Delegitimizing the Performance Document: Tales from the Open Call

Yelena Gluzman

All images and the index of terms are from Emergency Index Vol. 3 (2013)

Years ago, before we began publishing Emergency Index, I spoke about the project at an academic conference of Performance Studies scholars. I explained that the book (really a periodical in the form of a book) would be an annual compendium of performance documents. We would openly solicit descriptions of performance from the creators of those works, and we would avoid curation but have editorial guidelines to ensure that contributors both contextualized the piece and described its performance. We would cast the net wide, trying to reach communities of performance practice that lie outside of traditional enclaves of performing arts, and thus hope to see how performance (which we understood to be a methodology) was being used, developed and conceptualized across genres, disciplines, and politico-national borders. And in the end, each year we would publish a thick catalog-ish volume describing (in their authors’ words) hundreds of performances made in the previous year, each with an image, and with all the texts carefully cross-referenced in a back-of-the-book index of terms.

Sometime You'll Remember by Willy Smart, from Emergency Index Vol. 3At the conference, the audience considered the proposed project, and raised thoughtful questions: Why would it be a print publication, when an online publication would be easier to access and disseminate? Where would we, as editors, draw the line between what was considered a performance and what was not? What were the implications of requiring contributions from non-English-speaking artists in English? Aside from these questions, to which I will return, the most striking response came from an established academic who had been very involved in starting and administering postgraduate Practice-as-Research programs in the UK. He said to me, after the panel, that he thought that the publication was an excellent idea but that the lack of curation meant it also lacked peer-review, and thus such a publication would be meaningless in the review and assessment of work by the committees granting Practice-as-Research PhDs.

So here, in the context of a broader discussion on editing and performance, I’d like to think about his comment in terms of what editing can mean and do as it builds infrastructures of communication, on the one hand, and disappears into existing frameworks of power, on the other.

Naked at the Met, by Janice Perry, from Emergency Index Vol. 3For Emergency Index, the editorial act began with inventing the rules of engagement. In our case, these were influenced quite a bit by other periodicals. One major influence was the legendary magazine High Performance which, in the late 1970s and 80s, had an ‘Artist’s Chronicle’ section where early performance art works were documented by their creators. The other influential model for Emergency Index was the science journal, a form in which practitioners report results to their immediate community, with the understanding that one lab’s results might relate to work happening in other labs.

Wearable Urban Routine by Xiaowen Zhu, from Emergency Index Vol. 3Building on the lab report and the artist’s chronicle, Emergency Index invites submissions. We made an editorial decision to remain impartial to the social or commercial status of any given work; it may have been performed for an audience of 3747 viewers over 10 days (as in the case of David Levine’s theater installation ‘Habit’, Index Vol. 2, p. 352), for an audience of non-humans (as with Tuija Kokkonen’s ‘Chronopolitics – III Memo of Time’, Index Vol. 1, p. 18), or for an audience that was constituted during the reading of the documentation itself (as with Alex Ness’ ‘Rperfect Recall’, Index Vol. 1, p. 496). Though we do a lot of editorial work, peer review is missing here. We do not ask, ‘But is this Performance?’ because we are too busy asking, ‘So what is Performance if it includes this?’ As the British performance studies scholar had politely pointed out, Emergency Index was useless as a mark of legitimization. It did not symbolize the approval of a community, did not signal worth, novelty, or success. Each performance receives equal space, and, as editors, we do not distinguish between them.

Gorge: Takeaway by I'm With You, from Emergency Index Vol. 3In this sense, Emergency Index is useless to the circulation of commodities, whether in networks of performance-as-product, or artist-as-professional. The professional community that Index is answerable to, and made for, is the community of people who create, think about, and study performance. Implicit here is the understanding that legitimacy and worth are necessarily multiple and often in conflict, that the value of a performance document lies in the needs and questions of a particular reader, and not in an overarching hierarchy of values. This editorial structure is itself a performance, of course, a stubborn book-body broadcasting its refusal to grant legitimacy to the market as the ultimate container giving sense to a performance work. And from this position, all editorial decisions flow.

Theorems, Proofs, Rebuttals and Propositions: A Conference of Theoretical Theater by Esther Neff and Yelena Gluzman, from Emergency Index Vol. 3Though our guiding principals are clear, the devil is in the details, as the saying goes. When we receive submissions (which flood in by the hundreds), we have to make sure that they have followed our guidelines: Does their text give a sense of the performance? Does it contextualize the work? Is it less than 400 words? We suggest edits, we ask for revisions, and we try to make each performance description true to its own rules of engagement and accessible to a novel reader and short enough to fit on the page. This process is complicated and laborious and sometimes fails. Submissions that cannot be revised are rejected, contributors who cannot communicate in English are often misunderstood, and the simple management of so many pieces, authors, and correspondences is vulnerable to inadvertent losses and errors. Each volume of Emergency Index is an enormous editorial labor and as soon as it ends a new volume is underway.

Another Tree Dance by Karinne Keithley Syers and Sara Smith, from Emergency Index Vol. 3Of course, the financial realities of the project determine much of its editorial structure and here too the details shape what is possible. Index is a print publication: a big, beautiful, soft-cover book. The most recent volume is more than 700 pages long. Because of the ephemeral (and at times abject) nature of the works documented, it was important for us to produce Index on durable paper, bound as a singular object that traveled in space, sat on library shelves, and quietly survived the passing of years. Yet, at the same time, to ship these books is costly, and their own bulk slows down their circulation. The dream of having a parallel web-based publication lingers, but is complicated by the lack of time to devote to such an interface, and the need to sell books, without whose revenue we could not afford to publish in print at all. Because Index is a publication from a small press, it is ‘funded’ by our time and devotion; all the editors work for free. The high cost of publication (typically $6000–$7000 per volume) is offset by grants, book sales, and crowd-sourcing campaigns. Thus, though Index is opposed to the circulation of performance-as-commodity, it necessarily participates in a flow of capital that allows it to exist at all.

Brand-Name Insertion by Joshua Schwebel, from Emergency Index Vol. 3Over the past three years of its life, things haven’t changed much for Emergency Index. Our ways of soliciting contributions (through word-of-mouth, open calls, and social media announcements), our structures of collecting and organizing submissions (Google docs, spreadsheets, and color-codes), and our rituals for launching new volumes (with events, performances, and book sales) have stayed the same. Some authors have contributed works year after year, and new ones always appear. The book is printed, orders are placed, and copies are mailed to readers and bookstores and libraries. It is read. And there, in its reading, is where our knowledge about the book, and our authority as editors, ends.

Black Notice by Ntando Cele, from Emergency Index Vol. 3The work of an editor – like that of a designer, a technician, a builder – is done best when it disappears, leaving only the seemingly inevitable stuff of the matter. Yet so much labor goes into this disappearance. Even more challenging is that, on the other side, editorial decisions spiral outwards, creating constraints and possibilities that exceed the momentary encounter with a particular text. Editing creates structures, and structures shape practices. If Index refuses the hierarchy of curation, of peer review, of the performance-as-commodity, does it also refuse progress, accumulation, conceptual evolution, and criticality?

#Slamshell by Peng Collective, from Emergency Index Vol. 3As with a child, one harbors parental-editorial dreams for the future of one’s periodical. For Index, I don’t foresee wealth, fame, or status. I dream of layers, feedback networks, multiple languages, and new works. If Index is dedicated to the legitimacy of a particular encounter (instead of that of a curatorial assertion), I dream of folding responses to Index back into the project itself. Though we have no resources to make it happen, I would love to see Index on the web. Not only to give access to what we already published, but also to build in ways that digital artists and critics can create and upload new works in response to published content, to the structure of Emergency Index itself, to its index-of-terms. A web interface would allow people to deploy the tools and methods of digital humanities, data analysis, and algorithm-aided interpretation to consider and make performance as a way of critically engaging with performance documentation. It could facilitate responses in multiple languages, where ‘language’ is not necessarily a vehicle of nationhood. As opposed to a strategy of simple amplification, I imagine an online structure that – by being open to reshuffling, re-indexing, and response – problematizes the very ephemerality and boundedness of the documented performance work. A web-based forum that – like Index itself – is committed to a conversation built around the delegitimized artwork. Is anyone out there interested in building such a thing? This too is an open call….



Yelena Gluzman thinks about performance through projects and collaborations in theater, film, scholarly research, and publishing. Committed to performance as methodology, her scholarly work engages with semiotics, cognitive science, ethnomethodology and science & technology studies. She co-edits Emergency Index and the Emergency Playscripts series for Ugly Duckling Presse and recently co-embarked on a new project called Feminist Theory Theater. All images and the index of terms are from Emergency Index Vol. 3 (2013)

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