Performance Fictions

By David Burrows, 29 September 2010

Blurring the distinction between reality and fiction isn't just the preserve of the state in the age of the War on Terror; small fictional viruses may also be fatally infecting the global narrative, writes David Burrows

Chief Executive of the Committee for Global Public Safety: Gentleman, we have the report from the Academic Council for Global Fictions. It seems the threat posed by these fictioning scum is minimal, but I will remind you that cancer starts with a single, mutating cell. What is the sacrifice of one or two innocent cells to us? I call for immediate termination.

Around the table a chorus of colons rumble in unison, blood and mucus pumping.

Chief Accountant: Sir, you may want to go through the formality of discussing the report. Your predecessor has two years to run on a four-year term with bonus and credit rating privileges rescinded, all for that rather messy termination of California's League for the Promotion of Catholic Art in Asia.

A number of sphincters sputter in agreement. The Chief Executive's electric teeth grind as the lights dim and the report circulates.

Image: Plastique Fantastique, Plastique Fantastique Triple Castration Ritual, 2010

Part I: function

This is a golden era, yet few think so. Now is the time when the future reaches out a hand, but few recognise fortune's gift. Today, diverse practitioners are activating portals and platforms folded deep in the fabric of the past and the everyday, yet few see these manifestations as little more than freakish and absurd. In common, these allies of good fortune understand the performance of fiction as a critical mode of production. They generate performance fictions and affirm myths or impossible narratives through acting, doing and making. In so far as such practices are more than merely performative or parodic, they echo an axiom of the last century: ‘artists do not seek the truth but the fictions that reality will become.' Robert Smithson's maxim breaks with the common notion that truth and fiction are opposites, but not just through affirming truth as fiction. In proposing that fictions are realities-to-come, Smithson affirms the virtual and transformative function of fiction, an insight as relevant for art today as it was for Smithson's time.

The New World Order is Fiction

This axiom is also relevant to the modes of production favoured by business and governments engaged in the colonisation of the future, and to the operations of their mortal foe. For what is ‘The Shock Doctrine' but the production of fictions?i What is 9/11 if not the preface of a new if contested narrative, the first new fiction of its kind since the end of the Cold War? This new world order is ‘written' through sovereign deeds - performance fictions inscribed as self-fulfilling prophecies - that actualise a future in which catastrophe and its threat are ever-present, or in which the enemies of democracy and invading crusaders are manifested through (predictive) acts of speech and violence. These fictions are somewhat different to the noble lies of the political classes, discussed by Plato as myths known to be falsehoods by an elite but deemed necessary for the harmony of society. Noble lies and the use of untruths for political ends maintain a distinction between truth and untruth (for the politician who knows the truth). This is not the case with the recent promotion of security and globalisation agendas, as revealed in Tony Blair's testimony to the Iraq Enquiry. When Sir Martin Gilbert asked Blair about the links between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, reminding Blair that the Butler Committee had established that there were no direct links between Saddam and Al-Qaeda, Blair gave this revealing answer:

The link was, in my mind, at that time... it is true we did not have evidence that Saddam was, for example, behind the September 11 attacks... but I always worried that at some point these things would come together. Not Saddam and Al-Qaeda simply, but the notion of states proliferating WMD and terrorist groups.

It is important to understand that Blair is not claiming to be clairvoyant. In declaring that the link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda was ‘in my mind', and furthermore that the partnership was only ‘a notion', Blair is not asserting that he has powers similar to those of the Pre-Cogs in Phillip K Dick's Minority Report, who ‘see' future crimes and enable pre-crime prosecution. Whereas the Pre-Cogs, in ‘witnessing' future misdemeanours, furnish the state with evidence for events yet to take place, Blair is concerned with the imaginary. In this, Blair's actions and speech are structured through a disavowal (or perversion) of reality. Or as a psychoanalyst might say, Blair accepts reality (in that he accepts that there is no evidence that Saddam had developed - or could or would have developed - WMD or links to Al-Qaeda) and at the same time he denies this state of affairs (finding in every detail a meaning that supports a negation of reality and that affirms the case for the invasion and war). And in this sense, as a psychoanalyst might also say, Blair shifts between accepting reality (as an agreed state of affairs) and delusion (through acting for and affirming an imagined state of affairs). More than this, in acting as if an imagined threat was an actual threat, Blair responds to, and realises a potential reality.

This example offers an insight into how performance fictions are produced through disavowing and affirming what can be imagined. In this sense, performance fictions are different to, or more than ideology (ideas inscribed in language and everyday culture), and different to simulation (a self-referential circulation of signs that usurps reality). This difference is further illustrated by considering how ideology and simulation (as concepts) are concerned with reality and representation, whereas performance fiction (as a concept) addresses the transformation of an existing state of affairs or the actualisation of new paradigms.

Image: a.a.s, The Family, 2009

What good then is the truth, the truth of power even, against the forces of fiction when employed by the powerful? Fictions may unravel and lose credence, and truth may still counter falsehood, but when Blair says he named Saddam (‘in my mind') as potential partner in crime with Al Qaeda, Saddam had no defence.

Mutant Statements

The artist John Russell has alluded to the power of nomination and of fiction to actualise reality as fictioning. In doing so he draws upon Deleuze and Guattari's (Foucault inflected) account of how the accused in a court of law becomes a prisoner through the sentencing of a judge.ii The judge's sentence produces a transformation of the accused into a prisoner through speech acts that Michel Foucault called statements (enunciations or roles within discursive formations). For Foucault, what is said in any statement is unimportant, at least not as important as what is captured by the statements of specific discursive regimes. Foucault argues that statements are limited in number (in a court of law there are the accused/prisoner, judge, witness, jury, lawyer, plaintiff and court staff). What counts is the repetition of statements: the constant performance or articulation of statements gives consistency to specific regimes.iii

It is Foucault's observations concerning statements, and those of Jacques Derrida concerning the iteration of performative speech acts that inform academic studies concerned with identity.iv Such studies assert that identity is what one does, rather than what one is. In this, performative speech acts are identified as being future-orientated, different to propositions (of truth or falsehood) and descriptions. As J.L. Austin stated, a performative speech act is a promise, as in the example of a bride and groom uttering the words ‘I do', promising to become husband and wife. Academics critical of Austin emphasised that discourse regulates the phenomenon it captures.v Judith Butler, most famously, advocates that as there is nothing accessible to us beyond language, parody, then, becomes an important mode for the subversion and deconstruction of identity and relations through revealing the naturalising aspects of In this deconstruction of identity though, no new paradigms are sought.

For Gilles Deleuze, who offers a different perspective, Foucault's notion of the statement was a key contribution to theorising multiplicity: statements are variable in that they cut across discursive regimes and refer to various roles or identities in different discursive contexts. In his book Foucault, Deleuze argues that statements allow for, and indeed invite mutation through a repetition that involves difference produced by various contingencies and localisations.vii Furthermore, Deleuze suggests that statements can refer to concrete or imaginary (and absurd) worlds. He gives the example of Scott Fitzgerald's short story A Diamond as Big as the Ritz, in which a fabulously wealthy family reside on a diamond as big as a mountain and imprison invited guests in a pit to preserve the secret of the mountain's location. Deleuze comments that the statements inscribed in the writer's stories do not refer to fiction in general but to the fictional world of Scott Fitzgerald; however, these statements (the hierarchies of wealth and excess) can be found in other imaginary and concrete contexts. In this, Deleuze is inferring that statements can mutate as much through the collision of fiction and the concrete as through the exigencies of local contingencies.

The Registers of Fiction

In considering the production of fiction (as reality-to-come) in art and politics, a distinction can be drawn between totalising performance fictions that attempt to capture or shape the future for specific agendas, and those that attempt to produce new paradigms through registering mutation or multiplicity. This difference can be marked through identifying the way nomination is employed by different performance fictions. To understand the importance of this, a further analysis of fiction is helpful.

Image: Plastique Fantastique, Plastique Fantastique Welcome Mouth-Ports Bour-Har!, 2009

The writer and artist Simon O'Sullivan has identified three moments of fiction: 1. a ‘retroactive recognition' in which an event is named (after the event), 2. ‘a prophetic myth-making' as a catalyst for worlds-to-come, and 3. a third moment in which ‘fiction can operate as the friction' that registers the nuances, affects and forces that arrest signifying regimes.viii I would add to this that the moment of ‘retroactive recognition' can look both backward and forward, in that nomination is orientated towards future actions and relations. Furthermore, ‘retroactive recognition' is a reterritorialisation or symbolisation, different to ‘prophetic fictions' that visualise an impossible image of the future, and different to ‘fiction as friction' which can be counted as a deterritorialisation or, as Smithson might say, as de-creation. In the case of ‘retroactive recognition', the privileged register is that of language, in ‘prophetic fictions' the key register is the imaginary, and ‘fiction as friction' registers that which escapes discourse. How these three moments or registers are privileged or knotted together determines whether a fiction captures or opens up the future; specifically, the use of nomination and ‘retroactive recognition' as a means of fixing an event can extend the logics of existing regimes or agendas.

Part II: Technology (Techné)

In the sphere of art, performance fictions differ from much performance art, in that they are not performances undertaken for the sake of education, critique or entertainment, or for the sake of deconstructing identity constructs or institutions. Nor are they performances that explore the limitations of the body through trials of endurance. Performance fictions that open up new paradigms through privileging multiplicity or the mutation of relations produce singularities: durations in which new assemblages of relations or perspectives are explored.


Franco Berardi defines a singularity as an ‘agency that does not follow any rule of conformity and repetition, and is not framed in any historical necessity.'ix A singularity then is ‘untimely', produced without relation to the dominant organisations and logics of any situation. For Berardi, the production of singularities is a viable political objective. He does not believe that an overturning of an existing totality is possible. Instead, in the text ‘Communism is Back But We Should Call it the Therapy of Singularisation' he calls for pluralism, and the production of autonomous singularities. The Italian theorist suggests that, in relation to recent economic catastrophes, scarcity and the curtailing of debt, a new definition of wealth is needed: indeed, he argues that new social and economic relations are manifesting that eschew the present definition of wealth as the accumulation of things in space (which today includes cyberspace) in the form of property, goods, people (services) and information. In this, Berardi advocates that the commonwealth should be considered to be time; that is, how we create, use, share and spend our time. He suggests we should be more like the birds. It is this focus on time as wealth, and as the material for experimentation, that distinguishes the most compelling performance fictions.

Orders of Performance Fictions

Within the UK there are a number of practices that can be presented as performance fictions. A range of characteristics mark some or all of these practices.

Sacred Performances: Georges Bataille defines the sacred as the secret (crime) or sacrifice that binds a people, and as entailing wasteful expenditure.x Following Bataille, performance fictions can be counted as sacred, in that they involve the production of fictions designed to bind an audience or group, or to manifest a people-yet-to-come. This binding occurs through the production of events, enactments and artefacts that most would consider nonsensical: an expenditure of time and labour that inscribes a temporality different to the time of existing economies and relations. The performance fictions of the Birmingham-based group a.a.s provide us with an example of this. Staged in collaboration with invited participants, they use the city and its environs as material for the production of narratives concerning alternative worlds. For a performance entitled KR36, in 2007, individuals were interviewed and selected to undertake secretive or covert tasks around the city of Birmingham. The tasks were assigned by a figure known only as Control. The performance drew upon the situationist strategy of dérive (a drifting through space) to produce new fictions for the city including the discovery of portals to ‘the other place'. By inducing fantasy and paranoia, the performance merged the concrete and the impossible and, in that participation required keeping the project secret, eschewed conventional audience relations. Since no single artist or participant has experienced or authored KR36 in its totality, the performance can be said to be multifaceted and crystalline (a multiplicity of narratives, by different participants, told through short documenatry films were produced by a.a.s).

Performance as games of chance: More recently, a.a.s. staged The Family (again in Birmingham) to explore coincidence through a more delusional version of dérive, all on a diet of Kool-aid and fluff. The narrative offered by the website that documents the performance begins: ‘We had decided that we needed to take all of the toxins we had been absorbing out of the city to purify it, and although we set off for one place, somehow ended up in another by bending the map. We saw an echo of La-Lah again, but interpreted the message as saying we needed to throw something away.'

Image: John Cussans, still from Invisible Mirrors, 2009

Such games of chance and disorientation not only open up the imaginary, the game of chance is also the ‘secret' that binds the participants of a performance fiction, whether through the enjoyment of the absurd or accidental, or through the goal of discovering new connections and producing new assemblages of sense.

Artist and writer, John Cusssans engages in games of chance through films and lectures that employ a paranoid-critical method to different ends, producing connections and links between events and hidden histories and conspiracies. Cussans' film Invisible Mirrors, screened at the Cabinet Gallery London in 2010, documents his trip to Haiti before the recent earthquake decimated Port-au-Prince. The film presents a taxi ride in which the artist is taken to a sculpture of a pig (native to Haiti) covered with strange markings. The taxi driver asserts that UN soldiers, accompanied by musicians, performed a ritual around the sculpture and vandalised the monument to destroy the symbolic power of the pig. Cussans' journey traces connections and conspiracies: the pig is important in the story of Haiti's slave revolt. In 1791 the revolutionaries drank the blood of a pig, its throat cut by a voodoo priestess, and pledged to overthrow their European oppressors, an act signalling a rejection of the God of the Europeans. In the 1980s, the United States Department of Agriculture destroyed Haiti's native pigs claiming they had swine fever, forcing Haitians to buy pigs from America that, unlike the native pig, needed expensive medicine and food to prosper on the island; the culling leading to yet one more form of enslavement.

Super-Parodic Performance: While in Haiti, Cussans met a group of young artists making films with mock cameras and microphones made from junk; they had no money to buy actual equipment. While they had no resources to film or broadcast the interviews they staged, they performed Tele Geto TV as if going live to air. After the earthquake, Cussans and friends sent gifts of equipment to the young artists; the resulting films were exhibited at the Portman Gallery in London in Summer 2010 and uploaded to Youtube. Unlike Western news reporting, Tele Geto films neither comment on nor sentimentalise scenes of devastation. The cameraperson and interviewer wander through the capital and film whatever is encountered; individuals sleeping on the streets are asked what they want to say to the rest of the world.

In Tele Geto, parody becomes more than a tool of deconstruction or critique, the performance fiction generates relations and roles through a parody beyond irony, or that goes further than irony. The initial performance with mock equipment, that disavowed an existing state of affairs, was important for enabling the artists to seize a mandate (one that engendered self-representation and the representation of a locale) when no means to realise this mandate existed. It might be argued that Tele Geto neither transformed or challenged the world's mass media and its power to determine and narrate what becomes visible. In relation to the general economy of information exchange and mass media broadcasting, the small scale of Tele Geto and the participants' lack of status might render such performance fictions as little more than playacting. However, as with KR36 and The Family, Tele Geto produced autonomous actions. Beyond offering an alternative to the sentimental representations of helpless victimhood and courageous survivors that the mass media proffered when reporting on Haiti, Tele Geto fostered new relations and an economy of exchange between the Haitian artists and others, outside of the dominant logics of mass broadcasting, free-market economics and charity: through Tele Geto, a fictional but never-the-less lived world of new relations is created.

There are other forms of super-parody in which irony is blurred. Pil and Galia Kollectiv produced Future Monument as a public sculpture and performance in 2009 for the Herzliya Biennial for Contemporary Art in Israel, to ‘celebrate' luxury yachts, stating that if the ‘true nature of global capitalism is an elusive, constantly mutating entity, then yachts serve as a fictionalisation of its core essence, a testament to the conditions under which we live... they make concrete the invisible flows of finance.' The artists' use of over-identification as a strategy for undermining dominant fictions has ironic overtones; but this irony becomes blurred as Pil and Galia Kollectiv invest in, and identify with avant garde practices and politics, producing mutant capitalist-avant-garde works that envisage, and call forth a collectivised rather than an atomised people.

Other performance fictions produce intensities that ‘accelerate' parody, such as Munkanon, a performance staged in Austria in 2008 by the Nottingham-based group Reactor. As with a.a.s.'s projects, an audience engages with Munkanon through participation, joining a secret society and engaging in a range of absurd initiations and activities that bear comparison with the practices of Scientology and the Stanford Prison experiment, in which psychologists observed individuals playing the roles of prisoners and guards and the subsequent internalisation of those roles. Prospective Munkanon participants are told: ‘The choices you make determine reality for you and your companions - so you need to learn quickly! Those who show the greatest commitment to the cause will find themselves moving up through the hierarchy of this secret society. Negotiate this clandestine program and reach the reward of enlightenment: becoming one with the true meaning and purpose of Munkanon.'

Image: Pil and Galia, Future Monument, 2009

Apocalyptic performances: Performance fictions are not concerned with reflecting upon or deconstructing the forms of the sacred but with the production of the sacred. Some performance fictions, such as those staged by a.a.s. and Reactor, engage with chaos through disorientation and chance, and bear comparison to the rituals of apocalyptic cultures. In this, they address subjectivity and the ontological (and the non-ontological) aspects of performance that theories focused on the construction of identity often pass over.

In his book Multitude, Paolo Virno writes that ritual confronts crisis: ritual confronts the collapse of the world and the unknown.xi By world, Virno means a world of sense and meaning (and for the main part, he is referring to ritual in the West). For Virno, a crisis may occur through either an excess or lack of semantics: the world disappears if there is too much semanticity (too much meaning or information); the opening of the world disappears if there is too little semanticity (a deficit of meaning). Both these states produce non-sense. Virno further states, a lack of semantics leads to acts without power (meaningless acts) and an excess of semantics leads to power without acts (a paralysis caused by too many possibilities). However, Virno clarifies this statement by asserting that ritual is not a process that negates or represses any lack or excess of sense. For Virno, ritual is not a barrier against crisis; rather, ritual spreads chaos and engages with danger to represent crisis, and it this symbolisation that keeps chaos at bay. The purpose of ritual is not to defeat evil then, the purpose of ritual is to defer its threat. Virno states:

The institutional task of ritual consists in containing the risks to which the opening of the world of the linguistic animal is subjected.

Virno gives ritual a symbolic function that shores up the world through a representation of what threatens it. He identifies such rituals as apocalyptic cultures (a term borrowed from the anthropologist Ernesto de Martino who studied the ways in which medieval religion symbolised apocalyptic collapse through ritual). Virno argues that such cultures are present in contemporary life, forming a basis for institutions (outside of state control) that restrain violence. While Virno's definition of ritual as symbolic performance may be relevant for much art, we may also observe that some performance fictions are a perverse form of apocalyptic ritual. Returning to Virno's observation that excess and lack of sense produce crisis, these are two moments or durations that art and performance art produce to arrest habit and the familiar. In this, performance fictions can collapse worlds that may indeed be returned to post-event, but returned to differently. The question is then, whether such performances engender a shift or change of any kind rather than a reinforcement of norms. Specifically, it is important to ask whether a performance fiction inscribes a world without predicates, and whether a world or time is inscribed in which lack and excess of semanticity is allowed free play.

This perverse mode of performance fiction employs ‘fiction as friction'; a mode that myself, Simon O'Sullivan and others have explored through the collaboration Plastique Fantastique. For Plastique Fantastique Welcome Mouth-Ports Bour-Har! (Aspex Gallery, Portsmouth, 2009), five masked figures wander through a shopping complex carrying mirror-perspex rectangles bent into right angles: their destination, Aspex Gallery. On their journey the avatars arrange the mirrors in different locations and search the reflections for images of the surrounding environment ‘in ruins'. The reflections produce disorientation: a kind of blinding takes place (a collapsing of figure and ground, a process of mirror travel first explored by Robert Smithson through mirror displacements). It is a hot day. The body sweats, salty fluid trickles into eyes that become clogged with reflections that merge logos, goods, sky, buildings, foliage, sea and seabirds. The complex appears in ruins and the masked figures welcome Mouth-Ports Bour-Har; the avatars celebrate the demon that has revealed the illusion of the permanency and solidity of the surrounding environment, and that we live amidst ruins (of the future).

Image: Plastique Fantastique, Plastique Fantastique Welcome Mouth-Ports Bour-Har!, 2009

Another performance that explored ‘fiction as friction' through disorientation was Plastique Fantastique Triple Castration Ritual, performed within the installation, Plastique Fantastique Visitation Site (Tatton Biennial, 2010). One figure was chosen from the assembled performers and transformed into a ‘pointy-cone-headed-thing'. A felt rope was wound around the figure's body. The figure became a plaything for the other performers and was covered in chalk, hung upside down and finally unwound like a spinning top and left to recover where he fell. After passing through the world of things as abject thing, the chosen figure stated that he had first gone blind, and then floated upside down. He declared that he could now see but that everything was inverted and the wrong way round (and that all should invert their pointy-cone-heads). The effects of the performance lasted several hours.

While it might be true that performance fictions, claimed here as durations that open up new perspectives or paradigms, may have little or lasting effect - little more importance in the general scheme of things than bird song heard while passing through a city - such performances do have an affect, post-performance for those participants touched by, or taking part in the performance. After the event, performance fictions can produce a sense of estrangement in familiar surroundings, something that Berardi might call the therapeutic effect of singularisation. And ‘retroactive recognition' can produce individual or collective narratives for, and memories of environments, situations and relations that can be developed or embellished through future performance fictions. In that such performance fictions do not oppose one totality with another totality but fiction singular, autonomous worlds (rather like Scott Fitzgerald's writing), they give consistency to new or mutant statements and relations through repetition, through performance and documentation. Furthermore, such performance fictions not only explore the imaginary, they involve practical organisation and negotiating local contingencies to stage events; and it is in this collision of the fictional and the concrete that statements and relations can mutate. It is in this way that such performance fictions are future orientated and are therefore different to the totalising fictions of Blair and others, who privilege the powers of nomination and author classical narratives for ‘readers' to consume. The problem with performance fictions as singularities is that they might be a poor match for totalising fictions, but as any expert or consultant will tell you, a fatal metastasis or mutation can start with a single cell or singularity; a rejection of reality can be triggered by a single event.

* * * * *

The committee room is silent except for the hum of low-carbon life-support systems, the lights return to full glare.

Chief Executive: Well gentleman, it seems my case is made, juice them, juice them all!

David Burrows <dumburrows AT> is an artist, writer and lecturer.


iThe 'Shock Doctrine' is a strategy adopted by governments to promote free market economics through declaring or creating disasters to justify intervention in situations and regions around the world. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, London: Penguin Group, 2007.

ii Force of Fictioning, paper delivered by John Russell for the Art Writing Beyond Criticism symposium at the ICA, 2008.

iii Michel Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, Tavistock Publications Ltd, 1986, [1969].

iv Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1982, [1972].

v J.L. Austin, How to do Things with Words, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1980.

vi Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Routledge: London, 1990.

vii Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, London: Continuum, 2004, [1986].

viii Simon O'Sullivan, Guattari's Aesthetic Paradigm, paper delivered at Royal Academy, London, 2010.

ix Franco Berardi, The Soul at Work, Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2009.

x Geroges Bataille, Accursed Share, New York: Zone Books, 1988, [1967].

xixi Paolo Virno, Multitude, Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2008.