Disappearing act

Discussion on Peggy Phelan’s essay “The Ontology of Performance: representation without reproduction”, from her book Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (Chapter 7, pp. 146-166)
Thursday, March 8, at Ideal


The essay’s two main topics revolve around the definition of the nature of performance and its documentation (mainly through writing), as well as performance’s gender connotations. I will try to sum up some of the main points, in an attempt to convey the text’s spirit, without however giving a detailed account of all the text’s fascinating and carefully elaborated twists and turns. Thanks to them, Phelan’s writing becomes itself performative (putting her own theory into practice), as she introduces her main points, sets out her rationale, goes on to the next point, comes back to the first one… a kind of choreographed, intertwined, concentric writing.

Phelan identifies performance as the (subjective) Presence of living bodies (here and now), as negation of representation, disappearance of the object, rejection of the economy of reproduction, escape from art’s commodity dimension… Performance artists –“Maestros of the Ephemeral” as Phelan calls them during her talk at Tate’s Live Culture Symposium: Performance and the Contemporary (2003)– invite spectators to fully consume performance, so that no trace is left behind and value is given to nothingness and emptiness (the ever-repeated cycle of life and death). To remain faithful to these inherent characteristics, performance inevitably rejects all kinds of documentation – the only documentation possible being the recounting of performance in one’s memory. Performance’s tense is always the present – even if repeated, in reality or in one’s mind or writings, it will never be the same, always affected by the distortions of memory and personal perception.

The examples of Sophie Calle’s series of works where specific art works, mainly famous masterpieces, are replaced by their viewers’ description, materializing Presence through memory, clearly and poetically illustrate the point. They also highlight the “performative quality of all seeing”, as a purely interactive experience that can be revisited through memory and ultimately resist the omnipotence of institutional authority and control over art’s reception and interpretation.

Coming back to performance’s resistance to documentation, a question is raised: how can someone write about performance if documentation is excluded? The answer is found in J. L. Austin’s “performative utterance”1: instead of writing “toward preservation”, one should write “toward disappearance”, re-marking the performative qualities of writing. Roland Barthes’s texts are called upon as examples; I can mainly refer to the intimate “Camera Lucida”, where indeed the author investigates the nature of photography through personal, sensitive writing that reveals his personality, leading to the experience of a shared subjectivity between writer and reader.

Phelan’ description of Angelika Festa’s performance “Untitled Dance (with fish and others)” (1987) might also serve as an illustration of performative writing. She comes back to it again and again throughout the text –giving us various (but in a way always the same) fragmentary descriptions and interpretations of it– as a whole and for its various elements, as if the reader is actually watching the performance and becomes gradually aware of its various elements and their significance, as if her thoughts unravel while she watches the performance. (Perhaps indicative of this is that after a few references to the performance, Phelan switches to the present tense and the first person –“as I watch…”.)

Phelan uses Festa’s work as a starting point to demonstrate also performance’s rejection of the metaphor of gender – metaphor identified as a vertical hierarchy, which negates difference and dissimilarity, in contrast to metonymy, which creates a horizontal relationship of contiguity and displacement. (“The kettle is boiling – the kettle is boiling because the water inside the kettle is.”) In this sense, performance artists disappear during the performance – the performer’s body becomes a metonymy of Presence, disappearing into a representation of something else (movement, voice, action), even if seemingly it is the protagonist. But the “mute body” is the female body, so the performer has no choice but to always assume the female quality; a quality that renders her weak, regardless her overpowering disappearing Presence, since the speaker/performer is always in a disadvantaged position in relation to the listener/spectator (reference to Foucault’s “History of Sexuality”). Performers are therefore called upon to redesign the dominant power relations’ model – through the redesign of the theatrical exchange model.

Interestingly, our last (for the moment at least) discussion on Performance happened a few days before Tate launched its new program BMW Live: Performance Room, a series of performances created specifically to be broadcast live online – a format which certainly raises a series of questions, among the most significant perhaps this: if performance is the “Presence of living bodies” (as Phelan puts it), how is it affected when the “living” is abolished? And can the redesign of the dominant power relations’ model be achieved if the medium is  so dramatically affected?


1. In “How to Do Things with Words” (1962), J. L. Austin, attributes to speech a constative element (it describes things in the world) and a performative element (saying something is to do or make something – I promise, I beg, I bet).


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