From: Social Works. Performing Art, Supporting Publics
by SHANNON JACKSON
Across the Social Arts
Debates among European and North American intellectuals about self and structure and changing socio-economic systems cannot be adequately represented by any summary that I could offer. Furthermore, pace Giddens, those with the most cachet in critical theory circles do not usually receive cabinet positions. But I use the brief snapshot above to give a general context of the domain in which we find a discourse of socially engaged art emerging, and, more particularly, a generalized anxiety or mistrust of “structure” that would propel and rattle the assumptions of such work. The international art world, specifically the kind of visual art world advanced in the gallery-collector-biennial- magazine system, has its own uniquely equivocal place in this context. In twentieth century aesthetic debate, to take an artistic stance on the social is to exercise the relative autonomy of the aesthetic domain, using that distance to defamiliarize normative categories and modes of perception and to ask impertinent and never fully intelligible questions of normative life. At the same time, parallel aesthetic movements have taken up this essentially critical stance by paradoxically questioning the conceptions of autonomy on which aesthetic critique seemed to depend. After Minimalism foregrounded the art object’s spectatorial dependence, for instance, movements in institutional critique extended that sense of aesthetic dependence to include the economic and social infrastructures of the museum itself. But we can also look at such a gesture from another vantage point, one that might differently explain the reason
that many now speak of institutional critique’s “exhaustion,” seek an “exit strategy,” and examine its “after” life.16 What if we consider, for instance, Boltanski and Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism (cited on page 23) from the vantage point of de-autonomizing art movements? These authors argue that an essential feature of this new spirit is its decisive incorporation of what they called the “aesthetic critique” into socio-economic representation. The innovative ironies and wry distance associated with the aesthetic position now inform capitalism’s self-marketing, offering criticality as a consumptive pleasure, whether at Prada-funded receptions or in the marketing of edgy artist loft condominiums. From this perspective, then, institutional critical gestures of systemic exposure might themselves be a vehicle for criticality’s market absorption. The irony of this use of irony has of course not been lost on many of its signature artists and their critics, before and since Benjamin Buchloh warned of the fate of an “aesthetics of
administration.”17 Meanwhile, whether despite or because of aesthetic critiques of the social, the “market” in the art market has developed as a kind of ur-model of the de-regulated institution, one buoyed by a discourse of flexibility and appreciation to sustain a system of complex and unending speculation. As much as some might worry about art’s absorption by the market, however, just as many critics are worried by the history of art’s absorption by the state. Whether in remembering the Stalinist purging of Constructivist Art from state- approved aesthetics or reviewing Theodor Adorno’s criticisms of Brecht’s didacticism, critics and artists remain concerned about the instrumentalization of the arts by pre-determined civic and state agendas. The histories of former Soviet-bloc and communist Asian countries that are most often read in the West are those that define aesthetic expression not as something buoyed by the generosity of public art funding but as brave acts of resistance against structural, state-imposed censorship. Within current and former European welfare states, histories vacillate between the proud recounting of magnanimous state-funded artistic initiatives and constrained con fessions of the instrumentalized art that state arts programs produce. In the United Kingdom, Claire Bishop argued that artists were more corrupted by their collusion with the state, especially a current one informed by a discourse of diversity, than by
their collusion with the art market. I think that these are the kind of projects we have to think about much more carefully and critically than work done within the relatively neutral and staged confines of a gallery space … I think I am very critical of the instrumentalization of people with respect to long-term artistic projects engaging specific communities with very particular economic or ethnic backgrounds, which receive prioritized government funding in order for culture to reflect policies of
social inclusion through the artificial generation of an audience for a participatory work.18 While the history of Stalinist purges and contemporary ethnic identity politics seem to bear little relation to each other, the former can be invoked by critics of the latter to question the instrumentalized use of the arts in national image- making. For community artists for whom civic engagement is a given—and for whom a “gallery space” is never “neutral”—Bishop’s sense that socially engaged art actually invokes “community” to deflate debate and impose consensus is hard to fathom. However, when “government funding” of culture was recently re-prioritized in the UK to fund the national image-making of the London Olympics, some deprioritized artists and art organizations felt the sting of a state culture discourse. In the United States, where the relatively small federal and state budgets earmarked for the arts make the concept of “prioritized government funding” somewhat laughable, the non-profit foundation system is felt both to sustain and constrain the field of art-making. Rosalind Deutsche’s complex analysis of aesthetic infrastructures in Evictions tracks artistic imaginings within a wide network of civic claims and gentrifying speculation. In her US-based study of site specific and community art, One Thing After Another, Miwon Kwon
recounts the processes by which artistic autonomy and heteronomous community agendas could sometimes run intorecounts the processes by which artistic autonomy and heteronomous community agendas could sometimes run into conflict. Both Alexander Alberro and Julia Bryan-Wilson find art workers of the Vietnam Era vacillating between an activism that would focus on public health care and housing for artists and one that would focus instead on rights of
ownership in an appreciating art market.19 Meanwhile, the funding that does remain available through foundation or public grants for US artists to work in schools, in prisons, in militaries, in hospitals, and in other under-funded state institutions provides both a welcome avenue of artistic support and the lurking anxiety that artists are being asked to pick up the pieces of US educational, health, and welfare systems that have been increasingly “rolled back.” In such situations, systemic support for the arts paradoxically can use the arts as a vehicle for training citizens to seek “individual solutions to systemic problems,” to recall Ulrich Beck. Such artistic palliatives offer therapeutic rehabilitation, temporary pride, or imaginative escape in once-a-week artist visits that are not reciprocally empowered to re-imagine the political economic landscape of participants. As we work through these and other paradoxes around artistic privacy and publicity, private funding and public funding, it becomes clear that art-making as a supported and supporting apparatus is also in need of a third way—perhaps several third ways—to respond to art’s heterogeneous mixed economies.
What, one may ask at this point, does this discussion of social art’s mixed economies have to do with my earlier discussion of mixed media? At a fairly basic level, my interest in joining a discussion of cross-medium experimentation with that of social theory comes from a recognition that socially engaged art seems to require artists to develop skills in more than one medium. The sculpture becomes a public sculpture when knowledges of audience perception and motion are tracked and re-imagined—i.e., when sculpture becomes self-consciously choreographic. The theatrical production becomes site-specific theatre when the extension of civic space unhinges the proscenium’s boundaries—i.e., when theatre becomes self-consciously architectural. The photographic installation becomes interactive when mounted within a scene—i.e., when installation becomes a self-conscious act of set design. One can cite example after example where the “social” turn in art seems to depend upon a cross-medium turn as well. There is, however, something else that is conceptually intriguing in deciding to see social-engagement in medium-dependent terms. Most interestingly, such a conception challenges our understanding of what is properly within the aesthetic sphere and what is heteronomously located outside of it. Not only does it position social art as intermedial; that intermediality also re-calibrates inherited understandings of what is within and what is without the art event. Any clear division between an intrinsic ergon and extrinsic parergon unravels in the cross-medium encounter. Conversely, the unsettling of inside/outside divisions is helped along by cross-medium experimentation, especially when one medium’s parergon turns out to be another medium’s ergon. If a public art audience’s gestures are choreographic, then the gestural realm is not simply a “contextual” effect of the art piece but interestingly integral to its interior operation. If a theatre extends its site-specific parameters, such a social engagement needs the expertise of an architectural imagination; theatre’s social engagement may break with its own medium-specificity skill set, but it needs the architect’s medium-specific skill set to complete the task. By capturing the medium-specific skills that enable social engagement, the “social” in these scenarios cannot be neatly located to the realm of art’s “context.” The social here does not exist on the perimeter of an aesthetic act, waiting to feel its effects. Nor is the de-autonomizing of the art object a de-aestheticization. Rather, the de-autonomizing of the artistic event is itself an artful gesture, more and less self-consciously creating an intermedial form that subtly challenges the lines that would demarcate where an art object ends and the world begins. It is to make art from, not despite, contingency.
There are particular reasons that I want to hold on to this perceptual sense of how cross-medium social art challenges inherited parameters for defining the within and the without of art. Most importantly, such a sense responds to a long- standing debate in twentieth and twenty-first century theory on autonomy and heteronomy, art’s proper inside and its external outside. Such categorical oppositions are always in danger of being reified in social art discussions. As noted earlier, the problem then with socially engaged art is that it would seem, nearly by definition, to be beholden to the “external rules” of the social. It is thus not properly aesthetic, that is, not capable of extracting itself from social claims long enough to take a properly critical or interrogative stance. What if, however, we can also notice the degree to which such externality treads upon the internal territory of another art form? What if, furthermore, the negotiation of an externalized governance can itself be conceived as part of an art project? What if such aesthetic negotiation defamiliarizes the social processes that might otherwise be defined as exterior, as milieu, or as instrumentalizing? Finally, what if we remember the contingency of any dividing line between autonomy and heteronomy, noticing the dependency of each on the definition of the other, watching as the division between these two terms morphs between projects and perspectives?
To historians familiar with a history of art-into-life experiments, such possibilities may no longer seem promising. For those who have witnessed all varieties of instrumentalized alienation—whether in a post-Brechtian theatre or an
institutionally critical art gallery—these efforts have run their course. It will be my contention, however, that a
institutionally critical art gallery—these efforts have run their course. It will be my contention, however, that a different frame emerges in these discussions if we account for the artistic skills required to sustain the Life side of the supposed Art/Life binary. This is where my position within the field of performance studies shows its hand again, as I am probably more discontented than others when aesthetically organized acts of performance receive homogenizing
and facile treatment as the “disruption” of “life” into art.20 It is my contention that some socially engaged art can be distinguished from others by the degree to which they provoke reflection on the contingent systems that support the management of life. An interest in such acts of support coincides with the project of performance. Performance has often been placed in a supporting role to other arts, whether because its autonomy has been under question or—on the flip side—because it is the form to which other arts turn when they need a little heteronomous engagement. By emphasizing—rather than being embarrassed by—the infrastructural operations of performance, we might find a different way to join aesthetic engagement to the social sphere, mapping a shared interest in the confounding of insides and outsides, selves and structures. To emphasize the infrastructural politics of performance, however, is to join performance’s routinized discourse of disruption and de-materialization to one that also emphasizes sustenance, coordination, and re-materialization. To redirect along these lines is finally to remind ourselves that the Art/ Life discourse has a different traction when we recast it as a meditation on the paradoxes of Art and its Support.
“Picture further the light from a fire burning higher up and at a distance behind them, and between the fire and the prisoners and above them a road along which a low wall has been built, as the exhibitors of puppet shows have partitions before the men themselves, above which they show the puppets.” “All that I see,” he said. “See also then, men carrying past the wall implements of all kinds that rise above the wall, and human images and shapes of animals as well, wrought in stone and woods an every material, some of these bearers presumably speaking and others silent.”
“A Strange image you speak of,” he said, “and strange prisoners.”
Plato, The Republic 514b Plato’s very early reference to the theatrical run crew is a reminder of the fundamental role of aesthetic support. It is also a reminder that such support takes human form and extracts human costs, a fact trivialized when such laboring
bodies are cast as “rude mechanicals.”21 Performance both activates and depends upon a relational system, a contingency that makes it a prime venue for reflecting on the social and for exposing the dependencies of convivial and expressive spheres. Because this issue of “support” will be important throughout this book, let me share a few historical associations that will resonate differently as my arguments develop. From 1382, we find: “To bear, to hold up, to prop up; To endure without opposition or resistance; to bear with, put up with, tolerate.” The words have a structural association that is literal, to “hold up,” and that suggests a more metaphorical association that is social—“to bear with.” The use of the word “prop” is particularly resonant for me, as it anticipates the visual art term for pictorial support as well as the theatrical term for the human object world. There is a temporal commitment implied in this holding and this bearing, an “enduring” that will be ongoing. Interestingly, this enduring is also tolerant and resigned; in fact, a tolerating resignation might well be what it means to offer enduring support. To support is to hold up “without opposition or resistance,” implying a kind of promise to bear however unbearable the task becomes. By 1686, more definitions and associations start to augment the social character of the supporting act, ongoing acts whose descriptions use the gerund verb form. As the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) chronicles, it is defined then as: “The action of keeping from falling, exhaustion, or perishing, especially the supplying of a living thing with what
is necessary for subsistence; the maintenance of life .”22 The subtle difference between “holding up” and “keeping from falling” emphasizes the fragility and indeed gravitational vulnerability of the thing held, making clear what would happen if it was withdrawn. But now there is more sentient possibility in the thing propped up and, by extension, more metaphoric kinds of “falling”; it might “exhaust” or “perish,” implying in turn the need for a range of supportive actions beyond those that compensate for the literal pull of gravity. Indeed, the propped object is now very possibly a “living thing,” one whose subsistence depends upon a range of necessities that imply a range of actions— feeding, cleaning, watering, etc. There is then, ever so slightly, a formal expansion in what the support includes here, opening up from a stably static entity—one that quite often sustains from below—to a more dynamic, lateralized series of supporting actions. Support is not only “undermounted” but also imagined in motion and as laterally relational. That lateralized, dynamic expansion of supporting actions is necessary to sustain an entity that seems to be, for all intents and purposes, “living.” Living beings, in fact, need their run crews.
Having reflected generally on the term’s etymology, let us focus on some specific disciplinary trajectories with which a term like “support” interacts. The tendency, or not, to engage in the “avowal of support” is what interests me since the question of that avowal is at issue in long twentieth-century aesthetic discussions about the autonomy of the art
the question of that avowal is at issue in long twentieth-century aesthetic discussions about the autonomy of the art
object. Of course, the conventions of the nineteenth-century idealist aesthetic argued that art achieved its greatness to the degree that its representations transcended its material substrate, rising above its raw material and its social apparatus of production. This is one way of casting an early aesthetic opposition between “autonomy” and “heteronomy.” Transcendent art achieved that state by appearing to exist independently from its material, that is, it seemed to exist autonomously from the conditions of its making. In many ways, the debates of twentieth-century aesthetics have revolved around whether, how, and to what extent an art form could have such status and/or achieve such an autonomous effect. For some, the achievement of transcendence was only sublimation—the perception of autonomy only the disavowal of the “external rules” that perpetually structured all social life, including the social life of aesthetics. This is to say, for some, the “disavowal of support” was the illusory trick needed to create the effect of an autonomous work of art. Early twentieth-century workers’ movements re-imagined the social role of art in heteronomous terms, whether in the appropriation of vernacular forms, the institution of social realism as a progressive aesthetic, the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, or the Constructivist re-imagining of the affinity between artistic labor and social labor. While we often remember these and other movements with a generalized vocabulary that celebrates art as socially-engaged, Social Works wants to remember the dimensions of this kind of work that induced infrastructural avowal, that is, that understood “heteronomy” as a socio-political but also as an aesthetic- formal openness to contingency, to experiments in not being privately self-governing. It thus considers aesthetic responses to what AbdouMaliq Simone has called “living infrastructures,” the sentient run crews that sustain the
social in our contemporary moment.23 Similar kinds of preoccupations around the art object’s supporting structure have propelled other twentieth-century art experimentation. Marcel Duchamp famously entered to ask similar questions about the autonomy of the art object, installing everyday objects in the art museum to expose art as an effect heteronomously produced by the conventions of the museum. As I discuss at more length in a later chapter, the Situationist International sought to join a Duchampian legacy with a Brechtian one in re-imagining artfully the psychogeography of civic terrain. Temporally coincident but politically differentiated, the late fifties and sixties also saw the rise of modernist art criticism. A discourse that emerged around movements in Abstract Expressionist painting, its major critics re-activated a debate about the autonomy of art by emphasizing elements (such as the flatness of the canvas) that nineteenth-century critics might have defined as its substrate or parergon. It is at this juncture that a discourse of “medium specificity” emerges to isolate the terms of modernism. Powerful modernist art critic Clement Greenberg exemplified a position that found a new aesthetic autonomy for modernist painting in the degree to which it conducted its own inquiry into its medium-
specific condition, which was to say, for Greenberg, its flatness: It quickly emerged that the unique and proper area of competence of each art coincided with all that was unique to the nature of its medium… . It was the stressing … of the ineluctable flatness of the support that remained most fundamental in the processes by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under Modernism. Flatness, two-dimensionality, was the only condition painting shared with no other art, and so Modernist painting oriented itself to
flatness as it did to nothing else.24 What is noteworthy about the original articulation of this oft-quoted passage is the equivalence it draws between the painting’s “support” and the painting’s “medium.” In later versions, Greenberg would tellingly amend his phrasing, substituting “the ineluctable flatness of the surface” where he had first referred to “the ineluctable flatness of the support.” But by temporarily equating the painting’s surface canvas with its “support,” Greenberg opened the door to debate about whether the canvas’s flatness exhausted “the limiting conditions” of the painting’s supporting apparatus. What about the frame? The hooks and wires holding up the frame?The wall to which the hooks attached? The people who built the wall? And what about those people who entered the walled space to receive the painting? In many ways, Minimalist artists recognized the latent de-autonomizing potential in a medium-specific modernist art
paradigm, pushing its principles to places unintended by its critics.25 Greenberg and Michael Fried would famously trounce these moves, interpreting the tendency to “unflatten” the canvas as “anti-painting.” “Shaped supports only prolong the agony,” Michael Fried famously wrote. When Minimalist sculpture sought to redefine its supporting conditions from the undermounted pedestal to the spectatorial relation, Fried was similarly dismissive. Such “literalist works of art must somehow confront the beholder—they must, one might almost say be placed not just in his space
butin his way.”26 The avowal of support felt terribly inconvenient. Of course, the agony for Fried would continue with decades of new experimentation, spawning whole varieties of post-Minimalist art movements—from body art to institutional critique to site-specific art to social practice and relational aesthetics—that variously engaged ever-widening contexts, milieux, and supporting apparatuses. By 2005, W. J. T. Mitchell and legions of other critics would suggest that this expansion had fundamentally altered our ability
to locate a stably autonomous art object. The medium is more than the material and (pace McLuhan) more than the message, more than simply the image plus the support—unless we understand the
The medium is more than the material and (pace McLuhan) more than the message, more than simply the image plus the support—unless we understand the
stable and more permeable in contemporary critical imagining.
“support” to be a support system—the entire range of practices that make it possible for images to be embodied in the world as pictures—not just the canvas and the paint, in other words, but the stretcher and the studio, the gallery, the museum, the collector, and the dealer-critic system.27 This expanded sense of art’s “support system” has also produced varieties of “social” engagements that challenged the opticentrism of the visual art event, incorporating the artist’s body, inducing a spectator to “interact,” or asking all participants to engage in unorthodox relations of exchange and duration. Such work has changed visual art understandings of what constitutes the “material” of the art object as well. Indeed, international art darling Rirkrit Tiravanija regularly plays with this convention; the didactics for his gallery-installed cooking pieces include a reference to materials, but instead of writing “oil on canvas” or “wire on steel,” he writes that his materials are “lots of people.” In his much cited 1995 book Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud argued that, in such artistically
relational experiments, “inter-subjectivity is the substrate” for the art event.28 I take up readings of Bourriaud’s work throughout Social Works, but it is worth noting now that his use of the word “substrate” placed this contemporary brand of experimentation in an ongoing conversation on the nature of the “support.” It will be interesting then to see whether such relational activity can be interpreted as a revelation of interdependent support, even if the support has moved from the static undermounted place of the base to the lateralized dynamic of the living infrastructure. Of course, if we remember Plato’s “prisoners” supporting the spectacle of the cave, we might want to question any analytic frame that would track a movement from supporting canvases and pedestals to the supporting actions of relational art; early theatre histories trouble such chronologies, reminding us that image production has depended upon lateralized supporting action from the get-go.
Having lingered on a discourse of support in aesthetic and visual arts trajectories, let us also try to integrate a discourse of support as it animates social theory. We could think about its relation to another keyword that has both aesthetic and social resonance, “the base,” where, of course, Karl Marx theorized the material and economic structures that acted in a determining relation with the so-called superstructure. In reductive Marxist thinking, the inherited images and diagrams often used to describe the supporting relation of the base show a stacked relation, where base is lower and foundational, superstructure higher and illusory. While the base in this Marxist picture is, in art historical terms, “undermounted,” all kinds of post-Marxist thinkers have tried to unsettle the base’s metaphorically gravitational placement. Louis Althusser exposed the force and power of the supposedly illusory ideological sphere, producing a conversation between psychoanalysis and Marxism that developed a concept of interpellation to dramatize the simultaneity of psychic and structural self-installation. A later path-breaking intervention—indeed, the intervention that arguably launched the term “post-Marxist”—came from political philosophers Ernesto Laclau and
Chantal Mouffe with the publication of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.29 Resuscitating the thoughts penned by Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks, they argued that the concept of hegemony offered the most helpful tool in combating the orthodoxies of Leninist Marxism, showing the realm of the “psychic,” the interior, and the “subject” to be more complexly dynamic than a theory of false consciousness had allowed.
Subsequently, the theoretical branches of the social sciences and the humanities worked to dismantle the oppositions between inner and outer, micro and macro, above and below, self and structure, base and superstructure—along with the tendency to locate one dimension as properly humanist and the other as socially scientific. Marxist geographers such as David Harvey, for example, have tried to foreground the dynamism of a material sphere in which scales ranging from the macro-international to the micro-corporeal mutually define each other. Indeed, fellow geographer Neil Smith suggested that the most interesting cultural and social projects are those that “jump scales,” those that
foreground the systemic interdependence of intimate and global spheres.30 Meanwhile, from within the critical humanities, theoretical frames have sought to dismantle oppositions between inside and outside at every turn. Michel Foucault proposed that the concept of the individual in the individual self was in fact produced by the so-called
exterior structures it would claim to oppose.31 Judith Butler would take this insight to show the embeddedness of interiorized selves within a network of relational fields, making the social formation of both self and field a recursive
and mutually dependent operation.32 Across social and critical theory—including a much wider network of scholars who proceed from varied disciplinary and regional positions—a discourse of mutual dependence has arguably loosened conceptions of supporting apparatuses, conceiving them as neither exclusively “basic” nor exclusively exterior but rather as dynamic and relational in multidirectional planes of interaction. Jasbir Puar extended Deleuze and Guattari’s language of “assemblage” to analyze the social “concatenation of disloyal and irreverent lines of flight
—partial, transient, moment, and magical.”33 It is worth remarking that Allan Kaprow and fellow Happenings and Fluxus artists also used the language of “assemblage” to describe their own unsettlings of figure and ground, object and support, art and life. While the perpetual pursuit of autonomy continues to animate a theory of democracy as well as a critical concept of aesthetics, the bounded referents for autonomous personhood and autonomous art become less
stable and more permeable in contemporary critical imagining. Within this theoretical conversation, of course, it has not always been the case that the language of self-construction has used the language of interdependence, or that the “external rules” of heteronomous expansion have been registered as “supporting.” Rather, “rules” and “regulation” are often registered as invasion, as corruption, or as oppression, even when so many thinkers have argued so carefully that the unsettling of inside and outside means critiquing the insidious projections implied by such adjectives. It is hard to argue for an understanding of systemic complexity when so many are suspicious of “The System.” At the same time, because thinkers ranging from Foucault to Butler have been so careful to argue that “power” is in fact “productive” or that “subjugation” and “subjectivity” depend upon each other, it seems important to bolster these complex models with a complex affective sphere. For me, such a necessary sphere is one where interdependence is not imagined in compromised terms or where a recognition of heteronomous personhood comes only after grudging acceptance. To avow the supporting acts that sustain and are sustained by social actors is to avow the relational systems on which any conception of freedom rests. It is to make a self from, not despite, contingency. The impulse to give conceptual and affective complexity to the supporting act brings us back, too, to systemic questions of governance glossed earlier; within the history of debates about first, second, and third ways, we also find the discourse of “dependency” dragging at the heels of social imagining. There, those policy wonks and pundits return at different stages to debate the “dependency” of certain groups on state welfare provisions, casting a certain model of citizenship within the pejorative language of addiction. As Nancy Fraser, Linda Gordon, Wendy Brown, Gwendolyn Mink, Mimi Abramovitz, Theda Skocpol, and others have argued, these discourses raise autonomous personhood as a self-governing ideal against the heteronomously
contingent disabled citizen, undocumented migrant, or welfare mother.34 Furthermore, these feminist critics argue that a discourse of dependency simultaneously allows certain citizens to imagine themselves as independent and “self- governing.” The perception of autonomy is once again achieved through a kind of disavowal, a disavowal of the tax breaks, military pensions, public schools, wifely labor, house-keepers, off-shoring, and capitalist alienation that allows certain persons to believe themselves to be unfettered and individually responsible for their private success.
It is here where the radicality of projects that might be called post-Marxist or post-Foucauldian seem most in need of asserting themselves, complicating a social model that would cast interdependency as deformation or, conversely, as inconveniently “in the way” of the citizen-spectator. Psychically and socially, such a project will have to confront the Freudian dilemmas of “anaclitic love” on a wider social scale, what Judith Butler elaborates as “the type of love that
is characterized by the need for support or by the love of those who offer support.”35 The problem of this semi- conscious attachment to support is that “the Child” paradoxically is annoyed to discover “his” reliance upon it. In both art projects and social projects, receivers similarly use the language of inconvenience and constraint to manage the psychic scandal of being exposed to their own disavowed dependency. It is hard to ask someone to get off your back once you realize that she has your back.
Let me close with some final reflections on performance’s relationship to support and a preview of the chapters to come. The fact of Bertolt Brecht’s pivotal place in a history of theatrical experimentation offers one kind of anchor for joining questions of aesthetic infrastructures to social ones. But as the breadth of references above make clear, his genealogy cannot exhaust it. It appears certainly in dance contexts to describe the relation among moving bodies, altering the choreography of gendered hierarchies where male dancers “support” the gravitationally defiant ballerina to modern and post-modern dance forms where weight is distributed across figures who simultaneously support each other. Within the field of disability performance, questions of support have a particular philosophical resonance, especially when apparatuses such as prostheses, canes, and wheelchairs challenge the perceived autonomy not only of the disabled but of all temporarily abled humans. The prosthetic extensions of self that characterize both aesthetic and everyday performances of disability underscore the fragile contingency of the parergon in the management of autonomous subjectivity. The disability movement’s activism around “independent living” in fact rests upon a complicated understanding of the “interdependent” living conditions that structure all social life.
In both lay and professional theatrical contexts, of course, one might think of a phrase like “supporting actor.” A staple of acting award ceremonies, it is often interpreted as excellence in a smaller role. To take seriously its designation as supporting is to take seriously the structural location of certain roles in holding up the entire performance event; this is to emphasize a working ethic that most of us take from theatre, that “main” characters are never autonomous but interdependently supported by others, that “there are no small parts, only small actors,” etc. Interestingly, however, the word “support” was connected much earlier to the theatre as a way of describing acting itself, that is, the relation between the actor who “supported” the character s/he played. “Support” referred to the act of “sustaining a character in a dramatic performance.” A 1791 Theatre Guardian review, for instance, noted that “The characters were admirably supported.” Support also referred to social acting as much as theatrical, to the act of
“maintaining a certain behavior of conduct.” For example, a 1765 conduct manual asserted that: “The higher
“maintaining a certain behavior of conduct.” For example, a 1765 conduct manual asserted that: “The higher character a person supports, the more he should regard his minutest actions.” Support thus gave terminology to the material and gestural apparatus of acting in general, and only recently became a term reserved for specific characters whose outlying but structurally necessary placement in a narrative demoted them to “supporting.” What I like about this genealogy is that it seems to emphasize the actor and acting as material substrates; certainly most anyone in theatre knows that Rirkrit Tiravanija was not the first to notice that “material” could be “lots of people.”
However, once we add the multiple associations attached to terms such as theatre and performance, it becomes exceedingly clear that one cannot consistently place performance on any particular “side” of a paradigm that would divide self and structure, inside from outside, literal from figural, individual from collective. Indeed, in some discussions of social theory, metaphors of performance emphasize its connotations of artificiality and playfulness to align it with a global capitalist ludism that has no time for the encumbrances of social claims. For some, the term performance is equal to the “spectacle” in The Society of the Spectacle, the realm of consumptive simulation lambasted by Guy Debord; for others, performance is aligned with Debord’s psychogeographic interventions that he hoped would disrupt the consumptive secession of simulacra. The ambiguity of where to place performance on a continuum between culture industry and cultural resistance is only compounded by the number of ways individuals understand the medium. For readers of Peggy Phelan, performance’s primary condition resides in its ephemerality;
“performance’s being,” to quote an oft-quoted sentence, “becomes itself through disappearance.”36 Such a sensibility aligns with the visual art sensibility that positioned performance as a vehicle for “de-materializing” the art object. The socio-political claims made for ephemerality—that it resists capitalist commodification—of course now seem increasingly hard to maintain; indeed, such shape-shifting might actually enable rather than stall the flexibly de- referentialized spirit of new capitalist formations. But it seems to me that Phelan’s provocative statement did not suggest that we disavow the labor required to create an experience of unraveled becoming. Indeed, we might find a slightly different emphasis by thinking about how her argument develops: “Performance honors the idea that a limited
number of people in a specific time/space can have an experience of value which leaves no visible trace afterward.”37 It is here, in imagining what it takes to gather but to limit the people, what it means to secure a space and specify a time, what it means to be one of the limited people who will make the effort to get to that space at that time, that we begin to acknowledge the material relations that support the de-materialized act. Ephemeral forms still need their stage managers and their run crews. Becoming unpresent does not mean that no one ever needs to show up.