Returning the gaze

“Returning the Gaze. Between Cultural Performance and Performance Art” from:
Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Shadow and the Gaze of Theatre: A European Perspective. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997, pp. 218-232

summary by Nina

Erika Fischer-Lichte points to the importance of performance in the constitution of contemporary Western society, that she calls a ‘culture of theatricalizations’ (218). By theatricalization is meant the staging of reality by individuals and different social groups as well as the staging of themselves. Fischer-Lichte develops in this article her definition of ‘performance art’ to describe our experience of our reality. She does so in relation to the term ‘cultural performance’, coined by the anthropologist Singer in 1959. The emphasis on cultural performance is the consequence of a shift away from texts and monuments in the experience of a culture.

This experience of reality as a performance, has increased through the use of new media. New media introduces worlds of simulacra/ simulation/ appearance into our experience and blurs our perception of reality as authentic/ true/ real. Therefore, these binaries cease to exist.
Also in the realm of art, the performative mode has been privileged over the last decades. This has resulted in the fine arts in a new art form: Performance Art. Fischer-Lichte considers theatre as the performative genre par excellence, which distinguishes her from many of her colleagues, who see performance as something opposing theatre. She goes further by suggesting that all arts have merged into performance art. In contrast to her colleagues who seek to singularize performance art, Fischer-Lichte foregrounds an interdisciplinary approach between art and culture. She formulates the following questions to discover the role of her broad definition of performance art:

1.    How is performance art related to other genres of cultural performance?

She states that performance art transforms a certain genre of cultural performance that they proceed from or allude to. The terms that anthropologist Singer uses to feature a cultural performance; a time span, a beginning and an end, an organized program of activity, a set of performers, an behaviour of the audience, and a place and occasion of performance, are converted or affected by the artistic performance. ‘The particular self-image the culture has encapsulated in the specific performance genre’ can be made explicit by performance art. By quoting a genre of cultural performance, performance art ‘acts as a kind of cultural memory’ (232)

2.    What explanation can be found for the prevalence of performance art in postmodern, postindustrial western culture? What function? What meaning?

Contemporary art functions in this performative mode to emphasize the importance of performance in the constitution of a culture. Also: [important!] performance art evokes direct and free communication. This means that also the act of reception is performed in the middle of an audience, which is received by other audience-members. ‘ The spectator of the moment will be a performer in the next. The gaze directed at the Other is returned by the Other’ (231)
Both issues: – the transformation of the cultural performance and the result of direct communication come back her case study on the reception of the performance by the artists Fusco and Gomez Pena: performance art can serve as a critical discourse on the culturally conditioned gaze. It lays bare, returns the gaze to you.

– Could you remember and describe a performance in which you actually experienced your gaze being returned?
– What do you think of the following statement: ‘Performance art, […] seems to create and reactivate some of the last residues in contemporary culture that make it possible to communicate directly in public and to act as a member of a community’
– If boundaries between art forms blur and we could as well classify everything as performance art, we are not concerning the art-product/ or object as the most important aspect of art anymore, but rather the effect it has on its audience. How would you describe the role of the object in ‘performance art’?


~ by ninaaal on February 22, 2009.

12 Responses to “Returning the gaze”

  1. Referring to the last question: “We are not concerning the art-product/ or object as the most important aspect of art anymore”. Yet, as the object is where it all starts, we might forget its strength and influence it has on other aspects (such as the environment where it is exhibited in). So I’d say the role of the object is significant, but we tend to ‘forget’ it or overlook its role. Any other thoughts?

  2. I think the term ‘object’ needs clarification here. Isn’t it one of the critical aspects of the concept of performativity to take into consideration the non-reified, e.g. non-objectifiable aspects of art? The event, rather than, for instance, a text? The other question here, pursuing Nina’s question, would be: even if the boudaries between art forms blur, do they all become ‘performance’ in the same way? In what ways do semiotic properties have an impact on the way in which they perform?

  3. I think the focus of performance theory on the effect of the event can serve as a insightful view on other art forms as paintings and sculptures as well. It points out that not only the artwork as such is important, but also its setting and the way the observers (are allowed to) interact with it. It’s not without a reason that so much care is given by museums in collaboration with the artist to the exact composition and placement of works in one exhibition. Seen in this way, the object in the performance (the actors, props and the thing/idea that is performed?) has the same role. Or, are performances deliberately focussing on the importance of the effect to provoke these thoughts, but are they always there in any art form? I guess I read Fischer-Lichte’s text as if she wants to use performance as a new perspective to look at all art forms.

  4. Regarding the idea of all art forms becoming “performance” , I think it is important to mention the fact that today’s audiences are increasingly more involved in creating and transferring meaning to all types of performances. A well known factor in this process are the new media. Even if performers – regardless of their artistic identity – attach certain meanings to their art forms, it is the audiences who reinterpret or even recreate them, thus confirming a negotiated reading within the overall process of communication. For instance, it may happen that a live concert be organized in a historically controversial site, thus performers taking a considerable risk of facing a hostile audience that would misinterpret the message. The same can apply to book releases. As a result, the signifier -signified relationship, arbitrary per se, can take on multiple turns, symbolizing two dissimilar types of performances: one belonging to the encoder, the other – to the decoder.

  5. In response to Silvia; Performance art in Fischer-Lichte’s text is, I reckon, rather about the performance of the object, that interacts with the audience (on a embodied level), than about the interpretation of the audience of the art object that may or may not correlate with the artist’s aim. It is about the interaction, the event.> which brings me to another question; How can an art-object possibly act/ perform?
    In response to Frank Kessler: In line with your question: if we are considering the performative aspect of art the most important, aren’t we indeed forgetting formal aspects or the specific nature of the medium? Is a work-immanent approach not as important?> which makes Fischer-Lichte’s blurring of boundaries impossible.

  6. Nobody seems to be answering the first question and I wonder whether that has to do with the fact that only those researching theatre are going to performances 🙂

    The most explicit experience of my gaze being returned I encountered in the Red Light district while I was strolling around Amsterdam a few years ago. As I was looking at the girls framed in the windows glowing with fluorescent light, it suddenly occurred to me that they are observing passersby as much as the they were being observed. What struck me was the fact that I felt quite uneasy whenever I met their gazes. I can not think of a more explicit experience.

    As for the object in performance art, I noticed while looking at the examples of performers mentioned in this and other articles that at least the ones I was looking at continued to be carried out on the stage or framed within it. I think this significantly determines my relation to the matter of performance act – the stage presupposes the schism between the spectator and the performer. Perhaps this is why I am inclined to interactive performances which erase this borderline (oftentimes achieved by employing new media and transposing spectators to participants). I guess this is why example comes from the street, where I find myself on the stage along with others.

  7. About the performances where the gaze is returned: I remember Lisa telling about the ‘theatre of the senses’, and in particular one performance where spectators are watching each other and the performers while they are situated in separate rooms (cannot remember the exact theatre maker, Dries Verhoeven, Roos van Geffen??). I think this could be a possible example where the gaze is returned.

  8. That’s right Alice, I went to a performance last year by Roos van Geffen where the spectator were sitting in a dark booth, almost like a peep show, and were watching faces of performer passing by in the dark (only the faces were lit). All of a sudden, when one performer was right in front of you, she opened her eyes and looked at you. Up untill that moment the spectator operated a disembodied look, sitting anonymously in the dark. When the performer literally returned the gaze, the spectator gained an embodied perception, becoming aware of his/her own presence and almost becoming a performer his/herself.

    Although the feeling can hardly be described, I think this performance reminded me of how powerful theatrical performance can be. This embodied awareness, being looked at instead of just looking, and especially showing these differences is something that I feel only theatre can do. Or at least I have only experienced this in theatre performances.

  9. “Performance art […] seems to create and reactivate some of the last residues in contemporary culture that make it possible to communicate directly to a public and to act as a member of a community”

    I think more interestingly – what would Auslander say about it?

  10. There is of course a whole tradition (Boal, among others) where street theatre stages confronting everyday situations, turning the audience into bystanders. How does this relate to performances that more ostensively present themselves as such?

  11. Maybe this has something to do with framing again. There is also a tradition of ‘invisible theatre’, where makers try to make people aware of issues without them knowing. In contrast to performances where it is the explicit goal to make people aware of the fact that they are looking at something constructed and make spectators aware of that. Make people aware of their gaze.

  12. What could be interesting as well is to look at *how* Fischer-Lichte presents her argument that boundaries are dissolving and that performance art is now the dominant viewpoint with which we can look at everyday practices. She does so rather convincingly, but deceivingly easily as well; how does she move from new media’s simulacra via (critical) theatrical performances to the returning gaze without mentioning Baudrillard or Goffman, and how does her argument actually depend on questioning what ‘new media’ (with scare quotes!) do with our understanding of theatricality and performance?

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