Performance: Between Thinking and Doing

Authored by Joned Suryatmoko

I always like hanging out in public spaces, parks, or other places where I can see people’s activities. Later as I started studying theater and performance, I learned that the body, along with time and space, are pivotal in producing and transmitting knowledge. Dwight Conquergood notes that “The ongoing challenge of performance studies is to refuse and supercede this deeply entrenched division of labor, apartheid of knowledge, that plays out inside the academy as the difference between thinking and doing, interpreting and making, conceptualizing and creating” (Conquergood 2002). His notes remind us to the context that scriptocentrism in ways of knowing have been -not only dominant- but also hegemonic in this modern world. As the medium of doing, body and performance provide us avenues to reconsider the rigid segregation among the idea of knowledge production.

Such a perspective has been my core approach for my fellowship with the Humanities Alliance at the CUNY Graduate Center. As I was embedded and observed Ethnography of Work (EoW) class, my first year became much more interesting. The professor assigned the students to write a vignette, or a brief ethnographic field note about a working place of one in their family. I contributed the conversation by highlighting the importance of performance as another approach in the class. Paying more attention to body, space, and time would be beneficial to develop a thick description for the vignette. And to enhance my description, the class also allowed me to facilitate a quick exercise with the students. Despite their engagement was not so apparent, I noticed that some students seemed very interested in the approach and the exercise.

When the students submitted the vignettes, the professor shared some of them with me as I needed to help the students to develop their vignettes into a performance. I could see their field notes were exceptional. They were descriptive and reflective at once, detailed in explaining the place, and touching. They transmitted the affect, so to speak, in which the subjects of their notes managed to give us a mixed feeling through their body presence in the workplace. I remember one of the vignettes shared how he went to his father’s workplace which is a jewelry shop. During his visit, he attempted to remember every corner as his father often took him there when he was a kid. I also gained the same impression when one student shared a story where her grandma worked, which was in a bank. Her vignette eloquently described how the grandma prepared her desk and computer every morning before working. To me, the vignettes are so performative as they include and juxtapose the subjects along with the time and space, and how their body and emotion revolve around them.

Towards the end of the semester, the professor also encouraged the students to develop their vignettes into performance. Some students approached me to discuss their works. The discussion was also to link their ideas to some more references. It included the students’ experience as they attended and participated in some workshops, performances, and the exhibitions at the James Gallery the GC CUNY. It was also my job to assist the students to translate their experience in the art space for their own ethnography experience. With the references, at least two students managed to present exceptional works. One of them performed a piece in which he constantly repeated one scene that he observed from his cousin’s workplace in a shop. He performed it not by standing in front of the class or in the middle of the circle. He leaned on a wall next to him, and just started doing it. Another student, by inviting some of her friends in the class with impromptu brief play, reconstructed a scene that she perceived from her sister’s workplace in a phone shop. Their performance, hence, brought the vignettes to life. Furthermore, they re-embodied their experience from different angles, not as an observer but as a doer. I believe the shifted perspectives would also provide different comprehension and knowledge for the students themselves, and the whole class. They observed an example in a workplace, wrote a vignette, and replicated them to be another model of performance, in which the students could interfere, reinterpret, and develop the dramaturgy of the new performance.

On the last day of class, as the professor conducted a brief elaborative and evaluation session, I noticed how the students managed to grab different strategies offered in the class. In this case, I hope the strategy of doing has been perceived on the same level as the strategy of thinking, eroding the apartheid of knowledge. They conceptualized as they created their works, and vice versa. They were developing the repertoire, in the sense Diana Taylor calls for embodied memory, all those acts usually thought of as ephemeral, non reproducible knowledge (Taylor 2014). And to me this is the basic idea of experiential learning approach in higher education pedagogy that I bring to my second year of the fellowship.


Conquergood, Dwight. “Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research.” TDR (1988-) 46, no. 2 (2002): 145–56.

Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.