The Concept of Double Performativity in the Baltic Video Art

February 11, 2015
Author Laine Kristberga
Published in Detour
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Fideelia-Signe Roots, Angst- Bare Breasted Walk Through Estonia, 2011. Filmed by Kalev Mahtra.

In this article I will focus on discussing the politics of gender representation as it is manifested through the female body in video performances made by women artists in the Baltic States. I will analyse how the concept of gender performativity as elaborated by Judith Butler can be appropriated when examining aesthetic strategies used by women artists to make feminist statements in video art. Butler claims that gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed. Rather, it is an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts, which bear similarities to performative acts within theatrical contexts. Video performance, on the other hand, drawing heavily from the visual arts and nonconventional theatrical representations, is a genre where women artists can raise issues of identity via using their bodies as the core media of performance and establishing a platform for technologically mediated communication with their spectatorship. However, even in the most apparently chaotic performances or happenings, there is structural order and the performative act – even if improvisational – is intentional. This leads to the concept of double performativity, because in these video performances both the gender and the “actor’s” roles are performed. Thus, producing and enacting oneself takes place at the same time and the distinction between art and life is reversed, confused and transcended. I will, thus, examine how the meaning is constructed through specific corporeal acts in the particular video performances focusing on the bodily gestures, movements and enactments constituting the gender, as well as on the aesthetic strategies employed by the artists to construct the portrayal of the body with encoded cultural meanings.

The first work that I will examine is the Lithuanian artist Kristina Inčiūraitė’s video performance „Downstairs” (2000). In this performance the artist does not document her personal experience. However, at the same time with the help of gender performativity and self-representation the author reflects on the role of rituals in society, undertaking a fake identity and playing the role of a bride. Having dressed her body in a bride’s attire, Inčiūraitė descends the stairs of the wedding registry office in a celebratory manner. This process is repeated four times, besides, each time the bridegroom of Inčiūraitė is a different one. The repetition element here is important, because it attests to the power of ideology – by repeating one and the same role or a behaviour model over and over again, the subject starts believing that it is natural and necessary. As it has been emphasized by the Lithuanian researcher Renata Dubinskaitė, since ancient times the wedding ritual has been one of the most significant instruments of normative control and forms of socialisation.((Dubinskaitė, Renata, ‘The Artist’s Roles in Lithuanian Video Art in 1990-2003’, ATHENA, No 3, 2006. Accessed, 10th February 2015. However, by repeating the ritual for four times, the artist achieves the feeling of distance and indifference. The work was intended as an allusion to Marcel Duchamp’s painting „Nude Descending a Staircase” (1912), which escalates a futuristic joy and dynamics of life. However, in Inčiūraitė’s work this optimism is doubtful, because through the act of repetition the artist devaluates the significance of this normative procedure.

Dubinskaitė is of the opinion that in this video performance Inčiūraitė can be seen as an actress, who, filming herself in the role of a bride, takes a deconstructive position. It is a strategy which instead of searching for authentic experience, plays with non-identity, wearing different roles in order to declare a critical position in relation to ideology, power, subconsciousness and other factors.((Dubinskaitė, pp.163-164)) In the deconstruction theory, the subject is determined by coincidental junctions of meanings in the sets of significants; in psychoanalysis, by desire and the unconscious Other; in critique of ideology, by various forms of power. As indicated by Dubinskaitė, ideology is effective as long as it is unseen, unrecognised as compulsion and is regarded as a natural, ‘innate’ order or a person’s own choice (Louis Althusser). Therefore, appearance of Actor means that ideology has lost the appearance of ‘natural order’ and that subject positions proposed by it are not conceived as innate. The Actor is always ambiguous. For instance, in the case of Inčiūraite, though she fulfils her role, she knows she is acting, which enables her to appear in the meta-position to ideology. She accepts the state of non-identity as self-identity. This strategy is subversive and allows her not to become the locus of enforced identity. While performing the bride, she criticises herself, the role she plays and the system, which creates that role.((Ibid.))

In the context of a wedding ritual the power of ideology has been especially manifested. According to Jane Blocker, the wedding is performative, it is a unique, unrepeatable event comprised by an authoritative act of naming, a speech act of considerable ideological force.  It is what Judith Butler calls the „heterosexual ceremonial” or an event where power is manifested and normative sexuality displayed.((Jane Blocker, ‘Binding to Another’s Wound: Of Weddings and Witness’, in Gavin Butt (ed), After Criticism. New Responses to Art and Performance (Oxford: Balckwell Publishing, 2005), p.49)) Butler, of course, is known for her idea of gender performativity, that is, with the argument that gender is not pre-existent social or cultural attribute, but a category, which is constructed through performance. Thus, it is characterised not by an unchangeable law of society, but gender performativity always in transition and flux.

As regards the idea of performativity, Butler borrowed it from the British linguistic theoretician John Longshaw Austin, who is the author of speech acts theories. Austin writes that the performative is a type of utterance „in which to say something is to do something”.((J.L.Austin, How to Do Things With Words, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), p. 12)) His famous examples include such utterances as „I do” or „I pronounce you…” at a marriage ceremony. In each case words do not simply describe or report: they act. Austin explains: „When I say, before the registrar or altar, “I do”, I am not reporting on a marriage: I am indulging in it. What are we to call a sentence or an utterance of this type? I propose to call it a performative sentence or a performative utterance, or, for short, ‘a performative’.”((Austin, p.6))

However, according to Austin, the ability of such utterances to act is contingent on both their content and the qualifications and intentions of their speakers. Austin writes: “The uttering of the words is, indeed, usually a or even the, leading incident in the performance of the act… but it is far from being usually, even if it is ever, the sole thing necessary if the act is to be deemed to have been performed…”((Ibid, p.8)) Accordingly, one cannot performatively produce marriage, if one is not authorised to do so or if the bride and groom are ineligible, or indeed, one presumes, if the participants are of the same gender. Such hitches Austin describes as “unhappy” or refers to as “infelicities”.((Blocker, p.50)) It is Austin’s „infelicities” and the power to determine exceptions that have prompted Butler to write that “the centrality of the marriage ceremony in J.L.Austin’s examples of performativity suggests that the heterosexualization of the social bond is the paradigmatic form for those speech acts which bring about what they name.”((Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 224-225)) Butler thus makes us critically assess the heterosexual assumption which authorizes the performative, as well as the factors that must be taken into consideration in relation to performativity, and they are: the power to name or to participate in self-naming; the power to authorize publicly a private bond; the power to legalize particular forms of sexuality; the power to define what constitutes a family; the power to cite and draw from the legitimizing force of conventional authority; and the power to summon witnesses. In short, the wedding is an event that manifests power.((Blocker, p.51))

The fact that Butler emphasizes is that such private events of performative nature, as, for instance, the wedding, encourage to reassess the political and social privileges stipulated by the law that have been assigned to the representatives of one particular sexuality, namely, heterosexuality. In a lecture given at the Madrid University in 2009 Butler elaborates this idea further claiming that „to say that gender is performative is to say that it is a certain kind of enactment; the “appearance” of gender is often mistaken as a sign of its internal or inherent truth; gender is prompted by obligatory norms to be one gender or the other (usually within a strictly binary frame), and the reproduction of gender is thus always a negotiation with power.”((Butler, Judith, ‘Performativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics’, a lecture given at Universidad Complutense de Madrid, June 2009, p. 1. Accessed, 10th February 2015.

The issue of gender appearance was also raised by the Estonian artist Fideelia-Signe Roots in her video performance “Angst – Bare Breasted Walk Through Estonia” (2011). As admitted by the artist, the aim of this work was to test how gender equality works in practice. The performance consisted of 161 km long walk from Tartu to a little seaside village Karepa and the walk took 5 days. When weather allowed, the artist walked bare breasted. On her way she monitored people’s reaction. Since bare breasted women in public spaces are rare, Roots wanted to find out how people react if they see one in public space. According to the artist, the reaction was mostly calm, except in a small town Väike-Maarja, where the TV news filmed her in front of the local municipality building. The governor of the town saw her through the window and called the police. The artist had to spend 2 hours in the police station explaining why she was walking bare breasted. Since there is no law against bare breasted men or women in public space, the police pondered upon Roots’s case for a long time, thinking how to punish her. Finally they did not punish her at all but stated that she still had violated the law.

After this incident Roots sent a complain to the Gender Equality and Equal Treatment Commissioner Mari-Liis Sepper claiming that it must be written „specifically in the rules governing public order whether being topless in public space is or is not a breach of law, and whether it applies only to women or men as well”. Pursuant to the artist, if such a rule applies only to women, it is against the Gender Equality Act: „As it is, I’m confused: my behaviour was considered a breach of public order, and yet the law that I violated is non-existent. My question is why was the police called and why did they act as if I were a criminal?”((Rikken, Kristopher, ‘Artist Seeks Transparency on Rules on Partial Nudity’, September 2011. Accessed, 10th February 2015. Roots indicates that biologically men’s and women’s breasts are made of the same tissues and parts. Women want to decide by themselves what part of their body is sexual and what is not and when. As long as female breasts are considered sexual, the capitalistic society can sell them. Thus, according to Roots, bare breasted women in public spaces work against the system and are seen as criminals, being arrested and imprisoned even in New York where bare breasts are legal.  Roots is adamant that women themselves must decide whether to use their breasts for selling cars, feeding babies or letting the wind to cool them on a hot day.

As regards the appearance in public space, Butler, too, claims something similar saying that „gender norms have everything to do with how and in what way we can appear in public space; how and in what way the public and private are distinguished, and how that distinction is instrumentalized in the service of sexual politics; who will be criminalized on the basis of public appearance; who will fail to be protected by the law or, more specifically, the police, on the street, or on the job, or in the home. Who will be stigmatized; who will be the object of fascination and consumer pleasure? Who will have medical benefits before the law? Whose intimate and kinship relations will, in fact, be recognized before the law?”((Butler, 2009, p. 2)) In fact, to some degree Roots’s work can be considered autoethnographic, because the artist puts her individual experience under scrutiny, at the same time echoing this experience with wider cultural phenomena. The only aspect that does not belong to the discipline of autoethnography is the fact that the author is not a neutral observer, but, in fact, an instigator of the entire situation. However, if compared to the previously analysed Inčiūraite’s work, where the artist embodies a bride and adopts a non-identity strategy, Roots is “playing” herself – she is an artist, who with the help of performance and her bodily acts provokes, and then observes and documents society.

Another artist who works with autobiographical material is Katrīna Neiburga from Latvia. In her work “The Memory of Things” (2012), the artist has displayed interest in her own genealogy by representing all three generations – her grandmother, her mother and herself – in a series of video installations. Yet, these autobiographical elements are just a pretext for a more universal reflection on the theme of human memory and the idea of transferring non-reproducible knowledge from generation to generation. Also, such autobiographical impulses are very characteristic trait in the aesthetics of video art made by women artists both in the West and – with a certain time distance – in the former Soviet countries, too. In the West, video has been actively used by women artists as a vehicle to record and show daily activities of women since the 1970s when video became generally available as a medium. Reflecting on everyday was something that so far was usually considered as insignificant and trivial, and with the help of video Western artists could challenge such stereotypical prejudices.((The origins of video art in Latvia can be traced back to the 1980s (in 1986 to be precise), when the architect and multimedial artist Hardijs Lediņš started to use video as part of the performances carried out by the artistic group ‘The Restoration Workshop of Unprecedented Feelings’.))

Similarly to Inčiūraite’s work, though in a different light, Neiburga, too, contemplates on the idea of ritual and family bonds. Several installations built around and in mundane objects show activities were all three generations participate, for example, clinking glasses of champagne on the New Year’s Eve, dining together or even doing pedicure together. Neiburga admits:

“For several years once a month the women in our family – a daughter, a mother and a grandmother – are visited by a pedicure specialist Alexandra. Like a sculptor she cuts the shape of our feet with a little scalpel every month over and over again. After Alexandra’s visit, the old skin chips can be found all over the floor and everything is covered with the skin dust of three generations. To my mind, it all should be burnt, otherwise very extensive biological information on all three of us is simply thrown in a bin. When I sweep the remains of our skin in the bin, it always makes me cringe.”((

One might object that this is a display not only of family bonds, but also of a class – having a pedicure together might appear a bourgeois practice. However, from the point of view of cinematic aesthetics, such activities, when characters do “nothing special”, are defined as “dead time”. For instance, this temporal element was often afforded in the French New Wave repertoire. In À Bout de Soufflé, a film made by Jean-Luc Godard in 1960, there is a 20 minute episode in a hotel room, where the characters sit and talk to each another about what are — narratively, at least — completely unimportant matters. Yet, I would like to draw parallels with Chantal Akerman’s film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, where “dead time” not only is present, but also drives the film towards its (cataclysmic) ending. For Akerman, it is a deliberate choice not only in terms of structural filmmaking practice, but also in the light of feminism. Akerman believes that, as a woman director, she must give space to “things which were never, almost never, shown in that way”.((Lebow, Alisa, ‘Memory Once Removed: Indirect Memory and Transitive Autobiography in Chantal Akerman’s D’Est’, Camera Obscura, Vol. 18, No. 152, 2003, pp. 35-83.)) The daily gestures of a woman, according to Akerman, must be placed on higher hierarchy of film images than a kiss or a car crash.

Neiburga, too, presents her images in a similar light, addressing not only the question of ritual, but also the materiality of the body and the articulation of sex. Having a pedicure done or putting a lipstick on are exactly those actions which Judith Butler would term as gender performative. Of course, in her work Neiburga does not subvert gender norms as much as Inčiūraite and Roots do in theirs, yet, the fact that gender performativity is not intentionally central in her work may imply the social and cultural citationality of performativity that usually is manifested with the subject being unaware about it. Indicating that performativity is not expressed at the subject’s will, but is pre-existent in culture, Butler writes in „Bodies That Matter” (1993): „Performativity is [thus] not a singular “act”, for it is always a reiteration of a norm or set of norms, and to the extent that it acquires an act-like status in the present, it conceals or dissimulates the conventions of which it is a repetition. Moreover, this act is not primarily theatrical; indeed, its apparent theatricality is produced to the extent that its historicity remains dissimulated.”((Butler, 1993, p. xxi))

The works of all three artists – Inčiūraitė, Roots and Neiburga – raise awareness of the authenticity issue or the concept of the double performativity. When is the artist acting and when she is not? And even on occasions when she is not acting, this kind of performativity, according to Butler, Derrida and Bourdieu, is citational. As acknowledged by performance theoretician Deirdre Heddon, „each experience is made sense of, and given meaning, within the cultural references available. Every “experience”, then, rather than being individual, is a cultural phenomenon and already culturally approved”.((Deirdre Heddon, Autobiography and Performance (Hampshire: Palgrave and Macmillan, 2008), p. 27)) Feminist critic Joan W. Scott (1992) advises that experience is always an interpretation and always in need of interpretation. Mediated in and by language, experience cannot then be taken as some “pure” knowledge or “truth” about any subject, including the self. The “self” is as much a discursive construct as anything else, constructed in particular times and places.((Ibid.)) Whereas Stuart Hall writes that “identity is always in part a narrative, always in part a kind of representation. It is always within representation. Identity is not something which is formed outside and then we tell stories about it. It is that which is narrated in one’s own self.”((Ibid.)) There is no “true” self at the core that can be unmasked because the “self” is “a hypothetical place or space of storytelling”.((Ibid.))

As emphasised by Hedon, the activity of representing the “self” adds a further problematic layer to notions of “truth” because, in the act of representing the self, there is always more than one self to contend with; the self is unavoidably split. There is the self who was and there is the self who is. There is the self who is performed, and the performing self. Which “self”, then is being presented?((Idid.)) We must remember that performance is NOT the real world, although it might very well prompt us to consider whether and how the “real world” is performance, or at least performative.((Ibid, p. 28)) Bearing in mind that in performance art „improvisation” is one of the key words, it might be assumed that the performer’s intuition authenticates the performance event as original and creative revelation. However, here, too, we must be careful, because improvisation is always determined by the performer’s habits, physical abilities and preparedness, as well as the achievable result and acquired behaviour models that in general may be defined as „habitus”, if articulated in Pierre Bourdieu’s words.

Similarly, in the context of gender studies, too, Butler refers to the „habitus conception” proposed by Bourdieu, defining „habitus” as “a tacit form of performativity, a citational claim lived and believed at the level of body”.((Marvin Carlsson, Performance: A Critical Introduction (Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 79)) In the video performances analysed above the artists perform gender, actor’s and their own roles as artists, and, in accordance with the previously mentioned theories, these performances repeat and cite an already existing pattern of action or mode of being, even when, as Derrida has often argued, that authenticating „original” is illusory.((Ibid, p. 80)) Thus, the boundaries between life and art become further merged echoing both the ideas of happenings and the motto of Bauhaus “play becomes party – party becomes work – work becomes play”.

This aspect has been also emphasized by Amy Bryzgel in her book “Performing the East”, where she states that performance art in the former soviet countries was used by the artists “to address current and relevant social issues – for example, to perform identity, appearance, or gender”.((Amy Bryzgel, Performing the East (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013), p. 223)) In this sense, the performative element can be noticed “present in everyday life, bringing these artistic acts much closer to the real, making that line between art and life even more – again invoking Allan Kaprow – fluid and indistinct”.((Ibid.)) Applying Rebecca Schneider’s theory on “the explicit body”, Bryzgel further suggests that the artists from the former soviet countries “collided the Real (constative) with the Symbolic (performative) in order to explode dominant and prevailing hierarchies and open up the world of their viewers to something new – be it a new national-cultural, individual, or gender identity.”((Bryzgel, pp. 226-227))

Thus, it can be concluded that all three artists – Kristina Inčiūraitė, Fideelia-Signe Roots and Katrīna Neiburga – reflect about cultural and behavioural models and patterns via their individual experiences, revealing „the tension between the literal and the symbolic, the indexical and the abstract, that occurs in the transposition of reality into image ”.((Catherine Russell, Experimental Ethnography: The Work of Film in the Age of Video (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999), p. 169))