Fiction as strategy



A wall of 12 alternating national flags of the USA and North Korea flank the tropical gardens of the Capella Hotel. A red carpet links two colonial arcades through which two dark suited politicians appear,

the President of the United States, and the Supreme Leader of North Korea. They move toward each other, holding their right hand out in a sign of mutual respect and friendship. The President of the United States places a reassuring hand on the elbow of the Supreme Leader of North Korea while performing his extended signature handshake.


While shaking hands, a few words are exchanged, mostly inaudible over the flutter of cameras assembled by international media.




Nice to meet you Mr President.



(Inaudible) … … .


They turn to stand side by side facing and acknowledging the fleet of photographers.



(To the media)

Thank you. Thank you very much.

(Turning once again to Kim Jong-un)

Fantastic. I think we can get a drink.


President Trump turns to Leader Kim once again and speaks to him (inaudibly), taking charge he gestures the way out. Kim turns to lead the way followed by Trump and his unacknowledged translator.




The Performance



The historic meeting described above would have seemed an unlikely scenario, had it not been for the real life event that worldwide audiences witnessed with open mouths in June 2018. If it had been a movie, as suggested by the screenplay format, it would surely have been preceded by the familiar disclaimer  “The events depicted in this movie are fictitious. Any similarity to any person living or dead is merely coincidental” (Davis 1988, p. 457), a legal framing established in 1934 after a landmark defamation case against MetroGoldwynMeyer. The film ’Rasputin and the Empress’, showed Princess Natasha being seduced by Rasputin, an event that the real-life princess vehemently denied and which the courts agreed MGM had invented. The frame of fiction escapes a factual relationship with reality, allowing any number of credible or incredible outcomes. As a fiction, the Trump Kim meeting may well have ended with the two new-found friends dancing together ‘Gangnam Style’ (Jung & Li 2014) along a sun drenched sandy beach.


The fiction-like meeting was the culmination of mounting speculation and plot twists, fed by two larger-than-life political personalities more familiar with media bravado than conventional diplomacy. United States President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un finally came face to face in the 5-star resort hotel on the holiday fun-park island of Sentosa off the coast of Singapore to supposedly discuss nuclear disarmament; making history through the first meeting between the leaders of these two nations.


The event is the culmination of broken promises, name calling and political posturing, framed by cold-war style rhetoric, and the possible world belief that a nuclear weapons attack can and will happen given sufficient antagonism. The fiction surrounding the event, imaginatively constructed, and intentionally played, are an important dimension to the final meeting. The chosen location of a holiday park, along with displays of trust and friendship, are familiar and persistent fictional tropes, intended to gratify the globally connected public.


From a performance design perspective – in which this event can be analysed as designed performance –  the spatial mise-en-scène was framed as primarily a meeting of friendship, notably egalitarian, human in scale as compared the spectacular displays of state frequently presented by the North Korean communist government, and modest in scope compared to the US president’s domestic public addresses. The unmistakable signifiers of stately power –  the obligatory red carpet, a meticulous line of flags, the formal symmetry of the presentational space – are subdued in scale and materiality. Rather, the leaders’ faces are centre stage on worldwide media screens, commentators focus on reading subtle signals that the eyes, mouth, hands and body gestures give away; interpreting narratives of dominance and staged camaraderie (Tom McCarthy 2018).


The months leading to this event had been characterised by a rhetoric more befitting pro-wrestling than politics. Donald Trump’s diminutive name-calling of the North Korean leader as ‘Rocket Man’ were met by Kim Jong-un’s ‘dotard’ (Stevens 2018) in escalating personal attacks of macho antagonism. President Trump, whose previous career as a reality television star and sometime guest on televised pro-wrestling (Pearson 2017), is a confident proponent of personal bravado and sensational bite-sized media statements, from “grab them by the pussy” to “you’re fired”. This was punctuated by Trump’s presentation of a short video to Mr Kim, a kitchy utopian promo-clip in the style of movie trailer, featuring both men in lead roles with the US challenging North Korea to ‘show vision and leadership… or not’. This propaganda film, presented to the media in lieu of any coherent policy documents, mixes male heroism with inspirational slogans appealing to popularity and affirmation while advocating “a moment to remake history” (Hains 2018). Peacemaking is a strategy that holds each actor to their defined role, upholding a power relationship, the video presents a paternal US position, bending a knee to advise the North Korean leader to “do the right thing”. 


The ideology of the film trailer also demonstrates a belief in fictional worlds, a trust in the possibility of power, friendship, prosperity, and glamour, over and above the complex language of diplomatic policy. These are powerful signifiers to a global audience of movie consumers and story-tellers. Archetypes of fiction transcend generations and cultures, connecting at a profoundly familiar core.


The complex combination of media presence, security, location, live commentary, ceremony and closed door meetings, provided a text-book example of ‘performance’ advocated by theorist Jon McKenzie who establishes the triadic aspects of ‘cultural, organizational and technological’ (McKenzie 2002, p. 153). The human image is amplified globally through technical means (digital media infrastructures) via an organisational performance (the state visit as an operation that commonly takes upwards of a year to plan is pulled together in just a few weeks) and cultural performance (enacted through gesture and language, but also framed by spatial signifiers and the built environment).


The conscious construction of a performance is never far from political staging either. In one of the many media snippets capturing peripheral moments around the meeting, Kim Jong-un is overheard making an off-the-cuff statement to Trump (through his translator) that ‘there are many people who will think of this as a scene from a fantasy, a science-fiction movie' (''A scene from a sci-fi movie': what Kim told Trump about their meeting - video'  2018). The relationship to fiction is vital in maintaining a symbolic order through which new possibilities may arise. American cultural critic and philosopher Steven Shaviro addresses the relationship between science-fiction and reality as ‘emotional and situational, rather than rational and universalizing’ (Shaviro 2016, p. 9), perhaps Kim’s observation is therefore acknowledging the power of fiction to form a shared moment of suspended disbelief.






Performance and fiction


Fiction is the bedrock of theatrical performance and literature, an othering of time and place within the everyday space-time of reality, assuming a difference between ‘the logic of fact and the logic of fiction’(Rancière 2004, p. 35). The structural possibilities of fiction enable the public to experience different kinds of power system. Aesthetic and everyday events, as with historic events, test the transformative ability of fiction to impact reality.


In theatrical representation a fictional person or place creates potential for shared experience, despite being embodied by real people (actors) in real spaces (theatres). This understanding forms the unspoken contract between performer and spectator. Twentieth century theatre innovator Bertold Brecht introduced the concept of ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ (commonly translated as ‘distancing effect’) in order to politically re-activate a perceived passive audience from the comfort of mere illusion. Brecht was reminding the audience that power of theatre is fiction, consciously observed, insisting that recognition of this would ‘draw attention to the essential artifice of the theatrical event’, toward social commentary (Franks & Jones 1999, p. 194). Ironically, researchers suggest that Brecht was less forthcoming to acknowledge collaborative authorship of many of his plays, in favour of perpetuating the myth of the single (male) writer (Jameson 1998, p. 10).


Contemporary British theatre pioneers Forced Entertainment also test the willingness of the audience to accept the fictional realm by twisting assumptions. Director and writer Tim Etchells reflects on how ‘the fictional “we”’, exclaimed by the performer and implying the audience in Speak Bitterness (1997), is employed to intentionally unsettle different ‘social shapes’. He refers to this as a ‘performed utterance’ since it implies consequences, ‘a version of fiction as method’ (Etchells 2017, p. 258).


This research project examines the dimensions of fiction in performance, focusing on the seemingly real public space of the city.










The peacemaking performance is intentionally informed by structures of fiction in order to affect reality. The public space of global media is complicit with this structural fictional dimension, incorporating a diverse audience to participate in an otherwise diplomatically vague meeting. At the end of the talks a document is signed, but it is neither specific nor politically binding. The narrative is constructed with symbols of the imagination – West vs East, reconciliation of adversaries, the reckoning of opposing forces in a fantastical landscape - inserted into a real-life setting.


The Latin root of fiction, fictio suggests ‘a fashioning or feigning’, which develops in the 15th century into ficcioun ‘that which is invented’. However today it commonly means ‘imaginary events and people’ (Oxford Dictionary online 2019), and is generally associated with language and symbols (literature, film, imagery). The way fiction is referred to has shifted from a dual relationship with truth to a more nuanced understanding. Jacques Rancière puts this down to its becoming an ‘arrangement of signs’ rather than a ‘sequence of actions’. The authority of aesthetics in the romantic age effectively blurred the lines of distinction between ‘the logic of facts and the logic of fiction’ (Rancière 2004, p. 35). While this has significant influence on the construction of literature and by turn history, since the narrator is considered more of a participant in the telling of history rather than a definitive authority, it also enables fiction to enter the realm of images and actions. Fiction infiltrates and informs the domain of politics and art alike through this new ‘arrangement of signs and images’ and ultimately between ‘what is done and what can be done’ (Rancière 2004, p. 39) and thereby how it performs and is performative.


Science and consciousness scholar Donna Haraway points out that both fact and fiction are rooted in experience and therefore always linked to one another. Fiction reaches for an ‘inner truth’ since it is ‘fashioning’ or ‘inventing’ in order to form a dialogue between the natural and the counterfeit, while fact remains rooted to the past, to what has already taken place (Haraway 1989, p. 3). Fiction is therefore deeply connected to potential and is ‘always inventive, open to other possibilities’.


Fiction in literature from a post-modern position reflects plurality, through what literary theorist Lobimir Doležel labels ‘possible worlds’ theory (Doležel 2010, p. 29). Rather than opposing the fictional realm with the real world (thereby asserting a one-world view point), possible worlds theory responds to the subjectivity and participation of the reader to suggest multiple possibilities.


In the realm of art, fiction also enables the link between what is and what can be done. Artist duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude, famously wrapped the German Reichstag building in Berlin entirely in silver cloth in 1995. At the dawn of the new Europe, with the Berlin wall only coming down 6 years earlier, this enormous performance installation was a significant artistic, social and political event. Having negotiated for over 25 years with various governments, the artists were finally able to get permission from the German bureaucracy by agreeing to stringent demands. The fiction-that-became-reality of wrapping the building like a gift, helped hail in a new era for a reunited Germany, overcoming division and political opposition, an ‘inventive possibility’ rather than a past ‘unchangeable’ (Haraway 1989).


The rational sphere of science frequently uses a plural understanding of the universe, depending on the structures of fiction to negotiate the gap between what is done and what can be done. Until recently the Higgs Boson particle lay in the realm of fiction as an explanation for an as yet unobserved reality of the forces of nature. The immense effort and resource that went into proving its existence using the CERN Large Hadron Collider – the largest machine in the world that took decades and thousands of scientists, technicians and engineers to build – was testament to the persuasive power that fiction was able to rouse in governments, intellectual scientific communities and the general public.


Performance enables fiction to be transformed into fact, however it is the event that effectively heralds a new truth. In order for fiction to affect reality, it must still be determined in relation to truth. Can truth therefore be responsive to fiction yet still uphold factual meaning?







Truth and the event


Hermeneutics philosopher John D. Caputo discusses the historical dimensions of truth in his book, aptly named Truth (Caputo 2013). From a European historical perspective, a holistic truth derived from the authority of God (religion) is progressively replaced by reason (truth), through modernity beginning in the Renaissance and developed through the Age of Enlightenment. Truth in pre-modernity could have been understood as a pursuit rather than a goal, whereas post-Enlightenment truth becomes discernible through observable behaviour (chiefly science) and clearly distinguished between what is and what is not. This separation of body from mind, knowledge from feeling, is how modernity rationally negotiated the world, effectively replacing the authority of God with the authority of scientific reasoning.


From a post-modern perspective however, truth is a more slippery fish, since truth is progressively subjected to a shifting lens of time and cultural perspectives. A prime example is how Isaac Newton’s scientific truth of physics is rewritten 200 years later by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which in turn is overwritten in the mid twentieth century by quantum mechanics. The truth, based on a perspective of time and place, is given context and interpretation rather than being an absolute in itself. Caputo refers to the crowd-sourced online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, as a good example of postmodern truth since it is in a constant state of flux, responding to debate and new evidence as it comes to hand.


In this context the event becomes a key marker for truth. Events and truth have a special relationship with one another. Either truth is upheld by an event, or our understanding of the truth alters to make sense of the event. A significant historical event, such as the destruction of the World Trade Centre towers in New York 2001, for example, re-wrote the truth of the United States’ role as an impartial diplomatic peace-maker.


The event shattered the commonly held belief that the US was beyond reproach. The attacks were disastrously real but they were structured by fictional representations that long preceded the event. In Welcome to the desert of the real!: five essays on September 11 and related dates, philosopher Slavoj Zižek suggests that the imaginative thought not only precedes reality, but ushers it in to existence, since the image (via media spectatorship) is the cultural assimilation of reality. In what Zižek calls the ‘twisted logic of dreams’ he reads the destruction of the twin towers as an image that ‘entered and shattered our reality’ (Zizek 2002, p. 16).


Whether the historic peace-brokering of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un’s meeting is constructed simply as an image, or whether it was a genuine attempt at diplomacy, both scenarios depend on the event to interpret an evolving complex truth. How then can we look towards artistic interventions in the city as affecting reality and, through fiction, relating truth to the event?






Affecting reality


If fiction is, as Rancière claims, the ‘material arrangement of signs and images’ (Rancière 2004, p. 38), then the political and the aesthetic are surely inter-related as the author suggests. The historic event impacts reality in a material and symbolic way, but to what extent does the aesthetic or everyday event affect reality and can we claim the same relationship to truth through the terms of fiction arranging signs and images?


Fiction is neither impartial nor neutral since it is created by someone’s imagination. Fiction is therefore strategic in that it assumes a position that cannot be refuted, since it is not claiming to be factual. In the example of the Hollywood movie disclaimer that introduced this essay, such declarations are legally motivated since they remove the responsibility of accurately representing real people. The disclaimer serves power by creating its own value system, in a similar way art adopts fiction as an independent and critical position to power systems. The art intervention is tactical in the way it negotiates hegemonic power, but the use of fiction in Rancière’s definition is its own system, therefore necessarily strategic. French philosopher Michel de Certeau makes an important distinction between strategy and tactic in The Practice of Everyday Life, whereby strategy is a self-defining position of power, while tactics are working within the confines of those systems (de Certeau 1988, pp. 35 - 37). In the context of performance, a tactical approach implies a strive for  change. ‘Tactical Performance’ is a catch-phrase for the many inventive and progressive performances that confront strategic power, documented by artivist-artists such as Andrew Boyd and Larry Bogad (Bogad 2016; Boyd & Mitchell 2013).


German theatre maker Christof Schlingensief tactically employs fiction as an independent power system in his 2000 performance Please Love Austria! in the very public sphere of downtown Vienna, amplified through online broadcast and documented in the feature film Foreigners Out! (Jestrovic 2008, p. 163). Foreign asylum seekers were housed in a temporary shipping container compound erected in a prominent public space, they were introduced to the public via media-style reality television format game show whereby each of the potential immigrants would vie for the privilege to the right of residency in Austria. Each day public opinion demanded one asylum seeker to leave the compound (and presumably return to their country of origin). The event caused huge public debate, protest and condemnation. On the one hand Schlingensief maintained that the asylum seekers were real, but there was considerable doubt as to whether this was factually true. The symbolic language and format of reality-style television was a clear acknowledgement that the performance was structured as a fiction but the representative theatricality was never confirmed. This conceit of the television show enabled a tactical approach to hidden power systems of unconscious bias and xenophobia, allowing Schlingenseif a charismatic platform of his own making in a series of performance tactics such as ranting to the public via megaphone, and inviting public debate in the very presence of the asylum seekers. After several days the certainty of fiction slowly eroded from the performance and scandal erupted in the public sphere online and offline. The fiction of a tv show ensured the public could openly participate through otherwise politically volatile behaviour, exposing a reality-producing cultural division between supporters and opponents to this crass display of human exploitation. The fictional framework prevented the performance from inevitably descending (quite brilliantly and deliberately) into a racist confrontation.






A Performative Turn


How an artwork affects reality is a hotly contested subject of discussion. The fine arts, performing arts and literature have sought to articulate the relationship between sign and action, through the concept of ‘performativity’. Coming from a performing arts, where the term is frequently mis-used to mean ‘performance-like’, the relationship is not always clear. Performativity as literary concept was initially proposed by British philosopher J L Austin in his 1955 Harvard lecture “How to Do Things with Words”, in which he claimed that some language should be considered ‘performative utterances’, able to produce an effect beyond description, therefore producing reality through actions (doing) and therefore consequences. For example, the words ‘I do’, pronounced in a marriage ceremony, act performatively to produce an active reality according to Austin (Austin 1975, p. 6).


While the dimensions of performativity have since been expanded by a wide variety of philosophical thinkers (Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and Jürgen Habermas to name a few), it is gender specialist Judith Butler’s work on performance and gender that relates everyday bodily acts to performative consequences; where normative ‘reality’ is achieved iteratively and through repetition. Butler describes ‘a reiteration of a norm or a set of norms’ (Butler 2011, p. 12) as essentially a struggle of power since a norm rejects everything that sits outside the norm. In a later study, Notes toward a performative theory of assembly, Butler takes the politics of performativity one step further to the enactment of mass demonstration. Power relations are maintained or challenged through iterative and repeated acts of who constitutes “the people” and who does not (Butler 2015, p. 164). The performative act in Butler’s thinking is not a singular act of performance but a constantly iterated act.


The implication that an artwork should be capable of performative utterance has also been adopted in the visual arts. Theorist Dorotea von Hantelmann suggests an interpretation of performativity where the concern lies in not just what an artwork represents but what it does, further claiming that in this case all artwork ‘has a reality-producing dimension’. A contemporary wave of interest in performativity, von Hantelmann claims, stems from ‘an experiential turn’ (Von Hantelmann 2014), reflecting a deeper social interest in the relationship between representation and action, as post-production society seeks non-material relationships (i.e. experiences) with artworks. The author cites Tino Sehgal’s artwork This objective of that object, performed at London’s ICA gallery in 2004 as a good example of this. The gallery visitors are met by a small group of performers who at first encircle the viewer, whispering “the object of this work is to become the object of a discussion”. Unless there is some reaction or response to the statement, the performers as ‘interpreters’ melt lifelessly to the floor and there is no further interaction. However, if the visitor responds in some way, the performers spark into life with movement and discussion.


In Sehgal’s work the performative dimension is employed strategically, retaining a position of power through the carefully structured experience. Could this structure therefore be considered a shared fiction, similar to Haraway’s ‘inventive possibility’, within which the public are invited to participate? If facts are defined by what has already happened, then surely a work of art is able to extend itself into the future by aligning itself with fiction as performative utterance. The performed aesthetic or political event (enactment of peace ceremony, the gift-wrapped building, or the reality-tv show public performance) pursues a future ‘performative’ potential when it consciously rejects the certainty of a factual past.


The creation of fiction is an universal human trait, born from a desire to engage with reality on a symbolic, as well as an active, level. Fiction is a way to operate in the world when facts are no longer effective or appropriate, or as we see in the houses of power, when context and content cannot align. 






Does fiction as a device use a one-size-fits all approach, or do some fictions work better than others? The promo-clip film trailer presented by President Trump is a tactical device, the effectiveness of which may never be known, so perhaps fiction, rather than fact, can better illuminate how such a work operates. Luckily, two translators were also present throughout the Trump & Kim meeting, and given one degree of fictional license, we may interrogate the translators themselves. Their meeting for the first time, Kim Ju Song from North Korea and Yun Hyang Lee an American citizen of South Korean descent, would have been like looking in the mirror at a life that could have been. I am reminded of Italo Calvino’s novella, Invisible Cities, where his beloved city of Venice is described by two historical personalities Kublai Kahn (the warrior heir to the throne of the East) and Marco Polo (the world-wise traveler from the West) (Calvino 1997). Calvino brings these two characters together in conversation in an attempt to inverts the symbolic from the real, abandoning responsibility for factual accuracy. Using this premise, I have created my own fiction to step inside the closed door of this political event, the result of which is a short screenplay called Best Friends Forever.


The contemporary parallels to the closeted heir-to-the-throne Kim Jong-un and the self-promoting fantasist Donald Trump, meeting on the holiday island of Santosa are temptingly aligned. This fan-fiction style retelling of Invisible Cities, told from inside the meeting room of Trump and Kim, swaps out the translators with Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, who steal a moment or two of their own to speak of the hidden dimensions of Santosa, each a kind of archetype of fiction - the Abyss, the Ladder, the Barricade, an Infinite Bundle of Sticks, Every Candle, the Glass Monument, the Labyrinth and the Frame.


The screenplay is also a device to reflect on own practice as a performance maker. By entering into the abstract worlds of fictional types, I begin to unravel how fiction informs public space, spatially and through performance. Fictional types are the glue that binds the performer to the public, the symbol to the action, the reader to the writer. Each has a dimension that may be entered, together or apart from reality, a shared dimension where ideological differences are forced to occupy the same space.





The meandering line represented here is a kind of map, a landscape of fiction. Each of the icons borrow descriptions by my fictional Khan & Polo to identify archetypes or fiction-types. These are then related to Strategies & Performances, Strategies relates theories and artworks that  employ each type, Performances is a reflection on my own recent performance experiments as a public performance maker and Phd student researcher. Categorising and referencing them like this is a way of thinking, a reflective search for what performance does as well as what it  symbolises.





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