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What are the genealogies of performance art in North Africa and the Middle East?

Timo and Nadia Kaabi-Linke
28 May 2015

On the Situation of Performance in the NAME of a Region

The following considerations on performance as an artistic medium in the region of North Africa and Middle East refer to more general problems that relate to the art form's status as an institutionalized aesthetic practice. It is of fundamental importance that, in this region, performances did not appear as decisive artistic actions; they did not emerge as a conceptual practice to ironically intervene in the actualities of human lives either. The only possible reappropriation of performance refers automatically to a well-established medium of contemporary art. And this historical condition evokes some issues to discuss.


Today the institution of performance art seems to isolate the act of performance from the very reality that it is part of. The separation operates through its designation as a genre of art. Its visibility in time and space implies staging and reproduction; both are elements that were extrinsic to the prior ironical gesture that derived from history and life. It also neglects essential categories that identify performance as a contemporary aesthetic practice: the integration in a certain continuum of time and space through the emphasis on site-specificity and originality, the ephemeral character and the waiving of any exhibit value, the neutralization of performativity through a decisive conception as an immediate action that is embedded in the current context of a happening and its meaning. And here is the paradox – a performative error, as pragmatists would say: the very use of these categories in aesthetics enforced the process of institutionalization that undermines the very nature of the aesthetic practice of performance. Finally, the theory of performance ignores its political and economic reality. While considered an artistic strategy that challenges moral values and political issues it has lost any ties with its original trend to directly reveal the expressiveness of reality through artistic intervention.


We met the situationist René Gil in the south of France in the summer of 2012. He was probably one of the first people who artistically intervened in life on the microphysical level of individual actions. We wanted to know what made him act as he did more than 50 years ago; what was his commitment or intention? He did not want to call them actions, he prefered gestures instead, and he considered these gestures not the results of prior intentions, but as immediate reactions to the absurdity of human existence. A few years later, when people had started to call it 'performance' and when these events were shown in selected locations such as showrooms, galleries, museums and so on, he stopped seeing any sense in making gestures. Today he writes anagrams in order to record the absurdity of human expressiveness for all time.


Since the event of a performance becomes a public action, performance art cannot be entirely stripped of its political connotations. However, through its disposition as an aesthetic strategy with political implications it is also plotted as a commodity character. Yet the combination of political content, attraction and popularity casts some doubts on the alleged inconvenience of the art genre of performance. The idea that performance is as popular as art as it is political by principle, automatically turns into absurdity once the reality of post-democratic governance, neoliberal economics and biased media apparatuses is accepted. The political potential of the popular institution of performance is alike to the gesture of banging one's fist on the table. As the political intent of sayings like 'yes, we can' or 'change must come' was exorcized and purified by its frequent use, the politics of performance are nothing but the pure distillate of its institutionalization process. As such, it is not only tolerated but also encouraged.


At present, any performance – although differently intended – is the expression of what Guy Debord in 1967 called the 'spectacle'. The nature of this spectacle in Western consumer societies had rapidly changed within two decades, from the diffuse spectacle in 1960 into the globally integrated spectacle that he characterized in the Comments on the Society of the Spectacle in 1988. As Jonathan Crary points out the key difference is that 'in the 1960s there were still areas of social life that remained relatively autonomous and exempt of the effects of spectacle', while in 1988, 'everyday life is no longer politically relevant, and it endures only as a hollowed-out simulation of its former substantiality'.[1] Today the spectacle affects performance art as it was institutionalized in the Western societies. It englobes the site, the event and the artistic practice.


The programming of a repeating performance within an exhibition schedule spoofs its former political tint. As the previously mentioned fist on the table and the recurring bar room cliché 'Not like that!' it is discharged of any consequences and can only underscore the existing status quo. Its videographic reproduction, which seems to be a systemic requirement of the globally integrated spectacle, finally detoxes the event of any empirical substance; it neutralizes the spectators' imminent threat of being the subject of an actual experience. Furthermore, the genre specific happening addresses a highly skilled and special interested public, whose registered responsiveness resonates with the aesthetic allusion of any kind of politics, while real thought provoking actions that ignite creative trends happen outside institutional boundaries of the art spectacle. Artists must be aware of this limitation and avoid compromising their very own artistic work through the mere imitation of current trends of social and political activism. In short: in the domain of the spectacle the former critical and ironical energy of absurd gestures has been converted into pure enjoyment. Today's performance is a visual art form that rather effects a theoretical discourse than the field of social practice.


As any autonomous art, a performance that seeks independence from the spectacle has to confront the spectator with his or her habits, including the perception of events and objects as artistic products – instead of seeing them as extraordinary fragments of an exposed social and historical reality. While the works of sculpture, painting, photography, installation or video seek to neutralize the exhibition value from the potential of commodification, the performance has an even more difficult task – it has to dismantle the integrating spectacle from the inside. That makes contemporary performance a promising artistic practice. Although its artistic value is still uncertain, it already reminds us of what art can safeguard in a state of emergency: the confrontation of the spectator with his or her habit to perceive the unusual as art. The actual artistic relevance of performance will be acknowledged first in the moment of the overcoming of its institutional disposition.


Finally the question of the state of performance in the region of North Africa and the Middle East requires an understanding that refers to its very own contemporary history. While the situationists considered the flash gesture a tactic move against the diffuse spectaculaire regime, the more stationary and institutionalized art of performance was pulled into the sphere of control of the integrated spectacle. The artistic, and thus the true political reason of performance art will finally show whether it will succeed to mobilize the prior potency of making life perceptible through immediate actions and neutralize the force of the art spectacle. Supposedly, some successful attempts in this direction can be expected in a region where performance did not spring up and where its institutionalized state is not firmly anchored. This is the case in the North African and Middle Eastern region. It makes sense to be optimistic that an autonomous performance may be possible one day, provided that it won't be imported and imitated as a 'Western' media of contemporary art that is determined by the rules of the spectacle. Instead it could emerge anew in different contexts of life specific to the region and, of course, in knowing the side effects of its institutionalization. New initiatives of a genuine gesture performed outside of the region of origin of performance art could also inspire alternative models within Western consumer societies whose contemporary art is hardly challenged by the rules of the spectacle.



[1] Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, (New York: Verso, 2014), p.73


Nadia Kaabi-Linke is a Tunisian-Russian artist who lives currently in Berlin. Her works were exhibited in solo exhibitions in Tunis (2009), Berlin (2010), Dubai (2012) and Kolkata (2013), and in international group exhibitions and institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Nam June Paik Center, Gyeonggi-do (Korea), the Liverpool Biennial, 54th Venice Biennial, 9th Sharjah Biennial.    


Timo Kaabi-Linke was the curator of the exhibition Chkoun Ahna – On the Track of History in the National Museum of Carthage from 15 May until 15 June 2012 and co-founded the platform Carthage Contemporary.

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