My own work as a writer and performer, coming particularly from spoken word and playwriting, is focused on the imagination as a political function. Language has come to be viewed suspiciously, as unstable and untrustworthy. We certainly know the problems of translation across cultures and between individuals, and the way in which language can defeat our attempts to communicate with one another. So it's not surprising that many artists have sought to expose or even avoid altogether the problems of language by moving away from text.
For those of us who do continue to work in text, the impulse has been toward greater transparency. Poetry has moved from metaphor to a straightforward "telling it like it is" focusing on quotidian language and subject matter. This impulse come from a democratizing desire to take poetry out of the exclusive domain of the academy, while atthe same time, we are still operating under the belief that the personal is political-that for those who are marginalized, telling our stories is an inherently political act.
It is in these impulses that an aesthetic has coalesced in performance art, solo performance, spoken word, and agit prop theatre in what I call political confessionalism.
Go to any poetry slam and it's become almost a cliché, that so-called identity pieces focusing on experience based on race, gender or sexuality, will do very well. No matter how well-performed, a T.S. Eliot piece stands little chance of winning a p, talk shows, reality television, advertising, etc. The words that come at us are presented as rational, yet the onslaught shuts down our rationality, our own capacity to counter their messages.
After so many repetitions and reiterations, political confessionalism becomes a way of telling us what we already know-of preaching to the choir-and therefore loses its potential for transformation. No matter how moving the story, once the scenario becomes familiar we tend toward complacency rather than action, reduced once again to spectacular passivity. By overtelling our stories, we risk psychic numbing and compassion burnout-situations in which the spectator, exposed to trauma or repeated stories of suffering, erect defenses to keep them from becoming affected by the experience. The audience eventually fails or refuses to be moved when they see the same type of stories over and over.
Words got me the wound and will get me well. If you believe it.
The story of the golem: Frankenstein, monster created out of wish. The golem is built on words and with words can be defeated. The Spectacle is built on the marriage of word to image. But what if word and image worked instead to confound our assumptions of rationalism and transparency, to short circuit the messages produced by the spectacle?
I am very interested in looking back to the Surrealist goal of the liberating the imagination as a response to the Spectacle. Within the Spectacle we are robbed of our capacity for creative response. In a world in which nearly every word is calculated to mesmerize us, hold us within the Spectacle-to tell us what to think, what to believe, how to vote, what to buy, how to feel-we can use language to change the way we think. The goal is not to convince the audience or change the things they think, but to use text in performance to rewire the way we think, to use language, which is a left-brained function, to reach audiences with a right-brained response.
What would it mean for words to have the effect on our audiences that a Jackson Pollock painting can have-to explode meaning, to allow the spectator to step directly into a morass of dripping words, beautiful uncertainty? What happens to our audiences when they leave the theatre awash in ideas and images that take them to places beyond known experience, images that explode the apparent transparency of word and image that the Spectacle seeks to create? The aftemath may not feel as palpable to us as a political drama, but we know enough to reject what is simple and easy, what seems transparent and immediate. We can use language to bring the Spectacle to a STOP!
I believe strongly that we are and for the past 20 years have been in the midst of a Cultural Revolution. The "Reagan Revolution" was a hardening of the American heart towards one another, a sense of global isolationism, and a mistrust of artists and intellectuals and anyone who disagreed with the Administration.
The 2004 election was claimed as an election of "values". And it was. But it was not that one side or the other held a moral high ground. But that it represented a clash of values--very different ideas about how to move our country forward and what "forward" even means or if "forward" is even a value that we hold.
As an artist and as a scholar, as an activist of 20+ years, I have come to believe that the liberation of the imagination in our audiences, not just in the artists who create work, is the most political act we can undertake in America. Left/Progressives have had a difficult time reaching voters with programs and polemics, in part because we have been painted as out of touch artists, as cultural elite. Rather than trying to tell people what to think or how to vote, and thus contributing to theUber manifestation of Debord's Society of the Spectacle, I feel that we need to lierally change the way they think, the way they use their brains, the way they respond to the world, and in so doing, will be better equipped to deal with the changing world that we find ourselves in, will be able to have a creative response not only to our work as artists, but to their own individual lives and to the challenges we face collectively, globally, and locally.
This is the text of my final MA presentation at NYU in May 2004.
This is my life's work. It is about reclaiming the avant-garde and its revolutionary content.
Because my work is created simultaneously for page and stage, I am looking at both literary theory and theatre and performance theory. I'm very interested in deconstruction and post-structuralist also difficult for me because of my deep loathing for Derrida. It's not entirely Derrida's fault. It's just that back in the middle 80s I knew too many pretentious English majors running around spouting Derrida. Me, I'm a Barthes woman. And Kristeva.
So I'm currently looking at Artaud, Breton, Semiotics, theories of reading by Barthes, the and looking for a unified field theory here of speech/performance/writing and audience/reader/aftermath, as well as the work here from Debord, Boal, etc. And while we're at it, what is the strength of Boal's own Theatre of the Oppressed? It's opening up his participants to possibilities and empowerment. He is liberating their imaginations!
I'm always interested in discussing these and other ideas with anyone who comes across my site. Please feel free to email me or leave a comment on my blog.