These pages take as their starting premise my observation – as writer – that while relatively little has been published in the first years of the 21stC that deals explicitly with questions of disciplinary mastery and expertise in performance-making, it is also the case that practitioners in the Performing Arts are registering in significant numbers for higher degrees in Music, Dance, Theatre and Performing Arts, in universities across the country. This situation seemed to me as educator, early in the 21stC, to have a degree of urgency to it. At that time, many of us had begun to speak and write in the university, at least, about ‘practice’, and ‘practitioners’, as though a shift in focus and in terminology might allow us to use older knowledge-models to engage with the rapidly changing situation in parts of the university.

In these pages I raise a number of questions, and identify a number of issues that circulate around the notion of ‘practice’, which in the present context I want to qualify as expert. The qualifier itself seems, in certain parts of the university, at least, to be contentious – although enquiry tends to reveal that what is contentious here is historically specific, perhaps discipline (or anti-discipline) specific (by which I mean that it more readily holds in certain areas of performance-making than in many others); and it is (knowledge-)politically determined. On these bases, perhaps my heading here should read the ‘knowledge-politics of expert practices in performance-making’ – or would this make my writing a hostage to fortune, to the extent that it comes from a professional writer-educator, and not an ‘expert practitioner in performance-making’? Perhaps, instead, these pages and the different undertakings they record should be headed ‘The (Written) Confessions of an Uneasy Expert Spectator’.

Confessions of an Uneasy Expert Spectator

1. In 2003, I organised a symposium focused, apparently provocatively, on Virtuosity and Performance Mastery. The symposium was better attended by colleagues/students from Dance and Music, than from Theatre – although the incomparable Richard Gough contributed a keynote address, recorded in these pages. We sought to raise a number of questions and approach a number of issues relating to what I termed ‘expert/creative meta-practice’ and its relationships with academic writing. I was proposing that we look at ‘disciplinary mastery’ and performance expertise (and excellence), asking firstly why these sorts of terms tend to have been erased from published academic discourses, in certain parts, at least, of the university; secondly, whether research, pursued with due regard to quality (as that is established and recognised in the university), might be carried out through expert practices (also recognised outside the university) – and how one might go about and record that sort of enquiry; third, in what terms expert practice and disciplinary mastery, and their ‘outcomes’, might be both ‘measured’, and argued for, in those academic contexts within which this sort of case might well need to be made.

Lurking within or around such questions were others relating specifically to judgement: I was concerned, in part, at that time, under the heading of ‘equivalence’, with the criteria applied to the assessment of traditional PhD research, and with a certain reticence, in established Research Offices, when it came to articulating the precise bases on which judgements of value as to the quality of research were traditionally made. I argued at the time that the quest for equivalence, between the evaluative models applied to traditionally-published research, and those that might be applied to expert performance-making practices as research, was hampered, to the extent that many of us examining traditional PhDs might well seem to start from unacknowledged expert intuitions as to quality, which we proceed, thereafter, to rationalise.

Key questions posed at the Symposium were as follows:

  • what is the knowledge-political status of disciplinary mastery in the university?
  • how do we distinguish, in research-worthy terms, between “creative”, “professional” and “research imperatives” in performing arts practice?
  • what should be the relationship, in the higher degree context, between disciplinary mastery and the production of writing in the “critical-analytical” tradition?
  • how should we approach the relationship between composition for performance, performance mastery and performance viewed as “interpretation”?
  • do we need to be able to write differently when a major focus of research is creative practice?

Embedded in these questions, I later observed, was my own crisis of representation: what does my use of ‘we’, three times above, represent? What might my own engagement be, as expert writer/educator, when it has increasingly seemed to me, over the past decade, that one of the problems confronting expert arts practitioners who have entered the research contexts of the university, lies in the demonstrable fact that many highly skilled writers, in that same university, use models of knowledge, ways of seeing, doing and knowing, along with approaches to the performance product, that are specific to the positions and activities, in the (performance) event, of ‘expert spectating’?

If this is indeed the case (and I have called Performance Studies taught in the university a ‘closet Spectator Studies’ that misrecognises itself as such), then one question that follows is this: to what extent can these knowledge modes and practices be usefully borrowed, by expert performance-makers? To what extent can models of intelligibility and models of interpretation that are specific to spectating, be used to represent expert making processes?

2. Other writers have pointed out that expert performance-makers, at certain times, equally adopt the positions of spectating, while making new work. My point, however, is that their spectating is different, both in time, and in its objectives: it is one element in a mode of performance-productivity. When the expert maker spectates, she tends to do so with performance production in mind, with the imperatives vital to performance-making in mind, and these are implicated in the actions that follow. This is a creative, inventive intervention, at a particular stage in the making, and these particulars colour the viewing. I am calling this spectating a “theoretical practice”, for reasons I return to below. Not only, then, is their positionality significantly different, in discipline-specific terms,but so too are these times of engagement with performance: the times of making new work are almost never available to spectating in the performance event – although some of us encourage Performance Studies students to mis-take performance effects (spectator-experienced), for performance-making causes (necessarily spectator-imagined).

3. In 2002, in the context of a Goat Island summer school, and with difference in mind, I posed related questions:

please adjust your set

What might be the implications, for the ways some of us proceed to think arts practices, of the premise that established ways of knowing condemn us to inadequate ideas? What might be the implications, for those of us involved in or with art-making practices in one or another arts-marketplace, of the premise that inadequate ideas, produced and reproduced in the university, condemn practitioners to participate in the reproduction of inadequate ways of knowing? One example of the “set” to which my title refers, is provided by the apparently irresistible, even commonsensical reproduction of the couplet “theory and practice”; another linked and equally commonsensical set is brought by his old friend “mind and body”.

The “Deleuzian challenge”, notes one particular metacommentary, “is … to think the difference between two incommensurable series”, “preserving radical difference” instead of attempting to overcome it (Ian Buchanan, Edinburgh University Press: 2000). I ask what we might substitute for the inadequate (but perfectly commonsensical) formulation: “theory and practice”, if it emerges that continuing, commonsensical use of these terms condemns all of us to inadequate ideas and ways of knowing. (Arnolfini Gallery/University of Bristol, August 2002)

4. From this moment on, I was persuaded that expert spectating, on the one hand, and expert performance-making, on the other, were two incommensurable series of actions, each having its own logics of practice; that they seemed to collide, in the performance event, without losing, in so doing, what was specific to each; but that it was also the case that Performance Studies, in the university, often attempted to persuade all of us to mis-take the one for its other. Not only to mistake the one for its other, but to do so in such a way as to retain writing, in certain approved registers, as triumphant over both. Now, trained and expert spectators – if we take the etymology of the final word into account – can only see what they can see. In the university, however, some of us equally train spectators to imagine the rest.

5. Now, if we were to change position, reviewing these observations from the position of the economies of performance-making practices, and the subject positions of practitioners, then we might also need to add that spectator-imagining is carefully planned for and largely anticipated by the performance-makers, even if it is also the case that this imagining is, in turn, one element in a complex mode of production. The two instances of imagining, once again, are un-like, or non-identical with each other: a practitioner, after all, has no need to present/represent on stage something (or some things) that spectators can be encouraged, in turn, to produce. What this means is that the economy of performance-making is not only un-like the economies of spectating, but that the economy of performance-making is internally complex, internally differentiated, and largely unavailable to and through spectating: when J-F.Lyotard asked, for example, of art-making, “What is the work that finishes the work? (1988), he was hinting, economically, at this sort of practitioner-centred complexity over time – a complexity often overlooked by spectating and spectator-centric writing, which tends to (have to) take ‘the work’ as its starting-point.

6. The term ‘performative’ comes into play here, although my use of it tends to differ from that preferred by the Performance Studies writer, Peggy Phelan. I am using it to signal a performance-making strategy, one of whose primary objectives is to trigger a particular sort of action in a spectator, where that action, and its outcome, is fundamental to the workings of the event. The performative (which works) engages a spectator in an event-constructive activity. The performative economy of making, in these terms, is cunningly calculated, and it gives the lie to certain aspects of theories of representation: when it works effectively, it operates so as to trigger the development of vital complexities, in a spectator. The actor’s performance is performative, as soon as its actions, and the framing allowed by mise en scene, together cause spectators to imagine and develop fictional character (largely, it might be added, in spectators’ own terms).

7. Performative triggering, fundamental to the ways ‘the work’ works, is provided by what is widely identified as ‘narrative dance’, in the performance-making of choreographer Kim Brandstrup (cf Brandstrup tends to cast, and to foreground, performers who can produce what might appear to be ‘traces of a [fictional] life lived’, in all of its drama. That casting tends to be both expert and intuitive (or to involve, as I have come to identify them, ‘expert-intuitive operations’). The ‘traces of a life lived’ – drawn on so economically by Brandstrup’s choreographic work – operate according to the logic of hypotyposis. Hypotyposis has a long history: in his Critique of Judgement, first published in 1790, Kant observed that “All hypotyposis … consists in making [a concept] sensible, and is either schematic or symbolic” (1997, trans. W.S.Pluhar, 226, his emphasis)). I examined some of the implications of this observation in the presentation, included in these pages, entitled “… just intuitive … ” (AHRC Research Centre, SOAS, 2005), and in my entry in the Performance Research edition entitled A Lexicon, Volume 11, No. 3, Taylor & Francis Ltd, September 2006. See also my article “The Vanishing, or Little Erasures Without Significance?“, in Performance Research, Volume 11, No 2, Indexes, Taylor & Francis Ltd, June 2006.

8. My sense that expert-intuitive operations play a significant and indeed exemplary role in (expert or professional) performance-making was confirmed when I was able to observe the expert performance-making of two artists, choreographers Rosemary Butcher and Kim Brandstrup. I observed that in both instances, the expert-intuitive operations produced new work to criteria that applied outside of the university, but only to the extent that those expert-intuitive operations were able to take their place in terms of the logics of production that apply to the discipline, to the performance genres concerned, and to the qualitative transformation each artist seeks to effect in her or his name. The logics of performance production meet and modulate what is made available by the expert-intuitive operations, in the times of performance-making. However – and this is vital to my argument in these pages – this meeting and modulation, in the times of making, is both constitutive, and it has an interesting consequence – for spectating – which is that performance material triggered through expert-intuitive operations becomes invisible as intuitive processing, as soon as the intuitive productivity is modulated by the production logics and production values that apply to genre, to discipline, and to the artistic signature concerned.

9. Plainly, then, it seems to me, if as spectators we can only see what we can see, but develop it as required where that triggering is effective, what cannot but escape sight, in the times of spectating, are precisely those operations of expert intuition that were constitutive to the times and the economy of making. As far as practitioner-specific modes of knowledge and models of intelligibility are concerned, then, these expert-intuitive operations, modulated by the logics of (professional) production that apply, are exemplary; they are discipline-specific, and in Brian Massumi’s terms (2002) they are qualitatively transformed by, and extend, the artist’s signature. As such, they are entirely-specific to expert practitioner undertakings, in terms both of positioning and of the times of making; they are incommensurable with, and are unavailable as such, to expert spectating.

10. It is absolutely plain to me, at least, that in the terms I have set out above, these operations and activities specific to expert performance-making, and to the discipline-specific work of expert practitioners, should equally be identified as complex and internally differentiated theoretical practices. (I do understand that some who identify ‘theory’ in terms of complex writing in a limited range of registers might have difficulty with this observation. Perhaps the difficulty can be alleviated once I identify ‘writing in academic registers’ as a further, historically dominant, theoretical practice.)

11. I wonder, on these sorts of bases, how expert spectators might ordinarily have access to the operations specific to the times and places of performance-making, where that making tends, in addition, to be driven by a production deadline, to a range of external criteria, and in terms specific to the artist’s expanded signature? Each of these aspects renders the undertaking fragile, the practitioners more or less vulnerable. The philosopher Peter Osborne (2000) has observed, in addition, that the work of the artist is existential – he or she ‘has to’ make new work; that work is likely to be characterised by the quest for that ‘qualitative transformation’, which means, amongst other things, that one significant part of the performance decision-making cannot be figured in advance of its emergence. It will surprise its maker/s, and to the extent that it is unknowable in advance, even/especially by its maker/s, it tends to be constitutively speculative, as well as expert.

12. The observations I have set out above tend to suggest, in turn, that the expert-practitioner-researcher’s undertakings are likely to involve what I have called a “disciplined unknowing” – an apparently curious and fragile knowledge-state, except perhaps to the extent that research itself, as K.Knorr Cetina has suggested (2001), is always characterised by a quasi-unknowing. This quasi-unknowing operates effectively as a “model of intelligibility”, or way of knowing and understanding, that the expert practitioner recognises. It renders the researcher’s investment relatively fragile, and, in Knorr Cetina’s own terms, it is thus ‘affectively-undergirded’.

13. As I have hinted above, the expert-practitioner, as far as the wider arts communities are concerned, engages professionally in what I have called ‘signature practices‘ – whether the signature is that of Robert Lepage, Rosemary Butcher, Tim Etchells, Pina Bausch, The Wooster Group, Ariane Mnouchkine, or Simon McBurney. Signature practices are ‘marked’, and recognisable as such (they become what Bourdieu (1977, 1984) calls “symbolic capital”, whose significance is realised through the (possible) act of exchange). Indeed ‘signature’ signals not simply a recognised marking, impressed ‘in the work’; it signals not simply intellectual property ownership; but what is recognised as signature involves a relational mark, established between ‘the work’, its maker/s, and its validation by those whose judgements of taste and value are vital to the disciplines concerned. Signature practices, in other words, are singular or self-defining; but at the same time an aspect of them recurs, across a body of work, and between that work and its contextualising framework/s; and they are repeatedly modulated within given disciplinary parameters. “Wooster”, or “Mnouchkine”, as signature, triggers in me an anticipation – that what I am about to see will be im-pressed with a mark that calls back, through the new, to what I have retained from a past engagement with signature practice.

14. In the cluster of papers and short presentations included (or referenced) on this site, I attempt repeatedly to assert the importance, in the currently prevailing ‘knowledge-political’ set-up, of our collective identification of the modes of knowledge and models of intelligibility that are specific not only to expert performance-making, but to spectating itself and its secondary production. The science involved, for practitioner-researchers, as Knorr Cetina’s enquiry into research in general would suggest, can be identified in terms of expert-practitioner and performance epistemics: here, the expert-practitioner, the making, the operations of expert intuition and their modulation in terms of both signature and of the logics of production specific to the discipline/s involved/invoked, can be identified as partial “epistemic objects”, which are those that “bind […] experts to knowledge things in creative and constructive practice[s]” (182). What Knorr Cetina understands by a “knowledge-thing” is revealed in her account of “epistemic cultures”, which are

amalgams of arrangements and mechanisms – bonded through affinity, necessity and historical coincidence – which, in a given field, make up how we know what we know.

“Epistemic cultures”, she adds, “create and warrant knowledge”, and the analysis she proposes is one that explores “the meaning of the empirical, the enactments of object relations, [and] the construction and fashioning of social arrangements” within a disciplinary field (Knorr Cetina, 1999).

15. The long-term undertaking, recorded in part in these pages, has been described as dogged, for which I make no apology. There is something fundamental at stake here, that needs to be acknowledged with some urgency, in both political and ethical terms;and it needs to be taken into account, not least by those of us who are expert-spectator/writers, employed within the university, where we determine, in part, what ‘should be’ included on the research strategies seminar programmes to which many expert practitioners have recently committed themselves.

Susan Melrose

July 2007.