Considering Alastair, Questioning Realness

Judging from the Facebook chatter, the tweets, emails and all the rest of the outrage and vitriol swirling around the fishbowl of the “downtown” dance and performance world, you’d think Alastair Macaulay had literally raped someone * committed an act of unspeakable barbarity when he wrote in his January 11, 2014 review of American Realness:

American Realness presents itself as a festival of the cutting-edge and interdisciplinary. But much of it is twee, stale, labored and amateurish, with various kinds of anodyne music as accompaniment. Those hoping to find the subversive and the challenging are instead confronted with the slack, the coy, the mimsy. To greet this stuff as interestingly experimental is to clap your hands because you believe in fairies.

and concluded with:

There’s room in the world for the trivial, the silly, the daft, and often there’s room in my heart for them, too. But American Realness too often hunts down examples that are unoriginal and clique-ish. Rather than enlarging the world of New York performance, it shrinks it. Since this is a harsh judgment, I hope to be given cause to withdraw it in the days to come…

I have often – in fact, almost always – found reason to disagree with Mr. Macaulay, and his aesthetic assumptions and personal predilections are certainly open to rigorous interrogation, but in this observation of the clique-ishness and self-satisfaction of “downtown” dance/performance, particularly as embodied by American Realness, he is not incorrect.

The tragic paucity of legitimate public critical discourse – much less rigorous self-criticality – and the frequently navel-gazing and self-referential perspective of artists and presenters alike – and I say presenter, not curator, for a reason – have combined to create a performance culture that is aggressively insular and proudly uninterested in the public at large, or really anyone other than themselves. “Downtown” dance/performance seems to delight in its small audiences and irrelevance, wearing as a badge of honor its insularity while clinging to an outmoded victim mentality that is as depressing as it is ubiquitous.

I have yet to determine whether this insularity is an effect of a bunker mentality stemming from the scarcity of material support and the widespread cultural indifference to the form or whether this inwardness and irrelevance is the cause of the public’s indifference, but in either case the facts on the ground remain the same. And it is truly tragic.

I sometimes wish I was inclined to indulge my weltschmerz as eloquently and ascerbically as my colleague Claudia La Rocco who recently skewered the January Shit Show On Ice in ArtForum and, of the contemporary dance makers wrote, “…I want these works to talk about not just ballet, but the world as well….To move out and up and in.”

But while I’m of course concerned about the work the artists make, I am increasingly concerned about the system in which they make that work – the festivals, the organizations, the institutions, the individuals who create the structures in which the work is presented and contextualized, who – in a spectacularly vertically integrated closed ecosystem – determine both which artists get funded and who gets presented and as such wield outsized influence in the aesthetic and practical choices of artists. I am principally concerned about what this means for the health of the performed arts as a whole.

In the case of the festival season – and American Realness especially – Claudia is quite accurate when she says, “…the artists—paid shameful, if any, wages, if they’re lucky enough not to pay themselves—subsidize the whole creepy shebang…” In fact, I’m told that all artists at American Realness work for a cut of the box office, without even getting a fee. Since none of the organizations or festivals is willing to be transparent about budgets, fees or finances, it is impossible to assess how this compares to other festivals.

Like we’ve discovered in Brooklyn Commune, this is true of the entire enterprise of the performing arts and, frankly, the veneer is wearing thin on the idea that “downtown” or “contemporary” offers any kind of real, legitimate critique of the “mainstream” which it imagines as its opposite. This position is – mostly – a privileged social construct, deeply embedded within the existing power structure and embracing its assumptions, values and operations.

One need only look at the unbearable whiteness and overwhelming maleness of the decision-making presenters, or the wage inequity in even small arts organizations (it must be nice to make $114K/yr, 10% of your arts organization’s annual budget, while paying artists almost nothing) to realize how fraudulent the whole game is.

And perhaps only because of the audaciousness of its name, and the outsized reaction to Macaulay’s review, it seems fitting to note that American Realness is neither.

One can hardly suggest that a program comprised almost entirely of New Yorkers – and mostly Brooklynites – is “American” at all. America is a vast and complex country of which the artists at AR represent only the smallest possible segment. Especially in the context of a global city such as NYC – one wonders how it is possible to create an entire festival of such astonishing homogeneity. 

Of the three non-Americans, that two are co-presented with MoMA – the innocuously irreverent Marten Spangberg and Eszter Salamon, performing a danced response to the now-ancient John Cage work Lecture on Nothing – speaks volumes to both “downtown” dance’s desperate need for approval from the museum world and the mediocrity and  lack of curatorial imagination or rigor on both sides.

Spangberg’s performance of cultural critique is defiantly European in its inefficacy, preferring theory to action, and while I know nothing of Salamon’s work one can only wonder why a curator of supposedly contemporary art would include a dance about which the artist reminds us, “The dance should be autonomous and never become an illustration or a commentary on the text.” That was Merce Cunningham’s point over fifty years ago when he was working with – and living with – Cage. Surely something else has happened between now and then that merits a more nuanced and advanced conversation?

The startling lack of diverse perspectives represented in the program is testament more to the blindered worldview of the festival than any real aesthetic trend or movement. It seems useful to note that the third non-American – Montreal’s Dana Michel – is also one of the few (only?) artists programmed that represents any voice even slightly divergent from the all-too-familiar echo chamber of “contemporary dance/performance.”

As for realness I would suggest the festival is performing a cultural position which has little of “the real” about it.

The term “realness“, of course, comes from the gay world of the 1970’s, drag balls and so forth. It is about passing for something you are not, whether a man in drag passing as a woman or otherwise. It is about subverting cultural norms while appearing to conform to them. “Realness” holds within it a tension between the private and public self, the distance between the “real” self and “the real” world, how we perform ourselves and how traditionally marginalized groups exist both within and without mainstream society. It also suggests that in performing that tension and making it visible, “realness” – or an approximation of “the real” – yields a previously unacknowledged or hidden truth about society, that this performance interrogates “the real” by a performance of the real.

If AR’s cultural and aesthetic position were truly transgressive or actually aesthetically challenging, its rejection by the very mainstream Macaulay would be a badge of pride rather than a cause for chagrin. Rather, AR attempts to create a simulacrum of difference and transgression comprised of the signifiers of otherness and disenfranchisement while in fact being entirely of the system it purports to critique. (A much more thoughtfully curated festival exploring this cultural position was the Queer New York International Arts Festival, curated by Zvonimir Dobrović and his partner, the late André von Ah.)

AR – like so much of “contemporary” theater/dance/performance – wants it both ways. It seeks the approbation of the very mainstream it proposes to critique; it seeks approval, money, inclusion and affirmation while simultaneously being valued as somehow different, other, critical, transgressive and problematizing. And in its administration it embraces the same exploitive behavior of unfettered market capitalism, made all the more cruel by applying those behaviors in a not-for-profit environment where access to capital is brutally limited.

Macaulay has called out this cliquishness and insularity before, most notably in his 2010 review of Ann Liv Young’s Cinderella, where he described both the boredom he experienced and the fatuous adoration of Ms. Young by her audience:

“You won’t be bored,” one of Ms. Young’s admirers told me before the show. Boredom, however, was my constant condition during the 95 minutes I spent at this “Cinderella.” Waiting 10 minutes for someone to defecate onstage is boring in the way that waiting 10 minutes for someone to produce a double pirouette or high C would be boring. In this show nothing was interesting, save the gruesome compliance of its audience.

This seems particularly relevant at the moment, given Young’s vile behavior at American Realness this past weekend, her subsequent celebration of that behavior at PS122’s COIL Festival, and the complete inability (indifference? unwillingness?) of either curator to take action.

I was not present but have been informed by multiple sources that Ms. Young, supposedly “in character” as Sherry, chose to disrupt Ms. Patek’s performance twice on Friday. [CORRECTION: THIS HAPPENED ON WEDNESDAY] The first time she assaulted the performers verbally, though unaided by amplification; after a brief exit she returned with a bullhorn to continue her assault.

I am told that Ms. Patek was driven to tears – and from the room – by Ms. Young’s very public bullying and brutality while Mr. Pryor – the festival’s curator – remained in his office, unwilling to intervene. Not only was no action taken to protect Ms. Patek, but Ms. Young was allowed to maintain her craft store lobby installation throughout the remainder of the festival.

The following day Ms. Young attended PS122’s Span event where she apparently recounted her “Sherryvention” on Ms. Patek to, what I’m told, was the general amusement and approval of the audience. Since I wasn’t there at either event, I will leave it to those who were to address the details more completely.

My feelings about the emptiness and fraudulence of Ann Liv Young’s work are well-known and there is little need to recapitulate that here. In light of this year’s American Realness though, I feel compelled to revisit the notion of “the silly consensus” that not only allows Ms. Young to continue making work, but indeed to flourish. And I feel duty-bound to call out the systemic, institutional complicity that reinforces “the silly consensus” as further evidence of the dangerous vacuity of this little corner of the performing arts world.

How fantastically hypocritical is it that a festival purporting to support the voices of “transgressive” artists – a mostly meaningless term at best, anyway – would allow an artist like Ann Liv Young, who exists with the support of major institutions and curators, to violate the art work and physical person of an artist possessed of none of those resources? And then for another festival, supposedly conducting a public conversation on “risk”, to provide a platform for that artist to continue her violation of a colleague, to in fact seek approval and laughs for her bullying?

How fantastically hypocritical is it of a community to rally together in outrage against the candid opinion of a critic like Macaulay (who, despite differences of taste, still makes the effort to see all this work) and continue to support an unapologetically abusive and aggressively ignorant individual like Ann Liv Young? Ms. Young is brilliant in this sense: she heaps abuse and scorn on a fellow artist, also a woman, who is (from what I understand) using her art to interrogate rape culture and implicate the audience and then celebrates this as some kind of risky, transgressive, possibly feminist, act.

Every curator, institution and artist who aligns themselves with Ms. Young is complicit in her violence. She – and the organizations and individuals who support her – are the apotheosis of a society that is so deeply subsumed in hypocrisy and doublespeak so as to no longer recognize reality. The entire construct of “transgressive”, the entire notion of “risk” in art as it exists in the context of “contemporary performance”, is a lie, a posture, a consumer identity in the closed economy and rigged system of not-for-profit performing arts.

When I was in Berlin in May I found myself at a lunch table with theater makers from Iraq, Sarajevo, Chile, Peru, Indonesia, Mexico, Ukraine and more. People who had lived through genocide, dictatorship, repression and crushing poverty, who had faced unimaginable challenges and danger. You want to talk transgressive? Put on a performance where you risk death by firing squad. Even just in terms of NYC, I think it is an insult and an outrage to equate today’s landscape with “downtown” either geographically or aesthetically.

Ask Ishmael Houston-Jones about the risk of creating and performing Them during the height of the AIDS crisis, because you can’t ask most of his peers, because they’re dead. Ask Judith Malina about the Living Theater getting busted and  jailed, ask The Plastic People of the Universe, ask anybody who actually ever risked life, limb and well-being to make their art and bring people together.

Think about this. The vast majority of the people in the world are completely indifferent to any of this performance stuff at all. One of my favorite articulations of this was when Jim Findlay said to me, “How often this past year did you think about how you weren’t going to a Monster Truck Rally? That’s how many times pretty much everyone else thought about not going to the theater.”

If you are disappointed and feel misunderstood, don’t blame Alastair Macaulay and say he just doesn’t get it. First off, he’s given good reviews to people, sometimes at surprising times. Given Alastair’s leanings, I was amazed to read his thoughtful and approving review of Brian Rogers’ Selective Memory, which featured no dance whatsoever. Secondly, he represents a small segment of the vast majority of the world, people who are part of the mainstream but who are willing to see things outside of that range. Unlike the vast majority of the world, he’s interested enough to show up, so if he says the whole thing feels cliquish and insular, maybe he has a point.

Blaming Alastair is bullshit.

Blaming Alastair is a distraction. It’s a distraction from the economic inequality that compels artists to self-subsidize their work in pursuit of a reward that doesn’t exist, held in thrall to a myth that the system reinforces to keep artists in the game. Because the game requires that you work for free, that you compete, that you become indoctrinated in the language of scarcity and your own neediness.

Blaming Alastair is a distraction from so-called curators who don’t curate (the word curator comes from the Latin curare meaning “to take care”), who are not held accountable for caring for artists or articulating their aesthetics or values. It’s a distraction from the systemic dysfunction and our desperate need for real, public, self-critical conversation that would lead to collective action.

Blaming Alastair is a distraction from reality because at the end of the day, we’re actually all part of the same ecology and it is easier to blame Alastair, to make him the other, to say he just doesn’t get it and ascribe some kind of privilege to him that, in fact, is probably no different than the privilege enjoyed by many of our friends and colleagues.

It is easier to blame Alastair than take a good look at ourselves in the mirror, look at how we fight rather than collaborate, how we allow ourselves to be divided, how we delude ourselves with a self-affirming narrative of transgression, victimhood and outsiderness that elides  the very really issues of privilege that allow our world to exist.

It is easier to blame Alastair than to change ourselves and thus the world.

It is time to get real. Really real. Are you ready?

*it was a mistake to use this term & I acknowledge that it undercuts the argument and alienates people . I was trying to make the point that Alastair is being accused of being a bully by a community that celebrates an actual bully in Ann Liv Young. I apologize for my poor choice of words and, as always, will strive to do better. Like artists in other disciplines, I do this work – and Brooklyn Commune – for free with no support from funders or presenters and sometimes it is hard to uphold the standards I aspire to. Thank you for your feedback and support.

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