How to do things with art: "performative utterances" in photography

The uttering of words is, indeed, usually a, or even the , leading incident in the performance of the act [...], the performance of which is also the object of the utterance, but it is far from being usually, even if it is ever, the sole thing necessary if the act is to be deemed to have been performed. Speaking generally, it is always necessary that the circumstances in which the words are uttered should be, in some way, or ways, appropriate , and it is very commonly necessary that either the speaker himself or other persons should also perform certain other actions, whether 'physical' or 'mental' actions or even acts of uttering further words. ... (J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1962, pp. 6-7)

" For discourse to materialize a set of effects, "discourse" itself must be understood as complex and convergent chains in which "effects" are vectors of power. In this sense, what is constituted in discourse is not fixed in or by discourse, but becomes the condition and occasion for further action." (Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter , p. 187)

My use of the concept "performative utterance" is perhaps unorthodox with respect to J.L. Austin's coining of the term. What I offer here on these pages is the consequence of witnessing performed actions and utterances in art that have led me to want to "utter further words." There exist some art practices where I detect something being performed that has direct bearing on the world and this is made possible not only because of the authority of the artist(s) performing, or that of the art institution that frames these practices, but in the very use of particular written or spoken language acts within the work. In a way, these artworks do what they say. Or in some instances, because of the words "uttered", they come to do what they say.

     What do we bring about or achieve by saying something? Like Austin, I am not so interested in the true/false dichotomy of language as I am in what language performs, the relation it establishes with the world, what it might promise, or by force of will or by being grounded in authority, what it might convince us of, or mislead us into believing. I will be looking at a few of instances of the "performative" and the "textual" within the context of Vancouver performance and photography. In many respects one could see photography's self-referential, indexical status as "doing" what it "says." I am hence proposing the power of certain linguistic utterances to confer authority or agency on a given performance or visual display.

    For some time now Vancouver has been in the international spotlight for its discursive photographic, video, and film practices. What rarely gets mentioned however is the role of performance or performativity within these practices. 1 The role of performance has rarely been taken up as a central point of analysis, while the issue of art history, landscape, pictorialism, and identity politics has. While many photo-based artists use an element of performance within their work, rarely is the work contextualized with respect to the vibrant performance scene that grew out of Vancouver in the late 1960s.

     The heyday of performance in Vancouver (1968-1983) has been historicized in a number of publications. This is not to say that critical and engaging performance works aren't still happening, but, since the early eighties, performance's position on the local, national, and international art scene has been largely occluded by the primacy of image-making practices or practices foregrounding institutional critique and installation. 2 It is no coincidence that the centrality of live performance in Vancouver ended in the early eighties at precisely the moment that photography and a certain staging of performance were on the rise. The rise of conservative right-wing politics and the dwindling of art funding as a result of this shift in politics, especially for non-reproducible, ephemeral performance-based works, made it difficult for performance art to thrive. Furthermore, and perhaps more in keeping with a certain obsession with recognition in the art world, after fifteen to twenty years of live performance, the "medium" was, to a large extent, considered to have exhausted itself in terms of innovation. The demand for new strategies to counteract the acculturation of more radical art practices from the '60s and '70s (rather than the desire for community) meant that performance was to experience a decline in participation by the early '80s.


     Photo-conceptual practices and a return to pictorialism seemed to fill a lack. These often dramatized a lost utopian moment (one that never really existed), but also inadvertently referred to the lost idealism of an avant-garde ethos. As mediums fraught with proto-revolutionary potential from the moment of their inception (because of their documentary status and their means of distribution and forms of reception), photography, video and film lent themselves as historically self-reflexive and critical means for revisiting past modernist moments. THESE past utopian moments were not finished once and for all but were revisited within artistic praxis, not insisting on an idealist return to past avant-garde propositions but reminding us of the importance of historical memory in helping us understand the actual formations of ideology that bind us, thus postulating the potentiality of change. The "archives" of art history and popular culture were translated to contextualize a postmodern space and time, one still haunted by the promises and failures of modernity. Photography acted as a mirror through which to view the past . These photographs, videos, and films were "performative" and they were self-consciously so. The spectator did not wonder at the truth-value of these photos so much as recognize them as constructions of events. These photographs, videos, or films displayed actions made by real bodies that left their trace in the real. They left their mark on the negative. They did something in time and space.

     But what happens when one encounters a photograph that lies somewhere between reality and fiction, live performance and acting for the camera? The photograph acts as a mirror, a surface on which one can perform a possible new space, or a surface that can record the fact that one has actually performed within a real context--a record of what has happened or a rehearsal of what might happen in the real world.

     Back in the '60s/'70s, there was a tendency to rate performance according to its phenomenological impact. Performance was supposed to be "live," the real body performing in a specific site in real, present time, and its essence could not be captured through any form of reproduction (unless, that is, it was made to be videotaped in the first place). In every live performance there was a particular atmosphere, a particular audience participation vis-à-vis the performer and the event. Each moment of the performance was charged with a perpetual presence until it was over, at which time it slid forever into the realms of imperfect memory. No visible trace existed beyond the live event. All this was lost in the documentation of the event. All forms of representation alter the event in some way, act as a supplement, a re-imagined construct contaminated by the spectator's subjectivity and the camera's gaze.

      Nonetheless, the photograph, video, or textual document can be used in a number of ways that somehow extends and exceeds the "life" of the past event: as an historical archiving of past performance, as a way of legitimizing the status of the artist and her/his work, etc. It could also be circulated as a commodity of sorts, as a trace of something one could possess visually and/or physically. Today, new media forms have altered the experience of performance. We experience things "live" via the Internet. Despite its virtuality it is no less a form of "doing" in real time and space.       

     A few artists recognized the shortcomings of a purist notion of performance practice. Throughout the nineties, Judy Radul worked with the very limits of performance, questioning the validity of "liveness" as the essence of true performance. In 1998, at the Or Gallery in Vancouver, she presented a series of 12 black and white photographs, accompanied by text, in a show titled Documents for Performance . At first sight the work looks straightforward. It seemingly describes what it shows. Texts describe the performances going on in the photographs. For instance, one text says: "Clapping until mildly exhausted. About endings." The two photographs accompanying the text show Radul clapping within an audience. Clapping is a performative gesture that reflects approval or celebration of a successful performance of some kind. Here, the gesture is subverted it seems, perhaps as a way of deconstructing the nature of the gesture: "About endings." The gesture takes on an absurdity in its lack of object and in its excess, perhaps illustrating the idea that we clap regardless of a performance's success. It is a reiterated gesture that reflects social propriety that serves to perpetuate the frames of authoritative positioning that divide that audience's function from that of the performer.

     In Radul's Documents there are many levels of performance going on all at once: that of the staging of a performance, that of choosing the moment that will be captured on film, and that of the text which describes what the bodies are doing. And not only does the text supplement the photograph and performance (or the photograph/performance supplement the text), it literally must be interpreted in turn. Because of the gaps opened up by the very limitations of these visual and textual forms of representation, a lot of the work is left up to the viewer as a new kind of performance. A few of Radul's texts are elliptical, even poetic, leaving much up to the imagination, leaving us a little puzzled as to what is being offered up to vision.

      Within this body of work, Radul also problematizes the historical status of the photograph as signifier of truth and as representation of reality, as something that actually happened. When one poses for the camera, in full acknowledgement that one's image is being recorded, the performative kicks into play. One poses as one wants to be portrayed. There is a close relationship between rehearsing one's image in front of a mirror and that of staging this image for its future permanence via the camera.   There is therefore always something phantasmatic about photography, there is always a supplemental meaning projected from the surface that masks an absence and distorts the "truth." The photograph becomes a fetish in that it masks the staging and process of production (Marx), and in that it covers up for a lack, the original impetus behind desire (Freud). Desire becomes tied up in the capacity to renew the moment of desire through the gaze's mastery over the passive look. There is something haunting about the photograph and its inanimate quality, this aspect of unliveliness and death that haunts photography. 3 Radul's Documents for Performance questions not only the status of photography as a record of the real, as a repository for memory, but also the status of real performance as something that has to be "live." What is "present" before the eyes is considered superior to that which is not.

     The imaginary space of writing or of photography has a different ontology to that of the real body, but it is no less performative. Perhaps another way of looking at writing and the photograph vis-à-vis performance, would be its role in extending something of the memory of performance in the form of potentially new performative utterances: "Being an individual and historical act, a performative utterance cannot be repeated. Each reproduction is a new act performed by someone who is qualified." 4 According to Radul , "the spectator's 'restaging' of events in their imagination becomes another level of performance." (this is from Radul's statement on the Documents for Performance; it does not appear to be published anywhere).

    The phenomenal thing about Documents for Performance is the attention one invariably places on a punctum 5 intrinsic to the photograph (personal meaning projected onto the photograph stemming from contingencies that give a sense of "naturalness of real life" that is absent in the text), as well as on the choice of words in describing an action or representation, perhaps a certain awkwardness of wording, or a word that stands out, that gives the description texture-- something that brings an added layer of MEANING to that which is absent in the photograph:

Representation ... always conveys more than it intends; and it is never totalizing. The "excess" meaning conveyed by representation creates a supplement that makes multiple and resistant readings possible. Despite this excess, representation produces ruptures and gaps; it fails to reproduce the real exactly. Precisely because of representation's supplemental excess and its failure to be totalizing, close readings of the logic of representation can produce psychic resistances and, possibly, political change. 6

In the case of Radul's textual interventions into the photographs, the words serve to guide how we read the images. They act as "performative utterances"; they "say" what is done, and as a result the action is seen as performed.

      More recently, the artist-collective Norma performs what I would describe as being antithetical to the "performative utterance", as that which "does what it says"; yet in this direct antithesis the work has a profound bearing on the disjuncture between what is said and what is being done. It uses the memory of past "performative utterances" in popular culture to say something about the space in which they perform. In spring 2003, Norma executed a performance in a park at the corner of 5 th Ave and Granville St. All eight artists repeated selected lines from the film Dog Day Afternoon and performed activities that had nothing to do with the film itself. What kind of "performative utterances" were these, which borrow lines from a '70s film and endlessly repeated them in the guise of occupying a living public space in 2003? What did these words do except highlight the lack of meaningful social interaction in public spaces today? That this usually deserted park was subjected to excess use would make any habitual passer-by look twice and think about the strange status of many such public spaces in Vancouver. They seem to be referring to the presence of token green space in public places designated for new condominium complexes, spaces that are rarely ever used. Also the constant presence of film crews and film sets in this city's public space stands out above the transitory life that flies past us day after day. The repeated actions and phrases on the part of these actor-artists recalled the life of automatons, a life caught in a perpetual film-loop.


     Happening upon this isolated group of people endlessly rehearsing lines that described the failure of a bank-robbery while pretending to look like upstanding citizens at leisure made me suddenly aware of the absurd and pathetic situation most city dwellers find themselves in at beginning of the 21 st century--confronted with a virtually anomic existence interrupted by dispersed, fleeting acts of resistance. This repetitive performance invaded the everyday with an authority that was almost convincing in its verisimilitude, slightly uncanny, and utterly hysterical. The eternal return of the same, while drawing attention to how identity is caught up in iterability (the normative force of performativity), acted as a hiatus within the numbing flow of car traffic that dominated the landscape.


     Within the context of the various "utterances" of Judy Radul's and Norma's works discussed here, the absurdity of the actions performed, photographed, and/or described underscores the power of the catachrestic within discourse, whereby performative (speech) acts "either fail to refer or refer in the wrong way." 7 This ambiguity or variability of signification within these works could be seen as advocating or inciting the opening up of social space to "futurity" or social change. As anomalous situations rupturing the fabric of reality, these performed acts challenge the social and psychic forces that constrain us to look and identify in normative ways . Through calling into question the ruling social relations of production and communication , Radul's and Norma's works point not toward what life is, but toward what it can become.

1 I am thinking in particular of the photography of Ken Lum, BUT ALSO the films/videos of Rodney Graham and Stan Douglas.

2 More recently the strategies of institutional critique and installation work have become commodified, in keeping with the relations of "service and management industries." The artist and the institution become the sites of authority and legitimacy for the work. (See Miwon Kwon, "One place after another: Notes on Site Specificity", OCTOBER 80 , Spring 1997, p. 102.)

3 "...the photograph's memorial function is so closely imbricated with its mortifying effect that it becomes the ideal agent for representing all that has fallen under the sentence of death." Kaja Silverman, The Threshold of the Visible World , NY/London: Routledge, 1996, p. 151.

4Emile Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics , quoted in Phelan, p. 149.

5 "...the photographs I am speaking of are in effect punctuated, sometimes even speckled with these sensitive points; precisely, these marks, these wounds are so many points. This second element ... I shall call punctum ... The photograph's punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)." Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography , NY: Hill and Wang, 1981, pp. 26-7.

6 Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: the politics of performance , London/NY: Routledge, 1993, p.2.

7Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" , NY/London: Routledge, 1993, p. 217.

(Published in Prefix Magazine, 2004)