Thalian Theatre, Wilmington, NC

A conference in Cambridge next month will explore the notion of performance as a dynamic means of looking at the complex interactions between works of art and audiences -  both real and imagined, past and present - in a digital age.

A performance-centred approach reminds us that an encounter with a work of art is always a complex negotiation of social identity.

Clare Foster

Practitioners in the creative arts will be in Cambridge next month to take part in an ambitious conference at CRASSH. The meeting will together researchers from across different academic disciplines to look afresh at the notion of performance, extending it to embrace the free-flowing encounters that take place between works of art and audiences.  As the digital age ushers in a new era of unprecedented cultural connectedness, the conference will explore in particular the complex conscious and unconscious dialogues that shape our responses to art, music, literature and more. 

From the creative arts world, conceptual artists Richard Wentworth and Jack Tan will focus on the public privacy and theatricality of cities, theatre director Helen Slaney and poet Henry Stead will explore the space between ancient texts and their various textual and theatrical renderings, and iconoclastic creator and curator Lee Campbell, whose latest research project investigates the subversive power of slapstick, will question concepts of 'audience'.

The day’s activities will culminate at the Cambridge Junction where the playful duo behind the Hunt and Darton Café will provide refreshments as art in advance of a showing of Paper Cinema’s Odyssey, an acute and insightful retelling of Homer's epic story through live-projected images and music, with an in-depth discussion afterwards of the new multidisciplinary medium that is 'Paper Cinema'.

The programme – which is called Beyond the authority of the ‘text’: performance as paradigm, past and present – has been devised around the theory that all works of art, whether texts or paintings, can be seen as performances rather than objects.  The academics contributing to the discussions are drawn from fields that encompass literature, languages, classics, music, the dramatic arts and anthropology.  Among others, Cambridge professors Steve Connor, Andrew Webber and Robin Kirkpatrick will be in discussion with professors Catherine Belsey (Swansea) and Daniel Leech-Wilkinson (King's College London).

With the aim of sparking debate, the event will take the form of roundtable discussions and workshops. The conference has been convened by Clare Foster, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Classics. In a previous career she was a screenwriter based in Los Angeles where she specialised in literary adaptations for the art-house divisions of the major studios.  

“In the film industry we never talked about texts but only about audiences. A film or book was spoken of not in terms of what it might 'mean', but in terms of what it might or might not 'do' to this or that audience. Primary, secondary and cross-over audiences were discussed before a word was written. This industry experience left me with a sense of the work of art as a type of address. I learned to view works in terms of the various audiences they imply: audiences which precede, as well as follow, creative acts: and which are of course always multiple, and mixed.'  says Foster.

“If we extend this idea to works from the past, we can see how the mixing of present audiences with past ones - those the work originally addressed, and all the others since then who have, for whatever reasons, kept the work in the public mind - is often what is dramatic. Can we relate to Athenian men sitting in the sun, deliberating the issues of their own society two and half thousand years ago? Can we recognise a common humanity with those who lived in Shakespeare's day? This is often the pleasure of a 'classic', which can be seen less as an object, than as a continuing space of encounter between multiple audiences, both imagined and real. As such it will always be as much about the present as the past.”

In a global digitised world, scholars and practitioners in many spheres now recognise that books, films and even performances themselves are no longer fixed objects: they can be instantly re-used and repeated in other media and modes. Conventionally separate categories such as painting, sculpture, film, theatre, music and text appear to have more which unifies them than which distinguishes them. How they perform, rather than what they are, is the question.

“Such proliferating conflation and diversity directs attention to how works address a particular set of expectations, whether those expectations are being reassured or challenged,” suggests Foster. “Who recognises what, or finds what familiar, or not, becomes more important: the assumptions being made more noticeable.  We have all read a book or seen a work of art and felt profoundly personally 'addressed' - or not addressed at all. The metaphor of 'performance' draws attention to these processes. In a theatre seat we are aware of the different reactions of those around us, of the mixed nature of our own reactions and, in the case of a communally-recognised or famous work, of the reactions of those who came before us, and as it were ‘sat in those same seats’.”

In theatre, and modern art, audiences and contexts have of course long been understood as an integral part of 'the work'. There has also been a marked  shift of focus in the last century  from author and text, to reader and context, with 'meaning' seen as much as a function of reception, as of creation. But these readers (or viewers) have often been imagined as single and simple 'selves' – as unitary stable individuals.

Foster proposes: “The notion of works of art as performances reminds us that an encounter with a work of art, or other forms of public statement, is always a complex negotiation of social identity, on a small scale as well as large. For we impersonate, or imagine ourselves as 'characters' when we respond, both consciously and unconsciously, just as artists or pundits imagine various notions of who they are addressing when they create. Both processes help us to know – in all its contradiction and multiplicity - who 'we' are.”

The one-day conference Beyond the authority of the ‘text’: performance as paradigm, past and present will take place at CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences on April 16 2013. It has been convened by Clare Foster with Dr Michael Hrebeniak and Dr Simon Ryle. For more information and registration go to


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