Experimental performance after 'The Scream of Nature'
  • A. Frances Johnson


This essay considers the case study of a recent Marina Abramović perfomance, The Scream, and discusses how notions of communal collaboration exist alongside the idea of the individual author. Notions of cultural authorship across the twentieth century are used as frameworks for understanding how Abramović’s creative process and its communally enacted public outcomes are instantiations of 20th century theoretical and philosophical inheritances circulating around the creative ownership of ideas, histories of avant-gardism and ideas of collaborative process. While this essay reflects on collaboration achieved via teams of creators, it also shows how intertextual engagement in itself may be thought of as a radical, political mode of cultural ‘teamwork’. Abramović duly carries out an ekphrastic intertextual raid upon modernist painting, collaborating with Edvard Munch and his image, and then with other performers, to create a new public artwork.



Keywords: creative collaboration—intertextuality—ekphrasis—performance art—avant-gardism—graphic narrative—adaptation


I recently heard performance artist Marina Abramović speak of her anxieties about creating a sculpture for a suburban park in Oslo as part of a Sculpture Triennial. She had performed The Scream in Oslo on 24 October 2013 at the precise spot where, in 1893, Edvard Munch made his first painting for the series The Scream of Nature. With David Walsh at the 2015 Dark Mofo Festival (14 June, Odeon Theatre, Hobart), she was speaking now about the development of this work. In a fabulously unreconstructed cold war accent, a tumble of thick black hair pouring over her studiedly black artist gear, she averred that she was not a sculptor in the first place. Why had they invited her? Her work was to do with performative collaboration; it nearly always involved active interaction with the viewer. She was not a maker of discreet objects (though arguably sculpture has long since moved to embrace a range of intergeneric practices beyond such confines). Her work was never unitary in conception and delivery. We all nodded enthusiastically, forgiving the slight indulgence in the idea that sculpture was purely object-based and commodity driven; her implication that she was not, in fact, a famous author of performance pieces over decades. To pun on an Abramović performance title, how we wanted ‘the artist to be present’.[i] The triennial organisers, she told us, throwing up her hands, had cajoled her. Was there any way to woo her into the triennial fold?

Finally, against the odds, she advised the curators that she had stumbled upon a workable idea. The audience believed implicitly in Abramović’s brilliance, of course, and waited with baited breath for her conceptual blueprint to unfold as the dramatic punchline to her talk. For all that performance art has historically harboured a desire to interrogate, in Rose Lee Goldberg’s (1997) terms, ‘the many formal and conceptual ideas on which the making of art is based’ (of which unitary authorship is one), we found ourselves awaiting the luminous stroke of the singular individual idea (7). We, the audience, appeared habituated in our desire for a distillation of communicable authorship.

Abramović did not let us down. She described taking herself off to the National Gallery in Oslo where she re-viewed Munch’s iconic modernist painting. This was her light bulb moment; the beginning of an unusual ekphrastic odyssey that would transmute her memory of the modern painter’s image into a performance that would effectively become a kind of living sculpture sited in the heritage parkland of the Ekerbergparken—there’d be nothing discreet or stylishly, iconically mute to please the vicissitudes of fine art connoisseurship here.

Abramović took the measurements of Munch’s frame and photographed it. She then commissioned a welder/sculptor who would cast the painting frame to scale in steel and set it up on a stand in the local park.

In the days ahead, she set up a video camera and camera operator in the park and invited 300 locals to come and stand inside the frame and scream their lungs out. Apparently, the screaming went on for some days inside this normally quietish, civic parkland. Complaints were rife. All kinds of people, businessmen and women, children, school kids, disaffected youth, holidaymakers, dogs (no, not barking dogs!) stepped up to the plate to participate in a new-millennial take on Scandinavian urban anomie. The installation was a great success, though some reports suggest that police shut it down before it was completed. Before the city had screamed itself still. The subsequent, annotated, edited footage of the shrieking burghers of Oslo makes for compelling, alternately witty and disturbing documentation. It is not merely Abramović’s singular idea, but the darkly funny, often gut wrenching footage of her volunteer-collaborators that disturbs. This was a richly intertextual, ekphrastic, highly collaborative work which, at ground level, included not only a cast of hundreds, but a whole team of workers and specialist makers, come together in the best sense of a stage-managed performance event.

Munch’s progenitive, now iconic modern image of urban alienation within the modern city, as with Abramović’s living urban park sculpture, made 122 years after The Scream of Nature, both retain relevance. For even in the post-postmodern city, the technologised, globalised city (call it what you will), Durkheimian anomie still plays out. People still open their mouths to scream. And screams, pictorial or uttered, may not be neatly periodised even if the cultural ‘style’ of the constructed scream can be neatly identified as belonging to a specific cultural epoch and its attendant generic styles. Abramović’s work plays to the idea of a universal psycho-social cri du coeur, while making a direct intertextual nod to the modern, to the fact that powerful forms of collaborative cultural and political agitprop, dealing with the alienated subject, were fashioned by and out of the experience of modernity. Modern avant-garde cultural production, as Poggioli argues, was always ‘destined to oscillate perpetually among the various forms of alienation—psychological and social, economic and historical, aesthetic and stylistic’ as a mode of ‘ethical alienation’ (Poggioli 1968 [1962]: 127).

Abramović’s parodic scream, then, is on one level an investigation of modernist alienation in art; her final work is history and culture-rich in references. But this performance also resists a neat or neatening dialectical relationship with the past. It repudiates any kind of exacting aesthetic mimicry or pastiche. Instead, as with many diverse performance modes emerging since the 1970s, it draws freely on any number of disciplines and media—literature, poetry, theatre, music, dance, architecture and painting, as well as video, film, slides and narrative (Goldberg 1979: 9). Abramović also uses ritualistic performance and this kind of multi-generic ‘boundless manifesto’, according to Goldberg, ‘in trying to live’; she therefore creates work in which life (contemporary life) is her literal subject as much as any specified enagagement with the cultural past (9). By its very nature, her anarchic, open-ended form of cultural expression pitches between past and present, as if to avoid proposing a discreet, aesthetic commodifiable work of art. Employing 300 screaming participant citizens is surely an art of unsettlement in which the notion of authorship is perpetually blurred, elusive. As Goldberg observes, ‘Performance has been considered as a way of bringing to life the many formal and conceptual ideas on which the making of art is based. Live gestures have constantly been used as a weapon against the conventions of established art’ (1979: 7).

And yet, the kinds of collaboration Abramović explores in this work are not entirely new. Western modernist avant-garde collaborative art practices still resonate for artists and writers working today, as Cynthia Jaffee McCabe (1984) has suggested in her survey of 20th-century collaborative interdisciplinary art practices. But Goldberg points out that while key 20th century cultural movements such as futurism, constructivism, dadaism and surrealism found their roots in, and resolved ideas through, performance, scholarly writing since has marginalised these important collaborative cultural irruptions as ephemera, or not considered them at all, preferring ‘to concentrate on the art objects produced by each period’ (Goldberg 1979: 7). Thus Goldberg argues that performances made since the mid-seventies have been perceived as different to their modernist forbears, created by ‘an avant avant-garde’ (7).

This tag, though, does not mean Abramović’s The Scream entirely escapes dialectical, patrimonial links with the Western modernist avant-garde. Nonetheless, more recent scholarship supports Goldberg’s and Jaffee McCabe’s claims. Charles Green (2001) writes that ‘Modernist artists worked in revolutionary collaborations and subversive collectives, but these projects were invariably recuperated in the literature by the cult of individual genius’ (xv). Irit Rogoff’s essay ‘Production lines’, conceived as a catalogue essay for a 1990 exhibition, Team Spirit, and focusing on post-1970s collaborations, confirms that art-historical readings of recent creative collaboration have been limited in scope. While she observes that there has been some consensus that contemporary collaborative art retains filiation with modernist collaborative practice, she criticises the fact that scholars have assumed:

a coming together of talents and skills which cross-fertilise one another through simple processes, neither challenged by issues of difference nor by issues of resistance (Rogoff 1990: 33).

Abramović’s work may claim thematic connection with modern anomie and patrilineage with originary avant-garde group process, but The Scream is a project that overtly eschews cultural connoisseurship and instantiations of a cultified individual author. As Green remarks of late 20th century artistic collaboration and beyond, ‘the practice of subjugating the individual signature is a paradigmatic interrogation of artistic production’ (xv). The artist’s critique of art ‘collaborates’ intertextually with the Munch image, but revisioning the painting as a performance space in which the people of Oslo engage in a public screamfest means the work is also founded on issues of difference and social and psychological resistance. Participants step up to the frame and fashion their own intertextual engagement with Munch’s image or with their cultural memory of it. Their individual screams are resonant for themselves, as they may also be differently resonant for each member of the audience. This is true even where the collective screaming acts of so many may conjure the old idea that the ‘principle or norm of bourgeois art is to be anti-bourgeois’ (Poggioli 1968 [1962]: 126).

Multiple voice in the polyphonic artwork (or in this case, the improvisational script), can be critically contextualised as a literary form contesting the fixed Cartesian subject or unitary speaking subject. For Julia Kristeva, this is not merely a demonstration of formal plays of point of view; she suggests that poetic linguistic techniques such as polyphony enable the creative practitioner to work outside of social constraint and the ‘coercive, customary manner of ensuring the cohesiveness of a particular group through the repetition of a code—a more or less accepted apologue’ (Kristeva 1980 [1969]: 23). For Kristeva, poetic techniques must shatter standardised cultural, political and social codes in order to give way to important plays of ‘negativity, need, desire, pleasure, and jouissance...’ (23).

Kristeva has written specifically about modernist theatre and poetry if not about modernist painting and performance per se. But her ideas of polyphony retain relevance for performance art genres. Bakhtinian theories of dialogism underpin Kristevan thought here—the idea of voices in ceaseless reply to one another—automatically confronting the monological social, cultural and political codes to which Kristeva alludes (Holquist 1990). She notes in relation to the Russian poet and playwright Mayakovsky that:

The poet is put to death because he wants to turn rhythm into a dominant element; because he wants to make language perceive what it doesn’t want to say, provide it with its matter independently of the sign, and free it from denotation. For it is this eminently parodic gesture that changes the system. (Kristeva 1980 [1969]: 31)

In relation to the futurists and Mayakovsky again, Kristeva observes:

Linguistic ethics, as it can be understood through Jakobson’s practice, consists in following the resurgence of an ‘I’ coming back to rebuild an ephemeral structure in which the constituting struggle of language and society would be spelled out (34).

Similarly for performance, multiple voice challenges the dominant rhythmic texture of the social order and its singular, or monological, voice. In the Abramović work under discussion, disjunctive, divergent screamings by participants break down the unitary systemic message as they challenge or decode normative genre codes (the scream as conventionally performed in horror films or theatre, for example).

This type of collaborative work, with its interests in the individual subject as much as the subject of culture and society, can be contextualised against key poststructural and feminist challenges to philosophies of the individual and creative authorship arising in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. As the above snapshot from Kristeva suggests, these ideas have been, and continue to be, deeply influential.

Collaborating with the image: the living legacy of intertextuality

Kristeva’s poststructuralist reading of Mikhail Bakhtin posited the idea of intertextuality as a more intensified and historically self-conscious interweaving of sign systems from various types of texts (and by implication voices from or of those texts)—an idea that potentially wrought freedom from univocity, essentialism and all forms of non-political critique. Therein lies the key for (re)thinking the value of intertextuality as the basis of a revolutionary subjectivity—that kind of subjectivity proposed in Abramović’s art.[ii] That is, Kristeva makes it possible to consider intertextuality as the self-conscious assemblage of quotations and expressions of different social discourses. Each screamer in Abramović’s performance, then, might be seen as an embodiment of a unique social discourse.

And yet, the notion of the historical literary raid upon another text is an old one, as Kristeva would be the first to concede, and not least after several decades of postmodernist theoretical discourse with its emphasis on quotation, appropriation, disjuncture, pastiche and multiple voice. Abramović’s first point of collaboration is with Munch’s domestically scaled image, with the great icon of Western visual modernism. As Shapiro (1984) observes, this is an act of collaboration that resolves as intertextual collage. But Abramović’s creative forbears were no strangers to such processes. Putting radical collage in historical context, Shapiro asserts that:

The best collaborations of the Dadaists and Surrealists, as well as of the members of the so-called New York school of poetry, emphasise the theme of abruptness, of textural changes, and of the sense of rupture and discontinuity (Shapiro 1984: 45)

For Kristeva, the intertextual raid for modernist and postmodernist artists and writers alike also implies the presence and agency (rather than the effacement) of the author. It is the poet who ‘wants to make language perceive what it doesn’t want to say’ (Kristeva 1980 [1969]: 31).

‘The best way to consider originality’ wrote Edward Said, is ‘to look not for instances of a phenomenon, but rather to see duplication, parallelism, symmetry, parody, repetition, echoes of it […] the writer can be read as an individual whose impulse has been to always write through another given work’ (Said 1983: 135–36).

Christian Moraru bears Said and Kristeva out, emphasising the normativity and necessity of the authorial intertextual raid:

[…] it is important to bear in mind that what Said is talking about—and what literary and cultural history bears out—does not constitute an exceptional case, such as postmodernism’s over the top ‘ecstasy of influence’ but rather the norm, the usual way of doing things (Moraru 2007: 1).

By the early 1960s, Roland Barthes had introduced the notion of the ‘scriptor’ (Barthes 1977 [1968]: 145) whose task is to volubly, even chaotically, ‘mêler les écritures’ or mix and criss-cross writings as ‘an image, moreover, close to current biological conceptions of the living being’ (Barthes 1977 [1971]: 161). Yet Barthes continued to insist that the transposition of signs as a textual network gave paradoxical ‘restitution’ to the idea of formal, paternal notions of literary legacy and authorship (Barthes 1977 [1971]: 161)[iii]

Barthes also famously advanced a more extreme theory of intertextuality, nominating the reader as the organising centre of interpretation. This was in keeping with those definitions of postmodern intertextuality broadly emphasising the decline of divine notions of authorship. In 1968, Barthes posited that the ‘author’ was no more than one text among others, while ‘the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted’ (Barthes 1977 [1968]: 148). Thus the author was no longer habitually seen as the ultimate explanation of a work, its omniscient, all-pervading influence. Instead, language itself, or its enunciation, authored the text. Deconstructive practice (Derrida 1978 [1967]: 278–93) supported Barthes’s thesis by showing that authors were extremely unreliable and that authorial intention and literary result were often two distinct things. The reader sees the plurality of the text, while the author was largely an omniscient persona, projected from the text, and a convenient catch-all for the critic. For Barthes, the reader is someone who:

[…] understands each word in its duplicity and who, in addition, hears the very deafness of the characters speaking in front of him—this someone being precisely the reader (or here, the listener). Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not as was hitherto said, the writer (Barthes 1977 [1968]: 148).

But Moraru, writing almost 40 years after Barthes, cautions against elisions of the role of the author (as he does against blanket overuse of the terms ‘intertextuality’ and ‘heteroglossia’). He points out that creativity is always dependent upon ‘the writer’s appropriate access to extant discourse’ (Moraru 2007: 1).

This idea of access invites a discussion of how creative authors working in any genre(s) are automatically embroiled in and limited by certain kinds of intercultural, social and political power relations; authorship can never therefore be a pure or equal category. The Scream represses the authorial signature even as it reveals Abramović’s ‘access to extant discourse’ (Moraru 2007: 1)—to the museum image of Munch’s painting. But for some artists, depending on what part of the world—and under what kind of socio-economic conditions and national political governance—they live in, the intertextual raiding mission is a haltered exercise, one undertaken with difficulty.

Clearly, Michel Foucault’s ideas retain crucial relevance to broader discussions of art and its will to disclose—culturally or politically, or both—a particular society as a complex system of power relations. Foucault did not analyse specific creative genres in relation to discourses of power, but his philosophical thought undergirds concerns as to how the artistic creator represents or embodies ‘competing constraints’ and divergent ideas/aspects of authorial identity. Foucault states that:

in undertaking the internal and architectonic analysis of a work (be it a literary text, philosophical system or scientific work), in setting aside biographical and psychological references, one has already called back into question the absolute character and founding role of the subject. Still, perhaps, one must return to this question, not in order to re-establish the theme of an originating subject, but to grasp the subject’s points of insertion, modes of functioning, and system of dependencies (Foucault 1989 [1969]: 208–09).

Foucault’s elegant model of authorship and its possible extremes and variations show how European history and literary discourse/authorship operate within systems of power. The subject/author is retained. Barthes, in contrast, proposed a universal funeral for the author, but one that ultimately failed to consider how the writer’s subject positions were formed by a range of forces—economic, social and cultural. He did not manage to see how the performance artist, for example, ‘lives’ to orchestrate the ‘tension between play and history’ (Derrida 1978 [1967]: 121) as a vibrant dialogism (or discursive intertextuality in the Kristevan sense). As Moraru argues, creative texts that show a shift between ‘play and history’ perform a crucial social role:

In an important if not immediately apparent sense, critical communalism and plagiarism go hand in hand. For one thing, if any community is more or less imagined, as Benedict Andersen and others have suggested, and further, if any re-imagining must contend with previous images, new communities cannot be worked from scratch but […] only worked through former paradigms of communality. For another thing, this is not simply a matter of ‘intertextuality’ and ‘heteroglossia’. Or, if it is so, it is only insofar as the concepts preserve the meanings Bakhtin, Kristeva, and their culturalist followers assigned them. For these critics, text and context are tightly knit together, and so are self and other. In fact, the former dyad is a version of the latter, helping us understand why communalism and the political revisiting of community, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the problematic of cross-textual appropriation, here in its extreme form of assumed plagiarism, dovetail so intimately (Moraru 2007: 1–2).

Moraru draws attention not only to the inevitability of literary theft and cultural quotation, but to the socially linked or socially dependent nature of writerly pilfering. In fact, for Moraru, such happy pilfering is a determinant of ethical communalism. Here he writes in relation to the novels of US writer Jonathan Lethem:

As an artist, Lethem argues, I may live out the Rimbaldian adage ‘I is another’ more intensely than anyone else. To project this ‘I’, to write it out and thus body it forth in a literary form, if I happen to be a writer, I must turn to other bodies of work. I have no choice but to pilfer the annals of community, to wit, draw from other texts and others generally and thus incur a debt that is as much aesthetic as it is ethical. But the community is not just textual, the inherited textual and symbolic repository. It is also a project, a social space, perhaps a community of a new kind. It is through this project that I can pay my debt by casting the other, through writing and re-writing of the archive, into new roles and positions (Moraru 2007: 2)[iv].

For Lethem and Moraru, the author is evidently no corpse, just as Munch is no corpse for Abramović. Here Moraru’s notions of authorial responsibility dovetail with Linda Hutcheon’s notion of the past as a textual repository of ‘use and abuse’. This is key to Hutcheon’s classic notions of postmodern historiography (Hutcheon 1988: 130). Moraru’s concerted emphasis upon the social, ethical role of the writer as textual appropriator remains cousinly close to Bakhtin’s social metaphor of continually oriented ‘addressivity’ of discourse. And it is this politically postmodern emphasis, for all Moraru’s cautions about an overuse of heteroglossia as a term, that retains a pertinent, if not a transcendent, link to the performance artist’s strategic raid and (re)assembly of an iconic modernist painting. It is this raiding and reassembly that enables Abramović to create a performance that dramatises an ‘awareness of the difference between situations’ in history (Said 1983: 135–36).

Feminism, in turn, is the other key discourse which nuances and challenges poststructuralist and postmodern debates on the authorial subject and awareness of difference.

Feminism, authorship and collaboration: Against the scream of nature

The genesis of an artwork starts with the prosecution of a singular idea proposed by one or more artists. The provisional idea is worked up and notated; a range of options are considered, discarded, rethought. In the case of the performance under discussion, Marina Abramović sets about reimagining Munch’s two-dimensional image as a live, communal performance. As the work becomes more and more collaborative, inevitably it becomes more complex.

An entire team of contributors—the participant performers, the curators, the welder-artists, stage managers, film makers and editors—was central to the successful realisation and reception of the Oslo performance, and to the making of the cogent, communicable creative documentation that finds a life in galleries and museums beyond the ephemeral performance. At a certain point, The Scream is given over to others; it no longer fully furnishes an aesthetic, private meditation on the distilled sensibility of another person (Abramović). Even where celebrity-conscious culture pushes to retain cultish notions of individual authorship around the work and its outcomes, and even where Foucault insists we are still able to grasp the artist/author’s subject positions, the group process stakes its rightful claims.

What must be factored in is that the realisation of the idea as event is a highly cooperative venture between consenting parties. In the collaborative creative process, ideas commonly mutate and chance often enters the equation. The key idea is then changed, made simpler or more complex, or sometimes discarded. The new idea, and then another version of that idea, as workable conceptual phoenix, is communicated to all parties working across manifestly different roles. Ideas are often miscommunicated, too, with disastrous or interesting results.

As Jaffee McCabe notes, throughout the twentieth century, artistic collaboration has been a vital component of avant-garde development. However, like Goldberg, she believes that this collaboration has earned small recognition over time (Jaffee McCabe 1984: 15). But scratch the surface of cultural history and one can see that the avant-garde is hardly a creature of uniformity; modernist avant-garde collaboration in 1929 was inevitably organised and conceived differently to the kinds of collaborative avant-garde work created during the late 1970s and beyond.

As Green observes, Jaffee McCabe’s work offers an interesting sourcebook but ‘it seeks to prove its premise […] by demonstrating the ubiquity rather than the significance of collaboration’ (Green 2001: xv). I would argue that it is not only a discussion of the significance of 20th-century collaborations that must be held up to the light in relation to any examination of collaborative artwork, but an examination of the diversity of kinds of collaboration that is important, together with a concomitant understanding of how these collaborations respond to particular social, political and cultural contexts. While each and every new collaborative creative work can be historicised against theories of authorship, each work may not always, in and of itself, purport to claim so-called avant-garde status, or be capable of projecting a revolutionary subjectivity. For example, propagandistic social realist art and some ballets and operas may be collaborative ventures, but these ventures are driven by conceptual ideas which fail to take into account issues of difference and issues of resistance. ‘Avant-garde’ is a word that, in 2015, seems trapped in the cultural rhetorical aspic of modernism. The political intentions of modernist avant-garde performance cannot always be generalised or guaranteed but may need to be studied on a case by case basis. Hence Goldberg’s (1979: 7) use of the parodic term ‘avant avant-garde’ distances contemporary performance and its specific, contextual political interrogations from the generalised idea of the modernist vanguard.

The greater recognition of the shared aspects of making and producing art and writing in recent decades is not due solely to the impact of post-structuralist debates. Feminist cultural theories since the late 1960s have also emphasised the deconstruction of the gendered sanctimonies of the male canon and the unitary (male) author. Feminism has also emphasised polyphonic, interdisciplinary and intergeneric approaches to making art and writing, but it has also variously proposed shared modes of creative practice as strategies for creating revolutionary expressions of female identity and identity generally.

Seán Burke’s exhaustive 1995 study of theories of authorship led him to conclude that theories of authorship are finally unable to fully ‘encompass the disruptive enigmas of authorship’ (Burke 1995: x). However, he observes that:

the struggles of feminism have been primarily a struggle for authorship—understood in the widest sense as the arena in which culture attempts to define itself. Feminist ideas on authorship will be inevitably political since authorship involves the appropriation of cultural space and serves to underpin the principle of the literary canon which—on feminist thought—has been defined in terms of patriarchal prejudice (Burke 1995: 145).

Feminism’s recent phases have proposed complex and often divergent theses for creative authorship. In the 1960s and 1970s, the decades in which Abramović’s early performances were gestated, theorists asserted the right of the female author ‘to belong to the state and estate of authorship’ (Burke 1995: 145), thereby enabling women to redefine their work against male theologies of creativity such as that espoused by Harold Bloom’s Oedipal model of tradition and the so-called anxiety of influence. Since then, the collaborative artwork has often been claimed as a way of forging a uniquely feminist art so that women not only belong to the cultural estate but they belong to it together. In a series of revisionist moves, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1979), Elaine Showalter (1977) and other critics, bent on interrogating canonical literary history, sought to elevate a counter-canon of female authors against the patriarchal model.[v] Language-centred challenges from French theory in the 1980s further problematised notions of gendered subjectivity and female authorship (Burke 1995: 147).

French theoretical feminisms of the 1980s essentially discuss authorship and canonicity as inherently patriarchal institutions, arguing that feminist thought should try to transcend these altogether. Hélène Cixous, for example, has argued that both men and women can express feminine writing (écriture féminine) and her text ‘Castration or decapitation?’ (Cixous 1995 [1981]) is an example of a theoretical text that performs écriture féminine in a ludic, fragmentary, anti-authoritarian style in order to assert a ‘libidinal feminity that cuts across biological identity’ (Burke 1995: 148). Following Cixous, feminists such as Alice Jardine, writing in ‘Feminist tracks’, developed the idea of gynesis whereby ‘Woman as writer is replaced by writing woman as sign’. The logical conclusion of Jardine’s (1995 [1985]) thought is a sexually and textually plural heterotopia in which man, woman and metaphysics will finally disappear (Burke 148).

Nancy K Miller (1995 [1988]) has subsequently criticised Cixous’s theory, asserting that a generalised feminine writing denies and elides the specificity and ethical status of women’s authorship. Tensions between the political forces of early feminist theory and French textualism continue unresolved, especially in relation to authorship versus écriture, though Miller has convincingly re-invoked older feminisms when she argues that the demise of the author is a ‘fable’ and that:

The postmodernist decision that the Author is Dead and the subject along with him does not, I will argue, necessarily hold for women, and prematurely forecloses the question of agency for them. […] It seems to me, therefore, that when the so-called crisis of the subject is staged, as it generally is, within a textural model, that performance must then be recomplicated by the historical, political and figurative body of the woman writer (Miller 1995 [1988]: 196–97).

Jaffee McCabe’s exhaustive study of collaboration across 20th-century artistic practice is underpinned by such Foucauldian and Barthesian questions regarding authorship, and how these have valuably contributed to decentring the issue of the creator. But across her early modernist, inter-war focus she does not acknowledge the ways in which gender studies and feminism have pointed, at least retrospectively, to the hidden nature of women’s individual and collaborative creative work. Her view of collaboration may not easily allow for the body of the woman artist to be present (Miller 1988); it does not foreground points of difference between artists and also elides questions of political resistance in art (Rogoff 1990: 33). Nor does it consider how artists may or may not access extant discourse (Moraru 2007):

Out of the threads of interrelationships, the fabric of art history, like that of life, is spun. Camerarderie, friendship, mutual interests and ambition, the dynamism of nascent art movements, and proximity amid wartime or other disruptive conditions are all incentives towards the creation of collaborative works of art (Jaffee McCabe 1984: 15).

But for her ‘collaborator’ essayist, Robert Hobbs, post-war feminist theories (as with current strands of ecocritical feminism today) proposed a huge shift from post-romantic cults of the individual that was deeply political: ‘Even though feminism did not turn all women artists into collaborators, it did effect some, and it did represent a new definition of self that is interactive […] open rather than closed’ (Hobbs 1984: 80). Thus, contemporary art and performance collaborations since the 1970s have benefited from earlier models of shared, interdisciplinary group process that turned away from the ‘negativity and compensatory posturing’ of culture’s Romantic idée fixe regarding the genius artist. In this, they have been influenced by circulations of feminist and poststructuralist ideas.

Following Miller, Abramović clearly authors a subject in crisis in The Scream and thus retains discernible authorial agency. But the title of Abramović’s 2010 work, The Artist is Present, parodies the very question of agency and authorship beloved of Barthes, Foucault and feminist theory. Such a title suggests that the artist is alert to the ironies of these debates; what Burke terms ‘the enigma of authorship’ does not escape the artist’s sharp eye and listening ear. Such enigmatic irresolutions play out in the bodily performance staged in the Ekerbergparken, for Abramović is also physically present in the performance, signifying her own subject positions. To reprise Miller (1988: 197), ‘performance must then be recomplicated by the historical, political and figurative body of the woman writer’.

However, what must be finally factored in here is that three hundred others participated in this provocatively intertextual performance—men, women and children. So the question arises as to whether this was a demonstration, perhaps, of mass agency, a designed outpouring of revolutionary subjectivity on a grand scale, or whether this performance could equally be considered an example of écriture feminine in the Cixousian sense, in which subversive writing and speaking is no longer gender-bound.

I imagine that for Marina Abramović, it could be both and more besides. The fact is that artists seldom wish to close off the range of possible readings of a work, preferring to encourage a proliferation of meanings. Scratch the surface of culture-making across the genres in 2015, and one might say that artists and writers continue to create work that mediates on the nature of authorship; ‘subjugating the individual signature is a paradigmatic interrogation of artistic production’ (Green 2001: xv, discussing Rogoff 1990). Against the culture-marketing machines, with their risible dependence upon hero artists, creative practitioners take pains to interrupt this dynamic—at openings and launches and in statements of thanks—drawing attention to the fact that nearly all art is collaborative; which is to say, dialogical in the best Bakhtinian sense. All artworks are of the world and implicated in a ceaseless reply or collaboration with other images, as Bakhtin and Julia Kristeva have shown in time-honoured discussions of dialogism and intertextuality. Equally, all artists, writers, poets, curators and editors work together to make and produce; the making experience or process is then necessarily complicated and enriched by the person who experiences the work. From a given work, the viewer or reader in turn makes something of their own that they may go on to share with others. The author does not need to die in order that the reader be born, as Barthes (1977 [1968]: 148) puts it with his usual dramatic, poetic flourish.

For Shapiro, productively layered creative collaborations are necessarily a sign, in the Deleuzian sense, of a healthy rhizomatic and decentred cultural process (Shapiro 1984: 58). These processes are always implicit (even if unsung or frequently hidden in my view) to the creation of work which aims to stand as a polemic against social and political hierarchies, speaking back to authoritarian monological manifestations of culture. Munch’s enduring brilliance was to show an image of psychosocial isolation; the loneliness of god and beast. Working ekphrastically, with great parodic intertextual savoir faire, Abramović’s collaborative performance, The Scream, opens an historical image out across time and context for new audiences. In this respect, Shapiro’s last, epically poetic word on the nature of shared creative process, figured as a crucial communal imperative, is one with which Abramović might agree: ‘The Human is an allegory of collaboration. He who does not collaborate is a god or a beast’ (Shapiro 1984: 58).



[i] The Artist is Present was first performed by Marina Abramović at MoMA, New York, 14 March – 31 May 2010.

[ii] The idea of a revolutionary subjectivity was taken up and promulgated by the Tel Quel group. Tel Quel, an avant-garde journal for literature, was founded in Paris in 1960 by Phillipe Sollers and Jean-Edern Hallier. Its revolutionary writers included Umberto Eco, Roland Barthes, Gérard Genette and Julia Kristeva among others. Their writings variously sought to radically critique the conditions of their time. The foci of the journal’s writings varied but emphasised the metaphor of all language and the deconstruction of control systems set to normalise the masses.

[iii] Barthes notes that the text ‘can be read without guarantee of its father, the restitution of the inter-text paradoxically abolishing any legacy’ (Barthes 1977 [1971]: 161).

[iv] See also the discussion of the trace in Hutcheon (1988).

[v] See Gilbert, S and Gubar, S 1979 The madwoman in the attic: the woman writer and the nineteenth-century imagination, New Haven CT: Yale University Press, and Showalter, E 1977 A literature of their own, Princeton: Princeton University Press.


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