This is actually an excerpt from my dissertation, so it reads a bit stiff. Take with a grain of salt, or perhaps snarkiness.
Many writers have produced insightful analyses of work by performance artists using a number of theoretical and methodological approaches. The field of performance studies has undergone incredible growth in a fairly short period of time. Searching for theories and methodologies that would be useful to me, I found myself with a number of questions. Much of performance studies theory is based upon theater and theatrical modes. The indigenous cultures of North America did not practice theater in the European tradition, but have any number of other performative traditions. Might these other traditions produce different ideas, different theories about performance? The diversity of those traditions makes it realistically impossible to develop one overarching theory equally applicable to each distinct culture-group. It may be possible to develop some theories about Native North American theatrical modes based upon shared inter-tribal social milieus, such as powwow culture, inter-tribal political and economic entities, and even on-line bulletin boards, chat rooms, and newsletters, where it has been necessary to develop respectful ways of interacting and creating Indigenous communities composed of scores of tribes and accommodating differences between urban Indian and reservation/reserve customs. Such inter-tribal communities are often temporary in nature and the acceptable kinds of interactions and permissions must then be constantly negotiated anew. There is no Emily Post Book of Manners to codify inter-tribal relations. If the point of traditional theory is to posit predictable outcomes and stable meanings, then a quantum theory for human culture would seem to be necessary. The verb “community” in this inter-tribal situation could be metaphorically described as the movement along the path of a string thousands of miles long, tied together at both ends, and piled in criss-crossing, spaghetti-like loops across the whole of Turtle Island. The verb “community” is akin to the verb “journey.” And being a loop, there is no destination, only overlapping journey-ings along the way.
Performance theory arising from Western theatrical traditions is not categorically useless, of course. Theater is definitely something with which all contemporary Native people have familiarity. The particular artists I am focusing on, James Luna, Rebecca Belmore, and Greg Hill, do not claim any alliance with theater and do not describe themselves as actors or entertainers. They consider themselves visual artists and all work in media other than performance art, such as painting, photography, sculpture, and installation art. Another potential problem with performance theory as it has been developed thus far is its ethnographic emphasis, as we see in the theoretical work of Dwight Conquergood. The following five areas of performance studies, as identified by Conquergood, are useful in some respects. I present Conquergood’s five areas below and then follow each with my response regarding its applicability to my particular project, which is analysis and art criticism of contemporary Native and First Nations performance art.
Conquergood’s Five Areas of Performance Studies:
1. Conquergood’s Performance and Cultural Process:
“What are the conceptual consequences of thinking about culture as a verb instead of a noun, a process instead of product? Culture is an unfolding performative invention instead of a reified system, structure, or variable? What happens to our thinking about performance when we move it outside of aesthetics and situate it at the center of lived experience?”
In Response to Performance and Cultural Process:
The proposition of treating culture as a verb is a conclusion that I had reached independently, prior to reading Conquergood. The conceptual consequences of thinking about culture as an unfolding performative venture instead of a reified system, structure, or variable is a conceptual shift that brings us closer to an Indigenous viewpoint that allows the continuation of Indigenous identities and cultures rather than extermination through “assimilation.”
In regard to my particular project, there is a problem with the last sentence of Conquergood’s Performance and Cultural Process. He asks what would happen if we moved performance outside aesthetics and situated it in the center of lived experience. One of the criticisms Luna has made of the writing that has been done about his work is that the aesthetics are not considered. Only the “Indian” content is analyzed. It is not necessary to place performance as the center of lived experience at the expense of aesthetics. In regard to art, even performance art, it is possible and even necessary to consider all of the following: the interpretation(s) of the content, the viewers’ lived experiences of the artwork, the viewers’ lived experiences of the aesthetic elements (the formal artistic elements) of the work, and the artists’ lived experience in the creation of the work, as contributing to the whole understanding of the work.
2. Conquergood’s Performance and Ethnographic Praxis: “What are the methodological implications of thinking about fieldwork as the collaborative performance of an enabling fiction between observer and observed, knower and known? How does thinking about fieldwork as performance differ from thinking about fieldwork as the collection of data? […]”
In Response to Performance and Ethnographic Praxis:
I am not performing ethnography. I am not performing “fieldwork.” If the artists I chose to write about were not artists of a cultural background associated with the primitive, the exotic, the other, then ethnographic approaches and fieldwork would never be proposed as a basis for my work. The model for ethnographic and anthropological research, that is, the researcher/interrogator and the “Indian” informer, is particularly problematic. Native peoples in the U.S. and Canada have come to be very resistant to such unequal relationships except in instances where the tribal groups have themselves commissioned research to be done on their behalf, for their own benefit rather than the benefit of the scholar or institution conducting research. I have no desire to place myself in such a position. I desire to perform art criticism, not ethnography. Art criticism is a highly subjective promotion of the critic’s own ideas and interpretations. A possible place where the similarities between art criticism and Conquergood’s category of “performance and ethnographic praxis” converge would be in the shift toward viewing both ethnography and art criticism as performative acts.
3. Conquergood’s Performance and Hermeneutics: “What kinds of knowledge are privileged or displaced when performed experience becomes a way of knowing, a method of critical inquiry, a mode of understanding? […]”
In response to Performance and Hermeneutics:
Conquergood is asking this question about privileging or displacing kinds of knowledge from a distinctly Western viewpoint. He is speaking from a normative assumption that knowledge is NOT performed experience. Conquergood’s assumption is that performed experience is not already a valid method of critical inquiry or understanding. I am beginning with the opposite assumption: performed experience is a valid, rigorous method of critical inquiry and a way of knowing.
4. Conquergood’s Performance and Scholarly Representation: “What are the rhetorical problematics of performance as a complementary or alternative form of “publishing” research? What are the differences between reading an analysis of fieldwork data, and hearing the voices from the field interpretively filtered through the voice of the researcher[…] What about enabling people to perform their own experience? […]”
In response to Performance and Scholarly Representation:
A completed dissertation, the “publication” of research, would not seem to have a complementary performance event, however, the dissertation defense meeting is actually a performative event. The performance of the meeting is built into the process of awarding the doctoral degree. The dissertation defense meeting cannot serve as a substitute for the written dissertation; it is complementary to, but not a true alternative to publishing research.
To consider the questions about alternatives to “publishing” research, I will use a particular situation as a case study. I attended the New York University-based Hemispheric Institute’s Fifth Encuentro, Performing Heritage: Contemporary Indigenous and Community-Based Practices. As part of the Encuentro, I was asked to interview James Luna. The interview was to be filmed. Luna and I discussed alternative ways of doing the interview ahead of time. After all, the bulk of the material that has been published about his work is actually in the form of interviews. An especially good interview had been published just recently. Luna has also made or participated in several videos in which he speaks about his work at length. The Hemispheric Institute’s interview would seem to be redundant. Instead, Luna and I planned to do a performance of an interview. The artwork would certainly be discussed, but the performance would make clear the power structures inherent in the interview process itself, as well as its associations with the historic academic practices of anthropologists/ethnographers and “Indian informants.” This approach seemed to be very much in keeping with the institute’s goals:
“The Encuentro seeks to bring together students, scholars, artists, and activists to develop models of intellectual and artistic inquiry that are specially suited to the study of social and political formations in the Americas. It explores the potential offered by the emerging interdisciplinary field of Performance Studies to provide new means through which to understand the relation between expressive culture (broadly construed as performance) and political movements, identities, and social norms.”
The people from the Hemispheric Institute were excited, but not in the way I had hoped; they were disturbed. They really wanted a “talking heads” type of interview and simply found someone else to do the interview rather than risk something unpredictable happening. To a certain extent, the institute was trying to rectify past imbalances by asking a Native scholar, myself, to interview a Native artist, James Luna. From their point of view, they were handling the matter sensitively. From my point of view, I was being asked to replicate a role in which I was uncomfortable: the interviewer, the interrogator, the intrusive anthropologist trying to get a person’s individual and cultural “secrets” out in the open where they will be fair game for academia and political manipulation. James Luna was enthusiastic about the idea and we were discussing via e-mail ways to both subvert and make that exploitative historic dynamic visible. Unfortunately, an institute that takes a performance studies approach was not interested in an interview that looked at the interview format itself as a performance. Taken on its own, this turn of events is disappointing, to say the least. Much more devastatingly, it was part of a pattern of behaviors I witnessed at the Encuentro. The Indigenous participants from both hemispheres were regulated at every turn by criticisms of our authenticity, by paternalistic attitudes, by the actual censorship and interruption of performances in which things happened that those in charge felt were “inappropriate” behaviors for whatever their ideas of what “Indians” are supposed to be. To be fair, all of these incidents were not the fault of the Hemispheric Institute. The Brazilian hosts and several South American academics, still unshaken in their colonial attitudes, were often sources of conflict. Many individuals from the Hemispheric Institute, of whom I think very highly, seemed embarrassed, and uncomfortable with many of these situations.
In the end, they controlled the money, they controlled the camera, and our interview never happened. The Hemispheric Institute lost an opportunity to create a truly interesting “interview” that, in the words of Conquergood, would have enabled people (Luna and me), to perform our own experience instead of Barbara Walter’s or Frank Hamilton Cushing’s experience.
- 5. Conquergood’s The Politics of Performance: “What is the relationship between performance and power? How does performance reproduce, enable, sustain, challenge, subvert, critique, and naturalize ideology? How do performances simultaneously reproduce and resist hegemony? How does performance accommodate and contest domination?”
In response to The Politics of Performance:
Many of the nouns above require a shift to plurals. What kind of power? Whose power? Which ideologies? What about resisting the hegemony of one nation, the USA for example, while acting in support of the hegemony of the Navajo Nation, or complicating things even further, First Nations hegemony? When these questions are adapted to the consideration of Indigenous performance, the complications increase exponentially. How to even begin to describe the permutations and collisions of powers which include economic, governmental, tribal councils, internal “culture police,” the power of mass media, even spiritual and ceremonial power? When dealing with performances involving such mixed audiences/participants, so many ideologies converge that it seems difficult and “unnatural” to “naturalize” any of them. Some ideologies, power structures, or hegemonies may seem to resonate more with one participant than another, but the complexities are such that it is likely impossible for any one person taking part in the kinds of performance art events I am writing about to emerge without some doubts about her or his assumptions and interpretations of what exactly went on there. As human beings, we are always searching for organizational patterns. It is a disconcerting experience when such patterns are so complex that they elude us. Richard Schechner has experimented with methods of organizing performative experience in theoretical models, such as the identification of a set of interlocking spheres that constitute universal aspects of performance.
Schechner’s Spheres of Performance
Richard Schechner proposed thinking of performance, the big picture of performance rather than the narrower category of performance art, as a series of seven interlocking spheres, which he rendered in a diagram as circles shown in Figure 1. The seven spheres are labeled as follows:
To Deal with the Divine and the Demonic
To Teach or Persuade
To Create Beauty
To Foster Community
To Make or Change Identity
Figure 1. After Richard Schechner’s Seven interlocking spheres of performance. Diagram by the author.
I had difficulty relating Schechner’s spheres to my own work as some of the categories seemed inappropriate, so I reworked the spheres until the categories better addressed my observations of the performance art I have been studying. Just as in Schechner’s analysis, every aspect, or “sphere” may not be present in any given performance art work, and some aspects may be more emphasized than others. The basic “spheres” I have developed for my own use are illustrated by the diagram in Figure 2. To make this type of diagram useful for the individual performance artworks I write about, the combination and configuration of the interlocking spheres will change according to the emphases of each of the performances. If nothing else, my hope is that these diagrams can provide visual cues to assist in organizing an understanding of the complexities of the performances.
I developed the following nine aspects of Native performance art for my own diagrammatical rendering:
To Exchange or To Gift
To Deal with Natural and Spiritual Forces
To Teach or Persuade
To Stimulate the Senses
To Exercise Culture, To Create Culture
To Make or Change Identity
To Deal with Racism/Romanticism
To Engage in Inter- and/or Intra- cultural Critique
To Deal with Trauma and Healing
Figure 2. Spheres of Performance specifically applicable to Native performance art. A revision of Schechner’s Seven Spheres. Designed and rendered by the author.
Why was it necessary to develop a different theoretical picture for aspects of Native performance art? Some of the reasons have to do with art and art discourse itself. For instance, “beauty” is a problem in Schechner’s scheme because there is no agreement on what exactly beauty is. Issues of performance aside, not all really great art shows us beauty; skillful ugliness is also sometimes vitally important. To only make art that is “beautiful” is to drastically limit human experience. Beauty also implies only visual attraction. Performance artworks can employ sound, scent, and tactile experiences that that may be of equal importance to the visual experiences. Therefore, in my own identification of spheres of performance, I have chosen to substitute “To Stimulate the Senses” for “To Create Beauty.” Charlotte Townsend-Gault also recently made a call to consider more than simply the visual aspect of the “visual arts.” In her essay “Struggles with Aboriginality/Modernity,” Townsend-Gault says “Reinstating the sensorium – reprivileging the senses of touch, smell, taste, and hearing – is now central to the promotion of indigenous knowledge. This take on embodiment is frequently linked to the unwritten knowledge carried in oral traditions where embodied knowledge is the counterpart of that found in books.” Townsend-Gault is referring to the type of embodied, enacted knowledge that I am taking as the basis for my understanding of the dynamics, purposes, and aesthetics of performance art as practiced by Indigenous artists. The phrase “to create beauty” automatically includes a value judgment: positive or negative. Substituting the phrase “To Stimulate the Senses” not only recognizes the importance of senses other than sight, it makes no value judgment about that sensory experience in terms of de facto labeling some sensory input “good” and another sensory input as “bad.”
What exactly does it mean “to foster community,” the phrasing used by Schechner? The impression this wording gives is that “community” is a child, and an orphan at that. “Community” requires a parental intervention. Fostering community is a common phrase, and I am perhaps overanalyzing it, but the wording indicates some unspoken assumptions about the nature of community the noun and community the subject. There is no proper English conjugation for “community” that would transform it into a verb without certain other idealized connotations attached to it. To replace Schechner’s community sphere, I began with thinking about what community (the noun) means. Community implies a group of people at least somewhat in accord, either through ideology, physical proximity, or some other common relationship. This lead me to think about the problems regarding Indigenous cultures and historic issues regarding “authenticity” and the difficulties Native peoples encounter when asserting their contemporary culture as equally authentic as what is popularly regarded as “pre-contact” or “historic-period” culture. I came to the conclusion that community and culture are inseparable. As long as culture is viewed as static, unchanging, then “community” must indeed be “fostered” in order to maintain the status quo, the illusion that culture, or at least some aspects of culture, are stable. If we accept culture as ever-changing, then community is ever-changing as well. Substituting “To Foster Community” with the phrase “To Exercise Culture, To Create Culture” removes the paternalistic overtones and recognizes that Indigenous peoples make their own determinations about how they practice their own cultures, how they build, rebuild, and grow culture through their own agency, will and actions. This concept of building culture, of culture as a growing process, a verb rather than a stationary noun, is useful in thinking about anyone’s culture. Culture is what we do, on an individual level, and as aggregates, in pockets, in strands, in families, on street corners, in our cars. Fostering community is goal-oriented. Exercising culture is process-oriented.
Play is an integral part of human interaction and has been theorized across numerous disciplines. Like culture and community, “play” is hard to pin down. Yet it is clear that nearly every work of performance art I present here possesses an element of play, of irony, and humor. Returning to my experiences at the INDIANacts conference in Vancouver, BC, I repeatedly heard a difference in the way artists who made performance art and artists who primarily aligned themselves with theater conceived of their actions. An area of disconnect centered around concepts of “play.” There seemed to be a fundamental difference in their conceptions of play. For the theater-influenced participants, play was freeing and theater gave them license to play as fully as possible, without repercussion. Indigenous performers who primarily viewed themselves as theatrical actors seemed to closely identify with Nietzsche’s idealization of play:
In this world only play, play as artists and children engage in it, exhibits coming-to-be and passing-away, structuring and destroying, without any moral additive, in forever equal innocence.
Apparently, the theater as an institution seemed to protect them from the kinds of negative consequences that the performance artists were concerned with.
In contrast, actions by performance artists were understood to have consequences both for the artists and their audience-participants. This was not just the perception of the performance artists, but one that had also been a concern expressed by elders and other members in their Indigenous communities. Play, humor, and irony might be elements of a performance, but the way in which sensitive cultural matters are played out in performance art events could be causes of strife, dissent, and actual spiritual, emotional, and physical harm.
Whenever improvisation is a performative strategy in ritual, it places ritual squarely in the domain of play. It is indeed the playing, the improvising, that engages people, drawing them into the action, constructing their relationships, thereby generating multiple and simultaneous discourses always surging between harmony/disharmony, order/disorder, integration/opposition, and so on.
Margaret Thompson Drewel’s quote above, written in regard to Yoruba ritual is useful in delineating some of the issues Native American and First Nations performance artists find themselves navigating out of necessity. Firstly, I must stress that these artists are NOT performing rituals. There are sometimes ritual aspects incorporated into performances, but their performances are not intended to substitute for or revise traditional ritual practices. Drewel describes improvisation as a strategy that causes play to dominate ritual. This could be an accurate description of Yoruba ritual, but has the potential effect of trivializing ritual itself. Performance art that includes audience participation has improvisational elements as a result, but do not definitively place the performance within the domain of play, at least, not the kind of play that Drewel seems to describe, in which oppositions and contradictions are safe, permissible, and without lasting effect, contained within the boundaried space of ritual.
For Indigenous performance artists, the concept of deep play, introduced by Jeremy Bentham and further developed by Clifford Geertz carries greater relevance. Deep play is a type of play in which an observer may judge the risks to outweigh any potential rewards. Performance artists of color in some sense engage in what could be called deep play every time they undertake a performance. As a result of racism, stereotype, and conflicts with dominant paradigms, performance artists of color engage in deep play even in situations where there no risk of physical harm. Native performance artists engage in deep play on multiple fronts: confronting racism, stereotypes and romanticism, risking disapproval from their home communities and other Native communities, and risking some potential for emotional trauma to themselves arising from a performance.
Deep play is a feature that is observable in much performance art, as is another type of play, dark play. Dark play, as described by Richard Schechner involves fantasy, luck, daring, intervention, and deception. “Dark play subverts order, dissolves frames, and breaks its own rules – so much so that playing itself is in danger of itself being destroyed… Unlike carnivals or ritual clowns whose inversions of established order are sanctioned by the authorities, dark play is truly subversive, its agendas always hidden. Dark play’s goals are deceit, disruption, excess, and gratification.” Dark play can also involve truly life-threatening activities that may actually cause physical harm, mutilation, or even death. This is the sensationalism which is frequently associated with performance art as an artistic medium, but which is comparatively rare in performance art as practiced by Native American and First Nations artists.
Schechner’s choice of “To Entertain” implies a division into entertainer and a group of people who are passively entertained. This situation creates a community-by-default that is based only upon the presence of a number of people within the same space. There is also an undesirable association between entertainment and frivolousness that trivializes the significance of performance itself. An event need not be “entertaining” in order to capture and hold one’s attention.
Performance art often relies upon audience participation; therefore, I categorize it as an exchange between audience-participants and the artist(s). The exchange could be an exchange of ideas, words, gifts, stories, knowledge, or information of any sort. I substituted “To Entertain” with a sphere labeled “To Exchange or Gift,” a phrase which I intend to encompass a wide range of activities. For example, there can be a fairly equal exchange or non-reciprocal transfers of something tangible or intangible between the artist and individuals, artist and the audience as a whole, or even between audience members. Multiple forms of exchange and gifting can occur within a single performance. Schechner’s entertainment can be encompasses within the concept of exchanging without oversimplifying or trivializing the aspects of performance art that attract participants.
Taking exchange processes as a fundamental aspect of performance transforms the conception of those present as a passive noun-based definition of community to the concept of community as a verb: focusing on actions and interactions rather than simple proximity. A weakness in Schechner’s spheres is that many of them name actions that do not necessarily have to have more than one participant. One can “entertain” oneself. However, there cannot be a community consisting of only one person. Exchange is part of the conceptual shift from thinking about community as a noun to thinking about community as a verb.
Schechner used the words “to heal” as one of his spheres. In my experience, it is customary to evoke, remember, or somehow make reference to the trauma before any “healing” efforts are made. In order to fully include some of the major aspects in performance art, I combined the purpose of healing with the evocation of trauma. In some instances, the primary impulse is to uncover trauma, without making the presumption that healing is expected to be the outcome. As Ojibway playwright Drew Hayden Taylor said about trauma in the introduction to his play Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth, “…you can’t overcome 35 years in one hour.” It is naïve to expect to be able to heal five hundred years of trauma in a one-hour performance art event or in any ceremony or ritual. The best that can be hoped is for is to deal in some fashion with that particular trauma and the processes of healing.
One of the most inappropriate of Schechner’s spheres is “To Deal with the Divine and the Demonic” because it uses terminology that is only consistent with a Christian worldview. It also contains an inherent assumption of a stable, binary division into good and evil. I substitute the words “To Deal with Natural and Spiritual Forces.” Judgments or divisions into good and evil can still occur within a performance and are a feature of some of the spiritual structures in some traditional tribal traditions, but my rephrasing makes it possible to reserve prejudicial judgment about a particular natural or spiritual entity. The alteration in phrasing also allows grey areas and complex beings, like Coyote, who is creative, procreative, and destructive, and may be “good” in one instance, and “bad” in another, to be more fully included in a complex analysi s.
 “Turtle Island” is a common Indigenously used term that can be used to describe the whole of North American, or even the entirety of the land surfaces of the planet.
 Dwight Conquergood, Rethinking Ethnograpyh: Towards a Critical Cultural Politics. Communications Monographs 58 June 1991: 190.
 Note that Conquergood’s Five Areas are specifically aimed at an overarching field of performance studies and are not designed to focus on the specifics of performance art. His conception of performance studies in this case is heavily influenced by relationships between the field of performance studies and the field of ethnography. The source of Conquergood’s Five Areas is identified in footnote 21.
 Fifth Annual Encuentro program, Hemispheric Institute, New York University, March 2005.
 For Richard Schechner’s original diagram, see Richard Schechner, Performance Studies: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2003, p. 39.
 Charlotte Townsend-Gault, Struggles with Aboriginality/Modernity. Bill Reid and Beyond: Expanding on Modern Native Art, Karen Duffek and Charlotte Townsend-Gault, eds. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004. pp. 237-238.
 Friederich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. South Bend: Gateway Editions 1962. p. 62.
 This interpretation is based upon extended discussion session at the INDIANacts conference in which artists spoke about ways in which they had at various times negotiated with individuals and factions on their reserves and reservations about possible approaches to culturally sensitive community issues.
 I experienced an instance of harm arising from the interruption of a performance art event. A particular sequence to bring closure to the event had been planned but was interrupted by facilities managers. Several people involved in the collaborative performance were distressed over the next two days. A group of those who had participated in the performance gathered together and discussed what had gone wrong with the performance, particularly the lack of closure. A respected participant suggested that the difficulties that many of the participants were experiencing were a result of the abrupt fashion in which the performance had ended. We were, in a sense, still consumed by the energy and power that arisen that night. Once the erratic behavior had been discussed as being a result of an uncompleted action with ceremonial overtones, even the most distressed experienced an abrupt alteration.
 Margaret Thompson Drewal, Yoruba Ritual. Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1992, p. 7-8, also quoted in Performance Studies: An Introduction by Richard Schechner, New York: Routledge, 2002. p.100.
 Richard Schechner, Performance Studies: An Introduction. New York Routledge, 2002. pp. 105-109.
 Schechner, Performance Studies, 106-107.
 The concept of exchange and gifting as being a fundamental aspect of performance also allows for the consideration of performances that border on ritual, where the performer’s audience does not consist of human beings, but may include audience-participants such as natural forces, spiritual beings, plants, animals, landscape features that may not ordinarily be considered as participants or audiences.
 Drew Hayden Taylor, Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth. Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada: Talon Books, 1998. p. 12.