Illocution, 2013

Is Illocution Necessary in Communicative Action Social Practice Art? © 2013 by Lili Bernard

In his text, Littoralist Art Practice and Communicative Action, Bruce Barber references Habermas’ theory of communicative action and sites Bindungseffekt, with regard to the persuasive power of illocution in communicative action.

Barber mentions various social practice art projects, where dialogue (or illocution) is central to the communicative action of the project. He spends no time, in his text, exploring social practices where illocution is not involved. One might ask if illocution is a necessary component in communicative action. Must dialogue occur, before, during or after a social practice art project in order for the work to be effective?

In 2010, at the Museum of Modern Art, Marina Abramovic performed “The Artist is Present.” The work involved communicative action in the form of silent participation, on both the part of the artist and the audience whom she invited to partake in the experience. Public participants, one by one, sat across a table from Abramovic. The two simply gazed silently into each others eyes, without physical contact. It appeared that much was communicated through eyes and body gestures in the total absence of words and touch. One participant, however, broke the thematic void of dialogue and touch. He was Abramovic’s lover, Ulay, from whom she had “permanently” parted, more than two decades prior, in a dramatic and metaphoric performative gesture on top of the Great Wall of China.

Abramovic, not expecting the appearance of her former lover as a participant (at her 2010 MoMA performance), began to weep. She then broke her code of stagnancy in seated posture, and reached across the table to lock hands with her ex-lover who then uttered words of “I love you” to her. Was the impromptu insertion of words and touch, in this ritualistically silent and tactile-free performance, more effectively communicative than the stylistic wordlessness and physical separation? Were these unplanned actions necessary in bringing meaning or understanding to this experiential process?

I ask that of myself, with regard to a public engagement performance piece I have been developing, entitled, “Donning and Dismissal of the Conquerors Coiffure.” The work involves actions that one would see in a Black hair salon, coupled with ritualistic practices associated with Afro-Cuban religion and folklore. The affects of colonialism upon the creolized are explored through a tactile, visual and audio experience.

The performance begins with volunteer audience members further straightening, via curling irons, hot combs and flat irons, the already heat-straightened hair of Black women whose hair has not been chemically processed. It ends with the audience members washing and drying the subjects’ hair to reveal their natural afros.

I performed the piece as a solo experimental project at Avenue 50 Studio in Los Angeles, in July of 2013. The audience was rapt in conversation with me, during the performance, over the historical, spiritual and social impact of the work. It inadvertently became a dialogical performance. One audience member said that the talking was distracting and interfered with her absorption of the experience. She suggested that the dialogue be restricted to perhaps a reflective discussion at the end. I will be performing the piece again as a solo at the Torrance Art Museum Mas Attack exhibition, in October 2013. I will try it this time with no dialogue during the ritual performance.