Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Confessions of a social reform and theater scholar turned social practice and performance scholar

By Shannon Jackson

The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is sponsoring the symposium “Curating People” on April 28 and 29, 2011. Participants have been invited to post some brief thoughts on the topic in advance of the event. This first posting is from ARC Director and symposium organizer Shannon Jackson.

Alright, this a broad-stroked exercise that reduces the terms that precede and follow both sides of the “turn.” And of course, I would not want to say that I have concretely left one kind of position and concretely entered another kind of position. But the exercise does allow me to say a bit more about what it means to come to the question of Curating People as someone who first studied theater and wrote a first book on social reform history. We could basically say that theater has been in the business of curating people for quite some time, that the tradition of the form positions “people” as characters and acting bodies in need of coordination. We can also say that social reform is metaphorically about the curating of people, about constructing models of citizenship and about creating social networks that sustain public life in space and over time. But, of course, the idea of curating people in the visual art world or in the performance art scene has a different resonance and different stakes than it does for theater.

Furthermore, the question of whether social practice does or should have anything to do with social reform is a vexed question for many. The idea of Curating People then might be referring to practices that performatively extend inherited art forms in space, duration, embodiment, and collectivity. But how we categorize or respond to this extension depends upon different receivers’ experiences with prior art forms and social movements.  If, for instance, we understand a relational art work to be a revision of sculpture, we encounter it differently than if we understand it to be a revision of theater or dance. To some, the inclusion of an artist’s body in a gallery is formally innovative; to others  it is just bad acting. To some, the dispersal of an art practice is an intriguing “de-materialization”; to others, it is an assembly of blocked sight lines. To some, a durational experiment is tediously slow; to others, it is a meditation on the nature of human endurance. To some, food in the gallery is formally interesting; to others, it is just another party. For some, the social is figural, for others, it is literal. One critic’s sense of ground-breaking innovation is another critic’s Emperor’s New Clothes.

When I began to work on a recent book, I had to contend, not only with these differences, but also with different models of analysis in visual art and theatrical criticism. Some measure a work’s distance from Michael Fried, others from Michael Kirby. For some, the “social” in art is best explicated by Boal, for others, by Bourriaud. Those disciplinary histories also affect the labels people place social art and performance—whether they judge it to be intelligible or unintelligible, spectacular or restrained, ironic or earnest, alienating or interactive, socially-engaged or narcissistic, referential or abstract, fast or slow. In talking to artists and art institutions, I realized too that the social extension of the art object has been challenging inherited methods of curatorship, installation, stage management, and community engagement and often requires a different kind of pragmatic expertise and production support. Art curators are learning from presenters, stage managers from gallery installers, set designers from digital artists, painters from social workers. While I tried to take a crack at these issues in my book, the issues are much bigger than anything that a single person can handle. I wanted to organize Curating People under the ARC banner in order to create the wider conversation that these questions need.