Precarious Assembly


Precarious Assembly: Footnotes to the Process and Performance

Precarious Assembly
4 August 2016, 6-9pm
Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

In May 2016, we sent out a call for proposals for Precarious Assembly. We asked artists to propose the creation or adaptation of a performance for a specific location within, throughout or around the Whitworth building that engages with a lineage of female artists, activists and family heritage, and that responds to the history of female artists and curators who have exhibited in the Whitworth throughout its 108-year history. The 12 projects that have been selected represent a wealth of different approaches to contemporary body and/or movement-based practices that integrate live performance, installation and video work. Importantly, each of the projects presented as part of Precarious Assembly functions as a portal into the artists’ own somatic and artistic heritage drawn from unique family histories, everyday encounters, educational experiences, and social and personal politics.

The title and conceptual driver for AccumulationsPrecarious Assembly comes from philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler’s most recent publication, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (2015). Butler focuses on the realpolitik of bodies assembling in protest and argues that precarity – the destruction and diminishment of liveable conditions – has been a galvanizing force in revising the role of the body and its concerted actions, gestures and performances in politics. She claims that the assembly of specifically marked bodies in specific places at specific times enacts an embodiment of political discourse that has an expressive dimension beyond the literal, verbal and at times, the representational – the very fact of people gathering ‘says’ something very powerful. She links assembly with precarity by pointing out that every person exists within a system of dispossession or precarity and that we each rely upon political and social institutions and each other to support our own precariousness. In this way, every body is to some extent bound to conditions of precarity through varying degrees of persistence and resistance, and this dynamic brings out the dual dimension of socio-political agency in everyday life.

Our aim here with the staging of Precarious Assembly as an embodied, performative gesture of spatial and critical intervention, serves as a ‘footnote’ or a documenting comment to Butler’s positions. We are particularly interested in how this can relate to the assembly of audience(s) at performance events and to the (dis)appearance of bodies in a performance context. Most important is the relation to the ethical and/or political relationship between spectator(s), artist(s)/performer(s) and immediate environment. The conceptual impetus for this was formed around our collective questioning of how performance events, especially when they are staged outside of theatrical contexts and particularly when the artistic practices and processes that inform them tends towards the liminal, embodied, processual and durational, might be understood as moments of precarious assembly. For us, the 12 projects presented this evening provide a particular assembly of lineages and practices of female artists and curators that represent a challenge to conventional spectatorial practices or to fixed categories of performance and address notions of lineage, assembly, and the feminine that are especially important.

The spectatorial gaze of traditional theatrical and performance presentations, and arguably, traditional exhibition formats, have been addressed and challenged by many artists and theorists through both practice and writing. Historically, the issue has been mapped onto concerns around an asymmetry of power (Foucault 1991) that is implicitly linked with gender and the male gaze (McNay 1992). More currently, the issue intersects with concerns about an increasing surveillance and commercial culture (Whybrow 2010), and the condition of living within the ‘corporation spirit’ of ‘control societies’ (Deleuze, 1995) that justify and uphold political polarity. With Precarious Assembly, we are interested in what escapes the gaze through performance and what kinds of relations are rooted in embodiment and through durational aesthetics and framing. Similarly, Markus Hallensleben (in Performative Body Spaces: Corporeal Topographies in Literature, Theatre, Dance, and the Visual Arts, 2010) notes that performative spaces that collect and assemble bodies play a culturally performative role as producers of interactive social spaces. As both cultural object and performing subject, and instances of the multifarious roles of performers and spectators, these bodies assembling inevitably bind the political with the theatrical, the epistemological and the civic, constructing a charged and socially productive space.

Thus, what is really at stake is not learning how to choreograph and perform a protest or intervention, but a more fundamental and much more precarious kind of movement, one that is defined by intersubjective action and freedom of movement. This instance between performer and spectator must be learned, rehearsed, nurtured, and above all experimented with, practiced, and experienced. We are therefore interested in offering an alternative format by inviting spectators into the work and asking them to become co-producers of the work and active in what Henri Lefebvre (2004) articulates as the ‘rhythms’ of lived space. We want to contribute actively to performance environments that dissolve a separation between performers’ and artists’ bodies and the assembled bodies of spectators that signifies the collapse of a simple diametric power structure, and disperses power relations to the micro level of multiple interactions and endless possible encounters.

The spatial composition of the Whitworth and its interactive exhibits, especially Elizabeth Price’s IN A DREAM YOU SAW A WAY TO SURVIVE AND YOU WERE FULL OF JOY, and the performative dimensions of Precarious Assembly, interpellate visitors as active agents. Here, the museum space offers the availability of attentive spectators, open to encounters as individuals who move and perform within a precarious performative format in which outcomes are not completely knowable and there is much opportunity for productive failure. In much the same way that Butler’s ‘real world’ theory progresses towards the consideration of cohabitation and ethical obligations, Precarious Assembly is interested in placing every person present into a role that highlights their ethical consideration and responsibility. We recognise that the 12 projects operate across multiple themes, intersecting with each other and offering different perspectives on the ideas and knowledges they propose. We hope that Precarious Assembly might offer a space within which visitors might negotiate their engagement, and locate themselves within multiple overlapping histories of gendered cultural production.

References Cited

Butler, J. (2015) Notes toward a performative theory of assembly. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

Foucault, M. (1991) Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison. New York: Vintage Books

Whybrow, (2010) Performance and the Contemporary City: An Interdisciplinary Reader. London: Palgrave Macmillan

McNay, L. (1992) Foucault and feminism: power, gender, and the self. Boston: Northeastern University Press

Deleuze, G (1995) ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’. October, 59: 3-7

Hallensleben, M (2010) Performative Body Spaces: Corporeal Topographies in Literature, Theatre, Dance, and the Visual Arts. Amsterdam: Rodopi

Lefebvre, H. (2004) The production of space. Oxford: UK; Cambridge: Mass.