Performing the Archive – Lecture Series

Drawing on the philosopher, Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever, performance theorist, Rebecca Schneider remarks: ‘The archive is built on ‘house arrest’ – the solidification of value in ontology as retroactively secured in document, object, record’ (104); at the same time, she observes, ‘we have become increasingly comfortable in saying that the archiveable object […] becomes itself through disappearance – as it becomes the trace of that which remains when performance (the artist’s action) disappears’ (104). Between the weightiness of the thingly remnant and the weightlessness of the trace that marks not a presence but the absence of an event, the archive presents itself as both the space of disappearance and the constitutive site in which the ‘past’ appears.

For Diana Taylor, archive ‘exists as documents, maps, literary texts, letters, archaeological remains, bones, videos, films, CDs, all those items supposedly resistant to change’ (19). But the archive is also the locus of curated memory: not only is the archive comprised of various objects and documents, then, but it is also something that has been collected, curated, ordered, and administered, housed in buildings, or – increasingly ‘virtually’ – on databases. As such, the archive is always ‘mediated’ by criteria of selection, discursive rules of formation, curatorial choices regarding what is relevant and what is disposable, technological innovation, and imperatives of government. For this reason, Taylor writes, ‘we might conclude that the archive, from the beginning, sustains power’ (19). The historical implications of this are made clear by Edward Said, for whom the ‘great cultural archive’ is where colonial powers made their ‘intellectual and aesthetic investments in overseas dominions’ (Culture and Imperialism, xxi).

In this lecture series, we will explore the conceptual, cultural and political problem of archivisation – placing a specific focus on the problem of how performance – or what Taylor describes as the ‘repertoire’ – constitutes a kind of counter-practice to archivisation, based as it is on embodied memory – in a word, on ‘all those acts usually thought of as ephemeral, nonreproducible knowledge’ (20). Consequently, the lecture series will explore what an archive is through: (1) exploring the limits of archive – not simply what it comprises but what it also elides, neglects, suppresses even; and (2) practices of decolonising the archive – how different knowledges, histories, and practices can challenge the authority of the ‘canon’, thereby opening up new possibilities for study, new epistemologies of how past knowledge is constructed, and ‘repertoire’ (particularly within aesthetic practices) as a site of resistance to those official narratives authorized by ‘the archive’.

Please register for the lectures here (google forms) – You will be able to select the lectures that you would like to attend as there is no minimum attendance limit.

Please ensure that you register at least 24 hours before any session that you plan to attend to ensure that you are sent the Zoom details for the session. 

Sessions (All are via Zoom)

In the ‘Shelter’ of the Archive? Thinking critically about archival research methodologies

Thursday 6th May (2.00-3.30pm) – Amanda Stuart Fisher (Royal Central School of Speech and Drama)

Borrowing its title from Derrida’s essay Archive Fever (1995), this talk examines the complex positioning of the archive in research methodology where it emerges as a site of authority and fact but is also constituted by acts of representation and memory. Through an examination of some examples of contested archival research, we will examine what an archive is, how it confers authority on certain forms of knowledge and how archival research must be critically interrogated, or ‘de-colonised’ in light of histories and perspectives that are erased or mis-authored by dominant historiographical processes.

Black Plays Archive: Performing the Archive

Thursday 13th May (2.00-3.30pm) – Natasha Bonnelame (Black Plays Archive)

The Black Plays Archive launched in 2013 and serves as a catalogue of the first African, Caribbean and Black British plays to be produced in the UK. It charts the development of black British theatre beginning in the late 1950s, with productions staged at the Royal Court by Errol John, Barry Reckord and Wole Soyinka. These early productions paved the way for the emergence of a number of black writers and theatre companies in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Talawa Theatre, the Black Theatre Co-operative (now NitroBEAT) and Temba. 

Notions of black Britishness emerge in the 1970s and early 80s, and black playwrights were amongst the artists attempting to articulate what this meant within the wider British cultural context. For the past 6 years I have explored the Black Plays Archive and have been particularly interested in the relationship between black Britishness, agency and performance. This talk will explore this research and my work with National Theatre’s Black Plays Archive.

Living The Archive: Unsettling the Heritage, (Re)Defining the Document 

Thursday 20th May (2.00-3.30pm) – Connie Bell and Etienne Joseph (Decolonising the Archive)

Taking two seminal Stuart Hall papers, ‘Unsettling the Heritage’ and ‘Constituting an Archive’ as a point of departure, this session explores the historic basis for, and the contemporary relevance of, Hall’s focus on the heritage collection as a site of disruption, decolonisation and the creation of alternative narratives. What distance has been travelled since Hall’s theoretical interventions? How can they be translated into practice and what conceptual frameworks are available to us with which to continue the journey? 

Bringing Forth The ‘Whole Human Being’: Living Memory As Decolonial Praxis

Thursday 3rd June (2.00-3.30pm) – Connie Bell and Etienne Joseph (Decolonising the Archive)

In his incendiary conclusion to ‘Wretched of the Earth’, Frantz Fanon saddles formerly colonised peoples with the responsibility of ‘bringing forth the whole human being, whom Europe has been incapable of bringing to triumphant birth’. This broad statement can be interpreted to carry very specific implications when met at a granular disciplinary level. Drawing on pioneering work with archives and performance and incorporating liberatory work on the theory and praxis of decolonisation, this session explores the possible roles of archives, of performance, and the space in which these constructs intersect, in the collaborative evolution of Fanon’s ‘whole human being’. 

Decolonizing Human Exhibits: dance, re-enactment and historical fiction 

Thursday 17th June (2.00-3.30pm) – Prarthana Purkayastha (Royal Holloway)

Brief description of talk: 

This performance lecture focuses on decolonizing exhibition practices and colonial archives. It offers a brief survey of literature on nineteenth-century colonial exhibitions and world’s fairs as a cultural practice and the complicity of academic disciplines such as anthropology and ethnology in promoting violent forms of pedagogy. Next, the talk examines the failed Liberty’s 1885 exhibition in London, specifically analyzing the nautch dancers from India whose moving bodies both engaged and disrupted the scopophilia framing such live human exhibits. It pays particular attention to the dissenting voices of subaltern and marginalised dancers whose corporeal acts resisted the violence of British Empire. In the final section, the talk examines how re-imagining the Liberty’s nautch experiences by embodying archival slippages might be a usefully anarchic way of exhuming the memories of those dancers forgotten by both British and Indian nationalist history. This talk delineates the structural limitations of reenactments, a current trend in contemporary Euro-American dance, and argues that historical fiction as a corporeal methodology might be a viable decolonizing strategy for dance studies. 

Bio: Dr. Prarthana Purkayastha is Senior Lecturer in Dance at Royal Holloway University of London. Her monograph Indian Modern Dance, Feminism and Transnationalism was published in the Palgrave Macmillan New World Choreographies series in 2014 and subsequently won the 2015 de la Torre Bueno Prize from the Society of Dance History Scholars and the 2015 Outstanding Publication Award from the Congress on Research in Dance. Her dance research, which examines the intersections of race, gender and nationhood, has appeared in Dance Research JournalPerformance ResearchAsian Theatre JournalCLIO: Femmes, Genre et Histoire and South Asia Research among others. Prarthana has recently conclude a British Academy/Leverhulme funded book project ‘Decolonising the Body: Dance and Visual Arts in Modern India’. 

Epistemology of the Locker Room: Queer Lacunae and the Physical Culture Archive

Thursday 24th June (2.00-3.30pm) – Broderick D.V. Chow (Royal Central School of Speech and Drama)

The physical culture movement began in Europe and America the nineteenth century and was a precursor to today’s forms of fitness and exercise. It also encompassed a mediascape that included popular theatre, magazines, collectible photos, and advertisements. According to many traditional historical accounts, this scene of mainly male-identified embodied practice is ‘closeted’. The practice of muscle building and bodily cultivation constructs a heteronormative and hegemonic masculine ideal while at the same time serving as a hidden or secret site for gay desire.

I argue that the concept of the closet (encompassing notions of hiding and outing) obscures the ways in which physical culture has challenged and queered rigid binaries of gender and sexuality from its origin. Through this trope, the locker room is re-framed as a public site of male homosociality and a closeted site of male homosexuality. In contrast, this lecture takes the ‘epistemology of the locker room’ – a site of semi-public exposure, relationality, competition, and shame – as an approach to the twentieth century archive of physical culture, a problematic set of documents in which physical culturists perform a heightened, theatrical self-presentation. How might such a conceptual shift to ‘partial exposure’ enable us to re-read the lacunae in the archive that have often been considered ‘secretly’ queer? ‘Outing’ archives, here, is an action that marks the way in which the embodied practice of physical culture was not a secret but openly queer history, in which exceptional and extraordinary performing bodies invented new modes of sociality.

Broderick Chow is Reader in Theatre, Performance and Sport and Deputy Dean (Interim) of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London. He is co-editor of Performance and Professional Wrestling (Routledge, 2016) and the forthcoming Sports Plays (expected August 2021). His forthcoming book Dynamic Tensions explores the origins of men’s fitness practices in UK/US popular theatre. Broderick is a competitive weightlifter and British Weight Lifting qualified coach.

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