Conference of Works “Assessment”

After the Conference of Works at University of the Streets this past weekend I feel the need to write some kind of “assessment,” so here it is.  During the Conference, Ben Spatz (Urban Research Theater) used this term, “assessment” in his discussion of technique and transmission/education, as did Dave Thrasher in his discussion of his situational, interactive project, and I think it’s a very interesting word/concept in terms of live performance. Yes, much has been made of performance’s “liveness,” its transient, temporary state and the impossibility of concrete or “scientific” assessment.  Having dissipated several days ago now, how can this Conference of Works, which included around 60 participants (most of us played multiple roles of participant/audience/performer/presenter) over the course of the two days and amassed a multiplicity of concepts and concerns, be assessed? How can its effect be charted or analyzed?

Many artists over the course of the weekend (especially those who hope for socio-political operation in some way) said that they can’t assess how their work is operating, how it’s taken by an audience, assess whether or not it’s been “effective,” and if their choices in terms of Mode, Method, and Medium have been the “right” ones.  Carrie Dashow expressed a desire for documentation and review after a participatory process, notarizing material forms as Yesiree The Notary for the Conference attendees that swore to their self-assigned artistic identities.  Towards additional permanence, Amapola Prada makes haunting videos of her staged actions, which allow the works to travel internationally and last beyond the sunny Lima days on which they are shot. Other artists participating in the Conference expressed a rejection of assessing their work and practices at all, choosing to “feel through” audiences and their reactions in order to determine if and how performance modes are effective. Chance and Melanie of The Nerve Tank said they sometimes measure the success of their work by “walk outs,” knowing that it’s literally affective when individuals can’t handle it in some way. The project Nate Hill shared often produces active responses of offense, as his website selling milk gargled by “pretty white girls” rubs salt into more than one exposed cultural wound.

But do reactions to our work control our practical experiments in the “scientific” sense, or assist any direct cause-and-effect assessment? “Science,” they say, relies on an index, something left behind where there was once the thing, while offense, or amusement, or trains of thought, quickly dissolve into life itself and can’t be indexed at all, other than by the individual to which they belong.   How can we follow through on the research aspects of our practices and put performance research towards the development of our modes and methods?  During the course of the Conference, we experienced Martín Lanz Landázuri, William Bilwa Costa, and dancers researching resonance, embodying the concept and examining  how resonance can be used in performance and performed as such.  We also experienced part 2 of Handan Ozbilgin’s 3-part Maids project,  which jumps off from the “research” text of Jean Genet’s Maids, Hyatt Michael’s  Syb’L Vane piece, drawn from The Picture of Dorian Gray, and  Hector Canonge‘s Immigrant 101, a performance-context lecture on immigration, incorporating found research images and statistics. The idea of “scientific” exploration, research, and “problems” (especially in Lindsey Drury’s intense, improvisational and site-specific dance work and Angela Washko‘s performance in which she attempted to disrupt two men building cardboard boxes), and the place where these intersect with participation and collaboration kept coming up, at times fusing into related concerns, and other times breaking apart into concrete statements about reasons for working in a certain way.

Several artists expressed during the conference that they consider the analysis and assessment of our work, and the choices we make during the process of creating work, a completely subjective task, which can’t be performed in a scientific or even articulable manner, as no unified or communicable, objective analysis or set of decision-making criteria can be constructed.  On this note but in a different key, J.J. Lind of Immediate Medium spoke during the Sunday round-table about how his collaborators, coming from varying mediums, backgrounds, and fields, working immediately and in the moment together, can build a stronger aesthetic and conduct powerful experiments. This idea perhaps suggests that collaboration is inherently a form of constant analysis that negates the need for formal assessment. Collaboration across disciplines seems to provide an anodyne in this way to the “problem” of subjective analysis, as multiple artists can walk away from a collaborative with something subjective learned or explored, or they can create a kind of “meme-plexic” index, that pools subjective responses outside of the individual selves involved. Jason Andrew, founder of NORTE MAAR for Collaborative Projects in the Arts has found that co-creation between artists from different disciplines produces new modes of expression and experiment, as have experimental music ensemble thingNY’s Paul Pinto and Gelsey Bell. With collaborative and participatory processes in mind, I believe that the inherent “subjectivity” of an analytic process does not make such a process of assessment or analysis less useful; “subjective” sometimes becomes a buzz-word that means we don’t have to talk about it in public, but perhaps it means that when something is seen as subjective, we simply must perceive it in a different way, through the convergence  of a wide range of subjective perspectives.  Perhaps we need to collaborate on experimenting with analysis itself.  In my mind, this was the task of the Conference, to get a multiplicity of subjectivities out of a private sphere and into an analytic public one.  In the organization of the conference, the attempt to combine a number of subjective perspectives and analyses wasn’t about getting closer to “objectivity” by finding the similarities/common denominators between subjective perceptions, rather it was about gathering and being able to see more than one perception at a time, gathering perceptions outside one’s own, and considering them as a range of assessments.  Perhaps one could also say that this goal (of seeing more than one subjective perspective) is one of the primary operations of performance arts, performance research, and the subsequent experimentation that these modes catalyze.

I can only say for certain that the experience overall with this conference, for me, was consuming, overwhelming, at times confusing, and powerfully moving, and that the plethora of subjective goals, assessments, tasks, and conclusions took me closer to knowing how to research, through my own practice, the multi-dimensional reality that we all experience from such difference angles. I am incredibly grateful to all who participated, for their generosity, articulation, expression, communication, recognition, organization.  Thank you to those I mentioned here, and to the many others who came, participated, performed, perceived, and practiced (esp. Paul Pierog, who was the only person other than Brian and I who attended the entire conference, both days, first to last).  I hope we do it all again soon!

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