Like many people, I jot down ideas as I go through the world – on my phone, in little notebooks, cocktail napkins, scraps of paper, email drafts and odds and ends that end up in forgotten corners of my apartment. Some of these little idea orphans are lucky enough to grow up into full-blown essays, some of them are doomed to remain flotsam and jetsam in my stream of consciousness.
I have at least four big essays in process already and sometimes it feels like I will explode if I don’t get it all out there as soon as possible, so as part of my end-of-year taking stock of everything, I gathered some of the more promising thoughts and am publishing them here. I hope they are interesting, helpful, provocative or at least entertaining.
Why am I doing this? Because I have come to see the Internet as a platform for iterative processes – one where an idea can start with a tweet, move into a blog post, then an essay, then a book or a performance or a song or a film or some combination thereof. Rather than experiencing each iteration as an end unto itself, we can experience this as process, an ever-evolving exploration of an idea or set of ideas, performed in public, often collaboratively. This, I think, is the heart of what it means to create in the 21st century whether in digital or analog environments – an awareness and acknowledgement that it is ALL process.
Life is, in fact, a rehearsal – a never-ending perpetual now, subject to revision and revisiting, driven by an aspiration towards perfection, towards realization, towards culmination that may never actually arrive. How you do anything is how you do everything and “end results” are the culmination of countless small decisions, behaviors and processes, each current moment determined by those that have come before and determining what is to come. So be present, be mindful, strive towards right action in all things and together we’ll keep this whole thing moving in balance and towards the good.
RANDOM IDEAS ON ART, CULTURE & VALUE
ON CONTEMPORARY PERFORMANCE AND CREATIVE PRACTICE
Went to see Rude Mech’s Dionysus in 1969. Had a chat with Schechner in the lobby beforehand, he had just seen the Builders Association show at BAM, which I missed. Had a theoretical discussion on hotness and coolness in media and the diverse uses of media, mediation in performance. After the show I thought about how Dionysus was mediated by time – watching it was like being in two points on the space/time continuum simultaneously – inhabiting the multilayered falsity of the real moment created by Rude Mechs at NYLA while simultaneously inhabiting the real time memory of one’s imagination of the time/space of the original.
How to talk about contemporary practice in community-based environments? Connection, juxtaposition, tangible examples of linking disparate things; like humorous or unexpected similes in hip-hop lyrics to serve as pedagogy for teaching art practice, demonstrating fundamental human instinct to make connections that are not necessarily interpretive.
What is contemporary? I would say that contemporary practice embraces a multitude of methods, tactics and aesthetics but is fundamentally distinguished by being investigative – starting with a question rather than a statement – and being interrogative, not assuming the accepted meaning of any given site, framework, gesture, relationship, meaning or process, but interrogating those assumptions instead.
What is American? I think about this a lot. I was in conversation with a French cultural professional talking about Judson’s enormous influence on the French and how it seems as if America hasn’t had a new idea ever since. The irony of the whole thing is that so many of the people who venerate Judson now are as resistant to change as the establishment was then. I haven’t studied it enough but I think Yvonne Rainer’s No Manifesto and the idea of looking to pedestrian movement are distinctly American – stripping away pretense and affectation and striving, I think, towards a democratization of dance in a way that spoke to the cultural and political moment. Can we move on from Judson now? Can we stop looking backwards, start looking forwards, look around us at what is really here now and make something new? Not that I don’t appreciate work that looks to Europe for inspiration, I do. But I think we’ve censored ourselves too long, been too beholden to Europe’s approval and taste. There is something noble, beautiful and quixotic about Americans and a complexity that Europe doesn’t always want to acknowledge. Maybe it is because we so often seem unsophisticated and overly earnest, not appropriately world-weary., because frankly is it not part of the American temperament to put on airs. America is the place where we say, “Oh, that’s impossible? Great, I can’t wait to try and do it.” America is the place where we cling onto the naïve hope that this grand experiment, as flawed as it is, is still worth trying to keep alive and moving along the arc towards justice. We know we’re fucked up, we know we’re imperfect but we struggle on anyway. American artists show that they WORK. They have other jobs, they don’t make money at their art, but they do it anyway – without support, without appreciation and without recognition. And the work shows the work, because that’s who we are. It’s like I wrote in that essay, “Detroit and Other Apocalypses”:
And I’m watching great new work from Karen Sherman and Morgan Thorson, from Hijack, from these kids called Supergroup and I’m thinking about The Replacements, Husker Du, Soul Asylum and Trip Shakespeare, The Jayhawks, the Wallets and, of course, Prince. I started thinking about my days in Seattle, about DIY and punk rock and “alternative” culture and “just get in the van”. I started thinking about Detroit, the city, home of Motown, the MC5 and Iggy & The Stooges, the White Stripes, even Eminem. And I started thinking that as sophisticated as I think I might get, I’m also just a kid from the suburbs of Baltimore who grew up on garage rock and ‘zines and aimless car rides all night long; a child of trips to the inner city to see punk rock bands who traveled in vans across the country to play in abandoned lofts for other misfit kids, who crashed on couches and smoked cigarettes and drank beer in parking lots, who nurtured their discontent and inchoate dreams of revolution and change. And I’m thinking, see, that’s America. Or at least, that’s my America – and its not the failure of the Suburban American Ranch House Dream, it’s the promise of everything that is built both within it and in reaction to it. In America artists work for a living, we do it in our garages, we do it low budget and we do it ourselves. And as much as we would like to get paid for it, as much as we would like respect for it, we do it no matter what it takes, because we’re punk rock and we have dreams and we have energy and we’re indomitable and maybe we’re a little more earnest than we like to let on, maybe we’re a little less ironically detached than our European friends because hey, underneath the irony is that slightly embarrassing but always burning flame of idealism. So we put songs by The Bangles and Kim Carnes in our shows with a nudge and a wink, but underneath we know its because we actually like those songs, we do. And that is who we are – a mixed-up ball of hope and confusion, irony and earnestness, pluck and lethargy, a dream we still believe we can save from dying.
ON THE PERFORMING ARTS ECOLOGY
What if we just did less better?
What is the role of arts and culture in civic society in the 21st century? How do large institutions dedicated to the preservation and presentation of historical works from the Western Canon co-exist with institutions (usually smaller) dedicated to the creation, development and distribution of contemporary work that reflects the diversity and complexity of 21st century America – its ideas, aesthetics and conditions?
Big institution/little institution binary is outmoded and dysfunctional, get rid of it. Think about scale and integration, symbiosis, national landscape. Not every town needs an opera, symphony and/or ballet; not every symphony, opera, ballet needs a traditional “full” season.
The funding system needs to re-align to new landscape. In theater, for instance, big institutions like Roundabout, MTC, Playwrights Horizons, The Guthrie, etc. should either be moved into a different category or into the for-profit sector. They exist in a market economy where they serve as development spaces for film and television creative professionals or for Broadway. Move them intentionally and clearly into that development process and let big media companies and commercial Broadway producers underwrite that system.
Arts institutions that persist in the “presenter” should be evaluated and funded differently than arts organizations that embrace an “engager” model. Performing arts institutions need to re-imagine themselves, like libraries, as civic spaces and adapt to the 21st Century the same way libraries are.
Yes, the arts sector is underfunded but funding alone is not what creates a culture of scarcity – it is misallocation, waste and inefficiency. Valuable resources regularly go to waste because of insufficient, inefficient, poorly designed and uncoordinated aggregation and distribution systems. We have insufficient national resource-sharing infrastructure. Space, for example. Many universities and regional theaters have spaces that go unused because there is no system for allocating space to non-university organizations.
We need to facilitate national resource & knowledge sharing, support the collaborative inter-regional cultural production, support inter-regional cultural conversation and engagement.
It is problematic that grant panels are so often comprised solely of presenters. They end up, understandably, funding their seasons. Grant panels should be diverse, including artists, academics, presenters, critics – people who comprise the entire ecology and can look at work form a diverse perspectives without necessarily being in a position to benefit from the outcome.
We need to de-link funding for cultural production from institutions because they develop elaborate bureaucracies which diverts those funds from their essential mission-mandated activities.
You can have a day job and still be a professional artist. Most do. Your artistic professionalism is not dictated by your source of income. In any case, the distinction between “professional” and “amateur” is not always useful and, in fact, most people are amateurs until they are professionals. Does that mean they’re not what they say they are until they get paid for it? An open question. Maybe we need to re-frame “success”
That being said: reject professionalism. Nobody needs an MFA to learn how to act in regional theater. Nobody really needs a Masters in Arts Administration, either. One could posit that the professionalization of the sector has created significant barriers to entry for people of limited means, thus decreasing diversity of administrators and diversity of artists & audiences served, not to mention social mobility by failing to bring people of different classes and backgrounds together. There is a class system in the arts – it is real and it is significant and gets worse every year.
ON VISUAL ART vs. PERFORMING ARTS
Visual arts training involves peer criticism that is sorely lacking in performing arts training. There is a lot the contemporary performing arts can learn from visual art around critical discourse, contextual writing, rigor and value.
The striving for “the real” is different than the artful creation of verisimilitude and is pointless and foolish. The visual arts’ quest for “the real” and “the praxis of everyday life” is as misbegotten as theater’s aspiration towards “psychological realism”. All art is artificial by definition and cannot be other.
They’re so often so literal, visual arts people, with surprisingly little imagination. Intellect, as valuable as it is, has completely overtaken empathy or insight; inhabiting a complete unwillingness to cede control over the narrative to anyone, even the artist. Visual art world resists subjectivity.
Through its fetishization of “de-skilling” and rejection of craft, the visual arts world reveals it has no respect for or understanding of the creative practice of performers: actors, dancers, musicians. Musicians perhaps are more tangible to them because it involves playing an instrument; the skill is visible and materially accessible. But actors & dancers? No comprehension whatsoever. But look at some of our dancers or remarkable actors; they perform extraordinary feats of skill and artistry – it is all the more stunning for being mostly invisible.
ON EPHEMERALITY & MATERIALITY
We know that things exist outside of materiality because we have memory. So what is that place of memory and history? Where is it?
Ephemerality is another state of being parallel and different but equal to materiality. See the Hindu idea of samsara.
In the arts this leads to a privileging of object culture over ephemeral culture because materiality creates the illusion of permanence and thus the immortality of the ego-self. But materiality is inherently subject to entropy and decay, the cultivation of an awareness of ephemerality, art forms that explore the creation, decay and re-creation of the ephemeral, allow for the persistence of memory over long arcs of time. Collective memory is subject to transformation but not disappearance in the sense of material decay.
ON DIGITAL CULTURE, ART & THE INFORMATION AGE
One might take this idea of ephemerality & materiality & connect it to the emerging realms of digital culture. Imagine Digital Culture as an ongoing exploration and negotiation of the interplay between the material and the ephemeral. In the mechanical age the world around us was defined by materiality – a clock tower operated on mechanical systems we could understand, touch, see and explain. Now our watches, our writing implements – our material lives – operate through algorithms and non physical mechanisms, hidden operations and abstract data. We are ever hovering above and immersed within the ephemeral operation of the invisible world.
Ideas persist. Memory persists. Life persists: it is process not beholden to form.
We should apply the principles of open source software development and iterative processes to the development, creation and distribution of performing arts. There is no final product, no end product, only a consistent striving towards a more perfect realization of an idea.
Conduct your research in public, share your data and learning, acknowledge negative outcomes as well as positive outcomes, be available for peer review and criticism, listen and learn from others.
Imagine artists as knowledge workers in an information economy, transforming ideas into experience.
Hypertext is only the most recent iteration of the very human urge to create meaning by connecting disparate things. Whether it is playing the geography game when meeting a stranger (identifying shared experiences to find some commonality, no matter how tenuous) or whether it is about connecting ideas, objects, moments. We want to link things.
If the “ism” suffix is meant to describe a values system based on the noun to which it is attached, then capitalism says that capital is the most important thing and socialism says that society is the most important thing. So I guess I’m a socialist, because I believe people are more important than money.
That being said, I’m not opposed to capitalism – it is just that I believe capitalism works better in an environment of social stability.
Does the rise of a technocratic class point to a possible third way, a new era in Imagining America? Can we move the ever-evolving dream of America fully into the information age? Can we change the conversation from a binary and inherently regressive framework to one that is multipoint, nuanced and future-facing?
For instance: the question is not BIG government or SMALL government, it is what is government meant to do and how can it be scalable/adaptable to achieve that in different iterations at different time and in different places?
Apropos of “capitalism vs. socialism” – my understanding is that government’s function is to provide the advantage of scale, allowing individuals in a society to undertake and achieve projects that require resources beyond their capacity. If a productive “free-market” economy flourishes in a stable society, then the government’s function is to provide stability. How does it do that and how much infrastructure does it take to accomplish that?
Can we reimagine representative democracy beyond place-based representation or develop a more complex but transparent system that balances place-based resource allocation and distribution systems with other criteria? What would digital democracy actually look like? http://senseable.mit.edu/csa/
Was thinking about education – imagine a federally funded and strategically developed K-12 MOOC that centralizes core curriculum but decentralizes place-based education. So the MOOC offers a curriculum predicated on national standards and additional coursework, tailored to regional difference, can be implemented on the local level. Reduce the reliance on bricks & mortar, top-heavy administrative structures and bureaucracy but guarantee access to education to all while insuring at least a minimum level of preparedness for students in the 21st Century.
Republican/Democrat binary system is outmoded and dysfunctional. Get rid of it.
During Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol’s show El Rumor del Incendio at the TBA Festival, they projected a section of the Mexican constitution: “Second Title, Chapter I: Of National Sovereignty and of the Form of Government” which reads: Article 39 – National sovereignty resides essentially and originally in the people. All public power comes from the people, and it is instituted for their benefit. The people have, at all times, the inalienable right to alter or modify the form of their government. - How amazing is that? Who knew?
Don’t be a spectator in your own life. Don’t confuse the appearance of participation for the real thing. Reject passivity, reject consumption, reject ennui, reject corporately manufactured entertainments, reject hypnosis, reject the assumption that things are now as they ever were and so will they remain. Nothing is as it was and nothing is as it will be. Resist romanticism, resist nostalgia, question everything and judge for yourself.
ON TEXT AND WRITING
Play scripts, written musical scores and choreographic scores are similar in that they are all text-based prompts for the re-incarnation of ephemeral arts, dependent on interpreters. What do they hold in common and how do they differ? What conversations can we have about the way these text-based prompts operate in different ways to negotiate their expression in time, space, sound, embodiment and meaning?
The utilitarian practice of writing has become so ubiquitous and familiar to most people that they seem to forget that it is actually a very difficult art form.
The transcription of everyday language is not “writing” and an aspiration towards the pedestrian in writing for the stage is not only old-fashioned, it is a futile, asinine attempt at verisimilitude masquerading as creativity. It is writing by unimaginative people who prefer the known to the mysterious, the familiar to the complex, the confirmation of our assumptions rather than interrogation of the known. Please stop. Go away.
In this day and age the idea of theater as a medium primarily for “storytelling” is weak and facile. Other mediums do storytelling better. Being a playwright is not about telling stories. It is about creating imagined worlds through rigorous writing practice. The very idea of “telling a story” is insufficient to the task of portraying real life or providing insight into the contemporary condition. If theater is, in part, about a collective journey of discovery, then the ubiquity and familiarity of “story” almost inherently resists or at least inhibits the possibility of the discovery of the new. Story is only one of almost infinite uses and outcomes of writing.
Writing is about language, rhythm, meter, meaning, tone; writing for the stage is about writing to be spoken or sung.
Writing for Television is an art form but has only become one in the past ten years or so. Writing for Film may never become an art form, because it is such a director’s medium.
An essay is the performance of the process of discovering an idea and how you do that is style. (This is transcribed exactly from a conversation I have had with Deborah Stein in explanation of her approach to teaching expository writing). Connect this to Criticism as creative practice.
A READING LIST
Too many books and articles have crossed my path and come up in conversation this year to name all of them. Here are some of the books I’ve re-visited or discovered, begged, borrowed & stolen over the past year:
Tim Etchells, Certain Fragments
Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells
Shannon Jackson, Social Works
Matthew Ghoulish, 39 Microlectures
Jacques Ranciere, The Emancipated Spectator
Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays
Walter Benjamin,The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Some of them made it to my Amazon Wish List since I don’t own them and would like to. There are many more that are not included here. Feel free to buy me books you think I should know.
Have a happy, healthy, productive and meaningful 2013!!