Performing Theory: Interweaving Body, Space, and Text


Karin Shankar



The inter-/trans-/non-discipline of performance studies takes up “performance” in a multifold manner—as embodied aesthetic practice, as an object of analysis, and as a lens to take in the world. Within this “broad spectrum approach” (Schechner, 1988), questions of space are elemental––whether it be the use and design of performance spaces, the spaces we traverse daily and in which we carry out quotidian performances of self, representations of space and spatial imaginaries, literary spaces, spaces of protest, or utopian and dystopian spaces.

As a performance studies scholar teaching at Pratt Institute—primarily an art, architecture, and design school—when I plan my syllabi each semester I ask and consequently attempt to enact  how the methods of my field might most effectively be framed to generate multiple and complex understandings of the relationships between bodies and space. More specifically, I create reading lists and lesson plans that highlight the “actions, interactions, and relations” of/between bodies in space, a foundational concern for the artists, designers, and architects in my classroom (Schechner, 2013, p. 30). Secondly, with the field’s focus on embodiment, it is no surprise that the biggest thinkers in performance studies are also scholars of gender and sexuality studies, critical race theory, ethnic studies, and cultural studies. With this lineage of thought and practice, my pedagogy at Pratt is also undergirded by feminist and queer theory, as well as postcolonial and decolonial studies alongside questions of the performativity of space. Finally, as I’ve written elsewhere (Shankar et al., 2022, p. 62), I encourage my students to use embodied experiences as “raw material” to create and theorize—this I see as contemporary feminist praxis (Fournier, 2018, p. 646).

In this article, I offer three reading modules and practice-based assignment prompts to show how performance studies-inflected understandings of broad spatial concepts such as “mapping,” “borders,” and “home” might enrich and enliven more conventional practices and discourses  around these same terms. These modules are from a course I teach entitled Performing Theory: Interweaving Body, Space, and Text. My aim every semester is for students to take concepts from the field of  performance studies to create embodied tools for use in their own art and design work and spatial practice. Following an outline of the three modules, I conclude with a reflection on a widely used performance warm up that I also incorporate into my classes, “space walk.” Among other objectives, this exercise encourages an exploration of the studio space. I relate this embodied warm-up exercise to performance studies scholar Andre Lepecki’s concept of “choreopolitics” (2013) to bridge the vital embodied work we do in performance studies classrooms with concerns in socio-political spaces beyond.


Module I: On Mapping

Part A. Maps, Knowledge, Power

Read: John Brian Hartley, “Maps, Knowledge, Power”

Read: Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science”

Notes on the reading: In his chapter “Maps, Knowledge, Power,” Hartley argues that maps are socially constructed forms of knowledge and “value-laden” images. Introducing his argument, Hartley writes, “maps cease to be understood primarily as inert records of morphological landscapes or passive reflections of the world of objects, but are regarded as refracted images contributing to dialogue in a socially constructed world” (Hartley, 1988, p. 53).  In class we will unpack his concept of a “refracted image.” Hartley’s chapter is paired with Argentinian writer Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science.” In this parable written in 1946, Borges describes an empire in which cartographers are charged with mapping the empire in such perfect detail that the resultant map turns out to be “a useless document the exact size of the kingdom” (Borges, 1999, p. 325). This story brings to the fore the great tensions between space and representations of space. Class discussion will be focused around the performativity of maps.


Part B. Colonial Maps/Racialized and Gendered Bodies

Read: Anne McClintock, “Pornotropics,” excerpted from Imperial Leather                                   

Read: Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place

View: Ana Mendieta, Untitled: Silueta Series    
                            
Notes on the reading: In these readings and artworks students encounter the colonial map, a colonially inflected tourist itinerary, and an artist’s counter-mapping practice. Here, theory expounded in the previous week’s readings is put into motion. In the selection from Imperial Leather, McClintock illustrates how mapmaking became the “servant of colonial plunder” (1995, p. 27).  First claiming to operate “under the guise of scientific exactitude,” imperial cartographers then posited that “those with the capacity to make such perfect representations must also have the right of territorial control” (1995, p. 28). Further, taking up various archival maps and cultural artifacts, McClintock shows how, on colonial maps, non-European lands were coded as “female” to be subordinated through male conquest (1995, p. 23-24). Jamaica Kincaid offers the reader a “tour” through her island country of Antigua, taking us beyond and through conventional tourist itineraries of pleasure and consumption, revealing how the tourist gaze often replicates the colonial gaze. Finally, Ana Mendieta’s Untitled: Silueta Series posits an entirely new relationship between the body and land—one that centers feminist ritual and ecological practice. Class discussion will focus on ways in which artists might repurpose historically violent forms—tourist itineraries, colonial maps, etc.—to perform new truths.      

Assignment: Trace a map home. (Interpret this prompt using a medium of your choice.) Come to class prepared with your map and a two- to three-minute presentation explaining your choices.       

Module II: On Home

Read: Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street

Notes on the reading: Diasporic writers have produced some of the most poignant and powerful works on the themes of home and identity, belonging, and community. This week we consider Cisneros’ coming of age novella. This text is organized as a series of vignettes and opens us to  understanding the relationship between sense memory and fragmentation in depictions of “home.” In class we will also consider how home can be recreated or created anew. 

Assignment: Write a short, sensory ethnography of “home” by answering these questions:

What does home…

look like?

sound like?

feel like?

smell like?

taste like?

How do I move when I’m home?
Module III: On Borders

Read: Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands, Chapter 1

Read: Thomas King, “Borders” 

View: Guillermo Galindo and Richard Misrach, Border Cantos (2004–2016)
Session synopsis: Through engagement with theory, literature, and art, this week students will gain an understanding of the geopoetics of borderlands and the ways in which borders transform, disappear, multiply, and continuously inform identity. Anzaldúa’s classic work Borderlands opens with a (non-)definition—“a borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition” (1987, p. 3)—and poetry—“This is my home / this thin edge of / barbwire” (1987, p. 3). With this work, students are invited to consider borderlands as improvisational spaces with both affective and material dimensions. These ideas are carried forward in Cherokee writer Thomas King’s short story “Borders,” which tracks a journey the narrator and his mother make between Canada and the United States of America, in which the mother’s declaration of Blackfoot citizenship (rather than Canadian or US) confuses the border guards and leads to a bureaucratic standoff over two nights, during which time the protagonists spend the night in their car under the stars at the border. The mother’s performative enunciation of belonging is an act of resistance that forces agents of both states to acknowledge Indigenous sovereignty and the constructedness of borders, if even for a minute. Finally, Galindo and Misrach’s stunning sound-art work Border Cantos brings the focus back to the material violences at borders and the possibilities of a “clairaudient” listening to borderland ghosts. We will focus on the new knowledge that analyzing a geopolitical border as performance surfaces.


1 I adapt this exercise from a common creative writing prompt that asks writers to engage all their senses for more evocative and vivid description. For more writing exercises that might similarly be taken up to engage spatial themes and sensory description, see Geraghty (2009).

Questions we will consider in class include:

How is the border deployed in space and disclosed in time?

What special clothes or objects are deployed?

What roles are played and how are these different from who the performer(s) usually are?

How are border crossings controlled? How is border security reported and evaluated? By whom?

The OED defines “clairaudience” as “the faculty of mentally perceiving sounds beyond the range of hearing, alleged to be induced under certain mesmeric conditions.” I first came upon this concept in Lydia French’s writing on differential listening in Chicanx literature. See French (2014).
3 I have adapted all these questions on how to analyze something “as performance” from Schechner (2013). I have adapted all these questions on how to analyze something “as performance” from Schechner (2013).


Practice: Bring in an image of a border of any kind. This needn’t be a geopolitical border. Then, again drawing from your own personal archive, offer an example of something (tangible or intangible) that you have crossed a border with.


Conclusion: A “Choreopolitical” Walk Through Space

I offer the three modules above as a resource to other teachers working at the intersection of performance studies and spatial disciplines to apply and modify as they see fit. I conclude with a reflection on an activity I carry out close to the end of the semester entitled “Space Walk.” There are several variations of this very popular theater game, but a score for this exercise can be found in Viola Spolin’s Theater Games for the Classroom: A Teacher’s Handbook (1986), a foundational manual used in theater, dance, and performance studies classes. The exercise entails students walking through the space of the classroom with awareness, “giving space a new immediacy” (p. 35).

The “side coaching” script (read out loud by the facilitator/instructor) for this exercise may go something like this:

[M]ore than just physical sensory and perception exercises, [Space Walks] are organic ways of perceiving/sensing/experiencing the environment (space) around us as an actual dimension in which all can enter, communicate, live and be free. Distractions are removed, and players are helped to enter the moment with self, with other players, and with forms and objects. Each player becomes a receiving sending instrument capable of reaching out beyond the physical self and the immediate environment. A spacewalk invariably creates elation, alertness, and a developing feeling of belonging and real connection (part of the whole). The players will intuitively grasp this (Spolin, 1989).
I incorporate the space walk exercise in my classes because, after a semester of thinking spatial concepts corporeally, I want to reassert how even the simple, everyday act of walking through space—any space—can “open up to the possibility of expanding the boundaries of ourselves and remap our bodies and minds’ relations to the spaces around us”  (Koepnick, 2014, p. 220). Indeed, Zen practices of walking have taught us this same idea for centuries in the following aphorism: “With each step forward, the world comes to us” (Trinh, 2020, p. 3).

Philosophers and artists have shown us that walking activates a new consciousness, and, in the context of this class, can generate new knowledge about bodies in space. Pushing this idea further into the world beyond the classroom, I offer the students performance studies scholar Andre Lepecki’s concept of “choreopolitics.” For Lepecki, the portmanteau choreopolitics is that moment when movement-based, socially-engaged practice and dance become categories to “redefine action and time.” More specifically, choreopolitics is an embodied movement which would enable a “redistribution and reinvention of bodies, affects, and senses, through which one may learn how to move politically, how to invent, activate, seek, or experiment with a movement, whose only sense (meaning and direction) is the experimental exercise of freedom”  (Lepecki, 2013, p. 20). Lepecki turns to Hannah Arendt in his definition of freedom as “the capacity to begin something” (as cited in Lepecki, 2013, p. 20).

Drawing from Lepecki, we end the semester then with this wide question: given our understanding of a body’s relationship to space, how can we—as creative beings—enhance the possibility of a room, a building, a poem, a canvas… to reveal its capacity to begin something.Drawing from Lepecki, we end the semester then with this wide question: given our understanding of a body’s relationship to space, how can we—as creative beings—enhance the possibility of a room, a building, a poem, a canvas… to reveal its capacity to begin something.



References

Anzaldúa, G. (1987). Borderlands/La Frontera. Aunt Lute Books.

Borges, J.L. (1999). On exactitude in science. In J.L. Borges and A. Hurley (Trans.), Collected fictions. Penguin Books.

Cisneros, S. (1984). The house on mango street. Vintage Books.

French, L. (2014). Chican@ literature of differential listening. Interference: A Journal of Audio Cultures. Issue 4. http://www.interferencejournal.org/chican-literature-of-differential-listening/

Geraghty, M. (2009). The five-minute writer: Exercise and inspiration in creative writing in five minutes a day (2nd ed.). HowToBooks.

Guillermo, G. & Misrach, R. (2016, July 25). Border cantos. San Jose Museum of Art. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTsZPFjFCnA

Hartley, J. B. (1998). Maps, knowledge, power. The iconography of landscape: Essays on the symbolic representation, design and use of past environments. Cambridge University Press.

Kincaid, J. (1988). A small place. Penguin.

King, T. (1993). Borders.  In One good story, that one. University of Minnesota Press.

Koepnick, L. (2014). On slowness: Toward an aesthetic of the contemporary. Columbia University Press.
Lauren F. (2018). Sick women, sad girls, and selfie theory: Autotheory as contemporary feminist practice. a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, 33(3), 643–62.


Lepecki, A. (2013) Choreopolitics and choreopolice: Or the task of the dancer. TDR, 57(4), 20.

McClintock, A. (1995). Imperial leather: Race, gender, and sexuality in the colonial contest. Routledge.

Mendieta A. (1973-80). Silueta series. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY, United States. https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/ana-mendieta

Min-ha, T.T. (2020). Walk of multiplicity. Notes on Feminisms 4. Feminist Art Coalition.

Schechner, R. (1988). Performance studies: The broad spectrum approach. TDR, 32(3). 4-6. 

Schechner, R. (2013). Performance studies: An introduction (3rd ed.). Routledge.

Shankar, K., Ao leong, U., Bernazky, K., Miscles, L., & Shen, K. (2022). On making autotheory. iteratio: On teaching art and design. Issue 2. 62–71.

Spolin, V. (1986). Theater games for the classroom: A teacher’s handbook. Northwestern University Press.

Spolin, V. (1989). Theater game file (Index Cards and Handbook). Northwestern University Press.