Artists and Empowerment: How Do We Stay Engaged With Our Community In An Evolving Practice?

by John Moletress

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 February of this year, I attended a discussion on the praxis of the triangular relationship between audience, artist and institution led by Theatre Development Fund and Theatre Bay Area which convened at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. This lively dialogue was an effort to suss out how institutions reach into the community, connecting the work and the audience in various modes of exploration and interplay.

One of the interesting ideas raised by fellow artist Ronnie Penoi, Founder of theatre from the district, was that in the cases of smaller companies and those individual artists not represented under the umbrella of an institution, the triangle is collapsed into a direct relationship. My thinking goes one step further into the notion of a bilateral relationship, a engagement of dialogue between the work and the viewer, which creates a compelling discussion on artistic practice and consent.

The giving and taking of permission is something deeply imbedded within artistic practice, whether it’s transparent or not. As an audience member entering the doors of the institution, arriving at the box office window to retrieve a ticket and taking a seat, you have given me permission to engage you. At times, permission can be a tad more elusive and thrown out of the realm of direct permission to something which needs to be navigated. An example would be if the venue seating was general admission and the choice of where you might view the work determines your experience. You give consent but under a particularly experiential circumstance. On the other end of this would be in the case of public performance, site-specific or pop-up works such as flash mobs. The consenting relationship is less transparent and the viewer can choose whether or not to engage. In a way, permission becomes intertwined with the notion of participation. Participation is inseparable from the concept of community.

To expound on this thought, we can look at how communities operate, artistic, civil or otherwise. This shared space or social unit is energized by the notion of arrival, whether this be physical, verbal or conceptual. Whether arrival is achieved or not, if arrival is a goal or destination, we are constantly entering and exiting, giving and taking permission. For a moment, think about the idea that art does not manifest itself until one person other than the artist sees it. This idea is the entire foundation of how we as artists participate within communities.

Further down the line we can consider how we engage with critics. In the case of most artists, we desire the work to be seen. We give permission to the critic to experience the work and then write an invitation for others to do the same. Community has now become a marketplace. In a sense, the critic has been given permission to place a consumer value upon the work which will inform the potential audience whether or not they should engage. This is perhaps in line with Marxist ideology, but think about the question of the foundation of art manifested by one observer. So, what am I probing?

Returning to the relationship of art, audience and institution or, art and audience, should more artists take active participation in the giving of their work? Or, should artists empower themselves with more permission regarding how the work engages with the community? Here, community can be the audience member in their seat or the community-at-large which may be the potential audience. Now, the question becomes about structure. The structure of the triangular or bilateral relationship.

In the case of the institution, the permission of the artist is on loan. Think about that idea for a moment. Perhaps, it is easier to think about the loan in terms of a contract. The artist enters in to a contract with the institution whereby this, that and the other while under that contract. At this point, the artist has also entered into the marketplace. They have given permission to the institution to represent their work. Now, art is a commodity. What is the value of art?

Thinking about those folk dancers and village storytellers, spinning cultural histories into artistic practice, I wonder how the role of institution might be defined in this case should institution need to even exist in the dialogue. Can the community be the institution? Or, is the artist the institution? I think both are possible. If the community is the institution it becomes the structure that makes space for the experience of the work. The emphasis is placed on the notion of gathering and shared experience. The artist as institution is representative of the work, the stories, histories or traditions.

How do we enter into community? How do we as artists empower ourselves to be present with the work? How do we give ourselves permission to be fully present with the experience?

Whether we are self-producing, under contract by a theatre, or simply creating in any guise, there is an opportunity for engaged discussion. How we enter into this discussion may come in any number of ways- a meet and greet, an open rehearsal, a talk back, a handshake. Dialogue is nothing new in arts making and more arts organizations are investigating the question of how they intersect with their communities. Let this be an invitation to all artists to open the door to the possibility of community within their own practice. Let us champion a model of practice in which the issue of value moves from the art to the interaction, the engagement. Art does not need to be elusive. It possesses a defining trait the overwhelming capacity to bring people together, even if for a moment. Without this trait, art might be something entirely different.

Am I suggesting that all institutions are adversely placing artists into the role of commodity? No. Am I suggesting that artists should empower themselves to take more control over their work? Yes. The larger issue is one of structure. As theatre companies grow, manifest, re-structure and become increasingly larger and more visible, the challenge of sustainability becomes inseparable from the artistic model. The financial pendulum swings harder and faster, and at the same time the institution grows, so does the need for income. At this point, the institution that once seemed an inviting space for artistic endeavor can become something seemingly impossible to navigate. That is not to say that the institution can’t be a reflection into the community for positive growth and change, economically and socially. Furthermore, it must be said that the power of institution to create jobs for artists is a vital practice.

How do we return to community, the foundation of sustainable practice? We listen. As we grow, we can deepen the investigation of engagement. How can we be an energizing part of the community’s fabric? What is the community asking of us and how can we respond most effectively? Those institutions- individual, collective or theatre house- that are fortunate to expand and in some cases, grow vast, must remind themselves daily of their upbringing, their foundation. Peer out into the community and listen. Create a daily practice of asking yourself, what can I do for my community today? Give gratitude for being a part of that community. Daily practice is sustainable practice.


John Moletress is a multi-disciplined artist, educator and Founding Director of force/collision, currently based in Washington, D.C. He has created, directed and choreographed new work and premieres for site, video and stage, including playwrights Caridad Svich, Erik Ehn, Craig Wright and Falk Richter. John’s latest work, the Derek Jarman-inspired film/theatre performance JARMAN (ALL THIS MADDENING BEAUTY), written by Caridad Svich in collaboration with force/collision will kick off its tour in the UK Fall 2014. JohnMoletress.com; force-collision.org