02. What is Performance?

“Performance” has become an international word, used as is, in numerous languages. For its meaning in the performing arts, all dictionaries say that it is basically an act executed by some while being watched by others, generally for entertainment.

[“A musical, dramatic, or other entertainment presented before an audience. The act of performing a ceremony, play, piece of music, etc.” (Dictionary.com). “The action of entertaining other people by dancing, singing, acting, or playing music.” (Cambridge Dictionary). “An act of staging or presenting a play, concert, or other form of entertainment. A public presentation or exhibition.” (Merriam-Webster)]

Even in its common, simple definitions, the scope of the word “performance” is fairly wide: it is used for all types of live presentations extending from theater to acrobatics, circus, sports, ceremonies, etc. I believe that people who are engaged in the performing arts need to step beyond these definitions and study the term’s deeper implications to be in command of the intellectual bases of their works.

First, I’d like to point out that there is a significant terminological confusion over the word:

As you can see above, I have given the title “Notes on the Performing Arts” to this website. I should have been able to call it “Notes on the Performance Arts” but I couldn’t, because “performance art” is the name given to a particular art form which appeared in the USA in the 1960s. So, to cover all forms, traditional and contemporary, now we use the strange term “performing arts.”

In general, the “performing arts department” at a university teaches the practice of theater, dance, music, etc. while the “performing arts studies department” focuses on theory. Now there is also a “performance studies department” at some universities which seems to specialize in the study of almost anything “as performance” (one can see theses topics ranging from “cooking as performance” to “gentrification as performance”).

The terms “performance” and “performativity” have moved beyond performance studies departments and have been in use and debate for a while in academia, including the areas of critical theory and gender studies, philosophy and social sciences. These terms were introduced by the language philosopher J. L. Austin (and have been elaborated on by John Searle, Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler and many others). It is important to note that these philosophers were not theorizing about the actual “performing arts” when they used the terms originating from “perform” but many of those involved in the performing arts do not seem to be aware of that. One can run into statements such as “the performativity of the theatrical performance,” which sound learned but highly ambiguous.

I should also note that the word “performance” is frequently used in daily life, particularly to express efficiency and success in education and business, like “the student’s academic performance.” These usages are outside of my territory of speculations.

Let us ask now: What is performance?

As I stated above, the standard definitions mention the presentation of entertaining acts by some people to some others.

Do we have to have some people present something to be seen/heard for the presentation to be called “a performance”? What if it is announced that fifty puppies will be put in a room full of toys and can be viewed from 7 to 8 pm through glass walls? Wouldn’t people grab their kids and run to watch? Can we say that it can’t be considered a performance when the performers are dogs or when the presented acts are not predetermined?

What if someone fills the space with electrical devices instead of dogs and controls their movements remotely? Wouldn’t that be considered a performance? Would it be called a performance if the person lets a computer randomly control the movements of the devices?

Let’s say someone (John Cage, for example) announces that s/he will present a theatrical performance at an unaccustomed location at 8 pm and, right before 8 pm, tells the audience that the performance will begin exactly at 8 o’clock and will end at 9 and then s/he goes sits on the side and lets the audience observe the sounds and movements in the environment as they occur. Would this be accepted to be a performance?

The answer to all the questions above is a yes if the audience calls the experience a performance. If the presenter’s proposal to perceive a duration as performance is accepted by the audience, then it will become a performance. That is, the presentation by itself is not a performance, but rather it constitutes a proposal to have a performance realized.

There is nothing complicated about the above idea: no matter how hard you work to prepare a meal, it cannot become food unless someone eats it. Similarly, if you go to a person and say “listen, I am going to sing you a song,” you are not starting the performance, the starting point is the listener’s acceptance of your proposal. What if the person says “please don’t, I have a bad headache”? What happens if you start singing anyway and the person gets up and leaves? You can sing as long as you want but that will be called “singing to himself/herself,” not a performance.

Announcing “I am going to perform a dance for you” means that you are inviting the viewers to accept an agreement, a contract: “Accept my first move (or the dimming of the lights or the first note of the music) to be the beginning of the performance and watch until I say ‘done’ and identify this segment of time as a ‘performance.’ In return, I will show you things that will make you happy, develop your consciousness, forget your troubles, improve your thinking, excite you, entertain you, etc.”

Let’s take another step back: Is it a must to have someone conceive, propose, trigger, start, prepare, organize a presentation so that it can become a performance?

No. A person may sit and watch the ants on the ground, another may watch people passing by his/her window, another may decide to watch a static object. A person may decide to stand in the street and listen to the sound of traffic, another may want to listen to the conversation on the radio and another may want to listen to his/her neighbor playing the guitar. Someone may decide to sit on a slope of a mountain and smell the odor of wildflowers rising from the valley. If these people identify those durations of viewing/listening/smelling as “performance,” then they are irrefutably performances.

Such a broadly inclusive approach may bring this question to mind: Since what is seen or heard does not matter, since our eyes continuously see and our ears continuously hear, in other words, since our existence consists of our perceptions through our five senses, can’t we conclude that we continuously watch/hear/taste/smell/feel a performance?

It is true that we are in a continuous state of perception, yet, with the term “performance,” we seem to narrow the scope a little and think of a special “state” of perception. Description of this mental state is pretty much open for speculation: some say it is watching/listening for entertainment, some call it “awareness,” some see it as a special mental state, some say it is a “distanced” or “estranged” stance and some see it as a state of “observation.” The idea that agrees with me the most is “a distanced observation.”

The identification of an event as performance implies stepping back a bit to observe (even if the observer himself/herself is part of the event). For instance, while having a heated discussion with someone, you may decide to put the brakes on, stop getting lost in the content a little and “watch” the voice, face, hands, arms of the other person. Or, you decide to listen to the street noise in the background instead of ignoring it as usual. Or, for a change, you decide to pay attention to the colors of people’s dresses you see on the road you walk on every day. These changes suggest a differentiation in your perception. That is, they bring in an observational consciousness, a “framing of reality” or “putting the reality in quotes.”

To repeat myself, all characterizations of this mental state result from speculative opinions, including the idea of “distanced observation.” “Performance” is not a perfectly definable concept.

In conclusion, I can say that there are three indispensable conditions required for an experience to become a performance:


There ought to be one or more perceiving human beings present (called “interpreter of signifier” in semiotics).


The perceiver has to identify the particular duration as “performance.”


The perceiver has to specify/accept a certain “event” as the beginning and a second one as the end of the performance.

These views are the results of thoughts and practices put forward through the twentieth century, aimed at rescuing the individual’s creativity from the control of the established absolutist and institutional rules and practices. Someone who voiced or wrote the above ideas a century ago would have been labeled “crazy” – which has happened to numerous people all around the world. Yet, inevitably, the reality that was concealed behind intangible claims for centuries appeared in broad daylight at the end: the perceiver is in charge, s/he says the last word, not the presenter. As a result, today five people can go on a stage and just walk from one point to another for an hour and can find audiences in many places who accept that to be a dance. There are popular rock groups who intend to make “noise.” Rap music, which consists of rhythmical and rhyming speech, has become a globally popular genre of music.

To summarize, when we say “performance,” we are talking about a duration (I will go into the details of “duration” in the “Direct and Indirect Arts” section). The listener/viewer decides if the duration is a performance or not. The performance does not have to be an “event” presented by people, but if so, their activity primarily is a proposal: “I want this activity to be heard/viewed as a performance” or “I want to communicate with you in the context of a performance.” Those who offer this proposal (people involved in the performing arts) are the addressees of the notes on this website. For that reason, I will narrow the scope in the following sections and look at performance as a “duration” consisting of “events” generated by at least one person, to be perceived by at least one other person.