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  • Oppositional Performance/Critical Pedagogy: A Report from the Penn State Symposium
  • Lisa Wolford (bio)

According to performer and cultural critic Guillermo Gómez-Peña, “the work of the artist is to force open the matrix of reality to introduce unsuspected possibilities” (New World Border 6). The recent “Performance Art, Culture and Pedagogy” symposium held at Penn State University, November 13–16, 1996, seemed to foreground this vision of the artist’s task, bringing together a range of performers, scholars, and public intellectuals committed to examining the complex role of the artist in contemporary society, with particular attention to the possibilities of activist work as a form of cultural intervention. Organized by Charles Garoian, the symposium was billed in publicity materials as the first event of its kind, with a stated aim of considering the “historical, theoretical, and experiential significance of performance art in order to distinguish its pedagogy as an emerging form of arts education.” Highlighting the work of an impressive array of artists and cultural theorists, the symposium included performances, lecture/presentations, and panel discussions as well as a series of events described as “workshops in performance art teaching,” opportunities for students and participants to engage with featured artists in various forms of practical work.

Cultural critic and performer Coco Fusco notes that the term performance came into common usage during the early 1970s to describe

art that was ephemeral, time-based and process oriented, that incorporated the body as an object and as a subject of inquiry, and explored extreme forms of behavior, cultural taboos, and social issues. It is also used retroactively to refer to the art movements that are often seen as having led up to it; the happenings and intermedia experiments of the 1960s, the Black Mountain College group of the 1950s, Dadaist and Surrealist events of the 20s and 30s, and so on.

(“Performance and the Power of the Popular” 160)

Fusco critiques such a genealogy of performance as “flagrantly Eurocentric,” lending credence to the misconception that artists of color began contributing to the movement only as a result of the multicultural policies of the 1980s (160). Focusing on the work of a number of radical artists, primarily African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and First Nations performers, Fusco articulates a [End Page 187] more complex and inclusive overview of the field. She notes that performance art, with its attention to the complex relationship between artist, artwork, and audience, is “more democratic in spirit than other art forms and better suited to the consciousness-raising function that many progressive social movements have proscribed for radical art” (165). Similarly, David Roman observes that many artists who speak from marginalized subject positions have found performance art a useful forum for interrogating issues of identity and representation:

The revitalization of performance by political artists outside of dominant culture indicates the emerging recognition of performance as a political tool, effective for its immediacy, stripped-down cost effectiveness, and transportability.


The program of scheduled speakers and events at the Penn State Symposium highlighted the potential of activist performance to serve as a tool in the struggle for social justice, critiquing dominant paradigms and articulating oppositional viewpoints. As Carol Becker has observed, a politicized conception of the artist’s role raises vital questions about the relation of art to society and the function art can serve within a democratic system (xv). In his foreword to Becker’s recent book, Zones of Contention, Henry Giroux observes that the artwork Becker describes

collapses the boundaries between politics and aesthetics, formalism and pedagogy, the national and the transcultural in order to rewrite the mutually related discourses of commitment, desire, and representation as an act of public vigilance and strategy of social engagement.


Giroux’s evocation of an art that strives “to make a difference in the world rather than to simply reflect it” (xi) can be seen as an apt description of the type of performance work featured at the Penn State symposium.

The choice to link the terms “performance” and “pedagogy” in the conference title overtly emphasized not only the social and educational function of radical art, but also called attention to points of intersection between politically-engaged performance...

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pp. 187-203
Launched on MUSE
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