The first encounter was with the documentation of Remains Service Management (2013), a live art performance by Australia-based American artist Loren Kronemyer. In this piece Kronemyer guides participants through a variety of options for disposing of their final remains, ‘ranging from the traditional to the ecological to the altruistic to the esoteric’ (Kronemyer). Participants are then given an option not disclosed to them at the outset of the performance: to have their ‘remains plan’ (ibid.) drawn up as a legal document. ‘This element adds tension and a twist to the work, where the participant is faced with the potential of generating a binding document within a performance environment,’ writes critic Astrid Francis (2013, p. 41), who further reflects on how this tension affected her own participation in the work: ‘While the idea of my remains being turned into a diamond or having a burial cairn built in my backyard sounded enticing during the performance, pledging to such a commitment or even a more traditional option was something I couldn’t commit to in the moment, which certainly raises the stakes in terms of the participant’s investment in the performance’ (ibid.).
The risk of consequence in Remains Service Management, arising from the tension that Francis describes, can be attributed to the linguistic theory of performativity. Developed by the philosopher J.L. Austin (1955), performativity recognises that some speech acts are constitutive; that is, they enact the very things which they articulate. Austin’s examples include the exchange of wedding vows, the christening of a ship, or the making of a bet. ‘In these examples it seems clear that to utter the sentence (in, of course, the appropriate circumstances) is not to describe my doing of what I should be said in so uttering to be doing or to state that I am doing it: it is to do it,’ writes Austin (ibid. p. 6). This theory of performativity can be extended to symbolic acts, such as the signing of a document to create a legal bond — or perhaps the lighting of a match inscribed with certain words. T1
T1:The idea has also been extended by academic Brad Haseman into a theory of performative research, in which creative practice is a symbolic act that in turn generates symbolic data which ‘not only expresses the research, but in that expression becomes the research itself’ (2006, p. 6). As Haseman notes: ‘The “practice” in “practice-led research” is primary — it is not an optional extra; it is the necessary pre-condition of engagement in performative research’ (ibid.).
Already familiar with the linguistic concept of the performative, I had read Haseman at the outset of my PhD but nonetheless mistook his performativity for that of performance as generally understood within the arts. Or rather, I understood the primacy of process in Haseman’s theory, but failed to grasp the constitutive nature of that process. It would be some time yet before I connected the kind of magical operation described by Austin with the research methodology that I had unwittingly begun to pursue. As such I had no sense of any larger significance when I scrawled the following in my sketchbook, as I thought about the matchsticks: Creating objects and situations that are ostensibly play (or art) but have the transformative power of marriage vows etc. What happens in play is happening for real.