Author Diana Damian

Diana Damian Martin [1]

I had been writing for six hours; the light from my laptop seemed infectiously bright, plastering my eyes with a faint haze, and my fingers hesitant in touching the keyboard; thoughts seemed to coagulate slowly. A pile of books had formed on my desk—books that I’d grabbed at different moments, eager to find the reference, to contextualize an encounter or dig deeper into a statement. I was at the end of a durational critical writing project. Colleagues of mine were scattered in different corners of London and beyond to Berlin and Melbourne. After some white noise from a patchy internet connection, the live-stream we were all watching came back on; this show, it waits for no one, I thought.

This was 1000th LIVE,[1] a curated critical writing project I led in collaboration with British theatre company Forced Entertainment. The project saw seven critics, myself included, respond in real time to the live-stream of Forced Entertainment’s And On a Thousandth Nigh,[2] performed as part of the Culturegest Festival in Portugal on March 22, 2014. The performance is an improvisational game of storytelling in which seven performers battle for the completion of a single-authored narrative. This can, at any point, be interrupted, probed, challenged or replaced by another.

We encounter seven chairs lined up at the front of the stage and throughout the six hours, performers populate or abandon them, move in and out of the game, changing the tone and identity of the performance. They do not play characters, but they are sometimes kings and queens, politicians and mothers, moving through stories fictional, real and appropriated.

Forced Entertainment are a British theatre company who have been making work since 1984, headed by Artistic Director Tim Etchells. The company have built a canon of works that concern themselves with the mechanics of performance, the relationship between reality, theatre and representation, and the role of the audience within. Experimental processes and forms are at the heart of their work, produced through devising and improvisation, and engaging with methods drawn from postdramatic theatre as well as live art.

1000th LIVE amassed, over the six hours, a range of short-form texts and analysis grounded in the unfolding performance. The writers[3] explored how the performance engaged with questions of mediation, narrative, authorship, error and failure. Hosting the project was Exeunt Magazine.[4]

In this essay, I want to think through some of the aspects of criticism that this project foregrounds, concentrating on the relationship between performance, criticism and meaning-making, as well as the relationship of these to politics and aesthetics. I foreground the internet as the site in which these relationships can be made visible.

1000th LIVE presents clear challenges to, and is challenged by, traditional methodologies of theatre criticism. Firstly, it is not, nor does it situate itself as a review. It does not constitute an engagement that foregrounds cultural valuation, though, as a project, it is very much interested in excavation. It is not formalistic, expressive, exponential, or impressionistic. The aim was to be as specific in the scope and intent of the writing as it unfolded, whilst maintaining criticality, specificity of language and clarity of intent. In opposition to the claims brought to online criticism that it is appropriating market-speak, 1000th LIVE aimed to show that critical distance manifests itself in complex ways in the online realm, without the displacement of rigour and expertise.

Secondly, the project engages with live performance through a mediated space; we all experienced the performance digitally and responded in the same context. The internet emerges, in this instance, as the shared stage of both experience and critical discussion. And thirdly, the temporality of the project meant that both the critical responses and the performance unfolded in real time in parallel with each other; this removed the possibility of any conclusive thinking in the writing. Once the performance ended, so did the writing. There was no period to mark the end of a thought, only question marks left at different moments of the writing.

1000th LIVE attempted to foreground the particular advantages that the internet offers to uphold and develop aspects of criticism that remain fundamental to a cultural ecology: multiplicity of voices and engaged criticality. As a project, it also set in conversation more recent developments in criticism, navigating performance making and critical practice.

The project was deliberately structured in such a way that it mirrored some of the mechanisms deployed in the performance itself. All participating critics were briefed to consider how the performance’s engagement with failure, displacement and authorship might translate into prompts for the writing. All critics had an extensive knowledge of the work of the company involved. Furthermore, critics were asked to acknowledge the online nature of the viewing experience, and also reflect on the role of the duration both in the performance and the writing.

Narrative

The questions that govern the practice of criticism in contemporary theatre and performance pertain to the political and are made visible through the realm of the aesthetic. Criticism in this instance encompasses “an activity, i.e. a series of intellectual acts profoundly committed to the historical and subjective existence of the agent who performs them” (Barthes 23).

However there are no inherent politics in criticism; criticism becomes politicised through its own constitution and relationship to the object of study. To this effect, criticism enacts processes that are analogical to those of governance: it positions, constructs, destroys and evaluates. It is equipped with and characterised by processes that are able to confront, embrace and dissent their referent—the live event. In this manner, they constitute a new layer of meaning that emerges as the critical referent.

*

The internet and the critical referent: legitimacy, politics, aesthetics

The internet offers a distinct site and context for criticism. I say this as a critic who has experienced a different pathway that traditionally experienced in criticism, one that is very much reliant on the new vocabularies and contexts foregrounded by the internet. I want to make two positions clear in this instance. Firstly, the internet is a context, not a value judgment; it does not render certain critical practices better than others, nor does it, by default, distinguish between professional and amateur, legislative or interpretive. Secondly, the internet has enabled the development of a cultural shift, in which paradigms that criticism had more traditionally engaged with—amateur/professional, formal/informal, subjective/objective, have been called into question.[5] This is no accident, given that the neoliberalization of much of the newspaper industry, and the wider critical landscape, has caused many newspaper critics to lose their jobs, and editors to prioritize certain kinds of cultural analysis over others. This cultural moment marks the return of a fundamental question in criticism: what is it doing or un-doing, who and what does it serve, and how can it do so?

This cultural shift has, in criticism, at least in the UK, been marked by a conflict of legitimacy between, for example, critics working in mainstream media and those working online.[6] This conflict manifests itself through debates that foreground issues surrounding visibility and infrastructural representation. What I am interested in briefly noting here is the way in which the crisis of criticism as conflict is framed in the context of contemporary debates in theatre and performance. In a recent article for German theatre criticism website Nachtkritik,[7] critic Andrew Haydon identifies this question of a politics of a field of practice within a British context. Inflamed by the discussions across newspapers and blogs that theatre criticism exists in a crisis of legitimation, in a financial and political climate that doesn’t invest in discourse on theatre, Haydon outlines a different view of the problem at hand. “What is interesting is that this crisis,” he adds, “coincides with the largest, fastest growth in theatre criticism since the advent of low-cost listings magazines like Time Out and City Limits” (2014).

Haydon focuses on the antagonism between bloggers and newspaper critics, which manifested itself in a series of public debates in publications both print and online, between 2007-2013. He argues that with the decline of space for criticism in newspapers, a wider culture developed, both digital and international. “The print media began to feel the pinch of both the global economic downturn and the continued mass exodus from newspaper-buying” (2014). More recently, critic Natasha Tripney has reconsidered this debate in an article for The Space entitled “Arts Criticism in the Digital Age” (2015). “I don’t view this as the death of anything,” says Tripney in response to the decline of jobs in theatre criticism in newspapers. “Change happens … And digital criticism as a form feels very much alive” (2015). The shift in the discourse from a conflict of legitimacy to one pertaining to the power-dynamics of sites of discourse is a marker of the ways in which the ‘crisis’ in criticism resides in political iterations around visibility.

What both Haydon and Tripney discuss in their writing is a more fundamental issue, pertaining to both politics and aesthetics. I recall here Paul De Man, who asserted that crisis is fundamental to the very fabric of criticism; it upholds its contentious paradigms and maintains its dynamic self-interrogation. I note that this element of crisis pertains to a debate surrounding the context of criticism and its positioning.

In this instance, criticism becomes a site of position-takings and hierarchies of value. I am interested in shifting the conversation in a different direction, moving beyond these fundamental aspects towards problems that pertain to politics, aesthetics and their challenges. I want to understand how a politicisation of criticism might take shape beyond disputes of legitimacy, to conflict over visibility and tensions between the critic, the referent and the public sphere. My interest is to consider how we might distinguish between productive and policing critical processes, without challenging the legitimacy of one context of criticism over another.

Protest

So the critical practice that I discuss here is not exclusive, and neither is it necessarily marginal. The challenges presented to newspaper criticism, particularly in the UK, are foregrounded by a wider struggle over the space, sustainability and development of criticism in the context of an increasingly neoliberal society whose political rationality favours market-based operations and quantifiable assets. The internet is, I propose, part of this cultural shift, but it cannot be made solely responsible for the increasing challenges presented to mainstream media.

In Alterities: Criticism, History, Representation, literary theorist Thomas Docherty critiques the ways in which criticism validates its own subjectivisation at the expense of the object of study. The subject for Docherty is “a psychoanalytic subject, or a historical and political agent” (vii) Speaking of modern and postmodern scholarly cultural criticism, Docherty posits that the historical narratives which are constructed within criticism are at the expense of an evacuation of history from the object (8).

Docherty’s concern lies with the relationship between the subject, understood here as the subject of consciousness (Alterities 7), and the historical object as it is delineated by temporality. In other words, Docherty is investigating the removal of alterity as the fundamental skeleton of criticism. Criticism inflicts a violent act upon the object, understood here as the work of art. It denies an encounter that is multi-dimensional, instead of mono-theological, and foregrounds a dimension of aesthetic practices that, as social theorist Erik S. Roraback argues, assigns value to the “constitutive political power of aesthetic culture in and of itself” (2006).

Docherty underlines that the consequences of ignoring this aesthetic dimension results in a reduction of freedom. This is made evident by the relationship that he outlines between aesthetics and democracy. This identification allows him to both turn to the question of identity politics in criticism, and problematize its centrality. Identity politics in Docherty’s work pertains to the fundamental problem of subjectivity in relation to the historical being.

This is where I identify the fundamental emphasis on the radical nature of otherness, or alterity to use Docherty’s language, in his study on criticism, history and representation. Docherty locates criticism as residing between terror and love (Alterities 1). In this affective landscape, modern criticism enters a territory of self-validation, which the subject is not equipped to transpose. Docherty states that:

modern criticism is conditioned by terror. It begins with an anxiety about its object (be that a text or any artefact whose source is independent of—other than—the critic) and its response to such a fear of Otherness … is the production of a subject of consciousness characterised … by a presumed understanding and consequent appropriation of objects. (1)

I want to problematize the term “object” as it pertains to the focus of criticism’s operations. As argued by Henry Sayre in his book The Object of Performance, the destabilisation which performance art brought to the landscape of visual art practice in the late seventies in the US has been from “art’s object to art’s audience, from the textual or plastic to the experiential” (Sayre 5). Therefore, “site of presence” (5) becomes the focus a new artistic paradigm. I use the term critical referent to acknowledge the art historical implications of the term object, and the significant cultural shifts that have marked contemporary theatre and performance. By deploying the term critical referent I provide a space for the bodily, affective, ideological and material dimensions of theatre and performance practice. My aim is to elucidate the grounds on which we might speak of criticism in relation to the critical referent, but also in separation from it.

I draw a link between Docherty’s object and what I refer to as the critical referent, defined as the re-configuration of the event of performance which criticism considers and engages with. Docherty restores alterity as the fundamental condition of criticism, and this where I want to consider the possibility of the referent.

I build on Docherty’s relocation of critical attention in alterity, understood as radical otherness that exists in relation to, but outside the subject. The fundamental skeleton of this development is Docherty’s relocation of criticism firstly “as a matter of attitude” (Alterities vii), before a set of operations and activities. The critical attitude serves to make visible the tensions between criticism and its referent. Docherty adds that this critical attitude “is one which acknowledges the difficulty of criticism” (vii). The purpose of this acknowledgement is to fortify art’s heteronomy “vis-a-vis the subject” (vii). Docherty makes a compelling and politically nuanced argument for the importance of alterity in criticism. The political nuance emerges from his engagement with aesthetics and democracy, as pertinent excavations of and contexts for criticism.

This holds two implications for criticism’s relationship with the critical referent. The first is that the referent is also situated in a political context that might not necessarily be shared by the subject. This is evidenced in Docherty’s claim towards the circularity of certain models of criticism that configure historical narratives for the purposes of a re-inscription of identity, rather than the delineation of a position. Secondly, that alterity becomes the fabric through which the encounter between the subject and the referent is staged. In other words, the critical referent emerges in instances when the politicisation of the relationship between subject and performance is acknowledged.

The re-orientation of criticism beginning with a matter of attitude is of importance here. It focuses on the critic’s point of departure, which is a concern with and interest in the referent. 1000th LIVE provides an example of the ways in which performance, criticism and the critical referent are constituted in what I will term is a triadic relationship. The performance that keeps appearing in the context of the live writing is a re-configuration of the live-stream that runs alongside it. The critical writing does not enact, it constantly appropriates and re-contextualizes, making visible the critical process alongside the performance.

Diana

*

Dissensus: a poiesis of appearance in the online realm

The internet probes an investigation that foregrounds the critical referent as the new discourse of a performance constructed through criticism. So how might this occur? I turn briefly to the philosopher of emancipatory dissent, Jacques Rancière, who argues that politics is understood as a process of visibility, legitimisation and re-configuration around matters of common good and concern. For Rancière, dissensus marks the process of politics as an engagement, on behalf of participants “over the existence of a common stage” (Dissensus 26). Dissensus occurs as “an accord made between a sensory regime of the presentation of things and a mode of interpretation of their meaning” (Dissensus viii). This framework constructs a distinction between politics and policing, which is a legislative, social order: “an order of bodies that defines the allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and ways of saying” (Disagreement 28). The police acts as a system that governs the appearance and legitimation of communities, regulating “that this speech is understood as discourse and another as noise” (28).

The logic of these operations of visibility, appearance and emancipation in Rancière is supported by a re-distribution of the sensible, that which maintains divisions enforced by the police, but, more importantly, “simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it” (The Politics of Aesthetics 12). Politics becomes “a possibility with the institution of common sense” (Wolfe 3).

Rancière’s thinking foregrounds two fundamental aspects of contemporary politics. Firstly, that politics and aesthetics are not distinct from each other—they are both underlined by the necessity of sense perception. Aesthetics becomes a mode of configuration of the shared world that accounts for the possibility of its disruption. Secondly, that a political moment is marked by dissensus, in that it both discloses a set of positions and seeks for their re-configuration.

Diana2

In 1000th LIVE, several conflictual processes are at play in the engagement between performance and critical response. The texts, fragmented as they are, have to confront the shape-shifting nature of the performance, and as such, already construct memories during the unfolding performance, rather than working from memory. There is an immediate past-tense brought by the writing, seeking to capture something that has only just happened. In these confrontations, the gap between the critic and the performance is highly palpable, forcing the critics to take a position in relation to that which they are writing about.

There is also an overtly aesthetic dimension to the texts, as they amass over time in chronological order, paralleling the live event and its own aesthetic operations. The texts here become a meta-discourse, linked into the work, particularly as fragments of the discussions made it into the show, performers checking the project during breaks, and bringing those confrontations back with them.

These examples enable the conflation of two distinct, yet necessarily interlinked, processes of meaning-making. Once they are sited together, the event and the critical process (particularly in their deliberate correlation) construct a realm of the sensible in which reconfigurations of meaning become explicit, visible—and as such, foreground a poiesis of appearance. The structure and actualisation of the project provide a potent analogy with the conceptual process of criticism itself, foregrounding several aspects of this process: site, duration, articulation, memory and judgment.

1000th LIVE embeds an on-going critical moment in a conglomeration of sites: online, physical, embodied, imagined. The project implicates a shared conceptual realm with both audience and the performers; it explicitly recalls the situatedness of the critics in their various locations, the dimensions of their increasingly exhausted bodies, and the plurality of histories recalled. This multiplicity forms a spatial configuration occupied by three distinct elements: spectatorship, thinking and articulation. The encounter with the work becomes, as a result, embedded in a temporary memory that is carried through into the process of thinking, and extended through a material articulation.

King

I turn here to Erika Fischer-Lichte and her analysis of the aestheticity of contemporary performance to further situate how dissensus might occupy this space of parallels. In The Transformative Power of Performance, Fischer-Lichte argues for an analysis of contemporary performance practices that rest on a “particular aestheticity” (163). She identifies the characteristics of this new aestheticity as delineated through heightened attention, resulting in a multiplicity of spectatorial interpretations that cannot influence the materiality of the performance. In addition, with the heightening of attention that such performances foreground, a particular state of embodied liminality emerges.

Fischer-Lichte underlines that the effects of this aestheticity of performance result in the undoing of the opposition being signifier and signified that constitutes “a new reality in which one thing can simultaneously appear as another” (174). She thus foregrounds an analysis of performance that favours embodied destabilisations, questioning processes of interpretation.

Fischer-Lichte argues that aestheticity problematised binaries shaping performance studies: subject/object, materiality/semioticity, blurring the lines between reception and perception. What might the implications of this eventness be for the critical processes? Aestheticity cannot simply be appropriated by criticism, whose mechanisms, both semiotic and material, are highly distinct. What I propose 1000th LIVE does is de-stabilize the specificity of these processes, in constantly engaged the semiotic and the material in the textual realm, which is, in turn, aestheticized by the digital.

In its structure, 1000th LIVE reflects on passages or moments of the performance that, in itself, displaced the linear passage of time. Performers can, at any point, change the trajectory of the entire performance; as part of the game, they form a community onstage in which each person fights for the right to speak and narrate—a right ultimately revoked, since no story is allowed to come to an end. The rhythms of the performance very much infect those of the critical writing, that inadvertently picks and choses situations the performers construct, contextualises, interrogates, plays and refutes them. One might argue that the writing serves as a delayed and subjective process of description, one which does not attempt to re-enact, but to call to question.

For Fischer-Lichte, meaning-making presupposes two core characteristics: instability and deformation. Instability emerges as part of the perceptive process of the performance event, when a shift occurs between presence and representation. This leads the perceiver to moment of destabilisation that positions her at the margins of aesthetic experience, before she is returned again to the realm of presence. Deformation, in turn, occurs through language and its limit as a semiotic system. This politicisation of the experience of viewing foregrounds an identification of the dissensual moment in criticism—and the site of this is the online realm.

In this instance, criticism treats its performance referent by recalling its eventness, whilst simultaneously disclosing the production of subjectivity it engages with. For this process to occur, and for the communicative act of the material output—the text—to not be destroyed, criticism forms a particular struggle, or resistance, to its own formation, but also assumes a lack of distinction between the form and content of its referent.

*

1000th LIVE provides an example of the ways in which performance, criticism and the critical referent are constituted in what I will term is a triadic relationship. The performance that keeps appearing in the context of the live writing is a re-configuration of the live-stream that runs alongside it. The critical writing engages through a dissensual criticality, one that makes evident, both aesthetically and through position-taking, processes at the heart of criticism.

The meaning-making processes contained within this eventness posit an aesthetic dimension, and implicate a generative construction of meaning, and its destruction and re-forming that occurs within. The destruction occurs when the referent lacks distinctive presence, outside of the powers of suggestion. Meaning travels between the referent and audience, as well as takes shape in the critical actions of thinking and writing. As the critical text is always in transformation, in a struggle with that which it is referring to, it contains the processes of its very existence.

Here, criticism’s participation is not solely textual, and it pertains to a more nuanced critical process characterised by a conglomeration of sites and a particular duration. The critical process imbricates questions of visibility, where dissensus fuels a re-distribution of the sensible. If we regard performance as a series of communicative events and experiences, then this poses particular implications for the ways in which judgment, meaning and action become tied to questions of visibility in the online realm.

Works cited

Bauman, Zygmut. Legislators and Interpreters: On Modernity, Post-Modernity and Intellectuals. London: Blackwell, 1987. Print.

Barthes, Roland. Criticism and Truth. London: Continuum, 1989. Print.

Butt, Gavin. New Responses to Art and Performance. London: Blackwell, 2005. Print.

De Man, Paul. “The Crisis of Contemporary Criticism.” Arion 6.1 (1967): 38-57. Print.

Docherty, Thomas. Aesthetic Democracy. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2006. Print.

—. Alterities: Criticism, History, Representation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. Print.

Etchells, Tim. “Tim Etchells on Performance: Improv Storytelling’s Peculiar Joy.” Guardian Stage Blog. 13 Apr. 2010. Web. 29 Oct. 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2010/apr/13/tim-etchells-on-performance-improv-storytelling>.

Fischer-Lichte, Erika. The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Haydon, Andrew. “A Debate on Theatre Criticism and its Crisis in the UK.” Nachtkritik. 24 Oct. 2014. Web. 29 Oct. 2014. <http://www.nachtkritik.de/index.php?view=article&id=8662%3Aa-debate-on-theatre-criticism-and-its-crisis-in-the-uk&option=com_content&Itemid=60>.

Rancière, Jacques. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics. Trans. Stephen Corcoran. London: Continuum, 2010. Print.

—. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Trans. Julie Rose. Minnesota: U of Minnesota P, 2008. Print.

—.The Politics of Aesthetics: the Distribution of the Sensible. Trans. Gabriel Rockhill. London: Continuum, 2004. Print.

Ridout, Nicolas. Passionate Amateurs: Theatre, Communism and Love. Michigan: U of Michigan P, 2013. Print.

Roraback, Erik S. “Thomas Docherty. Culture and a New Experience of Democracy.” E-rea 4.2 (2006): n. pag. Web. <http://erea.revues.org/692>.

Tripney, Natasha. “Arts Criticism in the Digital Age.” The Space. 31 Jan. 2015. Web. 31 Jan. 2015. <http://www.thespace.org/news/view/digital-criticism-feature-natasha-tripney>.

Sayre, Henry. The Object of Performance: The American Avant-Garde since 1970. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992. Print.

Wolfe, Katherine. “From Aesthetics to Politics: Rancière, Kant, Deleuze.” Contemporary Aesthetics 4 (2011): n. pag. Web. <http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=382 >.


[1] There are numerous studies that concern themselves with this cultural shift, most notably Zygmut Bauman’s Legislators and Interpreters: On Modernity, Post-Modernity and Intellectuals (1987), Gavin Butt’s After Criticism: New Responses to Art and Performance (2005).

[2] It’s worth noting here that the term ‘blogger’ has been widely used to refer to writers who engage with work online, and who do so, in most cases, for no financial gain. Some of these writers argue for their own space in the critical landscape, whilst others foreground their ‘amateur’ practice as fundamental. The term ‘blogger’, however, does encompass a complex set of practices and writing on theatre, some of which explicitly challenge critical distance and its correlation to objectivity, and others that attempt to situate themselves outside of the canon of contemporary critical writing. Nicolas Ridout provides a highly relevant discussion on the power of the term amateur in performance in Passionate Amateurs: Theatre, Communism and Love (2013), which re-configures the distinction between labor and work under neoliberal capitalism. The online sphere however also encompasses critics who write for publications, online-legs of newspapers and hybrid publication projects.

[3] You can find the article here: http://www.nachtkritik.de/index.php?view=article&id=8662:a-debate-on-theatre-criticism-and-its-crisis-in-the-uk&option=com_content&Itemid=60

[4] You can view the entire project at this link:. http://1000th.exeuntmagazine.com/ There has been a follow-up project based on the live-stream of Forced Entertainment’s performance Quizoola!, 21-st – 22nd November 2014, Sheffield, UK, which you can find here: http://quizoola.exeuntmagazine.com/

[5] You can read Artistic Director Tim Etchells on an earlier version of And On a Thounsandth Night performed at Hebbel-am-Uffer in Berlin in 2010 on the Guardian’s Stage blog here: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2010/apr/13/tim-etchells-on-performance-improv-storytelling

[6] Bojana Jankovic, Deborah Pearson, Anette Therese Pettersen, Jana Perkovic, Eley Williams, Daniel B Yates and myself.

[7] Exeunt Magazine is an internet-based theatre and performance publication founded in 2009. I have been part of the editorial board since 2010 as Editor of the Performance section. www.exeuntmagazine.com


Author Diana Damian

[1] Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic and writer. She is Performance Editor of Exeunt Magazine, co-founder of Writingshop, a collaborative, pan-European project examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and works as a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email