On Thursday 7 July 2016, during the PSi22 conference in Melbourne, organisers of various Fluid States — Performances of unKnowing clusters gathered to reflect back on their events. The day finished with a joint discussion on the future of the project, its impact on PSi as an association and on the field of performance studies more generally. The following is an edited transcript of that discussion. Organisers unable to join the discussion in Melbourne have been invited to add their voices to the conversation.
Sebastián Calderón Bentin (Interoceanic: Isthmus/Zone/Canal, Panama)
Marin Blažević (project director and dramaturge)
Maaike Bleeker (PSi President during Fluid States)
Felipe Cervera (visiting correspondent)
Mick Douglas (Performing Mobilities, Melbourne, Australia)
Dorita Hannah (Fluid States co-curator 2011-14; Sea-Change: Performing a Fluid Continent, Cook Islands)
Branislav Jakovljević (Four Faces of Omarska, Prijedor, Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Jazmin Llana (Sa Tagilid na Yuta: On Tilted Earth: Performance in Archipelagic Space, Manila, Philippines and other locations)
Katherine Mezur (Beyond Contamination: Corporeality, Spirituality and Pilgrimage in Northern Japan, Tohoku, Japan)
Ella Parry-Davies (delegate at IN-flux, IN-stability, IN-sensitivity: The Struggle of Performance in the Arab World, Beirut, Lebanon; visiting correspondent for Mindanao, Philippines cluster)
Sam Trubridge (Deep Anatomy, Long Island, Bahamas)
and (in absentia):
Gry Worre Hallberg (Fluid States North, Denmark, Greenland & Faroe Islands)
Kathleen Irwin (Performing Turtle Island: Fluid Identities and Community Continuities, Regina Canada)
Amelia Jones (Trans-Montréal / Fluid Identities: Performance in Montréal, Québec and Beyond, Montréal, Canada)
Heike Roms, member of the PSi Board of Directors with responsibility for the PSi archive
We are here to talk about the future of Fluid States — Performances of unKnowing, and about how what has emerged from the project might inform the work of PSi as an association. Among the many thematics and issues that have been brought into play by Fluid States has been a rethinking of what conferencing means and what formats it might take, how an engagement with knowledge can occur, what internationalization might be, what the relations are between events and their locations, and how dialogues can be established between those scholars, artists and other communities that are of a place and those that come to a place.
I would like to address this question to the organisers of the various clusters: what has emerged from the Fluid States project that you think is important to take forward into the future of PSi as an association and the way it organizes events?
I had never been at a conference that was so involved in the local. And this was the case from the get-go, as we received all this information from Marin (as the project director and dramaturge) about how to engage with locality in a different way. Another great aspect was that the people who were organizing the different events gathered together in Rijeka in Croatia beforehand. Each team had a chance to talk to each other about the different problems they were encountering, their aspirations, how we could help each other — this was really different: to be connected with these people across time and space, all year long. But it was the minute-by-minute involvement with the local that was especially important. It changed us, our team and participants. We weren’t just an organization floating on top of a place; we were really of the place. I think that can only happen when the event is small — scale is really important. Some of the people who joined the local clusters have come here now, to PSi in Melbourne — the local created a thread-like network and presence.
If you added up the number of participants in each cluster the total would probably exceed the number of people that are here at this conference.
There were several thousand people who participated in Fluid States events around the world. Just consider the many artists and presenters who were involved in the cluster in the Philippines, for example.
I was not an organizer, but I reported on the event in Panama as a distant correspondent, and I also attended the events in Delhi, Manila and Melbourne, and in Melbourne I helped with the organisation. I am intervening now in the discussions because there is an important note to make before we talk about what carries on. The cluster in Manila really stands out for me, precisely because it was less about PSi Manila and more about Performance Studies in the Philippines. And in terms of the production and dissemination of knowledge, this was a cluster that produced a journal. This is important from a correspondent’s perspective. Another important point to consider, in light of the scholarship that was published before Fluid States and that informed the event, notably the volume you edited, Heike, was the negotiation between the global and the local. What “global” was being negotiated? From what perspective was global negotiated in relation to the local, and how was the “glocal” thought in each of the clusters? Because that establishes how Performance Studies may be thought as a global field.
What concerns me in this whole discussion is the idea that Fluid States is somehow over. In our case in the Philippines, I feel very much that it was just a beginning. I have this urgency now, in my report on the event, to have everyone’s contribution documented, because so many people and institutions contributed in small or big ways. Also, going back to the places we visited is an obligation. We have to ask who cares about the global if there are all these different localities, each of which is a universe in itself, doing their stuff in their world. There is a necessity for connection. But we need to ask ourselves who really wants to have global connection, what globality means.
In Rarotonga there was a feeling Fluid States provided a great platform to talk about how issues that Pacific Islands are facing — in relation to climate change, global warming, and over-fishing, etc. — could be internationally shared in some way, just through Sea-Change’s association with PSi. Although it was very local, there was a sense that this event formed a vessel that reached beyond the Cook Islands, by making visible issues that are considered globally important but tend to be obscured due to the size and nature of the location. And due to the fact that in the global imagination Pacific nations continue to be associated with a distant “South Sea Paradise.”
I was following the 2015 events closely through all the correspondence from the different localities that came to be presented on the Fluid States LOG. But to have seen today all these outcomes condensed in the presentations has been really remarkable. It has made me think that what is more interesting to discuss at this point is not the global as such but connections between the different locals. That was what the vessel was about — it was not about producing something for global understanding, but to test performances of unknowing between various local sites. What did the Rarotonga vessel have to do with the cluster in Tohoku, how did that interact with that other locality without invading it or occupying it, how did it interact in a creative and artistic way? This was something we discussed a lot among the group of people that was part of the preparatory and then organizing committee of the project. What should be the nature of the communication or interaction? One of the main challenges was that it should not just be a scholarly communication, but an artistic one, because it is the artistic interaction that allows for the unknown to be communicated without being reduced to the understandable and known. There was the very artistic vessel from Rarotonga, and the vessel that Mick from Melbourne sent to Manila, and the souvenir from Lebanon, which is also an important gesture and message . . .
The Fluid States project will now be presented and discussed through the Global Performance Studies journal project, which is, of course, important, but it is equally important to maintain the “performances of unknowing,” which was the second part of the title of the project. Because it is constantly warning us about the threat of the global which tries to make things just known.
The acknowledgement of the “unknowable” is important. But I think the cancellation and the informal resurrection of the Lebanon event, which I attended, raised questions about the dramaturgy of “performances of unknowing.” The convenors expressed to us that the event was cancelled due to loss of funds and, as they put it, the “volatile and unpredictable” political situation in Lebanon — illustrating precisely the terms that are privileged by the Fluid States themes and their emphasis on instability, on “treacherous” spaces. Taking part in the Lebanon event alongside the Mindanao RoRo emphasized to me that that these are troubling things, not things to necessarily celebrate, but perhaps things that performance could work against. At the Lebanon cluster there was only one presenter who was making work about the Lebanon — Dima el Mabsout. And the project that she was doing, on which I collaborated, addressed the influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon. So I think maybe the global is just not the right term for addressing what is at stake, which is about connections, is about migration, but in a different way, an experiential way, in a different kind of condition. So, there is a pertinence in connections and movement, but not at the level of the global (draws a globe with her hands) but at this other level (rubs fingertips together).
Is it not too easy an opposition to think of the global as knowing and all kinds of local unknowings as excluding one another? I think the advantage of being here together now and showing all these things next to one another is precisely what brings up the question of what is knowing and what is not knowing, and how what we might call the global is not a unity. The problematic thing is this particular understanding of the global as a unitary thing. 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. It is exactly about this constantly shifting relationship. The use of the global as a unifying thing is problematic, I agree, but bringing people together from different places precisely shows the differences and makes us aware of what we do not know. If we had not seen all the presentations here today and the difficulty of relating one position to another we would not have been aware of it, so the relationship between global and local is very complex.
For me, what has emerged from Fluid States is an increased awareness of and curiosity about the very diverse range of performance activities that are unfolding globally — in all corners and cracks of the world. The interest and willingness to reach out towards these and give them space and time within and on the PSi platform has been important. Furthermore, the event has provided inspiration for how this platform can very concretely serve the stimulation of the global performance network.
Regarding the value of knowing and unknowing — this varies from place to place and context to context. In the case of Omarska, the necessary performance there was and still is the performance of knowing, of finding out in a very forensic sense of the word what happened, who did what during the war in Bosnia (1991-1995), how these events impact the relations among the citizens of Prijedor now, in the second and third generations. “Forensic” means “bringing out to a forum, making something public.” There are so many things that are never reaching that public forum within this community. It seems that everyone else knows much more about what happened there than the people whose lives are intertwined and depending deeply on this very recent past. So the cluster was supposed to provide a performance of knowing.
Just briefly . . . I didn’t mean to insist on the binary between the local and the global. Before we continue a more elaborate discussion about Fluid States — Performances of unKnowing in relation to the future of PSi, though, the first challenge would be to go back to the project of the PSi Lexicon, because here we have the platform to rethink the notions of the global and the local without romanticizing either.
The PSi-ness of our conference was really important, and this has to do with unknowning. People didn’t know what performance studies is, especially the Japanese scholars and performers who came. So we were always explaining performance studies, in a myriad of ways. Somehow that allowed for some daring things that wouldn’t have happened without it being performance studies in that space, the Aomori Museum of Art. To give you an example: Takashi Morishita, who is the director of the Hijikata Tatsumi archives, gave one of the keynotes, and while he was speaking, we all heard this strange feedback, like a whisper echoing behind his voice. We were all wondering what was wrong with the sound system, but he said “it’s fine, it’s fine.” The fuzzy voice in the background turned out to be a recording of Hijikata speaking and interrupting him. Morishita wanted Hijikata to perform this interruption. I don’t think he would have done that if it hadn’t been performance studies. I have seen him do very straight stuff for theatre audiences, or dance, or Butoh audiences, but there was something about the atmosphere of what we were doing as performance studies that engaged the spirit of unknowing: daring to see what would happen and then provoking that.
Thinking about the geopolitics of the provocation of Fluid States, at least from the perspective of my experience in Panama, was that it was less about the local and global and more about the clusters of centre and periphery, or metropol and periphery. What are the metropols that we keep going back to and what places are displaced as peripheral. So to have the opportunity for those places that are seen as the edge or the periphery to become the focus point of critical discourse, that was useful, especially in the Panamanian context, dealing with postcolonial questions that were opening up. And what I really appreciated on the curatorial level was the openness of the project. There was kind of a carte blanche for people to design their project, and that for me filtered down to the way in which I curated. So I asked artists to do whatever they wanted to respond, and scholars were asked to talk about their current work, and the talks were all free. The sense of flexibility and openness trickled down in this way. I think it was very important for some of the artists in Panama that they were gaining visibility but being part of this larger network, and that there was an archive being created of their work. It was an opportunity that doesn’t always happen. And also that they knew that there was a global audience, but again a global audience that was not in the usual metropols. Many of them told me how exciting that was, that the other audience members were in places that were not focused toward the North in particular. And the last thing is, I also have the impetus to go back, I have been left with this notion to revisit and not leave it as a one-off event somehow.
On a local western Canadian level, the Fluid States project was the catalyst for an event “waiting to happen.” When the informal invitation came to submit a proposal that addressed a First Nations perspective, the idea for an event that would speak strongly about identity representation from “this unique place” came together quickly. What resulted was a national conference, Performing Turtle Island: Fluid Identities and Community Continuities. Its aim was to bring together established and emerging scholars and artists to focus on how Indigenous theatre and performance are connected to Indigenous identity and wellbeing. The Call for Proposals for this event sought academic papers as well as proposals for seminars, workshops, and sharing circles for practical and performative exchange that would elicit innovative and performative approaches to the important and under scrutinized areas of public education, research, health, healing and community consultation among First Nations’ individuals. The hosts for this event were the Theatre Department at the University of Regina and the First Nations University of Canada. The latter does not train performers in the European sense, but looks holistically at the embedded nature of performance in First Nations culture. This productive linking was a first, very productive step towards further collaborations and research. The “dispersed” nature of Fluid States opened up the door for us to look deeply at local and specific manifestations of performance. It was a provocation to consider what we do within a global context. This was a truly inclusive and democratic invitation from PSi that will realize long terms impacts on the local (and pan Canadian) level. The traditional PSi model brought participants together from all over the world in great, if elitist events. The dispersed model accomplishes a fruitful something else. There is room for both.
What happened last year inspired me to do something this year before the PSi conference here in Australia, which was to convene a symposium / workshop in Tasmania, which is again a distant place, but somewhere that has many local histories and cultures, which we were interested to explore in relation to the Anthropocene. So we had thirty people come from around the world, two-thirds from Australia and New Zealand, a third from beyond Australia, including a good number of PhD students. As a local “preamble” to this Melbourne conference, “Intervening in the Anthropo(s)cene” was facilitated through PSi’s Performance+Design working group. It also brought a lot of people here to the annual conference who wouldn’t normally have come and who were interested in PSi. Performance Studies definitely galvanized this group of people, but the event itself was very local. We took people to an island off the island off this island that is the “mainland.” Maria Island has a history of failed industrialization, with a ruined cement works and some early failed attempts to attract tourists. It was a convict settlement, has recently reintroduced indigenous wildlife and has completely invisibilized the Aboriginal past. We stayed in the penitentiary and workshopped ideas together in the landscape. The local event then hooked into this larger event here in Melbourne. It provides another model for keeping the Fluid States concept going: through regional events that can continue to occur in-between and around big conferences.
Fluid States innovated an alternative way to create international dialogue over the state of performance around the world. Starting with a concept, it mobilized this concept uniquely effectively across an international network of artists, scholars, and thinkers of various kinds. Trans-Montréal made use of the idea to stage a several year-long investigation into Montréal, the centre of Francophone North America, as a site within but at the conceptual edges of North American culture. We engaged each other in dialogue, posing questions, developing modes of performative practice and thinking, and ultimately staged the events of September 2015. We were supported conceptually by the larger Fluid States project, including our collaborators in Regina across the Canadian continent. It was an energizing and innovative way to break through the standard academic conference format to bring performative, global thinking to bear on performance practices. It would be extremely valuable to continue thinking in this more networked way to broaden dialogue and embrace colleagues outside of the standard US / Anglo-Canadian and Western European locations for performance studies.
I’d like to affirm the way that the Fluid States frame allowed creative practice-research to be the emphasis throughout the clusters. I saw performative practices actively picked up by different cluster events, opening up transdiciplinary ways of working, and opening up the accessibility of the kinds of events and activities undertaken. There was an opportunity for strategic alliances to be formed in each cluster — each finding different ways of negotiation between centre, periphery, local, global, etc. The network of Fluid States provided a peer-to-peer legitimating mechanism, enabling us to strategically negotiate in our different contexts different ways to counter the neoliberal market forces of producing creative practice whilst also extending academic scholarship models that many of us have a base in. It allowed us to renegotiate the ways in which we might produce value in each others’ settings, and negotiate locally how to make a cluster formation, involving people beyond and across the usual communities of PSi, the local arts community and academic community. That’s an affirmative network-making mechanism that can enable practice-research to have multiple effects at multiple levels.
Performance studies was the overall framework within which we operated. It served as the methodology to unfold our different practices and theoretical explorations. It was used as a method to unite across the huge geographical distances in the North Atlantic region of which we, Sisters Hope, were part. Likewise with Fluid States. From the outset we worked from the framework of unknowing. Specifically we combined this thematic framework with our explorations on sensuous (un)learning. Fluid States was a global platform that we communicated from and with, even though we were manifesting in a remote local place. In the North Atlantic cluster we were particularly interested in modes of meeting across distances and thus worked with and within “the telematics space.” We worked from the question of how to create intimacy even though we are at a distance. This was true of the different platforms within the North Atlantic region and this was true of the global Fluid States platform.
I would like to suggest here a distinction between performance studies as a field of enquiry and PSi as an organization that facilitates exchange about enquiries through, for example, hosting conferences. What struck me when Katherine talked about what was made possible at the cluster in Japan through the framework of performance studies was that performance studies there was approached as a methodology, as a way of doing something, rather than as a given body of scholarship. This offers a different model for thinking about the formation and development of the field. The common notion has been that the formation of a scholarly field happens through the dissemination of its core literature to different locales around the world, or — in the particular case of performance studies — through scholars from different locales studying at its core scholarly centres such as NYU. Fluid States proposes a different, more distributed understanding of the emergence of what might be considered the field. Looking at your different clusters, what did performance studies as a frame of enquiry or methodology facilitate? Did it have meaning in your places? What did Fluid States contribute to the sense of performance studies as a field, its objects, the way it does things, and its developments and changes?
It happened through the performative mode of enquiry, through creative practice research, through the doing.
It is the format that is the crucial thing. I don’t think the contribution to the field should be measured by making local knowledges globally known, which is what performance studies has often been about. It is more the further experimentations with the formats of research, whether scholarly or through arts or combined and intersected. Of course there has always been talk about performance studies being interdisciplinary, being international and so on. But in reality this internationalization is a much longer process than we thought it would be when we joined PSi. Given the relatively “global” or “international” attendance at these local events this has to be admitted. There have been many changes in recent years in PSi — through the impact of publications, through changes on the board, through local cluster events and eventually through Fluid States, but the process is taking much longer than I personally thought.
The central theme of the Fluid States event strongly informed how the local conference organized itself. That is to say, we embraced the notion of unknowing within our discrete forms and histories. Included in this was the idea of trans-identity — what it means, in the 21st century, to signify across a range of identifactory practices and hybrid designations. As Canada acknowledges its 150th birthday (2017), we considered our place as a home to people from all over the world. At the same time, we asked: where do Indigenous identities fit into the construction of the country’s sense of itself? Indeed, what do we now mean by Indigenous identity, and, given the proliferation of newcomers, what do we mean by Canadian identity? In the face of growing international mobility and a radically changing Canadian demographic, the conference underscored the importance of looking anew at how identity is constructed on Turtle Island (North America) within the ideational borders that designate Canada. The overriding themes for the conference were inflected by language derived from performance studies: excavating, reinterpreting, and performing place; translation: communication or contamination; [de]constructing and [re]constructing histories; embodying hybridity in performance; [im]balance and [well]being in performance. Certainly the performance studies’ frame contributed greatly to how we designated our field of research, enriched the forms and substance of the ensuing dialogue and positioned it in a way that made it interesting, on an critical level, to the University of Regina Press, who will be publishing an anthology of papers taken from the proceedings of Performing Turtle Island in 2018.
What concretely will happen to Fluid States now as a project? Cluster organisers spoke about continuing the work in their own locations, PSi is discussing how to take the outcomes of the project further as an association. But will there be further activities happen with and between this particular group of people?
We already talked about this when we all met in Rijeka in 2014 that one way to end the cycle could be for all of us to meet again in one place. Not just to talk about what we have done, but also to discuss what could be the next stages under this umbrella of Fluid States — Performances of Unknowing. And whether there are other people that could join the project. I don’t think the closure should be just a publication. There has to be a publication as so much of what has been produced has been so great. But there should also be a gathering. And then we’ll see.
Thank you all for your contributions, and for all your fantastic labours over the past few years that have made this extraordinary event happen.
 Jon McKenzie, Heike Roms, C.J. W.-L. Wee, Contesting Performance: Global Sites of Research, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan 2010.