There's No App for That
Friday, July 11, 2014
By Natalie Greene
"We should create an app for that!" exclaims a young artist eager for tech-driven audience engagement. Murmurs of mixed feelings echo through the circle around her; she is quickly tagged out and returns to the circle, replaced in the center by another speaker with a different point of view. One by one, established and emerging arts professionals tag into (and tag each other out of) a strictly two-person conversation, continuing a heated dialogue about the state of the arts in the Bay Area.
Such was the scene on a recent Monday evening at Intersection for the Arts, where Robert Avila and Christopher W. White moderated the symposium "Your Chocolate in my Peanut Butter: Performance Across Discipline," as part of Mugwumpin's 10th anniversary celebration. Avila and White have been organizing events like this for the past year, continuing a series of performance salons that Avila, Mark Jackson, Chloe Veltman, Lisa Steindler, John Wilkins and others started in 2007. The intent of the salons is to increase critical discourse around theatre in the Bay Area, as well as provide opportunities for attendees to view performances on video that they might not otherwise be able to see. For this event, the special guest "instigators" were Mary Armentrout, Laura Brueckner, Mark Jackson, Maryam Rostami and Sean San José; attendees included Elisabeth Beaird, Gretchen Brosius, Monique Jenkinson, Michele Leavy, Gabe Maxson, Brian Rosen and Merav Tzur.
This symposium's format, modeled on one developed by Michael Rohd for the Center for Performance and Civic Practice, ensured that the conversation was lively, democratic and somewhat tangential. The initial prompts included questions around the romance of community, audience segregation and how to "un-silo" distinct forms. Because anyone could tag in (and anyone could be tagged out), each participant could say what s/he wanted, but no one could take us down any one rabbit hole for very long.
Robert Avila (center) introducing the two-chair discussion model: two speakers begin the discussion.
Any participant may tag out either speaker and take the empty seat to continue the dialogue. Photo:
Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky
Our conversation ranged widely. Discussion about interdisciplinary commonalities and the futility of compartmentalization led to a debate about artistic innovation in the age of technology; the Internet revolution was likened to the industrial revolution—inevitable and changing cultures worldwide. One artist's question about why his day-job colleagues won't come out to his shows led others to suggest that he perform in the office itself. Discussing the lure of fast, showy performances (like drag and flash mobs) led one guest instigator to observe that cultural consumption may be changing because of our changing relationship with time itself. If people can see "the cutest thing ever" on YouTube in 15 seconds, we asked ourselves, will they still have the patience for the performance where ideas develop slowly, over time?
I left the event wondering, "What sort of innovation is necessary to keep up with the times? How can artists survive and thrive as our culture evolves?"
At Monday's symposium, it's possible that every person would have answered these questions differently—or presented counter-arguments that led to a new slew of questions. As our conversation began to draw to a close, some rallied against the tech industry, briefly falling into the trap of "us vs. them." It was refreshing when another "instigator" reminded us that tech is not a giant monolith with a singular corporate perspective, but, rather, an industry made up of individuals and entities big and small, where genuine relationships count...not unlike the arts.
Yes, we are agitated. We are losing funding and losing our livelihoods while being outpriced and evicted. Some of the foundations and systems that claim to support us are either running on outdated models or being financially crushed themselves. We have every right to be upset, and it's no wonder that we are confused. And this is why Monday's symposium felt so important, because there were artists of different disciplines sharing perspectives, questions and a few potential answers.
It was a joy to witness thinkers and creators whom I respect sharing thoughts in this way, although the conversation was not what I expected. I come to the theater world with a modern dance background, and some musical theatre thrown into the mix for sparkle. I was looking forward to talking about the crosspollination of art forms, and have little to say about how we might engage with the Internet (having only joined Facebook recently). I sat in awe of the fast-paced conversation, especially the physicality of it all.
People tip-toed, teetered and jumped out of their seats, tapping a speaker and sliding into their place to talk. A comment would lead to a gasp: thoughts simmering to a boil that might propel a person to cut someone off and insert their own perspective. Everyone was visibly engaged, each gauging when or if to take a stand. To me, it was more of a dance than a debate. Neither stuffy nor stagnant, the swirl was a mix of viewpoints, an exciting kinetic conversation.
The format was inherently theatrical, yet it involved the audience. There was a fluidity between audience and "performer," which in effect was a way of performance evolving with the changing times, taking some of the tactics of interactivity and applying them in a non-tech format. In this way, we were proposing our own answer to some of the questions we were raising in the very act of involving ourselves in the discussion. I encourage thinkers and movers alike to come and cut someone off at the next event. This conversation needs more voices, more bodies, more minds.
Natalie Greene is a proud member of Mugwumpin.