft handling of the material around him, Horrigan plays out subtle rituals of approach and courtship that shift slowly into acts of abuse and violence. The disparate objects are as the contents of a prop box, their combination recalling “the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella”, described by Lautréamont. They also imply the dismembered body parts of Tom Nero on the mortuary slab while the man Horrigan, takes on the aspect of a necrophiliac, lovingly bringing them back to life and to re-enact the crimes. Using his foot once more, he pulls a dolly into the centre. A telephone is then placed upon the one edge, with the cord running along the length. The assemblage becomes a dog. The man throws a ball in front of the telephone and the dolly, playing with the dog. It sits up and begs, comes to heel, playfully gripping his hand – man and dog play a game of tug. The telephone receiver, acting as ears, droop as the man cuffs the dog. Its changing moods are expressed by play with the receiver, deft adjustments making it prick up its ears or flatten them despondently. Eventually the dog is prodded and kicked. The ball is thrown at the dog. A bone like object is then tied to the dog’s tail then the man spins it around and around and it is eventually pushed to one side.

2007, during the run of a Hogarth Exhibition at Tate Britain, Jefford Horrigan is about to
2007, during the run of a Hogarth Exhibition at Tate Britain, Jefford Horrigan is about to

Creating another animal Horrigan sets it to fight with the dog, the audience looking on as if on a London back street. Afterwards, leaving two members of the audience still holding the now tethered animals, he picks up the long table and sets it down vertically on one end. He returns to the animals and, by their tethers, picks them up and drapes them over one of the table legs. Pulling them apart he lets them clash and crash against each other again and again. Then he takes the green cabinet off the wooden dolly. In one movement he returns the long table to its normal position, tipping off the animals into a heap, and placing two of the legs of the table onto the wooden dolly. He removes the telephone from the green dolly and places it under the other two legs. He lifts the cabinet on to, and towards the back of the table, then unbuckles the animals and places the one without castors onto the forward end of the table. A horse and carriage ready to go!

We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals. Hogarth depicts this in his engravings. He shows how cruelty grows and develops. He shows the child’s cruelty to animals, pinching the tail of a dog or a cat; he then depicts the grown man in his cart running over a child; and lastly, the culmination of cruelty in murder. He thus brings home to us in a terrible fashion the rewards of cruelty, and this should be an impressive lesson to children. The more we come in contact with animals and observe their behaviour, the more we love them, for we see how great their care is for their young.

Immanuel Kant (Lectures on Ethics)

Creating another animal Horrigan sets it to fight with the dog, the audience looking on as

Writing No. 24 on two sides of the cabinet, Horrigan takes off his tie and knots it around the front inside leg of the table and with the aid a stick begins to run the horse and carriage around and around in circles until it eventually tips over and collapses in a heap. The man drags the cabinet, still on its side and the other objects to the perimeter, leaving the table prone where it fell. He returns to the table, picks it up and gently sets it vertically down upon the green dolly. He undoes the two green lampshades from the chairs and reties them loosely together, forming a cone and resting them between the upper two legs of the table. His dance partner stands waiting. He turns, and with the remote, plays Softly, As I Leave You Now - again by Doris Day. They dance a romantic waltz. The man pushes the table away; they both extend their arms to towards each other and rejoin.

She turns her back on him and he cuts her throat with the stick. The table falls backwards with a crash, its legs pointing up into the air. He backs away from the table and turns off

the CD player. The man writes TOM NERO on each of the legs of the still upside down table. He drags the cabinet, still on its side, with the gibbet drawing visible into the centre of the space, pulls the table, still upside down onto the cabinet and replaces the telephone on the green dolly. He then unties the object tied to the dogs tail (the saw), puts on the black hat and saws off a leg of the table and gives it to the dog, which carries it like a stick to a point on the circular space. The man repeats this until all the legs are removed and carried by the dog to the four points of the compass, each with TOM NERO facing upward. He takes of the hat and places it on what is left of the table, picks up the dog up under his arm, strokes it and leaves.

the CD player. The man writes TOM NERO on each of the legs of the still

In his elegance of gesture, grace of movement and manipulation of the objects around him, Horrigan draws on manifold concerns. There is something of the play and invention of childhood in his constructions but more particularly the building of these corps exquis references the making of sculpture and the readymade. The meeting and combination of these forms is a reminder too of a deep-seated animism applied to man-made objects, the secret life with which our imagination endows inanimate things.

During the course of the intricate performance, multiple references to cinema, dance, theatre and painting arise, only to just as swiftly fall away. Within the circle there is something of the wrestling ring; the harsh cruelty of bear baiting combined with the hard perimeters and restrictive forms of Francis Bacon. Horrigan’s elegant cabinet waltz immediately catches a moment of Fred and Ginger, before turning murderously to Hitchcock. Enacted in silence, there is an air of dark slapstick reminiscent of Chaplin or

Keaton, but the sense of real danger and cruelty becomes more akin to the stage plays of Harold Pinter, despite the absence of language. Like Pinter, Horrigan’s work reveals extreme sexual ambivalence in relation to its objects: a connection or partnership is formed only to be discarded or assassinated. This sadism not only reflects Hogarth’s discourse on cruelty, but also becomes an exploration in object relations and the phantasies and drives acted out upon surrogates and substitutes.

Keaton, but the sense of real danger and cruelty becomes more akin to the stage plays

Metamorphosis and transformative acts are key in Horrigan’s work. The possibilities of a situation and its props undergo a continuous process of conversion from one thing to another until the interaction is completed. In making the ‘staging’ of props utterly transparent, without deception, Horrigan lays his craft bare from the start. The clowning, sculptural shape shifting, and formal embodiments resulting from his physical guile allow the audience to exercise their imagination and interpretative capabilities through access to their experience and collective knowledge, influenced and shaped by their own object relations.

Keaton, but the sense of real danger and cruelty becomes more akin to the stage plays
  • 1984 Sally Potter’s The Gold Diggers is screened at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle.

The film begins with a snowy Icelandic landscape shot in black and white. The figures of

gold prospectors appear, slowly walking across the rocks and impacted ice. Two women’s voices enunciate riddles that they decide they must solve during the course of the film.

I am born in a beam of light. I move continuously yet I’m still. I’m larger than life yet do not breathe. Only in darkness am I visible. You can see me but never touch me. I can speak to you but never hear you. You know me intimately and I know you not at all. We are strangers and yet you take me inside of you. What am I?

Their soft voices are intimate, quizzical, playful yet determined. To listen is unnerving for the riddle is a direct address to the viewer who watches the image projected onto the screen via the mechanisms of cinema and the encounter immediately sets up the dynamics of a highly self-reflexive work – once again drawing attention to itself and pointing to its mask, asking again and again: What am I?

1984 Sally Potter’s The Gold Diggers is screened at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle. The film
1984 Sally Potter’s The Gold Diggers is screened at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle. The film

The stark opening shot directly references Charlie Chaplin’s 1929 silent, The Gold Rush. Chaplin’s inspiration to make his film came through viewing stereoscope pictures of the

  • 1896 Klondike gold rush, and seeing the image of a long line of prospectors extending up

the Chilkoot Pass to the goldfields’ gateway: in The Gold Diggers, Potter’s chief

concerns are Money and Cinema.

Throughout, the director makes allusion to film history, quoting D.W Griffith's Way Down East, Mervyn LeRoy’s Gold Diggers of 1933 and David Lean's Doctor Zhivago, which starred a young Julie Christie, hot on the heels of her appearance in John Schlesinger’s Darling. In another self-reflexive stroke, Potter casts a mature Christie in one of the main roles: an iconic star actress playing an iconic star actress. Her character is called Ruby whose cohort and ally is the enigmatic Celeste, an employee in a bank.

Initially, Ruby appears at the top of a staircase dressed in a hooped crinoline, the epitome of the feminine belle. She descends the stairs and proceeds to waltz with a series of grim faced men in bow ties and tails. Celeste comes to the rescue upon a white horse. While Celeste speaks of redressing the balance, Ruby remarks that she has been kept in the dark. The two are like detectives on a quest to unearth the nature of gold and the golden female star, both as objects of exchange. Together they explore the movement of gold and the transactions, values and investments of financial and visual economies.

Initially, Ruby appears at the top of a staircase dressed in a hooped crinoline, the epitome

In exploring these issues directly by use of visual quotation and subversion of narrative convention, the work exposes the underlying meaning hidden in cinema’s generic iconography. The techniques employed to implicate the viewer give the work a strong performative quality, articulating itself skilfully as the medium it critiques, and always drawing its spectators back to an awareness of their presence in the dark cinema hall.

In one scene Ruby enters a theatre pursued by two men. From the gallery she looks down at the stage to see herself inside the little hut in the snowfield, costumed and heavily made up like a silent film star. She runs out of the theatre into a derelict house. Once inside she sees two little girls and a woman digging a garden. In following them she finds herself in the wings of a large stage where a woman is tap-dancing. Then a man grabs Ruby and pushes her on to the stage. She is once again the silent-movie ingénue, acting in a little play involving guns and gold nuggets: she plays her role unwillingly and the audience reacts with jeers, coughs and catcalls. She laughs; and then sees herself up in the gallery watching before running from the theatre, once more followed by the men. Now Ruby enters the empty house again, and this time finds herself as a little girl standing in the snowfield from the opening shot. Ruby inhabits the mise en abyme as a duplicating phantom observed by her own image.

To the bank with the beauty, to the bank with the gold; both make money and

To the bank with the beauty, to the bank with the gold; both make money and neither grows old!

Celeste on her own nocturnal quest is also followed by men. Her boss at the bank refuses to tell her more about her job, but she persists in making enquiries about the movement of gold. Walking through the nighttime streets of the City, she watches as two groups of men foregather outside the Royal Exchange. One group bears a litter laden with gold ingots; the other group carry a bier containing what appears to be a statue of the Madonna, but on closer inspection is revealed to be Ruby. The men, singing as they climb the steps, carry the gold and the woman into the bank. The two women escape.

Once again Ruby appears at the top of the staircase and descends to the ballroom. The riddles have been solved, and her dancing partners fall down to the ground one by one. There is the impression of completing a circle as the women waltz, and the film comes to its end. Implicit throughout The Gold Diggers is the investment the viewer makes in the spectacle and the transaction implied by identificatory processes, made through recognition of already existing forms. The film exposes a system of representations which limit, imprison and objectify women in particular as images for consumption. The work’s self-awareness also highlights the financial investment required in funding a film and its further obligation to make money once completed. The hierarchical nature of finance even informed the project’s own waging system of participants: all members of the all-woman production crew, actors and technicians alike, were paid equally. In both plot and production, this highly experimental film equalises, explores, and questions the exchange value of money and women. In its utterances, it keeps its promises, while the promise to pay the bearer is enacted in the most challenging way.

1996 - the opening of the Museum Van Hedendaagste Kunst in Gent: the Ukrainian artist Oleg
  • 1996 - the opening of the Museum Van Hedendaagste Kunst in Gent: the Ukrainian artist

Oleg Kulik appears standing in a small cradle, hanging from the roof of the new building. He is covered in tiny mirrors and swathed by dry ice. As the sound of Sylvester singing

the disco classic You Make Me Feel Mighty Real pumps out of multiple speakers, many concentrated light beams are fired at Kulik’s revolving body. He becomes a human mirror ball, casting thousands of tiny halos of reflected light on the assembled mass of curators, artists, journalists, television crews and general art groupies who look on, mouths agape. The effect of the performance Armadillo for your show is not to make its audience dance, but to mesmerize, almost stupefy them like rabbits before a snake. There is something of the retorting mirror in Kulik’s performance – illuminating and firing back the greedy consuming gaze of the spectators and revealing the tawdry self-regarding nature of the proceedings. The mirror fragments at once decorate and fetishize the artist’s body as an exquisite, trashy entertainment while acting as a form of psychic armour against the invasive and jaded eyes of a glutted art crowd. He rotates, sparkling and dazzling like a sun god whilst the crowd remains mute and perturbed.

  • 1997 - the opening of It's A Better World at the Weiner Secession, Vienna: a crowd

huddle at the bottom of the steps to the main entrance and look up at Kulik, who is naked on all fours and collared like a dog, attached to a long metal chain. The artist lies at the entry to the Secession like some terrible Cerberus guarding the gates of Hell. It is quite simple – in order to enter this exhibition one must pass the dog. Some members of the crowd brave the stairs but scatter in all directions as Kulik leaps snarling at them, howling and gnashing his teeth. Two people leap over him whilst a woman tried to fend him off. He snaps at her hand, and she and the others on the steps descend again. The crowd become restless as the artist barks repeatedly at them before curling up by the door. Groups of people make little charges towards the door and gain entry at the expense of others who are pounced on or bitten. Two men fend of attack with their umbrellas. The

dog attempts to hump a woman who has fallen on the steps. More people use this as an opportunity to make a run for the door. Then an old man arrives with a stick and with difficulty mounts the steps. The dog rolls on its back playful, his tongue lolling out of his mouth as he pants excitedly. The old man very carefully begins to step over the prone Kulik, at which point the artist nips him in the ankle with his teeth. There is uproar at the bottom of the stairs. This performance continues for some time, with the more cowardly members of the crowd skirting the perimeter of the Secession looking for other entrances. While scaring the shit out of people the artist forces them to consider how much they want to get into the exhibition and why, challenging an unthinking approach. Once again in a seemingly simple but bizarre action, Kulik interrogates lazy assumptions about viewing work, the context of exhibitions, the reception of the artwork, its consumption and commodification and most importantly, the too easily presumed given in the West, of the freedom to access what we consider to be our culture. Kulik’s bite is far worse than his barking.

dog attempts to hump a woman who has fallen on the steps. More people use this

1975 - Dan Graham performs and records Audience/ Mirror at Free America in San Francisco. He stands in front of a mirrored wall facing a seated audience. Scrutinising the people before him, he begins to describe the audience’s movements and what they might signify: a woman drawing her hair away from her cheek with a forefinger; a man closing his eyes; another coughing. The artist then turns towards the mirror and describes himself and the audience as he sees them reflected there. Graham writing on the work says:

"Through the use of the mirror the audience is able to instantaneously perceive itself as a public mass (as a unity), offsetting its definition by the performer ('s discourse). The audience sees itself reflected by the mirror instantly while the performer's comments are slightly delayed. First, a person in the audience sees himself 'objectively' ('subjectively') perceived by himself, next he hears himself described 'objectively' ('subjectively') in terms of the performer's perception."

Twenty -one year later, in 1996, Dan Graham re-performed Audience/ Mirror in Vienna. I sit as

Twenty -one year later, in 1996, Dan Graham re-performed Audience/ Mirror in Vienna. I sit as part of that audience experiencing its odd displacing effects and delays directly. Graham speaks as the words come to him, describing the room, its acoustics and how they affect his voice. He speaks of how it feels to be talking in this way before an audience, and describes the movements of his body in the space. The work becomes startlingly intimate as he continues to talk, creating a relationship with those observing him, one founded on sharing the immediate, experiential actions occurring in present time consciousness. The audience members become acutely self-conscious as he describes their movements. I feel embarrassment and increasingly self-conscious, but this passes. As part of that audience I shift from watching as a defensive bystander into the act of seeing with acute awareness, highly sensitised to my own presence and every other in the room. Graham draws his audience into a hyper-attentive state of perception. There is something very potent too in experiencing the continuation of this performance across time, the artist older but the work ever pertinent as it works with its material – the present.

Exposure to such works has sharpened my awareness in myriad ways and informed my own methods of working. Encounters with playful, self-reflexive art, reconfigure my capacity for attentiveness when it is most endangered. Words fail to capture satisfactorily what these practices can achieve. Their essence is in and of the moment, and critical to any understanding is to experience them in their moment and yours. Many works are

ephemeral in the true sense of the Greek root ephemeros, 'lasting only one day' - or one night, or one hour, and even when repeated, each performance is unique. It has been observed that a live performance is an event, not a text, and an event where performers and audience are intimately bound together in real time, time unfolding, time passing. It is no accident that many performance-based works are ill documented or not documented at all. This is not merely an oversight, it is often a conscientious choice. This way of working aims to bring us into the realm of real, physical contact, to awaken us to spatial, perceptual and bodily experience, and to remind us that we live, and breathe, and occupy a now.

These works ask for and provoke an acute form of attention to the now emerging moment. Despite their apparentness as visual documents, moving image works of serious intention also require dedicated and close viewing to be experienced fully. In an era where we are increasingly caught by the virtual, and easily dissociated from the live, it is essential that performative practices continue to draw us back towards a concentration and focus that allow us to explore the real subtleties of time as it passes before us.

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