Art Performance and Routine Work in Organizations

by Antonio Strati

One is struck by how Anna Scalfi Eghenter’s work subtly interweaves artistic production with sociological sensibility. One is surprised, in fact, by the co-presence of these two dimensions in both the gestation of her art projects and their realization. For the subjects of Scalfi Eghenter’s performances already in themselves exhibit interest, curiosity and involvement in social life, constituted as they are by themes and issues concerning bureaucracy, professionalism, the gender of traffic lights, the wall of culture, hierarchy and reputation in workplaces, membership of a professional community, power, the value of money, and international vision (Scalfi 2007a). Although these subjects furnish a preliminary idea of the frames and contexts of Anna Scalfi Eghenter’s artistic inquiry, much remains to be done in fully understanding her work, because its core consists in artistic action letting itself be seduced by sociological sensibility, while the latter equips itself with a language by virtue of art. Yet this core, as anticipated in these necessarily abstract terms, remains in many respects obscure – all the more so for those who have never taken part in one of Scalfi Eghenter’s performances. Indeed, it is precisely by considering the operational and organizational practices of her “doing art” that one gains understanding of the interweaving between art and sociology that I have stressed.

Moreover, the emphasis on social practices in workplaces and the sociological theory constructed on their bases is what distinguishes the theoretical approach and the research style of RUCOLA – the Research Unit on Communication, Organizational Learning, and Aesthetics at the Department of Sociology and Social Research of Trento – to which Anna Scalfi Eghenter belongs, and with which she collaborates, especially so when she designed and enacted the performance discussed below. This concerns one of the performances staged by Scalfi Eghenter as part of the national research project funded by the Ministry of the University on the theme of qualitative research methods in sociology and the social sciences: Don’t Cross the Passion Line of 2005.

In the course of that research project, which lasted for around three years, Anna Scalfi Eghenter also created the Free University performance enacted in Berlin and published an article entitled La performance: strumentAzione di comprensione organizzativa (Scalfi 2007a). Since then she has collaborated by enacting other performances, also with the University of Essex (where she is completing a PhD), as part of activities undertaken by the Art of Management and Organisation international network, as well as staging further performances as part of the initiatives undertaken by the above-mentioned RUCOLA research unit. These performances include those of 2005 on gender in organizations and at work: Not Yet Titled (Women at Work) and Untitled 2005 (Green Woman on the Traffic Lights). These are some of her research works, artistic and sociological at the same time, which should be understood in light of the unusual and innovative features of the aesthetic approach to the sociological study of the everyday work routine in organizations whereby aesthetic feelings, art, and emotions – together with cognitive processes and various aspects of rationality – shape working and organizational practices (Strati 2010).

In this regard, Anna Scalfi Eghenter had already made an important contribution with her 2003 performance entitled The Iron Cage, when, as a student at the Faculty of Sociology, from within “a reticular aluminium structure partly dismantled in form” and as if “confined” within the metaphor of the iron cage, “she repeated the rational formulas” of the functioning of organizations, but alternated her own voice with the recorded voices of people at work: a choral fresco “of that humanity which speaks of errors, imperfections, heart, body, life” (Scalfi 2007a, p. 111). A video of this performance (produced by Gherardi and Strati 2003) was presented at international seminars and conferences, and used during university lectures with the purpose of enhancing experiential learning of the sociology of organizations (Strati 2007).

The Iron Cage anticipated the theoretical-methodological questions on which I shall dwell below, because as a composite production consisting of two polarities – the performance as an ephemeral organizational artifact, on the one hand, and the video as a non-ephemeral organizational artifact on the other – it raised the question of the symbolic reach of processual organizational artifacts like performances in productive contexts (Strati 2006). Moreover, a video – as I pointed out in a subsequent publication (Strati 2010, p. 66) – highlights that what remains after a performance is its simulacrum, as Jean Baudrillard suggested (1978): a simulacrum made of heterogeneous materials (newspaper articles, television clips, audio-visual recordings, photographs, essays and narratives) produced by different organizations and which are interconnected because of their capacity to evoke a lived experience which generates an organizational memory in a firm or public agency. But is this how the meaning of a performance is transferred in organizations? Is it only this that can be done?

The Kid Goat at Sociology and Performance in Art

Don’t Cross the Passion Line is a performance that I have particularly appreciated. The context is soon described. We are at the Faculty of Sociology of Trento University, where an international conference – the 6th International Conference on Organizational Learning & Knowledge (OLK) – is being held on the theme of “passion” for knowledge about work and in organizations. The participants are researchers in various disciplines, ranging among anthropology, psychology, education sciences and, obviously, sociology. There are numerous attendees, and they have spent large part of their time giving papers, both in small groups scattered among the Faculty’s classrooms and at plenary sessions in the Aula Magna, the main lecture hall. There is nothing novel therefore, about this final address to the conference, which is being held in plenary session in the Aula Magna, in English, with one of the conference organizers seated next to the speaker as chairman: these are aspects customary in the work practices of all those attending the conference. What is instead surprising is that the audience is still large, even though the conference has reached its conclusion. Equally surprising is that the speaker – Anna Scalfi Eghenter – suddenly has a fit of coughing which a glass of water fails to soothe. After continuing to cough for some while, Scalfi Eghenter hands the text of her paper to the chairman of the session, who begins to read from where she left off, while she hurries out of the lecture hall, not to return until the session has finished. This action, in fact, does not pertain to the usual practice of giving papers at conferences. Instead, the professional code of ethics requires that, in emergencies of this kind, the chairman must ensure continuation of the session in the best way possible: in this case by continuing with the paper’s reading while waiting for the speaker to return and resume. This is a matter of professionalism, of respect for conference attendees, of institutional awareness of the value of work in organizations. And the kid goat? This is the chief actor – indeed the outright protagonist – of this session of the conference, the episode which will remain most impressed on the minds of those present. The kid goat enters the scene towards the end of the paper’s reading, and it is the key to interpretation of the work session, whose topic, in fact, is performance art. More precisely, this concerns an issue still unresolved from both the theoretical and methodological points of view: how can one explain a performance to someone who has neither seen nor heard it; someone, in short, who may not have taken part in it or is even aware of it? How – the speaker asked – can one “convey the meaning of a performance” (Scalfi 2007a, p. 114)? Projected on a screen behind the speaker and chairman, as further illustration of the paper’s topic, are video images of a performance staged during another international conference – 2nd Art of Management and Organisation Conference – held in Paris the year before. How can direct experience of that performance be “transferred”? Describing it is certainly not enough. For a description would be largely inadequate, as is my above outline of the performance in Trento. Can the video, with its concerted images and voices, succeed where the oral description appears so insufficient?

Communicating the Meaning of a Performance in the Everyday Routine of Work

A paper discussing performance and its knowability – all the more so upon conclusion of a conference on passion for knowledge in organizations and on learning processes within them – seems perfectly in harmony with the topics addressed by the conference. What else is investigated when close observation is made of everyday life in organizations if not the “performances” of individuals at work, as well as those of work teams and the equipment that they use (Strati 2005)? What else is measured in an attempt to give these aspects a value and a price? And yet, behind and beyond the parameters used for such measurement, there is an underlying question: how can knowledge acquired about the performance of a particularly outstanding team be shared with others working on similar production processes within the same private firm or public department – and also, externally to these, to other organizations? How is such knowledge transmitted to a new work team? Put otherwise, in strictly sociological terms, how does the organizational communication of performance come about in workplaces?

Of course, Anna Scalfi Eghenter’s concern is with artistic performance, not with the more commonplace kind of performance which occurs in workplaces. But specific reference to artistic performance is not an entirely new development in the scientific domain (Guillet de Monthoux 2000; Strati 2010). Such reference is also made by prestigious international journals (Toscano 2008), as well as ones specialized in the study of organizations (Guillet de Monthoux 2000; Schreyögg and Höpfl 2004), where the issue of how knowledge about performance can be communicated within professional communities and organizations has become of key importance (Steyaert and Hjorth 2002). But, in the end, are we really sure that artistic performance does not consist of ordinary gestures – that is, gestures which say to the spectator “that isn’t art, because I could do it myself; in fact, it’s something that I’ve already done”?

Being projected on the screen, in fact, is a series of ‘common gestures’ often seen at conferences: people talking and gesticulating to emphasise what they are saying, faces with doubtful or knowledgeable or surprised expressions, bodies seated more or less composedly to listen, small groups discussing and laughing, academics waving to each other, wearing elegant clothing or the shorts and T-shirts by now customary at international conferences held in the heat of the summer. In the lecture hall, there are in the meantime the “common gestures” of the chairman, in a jacket and tie, reading until someone “leans on the switch panel and turns off the lights, the powerpoint presentation is disturbed by technical problems, a mobile phone rings in the audience and its owner leaves the hall to answer it, a goat enters the room accompanied by its keeper, small girls run into the hall with human-shaped balloons, a security guard cordons off the seated audience with yellow tape bearing the instruction Do Not Cross The Passion Line – referring to the conference topic on the passion of knowing – and music, lights, dancing, and sparkling wine accompany the projection of the images of the performance in Paris” (Scalfi 2007a, p. 115).

On the screen, a frog has now appeared among the conference attendees in Paris. It hops among the rows of seats, arousing cries of surprise, gestures of tenderness, grimaces of disgust. It now becomes clear. The attendees at the Trento conference begin to laugh. They leave behind the unease and embarrassment caused by the “coughing fit–exit by the speaker – technical problems” sequence. They understand that they have ended up in a performance; indeed, they begin to realize they have ended up in the Paris performance, and that they have experienced “the same sequence of interferences, as in a Chinese box” (Scalfi 2007a, p. 115).

The Aesthetics of Ordinary Beauty

If we consider the sequence of events in the performance, however, we cannot fail to notice that many of them are banal occurrences of everyday work routine. It has often happened in the Aula Magna that someone has inadvertently turned off the lights by leaning against the wall switches while listening, or even speaking. A screen which rises while a video is being projected, or which does not descend, is just one of the many technical problems which create disturbances, anxiety and tension during seminars, conferences, degree ceremonies or, more frequently, lectures. The ringing of a mobile phone occurs less frequently, but it nevertheless happens. These are events recurrent in everyday routine. Hence we may return to the question asked above: what do they have to do with art? Why, on the occasion described, did they pertain to an artistic performance instead of a banal performance in the workplace? They did so because – to hazard an answer – they suggest a profound truth: that contemporary art “opens up to the world of ordinary life” (Formis 2010, p. 34), to the aesthetics of ordinary beauty (Przychodzen, Boucher and David 2010). The purpose of contemporary art in this case is not to immerse itself simplistically in the canons of the ordinary; but on the contrary to do so as if it were doing so, thereby performing an operation characteristic of art: that of revealing the artificial nature of the everyday life that we constantly and jointly invent at work and in organizations.

Note the use of the word “jointly”, for it is this that is emphasised by the fact that the author of the performance at the Faculty of Sociology left the lecture hall after a couple of minutes to re-enter only at the end, when the audience was by now dancing among the rows of seats in the Aula Magna. ‘Jointly’ does not alter the fact that Anna Scalfi was both the author and protagonist of the performance; nor do her hasty exit from the lecture hall and her prolonged absence. More simply, it highlights those many other actors, constituted by individuals, groups and organizations, which were its protagonists. Art springs from collective action, from the intersecting and interweaving of different and unequal skills, competences, and talents (Becker 1982). These Anna Scalfi Eghenter was able to intrigue, involve and mobilize, showing that there is no artistic creativeness that is not also organization at the same time (Guillet de Monthoux 2004). The performance at the Sociology Faculty was enacted through complex and minute organizational actions which began with Anna Scalfi Eghenter’s interactions with the group organizing the Trento conference, and which proceeded from ideation of the performance project onwards. However, there were certain organizational actions that could not be prepared beforehand in equal detail. These actions were those of the individuals to whom enactment of the performance was delegated, namely the conference attendees present at the last session. Those actions, in fact, could be only imagined, envisioned, desired and hoped for. Nevertheless, they had to be prepared and promoted, but without being sure how things would actually turn out.

Capacity for Artistic Action, Audience and Performance

Not being sure how the events would be linked together, with what creative energy, with what taste, and with how much irony is a condition that, as pointed out by a conference on the video of the Paris performance (Scalfi, 2007b), was shared by those who actively took part in realization of the performance. Put otherwise, it was not known how the ringing of the mobile phone, which obliged one of the conference organizers to accompany the “culprit” out of the Magna Aula to the square outside, and then re-enter, but preceded by a kid goat and its keeper, would be accomplished, because none of these actors had previous experience of performance art. There was neither talent, nor competence, nor even experience on which to rely for the artistic success of the collective action. But it was precisely in this that Anna Scalfi Eghenter’s valuable contribution consisted: translating into the language of art the social practices due the talent and the abilities of those with whom – instead of towards whom – the performance was enacted and could thus be truly understood.

Antonio Strati

University of Trento


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Howard S. Becker, Art Worlds, University of California Press, Berkeley 1982; Ital. trans. I mondi dell’arte, Il Mulino, Bologna 2004.

B. Formis, Esthétique de la vie ordinaire, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 2010.

S. Gherardi, A. Strati (ed. by), The Iron Cage. Dialogues from Max Weber about Loris Cecchini’s Installation “Density Spectrum Zone 1.0”. Performance by Anna Scalfi, 2nd April. Facoltà di Sociologia, Università di Trento. Dvd/Vhs, 19’, 2003.

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(2011, Anna Scalfi Eghenter. Katalogos, edited by Andrea Viliani, Fondazione Galleria Civica – Centro di ricerca sulla Contemporaneità di Trento, Silvana Editoriale, Milano, 2011)