Performing Materiality: Rethinking the Subject-Object Relationship as a Site of Exchange in Performance Practice

Nesreen Hussein

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis reconsiders the relationship between the human subject and the physical object in performance practice, which has been commonly perceived within hierarchical systems of instrumentalisation. The thesis demonstrates that in processes of performance making and reception, the role of physical objects goes beyond mimesis and direct representation. Physical objects and materials have the capacity to take active parts in a complex and multilayered performance dynamic, articulating ways of seeing and offering new ways of assessing performance. Drawing on Hegel’s conception, the notion of ‘objectification’ is central to this dynamic, approached as a positive model of the subject’s potential development and as a productive catalyst in a creative process, which goes against the negative connotations engrained in the term.

The thesis is grounded on three case studies from recent live performances, following the journey of the object throughout different modalities of presentation: an opera production, where the object is key and a point of departure for the devising process; a performance installation, where the shifting boundary between performer and object is negotiated as a politically charged vehicle of expression; and a performance based on the act of ‘telling,’ where the language itself approaches the status of object, materialising an experience from the past in a way that extends the notions of materiality and site-specificity beyond physical boundaries. In each of the cases, the interaction between the subject and the object is emphasised as dialectical and reciprocal, rather than hierarchical or subordinate. In different ways, each side takes part in constructing the other, while the authority of the written text as the bearer of meaning and as the starting point is destabilised. The practices highlight the creative, philosophical and political significance of the unstable dynamic between subjects and objects, offering conceptual lenses through which other examples of practice can be viewed. The case studies raise wider questions on the nature of the subject-object tension, and its capacity to situate and define our relationship to the self and to the world.

By employing a multiplicity of analytical and philosophical frameworks in the humanities and social sciences, and by evaluating a larger body of theoretical and practical approaches to objects in modernist and contemporary paradigms, the thesis offers a detailed analysis of what occurs through a performance situation and how the object in each case study actively contributes to the making process in ways that employ, and also transgress, the object’s material limitations. The author’s position as a participant-observer, and at times a performer, allows for experiential understanding of the tension inherent in the subject-object dynamic and its practical implications.

Recognising the nature of performance as fundamentally subversive of binary closure, the thesis concludes with proposing a conceptual framework that adds to the understanding of human experience and performance. It emphasises ‘ambiguity’ as an unresolved state of existence intrinsic to the relationship between the subject and the object in both performance and the social world. The thesis proposes new approaches to performance making that invest in the object’s potential as a mobilising element that embodies meanings, values and social relations.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Normington, Catherine, Supervisor
  • Worth, Libby, Supervisor
Award date1 Oct 2011
Publication statusUnpublished - 2011

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