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Towards 'Economies of Generosity' in contemporary live art practice

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Publication date2017
Number of pages225
Awarding Institution
Award date25/10/2017
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Throughout this thesis, performance theory and the accompanying practice as research are utilised, along with anthropological and philosophical analysis, in order to examine how gift intersects with live art practice. The ways in which it is made and encountered in contemporary (predominantly UK) society are of particular focus.
The Horse’s Teeth, a 2012 project that saw the authorship of six new performance works gifted to six artists, is used, along with Bourdieusian notions of cultural capital and Sara Ahmed’s theory around the ‘stickiness’ of emotions to explore how authorship is both subjective lived experience and a means of accumulating capital. By then analysing the affective dimensions of gift giving within The Horse’s Teeth, a model is developed to show how gift can effect subject-formation.
Building on this model, organ transplantation is proposed as an exemplary instance of the ‘successful gift’, a gift that both bridges identities and affirmatively increases the capacities of the recipient(s). The Kindness of Strangers, a solo performance in which I investigate the relationship between the work’s audience, my anonymous bone marrow donor and Blanche Dubois, is then used to consider the potential of performance to be such a gift. In the proposed understanding, what the audience and performer give to the performance and each other is presented using Jean-Luc Marion’s work on anamorphosis and Jacques Rancière’s emancipated spectator.
Referencing the autobiographical element of The Kindness of Strangers, the transformative potential of Rosi Braidotti’s affirmative ethics is used to explain how the excess of trauma can sometimes be transformed into the excess of gift; a gift to both the traumatised self and, potentially, another. This develops the proposal made by thinkers such as Lyotard, Marion and Derrida that the gift cannot be fully comprehended at the time in which it is given. Inferring from this that the successful performance gift also resists being known by either audience or performer in its totality, the problem of how to make such unknowable performance is explored using Richard Sennett’s writing on craft. The second chapter concludes by considering reciprocity, in particular applause as a reciprocal gift from the audience, as an expression of thanks for what the performer has given.
Having established a clear sense of how performance can be understood as gift, the final chapter examines how such gifts sit within capitalism. A variety of funding systems are considered, as well as the manner by which gift and performance, as Illichian blessings, defy capitalist valuation. Capital’s attempts to gain propriety by developing authorial relationships to the blessing is presented through analysis of corporate patronage, before an overview of current activist work to undermine this in the context of oil sponsorship is provided. The work of Liberate Tate, a group formed to break the relationship between BP and the Tate, is considered in particular depth here. The thesis concludes by proposing a reconsideration of how the arts are valued within funding systems, particularly in relation to waste and the way in which funders undermine the gift within performance by demanding quantified outcomes in advance.

Bibliographic note

An earlier, shorter version of what would become Chapter One was published in: N, Colin, and S, Sachsenmaier, eds. 2016. Collaboration in Performance Practice. Premises, Workings and Failures. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. Ch. 8.