Performing the Archive and Building Community In Real Time (Parts 1&2)
The following essay was published in two parts in Animating Democracy’s May 2014 Blog Salon “Back To The Future: Forward-Thinking Documentation and Archiving“, edited by Jamie Haft, who posted a thoughtful summary of the various essays here. I encourage you to read not just my essays but the others in the series and reflect on how these ideas could be incorporated into your creative and administrative practices.
I have come to view human history as an epic tragedy of inadequate knowledge management. While I am dubious that we will ever finally solve the problem of knowledge lost across generations and cultures, much less the greater problem of recognizing wisdom when we see it, I’m hopeful that we can change our society’s perception of how history is constructed, and encourage a collaborative, peer-driven model of cultural discourse and documentation.
As Jamie Haft has inferred, it would be difficult to overstate the urgency around building new practices for discourse and documentation, not just in the field of community-based arts, but for society as a whole. We inhabit a moment of both great crisis as legacy systems fail and even greater opportunity to create new systems to supersede the old.
To do so, however, we are called upon to relinquish our attachment to the old frameworks, specifically oppositional binaries such as “professional” and “amateur,” “digital” and “real life,” “documentation” and “critical analysis.” In a massively networked world we increasingly find ourselves occupying minimal spaces, traversing ever-shifting boundaries and working collaboratively in conditional hierarchies. We are always both observers and participants, which presents a new set of questions and challenges.
I say this based on my ten-plus years of experience at Culturebot.org, the website I launched as a blog at NYC’s Performance Space 122 in 2003 which has operated independently since 2007, and more recently as co-organizer of The Brooklyn Commune Project – an artist-driven grassroots initiative of Culturebot.org and The Invisible Dog Art Center to educate, activate and unify performing artists of all disciplines to work together towards a more equitable, just, and sustainable arts ecology.
I would like to share some of what I’ve learned from these projects and in so doing propose increased efforts at knowledge sharing and collaboration between community-based arts and arts-based communities.
When I came to work at Performance Space 122 in the spring of 2002, I was already a long-time Netizen and passionate advocate for the power of the Internet to create positive social change. Performance Space 122 – or P.S.122, as it was then known – was home to a vibrant, contentious, diverse, and adventurous community of performing artists. And though I had been an audience member since I first arrive in NYC in 1995 and had dreams of performing there one day, I could never quite figure out how to get involved.
During my first year at PS122 I began to realize that this was due in part to a critical gap between the interior life of the organization and the external lives of its community of artists and audiences. While I was daily having meaningful, enriching interactions with a diverse group of artists and community members, the individual stakeholders themselves were only partially aware of the vast social matrix they inhabited. Not only did the community lack “situational awareness”, but also there was no commonly shared and widely accessible knowledge of its history, its aesthetic, and its political lineages.
The exigency of keeping the doors open and the lights on while producing the shows made it almost impossible for the organization to adequately manage the ever-growing mountains of material – programs, scripts, correspondence, photographs, props, contracts, budgets – the artifacts that told the story of this community over time. There was no authoritative book or official historian; the only published records were the reams of reviews and features from the daily and weekly newspapers, the occasional essay in an obscure academic journal.
Realizing that a substantial archiving project was beyond PS122’s capacity or existing skills, I decided to address these needs by building a widely available online resource for the community: a living archive and historical record, created in real time, that would both reach back into history and look forward into the future. This resource would share the sounds, images, ideas and conversations of the community as they were created. Significantly, we would propose online discourse as a form of documentation. It was not enough merely to create an archive, but also to record the concerns and debates of the moment and be able to track them over time.
Thus, in December 2003 we launched Culturebot.org at P.S.122 and until community demand exceeded organizational capacity in 2007, and we left P.S.122, taking a wider view of our mission. I’ll note that apart from a small grant from the National Performance Network to build the first version of the site, we were never officially funded by P.S.122; we have been working arduously – and without funding – since 2003, even as the urgent need for discourse and documentation has reached a crisis point.
It was close to seven years after we launched Culturebot.org when my colleague Jeremy M. Barker joined the effort, and I had the time to begin more clearly articulating how the site functioned as community archive and platform for discourse. Rather than recapitulate the entire narrative, I will share some insights from my experience:
1. Positioning the Archive
Culturebot’s essential point of difference is positional. Since Culturebot.org originated at Performance Space 122 (P.S.122) –a hub of community – and because it has always operated from within that community of artists, it has never been positioned within either journalism or academia. Insofar as capacity and resources have allowed, Culturebot has been a collaboratively created, community-supported archive to promote a variety of perspectives and complexity of critical discourse. Even as it serves as a dynamic social map enabling a community to self-define, Culturebot is also meant to serve a critical function – to allow dissent and support voices that may otherwise be ignored.
2. Discourse as Document
From the beginning we were committed to interviews, previews, and points of view – never reviews. We saw our function as a kind of “virtual town square” serving our community. Writers would occasionally offer “responses” to work, with an aspiration towards deep engagement with the ideas and ambitions of the work and the artists involved, while resisting externally imposed market-driven value structures. When possible we would publish opposing responses, to reinforce the notion of art as prompt for discourse, not mere didacticism or education. Over time these conversations proved to be documents unto themselves, not merely of the artifacts of performance, but of moments in time: what mattered to who and when, allowing us to track how the conversations and participants change – or don’t – over time. By virtue of being online, this work has included text, images, sounds, videos and more. It becomes a living multimedia archive where the artifacts and the conversation are co-created in real time and continue to co-exist in perpetuity.
3. Positioning the Archivist
In 2012 I published an essay entitled “Re-Framing The Critic for the 21st Century” which expanded on an earlier idea of “critical horizontalism” where the “critic” exists in “subject-subject” relationship to his or her subject matter, as opposed to “subject-object.” In this essay I describe three functions – dramaturgy, advocacy and engagement – to be performed by a single individual using critical thinking skills in parallel process to the development of a project or within an organization.
Over time I have come to resist the word “critic” entirely, preferring “dramaturge” or even “community organizer.” The critic is too easily conflated with the reviewer, when they serve essentially different functions. Suffice it to say that this is all a work in progress, but I have found that the need for someone in a community to play this role and perform these tasks has not diminished.
If we position the archive within the community, as a community endeavor; and if we accept that in a massively networked world we must work collaboratively, in conditional hierarchies, honoring different skill sets and specializations at different times, then we see we are all responsible for co-creating the archive.
4. Performing the Archive and Building Community
Building Culturebot has been about building a space that helps individuals see themselves as part of a community, making visible the social and ideological connections that are difficult to discern in the moment, on the ground, in real time. At the same time, it is about “performing the archive” in that, within the limits of technology and capacity – it has been open to the participation of everyone who self-identifies as part of the community.
This idea is not without historical precedent. In Jewish tradition Torah study is a social, even communal activity, the most familiar mode being “Havruta Learning” – or peer-guided learning in pairs. The central text for learning is The Talmud, which is arranged with a passage of the source text surrounded by exegesis, commentary and conflicting opinions from different sages, often spanning centuries, languages and geographies, all on a single page (see photo).
In The Story of The Jews, historian Simon Schama suggests that the centrality of text study in Jewish communal life is one of the essential factors insuring Jewish survival over millennia.
I have previously proposed framing the experience of the Jewish Diaspora as pre-technological networked society, and in that context there may be structural relevance to our current endeavor to create new systems for documentation, discourse and archiving.
5. Building The Archive of the Future
The Brooklyn Commune Project was proposed as an eight-month open, collaborative public research process into the economics of the performing arts. Our research uncovered treasure troves of previous writing from the field that were all the more revelatory for having been forgotten. From Baumol and Bowen’s landmark work Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma to The Poor Dancer’s Almanaccompiled by David White to The Dancer’s Forum Compact of 2002, seminal ideas and documentation had faded into obscurity.
Subsequent conversations with pioneers from the previous generations revealed the abject failure of the field at large to transmit intergenerational knowledge from Elder To Intern. The rush to professionalization in the arts moved the knowledge into the academy and out of the hands of the community. The books that survived were those prized by the MBAs and consultants, not those needed by artists, administrators and activists.
To counteract this tendency towards hierarchical access to knowledge we must build web-based tools that are relatively simple to implement locally and deploy globally; that are easy to use, and can support a widely participatory interdependent system for knowledge sharing. This is not to disenfranchise the trained archivist, but rather suggest new opportunities for the profession.
Success will depend on understanding that documentation and archiving are parallel and related practices to dramaturgy, advocacy, and engagement – and that in the digital age the artifacts of live experience will exist across media and platforms. Success will depend on reinforcing the idea that participation is not predicated on official sanction, but everyone’s opportunity to participate in a democratic society.
There are many, many questions yet to be resolved, but the urgency of the situation requires that we just begin.