Yesterday, I attended the all-day Beyond Dynamic Adaptability conference put on by the Wallace Foundation as the culminating event of their involvement in the Bay Area. There were lots of presenters, but across all of them there seemed to be this theme that we as arts professionals needed to be focusing not only on the work created, but on what researchers Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin of WolfBrown called the “impact echo,” and what I have previously called the “making of meaning.” This is the concept that art is more valuable, more transformative, more of whatever you wanted that art to be, if it indelibly sticks in the mind of the person who sees it—and that as if making the art wasn’t enough, we now (all of us, whether artists or administrative support) need to be focusing as strongly and energetically on a more holistic interpretation of the event, at which the art may (or, it seems, may not) be the center point.
In the afternoon, I was lucky enough to attend a “fishbowl” panel discussion led by arts thinker and social activist Arlene Goldbard. Goldbard, much of whose work revolves around a belief that we have chronically mis-framed our language about and in support of the arts in way that has been detrimental to art’s perception by society, framed the session around “civic engagement,” and the panelists were all artists who, in various ways, were very overtly trying to civically engage others through art.
I find this concept interesting, and such a high bar—talk about an impact echo. You’re actually trying, through a piece of art, to instigate what Michael Rohd of Sojourn Theatre (one of the panelists) described as a moment that “inspires the audience to take action.” In our work with WolfBrown on intrinsic impact, we have a question about this phenomenon, which asks, “To what extent did the performance spur you to take some action or make a change?” Most companies chose not to use this question, either because they felt their work wasn’t really meant as this type of civic engagement or, I think in some cases, because they were not sure it would reflect positively. Because when you get down to it, actually inspiring someone to change something in their lives (which WolfBrown calls in the notes on this questions “a high test of impact”) means truly, deeply instigating transformation.
Hearing the panelists in this group was inspiring and also a little off-putting. Michael Gene Sullivan, a company member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and a dyed-in-the-wool Communist, strongly argued that the only two purposes of art were to uphold the status quo or tear it down, and that if you weren’t doing one of them, you were doing the other. He also argued that the only true purpose of art was, in fact, this type of civic engagement, the instigation of change. Both of these arguments seem unnuanced to me, particularly because I think that while a lot of work is about instigating change or transformation in people, the best work isn’t, as is implied by Sullivan’s characterization, instantaneous and radical, but is instead slow, steady, insidious, a word or image sitting in the back of your mind for hours or days or years that you come back and ponder when your mind slows down from your day. I think, in fact, that the best art isn’t blunt art, but is art that comes at you sideways—it’s the art that a person, immediately after a performance, might not say was going to “spur them to take some action or make a change,” but which might in fact power that change more subtly over time—the Energizer bunny of civic engagement.
At one point in the panel, Sarah Crowell, who uses dance and movement to teach teenagers about violence prevention with a company called Destiny Arts, was asked how, if the inertia to simply stay the course is so high in humanity, do we as artists instigate change.
“I work with young people,” she said. “And I collaborate with them—but all of the stories come from their experiences. So I don’t know that it’s about changing the world as much as it is about accepting it deeply—what I call ‘fierce self-acceptance’ and ‘fierce acceptance’ of the people I work with—and then helping to craft work with them around it. The more deeply I accept what is there, the more interesting and authentic and transformative the stories are.”
This is civic engagement by stealth, in a way. It’s the opposite, I think, of what the Mime Troupe does, and it resonates more fully with me perhaps because, as a good WASP, I’m generally against confrontation when a sidestep will do. But more than that, it’s attempting transformation on the terms of the audience, and allowing the level and specificity of that transformation to occur on someone else’s terms—giving over control from the artist, in a way, to the viewer, and recognizing what was another theme of the conference: the audience is a collaborator in your work if only because they interpret what they see in ways you can’t control, and take from what you give them in ways you can’t predict. What you can do, as Sarah is doing, is to play with the form, adjust the circumstances, the expectations, and see if something new can emerge.
Michael Rohd of Sojourn Theatre has been playing around with form for quite a while. Sojourn, a company with no real home base (Rohd himself lives in Portland, runs a program on civically-engaged art at Northwestern, and is currently working with his company at a residency at Duke University—all while having a new baby at home), and it creates new and specific works for new and specific communities each time it reconvenes. One of their pieces involved two groups of actors (and two audiences) starting out in two towns 50 miles apart and then bussing them together on the roads of the Northwest to a local, organic meal set up outside to finish—all with the goal of exploding the form, getting strangers to interact, and making the brain work in new ways.
George C. Wolfe, former artistic director of the Public Theater, said that “theatre is people sitting in the dark watching people in the light talking about what it means to be human… [It brings] something into their lives that they cannot create on their own by virtue of what they have shut off… [I]t gives us a feeling of being alive.”
“I used to agree with that,” Michael Rohd said. “That when we gathered together in the dark and watched, we all breathed together and united. I don’t believe that anymore. I don’t think there’s anything inherently communal about sitting in a group in the dark and viewing something that someone else has prepared for you. I think there are a lot of situations where people sit alone and experience other people’s narratives, but that isn’t building community, and I’m not interested in that.”
Which gets me back to impact echo. What makes the echo? How do you define the impact? Is it a bullhorn or a whisper? Is it participation or projection? Is it seeing yourself reflected, or seeing the other? If we’re talking about an artform that inspires civic engagement, what is the directive, and how do you pass it down the line?
At one point, Michael Gene Sullivan was talking about his philosophy of work, and he said it was simple. He strives to create only pieces of work that, if everyone on the planet were magically able to see them, would change the world. And so should we all.