Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Mary Ann Caws

Committee Members

Wayne Koestenbaum

Siona Wilson

Subject Categories

Comparative Literature | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | French and Francophone Literature | Literature in English, North America | Modern Art and Architecture | Photography


Photography, Poetry, Performance, Avant-garde, Twentieth-century


In its most common usage in the artistic context, collaboration refers to a practice of creation in which two artists work together to produce a single artwork or object. Collaboration Revisited: The Performative Art of Claude Cahun and Hannah Weiner focuses on the nexus of photography, writing, and performance in the work of six female avant-garde artists from the transatlantic twentieth century, informed by the important place of surrealism in that history, to reconsider this understanding of collaboration. Instead of the notion of collaboration as founded in the experience of two artists working together in each others’ presence, I examine and theorize a novel form of collaboration between artists and their audiences that privileges the separation and absence of collaborative partners from one another. I call this novel form “performative collaboration,” borrowing the term from linguist J.L. Austin’s theory of language that enacts the action it names (as in the “I do” of the wedding ceremony’s marital contract).

Part one of this dissertation juxtaposes the work of multimedia artists Claude Cahun (French, 1894-1954) and Hannah Weiner (U.S. American, 1928-1997). Moving in turn through critical frames including the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and theories of narcissism, theories of affect proposed by Rei Terada and Brian Massumi, and conversations around theories of performance, photography, and performative language, the three chapters of part one reveal the ways in which Cahun and Weiner inscribe a performance into the artwork and stage a direct address to future reader-viewers in order to inspire the repetition of those performances. The arguments advanced in these chapters account for my theory of “performative collaboration.” Part two turns to the work of Meret Oppenheim (Swiss, 1913-1985), Unica Zürn (German, 1916-1970), Bernadette Mayer (U.S. American, born 1945), and Adrian Piper (U.S. American, born 1948) to explore the role of the reader-viewer and critic in similar works that create instances of “performative collaboration.” I conclude the dissertation by turning to linguist Émile Benveniste’s theory of subjectivity in language, which makes its own account of linguistic performatives, to suggest that the reader-viewer or critic who participates in the “performative collaboration” of these works occupies a unique subjective position that evades the typical subject positions of “I” or “you.” In short, such a rich form of artistic collaboration involving audiences as participants poses a fruitful methodological challenge for scholars who become in turn collaborators in the very artworks that they choose to study.