Features Diana's ColumnPerformance Published 11 July 2012

Language and Refractions

Language, place and performance.

Diana Damian Martin

I walk through the scaffolding of texts and gestures, of landscapes and sites. I watch how the light refracts. I watch whatever emerges. I see the text becoming.

‘Practice […] is the correct descriptor for artists whose works – underpinned by a conscious or unconscious founding in the legacy of critical and cultural theory- arise from idiosyncratic sets of ideas that seek to embody, test, represent or critique in some way’

In a recent article for Art Monthly, Morgan Quaintance discusses the development of the term practice and its shifting meaning in the landscape of contemporary art via recourse to deconstructing the relationship between art, theory and the institution.  The article surfaces the implication of action within the term practice, but also the displacement and perhaps ostracization of the term praxis from critical language, whether one embedded in the artwork itself, or reflective towards it. This points towards the ways in which place and language emerge as a particular strand of practice, and that reflection within the contemporary in the public sphere. Critique works as a conduit for this- not only as the practice of criticism, but also as a nomadic mode of engagement that shapes the ways in which we perceive art and curate its discourse.

The question of practice within the context of performance and live art is problematic, tied to the construction of dialogues that serve as social, political and cultural critiques as well as ways in which to engage with formal developments and temporary communities. Language serves not only as a complimentary document to a performance, but also as a form of its accessibility and sometimes, its aesthetic practice. Within performance, language becomes place. At the heart of this is action as gesture and device- as a way to empower and create ownership, a way to make visible and reflect. Action is performance’s transgressive catalyst, and it’s been fascinating to notice its shape-shifting nature in the public sphere.

At a recent showcase from Art Writing MA students from Goldsmiths at the Whitechapel Gallery titled Speaking Art Writing, language was presented as a highly aesthetic practice which, in performance, can begin to conjure and re-create. It reminded me of the ending of Roland Barthes’ brief exploration, The Pleasure of the Text, in which he states that “if it were possible to imagine an aesthetic of textual pleasure, it would have to include: writing aloud.” The problem was perhaps a lack of grounding that made these words too nomadic, lacking in enough momentum to engage with the site in which they were produced, or conjure enough associations that can emerge as a collective text. What it did illustrate is the ways in which, when language becomes a performative, aesthetic practice, the notion of text is fluid and open.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands, an exhibition at the British Library charting the relationship between literature and place, teased out those thoughts further in the ways in which it situated text, performing its variances and nuances through readings, soundscapes and visual collages. This created a narrative between the literary, the performative and site. Text in the exhibition becomes in tune with the rhythms of the landscapes it’s moulded by, travelling past empty wind-swept moors, in the dangerous silence of concrete suburbia or the jungle territories of a Ballardian post-apocalypse. Text becomes a performance of walking through these spaces, part literary part real, passing through borders imagined and constructed, saturated with the heaviness of inhabited words.

This enactment of text as moulded with landscape, shifting what we consider to be language in a constructed site, is most visible in festivals such as the excellent Up to Nature, which used the forest as a natural setting for work, thus providing a literary, textual quality to landscape, becoming a narrative and a breathing document at the same time. In more intriguing dissonance, Hayward’s exhibition Invisible: Art About the Unseen 1957-2012, also engaged with formal qualities of the textual in performance. Take for example, Yoko Ono’s Instruction Paintings, that use site as a place for curated gesture, or perhaps even more convincingly, Art and Language’s The Air Conditioning Show, the empty air-conditioned room that only becomes animated and inundated with meaning once the visitor has read the expansive theoretical text that frames its entrance almost like a window that one can peer through. Text here inhabits the space and creates action, underlining the relationship between description and visibility.

In some ways, Elevator Repair Service’s recent performance Gatz, as part of London International Festival, holds an intriguing relationship between text as performance and the displacement of normative aesthetic practices to conjure, re-enact and shift meaning. The text in Gatz isn’t solely what the performers speak; particularly in the beginning of the show, in which a bored employee begins to read from Fitzgerald’s novel like a child reading the phone book- it’s the action that serves as text, clearly emphasizing the distinction between what is suggested, what is enacted and what is narrated. Perhaps this is one of the ways in which the company can so successfully transform their set into so many visibly different sites and landscapes. Despite its grubiness, the office becomes both a glamorous mansion and an auto-repair shop, a metaphorical critique and a nomadic setting, and the tight connection between the performers’ physicalities, the words they utter and the way the literary invades the stage are what creates this conversation.


Diana Damian Martin

Diana Damian Martin is a London-based performance critic, curator and theorist. She writes about theatre and performance for a range of publications including Divadlo CZ, Scenes and Teatro e Critica. She was Managing Editor of Royal Holloway's first practice based research publication and Guest Editor for postgraduate journal Platform between 2012-2015. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice, and a member of practice-based research collective Generative Constraints. She is completing her doctoral study 'Criticism as a Political Event: theorising a practice of contemporary performance criticism' at Royal Holloway, University of London and is a Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.



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