- Performing Image by Isobel Harbison
Isobel Harbison's Performing Image is a timely contribution to the field of performance studies, as it appeals to the facets of the performing body and identity in our contemporary, imagecentric mediascape. The book sets out a dual project: the first is to map a group of artists from the 1970s to 2010s whose work has plumbed the meaning of images in relation to the body and subjectivity; and the second is to meditate on how that work anticipates the imbrication of performance and image in the contemporary attention economy defined by social media. The fulcrum of these two projects is the technological, cultural, and economic phenomenon of prosumerism: a "new mode of image production" in which the producers are also consumers (6). Through a "speculative genealogy" (4) Harbison argues that certain artistic works—that is, works of "performing image"—both anticipate and illuminate the cycle of consumptionproduction-consumption that defines the prosumerist logic of contemporary cultural practice. This eponymous term, then, refers to images that negotiate, in a meta fashion, the meaning [End Page 172] of images. It is through the study of such works that we might glean the subtle yet pervasive impulses to create, post, interface with, and—yes—perform images in and through new media. As such, Performing Image aptly resonates with and contributes to discourses on mediatized performance, digital corporeality, and performance on new and social media—among others.
The theory that Harbison's text introduces, that of the performing image, is grounded in J.L. Austin's (and, by extension, Judith Butler's) work on performativity. In describing this concept, Harbison writes, "The compound term, Performing Image, highlights the junction of performance and moving image as a critical fissure where artists respond to the pressures of living under the image […]" (25). Though such discussions of nomenclature are helpful in understanding how Harbison deploys performance as a concept, they omit how performativity manifests through image-production. The reader might, for instance, speculate that the gaze functions as a conceptual link between performance and image, yet there is little to no treatment of this notion as it might apply to the performing image. How does looking, watching, viewing, and observing (among other registers of the gaze) contribute to capturing something through image? The theory of the performing image, while generative, topical, and widely applicable to other phenomena of digital culture, is wanting of greater theoretical grounding, which the performance studies reader might be seeking.
Despite this gap, theory is well-integrated into the chapters, allowing the reader to interpret the objects of analyses through the particular lens of the performing image. In chapter one, Harbison reviews the intellectual history of prosumerism, how the concept has been integrated into artistic works, and how it applies to the notion of the performing image. Notable in this discussion is Harbison's insight into the relationship between subject and image in new media. "It becomes difficult to discern," Harbison maintains, "whether [new media prosumers] are conversing with people through images or whether [they] are having encounters as images, differently dimensioned versions of [themselves] interacting with others' different dimensions" (15).
This foundational discussion is then followed by seven additional chapters that primarily analyze works of performing image in chronological order. Chapters 2 and 3 examine 20th-century examples that probe how images are "registered" (chapter 2) and also how they "invade" the body (chapter 3). The former is guided by Robert Rauschenberg's notion of "contact": how visual material manifests as "affective inquiries into how imagery impacts the [subject's] senses, comportment, and movement" (39). Here, Harbison applies this concept to works by Vito Acconci, Yvonne Rainer, Adrian Piper, and Lorraine O'Grady. Chapter 3 then addresses works produced during the 1980s and 1990s—a discussion that Harbison aligns with the advent of the internet, and sentiments toward it as a "new spatial frontier" (66). In Brandon (1998–1999), a work produced in response to the rape and murder of a teenage transgender boy, artist Shu Lea Cheang utilizes the interface of a...