American Realness: Where is the Economic Real Talk?

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The festival features dance, theater, performance, and song-based performance artists who employ experimental tactics in their performance works. These include performative realness, self reflexivity, make believe, transformation, the ecstatic body, and an interplay between spectacle and banality. The artists of American Realness are creating theater that engages audiences with a rich perceptual experience of light, sound, thought, text, movement, and song. This is not psychological realism. This is not pretty dancing on a stage. It is theater, dance, performance, and song as phenomenological event. These works are created with rigor, and the performances are fully embodied. American Realness is digging deep, getting wet and inviting you to come along for the ride.

-From American Realness Facebook

American Realness Festival is a “downtown” New York dance and contemporary performance festival, which sees some of the most radical and subversive artists that “[tear] at the boundaries of their form”. Created in 2010, the festival just finished its 9th season, presenting performances, installations, and discourses that burst open what the “real” American identity entails – the Seneca people’s intergenerational scar and healing, black death, black exceptionalism, queer loss, disability in/visibility, feminist satire, white privilege. There are real and diverse efforts to excavate what hides beneath the mask of the “American” identity; yet, I cannot help but wonder, where is the economic real talk?

I am not referring to the lack of performances “about” the brutal economy that are overshadowing the works in the U.S. – in the end, do the works have to ever be “about” the economy? What forms are not implicated by the politics of resource distribution? What aesthetics are not dictated by, and also liberated within the constraints of the economy? I am not asking for more critiques of capitalism the way Jérôme Bel exhausts the modernist, and exploitative machine of contemporary dance. Rather, I want to see real talk about the behind-the-scene, the invisible, yet ruthless capitalist engine that drives the festival forward, that lights the ephemeral force of subversion on fire, only to sell its burning power as a “cool” and trendy übermaterial product to be consumed by hip and white theatre-goers. The art and the artists as commodities become so fetishized by the curators, the producers, the consumers, to the point that “cool” art must be produced and reproduced in excess, at the expense of the massive amount of labor left uncompensated, and of course, exploited.

Leaving this Marxist theory of commodity fetishism and surplus value aside for a moment, I want to take a step back to write about my bittersweet two-week of unpaid internship at American Realness, which is what prompts me to write about the capitalistic realness of the festival in the first place. There are a lot of unnerving behind-the-scenes events that I don’t think it is my place to disclose publicly, but the overarching culture here is a promotion of self-sacrifice for the success of the artists and of the festival – the commodities that are being sold to the art consumers as being cutting-edge and subversive. American Realness is constantly marketed as rethinking and reshaping the definition of “American” dance and performance, but I cannot help but wonder about the fucked-up core values of “American” capitalism, consumerism, and labor exploitation that the festival is perpetuating behind the scene when no one is looking. Do values only matter when they are publicly visible and sellable?

As interns, we were implicitly expected to work  6-12 hours everyday for 15 days in a row, with one day off in between. All the communications regarding work hours and “compensation” (i.e. seeing performances) were kept ambiguous, uncannily negotiated in real time to make sure our labor was always available when the festival needs. Even with this meager form of compensation, our “payment” was always in limbo status, whose priority was held secondary to the purchasing force of the consumers. It is only when all the $25 tickets were squeezed out as many as possible and sold to the customers, and somehow there is still space for us, only then can we see a show (a.k.a getting paid) – the compensation for our labor is at the bottom of the capitalist machine’s priority (of course, some of my colleagues, whom I see as micro-activists, whom I am deeply grateful for, would try to sneak us in anyway, using whatever power and leverage they have to splinter this cycle of exploitation – which is to say that the microcosm of American Realness is not simply a linear narrative of capitalists-exploiting-workers).

They did it in the past so you can do it too.
Everyone does it so you can do it too.
That’s just the way things are.

That’s just the way things are, I told myself to make it to the end of the festival. If that’s the way things are, perhaps what we need to do, urgently, right now, is not dance. To (mis)quote Adrienne Truscott in THIS quoting Carolee Schneemann: there are too many artists at this moment, so many that making art is no longer that relevant. If the making and the curating of art requires exploitation of young and eager labor, does the art need to be made and curated? In the 60s, maybe, when every (white) person can work a part-time job and still pay for their rent. In which case, the refusal to dance with the capitalist machine might be the most radical choice, instead of trying to grow the festivals to include as many premieres, as many off-site performances as possible, to build this facade of progressivity and subversiveness. For me, it boils down to a series of questions: how far are you willing to go to fight for your values? Do you only fight when people can see that you are fighting? Is fighting for the values you preach a public performance in itself?

Radical values cannot only matter when the values are being presented in the public, are being scrutinized as a product in the forms of dance and performance, a product that is being shown and sold. Perhaps, this is the trap of identity politics, the consequences of the commodification of diversity, where capitalism has assimilated within itself the idea of rebellion, and capitalist exploitation is invisiblized for the sake of representational progressivity – we can exploit ourselves and others because we are making the world a better place, as the logic goes. This is certainly not a problem with just American Realness in particular, but frankly, the whole economy of “downtown” New York dance is built on the massive amount of free labor, perpetuating exactly the things that we are fighting against. This reality gestures towards a lack of language to address capitalism in dance, and a lack of willingness on an institutional level to confront capitalism heads on – most of the economic discourses that I am aware of center around the artists’ economic survival, and not the larger institutional machine of labor extraction.

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I love American Realness – the festival is the most exciting event that I look forward to throughout the year. American Realness was one of the biggest reasons that inspired me to create CultPlastic in the first place, prompting me to write on the works of Dana Michel, Ligia Lewis, Meg Stuart, and Mx. Oops/Wendell Cooper.  Perhaps, I should not have gotten too close to what I idolize, seeing things that I do not want to see, coming in contact with the other sides of beauty and glamor. But that is not true, because I still truly believe in the festival as a utopic convergence of radical forces; yet a utopia should not be blindsided by its promises, or be exhausted in the process of going further and further. Right now, all I want is an economic real talk, a confrontation with the totalitarianism of the economy that is hardly acknowledged. Is dance really radical in its proposition of ephemerality, its evanescence? What is the stake of this ephemerality? Who are the people mobilized to facilitate this ephemerality? Are those people also ephemeral, and invisible, too?

 

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