What is performance writing?

Before attempting to make judgments of specific works outside of any critical framework, what might we mean by performance poetics/poetry/writing? I use the term ‘performance writing’ here to try to generally indicate forms of experimental writing that work with/in/out of performance, and to distinguish such forms from an emphasis on ‘performance poetry’ (slam, spoken word, etc.) or performance art practices that are not driven by non-narrative and/or avant-garde poetics. As we shall see, the term (as far as I know) comes from the UK (where it has become institutionalized, if still purposefully under-defined), where various practitioners have helped formulate some of the questions and fields that inform a lot of my thinking here.

(Big Caveat #2: I am NOT interested in clean definitions or drawing lines between what is and is not performance writing/poetics. However, I do think that provisional semi-pseudo-categories might at least be useful in helping tease out helpful distinctions that different practices bring to the work of poetry in the field of performance [and vise versa]. Hopefully such questions can help elucidate what might be new/compelling/‘useful’ for writers and critics, at least…)

We could begin with the proposition that what defines performance is that it is live — durational, embodied, and located in the present and non-repeatable moment of its enactment.

But once we begin thinking about poetry, it’s hard to know what ‘live’ means – is it simply when an author reads her work aloud that performance occurs? Could it also be the moment of writing itself, even if the time of writing doesn’t match the ‘time of the poem’? What about chance or appropriative or machine-composed poetries, where the author might be seen as more of a functionary than a font of subjective expression?[1] Forms of writing that are designed specifically for performance — the script, the procedure, the score, etc. — aren’t considered ‘live’ until performed, though we often still think of such writing as performance texts (and in the world of theater, treat playscripts as forms of literature in and of themselves). Likewise, written documentation of live performance is also often thought of as performance writing, even if once on the page it is no longer live, and the text may have not in fact ever been publicly performed live as it is presented (having been edited, or simply by virtue of the difficulty of ‘capturing’ a live, embodied performance onto the page).

Further, in recent debates in dance and performance studies, the privileging of live performance over documentation is being interrogated, especially as the history of contemporary performance art grapples with how to engage the residual traces of an art form whose liveness was part of its initial intervention against museumification and the commodified art-object. Video, photographs, and written reports are usually considered necessary, but ultimately insufficient, tools for the historian (and increasingly curators, as performance art enters the museum), never able to fully capture the essence of performance’s presence. However, critics and historians are beginning to question the privileging of the live in how we think about performance, noting that documentary forms are also aesthetic practices (and never ‘neutral’) and that questions of documentation do not necessarily always ‘come after’ performance.[2]

Other critics define performance simply as that which is done in front of an audience.[3] For our purposes here, this would thus include any public poetry reading (and I do, of course, consider all poetry readings performative, regardless of intent). But what if there’s no audience present? Or if my ‘audience’ is simply a video camera, framing what I’m doing in duration and document?[4] Is it enough to merely imagine an audience, or construct a technologically-mediated audience-by-proxy?[5]

Certainly the notion of audience opens up interesting arenas for thinking about performance, especially once we move from the theater/reading space (and its institutionalized distinctions between performers and audience members) into more contingent public spaces as, say, the city street or the dance floor, where we are always both performer and audience for each other (not to mention for the surveillance cameras), whether or not we are consciously aware of such roles.

For our purposes we might want to ask how certain social frames and contexts are constructed such that an audience ‘knows itself’ as such, as a perhaps necessary requirement for a performer to be, well, performing. How such audiences are called into being range from the traditional — “come see so-and-so read at the Project tonight” — (where one agrees to into the social contract of performing one’s role as an audience member) — to the more interventionary — if I start yelling poems on the street, until ‘onlookers’ are brought into being as an audience simply by gathering and looking at me; or if I run into a crowded firehouse and start describing a film to the presumably nonplussed (if, in this fantasy, still hot) firepersons. Even in the latter cases, however, it seems as if I am still dependent on audience members to consciously perform their roles in order to be able to claim that what I’m doing is performance (and not just, say, ‘acting crazy’ — by which, of course, we mean not-acting, not-performing, but being ‘crazy’), though I’m sure we can all think of instances where we’ve chosen to ignore a street performer and yet wouldn’t claim she isn’t performing simply because no one stops to watch or listen. Still, though I’m not particularly interested in drawing a clean line as to what is or isn’t performance once we move outside of conventional milieus (the theater, the auditorium, the reading, the gig, etc.), it remains unclear if we can usefully define performance without just falling back on something like ‘I’m doing it when I say I’m doing it.’

OK, so. (Pauses and takes a drink of water. Audience shifts audibly in their seats.) What if we approached the question by starting with/from poetry?

I suppose we can begin by agreeing that all poetry is of course to some degree a performance, and all text-based performance has to some degree a poetics (to the extent that it uses language shaped to the purposes of performance).

Certainly, when I write a poem I’m performing something, I suppose, and the pen/typewriter/computer/microphone/page/whatever are the technologies that mediate and archive that performance. But I’m after something different here, or at least less general…

So: is it the reading of poems? OK, sure, though again this simply means all poetry readings are performances (they are) and thus forestalls any useful distinctions by which we might think more critically about the question. Additionally, too often the poetry reading is used to confirm the unique power of the otherwise autonomous text, instead of leading witnesses into what cris cheek calls “exegetic microtopias of ‘live writing.,’” where performance is “an occurrence of conversations between process and product ongoing.”[6] Likewise, all poems are potential performances, which doesn’t help much either if we want to distinguish more specific modes of cross-disciplinary work from simply ‘all poetry’ and ‘any kind of performance’.

How bout poetry written specifically for performance? Again, like other texts written for performance, such poems—especially in the more avant-garde traditions—certainly get us closer to thinking about how writing can open up spaces where performance might take the work ‘elsewhere’. Here, though, I’d again like to distinguish what I have in mind as performance writing from ‘performance poetry,’ which often reads/sounds as if the poem is simply an inert script awaiting a star turn to ‘bring it to life’ while the poem itself often remains more or less dead on the page (like song lyrics often do without their singers and musicians).

I guess I want to argue for work that is compelling both on and off the page in different ways, such that both the writing and performance bring something new and unpredictable to and out of each other (regardless of whether the text or the performance ‘came first’). Again, I’d like to argue that, but how to do so without simply resorting to personal taste is tricky.[7] At the same time, entering into an extra-poetic field that is still in the process of understanding itself allows for a great deal of experiment, conjecture, and critical inquiry, even if all we have at our disposal for purposes of self-definition (and the resistance there to) is a set of exemplary cases, and the historical precedents that the emergence of new aesthetic tendencies can’t but help rediscover.

To some degree, we can see the emergence of the field of performance writing think/work itself into legibility in the UK, where PW has become somewhat institutionalized in various university graduate programs, while, at least from a distance, appearing to have resisted any rigid codification in the process. Of course, I may be idealizing these programs from afar, but there is something to be said for creating laboratories for rigorous experiments and critical reflection upon new modes of literature and performance, even if the institutional frame of the academy is something that we need remain skeptical.[8] 

I’d love to hear from UKers who have direct experience with such programs to learn more about them (and will do some research for a future post), but from my limited understanding I can at least suggest that we take a look at Caroline Bergvall’s 1996 keynote at the first “Symposium of Performance Writing” at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, where the first PW degree program was established. Note the use of interrogatives to pursue some provisional definitions of an as yet still-emergent field in relation to multiple already established genres:

“Is it not Performance Writing to site some text in a space or on a wall or on electronic boards or is that not installation art? or is that not public art? Is it not Performance Writing to treat spoken writing as part of a sound composition or is that not music? or not sound art? Is it not Performance Writing to inscribe words on a canvas, spray them on a wall, layer text into photographs or carve them into wood, steel or other solids or is that not visual art? or is that not graffiti art? or is that not poetry? Is it not Performance Writing to use text as part of a body-related piece or is that not performance art or is that not dance or theatre? Is it not Performance Writing to bleed a word into flesh or is that not Jenny Holzer? or is that not tattoo art? or is that not activism? Is it not Performance Writing to generate text for the page or for the screen or for a book or is that not video art? or is that not literature? or is that not visual art? or is it electronic art?” 

Here we can see a productive troubling of definitions when considering the manifold forms of practices that manifest in the interstitial spaces between genres and media, where the hyphen in ‘cross-genre’ or ‘multi-disciplinary’ can mean more than ‘more than one’ but highlight a dialectical frisson can spark new works that bring multiple methods and traditions into creative protagonism:

“So rather than entertaining ideas of aesthetic orgy or formal fusion, anything goes as long as there's something like a bit of something which looks like writing in it and leaving it at that, my sense is that Performance Writing would wish to inscribe itself within debates that revel in conflict … Conflict at a formal as well as an ideological level.”

And again, as with any other new aesthetic formation, a set of antecedents suddenly becomes legible that helps us see new connections (and contestations) that might otherwise be occluded by conventional literary history.[9] For instance, just as the conceptual turn in contemporary US poetry has helped us look at artists such as Marcel Broodhaers, Hannah Weiner, and Adrian Piper as having much more in common than if we categorized them by medium, the continued articulation of what ‘performance writing’ might be now can help us consider what it ‘might have been,’ if only from the perspective of today’s critical vocabularies. Might we think of shamanism as performance writing? How about the dozens? What would that enable us to see or understand about both such practices when put into conversation with each other and, say, Kenny Goldsmith’s Soliloquy? What’s at stake in articulating such counter-traditions?

And, finally: why now? Why does it seem that so many poets are turning to performance for new avenues of exploration, composition, and presentation? This is something I hope to explore in a future post, so until then…  (chop &) screw sonnets & work the dozens...

1. Please note that I am not suggesting that such practices are only composed by soulless bureaucrats. Some of my best friends are algorithms, yo.

2. cf. Rebecca Schneider's Performing Remains, Amelia Jones' "'Presence' in Absentia", and Carrie Lambert-Beatty's "Moving Still: Mediating Yvonne Rainer's Trio A"

3. Yvonne Rainer: “My god! Can theater finally come down to the irreducible fact that one group of people is looking at another group?”

4. Thought experiment: if I told you that I’ve been videotaping my composition of this post and plan on posting it to Vimeo later tonight, will that have made this writing a performance? (Don’t worry, I won’t. Unless you believe watching someone sit with their dogs and drink scotch while staring at a screen inherently interesting.)

5. We might try to sidestep this issue by calling all performance done exclusively for video 'video art', but that ship’s sailed, and certainly would not be able to come close to addressing the incredible range of performance on youtube alone.

6. “Implicit,” in Additional Apparitions: poetry, performance, and site specificity, eds. David Kennedy & Keith Tuma, Cherry on the Top Press, 2002

7. Though I guess that’s why Al Gore invented blogs: so one can pass off taste as critical judgment.

8. In contrast to non-professional counter-institutions and ‘schools’ such as Kootenay, Oulipo, Black Mountain, Cave Canem, The Nonsite Collective, etc.

9. cf. Borges’ brilliant “Kafka and His Precursors,” for instance.