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DIVIDING DIVISIONS: What's at Stake in the Theater vs. Visual Arts Debate

Performa 11, the biennial of visual art performance, to borrow their insistent term, which took place this past November, opened itself up to an even wider array of artists than in years past. In addition to a number of performance art regulars like the Scandinavian duo Elmgreen & Dragset and the indefatigable Ragnar Kjartansson, there were films screened of non-visual art types like the comedian Richard Pryor, dances created by the choreographer Boris Charmatz, unexpected collaborations like the one between video artist Mika Rottenberg and sculptor Jon Kessler, and a live re-interpretation of cinema by filmmaker Guy Maddin. Despite this diversity of players, one commonality in many of the Performa 11 events was the use of proscenium stages and theatrical conventions, particularly by artists who typically or deliberately eschew theater as a form.

This use and abuse of the theater by visual artists led to a number of provocative responses that highlighted and questioned the reason for the divisions between performance born of one camp or another. Here in the Rail, Claire Bishop wrote a compelling treatise that ended with a suggestion that theater and visual art performers might be able to learn a great deal from one another. While over at Culturebot, Andy Horwitz attempted to parse the real differences between the two forms, if there are any, from the perspective of someone who writes extensively about contemporary performance born of and most often set within a theatrical context.

A fairly robust online conversation grew around the above-mentioned essays and led directly to a live panel discussion in January, organized and moderated by Culturebot’s Horwitz as part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, which takes place during the Association of Performing Arts Presenters’ annual convention. Speaking on the panel were Philip Bither, Senior Curator of Performing Arts at the Walker Art Center; RoseLee Goldberg, Founding Director and Curator of Performa; and the performance artists Liz Magic Laser and David Levine.

The afternoon of the panel, the Public’s LuEsther Hall was packed, with a number of people standing in order to listen in once all the seats were filled. The curators started off the discussion. Highlights from Philip Bither’s commentary included a suggestion that genre distinctions were less important outside New York City, as well as a note that curators, even within the same institution, operate on dramatically different timelines. In the visual arts, he said, curators often plan exhibitions years in advance, while performing arts curators often plan little more than a year, sometimes only months in advance.

RoseLee Goldberg then brought up something that was part of the subtext of Horwitz’s essay—that among a certain segment of the cultural sector there is a rejection of theater in its traditional form as uninteresting, saying that she knew few, if any, visual artists who regularly attended the theater. Horwitz made a similar but more personal statement in his original essay: “I’m no fan of traditional theater. That’s my background, but I long ago tired of the limitations of psychological realism and conventional narrative. I can see why people from a visual arts background might find it less than compelling.” Maybe more importantly, Goldberg focused the latter part of her commentary on history—having begun her career as an art historian. She pointed out the centuries-long tradition of performance being used by artists of all stripes as an arena of experimentation, and that history was the real cause of the division between the forms, more than any other factor.

When it was time for the artists to speak the discussion took a more interesting turn. Both artists had lengthy and in-depth experiences with theatrical and dance forms early in their lives and careers—David Levine started his creative career as a theater director and Liz Magic Laser was raised by a choreographer and still feels a strong commitment to and interest in theatrical forms. Despite, or because of this, neither seemed very interested in steadfastly committing themselves to one camp or another, even though they both have now chosen to place, present, and fund their work largely within the visual arts.

The question that kept coming up for me during all this was, what’s really at stake? Why was the room packed and everyone on the panel speaking with such energy on a subject that could be seem as largely semantic?

The most obvious answer, particularly within the context of the US arts economy, is money. All those on the panel (who, by and large, work within the visual arts) attempted to quash any discussion of there being more or less money in one field or another, asserting that limited resources are a fact across the arts. And yet, I don’t think it’s a point that can so easily be dismissed given how vastly different the economic structures are for each subset of the arts.

In the performing arts the generative artists (often a playwright or collaborative ensemble) are among the least paid of those involved in the realization of a work (somewhat less so in the dance world). While, in the visual arts there is an acknowledgement of creative effort through purchase of the generative artists’ work (its concept or its artifacts). Further, in both forms, actors, fabricators, or interpretive artists contribute a great deal to the work, but the way that these interpreters are compensated is quite different across fields. Labor costs within the theater can be much higher given the longer tradition and existence of unions among interpretive theater artists, while there has been a dogged resistance to unionization among generative theater artists. On the other hand, there is virtually no traditional of unionization within the visual arts, either for generative artists or interpretive artists. But even this rudimentary look at labor costs only begins to scratch the surface of the differing economies in the visual and performing arts.

The upshot is that it’s disingenuous to deny the question of money in the debate, as it represents much of the reason behind the sense that there is a bit of a turf war in any discussion around this topic.

That said, money is not the only issue, and not the most important, I don’t think.

Philip Bither hinted at one of two underlying issues—the imposition of limitations within genres (in terms of funding, timelines, resources, as well as in form and content) by institutions upon artists. Liz Magic Laser touched on this when describing a brief anecdote about attempting to collaborate across departments while pursuing her MFA at Columbia, encountering enormous roadblocks along the way. David Levine brought up the second issue, noting that he moved into the visual arts because he felt freer to innovate and experiment within a visual art context. Particularly, he felt he was able to escape the hierarchical structures of theatrical production, with its many roles to fill and, what he felt was the requirement to engage in the ritual of theater (tickets, fixed duration, a quiet seated audience, applause, etc).

It’s these last two issues that I think provided the most fodder for future discussion. How can we break down the divisions between forms so that we can better understand performance and any live art medium as representative of a spectrum that is inclusive and non-limiting? How can we challenge funding silos that limit the ability of artists to collaborate and move easily across that spectrum? And, finally, how can we find ways for major arts institutions to resist overly static organizational structures that limit innovation and lack the flexibility to shift with each new performance?

The panel made one thing very clear, artists go where they find space for their expression, regardless of the label applied to it. The organizations and funders are the ones being left behind, belatedly attempting to fit the new into old models. Perhaps it’s worth considering involving artists in the process of conceiving the new structures that will allow them to best present and share their work with audiences.

Contributor

Alexis Clements

ALEXIS CLEMENTS is a playwright and arts writer based in Brooklyn, NY. She is currently a fellow of the Cultural Strategies Initiative, where she is working on a non-fiction book about the arts. Read more about her and her work at www.alexisclements.com

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