The use of uselessness as a strategy for contemporary performance practice

Claudia Kappenberg

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


This research is led by an arts practice, and examines the relevance of the Bataillean concepts of uselessness, excess and non-productive expenditure for contemporary visual and performance practices. Deploying the model of Practice as Research the project investigates these terms through and against Catherine Clément’s concept of Syncope, her science of pauses and the philosophy of rapture. The key terms are investigated through a set of live performance interventions which are conceived for specific sites, and reconfigured in their translation to other sites. The written thesis traces this dialogue between the performed works and Clément's and Bataille’s philosophies. The chapters are interspersed with texts which select one theoretical notion at a time, and critically situate these within ethnographic, psychoanalytic and philosophical debates. Five close-up images and a Schema document each of the performed projects, and are dispersed throughout the chapters or included in the Appendix. A video DVD accompanies the thesis with documentation of Slow Races, the last performance project, a compilation of scenes of expenditure and loss. The Prologue outlines Bataille’s critique of the pervasive, utilitarian economic framework that is characteristic of capitalist modernity, based as it is on an idea of scarcity, and which harnesses individual agency for the sake of profitmaking. Bataille’s contribution to this debate, his core contentions that all exchanges are accompanied by excess, and that societies need to allow for a meaningful expenditure through socio-cultural and wider economic frameworks, forms the backbone of the enquiry. To explore this claim the live interventions look like work but do not produce anything, they disturb one system by performing another. Chapters 1 to 4 analyse a first set of performed works through Clément’s concept of Syncope, a philosophical project which challenges Western philosophical concepts of the subject and returns to what was advanced by Bataille. This discussion gives rise to the notion of the artist’s pursuit of the inconsequential, which is contextualised in Chapter 5 through relevant arts practices and art criticism of the 20th and 21st century. Chapter 6 critically investigates Clément’s contribution to the canon. The final chapter, Chapter 7, documents a departure from the earlier task-based interventions in the practice, and reflects on a new set of works which deploy a more radical notion of uselessness and sovereignty, and which conclude with a proclamation of the Universal Declaration of the Human Right to Uselessness. The research concludes that a pursuit of uselessness is not only a powerful method for arts practices that are concerned with a reflection on the human condition, but is an apposite engagement if art is to break through the limitations imposed by the claims of the Enlightenment and the economy of capital.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2016

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