Good Circulation: Grassroots Exchange Connecting Communities of Practice

SQUART with LauraArrington& Everyone Else (photo by Robbie Sweeny)

The festival. The art binge. An international crossroads of culture mafia mobilizing in time and place. At conclusion, the individuals disperse with refreshed senses to digest, address and generate contemporary performance in a multiplicity of locales and moments. With bold artists at the center of American Realness, the circulation of their ideas, practices and teachings among other makers enables a healthy rhythm of creation in cities nationwide.

In addition to the work of those in multiple areas of the dance ecosystem (presenters, funders, managers and beyond), the proliferation of artist-led platforms for the exchange of contemporary performance and experimental dance practices strengthens the generative capacity of local artist communities. These maker-centered gatherings privilege workshops, dialogue, artistic relationships and works in process rather than focusing on formal performances. Engaging with several artist-organized hubs on the West Coast, I observe DIY platforms to be populated by, what some may call, “artists’ artists” – visionary and risk-taking thinkers, teachers, collaborators and provocateurs, many of whom attend and are curated into contemporary performance festivals such as American Realness. Their sharing fuels the growth and rigor of local artistic communities in which the exchange efforts are situated.

With festivals serving as major nodes of circulation for experimental dance and performance work, events including American Realness, Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s Time Based Art Festival, and gatherings taking place in Europe during summer months provide opportunities for visiting artists, often those performing, to see the work of one’s peers and socialize. With performance being a major emphasis, festival formats often include workshops and artist conversations adding layers and textured interfaces to the gatherings.

While related, artist-created exchanges remain distinct from festival structures. These maker-centered grassroots platforms also differ in emphasis from artist-curated performance programs. While in New York, contemporary artistic learning exchanges are encouraged and supported by formalized organizations such as Movement Research and Center for Performance Research, communities of artists without such specifically dedicated venues for makers are creating similar opportunities and functions through DIY collaborations, space acquisitions and word-of-mouth invitations. They also embrace a raw aesthetic conducive to process, research and experimentation.

I see these workshops and process-based activities by artists as outcroppings and extensions of festival events with a specialized focus on fellow makers. Many of the same individuals circulate through both festivals and DIY exchanges in the United States, however, the grassroots communities of practice conducting the exchanges with local and visiting artists extend the impact of contemporary performance festivals by expanding the geography and duration in which the artistic voices reverberate. In these platforms, the practices of colliding artists stretch and adopt localized translations of ideas and approaches. The function of makers in regional artist-created containers is to shape the engagement into one of generative possibilities.

Artists, especially those operating outside The Big Apple, seize ownership for their growth and devise opportunities to develop artistically and provide platforms for contemporary work, which may not get presented in a particular region due to the local venue mix or existing curatorial visions at established institutions. While exciting and invigorating to flock to say, New York City in January or Europe in the summer to be exposed to new practices and ideas, the artist-created platforms and exchanges ensure vitality on an ongoing local level in areas that do not possess formal festivals and organizations dedicated to experimentation and research. The exchanges are vitamins for rich and progressive contemporary performance communities nationally. Not unlike some of the autodidactic “public school” models, which emerged from the Occupy movement, DIY artist exchanges are often based openly on skill and idea barter without a curriculum or affiliation to institution.

To cite a potent example, Meg Wolfe’s Showbox L.A. is one location of grassroots exchange, which has developed a place for Los Angeles’s experimental dance community, serving as umbrella for a number of collaborative artist-led projects and partnerships. The environment fosters work by local makers and invests in building relationships with artists nationally and internationally. Creatively conducting events in spaces like the gilded Palm Court Ballroom in the Hotel Alexandria and the Bootleg Theater, Showbox L.A. features local performances and workshops alongside visitors like Miguel Gutierrez, Gob Squad and Ishmael Houston Jones, deepening the critical dialogue related to performance in the city. Supporting creative research, they publish itch Dance Journal, host Wild Mind conversations and advocate for the craft. During the past few years, Showbox L.A.’s grassroots efforts have created a powerful hub of experimental practice and dialogue that did not previously exist in the area.

Another example is Kunst-Stoff Art Building Consortium in San Francisco formed by Kunst-Stoff Arts, Alternative Conservatory and The Off Center. The collaborative body hosts an artist-run Visiting Artist Series Exchange (VASE) with a similar commitment to creating opportunities for local makers to learn from and share knowledge with national and international artists. “We live in a fast developing global maker community. To hold space for this made complete sense to us. So here we are.” comments organizer Ernesto Sopprani. He also mentions American Realness artists Jeremy Wade, Tony Rizzi, as well as, Katie Duck, Papiluk Supernova as visitors in 2013 conducting classes, lectures, workshops and showings, mostly independent of formally presented performance engagements.

The artist-identified goal of the consortium is for the area to grow as a hub for contemporary artistic expression and discourse while deepening the Bay Area’s presence and connectivity with makers in other cities. Their dynamic Fresh Festival does just that, incorporating San Francisco artists including Sara Shelton Mann, Kathleen Hermesdorf, Keith Hennessey, Jess Curtis, Abby Crain, Laura Arrington and Jesse Hewit. Similar efforts by committed artist organizers in the city have brought Action Hero to CounterPulse and Robert Steijn to the Joe Goode Annex.

There are, no doubt, numerous other DIY exchanges mobilized and growing in the United States to create junctions on the global maker community map, increasing connectivity, inquiry and exchange. The DIY efforts feel distinctly American, emerging from ingenuity, self reliance and a driven work ethic. Additionally, the grassroots platforms are part of contemporary performance making, pushing at the edges, challenging existing frameworks and addressing gaps.

Through creative efforts to identify allies, collaborate and pool resources for the circulation of artists, the experimentation and fresh contemporary performance fed by communities of practice echo through American Realness. The festival electrifies the circuit, offering a node of exchange, which has maker-centered outcroppings across the country. This essay serves as a starting point for a public conversation on Culturebot, in which we’ll continue investigating platforms for grassroots exchange within localized communities of practice, which link and connect makers. So as you are challenged, provoked and awakened by your art binge at the festival, consider this fast developing global maker community and the very real and American way in which many of these artists are creating across geographies during this contemporary moment.

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