Performance, Performativity, Privacy

In 1975 in the art gallery Krinzinger in Innsbruck, the Serbian artist Marina Abramović subjected her body to various bodily transgressions, ingesting a liter of honey, a liter of wine, and inflicting razor wounds to her lower abdomen. She then flogged herself and lied down on a cross made of ice, freezing her back, while her body was burning from the above. The audience could not take this exploration of physical and mental boundaries and ripped her off the cross. This performance, Lips of Thomas, constitutes a key moment for performative arts and performance studies, notably by an extreme use of the body as a medium and the unavoidable implication of the audience. In her autobiography, Durch Mauern gehen (2016), mentioning one of the performances of Rhythm 10 at Villa Borghese in Rome in 1973 – an extreme version of the knife game – Abramović described the relationship between herself and the audience as follows:

Es war, als würde ein elektrischer Strom durch meinen Körper fliessen, als wären das Publikum und ich eins geworden. Ein einziger Organismus. Das Gefühl der Gefahr im Raum hatte die Zuschauer und mich in diesem Moment vereint: wir waren hier und jetzt und nirgendwo anders.

Marina Abramović, The Lips of Thomas (1975)

Since then, the notions of performance and performativity have become powerful tools, but also muddled ones in the humanities. Radically interdisciplinary, performance studies currently include the fields of performing arts, philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and gender studies. They encompass research in theater, ceremonies, political or religious rituals, sports, along with everyday life, spectacles, and entertainments in a broad sense. By bringing a focus on people, their interaction, self-fashioning, acting, and their representation, performance and performativity can be useful lenses to study privacy.

In 1967, Richard Schechner founded and directed the experimental theater troupe, The Performance Group, which became The Wooster Group in 1980, under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte. Experimentation by the troupe, called Environmental Theater incited the immersion of the audience within the performance and physical contacts between the audience and the actors (an endangered circumstance in the actual times of pandemic). It was meant to suppress the traditional separation between the stage and the spectators, or in theater jargon, breaking the fourth wall. From then onwards, the performing act was no longer just artistic and aesthetic; it includes social and cultural aspects, along with questions of identity and ritual.

The Performance Group in 1976

Performance cannot be evoked without its neighboring concept, performativity. John L. Austin coined the term “performative” in How to Make Things With Words (1962). The British philosopher used it uniquely in regard to speech acts. He distinguishes descriptive language made of constative language, which can be evaluated in terms of right or wrong, from performative language, which has the ability to act and transform the world. In the latter sense, talking becomes a social act. The most famous examples of performative language are institutional acts, such as a wedding ceremony or a judge giving a verdict. Pronouncing a couple husband and wife or condemning a defendant to life imprisonment will literally change the lives of the protagonists. Therefore, talking is not just pronouncing words, but talking is acting.

In the 1990s, with the emergence of cultural studies, Judith Butler extends the notion of performativity to the body. Culture, like theater and music, are now interpreted as a performance and no longer as a text. Before Butler, feminist theoreticians such as Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray or Monique Wittig considered sex as a biological factor, whereas gender was seen as a social construction: one was born as male or female, but one became a woman or a man. Butler questions both notions of sex and gender and develops the notion of gender performativity in opposition with the notion of essentialism. Born in the nineteenth century, this conception considered men and women as fundamentally different due to biological reasons, and consequently also implying moral qualities. It substituted the older Galenic conception of a one-sex model, where men and women were placed on a continuum going from perfection (man) to imperfection (woman). In this perspective, sex along with gender, are a cultural and social construction. The norm is the heterosexual male desire, which created a feminine identity established by the stylized repetition of bodily acts – what Michel Foucault calls the “discours régulateurs” or “techniques disciplinaires”. Gender performance creates gender, each individual operates as an actor of this specific gender. Moreover, gender is performative, because bodily acts express gender and constitute the illusion of a stable gender identity. Butler advocates the subversion of gender categories by performance, along with the idea of a flexible and free identity she calls gender trouble.

The lion’s share in performance studies and theory goes to the German theater historian Erika Fischer-Lichte. According to her, performance as artistic practice dissolves boundaries between life and art, between embodiment and meaning, and between presence and representation. Performance highlights the use of bodies, no longer limited to represent or play the acts of eating or suffering for instance, but literally eating and suffering on stage. Performing arts are indivisible from the concrete moment of their performance. The performance needs to be lived and experienced (erlebt und erfahren). As such, Fischer-Lichte defines performance along three lines of thinking. Firstly, it is unique and unrepeatable (Einmaligkeit und Unwiederholbarkeit). Secondly, a basic condition for performance is the bodily co-presence of spectators and actors in the same space. Finally, the identity of performance is created by a stylized repetition.

Lulu, Alban Berg (New York 2016)

How can these concepts be useful to the study of privacy? By definition, privacy would seem to be quite the opposite of staging bodies on a public stage. However, I believe that some notions linked to performance and performativity could bring a new insight into privacy studies. The body is one of the heuristic zones of privacy, as does society. By its focus on the body and interactions between spectators and actors, performance studies offer a powerful lens through which we can study bodies in private or public. Moreover, speech or gender acts of performativity can be closely related to practices of privacy. Finally, in the scarse existence of private space in the early modern world, I would argue that privacy was a performance. Breaking the fourth wall on a theater stage could be an analogy for private practices. Staging privacy on a metaphorical theater could be investigated along the lines of inclusion and exclusion, inside and outside, boundaries and threshold, sound and silence.

La Fura dels Baus, staging of Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen (Valencia 2007-2009)