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Is Everything a Performance?

  • By Azwan Ismail
  • December 30, 2004
  • 51 Views

By Khoo Gaik Cheng

Foreword by Editor:

Gosh, how does one explain Performance Studies? It sounds harmless enough, doesn’t it? Before the Performance Studies international conference I attended in Singapore June this year, I assumed it is like applying my ‘A’ levels literary criticism skills to theatre performances, but with bigger words. Then, at the conference – please pardon the drama – a paradigm shift happened to me. I realised that one could deconstruct everything from church prayers to Pak Lah’s gestures to the war in Iraq – they are all performances. Okay, so that’s not so new for some of you. But the conference also gave me the language for pretending to know, er, stuff about it. So, there are performative possibilities in everything. And hence, we study the ephemerality of live performances (and the problems, therefore, of capturing it in documentation or analysis), the recontextualisation of ritual performances on a global stage (Butoh dance in Ong Keng Sen’s theatre), the deconstruction of the binary oppositionality of conventionally accepted opposites (gender, politics), what have you.

This article below by Singapore-based Malaysian film academic Khoo Gaik Cheng was initially commissioned to accompany my own take on the Performance Studies conference. It seems I was perpetually planning to write the article, and perpetually overwhelmed by the task (and the fear of revealing a newcomer’s naivete). A new language is a double edged sword: it confers elitism to its users, and makes the dumb masses feel dumber. If this is truly shifty paradigmy stuff, how does one enable those without the language to understand? Krishen Jit, speaking at the final session of the conference, suggested that it is time to move the debate away from its US­-centric language. The test of the broader legitimacy of Performance Studies is in its application and meaning post translation (much time was spent problematising the nature of translation too). Will it be relevant in Asia?

As for me, I feel the performativity of the language at the conference itself is worth studying. Only because it was interesting to see a bunch of academics deconstruct the whole world, and then at the end, suddenly turn on themselves and self-destruct. One couldn’t be self-reflexive enough for these folks. It was, to use a nice simple word, theatrical. So, I thought, okay, best leave it to the experts. Gaik Cheng certainly wields her big words in a tighter grip than I do. – Pang Khee Teik

~~~

Perform State Interrogate – Then What?

The first thing we were confronted with at the Performance Studies international (PSi) conference was state power. How apt, considering this year’s conference theme – “Perform: State: Interrogate.” So, the State had suddenly informed the organisers that they needed a licence to hold the event. They announced this only the week before the event itself. The reason: The organisers were not affiliated to a university (though the conference was held at the Singapore Management University). The organisers scrambled to obtain passport numbers from their 180 participants spread all over the globe. Could a bunch of nerdy academics and starving artists actually challenge the recent slight thawing and so-called liberalisation of policies in this city-state? Could holding this conference here open up raw local wounds like censorship for global scrutiny?

PSi is an annual affair launched by the Department of Performance Studies at New York University in 1995. Previous PSi conferences were held in the USA, Wales, Germany and New Zealand. The conference brings together artists and academics from across disciplines to discuss the still-evolving areas of performance research and practice.

As an academic, a currently inert activist and a writer myself, I was interested in the intersections of culture, art and politics that this conference promised. Plus, there was the added thrill of seeing so many fellow Malaysians (Krishen Jit, Kathy Rowland, Jo Kukathas, Rey Buono, Mark Teh, et al) taking part in the main sessions as well as in the parallel panels. Those featured included Malay traditional arts, a paper on Malay heavy metal bands and English-language theatre (which was the most heavily represented).

Malaysia Boleh! pride aside, there were some other exciting presentations I attended that brought home to me what performance studies (or at least, performance art) was all about. We had a brief slide show and history of Mexican performance art since the 1960s (including a female artist who wore glasses and a rubber penis on her nose to make a Freudian point about the woman being the ‘lesser’ man). There was a presentation on two gay Israeli artists in the Netherlands whose personal lives are performed publicly, including their wedding at city hall with the mayor in attendance; Australian performance artist Mike Parr enacting sewing his lips together, not as parody or appropriation of the desperate acts of Iraqi asylum seekers detained at Woomera, but as the shame of white Australian racist nationalism. I could go on and on about how many other parallel panels I would have liked to attend but couldn’t without sending my clones.

But enough of my attempt to give an overall fair picture. That said, problems arose pretty quickly.

The licensing procedure, plus the announcement that there were a few state agents attending the conference, reinforced an overall sense of surveillance and paranoia. Discussions were sometimes provocative – and so they should, in keeping with the encouraged self-reflexivity of the organisers – but always stimulating. One professor argued from the floor that the Singapore government does not ban books, that it is foreign publishers and distributors themselves who self-censor. Perhaps he intended for us not to be paralyzed by our fear of Big Brother. Perhaps he meant to make us active agents who dare express our views openly on this fair utopic land. But his statement was greeted with loud disagreement. One Singapore activist retorted that the police wear plainclothes nowadays.

I was struck by how state power is performed through seemingly innocuous red tape, how the state speaks through its citizens themselves, and how we, thinking civilian subjects, should interrogate the state just as much as it en-states and frames us.

Secondly, sheep. The conference catalogue featured three pictures beside each of the words: Perform, State and Interrogate. Aptly, the picture of sheep was beside “Interrogate.” The pictures on the cover were designed to move if you flip the pages quickly. Thus, the face of the one sheep among the flock gets ominously closer and closer as we zoom in on its one unfocused eye. Its blankness and ambivalence is frightening. Is it performing? Is it even aware it has been captured on camera? Or is it merely in un-selfconscious motion, chewing the cud, easing its way among other flock members in its daily business, daydreaming of greener pastures?

Yes. It prompts a philosophical question along the lines of “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” If US soldiers pose next to masked and tortured Iraqi prisoners for a photo, is this a performance? And for whom? The soldier’s family back home, other prisoners of war to be used as a threat of further humiliation? CNN?

For Performance Studies academics, this is a subject worthy of consideration and study. In the interest group I attended proposed by an American PS academic, “Performance and the Age of Terrorism,” we spent a painful hour or two, trying to define and agree on the suitability of the words “performance” and “terrorism.” But it was clear from his language and the way the workshop was carried out that his own frustration as a helpless American subject whose government is no longer interested in listening to its non-wealthy, non-corporate constituents was overwhelming him. And he and other American academics brought this baggage, this preoccupation with the way GW Bush “performed” for the media, with them to Asia.

The word “performance” was used not only to describe Bush’s gestures and speeches which I can agree constitute performance, but also to describe those photos taken by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison. It was immensely problematic. I raised this issue that for people to use the term to describe these events shows a critical distance that comes with privilege (the privilege of liberal white academics who are not involved in the direct struggle against imperialism, who are not social activists with a more engaged political perspective). This is not withstanding the fact that such photos that were sent home for family viewing may be framed and re­framed again by the media as performance later on.

How can everything be considered performance when the Iraqi participants are unaware they are playing a role for an audience beyond the prison walls? When they have neither choice nor agency in this coerced matter? Even more troubling was the response from another younger American academic who said, torture is, by its definition, already a performance with or without an audience, and despite it not being pleasant for the tortured subject. Then he cited French psychoanalytical theorist Jacques Lacan, blah blah blah. (Or was it Derrida?)

You know, a small detached part of my brain could agree with that – the small part that is sitting up in the ivory tower drinking my espresso and intellectualising, detached from the reality of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, not thinking about the effects of American capitalist imperialism on ordinary people every single day. Am I not being a good academic by being emotional? By feeling too much? By reading too critically? Where is the ethics in all of this?

But this is my sheep. This is where my ambivalence about academia from the perspective of social justice, from my limited experience in anti-racism and peace work in Canada, amble in.

Another participant in the same workshop announced that as a Madras community activist working with displaced children and girls from the Christian-Muslim riots in Maluku, the global war on terrorism isn’t relevant to her daily experience. I was hoping that the facilitator would really listen to this and broaden the agenda of the group rather than seeing it as somehow tangential.

How about thinking of ‘Performance Studies and the Time of Violence’ rather than of ‘Terrorism’, I proposed. Many of us agreed that what has been defined as terrorism lately has been in existence for a long time (Darfur, Chechnya, etc.) and terrorism is merely a convenient label meant for states to align themselves with the US government. But this line of thought didn’t get very far in the war of definitions. The last thing we agreed to do was to think about what we could do, what kinds of actions or “performances” were possible to subvert the dominant ideas. I had intended to go back on the third day but due to other earlier panels running over time and my own fatigue, I was actually relieved not to have to return.

There are clearly a lot of issues US white liberal academics still have to work on. And they’re still the same old ones about being able to listen to and make space for other voices, to unlearn Eurocentrism (US-centrism in this case) and white middle class privilege [read Robert Stam and Ella Shohat’s 1994 book Unthinking Eurocentrism, from Routledge]. Heck, and to come to terms with the fact that sometimes, theories can affect a kind of violence on reality (the violence of critical distance due to the absence of ethics. I think postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak calls this “epistemological violence”). Clearly Performance Studies academics are struggling to understand their role in studying something that seems so esoteric and divorced from the current climate of violence that they need to be reassured of their own relevance. This is signalled by next year’s conference title, “Becoming Uncomfortable.” I must be psychic.

In the end, a speaker on the final main panel, Marian Pastor Roces, a Filipina cultural theorist, eloquently displayed how to be a subversive black sheep. She was responding to Peggy Phelan’s presentation on a photograph taken of a man falling from the World Trade Centre Tower during 9/11. Outraged by the seamlessness of Phelan’s artistic and performative presentation, she sensed, to paraphrase her, “a lacuna at the heart of a practice” that is supposed to be critical. It is “an area of blindness” in the study and theorising of people performing, which may be invisible to the performer, but which surely requires a lot of thought and self-­reflexivity. She critiqued Performance Studies for being rooted in monotheist metaphors (specifically the falling man, i.e. the Fall of Adam) that may be at the heart of Western art traditions. And isn’t PS’s concern with arresting that fall, also a preoccupation with the fear of death itself? Not all cultures treat death or the afterlife in the same manner, she suggested. Her point of departure is, really, to nudge PSi towards a negotiation with vocabulary (or other cultures) that have nothing to do with the Fall and to reach beyond its present blindness.

As for me, I think there are white sheep and there are black sheep. And it is up to the participants whether to continue being complicit in whatever forms of violence (perpetrated by state or individual actors) or to stand and bleat out in collective resistance. Let’s ALL be black sheep.

~~~

Khoo Gaik Cheng is a Postdoctoral fellow at the Asia Research Institute, Singapore.

First Published: 30.12.2004 on Kakiseni