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Terms of Engagement: Quality, Art-Worlding, and How Performativities Work, Part I

Terms of Engagement: Quality, Art-Worlding, and How Performativities Work, Part I

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“Terms of Engagement” is a monthly essay-column about relationships between performance art(ists) and language(s).

This is the first installment of a three-part discussion of terms of engagement like “quality” surrounding and embedded in conceptions of “the artworld” and “mainstream culture.” What I want to get at is complicated conceptually and diffractively located so it’s going to take me a while to pursue several different pathways of inquiry, burrowing back and forth between concrete instances and conceptualizations. Hopefully, examples of performance art works and practices clarify the discussion. As always, responses, corrections, questions are welcome and encouraged, email

Ursula Johnson Esther Neff Maria Hupfield Terms of Engagement

Ursula Johnson, Jennifer Kriesberg, and Laura Ortman. “Ke’tapekiaq Ma’qimikew: The Land Sings,” The Highline Line, 2018. Photograph courtesy of Project Space efa.


Not everyone will be a professional artist. Not everyone will get the grant, have their work exhibited, be invited to guest lecture at a university, go on residencies, be seen, make money, sell, become known, come to operate from some medial position of influence and power.

Each time a grant panel convenes, a curator goes through her files, each time a selection committee gets together (usually the group of artists who received the opportunity last year), individuals are deciding and debating how and if particular humans and their artistic practices are “of quality.” Individuals are debating whether or not the artist and their work fit into operative definitions of quality—does this work qualify as art and within contexts present and pertinent to art-worldings hereby performed? Does this person qualify for this program’s definition of the types of people fit for the program?

Naturally, one might wonder in each and every case (both from behind the table and when approaching it, proposal in hand), of quality how? deemed of quality by whom and as qualified by what?

There are many articles which discuss how and what artists should do in order to deemed “of quality” and therefore qualify for attention and maybe the big bucks. Qualification is likened to a game, a secret art in and of itself, technical mastery of an infallible (consistent, logical, business-like) procedure. This text is transgressing this sort of discussion. I will not be proposing qualification tactics and offering advice for how to succeed, rather this column installment will deal performatively with a conceptual problematic of “quality,” especially in relationship with “performance art,” in and on the terms of the performative operations of “the work itself.”

In general, to qualify is to be formally appropriate [1], to fit and embody the form desired and/or demanded by, of use to, a qualification schema.

We can think of qualification schemas as similar to moral heuristics, or any other arrangement of beliefs, knowledges, meaningfulness and values from which a structure, pattern, or set of rules and norms for believing, knowing, meaning, and valuing may emerge and/or become visible. Schematics are presumably emergent from and used by one or more (even many many) persons.

For artists practicing a non-discipline like “performance art,” which resists definition as anything but (p)articulations, which has long been see as obscene, absurd/insane (see the popular use of “performance art” as a pejorative [2]) and accused of contributing—in form or lack of formality—to the “deskilling” of art at the very least, ideas about quality and qualification may seem beside the point. Performance art makers and organizers often try to avoid making quality judgments in general, recognizing that general, self-supposing qualification schemas for “high art” are dominantly driven by capitalism, white supremacy, colonial imperialism, Western/Judeo-Christian xenophobia, and misogyny, thereby maintaining oppressive orders of authorization, aesthetic evaluation, legitimacy, and quality solely in terms of free market demand and on the very terms of (anti)enculturation that performance artists so often transgress and work to (conceptually and practically) dismantle and/or bypass.

When we do begin to investigate schemas for “qualification” and “quality” as terms of engagement, we may find that schematics emerge in many different sizes, shapes, and forms. Processes performing qualification are not solely the invention of colonial and imperialist/supremacist business-makers, processes may also be as small and sensual as matters of tasting with the tongue and finding the fruit viable or rotten. Because of the breadth and scope of conceptions and acts involving “quality” in realizations embodied across somatic and political spheres, it only strengthens dominant default schemas to reject the concept entirely.

There are qualification schemas which formally acknowledge their own particularity and subjectivity, and there are qualification schemas which propose themselves as objective and right(eous). Institutional and politically-scaled qualification schemas tend to suppose themselves the latter, while human and relational-scaled qualification schemes tend to see themselves as the former.

While the largest-sized qualification schemas are—in form and scale—structurally entangled with inherently oppressive values, beliefs, and logics for judgment and must be dismantled and resisted, smaller scale qualification schemas may have a hand in these very dismantling processes; some (perhaps smaller-scale, personified, and particular) qualification schematizing is necessary to methodology, artistic envisioning, self-recognition, to conative/biocultural processes and also to many discussions of how and if certain forms, methods, and ways of seeing qualify forms for activation, i.e. provide connective tissue between values/ethics/beliefs/voices and actions.

What happens when someone or a group of persons “outside the mainstream” fits their practices to “their own” schemas for quality? What are some consequences and affects of intentionally constructing (performing-as-art) qualification schemas which may be temporary, particular, relational, and ethically correlated with specific forms of art and cultural praxis, perhaps even with some values other than those enforced by economically and politically totalitarian conceptions of quality?


Here, the author of this text is speculatively performing a writing-out of example “qualification schemas,” in order to test what it might be like for a performance artist to intentionally construct a qualification schema. I am trying this because it often seems like qualification schemas are inevitable (e.g. human beings always have tastes, beliefs, appearances, and preferences) and thus it may be more ethical to acknowledge and intentionally deal with emergent qualities of qualification rather than pretending that any (dominant or original) schemas are “natural” and/or objectively “of quality” to anything other than themselves.

I want to test three schematic and semantic definitions here:

1.) qualifications as fitness of form and content to each other, e.g. appropriate (non-appropriated) narratives in plastic relationship with instances of personification and enculturation(s)

2.) qualities (p)articulating perspectives and sensibilities of those authoring and materializing schemas for quality

3.) qualia as contextual, perceptual, affective/affectionate and conceptual singularities being materialized (qualified vs. qualia-fying)


Ursula Johnson, Jennifer Kriesberg, and Laura Ortman are standing in a semi-circle at the window overlooking Tenth Avenue and 17th Street on the High Line in Lenapehoking (lands inhabited by the Native American Lenape, now New York City, among other places). The three are performing as part of Johnson’s ongoing project, “Ke’tapekiaq Ma’qimikew: The Land Sings.” Johnson is inspired by and uses Indigenous song lines—singing the land—as a navigational and relational practice [3]. Drums, violin, and vocals are mapping, marking landscape and instance of biotic presence, configuring and interpreting pathway, intra-acting in/across timespace with bio-cultural human processes.

The sounds made by the three performers trace and comingle with each other and with the moving cars, the cold, sharp wind, the voices of tourists speaking many different languages, the skyline of the city, carrying up and down the spines of both humans and the High Line. The performance is qualifying line-likenesses, pathways, and co-natures into presence, fitting these to forms of attention and being-here, including those forms of attention involving Instagram, for example.

What is qualified by and for this performance might be described as the history and context of the High Line, both as part of public rails-to-trails projects across the USA attempting to re-expose humans living in urban environments to “nature,” and as part of the ongoing erasure and displacement of Indigenous and Native/nativised peoples in the name of colonial and capitalist “development.” These contextual elements are qualified via narratives about the value of Indigenous voices and the agency of living land-embodiment, which emerge as schemas for (de)qualification from/of positive and negative durational performativities and enculturations.

Many theories of art (from all over the world) define “quality in art” as a plasticity between forms and contents, concepts and actions. By describing giving-and-receiving creativities which both conjoin (establish union) and proliferate and multiply creation/matter(s), artistic acts (especially performances) can directly qualify realities for appearance and recognition. When give-and-receive action (plastic formation) is performed as qualification, the artistic activity is per-formed between the agents present (including “nonhuman” entities), matters of concept and/or materials (such as musical instruments and the form of song line), and narrative (given from “within” culturally-located persons, and as interpreted/received “by” culturally-located persons), becoming “of quality” within/as its own forms.

In brief, this definition of “qualification” describes processes of making material what is (already) present in a way that such matter(s) come to (in)form as material mean(ingfulness)s.

Maria Hupfield Esther Neff

Ursula Johnson, Jennifer Kriesberg, and Laura Ortman. “Ke’tapekiaq Ma’qimikew: The Land Sings,” The Highline Line, 2018. Photograph courtesy of Maria Hupfield.


In a recent performance at ISSUE project room [4], as she speaks, dances, moves in very-close-to-far-away spatial relationships with the audience, Keijaun Thomas is also rubbing a viscous, sticky substance, possibly molasses, on her body. Near the end of the performance, she pours red glitter from a sandbox bucket and pops red balloons-full of glitter down over herself.

Thomas articulates her perspectives and sensibilities through a pre-recorded soundtrack which describes and inscribes the artist’s cultural, political, and experiential location (this sounds dry, it’s hard to communicate the “wet” affects of her voice and the poetics of the text). The soundtrack tells us (the audience) who and how the artist is, what her qualities are and, to a certain extent, communicates how qualities of her personhood can be understood/felt by listeners/witnesses. Thomas’ live acts of speaking with and around the playing track (also her voice and her own sonic material/songs) are qualifying the living person to her own narratives about and aesthetic representations of herself.

Thomas’ use of “substances” however, often difficult-to-control sticky, powdery substances like Elmer’s Glue, soda crackers, or glitter, bring up a slippery facet of “qualities,” e.g. adjective qualities like “sweet,” or “black” or “punk.” Many adjectives describing qualities of materials and persons come with judgments (like “beautiful” is usually “good”) but adjectives describing the qualities of substances are less clear: “powdery” and “sticky” for example are “just” descriptions, they are what they are, open to an in-context, situated, personalized evaluation and materialization.

Keijaun Thomas’s use of these substance-materials in her work allow her to materialize an array of types of qualities and ways in which qualities are experienced, embodied, described and valued, from political declarations clearly negating or positing values through abstract smearing of qualities across sensory fields. This array interrogates violently systemic socio-political schemas for value, judgment, and quality themselves (such as white supremacy, racism, misogyny, cis-hetero/normative-supremacy, and so on) in part by materializing qualities that cannot be described or qualified by/within these schemas and also by constructing and staging her own schematics for qualified matter(ing)s. [5]

Keijaun Thomas, “Distance is not Separation” at the Hemispheric Institute. Video posted on Vimeo.


Adriana Disman ** is concerned about a brick wall, needing one for an iteration of her performance Swallow in Tulsa, Oklahoma [6]. A sign is taped to an area of wall on the outside of the Living Arts Tulsa building but when Disman is ready to perform that evening, as she rolls up the loading dock gate to let the audience out to witness her performance, someone is parked right in front of the chosen area of wall.

Disman often performs acts that initially seem subtle from the outside—from the perspective of witnesses—but deeply effect/affect her own body. For example, filling her belly with water, holding a bar of soap in her mouth, making small cuts that delicately trickle blood. These acts increase in resonance in relationship with viewers’ capacity for empathy and proprioception. In witnessing these acts, I often think about “qualia,” the word for absolutely singular, subjective, internal sensation that can never be absolutely known to another person. Attempts to materialize these singularities of perception, concept, and affect assign quality to differences of sight and meaning rather than to unifications or homogenizations. Fitting to form is not of quality, while not fitting to forms of quality becomes qualifiable.

Disman tells the assembled audience—as we stand on the loading dock and around the offending car in the parking lot—that she had planned to do a durational action of shaking her head “no” with the tip of her nose grating (eventually scraped to blood) on the brick wall. Now, however, she asks us each to try it, to line up along the building and put our hands on the brick (still warm from the sun even though it is night now) and to gently touch our noses to the wall. Disman invites us to perform our own “no,” to experience the gesture and the affects it may bring into presence.

Adriana Disman, “Swallow.” Posted on Vimeo.

Perhaps it’s possible to schematize qualia by holding them loosely together via activity/activation, instead of schematizing qualities in ways that hierarchize, sort, evaluate, and order qualities. While qualification schemas propose unified ways of fitting forms of perception and sensation to form, qualia-fication schemas propose singularities and (p)articularities as valuable elements of individual and social becoming.


In some summary of the above three discussions, we can see Jenny Rollingstone’s 2016 performance as an example of a kind of “purely self-reflexive” qualification process. In this performance the artist recited “I am real, I am good” while the lights slowly came up and then dimmed again. Via this “performative” or illocutionary [7] speech act, the artist is directly qualifying (for), schematizing, and (in)forming her own existenc

Jenny Rollingstone Esther Neff Terms of Engagement

Jenny Rollingstone, “Untitled,” Panoply Performance Laboratory, 2016.

Why do we feel we need “the big other” (e.g. “the artworld” or “the mainstream”) to tell us if and how we qualify and/or are fit to large-scale and coercive schemas for our usefulness and fitness, when performance work itself so directly deals with and presents alternatives?


Part Two will address “art-worlding” from this position, asking what else performances of art-worlding (structurally, organizationally, culturally) can “do,” (if anything) in fitness to and of use to singular, alterior (per)form(ativities)s such as those described here, not vice versa.


[1] In business, the word “quality” means “fitness for use,” see, an etymological search gives us an even more open definition: Middle English (in the senses ‘character, disposition’ and ‘particular property or feature’): from Old French qualite, from Latin qualitas (translating Greek poiotēs ), from qualis ‘of what kind, of such a kind” and the (really very bad and skewed) Google dictionary tells us that quality first means “the standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something.” Here, I’m playing at philosophy, wherein the word “quality” means “fitness to form,” recognizing that any “standard” for excellence or definition of use-value involves (ideo)logical form(ation); use and excellence are both formative schemas for qualification, for which materials, services, objects, and so on are then judged fit (or not).



[4] as part of Queer Trash, March 10, 2018 at ISSUE project room

[5] her artist statement says “Thomas is reimagining, reworking, and reconstructing notions of visibility, hyper-visibility, passing, trespassing, eroticized, and marginalized representations of blackness in relation to disposable labor, domestic service, and notions of thingness amongst materials,” which is a much clearer way of saying all of this…I am talking here about how this reimagining, reworking, and reconstruction practically works, engaging with Thomas’s processes through terms of “qualification.”

[6] Living Arts Tulsa, New Genres Art Festival, March 1-3, 2018,

[7] a “performative” or “illocutionary” speech act is defined by its consequential self-validation or self-declaration. According to John Searle, responding to Peirce’s original description, “the successful performance of the speech act is sufficient to bring about the fit between words and world, to make the propositional content true.” Searle, JR. “How Performatives Work,” Linguistics and Philosophy. Vol. 12, No. 5 (Oct., 1989), pp. 535-558.

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Terms of Engagement: “Authenticity,” Esther Neff

Terms of Engagement: Performance Art(ists) and Language(s), Esther Neff

and/or other articles archived under Performance Art.

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