Performance and The Public: an Introduction
by TkH-Walking Theory

by Bojana Cvejić and Ana Vujanović (January 2011)

Theses for elaboration

Public space
The public sphere in Western liberal democracies today isn't defined by genuine discussion, but is marked by the performance of discussion. Performance here implies rhetorics, seduction, and manipulation, and it also implies and indicates rules, procedures, codes, and conventions that limit and normativize the scope of what could be said and by whom, and not only how.
Our critical thesis could be supported by an interpretation of the socialist/communist public space in the second half of the 20th century that shows it as the space where discussion was, had to be restricted, whilst in the democratic one it is performed.
We are uncertain about genuine discussion as a real possibility in any political system. We don't have any recourse to an ideal model, nor do we support projections of Athenian democracy.

Action in public space
We propose to shift perspective from performing to acting in public space in order to emphasize action, the verb "to act" and the act itself. Acting, act, action and actor are a set of terms that offer advantages to performance: 1. acting means activity, shaping actively, intervention, intrusion; 2. it implies fiction, "as-if" role, which endows it a speculative dimension. Performance is prescripted; its success is in its failure, in breaking or betraying the rules (competence, procedure, completeness, intentions). Acting, by contrast, doesn't presuppose or prefigure rules. To act might also mean to enact a new situation!

Related questions and assumptions

Concerning the problems of performance and performativity today:
Do we affirm and struggle for a right to performance (Judith Butler)? Or, do we critique the general paradigm of performance in the context of post-industrial capitalism (Jon McKenzie)? If so, what do we affirm?
What is the role of performance in two antagonistic political systems of the 20th century, namely, capitalism and communism?
    • Capitalism entails performance ‒ from competence to competition, from productivity to efficiency; performance of the individual's competence, hiding its ideology; instrumental performance
    • Socialism presupposes performance of the ideology ‒ the state or the people perform itself / themselves (self-referential, tautological)

Concerning the difference in the status of public sphere and public space in former socialism and capitalism:
Investment in situations ‒ by interest / profit (pragmatism)
Investment in public good ‒ by duty / concern (dogmatism)
Third way proposed by the philosophers of science, insisting on situations and networks, "complexity", deferral, no resolution, process, participation, struggle (Bruno Latour, Isabelle Stengers)
Fourth way, our ideas, approaches we are interested in: legacy of the socialist approach to public space in the context of neo-liberal capitalism / private property

Concerning the context:
The focus is on the actual social context and time. But three historical periods (fictionalized or not) are important:
    • Ancient Greece (Athenian democracy)
    • 18th century & Enlightenment, etc.
    • Second half of the 20th century & communism, socialism

Concerning the ideological and political dimension of the departing point:
Equality ‒ difference(s): our departure is equality, and not constituted differences (or differences to be constituted) like in community art.

"What is public space?" and related questions
(considered from the viewpoints of acting, action, act, performance, intervention, practice)

Is it different from the social field? How is the social dissociated from the public space? In what ways is the social not the public space?

Is public space the space of the common? The common brings back the question of "us". The public in practice belongs to no one; how to make it belong to any-body and yet not structure it on the definition of what is common for everybody?

The public is traditionally defined by the opposition to the private. What does the collapse of borders between the public and the private mean in the light of Michel Foucault / Judith Butler’s motto "the personal is political"?

Do we imply that the public space is the political scene?

Is public space only that which we produce, but do not own? That which we have to share? That which we belong to, but which doesn’t belong to anyone individually?

How are public sphere, public interest and public good related? Is it only about the sum of individual interests, or something beyond it? In that case, what is it driven by? Ideology?

Who governs the public space today? Can we rethink the public space in the situation where private property rules? The public space is governed by:
    • political parties ‒ government, economic power;
    • mass-media ‒ information, knowledge;
    • creative industry ‒ entertainment, leisure.
(Contemporary art has a limited place.)

Is the public space one and unique? Or, are there numerous public spaces that are present simultaneously? Or does the public space arise around a problem, mobilizing the actors concerned by it? The answer to the question is a strategic one:
If we admit that there are several co-existing ones, like it was during the identity politics in the 1980-90s, we risk losing the public space; there is always a hierarchical distribution of the many, which doesn’t dissolve the hegemony of the one. A more oblique position would be to claim one public space, and admit the struggles of many for predominance.

Is, or should public space be a space of discussion? Or a space of performance? Or is every discussion in public a performance of the discussion? Or is the performance of discussion characteristic only for totalitarian regimes? And not for democratic ones? If democracy fosters and entertains public debate, and if this debate is structured like a performance with a normative structure for success, should the performance indicate the degree of totalitarianism?

Categories from which to examine the publicness of performance

Social & political performances in public space
    • Social drama and social choreography as the interpretative framework for the "political unconscious" (Fredric Jameson) ‒ "gesture"; social drama in the NATO bombardment of Serbia; social choreography in Taylorism in relation with Laban and Meyerhold’s biomechanics; social choreography of walking; social choreography of protesting; social choreography of "well-being" today
    • State performance and State choreography that manifest the political "consciousness" of the state, its "ideological state apparatuses" (Louis Althusser) ‒ "slets" in Communist countries in comparison with German Körperkultur and Sokoli (Falcons) in Slavic countries
    • Political actions and artivism that proactively instrumentalize art ‒ "action"; "artivism" and political activism (Aldo Milohnić, Brian Holmes, Gerald Raunig); student and civic protests in 1996-1997 in Belgrade; gay pride in Eastern Europe in 2000; antiglobalist movement at the end of 1990s (Genoa, Seattle)
    • "Assembly" (Bruno Latour, "Making Things Public")
    • "Community" & common (Isabell Lorey’s analysis)

Performance of the self in public
Articulating difference between "doing" and "showing doing" (Richard Schechner)
    • Performance of the self: social roles, behaviour, self-presentation (Erving Goffman)
    • Man as actor: in history in three decisive paradigms, the Ancients, Enlightenment, the legacy of the 19th century for 20th century (Richard Sennett) ‒ charismatic leadership (presidents as actors, Berlusconi, Obama, Reagan)
    • Technologies of the self: care of the self, biopower, biopolitics and discipline (Michel Foucault), from Körperkultur to the New Age body systems (yoga, Alexander technique, Feldenkreis, BMC, fitness culture)
    • Performativity of identity: including difference between performativity and performance (Judith Butler), and social networking (Internet)
    • Performance of the entrepreneurial self: in the neoliberal capitalist context, actualizing possibilities (Jon McKenzie), economic value of communication, expression… (Maurizio Lazzarato) ‒ managerial handbooks and trainings (behaviour, body language)

Art engaging issues of the public/private
Where audience is seen as a narrowed sphere of public
    • Artistic citizenship (Randy Martin)
    • Contextual approach (in post-socialism) vs. contextual art (Paul Ardenne)
    • Participation and / in art (Claire Bishop, Irit Rogoff)
    • Historical practices: direct democracy of Joseph Beuys, clandestine hijacking of Tomislav Gotovac (Belgrade / Zagreb)
    • Current practices: Thomas Hirschhorn; Wochenklausur; Public Movement (Israel); Arpad Schilling and Kretakor (Budapest); Théâtre Permanent (Les Laboratoires d'Aubervilliers); Christoph Schliengensief; Urban Campment; Aernout Mik; Tania Bruguera; Hannah Hurtzig's Blackmarket of Knowledge...
    • Theater in private space (at home): the living room theater of Jean-Lorin Sterian and private house festival, Livingroom Festival (Madrid / Berlin), Collective Actions in Moscow in the 1980s (Andrei Monastyrski et al.)


by Ana Vujanović and Marta Popivoda (March-June 2011)

Theoretical research focuses on the introductory chapter: What is public space / sphere?
    • Definitions of the "public":
        ‒ in regard to: space, sphere, good, domain, opinion, and discussion / debate
    • History of the public sphere / space:
        ‒ ancient Greece > Rome
        ‒ Enlightenment (18th century) > bourgeois society (19th century)
        ‒ communism/socialism (second half of the 20th century)
    • Specific problems / relations:
        ‒ public space ‒ social sphere
        ‒ public ‒ common (+ common sensorium)
        ‒ public space ‒ political scene
        ‒ public ‒ private

Talks, working sessions, and/or interviews led and planned to conduct the research
    • Jelena Vesić (Belgrade), art historian, curator, theoretician. Subject: The No More Reality [Crowd and Performance: demonstration, public space, use of body], a research curatorial project by Claire Staebler and Jelena Vesić. Topics: crowd, people, mass, multitude; demonstrations and protestations, patterns of behaviour in modern cities. Belgrade, March 2011
    • Isabell Lorey (Berlin), political philosopher, sociologist. Topics: relations the public‒the common, public sphere‒social sphere, public space‒political scene; precariousness and precarisation, becoming-common. Berlin, May 2011
    • Aernout Mik (Amsterdam), visual artist. Subject: his video-art; topic: choreographing group behaviour. Amsterdam, June 2011
    • Julie Heintz (Paris), art historian, curator. Topics: demonstrations / manifestations: embodiment of ideas; new demonstrations in and since the 60s. (not yet confirmed)
    • Bruno Latour (Paris), sociologist, theorist of science. Subject: the book Making Things Public; topics: res publica > politics‒things ‒ public; assembly. (not yet confirmed)

The research into video archives focuses on "Slets" (parades, collective working actions etc. in communist countries (SFRY/China/USSR)), Sokoli (Falcons) in Slavic countries, student and civic protests in 1996-1997 in Belgrade and gay prides in Eastern Europe in 2000.

• Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses", in Mapping Ideology, Žižek, Slavoj (ed), Verso, London-New York, 1995
• Critical Art Ensemble. Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas, Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1996
• Fraser, Nancy "Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy", Social Text No. 25/26, 1990, pp. 56-80
• Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society, Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press, (1962) 1989
• Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Verso, 1991.
• Latour, Bruno; Weibel, Peter eds. Making Things Public; Atmospheres of democracy, Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press, (2005)
• Lorey, Isabell. "Governmentality and Self-Precarization; On the normalization of cultural producers", 2006,; "Attempt to Think the Plebeian; Exodus and Constituting as Critique", 2008,; "Becoming Common: Precarization as Political Constituting", e-flux journal #17, June-August 2010,
• McKenzie, Jon. "Hacktivism and Machinic Performance",
• Milohnić, Aldo. "Artivism",       
• Negt, Oskar; Kluge, Alexander. Public Sphere and Experience: Toward an analysis of the bourgeois and proletarian public sphere, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993
Performance Research Vol. 16, No. 2 ‒ "Performing Publics", 2011
• Saxonhouse, Arlene W. Free Speech and Democracy in Ancient Athens, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008
• Sennett, Richard. The Fall of Public Man, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, (1977) 1992
• Sheikh, Simon. "In the Place of the Public Sphere? Or, the World in Fragments", 2004,
• Thoreau, Henry David. "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience",
Version. Artist Run Magazine, 0.5, April 2005; esp. Julie Heintz, "The Manifestation: body and image", in Ibidem, pp. 15-20
• Wider references: Aristotle. Nichomachian Ethics, Politics; Hannah Arendt. The Sources of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, Between Past and Future; Jacques Rancière. The Politics of Aesthetics: The distribution of the sensible, Continuum, London, 2004; Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1999; various Internet sources (e.g.

Texts published in Le Journal des Laboratoires, Sept-Dec 2011