Book cover: Under Construction
Open Access Edited Book

Under Construction

Performing Critical Identity

Published: January 2021
Pages: 228
ISBN 978-3-03897-499-4 (hardback); ISBN 978-3-03897-500-7 (PDF)
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While currently identitarian ideologies and essentialist notions of identity that tend to simplify and reduce life experience to simple factors are globally regaining massive attention, it becomes inevitable to recollect the thorough discussions of identity concepts of the past three decades. It also calls for an ever keener awareness of and capacity to deal with the complexity and diversity of the world we live in. Artists play a major role in the potential reflection and transformation of perceptions and conceptions of the world – musicians, dancers, choreographers, spoken word artists, performance artists, actors, also fine art, installation, media artists or photographers alike. “Performing critical identity” points to performative practices of artists that bring to the fore a critical (self-)awareness and (self-)positioning concerning identification and belonging. Social identities such as gender, sexuality, race, class, dis/ability, age or non/religiosity are closely linked to the historical, social, regional and political dimensions of their formation. From this perspective, identities are hardly one-dimensional but complex and intersectional, and are rather to be thought of as a process of identification and belonging than as a consistent essence.

As different, maybe contradictory among themselves, as they are, the performative works of artists such as Lerato Shadi, Liad Hussein Kantorowicz, Nora Chipaumire, Shu Lea Cheang, Zanele Muholi, Ohno Kazuo, Anohni Hegarty, Neo Hülcker, “We’re Muslim. Don’t Panic” or of theatre collectives such as RambaZamba and Thikwa Theater in Berlin or Theater Hora in Zurich, to name but a very small quite random selection of artists, share a critical approach towards hegemonic norms or stereotyping of identities and their representations, and empower diversity.

This edition puts a specific focus on the performativity of the aesthetic practices, and wants to explore different artistic approaches, strategies, tactics and perspectives of artists when they address identity issues, when they target power relations and structures of oppression and inequality, when they empower concepts of diversity. This Call for Papers invites academic as well as artistic contributions that delve into case studies of artists performing critical identity or into more general theoretical reflections on the subject. Contributions can relate to, but are not limited to following topics: - intersectionality - subversion - (self-)empowerment - resistance - subalternity - exploitation - manipulation - (anti-)feminism - appropriation - cultural globalisation - transculturality - hybrid identities - collectives - body - stage - audience - de-/construction of the difference of aesthetic genres and of high/popular culture - capitalism - colonialism - (re-)production of exclusion

Dr. Marie-Anne Kohl


Performative Practices; Critical Identity; Diversity; Intersectionality; Performativity of aesthetics


  • I Am Black Now: A Phenomenologically Grounded Autoethnography of Becoming Black in Berlin
    This essay is an autoethnography of becoming Black. It engages my coming to terms with the fact that I have been cornered, as it were, and forced to recognise myself as a being who is othered in a racial classification that was not consciously part of my self-identification before I came to study in Berlin. While exploring the phenomenology of Blackness in spaces where I find myself othered, I also draw a comparative outlook from domestic intercultural power relations in my country of origin, Ethiopia, where the ethnic group I belong to, the Amharas, do the othering. I argue, in my sense-making and ethnographic journey, that the ambiguity and intricacy of Blackness has granted me a redemptive stability in navigating the world and in demystifying the logic of my oppression as a newly profiled black person in Berlin and the logic of my cultural positioning as an oppressor in Ethiopia. The essay, as such, is an invitation for a reflection on the confluence of the two positions.
  • Subverting Identity: Cesare Viel’s Performative Works
    “Enough with us, you, them/Enough with me, you, her/Enough with him.” The identity issue is one of the major topics in the performative works of the renowned Italian artist Cesare Viel (1964), as it emerges from the above quoted incipit of the script of his first performance, I Folletti irritati, held during the Art Fair in Bologna, on 28 January 1996. The identity questioned by Viel in his works is neither a monad nor the subject of a sort of histrionic autobiographical narration. As a part of the self that reveals itself during the performative action, it is a blurry entity constantly modified by the discrete and uncertain crossing of presences, spaces, and times, which are in turn liable to change and to be reinterpreted. This concept of a constantly subverted identity is explored through the metaphoric representation (Infinita ricomposizione, 2015), the lecture-performances devoted to his favorite writers (Cesare Pavese—Ritratto di un amico, 2000), the re-enactment of events of his youth (Lost in meditation, 1999), the camouflage (To the Lighthouse. Cesare Viel as Virginia Woolf, 2004, 2005, 2017), in the latter case following a line that, from Marcel Duchamp’s “Rose Sélavy”, crosses 20th century art, culminating in the disguised self-portraits by Andy Warhol and Urs Lüthi. This contribution aims to highlight the dialogue that Cesare Viel consciously engages with influential theoreticians of performative and relational identity such as Judith Butler, Adriana Cavarero, Gilles Deleuze, to name just a few of them, which the artist subtly recalls when he states: “What’s identity but a ‘di erence’, a continuous deviation from what we think we are?”
  • “Let’s Listen with Our Eyes ...” The Deconstruction of Deafness in Christine Sun Kim’s Sound Art
    The academic discipline of Disability Studies investigates the cultural discourses and meanings around disability. Therefore, disability was introduced as a social category based on bodily variations but also as an identity issue. Since 2000, the so called ‘armative model of disability’ has started to gain momentum by drawing upon the spirit of the Disability Arts Movement and Disability Pride. It suggests that impairments are core parts of a person’s being and of their experience. This model challenges the underlying assumption that impairments are personal tragedies. It o ers “essentially a non-tragic view of disability and impairment which encompasses positive social identities, both individual and collective, for disabled people grounded in the benefits of lifestyle and life experience of being impaired and disabled” (Swain and French 2000, p. 569). Such a perspective on disability is of course also represented in many contemporary artistic disciplines. Inmyarticle I will focus on selected works by the New York- and Berlin-based Sound Artist Christine Sun Kim. Using her own sonic experience, which is influenced by her deafness, Kim provokes the audience to question a one-dimensional mode of (auditory) perception by directing the attention on the visual, haptic, or conceptional perception of sound. Thus, Kim reveals deafness as a culturally defined impairment/disability: through her artistic practice Kim shifts her identity from non-hearing to di erently hearing, not as a rejection of her deafness, but as an expression of her unique relationship to sound. Therefore, she deconstructs disability by exposing deafness as a positive identity category, which triggers and causes certain abilities.
  • Makhubu, Seriti Se, Basupa Tsela—Where We’re at According to Lerato Shadi
    The focus of this text is on three installations/performances by the South African artist Lerato Shadi: Makhubu, Seriti Se (both since 2014) and Basupa Tsela (2017/2018). The works dialogue with a remark made in a public interview in 2016, where Shadi postulated self-positioning in two diametrically opposed ways: to express one’s self-perception as “I am because you are” (which is situated within the philosophical traditions that are particular to South Africa), and the seemingly incompatible Cartesian “Je pense donc je suis”. While the initial context for this set of ideas stems from the writings of Yvette Abrahams, Pumla Dineo Gqola, Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon, Shadi’s remark is also connected with the student protests, which, since 2015, have claimed the recognition of situated subjectivities while aiming towards a decolonised South Africa. Shadi’s work operates within processes of political transition, of institutional and structural erasures. The artist asserts a position by means of dividual subjectivation, stating her subjectivity and agency in the beginning of the twenty-first century. According to Shadi, this position is claimed by calling out to those who have shown her the way.
  • “Transgressing” Wisdom and Elderhood in Times of War? The Shifting Identity of the Elderly Queen in the Performance
    of Women of Owu
    Old age is a relatively new area of critical inquiry in African literary and, particularly, theatre studies. This paper aims to explore in what ways an elderly Queen, Erelu Afin, in a 2016 University of Ibadan production of Femi Osofisan’s Women of Owu is a subject of cultural and ideological debates that disrupt, supposedly, normative understandings of old age, enabling one to reflect on the assumptions embedded in gender discourse. Wisdom and experience are often interlaced with life course and, ultimately, with elderhood in such ways that a presumable absence of these factors opens up the role and status of an elderly person to interrogation. The paper engages Stuart Hall’s understanding of identity in order to reflect on the shifting potential of one’s identity when it comes to the elderly Queen in particular and gender in general. Coupled with visual elements, an exploration of speech enunciations, situations of interlocution and kinesic factors, as they are performed in collation with other characters in the performance, will allow me to explore the dynamism of gender identity as it correlates with old age in a politically turbulent environment.
  • Voicing Challenge: Trans* Singers and the Performance of Vocal Gender
    This paper investigates the impact of trans* singers on the discursive framework of the gendered systematizations in classical singing, focusing on the opera industry and its casting and voice classifications. Whereas research on voice and gender has been a part of New Musicology for the past two and a half decades, inquiries into, e.g., cross-casting have largely happened against a backdrop of binary gender norms and have not prominently considered trans* voices and trans* identities. This paper investigates the current presentation of trans* voices within opera through press coverage, casting practices, and self-statements and engages with materials on three singers as a qualitative sample. Narrative patterns are singled out and applied to questions of gender in opera, thinking of trans* singers as a vital part of the equation and coming to the result that, while opera has always had spaces that move beyond cisgender norms, opera singing is still strongly guarded by binary gender conventions. A stronger presence of trans* voices throws these conventions into stark light and allows challenging ideas of normative gender performativity in opera and beyond, though it also raises ethical concerns regarding the instrumentalization of marginalized identities in theoretical discourse.
  • Queer Abstraction: Visual Strategies to See New Queer Futures
    Uganda’s anti-homosexuality laws are infamous. In 2014 and the years preceding it there was a marked intensification in unsatisfactory legal structures, and growing social debate surrounding how queer people can live their lives. When the queer community is under increasing pressure to be silent, what is the contribution of visual culture to the hearing of queer voices? There is currently a heightened and intense aesthetic conversation emerging in Kampala. The quantity of visual culture being produced—both celebrating and condemning queerness—is increasing. This production is being driven by a myriad of sources: artists; media and press houses; religious figures; governments; schools; universities; and medical institutions. This production of culture lies alongside both an intensification and fluctuation in homophobic laws—and social stigmas—regarding queer lives in Uganda. Artists and audiences are dialoguing about queer aesthetics and making art rigorously in response to this social and legal situation. With one artwork, produced in 2014, as a focus, this essay explores abstraction as a visual tactic to communicate through contexts of violence and homophobia. Despite media prominence and academic attention on Uganda’s homosexual politics (Sadgrove 2012; Rao 2015; Tamale 2011), the conflict has never been analyzed through a visual lens. In order to apply new insights to this contemporary dilemma, this essay draws from and contributes to the interdisciplinary field of queer visual culture, a discipline that applies queer theoretical scrutiny to readings of contemporary visual culture and the understanding of social change (Sanders 2007). What can we learn from the visual representations of queerness that are being presented to us; if we squint hard enough, are we able to visualize possibilities for new queer futures?
  • “A Motherfucker is a Werewolf”: Gang Identity and Avant-Garde Rebellion in Up Against the Wall Motherfucker and
    the International Werewolf Conspiracy (1968–1970)
    In late 1968, a collective from the Lower East Side of New York City started to distribute self-published pamphlets and magazines that outlined the operations of what Alan W. Moore has called an “art gang”. Based upon a redefinition of identity to serve a radical anti-capitalist purpose, the avant-garde group Up Against theWall Motherfucker (UAWMF) and one of its splinter successors, the International Werewolf Conspiracy (IWWC), articulated an intuitive discourse about how to alter the existing conditions of the world. Against the nationalist notions of what it meant to be ‘American’, they mobilized a collage of images that included Native Americans, hippie aesthetics, and futurist-inspired militancy. Along with the development of the organizational concept of “anity group”, UAWMF attempted to redefine the American identity as an individual and collective category, its hybrid cut-up resulting, at first, in the ‘motherfucker’ as an honor-bound member of a gang and, finally, as a monster represented by the figure of the werewolf. At first, the ‘motherfucker’ attempted to enact an open confrontation with the nation state, tying identity to a certain territory and a certain people, but after police crackdowns on gang activity led to the dissolution ofUAWMF, some of its ex-members reformulated the confrontation in conspiratorial terms. The IWWC described its members as revolutionaries in disguise, coming to involve the body in the transformation of an identity whose key elements would be fundamentally opposed to those given by society. This essay will focus on the critiques implied in redefining the identity of an “American” within the framework of avant-garde rejection of society at large, tracing the di erent implications and limitations of creating a new identity wholly opposed to capitalism.
  • Shifting Identities of Feminism to Challenge Classical Music Canon Practices: A Beginners Guide to Guerrilla Gender Musicology
    Gender studies in musicology, a development closely linked to the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s, have actively worked to challenge the near-invisibility of women within classical music historiography, education and repertoire. Though significant advances have been made, canon practices today—as represented by mainstream repertoire, publication and educational norms—remain largely static. This paper reflects briefly on the origins and state of canon practices in terms of their pervasive and problematic gender bias. It then discusses approaches employed by gender studies in musicology since their establishment in the 1980s and 1990s. It examines case studies involving gender interests with respect to persuasion and change—in terms of both feminist aims (ratification of the equal rights amendment and Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and canon concerns (classical music collections and poetry anthologies), juxtaposing more subtle and more overt approaches, and explores the issue of backlash. Findings from research in behavioral psychology are presented, particularly, studies on persuasion focused on relationships between exposure, liking and resistance in regard to new stimuli. Based on these findings, in combination with evidence from the case studies, an alternative approach for rehabilitating canon practices with regard to gender is proposed. This approach, referred to as Guerrilla Gender Musicology, suggests more subtle, subversive, bottom-up methodologies and may be required to enhance and reframe current e orts in order to e ectively reshape embedded canon practices with regard to gender bias in the long term.
  • Curatorial Account
    Precarious Art: How an Intersectional Approach to Exhibiting Led to Multi-Dimensional Performances of Identity
    Precarious Art was a three-part exhibition and event series that took place between 2015 and 2018 in Berlin, London and Bayreuth. The first installment, Precarious Art: Protest and Resistance, took place at alpha nova & galerie futura (Berlin) in 2015. It included an exhibition, film and spoken-word evenings as well as a two-day symposium. The subjects of racism and sexism within the Berlin art establishment as experienced by Blackwomenartists andwomenartists of color were addressed. Participants included artists, academics and activists, who identified and discussed discriminatory structures and representation practices. The goal was to flesh out courses of action toward breaking open oppressive mechanisms as well as to build networks and alliances in order to initiate a sustainable collaborative process. The second, Precarious Art: Artificial Boundaries, took place at alpha nova & galerie futura as well as 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning (London) in 2017. The exhibition and interactive workshops confronted the possibilities, realities and strategies toward realizing long-term change in the struggle of daily and structural racist and sexist conditions in general, as well as within the art establishments of Berlin and London. The final installment, Precarious Art: From Reflections to Mandate, took place at the Iwalewahaus (Bayreuth) in 2018. With art and video installations as well as a panel discussion, the artists and curators reflected on the cultural shift that is taking place across Europe and to what extent this shift, on the one hand, can be resisted through art and, on the other hand, worsens the precarity of the personal lives of the artists. The unexpected thread that tied these three installments most closely together was the—both intentional and unintentional—performance of identities. In this article, we use di erent works from the three installments to exemplify the specificity of the precarity of intersecting identities by illustrating the importance of performing those identities as a survival strategy.

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