Performing the Bay

An interesting insight I’ve had in the early phases of my research has to do with the issue of performance in the way that the models are constructed. Of course, I’m particularly attentive to these kinds of issues, because I’m using a performativity framework to make sense of my research, but it’s interesting to have that framework validated by some of the actions and discourse of the people who actually do the modeling. Furthermore, it’s nice to be surprised by the ways in which the framework is validated – to have a novel insight come out of the process of refracting the practices I’ve been observing through the lens of performativity.

For the last few months, I’ve been attending various meetings and conferences in which the models that I am studying have been developed and discussed. Of course, most of the work goes on behind the scenes, and I haven’t had a chance to fully observe those processes yet, but it has nevertheless been a very informative opportunity to take part in these meetings. I get an opportunity to see the various facets of the model hashed out among different people representing different backgrounds, conceptual frameworks, and interests. The construction of models is, in this sense, always a collaborative process.

One of the things I’ve seen often in these meetings has been depictions of the modeled results paired against depictions of results from monitoring sites. It’s a fairly common practice, and probably fairly mundane for those familiar with modeling. Comparing the model to the actual system (as refracted through monitoring equipment, at least) is an important part of the process of constructing and validating a model. It’s possible to understand this practice in a representationalist framework: modelers want their models to accurately represent the system, so presenting the two sets of data together enables us to see how closely the representation comes to reality. That’s useful, maybe, but I think the performative framework provides a more interesting way of understanding this practice.

In thinking about modeling as performance and as performative, it occurs to me that this practice of presenting modeled data alongside monitored data is a kind of performance – an audition, perhaps. The model is being asked to perform the role of the Bay (at least some subset of its attributes, but that’s true of all performance and role play). It’s in these venues where the model’s performance is critiqued, and then the modelers go back to work with the model and improve its performance for subsequent rehearsals (like reciting lines). All of this is in preparation for when the model has to perform for the regulatory bodies, the environmental management staff, and the general public, and, hopefully, if the modelers have done their work, and the model’s performance has been fully vetted, it will convince the audience by performing the Bay effectively.


That’s not all, though! Saying that the model performs the Bay and comparing these demonstrations to rehearsals is not in itself revelatory nor is it explicitly performative. Where the performative framework becomes really interesting is in understanding how performances do more than represent or enact a role, they also come to shape the realities upon which they act. I can see two ways this happens in this case. First, there is the relationship between the role and the performer. An actor may have some agency to improvise and perform a part in a variety of ways, but those performances are always structured by the role itself and by the expectations of the audience. An actor cannot play Hamlet however s/he wants, the actor must, to some degree, internalize the character of Hamlet and perform as if s/he were that character. This requires a process of conditioning where the actor disciplines herself to perform the character (some schools of acting are more intense about this process than others – method acting, for example, is notoriously so).

With that in mind, the Bay model could be said to be undergoing a similar conditioning process, and these rehearsals are where the process is demonstrated and refined. The model must internalize the Bay as the character it will perform, and it’s through this process that the model is shaped not as a representation, but as an actor playing its part.

The second way these practices are performative rather than simply performances is in the relationship between the actor/character and the world with which they act. By world, I am referring to all of the other actors involved in the performance, and I mean “actors” in a broad sense. In a film or a play, there is a sense in which the stage and props are actors, the other actors are as well, of course, but so too is the audience. All of these actors perform their own roles, and this shapes the way that our actor/character performs as well and vice versa. As a result, through this process of many actors performing their roles, a world is created (not a static container for the actors, but the emergent product of their performances).

This is where the metaphor of actors and stages breaks down or has to be expanded, because in the case of the model, there is no “fourth wall” – no imaginary boundary between the performance and reality. Instead, the actors perform their roles within the “real” world. There is a sense, then, in which the model performs the Bay alongside the Bay itself, which is performing it’s own role in a much broader drama. As a result, the two are, to some degree at least, mutually constituting – the Bay and the Bay model perform a world together. The question that my research is meant to answer, to some extent, is what kind of world is being performed?

The performative framework allows us to understand the processes and practices of knowledge production (and others as well) from a non-representational perspective. In my view, the representational perspective is limiting because it separates our knowledge and representations from the world. The performative perspective embeds knowledge in the world as practices and relationships. Understanding how these practices contribute to the production of a world in relation to the objects of their representation (e.g. the Bay), will allow us to imagine other possible ways of producing those worlds, and will encourage us to enact new ways of performing them.

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