Plato, Hannah Arendt reminds us, “was the first to introduce the division between those who know and do not act and those who act and do not know… so that knowing what to do and doing it became two altogether different performances” . What might a performance that links knowing and acting look like?
Jesusa Rodríguez, Mexico’s foremost performance artist and activist, and I, as performance studies theorist and founding director of the Hemispheric Institute, have worked together for decades developing collaborative pedagogies based on performance, understood broadly as a doing, an acting, a carrying through. Here we offer a reflection in two voices of how performance practice enables a different kind of knowledge production. The underlying concept: knowledge is not a thing, not a one-way act of communication or transfer, but an active doing we undertake with many different kinds of others. Education is, as Paulo Freire argued in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “a practice of freedom” .
For years I’ve used the simple performance exercise of asking people who want to engage in group work to build a pile of stones. This exercise, so simple and profound, helps heighten our awareness of the importance of collective work and very quickly establishes a series of common codes among people who barely know each other.
It also helps us evaluate, in a very short period of time, how a newly formed group of people choose to tackle what will become a common objective.
The exercise consists of asking each person to select a stone and bring it to the group. I do not specify either the size or shape; I ask for nothing more than a stone.
Once the participants have gathered in a circle, I ask them to display their stones so that everyone can see them.
The goal of this exercise is to stack one stone on top of another one by one, attempting to reach the greatest height possible—one stone on top of another, and another, and another. That is all.
We all work in silence.
Each participant must place his or her stone on the pile at the right time, always respecting the premise of reaching the greatest possible height without knocking down what has already been built.
I tell them that the fate of the world depends on us building the pile.
The amazing thing about this exercise is that it allows us all to perceive the nature of every member of the group: the selection of the stone is arbitrary and carries a wealth of information about the person who has chosen it in an intuitive manner—in a way, we’re seeing their intuition materialized.
Was it picked carefully?
Was it picked from the sidewalk right before the exercise began? Maybe it’s not even a stone, maybe just a piece of cement chosen carelessly?
Was the task taken too seriously?
Was it taken as a joke?
During the process, each participant behaves in a non-premeditated manner, and we’ll discover that, in the end, we all approach this simple exercise the same way as we approach everything in life.
All of the qualities that emerge in the stone-selection and stone-placement process provide useful insights into peoples’ personalities and the ways in which each one approaches work within the collectivity.
Some people avoid risk even to the point of skirting the objective: they will place their stone to one side.
Some people use their turn placing the stone as an opportunity to show off. Others, in contrast, approach tentatively.
During the exercise, as the stack starts taking shape, the degree of concentration in the group begins to grow. So does the respect for each other’s work. People start paying attention to their breathing, both individual and collective. Above all, they become aware of the amount of attention that each one has for the people who will follow them.
At the same time, the suspense increases in direct proportion to the challenge that gravity and balance pose within the exercise, a factor that helps avoid the dispersion of the group.
The final result of the exercise is always telling and beautiful because the pile of stones represents the collective and the work that everyone in it is capable of doing together. For that reason, it is important to reflect collectively on the result. Stones placed on the side are moved away and their owners asked to reposition them as essential elements in reaching the common goal—attaining the greatest height possible. Every stone must be essential to the goal if every participant is to be an essential part of the collective effort. No one gets to stand on the sidelines if they are to be part of the group.
The language of stones is such that all we have to do is listen to them to obtain a bit of wisdom. This is probably why our ancestors in all cultures of the world left their messages engrained in stone to transmit their ways of ordering the universe, allowing those messages to reach us and the many generations that will follow ours.
One stone on top of another—it’s that simple.
When it’s the last participant’s turn to add the smallest stone, we understand what it means to contribute a grain of sand and understand the chain of solidarity and harmony that, in the end, combines all of the elements that make up infinity.
The exercise of the stones offers a place to start when thinking about performance pedagogies. The lessons learned from the stones last throughout all of our interactions, including the theoretical discussions and the development of the final project.
Our words and actions throughout the semester are like stones. How do we speak and listen to each other? Are we actually listening? Do our comments contribute to the conversation? Where and when do we place them? Have they been chosen with care? Can others offer their perspectives or do individuals pretend to have mastered them all? Do our words help us achieve our collective goal? Theory is never enough. A syllabus is not enough. Performance-based research needs to be grounded in, and theorized from, practice.
The stone exercise makes visible a practice that underwrites everything we do as a group.
On the most basic level, I might delineate the process as convening a group, establishing a clear goal (developing a decolonial theory and practice in our own work), locating ourselves (for us, the Performance Studio in Performance Studies at New York University), being explicit about the stakes (if the project fails, the world falls—that is, we agree the project is important to us), and working together until we accomplish our goal. At the end, we reflect collectively on what we have accomplished.
Performance pedagogy, as with the stone exercise, is about learning more than teaching. There was no teaching how to pile stones. No one complained that they did not know how to balance them. The exercise did not depend on expertise. There was anxiety, yes. It felt, at times, like a high-risk operation. We held our breath. But, one after the other, we piled the stones higher and higher until we were done. If anyone had taken the easy way out and simply balanced their stone against the existing pile, Jesusa or I removed the stone and made that person balance it on top.
The point was straightforward: We all need to participate fully if we are to reach our goal. No one is dispensable. And so we all felt responsible to the stone structure and to the group. We were proud of it. We sat with it, and looked after it as long as possible, for hours and at times for days.
The exercise, in short, takes a group of people and creates an actively engaged “we.”
How does the collaborative group project come into being, and how is it similar to piling stones?
To begin with, people who choose to participate in a collaborative class such as “Decolonial Theories and Practices” are pre-disposed to some level of experimentation. We all come from diverse backgrounds and have various kinds of expertise. Like the stones, we present in different shapes and sizes, with smoother and rougher edges. How can we work and create together?
In class this semester, we decided to build the stone tower twice—once towards the beginning of the class with Jesusa and again on the last day.
The first time, Jesusa remarked on the stones that many had chosen. About six of the eighteen stones were highly polished, store-bought stones. Did stones come from stores in New York instead of from nature, she asked? Their smooth shapes made them almost impossible to balance on others. Nonetheless, after trial and error, we succeeded in making a fairly tall structure.
The second time, on the last day of class, there were fewer polished stones. A few of the larger ones were very rough—did we think they’d be easier to balance? Most of the stones were very small. After two or three attempts to stack the large stones, someone in the group decided to place the stones side by side on the floor. Adding the smaller stones led to a small, but nonetheless beautiful, structure.
During the process of building, someone knocked down a half dozen or so stones. I asked her to build them back up. Several others offered to help her, but I said it was her task. She worked diligently and made some progress but after some minutes I asked a volunteer to take over.
After the structure was complete, we again reflected on the process.
Had we built the tallest structure we were capable of building? Did learning from past experience make us more cautious? Someone suggested we re-do it.
Someone else noted that the pile, with one stone on top of another, looked oppressive to her, not a ‘decolonial’ practice. The bottom stones were doing the heavy lifting.
Others wondered why the person who knocked over the stones had to build it up again. Shouldn’t every person place their own stone? Wouldn’t that be more collaborative?
Without ‘answering’ these questions, I offered the thinking that Jesusa and I had worked out in our process. The person who knocks over the stones builds it back up. We all take responsibility for what we do within the group. If it proves too difficult, or too frustrating, one can accept help. But difficulty or frustration, while noted, cannot be impediments to reaching our goal.
The remark about the oppressive nature of the pile struck me—especially coming at the end of the semester in which we had created this excellent, multivocal, collaborative dossier. Creating the pile of stones, for me, has always served as a rehearsal for a larger project—what a group can achieve by working together to actualize its potential. The small stone adds as much as the large. There was no more or less. Everyone contributed in the measure of their ability. The beauty came from the sum of its many parts.
There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but we might be able to offer some general thoughts building on this performance practice.
Learning is a performance process carried out through doing, imitating, listening, speaking, and interacting with others. We are all knowledge creators and bearers.
Knowledge is not something we have, but something we do, always in conversation with others, whether those others are the practitioners and theorists who came before us, or the people in the room with us. We never create knowledge by ourselves. We are a product of these interactions. As the Aymara expression has it, jaqxam sar—“to be me, I have to walk and talk with others” . Therefore, we depend on each other to be, to learn, to know. This implies some level of trust to enable the openness we need to engage and share ideas.
Knowledge practice depends on the politics of the question (as our colleague Ricardo Dominguez, co-founder of Critical Art Ensemble and founder of Electronic Disturbance Theatre has long claimed) . We all need to find the answer that works for us and for our context.
Knowledge production depends on the politics of location. From where do we ask the question? Under what conditions do we ask it? Locating ourselves was a performance of “situated knowledge” . We came to understand the situation differently by virtue of being there, discussing the paradoxes and limitations of thinking decoloniality in a private, expensive university in the United States. Situated knowledge, then, does not mean that we follow our emotional instincts, but that we put ourselves in a place where we can gain greater exposure, insight, and experience. The place itself challenges us to make sense of what we see and hear and of what lies just below the surface. We can create artistic and research projects that ask different and better-informed questions. Knowledge as a relational practice means that we need to see and hear in order to be able to know (we need to be there), but we also need to know in order to see and hear more deeply. One of the sections of the dossier reflects on the degree of percepticide, or self-blinding, needed to not hear or not see what’s happening around us/them .
We also recognized the possibility, even ethical imperative, of situated action. We, too, could and should intervene in whatever ways possible drawing on performance and performance-based reflection.
My role, as performance-grounded educator, was not to ‘teach’ the participants what the problems were, but to create the conditions in which they could experience, analyze, and understand for themselves the complex economic, political, and social pressures inherent in the issues we agreed to explore. Performance-based, collaborative pedagogies do not always work. We sometimes fail to reach our desired goals. Sometimes it’s hard to assess why. Sometimes the material conditions are lacking. Sometimes people are less open than others, less trusting, or not given to sharing. It’s not surprising—our educational system values the individual “genius” who creates “original” work, as if there were such a thing. But we in performance know there is no solo work—performance is by definition relational. However, if there are enough collaborative people in a group, they can often raise the level of the interaction. Sometimes one or two individuals are disruptive—they may walk out or kick over the stones. But again, a strong group will self-regulate. Sometimes, the balance is wrong, and the group will not reach the heights that Jesusa or I feel that they can reach.
Sometimes we feel that collaborative work has failed. There is also a lesson in that, one that we can explore together. Collaborate work demands self-reflectivity, adaptability, and hard work. Sometimes, after getting to know the group, we feel that we have to lower the bar. But not often. And not this time. More often, like this semester, we are surprised, amazed, and very proud of what we can accomplish together.
 Percepticide is a term I theorized as ‘self-blinding’ in Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’ (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997): “The triumph of the atrocity was that it forced people to look away—a gesture that undid their sense of personal and communal cohesion even as it seemed to bracket them from their volatile surroundings. Spectacles of violence rendered the population silent, deaf, and blind.” (122).