Performative Diagrammatics: An Artistic Exploration of the Relation Between Epistemic Diversity and Systemic Elasticity

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Mers, Adelheid. “Performative Diagrammatics: An Artistic Exploration of the Relation Between Epistemic Diversity and Systemic Elasticity.” Global Performance Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 2021.

Adelheid Mers

Performative Diagrammatics: An Introduction

My work, Performative Diagrammatics, brings together drawing, object making, installation, discursive and performative facilitation, and co-creation. It is rooted in practice and driven by attention to participation in systems, such as participation in text through reading, in language by embodying it in speech and gesture, and in organizations (such as firms or schools) and institutions (such as disciplines or nationalities). This latter may take the form of discerning, performing, resisting, or adapting the orders through which these organizations and institutions operate. By addressing systemic contexts in this way, my goal is to render them available to experience as constructed and malleable.

By way of context, in my practice I engage with multiple, formative discourses. These are associated with linguistics and media theory (Whorf 1964, Benjamin 1969, Lakoff 1999, Flusser 2004), critical theory and ecology (Bateson 1987, Guattari 2000), diagrammatics (Watson 2009, Krämer 2016), practice theory and epistemology (Barad 2007, Baumgarten 2013, Mersch 2015, Clavo 2016), and cultural management and policy studies, with particular interest in cultural citizenship (Miller and Yudice 2002, Yudice 2004, Klein 2009). In addition, my long involvement in studying and teaching has inflected the above with attention to liberation, reflexive and indigenous pedagogies (Schön 1985, hooks 1994, Freire 2005, Smith 2012, Simpson 2017) and research methodologies favoring diagrammatic action approaches and cultural mapping (Marcus 1995, Strauss 1997, Duxbury et al, 2015). To date, the field that not only most closely accommodates intersection among the above but also pursues related inquiries is performance studies (Conquergood 2013, Spatz 2015, 2019), particularly where it includes or overlaps with feminist theory (Haraway 1991 & 2016, Braidotti 2010, Verran 2014).

Elasticity as a Formal Quality of Diagrams

The two specific works introduced below are what I call diagrammatic instruments, titled The Braid and Performative Topologies. I distinguish between a tool and an instrument, in that the latter facilitates more delicate work. Often it has a body, mechanics, and attachments. The instruments I build are diagrammatic. Diagrammatic instruments rely on emphasizing one characteristic of diagrams: their operativity or inbuilt need to be unpacked. Steffen Bogen and Felix Thürlemann discuss operativity:

The specific strength of genuine diagrams is grounded in what can be designated as their pragmatic potency [italics in original]. More than other forms of discourse, diagrams are designed to engender activities. These activities encompass the entire realm of social action, exceeding the discourse that verbally explicates it. The diagram appears as an area that trades in meaning, a semiotic stop between producer and recipient. In relation to a specific topic, the producer of the diagram aspires to a synthesis of components which themselves constitute the world scenario that is deemed relevant. Formally, this synthesis is marked by a certain symmetry and boundedness. The recipient encounters this apparently ideal object as one who shall unpack its structures of meaning that are seemingly at rest, to unfold them into discourses and practical activities. (22, author’s translation)

Sybille Krämer also includes “operativity” as one of six core aspects of diagrams she enumerates, reflecting “a cognitive and communicative dimension” (Krämer, “Epistemology” 13). Krämer also discusses the aspect of “own spatiality,” which is a diagram’s capacity to not simply inhabit space but also to order it through the spatial-semantic relations established among its components. As is conventional, Krämer determines two-dimensionality, existence on a plane, as an essential trait of that diagrammatic space (12). In contrast, and rooted in studio practice, I perceive “own spatiality” as traits of sculpture or installation, also observable in many well-known “operative” Fluxus works that instruct audiences, as well as Minimalist works that activate relations among object, viewer, and space theatrically (see Fried, 1967), thereby reaching across sculpture, performance, and performing arts. This particularly applies to the sculptures and props of Lygia Clark, as well as William Forsythe’s participatory installations. Facilitated less for audiences, but primarily within working groups, the work of Emma Cocker, Nikolaus Gansterer, and Mariella Grell (2017) is another example of a practice that moves the diagrammatic beyond two-dimensionality by attending to language, drawing, choreography, and performance. Nikolaus Gansterer, in a perception that I share, has described the relation of figure and space in diagrams as “many figures make a ground” (2012). I interpret this as an experiential assessment of “own spatiality,” also born from studio practice.

In the two works discussed below, I initially moved from plane to space by transforming a line in a two-dimensional diagram into a line in space, using string. Another part of the diagram, a torus (a one-sided topological surface originally drawn on a plane) was later enacted through walking, as part of The Braid Instrument. To complete the Performative Topologies Instrument, we used software to project the digitally recorded data a 360-degree video camera produces onto a torus, transforming the image to emphasize how participants in facilitated workshops not only inhabit, but, through their actions, also order diagrammatic space. Video live-processed in this way was at several occasions projected into the space where performances took place, creating a feedback loop. The topological malleability of space introduced in this way is the inherent, formal elasticity that characterizes Performative Diagrammatics.

Towards Epistemic Diversity

What foremost distinguishes the works discussed here is that they emerge from and promote conversations. The conversations they emerge from are housed in, and in the vicinity of, the academy, for the simple reason that I have lived my life as a student and educator, which has enabled my practices. This pertains specifically to The Braid, which has been built from conversations I have led with artists about how they work, primarily at academically facilitated arts residencies in North America and Europe. Those conversations, in turn, were inspired by the experience of studio critique in US art schools, which I encountered first as an exchange student at the University of Chicago, and later participated in or moderated as an educator at, for instance, Northwestern University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In these critique settings, a panel of multiple faculty members and professional guests offers feedback and commentary on work one student presents. The hierarchical jostling faculty and guest panelists may engage in amongst one another, as well as the varied, complementary, and competing social and professional reference systems they and the students cite and animate, presented themselves to me as performances of systemic, institutional complexity. This was particularly striking, as I had graduated from a conventional German art academy, the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where a student worked with a single master for an entire course of study, encountering diversity and competition among peers, but rarely among faculty. Both academic systems are bound up with hierarchies of instruction and initiation rituals, serving as the delivery systems of disciplinary discourses. However, their flavors are different, and become perceivable when contrasted, and with particular intensity when experienced as a participant, not as an observer.

In the following brief excursion, I will further locate my engrained interest in textuality in the discourse of my native Germany, as well as my awareness of textualism, or epistemic violence (Conquergood 146). This latter has been heightened by emigration to the US, which I had pursued in part with the intent to live explicitly as a foreigner, in a different language. German cultural theorist Armin Klein (39) devotes a section of his introduction to cultural policy to the specific character of the German concept of culture as it evolved socially and politically. In brief, he situates the concept’s origin in a bourgeois, or middle class, emulation of the freedom of expressionby means of theatrethat was available to nobility in their everyday lives. This then contributed to the promotion of a culture that is conceptually centered on text and eruditiona scholars’ republic. Klein references cultural anthropologist Philip Bocks Culture Shock (1970) to present a different definition in an anthropologic register: culture, in the broadest sense, is what makes you a foreigner when you are away from home. (11)

Travelers, of course, know that culture shock happens upon the return home. This is because experiences away from home” heighten perception by offering different models of making sense. In this way, the dulled, anesthetic at home mode is temporarily replaced by the alert, aesthetic away mode” (also see Flusser, 104). What was taken for granted may become apparent not as a given, but as a habit, contributing to an understanding of culture as constructed, and of the individual as constructed within a stratum of culture.

Other theorists uses of performativity parallel Armin Klein’s framing of national culture above. Michael Warner takes up Nancy Frasers critique of Jürgen Habermas’ notion that a singular, national public is engaged in rational discourse, the public sphere. Furthermore, Warner sees as false the understanding that “[t]he public is thought to exist empirically and to require persuasion rather than poesis” (Warner 82). Rather, he believes “[t]his constitutive misrecognition of publics relies on a particular language ideology. Discourse is understood to be propositionally summarizable; the poetic or textual qualities of any utterance are disregarded in favor of sense. Acts of reading, too, are understood to be replicable and uniform” (83). Instead, Warner’s “rules” determining a public are explored under seven illustrative headings: 1. A public is self-organized(50); 2. A public is a relation among strangers(55); 3. The address of public speech is both personal and impersonal(57); 4. A public is constituted through mere attention”(60); 5. A public is the social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse (62); 6. Publics act historically according to the temporality of their circulation(68); and 7. A public is poetic world making(82). Warner’s publics are more overtly oriented in their selfunderstandings to the poetic-expressive dimensions of language” (83) and, as such, are seen to lack only the power to establish their modalities as legitimate. This assessment deserves renewed attention in the current moment.

Where Warner untethers publics from presumptions of rationality and education, ascribing them performative agency, George Yudice reconnects not publics but citizens to historically constructed webs that they enact almost involuntarily. In “The Expediency of Culture”, Yudice develops the image of a field of force, a meshwork for performative participation infor example, national, or other regionally organized ways of living. A field of force is “generated by differently arranged relations among institutions of the state and civil society, the fiduciary, the police, schools and universities, the media, consumer markets, and so on. Given that these institutions are of national scope, the force fields are specific synergistic assemblages of the component vectors.” (43) Culture is generated within the force field. “The problem is not so much the scripts”for example, of participation in specific identities“but the stage (force field) on which they are enacted” (74). How, then, to train focus on this field? How to discern the systemic ground that animates the personal?

Both projects described below take up these questions. Attention to how personal ways of knowing perform the stratum they emanate from is an avenue I pursue in offering workshops as exercises in poetic worldmaking or, as Félix Guattari names it, meta-modeling (Watson 46). This is introduced below in the discussion of the second diagrammatic instrument, Performative Topologies. Participants greater awareness of their own world making is the desired outcome. A precondition for facilitating such a meaningful exercise is an explicit tone of mutual respect and welcome. Exemplary work towards this is done in the context of theorizing and facilitating studio critique (see, for example, Fraser and Rothman). Work I do in the classroom and the art student studio inspires the work in my own studio. In the first project, The Braid, my co-creators and I draw parallels between classroom and studio by noting and mining differences between textual and performative modes of exchange.

Instrument 1: The Braid

The Braid diagram, 2019.

The Braid diagram evokes the realm of artistic practice through a topological metaphor, a donut that stretches without losing its internal coherence. The donut is traversed by a looped path, a trefoil. It marks the three aspects of artistic practice: Making, Mediating, and Managing; or, using a different alliteration, Poiesis, Publics, and Power; or even Love, Literacy, and Leverage.[1] With these instances of alliteration, I evoke co-existing registers of what Thomas Kuhn first described as the structure of paradigms, consisting of techniques, values, and beliefs (175). This was later to be expanded by Egon Guba as Doing, Knowing, and Being (17), a shift I discuss extensively in a recent publication (Mers 236). What may be braided in a given moment are, for example, studio practice, grant writing for a specific project, and strategic planning for a non-profit. As experienced artists and other cultural practitioners are well aware, there is a constant need to perform across such aspects of practice. The term performing is selected with care, indicating an intimate connection between embodied and propositional knowing.

Academia Enacts Silos

The form of professional knowing alluded to above is still often seen as opposed or even inferior to academic proficiency. Likely, academic arts education has not prepared students for such professionally oriented tasks. Howard Singerman describes academias assimilation of the holistic, but limited, master/apprentice model into what he calls the liberal culture” (15) of US academia, separating the studio out from the classroom, with real life purportedly happening outside of its walls. No matter how much contemporary curricula or individual syllabi address or even counteract this architecturalideological arrangement, they unavoidably activate its pattern. One reason for this is the high price of education in the US and the associated desire to deflect scrutiny from education organizations as parts of real life, where the economic discussion would be foregrounded. This is similar to the division economist Olav Velthuis describes in distinguishing between the front of a gallery as the space where aesthetic value is addressed publicly, while the business takes place privately in the back office (29). Education is the aspirational front of the house; cost and debt are relegated to the real estate in the rear. Because of this, art as a profession is initially more likely to be presented to its future practitioners as a set of siloes than as a system, despite historical analyses that show the impact of socio-political circumstance on historical or contemporary artistic production. Factors that have impact on artistic inquiries include the availability or absence of opportunities and materials, but there is little attempt to transfer this thinking to a students lived experience. Ecological analyses of artistic practices in the context of cultural economics that draw on international case studies do invoke topological modeling (see for example Holden 32) but rarely find a place in art school curricula. Rather, these curricula traditionally value art history and sociology over cultural policy material. My own familiarity with this material stems from my involvement with global cultural management and policy discourses, as part of the field of my professorship. I had sought it out in order to contextualize my experiences as an artist beyond the more readily available, network and market-focused studio narratives available in the US.

Criticality as a Remodeling of Positions

Using Irit Rogoffs well-known distinction, I believe that this stratification continues to promote academic cultures of criticism, which depend on the performance of positional certainty, over cultures rooted in criticality (2), which, instead, works through the undoing and remodeling of positions. This elastic or topological perspective tends to emerge as artists take on the work, shifting from focusing on objects and events and their evaluation to the multiple tasks that are part of performing the profession (McKenzie). A pedagogical model that mirrors this gap between criticism and criticality is formalized in US visual art schools as studio critique, a model less present in the context of the performing arts in the US and elsewhere. The Braid began to take shape when I devised a project that returned to the roots of studio critiquein studio conversation.

A New, Topological Architecture

In 2016, I worked out The Braid template as a visual condensation of previous conversations with visual artists, experimental musicians, and composers, each of which opened with the question, How do you work?[2] When I began to formally ask this question in 2012, after previously experimenting with modes of studio conversation in conjunction with diagramming, it was not my intent to create a general visualization of artistic practice. To the contrary, through these encounters I hoped to learn more about artists individual ways of working, or artistic epistemes. After condensing the material generated in these conversations, including longhand notes and diagrams I had devised based on those notes, I found I had, in fact, designed a template with which to promote new conversations about artistic epistemes. Using this template, it was not necessary for me to personally facilitate these conversations; others who I had introduced to it could, also.

An impetus for this project was my desire to push back against academic stratification that promotes the colonization of the arts by theorists, who not only interpret objects but also too often do not shy away from putting formal demands on artistic practice. These demands regularly reflect the theorists critical framework, which might include production at museum scale, with sanctioned materials, or in keeping with perceived identity markers, thereby undercutting the epistemic diversity I see as the core of art making. By designing myself out of The Braid conversation event, what remained of my own epistemic position was an alternate architecture, explicit and visible, within which conversations could take place, along with an invitation to artists and other cultural producers to use the template.

Since then, my work has consisted of creating frameworks for conversation events, which I collectively call Performative Diagrammatics”. In the following, I will show how a gradual shift from conducting The Braid workshops as primarily verbal events to centering nonverbal exchanges in later versions expanded my understanding of elasticity.

From Template to Instrument

Once The Braid template was mapped out, I printed it on a moveable whiteboard, and my collaborator Asha Iman Veal, a curator and arts administrator, took on the task of selecting and inviting artists and other cultural practitioners, in pairs when possible, into my studio to activate it. In this configuration, The Braid template gained a material body and a determinate scale. It became The Braid Instrument.

To facilitate the use of the instrument, a short explanation of the template was offered. Asha or I would describe the torus as a topological shape, to be imagined as elastic, able to accommodate any distribution of content within it. Next, the trefoil was introduced as a path without beginning or end, also open to being reshaped. The function of text labels appended to the drawing of the braid structure was characterized as conversation starters, derived from previous conversations about artistic practice, and to be replaced with more suitable terms at will. Paired participants were then handed markers and asked to stand in front of the board. The sole remaining prompt was to start the conversation by asking each other: How do you work? If only one person was available, the facilitator could stand in as interlocutor. Conversations tended to flow with ease. Now and then, participants needed additional encouragement to draw, but they then engaged easily.

Braid Instrument studio conversations excerpts from summer 2016, shown in time lapse mode.

The excerpts of conversations in the first video, and in the following one, are speeded up and muted because here I want to emphasize the movements participants engage in, in excess of speaking.[3] Participants more often face the board than each other. They draw on it with bold strokes or carefully. Their gestures sometimes mirror the swirling motion the trefoil knot indicates. Drawing becomes an extension of gesturing, and vice versa.

From Braid Board to String Braid

Shortly after we completed these exercises, we created a supplementary Braid Instrument. In several prototype sessions with volunteers, again organized by Asha, and with her participation, the braid structure was condensed into the trefoil string.

Trefoil String Braid prototype studio sessions, spring 2017.

The experience of performativity this exercise afforded was crucial to all work that followed. Laying a long string out on the floor in the trefoil shape, we determined that we could still establish the torus, the unifying element, by walking it out on the floor. Making, Mediating, and Managing were added as loose paper labels, looped around the string. Without the need to imagine topological elasticity, the shape became mutable. We tried to include small, writable surfaces, and their disruptiveness gave a first clue that we had shifted from one cognitive mode into another, from primarily embracing textuality to foregrounding performing. Walking, our speech slowed. We became more empathetic, giving ourselves more time, and growing more patient with ourselves and others. By no longer interacting with a stiff, vertical whiteboard but with a fluid, horizontal object, our centers of gravity descended. Speaking with each other sideways, looking up over our shoulders, preserved that mode. When we shifted back into facing each other, empathy receded, and a cooler mode returned with a focus on words.

The trefoil string joined The Braid whiteboard in the next workshops. The following, short clip is shown in real time, with sound, because users intentionally explored the different performative modes that were promoted.

Informal documentation of Braid users at the Performative Diagrammatics Laboratory as part of the exhibition Membrane, organized by Ursula Damm at Kunstverein Tiergarten Nord, Berlin, spring 2019.

At the 25th annual Performance Studies international (PSi) conference, on the other hand, workshop participants selected a single, preferred mode. I have slowed down the next video, in order to draw attention to the emergent choreography. In each instance of use, participants reported a more complex articulation of experience across a spectrum of embodied and propositional knowing when exploring and sharing ideas using the string, either in addition to the template or by itself.

Braid workshop informal documentation at PSi #25, Calgary, summer 2019.

Prototyping the Braid string with others in my studio had been a profound experience. The co-creation processes superseded individual making, and boundaries blurred between inventions, suggestions and decisions. It prompted me to seek another opportunity to work in this manner.

Instrument 2: Performative Topologies

In the summer of 2018, Vero D. Orozco worked with me in my studio. Our goal was to further explore co-creation. We set out with the idea to make a game. In multiple sessions with artist participants Vero had invited, we co-created a multi-step process that resulted in a series of verbal prompts, leading to a short performance sequence with individual outcomes to be performed simultaneously. We called this individual sequence the game figure, iterations of which were to be performed on the game board, a designated floor area.

In the fall of that year, I was able to take what we had developed to the Bauhaus University Weimar, where I led a ten-day seminar in the Media Environments department. Reiterating what had been formalized in Chicago in bi-weekly meetings, we now spent concentrated time observing and immersing ourselves in the process, in order to hone it and to think through theoretical implications. Here is where we thought about metamodeling as a way to speak about elastically modeling own ways of making sense. Genosko quotes Guattari’s suggestion to “make a graft of other models,” which he also calls “metamodeling,” instead of attempting to follow a standard model.” If successful, such “metamodeling transforms itself into automodeling, or auto-management” (133). Such automodeling is what users of The Braid can be said to perform. At this time, the subtitle “a metamodeling adventure” was added to an updated version of The Braid Instrument, due to be exhibited with “Performative Topologies” and one additional diagrammatic instrument at an exhibition in Berlin entitled “Performative Diagrammatics Laboratory.”

As part of the seminar, we identified as crucial an initial permission to speak freely, to bring to the table anything that seemed important, and to not be met with judgment, as the group transformed narratives and gestures into their personal game figures. The progression allowed game figures to not only hold meaning but to continue to produce it for their performers through their multiple iterations. Simultaneously performed on the “game board, a silent conversation ensued where each player explored own movements while contributing to a whole, with own rhythms shifting against each other, to create a dense, artful performance.

To document this polyrhythmic density, we decided to draw on video experiments that programmer Robert Woodley had done in 2016. Inspired by topological video transformations pioneered by mathematician Henry Segerman,[4] Woodley wrote custom code to apply to 360degree video footage. Viewing examples of his work, we noticed that some of his texture manipulations blurred boundaries between the space and the performers. This is similar to how, in my diagrammatic drawings, figures “configure their own ground, thereby eliminating the opposition between figure and ground. The topological video manipulations also capture how the performers intensity had shaped a coherent, yet flexible, unity, comparable to how “walking the torus” around the string braid structure had evoked its presence.

In particular, we felt it was necessary to document the performance from the inside, which a 360-degree camera allowed us to do. We wanted to privilege a collective perspective, neither that of individual participants, nor that of an external spectator, which the operator-less centrality of the 360-degree camera allowed for. The entire group was included in the field of view, while participants retained the agency to determine their proximity to the stationary camera at all times. As we performed game figure iterations around the 360-degree camera and recorded them in specifically selected architectural spaces, both in Chicago and in Weimar, the title Performative Topologies was born. The instrument in this project is the list of carefully worded prompts we co-created, in the order deployed. What the instrument enables its users to produce is thereby evoked through the mode of documentation. As emphasized by the form of digital capture, the themes of epistemic specificity and elasticity emerged as crucial in this project, as well, modeling a topological space created by the performance of epistemic diversity.

Excerpts from videos taken in Chicago and Weimar, manipulated with Robert Woodleys custom software. Shown at the Performative Diagrammatics Laboratory as part of the exhibition Membrane.


Unlike The Braid, this work is accessible not only to artists and cultural workers but also to general audiences. Anyone can play the game, and we staged workshops with diverse publics at exhibitions, conferences, and even a gala fundraiser for a community arts center.

Concluding Thoughts

Why is epistemic diversity valuable? How does it contribute to systemic elasticity? In this introduction to two diagrammatic instruments, The Braid and Performative Topologies, I have discussed what contributed to the formation of each project and what emerged from each.

A factor that contributed to the making of The Braid was my discontent with pursuing art in a climate that still treats it largely as what Maria Iñigo Clavo calls a subalternized form of knowledge(7). This is in part because art is an amethodological field that instead relies on epistemic specificity (see Mersch). Historically, the validation of this specificity has required textual mediation. The Braid is an instrument that promotes artistic agency in modeling specific own epistemes to self and to others, through a dialogic process that in turn admits multiple ways of knowing. This undermines institutional siloes by inviting reflection at three paradigmatic levels, thereby rendering contexts elastic and opening doors for a reassessment of working in the arts.

Devised through a co-creation process, Performative Topologies consists of a set of questions that promote a brief moment of introspection, followed by a series of cognitive shifts through which a memory is transformed into a group of movements. Working in an affirmative mode (Braidotti 416) validates experience, in both a personal and communal register. An affirmative ethics is what The Braid and Performative Topologies have in common. How experience is processed and expressed is part of epistemic diversity. To expose one another to diverse ways of knowing is impactful. A community that admits space for this opens itself to reassessment and reinvention through new forms of agency, within and beyond the arts.

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  1. Despite working only a hallway away from Dwight Conquergood at Northwestern in 1999, I only learned about his work in 2019. Reading “Interventions and Radical Research”, I lamented institutional stratification with him, and found a late ally: “Performance studies is uniquely suited for the challenge of braiding together disparate and stratified ways of knowing. [. . .] at Northwestern, we often refer to the three as of performance studies: artistry, analysis, activism. Or to change the alliteration, a commitment to the three cs of performance studies: creativity, critique, citizenship.” I prefer Conquergoods citizenship over Northwesterns activism frame. My own grounding in Cultural Management discourses led me to select managing as my third term. A Braid workshop I conducted at PSi #25 presented this approach.

  2. In a recent essay, I trace how a diagram I drew (and mis-drew) based on Karen Barads writing on intra-action, onto-epistemology and performativity became the initial model for The Braid (Mers).

  3. Videos from this initial series of conversations are posted here: Accessed 13 April 2021.

  4. Accessed 13 April 2021.