The Future Performative: Staging the Body as Failure of the Archive

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Mounsef, Donia. “The Future of Performative: Staging the Body as Failure of the Archive.” Global Performance Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, 2019,

Donia Mounsef

University of Alberta

“There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory.”

— Derrida, Archive Fever (4, note 1)

Introduction: The Future Performative

In the last thirty years, a “memorialist turn” marks theatre and performance practices. Memorialist refers to practices that perform the act of remembering as both a way to dramatize “bearing witness” (Malpede 266) and as the impossible reconstruction of the past in the ephemera of performance. It is now a familiar trope in performance studies to focus on the crisis of knowledge surrounding memorial experience and to underline the relationship of the performative to the mnemonic as inherently linked to the crisis of the modern episteme. While memorialization, commemoration, remembering, and collective memory differ in the way they shape or reconstruct the past, they all relate to each other in the way they coalesce to produce a shared narrative of the past even though the production of memory is frequently contested within the same or divergent groups. Memorialization generally refers to physical or architectural structures of memory (monuments, sites, statues, buildings, cenotaphs, burials, museums, shrines, plaques, et cetera), while commemoration refers to the collective need to remember and grieve through symbolic, interpretive, or representational memorials (gatherings, stories, retelling, performances, re-enactments, ceremonies, anniversaries, eulogies, vigils, et cetera). The physical and the symbolic are not disconnected; rather they help shape each other as physical sites of memory can shape the stories that people tell about the past (Zerubavel 13), and the emphasis of symbolic commemoration can increase the need and the demand for memorials. If we follow Marvin Carlson’s assertion that the theatre is a “memory machine” (see Carlson 2003) — we would turn to theatre and performance to look at the way memory is shaped through what Carlson and Herbert Blau (1990) called ghosting. “In theatre,” Carlson writes, “the present experience is always ghosted by previous experiences and associations while these ghosts are simultaneously shifted and modified by the processes of recycling and recollection” (Carlson 2). Similarly, Blau sees the theatre as a memory machine with the unconscious and remembering at the heart of the performative: “theater is [. . .] a function of remembrance. Where memory is theater is” (Blau, The Audience 382). Nevertheless, according to Blau, even if the performative is geared toward the past and remembrance, it is grounded in difference and resistance to the reduction to sameness, as it will always forecast an “encounter with the unforeseeable” (Blau, The Audience 383). Ghosts, perhaps paradoxically, denote an absence that is made present through their return (ghosts in French is “revenants” — those who came back). By their haunting of the present, ghosts in theatre point toward a future that may not be able to shed the past. But unlike other memory machines or recording devices, performance makes a temporary record, a trace of a ghost, only to be erased and disappeared into memory. Peggy Phelan (1990) makes a similar argument when she writes: “In performance art spectatorship, there is an element of consumption: there are no left-overs, the gazing spectator must try to take everything in. Without a copy, live performance plunges into visibility — in a maniacally charged present — and disappears into memory, into the realm of invisibility and the unconscious where it eludes regulation and control. Performance resists the balanced circulations of finance. It saves nothing, it only spends” (Phelan 148).

The purpose of this article is to look at how performance “spends”, how it constructs the future by destroying the material possibility of archiving the past. I will argue in favor of a futurological turn — not to disavow the memorialist turn which has been established and examined at length in recent theatre and performance studies (Jeanette Malkin, Karen Malpede, Simon Critchley, Marvin Carlson, Diana Taylor, Mike Pearson, Rebecca Schneider, et cetera) — but to point out how performance deals with the anxiety toward preserving the past by turning toward its impossible future. Performance’s liveness places the discourses of memorialization and archiving in contention with ephemerality which challenges the assumptions of preservation on which memorialization is based. Thus, this article will first look at the use of the archive in performance in order to show how liveness challenges the indexical bond with “real” bodies — those of the performer and the audience present to them. Second, the article will look at the impossible act of capturing the lived experience of embodied memory in performance by questioning the evidentiary nature of the archive, creating a Derridean “mal d’archive” or “archive fever,” especially in performances by artists whose work questions the relationship between liveness and mediation, offering a complex interdependence of technologized presence and the rituals of the embodied script. The site of this inquiry will be intermedial performances that question the division of liveness and mediation especially in the work of Québécois performance artist Marie Brassard (Jimmy, Moi qui me parle à moi-même dans le futur, and Peepshow); Lebanese performance artist Rabih Mroué (Pixelated Revolution and Looking for a Missing Employee); and Arab-American performance artist Wafaa Bilal (Shoot an Iraqi and …And Counting). The paper exercises some of the questions missing: what happens to the mediated body in the future when it oscillates between obscene exposure and virtual effacement in performance? Can we continue to speak of embodiment in performance when the body is no longer assumed to be present or live? Can this post-human body assume a political position?

Walter Benjamin notably wrote that “memory is not an instrument for exploring the past but its theatre. It is the medium of past experience, as the ground is the medium in which dead cities lie interred” (Benjamin, One Way Street 314). In dealing with the past and memory there is obviously a paradox: the past comes at us in narrative or in historical records through its fragmentary impossibility while promising a view of the future that upholds the pretence of predictive knowledge against the uncertainty of the present. Performance upholds a different relation to history and memory and endorses a distinct understanding of the past, one in which objects, bodies, materiality, and presence play a significant role. The concept of future performative is at play as a mode of being or manifesting the future and as an aspect of time pointing to possible connections rather than a moment in a chronology.

The concept of “future performative” is a reminder of Benjamin’s “constellations,” defined in “Theses on the Philosophy of History” by rejecting chronological and causal narratives, which, according to Benjamin, do not retell “the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary”; rather, for Benjamin, the historian focuses on each individual moment in the past in order to grasp “the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one” (Benjamin, Illuminations 263). Not unlike the Benjaminian “past,” the performative future sketches out a potential event while destroying its very potentiality by inscribing it on the body as the failure of the archive. Benjamin maintained that remembering the past can never fully capture the picture of an elapsed time since the past is made of constellations that are always shifting according to their occurrence in place and time. Similarly, performative futures are also moving, shifting, and in flux based on how the body survives its own possible destruction and how it relates to other bodies. The Benjaminian past can only be seized as an “image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again” (Benjamin, Illuminations 255); the future performative gives us a glimpse of its possibility only to take it away in the act of performing its disappearance. Diana Taylor (2003) laid the ground for an examination of the tension between what she called the “archive” and the “repertoire,” often experienced as a dichotomy between the written or recorded text and the embodied or lived event.

In Present Pasts, Andreas Huyssen (2003) argued that memory always opposes and resists the archive museum; between memory and archiving there are different, sometimes opposing economies. The past is often lost when it is constructed as object to be possessed. For Huyssen, the discourses of memory have shifted their initial focus from territorialized, nationally bounded forms of memorialization (the result of a legacy of memory studies based predominantly on Holocaust research) towards a memory of the “other” that takes into account the re-territorialization of space, interactions on a local and global level, and dialogic experiences between cultures. This is most evident in performances where the memorialist turn makes it possible to think of works of art as repositories for “other” forms of memory, individual as much as collective, perpetrators’ as much as victims’. This is possible insofar as artworks function as sites that amass memories from different contexts, pointing to the future of these spaces beyond conceptualizations of the national space as a homogenous location with closed boundaries. The diffuse multiplicity of remembering and what remains forgotten makes it possible to shift the attention to the future. However, before I turn to an analysis of the future performative in particular, it would be useful to look at some relevant theories and concepts of the future and how they impact performance studies. 

The Future in Theory And Practice

Marc Augé’s book The Future (2014) gives us a way to conceive of the modalities of futurity using a common distinction in the French language between “le futur” and “l’avenir” (to come) — or what Augé called “the future as time of conjunction” (1), and “avenir” as that which remains not yet certain, not yet defined. Conversely, for Jacques Derrida “le futur” is that “which — tomorrow, later, next century — will be. There is a future which is predictable, programmed, scheduled, foreseeable. But there is a future, l’avenir (to come) which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me, that is the real future. That which is totally unpredictable. The Other who comes without my being able to anticipate their arrival. So, if there is a real future, beyond the other known future, it is l’avenir in that it is the coming of the Other when I am completely unable to foresee their arrival” (Derrida Documentary Interview, 1997).

The element of predictability of the future plays out in performance through performative unpredictability or the possibility — governed by the logic of accident — that anything can happen that may put an end to performance and halt progress. In our focus on progress, Frederic Jameson (2005) also sees the future as not only “predicted” but also “colonized” by the present, “to draw the unforeseeable back into tangible realities, in which one can invest and on which one can bank, very much in the spirit of stock market ‘futures’” (Jameson 228). Borrowing Habermas’ wording, the future for Jameson is a disruption of the present: “a radical and systemic break with even the predicted and colonized futures which is simply a prolongation of our capitalist present” (Jameson 228).

The questions that concern a future performative are those that Augé asks whether we should place the burden of meaning-making on the past or the future as different conceptions of time are at work: “not opposing continuity and novelty, but rather the new as succession, flowering, completion and the new as rupture, inauguration, beginning” (Augé 19). Although meaning-making in performance is often disputed between multiple interpretive communities existing in a shared temporality: the performers, the director, the deviser, and the audience — they all experience performance in some sort of presence and encounter with the other. Making meaning in performance will always be disputed given that one singular community can rarely impose its horizon of expectation on the other. The future becomes that which exceeds the binary of either “conjunction” or “time to come” to evolve into potential multiplicity of encounters with the Other — recasting the distinction between the unknowable and the unpredictable in terms of difference, as Arjun Appadurai declared in The Future as Cultural Fact (2013). For his part, Appadurai sees the future as a form of difference that plays out in either imagination, anticipation, or aspiration: “We need to construct an understanding of the future by examining the interactions between three notable human preoccupations that shape the future as cultural fact, that is, as form of difference” (Appadurai 286). Appadurai considers culture to be the ground or the geography needed to lay the foundations for an anthropology of the future “that can assist in the victory of a politics of possibility over a politics of probability” (Appadurai 3). Reminding us that the future is not solely linked to innovation or technical advancement in neutral spaces, Appadurai holds that the future is constructed and deployed in affective geographies, “shot through with affect and sensation. Thus, we need to examine not just the emotions that accompany the future as a cultural form, but the sensations that it produces: awe, vertigo, excitement, disorientation” (Appadurai 287).

These three conceptualizations of the future — as conjunction, as predictable and colonized time that produces uncertainty, and as difference that confronts us with the Other — are manifested in the work of Marie Brassard, Wafaa Bilal, and Rabih Mroué as I will demonstrate in the latter part of this essay. Before I turn to these sites of performative futurity, it would be important to look at how, in our historically saturated moment, our coming together to remember is in fact a form of falling apart, with the very failed act of remembrance being what is performed on the body. Many questions arising from the debate around liveness and mediation in contemporary performance practices are articulated around the confrontation of embodiment with futurity: how is the future inscribed in the body, what bodies are said to have a future, and how is the future charted onto geopolitics (or what I would call geocorpolitics)? 

If, according to Marvin Carlson, performance is a change of focus in cultural practices from the “what” of culture to the “how” of culture, this “how” underlines the way performance challenges the indexical bond with what is represented, since it is at once shaped by what it represents but also how it represents it. In comparison with newsreels, for example, which often purport to record an event that happened in historical time — or what we conceive of as historical reality — performance’s most realist truth claim could never account for the event but rather for its failure, and the failure of its archiving since liveness is never repeatable, recordable, or reproducible. A discussion of liveness brings us inevitably to a discussion of what is not live and what is susceptible of being reproduced. In what follows, I will look at how intermediality in performance reconfigures the relationship of the live to time, presence, and future.

Liveness, Mediation, Presence, And Futurity

It was Philip Auslander who first pointed out that we only speak of liveness since the invention of recording technologies in the nineteenth century when we can contrast it with that which is not live: “It was the development of recording technology that made it possible to perceive existing representations as ‘live.’ Prior to the advent of those technologies (e.g., sound recording and motion picture), there was no such thing as live performance, for that category has meaning only in relation to an opposing possibility” (Auslander, Liveness 51).

From the beginning of the 20th century to the 21st century, media saturation seems to have taken over live performance, transforming bodies, modes of perception, and notions of subjectivity and identity while blurring the boundary between the live, the recorded, and the mediated. Focusing on artistic responses, Günter Berghaus notes that in the 1980s and 1990s responses to technology in performance resulted in two positions: neo-Futurism and neo-Primitivism with many hybrid positions between them (Berghaus 263). While the neo-Futurists were enthusiastic about the integration of technology, neo-Primitivists rejected it. The critical distinction that needs to be made here is not only between live and not-live but between body and embodiment, as Vivian Sobchack pointed out when writing about cinematic embodiment in Carnal Thoughts: “embodiment is a radically material condition of human beings that necessarily entails, both, the body and consciousness, objectivity and subjectivity in an irreducible ensemble” (Sobchack 5). This “irreducible ensemble,” the material conditions of the body in performance, questions the future of embodiment when it is no longer assumed to be the sole domain of liveness.

To speak of digital embodiment in performance is somewhat of an oxymoron. The body in performance is assumed to be three-dimensional and present in the flesh, whereas when mediated or screened it is considered absent or two-dimensional and “not-live.” Although I agree with Auslander’s historicization of liveness, it would be useful to revisit this opposition of live/not-live as the boundaries between them have become more and more blurred and as we increasingly exist in a mediatized and networked environment. This re-evaluation of the opposition live/not-live, made by many theorists in recent years — such as Richard Gough, Irina Rajewsky, Sarah Bay-Cheng, Maaike Bleeker — points to a necessary re-assessment of the body’s relationship to temporality in performance instead of the usual analysis of embodiment in spatial terms.

Peggy Phelan insisted on performance’s liveness as the quintessence of theatrical experience, given that each performance is unique, non-reproducible, and non-recordable; once we leave the theatre there are no left-overs, no remainder of the experience. Without the possibility of a copy archived for the future, Phelan argued, “live performance […] disappears into memory” (Phelan 148). Conversely, Auslander laments the fact that we resort to speaking of the value of “liveness” as the “magic” of theatre or its “energy”, while reducing “the relationship between live performance and its present mediatized environment” to a “reductive binary opposition” (Auslander, Liveness 2-3). Many scholars of intermediality in recent years have argued that the opposition between liveness/mediation, embodied/virtual, or recorded/ephemeral is no longer useful or operational. Robin Nelson pointed out that intermedial theatre “may be both physically based and on-screen; experiences may be both actual and virtual; spaces may be both public and private; bodies may be both present and absent” (Nelson 17). Such works that deploy and manipulate multiple media “live” requires a response via “several sensory modalities at once” and may even demand “modulations of the entire human sensorium” (Nelson 16-17).

Instead of seeing contemporary performance practice in either live or mediatized terms, it is more useful to focus the attention on the sensory modalities of our perception and ways of apprehending this new corporeal epistemology. A corporeal epistemology challenges the way the body is both present, presented, and represented in performance and takes the form of a contested future knowledge. Inevitably, an epistemology of the body in intermedial performance has to address the question of time and how the mediated absent-present-future body of the actor severs notions of progression, duration, and chronology. What concerns me here is not only the indexicality of the body in mediated performance, but how these hybrid forms of embodiment demand new forms of literacy and a critical apparatus capable of apprehending our physical interactions in a virtual space. What does it mean for the live actor to exist on material, virtual, and mediatized stages simultaneously? How does the spectator experience time in non-traditional immersive and virtualized environments? Can this posthuman and yet in other ways very human body in performance assume a political position? What do geocorpolitics look like?

First, we need to establish how the body marks time in performance. The live body’s relationship to time in performance is often governed by space, memory, and future potential, or what I would call “chronicity” — in other words, the body in performance can never go back, can never undo time or halt aging. On the other hand, digital embodiment is “uchronic,” to borrow Edmond Couchot’s term. Simulated virtual time is “an autonomous time, without past, present of future, wholly beyond […] any living sense of becoming. A time that partakes not of chronos, but is an uchronic time” (Couchot 16). In the same way as “u-topia”, “u-chronia” refers to alternate time, outside of, or parallel to historical time. In the digital realm, time is without intervals, without chronology: it can always reset the performing body at zero and restart the sequence indefinitely. Digital performance questions this assumption of presence and future presence: film, video, internet, and other technologies may not construct presence in performance in terms of spatial proximity but, rather, in the temporal sense, or in a-synchronous telepresence (examples of which can be found in the work of Hotel Modern, Robert Lepage, Blast Theory, et cetera), which in turn is different than virtual presence or the awareness of the self in a simulated environment (Natasha Tsakos, Circle of Eleven, Marie Brassard). Finally, intermediality at times invites the spectator to participate in the deployment of performance in what could be termed participatory presence or a future where the spectator is essential to the formation of the work (Rimini Protokoll). Thus, different types of mediated presence complicate the nature of embodiment and temporalization in performance creating new spatio-temporal constellations.

Chapple and Kattenbelt (2006) were the first to lay the ground for a theory of intermerdiality focused on the changing nature of perception and the way performative and perceptual elements come together and coalesce around a praxis of in-betweeness: 

We locate intermediality at a meeting-point in-between the performers, the observers, and the confluence of the media involved in a performance at a particular moment in time. The intermedial inhabits a space in-between the different realities that the performance creates and thus it becomes, at the minimum, a tripartite phenomenon. Intermediality is a powerful and potentially radical force which operates in-between performer and audience; in-between theatre, performance and other media; and in-between realities — with theatre providing a staging space for the performance of intermediality. (Chapple and Kattenbelt 12)

Conversely, Jens Schröter’s well-debated four types of intermediality focused on taxonomy of media and their connexion, convergence or remediation in relation to their formal structures. Schröter’s first type is “synthetic intermediality,” or the “fusion” of different media into super-media, a model rooted in the Wagnerian concept of Gesamtkunstwerk but with added political connotations. Schröter’s second type is “formal (or transmedial) intermediality”: a concept based on formal structures that are not “specific” to one medium but found in different media (Schröter 2). Schröter’s third type is what he called “transformational intermediality”: a model centered around the representation of one medium through another medium. Lastly, Schröter’s fourth model is “ontological intermediality,” which suggests that media always already exists in relation to other media.

Adapting both Schröter’s and Kattenbelt’s  divisions, and in-betweenness, my definition of intermediality inevitably widens the scope to include six sub-categories linked to the body’s relationship to temporality rather than media hierarchy or formal concerns:

  1. Sur-mediality: the medium refers to another medium from the past without using its techniques or apparatuses and without remediating its technique. The medium is like any other technical aspect of performance. For example, we may have a TV set as part of the décor, or a character tells us that they are in the movie theatre, but it doesn’t transform how we look at them; it only marks them in time.
  2. Co-mediality: co-existence of different media on stage without any interaction between them. If you completely remove one medium it will not affect the meaning making. As spectators, we are “not plugged in.” There could be actors on stage and video behind them but no interaction between them and no shared temporality. This is the most common use of intermedia in performance.
  3. Multi-mediality: the media is instrumentalized in performance but retains its autonomy. As spectators, we are “plugged in”; we know we are in a live show, but also in a game show, or on a film set (Rimini Protokoll’s Best Before or Cargo X).
  4. Cross-mediality: the remediation of one medium into the other with extensive interaction between them; the old medium revisited and reinterpreted from the perspective of new media (Rimini Protokoll’s Situation Rooms, Hotel Modern’s Kamp, Station House Opera’s Dissolved, Robert Lepage’s Lipsynch and Le Projet Andersen).
  5. Trans-mediality: the complete integration of aesthetic conventions of different media in an immersive environment where one does not signify without the other. (Natasha Tsakos, Guy Cassiers, Stelarc, Station House Opera’s Roadmetal, Sweetbread, Gob Squad’s War and Peace). We no longer acknowledge the medium as medium but as process in which actors and spectators exist and mobilize without distinction.
  6. Telemediality: this type also refers to forms of telematic performance, cyber theatre or what Helen Varley Jamieson called cyberformance, digital performance with platforms like UpStage (Avatar Body’s Collision) or immersive experiences where spectators are actors in a gamified type performance (Blast Theory’s Operation Black Antler) or MOO (Multi-user domain Object Oriented).

Many of the taxonomic concerns of intermediality have to do with the status of the body and its interactions with the digital or physical environments. Hans Thies Lehmann predicted that post-dramatic theatre will be more immediately informed by cultural practices other than traditional drama (the visual and live arts, movies, television, pop music, hypertext, the Internet).

A Future Beyond Presence: Case Studies

For what concerns me here, this ties into another very important challenge, which is the question of presence. I would argue that the presence of the actor in live performance is not objectifiable; on the contrary, it refers to the spatial and temporal proximity between a performer and a spectator, a condition of co-presence or what Lehmann termed the unavoidable implication of the spectator in the act of performing (Lehmann 141). Digital performance complicates this assumption of presence: film, video, internet live feed, and other mediated processes may not construct presence in performance in terms of spatial proximity but, rather, in the temporal sense, or what is known as telepresence which comes with its own risk of “misperformance, fallouts and interruptions” as Borggreen and Johannesen have argued in their Global Performance Studies article: “Misperforming Telematics: New Modes of Conferencing across Distances” (Borggreen and Johannesen). Telepresence is, in turn, different from virtual presence or the awareness of the self in a simulated environment. And finally, intermediality at times invites the spectators to participate in the deployment of performance in what could be referred to as participa(c)tory presence. These three types of presence problematize the nature of embodiment in performance. Mathew Causey called this complication “mediated duplication,” which is “the simple moment when a live actor confronts her mediated other through the technologies of reproduction. […] the experience of the self as other in the space of technology can be read as an uncanny experience, a making material of split subjectivity” (Causey 17). With this understanding of the body’s relationship to time in mediated performance, I will return to the questions of futurity and its multiple manifestations, as conjunction, as predictable and colonized time, and as difference in the work of Brassard, Bilal and Mroué respectively.

The Future as Conjunction: Marie Brassard

Marie Brassard’s work is an example of Causey’s split subjectivity that deploys the subject through technology and mediation in various simultaneous temporalities. In her solo plays, Jimmy, Créature de Rêve (2001) and Peepshow (2006), sound technology alters the performer’s voice and polarizes the live and the virtual within performance. Jimmy is a gay hairdresser who appears in the dream fantasy of an American Army general in the 1950s and inhabits his unconscious for a while. Jimmy is about to kiss the army general, Mitchell, in a potential conjunction of present and future when the general suddenly dies, trapping Jimmy in the dream world/underworld of his mid-century conservative time. To be freed, Jimmy has to wait for a Montreal actress to revive him in the 21st century, or in the present performative, giving him a voice on stage in this post-apocalyptic fiction. Brassard’s work locates the body in the time of conjunction between voice, narrative, history, and the hidden and marginal spaces of dreams and splintered subjectivity. Images, sounds, speech, and voices are fractured forms of aging and gendered bodies marked by time but deferred outside temporal restraints. Speaking of her metamorphoses into the many characters of Jimmy, Brassard highlights the cyborg function of mediated performance and the potential it offers the performer to inhabit compound bodies in multiple temporalities: “It is as if you are becoming a kind of cyborg character because you have your human, fleshly capabilities, but suddenly, you also have this machine that adds capacities to your body. […] By using the sound machines, I can have the body of a small woman and play a big man, or an older lady, or a little kid. And I think it’s very troubling when an audience sees that, when the voices don’t relate to the body. I know you can do that without machines; I’ve done it before but not to the same degree” (Brassard qtd. in Halferty 26).

Brassard’s Moi qui me parle à moi-même dans le futur (2011) uses similar hypnotic transformations to transmute the body into sites of perception and mediation of the various senses corresponding to a variety of embodiments. A woman from the future comes back to inhabit her present self and confront the child that she was, growing up in a small town in Québec where she used to listen to loud music in bars while dancing carelessly to escape her restricted reality. The two co-existing bodies of the aging and the middle-aged woman and their corresponding personas in the present underline the fact that perception is not only inherently temporal but also radically embodied, plastic, and instrumental. Thus, an image of the future self is not visual but multi-sensory, comprising all the information that one’s senses perceive about one’s ontology in time. As Laura Marks indicates talking about haptic cinema, sensation is distinct from perception in that it involves “direct action upon the body by a stimulus, whereas perception is a measure of potential action” (147). Like Jimmy, these dream figures create a potential action, a future encounter inviting the audience to challenge their assumptions about unitary subjectivity in a world where multiple concepts of time and chronicity are possible.

There is a new form of Benjaminian “tactile appropriation” or what Laura Marks calls in relation to film “haptic visuality” at work in Brassard’s performances (haptic from the Greek Haphe, relative to touch). Michael Darroch underscores this tactile quality in his article on Brassard when he writes: “Ultimately, as language is revealed to be composed merely of sounds and sound is transformed into tactile perceptions, Brassard’s theatre places the human voice at the centre of a synaesthetic experience. Far from drowning voice and language from the stage, Brassard’s work resituates their relationship and distinctiveness at the centre of the theatrical space” (Darroch 108). Through the blurring of the boundaries of the live and mediated, of bodies and voices, Brassard diffuses the focus of the spectator into a switching centre for all influences, where we are invited to occupy a more active and analytical role in trying to distinguish that which is real from that which is fake. In the production of Jimmy I saw at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (Toronto, December 2005), a critical moment leaves the audience to wonder if what is happening is real or staged. Brassard’s microphone drops which puts an end to her altered vocalization used to differentiate between her multiple characters. Then, the performer gestures to the sound booth above and switches to speaking French with the technician, asking in an alarmed natural voice if something is wrong with the equipment. She announces to the audience that she is sorry: “In a normal show, I would improvise something and just go on, but here… Without this voice I cannot do anything” (Brassard Jimmy). Shortly after, the microphone and voice altering sound is restored and the show resumes leaving the audience in a bewildered state. It turns out, after investigation, that this microphone technical malfunction was built into the performance to point to the logic of accident as a way of inhabiting the fake-real of the theatre and creating complicity with the audience who is invited to let go of its disbelief and enter the sensuous world of the performer with all the risks that it entails. Paul Halferty captures the essence of Brassard’s sensuous work and how she shares it with the audience when he writes:

Brassard’s theatre is informed by a process that, like the child in the first scene, explores the less obvious answer and makes it the key to unlocking the door to new theatrical realities that exist beyond our limited senses. In her theatre, […] which makes the supersensuous sensuous, we see things one cannot see with the naked eye, things that no longer exist, or never in fact existed. We see celestial bodies that talk, feminine bodies with masculine voices, and older bodies possessed by younger spirits. […] Brassard asks us to imagine worlds and realities that are beyond the fleshy capabilities of our senses. (Halferty, “Marie Brassard’s Super Sensuous Theatre”)

Wafaa Bilal’s Future as Colonized Time

“The fleshy capabilities of our senses” are subjected to different challenges and scrutiny in the work of Iraqi-American performance artist Wafaa Bilal. His performance pieces and interactive installations, Shoot an Iraqi AKA Domestic Tension (2007) and …And Counting (2010), put him at the forefront of contemporary political performance. Shoot an Iraqi was based on the artist living for one month in a Chicago art gallery with an internet-controlled paintball gun pointed constantly at him. After the first twelve days in the gallery, Bilal was shot at over 40,000 times. By the end of the performance, over 60,000 people from over 130 countries had fired their internet gun at him, while some hackers tampered with the gun to make it fire automatically instead of a single shot per person. What this indicates is the telematic presence of the artist to his audience distances as much as it brings together the doer and the thing done. Bilal wanted to point out the disconnect between the present of war, the push of a button and the consequence in the future of the damage inflicted without responsibility. This gallery experiment reveals how easy it would be for ordinary people to become agents of violence and trauma. Bilal sees that his approach may be controversial. He explains that this “sensational approach to the war is meant to engage people who may not be willing to engage in political dialogue through conventional means. Domestic Tension [depicts] the suffering of war not through human displays of dramatic emotion, but rather through engaging people in the sort of playful interactive video game with which they are familiar” (Bilal, Domestic Tension).  By engaging unlikely interlocutors through “unconventional means,” Bilal brings the conversation around the ethical responsibility of war into the public sphere — a public that is both physical (present at the Gallery) and virtual (present online).

In our involvement in the possible future violence, as citizens of countries engaged if not complacent in drone warfare or remote bombing, we no longer acknowledge the medium as medium but as process that subverts the notion of liveness and immediacy. The conjunctive time in Brassard becomes a colonized time in Bilal, placing the evidence of the real violence into new contexts and giving it new meaning in order to make an argument, not about past cruelty but its continuation and perpetuation in the future.

In a similar but more concentrated way, Bilal’s other project, …And Counting, brings to the forefront questions of bearing witness not to the past but to the future destruction of the body. The performance was a live tattooing session staged at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Gallery (New York 2010). Bilal had 105,000 dots tattooed on his back representing the official Iraqi deaths count, in addition to 5000 red dots representing American lives lost in the war. Visible only under ultraviolet light, the green dots representing Iraqi deaths remain invisibly there, while the artist feels and experiences their presence in the flesh and while their names are read live by spectators and witnesses in the gallery. For Bilal the dots should also be a reminder of his brother, killed at a checkpoint in their hometown of Kufa, Iraq in 2004. These deaths of many Iraqis like his brother’s “remain largely invisible to the American public,” Bilal argues (Bilal, …And Counting). If the war impact remains largely invisible to and ignored by the American public it is also not provable, recordable or archivable. As Derrida reminds us the archive produces as much as it records the event: “[…] the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event” (Derrida, Archive Fever 16-17). The tattoos produce a record of the future impact of the war only visible under a special kind of light. Turning his body into a living, interactive archive, Bilal uses primitive forms of engraving to slow down the frenzied violence of modern warfare where a click of a button from the safety of a New Mexico desert compound can annihilate a whole village. The sharing of the tattoo session encodes the body with the colonized here and now, transforming the distancing and telematic structures of remote violence into present embodied experiences, archived invisibly to show how embodied suffering can also be erased by dominant colonial narratives as even the fleshy documentary evidence can be disputed.

In contemporary performances such as Bilal’s, the witness is transformed into a protagonist and a performer who is occasionally involved in the very act of perpetration. In her article, “Always Already Again: Trauma Tourism and the Politics of Memory Culture,” Laurie Beth Clark looks at memorial sites such as concentration camps, a slave trade museum in Ghana, and Cambodia’s Killing Fields to point out that trauma tourism is based on an “internally contradictory core” or a paradoxical desire for disclosure and closure (Clark 66). Memorialist visits are animated by both a “never again” ethos geared toward the future and a sensationalist repetition of the affect and structure of the traumatic past, making it difficult to archive performative memory as either one or the other of the closure or repetition of history. If the future is often constructed as repetition, in performance it acquires the potential for difference. This brings us to the third form of performative futurity in the work of Mroué.

Rabih Mroué or the Future as Difference

The work of Lebanese performance artist Rabih Mroué. Looking for a missing Employee (2011) and The Pixelated Revolution (2012) points to the rhetoric of presence as a necessary ingredient in the discussion of proof and evidence in performance. While Bilal records deaths on the living flesh, Mroué challenges the truth claims of the camera or evidentiary documents based on their complex indexical bond to the event they purport to capture. In his solo piece, The Pixelated Revolution (a non-academic lecture), which I saw at the PuSh Festival (Vancouver 2014), Mroué interprets witness documents and footage from the early days of the Syrian rebellion. Mroué shows the footage of a reporter shooting a sniper with a camera while the sniper is zooming in on him and sniping him in real time. Mroué functions as an interpreter and commentator of a future performative, selecting images in a newsreel style and showing videos projected behind him on a screen while analyzing the aesthetic of “amateur” reporting.

Mroué called the Syrian Revolution “a war against the image,” pitting the Assad regime’s control of information and oppression against digital sousveillance. Steve Mann defines sousveillance as acts of “observing and recording by an entity not in a position of power or authority over the subject of the veillance” (Mann 3). For Mann, sousveillance is the notion that the many who are not in a position of power can have something to say back to those who have power to watch them. Taking Mann’s concept further, Simone Browne proposes “dark sousveillance” or the process of situating “the tactics employed to render one’s self out of sight, and strategies used in the flight to freedom from slavery as necessarily ones of undersight” (Browne 21). Mroué’s amateur reporter is sous-veiling the sniper as the “camera and eye have become united…the camera has become part of the body.” (Mroué qtd. in Stephens). Mroué calls these “double shootings”: shooting with a camera or phone and shooting with a rifle (Mroué). He invokes the methods of optography: an 18th century theory by which the last image imprinted on a dead person’s retina could be extracted pointing to their imagistic survival beyond the persistence of the body in the future. This became a frequent plot device in fiction: even the police in 19th century London would photograph the victims’ eyes in murder investigations, in case the image can reveal some information about the identity of the murderer.

Narrating and commentating the double shootings, Mroué realizes that the more he attempts to reveal the “truth” about the violence, the more the images seem ambivalent because these double shootings show us not only someone being shot, but the impossibility of reconstructing the shooting itself — the eye of the camera failing to document an inherently fragmented and fragmentary reality. Mroué thus changes the relationship between the subjective witness and the questionably objective reporting with a dialogic disruption where performing the images establishes a problematic tension between showing and telling, between the experience, the understanding, the re-enactment, and the recollection.

The rhetoric of visuality that dominates the work of Mroué leads us to a necessary discussion of the nature of proof and evidence in performance. In performance, four levels of interpretation of evidence are at play: the author (or authors) interpreting the event, the director or deviser interpreting the text, the actor interpreting the role, and the audience interpreting the performance. Thus, we can say that the nature of evidence in performance is multi-layered between evidentiary interpretation, significatory interpretation, performative interpretation, and perceptive interpretation. One could think of Donald Rumsfeld’s known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns.

Performances geared toward the future as difference strive to both tell the truth and the processes that ambivalently try to hide it, such as the concept of disavowing news as fake news in a context of post-truth and radical doubt. For a documentary image to lay claim to the truth today it has to undergo a series of tests (such as in legal trials). To say that images lie presupposes a truth to be uncovered. Roland Barthes, talking of photography in Camera Lucida, took apart that fantasy when he wrote: “From the phenomenological viewpoint, in the photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation” (Barthes 88-89). However, when the evidence is performed the opposite happens: the power of representation exceeds the power of authentication. Writing about Freud’s relationship to writing, and the tension between memory and memorialization, Derrida calls this le mal d’archive, archive fever, the idea that archiving is not a site of preservation of history nor the past but the inevitable loss of these things. (Derrida, Archive Fever 91). It would be worth noting here that the French word “mal” can be translated into several words in English: trouble, pain (avoir mal); sickness (mal de mer); harm (faire mal); illness, lack (en mal de); wrong (mal compris); and evil (le mal et le bien). Some translators and theorists have grappled with the signifier “mal” by pointing out that “archive fever” could also be “archives of evil” (Steedman 1163); Rapaport, “malice in archive” (69); and Velody, a “trouble with archives” (1). The density of this signifier comes into play in performance as specific “economies of memory” point to the failure of archiving as the liveness and ephemerality of performance leave no left-overs to be reified as a sign of immanence.

In performance, the archive does not occupy a preservation function but a destructive one, given that according to Derrida, “the archive is a site of repetition of the disaster of history” (Derrida, Archive Fever 11-12) — while performance suspends the event in time pointing to the fact that evidence performed does not constitute proof: evidence is processual and subject to interpretation in both legal and performative sense. Performance places us in front of an archive of the event, erasing its trace in the act of showing while problematizing this very erasure. Even the most realistic representation on stage has to acknowledge its own constructedness since no stage representation can ever duplicate the event. (I’m not saying conversely that documentary footage or news photographs duplicate the event; they make a truth claim about the duplicability of the event, which can always be falsifiable, hence “fake news”). What performance does is placing the evidence into new contexts and giving it new meaning in order to make an argument not about the event but about the claim of its truthiness. Like cinema vérité, I prefer to call Mroué’s performances a théâtre vérité of the future: it is vraissemblable rather than vrai; it is credible rather than mimetic; it makes a credible claim at representing the possibility of a different view of the future, not at reproducing it. The future performative is animated with the failure of capturing, with bodies refusing to be contained, framed and screened — because, as Derrida pointed out: “the question of the archive is not […] a question of the past. It is not the question of a concept dealing with the past that might already be at our disposal or not at our disposal, an archivable concept of the archive. It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow” (Derrida, Archive Fever 36).

A response, a promise, a responsibility, the work of Brassard, Bilal, and Mroué pushes the archival drive to its limit while haunting its possibility; there is a spectral performativity at work that promises and projects toward the future by pretending to preserve the past. The very structure of the archive is spectral. “It is spectral a priori: neither present nor absent ‘in the flesh’, neither visible nor invisible, a trace always referring to another whose eyes can never be met […]” (Derrida, Archive Fever 84).


When we are asked to witness the future impossible conjunction of various subjectivities, or the dying moments of a citizen-reporter in Syria, or the live tattooing or shooting of the artist in order to make a statement on the embodied nature of memory, we are also invited to rethink the modalities of our perception bearing witness not to the construction of the archive but the spectacle of its destruction. Located at the intersection of liveness and mediation, performance and the future questions conventional embodiment and offers a fresh look at the clash between digitally influenced perception and embodied survival. By looking at the nature of this embodiment and the changing perceptual landscape of digital culture which is multi-sensorial, non-hierarchal, non-linear, and interactive, I have argued in favor of going beyond the live/not-live dichotomy into the more productive terrain of presence and futurity where it matters not if bodies are here (or not here); rather their presence and absence in performance can mobilize an encounter with the other in all its difference; an encounter that can help us conceive of political action beyond the cynical, defeatist, and fragmentary reality.

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