Sunday, March 2, 2008

No Passport conference

No Passport Conference

Dreaming the Americas/The Body Politic in Performance—February 22, 2008 in New York City, initiated by Caridad Svich.

The need for a functional dialectic in the field of performance becomes even more pressing as artists and intellectuals examine performance’s concrete place in global society and ability to mobilize for social justice. The semantic and ideological bodies of anthropology, theatre, social performance, and history converge overwhelmingly at conferences such as No Passport. However, as I sat in the little auditorium at the Martin Segal Theatre Center, which was overflowing with people who had braved a very real February blizzard, issues seemed to crystallize rather than melt into confusion and generality. If any generality can be made about this conference, it is that political action through performance has adapted to the 21st century and moved far beyond the imaginations of our triple “B’s” Boal, Blau, and Brecht.[1]

Stephen Duncombe, who teaches the history and politics of media and culture at NYU, urged theatre artists to use PR and political analysis tools (as well as basic observation) to determine the “success” (efficacy and accountability) of political art by articulating the work’s intention in terms of categorical effect. Duncombe spoke to ten direct influences that political art can strive for and, in some categories, use to determine efficacy. I feel that these ten categories are the ideal frame in which to reflect on the information and emotion proliferated by the conference as a whole.

1.) Direct material results (i.e policy change, bills passed.) in this category I am reminded of Ralph Nader’s push for a consumer rights bureau under the Carter administration, and the thousands of nickels that citizens sent in to demonstrate their willingness to pay for it. Direct material results were the least addressed by this conference, as the actual ills that the US and other American countries face during this regime of rampant corporate control, illigitimation of the arts, and the mimetic shrinkage of public “space” even as homogenized cultural values colonialize everday lives seemed to fill the air with a collective desperation for change that provided the context and mood rather than the (major) subject matter for the conference.

2.) Direct ideological change (public opinion and short-term worldview shifts). I feel that one of performance’s primary roles is to move effects in this category into the next one. To this issue, the panel on Accents spoke directly to changes in casting, honesty about role-playing in theatre, and difficulties faced by performers of color in the US’ theatre industry but quickly uncovered needs for:

3.) Indirect or Long-term ideological change, which includes processes of critical thinking and shifts in notions of possibility, in terms of cultural identity, and multi-lingual transnationalism. The translation panel also addressed ideological change on both “direct” and “indirect” levels, describing and expressing relationships between private/subjective issues and public/social issues which act rather like Russian nesting dolls, beginning with signification in syllabic rhythm (in terms of translating words) as the tiniest doll and cultural symbology and patterns of transmission and expression as a doll so large it takes up the whole room.

4.) Redistribution of the Sensible, a term from Jacques Ranciere and his incredible “Politics of Aesthetics,” about which I welcome any and all discussions but can’t possibly explain in blog form. Basically, redistribution of the sensible positively ruptures systems of self-evidence and qualified sense perception, that assign parts and positions to subjects and objects alike (Politics of Aesthetics, p. 12). This concept, which can easily be applied to verfremdukseffekt and phenomenology’s theories about the value of generally “shaking things up” was expressed by the Dramaturgy, Design, and New Technologies panel. Ping Chong spoke to the idea of reinvention, and shared the view that technology strengthens mythological communication and forces us to engage with technology’s huge implications with Kevin Cunningham of 3LD and Jay Scheib.

5.) Transformation of Experience. The panel on reconfiguring the classics in new writing and the technology panel overlapped to provide distinct and jarring clarity (not unlike the floating bodies conjured by the Eyeliner). What is most interesting to me, is the absolute dedication to defining the politics of our field that has emerged. Erik Ehn spoke briefly to his experience in Rwanda and how traditional narrative structure, when touched by horror, twists, breaks, redistributes, and regenerates to express and describe. Performance is mandatory to human survival for a plethora of reasons, but not least of all because it mirrors humanity’s very adaptability. But performance is not merely an art form that we can use to clarify and change our experiences, rather it IS experience, spatially, temporally, psychologically, socially, emotionally, and politically.

6.) Creation of Counter Cultures and 7.) Preaching to the Converted/Education of the Converted. Duncombe’s presentation legitimized these as desirable results of political artmaking. In my mind, they serve the same purpose as church worship, or the weekend training of a homegrown militia. We must rehearse rhetoric in order to use it, agree on terminology (what does the word “sublime” mean in a political art context someone at the conference asked) etc. But I do think that these categories, however useful this conference was, mesh best with Categories 8.) Experimentation and 9.) Art that doesn’t “work” or “Art for Art’s Sake.” which includes powerful discussions of aesthetic innovation, field theory itself, beauty, sublimity, form, craft, and technique. I don’t call that “not working,” I think that art about art or for artists is essential, especially if it encourages more people to BE artists and for artists to unite as a community, etc. Let us not forget Joseph Beuys and his theories and actions on social sculpture. Experimentation, Randy Gener reminded us during the technology panel, is a model for existence. Svich, in her opening presentation of a fantastic paper called “Healing the Body Politic” talked about facing the world, and how paths for confrontation and healing rely on sustainable and constant experimentation, searching for new paths to truth and new paths to action.

10.) Reinforcement of Old or New Order. Personally, the exhilaration I felt throughout this conference was due both to the content of the panels and the ideas being expressed and to the fact that such a conference—a free and public conference—was being held. The field of performance is hungry for intellectual and artistic spaces like No Passport; a place for academia and working artists to engage in public discourse, co-creation, and mutual stimulation. Our greatest obstruction perhaps is not the lack of audiences or the lack of government funding, the lack of space, the lack of time, or the lack of great new young playwrights, actors, directors, theorists, designers, and producers, but rather the lack of community and public forums such as this one. In terms of judging efficacy by Duncombe’s standards, this conference was effective in all ten of his categories and I encourage anyone involved in politics and/or performance to attend next year.


[1] (a side note: artists seem to adore alliteration: when the phrase “bludgeoned by the banal” was bandied, every note-taking pen scribbled simultaneously.)

1 comment:

Jake said...


nicely summarized! thanks for that! wish I could have been at the conference, but this was a really great look into some fascinating topics.