This extended issue of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques explores reconfigurations of performance and politics emerging on unstable grounds and has been conceived, created and finalised during a period of shifting conditions that permeated all sorts of aspects of life across the globe. It examines specific performance operations, spatialities, epistemologies and mutations in multiple temporalities in order to begin to sketch out a field of performance-making that seeks to experiment with specific “performance elsewheres” – forms and deformations that ephemerally seek to challenge structural hierarchies and existing imaginaries. In this regard the contributions presented here might be seen as temporary interventions into a broader complex space that continues to develop and unfold. The issue has been curated with Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ call in mind to “imagine new ways of theorizing and of generating transformative collective action” in the context of challenging conventional epistemologies.
The ethos of this special issue is thus self-reflexive, in that it thematises and enquires into ways of acknowledging, coping, challenging and existing on unstable grounds – on the level of shaping concrete practices and epistemological frameworks. In this sense it refuses to appear as finished and complete but rather exists in process, in relation to and dependent upon other temporal and time-specific explorations about performance-making today. The contributions assembled here examine specific methodologies, operations, tactics, resonances and potentials of performance; they consider the ways these respond to specific challenges and regenerate practices through mutation, (de)formations or “processes of breakdown and recombination,” as one of the authors, Aparna Nambiar, argues in referring to dance practices in the Southeast Asian region.
Key questions addressed in this issue are: In what ways might performance practice offer ephemeral instances of ‘undoing’ and destabilising existing frameworks? How might performance micro-operations disrupt perceptions and ways of looking that resonate with wider political struggles and decolonial choreographies? What new relations between human and more-than-human life-forms might we discover through performance-making that have the potential to reconfigure existing dramaturgies?
The contributions we have assembled here are composed of images, videos, sound and text in varying registers. They present diverse reconfigurations of performance practice rooted within, and emerging from specific landscapes. The voices represented provide a glimpse into current thinking through and on operations of performance practices from diverse perspectives, localities and positionings, discussing ephemeral operations that form, deform, embrace and criticize the notion of the performative today. Some seek to intensify existing connections, while others attempt to reimagine relationships. Together they offer a collective investigation into performance as a constantly interdependent practice through multiple specificities and thus a topos that stubbornly seeks to reimagine and sketch other ways of worlding/being in the world.
The collection opens with Aparna Nambiar’s article “Mutations in Crisis: Generic Engineering in Contemporary Southeast Asian Dance,” in which she discusses specific processes of cultural mutation that emerged in response to epochal shifts in the ecologies for artmaking in South East Asia. In this context Nambiar seeks to unpack entanglements between the postcolonial nation and the demands of the neoliberal art market. Following on, in her article “The Self-Immolation of David Buckel: Towards a Postdramatic Activism,” Victoria Scrimer discusses an act of almost unnoticed self-immolation, arguing for a postdramatic activism that challenges dominant modes of perception and the politics of the spectacle.
Thematising the political struggle that continues unfold in Hongkong, in her article “Hybrid Nativism and Postcolonial Subjectivity in the Work of Hong Kong Choreographer Helen Lai,” Yaping Chen raises issues of artistic freedom and cultural vitality in a contested and acutely unstable space. Focusing on the work of Hong Kong choreographer Helen Chai, Chen discusses postcolonial sensibilities, cosmopolitan multiculturalism and fluid subjectivities. Rainy Demerson, in her article “Black Privilege in the Black Box: Mamela Nyamza’s Choreographic Resistance,” examines South African choreographer and activist Nyamza’s performance Black Privilege in view of issues of Black womanhood and their objectification. Directly engaging with debates concerning the decolonisation of performance, she highlights methods of hyper-visibilisation and the spectacular non-spectacle, in an overall discussion of processes of witnessing, re-membering and (re)mapping.
Through a discussion of a public intervention by the group Anonymous Visual Artists, Cecilie Ullerup Schmidt examines Danish colonial legacies in her article “The Fall of Greatness: Toward an Aesthetics of Co-(re)production” and argues, drawing on the work of Bojana Kunst, for thinking through the aesthetics of co-(re)production. Highlighting issues of interdependency, Schmidt suggests that art can be seen as a social structure woven through by history, institutions and people. Through an analysis of another form of activist intervention during the official celebrations for commemorating Greece’s entry in World War II, Philip Hager, in his article “Unstable Histories: Repertoires of Memory and the Making of Public Spheres in Contemporary Greece,” discusses how performance operations might destabilise the grounds on which history is enacted.
Tria Blu Wakpa draws on the framework of settler colonial choreographies in the US context in her article “Challenging Settler Colonial Choreographies During COVID-19: Acosia Red Elk’s Powwow Yoga,” in which she engages with debates on the infringement of Indigenous people and more-than-humans. Her analysis of Acosia Red Elk’s online Powwow Yoga sessions thematises ways of challenging settler colonial structures through a centering of contemporary Native practices. Within a broader context of challenging issues of Eurocentrism and Orientalism, Kin-Yan Szeto offers an examination of cultural differences, flows of culture and political and cultural agency. Her analysis focuses on the work of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in Taiwan as a cosmopolitical intervention in the dancescape in her article “Lin Hwai-min’s Water Stains on the Wall: A Cosmopolitical Perspective.” Drawing on an intersectional approach, Supraja R raises issues concerning impersonation and gender non/conformity in her analysis of two theatrical productions she witnessed in India in their article “Destabilizing Impersonation, Cleaving Gender Non-conformity: Akshayambara and Lady Anandi.” Exploring the notion of the perfomatic, they provide a historical appraisal of the development of theatre practices in India informed by colonialism, also discussing the ways these are entangled with gender, caste and class.
Moving to a discussion of ethical agendas and principles, Steff Nellis, in his article “Theatre Strike for Climate: Lending a Voice to Nature in Tribunal Theatre,” enquires into performances that rethink the relationship between performance and ecopolitics by reconfiguring the dramaturgy of the courtroom on stage and urging the spectator to imagine new futures beyond eco-colonialism. Foregrounding ethico-political dimensions of the aesthetic experience Natassa Siouzouli, in her article “Ethical Shadows and the Political Subject,” discusses transformations of the subject in the aesthetic situation. Alexandra Baybutt examines issues of self-organisation, non-aligned modes of operation and co-responsibility in her contribution “Contexts, Traces, Inspiration: Three Statements of Working Principles from the Former Yugoslav Space.” Incorporating three archived texts outlining the working principles published between 2005 and 2016 of selected cultural projects, Baybutt discusses the ways these documents relate to the legacies of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and ponders on their contemporary relevance.
The following articles offer reflections from within processes of making. Nien Yuan Cheng, in her article Rehearsing “Karen”: the Dramaturgy and Politics of Cross-cultural Digital Theatre,” discusses a devised piece of Zoom theatre that was created during the pandemic by a diverse group of artists based in Singapore, Malaysia, and the United States. She thematises both cross-cultural encounters about race and privilege as well as dramaturgies and potentialities of digital theatre. Frances Babbage, Malaika Cunningham, Zelda Hannay and Joseph Houlders, in their collectively crafted contribution “We’re all part of the same collective, we just haven’t quite figured that out yet”: Dramaturgies of Participation in The People’s Palace of Possibility,” reflect on their experience of a live interactive installation reinvented during Covid-19. In this context they thematise ways of building dynamic, reparative structures in an overall attempt to generate multiple visions of utopia in response to a socio-political context marked by disruption and isolation.
Reflecting on her experience of working with detainees held in UK immigration detention centres as part of a charity project, Jane Munro, in her essay “Movement Through Disorientation: the De-stress Through Movement Activity Pack Created for Music in Detention,” thematises issues of dis-orientation and grounding as explored through her movement-based workshops. In “I Dance for the Dead: The Blue and Black in the Pacific: A Eulogy for Teresia Teaiwa,” Ojeya Cruz Banks reflects on the influence of Teaiwa for the field of Pacific Studies and offers a film in which she dances a eulogy. The contribution also functions as a homage to practices of dance as a mourning rite.
We close this collection with Loren Kruger’s essay “Performance and Politics in a Time of Confinement—Virtual Stages Between South Africa and African America,” in which she retraces the circum-Atlantic routes that have historically linked Africa, African-America and Europe in a discussion of issues of sorrow and revolt during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the context of discussing two performance works – Reuben Caluza’s Influenza and Neo Muyanga’s A Maze in Grace – complex historical entanglements are explored in view of issues of contagion and mourning.
Placing a focus on operations of performance practice concerned with the political during periods of instability offers a particular lens on the ways that socio-political challenges are processed and reconfigured. In such times it might be less about imagining new ways of generating transformative action but more about paying attention to the messy unfinished entanglements we are already part of… perhaps it is exactly in the break that we never leave practice.
Closing this issue together/apart while at the same time refusing closure, refusing to appear as finished and complete, we call for connections, relations, borrowings and offerings, continuities, interdependencies with other time-specific explorations for performance-making today; performance doings and hauntings that ephemerally bring into being fugitive, stubborn and concrete elsewheres…
We would like to give our thanks to a number of people who supported the creation of this special issue: Savas Patsalidis for his invitation, trust and support; the contributors for their persistent and diligent work, our peer reviewers who offered ideas and advice, and amongst these especially Susan Melrose, whose detailed editorial recommendations were deeply appreciated by many.
Gigi and Steffi initially met in the early 2000s through and in the making of experimental performances, together with others, in the DIY performance scene of Athens. This issue constitutes one formation emerging from incomplete and ongoing encounters in performance and academic contexts.
Photo credit: Communi(cati)on of Crisis, Institute for Live Arts Research, Abandoned Xenia Hotel, Nafpaktos, Greece, 2011
 Boaventura de Sousa Santos. Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide. Boulder and London, Paradigm Publishers, 2014
*Gigi Argyropoulou (PhD Roehampton University, MA Dartington College of Art) is a researcher, theorist, director, dramaturg and curator working in the fields of performance and cultural practice. Gigi has co-initiated and organised research events, public programmes, interventions, festivals, conferences, performances, actions and cultural projects both inside and outside institutions. She is a founding member of EIGHT (Critical institute for arts and politics), DIY Performance Biennial, Green Park, Mavili Collective, Institute for Live Arts Research and F2/Mkultra. She has taught at Universities in postgraduate and undergraduate programmes in U.K. and Europe. Gigi received the Routledge Prize for PSi 18 and Dwight Conquergood Award in 2017. Gigi is co-editor of the special issue of Performance Research “On Institutions” and publishes regularly in journals, books and magazines. Currently, Gigi is member of the curatorial and editorial board of HKW’s New Alphabet School and co-curating the upcoming edition “On Instituting.”
**Stefanie Sachsenmaier (PhD Middlesex University, DEA Sorbonne Nlle, MA Goldsmiths, SFHEA) is Associate Professor in Contemporary Performance at Middlesex University and Programme Leader of BA Theatre Performance and Production. Her research centres on the processual in creative practice, with a particular interest in the ways that performance practices extend into the socio-political context. She co-edited Collaboration in Performance Practice: Premises, Workings and Failures, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, sits on the editorial board for Choreographic Practices Journal and forms part of the editorial team for Interventions (Contemporary Theatre Review). She published a series of writings related to her long-term research with British choreographer Rosemary Butcher, as well as on questions concerning cross-cultural collaborations. She recently co-facilitated a conversation series entitled Performing Solidarity and co-runs the “Politicised Artistic Practices Research Initiative” at the Faculty of Creative Arts and Industries at Middlesex University. Her co-edited special issue of Performance Research “On Solidarity” is forthcoming in 2022. She has a background as a performer and is an experienced practitioner of Wu Style tai chi chuan.