Posthuman Performance

A Feminist Intervention

Lucian Gomoll

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Narcissister posing for IN*TANDEM, 2010. Image Credit: Gabriel Magdaleno/IN*TANDEM magazine

Many of us are familiar with the posthuman, a hybrid figure characterized primarily by the overlay and close interactions of human and machine. N. Katherine Hayles has written extensively on the subject matter, particularly in How We Became Posthuman (1999).{{1.}}[1]N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1999).[1] For Hayles and other writers in the 1990s, the posthuman’s ontology included a dispersal of information and consciousness through cybernetics in addition to an expanded notion of embodiment. More recently, discourses in posthumanities contribute to the decentering of classical notions of the human, offering a renewed emphasis on the relational or coevolutionary. While the terms posthuman and posthumanities might at first seem harmoniously related, their discursive histories are divergent and sometimes frictional. Scholars in the posthumanities are actively trying to distinguish themselves from conceptualizations of the posthuman by emphasizing a critique of liberal humanism and an engagement with animal studies.{{2.}}[3]See Donna Haraway’s reservations about the term posthuman in her interview, “When We Have Never Been Human, What Is to Be Done?” in Theory Culture Society Vol. 23(2006): 135–158. See also Rosi Braidotti, “Posthuman, All Too Human: Towards a New Process Ontology.” Theory Culture Society. Vol. 23 (2006): 197-208.[3] Yet closer inspection reveals that the discourse on the posthuman also centers on a critique of liberal humanism. As Hayles clarifies, “my reference point for the human is the tradition of liberal humanism; the posthuman appears when computation rather than possessive individualism is taken as the ground of being, a move that allows the posthuman to be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines.”{{3.}}[5]Hayles: 34.[5] Such formations are only available to people and are largely extensions of the liberal human subject rather than fundamental disruptions of it.

Posthumanists, on the other hand, place us into radical relationality with other species, with whom we have co-evolved and continue to co-exist. However, posthumanist approaches can also stretch the boundaries of liberal humanism without rupturing its borders, as evidenced in the role of politics in Cary Wolfe’s recent What is Posthumanism? (2009). Theorist Joshua Labare critiques Wolfe’s framework, calling his book humanist-posthumanism, and recognizes that it is “a grave oversight on Wolfe’s part to ignore the ways that feminist theory, critical race theory, and queer theory have already unsettled and reconfigured the subject. Indeed, these fields and the field of science studies constitute the condition of possibility for animal studies, as much as if not more than poststructuralism and deconstruction do.”{{4.}}[7]Joshua Labare, review of Cary Wolfe’s What is Posthumanism? In Science Fiction Film and Television. Vol 4, No. 1 (Spring 2011): 136- 140.[7] Posthuman and posthumanist theories both rely on liberal humanism, but more work needs to be done to disrupt this tradition in each of them. Mindful of the desire amongst posthumanists to disidentify with the posthuman, and taking to heart Labare’s critique, I propose that we knot the posthuman to other modes of unsettling the subject, such as feminist and postcolonial theories, as well as respectfully calling upon those individuals who have been framed as Others to the human during earlier eras (including so-called freaks and hybrids). Such connections will be useful for thinking of the possible futures for being posthuman and posthumanist in ways that are politicized and post-anthropocentric, to use Rosi Braidotti’s term.{{5.}}[9]Rosi Braidotti defines feminist post-anthropocentrism as challenging the androcentrism of the post-structuralists’ corporeal materialism. Rosi Braidotti, “Posthuman, All Too Human: Towards a New Process Ontology.” Theory Culture Society. Vol. 23 (2006): 197-208.[9] As we imagine our selves being reconfigured through technologies and our relationships with each other and other species, so too must we dismantle humanistic notions of normativity and do away with posthuman single-species determinism. The latter involves the fantasy of leaving the body behind common to theories of the posthuman. I therefore propose the term posthuman performance as a critical (oxymoronic) framework that resists any assertion that the posthuman does not need or can transcend bodies. The concept agrees with Amelia Jones’ call for re-embodying the subjects of feminism, “by saturating theory in and with the desiring making, viewing, and interpretive bodies of art theory and practice.”{{6.}}[11]Amelia Jones, “Postfeminism, Feminist Pleasures, and Embodied Theories of Art.” The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, edited by Donald Preziosi. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998): 394-395.[11] I suggest feminists re-embody and reclaim the posthuman through performance. Posthuman performance is therefore a type of interventionism that explores relationships and social transformation outside the parameters of liberal humanism, but without ignoring or abjecting embodiment.

This essay is decidedly feminist and written against the progressivism of some versions of the posthuman, as well as of avant-garde movements and by extension their manifestos. Rather than conceived of as totally new, the possible futures for posthuman performance are informed by figures from the past, such as the constitutive Others of European humanism or reconfigurations of the body articulated in the 1990s, as well as contemporary practices of the last ten years. I begin by revisiting Orlan’s mediated events which in many ways came to be known as the prototypical examples of posthuman art two decades ago. After Orlan, I discuss examples from contemporary art that I wish to knot to the figure of the posthuman, followed by an exploration of how we may effectively work with “inappropriate” behaviors in response to transgressive posthuman performances.


The Posthuman 1990s: Orlan’s Surgery Interventions

In 1990, French artist Orlan disturbed the contemporary art scene by staging her first performance surgery, intending to disrupt the contours of her body ten times during the following three years. Barbara Rose wrote in 1993 that Orlan gave new meaning to the term cutting edge art, deliberately invoking the image of a scalpel.{{7.}}[13]Barbara Rose, “Orlan: Is It Art?” Art in America 81:2 (February 1993): 83-125.[13] Rose was writing against the grain at the time because Orlan was receiving preemptive criticism from all ends of the political spectrum. Conservative audiences, which in this case included much of the general public, disliked her unconventional carnivalesque style and did not understand how her work could qualify as art.{{8.}}[15] Apparently one third of her initial audience left just after the surgery began, and only a few remained in the galleries that screened the broadcasts by the end. See Carey Lovelace, “Orlan: Offensive Acts” in Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 17, No. 1 (January 1995): 13.[15] To pre-Butlerian feminists with essentialist views of gender and biology, plastic surgery reinforced the objectification of the female body, and therefore these leftists expected Orlan to contribute to a major social problem. Orlan declared in Omnipresence (1993), “I am taking this so far that there will be no ambiguity about that issue.”{{9.}}[17]Quotation from Orlan’s Omnipresence surgery. As documented in the film Carnal Art (Stéphan Oriach, Director, Carnal Art. Myriapodus Films, 2001).[17] She explained that the plastic surgery would not be used to improve her body, but to transform it so as to experience its difference, to desacralize Western medicine, and to critique our standards of beauty rather than perpetuate them. Feminists have since accepted Orlan’s art as a disturbance of Western beauty standards rather than anti-feminist practice, as Linda Kauffman indicated in 2003.{{10.}}[19]Linda Kauffman, “Cutups in Beauty School.” In Interfaces: Women, Autobiography, Image, Performance, edited by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002): 103-131. Orlan’s work inspired a reconsideration of the potential for cosmetic surgery and gender expression, as indicated by Kathy Davis in her essay, “‘My Body is My Art’: Cosmetic Surgery as Feminist Utopia?” in Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader. Edited by Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick (New York: Routledge, 1999): 454-465.[19]

Orlan’s expressed intention was to build upon and interrogate long-standing presumptions of psychoanalysis, such as taking for granted an essential link between self and body, as well as the boundaries that such a connection can produce.{{11.}}[21]From the Carnal Art documentary (2001).[21] Thus it is no coincidence that Orlan’s sanity was called into question by her audiences throughout the 1990s. Widespread doubt regarding the artist’s mental health was indicated by U.S. news anchor Connie Chung who reported a story on Omnipresence in New York. While Chung attempted an open mind, she had noticeable trouble calling the work “art” and was in disbelief that Orlan was not worried about the health risks of surgery. Chung’s commentary was ironic due to her own recent eyelid surgery which made her appear whiter, a more socially acceptable practice as Kauffman suggests.{{12.}}[23][23] One can therefore deduct that a “sane” surgical practice strives toward some norm or ideal, even if it is racist.

Furthermore, cultural theorists Peter Stallybrass and Allon White explain that the visual imagery of the carnival has been fragmented since the Enlightenment and redistributed across Western imaginaries. The process includes a recurring expression of mental disorder through carnivalesque tropes of the body, such as when hysterics translated psychological expressions to the forms of distorted and changing bodies.{{13.}}[25]Stallybrass and White refer to cases like Freud’s Frau Emmy von N., whose stories render the carnivalesque an “object of cathartic laughter.” Stallybrass and White, “Bourgeois Hysteria and the Carnivalesque.” In The Cultural Studies Reader, edited by Simon During (New York: Routledge, 1999): 285.[25] Orlan began many of her performances by wearing high-couture and carnivalesque costume, such as in Opera-Surgery (1991) when she paraded in the operating room wearing a tall multi-colored hat and whimsical dress. Her fashion choices and performance style directly conjured the traditions of visualizing madness in Western cultures, according to the histories analyzed by Stallybrass and White. Dr. Marjorie Kramer, Orlan’s feminist surgeon, defended the artist’s sanity in an interview featured in the Carnal Art (2001) documentary video, insisting that she was willing to operate because the artist’s intentions were not “masochistic” or “deranged.” Following that segment in Carnal Art was a video of Orlan questioning the safety of one operation, and ultimately canceling that performance because she did not feel well. Refuting accusations of insanity and masochism are probably the only purpose of fully documenting a canceled performance, indicating how important the issue really was and continues to be.{{14.}}[27] Orlan declared in Omnipresence that she did not wish to suffer as a result of the operations, implying that as the producer of her documentary and orchestrator of the artworks, she felt the need to repudiate accusations that she must be careless or insane. Later in the documentary, Orlan insisted directly that she does not feel pain during the performances and thus does not intend to be understood as a suffering martyr in the Judeo-Christian tradition. During a live broadcasting of a surgery, she rejected a theorist’s comparison to Vincent Van Gogh’s ear self-dismemberment, claiming that her body (not painting) was her medium, and that she was not transforming herself in a moment of madness or despair. Many of the statements throughout the Carnal Art documentary insist on the psychological control Orlan had over the performances.[27] Thus the tropes of carnival, abnormalcy, and madness were all invoked and raised significant questions about Orlan’s performances, which she tried to suppress or refute. In the next sections of this essay, I argue that such responses are worth engaging more actively.

Orlan’s disruption of the classical, normative, and essentialized female body often generated connections between her art practice and the theoretical work of Donna Haraway. In relation to Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” first written in 1986 and widely republished thereafter, Orlan is sometimes characterized as an embodiment of the hybrid and monstrous cyborg. This is an association that the artist seemed to welcome over the mad, radically freakish, non-human, or less fashionable figures of abnormality. Both called their work blasphemous.{{15.}}[29]See Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1990): 149. See also Alyda Faber, “Saint Orlan: Ritual as Violent Spectacle and Cultural Criticism.” In The Performance Studies Reader, edited by Henry Bial (New York: Routledge, 2007): 109.[29] Haraway’s manifesto proposed groundwork for a new feminist subject unbound by binaries or essentialisms, and instead enacts a subjectivity that extends and is metonymized outside of the traditional limits of the body. Orlan performed many of these ideas directly, especially when developing her concept of omnipresence through which digital technologies unfurled her consciousness transnationally to various art institutions such as the Pompidou Center. For Omnipresence, audiences in Paris could see Orlan being cut open and transformed in New York, as they also listened to audience members participating from other global locations such as Toronto. While bestowing on Orlan a Godlike quality, Omniprescence agreed with some of the basic concepts from Haraway’s cyborg manifesto due to an emphasis on expanded consciousness that is not imprisoned by a traditional embodiment.

The connections discussed above seem promising, yet it is important to note how the latter sections of Haraway’s essay often go unmentioned in favor of a more trendy and techno-fetishizing vision.{{16.}}[31]I make this observation based on my own experiences engaging with Haraway’s writing before becoming her student. Nicholas Gane discusses with Haraway the tendencies to “drop the feminism” in her manifesto in an interview, “When We Have Never Been Human, What Is to Be Done?” in Theory Culture Society Vol. 23 (2006): 136.[31] This is true to the extent that some scholars seriously misrepresent “A Cyborg Manifesto,” such as the misconception that it argues for the total disappearance of gender or difference.{{17.}}[33]See, for example, Ken Gonzales-Day, “Choloborg; or, The Disappearing Latino Body.” In Art Journal, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Spring, 2001): 23 and 26. Gonzales-Day actually claims that Haraway argues for the disappearance of gender and that she does not address race in her manifesto. To clarify, Haraway is not arguing for the disappearance of gender, but for the unfixing of social identity categories and for coalition building that is inspired by women of color feminists with a strong commitment to anti-racism.[33] Haraway’s attentiveness to the strategic alliances formed by women of color feminists are just as, if not more, fundamental to her theory of cyborg feminism as the technological aspects. These are ideas that begin to complicate Orlan’s oeuvre in addition to my discussions of the artist’s carnivalesque style and her claims to sanity. For example, Haraway foregrounds Chela Sandoval’s strategies for women of color who enact coalitions based on affinity rather than identity, characterizing them as cyborg activity and a “potent formulation for feminists out of the world-wide development of anti-colonialist discourse; that is to say, discourse dissolving the ‘West’ and its highest product – the one who is not animal, barbarian, or woman; man, that is, the author of a cosmos called history. As Orientalism is deconstructed politically and semiotically, the identities of the occident destabilize, including those of feminists.”{{18.}}[35]Haraway (1990): 156.[35] Re-attending to women-of-color feminism in Haraway’s manifesto can reveal how it is not cosmetic surgery that is Orlan’s core problematic (as some feminists initially argued). The underlying “progress” of avant-gardism and European notions of the racialized self/Other are the conditions that make it possible for the artist to reductively engage with non-Western cultural practices.

Orlan’s Orientalism is not adequately theorized as part of her status as a posthuman artist. These problematics are apparent in her meta-narratives about the performances, especially in Carnal Art, and the subsequent Self-Hybridization series for which Orlan digitally transposes her face onto images that for her represent radically different notions of beauty from various civilizations. Her self-hybridizations sometimes approach two-dimensional minstrelsy, especially in those series based on non-ancient African (2000-2003) and American Indian (2005-2008) cultures. Orlan’s digital appropriation of an Ejagham/Efut headdress, one of many such examples in the Self-Hybridization series, takes for granted the static and visual aspects of an object not meant to be seen predominantly in stasis. Elisabeth Cameron explains that, “by themselves they [photos of African masks] do not communicate either the movement and meaning – and the sheer wonder and fun – of a performance, or the interplay between men and women, masked and unmasked.”{{19.}}[37]Elisabeth Cameron, “Men Portraying Women: Representations in African Masks.” African Arts, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Spring, 1998):72.[37] Orlan’s digital adaptations naturalize a Western tendency to devalue or ignore performances by fetishizing visual form according to European art standards. The post-surgery images can be interpreted as a digital revival of the formal “affinities” associated with modernist avant-garde artists who mined so-called primitive cultures for artistic inspiration. These portraits are not attempts at feminist strategic alliance. Indeed, in what we might call her Other-self-portraiture, Orlan undermines the efficacy of her earlier interventions during which such an irresponsible engagement with racial and cultural differences may have seemed less apparent. The logic underlying her portraits can be observed in Carnal Art when the film cites recent or contemporary non-Western peoples who practice various forms of body modification, but are framed as examples of past cultural practices thus denying their coevalness.{{20.}}[39]As Johannes Fabian writes, supposedly primitive or exotic non-Westerners come to represent past stages of human evolution paradoxically in the present. See Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).[39] She therefore reinscribes non-Western cultures as primitive in a cultural-aesthetic (and aestheticized) hierarchy traceable to the beginnings of European humanism and modernism.

I consider Orlan’s body art to be groundbreaking as the performances continue to provoke uncanny responses twenty years after they were first staged.{{21.}}[41]I screen the Carnal Art documentary in various classes and am always struck by the unexpected responses from my students, such as squirming, covering of the eyes, leaving the room, and even nausea.[41] Even if I do grow uncomfortable when she talks about the Maya, her work nonetheless has come to represent ideas about posthuman art and technology that persisted for an entire decade or more. But to avoid repeating Orlan’s mistakes, I turn again to Haraway, who has more recently theorized companion species and other ways of relating between different beings, recasting the cyborg as merely one figure in a web of many other types of relationships.{{22.}}[43]Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto. (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003):4.[43] With Haraway, we can see how the cyborg or posthuman need not be limited to a single species that is connected to, and expanding with, various technologies. Also important are our interactions with other living and non-living things. Haraway’s theoretical interventions decenter the human from all directions while they trouble what was posed as the fantasy of “pure decision” that some progress-oriented and neoliberal narratives of cybernetics would have us believe is possible, and was applied to Orlan’s and Stelarc’s work by Jane Goodall.{{23.}}[45]Jane Goodall, “An Order of Pure Decision: Un-Natural Selection in the Work of Stelarc and Orlan.” In Body & Society Vol. 5, No. 2-3 (June 1999): 149-170.[45] By now, artists and theorists have been expanding and violating the human beyond the posthuman parameters of the 1990s, meriting a further exploration of examples from the last decade that may present other ways to act as ethical posthumans. Of particular interest to the remaining sections of this article are performers who complicate the limits of the human, but also decenter white human exceptionalism and determinism by emphasizing relationality in terms of technology, the carnivalesque, animality, body modification, racial impurity, and madness. I knot them together under the category of posthuman performance in an attempt to synthesize the productive contributions of both posthuman and posthumanist theories, and to insist on a radical politics and relationality for this type of practice. The category is therefore not exhaustive or limiting, nor is it faithful to any type of discourse. Instead the concept is a point of intersection for possibilities in thinking and being.


Contemporary Interventions

In Destination Culture (1998) Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett observes that displays of people always enact a “semiotic seesaw” between opposing meanings, such as animal/human, self/Other, and living/dead.{{24.}}[47]Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998): 34-47.[47] This dynamic is a legacy that persists in exhibitions, despite the suppression of histories that recall how people were exhibited in the West since the early nineteenth century. Most of the persons who performed at that time were framed as cultural exotics or as freaks, which Rosemarie Garland-Thomson says allowed the audience to formulate the normative human in relation to what it was not.{{25.}}[49]Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. (New York: Columbia University Press,1996): 59.[49] They functioned as constitutive others to the liberal human and contributed to its normalization. By the twentieth century, these displays were suppressed from the exhibitionary circuit due to hostile legislation and institutional antagonism.{{26.}}[51]See my forthcoming article on this history, “Interactivity and Displays of Difference in the Nineteenth Century” (tentative title, subject to change). See also Susan Schweik, The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public (New York: NYU Press, 2009).[51] The reintroduction of live performance in museums and other spaces of exhibition did not occur until many decades later.{{27.}}[53]In the 1960s and 70s, performance artists presented their bodies and processes as mediums for their work, often to critique the institutional practices that produced the “dead” space of the museum. Performance did not “return” to the museum until the late twentieth century.[53] I am particularly interested in artists who not only engage the body and performance, but who call upon the nineteenth-century displays and provoke similar interactivities while inverting power relationships in order to disrupt traditional constructs of “the human.”

Narcissister is one such performer. The image that appears on the first page of this essay features her in full costume, posing with an artificially reconfigured body that has two tall imposing heads and hybridized Victorian-Asian style clothing. As an organic-inorganic monstrosity, Narcissister is ambiguous and resists any fixed social categories such as “the individual,” racial categories, and even essentialized notions of gender. Narcissister is a classically-trained dancer whose works range from proscenium performances (usually dances), to film, to situational interactive works. Her trademark is the use of mannequin parts, and particularly ethnically-ambiguous masks. Thus her performances always enact a hybridization and enlivening of plasticity – plasticity in terms of both art and of mannequin – while the person underneath remains mysterious in terms of gender, race, and authorship. The shadowy third head appearing in the photograph metaphorizes a lack of an essential identity or core to her performances: how we read her body depends on our recognition of signs related to race, gender, and corporeal normativity, but any essence remains mysterious, anonymous, shadowy, a negativity.

Her art has been described as an “expert use of self-generated media [to] portend a black female subjectivity that challenges the fixed meanings of race, gender and sexuality. Her glittering accoutrements – larger than life hair, the assortment of baubles she pulls from bodily orifices, as well as the striking mask she wears during each show serve to enhance her simulacral play with gender, signifiers and spectacle.”{{28.}}[55]Conference program for “Race Reveal: Racialized Tropes, Queer Performance, Political Possibilities,” UC Berkeley, October 2010.[55] Narcissister shows us through the use of prosthetics that the posthuman need not be exclusively cybernetic, as her consciousness and embodiment are rearticulated through the enlivening of non-digital body parts; her posthuman performances rely on metonymic, relational expansionism and resurfacing. The remarkably evocative image and accompanying film of the double-headed Narcissister embodies what Ariel Osterweis Scott observes in the multi-layered “semiotic seesaw” of her body: “she is Barbie, she is suicide bomber; she is singular, she is many; she is Mammy, she is Marie Antoinette; she is black, she is white; she is humiliated, she is authoritative; she is punk, she is hip-hop; she is human, she is animal; she is body, she is mind. Ultimately, she asks us what it means to decapitate and devour our own heads…a question we can only answer with a curtsy.”{{29.}}[57]Ariel Osterweis Scott, statement for Narcissister’s “This Masquerade.” Abrons Art Center, February 2011.[57] Respectful to Scott’s keen observations, we might disagree that a curtsy is the only possible response to such a multiplicity and violation of the human body. Instead, our response might be just as conflicted, echoing how Leslie Fiedler has described encountering a so-called freak or exotic person, where one might feel the simultaneous sensation of identification and disidentification.{{30.}}[59]Leslie Fiedler, Tyranny of the Normal: Essays on Bioethics, Theology & Myth (Boston: David R Godine, 1996): 147. See also Leslie Fiedler, “Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self,” in The Tyranny of the Normal, ed. Sheryl Buckley and Carol C. Donley (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1995): 26[59] Perhaps a silent response is all that is possible when Narcissister performs on the proscenium stage with dimly-lit audience seating, but in more immediately interactive arenas, such as the museum or on the street, the stakes would be quite different and possibly more radical. Recently, Narcissister has begun expanding her prostheticized body through the participation of multiple performers, marked by a common mask, allowing for variable interruptions of the classical or normative body. While this project, entitled Narcissister is You, has thus far only involved others taking photographs with the mask, the artist may consider performative contributions that disrupt typologies which isolate and stabilize differences, instead unraveling the threads of relating and selfhood that are wound so tightly around the normative human in the liberal tradition.


Violeta Luna and Hector Zavala in Corpo/Ilicito: The Post-Human Society 6.9. CounterPULSE, San Francisco, 2009. Image Credit: La Pocha Nostra.

Also interrogations of posthuman- and techno-subjects in nationalist, racialized, and gendered discourses are the self-proclaimed “experimental sideshows” of La Pocha Nostra. Guillermo Gómez-Peña directs this performance troupe that consists of a core group of artists James Luna, Violeta Luna, Roberto Sifuentes and others who regularly collaborate with new artists transnationally. La Pocha contributors have written important manifestos that directly address the stakes of what I call posthuman performance in this article.{{31.}}[61]See, last accessed April 2011[61] Particularly significant are their construction of ethno-cyborgs, as opposed to characters and direct representations of their selves/identities, and living dioramas, as opposed to proscenium theatres and static museum displays. The troupe’s performance models are interrogations of traditional divisions between actor/character, actor/audience, stage/seating, and are often highly interactive. They also allow for a questioning of traditional identity constructs based on stubbornly stable typologies of difference. La Pocha’s structural transformations of theatrical conventions are not new; movements characterized as avant-garde have attempted to change them for decades. However, the artists do not ignore the influences of minoritarian subjects and intercultural histories that are still regularly erased from (or devalued in) the histories of performance art and avant-gardism.{{32.}}[63]Roselee Goldberg suggests that the Futurists were the first performance artists. See Goldberg, Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2001). Coco Fusco challenges this genealogy by insisting we also acknowledge the centuries of people who were put on display before European artists arrived at performance art in their practice. See Coco Fusco, “The Other History of Cultural Performance.” In English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas. (New York: The New Press, 1995): 37-64.[63] Unlike Orlan, the troupe does not consider comprehensibility or sanity to be necessarily desirable outcomes of their interventions. Rather, indecipherability is sometimes used strategically by the artists, to provoke audience curiosity, and also to protect themselves from any foreclosing descriptions of what they are doing.

La Pocha Nostra performances very often include old video footage of non-Westerners who were appropriated by Europeans and Euro-Americans, consisting largely of the visual language that framed people who performed in the exhibitionary circuit in the nineteenth century. Through live interactive performances and technological enhancements, images from previous displays of non-Western peoples are interrogated and transformed. Such is the case in the performance series entitled Corpo/Ilicito: The Post-Human Society. The stunning action “6.9” (2009) featured an ensemble of performers donned in costumes related to military and technological violence, indigenous hybridized accoutrements, and who engaged with each other in speechless, almost disembodied power-plays, in proximity to a looping projection of old racist films. Cross-species promiscuities were suggested by hybridizing costume, such as a swine mask, as well as the ceremonial feeding of a banana to Gómez-Peña.{{33.}}[65]I see this as an opening in the performances, rather than an example of multi-species collaboration. We might imagine how La Pocha’s interventions might play out if they involve other species beyond those that make up “individual” human bodies.[65] The latter gesture recalls his previous invocation of this offering in Two Undiscovered Amerindians (1992-93), an act associated with monkeys and the jungle (and by extension “primitive” humans as older exhibitions of live persons would have suggested). Of course, invisible to our liberal-humanist trained eyes are the many microbes that keep each performer alive and are already on stage with them. Corpo/Ilicito interweaves figures that are both posthuman (cyborg) and posthumanist (non-human species), all while invoking legacies of racism, violence, nakedness, and incomprehensibility knotted to the “illicit” body throughout history. Gómez-Peña contributed spoken word mantras at irregular moments in the piece, combining the figure of the preacher with the prophet and illicit freakery while remaining responsible to the past, mapping new and dynamic subject-positions for marginalized peoples.

Gómez-Peña offered similarly blasphemous preaching in the Argentina performance Mapa/Corpo 2: Interactive Rituals for the New Millenium (2007). The event was a “poetic interactive ritual” intended to explore “neo-colonization/de-colonization through acupuncture and the reenactment of the post-9/11 ‘body politic.’”{{34.}}[67]Description for Mapa/Corpo 2,, last accessed April 2011.[67] As an audience member, I found the approach to be fascinating, but the production elements to be somewhat limiting in terms of audience participation. La Pocha Nostra often explains that their performances are intended to be interactive. Mapa/Corpo 2 was staged in a non-proscenium environment, but the stark darkness of the main floor coupled with dramatic stage lighting that illuminated each member of the performance troupe suggested remixed but still largely traditional audience/actor boundaries. These stage elements may have seemed desirable for the producers to ensure a structure for the event, but may have inhibited possibilities for interactivity. Indeed, audience engagement was limited to walking around mini-stages of light framed by darkness, and the extraction of nation-marked acupuncture flags when directed by a performer. The project may have manifested quite differently if it had taken place in a gallery or alternative space less bound by theatrical duration and lighting, allowing for more unexpected engagements.

Thus far I have turned to Narcissister and La Pocha Nostra for models that complicate existing expressions of the posthuman with anti-racist and historically-engaged practices. The performers in such events disrupt the normalized white human, but nonetheless, for the most part, they all remain human. Keeping in mind theories from the posthumanities, we might imagine what those performers might accomplish by involving non-human species in their art. Thinking of performances that already engage with non-human species, there are far too many examples for a project of this scope to cite at length. Rachel Rosenthal immediately comes to mind as an artist who has worked with animals since the 1970s. Non-abusive techniques from the circus may also be of interest. Twenty-first century examples that contribute to the practice I am calling posthuman performance include Basia Irland’s Hydrolibros and Ice Books (2008), the latter which suggest an “ecological language” in sculpted frozen river water. The Ice Books melt, sprout, and nurture non-human life in the gallery space.{{35.}}[69]Donna Haraway introduced me to Irland’s work in May 2010.[69] The species that perform and transform in these durational projects are of an entirely different biological kingdom (and phylum if they attract insects), directed by a human but with an understanding that one is not in total control of the process. Indeed, Irland complicates a definition of what can count as performance because humans are not center-stage in these ephemeral and transformative types of BioArt in the gallery. Irland describes her process, “I work with stream ecologists, biologists, and botanists to ascertain the best seeds for each specific riparian zone. When the plants regenerate and grow along the bank, they help sequester carbon, hold the banks in place, and provide shelter for riverside creatures.”{{36.}}[71]See, last accessed April 2011.[71] The sprouts are therefore encouraged to participate in relations with other species in and out of traditional art contexts. By bringing plants and possible stowaway species into the museum and gallery spaces, she disrupts institutional regulations that attempt to create human-only zones. She describes the process of her work in and out of the space of exhibition, “at eye level, on a metal grate above a trough, an Ice Book is placed and allowed to melt during the opening. After a week or so the seeds released into the trough during the melt, sprout in the water provided by the ice, creating a micro-ecosystem in the gallery. The sprouts are then taken to the river to float downstream, completing a cycle.”{{37.}}[73]From artist’s website,, last accessed April 2011.[73] For Irland, neither the art exhibition nor a permanent collection are final destinations. Instead, such sites are points on an itinerary for traveling beings that not only engage with us, but will travel beyond our awareness with the facilitation of Irland and several of her audience members.{{38.}}[75]Irland’s website recalls, “In June 2009, after showing the receding/reseeding video documentary at the Albuquerque Museum, about sixty participants boarded a bus and arrived at the Rio Grande to witness and help launch eleven Ice Books.”, last accessed April 2011.[75]

Basia Irland, Ice Books: Receding/Reseeding with photos, video, seed packets, trough with remains of ice book (installation shot, left), detail of the ice book remains sprouting in the installation (right), 2008. Image Credit: Basia Irland.

In related initiatives, the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) with other artists such as Beatriz da Costa and Shyhshiun Shyu have developed interventions such as Free Range Grain (2003-4) that stage non-human performances in the gallery space, as well as omnipresent transmissions of participants outside of the gallery. CAE calls the work “a live, performative action. CAE/da Costa/Shyu has constructed a portable, public lab to test foods for the more common genetic modifications. People bring us foods that they find suspect for whatever reason, and we test them over a 72-hour period to see if their suspicions are justified. While we will not be able to say conclusively that a given food is genetically modified (although we can offer strong probability as whether it is), we can test for conclusive negatives, and we can bring issues of food purity into the realm of public discourse.”{{39.}}[77], last accessed April 2011.[77] Process-based works such as Free Range Grain may be legible as posthuman people-technology articulations that are joined with a posthumanist interest in our interactions with other species. The point of interest for the project is uncovering whether or not humans were involved in the engineering of food sources, as well as the ethical problems that surround this type of relationship. We might imagine the other possibilities for engaging with multi-species posthuman performance that integrate both digital interactivities and non-human species.

This section has cited only a few selections that build upon and trouble posthuman and posthumanist critiques of liberal humanism, contributing strategies and a politics to what I call posthuman performance. There are many more art practices that deserve recognition than this essay has room to discuss at length. They include Mudi Yahaya’s Nigerian Hottentot Series, Coco Rico’s multi-species interventions, Renée Cox and Lyle Harris’ Venus Hottentot 2000, Jennifer Miller’s continuing sideshow performances, and much more. Most of the examples I have discussed could be enhanced by foregrounding interactivity and intersubjectivity as mediums, or by being staged in non-proscenium environments. These are the qualities of La Pocha Nostra’s work to which Samira Kawash was attuned in 1999, in a review of Gómez-Peña’s and Roberto Sifuentes’ cyborg collaborations. Kawash explains that the “innovative form” of La Pocha Nostra’s performance art, in “its multiple incarnations on radio, Internet, museum, and street – introduces an element that has more recently drawn attention in a variety of cultural locations: interactivity.”{{40.}}[79]Samira Kawash, “Interactivity and vulnerability.” In PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Vol. 21, No. (January 1999): 47.[79] The final section of this article explores how to work with such interactivities when enacting posthuman performance.


Manifesting Posthuman Performance

Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (2002) is a formidable attempt to theorize interactivity and momentary social groupings in contemporary art. The Parisian curator aims to make sense of art practices that dominated the 1990s which tended to anticipate audience engagements as part of the works. He theorizes relational art as a Marxist social interstice, or a space that can exist within a capitalist system but allow for possibilities of exchange that are outside of normative market models.{{41.}}[81]Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Les Presse Du Reel, 2002): 16.[81] For Bourriaud, the work of art is but a mere “dot on a line.”{{42.}}[83]Bourriaud (2002), page 21.[83] His theories have gained widespread attention in the first decade of the twenty-first century and have been the subject of great debate. Amelia Jones reminds us that feminists were already talking about the same intersubjective ideas for many decades and with more nuance.{{43.}}[85]Amelia Jones, “Rupture / Erotic Ethics and the Broken Body.” Presentation for the panel, Means to Activism: Unbearable Acts, Relational Aesthetics and Hyperbolic Liveness. Performance Studies International #12 at Queen Mary, University of London (2006).[85] Hal Foster asks in his review of Relational Aesthetics, “when has art not been relational?”{{44.}}[87]From Foster’s article “Chat Rooms,” in Claire Bishop (ed.), Participation (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006). To be fair, Bourriaud constantly acknowledges the fact that relationality in art is not new in his book.[87] Alexander Garcia Duttman has gone so far as to say that Bourriaud’s theory engenders a kind of death of art.{{45.}}[89]As argued in Duttman’s keynote lecture entitled “Cultures of the Contemporary,” presented at the conference Culture After Postmodern Culture, UC Irvine (October 2010). It is true that relational aesthetics, as theorized by Bourriaud, is rather depoliticized save for a somewhat orthodox Marxist understanding of social relationships through objects. Claire Bishop criticized Bourriaud by pointing out how he ignores the possibilities of antagonism as a type of engagement, revealed especially in the types of artists Bourriaud conspicuously ignored in his book. See Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October No.110 (2004), pages 51-79. Bishop’s discussions draw from Chantal Mouffe’s theories of democracy. However effective Bishop is at pointing out Bourriaud’s shortcomings, Natalie Loveless reminds us that Mouffe’s theories were ultimately about agonism, for which antagonism was a key dialectical element to be “worked through” in the process of sublation that is democratic participation. See Loveless, “Acts of Pedagogy” (2010).[89]

Bourriaud cites Marxist theory and a number of twentieth-century artists, contrasting “concrete” relational artworks with those that attempt to construct imaginary or utopic realities. He thus declares that it is no longer possible to regard the contemporary artwork as a space to be walked through, but instead it is a period to be lived through.{{46.}}[91]Bourriaud (2002), page 15. Here he distinguishes works that constructed imaginary or utopic realities to contemporary art that tries to model actions “within the existing real.”[91] As several of my case studies suggest, perceived transgressions of human and institutional normativity very commonly provoke interactivities, as they have in exhibitions since the beginnings of colonialism. How might these unruly performativities and “relational aesthetics” inform and transform current practices? Performances that violate the classical human as defined by liberal humanism continue to provoke open-ended audience responses that are also outlined in Coco Fusco’s “The Other History of Intercultural Performance” (1993). The article was a critical reflection on her famous collaborative performance-installation Two Undiscovered Amerindians (1992-93) produced with Gómez-Peña, and the artists’ interest in histories of exhibiting people since the earliest colonial encounters.{{47.}}[93]As one of the earliest attempts to rehabilitate this history, I understand Fusco’s essay as a call to write more nuanced and critical accounts of these practices now largely suppressed from cultural memory. Coco Fusco, “The Other History of Cultural Performance.” In English is Broken Here Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas. (New York: The New Press, 1995): 37-64.[93] During Fusco and Gómez-Peña’s performances, the artists noticed that their ambiguous status as animal/human, primitive/contemporary, (non-)Western, and racially unidentifiable generated uncanny behaviors from their audiences, ranging from guilty crying, to eager touching, to arrogant statements enforcing racial hierarchy.

These interactivities built into performances that disrupt white human exceptionalism are what made possible Fusco’s notion of reverse ethnography, or the studying of the audience by the performer. At the time, Fusco introduced her innovative concept as a fascinating way to observe actions by the public that are unusual, surprising, and go mostly undocumented. While Bourriaud’s ideas suggest an interest in audience, the “relational” for him tends to emphasize participatory agreement while downplaying art world elitism. In contrast, Fusco’s reverse ethnography lays the groundwork for open-ended or non-teleological engagement that is responsive to problematic encounters and is more dynamic and historically informed. Curators and performers might anticipate audience reactions to exhibitions, and consider establishing more radical relationships while conducting reverse ethnography. Doing so might preemptively fracture responses that impose a “burden of representation” on any of the participants.

By mobilizing our knowledges of alternative exhibition histories and building further on Fusco’s ideas, we can experiment with transformational or hybrid models for staging posthuman performance and the interactivities they provoke. Such practices will strategically transform audience engagements as part of the work, rather than understanding them as byproducts or symbolic fulfillments of an artist’s or curator’s expectation. While including such relationality in the frame of posthuman performance, all subjects are presumed to be engaged with another being that is in some way not (fully) human in the liberal humanist senses, either by being denied full access to the category or because they are non-human species. By making these performances immediately responsive to the audience, they further contribute to a non-anthropocentric posthuman/ism by denying anyone who is present access to a stable category of “the human.”

Providing new ways to recognize “humanity” is almost always coupled with an abjection of other groups who do not fit into the category. Therefore, posthuman performances will reject any stable notion of the human, insisting that it is not necessary to act responsibly or to treat any being with dignity. Posthuman performance will reclaim the “monstrosity” that was projected onto a range of peoples in the nineteenth century, against whom modern artists and other subjects have repeatedly defined themselves.{{48.}}[95]Such as calling upon Hortense Spillers’ writing on the symbolic assaults that black women face in the United States, particularly her conclusion to the important essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” In Black, White and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003): 223.[95] One can imagine the infinite range of ways to incorporate into the spaces of exhibition peoples who have been systematically excluded and oppressed from modern art practices throughout most of the twentieth century. If visitors were forced to physically and intellectually respond to a two-headed Narcissister, an “animal,” a mad freak, or an illicit ethno-cyborg in order to inhabit the relational spaces of posthuman performance, the golden cage that was Fusco and Gómez-Peña’s structural metaphor for typological incarceration might even begin to dissolve with the “burden of representation,” and allow for new forms of relating and performing in encounters to come.





I am grateful to Natalie Loveless and Lissette Olivares for their critical feedback on this essay. I am also indebted to Donna Haraway and Jennifer A. González for their mentorship pertaining to the specific issues I explore.
This article is dedicated to the participants of my senior seminar Women Artists, Self-Presentations taught during multiple terms at UC Santa Cruz, particularly my teaching assistant Lulu Meza, as well as students Christina Dinkel, Abby Lawton, and Allison Green.