"No ideas but in things" is a line from William Carlos Williams's poem "A Sort of a Song," and has often been read as his statement of the poet’s approach to the art. Ideas, for Williams, cannot be approached in the abstract, as a sort of intellectual game, but rather must exist in concrete relation to the world.
Zoe Scofield (who is more of a poetry person than I am, I’ve discovered) proposed the line as the title for my collaboration with the company she co-helms. For the next year or so, as zoe | juniper develops their newest evening length work BeginAgain (which premiers at On the Boards in Seattle in March 2014), I will be responding to and documenting the process of creation, exploring the ideas that inform and emerge from the company's development work. The title is, I think, quite fitting—a collaboration based on immersion rather than distance, of responsiveness and participation rather than detached appraisal.
The idea behind No Ideas But in Things emerged from a series of conversations Scofield and I had in 2012 and early 2013; it turned out that as both of us were asking questions about our approach to our respective practices—hers as a choreographer, mine as a performance critic—there was a convergence over the need we both recognized to reconsider the process of making a performance. This is our collaborative attempt to begin such a reconsideration.
For Scofield, the desire to change how she thought about—and others looked at—the process of creating a performance came out of her experience developing A Crack in Everything (2011). A Crack in Everything was the company's most recent and ambitious work, their second national co-commissioned project, between On the Boards, Portland's TBA Festival, Jacob's Pillow (where it premiered), DTW/New York Live Arts, and the National Performance Network. In the field, this is the sort of recognition and support that almost every emerging dance company longs for. But with that opportunity come challenges, and the pressure to meet or exceed the implicit (or explicit) expectations of your presenters: to use the opportunity, in other words, to more fully realize the artistic vision they decided to support.
Scofield and her co-creator Juniper Shuey understood from the beginning that all that pressure was par for the course; what Scofield found troubling, though, was how much emphasis this wound up placing on the hour-long performance that came out of three years' work making A Crack in Everything. Previously, working in their hometown of Seattle, the company had a sense of each piece existing in relation to their prior work. But with A Crack in Everything, audiences around the country were seeing only this one-hour snippet which came to represent the company's entire aesthetic/artistic practice. As she put it jokingly to me in an email, "Audiences only see eleven percent of what we do." The other 89 percent is what gets written off as "development" and "process," leaving only the product of that work to be hyper-scrutinized.
None of which made sense to her, since she saw herself as fundamentally engaged in an ongoing process of investigation. When she began work on BeginAgain, to try to shift the frame from product to process—where the bulk of her artistic practice lay—she decided to conduct the initial set of residencies and WIP-showings as "chamber studies," collectively referred to as No One to Witness or Adjust, No One to Drive the Car (another reference to Williams, this time, to the poem "To Elsie").
To be clear, No One to Witness... isn't just a matter of framing and optics; as of this writing, the fourth study has recently been completed, with a two-day open performance at Velocity Dance Center. Each study (which will be addressed more in depth in the future) was constructed to explore specific questions, and intended to stand on its own, as an act with artistic merit in and of itself, independent of its role in developing BeginAgain.
For my part, the interest in this project emerged from conversations I was having with colleagues (critics) both in New York and abroad. Andy Horwitz at Culturebot had, from the beginning, proposed that blogging about art placed the critic in temporal relation to the work. In other words, the critic wasn't evaluating some "finished product" so much as engaging in an ongoing dialogue with art and artists over time, and this informs a core component of "critical horizontalism."
Around the same time that Andy was framing critical horizontalism for me, the British critic Andrew Haydon wrote an essay on what he dubbed "embedded criticism." The nomenclature was borrowed from the practice of "embedded reporters" with the troops during the invasion of Iraq, and inspired by Haydon's own tour with a theater company in Kurdistan. A number of British critics leapt at the idea, led by Maddy Costa (the Guardian) and Jake Orr (A Younger Theatre), who, inspired by Andy's critical horizontalism as much as embedded criticism, launched a project called Welcome to Dialogue.
For my part, the appeal of embedded criticism as a concept lay in the recognition that—much as Zoe was lamenting—the sort of contemporary performance I cover follows a very different course of material realization, and that process is integral to understanding the work. There are many practical reasons to follow a work over time. I came name a half dozen pieces off the top of my head that I encountered prior to their premier that had certain strengths I thought were lost as the work was "completed" (read: turned into a presentable, tourable piece). But for my money, there are two crucial considerations that can only be addressed through a practice like embedded criticism, one aesthetic, one economic.
Aesthetically, what I found myself thinking as Zoe described her concerns over the way contemporary performance is presented and consumed is that this dovetailed with work by European thinkers who had been provoking me. Mårten Spångberg has offered a withering critique of the European version of this system throughout his pugilistic enterprise "Spångbergianism," encouraging artists to rethink their relationship with and respond to the system in which they work. In a related vein, Michael Kliën and Steve Valk (among many others) have sought to focus on process in its own right, proposing that choreography—far from being a mere means to making a new dance piece—can be a critical practice of broader social investigation. While Scofield I don't think proposes to go so far in either direction, she shares similar concerns, and just as she's proposed that opening up and liberating her own process can preserve her artistic practice from disappearing into a consumption-oriented morass, such a project seems to require an ongoing critical engagement, a partner (for better or worse, me) who can help illuminate and elucidate the particulars of the process.
All of this, however, occurs at the level of theory and aesthetic approach. There is also a far more concrete and practical application for embedded criticism: Namely, to create a document of the labor that goes into creating contemporary performance.
It goes without saying that to lay audiences, the process of materially realizing a piece is vague at best, and often misinformed by relation to more conventional artistic practices. But within the field there is an increasingly broad acceptance that the current model for supporting work is inherently unsustainable for the artists and companies making the work. Artists can no longer really emerge from the "emerging artist" stage, since practically speaking, the infrastructure no longer exists to provide for establishing and maintaining companies, a space, and so on. From a journalistic rather than critical perspective, I believe that simply creating a living document of the actual labor and cost inputs in creating a work can serve to inform and help generate positive change within the field, and No Ides But in Things is in part my contribution to the broader discussion over art, labor and money being led by the like of Working Artists and the Greater Economy and, indeed, my former colleagues at Culturebot, with the Brooklyn Commune.
In the end, though, all of this is merely speculative—inspiration, yes, but not programmatic. In the end, by its very nature, this project is designed to be an open process of engagement over time, subject to evolution and further development as zoe | juniper and I move forward. This space is intended to be both a forum and a clearinghouse of information, a resource providing a window into the company's work and space—albeit a digital one—in which Zoe and Juniper can engage directly with their audiences, whether existing, potential, or indeed, just virtual.