Read along with me! Social Works (Shannon Jackson)

Finally sitting down to read Shannon Jackson’s Social Works (long overdue!, and thanks to Maureen Connor for lending me the book). Only through the introduction but already struck by two turns of phrase appropriate to performance, and in particular to the way that I’ve been thinking about performance as it relates to my own work.

First, Jackson references performance as “a site of group coordination in space and over time.” What I like about this is its seeming emphasis on functionality rather than agency. There is no leader in such an equation. I think this is certainly true of my work when my work is best: the social situation presents itself as ready for interaction. The success of its interactive capacities is belied by the visible coordination of a group (even a group of two) and the shared space that this coordination, in fact, creates. Whether theatrical or “visual art” based, this coordination is absolutely required. It is when performance work appears to be handed down from on high to a relatively anonymous (and, I would argue, not entirely required) audience that it fails. I see this happening both from the sedentary perspective of proscenium spaces and the sterile disengagement of the white cube. Jackson also calls performance “interpublic communication,” suggesting the connection of performance work to larger social issues and framing structures: “a reminder that no one can ever fully go it alone.” This is something that theater world makes apparent in a way that art world does not (necessarily). There are some lessons I can copy and paste between spheres, and it’s useful to remember what (and where, and when) they are.

Second, Jackson’s introduction unpacks performance heavily through the lens of disability studies. Jackson refers to Vivian Sobchack’s changed awareness of normative structures after the amputation of her leg: a positive reference because it queers a view of the normalized world that serves as a kind of social prosthesis. If the goals of performance (or at least my performance/performative work) are always to reveal normative structures as problematic or at least bizarre, what are the required amputations that the work must create? A nice thing about theater is that it can allow one to become — fully, but temporarily (and this is crucial!) — almost anything in the world. In the disability-studies capacity, the artist is the doctor and the audience the amputee: I make my selections for operation based not, however, on perceived individual health crises, but on social ones.

More soon as I read on. Glad to have this opportunity to engage some new thoughts that (I hope!) will push my own projects forward.

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