Performing Economies – Buffalo, NY

This past weekend the Techne Institute presented the spring colloquium, Performing Economies. Organized by Stephanie Rothenberg (Assoc. Professor – Visual Studies) and Paige Sarlin (Asst. Professor – Media Study), the gathering connected prominent guest and performers with faculty, staff, and students from UB with community partners working in diverse areas of Buffalo, NY. The conference presentations were superb, and the conversations they generated demonstrated the potential for artists, activists, and scholars to connect and collaborate in many ways. The conference really felt like the beginning of something significant. It was a pleasure to attend and a privilege to participate.

As the Director of Techne, I was asked to share some remarks to open the conference. Here is a copy of my comments. More reports and documentation will be appearing on the Techne website, but in the meantime, I wanted to share my thoughts on this conference and why the framework of performance is critical as we consider the evolution of diverse living environments and economic contexts.


As we’ve been preparing for this colloquium, I’ve had a number of people ask me about the title of the colloquium Performing Economies, particularly the performing part. By now, many of us are familiar with the language of an economy measured by its so-called performance. To wit, a recent Forbes article asked, “Is Russia’s economy under-performing?” The Brookings Institution website has a section entitled “US Economic Performance,” and in December 2013, the website Rediff ranked the “best and worst performing economies” for the previous year.  This is what performance theorist Jon McKenzie referred to as “the efficiency of organizational performance,” contrasted with the “efficacy of cultural performance,” and the “effectiveness of technological performance” [cf. Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance, 2001].

Even beyond these contexts, the language of performance has become ubiquitous to contemporary life. We evaluate both our own job performance (here at the University, we follow defined “performance programs”) and that of our cars. In 2011, Subaru launched an entire ad campaign entitled “pure performance”:

Our online social media exchanges have all the hallmarks of ongoing mini-performances, complete with lights, camera, and audiences. We talk about sexual performance, athletic performance, computing performance. There is, as I recently discovered, an International Society for the Performance Improvement dedicated to serving, among others, “high-performance organizations.”  We can purchase supplies and self-help guides to give provide us with “high-octane performance” when regular, old performance isn’t enough.

But, I think it’s worthwhile to note that this colloquium is “performing economies,” a gerund verb form that suggests a state of becoming as both noun and verb. We can see here both the performance of different economies as well as economies that are still coming into being, those conditions that are constituting themselves through performative action: reiterative, repetitive acts that constitutes being. It is in this repetition that we see the radical transformative power of performance as a perpetual state of becoming, a constantly updating creation validated by collective, communal witnessing.

Since coming to Buffalo with my family in 2005, I’ve seen first-hand the power of such acts, as various groups—cultural, organizational, technological—have sought to perform and re-perform new Buffalo identities into existence. That is, we can observe not only how the economy performs, but also how we and others can collectively perform and revise our economies, how we can perform new identities of our post-industrial city, how we can re-stage our own realities. Over the next few days, Performing Economies offers the chance to consider these ever-evolving performances through a variety of perspectives and I’m delighted to be able to share in all of these performances—artistic, intellectual, political, social, environmental—as evidence of new potentialities. Or, as  quote from the anthropologist Richard Bauman:

“Perhaps there is a key here to the persistently documented tendency for performers to be both admired and feared—admired for their artistic skill and power and for the enhancement of experience they provide; feared because of the potential they represent for subverting and transforming the status quo. Here too may lie a reason for the equally persistent association between performers and marginality or deviance, for in the special emergent quality of performance the capacity for change may be highlighted and made manifest to the community.”

With this in mind, I welcome the forthcoming changes to the status quo and salute the marginal deviance to come over the next few days.


Thanks to all who attended and we’ll look forward to seeing everyone next year at “Structures of Digital Feeling,” a consideration of affect, perception, and communication in the context of digital culture.