Monday, 2 March 2009


Julien Bismuth and Jean Pascal- Flavien, Plouf! Rio de Janeiro, 2006. Photo copyright the artists.

The following is an attempt to outline some qualities of the performance-lecture, based on the numerous examples of the form presented as part of last weeks Characters, Figures, Signs festival at Tate Modern (20-21 Feb, 2009). 

It approaches these examples from a personal perspective: trying to unpack something of the qualities and role of The Performance-Lecture within a critical writing practice,  whether it be framed as "criticism" or as a "creative" project. 

The following thus downplays the weekends other key theme - which was the relationship to contemporary dance and how it has come to include lectures and demonstrations within its own panoply of performance forms. 


It's ten days after the event and I still haven't come up with a good reason why Xavier Le Roy's Products of Circumstances (1999) should have been given a two late-night run in the Turbine Hall. This was the Lecture-Demonstration at its most conventional and dance-based, alternating personal narrative delivered from a lectern with short extracts of movement.

But my problems were not to do with this basic form. Instead, I think my antipathy was because such a presentation depends on a sense of urgency to the moment of delivery. Le Roy's story may have had value in 1999 as an artists own coming to terms - constructing- a narrative of his own career. But 10 years later it was hard to justify giving it such continued prominence.

Such narratives, whether personal or historical, must also avoid treating history and the audience as idiots. Science bad, dance good, statistics potentially unreliable, seemed the gist here. But then why does Le Roy hark on so much about being a molecular biologist? Why is it always the first line of his bio? Why does he follow such a conventional form for a story about the revelation of new forms? 

More specifically there are questions about the status of information in the performance-lecture. Le Roy went into great detail about his PhD research on breast cancer. But the point of such an event is not to convey actual information. It's more about a presence or status that can't be so painstakingly defined. That's why, presumably, Le Roy makes dances.

INTERLUDE: Tino Sehgal in conversation with Catherine Wood wasn't really a performance lecture, but I mention it here for its own contribution to this topic. Firstly, about the fetishising of academic knowledge. Please, Tate interviewers, stop the awe struck questions about artists who "studied dance and political economy at the same time" as if Karl Marx and Isadora Duncan had fused into one Tino-shaped entity. It's called a modular undergraduate degree program and many non-famous artists have done one. 

That said, Sehgal offers this hyper-confident intellectual model, whose substance seemed a professional necessity, justifying the more conceptual, oral, picture-free elements of his practice. It's intoxicating to hear, but it so absorbs into itself any critical response, and I had the uncomfortable sensation that the only thing left to do was believe or not. 

Indeed, from my own experience of Seghal's work in The World as Stage exhibition, I would say the most interesting element of Sehgals model is the embarrassing crisis that results when his work is shaken out of its own self-justifying discourse. 

The performance lecture, however, should relish Seghal's sense of craftsmanship that goes into the preparation, collection, performance, and archiving of such immaterial works; as, too, his sense of the art work as having a primarily oral existence that leads from the event itself into its numerous re-tellings.  Both beautiful ideas that made me briefly regret the ungenerous comments I'd been writing in my notebook.


After such disgruntlements, there was an enormous pleasure to Guillame Désanges Signs and Wonders. Désanges stood at the Starr Auditorium lectern and read a thesis about the squares, lines, circles, and triangles of modernism and the spiritual, mystical beliefs that went along with their rational, modern forms. It was a clear, articulate piece, that fluidly positioned itself where academic discourse and research seeks a more creative, ever present applicability.

Guillaume Désanges with Frédéric Cherboeuf, A History of Performance in 20 minutes, Performance, Gasworks, 2007 

Such pleasure mainly came from the shadow play that accompanied Désanges lecture. As he spoke, Alexandra Delage created illustrations on an overhead projector that were projected on a large white screen. This involved shadow plays for the lectures arguments and gestures, as well as instant, witty reproductions of all the art works mentioned. 

So a series of paper lines and squares were rapidly reconfigured to represent a mini-retrospective of Barnett Newman's career. Vertical color strips evoking Ellsworth Kelly were quickly turned horizontal to illustrate a point about Liam Gillick.

Abstracting this into more general principles, what does this contribute to our tentative poetics of the lecture-demonstration? One key thing: when such a lecture points to something, or makes a reference to an art work or a personal biography, that detail must have both the fixity and arbitrariness of the shadow play.   


Two final examples offer a closing set of concerns. In Black Flags Ian White sat in front of a wind machine that noisily blew strong currents of air in his face. He held a sheaf of A4 papers, that it was hard hold on to in the wind. Sometimes, too, he had to turn aside to breathe. 

White shouted the words - poignant phrases from his interview with Tate's head of captioning and wall texts. There was much humour and poignancy of obsessive detail - fonts, typesizes, layout - and the insight of particular phrases that explored the wall texts need for clarity and invisibility: "Looking is bound walking... what's not to be noticed has physical dimensions..."

This was accompanied by continual, looping trumpet blasts, and a film projection. For maybe two thirds of the talk this involved a hand fingering the pages of an artists' book. For the last third it was sort of homoerotic stuff of a guy in a balaclava crawling around the floor of what seemed to be White's flat. Lots of close ups of his buttocks and his groin through his tight trousers. The cameras looking extended to the cameraman trying to pick the man's wallet from the back pocket of his trousers.  For a finale, White threw away the A4 papers, recited song lyrics about finding the love of his life, whilst performing a series of semaphore signaling movements.

Having seen White quite a lot recently - mostly presenting the discussions at Lux 28 - I read Black Flags as about finding a performative metaphor for dramatising the tensions of that practice. The finding of such an image or metaphor seemed to require parallel movements into the discourse of the museum and private realms of the domestic and desire. The performance-lecture form both connects such areas in the moment of performance, but also keep them distinct (as here there was a distinct sense of a number of different component mediums). 

Finally, Pablo Bronstein's Intermezzo could also be read like this. Bronstein said he was interesting in critiquing the authority of historical narratives, but his performance too found a metaphor for an artistic practice, seeming to be strung quite consciously between rigour and ridiculousness.   

Bronstein, dressed casually in jeans and t-shirts, told a story of Renaissance gentlemen for whom ballet was a source of ideas and practice of posture and deportment. It seemed quite plausible to me, but in the Q&A afterwards, Bronstein stated that it had all been a cobbled together google-a-thon. But, actually, in my somewhat  self-willed gullibility, I'm also rusing, trying to avoid getting sucked into some daft game of true or false, as if the art work is a new Agatha Christie mini-series. 

If a performance lecture like this is worth anything, its because it offers a convincing surface: a contemporary moment in which facts and details and gesture are forever acquiring new meanings in their new contexts, without any felt need for authenticating. All of which, of course, is frighteningly amnesiac, but maybe the advantages override this. One final insight for future performance-lecture makers: 

For most of the weekend I felt like Gertrude Stein was on the guest list. But there was no guest list.


So this is a rough taxonomy of the performance lecture. I'm being quick, casual, implausibly hunch-led about this, because that seems part of the reason for employing such a form. I want to avoid what seemed to happen in the closing Q&A where it seemed to be impossible to return from each of these individual investigations to some kind of shared, public space where they could be compared and developed or, even, recognized.  

Or, rather, people seemed to emerge disorientated, and closed. I'm also suggesting here that the discussion of the performance lecture has to have a similar broadness of tone and styles as the performance themselves. Otherwise we can't possibly unfold our understanding and practice of the form in a manner that recognises what is at stake.

It above all requires a certain impunity and scepticism about claims to knowledge. And I should know. At the beginning of my career I studied both The Polish Avant Garde 1945-70 and Manufacturing Weapons of Mass Destruction For Beginners in the same semester. It was wonderful, but I won't go on and on about it, because that is not what this non-performance essay is all about...