Gobsmacked: Getting Speechless in Performance was a one-day conference at Queen Mary, University of London on 20 November, 2010. The event explored failures of speech and the promise of speechlessness in performance, and was supported by QMUL and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Gobsmacked was organised by Johanna Linsley, in collaboration with Helen Walsh.
During the 1960s and 1970s artists began to depart from traditional or established curatorial frameworks to pioneer new forms of multidisciplinary expressions that merged art with the everyday. Their boundary-breaking actions gave rise to what is now referred to as performance art or body art practices. Writing in 1962 Susan Sontag stated: ‘To describe a Happening for those who have not seen one means dwelling on what Happenings are not.’ Set within this context of a critical loss for words, Gobsmacked focuses on the ways in which experimental performance practices that fall within the brackets of ‘live art’, ‘performance art’ and ‘body art’ may elicit a failure of language. Yet while our conference is situated within the history Sontag struggles to describe, we note how researchers have overcome this initial lack of vocabulary, and given meaning and structure to early performance practices. Hence it is our primary aim to investigate the new and innovative ways in which contemporary performance practitioners continually create experiences that are not easily put into words. In titling the conference Gobsmacked we are purposefully drawing on the reputation of these performance categories for that which is shocking, explicit or provocative. However, it is our aim to consider the many other ways in which experimental performance practice can entice a failure of speech amongst those who experience it.