Performing the Self

1Since the 1970s (at least), performances in which performers perform themselves, through performing stories from their lives, have been ubiquitous. This is particularly so within the 'performance art' arena, with performers ranging from Rachel Rosenthal to Annie Sprinkle to Spalding Gray to Ron Athey to Tim Miller, to Bobby Baker… In spite of the sheer number and diversity of performances of 'the self', criticism of this 'genre' tends to be negative, most often reading 'performing the self' as intrinsically, implicitly or essentially 'narcissistic', 'solipsistic' or 'egotistical'.

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Many artists draw all their resources from themselves and continually reflect only their own image.
(Marranca 85).

The dangers in autobiographical art are legion: solipsisms that interest an audience of one.
(Weisberg qtd in Roth 107).

This impoverished site is vulnerable to the imputation that a politics whose only sure referent is the self is hardly a politics at all [….]
(Larsen 31).

[…] It is as often an ego show as a revelation; the virus of the 'I - Did - It - My - Way/I - Gotta - Be - Me strain afflicts the larger number of such acts, particularly in the performance art area which presents amateurish staging techniques and mini-personalities as often as original methods and subjects.
(Howell 158).

Solo performance is, of course a field rife with self-indulgence and incipient monumental egotism, and I have sat through as many shows demonstrating this as anyone - typically performed by frustrated and mediocre New York actors trying to jump-start their me-machines with sitcom-shallow autobiographical monologues.
(Kalb 14).

3Performers who perform themselves, it is assumed, are only interested in themselves. Whilst it is more than possible to witness performances that may communicate or challenge little, and which appear to be 'display' windows for the performer(s), this is true of any and all performances, irrespective of which 'form' they may belong to. Simply, it is always possible to experience bad performances. There is nothing about performances of the 'self' which should make this any more (or less) likely. Critics of such performances seem to forget that, first and foremost, literal performances of the self are performances. That is, they are representational and as representations they should not be taken to be in any way real (or any more real than any other performance). In performances of the 'self', there are always, necessarily, (at least) two selves on stage at any one time – the self that is performing, and the self that is performed. (Arguably, the space between one and other is both the place and result of the creative process.) All of which begs the question, 'what is this "self" that is performed?'

4Of course, within autobiographical criticism, the understanding that there are two 'I's, two selves, involved in the autobiography is long accepted. What may be apparent or revealed in autobiographical performances, however, is the presence of these two 'I's, as the gap between one and the other is made visible. Whilst autobiographical literary criticism reads autobiographies as being constituted from two 'I's, autobiographical performances perform these two 'I's, in a sense containing the criticism within their very form. Autobiographical performance or performances of the 'self' are extremely well placed, then, to mark - or remark - the multiple, non-unitary constitution of the self, and the notion that the 'self', rather than being immutable, fixed, given, deep, essential - or whatever other adjective is usually tied to it - is in fact always a performance of a self (or selves). 1 This is the self as a performative construct, with that very performativity revealed in autobiographical performances that perform the self. This is the performance of performativity.

5In contrast to the critics noted above, in my own spectatorship of literal performances of the self, I rarely come across those that are 'merely' narcissistic, solipsistic, egotistical, etc. Rather, I would suggest that the majority of performers who play themselves display an astute self-consciousness; their representations of themselves are 'knowing'. They are also strategic, and often politically so, using them'selves' as vehicles through which to project particular social perspectives, inflected by positions of race, class, gender and/or sexuality. The 'self' is deliberately and perhaps paradoxically used in order to precisely go beyond the self, or the individual. But the 'self' in performance is no easy subject.

6In order that the 'individual self' is not foregrounded within the performance, it (or they, given that there is typically no singular self), is/are tactically and consciously destabilised. The performer may perform the self, but one can never be entirely sure of who the self that is being performed is, nor in fact who the performer is, as both selves keep slipping.

7Let me briefly put a little flesh onto this self by using one example. Bobby Baker, perhaps the most established performance artist in the UK, most typically performs herself. The various stories that Baker shares, for example in Drawing on a Mother's Experience (1988), are drawn from the life of Bobby Baker, and the person who performs these stories is Bobby Baker, so in classic autobiographical form, the writing subject is also the subject of the story - subject and object are one. However, as suggested above, between the Baker who performs, and the stories being performed, there are at least two other Baker's: the Baker who is performed and the non-performing Baker. 2 (The last of these Baker's will remain outside of this discussion.)

8In each performance there is what is best described as a persona, and it is this persona that Bobby Baker, the performer, performs. Complicating matters, though, this persona is presented as Bobby Baker (in the same way that performance artist Annie Sprinkle performs Annie Sprinkle). Whose stories are these, then, that are being shared with us - Bobby Baker the performing subject's, or Bobby Baker the performed subject's? And if the Bobby Baker who offers up these stories is a persona, how referential or stable or truthful can this self - and its representation - be presumed to be?

9There is little danger of reading the signs of the performed Bobby Baker as 'real' in that the performer has carefully selected certain mannerisms, and has exaggerated them to the extent that they have become excessive and therefore parodic. The Bobby Baker that we see performed is one that, through repeated cultural circulation, we 'know' and recognise, but who in all probability does not actually exist. The Baker we see, then, is a recognisable cultural fiction and cannot be taken to be the 'real' of anything, although her stories are positioned as 'real'. Such mannerisms include 'thriftiness', ecological awareness, domestic skill, embarrassment, self-punishment, self-deprecation, continuous apologising, and chaotic activity.

10Within the performance one also witnesses multiple performed Bakers. Whilst Baker (which one?) is at times a passive mother, often other 'identities' and attitudes burst through to challenge that given location. Baker can be both self-deprecating and authoritative; controlled and unpredictable; respectable and outrageous; parodic and sincere; revelatory and secretive; logical and intuitive; maternal and sensuous. And of course, both Baker's, the persona and the performer, are both a mother and an artist. In effect the culturally inscribed image of the 'housewife/mother' is simultaneously undermined by that persona (and the performer), as one prescribed image of 'Bobby Baker' - who is neat, tidy, clean, calm, organised, resourceful and self-effacing - clashes with other, more challenging images, in particular the Baker who uses food in a way that is removed from domesticity - throwing it around, creating a mess, rolling herself up in it.

11Alongside the doubling of Baker, there is also a multiplicity within the parodic representation, as the representations of Baker shift, and each version competes with other versions. The contradictions and ambiguities are crucially important devices in undercutting the stereotypical representation and suggesting the inherent complexity of subjectivity, of 'having' a self and of 'being' a person. In Drawing, Baker is an artist, mother, daughter, wife, demonstrator, performer. She is embarrassed, confident, skilled, incapable, calm, chaotic, controlled, intuitive. If one agrees with Foucault that confession is an apparatus through which identity is produced (Foucault 58-59), Baker confesses her 'self' in order to construct an identity that is far from singular.

12Complicating my reading of the 'gap' between the performer and the performed, however, there are also (importantly) moments at which the performer and performed coincide, through the act of performing. For example, in Drawing Baker's body begins to show signs of its own materiality, as she becomes hot, tired, breathless, sweaty. The image of the neat, clean, organised housewife begins to slip, as the material body of the performer seeps through. At the same time, however, it is also the persona's body, as it becomes hot, tired, breathless in its restaging of everyday activities of motherhood. In the dizziness of this coincidence and non-coincidence I finally have no idea who Bobby Baker is. She eludes me. What is left in 'her' wake, however, is an acerbically astute representation of a social environment in which mothers are routinely erased, undervalued, and 'trapped' within the domestic milieu. This performance of the self seems far from a solipsistic display.

Post-script

13Since first seeing Bobby Baker perform in 1988, I had wondered about the remarkable appropriateness of her name, given that she is an artist whose primary material is food; and not just an artist, but a woman artist whose subject matter is her own everyday experiences. It seems an incredible act of fate or luck that Baker should be blessed with such an alliterative and illustrative moniker. In 1998, however, I read:

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When she was little, she wanted to be a boy, like so many girls brought up in the 1950s with the tomboys Jo in Little Women and George in The Famous Five as role models. Her name was Lindsey (itself ambidextrous), but she chose Bobby, and stayed with it. Names are obviously important [….]
(Marina Warner, "Bobby Baker: The Rebel at the Heart of the Joker", 83 – 84, 1998, ).

15From the outset, then, Bobby Baker both is and is not Bobby Baker.