SSW 07: Performative Writing

Site and Subjective Writing (SSW)

08.11.2010 15 - 17 : SSW Session 07: PERFORMATIVE WRITING

This session considers the relationship between performance and writing, and when the writing performs.


Ronald J. Pelias: Writing Performance

“Pelias is concerned with writing about performance, from the everyday performative routines to the texts on stage.

He seeks to write performatively, to offer poetic or aesthetic renderings of performance events in order to capture some sense of their nature.

In his quest for the spirit of theatrical performances, Pelias asks more of the written word than the word can deliver.”


Writing Performance: Chapter 1: An Autobiographic Ethnography of Performance in Everyday
Discourse (1994/1999)

Writing Performance: Chapter 6: The Poet and Performer Take Stage (1999)


Writing the Space: Automation, Physicalising & Locating

The following exercises have been selected from John Freeman's book New Performance/New Writing (2007), which offers contextualisation and guidance for those wishing to explore innovative approaches to writing for performance. They are intended as prompts for practice and devising performances, not prescription, and he recommends readers “to take what is useful, and modify, merge, adapt and develop to sit particular needs.”

(Freeman, John. 2007: 140-144)

Writing Exercise: Automating

“When writing text for performance, there is an awareness that what one is doing is on one level controlled and on another surprising, almost accidental.

Writing therefore involves sensitivity to correspondances and resonance, even when words have been arrived at without conscious thought.. This is not quite the same thing as automatic writing.

Whereas automatic writing denies the possibility of editorial interference, performance writing involves recognition that the act of writing is in part a process of discovery and that new ideas stem may stem from writing, as much as it functions as the articulation of ideas. There is no fixed sequence in the process of writing and all that is written is not pre-planned; indeed, one can writing in order to discover what it is one thinks.”

(Freeman, John. 2007: 140-141)

Written Surrealist composition or first and last draft

After you have settled yourself in a place as favorable as possible to the concentration of your mind upon itself, have writing materials brought to you.

Put yourself in as passive, or receptive, a state of mind as you can. Forget about your genius, your talents, and the talents of everyone else.

Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roads that leads to everything. Write quickly, without any preconceived subject, fast enough so that you will not remember what you're writing and be tempted to reread what you have written.

The first sentence will come spontaneously, so compelling is the truth that with every passing second there is a sentence unknown to our consciousness which is only crying out to be heard.
It is somewhat of a problem to form an opinion about the next sentence; it doubtless partakes both of our conscious activity and of the other, if one agrees that the fact of having written the first entails a minimum of perception.

This should be of no importance to you, however; to a large extent, this is what is most interesting and intriguing about the Surrealist game. The fact still remains that punctuation no doubt resists the absolute continuity of the flow with which we are concerned, although it may seem as necessary as the arrangement of knots in a vibrating cord.

Go on as long as you like.

Put your trust in the inexhaustible nature of the murmur. If silence threatens to settle in if you should ever happen to make a mistake — a mistake, perhaps due to carelessness — break off without hesitation with an overly clear line. Following a word the origin of which seems suspicious to you, place any letter whatsoever, the letter "l" for example, always the letter "l," and bring the arbitrary back by making this letter the first of the following word.”

(Breton, André, 1972: 29-30)

Writing Exercise: Physicalising

“This exercise is about encouraging writing that is visual, spatial and active in its approach.

Choose a scene from a previously published dramatic text. Re-write it, omitting as many lines as you can without altering the essential sense of this or subsequent scenes. Consider the ways in which actions might be used as a replacement for words, turning dialogue-driven information into something more physical. This is an exercise, remember: a means towards an end rather than an end in itself, so long as the material is used in workshops and not public performance, plagerism and copyright are not issues here.”

(Freeman, John. 2007: 143)

Writing Exercise: Locating

“Write a monologue in the present tense and first person that runs in real time and which refers directly to the space in which it plays, where the playing space – be it studio theatre, corridor or kitchen – is employed for its own intrinsic qualities, rather than functioning as a surrogate for another place. This is about site-specificity (or site-sympathy), about drawing on and exploiting the tangible fabric of the space.

Develop the piece now by including sections that play with the notion of time, so that your words and/or actions relate to events in the past as well as the present.

Make things hard for yourself by linking the past with another space and making your performance accomodate the difference.

Resist the temptation to start from scratch with your writing as this is about developing rather than re-inventing material.”

(Freeman, John. 2007: 143-144)

Writing Exercise: Combining Physicalising, Locating, and Automation

Write a monologue in the present tense and first person in real time.
Start from writing about the pen/pencil in your hand, or the keys on your keyboard. Write about your writing, the movement of the letters being formed or the arrangement of your hands on the keys.
Describe the physical. Add in where you are doing it, your location in relation to your surroundings, drawing on and exploiting the tangible fabric of the space.

When in the flow continue on writing what ever comes into your head next until you come to a natural pause

Develop the piece by including sections that play with the notion of time, so that your words & actions relate to events in past and presence, and then to another location.


Own Approach & Entry into Performance Writing:

Open Source Architecture Performance


I will start this process, drawing attention to myself by raising my hand so that the audience notices my
action, placing a subjective sticker on the floor.. Pulling the mobile device out of my pocket.. Opening the
movie-player application.. Pressing play, and raising my voice not too loud.. Speaking out to whoever is


Each morning on the ferry I would stand at the front of the boat, bring out the mobile from my pocket and record a movie of the sea. due to the daily fog, and high visual compression rate the clip could be
extended beyond the 9 second limit allowed.. I felt like I was falling off the edge of the map.


The 04112003+0904 file was the opening fragment of mnemonic media in my presentation - actually i am not sure and cannot remember now - but maybe that doesnt matter..

All of the text below that refers to such fragments has been re-presented according to what I think I said
as a spoken-word performance; another iteration of memory and process, and so should be interpreted as such.

My role in the open source architecture presentation on the 10th of november 2003 was as follows:

I am a performer presenting the contextual experiences which i had captured earlier that week with the
Nokia 3650 mobile-phone either as images or movies. The aim of this activity is to focus upon re-
contextualisation and presentation of memory using the device itself to play back the media in
performance. Hence also, the re-experience of it myself.

I responded to this re-experience of media by improvising anecdotal, documentary or poetic spoken-
words. Some of the fragments were chosen at random, some - pictures due to their preview feature on
the device - were chosen in advance, while others were part of an ongoing sequence. It also included, on
the last occasion of presentation, a reflective selection according to the situation of the event as it



The date is 05 11 2003. It is 1251. Can you see? We are in the Asian food shop, adding items into the
basket. I am orientating Qi-Feng, showing the place where he can get his Chinese food from. The basket
is rather full and holds a 5 kg sack of rice, 2 packs of noodles, soy sauce, frozen fish balls, coriander.. Now what else?


I also acted as a 'distraction' and counterpoint of change between the different sections of the collective
presentation whole. Sensing the balance of space, reconfiguring the focus of attention elsewhere. This
was particulary useful at certain points.


Come here, have a look.. It is five twenty four in the afternoon, on the 5th of november, I took a
photograph. It is completely black. You can't see anything.


Haque, U., Jacobs, M., Paterson, A., and Wolf, O. (2003). Open Source Architecture Performance Documentation. NIFCA Magazine #1/04, 2004.


Della Pollock's concept of performative writing

Della Pollock is a feminist social scientist who focuses on overlaps of ethnography, performance, and in particular writing about the body and pain…

One of her essay's has become well-known and cited: 'Performative Writing'

She introduces it by noting that contemporary discourses [of 1998] of history, culture and identify were spinning in 'textuality':

“feeling the loss of reference as a loss of bearings, feeling suddenly, uneasily lifted from ready cartologies of meaning into an Oz-like world not of meaninglessness exactly but of duplicity, doubleness, and simulation.. Words don't stick. They are 'Janus-faced', 'fickle', indifferent to discources of truth and meaning. In language as difference, in language riddled with difference, criticism becomes an exercise in double plays: in pastiche, parody, punning.

But with each turn and return of language, 'textuality' seems increasingly to fold in on itself, to turn back on the very act of writing, making it difficult if not impossible to make sense, to make claims, to make meaning, making writing its own object/subject, which duly un/writes itself in every figure and turn, sometimes in a cynical pleasure, sometimes in abject horror, leading Julia Kriseva, for instance to ask, what is there but writing? what is there to do but write?”

(Pollok, Della. 1998: p73)

Exhausted linguistic turn (post-structuralist .. eg. Derrida)

Which she says brings the notion of performance back into the mode of production of text: in print.

“Writing as doing displaces writing as meaning; writing becomes meaningful in the material, dis/continous act of writing…

writing becomes itself, becomes its own means and eds, recovering to itself the force of action.

After-texts, after turning itself inside out, writing turns again only to discover the pleasure and power of turning, of making not sense or meaning per se, but making writing perform:

Challenging the boundaries of reflexive textualities; relieving writing of its obligations under the name of 'textuality'; shaping, shifting, testing language.

Practicing language. Performing writing. Writing performatively.”

(Pollok, Della. 1998: p75)

“Performative writing is an important, dangerous, and difficult intervention into routine representations of social/performative life. It has a long and varied history in anthropology, feminist critique, and writing about perfomance, taking much of its impetus form the cross-disciplinary “brak” into poststructuralism.

But my aim here is neither to assess the history of perofrmative writing nor represent performative writing in all its forms and implications, but rather to identify the need to make writing speak as writing. To discern possible intersections of speech and writing..”

(Pollok, Della. 1998: p75-76)


“I have to reserve for 'good' writing that expectation that it will serve a social function.

Its value depends on its effectiveness, on how well it performs within a system animated not only by democratic conflict but by conflict over the nature and aims of democracy.

That conflict in turn performs writing as effect, as a sedimentation in the form of a specific social relation.

What I call performative writing is thus both a means and an effect of conflict.

It is particularly (paradoxically) 'effective'.

It forms itself in the act of speaking/writing.

It reflects in its own forms, in its own fulfillment of form, in what amounts to its performance of itself, a particular, historical relation (agonistic, dialogic, erotic) between author-subjects, reading subjects, and subjects written/read.”

(Pollok, Della. 1998: p77)

“The answer to the claims of textuality on performativity is thus not to write less but to write more:

to write in excess of norms of scholarly representation, to write beyond textuality into which might be called social moralities,

to make writing/textuality speak to, of, and through pleasure, possibility, disappearance, and even pain.

In other words to make writing perform.”

(Pollok, Della. 1998: p78)

Pollock speaks of performative writing as evocative, metonymic, subjective, nervous, citational, and consequential..

READ section of 'Performative Writing' named 'Six Excursions into Performative Writing' p.80-96.


Spatial Thinking

IMAGINE a map: In front of you is a map. You have the chance to look at it, and absorb the different features, points of interest, with different routes connecting different emblematic elements. Then you are told to journey from one point on the map to another point.

When the map is no longer in view what might you remember? Will the image stay in your head with much of the detail intact, with reference to photographic (or textual) memory?

Will you remember instead the relational shape of the space, and make reference to that?

Will you recall instead the movement you would have to make if you were actually embodied in the space?


Fiona Campbell & Jonna Ulin's Performative Writing

Narrative structure, and so the organisation of ideas, may be guided spatially, taking the reader on a journey. However, to communicate well, there should be a supporting context for deciding upon this form.

Campbell and Ulin in their PhD thesis 'BorderLine Archaeologu' use the metaphor of 'borderLine': a place of crossing between two academic disciplines - Contemporary Archaeology and Performance Studies - to create a supposition:

"In this space we are constantly crossing disciplinary boundaries, concepts of time and place, thought and imagination. We are departing from somewhere, into and onto somewhere else, falling, returning, trespassing, taking detours and transforming. Here in this [constantly shifting] space of rhizome the itinerary of the voyage unfolds."

(Campbell and Ulin, 2004: 51)

In forming support for their argument to make such a space, the following action words describe their own process -

"Searching.. Hearing.. Seeing.. Realising.. Finding.. Transforming.. Understanding"
(Campbell and Ulin, 2004: 51-55)
However, these are acts that the reader can (and may have to) do themselves,

to rephrase the title in this section of their thesis:
reading for the ground beneath the writers' feet.

There is a belief, communicated by the writer to the reader, that the starting point of the journey is valuable as a point of departure, as well as the imagined journey to where-ever it goes.

Using metaphors of shift and passage, navigation and the finding of (academic) bearings, Campbell and Ulin unfold their position:

"standing, in the midst of a representational image, an image of a world containing dispersed and scattered structures: lines of thought, lines of stories, lines of flight".

(Campbell and Ulin, 2004: 55)

Presented to the reader as emblematic 'turnings' on a map, bearings in the language of geometry:

"north facing south.. 90 degrees to the east, across the Baltic Sea.. And we turn 180 degrees and face west.."

(Campbell and Ulin, 2004: 55-56)

a path and an accompanying story, not unlike a linear chronology of a journey.

The authors' are presenting rather a narrative logic which is 'showing not telling', describing not an actual journey

(although they are describing actual presence at different places at different times in history on the map),

but constructing a mental map, where in their own words,

"[w]e are sitting together in a narrative space"

(Campbell and Ulin, 2004: 59)

Via the identification of events on the map, and with a process of "unpacking and translation" (Ibid: 59), the narrative space in which these emblematic 'turnings' are gathered by Campbell and Ulin, may be better understood as an accumulation of academic realisations. Or, indeed, as an observed pattern.


References shared in this session:

Breton, André. (1972), Manifestoes of Surrealism. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (trans.), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Campbell, Fiona and Ulin, Jonna. (2004), BorderLine Archaeology: a practice of contemporary archaeology - exploring aspects of creative narratives and performative cultural production, PhD dissertation, GOTARC Series B. Gothenburg Archeaological Theses, No. 29, Göteborg University.

Pollock, Della. (1998), Performative Writing, In Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane (eds.), The Ends of Performance. New York: New York University Press. p.73-103.

Freeman, John. (2007), New performance/new writing, Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pelias, Ronald J. (1994), An Autobiographic Ethnography of Performance in Everyday Discourse. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism,8, 163-172.

Pelias, Ronald J. (1999). Writing Performance: poeticizing the researcher’s body. Carbondale: Southern
Illinois University Press.

Haque, U., Jacobs, M., Paterson, A., and Wolf, O. (2003). Open Source Architecture Performance Documentation. NIFCA Magazine #1/04, 2004.
Workshop link, 11.2003:

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