While I'm working on a pair of essays that document the two iterations of BeginAgain that have been performed so far--the stage version in Seattle at On the Boards, and the installation version that closed last night at 3LD in New York--I thought I'd take a quick moment to clarify something I get asked a lot. I've appeared in the programs for both as the "embedded critic," and I get asked frequently what, exactly, that's supposed to mean. While earlier essays lay out the general vision of the project I've been working on with this company, I thought I'd take a minute to sort of clarify the backstory.
The term "embedded critic" was coined by the British theater critic Andrew Haydon back in 2012, and, if memory serves, it was almost sort of a joke. That is, the name derives from the notion of the "embedded journalist," a term that gained currency during the invasion of Iraq in '03 when journalists would travel into the conflict "embedded" with a particular division or company of soldiers. Anyway, again unless I'm misremembering, Haydon concocted the term after traveling through Iraqi Kurdistan with a theater company; if journalists in that situation were "embedded" with the troops, than surely a theater critic was "embedded" with the theater company.
From there, the idea took on a life of its own. Haydon, of whom I think quite highly, is one of a variety of critics who have been abandoned the outdated model of newspaper criticism, where a writer shows up to a show, reviews the piece, and then publishes a day or two later and calls it done. The separation between the critic and the artist, the notion of "objectivity," and so on are all problematic notions, anyway, so why not rethink the whole thing? A variety of British theater critics embraced the notion of being embedded with the artists--of grappling with the work over time, as it was developed or experienced by diverse audiences. Matt Trueman has written extensively on the concept and embedded himself with a variety of different companies. Maddy Costa--a critic with the Guardian--joined forces with Jake Orr--a blogger--after a particularly intense session at Devoted and Disgruntled in 2012 to launch Welcome to Dialogue, which served as a frame for such projects.
In the US, the primary theorist of the idea of "embedded criticism" and rethinking the nature of critical practice is my collaborator Andy Horwitz, of Culturebot.org. I think I was the one who introduced the term "embedded critic" to him, but in practice it was merely a new term for a concept he'd been toying with for a long time. Andy's a product of the 1990s and started writing online and blogging pretty early--before the term "blogging" gained a lot of currency, in fact. As such, he was influenced by the ideas that motivated the earlier Internet. While today we take the notion of the "hyperlink" for granted, in the '90s it was a revolutionary idea: instead of isolated bits of text expressing ideas in hermetically sealed units, hyperlinking permitted for ideas to exist discursively, in dialogue with one another, connected by links such that information formed a complex network or web of intersections that were non-linear.
Andy has always been fascinated by this idea because it exposes work in a different way. Culturebot started as the in-house blog of PS122 with the intent to make public the discussions Andy was having with artists. Over time, as more and more information piled up in the archives, it became a living, interlinked network of information on how artists were creating work in New York and further afield. So in 2012 when Andy was formulating his ideas about "critical horizontalism," the idea of "embedded criticism" fit nicely into the mix as a way of referring to a writer engaging with artists' processes over time; in many ways, it became merely a term for what he (and I, in my own way) were already doing.
So at a basic level, embedded criticism simply refers to long-term engagement with the work. I've followed BeginAgain through several early iterations, was in the theater with them for a tech residency in August 2013, saw the premiere in Seattle in March 2014, and watched them transform it into an installation a month later in New York. There's a lot still to be written about the piece, tracing how these ideas emerged and were realized in diverse spaces over time.
The problem I've faced--as has Matt Trueman and Maddy Costa and Jake Orr and pretty much everyone else I know of who's tried to do "embedded criticism," which in practice remains a vague notion--is that it's hard to figure out what you're actually doing, or rather, what you should actually be writing and saying about the work. As a "critic" I remained largely outside of the creative process, as opposed to what I would do as a dramaturg. I was observing and responding, but my responses were hard to set out in writing. "Criticism" is perhaps not the best word for what we're actually doing. I found repeatedly that I couldn't have a strong response to what I saw because I was aware that the company was still trying to figure out what it was doing. I learned a lot about their process as artists, but that's merely journalistic rather than responsive, as a critic might be. Compounding this is the fact that zoe | juniper is a dance company, creating abstract visual and movement work. There is no clear story or narrative they're trying to realize at a practical level, so it's hard to evaluate and respond to their process since the creation is not a matter of realizing a concrete idea so much as arriving an acceptable end product through exploration and experimentation.
Indeed, for me, what's been most fascinating is not so much aesthetic questions but rather economic ones: the labor and cost that goes into creating a performance like BeginAgain. This is a little understood thing, and one that's considered boring by general audiences, such that it receives relatively little attention in the press. But the fact is that this piece has been developed through a generative process across more than two years, in Seattle, New York, and Atlanta (formally speaking), to say nothing of semi-related processes in Canada (to mention but one). It's featured several generations of designers and dancers and performers to make, all of which comes at substantial cost and effort to Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey. It's hard, in other words, and telling that story was and remains my primary goal as an "embedded critic," which certainly requires being "embedded" but doesn't have much to do with "criticism" at all.
Anyway, these are brief notes on what, exactly, "embedded criticism" is, and the various early iterations of that process can be read on this blog.