The Performance Network

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Brown, Kevin. “The Performance Network.” Global Performance Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2019,

Kevin Brown

University of Missouri

Performance studies scholars of the twentieth century — lingering on strategies based on ontological materialism and individual agency — have, for the most part, failed to conceive of and implement a politically affective strategy for performance. How otherwise can we account for the lack of progress during the first two decades of the twenty-first century that have seen an increase in human rights abuses around the world, a drastic rise in the disparity of income inequality, the near collapse of our natural ecosystem, rampant corruption, and the inundation of the social network with anti-democratic information helping to fuel a frightening rise in populist nationalism? Meanwhile, for the larger part, performance artists and scholars continue to have “Great Reckonings in Little Rooms” (see States 1992).

Writing at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Jon McKenzie summarized the dominant modes of discourse in performance studies during its first several decades as a field, a time when: “[i]n the face of civil rights and the Vietnam War protests, theater initially served as the formal model of cultural performance and rites of passage as its functional model. Together, theater and ritual gave form and process to the challenge of efficacy. Privilege was given to embodied practices, presence, and live bodies” (22). During the next several decades, a second model of cultural performance emerged, “that of resistance, [which] takes off from the discourses of critical theory and the experiments of performance art” (49). In contrast to strategies based on the presence of the human body in performance, strategies of resistance move “from transgressing a totalitarian power from an outside site to resisting a hegemonic power from within that very power argument” (49). Thus, in the performance studies of the twentieth century, issues of agency and performance were most often (despite the history of theatre as a collective) postulated as an individual endeavor. As the major paradigm in performance studies moved from a model based on collective ritual to a model based on resistance, the chorus of the performing community was slowly replaced by the privileging of the individual artist. There has been, in this concentration on the agency of performance as a singular endeavor, a tendency to romanticize the lone performer that is an artifact, a vestige of the myth of progress.

One of the biggest debates in the field at the turn of the century, and continuing to today, is the so-called “liveness debate.” Steve Dixon summarizes the debate in Digital Performance: “[Philip] Auslander takes [Peggy] Phelan to task in his celebrated book Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (1999), where he persuasively and exhaustively challenges traditional notions of liveness that view the live event as ‘real’ and mediatized events as ‘secondary’ and ‘artificial reproductions of the real’” (Dixon 123). Auslander argues that the category of the “the live” only came into existence with the advancement of media technology that made it possible to be defined in binary opposition to “the recorded.” These two performance studies scholars have, in many ways, come to serve as proxies for the two sides of the liveness debate as well as representatives of the two sides of McKenzie’s configuration of presence versus resistance.

While I do not endeavor to re-litigate the liveness debate here, I do want to point out how far (and not so far) both performance studies and media technology have come since this debate started. One might even argue that the liveness debate has entirely passed us by, and that during the first two decades of the twenty-first century the paradigm has shifted from “the live” versus “the recorded” to “the online” versus “the offline.” In many ways, this new binary has as many defects as the old one. Discourses about “the live and the real” are now being searched and replaced — cut and pasted — into discourses about “the virtual and the real.” Strategies of performance based on presence and resistance, as well as models of “the live” versus “the recorded” (and “the online” versus “the offline”), have so far failed the challenge of efficacy because performances can only exist in a network that is defined and constituted through connections within the many webs of meaning of human culture.

Furthermore these oversimplifications and reductions fail to take into account that even offline performances depend on the network and even some online performances have an element of “co-presence,” at least when there is an element of at least two simultaneous actors accessing the network “in real time.” It is just as dangerous to think of these online performers as happening “somewhere else” because it makes us forget that there is no performance without at least two bodies being some-“where.” The performance is not happening “on” the network, but rather “between” those two bodies, mediated through whatever interface separates them (often an interface challenged by deficiencies of bandwidth and dimensionality). We must also come to account for actor-agents that are non-human as well, other parts of an assemblage, whether animals or bots — sincere or cynical — benign or malicious.

How, then, does a performance studies of the twentieth century still aim toward solving the “challenge of efficacy”? One possible place to begin is by beginning to pull apart and analyze the myriad strands of performance as they course through these networks (both electric and human). Only then might we work toward strategies of activation and resistance within and outside of those performance networks. The contributions of the exceptional scholars and artists in this issue of Global Performance Studies approach this goal.

Performance as Network: Arts, City, Culture

The 24th Performance Studies international (PSi) conference was held at the Daegu Arts Factory in Daegu, Korea from 3-6 July 2018. The conference, which included hundreds of participants from dozens of countries around the world, was centered around the theme of “Performance as Network: Arts, City, Culture.” This issue of Global Performance Studies (GPS) follows this theme, and the pieces we present in this installment of the journal comment on, explore, and expand on the idea of Performance as Network.

For example, in “‘Beyond The Scene’ of Performance in K-pop: BTS’ Network of Performances On and Off Stage,” Hakyung Sim, the 2018 PSi conference Routledge Prize winner, explores a “network of on-stage and off-stage performances” by the internationally famous K-pop band, BTS. Sim applies concepts from Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory (ANT), Erving Goffman’s concepts of “front stage” and “back stage” behavior, and the concept of “personae” to explore how the personae of the members of BTS are performed through networks of on-stage and off-stage performances involving social media, video and chat platforms, and performances that are “live streamed” online.

While the word “network” purposefully evokes the electronic networks that are explored in Sim’s paper, the concept of Networks of Performance could equally be applied to performance that happen entirely “offline,” away from the glare of global commerce on the Internet. In “MuNK: Loving the Non-Alien” by Michael Sakamoto (Text and Photos) and Vince Schleitwiler (Commentary), Sakamoto points out that definitions of “social networks” divide technology-based from interpersonal networks, but asks “Is there a way, however, to consider the corporeal and virtual as one and the same?” Sakamoto and Schleitwiler’s contribution falls in the category of one of the more experimental offerings from GPS, and the piece itself is structured as a dialog between the two collaborators interwoven with the images of the authors’ photo essay illuminating their butoh practice and exploration of the concept of the “non-alien,” claiming that the “Japanese American” identity is “the performative negation of a double negative. No and no. The non-alien” (Sakamoto and Schleitwiler).

Likewise keeping with the experimental articulations of the journal, Juliana Moraes’ contribution, “EU ELAS [I HER]: Behavioral Memories as Dance Material — Personal and Cultural Networks of Feminine Gestures,” includes a video and the artist’s elaboration of her performance and practice. Moraes explores how “sense-making is considered the result of physicochemical processes creating an environment of significance that connects the individual with the collective in complex networks of reciprocal dependency” (Moraes). The piece EU ELAS [I HER] is structured around the artist’s memory of growing up in São Carlos, Brazil, a “choreographic structure” in which Moraes expands and shrinks her body without leaving her chair, an embodiment of an upbringing that taught her how to be a “good girl.” In this piece, agency, memory, and cognition exist in an embodied and ever-evolving “network.” Moreas explains: “Instead of a single identity, embodiment as flow allows me to keep accessing past events, search for reasons, and continue to question the processes of sense-making” (Moraes).

In “Humanities/Art/Technology Research Center’s Post-Apocalypsis: Assembling and Describing the Post-Natural,” Ashley Chang explores the performance/sonic/installation project Post-Apocalypsis by Humanities/Art/Technology (2015), a piece inspired by Jerzy Grotowski’s Apocalypsis cum figuris. Chang uses the context of the performance to propose and advocate for “description” as an ecocritical method (an alternative to strategies of “deconstruction”). The museum installation is described as a “graveyard of once living trees,” evoking corpses strung from the ceiling in a complex of metallic rods and wires, emitting sounds with interaction. The piece itself is a complex network of figures, processes, and environments that emulates Bruno Latour’s concept of the “work of assembly.” Thus, “Post-Apocalypsis traces the relationships — both actual and speculative — between phenomena of wildly different scales and sorts, offering up a mosaic-like vision of global networks incorporating multiple systems and implicating human and nonhuman players alike” (Chang).

In addition to technological networks and human networks, the works presented at the conference in Daegu, and their continued life in this issue of Global Performance Studies, provide an opportunity for growing new networks within the global community of performance studies scholars and artists. In that same vein, this issue also includes two pieces that are reflective of this spirit of global collaboration with the purpose of foraging of networks of community. Thus, we are happy to present Didanwy Kent Trejo’s report “The Hemispheric Institute’s XI Encuentro, ‘The World Inside Out: Humor, Noise, and Performance’ (Mexico City, June 9-15, 2019).” The Encuentro’s goal is to “to provide a horizontal space between academics and artists, all of whom work to produce knowledge and action” (Trejo). We hope that, by publishing the report here we might encourage participation and exchange between members of the Hemi and PSi. In a similar gesture of community, Kim Yun-Cheol (National Theater Company of Korea) shares the text of his keynote speech from the PSi conference in Daegu, “A New Approach to the National Identity in an Ideologically Polarized Korean Community.” Kim discusses the challenges of “postmodern Korean diaspora “ and the problem of trying to forge a national identity that is not rooted in nationalism.

Activating and Assembling the Performance Network

A major part of the failure of performance studies to account for networks of performances can be seen as a failure to recognize that performances, as actions, have an affect on other performances that are connected through assemblages of performance networks. These performance networks connect the bodies of the performers through various interfaces within the context of a performance network (or practice, archive, or discourse). Levi Bryant explains Deleuze and Guatarri’s (1987) concept of assemblage:

Assemblages are composed of heterogeneous elements or objects that enter into relations with one another. These objects are not all of the same type. Thus you have physical objects, happenings, events, and so on, but you also have signs, utterances, and so on. While there are assemblages that are composed entirely of bodies, there are no assemblages composed entirely of signs and utterances. (Bryant)

The importance of understanding the relationship between performance and assemblage derives from a need to better understand how various kinds of media can perform alongside, with, or without human actors. Social media, likewise, can be viewed as a network of performance, or at least part of these assemblages.

Jean Baudrillard has predicted “successive phases of the image,” a “precession of simulacra”: “not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging in what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference” (Baudrillard 11). This prediction has already come partway true as we make ourselves a digital life that becomes a simulation of our “real” life. Deleuze proposes a concept that is related to assemblage — puissance — orthe ability to affect and to be affected, to form assemblages or consistencies, that is, to form emergent unities that nonetheless respect the heterogeneity of their components” (Smith and Protevi). Performance, then, in addition to being action, is also affect (or puissance), in that performance drives change within the assemblage.

Performance as affect can move from the analog toward the digital as well as move from the digital to the analog. Thus, life becomes an assemblage of cultural performance that is materially diverse, but always a hybrid of the digital and the analog — a breakdown of the divide between the so-called virtual and the real.

What are some examples, then, of this archive, this assemblage, this electrified network? As a few examples, think about the ways that social media networks, such as Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and TikTok, can be seen as discourses (or archives) of performance that are driven by affect. Social media — also an assemblage of text, images, videos, and sounds — is a record of our lives that is, itself, performed. But it is a performance of performances, the individual moments of our analog lives captured in time by our cellphone or webcam. Those performances are flattened, rearranged, and produced online and thus we arrive at an assemblage of archives, in that no archive can be a perfect record of the original performance, and thus remains reified, reflected, conflated, and convoluted.

These networks of affect are the mechanisms of commerce itself — they are filled with advertisements — the data is captured and this archive of performances from our daily lives becomes the capital. Bruce Schneier, speaking at the 2010 RSA Europe security conference in London repeated the now well-worn aphorism: “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re Facebook’s customer, you’re not — you’re the product” (Schneier qtd. in Done). The user becomes the product — the commodity, concurrently bought and sold — and in a post-capitalist society that product simultaneously becomes the means of production. As we manufacture our digital lives, we provide content to fill the digital walls of a corporation. How do we avoid this fate? Can the field of performance studies provide insight into how these networks of performance are formed, maintained, disciplined; and, perhaps most importantly, can these networks be transformed through acts of performance?

Whether exploring networks of technology, networks of culture, or networks of disciplinarity, the moral imperative is clear. As performance studies scholars and artists, we must dedicate more of our intellectual and artistic work to the problem of understanding, deconstructing, and re-assembling these networks of performance. As society evolves hand-in-hand with technology, often to its detriment, these networks are becoming entangled in a way in which it is becoming nearly impossible to separate the media from the human lives and culture that are caught up in them. Chris Salter calls these: “the complex entanglements among natural, social, technological, and corporeal forces that help shape the world” (Salter xxvii). The performance studies of the twenty-first century must attempt, if not to “de-tangle” those entanglements, at the very least to try to understand them and trace the ways that performances move through them. We must find new ways to create performance networks that leverage affect in order to create positive change through collective actions. Hopefully, future scholar-artist-activists will find new ways to trace and reconcile these emerging articulations along the full spectrum of performance networks, and find new methods to activate them, regardless of their ontology or entanglements.

Following are some examples of questions that performance studies scholars of the twenty-first century must take up:

    1. In what ways (both electronic and human) is affect performed (transmitted) through the network?
    2. Where, within the performance network, does action (affect) originate?
    3. Which parts of the performance network act as agents of this action?
    4. In what ways might performers use collective action to affect changes in the overall state of the performance network?
    5. In which parts of the performance network does resistance (or negative affect) work?
    6. How do contingencies of bandwidth and the dimensional aspects of various media affect assemblages of the performance network?
    7. In what ways does transmission occur among various assemblages of the performance network?
    8. How do we account for (and nullify) the presence of insincere non-human actors (bots) and cynical human actors (trolls) on the performance network?
    9. How do we balance needs for privacy and anonymity on the performance network? (Blockchain?)
    10. Is it desirable (or possible) to “opt out of” (quit) the performance network?

By attempting to answer these questions, and others, perhaps future artists, theorists, and practitioners of performance studies might begin to create and perform networks of collective affect.

Works Cited

Auslander, Philip. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. Routledge, 1999.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. Translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton, and Philip Beitchmen, Semiotext[e], 1983.

Bryant, Levi. “Deleuze on Assemblages.” LarvalSubjects. 8 October 2009. Accessed 20 September 2019.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi, University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Dixon, Steve. Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation. MIT Press, 2007.

Done, Peter. “Facebook is ‘Deliberately Killing Privacy,’ Says Schneier.” Information Age. 13 October 2010. Accessed 20 September 2019.

McKenzie, Jon. Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance. Routledge, 2001.

Salter, Chris. Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance . MIT Press, 2010.

Smith, Daniel and John Protevi. “Giles Deleuze.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2018. Accessed 20 September 2019.

States, Bert O. Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theater. University of California Press, 1992.