Performance. An ontological analysis

‘Performance’ is a ubiquitous term commandeered by and used in a range of academic disciplines and practical fields of human activity. It operates, more or less, as a semiotic tag within a set of conceptualisations that is part of a specific discipline and field of discourse, and functions as an epistemological frame within particular discursive practices. This tagging is discussed in six examples below, through the breadth of usage is far greater than is suggested in my exemplars.

First, in the academic discipline of performance studies, ‘performance’ is generally seen as a descriptive term encompassing complex representational embodiments that signify a range of meanings for observers or audiences, who become both interpretive aesthetic readers of such meaning and also engage with performance work affectively. These representational embodiments may refer to artistic endeavours, from music, dance and drama to installations, photography and art works; but the term’s usage can be broader than even these sets of specific creative phenomena, extending to everyday acts of social engagement, cultural exchange and sporting endeavour. As such, performance is constituted in what might be viewed as ordinariness as much as it is in specialisations of human activity and communication. Arguably, however, in this academic field the tag is especially, but not exclusively, about creative representation and embodied performance practices, as reflected in the work of scholars such as Richard Schechner and Victor Turner

Critically, though, there are issues with naming visual material ‘performance’, material that is not exactly fleshly in the sense of embracing body. When a photographer has an exhibition of her work in a gallery, in what sense is it a performance? Is it not the case that photographic pieces are artefacts that capture discrete temporal moments which have then been manipulated to represent the aesthetic vision of the photographer. In this sense ideas and representations of physicality are coalesced to form a set of static appearances or surfaces which are then contextualised in the various pieces that the public come to see and enjoy. In sum, there is a distance between the actual and the visceral, and the photograph that presents a representation and repositioning. This hardly makes it performance. Or does it? When a person comes to gaze at a particular photograph there is embodied significations in the art work that provoke a response in the person based on the totality of the viewer’s life and experience. There may be a connection that involves memory and imagination in which the viewer of the work is taken to a moment. For that person, it could be argued that the occasion, with its dramatic sense of ‘what if’, is thus a performance or has the possibility of performance. In sum, the notion of a performance is about connection and affinity, occasioned by the immediacy of the work and its conversance for the viewer.
Second, in feminist studies, the term has generally been employed as an operative tag within a critical frame about the represented gendered layers of history and cultural practices that have shaped the ways of being a woman in particular social and historical contexts. This includes what is put on (or is placed upon body) as a socialised stratum on top of the biological conditionality of being female. As such, a distinction is made between being a female as a genetic biological state of corporeal being and ‘woman’ as a category of gendered social construction and encrusted conditioning which is then performed through this biological being in a range of social and cultural contexts. Performance of gender is imbued with a social history of differentiation that has suppressed the full equality and ensuing emancipation of women, as has been analysed in detail by feminist theorists such as Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, Julia Kristeva and Judith Butler.

Performance could also be a descriptor of behaviours that manifest the territorialism of exercises of power over women and their bodies, and then the ensuing politics of control. The performance acts of those who would want to exert possession over women’s bodies (especially men) are part of the performance of gender. Marriage, for instance, has been a relational and social context for the performance of gender expectations, and amounts to a localised form of a larger patriarchal performance built on the notions of fertility, class, possession and docility. Equally, the acts of defiance and contestation of these patriarchal values, in such historical contexts as the Suffragette Movement of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries and the Feminist Movement of the 1960s, embody performance as a set of social acts of indocility that are aimed to forge social change and to disrupt the established patriarchal social order.

Third, in theatre practice and theatre studies, the term is used tacitly to represent the entirety of the delivery of a dramatic work (the performance), as well as the disposition of the human elements (actors, performers, designers, crew, director) that are part of that delivery (their performance, her or his performance) and the technological elements (sound, lighting, stagecraft and sets) that support the work. In both senses the term is tagged as defining a finished aesthetic product that is consumed and evaluated, as well a being understood in respect to a set of aesthetic representations, as discussed in terms of performance studies.

However, the process of making could also be deemed as fully performance, such that at each stage of the creation of a work, from its conceptualisation, to scripting, auditions, design, technical production and rehearsal, the performative encompasses all parts of what contributes to making the whole. One could argue that from initiation to culmination the theatre making process is centred in and constituted by performance. The process of ‘becoming’, or what philosopher Alfred North Whitehead calls ‘concrescence’, appears to gain formation through the acts of performance.

The expression, ‘performance’, could also be deployed in terms of describing the relationship between performers and audience (or spectators). According to Polish theatre-maker, Grotowski, it is this core dialectical bond in a ‘holy’ space that constitutes the necessary element for theatrical performance. In this space performance becomes a mutual exchange of situated understandings built from shared knowledge of a set of abstract theatrical conventions or what could be termed ‘theatricalities’. This shared knowledge results from enculterations that mitigate behaviour in certain specialised settings, such as a theatre or designated performance space.

This particular usage or tagging of performance may also suggest the one-off nature of a theatre event, deemed as a performance, embodied as it is in the serendipitous temporality of the theatrical work as a collocation of human and technological objects. In sum, performance becomes a set of embodiments to engage with an audience, and in this engagement there is an affective response from an audience, a corporeality of reception, which includes a semiotic reading of the theatrical performance as a set of texts (both visual and verbal) and an evaluative reception of the work summated in judgements.

Fourth, in film studies, ‘performance’ is not generally used as nomenclature about the phenomenon of what happens when a film is shown to an audience. The terminology is conventionally a ‘showing’ or a ‘screening’ in which the disposition of the film as displayed does not change but the reception of different audiences certainly will. The notion of a ‘screening’ brings with it a sense of dis-embodiment, such that the film becomes a unified set of edited representations that are dislocated from the actual performances of the actors (wherever and whenever that took place) and contingent to the technological mechanisms of its showing.

Indubitably, a film is read as a visual product that is suggestive of, but removed, from corporeality. However, in terms of critical reception, a ‘performance’ of an actor, whilst not in the flesh, is, nevertheless, still concerned with connecting to human experience and to notions of believability, plausibility and empathy. This receptive connectivity in a film is somewhat akin to what happens in theatre. There is a narrative and there are relational dimensions to the human agents that compose films that are indicative of performance, though there is an understanding by an audience that there is a gap, often a significant gap, between the making and the consuming by an audience. It is this gap that transforms a film to something other than what is encountered on a stage or in a visceral performance space. Nevertheless, in an encounter between a film and the engagement of an audience member there is, arguably, the possibility of performance in the transaction between audience member and the communicative product on the screen.

Fifth, in economics and business studies, the term ‘performance’ suggests two inter-related concepts. The first concept is to conceive performance as an indicator of market trends globally, whether this be in the stock market or company reporting. This use of the term is more-or-less statistical, though the notion of a ‘trend’ is also linked to human interpretation of the existential meaning of the trend. The numbers appear objective but are linked to human experience in often surprising and direct ways. Indeed, Adam Smith’s notion of trade as the core of wealth production implies the importance of the relational in economic activity. Trade could be viewed as a specialised set of performative human interactions that facilitate economic exchange.

The second concept is to see performance as an evaluation of the profit and efficiency of a company or organisation. While this might seem to be only about returns to shareholders or the fiscal viability of a company, it is also concerned with evaluating human performance and the function of individuals within institutional life. At this level performance becomes more than just an indicator and beyond an evaluation; it becomes about the agency and performance of individuals within corporate life, with its complex sets of expected social acts.

Finally, in education the term ‘performance’ is linked to learning and its measurement in outcomes. Indeed, expressions such as ‘how did a student perform’ or ‘a student’s performance was above average’ are part of the accepted discourse and practices of education which are virtually taken for granted. This use of the term suggests the idea that performance becomes a mechanism of delineation between educational institutions and a descriptor of conformity to standards that are linked, in part, to funding. Academic performance also becomes one gauge of individual success, signified and lauded in a score or grade that functions as an entry ticket to different levels of the educational hierarchy.

Of course there are the issues about how such performance should be measured and whether it is appropriate to base such measurement purely on numerical markers, since learning is such a complex and whole-person phenomenon that is multi-factorial. In this sense, learning as a progressive or unfolding state in the internality of an individual is in tension with learning as a summative expression of a prescribed outcome that leads to a social and academic rite-of-passage.

The use of the term can also be conceived in terms of the performance of teachers, lecturers (in the case of university education) and administrators in education. Thus it could be viewed as critical in terms of the performance of an educational institution as a whole and its fiscal viability. Indeed, perception of performance is a key issue for consumers of education, who have a choice at every level about where they want to be educated or where they want their children to be schooled. So, in this regard, performance becomes more than a numerical evaluative term; it becomes a term of representation and presentation, of power, status and currency, which has wholesale consequences for an educational institution and the ways it is read within a society and a culture.

In education, there is also (and perhaps this is more fundamental) a corporeal performing as teacher, lecturer or instructor in regard to both students and colleagues. There is an embodied taking on of a persona that is regulated according to a set of pedagogical expectations, learning imperatives and discursive practices that amount to a thoroughgoing theatricality. The theatricality is based a set of operatives that are part of the communicative exchange in a stylised learning space. Just like audience members coming to see a theatrical show are designated as agents who laugh, clap and engage, so students put on expectations and perform their role as student or as learner. Of course in an educational setting there is much less differentiation of performer and spectator, since the closeness of the teacher with students in the deliberative acts of learning in classrooms and educational spaces is more visceral and negotiated. Still, the curtain of educator and ‘educatee’ is clearly operative in most, if not all, educational forums.

This enactment aspect of being an educator also means taking on a complex set of performativities in regard to executing different agencies within an educational institutional setting. As such, the teacher, lecturer or instructor becomes pedagogue, employee, colleague, assessor, manager, disciplinarian, leader, counsellor, administrator and communicator. These complex individual embodiments are overlayed with the performance of an educational institutional as a totality of all personal embodiments, together with corporeality of institutional place and the meanings from institutional representations.

Is there any common ground between the six examples of the use of the term ‘performance’, as discussed above? It seems to me that there are four core characteristics of performance that appear to be common to all six areas of its deployment.

The first core characteristic is that all six areas appear to turn on creative engagement. By this I mean that there is human imagination and contextual re-imaginings that are part of the broad sweep of uses of the term ‘performance’. In visualising, conceptualising and reconfiguring in imagination there is a consciousness of rehearsal for performance, no matter what the area of human engagement or academic discourse. Performance in so many areas of work, practice and discourse is suffused with rehearsal, whether actually embodied or ideational. Often such rehearsal is about a transformative set of gradual iterations that lead to innovation and improvement according to an evaluative goal.

Second, the inter-being-ness of the human existential existence means that we create meaning in social and personal relationships and through performing roles in the context of the group, the institution and the family, no matter if we are on stage, in the boardroom of a company, in a classroom or writing an academic article for a community of academics. We, as a species orientated to forming communities, are always performing and always in some type of role in relation to the other. These role formations of performance serve many functions: for power and social position, for need, for attachment and intimacy, for gender formation and for creative release and expression. If Michel Foucault’s analyses of societal and institutional life is to be believed, then the core creative thread in this inter-being-ness is power, which, at its ultimate level is about the performance of control over self, over others and over the environment.

Third, and related to the second point, meaning is driven semiotically through representation which is performative through the machinations of showing and demonstrating, getting feedback and framing representations interpretively. In offering and then having signs read, there is a performance exchange between the embodied states of offering and those of accepting and interpreting the offer.

In seeing performance through the lens of representation there is a chance to explore the nuances of the term. Performance can be about ‘performance in’, that is, performance that is located in a cultural product and where performance functions to embody the meanings of that product and its representations. Equally, performance can be viewed as ‘performance through’. In this rendering of the term, performance is a state of human engagement that is enabled through a conduit or vehicle that carries its performative embodiments. The focus here might be on the technological contingencies to performance. Also, the term can be understood as ‘performance of’, meaning a discrete creation and product formed as an entity for critical reflection and engagement.

Finally, performance, across a range of academic and practice contexts, appears to be formed in the epistemic space between the making of something (corporeal or ideational) and an evaluation of its worth. In this core characteristic, performance is found in the transactions that ensue from the constitution of a thing and judgements about the merit and the relative place of that thing in the social order. For example, a learnt skill has a being that is both ideational and corporeal. Performance lies in the transactions of using that skill and receiving an evaluation of it: between the doing and the feedback about the doing.

Edwin Creely
Monash University
Melbourne, Australia

[email protected]

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About edwincreely

Dr Edwin Creely is an educator and writer with experience in education, literacy and theatre making. He is a meditation teacher and practitioner, dramatist, holistic counsellor, poet, philosopher, and academic with a strong interest also in technology and its implications for human experience. His interests are diverse, from creative writing and literacy practices, theatre making, performativity to phenomenology and Buddhist meditation practice.