Abstract: Endless actions. Illogical quests. Misguided tasks inevitably doomed to fail or recursively performed – over and over, again and again. In diverse conceptual and post-conceptual art practices and performances, an artist appears locked into some hapless or hopeless endeavour – the repeated demonstration of a fall or failure, hide-and-seek games using the most infelicitous form of camouflage, the futile pursuit of impossible or undeclared goals. Referring to work by artists including Bas Jan Ader, Francis Alÿs and Vlatka Horvat, I want to explore a specifically Sisyphean model of failure, dysfunctionality and inoperativeness within artistic practice. I propose to move beyond an absurdist understanding of the Sisyphean paradigm towards an affirmative reading where the loop of repeated failure is actively performed as a generative or productive force, or as a mode of deliberate inefficiency through which to challenge or even refuse the pressures of dominant goal-oriented or teleological doctrines, by deferring closure or completion. Here, meaning can be seen to shift from a Beckettian articulation of futility and an individual’s resignation to the rules or restrictions of a given system, towards a form of performative resistance to and eventual displacement of the system’s authority, where its logic becomes pleasurably adopted as the rules of a game which reveal porosity and flexibility within even the most rigid framework. Sisyphean failure and repetition is thus proposed as a model of wilful non-production or open-endedness, inhabited or played out at the threshold between investment and indifference, insouciance and immersion, seriousness and levity.
Image: Francis Alÿs
THEME AND RATIONALE
While we want to examine performance as a phenomenon, as experience and a function, a process, a complex and a concept, our aim is to approach it from the perspective of failure, dysfunctionality, futility, and inoperativeness. Misfiring, misfitting, misreading: it is all about the prefix. Misnaming, mistaking, misrecognition – the prefix mis- is always amiss: moreover, it is determined by what follows. There is no misnaming without naming, no misrecognition without proper recognition. Since our broad notion of performance and its possible misfires owe a great deal to Austin’s philosophy of language, rooted as it is in the paradigmatic Western metaphysical dichotomies of play vs. seriousness and success vs. failure, efficiency vs. loss, we are often forced to perceive and value cultural forms and events in terms of binary oppositions. At the same time, modernism embraced the apparently inessential, the misguiding, and the missing as leeway for a new perspective on the very constitution of new cultural systems. On the one hand, the notions mistake and infelicity are deeply embedded in modern western thought. From the Freudian slip via J. L. Austin’s misfires, the Girardian and the Derridean pharmakos/pharmakon and the Lacanian misrecognition, to Goffmanian breaches in the construction of social reality, Judith Butler’s failed gender-performances and Homi Bhabha´s inappropriate signifiers and anomalous representations, scholars have evaluated the irregular, the unforeseeable, and the unaccountable – in a word, the mistaken – as essential to rethinking the categories of what is right, correct, true, whole and serious. On the other hand, by abandoning classical ideas of universality and verisimilitude, modernist art transformed mistake into its enabling limit. From Futurist Evenings and Dada´s Cabarets to Action Theatre, Events, Happenings and Performance-Theatre; from performance art to the postdramatic concept of afformance art, performative aesthetic practices not only intentionally exposed themselves to the risk of accident, excess, and contingency, but also managed to harness their liminality as a normative – even marketable – quality.