Art, Work, and Archives: Performativity and the Techniques of Production

Jane Birkin is a former doctoral candidate at Winchester School of Art, completing her practice-based PhD in June 2015.  Her essay ‘Art, Work, and Archives: Performativity and the Techniques of Production’ was recently published in Archive Journal.


This essay attempts to address the significance of my longstanding working connection with image collections and archives. It explains how aspects of archival thinking permeate the practices of various artists (including my own), notably through the application of performative working methods that position their work within an established genre of indexing and categorisation.

Performativity is defined here as a two-step procedure: firstly the making of an instruction, and secondly the following of that instruction. This is at odds with the early designation by J.L. Austin, in How to Do Things with Words, where the ‘saying’ and the ‘doing’ are one and the same thing. It also avoids the theatrical aspects that are often associated with performance art.

The call for papers was on the theme of ‘Radical Archives’, and asked what this well-used term really means. The ‘radical’ that is so often perceived in relation to the archive in terms of radical content (punk archives and so on) is here differently defined through archival cataloguing techniques of ordering, description and listing. In the way of the ‘readymade’, these institutional techniques become radicalised through their passage into art practice. The use of archival description in relation to the photographic image (the subject of my PhD thesis) constitutes a radical form of writing and reading the image, at odds with traditional hermeneutical analysis. It is an indexical rather than a representational approach, consistent with the recent material turn in photographic studies that is becoming a critical methodology in theory, practice and education, and frequently with reference to the ‘archived’ image.

Read the essay here:

Art, Work, and Archives: Performativity and the Techniques of Production



Author: Jane Birkin

artist/writer/independent scholar