MIT VAP October 05, 2009
City as Stage, City as Process
I attended Joan Jonas' lecture without previous knowledge ... so, rather than hearing a contemporary explication on cities and performance from Jonas, I experienced a sort of personal history as illustrated by a few videos from her earlier public-space performance.
The first film even felt more like a documentation than a statement. The intensity of daylight combined with the personal drama to create an almost macabre circus-like feeling - which grabbed me more as abstract presentation than as commentary. One of the women performing tasks, like banging wood together, was smiling the whole time. Her personality coming through the performance emphasized the collaborative nature of choreographed performance. Even though at times the performers were cogs of a living, kinetic sculpture, they were not trying to be faceless; each person was more than some illustrative stooge.
Her next film emphasized the impromptu nature of performance. The film began with herself, another performer, and a videographer. Jonas had brought along some props to experiment with in the space of the street. The two women were joined by a playful passer-by, and then left just as easily. I think I had a hard time taking the performances seriously because I perceived no specific narrative or goal; I felt like more of an omniscient jocular bystander than a seriously minded, affected critic. Monty Python definitely came to mind during both screenings.
The Q&A after Jonas’ presentation revealed some critical elements of public performance.
One topic touched on by different questions was that of community. The audience was made up and collected by Jonas. She pointed out that the artist needs to build up excitement; those watching were usually friends of friends and friends of the performers. Putting out physical media to advertise is important, though not more so than creating a receptive body with actual warm bodies. Jonas also asserted several times her feeling of collective ownership over the city, “it was our city and we could do what we wanted to there.” The concept of the city as OURS and not THEIRS becomes important perhaps because that situational ownership and familiarity provides the safe space for such performances. I felt afterwards both re-inspired to work collaboratively and reminded of the importance of allowing myself to feel possession over a place Sand-Lot style.
Another topic Jonas addressed was how she chose the spaces. While my notes are slightly incoherent regarding who said what ... it seems she was interested in empty spaces that specifically did not have many people walking through. It’s as though cities, due to the proclivity of structural growth and the undulation between heavy or decreased traffic, have holes with unusual, empty spaces. Those holes, they function as spaces for artists to fill. Are these unintentional holes necessary? What happens when they are institutionally created? And are they a context necessary for good art? Is there a necessary amount of felt neglect for a “hole” to draw her in as a space for performance? The un-intentional artist spaces of Jonas’ lecture are certainly different from Christoph Schäfer’s carefully (and sort of institutionalized) latte-zones of creative context. What would Jonas do if a large space were provided to her by way of an arts initiative? Or by a for-profit company? And to what degree do these things matter?