Shannon Jackson is the Cyrus and Michelle Hadidi Chair in the Humanities at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is Professor of Rhetoric and of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies. In the fall of 2015, she was appointed the first Associate Vice Chancellor for the Arts and Design. Jackson’s research focuses on collaborations across visual, performing, and media art forms and the role of the arts in social institutions and in social change. The author of, most recently, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (Routledge, 2011) and The Builders Association: Performance and Media in Contemporary Theater (MIT, 2015), Jackson coedited Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Commons (with Johanna Burton and Dominic Willsdon), which is forthcoming from the New Museum/MIT Press.
Paula Marincola was named the first executive director of The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, Philadelphia, in June 2008. In that capacity, she leads the organization in developing and implementing its work as both a multidisciplinary grantmaker and a hub for knowledge-sharing around issues critical to cultural practice. Marincola is the editor of Questions of Practice: What Makes A Great Exhibition? (Reaktion, 2007), an anthology of essays on exhibition-making now in its fourth edition, and the coeditor with Robert Storr of Curating Now: Imaginative Practice / Public Responsibility (PEI, 2002). Prior to coming to Pew, Marincola was a curator of contemporary art at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, and Arcadia University, and an art critic for Artforum and other international publications.
Through my experience as the executive director of The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, which is a multidisciplinary grantmaking organization, I’ve become highly aware of discrepancies in literacy among artistic disciplines. Practices and approaches that might be seen as innovative in one discipline, for example, might be viewed as old-hat or clichéd in another. And those viewpoints are largely a matter of discipline-specific contexts and histories. As the field gets increasingly hybrid, with practitioners and curators feeling free to cross boundaries and borrow among disciplines, it has seemed imperative to juxtapose and complicate these viewpoints, so as to advance the discourse around multi-disciplinarity. It’s been our work then, especially as we’ve consolidated our grantmaking programs since 2013, to foster trans-disciplinary literacy and to create opportunities to encourage that awareness across various contexts, so as to fund artistic work at the most informed level possible. Of course, when I heard you speak about this very issue at the Creative Time Summit in 2011, I was galvanized to reach out to you immediately to continue the discussion, and one of the results of that initial conversation is this joint project, In Terms of Performance.
Can you tell me about how and why you became aware of the issue of differing literacies across disciplines, and how you have been investigating, analyzing, and pursuing the issue in your work at ARC and in other spheres? Why has it felt so pertinent for you?
Yes, I remember that appearance at the Creative Time Summit; it was quite a challenge to squeeze a few years of thinking about these issues into a seven-minute presentation. At that time, I had just published a book called Social Works with two related goals. One was to make sense of the political debates in recent discussions of socially engaged art, or “social practice.” A second goal was to create a wider, cross-arts umbrella for socially engaged art, one that would track the different histories, techniques, and literacies that artists were drawing on: not only visual but also cinematic, theatrical, and choreographic forms. With this project, I think we are really putting that second goal into the foreground.
I think I became more aware of the problem and potential of artistic literacy earlier in the 2000s when I was an active faculty member in the founding of the Arts Research Center. As someone first trained in the history and practice of the performing arts, I found myself interacting with fabulous colleagues from a range of art forms—poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture, film, new media, etc. Most of us joined ARC because we were interested in “interdisciplinary” work, but gradually I began to realize how much each person’s understanding of “interdisciplinary” art was influenced by his or her disciplinary formation. Some people spoke of the “turn” to performance, and I found myself asking which turn they were talking about. For me, performance was about a tradition; it wasn't clearly or necessarily a new experiment. That difference in disciplinary optics produced some differences in vocabulary—or sometimes divergent understandings of the same vocabulary. Words like live or score or duration or composition had different resonances for video makers, composers, dancers, and painters.
As much as we all claim our connection to “the arts”—whether in funding organizations like The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, academic organizations like the Arts Research Center, or public sector organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts—we don’t always come to terms with the sheer range of activity legitimated (and de-legitimated) by the “arts” label. Because of our attachments to certain art forms and art histories, we often have very different notions of what makes a strong work, an innovative work, a compelling work. As a grant maker, did you sense this connection between artistic literacy and PCAH’s own processes of evaluation? I know that you have been combining programming categories lately—across dance, theater, music, and performance art—and I wonder how issues of disciplinary literacy have affected evaluation?
In many ways, the issues you are describing were what inspired our programmatic overhaul. When PCAH consisted of discipline-specific programs, we would sometimes observe a disconnect in projects that were adjudicated under one discipline but included others. For example, a project that came to our dance program might also have included a visual artist as a collaborator, or a composer to create a new score that inspired and supported the choreography. Usually such a project had a predominant disciplinary focus that dictated where it would best fit in our funding programs, but occasionally—indeed, increasingly—we’d see a multidisciplinary project that didn’t reside comfortably in any one category, in which case the applicant would be asked to choose the program area that seemed like the closest fit. In cases like this, under our previous structure, our panel of disciplinary experts was charged with evaluating and speaking to the choreographic part of the proposal without formally taking on the project’s other aspects with the same level of expertise and scrutiny. They might express an opinion informed to a greater or lesser degree about them, and we would certainly take those opinions into account. But we didn’t have an entirely satisfactory mechanism to speak to each facet of a truly multidisciplinary proposal, or its eventual integration into one artistic work. Even as we strove to be open to the many types of practice within the art form under discussion, it would often be apparent that a project’s sophistication in one discipline was not always matched by that of the other(s). This was the case even given the different contexts—ranging from traditional forms to contemporary experimental practices—from which the work under consideration might be emerging, and even given the individual subjectivities of the panelists. Hence the disjunction or disconnect that could sometimes lead to a certain frustration with the single-discipline focus.
Currently, among our various lines of work, we make project grants in two areas, Performance and Exhibitions & Public Interpretation. Both areas are consolidated, but they have been conceived very expansively. Our Performance program includes an expanded set of performative disciplines, not just dance, music, and theater, but performance that grows out of the visual arts, as well as intrinsically multi- or transdisciplinary projects, and our Exhibitions program encompasses visual art, history, material culture, design, media, and other related practices. So this simultaneous consolidation and expansion has allowed us to be more responsive to where practice is going, but it has also demanded a corollary effort to step up our own game of artistic literacies, to do our due diligence, so to speak, in order to engage in a more effective, more productive conversation with our applicants around their potential projects. While we have a range of deep disciplinary expertise within our own staff, we’re also all striving to assimilate the relevant, varying histories of the practices covered by the new areas, and to turn that learning to encouraging more complex and ambitious projects among our constituents. I hope that the effort at continuous learning also makes us better grantmakers along the way.
The consolidation of disciplines within our program areas has likewise demanded an adjudicatory body of panelists that, in addition to diversity of ethnicity, age, and gender, must also represent expertise in all the disciplines we are covering, and we find that their specific literacies are called upon, and even further developed, in the wide-ranging evaluative discussions around the project applications. When the process is functioning optimally, it means that every disciplinary aspect of a proposal is closely analyzed, and the conversation as a whole is more “rounded” and more comprehensive, even as it might expose continuing gaps in our individual and collective knowledge base. And, to get back to our purpose with this project, those gaps can certainly cluster around the ways in which the various panelists understand the meaning and usage of certain terms of practice. Which is why it’s been so fascinating and instructive, I think, to see how the various contributors to our lexicon interpret the terms we have asked them to address.
Do you think it might be useful to explain how we identified and selected the terms that we’ve included here? It was quite a process.
As I recall, it was really an inductive process. From our opposite coasts, we each created a running list of keywords that we thought were resonant. Then we debated them in order to decide which were most provocative or invited a range of associations. We wanted to find words whose associations were potentially quite different for people who hailed from different art forms and/or professional positions, be it artist, critic, or curator. So we started with a long list, and we trimmed it down over many conversations. Some words just didn’t seem like they would produce the friction we were looking for. Object, for instance. I remember you thinking it felt too general, perhaps too familiar. It wasn’t necessarily going to make for a real exchange of perspectives. We agreed that prop might be more interesting as a particular kind of object from the theatrical world that could be reimagined in a new context. Then there was theatricality, which we added late. Of course, this term also has a familiar set of associations, but the associations are quite different for theater people than for visual artists. From a visual art perspective, the concept of theatricality is shadowed by the Fried frame. Meanwhile, within the theater world, Michael Fried is less well known, and his ideas about theatricality often seem strange and confusing.
Yes, that’s a great case in point, as the term means something different in the performance community and among visual artists and curators, although it’s been problematized in both places. It was probably quite telling about our moment that there were words we immediately knew had to be included. The terms curator and choreography come immediately to mind as examples of words that we were encountering all the time but whose meaning shifted and slid and rearranged itself depending on the context in which they were being used.
Yes, indeed. I think we also went through a similar process when we tried to decide who to invite in this first round of conversation for the website. There were some voices that we knew immediately had to be included because we knew that they were as preoccupied as we are with these questions. We talked a lot about which voices we wanted to hear meditate on particular words, and there were some key artists, curators, and critics who we knew were already thinking about hybridity and the idea that “the experiment” is quite different depending on your disciplinary or professional perspective. And then it was really about matching the words to the people, figuring out which words were going to allow them to say what they most wanted to say.
We were looking for a productive frisson between writer and term in making the match. I think of this exercise as an act of defining that can go both with and against the grain of our expectations from the writer and the topic.
At the same time, some people proposed a different word from the one we offered. That’s part of the reason that you see some words are more attended to than others—participation, for instance.
Participation actually reminds me of another issue we faced. At various points in our brainstorming around keywords in contemporary art and performance, we also found ourselves gravitating toward a slightly different vocabulary around socially engaged art. For a while we went down this road, into the practice and ethics of socially engaged art. That was interesting. I often work on the relationship between the arts and social justice—as I said earlier, that was a central pursuit in Social Works. I often find that there’s something about the visual art turn away from the object that sometimes seems to coincide with the social turn—and of course sometimes it doesn’t. After some discussion about this, we realized that a keyword excavation of socially engaged art is really a different project, so we pulled back and decided to stick with the inter-arts overview. Maybe at some point we should do another keyword project on socially engaged art! I’m interested in where the two projects would intersect. When might the Terms of Performance overlap with the Terms of the Social—and when would they not?
It’s a provocative idea, especially as socially engaged art—or social practice if you prefer that term—is so pervasive right now. But it’s also daunting—it could keep us creating these anthologies long into the future! It does seem to me, though, that the impulse underlying this project (which we borrowed from Raymond Williams in homage to his Keywords) is a generative one, and can be applied to so many kinds of cultural practice. It’s really a reflection of how much is at stake in the language we use around any practice, cultural or non.
Yes, Williams’s analysis of how the meaning and use of certain words had changed over time is a model for understanding a field, a discipline, a movement, really any important cultural phenomenon. For us, turning to this keyword strategy is also an attempt to understand a complex and rich field by seeing how the uses and vocabularies change not only over time, diachronically, but also synchronically, among the different domains in which the same keywords emerge. Each context offers different stakes. With this linguistic orbit, I hope we have a set of texts that allow for this kind of exploration and provoke readers to consider other histories and contexts.
I also want to mention something about the nature of the texts themselves. The pieces are intentionally quite different from each other in tone and style. Some of our interlocutors decided to use a more pedagogical voice, offering a history and a kind of exegesis of how terms have been used in different contexts. Meanwhile, others felt free to take a more personalized, idiosyncratic approach. We were hoping for a kind of texture across the whole compilation, not a monotone, and certainly not a set of encyclopedia entries with the same format or style.
We agreed that that was the great advantage of including practicing artists, curators, critics, and academics in the mix of contributors; that “choir” of voices from very different points of departure makes for a heterogeneous and surprising (even inspiring) reading experience. The very different approaches taken by the writers—and they range from the autobiographical to the quite analytical—produce a fertile energy, and they amplify one another in resonant ways.
At the same time, you felt strongly, and I came to agree, that we needed to keep a primary focus on the voices of practitioners, especially artists but also curators, to allow the peculiarities and sometimes the eccentricities of different voices to emerge. In some of these texts, we really feel the keywords in action, inside an artist’s practice, or in areas where an artist is resisting the term. I hope that contributors can truly inspire one another—or even provoke or challenge each other. This was especially crucial from your perspective—since a primary part of PCAH’s mission is to produce material that inspires artists and arts producers and presenters to do work that stretches them, personally and professionally—but it was really important for me, too. Reading these texts, you can see your own habits and your old familiar chestnuts in a different light, through the eyes of someone in another discipline. That was the whole point of selecting common yet provocative words. We wanted to design a cross-arts thought exercise in which unexpected interlocutors put something familiar into question.
At ARC, we talk all the time about the desire to create the “unexpected conversation,” one that lets us all see our artistic investments and aspirations more clearly. In a way, I think it calls the bluff of our interdisciplinary ambitions. It can be revealing to confront perceptual habits you didn’t know you had, or see boundaries that you didn’t realize you were enforcing. As a scholar and practitioner in the performing arts, I always say that I didn’t know I was in a time-based art form until a visual artist told me I was. There was something odd about that vocabulary to me when I first heard it, but it was also interestingly de-familiarizing. It gave me a new way of thinking about how time and duration had become a normalized habit for me in the performing arts.
I think the analogue for us at PCAH would be our emphasis on a very conscious approach to formulating projects, one that takes into account the history and conventions of the genres but also the possible ways to productively break with or extend those conventions by engaging with art forms that are outside those typical modes and moves. The aim, similar to yours at ARC, is to become clearer about our own assumptions and orthodoxies in order to go beyond business as usual, to push through, to see what else might be possible for the work. It allows for that cultivation of the “unexpected conversation,” even in the act of developing and writing a grant application.
This raises the question of disciplinary territory. I think a great deal about how “experimental” art practices often begin with one art form and borrow the methods of another to do their experimenting. When a choreographer makes an “installation” or a sculptor begins incorporating “the body,” each may have myriad reasons for breaking up the conventions of their own medium, but they are treading into the territory and the traditions of another medium when they do it. Often this is a metaphoric borrowing. So what happens when, say, a visual artist decides to work “choreographically”? That word choreography means something so specific to a dancer. The metaphoric borrowing can be unsettling, and it is tempting to cry foul. But if you stay open to what’s taking place, you can get a new look at something you thought you knew very well.
This kind of “naive” (if I can use that descriptor non-pejoratively) borrowing or annexing can be quite liberating, undoubtedly. Young Jean Lee talks about this in her interview. Speaking about studying the traditions of a new discipline before borrowing from it, she says, “You just get to see how somebody else did it. You read about something in a book and it’s, like, oh that’s so important. Sometimes, I think, as an artist, well, screw all those old people. I want to do my own thing.” And William Kentridge says something analogous: “I think there’s an important place for stupidity in the studio, for not understanding, for giving the non-understood gesture the benefit of the doubt.”
Staying open is important, then, but I do wonder when that kind of deliberate “naïveté” starts to diminish in its returns, and if, in the end, as Kathy Halbreich observes in her conversation, “it’s critical to be informed,” even as she simultaneously notes the importance of being “immersed in but not confined by” one’s discipline. We certainly stress as much interdisciplinary literacy as possible with our applicants and grantees at PCAH, especially now that cultural practice is so hybrid and the “performative” is such a dominant paradigm. We are constantly interrogating the issue of how to understand this shift most productively.
Having just brought up two of the interviews that are included in our anthology, we should also take a digressive moment to explain something about the overall content of this online publication. As I recall, Shannon, we both thought that the publication needed some additional context beyond the definition entries, and that it might be useful to include longer interviews with fairly established figures who had a history of working in cross- and/or interdisciplinary ways, even as they may have maintained a primary disciplinary allegiance—dance, in Yvonne Rainer’s case, or theater in Young Jean’s. To borrow your term, a “texture” would be generated by the interviews in tandem with the entries and a third component: images of many of the works that the contributors identified as exemplary of their assigned term. How do you see these ingredients marrying into what we hope is a rich stew?
It was really the range of contributions that were coming in that told us what shape this project could take. I think of Ralph Lemon, whose essays are really textual art pieces. So while we knew that we weren’t going to be producing a set of encyclopedia entries, it began to be obvious that this was really a galaxy of complex associations. We wanted to figure out a format that would allow for all sorts of connections among these contributions. In many ways our decision to move from the serial mode of a print book to the rhizomatic mode of a website really reflects the world of this project, where all of these words and thoughts and images and voices have been coming in from all these sources throughout the globe. We are letting them form a galaxy that allows for modes of exploration that we intend but also other modes that we have yet to know about, that will be enabled by the format. So the texts with historical or philosophical rigor rubbing up against texts with artistic rigor will hopefully inspire an unexpected set of connections.
We both had certain qualms about turning from a printed book to a website; we discussed it extensively. In the end, we decided that the non-linear and non-hierarchical nature of this website offers the most appropriate manifestation of our project, reflecting the underlying structural concepts of the project itself. It also provides, in a very practical way, the opportunity for adding new contributions on an ongoing basis, so it is never static, just as the meaning of our terms are never fully fixed. We’ve also made it possible for readers to design their own path, by picking and choosing from the website the material that is most apposite for them, downloading it as a PDF, and then printing out a customized mini-publication.
The images, for their part, also provide pathways for visitors to follow around the site, and even to lead into the texts. A project like this should provide an opportunity for multimodal learning; the images provide another way of concretizing the different possibilities. They document and make available the ways that artists from a range of disciplines have combined forms and formats.
Yes, the way the images function here is another dynamic facet made possible by the fact that we’ve created a website instead of a printed book. A visitor who gravitates toward work in a certain discipline can choose an image and excavate from there into a keyword reflection that offers something new to think about.
But your question was also about the lengthier interviews. I do think it was important that we offer the galaxy with some kind of traction, and by including a conversation like this one between us, as well as the interviews with a cross-section of distinguished people, we’re also trying to create a kind of spine within the galaxy.
You know, scientists have actually identified galactic “endoskeletons,” so the metaphor is apt. It might interest our readers further to know that we developed a standard set of questions for each of the interviewees, along with other queries that were specific to each of them and his or her practices. And then they responded in their own way, answering some questions and passing over others, allowing the individuality and richness of each voice to come through in the texts. It’s quite the chorale.
Finally, another pertinent thing to mention is just how “readerly” the design of this publication is. While the site is responsive and interactive, the “look” is that of a book with recto and verso pages. So we’ve tried to honor our original intent to produce a book, and I hope we have ended up with the best of both worlds, and that, in a modest way, we are pointing to new models for publishing research and scholarship.