Vita performactiva

Ana Vujanović (2011)

It is easy to note that politics has become a keyword in the contemporary international performing arts world. However, this immediately poses a more difficult question: why do we speak so much about politics in art, about art and politics, political art, the politicality of art, etc. today? Why has politics indeed become a keyword? What has been the driving force of all those books, texts, presentations, conferences, festivals, grants? What does the metaphor of politics qua theatre mean and, more broadly, what does teatrum mundi mean? On what grounds, on the basis of what historical references and conceptual frameworks do we have this “theoretical intuition” that artistic performance and politics are close? What I find particularly challenging in reflecting on these questions is that, in parallel with the performing arts’ keen interest in politics, we are facing their societal marginalisation and ever more limited access to the public over the course of the 20th century, which, at the macro-social level question the relevance of this topic.

Without seeking to alleviate the tension between these two extremes, I will attempt to rethink the terms of the politicality of performance as a discipline and artistic practice in contemporary neoliberal capitalist societies of the democratic West, and why such a rethinking matters not only to art, but may also contribute to our understanding of Western society and our acting in it as citizens. Presently, I will first attempt to set out, contextualise, and critically elaborate on the topic’s epistemic framework, because it is poorly articulated in general, which typically generates approaches to the topic as if it were taken for granted that talking about a link between performance and politics today must make (societal) sense.


Vita activa, vita performativa, and teatrum mundi: a historic-contextual view

The metaphor of politics as theatre, and even of the entire public and, more broadly still, social life of humans, has stubbornly survived in Western society for a very long time: from Ancient Greece, via the Christian Middle Ages, Baroque, Shakespeare, and 18th-century bourgeois society, up to the present. My question is: on what grounds? Also, assuming that it is epistemically relevant or empirically verifiable, on what grounds might one accept its inverted form as well? In other words, if politics is theatre, does that automatically mean that, conversely, theatre is politics, or is that only an error in judgement that has become habitual common sense, having been repeated so often that it’s become true?

In fact, the teatrum mundi metaphor has carried rather different connotations through history, from the one that has us, humans, merely performing a play for the gods, via bourgeois codes of behaviour in public, to us performing our social roles in the never-ending reality-TV show of the contemporary society of spectacle. Still, if we had to boil them all down to the lowest common denominator, it would be our awareness that one is never alone and that s/he is always under surveillance.

Today, it is obvious that the moment we step into the public – if not even before, since we are social beings – we turn into performers, performing our selves for and before others. Also, there are many sociologic-anthropological and political studies that treat politics and public practice as theatre and performance not just metaphorically, but also point to some formal and procedural similarities between them. I will mention only Erving Goffman’s theses on the presentation of self in everyday life and his concept of social roles, Hannah Arendt’s theses on the similarity of performance and politics as two social practices that both entail the public scene and the presence of others, Richard Sennett’s concepts of public man and man as actor, etc.[1] These theses and considerations pose another question as well, namely, whether this metaphor or link is universal; or, where the line that separates our literal acts from our performances might be – in art, in the public sphere, and in our private lives. Richard Schechner has tried to map it out by distinguishing between the concepts of doing, which refers to all human actions, and showing doing, which refers to performance, both in art and beyond. Showing doing does not mean that the performed act is insincere or fake, but only that the performing subject is aware that s/he is performing, points to it, emphasises, and stresses it for those observing him/her.[2] Still, even with this theoretical tool in hand, in reality the line is difficult to draw, precisely because human being are always-already social and as such sui generis constituted among, with, and before other humans – even if those others, some thinkers would say, may not always be empirically present.

When it comes to the performing arts, one must remember that in Western civilisation, theatre emerged in ancient Greece, where, together with politics, it belonged among the many forms of performance practised by the citizens of Athens. A similar state of affairs might be observed in the public sphere of early-18th-century bourgeois society, which formed in the coffeehouses, salons, and theatres of cosmopolitan London and Paris. Furthermore, there is a wealth of historical evidence to document the impact of theatre, especially comedy and satire, on the forming of public opinion and political positions in Athens, which would happen again in the 18th century, when artist-performers gained special social standing as public figures. In any case, this is not about metaphors but the fact that politics in Athens was a kind of performance, which included artistic, cultural, and other public practices alike, and that theatre and politics were close inasmuch as they belonged, notwithstanding the differences in their respective statuses, functions, and disciplinary specificities, to the same order of activities: the public performance of citizenship, predicated on conventions, procedures, and skills and exposed to the gaze, opinions, assessments, critiques… of others. The same applies to the early bourgeois public sphere as well, though the primary link there was that between theatre and public behaviour and debate, since politics was still in the domain of the monarchic state.

Bearing these historical references in mind, we may observe that at some relatively few and brief but for the Western civilisation key moments, such as democratic Athens in the fifth and fourth century BC and the 18th century, when modern bourgeois society was constituted, the performing arts served as a public forum for debating political issues. At those moments, public / political practice and artistic performance constituted the continuum of civil life, whereby that hybrid practice, which I would call vita performactiva, was dialectically realised, but without any antagonism or binarism whatsoever. Namely, in those contexts, artistic performance and theatre in particular constituted an important social practice, not because in some specific cases it thematised current political issues, but because it performed the structural social role of providing models of acting and behaving in public and of testing hypothetical subjectifications and social relations. Furthermore, the boundaries of different forms of performance – theatre / artistic performance and politics / public social practice – were porous and mutual influencing was possible, since in those contexts even public behaviour and politics themselves were anything but spontaneous, direct, and natural; rather, they were performative – institutionalised, artificial, and codified – discursive citizens’ practices. Procedurally, this allowed for a continuum of vita performactiva, from fictional, staged situations, via behaving during performances and discussions of artworks, where theatre and literary audience (publicum) were turning into the public, to everyday behaviour in public and political practice.[3] In theory, these historic-contextual references are precise; some of the most prominent authors who insist on a link between performance in art and politics or other types of public practice, such as Arendt and Sennett, directly address the respective contexts of Athenian democracy and early bourgeois society. It is precisely for that reason that the link between theatre / performance and public life / politics should not be taken for granted, that is, ahistorically.

This contextual-historical focus on the metaphor may help us understand how and why the performing arts may be political in a given society and how effective their politicality may be. Bearing in mind the structural and procedural aspects of this problematic as expounded above, I will presently move my discussion to the current social context in the West, characterised as it is by neoliberal capitalism, representative democracy, and a total mediatisation and aestheticisation of social life.


Contemporary socio-conceptual foundations of the politicality of performance

The economisation of politics and the politicisation of production: structural issues regarding the politicality of performance

A number of critical theorisations of politics in Western society have noted a profound change, even the disappearance of politics in its classical sense, due to the establishment of (neo)liberal capitalist social and production relations, which promote individualism and personal rights, thereby legitimising private interests and property as publicly relevant.

According to Hannah Arendt, in modern capitalist society, starting with the French Revolution, politics has increasingly taken an interest in so-called “social issues”, whereby it legitimated the entrance of private interests and distribution of goods into the public sphere.[4] For Arendt, politics is, qua vita activa, the discursive practice of free citizens interested in the organisation and running of the polis, performed on the public stage of society. It concerns current performances on that stage, as well as the performance of those stages themselves; it is concerned neither with constituting eternal truths, which belong to the domain of vita contemplativa, nor with issues pertaining to the oikos, private life, personal interests, or material goods. For Arendt, the socialisation of politics and its approximating economics spelled its demise, since in her key writings she looked back in history at the Athenian model of direct democracy, where politics was a form of human activity called practice. Practice (praxis) is not geared toward fulfilling the citizens’ existential needs and reproducing life (as is everyday labour) and, unlike production and creation (poiesis), it does not produce material objects as investments into civilisation (as do arts and crafts), but is rather realised and exhausted in itself, affecting current social relations. Political practice is therefore a public activity performed by free citizens, driven not by their existential needs or interest in material goods, but by the will and desire of human beings as political beings to organise relations between humans. From that perspective, the entrance of social issues – private issues that have become publicly relevant, such as the distribution of goods – onto the public stage leads to the instrumentalisation and therefore also demise of politics in the classic democratic sense.

In neoliberal capitalism, predicated as it is on the collusion between protecting individual rights, globalisation, and corporate capital, this far-reaching critique of politics is manifested on an unprecedented scale. Still, it does have a few weaknesses of its own, the most important of which is the absence of a more careful consideration of the relationship between the economic and the political, that is, the private and the public, which are today – and have been, since the inception of the welfare state – completely entangled. Without that, Hannah Arendt’s theses remain somewhat schematic as well as problematic, in overlooking the fact that the right to participate in politics was rather exclusive in democratic Athens, even though it was a participative democracy. It was extended only to the free citizens, which kept a majority of Athenians off the public stage: the women, the slaves, the foreigners, the freed slaves, and those who had lost their citizens’ rights. Therefore, the introduction of social issues to the public scene might be an indicator of a higher inclusivity on the part of modern democratic societies, which gradually extended suffrage to those who worked and produced, to women, and other previously excluded social subjects.[5]

However, Hannah Arendt’s theses on the disappearance of politics from Western society enable one to reflect on the politicality of performance by disabling the reflection of the performing arts’ relation to politics as an autochthonous entity. Also, they provide us a with a sharper tool for critical reconsiderations of the politicality of those artistic performance practices that have focused over the last few decades – from the 1960s neo-avant-garde to the identitary and community-based performances of the 1980s and ’90s – on issues of personal liberties, individual expression, promotion of cultural identities, and caring for specific social groups. For, however emancipatory, from this perspective they are also complicit with globalising, neoliberal Western democracy, predicated as it is on capitalism.

Apart from these interpretative frameworks that may be derived from her considerations of politics, Arendt is additionally important in this regard owing to her explicit insistence on the performative character of political practice and on the political dimension of artistic performance alike. With her notion of performance as a potentially political practice of art, she sets a challenge to all of Western artistic creation that is based on poiesis.[6] In Between Past and Future, she explains its proximity to politics in the following way:

[In] the performing arts (as distinguished from the creative art of making), the accomplishment lies in the performance itself and not in an end product which outlasts the activity that brought it into existence and becomes independent of it. […] The performing arts, on the contrary, have indeed a strong affinity with politics. Performing artists – dancers, play-actors, musicians and the like – need an audience to show their virtuosity, just as acting men need the presence of others before whom they can appear; both need a publicly organized space for their “work”, and both depend upon others for the performance itself. (Arendt 1961, 153–154)

However, although this oft-cited explanation of the procedural similarity between performance and politics may be used as a tool in analysing the politicality of performance, such observations by Arendt lack a more careful consideration of historical changes in conceptions of poiesis, praxis, politics, and art, as well as their current relations.[7] On the one hand, Arendt overlooks important procedural differences between the political practice of Athenian democracy and the official political practice of modern society, that is, representative democracy. I will return to that later on; presently, I will only remark that Arendt, whilst critiquing politics for its economisation, fails to subject the performing arts to the same materialist critique and ignores the fact that they, too, are a form of production today, that performance is a commodity, and that virtuosic performance is a job like any other.

Continuing in that direction, it is important to introduce some of the more current claims advanced by Italian post-workerist theorists, such as Maurizio Lazzarato, Antonio Negri, and Paolo Virno, among others. Since this theoretical platform is considerably determined by its interest in biopolitics and by the concept of immaterial labour, those authors set out from the fact that the boundaries separating politics and economy, praxis and poiesis, as well as public action and private life have been blurred in today’s capitalist society. They posit that blurring as the initial condition and thereby provide a reply to the question that Arendt left unanswered: how and where do we practise politics today, in the wake of its disappearance, i.e. demise as a specific activity?

According to them, post-industrial and post-Fordist production in the West has already integrated elements of political practice, so we are talking here about politicising production, rather than economising politics. But from that perspective we may observe that the disappearance of politics actually means that politics has migrated and pervaded different kinds of social activity, from the economy via art and culture to everyday forms of life.[8] Virno explains:

I believe that in today’s forms of life one has a direct perception of the fact that the coupling of the terms public-private, as well as the coupling of the terms collective-individual, can no longer stand up on their own, that they are gasping for air, burning themselves out. This is just like what is happening in the world of contemporary production, provided that production – loaded as it is with ethos, culture, linguistic interaction – not give itself over to econometric analysis, but rather be understood as a broad-based experience of the world. (Virno 2004, 26)

In “Immaterial Labour”, Lazzarato advances the crucial thesis that the core of capitalist production today, based as it is on immaterial labour, is not the production of commodities but of their cultural-informational contents: standards, norms, tastes, and – strategically most important – public opinion, by means of co-operation and communication as its basic work activities. Issues that are central to production thus become political issues par excellence: those pertaining to the organisation of the social condition, whose principal content is the production of subjectivity. Art thereby gains a new political position and performance has a special role to play there.[9] Namely, under the type of production organised in this way, management is based on the slogan “become subject” (of communication) and grows totalitarian in its bid to draw the worker’s entire personality and subjectivity into the production of (added) value. Therefore, in the capitalist, Western world, in any line of work, workers are no longer obliged merely to get the job done, but also to be virtuoso performers: eloquent, open, and communicative. “[O]ne has to speak, communicate, cooperate, and so forth” (Lazzarato 1996).

In performance studies, Jon McKenzie has been breaking a similar path. His theorisation of performance, as laid out in Perform or Else,[10] is entirely predicated on extending the concept of performance or on positing it as existing simultaneously in culture and art, in high-technology and business, whereby it becomes a universal social imperative: “Perform or else!”. For that reason, McKenzie considers performance an onto-historical category that marks today’s entire capitalist society, which fundamentally questions the liminal and transformative social potential of artistic performance, including its political effectiveness.

However, theses developed in post-workerist theory are mostly taken as promising for politicality in the contemporary artworld, because they appear ­(as if) to suggest a simple equation: art is political insofar as it belongs to the domain of immaterial production, which includes politics. But I would say that those claims lead us rather to conclude that while performance was a model of political practice in some earlier democratic societies, today we may talk of performance primarily as a model of production. Still, this conclusion about a change in the structural positioning of performance does not settle the issue of its politicality. For, it suggests not that performance is therefore apolitical, but that its politicality is indirect and dubious. Further developing this thought, I would say that these post-workerist and biopolitical claims are quite disturbing in fact, because they imply that the very configuring of the social in the context of neoliberal capitalism has been largely capitalised and that it is more about simulating politics than generating public space for political discussion. The performing arts and their ambivalence, wavering between political practice and complicity with capitalist production, are mere “collateral damage” of this macro-process. I am referring to the limits facing every critical author whose work is produced in the capitalist system of the performing arts without disturbing it, as well as to increasingly popular performance training seminars and workshops that have found their way into the training process of politicians and managers, arming them with the same performing methods and techniques. I will return to the broader perspective in order to point out the problem with this kind of politicality in the performing arts. Even if it is clear that political performances of actors on the scene of representative democracy today have nothing to do with parrhesia, the free speech of or on behalf of citizens seeking the common good, but primarily with representing the interests of corporate capital, it is hard to say whether it makes sense to call such practices politics, or if they in fact belong in the domain of economic marketing. I find the problem complicated, because marketing is successful in simulating political practice and assuming its methods of performance even though neither their social referents, nor interests, nor intentions are the same, but – to make things even trickier – in today’s society marketing is becoming publicly relevant, thereby gaining for itself a political role, which is closing the public space off to all political practices that do not partake in production but represent or directly involve the free speech of citizens on what kind of society they would like to live in. In that regard, the politicality of the performing arts, structurally belonging in that system of production, as part of the so-called tertiary sector, turns out to be not only indirect and weakened, but also complicit, until it stops making social appeals by thematising politics in exchange for dealing with its own conditions of work, which accompany the performing arts as their “political unconscious”. Their marginal place in society and precarious conditions of work do not relieve performance of this responsibility, nor does its identification with them automatically make performance critical and politically antagonistic; on the contrary, we should understand them as a training ground for flexible neoliberal politics and its “crisis management”. That we are running in circles here is also suggested by that familiar dilemma: how may one step out in protest from that capitalist art system, but also remain an actor on the scene? Without wishing to jump hastily to conclusion, I will only note that that dilemma is a typical enthymeme, whose implicit premise – that capitalism is the only existing, indeed, the only possible system of work on the international horizon – has successfully wiggled its way even into some highly critical debates on that scene.

Aesthetics – politics – art: performance procedures in the system of representative democracy

In addition to the socio-structural aspects that determine (promise and delimit) the politicality of the performing arts today, for the sake of providing a more comprehensive survey of the topic, I should also mention current relations of aesthetics and politics in societies of representative democracy, opening the issue of the compatibility of performance procedures in artistic performance and politics.

These issues invite us to reconsider the processes of aestheticising politics and politicising art, as postulated by Walter Benjamin.[11] A quick reminder: Benjamin recognised the aestheticisation of politics as a feature of the rightwing, fascist political practices that were gaining ground in 1930s Europe. One of the reasons for this was that those political options lacked both socio-economic foundations and conclusions reached by means of public debate, which led them to build their power on populist discourses grounded in rhetoricity and affectivity, seducing and skipping over the (common) sense of the political subjects whom they were addressing. On the other hand, according to Benjamin, the politicisation of art was characteristic of leftwing, communist artistic practices of that time. The Left was following a rationale opposite from that of the Right: leftist art was reconsidering its transcendental position in society, overstepping the boundaries of art as an excepted/exceptional space for dealing with the disinterestedly sensuous, and beginning to address the (common) sense of its audience, facing it with current socio-political issues. Paradigms of politicised art from that time would include the Russian avant-garde, especially constructivism, as well as Brecht’s and Piscator’s political theatre.

But even if Benjamin was right, such a distinction could not be made today.

His postulates are under challenge from a wider process today: an overall aestheticisation of various social activities and artefacts, including even everyday life. Apart from a number of claims made in performance studies and, more broadly, in the humanities since the 1960s, this topic was explicitly addressed by Yves Michaud in his L’Art à l’état gazeux, where he expounded his thesis on the triumph of aesthetics.[12] There, Michaud sheds light on a process whereby art loses its exclusive rights to the aesthetic – which had been granted to it in modern Western society – and on the migrating of aesthetic categories, such as the “beautiful”, into areas of mass media, marketing, as well as politics, sports, production, and private living. As far as their migrating into politics is concerned, examples of “designing the visual” and “theatricalising the performative” are many even on the local political scene, to mention only the extravagant styling of Josip Broz Tito and the military parades and mass performances / games (slet) of the socialist era. But, in 20th-century socialist societies, these processes were mostly self-referential and tautological, because different political voices did not exist on the public scene anyway, whereas they are much more characteristic of political practices in representative democracies, that is, in the multiparty – and therefore also competitive – system of neoliberal, capitalist society, where potential political representatives strive to get the electorate to “like” them. On the political scene, this kind of dispersed aesthetic principle, which supplants discussion and debate, is embodied in the figures of the “credible politician” or the “charismatic leader” and applies to various political orientations that are part of that system, both left and right. Michaud thereby casts a shadow over believing in any politicality of the performing arts that would rely on their aesthetic and affective potential, referring to Hans-Thies Lehmann’s theses on the politicality of post-dramatic theatre and, more broadly, on Rancière’s concept of politics as the distribution of the sensible. In any case, the current process that Michaud has identified, among others, undermines the very foundations of Benjamin’s distinction – namely, the stable categories of the aesthetic qua artistic and political – because in that process the aesthetic ceases to be a characteristic of art only and becomes an integral part of politics in the system of representative democracy in general.

In addition to this process, contemporary artivist practices, which are artistic as much as political, likewise call for a reconsideration of Benjamin’s claims. Artivism raises the following intriguing question: does a given performance, by being political, ceases to be “true” art (and becomes so-called ideological propaganda), or, conversely, does it cease to be “seriously” political (and socially effective, even legally responsible), by being artistic? It is symptomatic that the same problem has been troubling the police and art theory alike… However, Aldo Milohnić has pointed to the impossibility of delineating the politicisation of art from the aestheticisation of politics in the case of artivism as a hybrid practice predicated on joining socio-political activism with cultural-artistic performance.[13] If we follow Milohnić in considering the local scene in Serbia, we will see that in such cases as the para-theatrical practices of the 1996–97 student and civic protests, the street performances of the Magnet group, the antiwar public actions of the Women in Black, or more recent anti-globalist actions, it is almost impossible to draw the line and establish whether those practices belong in the domain of the politicisation of art or that of the aestheticisation of politics. A number of artivist practices have opened the same question on the international scene as well. Oft-cited examples of that “mess” include the arrest of the members of the VolksTheater Karawane group who took part in the Genoa protests and the trial of Steve Kurtz of the Critical Arts Ensemble, accused of bioterrorism. Those “misunderstandings” suggest that artivism, with its rough radicalism and disregard for disciplinary definitions, is precisely symptomatic of the relations, i.e. overlappings of aesthetics, art, and politics in society today, evading the rulings of both artists and theorists, as well as police officers and public prosecutors as to whether such cases constitute politics that has adopted aesthetical methods, or art that has directly taken up politics.

There is one more important topic that I would like to address regarding artivism, and that is often addressed in that context: its socio-political effectiveness. Namely, artivism is a hybrid practice that brings art and socio-political activism together, thereby seemingly taking the politicality of performance to an extreme where art becomes politics and politics becomes art. Also, following all of the above, one might expect artivism to have a proportionate socio-political effect, since it is a precise symptom of the actual state of affairs regarding the relationship between aesthetics, politics, and art. And yet, artivism is typically faulted for failing to fulfil that promise. I would say that the main reason for that is that the kind of political practice that artivism performs is based on a spontaneous and direct method of political acting: one steps out onto the public stage – be it the street or the internet – as a responsible citizen, spotlights a particular social problem on it, and calls for public debate. However, that basic mode of political practice does not correspond to the social paradigm of politics today, which is representative: mediated and mediatised to such a degree that it almost mutes the citizens’ voices in the process of making decisions. Due to this procedural incompatibility or asynchrony, artivism could not be politically effective in any more direct fashion anyway, however thematically or formally political it might be.[14] A theoretical reason for that is that it cannot be, because political practice is a conventional and codified performative, which one cannot just not accept, if one wishes to act politically. Nonetheless, I would not dismiss artivism as a political failure for that reason. For, it also hypothesises on an alternative political performative, testing with its performance a model of such a participatory and direct procedure, and projecting a society in which decisions will be made by equals among equals, simply because they are citizens of that society.

* * *

In concluding, I would say that the performing arts today are indeed pervaded by politics but are not, at the same time, socially effective in any more significant way, whereby their politicality causes great interest and anxiety, moving back and forth between those two extremes. During the 20th century, Western societies were marked by the development of the mass media, which supplanted art in its functions in communicating, educating, shaping the public opinion, and symbolically representing society, while on the other hand, art today has become a capitalist system of production, belonging in the domain of immaterial production. In addition to this new structural positioning of art, performance as an art discipline faces a procedural problem as well. Historically, performance has been defined as a performative artistic practice entailing a public scene and live presence of people, which brought it close to political and public acting in some earlier democratic societies. Today, however, virtual interactions by means of digital technology are growing ever more dominant, while the political scene has been entirely hegemonised by representative democracy. For both of those reasons, neither physical public space nor live performance constitutes current social paradigms. Those paradigms are, respectively, representation and mediatisation.

In this text, I tried to shed light on the significance of these social conditions for artistic performance. Perhaps performance as a politically relevant artistic practice really belongs to some other society, different from ours? Or, rather than lamenting the “good old days”, when vita performativa and vita activa went hand in hand, perhaps we should strive to articulate a politicality of the performing arts suited to this, neoliberal, capitalist, representative-democratic society of ours, even if its modest reach discourages us? We must, I would say, because the politicality of the performing arts today is reflected not so much in their interest in politics, as it is a necessary consequence of the macro-changes in social practices and their interrelations whereby the performing arts are relating to politics less and less as to something external. Therefore I attempted to survey the dialectic of vita performactiva today, no longer a non-antagonistic continuum of civil life, but a problem-focused indicator that, along with the twin processes of the instrumentalisation of politics and politicisation of production, artistic performance is itself fast becoming pervaded with politics and turning into an arena of political practice in contemporary society. But this is only a challenge to be addressed, whereas answers coming from the international performing arts world have been mostly tepid, without interfering with the “base” of the performing arts too much – their capitalist market system and post-Fordist organisation of labour – or with its “superstructure” – the hegemony of the West on the international scene and affirmation of neoliberal individualism. On the other hand, vita performactiva is currently marked by a procedural break amid the processes of combining aesthetics, politics, and art in representative-democratic political systems. My critical view of artivism’s political (in)effectiveness presented above exceeds the bounds of artivism, and in conclusion, I would like to return to Arendt’s explication of the procedural similarities between artistic performance (in general) and politics, the main problem of which is its ahistoricity. Counting on procedural overlapping – and thereby political leniency to claims, subjects, images, voices, and configurations of social relations coming from artistic performance – appears to me like a trap that a number of critical and engaged authors have failed to negotiate. In particular, that would apply to an alternative history of the performing arts in the 20th and early 21st century, which would situate the political power of performance in an intensification of the performance procedure of direct, live (co-)presence and creation of social situations. Still, the fact that politics constructed in this way is not being actualised today is not only a political failure on the part of the performing arts. To sum up, viewed from a structural perspective, the political gesture of the performing arts could be a radical “political economics” of its own system of production, while from the angle of procedurality, the political potential of artistic performance today should be to mark that empty place of crisis in the political system of representative democracy and publicly perform a proposal of a different political procedure, making performance a real place on the public scene that confront images of society as it presently is with those of a different, possible, and virtual one.


Works Cited:

  • Arendt, Hannah, Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought, New York: The Viking Press, 1961.
  • Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Habermas, Jürgen, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1989.
  • Lazzarato, Maurizio, “Immaterial Labour”, in Radical Thought in Italy, ed. Virno, Paolo and Michael Hardt, Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1996; (11 July 2011)
  • Virno, Paolo, A Grammar of the Multitude, New York: Semiotext(e), 2004.

Translation from Serbo-Croatian: Žarko Cvejić

Published in English and Serbo-Croatian as Ana Vujanovic, "Vita performactiva, on the Stage of Neoliberal Capitalist Democratic Society" in: TkH no. 19 - ”Politicality of Performance”, December 2011.

[1] See Goffman, Erving, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959; Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998; and Sennett, Richard, The Fall of Public Man, New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1976.
[2] Schechner, Richard, Performance Studies: An Introduction, London and New York: Routledge, 2006, p. 22.
[3] See Sennett, “Public Roles”, in The Fall of Public Man, pp. 64–89 for more on how the bourgeois public sphere formed in theatre, during and after plays and then how conventions of social relations and behavior in theatre passed on to the street, via conceptions of the body as mannequin and speech as sign, instead of symbol.
[4] See Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition and On Revolution, New York: The Viking Press, 1963.
[5] Habermas commits the same oversight when he concludes that the supposedly glorious epoch of the egalitarian and liberal bourgeois public sphere was followed by a decline of the public sphere in the 19th century, because the public scene was penetrated by various social groups that demanded protection from the state; see Habermas, Jürgen, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991. A number of feminist theorists later brought that problem into sharper focus, and an important critical contribution came from Rancière as well, who introduced the distinction between the concepts of police and politics, whereby politics begins precisely when the plebs penetrate the public sphere; see Rancière, Jacques, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, London: Continuum, 2004; and Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
[6] The Austrian artivist group WochenKlausur have offered a critically elaborate response to this challenge; see, especially “From the Object to the Concrete Intervention” (26 March 2011).
[7] See Agamben, Giorgio, “Poiesis and Praxis” and “Privation Is Like a Face”, in The Man Without Content, trans. Georgia Albert, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999, pp. 68–94 and 59–68. Since citing Agamben’s claims would make a digression here, I will only mention that a “return to practice” would not repoliticise art today, because practice itself is no longer what it was in ancient Greece, but instead, has been understood as an expression of individual will and creative power since the 19th century. See also Vujanović, Ana, “What do we actually do when… [we] make art”, Maska 127–130 and Amfiteatar 2, 2010.
[8] See Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000; Lazzarato, Maurizio, “Immaterial Labour” (1996), (11 July 2011); and Virno, Paolo, A Grammar of the Multitude, New York: Semiotext(e), 2004.
[9] See, “Exhausting Immaterial Labour in Performance”, TkH 19 and Journal des Laboratoires, 2010.
[10] McKenzie, Jon, Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance, London and New York: Routledge, 2001.
[11] Benjamin, Walter, “The Work of Art in the Age of Technical Reproduction”, in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 1969, pp. 217–251. I am omitting Rancière’s “politics of aesthetics” here because, its currency notwithstanding, it neither refers to nor explains the specific current social context of art and politics in the West.
[12] Michaud, Yves, L’Art à l’état gazeux: essai sur le triomphe de l’esthétique, Paris: Hachette, 2011.
[13] Milohnić, Aldo, “Artivizam”, Maska 90–91, 2005, pp. 15–25; (15 August 2011).
[14] On the other hand, what these actions often can and do provoke are reactions from the police, whereby law enforcement clearly tells us that in today’s democratic capitalist society public space is not meant for citizens’ political actions anyway, but for undisturbing, apolitical activities – tourism and entertainment.