Friday, October 10, 2008

PPP: A Brief Introduction

Welcome to my blog, which emerges out of a book I am currently finishing that has the same subtitle. In both book and blog my aim is to connect my ongoing academic interests in theatre, film, literature, and the performing arts (I teach in the English Department at Simon Fraser University, in a suburb of Vancouver) with the material realities of life as a political being in an era when the local and the global have never been more dynamically interconnected (as the current world financial meltdown so dramatically reveals). My goal is to explore what, if anything going to a play in Vancouver (or a concert in Rio, or a soccer match in Seoul, or a political rally in Johannesburg) can teach us about becoming better citizens of the world--how the performance of place, and the place of performance, can lead to a progressive political engagement with issues of larger global concern.

In other words, in the posts that follow I am interested in exploring how the local aesthetic experience of, or participation in, performance (be it a theatrical production, a sporting event, a religious ceremony, or a political demonstration) relates to, and even provides a model for, how one lives in the world socially. As the parenthesis in the last sentence suggests, I define performance very broadly. In the weeks and months ahead expect to find analyses and interpretations of works of theatre, visual art, and social and religious ritual; comparisons of competing performances of promotion and protest that accompany global sporting events like the Olympics (just concluded in Beijing and coming to my hometown of Vancouver in 2010); perorations on unfolding social, political, historical, and environmental dramas like elections, wars, and natural disasters; discussions of local organizing around urban development and sustainability; and so on. To borrow a distinction from the influential performance studies theorist Richard Schechner, in this blog I give equal attention to "make-believe" performances, those pretend acts of dress-up and role-playing that we associate, for example, with the fictional world of the stage, and performances that are aimed more at "making belief," "real world" dramas that, in their unfolding, enact a particular vision of that world (see his Performance Studies: An Introduction, 2002). To the extent that belief in that vision might be more or less acceptable to different audiences depending on their place in the world, accounts for the competing social and political perspectives that will inevitably emerge in response to or alongside such performances.

Performance, or live art, is uniquely situated to engage with the political because its "unfolding-in-the-moment" quality forces audiences to consider carefully--and often to confront viscerally--the role of context, nor just the "what" or "how" of performance, but the "where," "when," and ideally "why" of performance, of what it means to come together as an audience in the first place, and what other as-yet imagined social relationships might emerge from this otherwise random connection to the work being performed. To put this another way, the very ephemerality and contingency of performance (one never knows who exactly one will be sitting or standing beside, or what precisely will happen) asks us to ponder, at some level, the ways we are obliged to each other as fellow human beings. In this way, the local spaces of performance, and the persons within whom it is embodied, constitute sites where broader political engagements and movements might be initiated. In turn, localness gets transposed back into a concept of worldness, of being in and of the world, by virtue of performance's double structure of address: that is, the particular place of its production, and the multiple spaces of its reception, recognition, and redistribution (including on the Internet--hence this blog).

Let me be clear: I don't wish to overstate the role that a work of local community theatre might play in helping to remedy complex world conflicts and crises. But I do believe that the structures of performance can help theatricalize and make newly compelling for local audiences various scenarios of present-day global political urgency. So, for example, that locally produced piece of community theatre might inspire its neighbourhood audience to connect their place-based behaviour to an issue like global climate change (as was the case with David Diamond and Headlines Theatre's series of forum theatre workshops, 2 degrees of fear and desire, in Vancouver last fall). At the same time, I want to suggest that events played out on the world stage (wars, acts of terror, religious gatherings, natural disasters, sporting contests, human rights protests) can never be interpreted apart from the local constituencies to whom they are being mediated, even if only electronically. In other words, to the extent that I am making a case in this blog for the way performance practice overlaps with political praxis as a project aimed at re-making the world, I am likewise arguing that we must never lose sight of the place of that overlap.

Which brings me to the role of Vancouver in this blog. I've lived in the city for close to two decades now, and while it still ain't no London or New York, in that time the local performing arts scene has improved exponentially. While there are heaps of individuals, companies, and artist collectives responsible for this--the majority of whom I hope eventually to write about in some form or another in future posts--let me single out initially some folks and institutions that are especially dear to my heart:

1. The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival (held here every January) and its tireless impresario, Norman Armour: although the acts might not always be as big or famous, I think that in terms of the boldness of the work presented, PuSh rivals BAM's Next Wave Festival for cutting-edge experimental theatre and performance. The image above is of me getting my haircut by children at last year's festival, as part of Darren O'Donnell and Mammalian Diving Reflex's presentation of Haircuts by Children.

2. The Scotiabank Dance Centre; the Dancing on the Edge Festival; the annual Dances for Small Stages event on Commercial Drive; Dance All Sorts; companies like battery opera, Edam, Judith Marcuse Projects (who recently co-founded the Centre for Art and Social Change at my university), kidd pivot (Crystal Pite is a goddess), and the 605 Collective: Vancouver has a happening dance scene, let me tell you.

3. The LIVE Performance Art Biennale, which will have its 6th iteration in the fall of 2009, and which in 2007 was organized around the theme of the "public." I quote from their website, as it bears on what I'm trying to get at in introducing this blog: "Public is always local--yet defines global. Who and where are we? Who and where are others? How are we similar? How are we different? What do we have in common? In interpreting 'Public,' performative art might manifest as: an action presented in public, an intervention into public, the participation of public, or a descriptive reference to public. Intent, form and expression can shift and change. The theme of 'Public' affords us occasion to examine performance art both locally and globally. A new generation of artists is reinventing boundaries through an exploding world-wide network of organizations, venues, symposia, and festivals."

4. The Vancouver International Film Festival, the 27th annual version of which is just winding down this week, and which in its intimacy and intellectualism is the antithesis of Toronto: i.e., it's about the films, not about the stars. (Two recommendations from this year from opposite generic poles: Terrence Davies' latest experimental documentary, Of Time and the City, at once a paean to and a pastiche of his birthplace, Liverpool; and the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In, which is actually a complex allegory of adolescent outsiderness and the bullying that frequently accompanies it.)

5. Two experimental theatre companies, Boca del Lupo and the Electric Company, that grew out of productively synergistic relationships forged by their founders at Simon Fraser's School for the Contemporary Arts and Langara College's Studio 58, respectively.

6. Artist-run centres like the venerable Western Front and Artspeak Gallery: the latter, in recently going "off-site," has begin to generate some very interesting site-specific work, including Althea Thauberger's Carrall Street. At the September 30th event, Thauberger used the streetscape on which Artspeak fronts as her one-night stage (or, perhaps more accurately, film set), mixing hired "actors" performing scripted/improvised scenes with random interactions between local denizens and passers-by to actively blur the roles between performer and spectator, and in the process to show some of the historical connections between the street's past (as a tavern-lined, working-class byway connecting Vancouver's old port to Chinatown), present (as a thoroughfare traversed on one end by visiting tourists and local hipsters negotiating both the tack and trend of Gastown, and, on the other, by the homeless, addicted, and mentally ill citizens of the Downtown Eastside [DTES], the poorest postal zone in Canada), and future (as a showcase street ripe for civic greening and Olympic redevelopment).

Despite some reservations I have about the overall success and politics of Thauberger's work, it does get at what I see as a crucial connection between live art and what it only seems right to call an urban ethics of livability. In the 20 years since the sale of the former Expo lands in Vancouver's False Creek North neighbourhood to Li Ka-shing's Concord Pacific, the area has been transformed into one of the most densely populated downtown neighbourhoods in North America, and has become a model, in terms of urban planning, for similar developments targeted at the globe-trotting super-rich around the world. And yet this global performance of place has come at a local price--quite literally--with an increasing lack of affordable housing in Vancouver's urban core resulting in a form of enclosure that sees companies like Concord Pacific at once encroaching on and seeking to contain the social blight of the DTES, for example, through a phalanx of luxury condominium towers, most of whose units are owned internationally. As the city now looks across the water, to South False Creek, site of the Athletes' Village for the 2010 Winter Olympics, and earmarked for major redevelopment thereafter, it would do well to seek alternative models of place promotion, ones that better reconcile local integration with global destination.

Indeed, let me lay all my cards on the table and state that one of the main reasons I am starting this blog at this particular moment--after forswearing numerous times ever joining this particular electronic revolution--is to monitor the pace and progress of change in Vancouver (in all its forms) in the lead-up to the Olympics, and to connect these changes to larger patterns of urban and political transformation around the world. I am proposing to do so through the particular lens of performance because I believe, along with the curators of LIVE 5 cited above, that the publics and counter-publics formed as a result of us coming together--however temporarily or fragmentarily--as an audience tell us in turn something about how we participate in the world, and about the concrete material conditions of the local as it both produces and is produced by that world.

On that note, I think I'll sign off on this first post. I promise future ones won't be quite so earnest and dryly academic in tone (though I can't promise with what frequency they will appear--this one was supposed to make its debut last month and took three separate tries to finally get posted). A few performance-related thoughts on several upcoming elections (local, national, and international) should produce much occasion for satire. I promise not to go on about Tina Fey-as-Sarah Palin (though we could have used her last night on a rather weak Thursday night version of SNL's Weekend Update). But taking swipes at Stephen Harper and his supercilious grin is, I think, fair game. The backlash around the Conservatives' cuts to the arts in this country has already forced their hand regarding Bill C-10, it seems; now let's use the momentum from Harper's stumbling performance in response to the economic panic to boot his party out of office altogether, or at the very least sizably reduce their existing minority. A shout-out, in this regard, to Michael Byers, NDP candidate for my riding of Vancouver Centre. And, looking ahead to November's municipal elections in Vancouver, consider this my endorsement for Gregor Robertson and the Vision Vancouver slate.

But before all that, and before I can regale you with further descriptions and analyses of performances specific to Vancouver, there's a trip to the UK and Europe in the offing. Richard and I are making the most of our respective leave years by fitting in lots of travel--work-related, of course. (More on Richard, my partner in the theatre of life, in future posts.) Expect a report on the art and theatre we see.