Performing Culture

J.P. Singh

J.P. Singh is Professor and Chair of Culture and Political Economy at The University of Edinburgh, where he is also the Director of the Institute for International Cultural Relations. 

DOI: 10.18278/aia.2.1.1

Culture, replete with ritual, symbols and practices, is a performance.

Culture provides the historical and mimetic links all of us as actors need to re-present familiar and disruptive tropes to our audiences –  the outsider and insider, celebration and violence, comfort and catharsis. It is in this interplay between actor and audience that the ‘we’ of culture makes it performative storytelling with recognizable, if not new, cues embedded in the artwork.

This performative aspect of culture might account for the bind between culture and Culture: the anthropological way of life culture and the culture of arts. In the call to prayer, lighting of candles, batteries playing at a carnival, or the sound of bagpipes in Scotland, cultural performances provide comfort through their execution. However, one person’s affirming familiarity may be the other’s strangeness. Collectively, we turn to the arts to witness interpretations of this alienation amid a sense of belonging; to understand it and make sense of it. It must a self-centered conceit then that storytelling too often narrates resolutions with a happy ending.

There are innumerable tropes and parables that creative works engage with, but stories of cultural interactions primarily are that of the familiar clashing with the unfamiliar. Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) reveals a world that the Occident found to be its veritable ‘other’. The book has its devout followers and critics, but its central insights are confirmed through elementary sociology.  Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality (1966) enumerates the production of social meanings and their acceptance and institutionalization through language, censors (‘reality checks’), and reification through everyday experience.  Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) speaks to the disruptions in narrative cues for travelers. “Reports by Western traveler are filled with instances in which their dramaturgical sense was offended or surprised.”

World War II Memorial, Washington DC           Source:

The reality of culture’s fictions might well be that narratives are as much about anxiety as they are about the familiar. In a globalized world, otherness is bound to displace familiarity. We can see that multicultural interactions – facilitated in part by YouTube’s 1 billion users in 88 countries and Facebook’s 1.8 billion users –breed cultural anxiety. Audiences ill-equipped to venture outside the confines of the familiar may find it difficult, if not self-defeating, to derive comfort from performance without the assistance of tranquilizers, metaphorically speaking.

In times of great cultural anxiety, one person’s new resolution will be countered with another’s reactionary proposal.  Take war monuments:  the “gabbro” black marble-like Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC lists names of 58,000 dead service members. It provides a somber and reflective moment about a drawn-out war fought thousands of miles away in the name of liberal democracy. Nearby, the World War II Memorial, completed in 2004, eulogizes heroism in war unequivocally with its 4 triumphal arches and 56 granite pillars mounted with laurel wreaths.

Vietnam Memorial, Washington DC              Source:


Bani Abidi’s sound installation, “Memorial to Lost Words”, featured at the 2016 Edinburgh Art Festival, is an ‘anti-monumental’ work that memorializes but also reorients. One hundred years after that first great war, Abidi replays the words Indian soldiers wrote in letters to their families during World War I alongside the counter narration of Punjabi ballads from women. The juxtaposed audio presents the centenary of World War I in context of colonialism and empire in a deeply personal way. Its affect evokes the residual legacy of British rule, making the old new to a modern audience.


Video of “Memorial to Lost Worlds”


Our theme for this issue, “Performing Culture”, takes its cues from the art of dialectical storytelling. The eight long and short essays are divided into three sub-themes, each of which has essays that provide counterpoints to each other. The first, Witnessing + Memory,  highlights the ideas of artist as a witness (Frank Möller) along with an essay on the artist as purveyors of memory and its re-exploration (Sorcha Carey).  The second theme, Participation + Hierarchy,  explores notion of power in cultural performance both the top-down world of cultural stratification (Nada Švob-Đokić) and the bottom-up view of culture participation (Christine Adams and Btihaj Ajana).  Our sub-theme of Performance + Heritage speaks to the creation and proliferation of the museum as multicultural and transnational actors in the Abbie Chessler and Patricia Goff essays, while Tim Slade recalls the experience of creating his documentary on human destruction of cultural monuments.

With this issue, AIA also begins its formal association with the Institute for International Cultural Relations at the University of Edinburgh where I serve as Director.  IICR brings interdisciplinary and methodological rigor to the study of international cultural interactions.  IICR is situated in a historical University and a city known for its culture. AIA’s association with IICR, the University of Edinburgh and the city of Edinburgh provide an interesting landscape from which to examine international cultural relations and their performances.



Berger, Peter L. and Thomas Luckmann.  (1966)  The Social construction of Reality:  A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge.  New York: Anchor Books.

Goffman, Erving.  (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York:  Anchor Books.

Said, Edward.  (1978) Orientalism.  New York: Vintage Books.