Emily Roysdon, an artist and writer, is co-founding editor of the queer feminist journal and artist collective LTTR and a professor of art at Konstfack in Stockholm, Sweden.
What Malik said !
. . . One of the first art-y gestures I ever made, older than a child, was to write two words on a pair of underwear. I wrote these two words, Judith and Butler, next to the words Calvin and Klein. It was about 1997. I thought about it, then I did it again. I inscribed my bibliography on my underwear. Day of, what I read that day. I wasn't an artist; I was studying international politics. I wasn't thinking of this as object, as a project. It was a gesture that ushered me into a new field.
College art is nothing to go on about or dig out of the closet, but a little time travel is valuable in defining performativity. For now it is hard to imagine life without it. Nothing is not performative, no not performative. Gender, race, class. Formal, political, collective, embodied. Even painting.
I'm using this coming-of-age story to punctuate a before moment that was simultaneously a becoming moment, in action. A fictional self-mythologizing performative act. I thought I could start there, in self-making, in education, in becoming political. The story that your family told about where you come from. The stories about priorities, about what humor and honor were. The story you tell about yourself over and over, a story that knows other priorities and other kinds of humor.
I think about this next to José Esteban Muñoz's reminder about the stakes of the performative, and the limits: “I have wanted to posit that such processes of self-actualization come into discourse as a response to ideologies that discriminate against, demean, and attempt to destroy components of subjectivity that do not conform or respond to narratives of universalization and normalization. The misidentifying subject is not a flier who escapes the atmospheric force field of ideology. Neither is she a trickster figure who can effortlessly come out on top every time. Sometimes misidentification is insufficient.”1
Imagined, repeated, performed, inherited, compelled, inscribed, worn, shrugged, deconstructed.
Iterative and disciplinary.
Laws and norms.
Power and repetition.
These are key terms to understand performativity. To which I'll add consequence and risk. I assert these terms to punctuate the connective stream that makes everything performative these days. Even theater. Just think about Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show, developed with genius performers Becca Blackwell, World Famous BOB, Hilary Clark, Katy Pyle, Regina Rocke, and Amelia Zirin-Brown (aka Lady Rizo) and choreographed by Faye Driscoll. This piece doesn't have one spoken word even as it performatively engages questions of representation and identity. Vaginas, mime, melody, shame, castration, a laughing orgy, a perfect slo-mo dirty fight, ballet, witches, and queens; all complete worlds that build up and take apart what it is to be and not to be. That they are naked the whole time matters most when, to close the show, the cast disappears to darkness and reappears clothed, adorned in their chosen signifiers.
José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 161–62. ↩
Mary Fallon, Working Hot (Melbourne: Sybylla, 1989). I first found an excerpt titled “Sextec” in Sexy Bodies: The Strange Carnalities of Feminism (London: Routledge, 1995), co-edited by Elizabeth Grosz and Elspeth Probyn. Put that feather in your cap.
José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
Le Tigre, a feminist pop punk excitable political touring act.
The films of Pauline Boudry / Renate Lorenz.
Hilton Als, The Women (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998).