Zorka Wollny’s piece not only transforms the museum into a stage performance, not only theatralizes the institution, but also confronts its totality. In the piece, The Museum Theatre, the museum’s space, institution, and collection become material for a performance in which a complex relationship between performance and the performative is played out. Moreover, the museum that is performed here according to a precise score remains open to actions that are usually eliminated from the standard museum’s functioning procedures.

Probably the most basic material for Zorka Wollny’s work is ritual. On the one hand, it defines the museum’s functioning in such a way that it seems an overlooked category in Goffman’s analysis of “total institutions”.1 On the other, the museum ritualisation of behaviour is opposed here with a performance that is a somewhat mysterious ritual governed by its own laws – a counter-ritual, as it were. At the same time, ritual is the common link between theatre and museum, even if it defines the functioning of each of those institutions in a completely different way. As a result, Zorka Wollny is able to use theatralization against the totalization attempted by every museum. In a paradoxical manner, theatralization becomes for her a means of opening the museum to daily life, of bringing the world confined in it back into the everyday. Daily life, as Goffman noticed, is a theatre.2 He refers to the actions undertaken by people as “performances”. These performances form the social reality and human relationships. At the same time, Goffman notices that such performances can be more or less dramatic and that their dramatization is a means of improving the chances of achieving the fundamental goal of any performance, that is influencing the public. The effectiveness of the impression exerted on the performance’s observers is a key parameter in Goffman’s analyses. If the recognition of everyday life as a theatre stage and of the social reality as a collection of performed roles makes Goffman’s theory an important reference for the theory of performance and performativity, including in the field of art,3 it is mainly because it identifies the element from which artistic performance draws its power. The material of performance art is the material of everyday life itself, allowing the performer to question it, work through it, or reverse it.

At the same time, aspiring to describe the entire spectrum of human (and non-human) behaviour, performativity theory makes it possible to place artistic performances in the context of other performances or renditions. An attempt has also been made on its basis to investigate the situation, crucial for artistic performances, created by the museum.Redefining its commonly accepted role, Charles Garoian presents the museum as a collective performance, almost a theatre, with many actors: the works on display, the curators, the educators and, above all, the viewers.4 Following through on Garoian’s intuitions, we could say that the museum is performed anew every time a new performer appears on its stage, e.g. when a new work is introduced or when a staff member or viewer enters. In Garoian, the attempt to redefine the museum form the point of view of performativity stems from a desire to overcome its isolation from daily life and to highlight its potential as a living place for creating social reality, mainly by stressing the viewers’ active role in its every single performance. However, in his analysis, Garoian encounters a key obstacle: on the one hand, indeed, the museum as a performance is co-authored by the viewers, but on the other, it is also a performance in which the behaviour of all the participating elements – viewers, staff members, works, even climate conditions (e.g. protecting items from damage or theft, slowing down or preventing natural decaying processes, and so on) – is subject to radical control. In terms of the control that the museum performers’ behaviour is subject to, the museum resembles institutions that Goffman defines as “total”. Among those, Goffman counts prisons, mental hospitals, army barracks, monasteries – places where large groups of people are gathered and isolated, and subjected to rigours that change both their roles and the way they are performed. Even though the museum is obviously not a typical total institution, it still seems to share many common features with one. It is isolated in an equally radical, though technically different, manner and also seems to be a place where a radical change of behaviour is required. The museum is a theatre in which the performances (viewing, guarding, and so on) are carried out differently than elsewhere.

Zorka Wollny has researched and worked through the museum’s performativity in her earlier performance pieces: Museum (National Museum in Cracow, 2006), Polish Walk for the Collection of
th and 21st Century Art (Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź, 2007), or Six Silhouettes against the Background of a Collection (Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź, 2009). The former two were an interpretation of the way viewers behave when viewing museum exhibitions. Wollny identified the typical performance figures performed by them, designed a choreography, and introduced performers back into the museum space so that they could confront the viewers’ performances with their own dance. A slightly more insistent repetitiveness, a slightly too regulated rhythmicity of gestures differentiated the dancers’ performances from those of the other viewers. In Six Silhouettes Against the Background of the Collection, the dance routine detached itself from the viewers’ performances, becoming a choreographic interpretation of the space of the museum and the works presented within it.

Writing about “performing the institution” in Performing the Museum, Garoian states that the museum is a “performative space”,a “choreographed environment”.5 Similarly, Zorka Wollny not only notices that the museum is a highly theatralized space, but also finds, in the specific exhibition space of the main lobby of the Museum Abteiberg in Mönchengladbach, all the constituent elements of a typical theatre performance space. For this reason, she decides to approach it as if it were a theatre. The Museum Theatre is a performance in which the museum is performed in an unprecedented manner. It becomes a dramatic, choreographic, symphonic, vocal and last but not least, discursive phenomenon. The performance’s participants include, equally, people, the exhibited works of art, and the museum’s space, particularly its surprising acoustics. The performance becomes a complex, multilayered interpretation and intervention. At the same time, it is an almost theatrical presentation, full of unexpected moments and effects. Unlike in Wollny’s previous pieces, the viewers are seated here in three rows of chairs so that they can perform the role of the public in the semblance of a theatre audience. If the viewers’ performance is strictly defined, there arises the question whether the The Museum Theatre piece is perhaps a reversal, or least a transgression, of the museum as a “total institution”?

The performance begins with a loud bang, which becomes a signal that initiates whispers permeating the Abteiberg spaces and recesses. Whispers, the phenomenality of which refuses to leave you alone (has anyone written a phenomenology of whisper yet?), and which seem to be telling stories that should always be kept secret (if the museum is a storing and preserving institution, can it maintain secrets that should never be uttered out loud?), but all doubts are dispelled by the following words being spoken out loud: “Kunstwerk”, “Kunstobjekt”, “Kunstgegenstand” (the art museum’s only secret are the works of art, the uselessness principle of which cannot be uttered out loud). Posting the issue of the art object provokes elaborating on the theme of the meaning of art by loudly reading out a fragment of the catalogue (the fragmentarized museum discourse becomes, however, a more acoustic or even vocal element). Fragments of the words being read out are caught and repeated by echo resounding in ever more distant spaces. The scientific discourse is interrupted by a vocal part resounding in four unidentified places (can you sing in a museum?), and it is only at this moment that the performance protagonists appear; they enter the exhibition space in a slow, puppet-like rhythm, fixing their eyes on the exhibited works (so much as a trace of desire or interest is absent from their gaze). The viewer figures seem to be materialising out of different recesses, filling the space with their monotonous movement. The audio counterpoint of this movement comes in the form of a puzzling sound of particles being poured through or spilt over. It turns into a hollow tapping which is interrupted by a monotonous, obsessive voice that echoes all the provisions that are meant to regulate the museum viewers’ daily behaviour, such as the prohibition of touching or photographing the exhibits (a weakening voice of prohibition does not cause a need for transgression that would sustain it). The prohibition discourse is interrupted by the sound of footsteps somewhere above. This is accompanied by the sound of a ringing phone (the anachronistic ringing of an old-style phone provokes questions about how the museum is connected with the communications network and, first of all, how it participates in the flow of information). However, this kind of questions are drowned out by strange murmuring. This is accompanied by an almost operatic singing out of the inventory (the most beautiful performance of this task imaginable) and, on a lower level somewhere, a dispute between a man and an elderly woman about the situation of an object (a family quarrel in a museum?). Another vocal part and murmuring complement the audio landscape. Then the quarrel again, some hollow clatter, steps overhead, and the sound of a phone ringing. Someone picks it up. Three woman curators walk down one after another from the floor above and, their heels clattering, take spotlight-indicated positions to begin the introductory speech (we know it so well from all those openings). The curators’ hard work is interrupted by a vocal part performed from the railing of the top floor and a final outburst of the argument on the bottom one. Having waited a moment, the curators leave the stage, which is accompanied by intensified movement from the, somewhat languid so far, performers of the role of the viewers. Prolonged and ever louder hissing, performed by persons emerging from various recesses into the main space of the lobby, constitutes the performance’s most ominous part (ever louder silencing is ever angrier silencing). To the accompaniment of the hissing, the silent “viewers” gather around one of the objects, a two-piece sculpture by Robert Morris, where they perform a complex choreographic routine, its main element being their tender cuddling (this explosion of tenderness seems a response to the earlier insistence on “no touching of exhibits”) Another bang comes as a closing bracket. This is followed by a fragment of the museum discourse: the phrase, borrowed from a work description, “35 mm Farbfilm mit Ton”. The word “Ton”, that is, “sound”, is then vocalised by the other performers, becoming the performance’s final word and sound.

In the prelude to the performance, a museum staff member asks the audience to mute their phones. This is in fact an appeal for the viewers to become mute, thus allowing the performance to sound out to the last moment. This illustrates quite precisely the reversal strategy employed by Zorka Wollny. In her rendition, even the museum discourse becomes singing. The mechanism of this reversal is best revealed in the relation between the final word and sound, or, more precisely, between “sound” and its resounding. One can say that the word “sound” its equalled here with its very sound, and even more: that there occurs a reversal of the onomatopoeia. What is uttered is not a sound-imitating word, but a word-imitating sound, the sound of a word being replaced by the word of a sound, or, more precisely, by the resounding of a word, or even the resounding of a sound.

The museum in Zorka Wollny’s performance becomes a discourse turned into song and dance. This raises the question of how causative, if at all, such a performance of the museum is. Or, in other words, to what degree this performance becomes a performative. That is, whether it affects at all the functioning of the museum or in any way challenges its totality. Performance theory has often been discussed in the context of John Austin’s theory of performativity – “doing things with words”.6 Austin investigates how in a given situation a verbal utterance creates reality. In a performative, the act of utterance is crucial (e.g. an oath or promise) – the causative power of language – whereas in an artistic performance even if words are uttered, the causality is of a different nature. Austin himself, reflecting on the conditions that would guarantee the performative’s effectiveness, concludes that the first rule, which could be referred to as institutional, consists in strictly following an accepted conventional procedure, and a second one assumes for honest intention and its actual realisation.7 Adopting the second condition caused Austin to regard as “hollow or void” those utterances that are delivered on stage, introduced in a poem or spoken in soliloquy.8 This means that all artistic performances, unavoidably and always carried out on one stage or another, are excluded. This would mean that the The Museum Theatre performance, performed in the context of a “stage”, in the context of an “artistic action”, cannot display any causality. Austin’s conception was subjected to critique by Jacques Derrida,9 whose argument could be summarised thus: if Austin assumes that observing convention and procedure is a necessary condition of a successful performative, he necessarily provides for a certain theatricality or stage-ness, within the framework of which those conventions and procedures can be fulfilled, that is, performed. The convention and procedure of a wedding (Austin’s key example) is essentially theatrical and requires a stage for the performative of the marriage vow to be fulfilled – the sacramental “Yes, I do” has to be accompanied by an entire performance, without which the utterance itself would be meaningless and ineffective. Therefore, no performative can exist without performance and without a stage. On the other hand, no performance can exist without the performative power of an institution, which creates the framework and venue for it – a stage, without which no performance is possible.

Zorka Wollny’s The Museum Theatre performs a different museum than the “total institution” it usually is. Wollny’s performance is radically different from the performances carried out every day by the museum viewers and staff. Turning the museum into song and dance, the performance suspends its institutional (and total) conventions and procedures but, on the other hand, it cannot revoke them completely, because this would annul the possibility of its own existence. Performance, therefore, has the causative power of performing a phantasm here. The performative of a phantasm (an impossible figure for Austin) is a performance of the impossible. There exists no museum in which there would not appear the dream of functioning in a completely different way than is necessary, nor does there exist a museum in which this dream could be fulfilled otherwise than through an artistic staging. Zorka Wollny’s performance takes place in a space between performance and the performative, between rendition and “causative action” – from the initial bang to the moment the final “sound” dies away.

Moenchengladbach 2013

1.Erving Goffman, “Characteristics of Total Institutions” in idem, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, Anchor Books 1961.

2.Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, University of Edinburgh Social Sciences Research Centre 1959.

3.Cf. Richard Schechner, Performance Studies – An Introduction, Routledge 2002.

4.Charles Garoian, “Performing the Museum”, in Studies in Art and Education, A Journal of Issues and Research, 2001, no. 42(3).

5.Ibid., p. 246.

6. John Austin, How to do Things with Words: The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955, Oxford University Press 1962.

7 8. Ibid., p. 14-15. Ibid., p. 22.

9. Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context”, in Limited Inc, Northwestern University Press 1988.

Published in: ZORKA WOLLNY. THE MUSEUM THEATER, Abteiberg Museum, Moenchengladbach 2012