Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Petit Jean Performance Festival

I'm just back from the annual ritual of taking students (graduate and undergraduate) to the Petit Jean Performance Festival at Petit Jean State Park outside Morrilton, Arkansas.  I've been attending this event off and on for the past 20+ years.  And it is always a good time.

Now, by "good time" I mean that this is a bunch of (mostly) college students on a mountain doing the work/play of performance by day and socializing by night, with the occasional hike to a waterfall thrown in for good measure.  And all of it somehow related.  It's a bit of a struggle to remind party-hearty students that this isn't a university-paid vacation but an educational experience and an opportunity to be ambassadors for the university.  But so far, we've kept our focus on the learning objectives all while making space for what should be a good time.

This year's theme was "Experimental Adaptations," and the workshop was facilitated by long-time festival attendee, Jason Hedrick of Sauk Valley Community College.  Jason is an alum of the SIUC Performance Studies graduate program, so seeing him run an excellent workshop was an extra joy.  He asked that we consider "distortion" a productive tool of interpretation.  He also asked that we not only consider traditional "literature" as an artifact for such distorted interpretation but also other media.  So, for example, he brought a show that involved live performance distortion of classic experimental short films that occurred in various relationships (in front of, behind, around, over, etc.) a screening of those films.  The result was something recognizable as performance art but arrived at by some pretty classic traditions of oral interpretation.  In the process, I thought he showed clear directions for the future even as he embraced traditions that many like to consider "retro" and without relevance today.

My students and I brought a show of our own.  We did a critical/ experimental adaptation of J.D. Salinger's short story, "Just Before the War with the Eskimos," from the collection Nine Stories.  In our adaptation, we created several interventions drawing attention to Salinger's use of the "unsaid" to both mark and erase difference along race, gender, and class lines.  We tried to show what aspects of this story from half a century ago were still relevant to modern audiences even while marking  mysteries in the oblique references and suggestive characterizations of Salinger's prose.  I think we too gave a reverential nod to the past (the recently deceased Salinger, Chamber Theatre, etc.) even while experimenting with the holy trinity of Cultural Studies.  And we did so in a way that remained both accessible and entertaining.  What else do you call a production that takes a pause to have elite New Yorkers square dance to Dwight Conquergood's moral map for ethnography?  As one character says, "How esoteric!"  Indeed.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Petit Jean Performance Festival is that, in addition to prepared solo and group performances that the schools bring, the workshop generates its own group performance.  Students (graduate and undergraduate) mingle in multi-school small groups and follow a prompt given by the festival facilitator.  This year there was even a faculty group.  At the end of the two day (!!) festival, we present the group work.  Jason did a great job creating a frame for these performances such that they hung together as a cohesive festival project.  Imagine a performance event where the audience and performer roles are constantly shifting, as do the aesthetics.  We move through a space with purpose and structure, audiencing and performing as we go.

So, I call this festival a ritual, mostly because it has a cyclical, repetitive structure that I think fits the broadest definition of "ritual."  We perform rites, from in situ group performances to contributed offerings, from libations to pilgrimages to nearby altars of natural beauty.  Each year, there are the converts, those students (and faculty) making their first trip to the mountain -- and there ARE initiation rites.  Each year, there is reverent talk of past festivals, from those recently converted and those of us who have been doing this ritual since we were new to the world of performance.  There may be no gods specifically named (except that shifty and ambiguous deity, "Performance"), but there is still something almost holy about the experience.  While some criticism can be made for the ways the rites change (poor additions, sad deletions), there is still a palpable sense of significance, the accumulation of time and regular practice in a space already magical but made more so by our work/play there.

It's hard to leave that space and its energy to return to the world of classes and end-of-term grading.  It's hard to let it go.  But we do as we must.  And I plan, against all odds and the ever decreasing university budget for such "luxuries," to return with a fresh contingent next year.  Or well, luckily for us, this is a strange calendar where the festival will move from spring to fall and so 2010 will have two Petit Jean Performance Festivals -- one in April and one in October.  Who can say what influence such a confluence of ritual energy will have on the universe?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Networked Performance

So, I am recently back from the Southern States Communication Association conference in Memphis where I presented a paper on my recent involvements with various art projects on social networking sites.  Principally, these include involvement with @Platea and Inter.Sect.  In the last year, I have participated in several "crowdsourced" happenings sponsored by these organizations.

My paper was on a panel about how folks are using iPhones and other smart phones in performance work.  My paper was mostly about my recent social networking performance work with a nod to how the iPhone makes that more possible, particularly because of its portability and the ways that it allows me to check in on and contribute to projects even when I am away from my desktop.

The presentation was generally well-received, although there was some skepticism from members of the audience less hospitable to virtual performance and social networking. In one case, an audience member had been pretty harsh about Twitter in a previous presentation, and I admit I took the opportunity to speak back to his suspicions.  I am hardly a Twitter-holic.  I think of myself as a "migratory Tweeter," flitting in and out of Twitter as projects, interests, or world events attract me to micro-blog.  But I don't think any of this work with new technology should be met only with disdain.  Moreovr, I grow weary of criticism made from the margins of experience; don't judge something if you haven't spent sufficient time trying and exploring it.

Mostly, the techno-suspicious asked two related questions:  (1) how do you find the time to do this work, and (2) isn't it somehow less authentic for not involving actual human contact?

In answer to the first, I responded that time is always a finite resource, and that all of our interests and activities take time.  We make choices about how to spend our time.  Work demands may limit our availability, but even work involves a certain amount of choice.  How we spend our time -- from reading to watching TV to making a family to participating in on-line communities -- is always a choice.  I find time to do this work (which is also play) because I choose to make time for it.  It engages me enough that I want to spend time at it.  I don't judge others for not making a similar choice; and I welcome those that do.

The second question is a little more difficult to respond to.  I am interested in the intersection of face-to-face encounters with computer mediated encounters.  I am interested in the sustainability issues addressed (and not addressed) by working in a digital, virtual medium rather than a material one.  So, for example, not having canvasses and photo prints cluttering up my studio has freed me to be more experimental in my art; much of my artwork now conveniently is made and stored in digital form. 

But given that we were presenting this work to Performance Studies scholars, this embodied authenticity question takes on additional heft.  Much of Performance Studies inquiry celebrates the body as an epistemological tool, performance as a mode of inquiry, etc.  How, some might ask, is all this social networking stuff an actual performance.  Sure, digital graphics and textual expression, but where is the body?

It's a good point, but I have never been comfortable making the body the ontological essence of performance.  Or, more accurately, making the body clearly on display the center of performance.  Is not this virtual performance an extension of puppetry or the clever mechanism, clear performance traditions predating the computer?  Does a performance stop if a performer works in a mediated environment and leaves the stage while some digital media "takes over"?  Moreover, just because you cannot see me working with these digital interfaces doesn't man that I am not here, making my gestures and leaving traces in a virtual world.  In some ways, doesn't the seemingly absent body of virtual performance more honestly point to the body as a social construct?  Perhaps the anxiety over presence in digital performance does more to reveal absence in so-called "real" physical performance.

By and large, though, my presentation (and others on the panel) were well received by most, in part because what we had to share made the case for us. That, in the end, is the best test for the value of something.  When you show folks what you are doing, do they at least find it interesting?  The work of performance is not a zero-sum game.  We need not force a choice between forms when a choice is not necessary.  There is room (some might even say need) for multiple forms of performance on multiple platforms of display.

For me, I think social networking and the Internet in general would be a dry and boring place if it didn't include and invite opportunities for performance. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sign of the Times

They said it was closed due to damage, still unrepaired from last
year's big blow.

I think they were protecting something.

In a shelter cave, something hissed and I backed slowly away.

Some signs we heed; others we take on advisement.

In this way, the world remains colorful.

Anyway, as Spring's flowers cast their invitations, the blocking signs
came down.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

From The Bottom Up

Lately I've been trying the see past the layers of patterns that build
up over time. Call it palimpsests of perception. Call it habits of
mind. Past these rocky shores are only flow, the grace of creation
becoming. Not truth. Not the noemic realm of ideal and pure forms.
Leave your Plato at the door, please. But merely that time before we
convinced ourselves we know what it all means -- or most of it, anyway.
Fool's errand, for sure. An impossible quest. Maybe it's more about
energy and finding a different current, remaking the now. Maybe it's
about confronting the whiplike sting of limitations. Oooh, and it
hurts so good!
Well, maybe it's just the weekend. How it calls for rest even as it
promises time to catch up. How it always feels like a little
vacation, an opportunity for re-creation. I dunno. Maybe snorkeling?
And yes, this weekend I could call that a euphemism -- one I enjoyed
thoroughly, me and the jellies.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Time is a Limited Resource

(Scan from Justin Green's Binky Brown meets The Holy Virgin Mary)

In the afterword to Binky Brown meets The Holy Virgin Mary, Justin Green writes of his early career choices:  "I didn't want to be a dilettante and was beginning to notice the half-life that so many artists in the academic system were living.  Teaching provided security, but rarely inspiration" (53).

It's a bracing confession to come across at this time of the year when academic schedules become insanely packed and all other interests must take a back seat....a WAY back seat at the back of a very large and overcrowded bus.  I feel the truth of this observation, even as I want to challenge its details.

That is, it is not that the academic career lacks in inspiration for the artist.  Rather, the work of the academic leaves little time to explore inspiration.  I am regularly inspired by my colleagues and students.  And I am occasionally provided venues to pursue that inspiration if I choose to take them up.  The resource that is in regularly diminishing supply, though, is time.

In the anti-intellectual populism of the current political climate, academics often come under fire for their open schedules.  My state (to say nothing of some of my relatives) thinks that my time in the classroom constitutes my only work hours, or that I am only involved in my work during the few months when semesters are in session.  Would that that were true!  From graduate advising to the demand to have an active research agenda, from committee work to the ins and outs of service to my department, college, and university, this is work that knows no convenient boundaries.  Sometimes that is a good thing, as when work cuts across disciplinary boundaries and allows dialogues with unexpected colleagues.  But sometimes it is frustrating, as the work oozes and explodes out of the easy confines of a 9-5 schedule.  I like a job that allows a certain amount of porousness between vocation and avocation, but it is not without its unreasonable demands.  And as funds continue to dry up, the university life asks of its faculty that we do more and more with less and less.

Green is right, though.  My fellow academic artists are compromised in their "half lives."  We have pursued that golden grail of academics, the security and academic freedom associated with tenure.  But soon after receiving that award, I found myself confronted with depression.  Here was the security I had sought, but it is a kind of prison.  Or maybe the better metaphor is that tenure is a drug -- once you have it, it is very hard to give it up.

As I enter April, the "cruelest month" of the academic calendar (in my opinion), I find myself contemplating an intervention.  How to be an academic in the humanities in an environment that increasingly disrespects the work?  In culture that increasingly thinks of academics as disposable -- as pampered elites?  How to be an academic when the demoralizing tediousness of the job grows with each month, pushing out that which inspired me to be one in the first place?  

It is in this light that I amend Green's observation.  The half-life is not the result of a lack of inspiration -- I've got that in spades.  The half-life is about not having time to follow the inspiration, and I think that might be worse.  To be inspired but not be able to follow through?  What kind of sadistic trap is that?  

Green's inspiration led to one of the first autobiographical comics, replete with neurosis and penis rays.  An underground, experimental comix, to be sure -- but art nonetheless.  The desire of the artist to not "be a dilettante" is not necessarily about fame and acceptance (though both are nice), but about the time and resources to pursue inspiration fully, to be "true" to your art.  Unless your art is paying the bills, all artists create those resources with a second job.  And therein lies the rub.  It isn't easy to make a full-time academic position a "second" job.  The best one can do is make one's art part of that job.  But few are the academics afforded the time and space -- the resources -- to focus sufficiently on that work.  

Let me be clear:  It is not that I want time away from the business of education to do my work.  Education, in the classroom or on the page or on the stage, is my work.  But the amount of my day that is devoted to actual pedagogy is woefully small.  And this is a truth about the academic career that is rarely acknowledged -- by anti-intellectual politicians, by non-academic family, or even by many of the students on my campus.  It is certainly an aspect of being an academic that was under-represented in my graduate training for this profession.

And so, my inspirations are often breathless, not with hyperventilating excitement, but with the suffocation of endless administrivia and obligation.   Is that half-life or just halfway to death?