Performance and Action

One year ago, in January 2011, Paul Chan and I edited an issue of e-flux journal on the rise of right-wing populisms. In the absence of immediately successful counter-strategies, this was conceived as a first stock-taking in the form of a series of "reports." The issue's Dylanesque title, "Idiot Wind," was taken by some as a symptom of ill-advised leftist arrogance, as a sign that we foolishly underestimate the intelligence of populist strategies and the need to learn from them. One would have thought that most contributions made it perfectly clear that the desperate logic of right-wing populism will ultimately have disastrous effects even for most of those who at the moment think they stand to gain (and perhaps actually stand to gain, for the time being) from its rise. Of course Geert Wilders and Sarah Palin are smart; they cleverly boost the idiot wind.

In some ways, the outlook is now less bleak, as the second half of 2011 has seen a wave of new protest movements in a number of countries. The December issue of e-flux journal was made under the impact of Occupy Wall Street, and contained brilliant contributions by Bifo Berardi and Hito Steyerl, among others; the current (January) issue continues the analysis of the ongoing social and political upheavals as well as the economical, cultural and technological factors that shape them. It features my essay "General Performance." This text, part of my History in Motion book project, discusses both artistic performance and today's performative economy, which is undergoing a profound crisis at the moment. From the text:

"The term 'performance' is slippery even within relatively well-defined contexts. In today’s economy, it not only refers to the productivity of one’s labor but also to one’s actual, quasi-theatrical self-presentation, one’s self-performance in an economy where work has become more dependent on immaterial factors. As an artist or writer or curator, you perform when you do your job, but your job also includes giving talks, going to openings, being in the right place at the right time. Transcending the limits of the specific domain of performance art, then, is what I would call general performance as the basis of the new labor. The emergence of new forms of performance in art in the 1960s was itself a factor in the emergence of this contemporary form of labor, which is, after all, connected to a culturalization of the economy."

Later on in this essay, I examine how new forms of activism emerge within the performative regime of contemporary capitalism, exploring and exploding the contradictions of contemporary labour. That these collective acts can generate an emancipatory political narrative strong enough to challenge the relentless mythmaking on the other end of the political spectrum remains questionable, but at least there are now partially positive as well as negative examples to scrutinize and learn from.