Community/Resistance: Reflections on discourse and community

by Diana Damian Martin

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.)

In  The New Way of the World: On Neoliberal Society, Dardot and Laval present an articulation of  neoliberalism that foregrounds a particular rationality, one that ‘tends to structure and organise not only the action of rulers, but also the conduct of the ruled’ (2013:4) Neoliberalism is defined here as capitalism’s contemporary rationality, one that encompasses discourses, practices and mechanisms which determine ‘a new mode of government of human beings in accordance with the universal principle of competition’ (2013:4). If this position implicates a somewhat pessimistic outlook on the power structures that shape and dominate fundamental areas of society, from community and politics to culture and action, it is also ties politics, competition and discourse together. As a result, Dardot and Laval present culture as a fundamental manifestation of landscapes of the political and aesthetic.

In this theoretical and political climate then, communities become powerful and fluid conglomerations where action, visibility and resistance might emerge. Yet given what is imposed on these by the neoliberal society, it’s important to consider how this resistance might form within the relationships established by art and community- more specifically, performance and community.

In a recent interview, philosopher Alain Badiou speaks of how we might conceive of the encounter as a politicized practice, emphasizing that the authentic emerges when we are able to assume that ‘it is the beginning of a possible adventure’ (Badiou 2014). The encounter cannot be accidental, Badiou states, it must be articulated, otherwise it becomes fleeting, moderated by the codes of the neoliberal that structure affective and intellectual engagement in market transactions. Speaking of the rise of the ‘micro-milieux’ as a form of collective engagement and community formation, Badiou warns against fragmentation and places value in the possibility opened up by seemingly impossible encounters and associations. It is the difference within these that might provide an opportunity for the construction of real meaning.

In theatre, we speak a lot about the power of the temporary community; of those gatherings that are implicit in the act of sharing and encountering. Yet the ways in which we might understand iterations of this theatrical condition are very much embedded in the problems articulated above. Be it the spatial and situated work of socially engaged practices, reaching out to both provide and instill a sense of ownership of issues and problems that by-passes governmentality, or the meditations on the condition of the viewer implicated by formal and thematic developments of contemporary practice, theatre and performance have engaged in questions of community by embracing mechanisms which are, nevertheless, situated. We might then think of the radical in these practices as something which defies displacement of power or spatial thinking; instead, the radical becomes amorphous, immaterial, slippery.

In the UK, funding cuts and shifts in cultural ideologies have made an imprint not only on the visibility of these practices, but their very possibility too. At the heart of this is a politics guided by emotions like anxiety and fear, instilled by the ethical dimensions of artistic practice and its personal implications on cultural operators and artists. As Slavoj Zizek argues in a recent article for The Guardian, ‘the only way [the government] actively mobilizes people is through fear: the fear of immigrants, the fear of crime, the fear of godless sexual depravity, the fear of excessive state [...]’ He gives the example of the co-option of language into these mechanisms, explaining the ways in which political correctness acts as an exemplary form of the politics of fear.  Within this landscape of emotional practice, discourse, be it explicitly verbal or not, becomes fundamental to authentic conversations and transactions of meaning that can instill action and develop a more grounded, sustainable and resistant cultural landscape.

There are numerous projects that have come to operate within the dynamic of community and culture, developing methodologies and processes of practice that implicate the discursive critical and the political into the fabric of the project. Such an example is the symposium co-curated by artist Rajni Shah, The Radical in Socially Engaged Practices, stemming from the end her participatory project Glorious, in which artists and locals from different regions worked together to create a musical piece. Foregrounding conversation as emerging through both constructed situations and authentic exchanges, the symposium aimed at a horizontality in which participants shed their professional specificity in favor of informed exchange. Meals, sharings and provocations formed the core of the exchange, whilst artistic process became a strategy through which sharing might occur. Although knowledge is not necessarily articulated, but exchanged, the symposium poses the question of the role of the immaterial, the undocumented in the construction of radical communities of resistance and thought, taking a similar model to that unofficial, unrecognized academic institutions and guerrilla pedagogy.

The Spill Festival of Performances has developed a National Platform aimed at young artists working in performance and live art, taking place annually in Ipswich, the home town of Artistic Director Robert Pacitti. Its first iteration in 2012 was particularly centered around the active Town Hall which was, for the duration of the festival, the central hub of activity. This activity was grounded in three main strategies, aimed at inviting participation: the exhibition of Lois Keidan’s definition of Live Art in the foyer area of the hall, marked in vinyl across an entire wall, like a guardian of this cultural practice that hadn’t been visible in Ipswich in its recent history. The second was the Live Art Development Agency’s Study Cafe, in which visitors to the festival as well as locals and tourists could scavenge through a number of themed boxes of critical writing, anthologies, monograph and artist writings, from body-based work through to contemporary experimental theatre. Finally, there was a digital, critical writing programme aimed at responding to the work of the festival whilst offering opportunities for investigation into performance criticism for a group of six young writers, which I led in the period of the festival as Writer in Residence.

I was particularly struck by the intent of this gesture which, in the eyes of the Festival’s Director, was aimed at engaging with a space that was civic and cultural, public and private.   The notion that an operating Town Hall might serve both as cultural and political site, coupled with the confrontational nature of a definition of Live Art that speaks of the politics of a field seeking to challenge social norms and assumed codes of conduct, often accused of opacity and inaccessibility, and the discursive practices deployed intentionally across the festival, resonate with the essential principle that sees the formation of publics through democratic deliberation. The active displacement of these sites of discourse from the centrality of London, in which Spill has been operating for several years successfully, seemed to relocate a belief in the radicality of site and discourse and the potential for dissent through critical strategies. This relocation marked an investment of agency not solely into discourse as a formation of a public of opinion, but as a dissensus erupting through collective engagement.

Pacitti outlines his interest in revisiting notions of radicality in the public perception and constitution of live art, capitalizing on the relationship with the local authority and cultural infrastructure built upon the promise of artistic practice as a form of social and economic development. Through the discursive emphasis of the Festival, with integrated Salons in which audiences, artists and locals could discuss pertinent issues and first impressions of live art and its politics, and under its theme of proximity, there was an inherent problematization of the relationship between the often peripherally perceived cultural landscape of performance and live art and its wider sphere. The different modes of enacting space for discourse but also participation, be it the spatial and dialogic configuration of the Town Hall’s Study Cafe alongside Keidan’s definition of live art, the digital framework of the writing programme or the discursive and embodied politics of the Salons, located an interest in the active constitution of localities- physical, social, digital. In other words, at the intersection between traditionally constituted political forms of deliberation, the site of that deliberation and crafted architecture of the Festival, is the possibility of a critical engagement with live art and its public perception which constitutes a potential critical act.

Whether this potential tactic of insurrection into the architecture of cultural infrastructure has been successful or not remains to be seen. There is a fundamental question here to be asked about the agents of such an insurrection, and whether we might still think of fields of practice as needing challenge that emerges from the outside. Such discourses, developed via and in relation to those offered by performance and theatre practice, might be able to construct the kinds of articulated encounters that Badiou discusses, and resist the formations of power structures inherent in the neoliberal.  That being said, there is much to be said of those core tropes of community engagement – accessibility, action, facilitation – in relation to critical engagement; after all, the aesthetic is a highly complex register of contemporary politics within the cultural landscape.

Badiou Alain and Petitjean Clement ‘People cling onto identities… it is a world opposed to the encounter’ Verso Blog¸14 April 2014 [accessed 15 April 2014]

Dardot Pierre and Laval Christian, 2013. The New Ways of the World: On Neo-liberal society. London: Verso.

Slavoj Zizek, ‘Liberal multiculturalism masks an old barbarism with a human face’, Guardian, 3 October 2010, Comments Is Free section [accessed 11 April 2014]

Diana Damian Martin is Lecturer in Performance Arts at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. She is co-founder of Writingshop, a long term collaborative project with three European critics examining the processes and politics of contemporary critical practice and Institute of Critical Practice, a nomadic [non] organization that aims to explore the ways in which criticism currently manifests itself in contemporary performance as a mode of inquiry and production, strategy for visibility and practice of dissemination. She has published extensively for both print and online in the UK, France, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic and Romania and is completing her funded doctoral project: Criticism as a Political Event at Royal Holloway, University of London.