Performance Studies Correspondent

I’ve recently returned from the North Atlantic location for the Fluid States Performance Studies International (PSi) with an emphasis on Telematic Performance, Fluid Sounds, and Solid Tastes (i.e., “food”).

Updates and correspondences forthcoming from my position as a presenter in the telematic portion of the conference and as a visiting correspondent from the location to the rest of the Fluid States Conference sites and followers.

For more on the PSi 21 distributed global conference model, visit: www.fluidstates.org and follow the multiple sites where performance studies is being celebrated and debated throughout 2015.

In Praise of Inefficiency

About a month ago, I was invited to give a keynote presentation to the newly inducted Phi Beta Kappa students of the Omicron chapter here at the University at Buffalo. I remember my own induction ceremony from a few (many) years back as a wonderful moment and one of my proudest moments at Wellesley College. (It was also the only dry moment before the rain-soaked, outdoor graduation itself.)

I decided to use this opportunity not only to praise the talented and hard-working students at UB, but also to comment on the growing discourse of efficiency and corporatization that seems to be shaping the discourse of education all around us. As someone invested in the arts, humanities, and sciences, I find the current language troubling. I therefore tried to articulate some of these concerns to those gathered at the Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony. I don’t know how successful I was or what anyone–students, their parents, or fellow faculty–took away from this, but I offer these comments here and welcome any commentary or response.

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In Praise of Inefficiency: Art, Technology, and the Creative University
Phi Beta Kappa Induction 2015 – University at Buffalo (SUNY)
March 6, 2015

Efficiency.
Productivity.
Excellence.

You have probably heard these words many times over the course of your academic studies. As new inductees to Phi Beta Kappa—an elite intellectual cohort representing excellence in the liberal arts—you’ve probably often heard them as praise. When you were younger, they came in phrases such as “uses time wisely” and “stays on task.” You were “not easily distracted” and later you perhaps “demonstrated determination and commitment” to your goals. In the sometimes overwhelming days of high school and college, you learned that the first two of these concepts usually lead to the third. Your ability to find the most efficient way to work was often the most productive and this allowed you to accomplish more and to push your standards higher. As you progressed through the University at Buffalo, you continued to use your time well and as a result, you have produced work that has been judged to be excellent and even superior by your peers, teachers, and now UB’s Omicron chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa. This is no meager accomplishment. Fewer than 10% of American universities have a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. I checked the stats. Today you join approximately 600,000 living members of Phi Beta Kappa in the world. So, your efficiency and productivity have served you well and lead to an award today that represents a pinnacle of academic achievement. Congratulations. You have achieved excellence.

So, of course, you have no reason to listen to me and my argument against what has made you, and, to be honest, me and many of our fellow members of Phi Beta Kappa, successful. That is, I am here to argue in praise of inefficiency, to celebrate non-productivity, and perhaps even to argue against excellence itself.

None of these things are in and of themselves bad. To the contrary, efficiency is a very worthy goal. Energy efficiency, for example, may be the only thing that can save our fragile planet. Productivity is also a justifiable aim. As you likely know only too well, we all have limited time and with many demands from numerous directions, learning how to make the most of our limited resources (time, money, attention) is a valuable skill. I will confess here my own addiction to “productivity” apps, evidence of a technophilic faith that just the right device or program will rescue me from the mounting piles of emails, texts, and other digital requests. However we understand the demands of contemporary life, we can probably all agree that efficiency makes us more productive and perhaps even excellent. What could be wrong with that?

Too often we hear the language of efficiency, value, productivity, and outcomes used to increasingly separate and segregate different intellectual domains. We can point to political candidates on both sides of the aisle whose rhetoric dismisses (with alarming frequency) the value of the liberal arts we reward here. Politicians fault English majors for having no clearly defined job post graduation; others contend that anthropologists are unnecessary to the state economy; and President Obama just last year noted that, although he had nothing against art history, “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” Most recently, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has attempted to revise the charter of the University of Wisconsin system to replace its mission statement goals —that for 100 years have included “the search for truth” and “to serve and stimulate society”—with a stated focus on “serving the state’s work force needs.”

Certainly in the current economic climate, none of us can ignore the financial realities of college expenses and competition in the labor market. But what troubles me about these statements is not that they dismiss or ignore the demonstrable economic value in the liberal arts (which they do), nor that they pander to legitimate fears in order to serve political goals (whether or not we agree with those goals). I am not even bothered most by the rhetoric that measures the worth of every human endeavor exclusively according the dollar amount that an activity produces. (Though to be fair, as someone from the theatre, I never expected to earn a lot of money.)

No, what bothers me about these claims is not simply that they are often factually and empirically wrong, but they are factually and empirically wrong in the wrong way. That is, I reject the very terms of a debate that pits the sciences and technology as separate from and against the humanities and the arts. Part of the whole problem with the ubiquitous discussion of so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) and STEAM (all of the above, with “art” stuffed in the middle) is that this terminology continues to treat these things—science and art—as distinct from one another and too often opposed. As if the arts and humanities are not rigorous and the sciences are not creative. As if writing is not a technology and mathematics is not aesthetic. As if we can set down only one path and must reject all others.

Over the past few years, I have worked closely with both artists and engineers, physicists and philosophers, and I have written about work that engages the most abstract theories—be they mathematical or rhetorical—and projects that operate materially in the world. I’ve observed how differently these endeavors can appear from a distance but how closely linked they are when you get up close.

Take, as an example, the work of Belgian artist Kris Verdonck. Trained as a theatre artist, sculptor, and engineer, his works often treat human bodies as machines and machines as sympathetic persons. His “Dancer #3,” for instance, is a pogo-jumping robot, who repeatedly fails in its attempts to bounce continuously. When the charming robot inevitably falls, it makes little digital whimpering noises that elicit murmurs of sympathy from the audience. In another project called “Heart,” Verdonck attaches a powerful winch to a harness worn by an actress. Every time her heart beats 250 times, the winch pulls her off her feet, slams her into the back wall of the theatre, and then drops her unceremoniously to the floor. She then returns to the foot of the stage anxiously awaiting the next trigger, which of course comes faster and faster since with each repetition of the mechanical device, her heartbeat accelerates uncontrollably. The audience at first gasps and by after watching for a while eventually chuckles.

What does it tell us about being human if Verdonck can elicit warmth and compassion for a bouncing mechanical object and laughter for a woman literally being jerked around? What do we learn about ourselves and our reactions as we watch these performances? And how could these questions about the nature of agency, empathy, and emotion be asked without knowledge in aesthetics, design, psychology and engineering?

Closer to home, I am talking with engineers who are looking to dance for ways to annotate robotic movement. As they track the ways that robotic limbs can move, they are looking for a sophisticated vocabulary of gesture, which happily dancers have been refining since the 15th century. I’m also very lucky to be working with a group of senior design engineers who are designing and building a solar panel sun-tracking system that will allow the Techne Trekker, a mobile media art studio, to function independently of an outside electrical source, thereby bringing media-based art to locations without readily available electricity. The electrical system that this group’s project will power was designed by yet another group of engineering students, the Engineers for a Sustainable World, and the whole idea of the mobile media studio came from colleagues in the School of Social Work, who use new technologies and methods of analysis in service to global social justice.

Elsewhere, UB faculty are re-appropriating surveillance technologies to make critical forms of art, and theatre scholars are collaborating with neuroscientists to understand more precisely what happens when we watch other people perform in front of us. I could easily go on. As the director of the Techne Institute, it’s been my privilege to learn from smart and capable people throughout the arts, humanities, sciences, and social sciences at UB and beyond. And through these collaborations, I’ve learned that we are most productive—as thinkers, teachers, and humans—when we engage all these perspectives and talents. We do best not when we focus narrowly, but when we think broadly and imaginatively. The challenges of our contemporary world are too complex and too important for us to treat any area—even the arts—as a luxury.

The pursuit of knowledge has often been regarded as a noble enterprise (and indeed for most of human history has been restricted to the nobility and aristocracy of wealthy nations), but it is not an efficient one. Reading universally and in pursuit of the liberal arts has many uses—as you have probably already discovered—but this model of education does not always serve a set of tasks in a direct and linear way. It is for this precise reason that the liberal arts are under assault. We find ourselves confronting the notion that excellence can only be defined by demonstrations of maximum efficiency and productivity. Amid such debates, I am reminded of German philosopher Walter Benjamin’s reflection in his essay, “The Storyteller,” where he noted that, “Thought is a non-productive labor.” What do universities generate more than thought? And what, from an efficient perspective, could be more useless, or as Benjamin described it more “wasteful,” than thought? And, yet, what is more fundamental to what we do at UB?

This is what I mean when I say, let us praise inefficiency. Let us think and talk beyond our own centers of knowledge and reach into the domains we do not know. Let us ignore disciplinary definitions and preconceived ideas about artistic personalities and science-types. Let’s look for the beauty in technology, the precision in poetry, the creativity in engineering, and the rigor in dance. Let’s listen more carefully to new fields and embrace new vocabularies from both multiple languages throughout the globe and the technical terminology in diverse literatures. Let’s seek out the kinds of failure that can be found only in doing something totally new and for which we may be totally unprepared, and let’s allow that practice of un-knowing to change what we do next. Let us take up the challenge of a university that aspires to not to productivity, but to progress. Not to uncritical consumption, but to creative engagement and transformation. In the arts and engineering, we make stuff. We put ideas into motion in the world. Let’s imagine the modern university not as the first step on the way to global competition, but as a creative university where the arts, technology, science, social sciences, and humanities are not only valued equally but also seen as integral and essential to each other.

Of course, this is a silly and unreasonable idea. Many would tell me and you may well be thinking, that’s all very nice, but it’s not the way things really work. That’s not how it is in the real world. But as playwright, George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Following Shaw, then, I will put my faith in an unreasonable university, in non-productively thinking students, and in inefficient classrooms. For these are the things—perhaps the only things—that can really prepare us for the 21st century rapidly unfolding before us. No matter what our individual skills and interests, the current moment shows us a world in which we will need to draw from multiple areas of expertise and talk across different areas—be they arts or sciences—not only to solve the problems of the future but also and—perhaps even more importantly—to enrich our lives and experiences within the present.

As members of Phi Beta Kappa, you have already accomplished a great deal. You have tested your own boundaries and found your way in new and unfamiliar domains. In pursuing the liberal arts throughout UB, you have prioritized things other than efficiency and today you have earned an important recognition of your talent, hard work, and pursuit of knowledge. I hope that as representatives of the Omicron chapter you will continue to seek out divergent and diverse paths for yourselves and those you will no doubt inspire. Most of all, I wish you the utmost in unreasonableness and non-productivity to go along with your pursuit of inefficiency as the ultimate form of excellence.

I’ll close with a quote from Cardinal John Henry Newman. In response to demands for utility and productivity in his own era, Cardinal Newman wrote, “Knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward. …What the worth of such an acquirement is, compared with other objects which we seek,—wealth or power or honour or the conveniences and comforts of life, I do not profess here to discuss; but I would maintain, and mean to show, that it is an object, in its own nature so really and undeniably good, as to be the compensation of a great deal of thought in the compassing, and a great deal of trouble in the attaining.”

Why I Won’t Contribute to Your Academic Kickstarter

Happy New Year! Another year, another determination to make my online writing more consistent (though I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you).

In this spirit of the new year and on the heels of the season of giving, I write to offer some preliminary thoughts for 2015. What follows may come off as ungenerous and I certainly don’t mean it to be, though admittedly it’s vulnerable to that criticism. This is an idea that’s been nagging at me for a while and though it strains the limits of my expertise, I feel compelled to write nonetheless.

My new year’s (perhaps ungenerous) statement is this: I will not be making a contribution to your academic kickstarter, indiegogo, or other online crowd-sourced fundraising campaign. My lack of giving is not a commentary on your project’s worthiness, but rather stems from a reaction to what I see as a rather dangerous shift in academic support from institutions to individuals that perpetuates and exacerbates the worst aspects of a neo-liberal economy in academia.

Let me explain.

I’ve been a supporter on Kickstarter for a while, mostly making very small donations to technology prototype projects. Sometimes I got something back (t-shirt, say, or one of the first prototypes of some gadget). Sometimes I didn’t get anything; I just wanted to support a particular project or a cause. Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen these requests include not only technology prototypes but also fundraising for various social causes, and most recently requests for artistic and academic support. It’s possible that these kinds of campaigns have been there all along, but I’ve only become aware of them in the last year or so. These requests are all for very worthy causes, ones that I absolutely support. But, the requests for financial contributions from my fellow academics have given me pause.

In particular, requests for support of book projects make me uncomfortable. These academic requests for crowd-sourced funding (often directed primarily to others in the same field) seem to be for the sorts of things that used to be covered by institutions: permissions fees, costs of reprinting images, etc. These costs used to be paid for either by presses (and sometimes still are) or by an author’s university through subvention funds (and sometimes still are). Of course, in times of shrinking budgets many presses and universities have shifted more of these kinds of costs to authors. In turn, some of these authors are now turning to the “crowd” for funding support.

On the face of it, it seems like a good idea. A book receives support for images that might otherwise be too expensive but that improve the quality and clarity of the published book. In the case of my field–theatre and performance studies–such images may be essential to understand the author’s argument and further serve to expose readers to performances and artists they might not otherwise see. At the same time, a community–intellectual, social, and artistic–gets to support a worthy project and help create a better book. What could be wrong with that?

For me, the crowdfunding model in academic publishing raises three particular concerns: 1) the shifting of support from institutions to individuals in academic publishing; 2) requests directed primarily to a relatively limited community; 3) the implications for how this might affect future publications and by extension tenure and promotion decisions.

My primary concern is that the practice of crowd-sourcing publication expenses relieves institutions of their responsibility to support scholars and authors, even when these institutions benefit from scholarly publication. There’s already been quite a bit written about the significant amount of money made in certain areas of academic STEM publishing and this move threatens to extend this into the arts and humanities. If authors demonstrate the capacity to raise funds outside both the publishing presses and their universities, then neither institution has an incentive to support faculty publication costs. After all, crowd-sourcing allows a budget-crunched press to sell a book with attractive images but without having to pay for these images directly. A university can include a faculty member’s work in their annual research accounting, but without need to provide the same level of material support as in the past. If individual authors become responsible to provide these things and both presses and universities benefit without investment, where is the incentive to continue support for faculty authors?

Then there’s the question of who is the “crowd” doing the funding. There’s an interesting parallel in this situation to one I’ve experienced in my racing and training communities. As a member of a couple of running and triathlon groups, I’ve been a part of different fundraising activities done conjunction with different races or other endurance events. I’ve both raised money and contributed to the fund-raising efforts of other athletes. Very quickly, it becomes apparent that this method of activitiy-specific fundraising engages a relatively limited and perhaps even closed community. I support your race, you support my race. Perhaps we do this a few times back and forth and then… What happens next? Once you’ve hit up everyone in your particular group (perhaps more than once), the fundraising options narrow and a certain donation fatigue sets in. I realized that I could make a more substantial charitable contribution by simply donating a larger sum directly rather than going back and forth with various friends who were all doing the same thing in smaller amounts. I’m confident there’s an economic model (perhaps several) that demonstrates this, but elsewhere Jami Attenberg has called it, “Kickstarter fatigue.”

Academic crowd-funding seems like a potentially similar situation. How many such campaigns can any particular field and its limited sphere support? One book? Five? Ten? More? If I donate to your book, will you donate to mine? How many book projects should I support before I ask for money, and what happens when you get multiple requests simultaneously? Do you pick the worthiest project(s) or avoid them all?

This question of worthiness leads to my third concern, perhaps the most troubling. Let’s say that this model becomes a success and a widely embraced way to support the extra expenses for a given book project. Let’s also say (hypothetically) that there’s not yet market saturation or donation fatigue in the scholarly giving community. Everyone is happily donating to each other’s projects and making similar requests in exchange. How might this affect reviews of faculty productivity?

One possibility is that the ability to raise funding for a book project becomes another measure of the book’s (and thus the author’s) value to the discipline. Current metrics include citations, selectivity of the publishing house, and reviews, so why couldn’t the ability to crowd-source a project be considered a factor of its value? In the marketplace of ideas, surely the one that receives significant advanced funding has more to offer than another that cannot raise the necessary funds for subvention. Will we record not only print runs and citations, but also donations among a publication’s evaluation (i.e, judging a book not only by its cover, but also its color images)? In our current assessment-driven culture (REF, anyone?), this doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Resources for publications have never been equal across academia. Some schools have more money to support their faculty publications than others. However, these financial discrepancies are at least somewhat visible. A well-endowed private university for instance is more likely to have and to be seen as having greater resources than its public counterpart. In this situation it is the appearance of equality and democracy in the crowd-sourcing model that seems especially pernicious. Crowd-sourcing seems to be a great equalizer in which all projects can compete equally for support.

However, if resources in the field are limited (and they necessarily are), then this model cannot possible serve all potential projects according to their intellectual worth. Indeed, it would seem to privilege the early adopters who tap into the available but limited resources first. Early success is thus doubly worrisome as it has the potential to reconfigure expectations for future publishing while simultaneously draining the available resources for future projects.

In her book, Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neoliberalism, Jen Harvie works through the question of crowd-sourced funding in the arts. Although acknowledging the potential dangers–erosion of existing arts support, privatization of the arts, and pressure to secure private support, among others–Harvie ultimately concludes that the “shift to diversified networks of arts support” is beneficial. At its best, she writes, “it can help forge resilient, inventive new models of networked artistic, economic and social support that can at least temporarily take up the baton of social welfare and help us envision better futures” (126). I’d like to believe this is true, both in the arts and academia, and to be fair, Harvie builds a compelling argument in several case studies. (I highly recommend the book.) But, the key word here is “temporarily.” I’m not convinced that once temporary modes of support are established that they will stay that way. I’m afraid that if crowd-funding a book’s “extras” (images, reprint permissions, etc.) becomes a successful model, then this will alter expectations for future publishing and further erode what limited support currently exists.

That’s why I won’t be supporting your academic crowd-funding campaign. I’m sorry about this. I really am. I’m sure the project is great and I look forward to buying a copy for myself and my university library. I will post the link on my Facebook page and perhaps write a favorable review in an academic journal. I will vigorously recommend that everyone buy your wonderful book and I will assign it in my classes. But given my concerns, I can’t make a financial contribution to its publication.

I feel bad to start the new year with a negative resolution, so here’s the upside: I promise not send you a request for donation.

digital historiography and performance: part 1

For the past 18 months or so, I’ve been actively engaged in two new administrative undertakings: starting up the Techne Institute for Arts and Emerging Technologies and launching new graduate programs: MA and PhD in Theatre & Performance at the University at Buffalo. Both have been great new challenges and have certainly kept me busy, but as I conclude the end of the fall semester, I want to turn my attention more fully to my emerging research project: the intersection of digital technology, history and historiography, and performance studies.

One of my favorite blogs on the subject of the digital humanities and history is Tom Scheinfeldt (www.foundhistory.org). In his most recent post (Dec. 9), he observes that,

As I see it, looking and acting like the Internet—adopting and adapting its network architecture to structure our own work—gives us the best chance of succeeding as digital humanists and librarians. What does this mean for the future? Well, I’m at once hopeful and fearful for the future.

While I share some of his stated apprehensions (e.g., that new technologies and advances seek to centralize and aggregate resources rather than foster distributed knowledge, etc.), I’m encouraged and intrigued by this idea that historical resources can perform differently. I love that things–people, projects, technologies–can act like the Internet.

Elsewhere, there’s evidence too that notions of re-enactment and re-performance are no longer exclusively discussed in the domains of art galleries and academic conferences, and increasingly what’s motivating this public interest in  In a November 17 article for The New York Times, Noam Cohen wrote about a kind of online reenactment of Kristallnacht on twitter. Events were tweeted as if they were occurring in real time.

I was recently giving a talk on digital history and performance history at Cornell and one of the faculty there pressed me very usefully on my periodization. What’s the difference, he asked, between digital representations of history and previous cinematic ones? It’s a great question, but for me, the ability for different people to interact with and produce historical content as well as ways of re-writing history on platforms like twitter certainly seems to be a new mode of inquiry and one that deserves greater attention from theatre and performance historians.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to start to lay out some of the inquiries for this project on digital history and performance and how theatre history and digital methodologies can meaningfully connect. After many months of administrative program building, I’m excited to finally to refocus on some of these questions.

Blast Theory’s Ju Row Farr on visit to Buffalo

It was very exciting to be able to host Ju and Nick from Blast Theory last week and now we’re getting ready to welcome Karen Finley. It’s been an amazing experience this semester for our students and a truly exciting time to be at the University at Buffalo. The question is, can you have too much of a good thing? (Not yet, anyway.)

Unstable Landscapes with Marlon Barrios Solano

Update on what we’re working on with the Technē Institute at UB.

Falling for Performance 2013

After living most of my life on the academic calendar, there’s a particular pleasure that comes with the start of the fall semester. Although I’m still waiting for the autumnal crispness, but I am experiencing the anticipation for the fall semester, the nervousness of the first day of teaching, and the  excitement of things to come.

Beginning my second year as director of the Technē Institute, I am particularly excited about this fall. Partnering with colleagues across the University, we’ve been able to invite an exciting range of artists and performers this fall, some of whom will be presenting in the Visual Studies Speakers Series and other events around campus. The full list of Technē events for fall is available at http://techne.buffalo.edu/programs/ and the full listing for the Visual Studies Speakers Series is here.

I’m also pleased to welcome the inaugural class of graduate students in Theatre & Performance. After working on this program for the past 5 years, it’s incredibly gratifying to start working with such a talented and energetic group of students.

In my own work, I’m looking forward to coordinating a seminar on digital methodologies, and other presentations, at ASTR in Dallas (November 1-4), giving an invited talk at Cornell later that month, and travel to the University of Zagreb to work with Dramaturgy students in December. Taxonomies: Performance x Media with Jennifer Parker-Starbuck and David Saltz is on its way (hooray for completed manuscripts!) and I’m finishing up my last issue as Performance Review Editor for Theatre Journal (December 2013). Every ending is a new beginning, so it’s on the next writing project looking at the intersection of digital history, performance documentation, and historiography.

Here’s to the start of a great fall semester…

Summer Presentations

This summer I’ll be attending Performance Studies International (PSi) at Stanford University as a member of the Board of Directors and giving a paper on the panel “If Surveillance, then Performance” with James Harding and Elise Morrison. These are both excellent scholars whose work I very much admire, so I’m very happy to be along for the ride.

In August, I’ll be attending the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE). There I will be giving a workshop on review writing with my colleague Julia Walker. Julia and I are concluding our terms as the Theatre Journal book (Julia) and performance review (me) editors. It’s been an engaging and fulfilling experience, so it will be nice to present at one last ATHE hurrah. The workshop is highly recommended for graduate students and junior scholars new to reviewing in particular or to publishing more generally. (Notes from past workshops are available here.

I will also be presenting on my new book project Taxonomies: Media x Performance, co-created with Jennifer Parker-Starbuck and David Saltz. This book/website project considers new models and methods of understanding the intersections of media in contemporary performance scholarship. I’ve been working on some new visualizations for the project (on my blog: performaddict.com) and I’ll look forward to posting more updates there soon.

Otherwise, I’ll be enjoying the beautiful summers in Buffalo, planning for Techne events next year, and racing with Trivault and the Buffalo Triathlon Club.

Upcoming Events

If you’re around the Toronto area, I’ll be giving a couple of talks in the upcoming months.

February 1, 2013: “Great Reckonings on Small Screens” – Keynote Lecture for the Festival of Original Theatre at the University of Toronto

March 15, 2013: “New Methods | New Media: Digital Historiography and Einstein on the Beach” at York University, Toronto.