To call something a performance is to separate it from the world and then present it back to the world as something distinct. This double movement of separation and re-presentation is the writing[i] of the performance, and it is in this writing that performing exceeds doing. Being written gives the performed thing the simultaneous immediacy and distance of language, by which its separation from the world permits the fullness of its expression.
Performance writing can slip into play quite unnoticed, and so the line it draws between doing and performing is indistinct. Its operations are insidious and difficult to spot: for a start, they need not be textual at all. Any moment of framing, however brief or inchoate, provokes this double movement of separation and re-presentation and in a flash transforms doing into an awareness of doing: a performance of doing. Moreover, though performance only comes into existence once it is written, the anteriority of writing to performance need not be temporal. A thing, a moment, an action might be interrupted by or imbued with a feeling of self-consciousness that is simultaneous to the thing itself, and which writes it into performance in real time. This slip of self-consciousness is sufficient to write the performance into being, and precedes the performance not by coming before it in time but by standing outside it, containing it and circumscribing its form.[ii]
Conceiving of performance writing in this way blows wide open the field of performance to the point that any action, at any moment, risks slipping into performance. It stretches a continuum[iii] from traditionally delineated ‘theatrical’ performances – with script, stage, actor, curtain, audience – all the way to impromptu, personal and barely distinct ‘lifelike’ performances, in which it might suffice to merely notice an action taking place and, once noticed, to let the action continue all the same.
This conception of performance indicates furthermore a particular tension between performance and the world to which it is re-presented. Because a performed thing is written it exists, like language, both within and at one remove from the world. The performed thing recedes into the distance behind its name: behind the performance of itself. Giving a performance is to give the word for a thing rather than the thing itself; and yet the world that receives it is a world of things, not words[iv].
Giving a performance means redeeming the distance of the thing being performed: re-presenting the word as though it were a full and immediate thing within the world. Yet the thing itself is precisely what performance can never give, or it will slip back from performing into mere doing. If performance is to sustain the particular duality of its expression, then these delicate contradictory tugs of separation and re-presentation must be incorporated and obliviated by the supreme fiction of performance[v]: the fiction that there is no writing at all.
[i] This is an active and weighted form of ‘writing’ that implies both ‘writing into existence’ and ‘naming’. One developer of this conception of writing is Maurice Blanchot, who writes in The Gaze of Orpheus:
“Is it that words have lost all relation to what they designate? But this absence of relation is not a defect, and if it is a defect, this defect is the only thing that gives language its full value, so that of all languages the most perfect is the language of mathematics, which is spoken in a rigorous way and to which no entity corresponds. […] A word may give me its meaning, but first it suppresses it. For me to be able to say, ‘This woman’ I must somehow take her flesh and blood reality away from her, cause her to be absent, annihilate her. The word gives me the being, but it gives it to me deprived of being. The word is the absence of that being, its nothingness, what is left of it when it has lost being – the very fact that it does not exist.” (Blanchot 1981: 41-42)
This conception of language presents a particular field and definition of performance writing, which has its foundation in ‘lifelike’ performance (see note 3) but equally extends through the wider performance spectrum.
[ii] Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea reads as an oblique description of the uneasiness of this double movement, and the vertiginous exchanges between doing and performing it provokes in everyday life. The surface of the world appears as kind of a performance that occasionally and horrifically ruptures, revealing a prelinguistic reality churning underneath. Roquentin writes in his diary:
“This is what I have been thinking: for the most commonplace event to become an adventure, you must – and this is all that is necessary – start recounting it. This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as though he were recounting it”. (Sartre 1938, 1965: 61)
To transform doing into performing, it suffices only to step outside of the doing and write it into a narrative. The transformation is sufficiently insidious, Roquentin implies, that one could spend one’s whole life inside performance and barely suspect a thing.[iii] In his 1976 essay Nontheatrical Performance Allan Kaprow explores this continuum further, testing the boundary between ‘lifelike’ art and life itself. He carves the spectrum into five broad kinds of artistic activity, of which the fifth and most lifelike of all is to
“work in nonart modes and nonart contexts but cease to call the work art, retaining instead the private consciousness that sometimes it may be art, too”.
The field of performance is blown so far open that it almost ceases to be a category. The writing of performance is so slight here that performing teeters on the brink of disappearing into doing. Kaprow goes so far as to conclude that
“all artists can locate themselves among these five options. Most belong to the first, very few occupy the fourth, and so far, I know of no one who fits the fifth who hasn’t simply dropped out of art entirely.” (Kaprow 2003: 175-176)
At the far reaches of Kaprow’s delineation of artistic activity, then, what remains is a shred of tentative writing in the private consciousness of the performer: “sometimes it may be art”. Is this the limit of performance writing? Can writing give names to things more thinly and more indistinctly than this without performance dropping out entirely?[iv] Roquentin continues:
“But you have to choose: to live or to recount. For example, when I was in Hamburg, with that Erna girl whom I didn’t trust and who was afraid of me, I led a peculiar sort of life. But I was inside it, I didn’t think about it. And then one evening, in a little café at St Pauli, she left me to go to the lavatory. I was left on my own, there was a gramophone playing Blue Skies. I started telling myself what had happened since I had landed. I said to myself: ‘On the third evening, as I was coming into a dance hall called the Blue Grotto, I noticed a tall woman who was half-seas over. And that woman is the one I am waiting for at this moment, listening to Blue Skies, and who is going to come back and sit down on my right and put her hands around my neck.’ Then I had a violent feeling that I was having an adventure. But Erna came back, she sat down beside me, she put her arms around my neck, and I hated her without knowing why. I understand now: it was because I had to begin living again that the impression of having an adventure had just vanished.” (Sartre 1938, 1965: 61)
For a moment the ordinary living of a life is written it into a performance of itself. It acquires the glamorous distance of a word – an adventure – but words and things collide when the flesh and blood reality of Erna returns. The words dissolve and the performance stops abruptly, leaving the ex-performer unprepared to redeem the gap between performing and doing – word and thing – adventure and everyday life.
[v] In theatre, as in painting, the supreme fiction of performance is that the word is flesh and occupies the world. Denis Diderot’s salon reports of the 1760s suggest one approach to redeeming the distance of the thing being performed:
“It is rare that a being who is not totally engrossed in his action is not mannered. Every personage who seems to tell you: ‘Look how well I cry, how well I become angry, how well I implore,’ is false and mannered. […] If you lose your feeling for the difference between the man who presents himself in society and the man engaged in action, between the man who is alone and the man who is looked at, throw your brushes into the fire. […] Whether you compose or act, think no more of the beholder than if he did not exist. Imagine, at the edge of the stage, a high wall that separates you from the orchestra. Act as if the curtain never rose.” (Fried 1980: 82-132)
What performance must sustain at all costs is the immediacy of word and world. And yet it must sustain this immediacy not as a matter of fact but as a matter of fiction. Every personage must seem engrossed, engaged, alone – and yet the beholder must exist. It is not that the curtain never rises, nor even that there is no curtain, but that the performer must act as if the curtain never rose.
Blanchot, M., The Gaze of Orpheus. Station Hill Press, New York 1981 (first published 1943, translated Lydia Davis 1981)
Fried, M., Absorption and Theatricality, University of California Press, California 1980
Kaprow, A., Kelley, J. (ed), Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press, California 2003
Sartre, J-P., Nausea. Penguin Books, Middlesex 1965 (first published 1938, translated Robert Baldick 1965)