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“Practice” is a term generally used to describe an artist’s way of doing things; their ever-evolving art-making processes as structured by ideology, theoretical concerns, practical considerations, techniques, methodology, disciplinary influences, and the daily functions of the individual(s) “maintaining” or “pursuing” this practice.  The idea of “practice” may be used as an umbrella term for interrelated parts of art-making, referencing disciplinary rehearsal towards mastery of technical components (as in, the violinist practices the violin), but also involving modes of production (how art is made, how its making operates in conjunction with social, economic, and political structures), and how the artist makes the work itself (as in, the painter gessoes aluminum sheets), with an emphasis on the relationships between these and an artist’s deliberately constructed conceptual framework for each and all.

In the past 40 or so years, ideas of “artistic practice” have been formalized by educational theory and psychology to describe frameworks for learning art-making. New ways of thinking about how an individual becomes an artist were necessary as institutions took over the education of artists from systems of private apprenticeship and amateur emergence. In addition to providing a conceptual argument for institutional artist education, theories using the term “artistic practice” are now often geared towards helping young artists make their aesthetic and formal choices consistently, and to help them develop cohesive “voices” or “visions” beyond their technical training, i.e. to develop a factory a la Andy Warhol inside which consistently viable and valuable artistic products are produced.

Towards this end, conception of this practical framework called “practice” has encouraged educational curriculums to assist students in designing individual practices, with design largely involving the translation of institutionally-imparted “information” into a productive synthesis of existing components. Likewise, these conceptions are applied to educating “the public” about art, and “knowledge of art” at large. John Falk and Lynn Dierking in Learning From Museums write that “As our society is increasingly inundated with information each individual needs to learn qualitatively and quantitatively better strategies for dealing with information.” For them, as for many educators at museums, universities, and conservatories, “information” describes the documented processes and contexts of well-known artists throughout history, theoretical positions and statements from art criticism, history, and theory, and existing artwork or its documentation and criticism. “Better strategies for dealing with information” then becomes the application of this autonomous, institutional “art sphere” information to individual art-making processes. This schema allows educational institutions to offer these “existing informations” as tools or applicable considerations to be purchased by students. It also helps professional artists to market their art as a product of legitimized and communicable processes, as “information” is consistently set into institutional vocabulary (dialectic, or rhetoric), and mimetically distributed (every art-world individual maintains the same set of facts, amounting to an education).

Problematics embedded in these institutional conceptions variously include reinforcement of strictly capitalist modes of production, discouragement of art that can’t be “explained” or otherwise given value based on past value of similar canonical products, discouragement from generative theorization and theory stemming from non-art-historical/non-canonical sources, the misconception of learning as a “filling of an empty vessel,” etc. These schemas of homogenization, autonomization, education, and hierarchization ultimately discourage artists from synthesizing and controlling their own culturally responsive practices. Moreover, we could certainly argue (similarly yet totally differently than Claire Bishop does in her recent Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship,) that institutional conceptions of practice prevent artists from effectively functioning as agents in the co-construction of human culture.

Moreover, reactions to these institutionally-formalized conceptions of “practice” have caused many artists to reject intellectual considerations in their own practices and to cease exploration of art history and theory across contexts, fields, and sources. Thus, we may find ourselves denying our constantstate of learning in the world and through our art-making processes. We must remember that not all learning theories advocate the development of a single, set-in-stone, marketable, “A Practice” based on a “dealing with” information; the extent to which “A Practice” can be/should be sustained throughout time by an individual, can be/should be borrowed as a framework by another individual, or can be/should be analyzed as such, are debates that

still from Chelsea Knight’s video work ‘Frame’

emerge from conception of “A Practice” as an artistic product in and of itself, something an artist or artist group “has” rather than something that he/she/they practice(s) as a course of action. We must remember that we are responsible for our own practices. Even constructivist epistemologist Lev Vygotsky, who is often credited with the conception of “framework” as a way of seeing/perceiving concepts, argues that learning happens through social interaction and that “information” is only viable during the active processes/practice of its synthesis. For Vygotsky, and perhaps for many actual working artists, practice is the action of framing, not a set of rules constructing a frame.

There is nothing to master, there is only performance.

My thinking about these “frames” for “practice” has been recently stimulated by the work of Lital Dotan and Eyal Perry, and their Glasshouse Project. Currently central to their project’s work is been a series of “homage” performances, with artists invited to create work in response to, and influenced by the performances, theories, and practices of artists like Ana Mendieta (September), Allan Kaprow (October), and next, Rirkrit Tiravanija (November).  

Ivy Castellanos performing during HOMAGE TO ANA MENDIETA, September 2012

These exhibitions are not meant to educate a public or to educate individual artists through re-performance of the works of well-known performance artists. Re-performance is part of a debate that continues to frame artistic practice as a set of something, a product, or a factory for producing products (see Istvan Meszaros). As such, “re-performance” is currently being masticated by arguments over context, liveness, and location of the author. These arguments maintain some confusion, as they are additionally framed by “performance art,” a discipline so “practice-based” in the Vygotsky sense that its products are nearly impossible to define as such (and we like it that way.)

What Dotan and Perry invite artists to do is 1.) Consider frameworks of practice and education themselves, i.e. the very modes of learning that artists practice, 2.) identify “practical” decisions in the work of others and in their own work and 3.) engage in artistic research as part of personal practice outside of institutional learning.

PPL include Esther Neff, Jessica Bathurst, Michael Newton, Brian McCorkle (seen above in documentation of PPL Help the Water, photo by Geraldo Mercado)

This month, PPL are working at Glasshouse in homage to Allan Kaprow. As we develop this night of performance (which has already been framed as such, ruling out practice of many of Kaprow’s modes) I am attempting to follow my own neural and practical pathways towards synthesis of information (which is unlimited and un-framed) and translation (via subjective association) of it into artistic practice. More than any other “influence,” Kaprow encouraged his students and fellow artists to practice in practice, to perform by performing, to learn by learning. It’s not easy; my own mind tries to frame decisions about what we will actually do in the space through a Lacanian lens (Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real = Fraud, Absence and Impossibility), for example, just as Kaprow’s quote “The point is to do something that doesn’t even remotely remind you of culture” glares at me from the top of the piano (see right). Ultimately, my core focus as an artist working in this situation (in homage to Kaprow, as ourselves, in that space, etc) is to practice framing as an act.  I want to research the timing of artistic decisions throughout situations, to experience different relationships between spectators, artists, and participants, and to work against representation, sure. However, those interests must function as frameworks for collective practicing of practices. After October 26th is over, PPL may decide to transfer similar frameworks into our ongoing opera project Any Size Mirror is a Dictator, but ultimately we do not intend to permanently learn how to do something, not how it should be done based on Kaprow’s views, nor how ‘an artist’ should ‘deal with’ the ‘information’ of his past practices.

Our practical research will be free and open to the public, taking place over the course of 4 hours:

HOMAGE TO ALLAN KAPROW
Friday, October 26, 2012
7pm-11pm

Glasshouse Projects
246 Union Avenue
Brooklyn, NY

Eyal Perry (left) and Lital Dotan (right)

Glasshouse Project is an artistic home-laboratory of artists Lital Dotan & Eyal Perry. It’s aim is to promote artistic experiments that are based on performance and installation art in the domestic space. The space is constantly transforming from a home into a stage, a playground, a classroom and so on, making the domestic environment a platform of constant physical and mental exploration.

Since 2007, the project and the home it utilizes have evolved, moving between residential and commercial venues in Tel-Aviv, Israel, San-Francisco, USA and elsewhere in Europe. Now, Glasshouse Projects has moved into a two-floor apartment in Brooklyn. With a large storefront gallery and all rooms, including kitchen, bedrooms, and outdoor patio open to artists, Glasshouse hosts performance evenings and an international residency program, where artists from around the world are invited to create performance art projects.

Additionally, Glasshouse TUESDAYS will occur next week:

On the Blurring of Art and Life/ Lecture & Discussion
Tuesday, October 23, 8pm

Eyal Perry will discuss Allan Kaprow’s Happenings.

–Esther Neff

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In 1969, to “encourage a more enlightened dialogue” about citizen participation and citizen control, Sherry Arnstein proposed a model (below), to show the spectrum between Nonparticipation and Participation of citizens in social and governmental institutions. Her A Ladder of Citizen Participation(1) links power to participation, proposing eight “rungs” of engagement, from manipulation at the bottom through Citizen Control at the top. I also like her “Limitations to the Typology” section, in which she discusses the limitations of her model…

Arnstein’s concerns were largely clustered around hospital care, osteopathic education in medicine, and the de-segregation of U.S. hospitals. Way over on the other side of sociology in the same year, in the theater, Richard Shechner published Public Domain. In the last essay, The Politics of Ecstasy Shechner articulated a conceptual shift from theater as an art form to theater as a complex set of social and psychological transactions, advocating what he called Environmental Theater, meant to “liberate the space and democratize the relationship between actor and audience” (2) Shechner and Arnstein’s core assumptions include the belief that participation, collaboration, co-creation, are all positive modes, serving society by re-distributing power, resources, authority. Arnstein writes:

“My answer to the critical what [is “citizen participation”] question is simply that citizen participation is a categorical term for citizen power. It is the redistribution of power that enables the have-not citizens, presently excluded from the political and economic processes, to be deliberately included in the future. It is the strategy by which the have•nots join in determining how information is shared, goals and policies are set, tax resources are allocated, programs are operated, and benefits like contracts and patronage are pareeled out. In short, it is the means by which they can induce significant social reform which enables them to share in the benefits of the affluent society.” (3)

The author of this blog post couldn’t agree more adamantly with Arnstein on this (with perhaps the exception being her final sentence, which hints that success within a capitalist structure would be the type of ideal agency enabled by social reform). This post will insist that, as the smaller, pan-logical doppelganger to the larger structures of human organization, theater has an opportunity (some would say, a responsibility) to experiment with social and political modes of participation, as ontological research. Participation in theater, “audience” participation, as a microcosm of (possibly only a metaphor for) citizen participation, is one of the only ways we can put such models, proposals, and relationships on their feet, into reality, analyze them, test them, and actually add them to the endless, living mise en abyme that is human culture.

That being said, the arguments for audience participation in the theater that I’ve heard most recently (arguments often interwoven with platitudes about Wisconsin) echo Arnstein’s “rungs”, suggesting (in various ways) that participatory performance can “train” individuals to be participating citizens, that it can “educate” audiences, and allow them to “express themselves.” What I find so fascinating about this, is that these seem like arguments for lower (less participatory) “rungs” on Arnstein’s ladder. What would allowing audiences to participate on higher rungs be like? Would application of these higher participatory modes destroy/remove/alter something crucial to theater’s operation in society? Would use of these modes undermine our work as an art form?

As an exercise, I’d like to apply Arnstein’s model to our current participatory modes in theater and preliminarily explore what these types of participation might look like in the context of our work in performance. I will be applying these rungs primarily to the work itself and to artist/audience relationships, but will also mention basic application to theater institutions and the “institution” of “theater” when these applications seem simple enough to express in a sentence or two…

1.) Manipulation. In this mode, citizen participation is fully engineered by those in power. In the theater, this is the traditional mode: tickets are purchased and individuals passively consume the stageproduct, which has been constructed to suit their projected, statistic desires. Likewise, theater artists consume the resources and sensibilities that are gifted to them by Boards of Directors, panels, and larger institutions both private and public, corporate and non-profit. Arnstein writes that within this illusory form of participation “people are placed on rubberstamp advisory committees or advisory boards for the express purpose of ‘educating’ them or engineering their support. Instead of genuine citizen participation, the bottom rung of the ladder signifies the distortion of participation into a public relations vehicle by powerholders.” (4) I think we could relate this to the season subscribers who “influence” the types of theater through (often projected) consumptive demands.

2.) Therapy. In this mode, pathologies are identified in audiences by those in power and then forcefully healed. I would link this to conceptions of “rupture” that perforate (yes, make holy, and hole-y) “political theater;” this theater is built on the assumption that people are basically stupid and need to have their “minds changed” or to be “made conscious.” In this mode, theater makers identify “social ills” and colonize their audiences’ worldview construction through bland, mimetic (and usually over-simplified) tropes. Funding institutions and theaters do the same, supporting projects which position artists as cultural psychologists (which, in turn, seems to encourage their selection of white men, who are clearly most qualified for this eminent role, as they are the most “sane,” “sensible” and “normal”…[sarcasm]).

3.) Informing. Writes Arnstein: “Informing citizens of their rights, responsibilities, and options can be the most important first step toward legitimate citizen participation. However, too frequently the emphasis is placed on a one-way flow of information – from officials to citizens-with no channel provided for feedback and no power for negotiation.” (5) I think it’s fairly easy to see what kind of theater this might be, in which condescension, elitism, and a vast divide between artist/audience prevail. Informational post-drama in a professional arena is more popular in Eastern Europe than it is in the U.S. but it is most popular here as educational theater, skits and scenes developed to be performed by the powerholders in middle school gymnasiums, nursing homes, and prisons to inform less powerful people (children, the aged, the incarcerated, the sick, etc) about AIDS, bullying, genocide, and the like, without any acknowledgment that certain audiences might have expertise in one or more of the areas being addressed…

4.) Consultation. This is the mode that “documentary” theater usually operates in; when I read this (only number 4 on the ladder!) I got worried about the Focus Workshops for Institut_Institut, and how PPL is gathering information from the general public, consulting our audiences, without assuring their influence or impact. This rung, at it’s worst, allows those in power, or those distributing the sensible (artists), to soak in the self-satisfaction of “giving people a platform for self-expression” or some such thing, while simply using participants to justify their own agenda. However, the onus is on the artists in this situation, to incorporate, accommodate, and respond within this particular participatory framework. (In defense of the Focus Workshops they are parody of product-centered, institutional Focus Groups, group therapy, and a plethora of classification systems, in addition to being consultations towards the creation of work…what do we think about that though?) Also included may be the use of a “real life” event to make a play (Moises…) and the use of “real people” in performance. This rung really seems to be the most trodden by theater artists.

The Tectonic Theater Project's 'The Laramie Project'

5.) Placation. Arnstein links this rung to consultation, as they both promise direct results of citizen participation, but (she says) both fail to deliver. She says: “at this point, citizens may realize that they have once again extensively ‘participated’ but have not profited beyond the extent the powerholders decide to placate them.” In performance, this mode seems quite similar to consultation, but I think it speaks most pertinently to issues of casting and race, and tokenism at large. In the theater industry, the first four modes of participation often result in pathetic attempts to include underrepresented and minority groups solely on the terms of the powerholders. This is an incredibly complex issue, but in theater work itself, it seems this rung manifests itself in wish fulfillment, i.e. the desires of the audience are accurately deduced (how??) and their resolution is manufactured within the frameworks of powerholders. More participatory dramas about Iraq, the audience dons gear, and then after the show the audience feels…well… successfully placated: pats on the back all around for participating in such an important and political show, we really learned something tonight about reality, etc…The experience itself however, remains completely phantasmic and often constructed by powerholders without sufficient information (due to the lack of collaboration/participation from others in their process perhaps…).

6.) Partnership. For the sake of our appropriation of this model, number 5 seems to be the first rung on which an audience would actually be invited to colloquially “participate” in live theater, following very strict directions and rules. In Partnership mode however, the artists acknowledge and act on their need for the audience, via actions like hand-raising (“how many of the people here tonight….”), and stand-up comedy and improvisational theater-type input. Yet the relationship between artist and audience is preconceived and static, constructed by the artist and the mode’s framework. In this mode, participants are told what kind of participation they are allowed to have, and exactly what they should provide through their participation; the illusion of “free content” is limited by the social context of the performance even though the participants and the artist(s) enter what (at its best) feels like a titillating collusion. Ugly Betty calls this “interactive theater.”

7.) Delegated Power. For Arnstein, this rung gives citizens their own type of power, pitting their strength alongside (but often against) powerholders. Participation is structured so that citizens are given full power in some areas (but no power in others). Aleotoric performance modes fall into this category. When audiences are allowed to solely determine certain performance outcomes, content, and other elements, but have no influence on other aspects of the performance, power has been delegated/a powerholder’s sensibility has been distributed. Even if the entire performance is formed dually by artists and audiences and the divide between them is extremely blurry, the space, the time, a certain number of participants, the framework for the experience, etc, are all controlled by the artists. This mode is very popular in performance art and classical avant-garde music, seems very interesting and useful, and certainly has a lot of books, articles, etc written about it.

8.) Citizen Control. Is there such a thing as audience control? For me, this final rung is most interesting and confusing in a theatrical context, because it places pressure on our conceptions of art itself, and who “gets” to make it. I assume that this rung would simply be a flexible, experimental mode of community theater, with authority (performers, director, playwright) regardless of the mode of the performance itself, shifting between various community members, with form and content directly born of the community/audience. But this is difficult because it assumes that those who are usually considered “professional artists”, and those in power in political spheres for that matter, are not participants, or members of a community. This mode could also be some kind of flash-mob performance, simultaneously arriving in the heads of more than one person, and performed by and for the same group of people. It’s very difficult to make a distinction between that and say, a bunch of people talking to each other at a bar (see Arnstein’s own Limitations to the Typology). Damn that vanishing point between art and life…and between power and powerlessness.

Habitat for Humanity ("Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian ministry founded on the conviction that every man, woman and child should have a decent, safe and affordable place to live. We build with people in need regardless of race or religion. We welcome volunteers and supporters from all backgrounds.")

So my questions become: is it useful then for us as theater artists, our identities analogized with the “powerholders” (“realize your privilege as an alcoholic realizes that she has been operating predominantly under the influence”) to seek a higher rung for participation in our own communities, outside of theater, so that we may experiment with each of these modes, including number 8? And if our “own community” is really the theater industry (in addition to the neighborhood in which we live, the institutions in which we work, learn, and participate), should we increase participation in it as well as in our local-through-federal governments?

Schechner concluded that Happenings (beyond Kaprow’s original Happenings, which have always seemed to me to have existed more in the “really fun party with artsy activities” mode than in any other….) were the highest level of participation and democracy, yet participants remained hierarchized through their level of knowledge about the event and its structure, and Happenings for the most part were no more un-scheduled and un-structured than some of John Cage’s conceptual compositions, which likewise appropriate participants and chance elements into a “work” authored by an artist. This, it seems to me, might be best associated with rungs 3 and 7.

Art is Life: Allan Kaprow invites attractive art students to lick jam off of a car's hood

In conclusion: we always talk a lot about why individuals become theater artists. Usually it has something to do with being an outcast, with being lonely, and needing to be a part of something, and step outside the self. It seems that participation in public performance gives individuals a sense of personal authority and confidence, an ability to narrativize conflict and analyze human behavior (and hence deal with ones own life and its conflicts, and empathize), and a sense of being important, useful, and deserving of attention, etc, etc, etc. Even if not everyone should/can commit their lives to the absurd pursuit of theater, it does seem beneficial for more people to get the chance to participate in theater, especially past the 3rd rung proposed by Arnstein…thoughts?

__________________________

(1)Arnstein, Sherry R. “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969, pp. 216-224
(2) Cameron, Kenneth M. “Books in Review: Dionysus in 69 and Public Domain” in Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 22, No. 4, Dec., 1970, pp. 432-436
(3) ibid. Arnstein, p. 216
(4) ibid. Arnstein p. 217
(5) ibid. Arnstein p. 218

 

-Esther