August 5, 2017

Excerpt from Authenticity is a Feeling: My Life in PME-ART


"The artists I work with turn to emotion because this is where ideology does its most devastating work." – Jennifer Doyle, Hold It Against Me

Now we are at the very beginning of a new project. It hasn’t quite started yet and I still very much don’t know what it will be. Somehow I still have the feeling that it could be absolutely anything. It is this moment of complete possibility, the moment before anything has actually started, that I’ve always found most energizing. I am not sure this is anything to be proud of. As we often do, we’re starting with a title: Emotional Politics. And, as the title suggests, I am thinking the project will have something to do with the relationship between politics and emotion.

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As I’ve moved forward through the years, in some ways I’ve always attempted to erase and undo my past. In some sense this book is a counter-attempt to not erase the past twenty years. I’ve always liked the idea of artists having “periods”: Picasso with his rose period, his blue period, his cubist period, etc. I once again have the feeling I need to put recent work behind me, to enter into a new period, with little idea what this new period might actually become. I once tried to cordon my work into four decade long periods (also including the next ten years):

1988-1998: Theatre & Anti-theatre
1998-2008: Translation & Polemic
2008-2018: Books, Music & Hospitality
2018-2028: Emotion & Decolonization

Because along with emotion and politics, all of the questions I find myself asking these days are around decolonization, around whiteness, white supremacy, white fragility, white saviorism, white guilt, structural inequality, anti-racism, intersectionality and how all of these realities factor into the ways I live and work. My collaboration with PME-ART started by bringing Anglophone and Francophone artists to work together with En français comme en anglais, it’s easy to criticize, a bringing together that wasn’t happening so often and still doesn’t happen nearly enough. This was a certain kind of bringing together that felt important to me at the time. But these days I’m definitely feeling that art is simply too white and that it has to change.

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I’ve always felt so strongly that there is something very political about being yourself in a performance situation. But now, after twenty years, I say this with somewhat less confidence than I once did. I think it is political because it undoes some of the hierarchy between those on stage and those watching, and if those on and off stage are more equal, then everyone can of course be on stage, can be involved, can be on the performance stage or the political one, can find a stage to speak out against injustice or get involved in whatever ways feel most vital. I still believe all of this is artistically true. However, saying a work of art is political is very different from saying that it’s politically effective. Like many artists, or perhaps more precisely like a specific kind of artist who intensely desires the political, I’m always wondering if I’m doing enough. And of course I always know that I’m not.

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People might think they’re making rational decisions but often, perhaps without even knowing it, they’re essentially making emotional decisions. But where does emotion stop and thinking begin? Even to put it in these terms feels obnoxious and misguided. Such distinctions are artificial. Thinking and emotion are completely intertwined. To believe otherwise is to block so many genuine possibilities. In Western democratic politics the rational decision is supposed to rule the day. What could democracy possibly mean if people are unable to make rational decisions as to what is best for the society they are a part of? However, as we know, current electoral politics, much like advertising, often plays directly to the emotions of the voter. I’m certainly not saying this is only a bad thing. What I’m getting at is how we all need to understand this process so much more. And how in further understanding it we might begin to change the ways it does and doesn’t work on us.

But, then again, I’m not only, or even mainly, thinking about electoral politics. I’m thinking of politics as a question of how we treat each other, of caring and cruelty and how they relate to emotions such as love and anger. I’m also wondering if there’s room for more emotion in PME-ART shows. In performance I associate emotion with acting, with being fake. With the opposite of what I’m searching for. However, if rejecting emotion in terms of how we are supposed to make political decisions is limiting and misguided, it might be even more so in relation to making art. I have absolutely no problem writing with great emotion, but in performance I generally find it to be more of a conundrum.

In PME-ART we perform as ourselves. In life, I rarely display much emotion. Like the good male child I was raised to be I most often – without even realizing I am doing so – repress it. I often think my depression substantially consists of repressed anger and sadness. And, because I suspect I often set the tone for our work, I also wonder if there might be something emotionally repressed about how we create and perform. Or at the very least something straight and male (which others continuously undercut with their own contributions.) In the past I didn’t see it this way. I would have probably attributed this lack of expressed emotion to the fact of repetition. If I give a performance once, and some emotion arises in me as I am doing so, I am completely open to going with it. But how to do so over and over again without it feeling completely fake? How to do so in front of an audience without feeling I must deliver the emotions on cue? In Emotional Politics I mainly imagine us talking about emotions rather than embodying them. Yet I also find myself wondering what are the ways I haven’t thought of yet that might allow us to go further (or explore in different registers from our previous work.) At the moment I simply have no idea. It feels impossible to me. But that’s also the feeling that makes me want to do it. Maybe it will be really bad but is there a way to turn it inside out and make it good again. Is this the road we’re really going to pursue or is it only a footpath to take us out onto the actual road we will eventually end up pursuing? At this early stage I still have no idea.

And then I wonder if perhaps some of our performances have contained far more emotion than I know or realize. And how the emotion comes from the encounter between us and the audience in ways that are extremely difficult to pin down or describe, and in fact are very difficult to be certain of because they happen in the moment and then, just as quickly, are gone.

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A few weeks ago I found myself thinking about The Wooster Group again. I believe I haven’t seen a show by them in over fifteen years, but seeing their show L.S.D. (Just the High Points) at Harbourfront Centre in 1989, and reading a great deal about them during the same period, was probably the single most significant event in leading me to want to make the kind of performances I’ve more or less dedicated my life to. And then when I started touring, about ten years later, I met or heard about many other groups and companies that were also catalyzed by their first experiences with The Wooster Group, and also next generation companies who were later inspired by the companies that were first inspired by The Wooster Group. It reminds me of a story I once heard about The Ramones. The first time The Ramones toured the U.S. there were basically no punk bands to open for them. But the second time they toured, there was an opening band in every town, all consisting of young people who had seen The Ramones on their previous tour and then decided to form punk bands of their own.

Both The Ramones and The Wooster Group came out of a kind of New York City lower east side zeitgeist (which for me also has some relation to U.S cultural imperialism.) As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve always worried that we had no zeitgeist, though I suppose in many ways I’ve spent my life searching for one, all the while trying to tell myself that it’s never too late. In a sense, zeitgeist is always also a collective feeling of protest, and it has been argued that the past ten years plus have been a golden age of protest: the alter-globalization movement, the battle in Seattle, Occupy Wall Street, the Rolling Jubilee, Tahrir Square, Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, mass protests against Trump, etc. None of these protests have done as much they originally hoped but they all did something. I also realize I’m still romanticizing zeitgeists. If I were to actually experience one I probably wouldn’t like it.

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The Ramones were white and The Wooster Group are white (as are many of the other artists and writers I’ve referenced in this book.) Despite much work currently being done to change things, Western art and culture remain primarily white spaces (which is not to excuse myself, I really should have done better. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to rewrite the past to make it sound like I was more woke than I actually was at the time. Instead, I want to rewrite the future.) Much of my internet reading over the past five or so years has been about feminism and anti-racism. For as long as I can remember I’ve felt myself to be pro-feminist and anti-racist – which certainly doesn’t mean I’ve always lived up to my ideals – but more recently I’ve encountered concepts I didn’t previously know about such as white fragility and white saviourism. These concepts have a lot to do with why white spaces remain so white, with how white people react when these spaces are challenged, and how such defensive reactions work to reinforce the status quo.

My internet reading about feminism and anti-racism (alongside many important conversations) has had an enormous impact on my recent thinking and yet I’m still trying to figure out how to incorporate this thinking into my life and work. Many others I know are also currently trying to do the same. I think: PME-ART is about collaboration and therefore this collaborative spirit represents and opening through which to do something. I think: our work is about being yourself in a performance situation, so when the selves change, when new creator/performers are invited to join, then the work then changes as well. And I want the work to change. But how much am I able to let it change, how much am I willing to let go? With each new collaborative project this is always a primary question.

I can feel my reticence. How reluctant I am to write about these questions. The main thing is that it is all still in the future. We haven’t actually tried anything yet and don’t even know exactly what we plan to try. But also, in writing this, I can feel myself treading carefully, feel that I don’t want to misstep. I have noticed that when white artists attempt to make anti-racist art they sometimes miss the mark and end up making racist art by mistake. They are too deeply entrenched within their own limited perspective, within their: ‘I’m an artist and therefore I can do whatever I want.’ (I think the artist has an ethical responsibility but, then again, I don’t think there’s any fixed way of understanding exactly what that responsibility is.) I hope collaboration and co-authorship is a way through and past this dilemma but I know from twenty years of experience that real collaboration is never easy. I feel the slogan ‘nothing about us without us’ speaks to the matter most concisely. But still, it is always possible to get it wrong. And walking on eggshells has never produced the best art.

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All of this is very much about me, and yet it is my hope that Emotional Politics is the PME-ART show we make that will be the most not about me. Is it possible to decenter myself within our work? What might this look or feel like? Some recent projects have been more about me, and now it’s time to turn around, head in the opposite direction. To find ways for PME-ART to be more about others. I’m nervous to write this, worried that after Emotional Politics has been made and toured, I’ll look back on these words and see how far away what we actually did was from my original hopes. And yet that is also the nature of our work. It starts somewhere, goes through an extensive, if rather imperfect, collaborative process, and ends up somewhere else, somewhere completely different, somewhere no one could predict.

The very beginning of a new project. Before the beginning. The pre-beginning. When everything is still possible. I want to hang onto this feeling for as long as I can, not to fix anything before it’s absolutely necessary, still be open to artistic possibilities that, as of yet, I am still completely unable to conceive. Is it really true that these things happen, that our work spins out in directions I am unable to imagine before they begin? Is this only a fantasy I have about the work, about the possibilities of art, or about the possibilities of collaborative art? I can see it both ways. And perhaps both ways can come together: such things might actually happen because they begin as fantasies, as searching, as curiosity, as openness. When something appears that you think you’ve never seen before, within your own work or the work of others, you can’t let it slip by unnoticed, you need to be paying attention, follow it, see where it leads.

[Authenticity is a Feeling: My Life in PME-ART is a new book I'm currently working on which is scheduled to come out from BookThug in Spring 2018.]


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