Damian Christinger

Can performance art still be radical?

On the occasion of Nicole Bachmann’s installation passing me around at ESPACE diaphanes, Zurich


Can performance art still be radical? The answer to this quaint question might vary with experience. If we ask more precisely and maybe interestingly whether performance art can still be hermeneutically radical, then we might create some new insights into performative arts today. In 1435 Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) developed a radical reading of art. For him, the Narcissus myth represented not simply a symbol of the dangers of vanity and self-centeredness, but also the birth of art. The moment of self-knowledge, in which the image dematerializes in reflection in concentric circles, combines with death. The capture of this combination, the reassurance of the finite self, demands a designed representation of the environment in concentric circles around the human being: the animals, the plants, the landscape, the buildings, the political and religious systems. We understand ourselves only in context; self-reflection must not remain self-reflection, otherwise it is fatal. The instruments we use to determine our position within these circles are our body and language. Nicole Bachmann’s performance art draws on these half-forgotten origins to create contemporary pieces investigating and scrutinizing the boundaries of relations, language and the self. A question that arises while watching her performances or videos: How can we create kinship through art, if art has at its centre the lost self?

Since the 16th century, Western art has operated from this field of tension of self-reflection with simultaneous localization in larger concentric circles. And in a purely secular context after the final shattering of the religious framework in modernity since Nietzsche. How can reality, that is, what is actually experienced, be depicted on stage? Whom or what do I call upon to assure me of myself when God no longer exists? After the civilizational catastrophe of World War I, the European narrative of itself could no longer be sustained, and artists sought new, foreign influences. The European avant-garde's intensive examination of the foreign, the non-European, however, remained in astonishingly many cases detached from the reality of the lives of those people whose cultural traces were incorporated as set pieces into their own artistic production. The Other, the African mask, the American doll, or the torso of a Khmer sculpture first served to shatter one's own culture, which had lost all value for the avant-garde after the war and served the longing for an Other in one's own. The approval and adaptation of cultural traces of other worlds were primarily supposed to change or erase one's own self, after Rimbaud’s famous dictum of "Je est un autre" (I is another). But the intention of what should happen to the "other I" was unclear. The only thing certain was that art had to become more global and at the same time find its way back to the performative origin of human expressions in the face of death, to the connection of rhythm, song, poetry, dance and stage.

Hermeneutic thinkers like the Canadian philosopher Charles Margrave Taylor argue that modernity created a cultural consciousness that has been shaped in such a way that we imagine ourselves as islands of awareness floating in the great ocean of life, being mere visitors on this spaceship called earth. This specious self-consciousness can be understood as a disengaged self. Conversely, artists like Bachmann could be read as non-nostalgic, engaged hermeneuts, working – maybe unconsciously, but dedicatedly – from within the legacy of an ethos of community (that is common dance, song and poetic language). Paulo Freire is a good reference here, writing in 1968 in the “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”: “The more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”

Bachmann enters the reality of her performers while giving them the freedom to explore and expand the materials she provides. In her painstakingly precise manner, she addresses two dangers that have troubled performance art and were repeatedly visible in the decade before the pandemic. Firstly, the void, the gap that exists in the society of the spectacle, according to Guy Debord, has been filled with a radical authenticity. The performer becomes a figure of pain who must experience the suffering of the world in her own body (since Marina Abramovic the blueprint, so to speak) in order to assert authenticity. The fact that in doing so she only joins the media spectacle is self-referentially thematized and the inner contradiction thus supposedly resolved. Self-staging is always self-questioning, and the performative element takes its etymological meaning seriously: it acts and concretizes. In speech-act theory there is a clear distinction between everyday speech and performative speech, which is concretely performing, inscribing and asserting itself in a general reality. However, this assertion must also be radically authentic in postcolonial, postaventgardist reality, which means, secondly, that the performer can only represent herself; no white woman can play a black man, and no man can take the role of a woman. Je n'est pas un autre. We speak only for ourselves. The images that emerge collectively in the process, however, remain self-referential. They become surrogates, contrary to their intention. The characters exist only in the play and through the play. They are not parts of the real world and lead a life of their own that cannot be brought together with a general human experience, since their experiences remain particular in their radical authenticity.

In their official essay for the Theater Spectacle 2021 in Zurich, "Post / Pandemic Times in the Sign of Fragility," Yener Bayramoğlu and María do Mar Castro Varela write: "The situation is serious: without contrapuntal perspectives that allow different voices to be heard, we will not survive as a human species. We are not all in the same boat: the virus threatens us in very unequal ways. A politics of strength has bred a necropolitics that cynically accepts the death of others. It is time to acknowledge the fragility of our lives, the dependence on others, and to redirect towards a politics of fragility that demands social, but also a cognitive justice. Perhaps art can help us to hear the delicate tones and the voices of the in-between, to endure the contradictions and ambivalences, and also the silences. Maybe."

But the voices of the in-between, the delicate intermediate tones, only emerge in a common speaking, in the choir whose members listens to each other. The sounds and fragments of poetry that appear dissonantly in Bachmann’s work give way to the individual voices of the performers, who insert their own particular stories into a polyphonic narrative of resistance and poetic resilience. The poetic utterance of pain transforms the experience of it. The movements of the bodies create relationships between them, and the multi-perspective narration involves the viewer; we are all part of a system that generates these injustices.



The interconnectedness achieved here – different wavelengths, interpreted by different parts of the body – are at the core of Bachmann’s heuristics. One is almost tempted to formulate an aesthetic "uncertainty relation" at this point, which, in contrast to that of Heisenberg for quantum physics (that is, that two complementary properties of a particle cannot be determined with arbitrary precision at the same time), translates into the mental experience of the world. The best-known example of such a complementary pair in quantum physics is location and momentum. The measurement of the momentum of a particle is necessarily associated with a perturbation of its location, and vice versa. The physical-mathematical scattering that results when we want to measure the particles in the "light wave" can perhaps also be fruitfully applied to aesthetic categories, where the sound created by Bachmann’s work gets lost in translation, only to create resonances in a different way, thus being truly contemporary and radical.