Journal

Journal

“Who are you? (Who the fuck are you?)” Agency and the politics of Performance in the pandemic and digital era

“Who are you? (Who the fuck are you?)” Agency and the politics of Performance in the pandemic and digital era

Alexa Wilson
Alexa Wi...

If one more person tells me they’re ok with lockdowns because they’re happy to be alone, I’ll tell them… it might be a bit more nuanced than that. All things aside, we live in the age of social media where being an introvert or antisocial has been given a new dimension that is far from its private and solitude rich roots. Hyper media enhances “performativity” of the self within neo-liberal branded capitalism in which a background dialogue of private vs public is ever-present. What does secrecy even mean now when we are surveilled and tracked everywhere? Zizek would tell us our commons aren’t shared as these public spaces are bombarded with private thoughts and experiences anyway ('Event', 2014).

My question - in an era where Google is known as "big brother with a user-friendly face” - have we given up caring about our autonomy and agency in the pandemic/digital era? All the while being ironically given nothing but independence and isolation in lockdowns, dictating also the performativity of our identities in a divisive dance of online spectacle. We have business meetings in our bedroom on zoom, a total invasion of our privacy.

It's all a little dark, isn't it? But they get us because we're social creatures, hard wired to connect and these platforms also do connect us.

I’ve been asked by PAWA to host a talk with 4 artists from this year’s festival in Pōneke, Wellington around the topic of Agency/ Autonomy of bodies and the politics of Performance in the pandemic, I pondered over whether to think of agency or autonomy as the focus of this talk and the politics of public vs private as the themes for the festival within the context of performance in a digital era now leaned into during the pandemic.

I would argue we have agency (freedom to act) but not autonomy (self-government) to do so. This is not an academic essay (fuck that), it is a loosely informed academic activist artist opinion piece. The following arises out of research from the last years of doing my post-grad on these and neighbouring concerns.

Who am I when I perform my apped freedoms when I film or photograph myself for my friends, future dates or extended fans, frenemies, or stalkers? Reduced to the surface, I am a woman, a white woman. A middle-aged Pākehā cis able-bodied woman. What are you? Who are you? "Who the fuck are you?" (as said by Robert Blake in David Lynch's Lost Highway with a camera on the main character). What are you performing and who are you performing it- for? Yourself? Your friends? Community? The "collective"? The future critics? God? The Universe? For sociologists to analyse, or market researchers to profit from, in this dance to the camera, in the eye of psychosis of the “century of the self”? (Adam Curtis).

This is our social “climate” matching the frenzied schizophrenia of our weather (climate change) in 2021 and the artificial and conceptual- online spaces, which are erratically performative. Yet they are also increasingly categorical as they enmesh with the neo-liberal capitalist ideology of branding in which people define and profile themselves on apps including dating apps, body regulation apps, quizzes and personality tests. Questions of agency and autonomy have emerged through this time of leaning into the internet during the Covid-19 pandemic, which was already on its way from the beginnings of our cyborg trajectory.

Therefore, do we get to “act” or “perform” as if we have autonomy or agency within these contexts like the loops of AI characters on the TV series Westworld? As within Foucault’s “panopticon” (self-policing within prisons/online, which we see more in the pandemic and more disturbingly the policing of each other), freedom is not possible so performativity is- scripted, syncopated, and profited from within cognitive capitalism (Luciana Parisi, 2019). Zizek argues in 'Event' (2014) that in branded capitalism we get the choice to make the same choice, whether for a soft drink out of 100s, a vintage outfit, or a political party and now, it could be argued, online apps. What is the difference really between Hinge, Tinder, Bumble, Ok Cupid, Elite Singles, Grinder, etc?

Where does Performance Art or Live Art situate within all this context? Performativity has been made increasingly acceptable in this digital age whereby everyone is an "actor" (Shakespeare), permitted "acts" such as clicks and likes and dislikes, shares and online comments; online platforms encouraging the exhibitisionism and celebrating the spectacle. What is our new embodied agency (as live artists) within this climate? I get to post videos of myself dancing- in my studio, outside, or in my room in lockdown, and it's now more acceptable, something I’ve practiced (solo dance battles) since I was 20 before I went to dance school and before the internet (wtf) and then started to put online in 2009 when I moved to Berlin from NZ. You get to see me dance when I’m 25, 35, 45. As an artist, this is interesting to me, but maybe to others Performance Art looks like narcissism. Maybe it is, and that is now mainstream? We live in a time when that's now normalised in a pop-culture way, but maybe it's just us trying to see, connect, express, or understand ourselves and each other even within an echo chamber.

E.g Aged 33, Berlin Youtube

Aged 45, AK NZ Instagram

Is this all just a distraction to the politics we are actually swimming in? I’m gonna say a cryptic yes and no.

Performance Art has arisen in the last decade, syncopated with social movements. Performance often comes to the fore during times of crisis and unrest as an identity- meaning-making process and existential form of embodiment and- presence that connects and brings people together. Its relationality- and embodiment within a digital disembodied and socially isolated- era make it inherently political. Protest, a gathering of bodies, is a performance in itself.

Anything that performance does is political because it centres around the body, which is inherently political, and the most restricted thing within this pandemic is the body due to possible death. The right to gather is a human right that has also been banned during Covid-19 so online spaces and apps have become a space of agency and expression of voice to politics. The body and voice are performative identity wise from Tik Tok to Instagram videos and stories to Whatsapp memes, Youtube rants and Facebook as soapbox. Whether you see subversion occurring within these spaces or not they are connecting, mobilising, polarising and distracting people, while ideologically always embossing us.

While there is a strong case for enmeshing Performance Art with activism as a powerful gesture centred around bodies, experiences, and identities, the status quo of social media performativity- currently makes performance commentary either more nuanced or- more misunderstood and reduced. The mixing of supposedly high art with popular culture is a postmodern trait that I employ to- question hierarchies within the arts, appreciate the value of pop- culture as collective joy, and make social commentary on mainstream ideals. With the digitisation of everything in the pandemic, Performance itself has only occurred in the cracks. The cracks between lockdowns, the cracks in our memories, the cracks in our hearts, our everyday lives, online dance-offs, the cracks of photos, badly filmed videos, and reviews. This is poetry in the pandemic.

As the most ephemeral of the arts, live performance has the spontaneity to be filmed as a street or bedroom improvisation or funded in a theatre, but in all cases, it is a spectacle as well as experiential. In the pandemic even public irl spaces have been inaccessible, so private spaces have been overexposed in the public space of the internet, debatable if this is the commons as it is so corporatised. Spectacle still has an impact though; check out Arthur Jafa's internet video-inspired work "Love is the Message; the Message is Death". Guy Debord predicted the world we live in now in ‘Society of Spectacle’ (1967), whereby we live in a world reduced to exchanged images, although it could be argued this is still poetic and relational. Film and photographs are our contemporary poetics and they are relational as well as spectacle.

What does this mean though? Because of the highly personal nature of our social media, which collapses or fractures truth and turns all into gossip and hearsay, as well as folds personal spaces into public platforms, it politicises our private spaces and makes our public spaces contested. The voice of the people is the strength of the internet, and the many alternative views presented there, yet it's a popularity contest to be an artist, to be a politician, to be a writer, a scientist, or even a philosopher when it is based on theatrics.

Agency and autonomy are experiential, generative, self-determined and generous. Understanding that one is part of, and responsible to, a community, so in turn we should let the community be responsible to us. Offering spaces to community and friends, building openness through this time seems to be some of the most genuine ways to transgress capitalist ideals, offer agency to others, and honour autonomy that ruptures the status quo. It is creating spaces to think, heal, express and grow. And yes, art and certainly Performance and live art, can do all that, if they choose. Particularly while live art is being shredded to pieces by a lockdown climate regardless of its resilience. It is powerful when it does express itself.

Written by Alexa Wilson, edited by Frances Pavletich and Zoe Crook.

“Who are you? (Who the fuck are you?)” Agency and the politics of Performance in the pandemic and digital era

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