useful misunderstanding

[patching notes for a talk on tuesday, about describing and assessing art for social change…]


Peggy Phelan:

“Expecting understanding and always failing to feel and see it, we accuse the other of inadequacy, of blindness, of neglect. The acceleration of ethnic and racial violence may be due in part to the misplaced desire to believe in the (false) promise of understanding. It is perhaps past time that we begin to attempt to see the inevitability of misunderstanding as generative and hopeful, as opportunities for conversation (and maybe a little further down the line for comedy as well), rather than as a betrayal of a promise. Or to put it slightly differently, perhaps the best possibility for ‘understanding’ racial, sexual, and ethnic difference lies in the active acceptance of the inevitability of misunderstanding.”


Requisites of the form – that the work be


Horizontal: To avoid tourism on either side of the equation, work with persistence. Otherwise you will work to generic effect with generic materials – if strangers put together your work, on behalf of strangers, in estranged locations – rooms stripped of articulation and with no purpose other than to make the general, general – then there is no hospitality; no one is risking or expending the personal point of view. The deeper your work, the longer the read; to share language with audiences/collaborators, you need to persist, and associate (operate in a culture). So you can move serially, bringing associations and methods with you (TO; new Cornerstone), or return to the same place again and again (even if the local population changes), or work in the same place on a special scale of time (a long residency, an organic development process).


Inexplicable: In cases where representation is involved – you are reporting, or documenting – especially in cases of trauma, the language, to be accurate, should be primary, meaning non-descriptive, non-historical. The language should be an event in itself, the cause of thinking, not thinking. You are not speaking for, or at; you are speaking inter-molecularly – making space that matches space.


Useless: There is a heavy push to outcomes; this puts the work everywhere but the present – what will occur, and what will survive. These, in kinship with ownership, are the chief sources of misery in the arts. Our nature is in the present. Our mission is to provide a ground of being; to be-with, and to give permissions for everyone involved to experience a change of heart – not to change hearts, and especially not to change hearts from this to that, but to provide the environment in which the change may occur. This is the work of peace – to protect the permission to be. Peace isn’t happiness; it isn’t a script. Peace is a performance; a script may give rise to it, happiness may result, but peace itself is live, and life is inexplicable, and only itself.


Sublime: Duration, permissions, and radical presence are required to provide that atmosphere of trust essential to excellence. You cannot have excellence without trust – without it one creates out of fear and cynicism, one witnesses from behind a range of protections. Art that has the right opinions about the right subjects, done the right way, efficiently – is fraught with sanction. The misery of getting it right, for performer and audience, is debilitating. This is as true for theater of the oppressed as it is for mainstream political drama.

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