Performance Art as Desublimation


In making the collaborative artwork performance The Part of No Part I was attempting to engage with certain theoretical concerns and their relationship to making art that interest me. It was the effusiveness of its realization, based on the individual artists’ contributions, the tendency to over-shoot the mark and to unfurl in unexpected ways that gave me an opportunity to further reflect upon and situate the project within what is interesting about art making today.

To make sense of art as a field of activity I have gained insight from the work of Jacques Rancière. The title of the project refers to Rancière’s concept “the part of no-part” which is a disruption of and/or a supplement to the “the distribution of the sensible.” The “distribution of the sensible” being the “the system of divisions and boundaries that define…what is visible and audible within a particular aesthetic-political regime” (Rockhill 1). Built on certain principles, or ideologies, each regime is in combat with other regimes and also in conflict with its own inherent excess: The “political conflict resides in the tension between the structured social body where each part has its place – what Rancière calls ‘politics as police’ in the most elementary sense of maintaining social order – and ‘the part with no part’ which unsettles this order on account of the empty principle of universality” (Žižek 70). The “Regimes of Art,” are useful for me in working towards clarifying the reason why certain works of art have sparked an art historical and political debate. For example, Duchamp’s Fountain is an example of an artwork that brings the “Aesthetic Regime’s” principle of equality into conflict with the “Representative Regime’s” principle of hierarchy.

The key to the universal power of the Aesthetic Regime is the equality of intelligence. For Rancière the

…power of equality is at once one of duality and one of community…there is intelligence where each person acts, tells what he is doing, and gives the means of verifying the reality of his action. The thing in common, placed between two minds, is the gauge of that equality, and this in two ways. A material thing is first of all “the only bridge of communication between two minds.” The bridge is a passage but it is also distance maintained (Rancière 32).

Obviously art can be that thing in common. This is one thing that is enjoyable about it. The forms of art, such as painting, photography, sculpture, video, can fit the criteria of equality. There are certain works however that have an in-between status and are unsettling to the principle of equality. What makes them different, I discovered, is that they are contradictory, simultaneously both more and less than a “thing in common.” For example, Fountain is not just an object but also a part of performance; “a kind of rendezvous.” After all, Duchamp made other readymades, that is, sculptures as assemblage, that didn’t accrue vexation. Fountain is problematic for the Aesthetic Regime because of its additional function as a prop in an “organized series of events” (de Duve 96) that complicates its equality. To generalize, while a performance can be viewed as a thing, there are distinct ways in which it is inherently excessive or supplementary to the other forms of art. It does not conform to the universal principle of equality because when placed in relation to the other art forms there is something inherently excessive about it.

In thinking about inherent excess, I saw parallels between Rancière’s terms and those of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan . Rancière’s regimes or “police” are synonymous with Lacan’s symbolic order, which tries to provide a system or a structure for the ordering of the social body. For Lacan, every symbolic order is an ideological fantasy that tries to contain and therefore evade it’s own inherent antagonism, or the Real. The Real is the “evasive remainder that the symbolic order can never ‘catch’ and contain” but also the “fundamental contradiction at the heart of the symbolic order, actively undermining it” (Kotsko 33). Rancière’s regimes of art can be interpreted as different symbolic orders. For example the “Representative Regime of the Arts” is a symbolic order that views art in terms of the ideology of hierarchy while the “Aesthetic Regime of the Arts” explains things in terms of the ideology of equality. Both are attempts to describe but are ultimately mis-recognitions of the Real and therefore flawed. Objet petit a is Lacan’s term for that disruptive element, the antagonism, at the core of every symbolic order. For psychoanalysis, a similar procedure occurs at the level of the individual subject. In the individual the Real manifests itself as jouissance, an intensely pleasurable pain or ‘object-cause of desire,’ the goal that the subject pursues but never reaches. When viewed in this way the ‘part of no part’ becomes synonymous with objet petit a. This can also be seen as jouissance in Rancière’s own vehement defence of it.

While ‘part of no part’ is clearly described in terms of Rancière’s political theory, clear examples of it within his politics of aesthetics are less well articulated. The conflicting status, the more/less, of “the part of no part,” is described by the psychoanalytic concept of sublimation. To succinctly describe sublimation, I quote from Alenka Zupančič at length:

There are two different concepts of sublimation in Lacan’s work. The first concept is the one he develops in relation to the notion of desire, the one defined in terms of “raising an object to the dignity of the Thing.” And then there is another concept of sublimation, which Lacan develops in relation to the notion of drive when he claims that the “true nature” of the drive is precisely that of sublimation (Lacan 111). This second notion of sublimation is that of a “desublimation” that makes it possible for the drive to find a “satisfaction different from its aim.” Is this not exactly what could be said of love? In love, we do not find satisfaction in the other at whom we aim; we find it in the space or gap between―to put it bluntly―what we see and what we get (the sublime and the banal object). The satisfaction is, literally, attached to the other; it “clings” to the other (Zupančič 179).

The first notion of sublimation outlined above is a well known logic of the Aesthetic Regime; the role of art as an agent in “raising” that which is low or common and lowering or deconstructing that which is grand. The second instance of it however, the “desublimation,” is less well known. I believe that the key to articulating this concept, and having it made manifest in terms of contemporary art production, in which the Aesthetic Regime is dominant, lies in the more/less status of performance art.

Performance is antagonistic because it attaches itself, or clings to art. It does not treat paintings or sculptures as artworks but uses them as props or material for its own ends. It is in excess of the other art forms because the body of the performers cannot be merely reduced to and considered as another material. Performance art is also more exclusive than the other art forms because you have to know when and how it is happening, and as such, it is not readily accessible to everyone. It has also been routinely debased in it’s frequent associations with the aesthetic practices of lay individuals – pseudo-ritualistic superstitions, body modification, or role playing games to name a few. It has been accused of humanizing and justifying the conspicuous consumption of the art-world (Diederichsen 29). It has also been accused of being inferior to the other art forms because spectators are required to complete them and in practice their status as a commodity is questionable. There is a need to tame their excessiveness and to render it legible and saleable in the form of photographs, or drawings (instructions) or installations. It is either taken to symbolize the proto-totalitarian Gesumptkunstwerk. Or, it is denigrated as being overly inclusive, being the specialty of “relational” artists where everything has to be accepted, because it is active, engaging and has the ability to disrupt the boundaries between participant/observer.

Since the Aesthetic Regime is not be able to make the supplementary nature of performance equal to the other art forms, it will continue to haunt them as their inherent remainder. Performance art is curious to me precisely because of its inequality. It is “the part of no part” of artistic disciplines. The fine arts, stuck to their material practice, idealistically rehearse equality; in this endless repetition they seem out of step with the lived inequality of our time. A way past the dissatisfaction with the ‘equality in principle’ of the Aesthetic Regime might be to focus on the drive to find satisfaction by a different method, accepting non-equivalence both quantitatively and qualitatively. It might be risky, but at least it’s enjoyable. The Part of No Part is a project inspired by these considerations.

The Part of No Part Catalogue

This text was first published in

Edition of 50
146 pp.
8 x 10.5 x .5 in, 500 g
Unsewn Adhesive Bound


  • Diederichsen, Diedrich. On (Surplus) Value In Art. Rotterdam: Witte de With, 2008.
  • de Duve, Thierry. Kant After Duchamp. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996.
  • Kotsko, Adam. Žižek and Theology. London: T & T Clark, 2008.
  • Lacan, Jacques. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1992.
  • Rancière, Jacques. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Trans.
  • Kristin Ross. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.
  • Rockhill, Gabriel “Translator’s Introduction: Jacques Rancière’s Politics of Perception”. From Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics. London: Continuum, 2004.
  • Žižek, Slavoj. “The Lesson of Rancière.” From Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics. London: Continuum, 2004.
  • Zupančič, Alenka. The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003. My thanks to Paul Kingsbury for alerting me to this passage.