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 of the recipient or critic rather than a description of an artistic manoeuvre. That judgement then determines to a large degree the success or failure of the artwork itself.
If we accept that both uses of the word have validity in the field of art, the question becomes when and how we might ascribe either of the meanings to individual artworks. To comprehend Michael Clark and Joan Jonas as performative in the first sense is self-evident. To read Marjetica Potrc, Thomas Hirschhorn and Los Carpinteros as such is more complicated, but leads to some interesting comparisons. If we see Hirschhorn’s Monuments series as performative in this second way, then the ‘actors’ are identified with everyone who engages with the projects, even those simply passing by. Hirschhorn’s sculptures become stages in which roles are acted out in public and in which the traditional hierarchy of actor and audience is moved up one notch on the creativity curve as the artist becomes producer/designer and members of the public become the actors without a script, except that offered by the physical environment. For Potrc and Los Carpinteros the question of immanent performativity is even further distanced. Working within the gallery as they do, their work might, in a fairly banal way, simply offer visitors a physically interactive environment and nothing else. However, if we extend the moment of performance backwards to the origin of the work, we have to consider the social environment within which the work has been produced. In Potrc’s case, it is the life of the barrios and shantytowns from which the architectural objects have been displaced that proclaims a performative presence. The original inhabitants, unwanted as much in the gallery as on the streets of downtown Caracas, remain ghostly shadows, twisting the aesthetic reception the gallery demands and opening up all the questions of guilt and invisible exploitation that necessarily hang around the consumption of art in a world of global inequality. While not solving the problem, Potrc’s work in particular nominates the viewer as complicit in this equation and opens up for deeper consideration how works by the other artists in this issue of Afterall might also be understood in relation to the performativity of the public and the politics of looking in certain familiar art contexts.
A more knotty problem confronts us when we discuss the administrative concept of performativity. At one level, such a criterion of judgement is, of course, a conservative trap. Art is bound to fail here because it cannot fulfil expectations that are generated speciously and only in order to misconstrue an artwork’s intentions. The administrative objective to classify art in terms of its functional effect is not only dangerous to the artist but restricts the social ambition of art to the level of the audited account with its predetermined benchmarks and set objectives. Yet an artwork, if critically engaged in culture, should have a level of ambition that includes at least the distant possibility of making a difference to social and political conditions – otherwise why would it exist? Thus the discussion becomes not about avoiding the pitfalls of administrative performativity but about how to disclose a commitment to change in terms that work for art.
The work of Michael Clark, given its less obvious political agenda, might offer a clue here for how to consider the whole question. His productions regularly use certain familiar quotations taken from popular music or classical ballet, as well as visual strategies recognisable from high fashion. He uses these in what always appear to be particular and controlled ways, neither deliberately kitsch nor cynically manipulative. His work, though provocative at times, is never ‘shocking’ in the old avant-garde sense but instead triggers recognition, like a casual dismissal from an old friend. With Clark, we are often in the realm of nods and winks to popular culture. He uses the strategy as a means to tap into our shared cultural imagination, and then points out how it differs from the actions played out on stage.
That scenario seems to be applicable also to the work of the other artists here. Where Jonas uses ancient myths, Los Carpinteros and Potrc use material from the street. Jonas’s work is pivotal here, formally oscillating between live performance and sculpture, sound and image, it is also crucial as a bridge between popular and intellectual registers of art, particularly in relation to depictions of power and gender, and their undermining. The quotations used by all the artists are used because they are popularly understood, but the tension resides in the gap between the assumption of how the story or object should be, and what is immanently there in front of us. By doing so, the artists dismantle something of the authority of the popular, whether in terms of music or politics. They turn it to their own ends and act on the very shared imaginative that they quote – in a way that could be said, for once, to be performative in both senses of the word.
– Charles Esche