Presented as part of the Connectivity and Community panel at the Superscript 2015 conference. To view the entire panel discussion playlist, click here.
Claudia La Rocco is the author of The Best Most Useless Dress, a selection of writings encompassing a decade’s worth of poetry, essays, performance texts, and reviews, and the editor of I DON’T POEM: an anthology of painters. A frequent contributor to Artforum and the New York Times, she founded thePerformanceClub.org, which won a 2011 Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and focuses on criticism as a literary art form. She is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts’ graduate program in Art Criticism and Writing, teaches at such institutions as Stanford University and Movement Research and has performed and read at such places as the Kitchen, Danspace Project, the Center for New Music and the Mount Tremper Arts Festival. Her current collaborations include projects with the choreographer Michelle Ellsworth, the performance company Findlay//Sandsmark and the composer Phillip Greenlief.
One: When the Walker asked me to talk about “connectivity and community,” I remember thinking I probably wasn’t the best gal for the job. I expressed my concerns that I hadn’t given much thought to the subject, that my response to the phrase “arts journalism and criticism in a digital age” is typically a scrunched-up face. I write a column for artforum.com, I publish poetry chat books, it’s all part of the same mess, but of course I said yes, a freelancer’s gotta eat. Months later when I asked if there was a particular mandate I should keep in mind I was told, “we’re very much looking to avoid one-size-fits all canned TED Talks,” and later when I told a fellow writer I was having difficulty approaching this topic, she emailed back “Connectivity and community are the lies of our age, how would anyone actually feel connected via the Internet?” A week or so before today, I asked Twitter what it would do if it had to give a talk on community and connectivity. I received one response. From the writer Marit Case, whom I’ve never met. She wrote, “Handwriting is still important.”
Two: One of my early articles for the New York Times was a 2005 profile of the choreographer Arthur Aviles who after an impressive international career as a dancer had been working to establish an inclusive performing arts center in Hunts Point, a South Bronx neighborhood that has not historically been all that interested in the arts or in embracing feminist or queer perspectives. Roughly ten years into his project the center was both humble and thriving. Decidedly site-specific and grassroots, it wasn’t, in other words, anything the New York art world would pay attention to, unless it happened to fit a flavor-of-the-month whimsy. “No one will ever say he’s made it in the Bronx and I’m fine with that,” Arthur told me. “I feel satisfied with the career I’ve had. This is the next step to come back home and develop a dance community.” Referring to the drive that many choreographers in the Bronx had to make it to Manhattan, he said, “They want something bigger, which I understand.” And then he added, “I want something small, something respectful.”
Three: My first substantial journalism gig in New York was at the Associated Press. Back then the AP was still headquartered in Rockefeller center. Its venerable history announced by the ten ton Isamu Noguchi sculpture entitled News that adorned the front door. Entering the office it was hard not to feel, if only fleetingly, that one was doing something important and useful in society—unless, of course, your job was as an online editor. The multimedia desk where I worked wasn’t even housed in the same building as the rest of the organization. I’m not sure if I was paying enough attention to grasp the brilliance of the department charged with connecting AP to the worldwide web being marooned or perhaps quarantined is the better word in its own building.
But I do remember one reporter saying to me, oh, yeah, you work at that desk whose purpose nobody else here knows. There’s nothing so symbolic as geography. AP Digital was like an island of misfit toys populated by rookies, jobbers, and a few actual multimedia specialists whose reactions to AP’s rather impressive ineptitude in the face of a technological sea change ran from disbelief to disdain.
I worked part-time on that desk for several years, years in which attitudes about the online operation from other AP folks didn’t so much shift as expand to include the irritated belief that digital initiatives were the only ones safe from chronic cutbacks.
Meanwhile, I scanned the Internet on my numerous desktop monitors, tried not to make any intensely bad mistakes in the headlines I spent most of my shifts composing and wrote for the arts desk whenever I could. I realized I wasn’t a journalist. I began to think of criticism as a Trojan horse.
Four: I started the Performance Club in 2008, while working as a cultural critic for WNYC public radio. WNYC had gotten a big chunk of foundation change with the mandate to promote online community. With the initiation languishing and the foundation demanding results, WNYC ordered its contributors to drum up proposals for its website. Mine was the Performance Club which I imagined as a book club for live art so people could take part in the discussions through monthly social gatherings around performances while also having conversations that would continue on my blog forming an archive of discussions and debates. My proposal was responding to two things that had been frustrating me for a while. One was that I would take friends to the live art I was then writing about and in spite of being smart and knowledgeable in other fields of contemporary culture, they would come out of these performances and say I don’t know how to talk about this stuff. The critical minds they would use to read any other sort of text were not being activated. At the same time, conversations with my colleagues, the actual critics, often tended toward the petty. Little clusters of us marooned in lobbies throughout New York. Spending intermissions making these hierarchical assessments. So-and-so was better than so-and-so. This work used to look better than it does now.
I was interested in the possibility of creating a third space. If we brought together people who are already intensely knowledgeable about live art, and people who were curious, but felt they had no way to talk about it, I wondered if we could collectively create a more fruitful conversation.
To put it another way, I like talking with smart people. It’s one of the only consistently good reasons I can think of for getting out of bed in the morning.
Five: Trust your boredom. That’s one of my favorite one-liners in Jonathan Burrow’s book of one-liners, A Choreographer’s Handbook. I appreciate its get out of jail free insistence and just now it seems important. I had assigned sections of the text to my students earlier this month and prepping for class, cramming on the train as usual, I was stopped by these three words. It’s not that I’m bored exactly by the idea of connectivity and community but it makes me restless, my answers to it feel small, preordained. As if we all assume we know what we’re talking about. As if alienation isn’t the right answer, as if technology actually lessens class divides.
Six: The Performance Club I want to emphasize was something I proposed because I had to propose something. In an area I had never considered as an actual thing. Fostering online community.
I couldn’t show up to this meeting empty handed and so I concocted several half-baked ideas, thinking one of them might stick long enough to impress my producer. Such is the lot of the contemporary arts freelancer, busily racing along as one colleague’s husband put it, on the hamster wheel to nowhere. I wasn’t expecting the thing to actually stick. Had I expected it to stick I’d like to think I wouldn’t have saddled myself with the P club nickname, something that another colleague later said “sounds like a cabal of urination fetishists.” But I digress. Having almost never been in a club, I found myself running a rather successful one. People showed up to performances and stayed out for hours after to talk about them.
Despite WNYC’s terrifically wonky web infrastructure, people also left smart comments on my attempting to be pithy blog posts. The club became known around New York and beyond, even spawning other like minded ventures. I liked this network aspect of it which didn’t yet seem oppressive. Also the improvisational nature of it, the thinking and writing out loud. It was a good moment.
Seven: A journalist friend and I were wandering around the streets of San Francisco the other day in search of a good midday drinking bar. The subject of Twitter came up and we agreed that there is often a direct correlation between feeling terrible and being on it. Another day I was visiting an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle which is about a 50-minute walk from what everybody calls the Twitter building. A guy got in the elevator with me as I was leaving the third floor and when I asked him which button he wanted me to push, 1 or 2, he said there is no more 2. Then he clarified it no longer belonged to the Chronicle. I asked him what was there. The usual he said a bunch of hunched over 20-somethings plugged into their laptops, in other words the same old story.
Eight: What’s the best web infrastructure for fostering responsive arts journalism that encourages valuable substantive conversations between writers and readers? That’s one of the questions we’re meant to answer.
I’m not sure what the best infrastructure is. I do know I’ve never worked with it. Every system I’ve become part of has come with some or the of disclaimer that the technology is outmoded and/or in some way not up to the task of being truly interactive and the assumption is that interactive means lots of traffic, lots of linking, liking, reposting, etc. In this I see a strong parallel with the idea of the traditional audience member as passive, as if anything that happens below the surface cannot count as true engagement, writers business busying ourselves with numbers. We are wholly beholden to the quantifiable. There never appears to be an easy or good way to make these systems better. This seems like a very old human problem, the fashions change but not the body. The status quo lets us distract ourselves with the pretty idea that we have found alternatives and we comply, giving it all away. Two other questions posed for this panel: How does a platform create a sense of community around the ideas it presents? And how can the online intersect with the in-person?
The Performance Club was always conceived of so that anybody could be a member. It was free and open to the extent that those things actually exist.
It was up to individuals to decide how they wanted to interact with the idea of the club. There were people who read everything that was online but never once came to an event and there were people who would come to the events religiously. They ranged from practitioners, artists, funders, writers, and people who worked in art spaces to WNYC listeners who have no particular connection to the arts. Most of these people were lovely. Some were much more at ease in person than online and vice versa, with myriad ways of performing and presenting themselves. A few made demands that only in retrospect presented themselves as inappropriate and creepy. I found the live gatherings both exciting and exhausting it. It became clear that in creating the P club I signed up to be a social sculptor, someone who had to shape and care for public space whether one person showed up or 35. This very particular sort of caring felt the same whether the space was physical or digital.
Does a platform create a sense of community any differently than any other system? Is it ever the platform really that makes the difference outside of extreme examples, a technological ineptitude or dazzlement? Running an online anything seems to be a lot about being a good host. The onus is on you to make your guests feel comfortable, to try and head off trouble at the pass or to set up collision courses if that’s the sort of party you’re interested in. And for the guests, the question is do you want to be in a room with anonymous bodies, the pleasures and perils in in that or do you want to be at the dinner table, jockeying for the best seat?
Nine: in one episode of Girls, Lena Dunham’s character meets with a publisher who’s interested in publishing her book which is in limbo after the death of her last publisher. The only catch this new publisher tells her is that “We don’t do e-books, we’d want to put it out as an actual book, you know, that you can hold. I hope that’s OK with you.”
The camera cuts to Hannah, there’s a pause and then she breaks out into high pealing laughter. “Are you kidding me? I mean, that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard. I just said yes to an e-book because it was better than, like, a notebook.”
In another another of the many exchanges I have with colleagues while procrastinating on these remarks, I told a friend who edits an online publication that I didn’t know what to write, in part because my perspective is firmly writer-based and “P club aside I don’t think I do anything differently in print versus online other than structural things like making use of hyperlinks.” She messaged me back “I find that you do write with an online sensibility for print, your style and tone. I think that’s one of the things I like about your writing.” I was curious by how pleased I was at her response as if it granted me some sort of currency or legitimacy, and at the same time I had no idea what she meant. My pleasure made me slightly queasy.
Ten: When I left WNYC in 2010, that was the end of the Performance club or that’s what I figured until the following year when I was approached by two former members who convinced me to relaunch with their help as an independent entity. This new iteration of the club received a Creative Capital Warhol grant in 2011. On the website you can still find the following proclamation. “We intend to build the club into an independent multifaceted real time and web based center for interactive discussion forums involving audiences artists and other writers, as well as an informational hub on the NYC performance scene.” I made good on this officious grant language for about a year and a half, hosting monthly events and online conversations. I paid contributors and curated conversations. I joined Twitter.
Eleven: Earlier this year, I was guest curator for dance space projects platform 2015. 6 weeks of performances workshops and readings entitled “Dancers, Buildings, People in the Streets.” The main performance spine featured arranged marriages of artists from disparate experimental traditions in New York. Two of these artists, Caitlyn Gilliland and Will Rawls, decided that instead of a studio practice they would create a social media one, wading through the pop cryptic world of text acronyms and emoji to find a common language of artistic desire and mediated intimacy. What they finally created consisted of a staged reading of this dialogue. The audience seemed split between those who found it intensely moving and those who wondered why they didn’t dance. One critic wrote “their bodies seemed as well matched as their minds, so why not dance together? If they took yet another step and explored partnering it would have been worth 10,000 words.” There’s always so much anxiety around language, the violence it does to nonverbal forms, simultaneously how inadequate it is.
Twelve: Some time ago I got an email from the Warhol Foundation asking for numbers. They were doing an internal review and were looking at how past projects were faring. I remember when I had the blog at WNYC. Some days I used to feverishly check my stats. A lot of fretting was involved. The Warhol request was not unreasonable and it came from folks who have been unceasingly supportive and understanding, minor miracles in the foundation world. I can’t remember if I answered that email. It appears I may have deleted it. There didn’t seem to be any way to answer without sounding defensive for dismissive. For example, the sentence I don’t measure success through site visitors is obnoxious on so many levels, where even to begin? How do you explain that you junked the entire concept of the book club for live art in favor for building a space for criticism of art for weird little chunks of writing that most people will have zero interest in? Is there a way to say that the island of misfit toys suits you more than the mirage of inclusivity? That you’re worn out by the evangelism game artists and writers are supposed to play. I have no appetite for convincing anybody of anything. Also for lasting, we don’t last. Why should the things we make be any different.
Thirteen: I’m so uninterested in anxiety around criticism. It just seems like a given.
Fourteen: I ended the Arthur Arviles profile with his quote about wanting something small and respectful. A reader emailed me to say “I loved the kicker and I hope you realize that the fact that they put a refer on the front page of A & L means the top guns like it too” those two impulses, the romanticizing of the humble effort and the desire to be widely seen seem as the crux of many a present-day difficulty and weirdness, just think of the slow blogging movement. It’s so tempting to make a fetish out of the small and local. It’s so tempting to measure your worth in social media likes. Both of these things are themselves so obvious and off stated as to be embarrassing to mention.
Fifteen: When I was running the previous version of the Performance Club, I began noticing that at our monthly outings I no longer watched shows with the same eyes. I wasn’t there in that alone in the crowd capacity that the traditional critic of live art feeds on. I was watching with a communal eye in connection to the now very specific bodies around me, bodies for whom I felt responsible. Is this so different from the imperceptible transformations that occur when your office is enveloped by the Internet? There’s something profound here which I will but draw a circle around for you to ponder, Maggie Nelson writes in The Argonauts. All those bodies hunched over their machines. I’m back to my own stupid self, Jonathan Burrows writes in his handbook. The computer as compositional space and gathering place, studio and market, room of one’s own and rooming house, the critic as cyborg, writing alone in a crowd. Thank you.
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