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)

 

 

 

 

 

Early Modern Banquets: A Noisy but Tasty Business

What better than a banquet could display power and sociability in early modern courts? As part of my research on SOUND, food culture represents one fundamental aspect in a research focusing on sound, noise and court ceremonial. Early modern banquets were elaborate choreographies intended to display the amphytrion’s power and ability to feed his guests. The participants but also the food itself were staged and required intense, noisy, and elaborate preparations. The various parts of the banquet –from the arrival of the guests, the seating hierarchy, the accompanying entertainments, the dining– were orchestrated like an opera or a theater play, with elaborate sceneries and decorations, unexpected theatrical machines, rains of perfumes and scents. Traditionally, banquets were associated with weddings and celebrated dynastic unions between important families.

Giovanni Battista Lenardi and Arnold van Westerhout, Sugar sculptures of Cybel and Juno, banquet given in Rome by the British Ambassador Roger Palmer, Earl of Castlemaine, 1687

Indoor or outdoor, the preparation required an important number of craftsmen to set up the scenery, decorations, sometimes to build flying tables that appeared magically, cooks, pastry chef, food sculptors realizing edible triumphs in sugar or ice, perfumers, gardeners and florists, food carvers, light designers, plate turners, gilders, and a cohort of servants under the supervision of the master steward and the sommelier, along with musicians, singers, and dancers.

Such events can be read as performance, they include categories such as ritual, ceremony, spectacle, but also political and everyday life. Erika Fischer-Lichte defines performance as ephemeral, unrepeatable and dependent on the co-presence of artists and public. Ephemerality, in the case of a banquet, does not only concern the event itself, but also the food: edible monuments designed as sophisticated triumphs are literally ingested by the guests. The performative act is both artistic and aesthetic, but always includes underlying social and political motivations. The extravagance and the prohibitive costs of such a “food spectacle” were meant to represent the prominent position, the power, and the political ambitions of the host.

Aristocratic banquets since the Renaissance were sophisticated orchestrations of food and luxury objects, with fragile and ephemeral architectures. Born in Italy, sugar sculptures soon conquered all the European courts; they represented the masterpieces of a banquet, soliciting all the senses, combining culinary arts with performing arts, they progressively became an elaborate theatre staging mythological themes. The sculptures were made of solidified sugar, moulded and then chiselled. Saffron and herbs allowed to color them. Banquets were usually organized around a mythological or historical theme, celebrating the guest of honor and the sculptures staged a symbolical and political iconography, often made of animals, garlands, and flowers. The banquet ceremonial was a dramaturgical choreography, built on a precise hierarchy. Every participant was an actor, just as the meal was a theater and the banquet was a discourse on power. Everything in the ritual of the banquet was performance, from cooking to the complex choreography of service, even the act of eating itself.

Pierre Paul Sevin, Banquet table with triumphs and coat of arms of Pope Clement IX Rospigliosi

Early modern banquets were indissociable from a mythological reference to Homer’s banquet of the gods (Illiad 24.25-30), which found place in the garden of the Hesperides and served as a prelude to the Trojan war. Opulence and abundance led to war and destruction: the banquet of the gods staged passions and destructive appetites. Ovid’s Festivals narrated the banquet of the bacchanals (I.391-400 and 6.319-341) and Apuleius’ Metamorphosis the wedding of Cupid and Psyche (IV,24). Banquets during the Renaissance traditionally ended by a merciless plundering of food and decorations as a reminder to Homer’s cautionary tale. Edible monuments were intentionally meant to be devoured and destroyed.

Historical examples of such extravagant banquets include the banquet of Cardinal Riario in honor of Eleanor of Aragon in 1473 with the most prodigious triumphs of sugar of huge dimensions representing the story of Hercules, in honor of the future husband of Eleanor, Ercole d’Este; the banquet for their wedding; the banquet for the wedding of Roberto Malatesta and Isabella di Montefeltro; and the banquet offered by Federico II Gonzaga to Henri III of France in 1574 (McIver, 96-97, 141-43). Later examples include Louis XIV week-long festivities at Versailles, Les Plaisirs de L’Isle enchantée in 1664 (Apostolides 1981, Arizzoli-Clémentel 2013); Cardinal Flavio Chigi’s elaborate outdoor banquet with spectacular staging in 1668 to honor the new papal family of the Rospigliosi (Jeanneret 2020); and the scene of the banquet of the gods (Act I, sc. 4-5) in Antonio Cesti’s opera Il pomo d’oro, given to celebrate (belatedly) the wedding of Leopold I and Margaret Theresa in Vienna in 1668 (Read 2015).

Teresa del Pò and Carlo Fontana, Staging of Cardinal Chigi’s banquet in Rome, 1668 (detail)
Teresa del Pò and Carlo Fontana, Final scene of Chigi’s banquet, 1668

But banquets were also a noisy and dirty business. Smells, pots and pans clashing, cooks yelling, hot fire burning, water, stressed servants running around, living animals screeching, all were contributing to make kitchens the loudest place at court. The kitchen was usually separated from the main building, to avoid the racket and the smells, either placed outside –also to minimize the risk of fire, as it was the case at Rosenborg castle– or in the basement. The decorum of the meal choreography stood in strong opposition with the preparations, hidden away to avoid confrontation between the dirty business of cooking and the fine sophisticated moment of the banquet, raising interesting issues around the notion of privacy. Who had to stay in the kitchen to do the dirty and noisy business, who could freely move between the kitchen and the banquet room, and who could attend the banquet itself? By bringing sound into the study of food culture and court, I bring back a focus on everyday practices and high class dining, along with a focus on materiality. Kitchen tools, cutlery, glasses, wine barrels, plates, silverware were all made in specific materials –ceramics, glass, wood, metal– creating specific and highly identifiable sounds related to eating. Reconstructing these sounds gives a new perspective on the ritual of the banquet.

Antonio Cesti, Il pomo d’oro, banquet of the gods (Act 1, sc. 4-5)

References:
Albala, Ken, The Banquet: Dining in the Great Courts of Late Renaissance Europe. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois, 2007.
Apostolides, Jean-Marie, Le Roi-machine: Spectacle et politique au temps de Louis XIV. Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1981.
Arizzoli-Clémentel, Pierre, ed., Versailles. Paris: Citadelles & Mazenot, 2013.
Dennis, Flora, “Cooking pots, tableware, and the changing sounds of sociability in Italy, 1300–1700,” Sound Studies (2015), 1-22.
Fabbri Dall’Oglio, Maria Attilia, Il trionfo dell’effimero: Lo sfarzo e il lusso dei banchetti visti nella cornice fastosa delle feste nella Roma barocca, lungo il percorso storico dell’evoluzione del gusto e della tavola nell’Italia fra Sei e Settecento. Rome, 2001.
Fischer-Lichte, Erika, The Routledge Introduction to Theater and Performance Studies. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Fischer-Lichte, Erika, The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics. New York: Routledge, 2008
Imorde, Joseph, “Edible Prestige,” in Marcia Reed, ed., The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, 2015, 101-123.
Jeanneret, Christine, “Un triomphe gastronomique: Performance et banquet dans le jardin de Flavio Chigi”, in Anne-Madeleine Goulet, José María Domínguez, Élodie Oriol (eds), Spectacles et performances artistiques à Rome (1644–1740): Une analzse historique à partir des archives familiales. Rome: Mélanges de l’École française de Rome, 2020 (forthcoming).
McIver, Katherine, Cooking and Eating in Renaissance Italy: From Kitchen to Table. Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Pennell, Sara, “‘Pots and Pans History’: The Material Culture of the Kitchen in Early Modern England,” Journal of Design History 11, no 3 (1998), 201-16.
Reed, Marcia, “Court and Civic Festivals,” in Marci Reed, ed., The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals. Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2015, 27-71.