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Terms of Engagement: Quality, Art Worldings, and How Performativities Work, Part II

All / Opinion / Performance Art / May 18, 2018

“Terms of Engagement” is a monthly essay-column about relationships between performance art(ists) and language(s).

This is the second installment of a three-part discussion of terms of engagement like “quality” “agency” and “affectivity” surrounding and embedded in conceptions of “the art world” and “mainstream culture.”As always, responses, corrections, questions are welcome and encouraged, email esthermneff@gmail.com.

Rina Espiritu

Rina Espiritu, during CIVIC REFLEX/REFLEJO CIVICO at Panoply Performance Laboratory. Photograph by Sierra Ortega.

Part I addressed how individual artists and their performance practices re-frame and conceptualize qualification, quality, and qualification schematics. This column, Part II, will address “art-worlding” and “instituting” from this position, using an example of a recent performance/occurrence and asking what else performances of art-worlding (structurally, organizationally, culturally) can “do,” (if anything) in fitness to and of use to singular, ulterior (per)form(ativities)s inscribed and embodied by human being(s).

REFLEXIVE CONFLICT/CONTEXT

On Saturday, April 21, Rina Espiritu invited curator and artist Nick Fracaro to join her for a reconciliatory conversation, staged in front of a public audience as a live performance at Panoply Performance Laboratory [1] during a public gathering of the temporary collective and series of events, CIVIC REFLEX/REFLEJO CIVICO [3].

Espiritu was “calling in” Fracaro, giving him an opportunity to participate in a community processing of a practical drama that played out at Coney Island, regarding the Coney Island Ritual Cabaret festival [2]. The dialogue between Nick and Rina was staged to interpret, analyze, and possibly reconcile a misunderstanding or to reveal affects and consequences of transpired events, to investigate why Espiritu (and subsequently, others) “dropped out” of the festival, or were excused, removed, or rejected from it. A sense of high emotion and mystery surrounding these events compounded a palpable urgency to piece together “what really happened” during past interactions.

Espiritu’s thoughts in her own words can be found here.

Espiritu’s performance was situated in three parts, the conversation with Fracaro being the last. First, Espiritu heightened and analogized a temporal relationship with historic responsibility and parsing of past events by handing out small cards and slips of paper to audience members as they arrived. The cards were tile-like puzzle pieces; parts of an image were printed on one side and checklists of clues, links, and citations, regarding the historic commodification and exploitation of a group of people—Igarote people from the Philippines—[4] were printed on the other side.

While she handed out the cards Espiritu had a live-feed of the site and the audience was projected onto the wall. After a while, Espiritu invited audience members to begin piecing together the puzzle-image in the center of the floor using all of the cards. The puzzle image emerged to reveal an Igarote man holding a spear. Certain people seemed emboldened to ‘direct’ the situation, others hung back, voices were raised as someone felt that the grainy black and white image was not pieced together “accurately.” Espiritu asked an especially vocal audience member to turn over the cards and read some of the text on the back, which told part of the story about the Igarote “human zoo” at Coney Island. The text on the backs of the cards as well as other printed materials being passed around were from multiple time periods, including an advertisement from 1904 and a current note about how there is (even today as you read this essay) a photo of Igarote people displayed at the Coney Island Museum without any context or framing.

When the puzzle was “complete,” Espiritu took a seat in front of the live-feed projection (partially blocking it) and invited Fracaro to come out. He emerged from behind the curtain on stilts, wearing an Uncle Sam outfit (that he had insisted on wearing). Fracaro towered above Espiritu, star-spangled top hat and all, embodying “America” (perhaps?) while Espiritu sat on a folding chair. The conversation began with Espiritu reading a fragment of an email from Fracaro, part of a long exchange of emails between Espiritu’s private account and Fracaro’s, then between Fracaro, Espiritu, and bipafbipaf@gmail.com, the public account of the imaginary/performative “institution” Brooklyn International Performance Art Foundation.

Rina Espiritu

Rina Espiritu in conversation with Nick Fracaro

ONE: AGENTS v. AGENCIES

In 1904, a group of Igarote people was brought from the Philippines to the USA. They were forced to perform religious rituals out of context and given dog meat to eat as “entertainment” for millions of visitors to the world’s fair in St. Louis and then in Coney Island. In 1906, Dr. Truman Hunt, the man responsible for this “human zoo” was sentenced to 18 months in a workhouse. The formal charge was that he embezzled wages from the Igorote and used physical force to contain them and profit from their labor as entertainers and makers of souvenirs [ibid. 4]

During Fracaro and Espiritu’s conversation, Fracaro claimed that he was responsible for Espiritu’s awareness of this history. He described himself as a paternal figure in this situation, defending Espiritu to the overarching Coney Island USA organization. He explained that he had “helped” her through the process of making a work for the festival. He mentioned that the festival was a great opportunity for artists to get “exposure,” a term he mentioned several times, insinuating that artists like Espiritu should be grateful for this opportunity to gain visibility, attention (and so on).

Espiritu argued that she had been censored, that Coney Island USA and International Culture Lab (as institutions) did not want their identity or history besmirched by her performance work. And, that it was Fracaro who kicked her out of the festival when he learned what she had planned.

Responding to the issue at hand, Fracaro first argued that he was forced to exclude her work from the festival because it was not “entertaining” rather schooling and scolding (Espiritu reads some lines from his email in which he says basically this). Espiritu asked, what does this mean? Is “schooling and scolding” bad? Can education and admonition never be “entertaining”?

Fracaro did not answer these questions directly but instead began to argue that Espiritu’s work was inappropriate in form (not “of quality”). He is perhaps clearest on the point that the festival was curated to show  butoh-burlesque-type work. When Espiritu had this “other” idea to remove her own body from the work and solely reflect the audience via live-feed, Fracaro decided that the work had become inappropriate for inclusion in the festival. He did not like the conceptual/formal correlation with the Igarote story with which her work was dealing, e.g. he would have liked Espiritu to make work about the historic events, not to deal with forms-of-event directly.

It becomes clear at this point that the first part of the performance this evening was in fact the performance that Espiritu had planned to do as part of the festival.

The conversation got more and more heated, with both parties presenting more evidence to strengthen their positions. Espiritu argued that she was not trusted or supported, that she was tokenized and seen as a commodity, made subject to the demands and desires of the festival and its producing organizations rather than as an artist with the power to self-determine what performance work would be appropriate for the context. Finally, Fracaro argues that Espiritu was rejected from the festival because she did not show up for the second tech meeting.

Some points remain unclear: was Espiritu’s work accepted and confirmed by/for the festival, if so, at what point? How was curation performed here? Were all artists and their work subject to Fracaro’s approval right up to the date of the festival? How much “agency” did Fracaro have within/as hired by the overarching Coney Island organizations? Did Fracaro know what other artists had in mind to perform before the dates of the festival and was anyone else “rejected” well after the festival line-up was publicized? Who gets to decide what forms of performance are “of quality”?

Through the conversation, some elements of the timeline and a sequence of conversational events were laid out, but “other” elements seem dominant and come to blur and overtake journalistic “facts.” Fracaro does not seem to hold Espiritu in high esteem as an artist or as an agent, he seems to see her as a willful child, amateur, or unreliable narrator. Espiritu seems to react to this condescension (quite generously) not by questioning Fracaro’s attitudes or politics as a person but by trying to give him this “institutional out,” which could re-assign his own personal responsibility to a larger system or institution that is “not present.” Fracaro refuses and refutes this offering of escape from blame, rather defensively continues to justify his own actions by bringing up anecdotes about his own theater company and insist on the quality and responsibility of Coney Island USA and his own personal quality as an artist, curator, and (inducing an audible reaction from the conversation’s audience) “a real American.”

Other audience responses to this conversation are shocking to me (the author of this essay). At one point, a white woman calls out something like “but did you ever think that maybe your work just wasn’t good enough? Rejection is part of being an artist.”

ENTERTAINMENT

The only argument Fracaro makes that seems to make a modicum of sense (to me) is regarding this particular festival’s focus on entertainment (though it seems bizarre to combine Butoh, “the dance of darkness,” a discipline that arguably emerged to deal with the horror of US nuclear bombing of Japan, with cabaret, and expect purely “entertainment”).

In any case, a qualification schema for entertainment value is a curious construction. On one hand, there is a Victorian angle on the concept of entertainment, remembering how “to entertain” was once a synonym for host(ess)ing, acts of making others feel safe and comfortable. “Entertainments,” perceived and defined from this etymological position might include meals, drinks, magic tricks, pretty dances, anything with pleasurable effects that divert attention from “reality” and charm guests into a state of titillation, relaxation, or other “state of pleasure.” If we think of “aesthetics” as a philosophy of pleasure, entertainment is strangely entangled with aesthetics, encircling performativities which intend to produce or cause particular responses from others, such as humoring (causing others to laugh/be amused), feeding (causing someone else to be full/fed), pleasing (causing someone else to be pleased/happy). An “entertainer” has to be quite knowledgeable about their audience or guests, presumably, in order to successfully produce or cause specific states and effects. An entertainer manages the audience, mediating attention and using pleasure to disarm and enchant. An entertainer is in control of their audience and of the situation. An entertainer may be a ringmaster or zookeeper, controlling and manipulating tigers, fire, (even human performers) with the greatest of ease.

On the other hand, the verb “to entertain” may also be used to mean to consider, to pay attention to, to accept, as in the clichéd use, “they entertained the notion.” Using this secondary definition, it would be hard to argue that any performance work is not “entertaining;” performance must itself be entertained to be entertaining and potential for such mutual entertainment is difficult to predict in advance of a performance instance/event.

INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY

Briefly, I would like to note a significant difference between institutions “dealing with” (especially violent and shameful) historical events and individual artists who are members of cultural communities affected by these events dealing with them and proposing/positioning/performing ways for institutions and larger groups to do so.

Often the argument for “institutions” is that they help “us” remember historical events and maintain narratives about the past. On the other hand, there is the quote (citation long lost in the tiles of Instagram) “the difference between an institution and a community is that an institution always forgets and a community never does.”

‘Institution’ as a verb describing an intentional act of remembering, communicating, situating realities that serve those involved, may acknowledge the subjective and variously distributed qualities of memory and history, understanding that past events (both performances and historical occurrences) have very different meanings and implications for different persons and groups.

Who designs and performs acts of remembering as instituting is crucial. How acts of remembering (and potentially reconciling) are performed should never be the sole purview of the institution, rather those (historically and presently) affected should be given the agency to design, stage, and (in)form such acts and performativities howsoever they/we see fit.

“ART-WORLDING” and “INSTITUTING”

If corporations are to operate legally as individuals we can certainly say that “they” are “performing.” If institutions—both commercial and nonprofit—are to frame themselves as families and as communities, we can certainly say that “they” embody values, ideologies, and beliefs. However, we can also see those individual persons perform the administrative, interpersonal, and practical tasks which institute and (in)corporate.

In some senses, most contemporary performance festivals and exhibitions which display persons as objects and profits from the (ongoing and/or intentionally enacted) performativities of persons are embezzling fair wages and reducing the agency of the artists involved. Physical containment and coercion are also present, as performance artists (and any others who have jobs) are forced to operate within particular spaces in particular ways in order to maintain survival (including work for money, in general). Judgments about how and when these thieveries, coercion, extractions, commodifications, and containments become illegal enslavements are contextual, culturally, and historically defined.

To institute (as a verb) means to put a system in place. To (in)corporate (as a verb) means to form a collective bodily, to embody and pursue some ideas or objectives as a larger conglomerate body made up of smaller, individual bodies.

Persons perform art-worlding, as performativities institute and incorporate festivals, art fairs, auction houses, galleries, foundations, exhibition programs, museums, spaces, and other artworld entities. These entities do not exist “on their own” apart from persons and intra-personal relations. There is no autonomous “art world.” Rather, autonomous, legal, and systemic entities are emergent, in complex ways, from intra-active human behaviors, attitudes, aesthetics, and sensibilities. When we suspend disbelief in institutions and corporations—or systems and schematics such as “qualifications/quality”—as determinate and determining autonomous entities solely in their own right and on “their own” terms, we are centering performative processes, relations, persons, and acts in order to interrogate and intentionally score these, as we might in the making of “a performance” as art.

Such suspension of disbelief, such centering, such insertion of intentions held and acted upon by persons, are also performative actions. Human beings can make decisions about how we want to see, believe, and behave, in recognition that our ways of world-viewing and world-building have direct consequences and effects, both particularly and emergently. The extent to which these mental and conceptual engagements systemically construct “larger” institutionalities and incorporations are questions of both agency and scale.

In terms of engagement with entities “larger” than our own individual persons (say, the Brooklyn Museum), we may use the term “agency” to describe our ability (or lack thereof) to (in)form, remodel, affect/effect, and structure relations, processes, and activities within and as institution and (in)corporation.

Often, one feels helpless and paralyzed by systems and orders used by massive conglomerate entities, other times one argues with optimistic vehemence that because human beings do construct orders and systems—such as qualifications schemas—as inscriptions and scores for our/their own performances and those of others/for us, that systems and orders can be intentionally and directly addressed and re-formed. One may be sure that once “larger” constructions and emergent systems are “in place” (instituted) and “embodying” (incorporated) they may be difficult—sometimes nearly impossible—to change or even effect. The more people believe in an idea, the harder it is to refute. The longer the period of time that something has been operating in some way, the harder it is to see an alternative way it could work.

Pointing out the high potentiality and extreme multiplicity of intentionally-performed collective and organizational tasks and actions need not minimize or deny the structural coercion of paradigms like systemic racism, patriarchy, and capitalism. These terms describe self-qualifying orders, which operate as default decision-making scores for human action. The extent to which can individuals effectively operate in conscious, plastic co-construction of dominant/dominating systemics varies dependent on the identified location, authorization, strategies of the individual and many other factors.

In negation of a hard dichotomy between systemic autonomous control and smaller-form (individual and small group) agencies, I am merely insisting here that ways of instituting, (in)corporating, schematizing, systematizing, enculturating, and organizing are as potential and multiplicit as “performance as art” and that, similarly, it matters who and how performers are authorized as “agents” with real structuring and designing power.

How can some institution be performed in ways which recognize and reify the qualities, forms, properties, positions, and perspectives of those instituting, including “individual artists,” the content-base of the hegemonic pyramid?

Here, because I am running out of word-space, I will propose only a single response (out of so many) to this inquiry about agencies and art worldings, a response selected for its movement and affective resonance across “scales” (micro, meso, macro, perhaps) of institution and (in)corporation. Additionally, this question (above) must be taken up in a practical context, not necessary answered via theoretical writing. I am intentionally choosing the most “feminized” and “least theoretical” proposition.

TRUST

Embodied, situated, temporary acts of giving or “paying” attention to others, performing (as) audience, and acts of listening and witnessing, can be seen as powerfully-constructive institutional performativities. Attentions have many different qualities. A trusting attention is an attention that reifies and substantiates, believing that the person to whom attention is being paid has valuable insight, is a valuable and qualified narrator, and someone to whom responsibility to materialize realities and hold space-time should be given. When we focus a trusting attention on someone, working hard to empathize, to understand that person’s perspective, to connect with a world(view)ing process or expression of experience, belief, emotion, or ideation, or even to simply be held by that person’s world for a moment, we are substantiating the meaningfulness and value of the person(s) to whom we attend.

I believe that substantiating attentional processes are strongest when performed directly between artists and “audience members” (witnesses, participants, etc) and when the artist has as much agency in the (possibly instituted) situation as possible.

From a curatorial or organizational perspective, giving a performance artist structural and situational agency can be a difficult practical leap, especially when/if the particular curator or organizer doesn’t fully understand (or personally like) what the artist plans to do. One of the (many) reasons why performance art is not shown as readily (as painting, say) in “mainstream” galleries, museums, and other institutional spaces is a lack of trust, a fear that the artist will damage the site, do something dangerous or make a mess, be off-putting or alienating to audiences, or be seen more generally as “off trend,” perhaps instituting an aesthetic that doesn’t “fit” (isn’t of quality to aesthetic demands).

Some ways of building trust between artists and curators that exist for object-based works don’t exist for performance. For example, there is often no way for a curator to know exactly what the artist will do and curators may not have seen the work before (or even documentation of it). Greater trust in artists is required from curators and organizers of performance art in order for performance artists to build trust with their audiences.

From critics and arts writers, low-trust perspectives tend to revert to a simple description of performance acts. These perspectives do not trust the artist to have intentionally situated or realized acts and images for reasons, reasons which may be historical, theoretical, ethical, political, and/or personal. These reasons and causes, however, are crucial to performance art (perhaps more so than object-based disciplines) because performances involve the artist themselves in context; the artist’s contextualized, identified, intending and reasoning body is inevitably a part of the work. It is demeaning to a performance artist to frame their body simply as an object—like a sculpture—not as an interactive agent within a social situation, within a public gathering that may substantiate mutual entertainment. Imbuing trust here might mean consideration of how a performance artist chose to do a particular thing in the particular context of the event, how the work is carrying between concept and form, in search of how a performance artwork might be interpreted in the deepest and most auto-qualified (as qualified by the instance of the performance itself) possible way.

Most generally, we might say that trusting an artist has the initial effect of framing that artist as a property owner (intellectual property, creative capital, cultural capital), not objectifying/commodifying the artist or their work into a property (yours, or on sale for someone else to own). On an even deeper level, trusting an artist may allow subversion of property-based paradigms at large that rely on static valuation and qualification schemas; trust allows credit, puts faith in not only the pre-defined value of a person but in their own systems of value and quality. Trust believes in, believes.

The third part of this piece, in June, will discuss similar emotion-social elements of the institution as a verb: instituting memory, artworlding-as-performance, ethics, and emotional/inter-personal trust-building through the lens of more embodied, affective states and positions of being and working as a performance artist.

[1] Let it be known that the author of this essay is undoubtedly biased towards the perspective of Rina Espiritu, the artist whose work this column installment will be addressing and using: we’ve had several personal conversations about “what happened” and I am the “curator” of the overall situation in which Espiritu and Fracaro’s public dialogue took place: the first session of the project CIVIC REFLEX/REFLEJO CIVICO at my home and lab site for performance Panoply Performance Laboratory (PPL). Usually, it is not appropriate for a “curator” to write a “review” of a performance or artwork in her “own show” (at least this is what I’ve been told). I will argue that I am not a curator (rather a host, facilitator, or organizer) and that this should absolutely not be considered a “review.” Moreover, there is no possible “objectivity” or single narrative that can account objectively or be comprehensible for all that transpired in the case of any one historical event, performance, or process, be it in the distant past or last weekend. All accounts are subjective/located and any author has previous relationships, embedded assumptions, and writes from an embodied perspective location. Further, we assume that an “arts writer” has some familiarity with, interest in, and affection for the persons and matter(s) on which she writes. I will, however, try to keep side comments to a minimum and hope that the reader can form their own interpretations.

[2] https://www.coneyisland.com/event/ciritualcabaret32518

[3] https://www.facebook.com/events/1003293089837925/

[4] this essay has some potentially triggering sentences/phrasings and images but also contains links and an interview with journalist Claire Prentice who wrote a book about this.


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Esther Neff
Esther Neff
Columnist, Cultbytes Founder of Panoply Performance Laboratory (PPL). PPL is a flexible collective, think-tank, and lab site in Brooklyn. PPL's "operas of operations," performance art, installation, and social projects deal with world viewing processes and organizational forms through direct practice. Neff also makes solo performance, operates as an independent researcher, organizer/caretaker, and theorist. l igram l twitter l website l




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