Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Loren Kruger reviews Performance

Diana Taylor. Performance. Trans. Abigail Levine. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016. 220 pp.

Review by Loren Kruger

Readers unfamiliar with Diana Taylor’s work and perhaps even those who know her previous book, The Archive and the Repertoire, might be puzzled by the acknowledgement of translation, adaptation, and thus also collaboration that supplement the deceptively simple title Performance.  Nonetheless, this hidden supplement provides the key to reading the book because it highlights the collective contribution of the organization of research, play, and activism in the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, which was founded by Taylor and colleagues in 1999. The original Spanish-language edition of Performance was conceived and published in 2009 as an introduction to the theory and practice of performance especially but not only in the Americas, drawing on the rich archive that had been assembled in English and Portuguese as well as Spanish from the encuentros (gatherings, assemblies, encounters) staged by the institute in cities north and south from Santiago de Chile to Montréal and, in addition, tracing the discursive matrix around the word performance whose entry into Spanish and Portuguese had been facilitated in large part by this organization.

Given the impact of The Archive and the Repertoire on performance studies in the US and elsewhere, and the influence of other theorists cited in that book and this one, from J. L Austin on performative locutions through Richard Schechner’s performance as “twice-behaved behavior” to Jon McKenzie’s implication in Perform or Else that performance can apply to just about anything: why read this translation? The answer presents itself partly in the plethora of images and captions that document memorable performances in Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Lima, Los Angeles, México, São Paolo, and other sites in the Americas, including the institute’s home base in New York, and partly in the pithy definitions of key terms, including a useful distinction between the binding consequences of performative locutions as Austin understands them and Taylor’s suggestion that the loose application of performative as the undefined adjectival form of performance might be avoided by the introduction of a distinct adjectival form performatic (p. 120).

The book also invites readers to see translation as a mode of performance as well as performance as a site of translation and mistranslation on which violent and happy encounters, and many in between, appear and disappear also deserves attention. Even when she probes translation on the small scale of the word, as in the note from pioneering performance anthropologist Victor Turner that the French parfournier means “to bring to completion” (quoted in p. 38), or even in the question of the gendered article—should performance in Spanish be prefaced by el or la (p. 7)Taylor shows that translation is always an act of transmission and transformation, sometimes liberating, sometimes constraining. For instance, el performance refers often to completion in the sense of business tasks or goals and thus preserves a masculine cast, whereas la performance refers to art and other supposedly ephemeral acts and thus risks perpetuating the notion that art and evanescence are feminine while efficient completion of tasks remains a masculine quality. Further, since many enactments pictured or recounted in this book highlight the productive friction between performance and politics, attention to language also reminds us of the political impact that is lost in translation:  desaparecer (disappear) highlights not only the spontaneous evanescence of performance but also the deliberate violence done to the desaparecidos (those made to disappear), their remains, and their survivors by regimes past and present in the Americas. Conversely escrachar (in Argentina) and funar (in Chile) denote the potent but as yet untranslatable practice of collective action to expose perpetrators to public view often outside their own homes and so to challenge the normalization of amnesia by complicit governments and other powerful institutions. Both highlight the transmissibility of performance forms and affects across generations as well as across borders as well as the specific and unpredictable outcomes in each individual happening.

The aphoristic format of Performance, whose short segments often begin as captions for many of the images, as well as the use of bold face and large font to highlight key statements, might leave gaps for the uninitiated but also offers the reader the opportunity to insert points of comparison with other sites and hemispheres or to pose questions provoked by apparent inconsistencies. Thus, an emphatic statement like “Breaking norms is the norm of the performance” (p. 71), which almost fills the page on which it appears in the chapter on “Performance Histories,” could provoke the reminder that performance can reinforce norms, whether with violence, as suggested by an image of the Argentine military on parade shortly after the coup d’état in 1976, or more subtly by way of codification or commodification as a valuable work subject to copyright if not also commodification. Taylor implies but does not spell out this commodification in an otherwise stringent analysis of the limits of the “re-performance” of Marina Abramović’s signature pieces at the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective. Taylor points out, for example, the important differences in form and meaning between the 1977 piece Imponderabilia—in which the narrow threshold to the gallery required visitors to brush up against Abramović’s naked body—and its re-presentation by younger assistants in New York in 2010, whose placement in wide spaces between galleries framed and normalized them as artistic nudes.

In these and many comparable moments, Performance offers scenarios (another keyword in the lexicon) for active pedagogy, inviting students and others to explore and perhaps undo the links between images and writing, texts and performances, so as to conduct their own performatic appropriations.