Art Term


The term performativity describes the interdependent relationship between certain words and actions – as when a word or sentence implies an action

Tania Bruguera, ‘Tatlin’s Whisper #5’ 2008
Tania Bruguera
Tatlin’s Whisper #5 2008
© Tania Bruguera

The term was first introduced by the theorist J. L. Austin in his 1955 book How to Do Things with Words. Austin used the word performative to describe a sentence that was also an action; like uttering the words ‘I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth’ while smashing a bottle against the boat. Other examples would be a judge declaring a verdict, or two people saying ‘I do’ upon being asked whether they take their partner in marriage.

This symbiotic or interdependent relationship between words and actions that the performative encompasses is a key aspect of performance art, with theorists and philosophers examining the role of actions, gestures and artistic decision-making through the idea of performativity. Since Austin’s first use of the word, there have been many philosophers who have elaborated on performativity including John Searle, Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler.

A work like Tania Bruguera’s Tatlin’s Whisper in which two mounted policemen perform crowd control with the audience submitting to their commands is an example of performativity.

related terms and concepts

explore this term

Performance at Tate: Into the Space of Art

A major research publication exploring the history of performance art at Tate from the 1960s to 2016
Tate Etc

Actions speak louder: The programme in the Tate Tanks

Sally O'Reilly

The Underground chambers of the old power station at Bankside, where oil once lurked with electric potential, will soon open ...


Tania Bruguera

Crowd control in force at Tate Modern

Tate Etc

Faces that speak volumes: Roni Horn

Elisabeth Lebovici

Can a book with no text paint a portrait of a writer? Elisabeth Lebovici examines the challenging representation of identity ...

selected artists in the collection

selected artworks in the collection

performativity at tate

Tate Modern Exhibition

Tania Bruguera: Immigrant Movement International

7–15 Aug 2012
Tania Bruguera takes up residence in The Tanks, Tate Modern with her socio-political project, Immigrant Movement International