What do we mean when we say “with a performative nature”? What is implied is that art should interact with its space, audience, creator, or another (What is meant by another is whatever a person chooses to imagine). What this can promote is art which has movement, with the term movement not taken literally but figuratively. If we were to describe movement – what would be meant is the ability to communicate. Furthermore, this can be interpreted as one of the investigatory principles behind Dialogue; amaCollective’s current area of research. Thus, through this movement, performativity has the authoritative power to hurl interpellations into existence, providing a reflection of the self, society or culture:
“If a “social position” is produced in part through a repeated process of interpellation and such interpellations do not take place exclusively through “official” means, could this reiterated “being hailed into social existence” not become the very occasion for a reappropriation of discursive power.” (Butler, 1996 : 125)
However, we have to understand that these implications of performativity derive from a Marxist pretext, alluding to a social hierarchy which in turn provided performative acts with the power of authority, thus, negating any authority an artist would wield in a performative act. Judith Butler insinuated that, once these impositions of structure were done away with, these social acts become truly powerful. And if we consider contemporary movements, e.g. the 99 movement and Occupy movement, social classes partly render Marxist ideology obsolete (Chomsky, 2012). Thus, whilst one cannot deny the power of performative acts in the past, performativity’s discursive power finds its natural habitat in today’s world, becoming an integral component of contemporary art.
Now, it is this authoritative power within performativity which drives my curiosity and led to my realisation of how naively distracted humanity really is these days. Distraction, in the context of contemporary art, can be a destructive force when so many artworks scream for attention. This revelation came over several incidences that perplexed me; the most recent of these events was when I was casually enjoying a movie with my housemates. Her (2013) was the movie of choice for the night, a film which calls into account our relationship with technology and our attention to the outside world, through the telling of an interestingly twisted, love story. This epiphany struck as I pulled my attention from the television screen projecting the gripping tale of a man and his phone to see… both my housemates transfixed by their own mobile devices. Was this what contemporary anthropology amounted to?
Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, memes, .gifs… have filled our world, providing hundreds of images flashing by, second by second, in front of our eyes. As a child from the late 80’s early 90’s – I have experienced the growth of what I like to call the intentional insemination of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) into our social population. This is also a problem captured by Jonathan Crary who noted that, “Even some of the most avid defenders of technological progress acknowledged that subjective adaptation to new perceptual speeds and sensory overload would not be without difficulties.” (Crary, 2001: 30) This is a significant point of worry in the context of art that damns time for ingestion, accompanied by the sheer number of artworks being created day by day. In a case study on visitor interaction with artworks at the Whitechapel Gallery, it was found, through tracking visitors, that the majority of the gallery was relinquished to a range of attention of 1 – 99 seconds (Loeseke, 2013). This would see the average person, whilst looking at an artwork, has an attention span of around 30 seconds. However, interestingly during the case study, certain pieces were illuminated for 400 to 500 seconds (Loeseke, 2013) and it is this smaller group that questions whether this was a random happening or a direct consequence of visitors reacting to the artwork strongly?
Transferring these thought into the walls of the institution has already begun. Take the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall; here we have seen several examples of works of a performative nature which have been criticised for having an underlying agenda: visitor numbers.
Of course, one can interject about the spectacular nature of these works, which is due to their scale, however one cannot deny their performativity. These indicators also describe to us a current trend within the contemporary arts, as large museums trying to increase their audiences. For the specific Whitechapel Gallery case study the average gallery/museum visitor goer spends roughly 15 to 30 minutes within the building – so it is feasible that larger institutions would adhere to a “bigger is better” philosophy in the quest for improved durational attendance. In the specific case of the Turbine Hall, the fact that the majority of the works, if not all, contained a performative nature does attest to what some consider “one of the powerful and insidious ways in which subjects are called into social being, inaugurated into sociality by a variety of diffuse and powerful interpellations.” (Butler, 1996: 125) In effect, these works were set out to engage the audience, whilst creating discourse through the interpellations of art to space to audience and has served to increase the experience of the Tate Modern. Thus, could there be lesson for all of us to take from this, to help capture the audience’s attention?
Our understanding of attention (or attentiveness) was cited by academics and physicians, during the latter half of the 19th century, as the primary suspect in accountability of subjectivity from individual to individual (Crary, 2001). Ultimately this was a consequence of industrialisation and modernity, through the increase of assembly line jobs, greater circulation of news and new visual technologies such as the kaleidoscope. This was the rise of distraction which capitalists quickly capitalised on and Crary describes as:
“Part of the cultural logic of capitalism demands that we accept as natural switching our attention rapidly from one thing to another. Capital, as accelerated exchange and circulation, necessarily produced this kind of human perceptual adaptability and became a regime of reciprocal attentiveness and distraction.” (Crary, 2001: 29-30)
This would then deviate from typical art appreciation based on the contemplation period. The notion of contemplation is still a centrality in contemporary art, and this contrasting issue of the nature of true attentiveness begs several questions; is art to conform or stand against this ADHD system? And could one consider these performative trends, such as those of the Turbine Hall, a solution to this system by large institutions?
As a bi-product of our informational overload, contemporary art now asks the question about what maintains our observational power. As it stands I can see two varieties in contemporary artworks, those that adhere to a performative nature and those that adhere to aesthetics. Within aesthetic art there really is no specific criteria, other than its lack of discursive material, though still with the capabilities to have discourse attached to it externally. Take Japanese artist Haroshi (http://www.haroshi.com), here we have an artist that combines his love for skateboarding and what would seem to be traditional Japanese woodcraft:
As we can take from the examples, Haroshi’s work is beautifully constructed under an aesthetic eye and skill with vague references to popular culture. This is a far throw from the notion of performative if we are to implement Butler theory of performativity into an art context: “performativity must be understood not as a singular or deliberate “act”, but, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that name it.” (Butler, 1993: 2) Of course it can be argued that these artworks could fall into the discourse of objects – however as the artist in his own description does not hold to this, for it to enter this context (which it certainly could) would wholly be a product of a curatorial push. Now understand I do believe Haroshi to be an artist (and enjoy his work) – however I feel a distinction has to be made between contemporary discursive art and contemporary aesthetic art.
My reasoning for dividing the spectrum is not to disregard one over another, but to give context to the term static. Static can be described as a happening in the display phase of an artwork which degrades it of its natural context – rendering it anaesthetic to its observer; regardless of which spectrum it is from. Works that have fallen victim to this static mode can be perceived as boring, in a world that demands attraction and de-attraction at a frequency that is abnormal to the contemplation period. This, in my opinion, depreciates the work – reducing it to a mere object of bad consumable value. With this thought in mind, performativity could then hold the keys to combating static for the arts (regardless of the spectrum), with an implementation that should be initiated by either the curator or artist during the display process. For the purposes of this series I will be investigating various media, their modes of display, and the artist behind the work, asking: is static the folly of the artwork or something wholly curatorial? And if performativity is truly a solution to a static mode of display?
 Interpellation refers to the philosophical term of intermixing a habitus, i.e. the conceptual idea behind habitual social practices; with social hierarchy, ideology, i.e. social structure. This terminology derives from Marxist theory where the performative act receive an authoritative power through the social level of the interpellation, i.e. a priest performing a wedding service.
Next month we will begin with sculpture.
- Butler, J., Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York, 1993).
- Butler, J., “Performativity’s Social Magic”, in Theodore R. Schatzki and Wolfgang Natter (eds.), The Social and Political Body (London, 1996).
- Chomsky, N., Occupy (London, 2012).
- Crary, J., Suspension of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Massachusetts, 2001).
- Loeseke, A., Visitor Research and Curating Workshop at the Whitechapel Gallery, on, curatingthecontemporary.wordpress.com (2013).