The Space and Time of Performance: Foucault’s “Heterotopia”

I’ve been rereading Michel Foucault’s “Different Spaces” for a paper I’ve been working on and reading it after having read some of the texts for my performance theory class, I’m finding some interesting new connections. This is part of my favorite part of being a graduate student…rereading something even a few months after first reading it and already being able to form new ideas and connections based on just a few short months of knowledge building. In this piece, Foucault defines “heterotopia,” a term he coins to describe real space that seems somehow out of sync with its surround society. His exact definition is this: “real places, actual places, places that are designed into the very institution of society, which are sorts of actually realized utopias in which the real emplacements, all the other real emplacements that can be found within the culture are, at the same time, represented, contested, and reversed, sorts of places that are outside all places, although they are actually localizable” (Foucault 179).

Can the “Academy” be considered a heterotopia?

After defining heterotopia, Foucault gives several examples and fundamental principles of these spaces. One of his main examples is the theater, used to explain his third principle of heterotopias: “The heterotopia has the ability to juxtapose in a single real place several emplacements that are incompatible in themselves. Thus the theater brings onto the rectangle of the stage a whole succession of places that are unrelated to one another” (Foucault 181). It seems really interesting to think about the theater as a “heterotopia,” in Foucault’s definition, a kind of “actually realized utopia,” in light of several of the writers we’ve read for my performance theory class. Would Brecht, for instance, agree with such an assessment? Brecht’s aim is that the theater “allow the spectator to criticize constructively from a social point of view,” which seems to align with the goals of a utopia (Brecht 125). More’s Utopia, from which the popular use of the term derives, is at one level of a political critique of sixteenth-century England. However, I don’t know if Foucault’s basic definition of the theater as “bring[ing] onto the rectangle of the stage a whole succession of places that are unrelated to one another” is compatible with Brecht’s argument. Brecht’s minimalist theater (specifically his arguments about performance in “The Street Scene”) seems to ground itself in a unification of elements. Costumes, for instance, in Brecht’s model of theater, must be used only conditionally – “where there is a demonstration by several demonstrators…we can have costume so that the various characters can be distinguished. This again is only a limited use of costume” (Brecht 127-8). I don’t know that Brecht would approve of the kind of “un-relation” that Foucault associated with the theater.

Foucault connects another principle of heterotopias with theater later in his argument – “more often than not, heterotopias are connected with temporal discontinuities” (Foucault 182). This statement reminded me of Cavell’s argument in “The Avoidance of Love” on the kind of odd relation between the audience and the character/actor on stage. The fact that the yokel can never actually run up and save “Desdemona” because, out of the space and time of the action of the play, there is no Desdemona. And, the moment the yokel imagines that his action of saving this character is legitimate and possible, the space and time of the play are interrupted. Foucault connects his temporal principle of heterotopias with two extremities – museums/libraries and festivals. He argues that museums and libraries serve as spaces in which “time accumulates indefinitely” (Foucault 182). Festivals, then, are those spaces “that are linked…to time in its most futile, most transitory, and precarious aspect” (Foucault 182). It seems interesting to think about our recent work on museums in performance theory class, maybe connecting it to Cavell’s arguments on the odd temporality of theater and Foucault’s temporal extremes. If we’re reading all of these various events (Cavell’s Othello on stage, the space of a museum in its capacity as space for accumulation, and then the space of a museum in its capacity as space where history comes “alive,” so to speak) as certain types of performance…or certain “moments” of performance?…what are the universal claims we can make about performance and the way it occupies time and space and what are the particulars necessary for each separate type of performance?

My performance theory class recently visited the Indiana Historical Society, a trip that was bisected by a trip across the street to the Visualization Lab at IUPUI. A very odd visual and virtual interruption of a day that was otherwise filled with physical, tangible artifacts and face-to-face performance. But the odd space/time contradiction of those two spaces will have to be the subject of another post. Here I want to specifically think about the space and time of the “You Are There” exhibits at the Historical Society. These exhibits allow the visitor to literally “step into another era” (IHS website). Even just this phrase from the website suggests a troubling sense of time and space within these exhibits. The visitor can literally “step” into the space of the exhibit, which becomes the equivalent of moving through time, back to “another era.” Space and time are oddly conflated as the visitor steps through a doorway (portal, if you will), through a misty projection of a historical image, and into another space and time. But, of course, it’s not really another space and time because it’s the same museum exhibit room and the same day and moment that the visitor is currently existing in. But, like a performance on stage, there is a serious “temporal discontinuity” within the space of these exhibits. But unlike Cavell’s discontinuity between actor/character, the spectator in these exhibits is supposed to interact with the characters. In fact, unless the IHS is kind enough to arrange a “behind-the-scenes” look for visitors, the visitors might never get the chance to “see” or interact with the actor. This space of performance, then, invites the spectator’s interruption of the performance’s action. But it also calls the spectator into the space and time of the performance, in a way that’s similar, but not quite congruent, with the place and role of the spectator in Cavell’s “Avoidance of Love.” There, the actor enters into an agreement with the actors and other spectators not to interfere with the action and to observe the space and time of the action, based on the conventions of the space of the theater. At the IHS, the agreement is that the spectator will interfere with the action but will not disrupt the time and space of the action in their interference.

What about the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago ( Image courtesy of

Can these observations and ideas shed any interesting light on the third “type” of performance I was trying to think about – Foucault’s museum as a space in which “time accumulates indefinitely”? This type of museum is different than the “new” kind of museum we’ve been reading about lately in Whitcomb, Walsh, and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett…and, obviously, different than the museum exhibit space presented at the IHS. But I think that this “old” museum can be read as a type of performance as well. It’s interesting to think about artifacts collected and placed on display as shifting the stability of time and space inside the museum for the spectator. Can a collection of artifacts behind a glass case, complete with labels and directing the reader toward a certain “narrative,” perform some of the same temporal and spatial discontinuities that the other types of performance can?


One comment

  1. I found a statement today from Peggy Phelan (in her “King Lear and Theatre Architecture”) that speaks well to some of these ideas: “If architecture seeks to establish location and address, theatre architecture stages the paradoxical desire to set aside a space to explore being out of place, to inhabit, however fleetingly, a kind of no-place. In this desire, theatre shares aspirations with utopia, the fantasy of an ideal no-place, an idealization made possible by its lack of specific location” (Phelan 16)

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