PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 22.3 (2000) 78-87
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Waiting for Performance
Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane, eds., The Ends of Performance, New York: New York University Press, 1998.
Amelia Jones and Andrew Stephenson, eds., Performing the Body/Performing the Text, New York and London: Routledge, 1999.
Coco Fusco, ed., Corpus Delecti: Performance Art of the Americas, New York and London: Routledge, 2000.
By way of opening his review of Roselee Goldberg's Performance: Live Art Since 1960 [see PAJ 63], critic Jon Erickson recalled that he and a group of friends got together to try and define performance art--a task that they ultimately concluded was impossible. "Our instincts told us that performance art did seem like something new and different, and its difference largely consisted of disrupting the very categories we were trying to distinguish over against it, instead of distinguishing itself as a new category complete in itself." In the early eighties, when the incident related above occurred, the task facing Erickson's friends was simply to distinguish performance art from the (sometimes) more traditional theatrical performance as well as other avant-garde art forms, particularly conceptual art. If, as Erickson suggested, performance art at that time was defined against theatre and avant-garde art, then the landscape of performance studies, as exemplified by three recent anthologies, has changed rather drastically in the past twenty years.
Today, in addition to trying to navigate the slippery terrain between visual art, theatre, and the various and sundry forms of "live" art, we are faced with distinguishing performance "art" from the related but not identical concepts of performance, which can be loosely described as a ritualistic action, and performativity, the iteration and re-iteration of these actions in order to construct an unassailable history or "Truth." Add to that the notion of "performative writing," in which the writer, rather than attempting to pin down the meaning of a performance/event/text/visual image through the deployment of metaphorical language instead employs a metonymic reading in which difference and the limits of language are emphasized and the text is re-performed yet again, and the task of [End Page 78] defining performance art from everything else becomes that much more difficult.
Can all performance art be read as inherently transgressive, or is it possible that at least some of it (unwittingly) reinforces dominant ideological constructs? Can performativity be read into previously resistant objects, such as modernist paintings? Does our discussion of performance need to be confined to an analysis of avant-garde and/or theatrical productions, or is it possible to read hegemonic and repressive social actions as performance? Where, if it exists at all, is the "true" or original performance, if the written account of that performance is equally performative? And finally, what are the implications of this expanded understanding of performance, performativity, and performative writing for readings of contemporary performance art, particularly performance art by people whose identities render them socially marginal? How might our understanding of the genealogies of performance art change when performance artists working outside the Western canon are included?
Many of these questions are addressed in The Ends of Performance, edited by Peggy Phelan and her graduate assistant Jill Lane. Although The Ends of Performance was published in 1998, it had an earlier genesis in the first annual performance studies conference, which took place in the spring of 1995 at New York University, where Phelan is an associate professor of performance studies. Not coincidentally, NYU was the birthplace of the first performance studies department (the other is at Northwestern University), transformed from a conventional drama department by Richard Schechner and Robert Corrigan. Schechner's approach to performance studies was interdisciplinary--"between theater and anthropology, folklore and sociology, history and performance theory, gender studies and psychoanalysis, performativity and actual performance events"--and he created an interdisciplinary department, in which the concept of performativity or performative behavior was as important as performance art itself. Not surprisingly, the essays included in The Ends of Performance are less concerned with actual performance art than with teasing...