Coming to Speech: the Role of the Viewer in Performance (1980)

Delivered as a paper October 1980 in Montreal at the Parachute conference “Multidisciplinary Aspects of Performance: Postmodernism” and published as “Coming to Speech” in Performance Text(e)s & Documents, Montreal: Parachute, 1981, pp. 145-148. Republished in Struggles with the Image: Essays in Art Criticism, Toronto: YYZ Books, 1988.

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Coming to Speech: the Role of the Viewer in Performance

The calling into question of languages and established codes by performance radically denies convention. Yet, performance together with that broader manifestation called “Postmodernism” have ensured the revival of a number of conventions suppressed in Modernism: genre, allegory, narrative, mimesis. Even Modernism will return as a genre, if it has ever left—not as absolute truth, but as genre convention, representable within the gallery. Perhaps the calling into question of languages and codes multiplies the codes, displays their differences, and puts them into effect. (It is as if we even have to relearn the effects of traditional conventions.) Even in its multiplication, performance potentially establishes itself as a conventional act, an act which may be constructed.

The “postmodernist” return to the art gallery (when there is a return) marks a break both with the gallery’s modernist transparency and post-minimalist assault on that transparency. The gallery acknowledges its conventions by accommodating languages, representations or codes in its space. Another convention returns: the viewer. What returns is a new position for the viewer—the position as operator or performer. The viewer returns not as a unity, but as a rupture, as one voice among the codes.

The space of performance is not necessarily the space of the gallery; but is it a conventional space, a space of representability and communication? Often, the spaces are as peripheral as the acts are disruptive, but the peripheral and disruptive gain meaning as differences, not within a totality of opposition, but as a drift alongside structures and within conventions. The space of performance does not—cannot—escape the intention of a relation to an audience. Audiences conventionalize the acts of communication however we wish to characterize that communication, at this point, as a transmission of meaning or the communication of an effect. Failure to recognize the audience reinforces the traditional role of the ideal spectator in his/her imaginary identity. My concern is the degree of identity or drift the viewer is allowed.

What is a necessity in practice, the audience, becomes a problem in theory. As such, the audience, perhaps more than any other factor, poses the question of the limits of performance. Here are three expressions of this problematic encounter:

What are the limits of performance? We do not know with certainty. For several years we have been aware that performance did not necessarily need an audience. It could be done as an activity, in which the performer was his own audience so to speak.
(Michael Kirby, 1971)

If Dance in its most innovative instances has insisted on the alteration of the terms of discourse, pressed for an altered relationship between performer and audience, decreeing and soliciting new modes of attention and gratification, this is, in part, because the audience has been, as well, the most problematic element in the dialectic of performance.
(Annette Michelson, 1974)

The theater of cruelty is not only a spectacle without spectators, it is a speech without listeners.
(Jacques Derrida, 1966)

For all these writers, the audience is unnecessary, problematic or impedimental for performance.[1]

We can sketch three spaces for the audience or viewer: the space of spectating—a locale of idealist or phenomenological identity, still a grid of perspective and representation; the space of reading—the production and reading of signs in semiotics; and the problematic space of what might be called variously transformation, effectuation, inscription, operation, or, simply, performance. If we could define this last space we would understand the role of the audience in performance: arguments on presence and effect concern this question. We could call this last space, performative. The notion of the performative, or speech acts, is useful here because performative utterances can “create or define new forms of behaviour” within the conventional.[2]

Why choose the performative? Is the term “performative’s” coincidence with “performance” more than happy? All that the performative utterance entails initially should be thought through if a theory of performance is to base itself on speech acts. A performative utterance is an act of speech, not a report in speech. It transforms a situation and produces an effect: it has a force, not a truth value. For all this talk of the communication of effects, and the value of a force, the notion of the performative and its attendant theoretical discourse hardly seem constrained; but a performative act is still a conventional act; and that is what interests me. For a performative utterance to be successful, or happy, as Austin puts it, there must be a conventional procedure and appropriate circumstances and participants. For an example of the performative utterance, Austin uses the promise of which he states: “It is obviously necessary that to have promised I must normally (A) have been heard by someone, perhaps the promisee; (B) have been understood by him as promising.”3 This points to the conventional nature of the code; the role of the addressee (being heard); and the chain of communication (being understood). A context is built as much as it is broken in the multiplication of codes in performance.

Just as performance makes demands on a viewer, so the performative utterance needs an addressee to be successful. The viewer is conventionally demanded. What the performative offers, then, is useful because: (1) it conventionalizes, but allows for an effect; (2) it necessitates an audience, whose understanding is part of the act, an understanding which (3) is not semantic but effective: something is transformed:[4] (4) the relation between performer and audience is not on the order of an intention, but a promise (the performative is founded on the study of the promise, whereas semiotics is founded on the possibility of the lie);[5] and, (5) the first person present indicative active utterance demands a transfer of responsibility to the audience: the viewer is “performative”.

If the viewer comes to speech—which is not the same as participation—by becoming performative in interpretation, then he or she is no longer in a position of transparent identification with the work, nor secondary to it as, for example, a critical commentary is presumed to be. The viewer is not only necessary, but affirmed, in performance. This affirmation, however, is first a doubling and exceeding of the space of performance; performance disrupts the viewer’s normal structural position in the event of art.

How has a “speaking subject” entered art and our discourse? At a point, body and language entered art very specifically. This disruption—at first formal—could not escape a slide to the body and speech of the viewer. The entry is not a twentieth century history of performance that I might cite, but the introduction of the perceiving and motile body in minimal art. Is performance, as a manifestation of speech and body, a structural development from minimalism and the further intrusion of language and body in subsequent conceptual and body art, or is it a rupture? My contention is that it is a rupture, and a rupture that is contingent on the viewer. In deciding on which side of this rupture a work lies, my question is: what space for interpretation does the work allow? Once again, it is a question of identity or drift for the viewer: what identification(s) does the work make; what movements does it compel?

Minimalism resists language; yet, language underlies, structures, and brings it into meaning in its presence within a suppressed context. It is temporality, brought about by the introduction of the body in minimal art, not language and hence interpretation by the viewer, that is thought to allow the possibility of the viewer’s active participation. While being a condition for interpretation, temporality in minimalism—as a repetition of the form of a presence—is merely another means to bring the viewer into identity with the work through a process that reduces the viewer to the same apodicticity—positivity, immediacy and certitude—as the object, a process of reduction to the transparent sign articulated on one level only.[6] There is no gap for interpretation that the viewer brings to the work. Similarly, body art, in its continuing stubborn assertion of the presence of intention and body cannot assist performance in the questioning of languages and codes since the single level of articulation of presence simply does not acknowledge them. This points to a fundamental difference between performance and body art, as body art is a pure inscription in presence on a non-signifying body, although its documentation in photographs may disturb that intention. Documentation as index displaces the value of form and presence. Documentation leads to reproduction and distribution, which in turn question both an original object (through reproduction) and an original site (through distribution). Pursued in themselves, we have supplantation, not supplementation, by documents. Rosalind Krauss, on the contrary, wrote that “This logic (of the index) involves the reduction of the conventional sign to a trace, which then produces the need for a supplemental discourse.” The supplementary discourse, however, must become a disjunctive one, not just a dissension, but a distension, a critique of structure and its displacement at the same time—a disarticulation by the discursive drift of the viewer. For Krauss, it is still a question of the maintenance of presence: the index “operates to substitute the registration of sheer physical presence for the more highly articulated language of aesthetic convention”.[7]

We also should not think that this direction toward language implicates conceptual art in an opening to the viewer. The same formal and intentional conditions that structure minimal art form the structure of conceptual art. When language is skimmed off the object, we find conceptual art. The formal structure of minimalism subsists, framed in its self-referentiality through the strategies of declaration by tautology, intention or context.[8]

Another coming to language of structure, but not necessarily an excess of structure, manifested itself as ideological critique, and was a development from context-oriented conceptual art in its encounter with Marxism and semiotics. But how often do these museological investigations remain formal and structural indices of the museum, however critical they may be? A speech that exceeded structure rarely took place. Oriented toward ideology and therefore to representations and language, what was forgotten was the relation to an audience; what exceeds structure as speech necessarily must situate itself in relation to an audience and address it. Instances of direct speech must be examined in their space of speech—the literal space of engagement, and in the spacing speech develops in the viewer. This direct speech may be considered as monological or dialogical, to borrow Mikhail Bakhtin’s terms.[9]

If the performative performance is an effect, it calls for more than a recognition of signs, unless its effective production be to make the viewer a sign of the work. While performance allows the viewer to recognize the social image or construction of his or her body, it is not simply a “spacing out” of the sign—a temporalizing and spatializing of the sign through the agency of the body of the performer open to the sight of the viewer. Performance permits the body of the viewer to be field, image and tender within the act of communication, and to escape mere reception or registration by the rechanneling of the “message” through “spontaneous” and excessive behaviour (speaking of interpretation, not intervention in the performance), which is the production of a critical effect: that is its “performative” role.[10] It is appropriate, since social control represents itself simultaneously in both our speech and bodies, that that which escapes in the speech and body of the receiver of performance should concern all of us who are positioned within societal codes, and who position ourselves in the space of performance.

Intention in performance is not directed to a presentation of simple and transparent meaning and communication to the transmission of a semantic content. To displace the suspicion that performance leads to a fulfillment of a transparent presence and identity, I shall sketch this space. We have the body and speech of the performer acting in and across a space toward another body that is the viewer. The viewer is not a position at a point outside the space (a classical view), nor is the viewer a passive observer within this space. A space is created in the passage to the viewer. At the same time this spacing doubles its effect as a “spacing” of the viewer. The viewer comes into identity with the performance; but this inscribed identity opens to a discursive space between two “marks” on the “body” of the viewer—what the viewer brings to the performance as knowledge, desire and history (ideology) and how the viewer is acted upon by the analytical effects of the performance. The opening between the marks, become non-identical, operates as a difference in forces (which may be the force of a loss); and in this gap, the viewer supplies content as an issue. Produced by the performance, dissolution is carried out by the viewer. As much as the viewer makes the spacing of performance—realizes its codes, he or she fully realizes it in himself/herself.”[11]

I am describing what happens during and what comes after the artist’s performative act—a completing of the act by the active viewer, and a carrying away, an exceeding doubling: indifferent, in-difference.[12] This is no secure discourse where both subjects are present to themselves. Speech directed toward an other (performer to viewer) brings that subject to crisis.[13] “Infelicities”, which can make a performative utterance unhappy for Austin, can work to produce a drift or crisis within the identical.[14] Infelicities work through the viewer as a delay, difficulty or resistance, and serve to let the particular analysis of a performance come to completion in the “speech” of the viewer.

1. Kirby, Michael, quoted in Bruce Barber, “Indexing: Conditionalism and Its Heretical Equivalents”, AA Bronson and Peggy Gale, eds., Performance by Artists, (Toronto: Art Metropole, 1979), p. 191 ; Michelson, Annette, “Yvonne Rainer, Part 1: the Dancer and the Dance,” Artforum, January 1974: Derrida, Jacques, “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation,” Writing and Difference, trans., Alan Bass, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 332. I introduce Derrida both because of the influence of his writing (particularly his writing on Artaud) on theories of performance, and because he has made a critique of Austin’s performative, whose ideas similarly form the basis of an elaborating theory of performance. See Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” Glyph (1977), pp. 172-197, a translation of “Signature Evenement Contexte,” Marges (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1972), pp. 365-393.

2. Searle, John R., Speech Acts, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 33.

3. Austin, J.L., How to Do Things with Words, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975), p. 22. “(A.1) There must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect, that procedure to include the uttering of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances, and further, (A.2) the particular persons and circumstances in a given case must be appropriate for the invocation of the particular processes invoked. (B.1) The procedure must be executed by all participants both correctly and (B.2) completely.” Ibid., pp. 14-15. Derrida opposes “writing” in its “iterability”—as outside context and the necessity of a receiver—to Austin’s speech acts which conventionally demand them.

4. Speech acts may be illocutionary or perlocutionary: both have a force value. In the illocutionary utterance, we recognize the intention to produce an effect, such as warning, ordering, advising, etc. In the perlocutionary utterance, there is an actual effect, such as in convincing, persuading, scaring, alarming, deterring, etc.

5. “In the case of promising—for example ‘I promise to be there tomorrow’—it’s very easy to think that the utterance is simply the outward and visible (that is, verbal) sign of the performance of some inward spiritual act of promising”. The word of promise is that act. When I promise I actually do promise, commit myself to that act; although I might be insincere about keeping that promise, I have still made the act of promising.” Austin, “Performative Utterances,” Philosophical Papers, (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 236.

6. For the relationship of form and presence, see Derrida, Jacques, “Form and Meaning,” in Speech and Phenomena, trans. David B. Allison, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973). Cf. Michelson, Annette, “Art and the Structural Perspective,” in On the Future of Art, (New York: Viking, 1970), pp. 51-56.

7. Krauss, Rosalind, “Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America,” October, number 4 (Fall 1977), p. 59; number 3 (Spring 1977), p. 81.

8. I exclude, for example Lawrence Weiner who in his work seems concerned with conditions of existence and receivership:
“My own work gives directions, only states the work as an accomplished fact:
The artist may construct the piece: the piece may be fabricated; the piece need not be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership” His work does not impose a single condition for receiving it; it is dependent on the receiver for how it is accepted and transformed. “When you deal with a piece of mine, you come across it as a sentence. It’s just verbal... You look at it, and you place it within the context of art...” It is a dialogical activity, an acting by the viewer/receiver within the conventions of art: “Whether or not it does make sense to you, you try to construct it within the context of what you know as art.” Weiner, Lawrence, in Ursula Meyer, ed., Conceptual Art, (New York: Dutton, 1972), p. 218; Avalanche, (Spring 1972), p. 68.

9. Some monological examples: Joseph Beuys’ direct speech is put in doubt by his practice and theory of meaning. Hans Haacke’s polling of spectators at the 1970 MOMA Information exhibition and his questionaires at the John Weber Gallery in 1972 and 1973 allowed the audience to come to speech; but this speech was structured as referendum. The direction toward an other, the integral other of the audience, radically alters the position of the work of art, and the artist or performer. It was announced by Bakhtin as a direction toward the word of an other, a first person utterance directed toward the speech of an other, Bakhtin, Mikhail, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, trans. R.W. Rostel, (Ann Arbor : Ardis, 1973). The dialogical novel sets up a “plurality of equal consciousnesses and their worlds” (p. 4) and dialogizes the relationship not only between the characters, but between characters and author, and characters and reader. Bakhtin insists: “This interaction does not assist the viewer to objectify the entire event in accordance with the ordinary monological pattern ... and as a consequence makes him a participant.” (p. 14) The dialogical word is doubly directed—directed toward an object but also to the word and speech of an other. For instance, in the Socratic dialogue, there are two basic devices: syncrisis and anacrisis. “Syncrisis was understood as the juxtaposition of various points of view toward a given object... Anacrisis consisted of the means of eliciting and provoking the words of one’s interlocutor, forcing him to express his opinion, and express it fully... Anacrisis is the provocation of the word by the word (and not by means of the plot situation). Syncrisis and anacrisis dialogize thought, they bring it outside, turn it into speech in a dialog, and turn it over to the dialogical intercourse between people.” (pp. 90-91) For an analysis of the dialogical and performative, see Monk, Philip, “Stanley Brouwn and the Zero Machine,” Parachute, number 18 (Spring 1980), pp. 18-20.

10. For the rechanneling of exchanges by the receiver, especially through laughter, see Douglas, Mary, “Do dogs laugh? A cross-cultural approach to body symbolism,” in Ted Polhemus, ed. Social Aspects of the Human Body, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), pp. 295-301. We can think of the excess of Bataille as both an issue and exit from the work of art—the “example” of Bataille’s laughter. See Monk, Philip, “Exits,” Impulse, 8: 3 (Summer 1980), pp. 29-31. Also see Bakhtin on laughter and the carnivalesque, and the tradition of the Menippean satire and Socratic dialogue. “Parody is the creation of a double which discrowns its counterpart.” Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, p. 105.

11. The potential of performance does not lead necessarily to potential solutions. Nor does dissolution of imaginary relationships imply a position free from ideology. The subject still finds its image in the social. The question of ideology is: social desire or socialized desire? Finally, performance acts upon the individual, not the masses.

12. Excess is both a going beyond and a going out: excess and exit. Cf. Derrida: “This is indeed how things appear: the theatrical representation (in Artaud) is finite, and leaves behind it, behind its actual presence, no trace, no object to carry off... Its act must be forgotten, actively forgotten.” The Theater of Cruelty, p. 247. While Derrida finds it necessary to exclude the audience, he also finds it necessary to include it so that it can be consumed in performance. There is no position for the audience or the individual after the performance—there is nothing to carry away.

13. To anticipate the assertion that dialogue calls for a fully present consciousness, a consciousness in identity with itself, Bakhtin maintains that “Man is never coincident with himself. The equation A = A is inapplicable to him.” (p. 48) Non-identity is crisis: “...that unique indeterminacy and indefiniteness which constitutes the chief object of representation in Dostoevsky: he always depicts man on the brink of a final decision, in a moment of crisis, at an unpredeterminable turning point in the life of the soul.” (p. 50)

14. This avoids Derrida’s criticism of the “presence of meaning to the absolute singular uniqueness of a speech act.” “Signature Event Context,” p. 191.