Deracination is a great word: it means to pull something up by the roots, to sever or isolate someone (or something) from its native culture. All week, I have been chewing on an example I encountered at last week’s arts conference, and still, I just can’t swallow it.
The meeting was convened by arts funders, part of a multimillion-dollar, multi-year initiative by the Wallace Foundation to expand participation in arts groups’ programs. It was packed in all ways: many interesting snippets of performance; human traffic jams in the lobbies and elevators; many competing sessions. Everything I heard and saw was interesting, offered by presenters who seemed both sincere and excited about what they were sharing. (Clayton Lord had an interesting take on the session I moderated, the one I referred to in my last blog.)
In the opening session, Josephine Ramirez of the James Irvine Foundation talked about a new report: Getting In On the Act: How Arts Groups are Creating Opportunities for Active Participation.
I started out as an eager listener, but quickly lost heart, and reading the report in its entirety hasn’t helped one bit. The report makes many important points, such as the essential need to see an ecology of culture, an “ecosystem” rather than isolated phenomena; but it falls far short of taking its own advice. I respect the people who commissioned and created this report, and honor their intention of deepening understanding of the phenomenon. But in some important respects, the report does the opposite.
Sometimes deracination is an intentional process—a forced assimilation that disappears troubling differences, a cleansing of certain ideas that rewrites history in favor of the authors—but I strongly doubt this was undertaken in that spirit. Instead, apparent gaps in knowledge and understanding on the part of those who commissioned and created this report were magnified into a rewriting of reality that has the unfortunate effect of severing insurgent practices from their liberatory roots.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: the way we shape our stories shapes our lives. This can be seen very clearly in the writing of history, of course, because the perspectives of victors and vanquished are so different, and by definition, the victors are more likely to shape history. The Ewe-mina of Benin, Ghana, and Togo have a proverb (loosely translated): “Until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always have the best part.” For the last few decades, the lions have been telling much more of the story (as haved the gazelles) in alternative histories grounded in first-person narratives that show there are many sides to truth. But not here.
The report is a thoughtful, thoroughly footnoted account of the expanding idea of participation in various art forms and practices, framed almost as reportage on an interesting new phenomenon, a “seismic shift toward a participatory arts culture” that occurs as mushrooms spring from the earth. Except for the value placed on participation itself, it is more or less value-neutral. With a few notable exceptions, the examples are drawn from the conventional artworld’s forays in recent years into expanded participation (e.g., pro-am symphony concerts, site-specific participatory dance in a museum, audience members affecting onstage action through hand-held controllers, and so on). The influences it describes—the economy, the internet and social media, a Zeitgeist of interactivity—are important, but by no means inclusive.
Here are some of the influences and concepts that aren’t explored in the narrative (a couple of these words appear just once, in a throwaway sequence): social justice; democracy; liberation; cultural development; Paulo Freire (whose analysis of speaking one’s own words in one’s own voice is a foundation for so much participatory culture); Augusto Boal (whose notion of the “spectactor” erased the theater’s fourth wall in so many places around the globe); theater for development and other forms of popular theater in Africa; and many, many, many others.
When I start mentally building my own list of inventors and formative influences on an expanding “participatory arts culture,” it is crowded with work from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. There are interesting examples in the report, but they are almost all from North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and overwhelmingly depict largely white organizations (while still omitting even from those categories most of the important work grounded in social justice: what about Roadside Theater’s systematic development of story circle-based participatory theater? What about the influential People’s Portrait Projects devised by Jubilee Arts in the West Midlands of Britain, and their many successors?). The Irvine report doesn’t purport to offer an exhaustive history, but it also omits present-day work that derives from these innovative, social justice-grounded projects.
It is more than a simple omission to elide huge categories of essential influence and innovation that include the lions and gazelles of the story, such as the aforementioned African popular theater, or the great and enormously influential Philippines Educational Theater Association.
But the real problem is the report’s failure to tell the deeper (and far more useful and enlightening) story behind the erosion of the barrier between artist and audience: how the evolution of meaningful participation, collaboration, and co-creation are all rooted in decades of brilliant, critical thinking and dedicated practice by artists working for deep democracy, social justice, and the development of community through collective solutions driven by those most directly affected by social problems; and how those artists and those they influenced are continuing to practice and expand this work today. The report leaves out the pioneers of participatory art, the people who were actually doing the types of work described long before the cited exemplars discovered it, indeed, whose R&D made much of the cited work possible.
I have been writing and speaking for a long time about the danger in focusing on participatory practices as techniques without understanding why to use them. (For example, in a 2008 study of higher education for community cultural development, I wrote of “concern about the degree to which techniques are taught without reference to the social-justice roots of community cultural development practice, to the deepest reasons to deploy those techniques.”)
A footnote to the Irvine report regrets “the omission of many, many excellent programs that will surface after this paper is released.” But of course, those programs have been in plain sight all the time for those aware of the current scope and history of participatory work through community arts; the community murals movement; the many worlds of social issue-based practice; theater for development and Boal-inspired theater in the developing world; and much, much, more. The heavy reliance on secondary sources—academics and researchers studying phenomena, with few primary accounts by practitioners and participants—means that much of the report redigests material that has already been processed through someone else’s filters, dimming the picture. When I look at the sources and informants cited, I can only surmise that gaps in the commissioners’ or creators’ own knowledge, understanding, and networks created the yawning gaps evident in the result.
A classic focus-group exercise illustrates this. Shown a picture of sick cattle in a field, people are asked how the animals got that way. People say that the farmer has neglected the cows’ nutrition, or a virus has gotten into the animals’ food or water. Then the picture is enlarged to show a factory just beyond the farm, belching black smoke and effluent. Suddenly, larger answers emerge. The way we frame our stories matters greatly.
Intentional or not, omitting all the things I’ve mentioned is not a minor oversight, but a severing of the roots of these practices akin to “The Jefferson Bible,” in which Thomas Jefferson excised all references to the divine and supernatural to achieve an account of Jesus’s teachings severed from the source to which Jesus attributed them. It makes me sad.
Now the people who commissioned and created this report really need to find a way to fix this—at the very least, through a meaty, substantial addendum to the report—before this distortion of reality becomes the definitive story for people who don’t have a way to know better.
The great Andy Bey on the necessity of critical reading: “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”