“Of course we are interested in platforming what you might call ‘socially engaged’ work, because we feel that there’s a lot of work going on that engages communities, but it’s often not given the profile it deserves,” Simon Dove, one of the three co-curators of FIAF’s Crossing the Line Festival, told me over the phone. “But more important to us is that this work is engaging with ideas and concerns and perspectives that are very much about the dominant systems that are framing the world we live in at the moment.”
This wasn’t the first time Dove and his fellow curators Lili Chopra and Gideon Lester had averred that there was no unifying curatorial theme to their programming, and I appreciate the point. There’s good reason to resist the temptation to impose a frame on the work they present (and indeed, not all the work in the festival would fall under the same rubric). That said, this year’s festival unavoidably seems to force audiences to grapple with the “social turn” in contemporary arts through the selection of pieces emerging from some form of social practice. And indeed, on October 1, the festival will be hosting a sort of key-note discussion on “The Active Partnership: Artists, Communities, Funders & Institutions,” given over to “examining better ways to develop and support socially engaged works.”
Over the past few years, there’s been a lot of discussion over the rise of socially engaged contemporary art (see Claire Bishop and Shannon Jackson, to name but two). But beyond debates over whether social practice serves to reimagine social organization through performance practices or simply reinforces the neoliberal political order in the process of trying to dematerialize the art object, the broad array of socially engaged works—through both their siting and their participatory aspect—in this year’s festival present audiences with a distinct set of questions. CTL is perhaps the exemplary festival of inter/multi/trans-disciplinary art in the US, bringing together artists from around the world working in different forms and presenting them in diverse spaces through ambitious partnerships around the city. By bringing such varied work together under the same tent, CTL has presented us with a unique chance to examine how the diverse practices and discourses (performing arts, visual art, etc.) that are converging in the program can tackle social issues through engagement with the non-art “real” world.
To get a sense of how artists are exploring issues through their work—and re-examining their own practice at the same time—in the past few weeks I spoke with several artists working in different forms as part of this year’s festival.
“I definitely don’t call myself a ‘visual artist,’” Steven Lambert told me a couple weeks ago, as we were sitting in the park in Union Square. “It depends on who I’m talking to, whether it helps them understand it. Sometimes when I meet civilians and they’re like, ‘Oh, what kind of artist are you, what kind of art do you make?,’ I say, ‘I make whatever needs to be made.’ In my mind, it’s, ‘Here’s this thing that I want to talk about, I want to make a work about this.’”
Raised in California by his former-monk father and former-nun mother, and now based in Beacon, NY, Lambert is perhaps best known for the collaborative New York Times Special Edition. Following Barack Obama’s election, in November 2008, volunteers in several cities around the country handed out 80,000-some fake copies of the Times dated July 4, 2009, with 14 pages of “best case scenario” news stories proclaiming equitable wage laws, the repeal of the Patriot Act, and the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lambert’s Capitalism Works for Me: True/False at CTL (it’s already been in 11 cities) is a garishly lit sign featuring the eponymous statement with scoreboard-style counters tallying the true/false votes. The piece will be installed in Times Square for certain periods during the festival, where Lambert will engage passersby in discussions about the statement as they consider voting.
Although at first it seems like an installation documenting the community’s response, in fact it’s a bit of a sleight-of-hand, attracting attention but setting up not the vote as a meaningful act, but the encounter surrounding it. The actual work is primarily Lambert’s discussion with the people stopping by over, asking them if capitalism works for them, and if not, what a better system might look like. (The work’s conception predates Occupy Wall Street by a year, and shares that movement’s desire for a radical democratic reimagining of the economy.)
“I see my role as putting them off their vote for as long as possible,” he told me. “Whatever they’re leaning towards voting, I will sort of poke and prod at in the opposite direction.”
Of all the artists I spoke with, Lambert has the closest association with activism, particularly through the Center for Artistic Activism, a project that strengthens links between artistic practice and political activism. Nevertheless, with this work he’s not trying to generate a specific outcome or response. While he told me he could provide a “chart” of all the things he wishes he could accomplish as an activist, his main goal is to prevent participants from getting in a debate that “just hardens positions that people already have.” Instead, he aims “to keep it contemplative, instead of aggressive.”
“People will convince themselves of whatever,” he noted, “and if you don’t offer them the space to reflect, they’re not going to think anything different. That’s what’s missing in the culture. If you watch CNN Money, it’s not very reflective. There’s not a lot of contemplation, it’s not super philosophical. But that’s what you can do with art.”
Brooklyn-based performance artist Ernesto Pujol is aiming for a similar (though aesthetically quite different) experience with Time After Us, a 24-hour durational performance starting the morning of October 3, in which a group will simply walk backwards in a counterclockwise circle in St. Paul’s Chapel in Lower Manhattan, producing what he describes as a “moment of silence, solitude, and stillness.”
The Cuban-American Pujol arrived in New York City 27 years ago after leaving a monastic order and in relatively short time became an internationally sought-after performance artist, for his durational, site-specific works. Eventually he came to reject the visual art circuit of biennials and art fairs and instead dedicated himself to making works in “the space between New York and LA, Chicago and Miami,” the Midwest and South, which he saw as underserved by contemporary art.
The inspiration for his shift was tied to his experience creating a series of public art projects in Cuba in the early ‘90s. “There were no resources, because there was great poverty and the communist government controlled everything,” Pujol told me in a phone interview. “So everything I needed had to be negotiated with either a communist official or a very poor individual or family. A stakeholder, a gatekeeper. And that revolutionized my practice, because I couldn’t just go to a store and buy material, or get up anywhere I liked and gesture. Every space had an owner, every resource had an owner, and I had to request permission to borrow and to gesture. That was a portal I walked through, and after that I never wanted to work in any other way.”
Place is important material for Pujol’s practice, as he seeks to “manifest the invisible,” the “intangibles, secrets, and ghosts” of the places he sites his work, which emerge from dialogue with the place and its people. The location at St. Paul’s Chapel was selected after considering different spots throughout the city, and he settled on it because of its unique characteristics as both a spiritual and civic space. It’s long since entered the psycho-geography of 9/11 for its role as a respite for first responders, but that is only important to Pujol insofar as it’s part of the space’s accumulated history, as one of the oldest places of worship in the city (that played host to George Washington after his inauguration), and a survivor of countless catastrophes both natural and man-made. It’s also surrounded by a cemetery, suggesting mortality—an oasis of contemplation next to the intensity of Wall Street.
“I cannot understand the American democratic experiment surviving without carving out space for silence, solitude, and stillness,” he told me. “I cannot imagine making decisions about our destiny in the midst of speed and clutter and noise, our culture of distraction. So I offer—in Wall Street, of all places, for 24 hours—this moment of silence, solitude, and stillness, and the ability, through the metaphor of walking a circle backwards and counter-clockwise, to revisit the passage of time.”
Thirty-six walkers, invited into the process through an open call, will enact the piece, beginning at 10:30 a.m. with one walker, and adding one every 30 minutes until 24 are walking. (The additional 12 are there to offer breaks—it’s a durational piece, not an endurance one.) The participants enter the process through attending one of series of workshop sessions with Pujol, who describes it as a “real organic process” leading up to their meeting the evening before the performance when they finally “become a community.”
“And the next day we will walk,” he adds.
French director Pascal Rambert used a similar term, “temporary community,” to describe collaborators in his performances when we met for coffee near La Mama, where A (micro) history of world economics, danced, will be performed. In fact, in retrospect it’s remarkable how similar—despite the dramatic differences in their aesthetic practices—Rambert’s and Pujol’s description of their process was.
Rambert is the only one of the three whose work falls decidedly in the realm of theatrical performance. His show at last year’s CTL, Love’s End, was a monologue diptych starring Jim Fletcher and Kate Moran. As a director and writer, he falls neatly into the category of globe-trotting European theater artist, producing work and collaborating with performance groups around the world (he’s off to Moscow soon to re-stage Love’s End there). But in 2007, he settled into a role as artistic director at the Théâtre de Gennevilliers, in Gennevilliers, a suburb or banlieue of Paris. The banlieues are not like American commuter suburbs. Often centers of low-cost and public housing built in the post-war period to accommodate an influx of immigrants, many are essentially ghettos with endemic poverty and occasional paroxysms of violence.
“I really wanted to connect things that are not connected. This is my thing:–to bring the most emerging art, dance, theater, contemporary art, cinema philosophy—into this neighborhood,” he told me, letting a steaming cup of tea grow cold. “And I think we succeeded. We brought trust between people who don’t know one another. And we did that by, every Tuesday, from September to June, holding writing sessions for the neighborhood.”
A (micro) history emerged from those workshops. Rambert collaborated with 50 participants, hiring them as performers and debuting a show that ran for two months in 2008 in Paris. Since then, the work has been re-staged in Germany, three times in Japan, will visit LA after New York (in collaboration with LAPD), and will close next year with another production in Germany, each time with a different group of collaborators.
In the piece, the participants perform a series of exercises, ranging from simple movement pieces to onstage writing exercises to be read aloud, documenting their personal experience of the economic crisis which was exploding when the show was conceived. These personal expressions are framed by lectures from an economist (in New York, Eric Méchoulan of the University of Montreal). By the time the cycle of productions ends, by Rambert’s calculation, more than 600 people will have taken part in A (micro) history, creating an ephemeral document—crossing lines of age, race, class, gender, and nationality—of our lived economic moment.
Like Pujol, Rambert drew no distinction between working with “artists” and non-artists. He told me that tells the participants in A (micro) history the same thing he tells the likes of Fletcher or Moran—that they’re “co-authors of the work.” And like Pujol, his explanation for this sort of openness is simply that his work requires trust.
“There are these ten minutes each night [of the performance], where people come to microphone at the front of the stage–and they just wrote some text–and they come to mic and they read it,” he explained. “I never know what they are going to say. They could say, ‘We hate Pascal Rambert.’ They could say, ‘Fuck America.’ I have no idea. And nothing bad happens.”
For both artists, their practice relies on creating a frame for their participants to operate within, so that—through their respective performance idioms—they, as creators, can explore issues of presence and gesture, enacted by people whose primary qualification is basically their willingness to open themselves up to the process and partake, each achieving an aesthetic at once accessible and rigorous. Rambert was at pains to assure me he was “demanding,” and Pujol stated bluntly, “I’m a classicist, mind you—I am all about aesthetic rigor and formalism,” but added that, “I’m not using people or colonizing or exploiting people. People are not my material.”
The similarities between the ways in which these artists describe their process in surely superficial in comparison to the dramatic difference between their works: Lambert and Pujol creating spaces for encounters within a community, Rambert staging a community’s experience. But they speak to the sort of shared concerns that drive artists working in diverse disciplines toward socially engaged performances. All three expressed skepticism towards their respective traditions; Lambert avoided the art world, Pujol dissented from it, and Rambert is testing the boundaries of theater from within. All three offered their own explanations for the social turn, but I defer to Ernesto Pujol.
“I think that a reason why there is this flowering of socially engaged art, or art as social practice” he told me toward the end of our call. “is there’s a dissatisfaction or discomfort with stasis. Rebecca Solnit, the author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking, said that the post-modern body does not move, but seeks to be moved, and is tired of being moved around like an object. There is something about we being animals in a civilization based on repression at a crossroads moment, when consumption—when looking at an object or image, possessing it, consuming it—is not enough. And it seems that many of us want to stand up and walk or move or gesture.”