The beginning of the contemporary notion of performance, be it poetic or visual (on the contemporary scene they don’t exclude one another) could be traced back to the Nietzsche’s notion of Gay Science.
As preserved in written form, like Homer’s epic song, like Greek musical tragedy, la gaya scienza corresponds to the textual fusion of oral traditions—
composition, transmission, performance—in the now-frozen poems of the troubadours. It is important, as with the ancient tradition of epic poetry, that the knightly art of poetry, the gay science as recorded in the fourteenth century, presumed a much older tradition dating back to the twelfth or eleventh centuries (or earlier still). This older legacy was the historical meaning of the gai saber. Much later, Nietzsche reprised this notion of “happy” or accommodating knowledge, that is, art, and it could certainly apply to his writings about Richard Wagner.
On the other hand, it is Wagner’s notion of gesamtkunstwerk (translated as total work of art, ideal work of art, universal artwork, synthesis of the arts, comprehensive artwork, all-embracing art form or total artwork—and thus a work of art that makes use of all or many art forms) which brings many to consider him the real father of both avant-garde theater and contemporary performance.
What is at stake here, as Alain Badiou pertinently remarks in discussing Nietzsche’s text, is the fact that the world not only is in constant flux, but is also in a rather sad and tragic (in terms of Nietzsche’s nihilism) flux and state of affairs. So perhaps the only way to overcome the nihilistic, tragic way of seeing the world, and its reality as such, would be to present it as la gaya scienza, part of a ludic stage, in which every performance and theatre [production] attempt, even in their most somber and tragic forms.
But contemporary performance, living on the edge of being, the edge of the precarious Event as Badiou would have it, attempts this even more so than the traditionally-conceived theatre, and there are palpable reasons to make such a claim.
The very nature of a democratic, politically-oriented performance entails an act, an action which is or which could be conceived“on the spot” by a performer who is in the process of contemplating chaos, the flux of things to come and go. Such a performance does not have to be less rehearsed than in the traditional theater, as Roberto Ciulli’s theory of improvisation would have it—but certainly it is less deliberate and formally bound or determined than the traditional theater—and this is just one of the distinctions which divide the realm of contemporary performance from traditional theater, which, at its best, contains the elements of various performative acts.
Ciulli’s method on the art of improvisation is conceived as a basic human freedom and is presented as the following: ”The ideal laboratory for working on the problems associated with the building of a society and for the social formations we have to invent, so that a more humane society may emerge—is the theatre. What we encounter there all the time is the dialectical relationship between the freedom of an individual and the order of the state, and the search for the maximum degree of freedom within a state, which is to say the improvisation of free acts inside a prison.”
For Ciulli as for many other fathers and mothers of the contemporary performance such as Tristan Tzara, Aristide Briand, The Living Theater, Grotowski or the Bread and Puppet theatre—the individual capable of exercising freedom is an actor, while the repressive order of the state is represented by the structure of the play, any script or performance itself. Here, any text or directing dictated by the director, even as a collaborative process, can be seen as a sort of prison, a metaphor for the state.
So even improvisation in rehearsal, or any deliberate training rehearsed, leads to the creation of an imprisoning box. From such an ideological background prevalent in the 1960s or 1970s (within the context of the Italian ideology of the far left—Mario Tronti, Antonio Negri and Massimo Cacciari) contemporary performance was born, and I personally attested to it in my notes to the Living Theatre and the Alchemical Theater productions in which I took part in New York City in the early 1980s:
From Living on Air:
One day the Queen of Purple asked Quasimodo and me to improvise a scene entitled‘The Last Judgment.’
I played the part of the Grand Inquisitor, the barker of Unreason. For my costume, the Queen chose a dark robe with a gold fringe, stiff pants and heavy leather boots. Quasimodo was to perform the role of the willing prisoner…. The only direction the Queen gave me was to draw blood.
As the scene began, Quasimodo sat slumped in a chair with her head turned my way. I approached slowly, methodically, but would not look at her—then hissed over her shoulder like a viper:
“Tell me, for how many days have you enjoyed the pleasures of this cell?”
“The questions of speed and absence have been known to us for some time,” she replied, eying the floor.
“Why are you so ugly?” I spit, impulsively.
“Am I not your conscience?” she answered, without hesitation.
“There are no words to describe your deeds.” I crossed to the other side of the stage, stomping my boots on the plywood floor. “And yet, you are under investigation.”
Quasimodo pushed her head back and writhed in the chair.
Then I asked Quasimodo “What is the purpose of poetry?”
“To divert people from acting foolishly,” she said.
“When does this ‘I’ disappear from a text?” I inquired.
“I believe in a collective consciousness,” she offered.
“What did you eat for dinner last night?”
”I had broccoli,” it replied.
“Was it good?” I asked.
“My body required it,” it said.
“Why do you care so much for your body?” I went on.
“I am here to serve.”
“Whom do you serve?”
“I have no true master,” it confessed. “I am here to investigate the question of disappearance and the dilemma of the opposites.”
“Do you ever take a vacation?”
“Once I was human, yes. But I was destroyed by the state.”
“The state?...Whose state?” I inquired.
“It was nobody’s state. I was born out of a bath of foam and crystal! I was thrown out of my house, and left to the wolves of this world! Everything sped up until I reached the land of pure reason. There I discovered the powerful. I offered them my heart for their supper. In return they made me their slave.”
I loosened my grip on its throat and shook sweat from my fingers.
“Were you free to act as you pleased, where would you go?”
Quasimodo stood for the first time, and meekly sobbed. The show was over.
Living on Air, Barncott Press, London, 2015
was born in former Yugoslavia but most of her life she lived on both sides of the Atlantic where she performed widely throughout the U.S. and Europe. She has 20 books of poetry and fiction published by leading international publishers and her work has been translated into many languages. A former assistant to Allen Ginsberg and Lee Worley, she has worked for many years with several renowned theatre companies including The Living Theatre and La Mama in New York. Her solo performances draw breath from such working experiences. She lives in Paris and teaches the Avantgarde theatre at Paris 8 University in St. Denis.