Spring/Summer 2004

– Spring/Summer 2004

Spring/Summer 2004 - Spring/Summer 2004

Contextual Essays



Charles Esche

The word 'performative' haunts this issue of Afterall. Performative has two contrasting and yet not incompatible meanings here. In one context, it refers simply to the act of performing in public, or recording that action for later presentation. The body is always implicated in this meaning, sometimes in terms of an exceptional agility, at other times as a fragile mark of the universal human scale against which to measure abstract notions such as society, history or pleasure. Art and its critics are relatively happy with this use of the word. It describes what art does most obviously, capturing an immanent and fleeting quality and articulating its ambitions in terms of an individual protagonist.

The second potential context for 'performative' is taken less from cultural discourse than from administration, though the two have been inseperable since Adorno's Culture and Administration. In this second sense, the word is associated not with action in the present but with the possibility of an effective outcome as a result of an activity already carried out. Under its administrative charge, we are asked to consider what function art might perform, and how that might be measured. In these terms, art's performativity could be judged by what happens as a consequence of its appearance. It seems that this second understanding is brought to bear most often on art that directly approaches questions of social distress or marginalisation through the actions or materials used by the subjects of the work. The critic of such projects might ask 'do things get "better" for the people engaged or depicted in the work?', and provide a considered, though unquestionably subjective, opinion. What is at stake here is a judgement