Trends In Performance Talk

I was asked by Randal Fippinger to speak at a New England Presenters’ Conference in May 2013 at Williams College on the topic of “Trends in Performance.” Here is what I said:

Thanks Randy for asking me to speak today. And thanks to all of you for listening. I’m assuming you’re here because you want to be but maybe that’s not the case. Either way I hope that what I say is illuminating. I was invited here to be the artist to talk about the Trends In Performance. Well I think it was originally called “Trends in Performance Art” but I am choosing to snip off the last word because honestly I can’t say the term “performance art” without thinking of Daryl Hannah in the movie Legal Eagles.

We’ll get to all of that eventually but I want to say that being asked to be the artist representative in this kind of meeting is a daunting task. As soon as I knew that I was going to come I felt like what I imagine a congressional representative should feel like – I’m speaking for a lot of people who aren’t here. Who gets to be at this table? This is a question that fascinates me endlessly, probably as a result of coming of age in the late 80’s when the traditional canons of knowledge were being questioned relentlessly in academia and when I got myself involved in queer and AIDS activist groups that were pushing at questions of representation and access. Because of course, in order for some people to come together to entertain questions like Trends in Performance, or Trends in Presenting, other people have to be absent. So these conversations can only ever be inadequate truth exchanges, limited perspective offerings. How dare any of us think that we can speak for the field? What’s here is at best an earnest attempt to understand something that is much bigger than all of us.

As an artist who came up in a time where privilege and access were being scrutinized, I am always aware that the fortune that falls my way means that others aren’t getting the same chances. I notice, for example, when I’m in a festival lineup where 75 percent of the presented artists are men and when most of those are gay men. Or when I look at a roster of a festival and out of the 25 presented artists, only 6 are women and only 1 is a person of color. I am always shocked when others don’t notice this as quickly as I do. Maybe I see the world this way because I grew up in a bicultural household as the child of Colombian immigrants, which taught me quickly that there are dominant cultures and conversations and then there are the people who are trying to get inside the door of those conversations.

So if we are to talk about trends in anything, we must realize that we are talking not only about the world we live in but the world that we create. When I asked a dance artist friend of mine, Eleanor Bauer, what she thought the trends in performance are right now she replied it’s what “…I'm seeing on stages, which means it's being presented…” which is to say, you can’t identify trends without first coming to terms with the fact that for something to even be considered as being on trend or not, it must have been selected to be seen in the first place. So how can we talk about trends in performance without talking about trends in presenting? How can we not talk about the intersection of geography, politics, economics, and the specificity of regional or national aesthetic values?

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Because what I really wanted to talk about here first is love.

I don’t know much about you, but I’m guessing that if you’re a presenter, your job can be lonely sometimes. I’ve always thought that presenters make these conferences happen so that they can hang out with each other cuz their jobs are kinda lonely. You have to make these big decisions and who knows if you’re right, right? You’re trying to represent what’s local, what’s national, and maybe what’s international and you have no money really to do it and so you make some tough choices and hope for the best. I imagine you must have to contend with yourself, what you know and what you don’t, whether you’re willing to admit that, and how you see work. This is the part that intrigues me and that relates to the conversation here. I’m always intrigued by what a presenter's state of mind is when they see work. Last year Ben Johnson told me that he was going to bring a ton of presenters to the opening night of my new show at the Walker in Minneapolis and I said, well that just sounds like the most terrible idea ever, why on earth would you have a bunch of presenters come to a premiere, when a show is at its most vulnerable, and he said, No it’ll be great! I’ll get them all drunk and ready for you and I thought, Hmm, I’ve made a 90 minute show that has a lot of slow, extended sections and the whole thing is based on my existential questions about mortality and it’s got trippy music and lighting and well, no, being drunk at that show sounds like just about the worst possible idea ever. I want people awake, rested, fed, and perceptually eager at my shows. I don’t want them to have seen fifty other fucking shows that day. I don’t want them tired and tipsy. I’ve seen presenters and critics fall asleep at shows a lot. I get it, if I’d gone to the cocktail party and caught up with my old friend who just got that new job and then we commiserated about our jobs then yeah, I’d probably also fall asleep at the show, especially if I’d been seeing pieces non stop at the conference, and definitely if I were drunk.

Anyway, my job is lonely too. I spend a lot of time in hotel rooms by myself, usually cuz solos are cheaper to tour than group pieces (bing bing bing, FIRST TREND IDENTIFIED!!), and I spend a lot of time on the road teaching or doing projects where it’s just me and some, always quite lovely, local set of artists. Why is this the case? Because the only way I’ve figured out to survive financially from art making is to hustle like crazy and to take gigs all over the world. Because it’s basically impossible to get by as a performing artist in New York unless you take side jobs like waiting tables, teaching Pilates, Yoga, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method®, or doing massage, or painting apartments, or walking dogs or art modeling or bartending or sex work. I should tell you that I’m not too happy about the fact that I can’t survive financially where I live, that fellowships and awards are amazing and really do help but unfortunately only for a little while before you’re back in the sticks.

But again, AAAAAH, I digress! I REALLY didn’t wanna talk about money or about trends in performance yet, I REALLY wanted to talk about love. Conversations about performance and ideas always end up being conversations about money. Ugh, I hate this! I want to talk about love.

So yeah, love! It seems like you get presented if someone likes you, maybe even loves you. Or they like or maybe even love the piece you made. So I guess on some level you have to be lovable, or stay lovable. Because love is what excites you and what makes you want to go to bat for something you believe in, right? And yet it seems like presenters now mostly just shop for pieces. But people love shopping, right? Shopping is easier to talk about than ideas. In a presentation that artist Dean Moss gave in Korea in 2005 where he compared his experience as an artist in the art market versus his experience as a curator, he said the following: “Relationships with other presenters were easy. Because between presenters it was about business. It was concerned mostly with how to sustain the administration, development, production and touring support for repertory dance companies. Whether that business focused on international exchange and globalization like an ‘import / export’ business or on local community enrichment and support like ‘investment banking’ the focus was not on the experience of individual artists and their practices but on the welfare of an essentially arbitrary network based on professionalization, commodification and exchange. … through my experience as a curator I soon saw those same dynamics as the most significant force behind the current growth in cultural infrastructures. Specifically international exchange both of ideas and products would hardly exist without the robust support of art markets.”

I always wanted to think that once your work was considered good by enough people that there would just be trust in presenting whatever you’re working on. Ha! I’m no longer this naïve. I get it now that the love I’m talking about here has to be cultivated, nourished, and re-invigorated along the way. People fall out of love all of the time. Or they really take their time to get to love you. In the United States it takes forever to get established, to get on the radar of national presenters. I’m 41 now. I’ll turn 42 in less than a week. This makes me young in the eyes of people who are older than me, middle aged in terms of the funding market, older in relationship to most though not all of the people that participate in my classes and workshops but still new and young to so many presenters. Or the love you want to feel is in a battle with your fear. I’m reminded of a presenter I spoke to once who said that she would never be able to present my work to her audience. I found this strange considering that the piece in question had been shown in over 20 cities all over the world including Houston, Durham, North Carolina, and New London, Connecticut. I’m not sure why she thought her audiences were so much more less equipped to deal with what I’m doing than the audiences in those other cities. I guess fear, like love, is fickle and hard to predict. It’s been my experience as an artist that you can really present almost anything if you are able to stand behind it with integrity and don’t freak the audiences out in advance with dumb words like “edgy,” “provocative,” or “groundbreaking.” One artist I spoke to take this further to say: “I feel slightly excluded from any sense of a market, but not even mostly because of the content or style of my work. Every market I experience has a glut of 'content providers' vying for the attention of a small rarely changing class of curators who mostly don't even have time to get familiar with what I do. Any opportunities I have had feel like they came through odd personal connections or chance.“ (Jess Curtis)

When I was asked to do this talk I sent out a bunch of questions to many of my peer artists to see if I could cull some information from them about how they think about what they do and what they think the trends in performance are.

You can ask me later what all the questions that I asked them were but here are some of the answers that I got to the question about what the trends in performance are:

“heavy dance beats, nudity (yes still), singing, the return of the star-performer (AS IF it ever really left), and people trying to dance without irony or naïveté and thereby tackling what Doris Humphrey in The Art of Making Dances would probably consider too-large issues.” (Eleanor Bauer)

“…I find that it's fairly common for performance artists in Asia to cover themselves tip to toe in some material (feathers, rice, etc).” (Joseph Ravens)

“Collaborative, ensemble-generated work that blurs artificial boundaries between dance and theater is happening a lot in Philly. Diverse bodies on stage (in terms of race, gender, size, training). Pieces that happen outside of theatrical venues. Pieces that ask audience members to do things.” (Amy Smith)

“In Berlin things slow down and play with much longer durations and are very brainy. In SF the queer/gender issue of financial responsibility. In SF the queer/gender issues are what people are really playing with a lot, so more color, more camp.” (Jess Curtis)

“This trend in performance work is opening up a context for public and private programming networks to find artistic connection and curatorial cohesion within the unpredictable shifting landscape of the art world… And so it seems that performance work is now is the new collectible…” (Philip Adams)

“I see ballet people doing ‘somatics’ and ‘gender’, i see folklore becoming analytical and critical, i see ‘urban’ dance becoming ‘conceptual,’ i see the fetishization of ‘performance’ aesthetics especially in places where there is not a long tradition, i see ‘contemporary dance’ in video clips and tv (so people can name a style of dance very easily). I see a frozen up of somatic work as an identifiable aesthetic and by that an easy to copy one. I see a new classicism in somatic work (i fear this, i think it’s completely wrong). I still see ‘conceptual choreography’ (process and production become the aesthetics, discourse and points of interest). I see people interested in the vocabulary of dancehall, like voguing and others, I don't see a critical approach to it, or maybe just by very few. I see very little effort in developing the notion of curating dance, i saw it in the last years, but now it has declined somehow.” (Carlos Maria Romero)

“I'm fascinated by the continuing fall out or ripples of the Marina Abramovi?/Tino Seghal Situation. Suddenly things that seem or feel like or are contemporary performance are interesting to institutions and the promise of fame and/or bigger paychecks are interesting to artists. It seems to be partially involved in all kinds of things. I see lots of the younger folk doing these durational still minimal wait-are-they-performing-yet corner of the gallery type pieces now. I see some work being maybe created but certainly marketed in a way that fits more comfortably into a Clement Greenberg family tree, which I know the art world likes better than the whole I just sprang from the head of Zeus individuality of the downtown experimental world. And then you see more cataloging and historicizing of that head of Zeus stuff, sometimes with this air of ‘please take this seriously! it has a history, I swear!’ “ (Neal Medlyn)

“I feel like the new holy grail in work is going to be work that is quiet, subtle, and poetically complicated. The sensational huge bombastic bizarre costume techno work I think is a (now tired) fad that is fading. Everyone trying to out sensationalize each other, are people grasping at straws and late to the party.” (Alex Ketley)

Granted, this was a highly unscientific survey, as it was sent out to people that more or less I know already, but I was still amazed at the breadth of the responses. I think it underscores yet again how much of these answers are rooted in an individual’s perspective, and therefore, almost impossible to generalize into a trend. We all see what we want to see on some level, or maybe we see the thing that we are trying to push away from. I know that in my case my perspective on what I see as being “trendy” is skewed by professional jealousies, my envy of other artists whom I perceive as the “important” ones that everyone wants to follow, and how that envy combats with my own ambition and confusion about my “career” trajectory.

But I could finally try to take a stab and tell you some overarching things that I see. Are you ready? Now please remember that my life is weird. I’m almost never in New York, and even though I travel a lot to Europe to work because it is way more productive as an art center and a much saner place to live as an artist, I don’t live there either. I’m secretly more fascinated with art centers that aren’t in the center at all, like Russia, or Central or South America, or the Middle East, or Australia, all of which are places that I’ve had the great fortune of going to for work and all of which are the places where I’ve had the most meaningful experiences of presenting my work, along with smaller cities in the United States. And so that you can take what I'm about to say with some idea of how I see I’ll tell you a little about what I make... I am interested in making work that is philosophical inquiry disguised as performance. I poke at ambitious, overlarge questions about the nature of existence. I am fascinated by how a body, over the course of a performance, offers multiple representations of itself, for example, a vernacular everyday body suddenly becomes a hyper-emotional body, becomes an eroticized body, becomes an aging body, becomes heroic, becomes frail. I work with dance, action, text, voice, sound and light. I am interested in how the interaction between the elements of performance on stage – the bodies, the actions, the environment, the space, the sound, the lighting – create a modality of comprehension that is choreographic, spatial and intuitive by nature… not necessarily detached from language but perhaps detached from the rational supremacy that language often imposes. I am interested in finding fissures in the project we call “reality” and ripping those open to plunge into the turbulence and immersion of the constant churning streams that course through, behind and and underneath this supposedly stable reality. I want to hypnotize the audience into a temporary autonomous zone where the practice of paying attention is itself the payoff, and where this attention potentially leads us to commiseration, to understanding that these big questions about life, death, love, banality and the desire to invite a state of wonder are shared.

As a result it frustrates me to no end that we still hold on to words like “experimental” or “fringe” work versus “mainstream” work here in the United States; that we get caught up in trying to define or categorize it or place it in a boring pecking order rather than just talking about it. Witness last year’s debacle with the New York Dance and Performance Bessie category that was originally “Dance that might not be technically considered dance but is working inside of and influencing dance.”

I notice that everyone is an artist now. Everyone has a website, an artist statement, a tumblr, or a facebook group you should like. There is a collapse of hierarchy and everyone is learning from each other at all levels so the old categories of emerging, mid-career and established are pretty meaningless and have been for a while.

I see re-appropriation, re-performances, re-constructions. I see the material of the performance as ready-made, culturally loaded with meaning and signification already, and re-positioned by the artist to suit their purposes.

I notice that most artists match the spatial conditions for the reception of their work to each individual piece. Long gone are the days when we could count on a piece fitting into a traditional theatrical space, or when growing your vision to fit an 800 seat proscenium space which once felt like the ultimate goal of an artist’s career.

I’ve noticed that there’s a trend in Europe and in American artists who are aping European models perhaps in the hopes of having the same kind of European touring schedules? towards simplicity in presentation. Simple costumes, simple set, all white light. I mean this is kind of an old trend now that came out of the 90’s western european conceptual dance movement that sought to reclaim Judson Church era aesthetics and embrace Guy Debord’s polemic against the society of the spectacle. Some people called this the anti-dance movement, although I think that that trend is over now. I think a lot of the values that shaped that movement were from manifesto-y positions from a lot of european straight white men actually. Oh yeah, that’s a trend that keeps on trending.

I could tell you that in those European contexts there is still a persistent and pernicious Cartesian mind/body division that places “idea-driven” work over “movement-based” work. We don’t have the time to unpack this problem but I think this is the result of a longstanding tension in philosophy about mind and body.

But to that end I’ve seen a trend for a while where dance artists aren’t super caught up with creating vocabulary based choreography but rather see the project of choreography as a frame to ask questions about presence, dramaturgy, situation, and phenomenology. As a result trying to frame new dance and performance work with the old models, old marketing, old graphic design for that matter, just doesn’t really work.

I see festivals where they want pieces that come up and down in a day and where lots of lights confuse ‘em.

I see performance centers that try to activate the entire facility with art presentation rather than isolating it to the theaters. I love that trend.

I see markets in other countries, continents where the presenters and the artists don’t really have any interest whatsoever in what is happening in the U.S. I think this is due to many factors, from George W. Bush sort of fucking how other countries see Americans and artists, to the pathetic amount of financial support available to get artists overseas (just look at the tiny number of artists that the venerable Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation is able to support to tour internationally for example), to the U.S.’ xenophobic travel policies which make it tremendously difficult for artists from other countries to pass through easily and so we’re culturally isolated from a larger conversation about live performance.

I’ve seen a talent drain from the U.S.: some of the most interesting dance artists that I know such as Meg Stuart, Jennifer Lacey, DD Dorvillier, Jeremy Wade, Eleanor Bauer, Tarek Halaby, Andros Zins-Browne, Daniel Linehan, Jess Curtis either moved to Europe or spend most of their time there. I think it’s a huge shame that these artists couldn’t find ways to make their work viable in the United States.

I see a trend in the U.S. of artists going to MFA programs, which at its best means that they have time to shape their work and inform it with some interesting theoretical frameworks and at its worst that they’re passing their process through yet another institutional filter which decrees what is good or “proper” to make and now not only is their work academic or comfortably bourgeois but they’ve just increased their debt by tens of thousands of dollars.

I see another wave of queer performance and aesthetics. I see an increased consciousness in the politics and poetics that trans-bodied artists have to offer. I’m particularly intrigued by this trend. Maybe it’s partly a result of so much assimilationist politics being hammered into our consciousnesses what with the gays in the military and gay marriage debates. I’m old enough now though to see that in queer performance circles young artist’s knowledge of history is generally as limited as any of ours when it comes to live performance. We know what we’ve seen. Most people can only refer to the work that they’ve experienced in their adult lifetimes.

I don’t know if it’s appropriate to call this a trend but I wonder if we’ve ever really recovered from the cultural wars of the early 90’s and the decimation of the NEA’s ability to play a role in supporting challenging work. If this moment in history really sealed our American cultural fate and forever has relegated us to being conservative and apolitical in our presentation, and keeps what is happening in our lives and what is happening on our stages woefully out of sync. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been in some random part of the country and I pick up a brochure for a performing arts program and it looks like it’s the 1950’s. Then I hear about people saying that young people aren’t coming to see the work at the theater. Of course they’re not! They can see something more compelling and contemporary to them and their lives within 3 minutes on YouTube. If you bring the Mark Morris Dance Group for like the hundredth time to your theater no one is ever going to know about what is exciting to a new generation of potential audience goers. I wish most American performance spaces didn’t feel like classical music stations, where you’re like, my god there has been new music made since the 1800’s please for the love of God play John Cage or something…

I could tell you that in the United States there have been exhibitions, panels, symposia, articles, etc. all focused on the (repeat) phenomenon of bringing performance back into the museum or gallery context. Many have written about the irony of the commodity driven art world’s fascination with the allegedly “ephemeral” act of performance and non-object producing time based artists. We’ll see how long this trend lasts.

Did you get all that? I could go on. Have you gotten it yet that this idea of what is a trend is subjective and almost comically elliptical in its historical surfacing and re-surfacing?

I want to go back to the responses that I got from the artists I sent my little questionnaire to. I was almost shocked to discover that most of the artists said that they don’t make their work for a presenting market, that that is not what is on their mind when they’re creating. That they, if anything, RESIST the trends that they perceive are out there. I must say that I found this very heartening to hear and I’m reminded that Tere O’Connor has written that he tells his students that as soon as they spot a trend to go running in the other direction.

Many of the artists shared a sense of frustration that the kind of work that they’re making isn’t the kind of work that is being sought out per se or that maybe it creates a lot of challenges to present. One artist, Emily Johnson, put it this way: “Sometimes I actually get scared that I am making work that is too hard to present – wanting only 30 people in an audience, or needing to gather 40 volunteers to join us, or presenting in multiple locations...In reality I know it's not too hard to present and I've worked with amazing partners to make it work but I would be lying if I said that I didn't sometimes worry about being an artist that presenters don't want to work with because staging my work usually involves some sort of challenging aspect (usually challenging to ticket sales by limiting seats....). I don't worry about it enough so that it changes how I want to present or make my work, but I do sometimes worry.”

Now as an artist who tries to maintain a dynamic and exciting relationship to his own work and process, it was incredible to read that. It’s inspiring to read that an artist’s allegiance to her work trumps her allegiance to a larger presenting market. It’s always been my conviction that artists must lead the way in terms of creating the terms of the presentation of their work. And I’ve always been suspicious of presenter-driven initiatives that seem inorganic or out of step with the ways that artists are creating or thinking about their work. And I can’t help but wonder if we are still in a battle here between how artists want to work and show their work and how presenting institutions fill their “seasons” or demand for seats in chairs. Sometimes now when I’m making shows I can’t help but think that presenters would actually like to put the following in their contract “Please make a show that is new, innovative, exciting and entertaining but also please make sure that it that works in my proscenium theater that seats 300 people, all facing the same direction.” (and PLEASE correct me if you think I’m wrong about this.)

Another narrative that ran through all of the responses I got, and with which I completely agree, was that most everyone’s most satisfying performing experiences were the ones that were intimate, where there is real interaction with local folks, or where they’re doing something that feels really new or special for the environment that they perform in, or when they get to do something in the places that they’re visiting other than work. In a global capitalist world where oversharing and forced exposure are commonplace, intimacy is that priceless (and when you think about it, relatively cheap) item that artists want to create and can provide. So actually it doesn’t surprise me at all to read that an artist wants to make a show for 30 people, or that another wants to make work in people’s apartments, or that another artist makes a piece that can only be experienced in one very specific place. Don’t we all want to feel the impact of our presence? Aren’t we all straining for conversation, actual interaction?

You know, I'm still thinking about love. I’m thinking about myself in that hotel room, at the airport or in the festival van where I have the brief, possibly awkward, possibly shockingly intimate conversation with the festival volunteer who is driving me to or from the airport and who I will probably never see again, I’m thinking about the walk from the dressing room to the stage with my yoga mat, my water bottle and my headphones, gearing up to get this motor running, I’m thinking about the faces that I see in the audience who I recognize or who are strangers to me, I’m thinking about the bio-chemical phenomenon of post-show euphoria and depression and the ragingly horny need that kicks in to connect or sleep with another person, I’m thinking about those lovely people who stay for the post-performance discussion or who wait after the show to talk to me to tell me that they enjoyed the show, I’m even thinking about the people who walk out of the show. And beyond that I’m thinking about the people for whom the idea of a discussion or talk about the Trends In Performance is an absurd or fanciful topic completely estranged from their reasons for making and presenting work. Here I’m thinking about the Syrian dance artists whom I recently met at the Bipod Festival in Beirut, who have been displaced from their homes because of the danger and violence of the political situation in Syria, and yet who continue to pursue their desire to create and present dance work. I’m thinking of the incredible artists who take my workshops in composition who when asked why they make work consistently answer that it’s because it’s their way of understanding themselves in the world. And I’m thinking about the wild range of performers, from completely inexperienced to sophisticated, that I recently watched in the “No-Talent Show” at a Radical Faerie Gathering in Tennessee, whose desire to share a song or a poem gave them the courage to get up in front of a group of strangers. I am constantly in awe of peoples’ desire to unearth something about themselves that might be scary or unformed and to find a way to manifest this fragile thing, and to share it, to be witnessed.

I don't know if I spoke about the right stuff. Please ask me whatever you want. I’ll leave you with these great words by my fellow artist Carlos Maria Romero:
“Stop trying to identify trends, trends are exactly what arts doesn't need. Trend is a commodification of art production. Trend is a solid platform. When you notice your work is doing that, rethink it completely. It’s important to have a dialogue with others, it’s important that we share interests but we are all individuals. So, producers should enhance the uniqueness of every author and work, try to make institutions about this uniqueness and not about the quantity of work or the key works of the moment.”

Thank you…

These are the questions that I sent out to peer artists:

What interests you right now in your work?
kinds of pieces are you making?
kinds of people are you working with?
contexts are you showing your work in?
Do you fantasize about ways of working that are different from the ways you are working? What's stopping you?
Do you feel like you tailor what you're making for a presenting market? If so, how?
What do you see as trends in the field in terms of aesthetics? Is this specific to the place - city, country, continent - that you're working in?

What do you see as trends in the field in terms of what gets presented?
Do you align yourself with or resist these trends? If so, how and why?

How are you supporting yourself/your collaborators as you work?
How does this impact your experience of making your work?
What is/would be your ideal way of envisioning this aspect of being an artist? (multi-project support from a foundation? fellowship? artist in residence at an institution? something else?)
Are you touring your work?
What is the purpose of touring your work for you?
What are some of your favorite touring experiences?
Do you have an opinion about the differences between different touring markets/touring in different countries?
Are there places you would like to be touring to that you haven't been able to? what is in the way of this happening?
Is there anything else you'd like to say or I guess if you were to speak to a room of arts professionals on the topic of “trends in performance” is there something you would absolutely want them to hear/know?