Performing Death (or not)


Artist Janine Antoni in Stephen Petronio's "Like Lazarus Did." Can her performance be resurrected through this blog post? Did it ever really die?

Artist Janine Antoni in Stephen Petronio’s “Like Lazarus Did.” Can her performance be resurrected through this blog post? Will it be a zombie? Did it ever really die?

This summer I’ve gotten the opportunity to begin research for my thesis– in other words, I’ve surrounded myself with books, occasionally digging my way out of the sea of pages to watch a performance only to return again. One large body of scholarship that forms a background to my research is the debate surrounding the role of death in the archive of performances. Although this is certainly an oversimplification, the work in this area can be generally lumped into two categories:

The Mortality of Performances

Historically, many scholars have emphasized the ephemerality of performance. In their work can be found the idea that performance is always wrapped up in death, and that archives of performances are in a sense mortuary relics. For instance, Peggy Phelan writes that performance “offer[s] significant mediations of disappearance, trauma, and death… performance enacts the fragile and ephemeral nature of each moment and frames its passing.” André Lepecki, too, describes how in dance performances “the body constantly (re)presents itself as always being at the verge of self-dissipation (this persistence of re/presentation being so many rehearsals for absence, for death).”

Performativity of the Archive/Continued Liveliness of Performance

Other scholars have decided to turn their attention to the ways in which performances continue to live on beyond the moment of their first enactment. Rebecca Schneider strongly criticizes the notion that performances disappear, claiming that we only see performance as ephemeral because it resists our traditional notion of the archive. An archive which she says maintains the ocular hegemony and values bone (documents like paper that easily remain over time) over flesh (things that easily deteriorate; since flesh is coded as feminine she reads this traditional view of what can be archived as patriarchal). Rather than seeing performance as dying and disappearing, she says “performance becomes itself through messy and eruptive reappearance, challenging, via the performative trace, any neat antimony between appearance and disappearance, or presence and absence.” Philip Auslander takes this idea even further, positing that “the space of the document… thus becomes the only space in which the performance occurs.” These authors see the archive itself (and interactions with it) as performative, and resist the automatic linking of performance and death.

(A more straightforward example of the ways in which performances are not as ephemeral as they seem: dancers who have performed a piece of choreography will maintain a trace of those steps in their muscle memory, capable of performing them (if differently) again.)


This debate defies a neat conclusion, and brings up a number of questions I am interested in pursuing further. For instance, those who maintain that performance lives on often call for us to turn our attention from the archive of paper and video to a “different kind of memory,” often a more corporeal one. This idea is echoed in dance scholarship that investigates the way in which dancers and their audiences engage in a “different” type of knowledge, and in the works of artists such as Ann Hamilton who are concerned with learning through material, through touch. What does it mean to turn towards different types of knowledge or memory? Are they always located in the body? Does this turn necessitate leaving behind more traditional forms of knowledge?


Peggy Phelan, “Haunted Stages: Performance and the Photographic Effect,” in Haunted: Contemporary Photography, Video, Performance (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2010), 51.

André Lepecki, “Presence and Body in Dance and Theory,” in Of the Presence of the Body (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), 6.

Rebecca Schneider, “Performance Remains,” Performance Research, 6:2 (201), 103.

Philip Auslander, “The Performativity of Performance Documentation,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 28:3 (September 2006), 2.