real[work] - Performances

Root Event

4. Werkleitz Biennale real[work]
real[work] - Performances
5. 7. to 9. 7. 2000
DE 2000

kuratiert von:



When we use the word “performance” it is usually when we are thinking of performance art, ritual, theatre, music, dance. But what is it that we are doing when we are thinking or mouthing the word, “performance” and uttering the sounds. Are we not performing in a broader sense, that is, in the manner we perform on the street, in the office, in conversation, or in those private moments when we are excreting, making love, weeping, dying, mourning, scratching an itch, observing, reading, working? And what specifically is the performance of work, and of realwork? Are the two performed differently? Raymond Williams points to the privileged position accorded regular paid employment over other forms of work: “A general word for doing something, and for something done … has become a word applied predominantly to paid labour. The basic sense of the word, to indicate activity and effort or achievement, has thus been modified … by a definition of its imposed conditions, such as “steady” or timed work, or working for a wage or salary: being hired. An active woman, running a house and bringing up children, is distinguished from a woman (or man) who works: that is to say, takes paid employment.” 1 (Williams, 1976, p. 335)

In English, the “real” in “real work”, commonly refers to that which we do for ourselves in our leisure (from the Latin “permit” licere). It is a kind of work, to which we assign particular value and is done in our own time, separate from our salaried job. So, in a sense it is produced in time that we control or own, rather than the time during which our bodies are hired out to an employer. In this usage of “realwork”, then, there is a reduction or elimination of alienation.

I am using alienation here in the Marxist sense, to describe a process of objectification and estrangement, in which the worker is alienated both from the products of her labour, and from him/herself. (I will use the female pronoun in this article to indicate both masculine and feminine genders.) This transpires through exploitation and the social privilege accorded to certain kinds of work over others. So her human relations, and her relations to her own production are said to be in a condition of objectification or reification (Vergegenständlichung) under the capitalist mode of production. In this situation: “The world man has made confronts him as stranger and enemy, having power over him who has transferred his power to it.” (Williams, 1976, p. 35)

But there are other kinds of alienation, such as those produced by the economic or power differentials between national and regional economies. On the one hand, all production-line workers can be said to experience alienation in the capitalist mode of production, but on the other hand, the subtle differences between modernist and traditional economies must alter our analysis. The Indonesian artist, Arahmaiani refers to the historical division between the interests of transnational corporations and the former colonising nations, and those of her country. During the Soeharto era the establishment of an Indonesian military elite, prone to acts of extreme violence, continued the former colonial dynamic internally, and was supported in this from abroad by Western and Asian governments and corporations anxious to maintain their economic interests. The description of alienated labour must take these particular inter/intra-national alignments into consideration.

Art works are unalienated to the extent that they are produced out of a productive synergy of artist, curator, institution, and public by an unexploited artist, or group of artists, with some degree of control over the means, materials and meanings of her production. But to the extent that the work is subsequently fetishised and circulated through the larger market of information-commodities, the entire mode of production becomes objectified and takes on the appearance of a stage show: “The Artist in Labour” or “The Artist Performing realwork”. At this point the word, real, is stripped of its meaning, and the entire circuit of production/representation/reception reifies. So, regardless of our intentions, the real work of the artist-producer becomes the spectacle of their realwork, that is, its representation in the form of commodified artworks - such as we find here, at the Werkleitz Biennale. Realwork reproduces itself as unrealwork. This is true for all kinds of object-based, time-based, and conceptual art production, including work reproduced through analogue or digital media.

In the case of performance art, which grew out of an analysis of the performativity that underlies all of these media, the process of reification doubles, because the locus of alienation and the locus of work are both found in the performative act. Performance art appears as a re-presentation or twice-behaving of productive behaviour. But it also appears as a re-presentation of its own representation.


A paradigmatically (post-) modernist, predominantly (but not exclusively) urban-based art form, performance art is a strongly contested category of cultural production, distinguishable from, but “parasitic” to, other aesthetic categories of “symbolic speech” (visual art, theatre, dance, rituals, monuments, cartoons, films, advertisements, signs, et al ) and “direct speech” (bureaucratic documents, policy announcements or directives, gossip, rumour, discussions, arguments, interrogations, intrigues, et al) 2 . Performance art often operates between State bureaucratic apparatuses and civil society, between public and private space, in a discursive gap it shares with other politi-cultural hybrids, such as appropriated speech, d’étournement, parody, tactical mimicry, re-constituted social rituals, et al. Needless to say, all these constitute types of discursive labour, involving material transformation, and the production/circulation of information.

Antithetical to the Situationist notion that the society of the spectacle is both a function of an economy of agencies and a reification of all economic relations, in which the subject is the ultimate commodity, the Brazilian director, Augusto Boal, based his theatre on the notion that everyone present at a performance is a “spect-actor,” that is, an actor and spectator rolled into one. Both activities are performative: the performance of “spectatorship” and the performance of “acting”. Boal’s theatrical innovations, originally designed to conscientize participants to the principles of participatory democracy, eventually led him to run for political office as an extension of his theatre. In this notion of spect-actorship we would have to include both “symbolic speech” or aesthetic performance, and various forms of “direct speech,” including the theatre of the state and government, the theatre of law, the theatre of diplomacy and war, the theatre of religion … all the institutional theatres found between and inside nation states.


Many of us find ourselves frustrated today by the over-determination of performance art, which, in the past two decades has been largely institutionalised as pedagogy in schools, reduced to ⅓2 second snaps in an endless stream of glossy coffee-table books, and mounted as spectacle in museums and international festivals (such as real[work]). Most performance art can no longer be considered “radical,” subversive or even anti-formalist. Many of us now question whether performance art is capable of sustaining or defending even its own structures, never mind having an impact outside its “frame.” It has to be asked whether we are seeing the terminus of a form, that moment in history when, under the assault of its own clichés and technologies of disembodiment, it can no longer mount a relevant discourse.
Recently, Lee Weng Choy, an art critic in Singapore, indicated that a particular theoretical position he took on was “indefensible”. Not that the position was invalid or incorrect, only that, if called upon, he would not want to justify or defend this position. “To attempt to defend it would ultimately and paradoxically render it indefensible. To defend would be to insist on a commensuration or translation.” 3

But what is interesting for this discussion is that Lee appeared to intentionally frame his impasse with a term that we would normally associate with religious, ethical, legal or military issues. This intrusion of an ethical trope into a particular performance of theorisation is significant. It reveals that one cannot seriously theorise any performance or act without the discussion turning to ethical considerations. I suggest that performance art provides one of the most nuanced “laboratories” for the theorisation of all aspects of performative ethics.

The performance of judgement now being enacted in the Hague, focusing on genocide and crimes against humanity in the Balkans, East Timor, Rwanda, Chechnya, and elsewhere, appears to hinge on an irresolvable paradox. On the one hand, all acts are seen to be the products of intentional agents - even acts which result from the passing of orders down a chain of command in war. Acts of violence call up the responsibility of the agent and rely on the presence of “subjecthood”, like any other act. In other words, they are syntactically commensurate with all other acts, not having been performed under hypnosis, in trance, or in a state of mental disability, they cannot be defended as the acts of the insane (although it could be claimed that war itself is a protracted state of collective insanity).

As Foucault has suggested, war should be viewed as a normative state of affairs in history, divided by short, uncanny intervals of peace. Zygmunt Baumann has pointed out that genocide under National Socialism was the logical and “not-excessive” extension of the modern Weberian bureaucratic state. For the Martinique writer, Aimé Césaire, fascism in the European “theatre” was an inevitable result of the colonial era, when whites, having colonised the rest of the globe, finally turned to the colonisation of their fellow whites.

Bureaucratic and colonial agents are all workers, carrying out their functions as employees in a work environment. All aspects of bureaucracy and colonialism function through a process of privileging certain utilitarian or pragmatic values - values of efficient economies - over what are construed as non-essential or impolitic humanist concerns. The modes and techniques of managerial surveillance in the Taylorised or Fordised factory found their reflection in the zones of war, the interrogation room, the cell, the concentration camp, the colonial plantation. All of these were part of the economy of 20th century work in a singularly composed world.

International courts have since determined that workers are responsible for their actions, and can be held accountable for that responsibility. They have also generally held that, while no agency is absolute and falls outside the relativism of external judgement, it is also the case that no agency is exempt by virtue of a specific cultural relativism. Moral encoding in the modern European tradition is held in place by a “universalist” syntax which frames all forms of agency. 4

So, we find the performance of the human worker - in extremis - caught within a matrix of contradictory representations: the worker-agent is both morally responsible while accountable to the external judgement of others; and this judgement is based on a code of ethics both commensurable and absolute, at once metathetical and immutable. The paradox appears irresolvable, in part because of its entanglements in complex language games, in which “agency” is always described and judged in retrospect - through the medium of another performance-of-interpretation or performance-of-judgement, leading us to Lee’s “indefensible” conundrum.

Following in the footsteps of the most violent century in human history, we now find that our ethical systems have been bricolaged together on the spot, resembling nothing so much as one of Jean Tingley’s monuments to modernity - wired for auto-annihilation. Each generation desperately tries to ameliorate the atrocities of their parents by preparing to commit their own. Our critical discourses - including performance art - represent our somewhat ridiculous attempts to grapple with the horns of this dilemma.

Recently reading Judith Butler, I came across the phrase: “Althusser scandalously invokes Pascal on religious belief at the moment he is called upon to explain the ritual dimension of ideology: “Pascal says more or less: Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe.” 5

I read in this passage the problem of the “real” in performance. Performance is a form which is positioned precisely between the “real” and the “representation” of the real - the point of “spectacle”. If we kneel long enough, Pascal ironically suggests, our belief will become real, but the very act of kneeling when we do not believe, is spectacle, a drama, a play. Can the spectacle lead us to the real, or is spectacle, as Debord or Baudrillard would have it, already a function of the impossibility of the real - a substitution for the real, a simulacrum?

Althusser invokes Pascal in his discussion of ideology as the dawning of “recognition” that occurs through a performance of ritual. Performance deploys an “interpellation” or the “hailing” of another, through which “subjectivity” is called out. Through that performance of “calling out”, ideological recognition takes place. Belief becomes meaningful only through the performance, and the appearance (in Pascal’s case) of the believer.

But things appear differently now, in the Post-Cold War era, than they appeared to Althusser. For us, performance now resists all forms of ideological completion. The old tropes of the cold war period, ideological imperative, charism, (the social production of a reified meta-subject), the Neue Mensch, utopia, or progress can no longer resolve or justify the performance of violence, the inequities imposed by the meta-discourses of either world revolution, or by capitalist developmentalism, as they seemed to do in 1935. Lee calls for “a reverse interpellation - an interpellation that does not seek to make ideology, but tries to unmake it.” (Of course, this call has its own ideological profile.)

We now know what giving “the benefit of a doubt” to a Stalin, Suharto, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Kennedy, Bush, Milosevic leads to. Under the redemptive promise of the Communist International, we found the preserved corpse of Lenin, - the fetish of the Leader and the Party; under the promises and embrace of economic unification we have found the continuation of earlier exploitations, and under the “Have a nice day!” smile of the American info-commodity, lies an imperialist ideology still in its ascendancy. In other words, for us now, Althusser’s contention that ideology and subjectivity are commensurable, resolves nothing, and we are thrown back upon Lee’s claim that his performance is “indefensible”. The realwork of performance art is to be found in the performance of the ethics of daily life.

The artists in real[work] come to the (post-) modernist performance art tradition carrying very different cultural and economic frames, points of agency, and mise en scene. From these social conditions they have bricolaged their “real work”. In a short catalogue essay such as this, I must take care to not erase the nuances of their positions through the performance of curatorial agency. The situation is further complicated by my own confusing ethnic background and cultural habitus: an American with German patrilineal extraction, living in Southeast Asia. My curatorial imperatives, and the inviting of artists from one cultural economy to come work in the midst of another, represents one circuit of bourgeois economic circulation in the larger field of econo-cultural globalisation. Although one can point to their common adoption of performance art as a form, it would be unwise to lump these artists together under any monolithic rubric of performance. Their work derives from diverse socio-political and cultural economies, on both sides of the colonial era divide - a divide that still largely defines global economic relations. As inferred from a recent remark by the Malaysian historian, Sumit Mandal, it is perhaps more fruitful if we look upon the performances as circulations of locally engaged political positions, embodied memes, and of lineages of real work, rather than as reified forms representing national identities, ethnic, or even regional difference. At any rate, the nuances of the respective positions of the artists, in their own words, can be gleaned from their published statements elsewhere in this catalogue.

The development of performance art, in Southeast Asia, as elsewhere, has been tied to the growth of urban metropolitan centres, and the need for social activism in a post-colonial situation. A number of performance artists have also produced solidarity spectacles for street demonstrations and political gatherings when necessary. Performance art and installation work in this region offers a “raw” dialectical response to the much older and high-aesthetic traditions of painting and sculpture, dance, and drama, some of which began as court-arts (3). With its emphasis on ephemeral, non-canonical behaviours, performance art has provided an opening for new types of content and new relations between the artist and the public. Correspondingly, it is are often ignored by the intellectual community, and even other artists, in part for sidestepping the traditions that privilege long training, skilled craftsmanship, and traditional notions of refinement, and, in part, for what is seen to be its foreign or “Western” influences.

Chumpon Apisuk (Bangkok, Thailand) has wedded social and political activism - in particular, his work for People Living with HIV and AIDS and sex workers - with art organising, his own artistic practices and his writings. Apisuk’s work involves not only the production of art but the production of alternative social and political institutions: Non-Government Organisations. These alternative institutions are based on universalised humanist principles, and provide a kind of mirror society for those whom society would dispossess and disenfranchise in the pursuit of development and globalisation. Apisuk is committed to social performance at the margins.

Arahmaiani (Jakarta, Indonesia) focuses on the impact of global nationalism and militarism upon sexuality, the female body, and subjectivity as it appears in Indonesia and Asia. Arahmaiani exploits the audience’s desire to see, to know, to touch, to possess, and to inscribe their own identities onto the body of the performer. Her performances often deliver a spectacle which folds into ethical dilemmas surrounding the complicity of spectatorship. Arahmaiani’s work comes out of a vibrant activist art tradition, reaching back to the struggle for independence against the Dutch.

Sándor Dóró (Dresden, Germany) is a member of Flexible X, a performance art collective in East Germany. Dóró’s work appears to draw from the tragic, absurd, ruptured history apparent in contemporary Dresden, where one finds the discontinuous inheritances of Baroque, National Socialism, the German Democratic Republic (DDR/GDR), and today’s FRG. The work I have seen involved an exquisite installation in the form of a kind of absurdist “causality machine” (of the sort made popular through the cartoons of the mathematician, Rube Goldberg), in which the performer resided as agent, observer, and effect.

Charles Garoian (State College, USA), an artist who functions deftly within the context of academic institutions, has sought to deploy and explicate a methodology of information dissemination, which combines performative tactics and a particular lineage of American critical pedagogy. Garoian interrogates his body (the body of the pedagogue, the body of the artist, the body of the “ethnic,” the body of remembrance and knowledge) as a repository of historical narratives: specifically the narratives of his Armenian heritage and the Armenian holocaust.

Amanda Heng (Singapore) focuses on the traditional position of women in the home, their endless repetitive work, their displacement as migrant workers, female infanticide, and abortion. In the works I have observed, performance is deployed as a means to raise awareness of these issues and to reveal the often literally naked female subject as the momentary revelation of matrilineal affinity and encoding. Heng presents this genetic lineage starkly, within narratives of labour and survival. Performance art found fertile ground in Singapore during the late 1980s and early 1990s with the establishment of new artist groups: The Artists Village and Fifth Passage, among others. Amanda Heng was one of the early participants and organisers in this development.

Mike Hentz (Switzerland, Germany and USA) works at the intersection of diverse semiotic systems. Formerly trained in classical violin, and subsequently playing in a rock band, his involvement in art and performance is linked with pop culture and rock, in contradistinction to the mainstream of European formalist/anti-formalist aesthetics. His installations, projections, performances and publications (Mike Hentz Works 4, Salon Verlag, Colgne, 1999) focus on the plethora and chaos of visual, auditory and kinetic information. A collision of the “wet” embodied aesthetics of post-Wiener Aktionismus, happenings, and the mediated semiotics of information nets, Hentz’ work presents the spasms of an information environment in a state of over-load.

Tehching Hsieh’s (USA) work points to the impossibility of separating the behaviours associated with daily life, art, and work, by focusing on the micro-environment of the human body and the self under the ordering principle of time and space. Hsieh’s work takes the form of extended performances, most lasting for one year (including one collaboration with Linda Montano), in which he displaces himself as artist-worker into temporal milieu of other forms of work: a blue collar labourer surveilled in the moment after punching a time clock, the prison inmate in his cell, the street-person living outside on the street, etc. His “Thirteen Years Plan 1986-1999,” - during which he made art but did not publicly show it - ended on 31 December 1999.

Boris Nieslony (Cologne, Germany), one of the founding members of Black Market, is a performance artist, archivist, curator, educator, and sculptor. Nieslony appears to focus on the hiatus of momentary presence in the stream of time. Linked to the European anti-formalist tradition reaching back through Fluxus to DADA, Nieslony, on the one hand, is concerned with problems of historicism -the preservation, and reification of historical data - while on the other, he produces ephemeral performances based on the logic of very specific physical and conceptual responses. These consciously choreographed actions appear to solidify momentarily, only to “melt into air.”

I wish to thank Sharaad Kuttan, Sumit Mandal and Lee Weng Choy for the critiques and discussions that helped in the composing of this essay.

Ray Langenbach (curator performance)

1 Williams, Raymond, 1976, Keywords: A Volcabulary of Culture and Society. London. Fontana Press

2 For a discussion of “symbolic speech” and “direct speech” see Anderson, Benedict R.O’G., Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1990, pp. 153

3 Following the logic of a particular argument concerning the meaning of the racial tropes, “whiteness” and “yellowness” - too complex to lay out here - Lee’s use of the word, “indefensible” addressed an appropriational strategy aimed at exposing the problematics of appropriation”. … Lyotard has said that “art is a perpetual crisis”. I think that “positions” in the art world must be called into question (a reverse interpellation? - an interpellation that does not seek to make ideology, but tries to unmake it?). And that the act of calling into questioning and responding to this questioning is the “honest” articulation of values in the art world…” (Lee W. C., eMail correspondence)

3 While Tehching Hsieh is represented in both the Performance Art and Film/Video curatorial components of the 4. Werkleitz Biennale real[work], to avoid repetition his information is included exclusively in the Film/Video section, page 60, of this catalogue.”

4 But, problematically, the definitions of such crimes varies over time, and, historically, they have generally been defined unilaterally by the victors - for example in Nuremberg and the Balkans.

5 Althusser, Louis: “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy, tr. Ben Brewster, (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1971, pp. 170-86. cited in Butler, Judith: Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York. Routledge, 1997, p. 25.)

6 It should be noted, however, that some performance art practitioners have previous training in other, older art and performance traditions.


Text von

Ray Langenbach