STUART BRISLEY, Before the Mast, 2013

Title of session:
Can performance teach us about history and historical time?

Sanja Perovic in conversation with Stuart Brisley.

Dr. Perovic will give a specific account of her current and ongoing collaboration with the time-based performance art of Stuart Brisley: 'Dead History, Live Art: Encounters with Stuart Brisley’. This presentation will introduce the French Revolutionary Calendar (the topic of Dr. Perovic's previous research) and then consider the implications of the calendar in Brisley's recent work to pose the question: what, if anything, can performance teach us about history and historical time?

Sanja Perovic is Senior Lecturer in French at King’s College London. Her recent book The Calendar in Revolutionary France: Perceptions of Time in Literature, Culture and Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2012)

Stuart Brisley (Surrey, 1933) is a British painter, sculptor and performance artist, widely regarded as a key figure in British art.

Cambridge Interdisciplinary Performance Network
Cambridge University
Monday, November 9th


Performing in the Broad Present or
Dead History Live Art


History and performance studies are often considered antithetical. History typically emphasizes distance and events firmly ‘in the past’, while performance focuses on presence, bodily immersion and action. Recently however there has been a rapprochement. The archival impulse within contemporary art since the 1990s and the orientation towards reenactment suggests a historical turn within the art world (Foster 2002; Merewether 2006; Enwezor 2008; Schneider 2011; Bishop 2012). This is mirrored by a performative turn within history. Historians increasingly emphasize ‘affective’ relations to the past (Phillips 2013; Agnew and Lamb 2004, 2009) while leading theorists have described historical discourse itself as a performance that establishes boundaries between past, present and future (Lorenz 2014). This raises the question: under what framework can performance itself be considered historical knowledge? Implicit in this question is a series of further questions about the epistemological claims of performance. If performance is epistemologically productive in some way, for whom is this knowledge produced? Does it lie on the side of the performer, the participants or both and in what time? In other words, does the production and transmission of knowledge still imply a concept of linear time or is it something produced simultaneously by the performer and participant implying different durations and different rhythms of apprehension, a simultaneity and/or layering of time?

Performance art has long been drawn towards socially-conscious, historically inflected projects. It is, however, also the case, as Clare Bishop has recently noted, that the terms of analysis have mostly remained internal to contemporary art. This proposal, in contrast, aims to extend performance into the social field, by identifying concepts and terms shared between history and performance art. In so doing we hope to pinpoint some convergences and divergences between two activities for which time is the essential material as well as formal parameter of expression. In particular, we hope to challenge the conventional opposition between ‘dead history’ and ‘live art’ through a series of reflections along the following three lines:

  • *  How and in what way can performance reactivate - as opposed to re-present or re-enact - a relation to the past through a physical, lived experience of time? 
  • *  How can performance be used to think critically about a past that has been shorn of the Historical categories that have traditionally filtered and interpreted it? 
  • *  What remains of the revolutionary potential of performance itself?
    Performance and Historical Time
    Intensification of thinking about time usually accompanies changing experiences of time. This is especially evident in our relation to the past. On the one hand, the collapse of historical methods inherited from the nineteenth century has resulted in a past shorn of the categories that have traditionally filtered and interpreted it. On the other hand, the result (arguably) has not been ‘less’ past but more of it - with a rising number of museums, heritage sites, preservation societies and period dramas all seeking to re-experience the past as a presence. This craving for a history effect is very different from academic history which has tended to stress objectivity and distance. Traditionally at least, the image of time for the academic historian was that of a receding past. 

Distance from the past ensures that the historian can learn what contemporaries of the event cannot. Chris Lorenz has likened this traditional view of the past to an ‘icicle’ - ‘breaking off from the present on its own, through temporal distance or weight’. But this attitude to history has become less self-evident today. As Lorenz admits, a ‘haunting past’ has come to replace ‘a - distant - "historical" past’. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht has suggested that this unsettled feeling reflects a ‘prolonged period of latency that dates from 1945’. Even 1968 and 1989 - hailed as milestones, moments of clarity about history’s direction - have proved hollow as adequate periodisations, Gumbrecht argues. Latency expresses the feeling that there is something there - a trend, a pattern, a development - that resists interpretation even though as it makes itself known through a kind of affective apprehension. It is captured through such terms as aura, repetition, anticipation, memory or the uncanny, all familiar to the performance artist.

In addition to the collapse of historically relevant time-scales, this ‘performative turn’ also reflects more general changes in attitudes towards time, especially under the influence of new media. Scarcely anyone is immune to an economy in which faster is cheaper. Hartmunt Rosa has suggested that Western society has become ‘increasingly ruled by the silent normative force of temporal norms, which come in the form of deadlines, schedules and temporal limits’ to the exclusion of all other values. And François Hartog has used the term presentism to describe a new order of time in which the present has superseded all other relations to time as the only ‘authority’ that matters. In somewhat alarming terms, he describes a ‘more and more swollen and hypertropic’ present that remakes the links between past and future on an incessant basis and to suit its own purposes. Meanwhile a simultaneous twenty-first century globe has led to more attention being paid to how the past perseveres in different presents, in different parts of the world.

Given this broadening of the present, the question of the relation between performance and the historical past becomes ever more urgent. Does performance art - is it often claims to do - challenge our attitude to history? Or does it merely re-enforce the general cultural sense that the past is weak? Does performance art resist the ‘historical incarcaration of the archive’ (to recall Enwezor’s words)? Or does it participate in a form of historical revisionism?

Performance and Revolutionary Time

This brings us to the third and final issue we seek to address: in light of this pervasive performative turn in many cultural fields, what remains of the revolutionary potential of performance art? It is often assumed that performance art by its very nature challenges art-historical discourse (see Soussloff). A performative relation to the past requires maintaining a kind of lived or tensed time, a time caught between anticipation and memory and indexed to the participants of performance. For this sense of ‘liveness’ to be maintained, the performance must resist ‘becoming historical’, which is to say, that it must resist becoming like any other historical remnant, a fixed data-point in the past that can be collected and plotted in a line or a graph. This is why performance art has frequently identified itself with the avant-garde principles of radical discontinuity with the past, captured most succinctly in the revolutionary myth of a tabula rasa. It is also why the question of how to record and archive a performance event remains so critical.

And yet, performance art also increasingly takes place in museums, places of collecting and linear time lines par excellence. Much like sovereign states, museums maintain their own archives and operate according to their own historical laws. This increasingly comfortable relation between performance art and the museum raises a related series of questions. What is the relation between performance and the archive given that both are mediated by the State? Do works have rights beyond that ordained by the sovereign power? When museums exert their sovereign power to frame and reframe the archive, what remains of the ability of performance art to escape the

framework? Boris Groys for instance has suggested that when artists claim to want to break out of the museum in order for their art to become ‘truly real’ or ‘truly alive’ they are in fact reproducing the logic of the museum archive. Cultures without museums need to constantly reproduce their past; cultures with museums need to constantly produce new objects. The more ‘real’ ‘alive’ and ‘contemporary’ the artist can make his or her art appear, the more likely that it will be collected and become the future’s past.

This suggests that the conventional opposition of ‘dead history’ to ‘live art’ may well be inadequate to express the contemporary institutionalization of performance both within and outside the museum. It is interesting to note in this regard, that the first revolutionary desire for a tabula rasa -- the destruction of the past symbolized by the French Revolution’s declaration of a new timeline beginning in Year I - was also accompanied by the establishment of the Louvre. In this first great state Museum, ‘remnants’ of the past supposedly destroyed by the revolutionary desire for a new beginning, were collected, conserved and rearranged according to a new linear chronology, from the darkened rooms dedicated to medieval artefacts to the airy, sunlit rooms of the enlightened present. Thus the third and final call of this proposal is to investigate more concretely the politics of representation associated with performance art. How does one curate the revolutionary past, especially if we assume that the politics of rupture and art-historical revisionism are not such opposing forces after all? In what way does the time and space of the museum alter, extend or restrict the ‘matter’ of performance itself? Finally, what is the relation between the museum’s own historical laws and the ability of performance to make epistemological claims about the past?

For a broad discussion.

This proposal is submitted as part of a joint collaboration between Dr. Sanja Perovic and the Museum of Ordure.

Museum of Ordure is a self institution which explores the cultural value of ordure through its projects and ongoing public collections.

Sanja Perovic is Senior Lecturer in the French Department at King's College London. Her most recent publication is The Calendar in Revolutionary France: Perceptions of Time in Literature, Culture, Politics (Cambridge University Press: 2012). She is currently working on two book-length projects, both concerning the aesthetics and politics of time. The first considers the theatrical and fictional origins of human rights in eighteenth-century France. The second reconsiders the French Revolution as a performance event in order to explore the links between the political and aesthetic avant-garde.


Agnew, Vanessa and Lamb, Jonathan, eds. ‘Introduction, Extreme and Sentimental History’, Special issue, Criticism 46.3 (2004): 323-523.

Bishop, Clare. Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012).

Enwezor, Okwui. Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (New Work: Steidl, 2008).

Foster, Hal. ‘An Archival Impulse’, October (2004), no.110: 3-22.

Groys, Boris. Art Power (Cambridge, MASS: MIT Press, [2008] 2013), 24, 28.

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. ‘How (if at All) can we encounter what remains latent in texts?’ Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 7, 87–96,94. Our Broad Present (Columbia UP, 2014).

Hartog, François. Régimes d’historicité: présentisme et expériences du temps (Paris: Seuil, 2003), 125.

Lorenz, Chris and Marek Tamm, ‘Who Knows where the Time Goes’, Rethinking History, (2014

Merewether, Charles. The Archive, (London: Whitechapel; Cambridge, MASS: MIT Press, 2006). Phillips, Mark Salber. On Historical Distance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

Rosa, Hartmunt. Alienation and Acceleration: Towards a Critical Theory of late-modern Temporality (Malmö: NSU Press, 2010), 41.

Schneider, Rebecca. Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Re-enactment (London: Routledge, 2011).

Soussloff, Catherine. ‘Art History’s Dilemma: Theories for time in performance/media exhibitions’ in Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, 19.3 (2014): 93-100.