Antemortem: Collaborative Research in Theatre and Performance Studies

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Brown, Kevin, Felipe Cervera, Kyoko Iwaki, Eero Laine, and Kristof van Baarle. “Antemortem: Collaborative Research in Theatre and Performance Studies.” Global Performance Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 2021.

Kevin Brown, Felipe Cervera, Kyoko Iwaki, Eero Laine, and Kristof van Baarle

Why Collaborate? The collaborative turn in labour has, in recent years, reconfigured the workplace and workforce to maximise resources: time, space, and infrastructure are shared in a bid to “humanise profit.” Open offices, cloud documents, multi-tasking, and distributed management: all are trademark characteristics of shared labour in the early 21st century. As theatre and performance scholars, we are often incredulous of this turn. Not least because sharing time and space in the act of labouring is, perhaps, an obvious point in any material analysis of performance, but also because our performative analytic tools provide us with the insights necessary to appreciate that collectivity does not necessarily mean solidarity. Artist collectives and collaborative labour frequently function at various points along the spectrum between shared autonomy and unwilling acquiescence. And yet, in the arts there is a persistent tendency to think in terms of genius and singular artistic voice. And, so we should ask again, even when our object of study is — and has historically been — collaborative in nature: why do we remain professionally obsessed with becoming singular voices?

Considering the high level of collaboration necessary to produce theatre and performance, why is so much of the scholarship on the subject written by single authors? To what extent might theatre and performance studies, as a practice, be benefited by some of the same conventions that inform the fundamental collaborative know-how of theatre and performance-making? How might collective forms of criticism, scholarship, and theory move us away from images of the individual expert, and develop deeper conceptions of performance and theatre practices as collaborative? By fostering collaborative scholarly practices, we might enable a different discourse on performance and theatre transforming the way we work, create, and critique while expanding our understanding of the broad network that we call “performance.” In a context where individual erudition and fierce competition for an ever-shrinking labour market are constitutive of the practice of studying performance, we see collaborative methodologies as an alternative and strategy for collective care and empowerment.

This joint issue of JDTC and GPS further opens the conversation of collaboration in theatre and performance research by inviting the field to work together, to research and to write collaboratively and collectively, to develop and uncover new methodologies for theatre, performance, and arts scholarship. By setting the formal guideline that all submissions must include at least three people on the byline, we do more than merely invite reflections on whether collaborating is better or worse. Indeed, we think, this issue rather encourages a revision and correction to how critical authorship is being practiced and understood in the field. The editorial process of bringing this joint issue to publication has in itself been an opportunity for us, the team editing it, to re-assess how editorial practices contribute to mechanisms and models that safeguard singular authorities in a field that relies on collectivity as its source. To what extent can we continue to articulate a collaborative criticality — and a criticality of collaboration — that takes as its starting point the possibility of fragmented authorship and distributed custodianship of knowledge?

These are questions that certainly exceed the efforts we may possibly bring to our editorial texts. Here, we take the adjective or adverb “antemortem,” which describes something before death, as a noun and corollary to the theatrical postmortem. Instead of looking backward at the processes that led to a final product, here we sit, communing with the ideas that informed us in editing this issue. A closer consideration of our collaborative editorial processes and glosses of all articles can be found in the postmortem, while the following paragraphs, then, open lines for collaborative thinking. We hope for a collective “afterlife” for the issue’s ideas and practises to shape theatre and performance scholarship as the field continues to mutate and reflect.

Even as this joint issue may represent the most extensive collection of co-authored work in the fields of theatre and performance studies to date, we propose a further reconsideration of what co-authorship means in the arts and humanities. We suggest that these fields — and perhaps knowledge in itself — stem from practises that are always already collaborations. As Jean-Luc Nancy affirms, we have always been beings of “singular plural” as “there is no meaning if meaning is not shared […] because meaning is itself the sharing of Being” (Nancy 2, emphasis in original). We can only share and share again, work together to find meaning. There is an old Japanese saying that acknowledges collective writing over individuality: “From the gathering of three people, the wisdom of Manjushri appears.” Writing and reading allow us to communicate with many across the planet — this is often the stated purpose of published scholarship — but as theatre and performance scholars and artists, we also know there is wisdom in the gathering itself.

In the arts and humanities, everything passes between us as we are always interlacing meaning. It then follows to think more critically about property and, indeed, so-called intellectual property. Even as we regularly work with forms that have often eluded neat understandings of possession and ownership, the written words we use to convey our thinking about these forms is often considered a commodity, a “thing” of value, something to be held in high esteem and respected for its finality and durability. We become precious with our words and hoard them. This kind of thinking has its roots in our institutions, legal entities, and ideologies, and the very idea that we might own our words. The structures that we are embedded within are already positioned against sharing text, sharing credit, and the development of new ways of working with both.

Perhaps it is not surprising then that sometimes when I collaborate, I fear my own erasure. We all do. The open invitation to the group is not always a welcome one — working with is sometimes just a euphemism for working for. Depending on the issues at play — power, fame, class, achievement, obligation, niceties, and/or consolidation of social structure (to say nothing of money or the promise of it) — the risks (and rewards) of collaborating (or not) can be quite high. The line between collaboration and compliance is always a fine one. From the perspective of those not in readily identifiable positions of power, collaboration means that when you are invited to work with someone, you have to weigh your options, you have to scrutinise the power dynamics, read between the lines, and more often than not still perform for the differentials of power extant beyond the project.

When every individual clings to preconceived notions of the rightness of their choice, it internalises the epistemologies of what Kandice Chuh calls “illiberal humanism,” the asymmetric power relations do not disintegrate through collaboration, but double down on the previous power dynamics (Chuh 2). That is, in many collaborations in art and the academy, the rules of the game are not rectified but reified. The “validity” always lies within the hands of the rule makers, and so those already privileged few are valorized for the work of the many. Given the relative paucity of established methods for collaborative scholarship in theatre and performance studies, perhaps we still have room to develop collaborative practices that offer ways of undoing the problematic dynamics found in other disciplines and even in the ways the arts we study are developed, rehearsed, and performed. Making every transaction more transparent is a step toward ensuring that collaborators are not erased by collaboration, hegemonic knowledge, and institutions.

And yet, in the collaboration itself, erasure can be liberating. There are immense epistemic possibilities in fusing with a group that thinks together. I do not know where my words begin or end, because the group has written with me, over me, and through me. We’re all in here somewhere, even as the boundaries between my words and others are dissolved. To refer to sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, however obvious it may seem, we have to remind ourselves once again that we live in a Gesellschaft in which consensus lies at the end and not at the beginning (Tönnies 47). The self-evident, or tacit, understanding that we possess has to be disintegrated to reach consensus, often through trials and tribulations. To this end, the perhaps paradoxical approach to navigating matters of collaboration is not to be on guard, but to move toward humbleness, humility — toward one’s own erasure.

We might turn to a text by dramaturge Bojana Cvejic on the way dramaturgs collaborate within an artistic process. A key shared comportment is that of having a common affinity: “Affinity will not just mean being close, similar, akin, fond or understanding of something, but having this feeling move forward or toward an end […] which doesn’t however pre-determine the process entirely from the beginning” (Cvejic 44). Because of this affinity, for Cvejic an artistic collaboration can be described as a friendship of problems, which actually builds forth on a shared ignorance: a shared question, a shared endeavour of which the outcome is not clear. We thus look to processes rather than the initial revelations when thinking of collaborative scholarly work. We’re less concerned with the origins of an idea that emerges in shared research and writing and much more interested in how our intermingling of ideas creates and crafts new modes and possibilities.

We borrow here a critical idea regarding the figuration and configuration of the world suggested by anthropologist Elizabeth A. Povinelli, who suggests that things and ideas often take shape not by identifying the ultimate “root” of those ontologies and copying and repeating the exact same actions, but, rather, by discovering all possible “routes.” Povinelli claims routes are “the condition of previous circulatory matrixes and become part of the matrix that decides which other kinds of things can pass through and be made sense of within the figured space” (Povinelli). It is the interweaving of routes that generate micro-original statements that can challenge the dominant and haunting narrative of individual brilliance. Focusing on routes rather than roots is a process of endless augmentation. In the end, differing angles, views, and tenets are woven into a tapestry of rich polyvocality that does not erase individuality precisely because it focuses on multiple routes and collective thoughts, which can only emerge when those individuals are gathered together. The continuous endeavour to cultivate a route, a path, a way, proves more fertile than detecting or fixing a single root. When we see the collaborative route, we also see the traces, tarnishes, transactions, transformations that happened along the polysemous way.

If we think about an ethics and careful approach towards collaboration and build on the insights of this joint issue, a few things become clear to us. As a way of bringing this antemortem — this moment before the end, to an end — we offer some last (and yet still initial) thoughts on collaborative work and scholarship. Collaborative research in the arts and humanities is made more possible when:

There is a shared commitment to bring something to an end that is unknown at the start of the collaboration;
Collaborators make power relations transparent, disengage from preconceived and established positions, and make hidden labour seen and the voices of others heard;
The group finds an “ignorance” that allows for curiosity, humility, and for inventing pathways anew as the work progresses;
The friendship of collaboration consists of continuous encounters and gathering with others, enabling development with others; and
It embraces everyone’s perspective, even as those perspectives are being reformulated through the work with different consequences and on levels one did not expect — this is the development of an “I” that is then dissolved and shared time and again within, but in tension with, a “we.”

Maybe collaboration is not an end in itself. Even as particular projects need to end, the collaborative process is nevertheless a means to unfold a shared problem and change perspectives. It is an encounter with others and with one’s own thoughts and practices. To write together is to gather.


Works Cited

Cvejic, Bojana. “The Ignorant Dramaturg.” Maska, vol. 16, no. 131-132 (Summer 2010), pp. 40-53.

Chuh, Kandice, The Differences Aesthetics Makes: On the Humanities “After Man.” Duke University Press, 2019.

Nancy, Jean-Luc, Being Singular Plural. Trans. Robert Richardson and Anne O’Byrne, Stanford University Press, 2000.

Povinneli, Elizabeth. “Routes/Worlds.” e-flux, Issue #27, 2011, Accessed 2 November 2021.

Tönnies, Ferdinand, Community and Society. Trans. Charles P. Loomis, Harper, 1963.