Performance Research 1 Jan 2006English

item doc

COMMUNICATION There are the performers, and there is the public. The performers speak and/or gesture, make movements ('dance'), address and look at each other; the public watches and listens, mostly in silence. The performers’ all too visible 'work of representation' finds its counterpart in the public's much less audible 'work of interpretation'. At the end of the performance, the two parties have a brief ritual exchange. The performers bow, the public applauds (with greater or lesser enthusiasm). But what has been understood of the performance by the public? And also: what particular kind of communicative situation does a performance create?
Communication is usually conceived as the encoded transfer of information from a sender to a receiver within a particular medium. It's a simple and, on first sight, highly plausible model: subject message - subject; performers (plus director) performed message - public. Yet, members of the public encode and, consequently, decode the message according to various rules and background expectations. Or they see 'nothing': they do not discern formal differences that make a meaningful difference, thus acquiring a particular information value. The same (the performance) is different, thus concluded semiotics and reception theory during the 1960s.
Post-structuralism, in Roland Barthes's version, went one step further and concluded that 'the text' is nothing more than an open space of interpretative productivity in which the reader or receiver actually takes up the position of the writer or sender. No representation without various interpretations: the members of the public are coperformers. Post-modern performance reflexively takes into account this truism and therefore excels in open-ended, multi-layered 'texts' in which the production of non-narrative chains of signifiers hopes to meet a signifying mind that couples them to one or more meanings, thus transforming them into a message in the ongoing sense. It is thus still betting on the validity of the dominant view of communication. At the same time, the post-modern idea of 'the open text' fits neatly with the neo-liberal credo that every individual has the right to choose. Neither post-modernism nor neo-liberalism question the social boundaries that structure the possibility to opt for ('to buy') this or that lifestyle, or to interpret a work of art in this or that way. Quite some cultural capital is presupposed by a contemporary performance piece in order to be understood as just that: an instance of contemporary performance art that may be received or co-performed in various ways.
Let's try another, undeniably modernist track. According to T. W. Adorno, every genuine work of art is 'a communication without communication'. It speaks, but in such a reserved or - on the contrary such an excessive way that it undermines the idea that communication equals an, in principle, symmetric transfer of information from a sender to a receiver. Misunderstanding is therefore the genuine form of understanding a work of art, whose full semantic potential may only be realized within a future community, a public 'yet to come'. But will it come? As a true modernist, Adorno was simultaneously betting on this Utopian possibility and writing as if he were already a member of a truly enlightened, culturally and socially liberated society. The future had yet to come, but the critic could speak on behalf of it, thus simulating a nearly complete understanding of works of art that was actually impossible according to critical social theory.
Adorno's paradoxical saying that works of art simultaneously embody and deconstruct the possibility of communication once again presupposes the dominant transfer metaphor. Yet, one can give it a specific twist that questions the transfer model as well as the post-modernist viz. poststructuralist emphasis on individual reception. According to contemporary social systems theory, as developed and codified by Niklas Luhmann, a communication is the selective and therefore contingent utterance of selective information (or a 'message') that is selectively understood. Reception theory and poststructuralism are both right in stressing the productive role of the receiver. Indeed, his or her understanding implies that information has been uttered, and this independent of another person's intention to communicate (or not). The understanding, according to whatever code, rounds up the communication: no observation of something as a communication if it is not interpreted as uttered information, as a 'said message' interpreted in a particular way. Yet, the marking of a series of sounds or movements as uttered information in the act of understanding either may be a purely private, conscious observation in one's mind or may acquire a public and .Social character thanks to a next communication. This crucial difference between individual and social, psychic and communicative understanding is often overlooked within the various forms of 'post'-theorizing.
This text presupposes that it will be observed by every individual reader as an utterance of information that will be understood in one way or another. Yet, the text only acquires a social relevance, even a social existence, when the uttered information elicits one or more new communications. They publicly confirm that information has indeed been uttered by taking up the selectively understood 'message' as a premise for a new message - which then also needs an ensuing communication in order to exist. Precisely this is social self-referentiality: the enchainment of communications that refer to each other, thus also co-producing each other. Every new communication indicates, implicitly or explicitly, how one or more previous 'messages' have been understood. It's the only way to know how a text, performance, image is received. We cannot look into each other's head: communicative understanding is our only access to understanding as such. Even when we have every reason to suppose that somebody is lying, we only have recourse to new communication (and for instance voice our doubts).
Semiotics and reception theory, and, more recently, postmodernist and poststructuralist theorizing, have underlined the creative, co-productive nature of the individual understanding of works of art (and also of the diverse forms of popular culture). But how do they know this, if not via the texts of critics, or via talks with museum visitors or theatre-goers? One has to rely on what people say (or write) they think, knowing that it may differ from what they actually think - but not being capable of directly observing the difference. And what is said, written, gestured, needs ensuing oral statements, writings, gestures in order to have existed as part of social life or society. Notwithstanding its live character and the applause at the end, a performance is also 'a communication without communication' (Adorno) as long as its communicative status is not confirmed by ensuing communications: it needs our words, not only our minds or bodies.