Culturebot Explores Critical Horizontalism at the Fusebox Festival

Things at Culturebot HQ have been ever-so-slightly more relaxed over the past week, following the closing of “Ephemeral Evidence” at Exit Art, but we’re really just in the calm at the eye of the storm. This coming week, we will be going to Austin, TX from May 3-5 to present a series of events at the Fusebox Festival, which–like “Ephemeral Evidence”–are exploring the ideas raised in our recent mission statement/manifesto, “Culturebot and the New Criticism,” and specifically the idea of “critical horizontalism.” Opposing the subject/object model of traditional criticism, in which the critic interprets the content or judges the merits of a given work, the new critical approach is modeled on engagement with the artist’s process, and an exploration of the experiential qualities of the art.

It turns out we’re anything but alone in our skepticism toward existing models of performance criticism, and our desire to envision a more horizontal approach to critical engagement, in which criticism is “a creative practice unto itself and the writer exists in subjective relation to the work of the artist.”

In early April, we received an email from Jake Orr, of A Younger Theater, a website launched in the UK in 2009 to provide critical perspectives on theater from younger generations. Jake’s email was extremely excited but, given our mad-house schedule this last month, it quickly dropped off our radar until the other day, when we came across this post from Maddy Costa, another British critic and contributor to the Guardian. It turns out that many of the ideas we’ve been discussing have been very much in the air in British circles, and coming out of Improbable’s annual Devoted & Deranged confab, she and Orr began thinking about creating a new platform for a different sort of discussion of theater, which recently launched–Welcome to Dialogue.

Our essay on critical horizontalism is featured in their line-up (hidden as links in the banner), as well as other writers moving in similar directions. I was particularly heartened to come across Andrew Haydon’s essay on “embedded criticism.” Haydon–British, based in Berlin–is one of the finest European critics writing in English, and it was fascinating to read someone else explicating the very process, in a different context, that we recently went through at Exit Art. Culturebot contributors were “embedded” with the artists we programmed, live, on-the-ground dramaturgs engaging with our subjects through the creative process. Indeed, the forms we deal with in the realm of contemporary performance are, I would argue, more often than not process- rather than object-based. There are certainly counter-examples, but as a base-line this informs the approach we’re developing, in which the critic is not analyzing the product of the artist’s process, but rather engaging with them throughout in a collaborative, discursive fashion.

If “Ephemeral Evidence” explored this facet–embeddedness in process–of critical horizontalism, our presentations at Fusebox intend to go in a slightly different but related direction. The festival format allows audiences and artists the opportunity to engage in a broad cross-section of contemporary work. Rather than rely exclusively on traditional modes of supplemental programming to help educate or inform, we’re presenting live “critical interventions” that exist in performative discourse with their subjects. These interventions move beyond the idea of the performance as a discrete event to be consumed on its own, to be judged in the moment, and toward the idea of the work in discourse with the audience and with other work, with multiple ways to experience and engage with the art at different times.

All Culturebot Events at the Hybrid Arts Summit take place at the Festival Hub, 1100 E. 5th St., in the old Tops Used Furniture building, and are free and open to the public.

On Friday, May 4 at 12:30 p.m., Andy Horwitz will be moderating a discussion on “Performance and Context, the Black Box and the White Cube.” This is the latest public conversation that began in earnest last year, when Andy published his essay “Performance Art vs. Contemporary Performance,” which animated the contemporary performing arts community, followed by Claire Bishop’s “Unhappy Days in the Art World: De-Skilling Theater, Re-Skilling Performance,” which approached the topic from a visual arts perspective. That confluence led to (for Culturebot, at least) a panel discussion at Under the Radar in January featuring Performa’s RoseLee Goldberg, the Walker’s Philip Bither, and artists Liz Magic Laser and David Levine (see here for the video from #NewPlay TV).

Over the  the ensuing months the conversations we’ve heard (and had) around this idea have evolved a lot, especially after our experience at Exit Art. For Austin we’ll be moving the conversation from “visual art vs. theater” to an exploration of process, context, cross-skilling, and collaboration. Participants for this conversation are Paul Bonin-Rodriguez, Hilary Graves, Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Phil Soltanoff, and Mike Smith.

Saturday morning, May 5, at 11 a.m., we’ll be hosting “Culturebot’s Hair of the Dog Performance Potlatch,” a contribution to the community/collaboration portion of the Hybrid Arts Summit. The day before, our co-presenters in the series, the Austin Arts Alliance and Big Medium, will be hosting a “Call for Collaboration,” which allows a cross-disciplinary group of Austin artists to present their current and future projects. Many a challenge will be highlighted, so now what? What has to happen to pull off all these ideas? Are there sufficient current resources? And how far can can the work go?

Based on Lois Weaver’s “The Long Table,” our brunch discussion will focus on the idea of “Creation and Place.” What does it mean to create work in a given community/location, and how can various communities learn from one another in terms of addressing the practical issues of supporting the creation and success of new cross-disciplinary work? Similar to Disgruntled and Devoted, which uses Phelim McDermott’s “Open Space” discussion format, the event is intended to raise more questions than answers. A diverse group of artists, administrators, and organizers will gather for a brunch. About a dozen attendees with take part in a casual and unguarded conversation over food and drink, seated at a table and watched by a larger audience, who can only participate by taking up a vacated seat at the table. There is no strict delineation of panelists and audience–all voices are equal, giving artists the opportunity to discuss their challenges with people working to create opportunities for the creation and touring of new work in Austin, New York, and elsewhere.

Then at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 5, Culturebot presents “The Impersonation Game: Gob Squad.”  Originally developed by the European arts collective Everybody’s, as a component of a “toolbox” of open source explorations of artistic process, “The Impersonation Game” is our most ambitious (and risky) exercise in critical horizontalism. One of the core tenets of our critical practice is that performance is an experiential process shared between between the artist and the audience (vis-a-vis Jacques Ranciere). The role of the critic is not to “interpret” the meaning of a work, since there are multiple valid responses to and experiences of it. Rather, the role of the critic is to empower and liberate the spectator by helping inform and validate their own experience.

“The Impersonation Game” is structured as an artist talk-back: in this case, with Gob Squad, who will be presenting Super Night Shot Fri. and Sat. at the festival. Except, Gob Squad won’t be the ones answering the questions: Kirk Lynn of the Rude Mechs, choreographer Allison Orr of Forklift Danceworks, and Graham Schmidt of Breaking String Theater will each, individually, be “impersonating” Gob Squad. The answers they provide to the moderator’s and audience’s questions will be informed exclusively by having seen the show, and their own artistic practices. The “answers” aren’t really answers at all, but rather statements of what it means to the panelists, why they would have made that choice had they actually been the creator.

The goal of this exercise is two-fold: First, we hope to demonstrate that there are diverse valid experiences of a work, that there isn’t necessarily one “right way” to understand and interpret it. Second, we hope to point to ways to help audiences–particularly new audiences–bridge the knowledge gap by demonstrating, through the informed perspective of the impersonators, that the experience of the work is deepened and informed by engagement with the form.

Fusebox’s Ron Berry has given us a fantastic opportunity to begin putting ideas into practice, for which we’re deeply grateful, and which will be shared by #NewPlay TV for those who can’t join us in Austin. At present, Culturebot is engaged in the very beginnings of an exploration of these ideas, and we are borrowing (all credit due the creators) from a surprisingly diverse set of techniques and approaches already in existence. Moving forward, we’re going to begin our own development of new practices, informed both by existing techniques as well as the simultaneous efforts of our fellow-travelers both here and abroad. We’re currently exploring a series of events in NYC in June (more to come) as well as planning events for fall ’12 and winter ’13.

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