Research and theory

Research interests

Live Art/performance art; participatory art; installation art; problematic and genealogies of “political art”; visual cultures; performance and the politics of space; performance and identity construction; Practice-as-Research; performance and urban experience; Continental Philosophy



PhD study at the University of Helsinki, Theatre Research (ongoing)

PhD thesis working title:

WHY PARTICIPATE? Tammy WhyNot, Complaints Choir and dominant powers. was also tun?. Horizons of change and politics of the sensible in Lois Weaver’s, Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen’s and Claudia Bosse’s participatory performance practices

Theme and research questions

My doctoral dissertation discusses the challenges, problems and possibilities of performance practices that aim to facilitate personal and social transformation through participatory strategies. This study consists of a theoretical part and three case study analyses. In the theoretical part, I present a novel analytical framework for addressing the ways in which artistic performances engage and affect us; the framework aims to help us conceptualise the dynamics of perception, power and politics in contemporary participative performance. In the case study section, I analyse three recent performance projects that deal with transformation and change in different fields: Tammy WhyNot (2006– ) about sexual emancipation, devised by the US-American performance artist and feminist activist Lois Weaver; Complaints Choir (2005– ) about the positive power of collective action by the Finnish-German visual artist couple Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kalleinen; and dominant powers. was also tun? (2011– ) about the problematic of visibility and democratic change by the Vienna-based theatre company theatercombinat led by the director and installation artist Claudia Bosse.

Through performance analysis that pays special attention to the various modes of bodily engagement in the performance situations, I aim to find out which understandings and assumptions about the transformative potential of participative performance practice underlie these performances. The main research questions of this study are:

* What kinds of change do these performances aim to and, possibly, just happen to bring about?
* How do these performances address and engage their participants both bodily and intellectually in order to reach their transformative goals?
* What assumptions about the transformative efficacy and potential for change through participatory practice do these performances rely on?
* What assumptions about the participating subject do these performances rely on?
* What exclusive and inclusive processes take place in these performances?

Information about the case study projects

Lois Weaver: Tammy WhyNot
Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen: Complaints Choir
Claudia Bosse/theatercombinat: dominant powers. was also tun?

Analytical framework and approach

The analytical framework of this study draws especially on Jacques Rancière’s view of “distribution of the sensible”; on “body techniques” in Marcel Mauss’ and Michel Foucault’s footsteps; and on the ideas of “change” and “interruption” regarding the political relevance of participatory performance.

The main analytical concepts that I use are “sensory field” and “collective body techniques”. Sensory field describes the specific temporary situation that is produced through the performance event, as a joint effect of all its part/icipants, parts and elements both human and other, such as the performance site. Collective body techniques refer to the ways of using one’s body “properly” in specific interactive social situations and that are employed, reformulated or challenged in participatory performances.

I suggest that the most significant ideological standpoints and processes of inclusion and exclusion of any performance are not merely to be seen in its “goals” or “themes” but in the modes of bodily participation that are employed in and by it. Assumptions about e.g. the human body and its capabilities, the senses, identity, freedom and work that inform and underlie a specific participatory performance may be located through the analysis about the modes of participation employed in that performance.

Participants of any performance situation necessarily relate to each other spatially, kinaesthetically, and intellectually. The live performance is a site in which the spectators with their specific personal experiences, social exposures and skills are brought together to interact with each other – to be(come) parts of the situation, the event. Any performance event forms relations between its participants, addressing and organizing their kinaesthetic experiences and providing sensations.

In this study, I define “participative performance” in terms of the ways of addressing the spectator’s body in performance: a participative performance is a performance that turns, or tries to turn the bodies of its spectators into active performer-bodies within the frames of the performance, within the sensory field that the performance opens up. In other words, participative performance is a situation in which the performers and the performance site encourage or force bodies of the spectators to become “active”, “moving”, to become co-performing bodies that act kinaesthetically.

Horizons of change and politics of the sensible

I believe that “change” – in the form of personal or social transformation, novel or unconventional modes of relating to each other, or in the relations of production – is a concept or ethos that looms implicitly behind many, or even most, of our contemporary views of the functions, efficacy, and usefulness of art in general, and of participatory performance practices in particular. In this study, change serves as a vital main reference point also because it is tightly connected to our understandings – and to the understandings of the artists whose work I research – of what power, agency, freedom and work mean; what the participating subject is like i.e. what constitutes the participating subject; what the participatory performance should “do” or achieve; and what participatory strategies are employed in specific performances to realize those goals i.e. invoke those effects.

The reasons for my using of the term “horizons of change” are threefold: first, the term refers to the intentions, motivations and goals that the artists – and the institutions within which they work – have as they devise participatory performances; secondly, I explore not only these intentions but also the horizons of change that the performances might open up, without the artists’ intentions; and thirdly, I ponder whether the case study performances I analyze in this study might open up ways to rethink the parameters of the very concept “change” in the context of participatory performance.

I believe that performances have the possibility to play with and challenge our experience of reality; what it consists of, and who and what have a part in it. That is why they can be seen as having latent political power. Namely, I believe that politics is not only about distributing power for action within some social body but also, and foremost, about who and what has a “part”; who and what counts as “real”, as part of a certain social body and certain reality in the first place. Politics is about the very practices of “ordering” reality; about the processes of making bodies, issues and things sensible; and about fights and negotiations on having and not having a part and a share in a social body (and at its borders). Thus, politics is inevitably bound to the issue of participation right from the start.

In my use, “sense” and “sensible” have a double meaning: they refer to all bodily, material, and discursive ways through which we encounter and “know” reality around us; both to cognitive and reflective activity (“what makes sense”) and to sensory experience (“what can be sensed”). I believe that participatory performances can interrupt our ways of sensing and making sense of the reality around us – in other words, induce breaks in the distribution of the sensible. Through this capacity to make breaches to the distribution of the sensible, participatory art can be seen as a way to create and suggest visions about the future: about possible forms of community, possible means and discourses of communication, possible practices of relating to each other, to ourselves, and to conflicts, and even possible novel forms of life and existence, that the future might entail. That is, art does not need to restrict itself to simply “mirroring” or “representing” issues, events, or phenomena that are based on the (assumedly commensurable) shared reality. Instead, art can suggest novel – even heterotopic – ways to shape forms of participation, communities, and spaces, as well as make the incommensurability and discordance of reality visible. I refer to these processes by the umbrella term “politics of the sensible”.


You are welcome to visit my research page: University of Helsinki Research Database / Joonas Lahtinen


Photo: Dario Campolunghi

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