Culturebot and The New Criticism
The past few months have been really pivotal here at Culturebot and it feels like we’re moving into a new era. A lot of the things we’ve done casually or sporadically over the years are being formalized and, for the first, time, I’ve been able to articulate some of the ideas around what we’ve been practicing for more than eight years. I thought I’d take this opportunity to share with you, our audience and community, where we came from, what we’re thinking about and what we’re working on over the next twelve months and into the future.
When I first started thinking about Culturebot in late 2002, I had already been online for a while. I started a personal website back in 1998. I remember working at an ad agency in 1999 and pitching my co-workers on a website that would help people who met online and had similar interests to meet off-line and have social gatherings. They laughed and said that no-one would want to do that. If I only had understood what VC was at the time!
Technically I began “blogging” in late 2000 or early 2001, shortly after Blogger first became available. In the early days of blogging there weren’t so many of us in NYC – or anywhere – and I remember when we’d all get together and drink and socialize – Choire, Jonno, Blaise, Ultrasparky, Uffish – where it was not uncommon to ask someone “What’s your URL?” before you knew their name. Eventually Nick Denton swept into town and scooped up the most popular bloggers to be his editors and help launch his empire. But I saw firsthand the power of blogging to build communities both of interest and of practice, before the money and the book deals came to town.
I have the dubious distinction of being the first person (or among the first, anyway) to blog 9/11. That moment amplified, for me, what blogging could mean and could become. As someone who provided a first-hand, eyewitness account of the events of the day, in real time, on the internet, and who received comments, e-mails and responses from around the world instantaneously, I realized that things were very different than before, that the world was smaller and people more connected, that the internet had changed what was possible. It was amazing that we could really, truly share our experiences quickly and personally without intermediation; and that communities could come into existence and vanish in moments.
Shortly after founding Culturebot, I was at a PS122 party with my friend Chris Hampton, complaining about the impending doom of Valentine’s Day. We decided to hold the first-ever all-blogger reading/performance event – “Worst.Sex.Ever” at PS122. The event attracted about 250 people, we had to turn people away, and it became an ongoing series called The WYSIWYG Talent Show, where over the course of three years we presented (and frequently debuted) a lot of people who went on to be quite well-known including (but not limited to) Emily Gould, Paul Ford, Todd Levin, Jessy Delfino, Faustus, M.D., Choire Sicha, Mike Daisey, Chelsea Peretti, Ron Mwangaguhunga and Ned Vizzini. We also presented the first video blogger film fest, to my knowledge.
I started working at PS122 in the spring of 2002 and over the first six months I made two key observations. First, general audiences didn’t seem to have much knowledge of or context for the work being presented. They knew the solo shows – the Danny Hoch/John Leguizamo stuff – but the more difficult or esoteric work – Yasuko Yukoshi, Richard Maxwell, dance in general, etc. – had a very small audience of downtown denizens and not much else. At the same time, there was almost no public space for dialogue around “downtown” or “contemporary” performing arts, nowhere to share ideas or trace histories, lineages and connections. Artists and audiences alike frequently came to the New York – and PS122 – with only the vaguest sense of what they were seeing and how to engage with it. I had been in NYC since 1995, originally as a writer/performer who frequented PS122 as an audience member, and I still had only the vaguest notion of how the Ontological was connected to the Wooster Group was connected to PS122, what Judson was, what DTW was and how all these pieces fit together. I knew that there was a need and an opportunity to share information and knowledge, to build awareness and also create an ongoing, evolving, real-time document of performance in NYC. Thus Culturebot was developed as a collaborative, community-oriented web resource providing critical insight and conversation to practitioners, administrators and audiences at one. Our goal then, as now, was to be deeply informed and thoughtful while remaining accessible to a wide readership.
Initially I wanted Culturebot to be a group endeavor and I invited the marketing directors of all the major contemporary presenting institutions to a meeting at PS122 where I pitched them on participating. I said here was a chance to build community and at the same time provide a counterbalance to the hegemony of the NY Times. Apart from Aaron Rosenblum, who was working at DTW at the time, they all looked at me like I had three heads and said it was unnecessary and besides, who had the time to write for a website? They were already so busy designing postcards and printed brochures and organizing bulk mailings and print ad campaigns. So I took a deep breath and soldiered on, launching the site in December 2003.
When Culturebot first launched it was meant to exist in contrast to the “reviewer-oriented” model of mainstream news outlets like the New York Times. At first we only published previews, interviews and points-of-view, intending to serve the community and the field at large in an informational and dramaturgical capacity, creating space for conversation and dialogue, meeting the work at its own level, not from a place of judgement. However, early-career artists, existing under the radar of mainstream outlets, often requested to be reviewed. Culturebot responded, becoming an advocate for emerging artists by providing early reviews and critical feedback. Many artists who are now more well-known got their first write-ups here and we still try and cover early-career artists as best we can.
In October of 2007 I left PS122 and brought the site with me. Although Culturebot was initially funded by an NPN grant to PS122 for community outreach, we never received ongoing financial support from the institution and this was a big moment, for the first time Culturebot was its own thing, separate from a respected organization, and we had to sink or swim. We’re still swimming!
NEW MODELS AND NEW VOICES IN ARTS WRITING
When I was at PS122 Mark Russell always made a big deal about not putting work into categories. He strongly believed in the idea that dance, theater, performance art, music and time-based performative events, etc., all exist in this universe that is performance. He drilled that into me and over time I’ve come to adhere to that philosophy ever more strongly. I dislike putting labels on the work and most of the artists I’m interested are creating outside the boundaries of traditional discipline structures. This previously unarticulated perspective has finally become the norm, as reflected in the curatorial statement from Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders, from the Whitney Biennial:
“…artists are functioning as researchers and curators, drawing on the histories of art, design, dance, music, and technology. Artists are bringing other artists into their work—a form of free collage or reinvention that borrows from the culture at large as a way of rewriting the standard narratives and exposing more relevant hybrids. There is also the radical production of new forms, fabrication on a more modest scale. Artists are constantly redefining what an artist can be at this moment ….”
This, however, highlights the unique challenge of this moment, which is that of context. As museums rediscover performance, dance and to a lesser extent theater, incorporating it into their programming, performing arts spaces are being left out of the conversation entirely. Years of knowledge, dramaturgy, theory and practical expertise are being consigned to the dustbins as visual arts curators apply a different set of critical criteria to the evaluation and interpretation of the performed art. Still heavily reliant on the critical theories of performance from the 60’s, visual art tends to reject craft in favor “authenticity” and be wary of mimesis and theatricality. So when they look at dance and theater, they are not, generally, critically equipped to make knowledgeable evaluations. They also don’t have any production infrastructure or knowledge, nor do the curators have experience working with performing artists to develop projects over time. I’ve already talked about this at great length and won’t rehash here. Suffice it to say that never before has the conversation about “The Black Box versus the White Cube” been more important.
Having spent my formative years outside the visual arts world, I was mostly unaware of the conversation and discovered it when I was curating PRELUDE 2008, and that topic became the focus of the festival. During the curatorial process a colleague brought to my attention Harold Skramstad’s seminal 1999 article “An Agenda for American Museums In the 21st Century” (online here, downloadable 10MB PDF here). It is an incredibly thoughtful and powerful article and, I think, possibly responsible for the current trends in museum curating and the rediscovery of performance. In the conclusion of his essay Skramstad writes:
The great age of collection building in museums is over. Now is the time for the next great agenda of museum development in America. This agenda needs to take as its mission nothing less than to engage actively in the design and delivery of experiences that have the power to inspire and change the way people see both the world and the possibility of their own lives. We have many practical institutions to help us work through our day-to-day problems. We have enough educational institutions that focus on training us to master the skills we need to graduate from school and get a job. Yet we have too few institutions that have as their goal to inspire and change us. American museums need to take this up as their new challenge. Up to now much of their time has been devoted to building their collections and sharing them through “outreach” to the larger world. Now they must help us create the new world of “inreach,” in which people, young and old alike, can “reach in” to museums though experiences that will help give value and meaning to their own lives and at the same time stretch and enlarge their perceptions of the world.
So what we have, then, is a wholesale re-imagining of the purpose and function of the art museum. Performing arts spaces should probably do a similar re-evaluation, but that is another essay for another time. But what this means, and in fact demands, is that as artists work increasingly across and outside traditional boundaries of discipline and as institutions adapt to create boundary-less contexts for the work artists are making, it is necessary to cultivate a critical voice and style of writing that meets the work on its own terms. As the lines between dance, theater, music, performance art, video and visual art are becoming less and less defined, we need new critics who can travel with the work and the imagination of the artist. At the same time we need a community of writers who can share their skills and expertise, who bring a collective pool of knowledge to bear on this ever-expanding and evolving cultural landscape. We need to bring visual arts, performing arts, music, film and new/emerging media writers together to develop a new criticism that reflects this cultural landscape and the environment in which this discourse increasingly occurs – online.
As mentioned earlier, Culturebot was always meant to exist in contrast – even in opposition – to the “reviewer-oriented” model of mainstream news outlets like the New York Times. The traditional “reviewer-oriented” model of newspaper-based arts writing is predicated on advising the potential consumer whether a given performance is worth the investment of time and money. We reject that. We propose to distinguish the performing arts from corporately manufactured consumer-focused entertainment product and apply a different framework for analysis and dialogue.
At the same time that we distinguish between a consumer-oriented “reviewer” and a critic, so too do we distinguish between an old-model critic and The New Criticism. The traditional critical model proposes a “subject/object” relationship between writer and performance where the critic “objectively” judges the merits of a given performance. Culturebot proposes a new framework for arts criticism that we refer to as “critical horizontalism”. In this framework criticism is a creative practice unto itself and the writer exists in subjective relation to the work of the artist. The writer’s response is the continuation of a dialogue initiated by the artist. If this response is then published on the Internet, this creates a horizontal field of discourse with the work. This model resists the commodification of the performing arts as “entertainment” but rather situates it as time-based art. The performance itself is an ephemeral nexus where audience, artist and ideas converge. The critic supports the continued investigation of the art event across multiple platforms.
This theoretical framework is expressed in practical terms as well. As a primarily web-based endeavor, Culturebot’s aesthetics have been informed by our environment. We started as a blog and have evolved with the web as it has changed. We are influenced by the evolving and interconnected world of social media and strive to continue developing the voice we are known for – intelligent but familiar, rigorous but accessible, frequently informal and conversational. It is not that we can’t write like academics, it is that we choose not to. We choose not to employ jargon when plainer language will suffice. When possible and appropriate, we provide links to the work of our academic colleagues for our readers’ reference if they choose to investigate.
Culturebot’s mission it to be deeply informed and generally accessible, to provide a platform for dialogue and the resources for deeper, more thoughtful investigation. Our hope is to continue providing a platform for artists, administrators, curators and audiences to hold conversations, to establish relationships with other arts writers online, continue to develop new critical voices that reflect the aesthetics of the Information Age. We plan to work with professional journalists and new media innovators to identify a writing style and practice that reflects and engages with the new cultural landscape. This is writing intended for the Internet, criticism from a networked perspective.
LIVE CRITICAL INTERVENTIONS
In January 2012 Meiyin Wang invited Culturebot to work with Under The Radar to curate, produce and moderate two panel discussions as part of the festival. Around the same time, in response to the essay “Visual Art Performance vs. Contemporary Performance”, Culturebot was invited to participate in a group exhibition at the Exit Art Gallery in New York City. That project, Ephemeral Evidence, will be happening from April 17-21, 2012 and more details will be announced shortly.
The convergence of these two things led us to start thinking about Criticism As Creative Practice and Culturebot’s dramaturgical role in our community. In Ephemeral Evidence we have paired Culturebot writers with performing artists to create durational performances that will leave objects as evidence of the ephemeral event. The writers are responsible for creating the contextual writing in collaboration with the artists and being a part of the creative process. We believe that the New Criticism means that writer/critics should engage more deeply and over time with artists, so that they can provide meaningful dialogue in public space.
Developing Ephemeral Evidence informed our thinking about “Live Critical Intervention”. After the success at Under The Radar we were invited by Ron Berry to do an “as-yet-undefined-something” at the Fusebox Festival in Austin, TX. We really weren’t interested in replicating the same old model of panel discussions and artist talkbacks that everyone always does, so we started thinking about how we could re-structure these important critical conversations in more interesting, performative ways. Thus Live Critical Interventions are our attempt to put “critical horizontalism” into practice. We started researching, analyzing the intellectual structures and presentational aesthetics of panels and talkbacks and identifying ways to subvert and undermine them. We are using existing techniques such as Lois Weaver’s “Long Table” and Everybodys Toolbox’s “Impersonation Game” as source material, while creating new interventions as a scalable framework to support the democratization of criticism and the idea of criticism as social practice. We will be at Fusebox from May 3-6, 2012 and will be presenting three “interventions” – more info on that to come. We have received a commission to develop this project over the next twelve months and will debut the project in March 2013. We can’t announce where yet, but we will soon.
ONWARD AND UPWARD, BROTHERS AND SISTERS
Here at Culturebot HQ we’re incredibly excited to continue pioneering new landscapes in art, culture and ideas. We are leading the charge for a new way of engaging with performance and criticism and are looking forward to creating public platforms for conversation and dialogue. The next twelve months will bring significant change and growth, we look forward to evolving from our humble blog origins into a new, multi-platform content creating networked robot of the future, replicating memes and busting rhymes like nobody’s business.
If you want to get on board, now’s the time. You know where to find us.