On March 7, 2013 Culturebot went to On The Boards in Seattle to present “Everyone’s A Critic” – an interactive performance/lecture event exploring the idea of “critical horizontalism” and engaging the On The Boards community in a conversation about the state of the arts in Seattle. It was amazing! We had a great time, met amazing people and learned a lot. We loved Seattle and we hope they found the experience interesting.
At least someone has opened up the discussion. It is up to the citizen critics now to learn how to be critics, and how to be citizens who genuinely care enough about art to contribute to its health.
I’m so grateful for his lengthy and thoughtful response. This *is* the beginning of a process for us and this kind of constructive feedback is incredibly helpful as we figure this out. I’m disappointed, however, that I didn’t get to see Omar himself, as he gave me one of my first good reviews ever, for a production of John Godber’s Bouncers I directed and performed in the Oddfellow’s Hall back in 1991-92 or so!
Now were’s a bit of backstory and then a recap of the event.
As readers of Culturebot know, about two years ago Michael Kaiser, outgoing president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. wrote an op-ed on Huffington Post lamenting the death of criticism, saying:
“…the growing influence of blogs, chat rooms and message boards devoted to the arts has given the local professional critic a slew of competitors…Many arts institutions even allow their audience members to write their own critiques on the organizational website. This is a scary trend.”
I was shocked, if not surprised at his words. Once again, an Old Rich White Guy displays his spectacular cluelessness about life in the 21st Century. But equally shocking was the implicit message that audience members are too stupid and unsophisticated to have legitimate critical responses to the work they see. I’d heard arts leaders in The Establishment talk disparagingly of audiences behind closed doors, but I never expected to see this type of condescending, dismissive statement made proudly, in public, on the Internet, for everyone to see.
This spurred a series of responses by Jeremy and myself that started a conversation that led to an investigation that led to an interrogation of our assumptions and an attempt to define what we really believed. What is a critic? What is an audience? How does performance operate, what can it do and be? What are the component parts of the arts ecology, how do they fit together and what role does criticism play?
Audience, artist, critic and curator – these are all just labels we put on roles we play, often interchangeably. At the end of the day, we’re all people coming together to share an experience, with our own responses, thoughts, feelings and insights. Everyone has an opinion – but opinions are easy. Conversation is hard. Critical thinking is hard. So how do we encourage people to come together in critical conversation about big ideas?
During APAP 2012, Jeremy and I were out drinking with Lane Czaplinski talking about all this stuff when Lane said, “Hey, why don’t you come do something about this at On The Boards?” And thus began more than a year of work of that culminated in “Everyone’s A Critic” – the first official public component of The Citizen Critic Project. Since January 2012 we’ve been to the Fusebox Festival in Austin and returned there in December to work with their festival bloggers on developing criticism as a creative practice (more on that soon!). We did an installation and exhibit at the Exit Art Gallery. I went to the TBA Festival in Portland, The Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, the NPN conference and the Minneapolis Dance Platform to meet with artists, writers, curators and audiences and talk about these issues.
Working closely with On The Boards between September 2012 and March 2013 Jeremy and I identified seven members of the local arts community – each representing a different segment of the ecology. We had a critic, The Stranger’s Brendan Kiley; a writer/actor who is also a critic, Jose Amador; a curator/administrator/artist, Tonya Lockyer from Velocity Dance Center; an audience member, Serge Gart who has been a subscriber to On The Boards for over twelve years; a young audience member and aspiring writer, 18 year old Olivia Menzer, from the TeenTix program and press corps; a long-time fixture in the Seattle arts scene, Matt Richter (who, incidentally, is a friend of mine from college, we moved out to Seattle together in 1990):
and Tommer Peterson, deputy director of Grantmakers in the Arts, appeared on his own recognizance, not in an official capacity, to talk about arts funding in Seattle and nationally.
We asked each of them to respond to a different prompt, using a video clip from the On The Boards TV catalogue to illustrate their point in a presentation of no more than five minutes. They more than rose to the occasion.
Jose Amador led things off with the story of when he saw Teatro De Ciertos Habitantes’ El Gallo and how watching it challenged him to find new ways to talk about “experimental theater” as an artist, audience member and critic. As an artist and writer who frequently moves between the worlds of contemporary performance and more traditional narrative plays, he offered great insight into the canards and presumptions made about experimental work, that it is intentionally weird or off-putting or that the artists are not interested in communicating to the audience. He used El Gallo to illustrate the remarkable lengths an artist will go to to find a new way to demonstrate and reveal the familiar, using unexpected and challenging methods to push the audience to see in a new way.
He was followed by Brendan Kiley who talked about his least favorite show at On The Boards – Jan Fabre’s Orgy of Tolerance – and his favorite, The Rude Mech’s The Method Gun. Along the way he made some insightful points into the importance and necessity for the “professional” critic, someone who is not the friend of the artist, not a colleague or beholden to institutions, funders or anybody, even his editor. He talked about the idea that the critic is ultimately responsible not even to the readers, but to himself, to his own conscience, that a good critic needs to wrestle with the work and the words and try to bring insight and context to the proceedings.
Next up was Olivia Menzer who pretty much blew everybody away with her insight, intelligence and poise. She discussed joining TeenTix only because her older sister had done it, how she spent the bulk of her first year seeing mostly laser shows and then later started to see more theater and dance. She doesn’t consider herself an artist, but she loves to write and winded up joining the TeenTix press corps, attending every show at On The Boards and writing about them. She shared how she was affected by Seattle object theater maker Kyle Loven’s Loss Machine, how she found herself giving over to the nonlinearity and abstraction, being moved by isolated seemingly nonsensical vignettes that on the surface had no tangible meaning but resonated deeply and accreted meaning through juxtaposition (my term, not hers). Her description of her journey from reluctant observer to insightful participant, audience member and writer was just magnet. I know I was not the only one who felt that Olivia gave them just a glimmer of hope for the future!
Matt Richter then ambled to the stage to good-natured applause and laughter. His dry wit remains the same since we first arrived in Seattle in 1990, though now it is aged and tempered by experience, and possibly even wisdom. He has been a theater-maker; he has opened and run two spaces, Room 608 and Consolidated Works; he has been a critic, heading up the performing arts section of The Stranger; he has been an arts administrator, an entrepreneur and ubiquitous man-about-town for over twenty years. He spoke of his love for intersections – art and artists that exist where things come together in unexpected and surprising ways; and how sometimes that can fail. Even in Seattle artists don’t cross disciplines, actors don’t know visual artists, musicians don’t know dancers, ballet dancers don’t know contemporary dancers, and the work suffers for it. I was surprised to hear this because I always thought that the problem was more pronounced in NYC than elsewhere due to sheer numbers, the cost of living and the demands of living in the city. But apparently this is a widespread issue – one that needs to be addressed. Matt talked about how Lane Czaplinski and a handful of other curators in Seattle are kind of “the coolest kids in town” because they’re good drinkers – no, not just good drinkers but equal opportunity drinkers. They will drink with artists of all disciplines, persuasions and attitudes and have equally compelling and avid conversations with all of them. I could relate!
After Matt came long time On The Boards audience member Serge Gart, and I wish Michael Kaiser could have been there to eat his own words. Over the course of the week we met with Serge twice and talked about his presentation; he was a bit tentative in his approach to the subject matter at first. But as we talked through it he began to find the story and it became clear that Serge, like Olivia, was going to share some insight from a very thoughtful, compassionate, engaged place. He talked about why he comes to On The Boards and why he attends so many cultural events across all disciplines, how this kind of participation is satisfying, meaningful and resonant. He illustrated his point with a beautiful video excerpt from Pat Graney’s Faith Triptych, with a young girl curling up at the feet of a shrouded female ancestor. Serge spoke about how it not only worked on him aesthetically, but connected with him personally as he ruminated about the connections between generations in his own life, family and relationships, the flow of time from past to present, the way we move from innocence to experience, naivety to knowledge, how we learn to understand and live with loss.
The next presentation by Tonya Lockyer addressed how dance as a form could bring together a multiplicity of expressions and experiences, how communities centered around dance can serve as a platform for all kinds of explorations and engagement. Lockyer used Ralph Lemon’s How Can You Say In The House All Day And Not Go Anywhere as a powerful jumping-off place to frame some of the issues she has been working to address through her work at Velocity. Lockyer was living in NYC when Ralph Lemon had a company, she recalled him getting flak for having white dancers in his company, for insisting on being a formalist and resisting expectations of “blackness” in dance. From here she moved on to talk about Velocity’s mission, the diversity of its community and the forms it supports and the frustration of still, 30 years or more later, confronting the same cultural and aesthetic prejudices of who should dance how or in what style. She discussed Velocity’s support of dance as research, as with a residency by Keith Hennessy, and an upcoming site-specific project with a dancer who was homeless as a child, creating dances in public spaces that were once his home on the streets. Very powerful stuff.
And finally Tommer Peterson gave what was probably the funniest inside look at the funding landscape in recent memory. His PowerPoint presentation started with a $20 bill arching over the Seattle skyline and ended with a video clip of a joyous musical number from Wunderbaum’s Songs At The End Of The World.
In between he pointed out the inherent contradictions of funders seeking to support “innovative, cutting edge, entrepreneurial” projects but requiring organizations to maintain a stable 501c3 and demonstrate five years of balanced budgets. He questioned the wisdom of asking presenting institutions specializing in the culturally specific work of White Western European lineage to diversify their audiences rather than just going to diverse communities and asking them what they consider culturally important and funding that. He urged us to recognize that both funders and artists need to change their view of their relationship and be less adversarial. Funders, he reminded us, need artists. By law they have to give the money away and they need someone to give it to. And artists need to stop looking at funders as fickle, menacing, implacable overlords demanding complete submission. In the optimal scenario, the grantor/grantee relationship is a partnership predicated on doing good. Art, he said, is a way of knowing the world. It sounded so good he said it again.
After the presentations we invited everyone from the audience on to the stage and to participate in five focused discussions. This section was a hybrid of “Open Space” inspired by UK performance group Improbable’s ongoing “Devoted and Disgruntled” gathering and Lois Weaver’s non-hierarchical discussion format The Long Table.
The five tables were each devoted to a different topic that we’d identified from audience emails, blog posts on the On The Boards site, Facebook discussions and questions that arose while working with our seven local participants. These were the categories:
ARTIST: Dance, Theater or Something Else? Making & Seeing art at the intersection of different forms
AUDIENCE: What are reasonable audience expectations vs. the demands of spectatorship?
CURATOR: Risk Vs. Reward: why put new work in front of audiences and is it worth the risk?
CRITIC: What makes an ideal critic and what is the ideal relationship between the critic, the audience and the artist?
FUNDER: Local Art, Global Concerns: how can local art be in dialogue with global conversations?
On the back wall were five big blue post-its, one for each table. On each table there were Sharpies and big yellow post-its. As the audience collectively explored the topics at each table, they write ideas, observations, questions and proposed solutions on the yellow post-its and put them on the back wall. This is what it looked like:
Just this past weekend I collated all the notes to share. The transcribed notes are below. I’m not sure it all makes a lot of sense – but hopefully this was a good beginning, a way to model a kind of discourse that can continue in Seattle afterwards. And maybe they’ll invite us back to do it again! Like I said before it was a great experience and we learned a lot from Seattle and we hope we helped spark some conversations and connections.
TRANSCRIBED NOTES FROM “EVERYONE’S A CRITIC”
How do we create infrastructure to help artists grow to regional, national, global scale? (eg. Be a “Silicon Valley” for arts)
“I AM A WASTE OF FUNDER’S $$$”
How do we amp up the resources and attention to the “precious” local ecology without destroying it?* (*see grunge)
Large Coalition of environment, education, arts to get funding passed to support all. -> tax initiative?
Our local community is in a bubble, which has some value in that the creativity is not bound to opportunity.
What do artists want from critics?
Dance needs people to write about it.
Where else do you find out about it?
Emergency Index exists to create documentation
I have a dream of critics doing dance history and contextualizing performance. Like music writing.
Are artists passive about writing for critics..
STANCE (Velocity Dance Center’s site in Seattle)
FRONT (Portland, OR dance journal)
Itch (Los Angeles)
These are artists writing about dance criticism
Brendan Kiley: “I’m paid to be an asshole”
Daniel ?: “You are paid to be a smart asshole; informed, to give historical context.
Prize #1 CRITICS poured the least JACK DANIELS – Heart the sound of their own voice
Framing of a show, as presented to the audienc
Consuming vs. Collaborating
Personal encounters with Art – “I want my $ back!”
Sometimes you hate a band 10x before you love it. Or you hate a movie at 19, and when you are 40 you see it again and say “It’s brilliant, I was just a kid.”
Is success the only thing that matters? – or the availability to risk and failure and the creation of community that supports that?
If you risk making a mess + fucking up, your fuck-up can become someone else’s seed that they take somewhere: their reward.
Sometimes you have to break the contract with the audience to get the reward.
Is the audience being treated as a “focus group” and it is ethical then to ask for money? Focus groups get paid.
What are the rewards for artists?
- For self?
- The inherent value of the doing
Maybe we need to clarify what’s going to …
Trusting the audience. They’re intelligent risk-takers, engaged.
We make progress together: artist and audience.
Should the reward be redefined so the risk can live? What is the reward?
We should put in more work as audience to support art & artists??
Is there any audience in our community who does not create art?
WE CARE ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE
Vulnerability (sensation of fear?)
I only wish you could see how cool I feel
“Art is the partication in ideas,’
“We made the audience’s expectations our bitch!”
“we want to be acknowledged for sure”
[picture: vulnerability restraint disclosure solidity fear]
During war theater was packed
Considerate and intentional
The invitation to view
Last thing I want to see is someone’s therapy
The audience NEEDS art??
Getting what they expect or not
PRIZE #2 AUDIENCE poured 2nd least Jack Daniels – Heart their voice a little less
Want to see artists make a living
Acceptable art is financially sustainable
Eduction of the public –what are the ways the public is educated?
Art is contradictory to capitalism
Don’t know anyone making arts to make money (Banksy? Julie Taymor?)
How do we value – and pay for – a given talent/work of art
At what point do you become a sell-out?
Does capitalism winnow out bad art?
How does one justify calling oneself an artist? (artist vs. craftsman)
For who/what are you doing art?
The art of interview
Seattle’s culture of mediocrity
Happiness counts, value happiness over economy
Annie Diller, Bluegrass musicians
I find it impossible to separate other people’s opinions from my own. Part of me is “fuck it!”
I am not an artist … But I’m never happy … So I might as well be an artist
Can artists work at the intersection and still find funding?
What are people reading (from whatever discipline) that they (you) are finding helpful…even inspirational?
Could answers to this be posted online? Yes please.