2.15 / Performance: The Body Politic

Interview with Shannon Jackson

By Christina Linden April 10, 2011

Image: Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (New York: Routledge, 2011).

Art Practical's Christina Linden talks with Shannon Jackson, UC Berkeley Professor of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies and Rhetoric, about her forthcoming book Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (Routledge, 2011) and the symposium "Curating People," which she is coordinating for April 28 and April 29 at the Performance Art Institute and UC Berkeley.


Christina Linden: We first met last spring in New York after the conference “Audience Experiments,” organized by Pablo Helguera at The Museum of Modern Art. I had come straight from another conference at Portland State University called “Open Engagement,” and I was curious and also perplexed about the way those two conferences were looking largely at an overlapping body of works but were producing really different conversations.

One of the primary distinctions for me was that the conference attendees in Portland were largely from visual arts backgrounds, specifically from the three social practice graduate programs on the West Coast: here at California College of the Arts, at Portland State, and at Otis. In New York, there were quite a few professionals, like yourself, who come from performance studies or theater backgrounds. It was the first time that I had thought about that particular distinction and what different readings for social practice would be engendered by coming from either of these two directions, but clearly at the time you were already well into working on a book on the topic.

From the prologue to Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics: “To be reductive but rhetorical, we might discern a kind of experimental chiasmus across the arts; a movement toward painting and sculpture underpins post-dramatic theater, but a movement toward theater also underpins post-studio art.”1

Can you say a few words about how you came to identify this as a framework you wanted to explore in the book and also generally about how your interest in social practice first developed?

Shannon Jackson: Well, it is great to hear about your experience of those two conferences and some of the new thoughts they provoked. Even if all of us are interested in interdisciplinary art, I do think that we encounter work within inherited parameters that we may not always know that we have. 

I received a PhD in performance studies. This is a field that integrates theater and dance and experimental performance art. It is also informed by more sociological, anthropological, and rhetorical orientations. We think about the role of performance in ritual activity and in organizing collectives and communities; we think about theories of performativity and how, as the speech act theorists say, we “do things with words.” Performance studies is thus a very large umbrella, but, as a result, different PS scholars have different frames that we use to analyze work. Being in performance studies, I became very interested in conversations where PS scholars and artists were learning from each other but also talking past each other. When I began to learn about the field of social practice and relational aesthetics, it seemed obvious to me that it bore a relation to performance. But I soon realized that it was not obvious to everyone else. So I started to teach myself new frames of reference and art histories that had been less familiar to me, in order to try to connect the dots.

Mierle L. Ukeles. Social Mirror, 1983; mirror-covered sanitation truck. Courtesy of the Artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

CL: One of the main thrusts of the argument you put forward in Social Works comes out of your position that looking at these perceptions and parameters “challenges our understanding of what is properly within the aesthetic sphere and what is heteronomously located outside of it…the Art/Life discourse has a different traction when we recast it as a meditation on the paradoxes of Art and its Support.”2 Can you expand on the traction you find in this distinction?

SJ: A certain kind of art-into-life discourse has had an enormous impact on performance studies discourse. At the same time, the Art/Life binary does not always provide a specific compass for doing an analysis, in part because the category of Life is so expansive and imprecise. 

When Life is invoked in art practice, it is often equated pretty quickly with associations like “freedom,” “spontaneity,” and “disruption,” and I thought it was worth thinking about some other elements, especially the elements of the world that make Life possible. That made me interested in certain kinds of expanded art practices that not only celebrated freedom, but also explored interdependent relationships of obligation and care and sometimes even responsibility. If a political art discourse becomes too enthralled with breaking down institutions, then it ignores the degree to which we are in fact dependent upon institutions. Yes, the “institution” constrains; but it also sustains. Can we stay complicated about this? My hope is that by thinking about support as a complex system, as a social question but also as an aesthetic question, we can activate a different conversation.

Once I started to think about it, I really felt that we could start to link expanded art histories from the visual art world with expanded art histories from the theater world. In fact, if we think about Constructivism, Duchamp, or minimalism, if we think about Brecht and Meyerhold, there is a pervasive interest in the exposure of the support. Support is both a social question and an aesthetic pursuit in the visual arts and in theatre.

CL: How did you choose the primary examples you chose to discuss in the book?

SJ: I wanted projects where the relation between aesthetics and politics was complicated. I was less interested in projects that had a pre-determined sense of who the good guys were and who the bad guys were.

I also chose projects where I felt like I had more to learn. Most of the projects are those initiated by people who began in the visual arts. Since I am somebody who is coming from theater and performance studies, I was interested in trying to teach myself some new things by focusing more on artists who began in other forms. 

Finally, every case study offers some kind of aesthetic inquiry into social systems and social structures. I tried to pick cases that showed a range of social systems and that also gave a sense of a history of innovation from the 1960s to the present. So Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s work on public sanitation is in there along with very recent work by people like Paul Chan, Rimini Protokoll, and Elmgreen and Dragset.

CL: You write about the possibility of imagining sustainable social institutions as infrastructure. What already existing institutions do you find most valuable for experimental performance or social practices?

SJ: It’s hard not to be fairly literal in answering the question, but I think that obviously I have an investment in public education, being an employee of that system. Currently, the debates over education, health care, and public welfare are all examples of cases where citizens are debating the degree to which they want or need collective systems of support.  I think that safety nets are important. All systems have the potential for corruption and for getting into actuarial problems that they had not anticipated. But I think that we all rely upon supporting systems—whether they are repairing our highways, picking up our garbage, installing our exhibits, or folding our socks—more than we realize that we do. Support is noticed less when it is working for you; it is more often noticed when it breaks down or is taken away. So drawing attention to our interdependence upon support is philosophically interesting. Some kinds of systems enable freedom and democracy, even if we would rather complain about how much they constrain us. I should say that I don’t think that the complaining only occurs in conservative circles. Some self-described Left circles are just as likely to promote an anti-institutional discourse as, say, Tea Party activists are now. The lure of an anti-system discourse actually makes for some strange political bedfellows.

CL: Do you think that the nature of the relationships to the state or other institutions is specific to the kind of experimental performance and social works we’re talking about here, or would you say this applies in a more blanket way to all artwork?

SJ: As to whether it applies to all artwork, I guess I would say that it does. Painting depends upon frames and canvases but also upon the gallery system. Theatre depends on stage managers and agents. But I do think that certain art forms are less able to deny that they need a supporting apparatus and that some have a vested interest in looking the other way. The works that I ended up selecting were all works that I think are posing questions about our relationship to interdependent systems, state based or otherwise. In some instances I’m really talking about places where a state-based mechanism did not come through. When Paul Chan began to work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, you could say that that is a situation where FEMA did not come through. It may be that the state did not come through because it had been defunded up until then, but Chan was pretty clear that there was a DIY quality to his work; the supporting systems were part of a very mixed economy that included private funding, community grants, philanthropic donations, and the gallery circuit, along with inadequate state funding.

CL: What about the way the institution of the museum is taking up these practices? Recently, the education departments are often the ones commissioning really interesting new work in this mode, and in some cases it operates as a kind of substitute for programming they used to produce more directly. Given the topic of the symposium you are organizing for April 29, I guess this must be on your mind?

SJ: You are alighting upon something that I hope we will talk about at the “Curating People” symposium in April. My hope is that we’ll have a continuous, wider Bay Area conversation about this. You spoke of the conference you attended at MoMA. Pablo Helguera, in the education department, organized that gathering. Why are education departments doing, as you call it, “substitute programming”? Education departments are interested in the experience of receivers. There can certainly be a didactic quality to that role. At the same time, artists who work in social practice and performance are also very concerned about engagement with receivers. If that it is your goal, it can be incredibly interesting to work with someone in education who thinks continuously about what it means to engage people, to address them, to challenge them. Supporting these new art forms begins to challenge the traditional divisions between the curatorial department and the education department.

I ended up deciding to focus on “curating,” specifically “curating people,” because the curators and the staff of the museums and theatre are in the trenches of all of this. We really get a complex picture of what it means to support interdisciplinary art when we think about the kind of work that curators, installers, and stage managers are doing daily. They're living it every day and also re-skilling every day. A visual art curator might have been trained in a particular way, but then a certain kind of hybrid artist comes to town and needs you to secure a street permit or to do a casting call.

CL: That’s true; I’ve had to do a casting call as a curator…

SJ: Yeah, a casting call! Or the stage manager in the theater is being told that she has to set up an installation in the lobby; suddenly all of the ushers and box office managers have to be differently trained about how to run the house. So the staff members at the institutions are in a position to tell the most interesting stories about the institution and how its processes are getting revised. How do artists communicate what they need to their curators? And how do they interest curators in what they're doing despite the fact that the processes required will be challenging?

Paul Chan. Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, 2007; stage set. Photo: Tuyen Nguyen.

CL: In your responses to a questionnaire distributed after “Audience Experiments,” some passages appear that ended up in a truncated form in your book. For instance: “To some, an explicit social mission redeems the art object; to others, it compromises it. For some, the social is figural, for others, it is literal. Conversely, the same interaction that reads as social engagement to one group might seem to be a narcissistic violation of social ethics to another.”3 It struck me that this was edited from the published text; I’ve spent so much time dwelling over questions about unequal access to capital—cultural and otherwise—that produce uneven stakes for different people involved and reproduce systems of hierarchy in social practice projects.

SJ: There’s obviously a really huge debate in contemporary art circles around the social turn, one that creates a polarization between aesthetics and politics. Usually it’s perceived to be a trade-off: “Well, if it is doing socially engaged, efficacious work, then the art isn’t as good.” And conversely, “If the art has some conceptual rigor, then it really isn't doing anything transformative for society.” So I definitely wanted to find a way out of that polarization. This is a place where the language about support, I'm hoping, helps the effort. 

I liked this sense that the exposure of the support could have a certain kind of political traction and expose that humans are interdependent on particular systems. But I also like the idea that the exposure could have a formal and aesthetic rigor. And I like the notion that aesthetic and social provocations could happen together.

At the same time I think that different people who come from different places, whether an art school background or a community organizing background, will still perceive each work differently. This brings us back to the question that you opened with. One thing might look conceptually interesting to one person and look narcissistic to another. A work might look overly literal to one eye and highly metaphoric to another.

I think that community art sometimes gets a bad rap because it seems under-complicated formally, and so-called avant-garde art gets a bad rap because it is not legible enough to be politically effective. My hope is that there could be a bit more tolerance and mutual education on all sides.

Elmgreen and Dragset. Re-g(u)arding the Guards, 2005; museum guards in empty gallery; number of performers variable. Courtesy of the Artists and Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen. Photo: Thør Brodreskift.

CL: Does this play out differently with experimental theater projects as opposed to social practice projects rooted in the visual arts?

SJ: One thing I think that does happen in this interdisciplinary conversation is that the relation between the visual and the theatrical can get framed as a relation between the conceptual and the literal. If there is a question about who is conceptual and who is literal, there can be a tendency to feel that the theater side is on the literal, earnest, unironic end of the spectrum. In one of the chapters, I bring up the example of a debate that happened around the definition of “radical” in theater, around a community art theater group that would probably look “literal” to some visual art people: Cornerstone Theater. Cornerstone is an example of a certain kind of expanded theater practice that has a celebrated record of social engagement. I try to compare some different debates in visual art and theatre criticism in order to propose some different frames. Let’s say these are false polarizations, but misunderstanding them is one of the occupational hazards of bringing many perspectives together, especially since I am doing so as someone who began in the field of theatre and performance studies.

CL: Do you feel that, in making a connection between social practice and performance, you end up advocating for a new framework for performance?

SJ: Well, I would not say that it is a new frame so much as it is a different emphasis. I think that whenever people write about performance, we emphasize different qualities about it. Sometimes, we emphasize its artifice, some its temporality, some its embodiment, some its ephemerality, some its excess. 

In this project, ensemble is the dimension of performance that I emphasize most. Performance has always been this highly coordinated event with multiple people; the systemic organization of people in time and space with materials has been its raison d’etre for a couple of centuries. How do we make an ensemble? How does ensemble make us? Those questions—with all of their histories and all of their headaches—resonate with the central questions of social practice now.





1. Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Public (New York: Routledge, 2011), 2.
2. Ibid., 28.
3. This is not in the published book, but appears in an unpublished document distributed to conference participants by email after the event. From page 3 of this document, it is in response to the question: “Is it necessary, or even possible, to define the term “performative” referring to art practices that involve performing? What would you consider an appropriate, or approximate definition of this term?”

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