Hacking Performance Studies

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Brown, Kevin. “Hacking Performance Studies.” Global Performance Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 2017, https://doi.org/10.33303/gpsv1n1a2

Kevin Brown

University of Missouri

As the launch of the first issue of Global Performance Studies (GPS) approaches, I am looking back on the process that got us to this place. The launching of an academic journal is no small task. While we are just now debuting this collection of excellent contributions by some of the most exciting artists and scholars writing in the field of performance studies today, this achievement is the result of several years of dreaming, planning, and executing a vision that has been a wonderful, collaborative effort. We want to thank the many supporters of GPS who have made this possible, including PSi membership, the PSi Board of Directors, our reviewers, authors, and editors. We couldn’t have done this without you.

The genesis of GPS, or at least my involvement with it, began during the summer of 2014 when I joined the PSi board as “Digital Publications Officer.” At that time, the PSi board was deep in the planning stages of Fluid States — Performances of Unknowing, the “distributed” 2015 conference. The GPS Initiative was, in many ways, an offshoot of the same philosophy that precipitated the Fluid States project.

The original plans (well before I got involved) were for the GPS Initiative to be an inter-institutional research network based on an online platform. At that point, it was the brainchild of Maaike Bleeker (Utrecht University), Heike Roms (University of Exeter, at the time at Aberystwyth University), Sarah Bay-Cheng (Bowdoin College, at the time at University of Buffalo), Ed Scheer (UNSW), Dr. Zeynep Günsür Yüceil (Kadir Has University), Willmar Sauter (Stockholm University), and other faculty from six international universities. The GPS project was rooted in a belief that Performance studies as a discipline, historically, has been “characterized by a rather centralized and culturally specific perspective” (Bleeker 1). Thus, the idea for GPS was to cultivate a set of strategies to intervene in this consolidation. Bleeker explains, “the development of an infrastructure that mediates availability and accessibility (of resources, data and research outcomes), as well as in the development of new and less centralized modes of collaboration in research and teaching. Such infrastructure, and the modes of research and teaching made possible through it, is what GPS aims to develop” (Bleeker 8).

By the time I came aboard, the scope of the project was shifting from an online network to become a full-blown online academic journal. At this point, our team began to think about how an online performance studies journal could take advantage of the platform and distinguish itself from other PS journals. We then started to sketch out our mission. We knew we wanted to maintain the spirit of the original GPS Initiative — especially in relation to developing new perspectives in performance studies. When PSi was founded, the “i” in the name was stylized as a lower-case “i,” as a recognition that, although PSi strives to be international, there is a lot of work that needs to be done in order to make PSi truly inclusive of an international cast of voices. As Maaike Bleeker explains, “This is why we have chosen for the title for the journal the term ‘GPS,’ which is a system that is about constant repositioning not in relation to one centre but to many centres” (Bleeker qtd. in Roms, et al.).

In addition to wanting GPS to open up global discourses in performance studies, we also wanted to make sure that the journal is accessible to as many people around the world as possible, regardless of disabilities or levels of economic access. Thus, we have made the interface for the journal very simple and have used responsive Web pages to ensure that it can be viewed on mobile devices and able to deploy accessibility features. In a variety of ways, these goals have been realized through the technology that we have used to implement the journal.

We have also sought to take advantage of the online platform to feature a multi-media approach to publishing our journal. Our authors have provided us a wealth of exciting, sometimes experimental, approaches to performance studies scholarship, which we are now able to provide to the reader with a cross-platform, supplemental media experience (video, images, and sounds in addition to “traditional” text-based scholarship).

After setting out our mission statement, we began a phase of developing these ideas into a concrete form. We recruited a top-notch Editorial Board and consulted with the board via a series of surveys and discussions regarding best practices in digital scholarship and the direction of the journal. It was during this part of the development of the journal that I started to think a lot about how we could use the journal to achieve the goals of our mission, and the metaphor I eventually came up with is what we are really trying to do with GPS: we are hacking performance studies.

In the introduction to the edited volume Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities, Tad Suiter asks “Why Hacking?”:

Originally, the term was used to describe computer code. There were two opposing meanings to calling a piece of code a ‘hack.’ One: it is expertly written, efficient, and does precisely what it is intended to do, with eloquence. The other was that the code was hastily written, sloppy, and essentially only just good enough. (7)

In these same dual (and competing) definitions of the “hack,” I see our current effort with GPS. At this point in time, our online platform is founded on a strong architecture of expertly-designed, precise code, but it also has nooks and crannies that are held together by duct tape and bailing wire, strapped together with a spark of “seat of your pants” ingenuity, which (in my experience in the professional world of electronic publishing) is usually the case with “cutting edge” technology. The same could be said about the state of performance studies as a field.

My thinking about PS as hacking actually came out of a reading of Henry Bial’s article, “Performance Studies 3.0.” Bial suggests that one way of thinking about the history of performance studies is as a series of computer operating systems, with the hope that using the metaphor of the operating system (OS) will help to expose key developments in the field.

According to this line of thinking, the “initial phase” of performance studies, PS 1.0, was the time of the “intersection of theatre and anthropology” in the collaboration between Richard Schechner and Victor Turner, as well as the foundational work on the self by sociologist Erving Goffman. Bial characterizes this OS as “animated by a desire to shift from a dominant understanding of the world as a book — a linear, static catalogue with clear boundaries — to a world as performance” (Bial 405).

This second phase saw the injection of critical and feminist theory in writers such as Judith Butler and Peggy Phelan. Bial writes: “Despite the best intentions of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture, claims to universality necessarily involve a foreclosure of difference that is experienced as discipline by those who perform their identities outside normative regimes and discourses of power. PS 2.0 responded to this dilemma by reemphasizing the individual” (406).

During the third phase (Performance Studies 3.0), the “tribalism” of PS 1.0 and the “individualism” of PS 2.0 is replaced by the computer network — not necessarily as a way of practicing PS — but as a way of thinking about what is possible in the field. Bial opines: “The collaborative nature of online dialogue and the accretion of ideas and understanding over time offers a way to think about writing that truly approximates the give and take between performer and spectator that is the sine qua non of PS going all the way back to PS 1.0” (409, italics in original).

My first thought in response to Bial’s thought experiment is, “Why do we need a system?” One of the qualities of performance studies research that has left a deep impression on me is the interdisciplinarity of the field. Many academic fields have an extremely narrow focus that can be systematized along a very narrow vector. PS as a field, on the other hand, has always been wide open, to the point that Joseph Roach has called performance studies an “antidiscipline” (Roach qtd. in Carlson 206). Why would such a field, then, need a “system?”

This is when I return to Suiter’s hacking metaphor, and what he calls the “Hacker Ethos”: “Learning about and improving highly complex systems by playful innovation” (Suiter 8). While Suiter applies the metaphor of the hacker to academia at large, I suggest that the metaphor also works with the current state of Performance Studies as an academic field. If we go along with Bial’s metaphor, and begin to look at the current phase of performance studies research as an operating system, then perhaps the goal of the contemporary performance studies scholar should be to “hack” that system.

Suiter describes a “hacker” as: “a person who looks at systematic knowledge structures and learns about them from making or doing. They teach themselves and one another because they are at the bleeding edge of knowledge about that system” (7). Thus, by viewing the field of PS as a complex system, the goal of the scholar should be to become an expert in that OS: to learn about that system intimately, from the inside out — to the point where they are able to both reveal and exploit the limits of that system. Whether the subject is academia at large, performance studies as a field, or the publication of the online journal GPS, to use Suiter’s words: “The fundamental action here is the same: it is the clever gaming of complex systems to produce an unprecedented result” (8).

Thus, a PS scholar who embraces the “hacker ethos” must set about testing the boundaries of the system. We must ask: in what ways are privilege and power already embedded in the code that comprises the system? How do we call attention to the weaknesses in subroutines that have been employed to maintain the status quo? What strategies do we use to disrupt this system? What kinds of performative interventions might we invent to keep the system off balance?

This is what we are trying to do with GPS. While developing the journal, one source of great inspiration to me was Jo Guldi’s article, “Reinventing the Academic Journal.” Guldi writes about ways that online academic publications might implement elements of Web 2.0 and strive to improve upon the traditional print publishing model. Here are several strategies that a reinvented academic journal might consider:

  1. Journals must pursue interoperability with the other online tools that are shaping the techne of scholarly practice.
  2. Journals have opportunity to reframe their role on the academy as curators of the noise of the web.
  3. Electronic journals will have the opportunity to expand their curatorial mandate to include different forms of publication.
  4. Against exclusive publication.
  5. Broadening the criteria for participation.
  6. The reconsideration of timelines. (19-24)

In the spirit of the hacker ethos, we have attempted to position GPS as one possible reinvention of the academic journal. We have begun to utilize some of these strategies, and will continue to implement others in later issues. For example, when possible, we have integrated hyperlinks and Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) as a way to provide the reader with a quick way to explore works that are cited in the journal. Through the excellent submissions that we have received to the journal, we hope to help break through the “noise” of the Web and curate a small academic and artistic corner that will be of interest to our readers.

We have attempted to expand our offerings beyond “print” models. Many online journals merely attempt to replicate the same structure and form as their print counterparts. We have attempted to explode this structure by offering articles supplemented with media that are not possible in print. Some of our offerings are thought pieces and experimental scholarship that sometimes embrace fractured, hyperlink narrative structures. All of our articles are full text, and thus can be easily indexed by search engines. We have implemented meta-tags and keywords with each article that will help to make the publications in GPS easily accessible to future generations of PS scholars.

We are attempting to expand the criteria for participation by pushing to publish work by practicing artists, whether they are writing about their own work or, in some cases, presenting performative writing and multi-media pieces in the journal that are part of their practice. We also continue to explore the pros and cons of our possible participation in new forms of copyright models, including Creative Commons and Directory of Open Access Journals.

In all of these ways, GPS strives to open up new possibilities for Performance Studies. By following the “hacker ethos,” we hope that GPS will break open new opportunities for artists and scholars within the complex and ever-evolving system that is the Performance Studies OS. Thank you again to everyone who contributed to this issue. And to you, the reader, we hope that you enjoy reading our new issue as much as we enjoyed creating it, and that you consider sending us your own contribution in the future.

Works Cited

Bial, Henry. “Performance Studies 3.0.” The Performance Studies Reader. 3rd ed., Edited by Henry Bial and Sara Brady, Routledge, 2016, pp. 402-411.

Bleeker, Maaike. “Proposal for NWO Scheme Internationalisering in de Geesteswetenschappen.” Netherlands Society for Scientific Research, 2013.

Carlson, Marvin. Performance: A Critical Introduction. 2nd ed. Routledge, 2013.

Guldi, Jo. “Reinventing the Academic Journal.” Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities. Edited by Daniel J. Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt, University of Michigan Press, 2016, pp. 19-24.

Roms, Heike. “Fluid Futures.” Global Performance Studies, 1:1 (2017).

Suiter, Tad. “Why Hacking?” Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities. Edited by Daniel J. Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt, University of Michigan Press, 2016, pp. 6-10.