András Müllner

The Fiction of ‘Bare Life’
How performatives function in Hungarian neo-avantgarde works of art

This paper explores the performatives in some typical examples of the Hungarian neo-avantgarde. The authors of these works are such artists as Miklós Erdély or Tibor Hajas, who favoured the use of both explicit and implicit performatives to create theatrical or performance-like situations. One of the questions these examples should help us find an answer to is to what extent the deconstructive criticism of the Austinian definition of performativity may be paralleled with Hungarian neo-avantgarde endeavours. Namely, if we can assert (as, for instance, Andrew Parker and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick do) that the philosophical problem of the performative is closely connected with the artistic problem of the performance, then it is possible that the performatives embedded in Hungarian neo-avantgarde performance-like works are significant indicators of this correspondence. Henceforth, we ‘only’ need to explore what kind of effect the implementation of performatives in neo-avantgarde actions (films, objects, installations) has on the traditionally firm role of these performatives in bare life.

The imperative address

On 2 February 1979, Kossuth Radio broadcast a radio-performance in its programme Dash [Gondolatjel]. Tibor Hajas, the performer, mostly addressed ‘the’ radio listeners in second person singular (except when speaking to the rest of the listeners as ‘snooping’ witnesses), ‘touching’ them with his voice and calling upon them over and again: ‘listen carefully’; ‘lean back and relax, close your eyes’; etc. The speaker of the performance Touch [Érintés], which undeniably gave rise to sexual connotations, identified himself as a voice; a voice that is exposed to the listener like an object. This voice, however, was self-confidently regulating the ‘lone dance’ throughout the short time at its disposal, despite all its defencelessness, ‘blindness’ and ‘deafness’. At least this is what the imperative mood of its oration indicated.

The radio performance of Hajas is not the sole example of an address that has imperative effect, neither in his solitary, nor in his collaborative works. He either addressed his audience with the formal (Dark Flash, Conciliation [Engesztelés]) or with the informal ‘you’ (in the aforementioned Touch), and he occasionally addressed himself in the latter form (Wake [Virrasztás]). The addresses uttered in these performances were in a sense imperative commands and orders even if uttered in indicative mood, practically as mere facts. For inherently they were acts delivered through speech, a phenomenon termed performative utterance (by John L. Austin). Conciliation, for instance, began thus:

‘Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen,
thank you for devoting some of your time to me. Thank you for being here; thank you for exposing yourselves to me. You could in fact do so without fear in your naivety, for you are experienced in offering yourselves and you are experienced in being unsatisfied – you thought this much experience would give you enough protection. You just can’t be made to see reason. Over and over again you offer yourselves to some alien dream that doesn’t want you; over and over again you are willing to divert your eyes from the dangerous world and give up your vigilance for some hypnosis. But the dream is not dreamt for your satisfaction, and the hypnosis shall end.’ 1

The most self-explanatory examples of performative speech act are greeting and thanking. When we say ‘good evening’ or ‘thank you’, we act concurrently with speaking: we wish good night and we express our gratitude. Nevertheless, if we were to take stock of Hajas’s performatives, we would not start with these, since they are less typical of his works. 2 All the more characteristic of him are depreciation based on negation, threatening with violence, and the promise of impending disaster: the performer uses these in addressing an audience that is united in passive observation. I am thinking of such utterances as ‘I’m deliberately stalling for time; deliberately holding you up […] to give catastrophe a slightly better chance’; ‘I’m making you aware of being isolated from the outer world’; etc. 3

Moreover, Hajas’s oeuvre has examples in store for when explicit imperatives (overt performatives) somehow operate as devices of an unspoken yet effectual ‘imperative’ that works on a different level. In Hajas’s film Self-Fashion Show [Öndivatbemutató], shot on the street, common people stand before the camera trying to act natural, but are apparently impelled by the sight of the camera to behave: they pose, smoke, stand model – their own selves, but models nevertheless. The soundtrack features Hajas’s three artist companions, Miklós Erdély, Gergely Molnár and László Najmányi giving directions: ‘Start walking now… you may come closer… OK, stop there.’ ‘Stop and look in our direction. Act as if you didn’t know how many people are potentially staring at you.’ The ‘models’ themselves did not hear the orders during the shooting, but in a sense this is exactly what renders the film imperative. The viewer observes, interprets and tries to eliminate the differences and the tension between picture and soundtrack, or even enjoys their humour. This divergence is an implicit imperative addressing the viewer, and thus each order and each picture poses a new task. 4 We might say that this task, the fulfilment of this task is the genuine level of the ‘obedience’ that is brought into action. It is the act of ‘standing in the frame’: ‘Realize your image of yourself’. At the same time, the perception and enjoyment of the divergence between the demeanour (as in ‘behaviour’ as well as ‘attire’) 5 of the types that appear in the visual terrain and the audible imperatives will not essentially provide total exemption from irony. Physiology, that is, the staging of human types, has a long tradition; it may provide an opportunity for some viewers to recognise themselves behind and among busy Moszkva Square’s scenes habituated and perambulated by metropolitan masses.

The implicit imperative

Naturally the works of other neo-avantgarde artists are also often founded on the imperative, and if we take stock of Hungarian neo-avantgarde works created in various genres, we will notice a substantial presence of the imperative mood. These are not always and not necessarily explicit imperatives. The divergent functioning of the aforementioned Self-Fashion Show, founding on the différance of the tracks, leads us to a possible conclusion that we do not always have to hear actual imperatives to feel called upon to perform certain acts, even if imaginary. Miklós Erdély created several textual and visual works which include actual imperatives, 6 and he also made use of the device of the unspoken imperative in several instances.

On the spring of 1983, Budapest Kiállítóterem [Budapest Gallery Exhibition Hall] gave place to the exhibition film/art for two months, where visitors could get an insight into the history of Hungarian experimental film from the twenties. 7 The visitor encountered an installation in one of the corners. Miklós Erdély’s installation Like Ferro-Concrete… [ Mint a vasbeton ] 8 made the impression that it had just been jumbled into the corner. The photograph of it, however, reveals that this ‘jumbling’ was in fact very careful, for glass plates divided the material from the two walls and some tiling from the floor. 9 The installation was made up of the following materials: cca. 50 kg. flour mixed with film strips, plus a bucket full of water standing beside this mixture (but an integral part of the installation). The flour and water lead the spectator towards metaphors of cooking, but others may interpret the work as a metaphorical use of construction materials, considering the title, the glass panels and the tiles, let alone the original profession of the author. These two fields may even overlap at some point, since the trivially magical combination, ‘assemblage’ and interaction of the base materials results in both fields in a functionally purposeful material (bread and concrete). This reference may serve to direct our attention from the unification, the ‘bridal’, that is, the dialectic evolution of materials towards montage (which has so important a role in Erdély’s filmmaking activity).

The filmflour (or flourfilm), existing in passive expectance, and its companion the bucket of water were complemented by a projection. According to László Beke’s description, the painting Morning Still Life [Reggeli csendélet] by Aurél Bernáth was projected above the installation, or, more precisely, the filmed image of the painting, which was ‘from time to time blocked out by shadows’ in the film, and thus (according to László Beke) ‘filmed shadows mixed with those of the spectators’. 10 On the one hand, this shadow-like, ghostly blending into the image recalls Erdély’s other ‘projection’ actions of similar nature, which show traces of the genre of happening, while reflecting on the situation. On the other hand, we have to note that this kind of participation directs attention at the ‘expectant’ materials (ironically again, if no other way, then through the title of the work). Henceforth, the possessor of this attention has to take into account the unfulfillable yet stout urge to take action if their ghostly shadow is already lurking on the wall among the rest of the ghosts anyway. 11

Thus, although L ike Ferro-Concrete does not explicitly address us, it still ‘calls upon’ us. This is not singular in Erdély’s oeuvre. As a matter of fact, an entire series of installations and performances effectuate implicit imperative. Apparently, the montage structure in its allegorical nature is capable in itself to have such effect, not to mention the potentials of the complementary projection. Here is the description of Earclip [Klipsz]:

I made the folding bed. I used a nail-brush to wash a white rubber cane and a head of cabbage. I applied talcum powder to both before planting them under the quilt. I placed a radio on the pillow, which I intended to turn on in the hour of Evening Chronicle, listening to it sitting beside the bed with two five-kilo weights hanging from my earlobes. Due to an unfortunate delay, I had to substitute the Evening Chronicle with playback from a magnetic tape. The bed was lit by a colour motion picture, out of focus. 12

The theatrical nature of performatives I. (Ritual citation)

In my opinion, the above cases are instances of performative speech act, even if there is no actual imperative uttered or when there is, it is not meant for the person named, addressed or shown in the given work. A work of art is performative inasmuch as it addresses, incites activity and the ghost of ‘bare life’ appears in it. The title ‘performative’ was given by Austin to the type of utterance he extensively describes in his book How to Do Things with Words 13. Turning to Austin, we might characterise the performative speech act as the performance of some action through and by speech. When the couple at a marriage ceremony utters ‘Yes’, they carry out a performative speech act, as opposed to the sentence in which we simply point out that ‘We are married’. We could list innumerable examples of speech acts, among which order and command must be included (as referred to above in relation to Hajas).

Austin makes an attempt at distinguishing serious and nonserious performatives in his How to Do Things with Words , and this contraposition implies the opposition between authentic and not authentic, real and fictive, life and art; that is, between ‘bare life’ and ‘quasi bare life’. 14 He claims that serious performatives are uttered seriously in everyday life (i.e. during a marriage ceremony or when naming a boat), while nonserious performatives are not meant seriously, and are only citational. The best example is when the actor gives a command on stage, during the performance, that is, to be exact, he acts that he is giving a command, for the umpteenth time in the fiction of the drama. Perhaps Austin would have persisted in this view even if he had seen a Hajas performance and recognised its cruelty in the Artaudian sense; that is, its one-time, unrepeatable quality, its momentariness. More precisely, and this is important, what he would have (con)stated is the impossibility and failure of the intention to achieve totality in the gravitational field of the stage. By adhering to the stakelessness of theatre from his performative aspect, and by the fact that he would have adhered to it in the case of the Hajas performance, too, notwithstanding its radical nature, he paradoxically anticipates Derrida’s criticism of the theatre of cruelty. Fictive space can never be ‘cruel’ enough to become real, to become a real performative, as Austin would say, and this is exactly not where the controversy between him and deconstruction arises. For in fact Derrida says the same, writing of Artaud: ‘Artaud wanted to erase repetition in general. [But] there is no word, nor in general a sign, which is not constituted by the possibility of repeating itself. A sign which does not repeat itself, which is not already divided by repetition in its »first time,« is not a sign.’ 15 The controversy begins where, although revoking the right and possibility of cruelty from the theatre, Austin does grant this right to ‘bare life’: that is, the performatives of reality may be serious, or ‘cruel’ in the Artaudian sense, pregnant with authentic presence. This is the point where deconstructive Artaud-criticism may be perceived as directed at Austin.

The distinction between fictive and real performatives is therefore an essential requisite of the Austinian theory’s definition of communication and meaning, while the boundary between stage and audience should remain firm too. Austin admits at one point in one of his lectures that ‘[…] as utterances our performatives are also heir to certain other kinds of ill which infect all utterances’ (meaning that serious everyday performatives are also exposed to the threat of fiction). Nevertheless, he adheres to the exclusion of nonserious performatives. Although these, he says, ‘might be brought into a more general account, we are deliberately at present excluding. I mean, for example, the following: a performative utterance will, for example, be in a peculiar way hollow or void if said by an actor on the stage, or if introduced in a poem, or spoken in soliloquy. […] Language in such circumstances is in special ways – intelligibly – used not seriously, but in ways parasitic upon its normal use – ways which fall under the doctrine of the etiolations of language. All this we are excluding from consideration.’ 16

Austin’s abstaining from nonserious performatives is obvious, even though what can be inferred from his words is that in fact no distinction can be made between serious and nonserious performatives. Namely, that there are two important similarities between the two types of performative as discerned by Austin, and these similarities are actually one, for they converge in one point. The ‘serious’ performative utterance, similarly to theatrical speech, is also ritually repeated in its own time and place. For the force of the performative is not primarily engendered by the speaker being serious about the speech act (this is not controllable, as Austin himself observes), but by the fact that the appropriate ritual speech act is uttered in the appropriate context. For instance, a marriage ceremony is based on repetition because many have previously said ‘Yes, I do’, and so this is what the young couple has to utter in order to validate the marriage. Serious, ‘everyday’ performatives are just as repetitive as the theatrical text, and no more do they express spiritual substance. When they are spoken, subjects are engendered in, through and by them; the places in question are therefore ones where social subjects are formed, repetitively, fictively, institutionally and theatrically.

The performance-like nature of performatives II. (The audience)

The other important similarity between ‘real’ and ‘fictional’ performatives is that the former requires an audience which legitimates it, practically serving as a ground for it. ‘Serious’ performatives are just as much made possible by a theatrical context as ‘nonserious’, ‘fictive’ theatrical performatives. In a sense the witnesses and relatives present serve as the audience, a ground for legitimation, since in a figurative sense they represent the broader public of citizens confirming the institutional authorization. When the young couple utters ‘Yes’, they unspokenly refer to them, address their words to them, implicitly citing them. Audience and repetitive utterance converge in textuality and citationality; citing the audience and citing a speech act – the two together, inseparably yield the same result: the formation of a social subject in a theatrical act.

Consequently, no performatives operate in isolated space, and essentially all performatives require an audience to legitimate the utterance in question. Even if there is no concrete and visible audience present, the actor of the speech act performs before an audience, since he cites the audience via the performative. As a matter of fact, even overt referral to an audience may be dispensed with. This kind of performative is ab ovo induced by being addressed imaginarily, which means that the ‘actor’ coming forth on behalf of the authority feels addressed and called upon. It is this condition of being addressed that he implicitly turns to when addressing, when taking verbal action, even if the authority on behalf of which he performs his action remains undisclosed, and its authorization is fictive, imagined. (A good example for this, to which we shall return, is the systematic misuse of political power in dictatorships with regard to art, as in censorship and the banning of exhibitions.) The referential citation of the audience/public (with such locutions as ‘in the name of the law’ or ‘in the name of the people’) can never do away with its own fictional and imaginary dimensions – neither the law, nor the people have ever enunciated themselves, they are always cited by their (more or less self-appointed, more or less elected) representatives. No performative can dissociate from these theatrical or ‘per-formal’, per-versional, performance-like roots and become real, self-governed: it has a demand for, but cannot grant itself, the authority. This is what we might call the imaginary, theatrical, ‘projected’ nature of performatives. The utterance of performatives entails the arousal of the murmur of an imagined public within the speaker, who, under the influence of this illusion, ‘acts as if’ he indeed had an audience, and starts to play as a result of this hallucination. Andrew Parker and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick question the obviousness of the assumption that the context in which the ‘performer’ carries out the speech act should be in his power to control. The performative (every performative) implicitly entails a reference to the audience, and so far as this goes, the above argument, about its ineliminable theatricality and after all nonseriousness, does indeed apply to it.

Performatives in Hungarian neo-avantgarde

Is the above description of performatives applicable to Hungarian neo-avantgarde works of art? And if it is, how does it function? The examples indicate that overt and covert, verbal or montage-like imperatives are capable of giving rise to performance-like situations. For instance, perceiving the way certain components of the installation, as well as their own shadows, mixed with the projection, the spectators of Like Ferro-Concrete… could feel a persistent urge to take action, like spilling water on the flourfilm mixture. It is rather difficult to decipher the origin of this urge or ghost-voice, for we have to pose the question: who/what addresses whom? The answer is not simple, but perhaps we may grant so much as that the trace, the sign based on hiatus, has a constitutive role in the arousal of hallucination, of the feeling of being addressed. What is the meaning of the bucket of water, combined in a montage-like structure with an already montage-like mixture? The spectator feels addressed through the structural hiatus to become a participant, to take action, that is, to become a performer. It has to be emphasized that the inhibition usually overrides the urge for the inherent performer to step up, but we have records of instances when a spectator took action without restraint. How else could we interpret the banning of Erdély’s installation Basin of Placidity [Szelídség medencéje] by the communist leader György Aczél, which was an obvious sign of the fact that the smell of the installation assimilated anyone sniffing at it? The smell, together with the title (‘Something stinks here’) became an enigmatic or ‘clear-cut’ (or perhaps misinterpretable) allusion, thus ‘evolving’ the installation into a performance – and a politician interfered or ‘interceded’, becoming an actor himself. 17 Nevertheless, the power of exhibition-theatre is greater. The politician did close it in a concrete sense, from outside, but as much as he did not want to, he became a participant, and what is more, he gave a performance-like, fictive quality to his institutional power and his performatives that were presumed to be ‘external’ and real.

In the case of Earclip, the spectator was perhaps not even required to move, let alone sniff – it was enough to hear the radio broadcast Evening Chronicle, which thus transfigured even the setting of the performance, making it timely in accordance with the news, and perhaps the set began to ‘air’ along with the radio, only that it’s ‘programme’ was allegorically about the audience. (What pulls ears further down? The weights hanging from them, or the news?) These performatives therefore play with crossing the boundary between ‘work of art’ and ‘bare life’. This is the primary commonplace regarding avant-garde. And perhaps this is also its greatest ‘truth’ – especially if we perceive of the direction of the process as opposite. For although the ‘will to life’ of avant-garde artists from Marinetti to Beuys, from free-words to social sculpture has always meant that creative artists and their audience ‘secede’ from the space of the work of art into ‘life’. The performative mode of functioning, however, helps us understand how different a result the reversed process (entering life into the space of fiction) yields. The gesture of ‘secession’ could never break free from the Schillerian educational aesthetic (in avant-garde translation: everyone is an artist), while ‘entering’ is less about aesthetics than about the artificial and fictive quality of life’s institutions (i.e. the performatives of everyday life) – and ultimately about their figurative, quotational, textual quality. Instead of ‘mixing’ art and life, it is about the non-bareness of ‘bare life’, about its having always already been textual.

Authorization? / de-authorization

Certain Hungarian neo-avantgarde pieces lend themselves to a reading in which they thematise the essentially unserious nature of bare life, revealing that what we call reality is none other than a theatre filled with audience and citations. If this is so, we might name it de-authorization. When certain authors of Hungarian neoavantgarde usher us into fictive space via the use of performatives, they in fact use the stage of life, rendering ghostly what we call life or vitalized authority. For instance, in the film Version [Verzió], evoking an anti-Semitic blood libel from 1882, Miklós Erdély speaks about anti-Semitism in Hungary in the 1960s and 70s , as well as the assimilation of Jews foregoing their tradition (through the example of the Móric Scharf, who was coerced to deliver false testimony against his father). The pre-trial inculcation of the false testimony for the theatrical show trial must have reminded the censors of the film made in 1979 of the same in show trials during the period of communist terror, and if this were not enough for inferring the implications, the appearance of László Rajk (whose father had been sentenced to death in a similar trial) in the role of gendarme Recsky gave them the final clue. 18 ‘Interrogation’ as an extreme performative, as a result of which Móric Scharf even begins to see what he was taught, had quite an impact – though not what had been expected. The film was banned, and perhaps mainly because censors saw the real, that is, fictive, theatrical nature of show trials as reflected by conceptually foliated mirror of the film (if they had not been previously aware).

Of course there are much more innocent examples, too, which question everyday (bare) life’s mode of functioning by presenting its performatives, invading and fictionalising them in the most complicated or perhaps simplest manner – but definitely with a lot of humour. In the following we can witness the functioning of the neo-avantgard performative in a combination and travesty of art and law, authenticity and authority, and of the concept of inscription. The cited performative enactment was conceived ‘on Poetry Day, 1974, at Rózsavölgyi Bookshop’. ‘As recalled by Vető János, he had signed it in the name of László Najmányi or Tamás Szentjóby.’


I hereby authorize Péter Halász (20. Dohány Str. Budapest VII.; ID No.: AU–V. 002753) to inscribe my works on my behalf on 11 April 1974 at Rózsavölgyi Music Store, and furthermore, at any other time and place in the future, choosing to his will from the options listed below:

1./ forging my signature;
2./ signing his own name;
3./ forging my signature, noting that it is forged;
4./ using the following formulas: Péter Halász on behalf of Tibor Hajas, Tibor Hajas on behalf of Péter Halász, and furthermore, anyone on behalf of anyone else;
5./ having shop attendants inscribe;
6./ having anyone present inscribe;
7./ having book shoppers inscribe one another’s copies;
8./ having book shoppers inscribe their own copies;
9./ inscribing any other author’s work;
10./ furthermore, any other option that I have not listed.

Budapest, 9 April 1974 [Tibor Hajas’s signature ?]
Tibor Hajas
Felszabadulás Square, Budapest V.
AU–V. 227532

[Tamás Szentjóby’s signature?] [László Najmányi’s signature?]
Tamás Szentjóby                     László Najmányi
23. Ferenc Ring, Budapest IX.    15/b. Gyarmat Str.,Budapest XIV.
AU–IV. 914887                         AU–V. 188623

In this action entitled Authorization [Meghatalmazás], which in fact should be entitled ‘De-authorization’, the performative of inscription and through it the establishment of signature is usurped – on the surface only for an afternoon, but later enclosed in a printed book, with footnotes. This perhaps ensures its canonisation in art, while at the same time confining it, practically depriving it of its power, or as Austin would say, ‘etiolating’ it, or rather etiolating its subversive way of etiolating ‘real’ performatives. Seemingly, this does not concern the space of ‘bare life’. On the contrary, it very much does so. It blocks out the always allegorical character and the demonic nature of signature: the question whether the person who performs the signing is himself or rather a situation constructs his identity; whether the given signature is his own, or in that moment he is owned by the signature; not to mention the question whether his signature as a performative act can incorporate the signatory if he repeats it ‘identically’ because he has already used it for other purposes; moreover, whether the act of consciousness coupled with all acts of signing reflects a potent concentration directed at this act or rather a passive (and perhaps unconscious) fear of being capable of completing perfect reproduction. We could go on with the series of questions, but instead it appears more important to make it clear: the Hajas-Najmányi-Szentjóby(-Vető) action team, which so uninstitutionally, perversively and illegally distributed the act of signing among its members, only called attention to what is already included in the signature of a subject. 20

The next and final example removes us from the actual theme of the signature, but not from the metaphorical functioning of signature, or from implicit performatives. László Beke describes Tibor Hajas’s performance Interrogation [Kihallgatás] thus:

Akademie van Kunst, Arnheim (The Netherlands). 14 March 1980. Assistant: Jan Brand. Video: Albert van der Weide. Cca. 60 min. – The performer is tied to a chair with wire, his upper body bare, his eyes covered. He is trying to answer the questions of the audience. A quartz lamp illuminates his face from a distance of 20 cm. The event is being recorded on videotape. Eventually the audience notices that Hajas’s skin is starting to burn and peel – and they unbind him.’ 21

This performance is one of Hajas’s heroic and sacrificial actions, at least at the first glance, and so it further increases the cultic atmosphere surrounding him. 22 Indeed, this action bears evidence that the performer’s implicit performative, that is, his imperative reached its goal. In Austin’s words, it is a happy performative. The audience interacted with the performer, expressed its solidarity, advanced from passive witness into active-dialogic rescuer, positively contributing to the salvation of the ‘hero’. The situation, however, is a lot more complicated. Namely, on the model of the dubiousness of a hand gesture indicating something or of an instance of smoke indicating fire disaster, and even more the dubiousness of the cause or intention attributed to these (why is it indicating? why is it burning?), the action of the spectators ‘saving’ Hajas has a similarly uncertain origin. Indignation and incomprehension, and so the refusal of involvement may have a similar share in it as a Samaritan’s compassion. What we have in this case is not a positive, but a negative performative, in the course of which the (possible but unprovable) implicit imperative, which the performer’s action puts forth at a siren’s voice, provokes the echo of a negative, rejecting performative, paradoxically even in the form of counteraction: ‘We don’t want to witness your suffering/exhibitionism!’ 23 It is important to note that not even this possibility undermines the dialogic relation and the concept of performance, since provocation as a par excellence avant-garde mode of functioning is very much dialogic, just as the refusal in response. The existence of this possibility indicates that the offered identity may be refused and the imperative defied – but then again this is just a contextually determined, well-known and practiced identity in the history of the shocking and ‘scandalous’ avant-garde. The division of the present, or metaphorically, the citational quality of the effectuation of countersignature (even if the signature is effected in the above mentioned negative manner), results not from the ‘sign-out’ on the part of the spectator, but the contextually determined nature of the performative.

Total present, the cruelty of total present is further weakened by the virus of citable language, manifested in the form of the phrase ‘his face is burning’ (with shame). This further expands the long list of neo-avantgarde concretisations, where an attempt is made at the (not necessarily conscious) reclamation of conventional metaphor – how else than in the form of an allegorical scene. 24 The associatiation of ‘burning face’ may trigger negative reaction, and this negative re-action of the spectators can be interpreted as a response to this ‘burning’ – perhaps as an act of self-defending refusal (because they could identify themselves and their shame in the performer’s burning ‘shame’). All this outlines the textual quality of ‘bare life’, since (as mentioned above) resistance to being addressed and bearing witness is no less fictive, no less testifying, no less interpellative. This way or that, the movement manifested in interactivity makes out the symmetric other half of the performer’s act, giving cohesion to conventional neo-avantgarde aesthetic ideology, at least on the surface. The condition concerning ‘bare life’, however, remains unfulfilled, since the performance reveals its own allegorical components, its fictive-emblematic character that takes shape against the possible intention of the performer who is exposed to physical danger. Despite the smell of burning meat, the figure is permeated by textual citations, like the phrase quoted earlier or manoeuvres of addressing and being addressed. Thus, notwithstanding the seemingly vitalized, non-etiolated quality of the reactions, we over and over again witness the retreat of bare life.

Neo-avantgarde performatives apparently cover an extensive range. Among them we find explicit and implicit address; contrasting the verbal and the visual code in a montage; giving rise to ghostly performance-situations without human presence; use of the performance in the criticism/usurpation of the classic performatives of social institutions (such as an authorial signature), or blocking them out by demonstrating an extrajudicial condition. Also, in a similar way, the unintentional risking of the performatives of classic performance by allowing for different responses to them – however, what the performer actually risks (introduces, performs) by these, is not bare life, not his own bare life, but its textual, allegorical features. The incision (branding) of the body may be recognised as a sign, which, repetitive in this regard, by no means advocates the ‘priority’ of art over ‘bare life’, but instead the fiction of the performatives of ‘bare life’. Staging all this still does not lead to ‘bare life’; it barely takes the shape of an allegorical enigma (a performative performance).



1 Tibor Hajas: Szövegek [Texts], Enciklopédia Kiadó, 2005, p. 339.

2 Although perhaps this is not wholly true. Chöd, similarly to Conciliation, begins with the expression of thanks: ’Thank you for meeting me in the dark once again. […] Thank you for – even if unintentionally – being willing to make an attempt at becoming inexistent; thank you for letting me extinguish your sight; thank you for being at my service.’ (ibid. 344.) It is transparent, however, that these expressions of thanks are not devoid of implicit threat, of the promise of apocalypse. Neither are the greetings devoid of the promise of exposure, of threat concealed in concession: ’Good night, Ladies and Gentlemen, have a good rest. This is your lucky day; once again you can become dream stuff, props in a dream set, as so many times before. But now it’s mine. You don’t need to become images. Not yet. You may relax and leave it to me to dream you up.’ (Dark flash, ibid. 337.) In this respect, the assertion that Hajas’s addresses are not greetings and thanks in the common sense may be justified. Thus they are performatives whose implicit performativity far exceeds their conventional content.

3 ibid. 340.

4 Not alone the Self-Fashion Show gains its effect from the divergence of the soundtrack and pictures. Tamás Szentjóby’s Centaur and Miklós Erdély’s Spring Execution are similar from this point of view.

5 In Hungarian the word viselet preserves the etimological link between attire and behavior.

6 We might mention here Erdély’s so-called categorical poetry, the pieces of which he himself referred to as speech acts. No less important are his films which favour the performative linguistic form of the order (interrogation, testimony, re-direction).

7 cf. the catalogue: film/művészet (a magyar kísérleti film története, a Budapesti Történeti Múzeum és a Budapesti Képzőművészeti Igazgatóság kiállítása a Budapest Kiállítóteremben [film/art (the history of Hungarian experimental film, exhibition of the Budapest History Museum and the Budapest Inspectorate of Fine Arts at the Budapest Gallery Exhibition Hall], catalogue and exhibition material compiled by Miklós Peternák, exhibition arranged by Judit Lorányi and Miklós Peternák, catalogue design Dániel Erdély, (n.d.)

8 Description of the installation: ’Like Ferro-Concrete… (flour, film, water) film loop’, ibid. p. 16. The catalogue lists Erdély’s preceding films and cites an excerpt from his study Hunger for Montage [ Montázs-éhség]. A photograph of the installation can be found in Miklós Erdély (1928-1986): Filmek [Films], Budapest Film – Tudományos Ismeretterjesztő Társulat – Balázs Béla Stúdió K-szekció, 1988.

9 Annamária Szőke: Erdély Miklós műveinek restaurálása és rekonstrukciója [Restoration and reconstruction of Miklós Erdély’s works] Magyar Műhely, 1999., year 38. issue 110-111., p. 126. – In connection with Like Ferro-Concrete…, Annamária Szőke demonstrates the ’stage fallacy’, which happens when the reconstructor only cares about visual reproduction like a food photographer .

10 László Beke : Film Möbius-szalagra. Erdély Miklós munkásságáról [Film on Möbius-strip. On Miklós Erdély’s oeuvre.], Filmvilág , September 1987., p. 46.

11 The filmography of A filmről [On Film] mentions Like Ferro-Concrete… as well as the loop projection of the Aurél Bernáth painting (here cited as Reggel [Morning]) in the section ’Other films, loop films, installations, projection actions’. However, it posits no connection between the two. Cf. Miklós Erdély: A filmről (Filmelméleti írások, forgatókönyvek, filmtervek, kritikák). Válogatott írások II. [On Film. (Writings in Film Theory, Scripts, Film Sketches and Criticism). Selected Writings II.], compiled by Miklós Peternák, Balassi Kiadó – BAE Tartóshullám – Intermedia, 1995, p. 310. This gives rise to the question of genre: Like Ferro-Concrete… is generally termed installation, precisely because the interpreters make no connection between projection and flourfilm. In fact, Like Ferro-Concrete… may well be interpreted as an environment: an ’environment’ that practically ’lures’ the spectator into a fantasy space with its manipulating animation.

12 Part of the trilogy Három kvarkot Marke királynak [Three Quarks for King Marke]. Cf. Artpool Art Research Center, internet database,

13 John L. Austin: How to Do Things with Words. The Willam James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955, ed. J.O. Urmson, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1973.

14 The exposition to follow is founded on the deconstructive criticism that Jacques Derrida started with his work entitled Signature Event Context and which was subsequently followed by Judith Butler and others, including such theoreticians as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Andrew Parker, who complemented and diversified the criticism of speech act theory. Cf. among others Jacques Derrida: Signature Event Context, in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass, Harvester Press, University of Chicago, 1982.; Judith Butler: Bodies that Matter. On the Discursive Limits of „Sex”, Routledge, New York – London, 1993.; and Andrew Parker - Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: Introduction. Performativity and Performance, in Andrew Parker – Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (eds.): Performativity and Performance, Routledge, New York – London, 1995, pp. 1-18.

15 Jacques Derrida: ‘The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation’, in J.D.: Writing and Difference, trans. by Alan Bass, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London – Melbourne – Henley, 1985 (1978), p. 245. But Artaud ’knew this better than any other: the »grammar« of the theather of cruelty, of which he said that it is »to be found,« will always remain the inaccessible limit of a representation which is not repetition, of a re-presentation which is full presence, which does not carry its double within itself as its death, of a present which does not repeat itself, that is, of a present outside time, a nonpresent. […] What is tragic is not the impossibility but the necessary of repetition.’ (248.)

16 Austin: How to Do…, pp. 21-22.

17 Szelídség medencéje, 1970 (‘R Exhibition’, Budapest). Cf.. mutargy/Szelidseg.html – Miklós Erdély: ‘In fact, Basin of Placidity was intended as an act of honour for Kádár [leader of the Hungarian Socialist Labour Party in the communist era], but of course for Aczél it meant the exact opposite, and he named me »stench-generator«. The background of the whole story is that in those times a wave of anti-Semitism began to spread in the Soviet Union and Kádár very seriously blocked it at the frontiers. This is why I invented the name »Basin of Placidity«. It was constituted of Soviet condensed milk – which has since been withdrawn from the market, I have no idea why –, of 49 cans of condensed milk, surrounding a spot. Each of these had a hole pierced in it, and milk was flowing towards the middle of the plastic basin below them, which contained matzo, among big chunks of yeast. Matzo, as you know, is a type of bread which lacks yeast. Two red rubber tubes were leading from here up to a separate table with a negative nose on it and a chair beside it. It was a hollow-cast negative of my own nose in plaster, and this is what the tubes led into. And there was a sign saying »sniffing spot«. A little water was dripping on the matzo from above, and for a day there was a sign near it saying »Something stinks here«. Eventually the basin filled up and began to ferment – naturally – from the yeast. The fact that there was a »sniffing spot« outside made it concern a lot of people, everyone who was not involved in those matters. And Aczél was offered to sit at the sniffing spot on that evening, and he did poke his nose into it, until he realised that this is something scandalous, something unacceptable. He had obviously never read the title, that this was a work of art entitled »Basin of Placidity«, and so he had the exhibition closed. In this manner, it was an expressly political act.’ Miklós Peternák: Beszélgetés Erdély Miklóssal, 1983 tavaszán [Interview with Miklós Erdély, Spring 1983], Árgus, Year 2., Issue 5., 1991. p. 80. – On the ground of this narrative we can explain the meaning of the original Hungarian title of the installation. The mirror translation of the title Itt gáz lesz is ‘There will be gas here’ (which means ‘Something will stink here’), and this phrase has an overt allusion to the Holocaust by the word ‘gas’, as well as a concrete meaning in slang identical to ‘something stinks’ (i.e. something is not right).

18 [Recsk: site of a secret forced labour camp, 1950-53., the trans.]

19 Tibor Hajas: Szövegek [Writings], p. 328. – at the end of Derrida’s critical essay on Austin there is a remark adjoined to the two versions of ‘J. Derrida’, one in print script and one in handscript: ‘(Remark: the – written – text of this – oral – communication was to have been addressed to the Association of French Speaking Societies of Philosophy before the meeting. Such a missive therefore had to be signed. Which I did, and counterfeit here. Where? There. J.D.)’ See J.D.: Signature Event Context, in Margins…, p. 330.

20 Apparently they have a point in common here with Péter Esterházy, who is considered a postmodernist today, but was called (by the insinuating terminology of István Szerdahelyi) a representative of the ‘neo-avantgarde style-dictatorship’. Let us recall the public reading in Austria, which Esterházy relates as an anecdote, where he read a short story by Danilo Kiš as if it was his own. (He previously requested and was granted permission by the author, which remained unrevealed before the audience). Cf. Péter Esterházy: Mily dicső a hazáért halni [To Die for One’s Country is Glorious], in E.P.: Bevezetés a szépirodalomba [Introduction to Fine Literature] Magvető Könyvkiadó, Budapest, 1986. and Danilo Kiš: To Die for One’s Country is Glorious, in D.K.: Encyclopedia of Dead, trans. Michael H. Heim, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 1989.

21 László Beke: A performance és Hajas Tibor [Performance and Tibor Hajas], Mozgó Világ, 1980/10, p. 105.

22 József Havasréti lists cult-forming discourses among the discourses of art criticism that evolved around the neo-avantgarde. Their sacral register greatly contributed to the development of the (art historical) cult surrounding Hajas. Cf. József Havasréti: Alternatív regiszterek. A kulturális ellenállás formái a magyar neoavantgárdban [Alternative registers. Forms of cultural resistance in Hungarian neo-avantgarde], Typotex, Budapest, 2006, p. 61.

23 Parker and Kosofsky Sedgwick analyse the Austinian ‘I dare you’ performative, categorising the responses it may trigger. Eventually they conclude: ‘Thus, »I dare you« invokes the presumption, but only the presumption, of a consensus between speaker and witnesses, and to some extent between all of them and the addressee. The presumption is embodied in the lack of a formulaic negative response to being dared, or to being interpellated as witness to a dare. The fascinating and powerful class of negative performatives – disavowal, renunciation, repudiation, »count me out« – is marked, in almost every instance, by the asymmetrical property of being much less prone to becoming conventional than the positive performatives. Negative performatives tend to have a high threshold (Thus Dante speaks of refusal – even refusal through cowardice – as something »great«.) […] It requires little presence of mind to find the comfortable formula »I dare you,« but a good deal more for the dragooned witness to disinterpellate with, »Don’t do it on my account.«” Parker – Kosofsky Sedgwick, p. 9.

24 Neo-avantgarde artists pursued their endeavours in this field in concord with János Zsilka, who was involved in exploring the current state of language to draw conclusions regarding its history, unravelling the metaphoric structure underlying conventionalised metaphors. In many cases, they drew inspiration from the linguist, openly coining a criticism of /society, institutions and language criticism of society, institutions and language from his theory.

30. May 2007.