Dear European Friends in town for Under The Radar, Coil and American Realness, (& audiences who don’t live in our little contemporary performing arts world all the time) may I have your attention!? I just want to say: This is America, now. Debate Society, Pig Iron, Stephen Reker & People Get Ready, Kyle Abraham, Rashaun Mitchell, Radiohole, Half Straddle, Emily Johnson, Kristen Kosmas, Peggy Shaw and pretty much everything at American Realness – Keith Hennessy, Miguel Gutierrez, AUNTS – this is who we are and is the heart of who we have always been.
I could go on and on naming artists but as you move through NYC this winter try not to just be “shopping” – try and really look closer. Instead of trying to look at this work “objectively” – try and step back and see the big picture: who we are, how we are, what we are and how our work reflects the conditions under which it is made. Judson is dead! Long Live Judson! Can we stop talking about Judson? In America now, like in Judson’s America then, artists have to step outside, have got to tear down calcified structures and re-imagine our art for this moment. And we’re doing it without money, resources or support. We’re DIY, we’re seat of our pants, we’re struggling to say something true under tough conditions. It may not look like it from the outside, but let’s face it: America hasn’t been post-WWII America since, like, 1975.
Now, maybe Michael Kaiser and all the other swells who were uptown at the Hilton, networking in the halls and buying and selling and talking bullshit, trying to hawk their outdated, out-of-touch, unsustainable vision of American Arts will try and convince you differently, but they all have good reasons to lie. Their livelihood depends on keeping things as they are, on keeping the masses at bay, and even if one generously assumes that they have good intentions, like most wealthy people, they are completely out of touch with actual real life on the ground for most people. This is America now, hit hard by recession, struggling to make ends meet, in the grip of a culture war where a small percentage of reactionaries hold the rest of the country hostage, where hope and change turns into “well at least it isn’t worse.”
Artistically, contemporary work is so unfamiliar to most audiences that even the “paper of record”, the New York Times, is challenged to find writers who seem to be interested enough in the work to learn how to look at it, talk about it and maybe even care about it. They have some stringers who get it, but not enough. Ben Brantley substitutes pithy dismissal for actual analysis in his 99% substance-free “review” of Radiohole. Never once does he ask WHY the work looks like it does, or what Radiohole references within the work (has he ever even heard of Iggy & The Stooges much less asked why Radiohole would sample the riff from “I Wanna Be Your Dog”?), or how the text operates in a non-narrative, oblique, way. He would rather toss off an essentially meaningless term of dismissal like “bougie-boho” than actually engage with what the work is doing. He doesn’t know how to look at this work and even less idea how to talk about it – so how can he share that with his readers? I don’t blame him, he’s doing his best, he’s a nice guy and he knows his readership, he is of his readership, and his writing reflects their world view – they may be New Yorkers but sometimes they might as well be from suburban Des Moines, just as provincial but on a larger stage. Alastair Macaulay will inevitably spend more time talking about the dancers’ bodies than the ideas in the work or why/how/what it is meant to do, how it inhabits, reflects and resonates in this moment with the world around us. Once again, no blame, his passion is toe shoes and tutus, the pas de deux and perfectly elongated torso, no squat and misshapen Wendy Whelan for him, no men over 30 with jiggly thighs, no dancer that dares to show the work of dancing. Alastair tries and sometimes even hits it, but this work is out of his comfort zone and his job, like Brantley’s, is to guard the consumer from fraudulently advertised entertainment, something that purports to be fun, but isn’t worth the price of a ticket. Our community has been reaching out to the Times for dialogue for ages, asking them to try and get outside the existing categories, try and match writers more thoughtfully with their strengths and interests, open up a conversation rather than keep butting heads, but they don’t seem able or interested in having a conversation.
Imagine if the cultural capital of your country couldn’t rouse a critic to do some research and give thought to the work he or she is seeing? You can’t imagine that, can you? Welcome to America.
This is us, now. This is America. Not Hollywood, not Silicon Valley, not the glittering skyline of Manhattan that looks to all the world such a fabulous playground. We are American artists: we have no health care. We’re buried in student debt because, unlike Europe, our university education isn’t free or even subsidized. America has less class mobility and more income inequality than since anyone currently alive can remember. And our work shows that. We are still fumbling our way towards a new system, building it alone – with no support from funders or our elders.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Walt Whitman
Do you know Whitman? Do you know where we come from, how our dreams are formed? We are not Baudrillard, commenting from afar, we are in the mix, we are the real and the simulacrum, we’re so fake we’re real we’re so real we’re unbelievable.
We’re not theorists, we do first, theorize later. We’re profoundly materialistic and strangely spiritual. We’re a mass of contradictions, complex and constantly shifting, always in the process of defining and redefining who we are, since we were birthed from the fever dreams of the Enlightenment, we came into existence with only a tenuous relationship between the actual and the envisioned and have been battling over it ever since.
Next time, don’t just come to NYC, come to Fusebox in Austin or TBA in Portland or Live Arts in Philly – but really if you really really want to know who we are, rent a car and drive across country. Go hang out in a mall in Ohio. Park in a 7-11 parking lot and smoke cigarettes, drink a Slurpee, and imagine yourself imagining the life you will lead when you finally get the fuck out of wherever the fuck you are.
There’s a frame here, a context. Look around you and realize that change is happening here, just like over there, we’re all broke, we’re all fucked and we’ve all got to get over it and get it together to move forward together if we believe in even remotely close to the same things. The funny thing is, to be honest, as much as we complain, it is when we’re broke, hungry and ambitious that we’re at our best- cultural revolutions, changing of the guard, DIY and down low, making grassroots change and pushing up. Okay, okay, I’m a child of the late 80’s and early 90’s, my formative years were mixed tapes and ‘zines and SASEs and Sub Pop and Nirvana (fuck Pearl Jam, poseurs). But the beauty of destruction is the possibility of creation.
So as you arrive or as you move on look at or look back at this work in that context, like Julie Potter says in her essay “Good Circulation: Grassroots Exchange, Connecting Communities of Practice”, “The DIY efforts feel distinctly American, emerging from ingenuity, self reliance and a driven work ethic”
I started thinking about my days in Seattle, about DIY and punk rock and “alternative” culture and “just get in the van”. I started thinking about Detroit, the city, home of Motown, the MC5 and Iggy & The Stooges, the White Stripes, even Eminem. And I started thinking that as sophisticated as I think I might get, I’m also just a kid from the suburbs of Baltimore who grew up on garage rock and ‘zines and aimless car rides all night long; a child of trips to the inner city to see punk rock bands who traveled in vans across the country to play in abandoned lofts for other misfit kids, who crashed on couches and smoked cigarettes and drank beer in parking lots, who nurtured their discontent and inchoate dreams of revolution and change. And I’m thinking, see, that’s America. Or at least, that’s my America – and its not the failure of the Suburban American Ranch House Dream, it’s the promise of everything that is built both within it and in reaction to it. In America artists work for a living, we do it in our garages, we do it low budget and we do it ourselves. And as much as we would like to get paid for it, as much as we would like respect for it, we do it no matter what it takes, because we’re punk rock and we have dreams and we have energy and we’re indomitable and maybe we’re a little more earnest than we like to let on, maybe we’re a little less ironically detached than our European friends because hey, underneath the irony is that slightly embarrassing but always burning flame of idealism. So we put songs by The Bangles and Kim Carnes in our shows with a nudge and a wink, but underneath we know its because we actually like those songs, we do. And that is who we are – a mixed-up ball of hope and confusion, irony and earnestness, pluck and lethargy, a dream we still believe we can save from dying.
This is America, now: see it for what it is, beautiful, flawed and broken, always on the path towards perfectibility and always falling short. It’s the 21st Century – can we conduct ourselves according to the standards we demand of our art? Can we strip ourselves of our biases and preconceptions, can we interrogate our assumptions and investigate the big questions, can we operate in the world the way we want our art to? Can we start to come together as if it was all in ruins and we had to remake the world again, but this time the way we want it to be, not just the way we’ve been told it is?
This is America, and We Jam Econo.