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Research Area 3: Cultural Transformation and Performativity Studies

Oliver Gargan, „O'Connell Monument top closeup 1” ( Edited by BR, CC BY-SA 4.0 (

The performative refers to eventful, corporeal, powerful practices found in any cultural area – from voguing to voting, funerals to universities, dating to meditating. The term characterizes acts which have a specific force, since by doing them they bring about a new state of affairs. They move beyond the mere descriptive or accumulative, but bring about a qualitative change in self- and world-relations. When performances are repeated they generate behaviors, identities, conventions, social models, values, rules, meanings, feelings and imaginations. Therefore Performativity holds the potential to impact social developments and to propel cultural transformation.

The clue is that this can happen intentionally but also by accident - and those accidents are of special interest for our research area, since they reveal something about performativity’s chiastic structure of both: success and failure. Reinforcement and subversion. Congruity and parody.

Any performative act happens in a specific situational context that impacts its effectiveness and validity. They aren't completely controllable, sterile or foreseeable, but come with a certain unevenness due to the inherent waywardness of the relational, somatic and material world. This enables loopholes for surprising outcomes and resistance. It allows for a wiggle room, in which cultural norms are not only incorporated but also excorporated or re-interpreted. Such an approach emphasizes the agency of subjects, objects and other entities to bring about socio-cultural change.

We are particularly interested in new materialist and queer perspectives that acknowledge the fundamental role of matter and the ‘more-than-human’ in meaning-generating as well as change-provoking processes. Approaching performativity from a variety of disciplines, we investigate different forms of art (i.e. performance, theatre, film, photography, music, visual art, literature), cultural and historical phenomena, and lived experiences in contemporary society.

Currently, the group discusses the potentials that lie in moments of error, failure or non-sovereignty, at times with a special focus on a broad conception of the topic  of sex/uality as a performative phenomena. Including discourses on gender, desire, the sexual we are for instance interested in aesthetic strategies of displaying sex or in cultivating sexual manners as a means of dealing with risks and inconveniences of intimate encounters.

Upcoming events:

Concept by Beate Absalon and Juliane Saupe


On November 14th-15th 2023 we are excited to welcome our guest Prof. Jennifer Doyle for a Masterclass and a Keynote Lecture:

Keynote Lecture

Scientia Sexualis: A Curatorial Project
In this lecture, Jennifer Doyle shares her collaboration with Jeanne Vaccaro on Scientia Sexualis, an exhibition of contemporary art which takes up the intersection of sex and science. She will share the exhibition's defining questions and challenges, reflect on the history of queer and feminist work in this space and situate this project in relation to the ongoing fight for bodily autonomy and sexual liberty. Scientia Sexualis will open in the fall of 2024 at the Institute for Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and is part of PST ART: Art & Science Collide, a regional festival sponsored by The Getty. 
Otto-Behaghel-Straße 12, 35394 Gießen
Seminarroom MFR
Online link will be shared soon


Title, time and room will be announced soon!

When we say that an artwork is “about sex,” what do we mean? This Masterclass aims to provide a platform for exploring the development of art historical and critical writing about sex, sexuality and gender. We will address the challenges of working with difficult material—art that speaks to vulnerability and trauma—and discuss the process of reckoning with the legacy of art history’s own patriarchal, racist and homophobic structures. This Masterclass will furthermore make room for the exploration of our own writerly voices as we discuss the line between the personal and the confessional, and the relationship between identity, perspective, and insight.  
Key questions to be explored include:
  • How do we recognize sexuality within artworks? To what extent is our ‘radar’ influenced by highly subjective, subconscious, as well as socially ingrained desires? Can we rely on our methodical lens, and what are its blind spots?
  • How do affects like arousal, shame, or disgust come into play when interpreting such artworks? Should we incorporate them in our research - how (not)?
  • What language should we employ to convey our findings? How does an objective jargon sterilize the message or perpetuate the hegemonic methods of Western "scientia sexualis"? Conversely, would a more colloquial or poetic "ars erotica" overstimulate and distract from academic findings?
This Masterclass will be of particular interest to researchers in the fields of art history, sexuality, gender and queer studies, but it also offers valuable insights for scholars working on different topics that similarly navigate delicate intersections of intimacy and the public sphere (e.g. mental health, emotions, death, …). Your active participation will enrich the depth and diversity of the discussions, fostering a supportive environment for emerging scholars to explore these critical questions.




Jennifer Doyle is the author of Campus Sex, Campus Security (2015), Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art (2013), and Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire (2006). She has just finished a book about harassment, paranoia, and grief—Shadow of My Shadow will be published in August 2024. She is currently co-curating Scientia Sexualis. A collaboration with trans studies scholar Jeanne Vaccaro, this exhibition takes up contemporary art which confronts the difficult relationship of sex and science. This exhibition will open in October 2024, and is part of Art & Science Collide, a regional festival sponsored and organized by the Getty. She also has a significant sports writing practice and has published this writing in The New York Times, DeadspinFox SoccerThe Guardian, Vice Sports, and The Los Angeles Times.

Past events:


On July 11th 2023 we are excited to welcome our guest Prof. Dr. Insa Härtel:


Seminar Ästhetik des Sexuellen: Formen des „Übergriffs“ in Tseng Yu-Chins Who‘s listening 5

14:00 – 16:00h

(in German language)


In der Videoarbeit „Who's listening? 5“ des taiwanesischen Künstlers Tseng Yu-Chin (2003-2004) werden auf einem Sofa mit weißem Überwurf spielerische aber keineswegs harmlose Aktionen zwischen Mutter und Sohn im Split-Screen-Modus gezeigt, z.B. Anfassen, Bemächtigen, Küssen, Feixen, Ausweichen. Dieses „Übergreifen“ spielt nicht nur im Bild eine Rolle, sondern auch bezogen auf die Wirkung, die die künstlerische Arbeit auf das hiesige Publikum hat. Ein mögliches Gesprächsthema könnte sein, ob hier durch die ästhetische Form eine Art Verführungsfantasie nicht nur gezeigt, sondern auch agiert wird. Welche Qualitäten sind diesen Formen des Übergreifens eigen, wie verhält sich eine potenzielle „Übergriffigkeit“ des Sexuellen z.B. zu Konsenskonzepten – und welche Möglichkeiten bietet ein psychoanalytisches Vokabular für solche Analysen?


Otto-Behaghel-Straße 12, 35394 Gießen
Seminarraum 308




18:00 – 20:00


Aesthetics of the Sexual: On Sheaths, Scenes, and Screens

(in English)

He brings a condom into play, she – mocking him – blows it up like a balloon. This sequence from "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" (USA 1977) is quoted in the film "Test" (USA 2013), set in the gay 1980s San Francisco modern dance milieu. Based on the composition of such scenes and going beyond the actual use of the condom, this lecture deals with interlayers and screens, the performance character of sexuality and the aesthetic constitution of the latter.


Otto-Behaghel-Straße 12, 35394 Gießen
Seminarroom MFR




Prof. Dr. Insa Härtel is a Permanent Senior Research Fellow at the University of Art in Linz at the Department of Cultural Studies / Institute of Fine Arts and Cultural Studies and works as a psychotherapist for children, adolescents and young adults in Hamburg . From 2012-2022 she was a Professor of Cultural Studies with a focus on cultural theory and psychoanalysis at the International Psychoanalytic University Berlin (IPU).  Currently she is working on a book entitled “Aesthetics of the Sexual” (Ästhetik des Sexuellen). Selected publications: „Reibung und Reizung. Psychoanalyse, Kultur und deren Wissenschaft“ (ed.), Hamburg: textem Verlag 2021; “Kinder der Erregung. »Übergriffe« und »Objekte« in kulturellen Konstellationen kindlich- jugendlicher Sexualität”, Bielefeld: transcript 2014. Insa Härtel is a member of the editorial board at „RISS. Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse.



Participating Scholars (among others)

  • Beate Absalon (Speaker)
  • Juliane Saupe
  • Tatsiana Artsimovich
  • Paul Kaletsch
  • Vira Sachenko
  • Dr. Jens Kugele


If you are interested in the work of this Research Area, would like to join, have ideas for an event, a cooperation, or any questions, please contact