A Digital Essay On Performance


This is a personal view.

Many of my colleagues employ written discourse to offer the intelligence of their insights and their arguments.

And I am aware of the amount of writing and thinking, of analysis and naming, currently being undertaken concerning performance in an expanded field; in my opinion, greatly extending our understanding of what performance might be, though the challenge as to what constitutes the discipline of performance, for me, remains.

However, I have found myself moving in the opposite direction – upstream as it were, as one would move towards a source – where there are fewer written words, where perceiving is a form of thinking and spoken language prompts perception – a site for reflection perhaps.

Functionalities offered by new technology can create fields where thinking and feeling and perceiving might come together to create material of a kind that is complementary to that created in the field of logos.

This essay uses simple digital designs and is a sub-domain of ARTS ARCHIVES. It draws upon material in that archive and elsewhere that I have gathered since 1974. During that time, as I have gone about documenting the processes at work within a wide range of performance activities, I have found it useful to think of a definition of live performance as being a human ‘body in operation with imagery’. (To think of a body, now, after so much research, is to think also of a brain and its mind; moreover I suspect that the human body, notwithstanding post-humanism, will continue to be one of this century’s abiding pre-occupations.) For me, this definition has served as a kind of frame, a view upon the subject matter, that has offered space to my thinking and feeling and perceiving as I have tried to engage in defining, from my perspective, the details appropriate to each individual act of live performance that I have encountered. There is, for me, some merit in holding such a generic view – a ‘möbius’ view, perhaps, whose properties can endure difference, or a long distance view that, upon closer inspection, can accommodate more detailed definitions. This generic view, constructed by a body and imagery and their mutual co-operation, is, in my understanding, shared by both performer(s) and participant(s) (however one wants to define the participant – audience, spectator, witness, neighbour, activist, friend). I have also found it useful when documenting individual work that does not involve other ‘participants’. It is an operation occurring at the cutting edge of a person, of peoples, and the world they inhere and, in my view, belongs to a question of survival.

Likewise I have found it useful to think of image or imagery not as something belonging solely to different art forms but as ‘possibilities rendered present’… possible narratives, possible patterns of behaviour, possible co-existences and empathies, possible movement configurations, possible re-arrangements of a person’s perceptual equipment in what she or he can hear and see, feel, think and say; crucially, I have found it useful to observe that such possibilities can, at times, be rendered present to us, through preparation, skill and creation. Imagery is, in my view, to do with what in us will enable us to survive ‘alive’ at this point of intersection between ourselves and the world. An anthropomundic view (where mundus is the world) rather than an anthropocentric view, sometimes associated with Performance.

This essay and its annotations, which indicate processes of rendering, are attempts to allow image its eloquence and words their sense – how they might resonate together within the space and duration of a single page. They are offered as invitations to ‘read’ a language of performance, as “quotations” from a volume of work. Each lasts between eight and ten minutes.

I hope you will find it useful.

Peter Hulton


  • Acknowledgments are given in Arts Archives and Exeter Digital Archives.

  • Peter Hulton is a documentary writer and film-maker whose graduate research was into Happenings and the Noh theatre. He is founder and director of Theatre Papers and Arts Archives and created the Exeter Digital Archives of Performance Practice at Exeter University, UK. His audio-visual documentaries have accompanied publications for Routledge, Methuen, The Drama Review, the Open University, and Contredanse.

    His video stage projections have accompanied multi-media performances at a number of European Festivals.

    He has been a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, and taught for many years at Dartington College of Arts, U.K., becoming its Principal for a while in the 1980s. He is on the Editorial Advisory Board of Performance Research.