Notes on the Political Power of Performance

March 2, 2018

This is one of several articles commissioned for and published in conjunction with the 2018 Seminario Fundación Cisneros, Disruptions: Dilemmas Regarding the Image in Contemporaneity

Performance—given its nature as an “event,” the particular temporal rupture that characterizes it and the fact that it functions as a contingent constellation of diverse semantic alliances, materialities, gestures, and acts—is theoretically conceived as a fundamentally political artistic exercise. This political condition is connected to the fact that, on one hand, it is a form of artistic practice that interrupts, dismantles, or destroys ordinary temporal and semantic sequences, taking shape as an “extra-ordinary present”—a singular experience or event[1]—separate from conventional systems of interpretation. On the other hand, this extra-ordinary present can be described as the material implosion[2] of the different actions, bodies, and signifiers that contract and expand toward their own textuality or activity, reordering the contexts in which they occur, constantly evading capture. In other words, performance functions as an emancipatory gesture in which signifying discourses and narratives undergo alterations and shifts.

Performance is a fundamentally ephemeral type of work, meaning that it dissolves and is consumed by the very action which, nevertheless, clashes with the incident’s interiority and defies its own eventuality, due to the many traces and documents through which it survives. This ontological evolution of performance through distinct material and formal transmigrations critically emphasizes its temporal dynamic, thus problematizing—or better yet, complicating—its political and emancipatory nature. Indeed, this evolution forces us to explore the changes that the practice of performance brings about in both the concept of the “event” and its political nature, inasmuch as the survival of an extra-ordinary present (which by definition eludes capture) would seem to be out of keeping with its own temporary condition, inscribing it into something that might be described as a process of “de-eventalization.”[3] 

In this sense, the political power of performance is simultaneously tied to two different instants. The first of these instants is that singular and unrepeatable temporal constellation that establishes it as an extra-ordinary present. The temporal rupture produced by this singularity possesses an intrinsically emancipatory nature—always taking place in public—making it unnecessary to address a specific political proposal. The second instant is produced by the way the extra-ordinary present operates and perseveres, whether in its becoming-present as an assortment of gestures in which diverse phenomenological and semantic fields come together, or in the peculiar way in which it transcends its own eventuality, migrating toward diverse types of materiality that offer it persistence and permanence.

No doubt, in light of the observations above, performance makes an excellent case for reflecting on the complex and difficult relationships between art and politics in the contemporary art world. Precisely because it is a field which sets into action different types of political forces, critical and emancipatory faculties which, as we will see, operate in both macro- and micro-political manners, performance ultimately forces us to question how we approach the concept of “politics” through art, as well as the domestications and contradictions to which we continually subject this relationship.

When conceived as an event, the political power of performance is closely tied to the interruptions and complications that this extra-ordinary present generates due to its constitution as an unpredictable set of actions (sensory and corporeal, gestural, spatial, and discursive) that carry the significant burden of personal and private meanings. This power is due to performance’s intimate relationship with immediate corporeal actions and with presence, the present singularity of the gestures that compose them and thus redefine the terrain and constitution of the political by incorporating diverse spheres of everyday interaction (sexual, familiar, job-related, clinical) that are commonly thought of as belonging to the private realm.

An example of this can be found in the performance Alternativa I by Roberto Obregón, in which he slowly and deliberately produces a paper rose, turning a segment of time into a space for blooming, a kind of practical chronicle of daily life, freed from its own determinations and with the limits between nature and artifice erased. In other words, above and beyond its temporal rupture—its condition as “event”—performance reflexively sets into action different micro-networks of power that do not concern governmental or institutional spaces so much as issues where the self is structured or in play; issues of ordinary identity and existence, of everyday labor and personal understanding or perception.

The diverse performances of Antonieta Sosa, for example, bring about a crisis in the abstract-constructivist legacy of Venezuelan art by contaminating it with her identity, her body and its intimacy, infecting it with animalism and sensuality, and by making her daily life, her home and her routines the basis for a moment that goes beyond itself, fracturing the distances between art and personal life or between public and private space, and “offering herself up” as her own object. Her intimate relationship with the body and immediate action, her direct interpellation—always here and now—and her condition of concrete and embodied signification make the performance itself something that is not merely a fleeting trace, but rather a “live act” that is affected by its context and which in turn affects its surroundings as it unfolds, but vis-à-vis a context that limits neither its creative power nor the phenomenological rupture constituted by the experience.

Antonieta Sosa, Pereza, de Del cuerpo al vací­o, 2 (1985). Performance. Galerí­a de Arte Nacional, Caracas

We might say, then, that the political potency of performance is fundamentally linked to micropolitics,[4] to its capacity to place on display, to debate, question and politically and publicly confront ideas, topics, or issues related to existential spaces outside of the civil sphere, those that go beyond the public and elude institutional (judicial and governmental) frameworks due to their pertinence to the ways of life of individuals, communities, and societies. In performance, the extra-ordinary emerges through gestures that highlight and bring these uses of power together with the differences, fissures, contradictions, and paradoxes pertaining to the different mechanisms for the production of both individual and group subjectivity.

A paradigmatic example of the micro-political power of performance can be found in the event Higiene Corporal. Mens Sana in Corpore Sano, undertaken by Marco Antonio Ettedgui. Ettedgui’s itinerary consists of three sections in which, like a narrative, he questions, debates, and deliberates on the connections between the body and society: health and illness, madness and discipline, intimate acts and collective representation. In this performance, the artist dissolves the boundaries between the public and the private, alluding to social problems through personal realities and emphasizing his own role as a catalyst, a site for the establishment of critical operations.

Marco Antonio Ettedgui, Higiene Corporal: Men's Sana In Corpore Sano (1980)

Understood through its mode of “permanence,” through the formal and material transmigrations that embody this “extra-ordinary present” within the visual arts’ systems of visualization and archival preservation, we encounter a paradoxical situation in this performance. While that inclusion may benefit and add to the potency of micropolitical critique, it may also destroy or nullify its condition as “event” as well as its inapprehensible nature, since it initiates a history of elucidations pertaining to the representative and ideological frameworks of “macropolitics.” In this way, performance expands beyond its singular temporal condition and becomes a representative “object,” an interchangeable image that is incorporated into established and recognized lines of artistic understanding and creation.

Marco Antonio Ettedgui, Higiene Corporal: Men's Sana In Corpore Sano (1980). Foto: Julio Vengoechea

Indeed, in this historicization of a transitory phenomenon, the critical powers of micropolitics are multiplied through their linkage to unfamiliar contexts, freed from their specific temporal situation, and “cited” within different discourses, contexts and signifying frameworks. The sum of contingencies, alliances and affective tendencies, shared desires, collaborative practices, sensorial formulas from which and in which performance occurs multiply and propagate, diversify and disseminate, and as a result their discursive and historical texture deepens and becomes more consolidated. Performance becomes an expressive form that, if necessary, can be incorporated into narrative, disconnected from the complex specificity of sensation, and become an image and a construction of poiesis. Nevertheless, over the course of the development of history and the image, performance is somehow robbed of its intensity, its embodied condition. Becoming lightweight, nomadic, fleeting, it transforms into another type of work, one that is easy to circulate, exhibit and contextualize.

In this sense, it would seem that in its transmigrations, performance is “de-eventalized,” therefore placing into crisis—or undoing—its own substance. In order to enter into the general history of works of art, performance must adjust its temporality: it must cease to be a rupture and limit or diminish its intrinsic connection to specific contexts and environments. This is a dangerous movement through which the political texture of performance becomes spectacle, making its contestatory language and rebellious imagery digestible to institutionality, and turning it into a strategy for the production of sociability and participatory situations. However, I would say that this “de-eventalization” and its incorporation into the mainstream art world, rather than being understood as a commercialization or reduction of its political character, evidences a deep-seated contemporary political problem—namely, it shows how even the most radical gestures and the most dense critiques can be reduced and reformulated in such a way that they lose ever more of their potency and their capacity to generate crisis and to destabilize that which they depict; the domesticating power of historicization is thus manifested. In this way, for example, Erika Ordosgoitti’s acts, which are modes of transgression when they occur “live,” become devices emanating different types of objects, making these actions continually operational and tying them to the institutionality of art, a process by which actions are distributed into groups of “works” independent of the event that produced them. These other objects that emerge from the performance establish new connections to different contexts, not only in the references to explicit topics that the actions suggest—the body and its uses, freedom, the opacity of discourse, the strangeness of the familiar and everyday—but also in the way they raise an enormous number of questions regarding the mechanisms of “domestication” associated with public and political institutionality.

Video work by Érika Ordosgoitti as part of an exhibition at La Casa Vieja de La Hacienda La Trinidad with the Galería Carmen Araujo Arte


Installation view of a work by Érika Ordosgoitti in the exhibition "Onomatopeyas visuales de tiempos difíciles" in the Galería Carmen Araujo Arte (June 18–September 3, 2017)


In the contemporary art world, the emancipating political power of performance is engaged in a battle with a haunting chain of apprehensions that frequently transforms it into a spectacle, a material practice abstracted from its own procedures and substance, and distanced from its spatial, situational and micropolitical dynamics. In many of these attempts at permanence, we can see how the domestication of emancipatory history can lead to the invisibility or immateriality of performative practice; the result is the abstraction of the overall act and its conversion into a political representation.

Without a doubt, performance is a fundamentally political form of artistic practice, even in the cases where its critical and contestatory potential may be diminished by its incorporation into established artistic trajectories. Therefore, it has become a type of artistic practice that is problematic and anxious, conceived as a provocative, subversive, and critical act. In other words, performance has profound problems with politics precisely because it seems so intrinsically political and emancipatory that even in the cases in which it loses power, it generates questions regarding the political sphere. Its political potential and its emancipatory power are directly linked to those gestures and acts that cannot be framed within any specific political traditions, established geopolitical constellations or institutional contexts, but which instead maintain the contingency and unpredictability of their own particular moments in time.

[1] In mathematics, a singularity is a function possessing an “unexpected behavior,” either because it leads to infinity or because it radicalizes its operations and determinations to their absolute extremes. In physics, a singularity is a “site” where relational systems become infinite and indeterminable. Both definitions function perfectly as metaphors for what takes place in the “act” of performance.

[2] “Implosion,” also borrowed from physics, is an “action that breaks inwardly,” creating an expansive wave that moves toward the interior.

[3] This idea was proposed by Slavoj Žižek, in his book Event, specifically in the chapter “The Undoing of an Event,” in which he proposes that it is an important cultural force in the contemporary world that functions to “annul, cancel or unhitch” and whose characteristic effect is “to retroactively undo what is already 'written in the stars' as our destiny,” which is precisely what would seem to be taking place with historicism and established history. Reflection is focused on the “change in the status of public space,” which, for the philosopher, is an exemplary case of how, in our societies, the “emancipatory Event of modernity”—the construction of the public sphere—is being gradually undone.

[4] Micropolitics is a term that became a sign and emblem of the revolution of May ’68 through the work of Guattari, along with Foucault and Deleuze, who helped establish it as a reconceptualization and redefinition of the playing field for power relations, allowing a series of issues that were previously excluded due to their pertinence to the private sphere to begin to enter into politics; at the same time, their work helped defined it as a strategy for the resistance of power from spaces outside the institutional and governmental.

Translated from the Spanish by Phillip Penix-Tadsen