In this article, I will analyze several instances of so called "visual arts performance" where scores, scripts, instructions and re-enactments are predicated on a dancer's labor.
Departing from early scores by Bruce Nauman, where the first instruction for the works were the apparently neutral expression "hire a dancer" and ending with the recent Marina Abramovic show at NY's MoMA, where the majority of the performers were literally "hired dancers," this article explores the aesthetic implications of this economy in a politics of presence in contemporary performance.
Consensus about dissensus
Over the past few years we have witnessed a convergence in critical discourse and political philosophy towards a generalized agreement on the relationship between art and the political. The terms of this agreement were clearly expressed not too long ago by Giorgio Agamben during a Conference not unlike this one, also dedicated to the relations between philosophy, politics, and art.1 Concluding his intervention, Agamben stated:
Art is not an aesthetic human activity that can also, in certain circumstances, acquire a political significance. Art is inherently political, because it is an activity that renders inactive and contemplates the senses and habitual gestures of human beings and in so doing opens them up to a new potential use. This is why art resembles politics and philosophy almost to the point of becoming one with them. What poetry does for the power to speak and art does for the senses, politics and philosophy must do for the biological, economic, and social activities – they show what the human body can do and open it up to a new potential use.2
It is clear how Agamben’s articulation of what in art would be “inherently political” converges strongly with some of Jacques Rancière’s propositions on the link between art and politics, particularly under his concept of the aesthetic regime of art. To summarize an increasingly familiar notion, the aesthetic regime is characterized by a particular distribution of the sensible defined around “the idea of a sensible element torn from the sensible, of a dissensual sensible element.”3 Within the aesthetic regime, this element is what binds artistic acts with political acts. Indeed, as Rancière writes, “if there exists a connection between art and politics, it should be cast in terms of dissensus, the very kernel of the aesthetic regime.”4 In the aesthetic regime, art is connected to politics because both work to disconnect sensory experience away “from the normal forms of sensory experience”5, and because both understand the body as a reservoir of dissensual somatic-political capacities. To sensorially dissent is precisely to put those capacities towards new potential use (to invoke now Agamben’s terminology).
Differently from Agamben however, Rancière’s identification and differentiation of several regimes of the arts (which do not necessarily correspond to any strict historical sequence, but may overlap within a certain epoch, and sometimes within one single work6) indicates that not every artistic practice is necessarily (or ontologically) political. The generic way Agamben states...