Being Surface

Visual arts

Content warning: text & images contain elements of violence that might disturb sensitive audiences.

Publication Histories

The present text is a short version of the article originally published in Performance Philosophy Vol.7, №2 (2022):111–140 [DOI: https://doi.org/10.21476/PP.2022.72360, ISSN 2057–7176], based on the author’s practice-led Ph.D. Thesis in Philosophy & Fine Art (Performance) at the Royal College of Art in London, supervised by Prof. Johnny Golding (Primary) & Prof. Nigel Rolfe (Second, 2015–2019), and supported by the Onassis Foundation Scholarship for Research studies (Scholarship ID: F ZL 027–1/2015–2016).


The paper problematizes the ways in which performance art might be philosophy, and vice versa, that is; how philosophy might operate as embodied praxis and method. The performance practice under discussion stands as the research’s starting point, method and output, with all the works brought forward being conceived and performed by myself. However, the deliberate use of a third- person phrasing (e.g. ‘the performer’, ‘the artist’) while describing these performances serves as a strategic methodological choice of narration, so as to avoid oversentimentality, egocentrism, and a sense of diary/confession writing, even more so due to the already quite visceral character of the live works presented.

Despina Zacharopoulou, Corner Time, 7-week (324 hours) long durational performance, commissioned by the NEON Organization and the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI), AS ONE, Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece, 10 March–24 April 2016. Photograph by Kyveli Dragoumi.

Performance as Philosophy / Philosophy as Embodied Practice

The main hypothesis adopted is based on the argument that philosophy, though predominantly thought of as a rational ideological construction, is essentially an invitation towards change and a method on how to lead one’s life (Hadot 2001, 148). This position has been particularly stressed by philosophers Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault, who revisited ancient Greek philosophy to indicate how embodied practices might operate as methodologies for leading one’s life. Foucault, in the late years of his life, focused on the notion of parrhēsia (Greek term indicating a particular kind of courageous truth-telling) as practiced by the Cynics and early Christian ascetics (Foucault, 2011), in the context of his research on a new hermeneutics of the subject (Foucault 2005) that would comprise technologies of the body in the form of care of the self and others. It is in that respect that one should look at Foucault’s engagement with sadomasochistic practices; as a laboratory (Rabinow 2000, 151) for “the creation of new forms of life” (Rabinow 2000, 164).

Despina Zacharopoulou, Aphorism, 7-minute live performance & video projection, Entanglement — The Opera, Gorvy Lecture Theatre, RCA, 2019. Text read during the performance: Friedrich Nietzsche, “Of the Despisers of the Body,” in: Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, transl. by R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1961, 2003 [Chemnitz: Ernst Schmeitzner, 1883]), 61–63. Photograph by This is tomorrow.

Violence as an Apparatus towards Performance-as-Surface / Life-as-Surface

In light of the above, this text discusses how performance strategies related to violence might suggest a radical re-thinking and revisiting of philosophy as embodied practice and method towards a life-as-surface, that is; a life experienced in its full intensity and in pure joy. Violence in the context of this research is defined as any force exercised among bodies at the moment of their encounter, with its effect having a severe impact on the bodies upon which it is applied. The way that violence operates in the live works put forward, differentiates itself from what seems to be at stake in existing examples in the field of performance art discourse, and brings to light alternative points of view than those already argued in the relevant bibliography (e.g. O’Dell 1998). On the contrary, violence is here rethought of as a technological apparatus for the generation and distribution of intensities within each live work, via the transmutation of the performer’s body into flesh, stripped of any given subjectivities. In so doing, the performance practice at stake, manages to operate as surface: as a field occupied only by intensities, thus also overlapping with Artaud and Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the Body without Organs (Artaud 1988, 571; Deleuze and Guattari 2013, 177– 8). Therefore, the images created by the performer’s postures, movements and/or marks on the skin, would be but a manifestation of forces traversing the artist’s body at any given moment. In this way, the performer essentially takes the risk to reveal — while also protecting — a life which is radically other, a life affirmed as it is and as it is lived, without any ideological or moral presuppositions. Consequently, what is at stake in the works presented, would be contemporary performance art’s ability to operate as a locus of parrhēsia, and as an invitation to a new ethical life.

Despina Zacharopoulou, Corner Time, 7-week (324 hours) long durational performance, commissioned by the NEON Organization and the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI), AS ONE, Benaki Museum, Athens, Greece, 10 March–24 April 2016. Photograph by Christina Bratuska.

Works of violence

Following from violence’s definition as any force exercised among bodies at the moment of their encounter, with its effect having a severe impact on the bodies upon which it is applied, the works of violence brought forward could be distinguished into two categories: (a) performances in which violence takes place at a time prior to the performer’s appearance in front of an audience, and (b) works in which violence takes place during the ‘actual’ performance, either live or in a video format reproducing an action that has already happened in the past (during a performance piece or within a private consensual environment). In the first category (a), violence is presented either through marks left on the performer’s body as a trace/remainder, e.g.: bruises, imprints, and/or abrasions, or is implied through rituals of care that would constitute the ‘actual’ performance work, called upon to manage violence’s traumatic remainder.

Given the phrase ‘severe impact’ in the adopted definition of violence above, it would be necessary to investigate how this severe impact gets manifested in the performances discussed. In the following examples of works, this impact would be usually read via its residual expressions that constitute proof, testimony, and memory of the event of violence. Such residual expressions would include:

1. The intensities produced and distributed in the work, accompanied by the production of images of a body in spasm assuming positions and generating images that would be impossible to be engendered without the application of forces on the performer’s body and without the mediation of pain.

Despina Zacharopoulou, Introduction, 20-minute performance, 2015, Dyson Gallery, RCA, London, UK. Ropes: Fred Hatt. Video Still. Camera: Jeroen Van Dooren.

2. The creation of marks on the performer’s skin, such as: imprints, bruises, abrasions, or even breakings of the skin tissue (e.g. using body stapling), manifesting trauma-as-corporeal trace.

Despina Zacharopoulou, Love *me*, 5-minute performance, 5 MINUTES OF YOUR TIME, RCA Performance Pathway, The doodle bar, London, UK, 2017. Photograph by Prof. Nigel Rolfe.

3. Rituals of care following the effects and affects of the violent forces exerted at a time prior to the performance work, including their residue-as-trauma.

Despina Zacharopoulou, Aftercare Ι, 3-day (20 hours) long durational performance, RCA Fine Art Research Exhibition: MATTER, Royal College of Art, 2016. Photograph by Janina Anja Lange.


In the performances discussed, the testimony of a body submitted to violence during its encounter with other bodies, would indicate the ability of this body to affect and be affected by other bodies and forces. This ability would be named as affectability or vulnerability. Therefore, what is essentially at stake across this series of works of violence is the performer’s ability to exhibit a vulnerable and sensuous body affirming life as it is.

Despina Zacharopoulou, Being A Threat, 2-hour performance, Performing Identities, Dyson Gallery, RCA, London, UK, 2016. Photograph by Ania Mokrzycka.

Towards a Politics of Intimacy & an Ethics of Care

To sum up, works of violence in my performance practice operate as fields occupied only by intensities where parrhēsiastic games take place to reveal life-as-surface, after shattering all essentialist categories and ideological hierarchies. Within this suggested condition of successive entanglements where bodies intra-act with other bodies, the possibility of a new ethics of care emerges. The following question, then, arises: are there any ethical limits within performance-as-surface and, consequently, life-as-surface? What would be the thickness and the porosity of those limits? After dismissing all kinds of morality, what is suggested instead would be the investigation of modes of conduct based on ideas of care; with care understood here as the maintenance of one’s ability to be useful. Given that one agrees with Agamben’s definition of intimacy as “use-of-oneself as relation with an inappropriable” (Agamben 2016, 91), then the performances brought forward would allow for intimate coherences to happen, not on the grounds of possession — and thus exchangeability — but on the uninterrupted circulation of forces via the use of the performer’s body, that would then be able to shapeshift across various fluid subjectivities, through use-of-oneself. In the suggested paradigm, therefore, care would not only be an ethical apparatus to safeguard the performer’s usefulness, but also a potential social contract for a new ethical life towards being surface.

Image 10. Despina Zacharopoulou, Surface, performance for the camera, Live 2 Camera II, RCA Performance Pathway, 2017. Video still. Camera: J. J. Rolfe.

Links for performances discussed (links working at time of publication)

Corner Time (2016) https://mai.art/projects/asone despinazacharopoulou.com/corner-time
Introduction (2015) despinazacharopoulou.com/introduction-hzztl
Being a threat (2016) despinazacharopoulou.com/being-a-threat
Aftercare Ι (2016) despinazacharopoulou.com/blank-1
Love *me* (2017) despinazacharopoulou.com/love-me
D’après S.K. (2017) despinazacharopoulou.com/d-apres-s-k vimeo.com/221403826
Aftercare IΙ (2016) despinazacharopoulou.com/blank-1
Surface (2017) despinazacharopoulou.com/surface-live-to-camera-ii
Pudeur (d’après F.N.) (2017) despinazacharopoulou.com/pudeur-d-apres-f-n
Pudeur II (d’après F.N.) (2018) despinazacharopoulou.com/pudeur-ii-d-apres-f-n
Aphorism (2019) despinazacharopoulou.com/aphorism
Response-ability (d’après K.B.) (2017) despinazacharopoulou.com/response-ability-d-apres-k-b

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Dr Despina Zacharopoulou is a performance artist, theorist and academic, born in Arcadia, Greece, currently working between London and Athens. Despina completed her practice-led Ph.D. in Philosophy & Fine Art (Performance) at the Royal College of Art, London (Onassis Foundation scholar), supervised by Prof. J. Golding (Primary) and Prof. N. Rolfe (Second, 2015–2019).

Her practice investigates performance art as surface, and philosophy as embodied practice and method towards a life which is radically other. Her work has been presented at events of global impact, e.g.: AS ONE by the NEON Organization & the Marina Abramović Institute (Athens, 2016); London Frieze (2016, 2017); A Possible Island? By the Marina Abramović Institute & the 1st Bangkok Art Biennale (Bangkok, 2018–19), etc. Press/Publications include articles in: Performance Philosophy Journal, New York Times, The Nation Thailand, Liberal Newspaper Greece, The Art Newspaper Greece, etc. Dr Zacharopoulou has been awarded the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Artist Fellowship by ARTWORKS (2021) and holds the position of the Course Leader of the Contemporary Art Summer School at the Royal College of Art in London.


© 2022 Despina Zacharopoulou

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