Your Audience, Love ’em or Hate ’em?

Saturn, Goya

saturne_goya.jpgClare Byrne and I have been having a discussion offsite about the way artists in the NYC downtown dance scene treat their audiences. I’ve been feeling that contemporary experimental dancers here tend to view and treat their audiences as enemies and antagonists rather than as friends, guests, or supporters. Clare reminded me that artists, especially experimental ones, aren’t making work just to entertain and console their audiences, but also occasionally to upset them and “ruffle some feathers.”  I agree that this is a very important function of the arts. Like good journalists, and wise fools, we need artists to shake people up and get them to see new things or think for themselves. But when I look at the dance scene in my city I see a bunch of rebels with no cause. Who are in their audiences? Basically other dancers who seem to take masochistic pleasure in the hate and apathy spewed at them from their friends on stage. Gen X’s irony looks like tin foil to Gen Y. And earnestness? Don’t even whisper the word ironically in passing or you’ll find yourself sneered and hissed right out of Bushwick.

I’m saying all this because I don’t feel like the lofty role of artist as social conscience, lighting rod, or martyr is what I’m seeing here. I see preaching to the choir, not risk-taking. I see insecurity and followers, not leaders and trend-setters.

Now that I’ve just pissed a lot of people off, I’ll ‘fess up to my
position. I’m an artist, but I’m also increasingly becoming a marketer.
I want to promote dance. What is the most important thing to a
marketer? Growing your audience. How do you do that? By identifying an
unmet need in your audience, addressing that need, and doing it better
than anyone else. Taken to the extreme, this results in corporate
cancer: ie Aol/Time Warner, NewsCorp (Rupert Murdoch), Microsoft,
ExxonMobil, etc. Perhaps the behavior of our marginalized,
impoverished, tiny dance community is subconsciously or consciously
reacting to the extreme imbalance of power in the world. I can accept
this as a valid reason for the preponderance of anger, helplessness,
and victimization being acted out on stage and in abandoned warehouses
all over the outer-boroughs of NYC. But, what I don’t accept is
misdirecting that anger onto our audiences.

Love ’em or hate
’em, you need an audience. I feel like the dance world is so eluded by
this fact. We seem diametrically opposed to thinking about what our
audience needs, how to address that need, and doing it well. Can there
be a balance between saying what we feel needs to be said and also
bringing the people in the room who need to hear it? I believe the
answer is yes but it takes a major shift in our outlook of ourselves
and our work.

I may have just failed at what I’m preaching for
here, and the people that should be reading this may have clicked away
after the first two sentences. However, this is a debate I struggle
with myself all the time. I’ve been a dancer all my life, and active in
the NYC dance community for seven years. Now, through my interest in
videodance, I’ve entered on a journey in media, and studying how other
performing arts have developed mediatized forms. Through the
accessibility of the internet, and the pervasiveness of video, I feel
like dance is at a tipping point right now. We can either embrace these
opportunities or fear them. I think a bit of both reactions is healthy,
but ultimately I want to confront and consciously grapple with this
polarity of audience vs. performer, buyer vs. seller, and artist vs.

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8 Responses to Your Audience, Love ’em or Hate ’em?

  1. Boris Willis says:

    Great post Anna. I know if dance modern dance is to have a positive presence in society, we have to understand our audiences and meet them.

  2. Natalia says:

    This is something that has baffled me when hearing experimental artists talk about their art…

    Question: “what was your intent in making this piece?”
    Answer 1: “My intent was to confront and challenge my audience, so I chose a controversial subject.”
    Answer 2: “I wanted to make a statement about [controversial subject] – The final result is challenging and confrontational.”

    Answer number 2 makes sense to me. I want to see art that seeks to explore difficult ideas and makes people think.

    Unfortunately, I’ve read a lot more artists basically express answer number 1, which I find tiresome and self-absorbed. Like, “I want to shock people so they’ll all talk about me!”

  3. Levi Gonzalez says:

    I think this is an important discussion but I find it hard to relate when people make such broad generalizations about work. I actually find a great breadth and variety of approach in the work of contemporary NYC artists, and that it often directly reflects not so much a desire to shock or outrage as it does the personality of the maker. I think its healthy for audiences to have opinions about what kind of work they find difficult to the point of self-indulgent. I know I have felt that way myself about work. Yet I don’t see a general tendency in NYC work to make audiences suffer.

    Something I see a lot of is a desire for artists making performance work to slow down time and activity, and to minimize the amount of action or “virtuosity” on display. This to me is a reaction to a culture that is aggressively marketed and sensationalized and packaged. I sense a consciousness of dance makers trying to relearn themselves and provide an opportunity for us to experience sensation in detail, in the small, the durational, the non-spectacular. Sometimes this can be boring but I find work that really runs the gamut from aggressive to soft to lazy to incredibly complex and resonant in this vein.

    Also, ironically, one could argue that the way artists make a name for themselves and they way they tend to be marketed in the contemporary scene is if they are in fact, “shocking” “transgressive” and “controversial”. As an artist myself I feel pressure from the marketing point of view to be provocative and polarizing. It sells. What I think is lacking from both the artist side and the marketing/presentation side is an idea of sustainibility in the work and the career of the artist, though I do see that starting to be addressed which is heartening.

    Thanks for the post…

  4. Levi,

    Thanks for your response, and as an aside, I just saw your performance in John Jasperse’s “Misuse liable to prosecution” last night at BAM, and you were wonderful as always. Great piece, and so apropos to this post!

    I agree that I was too vague and general here, so I will try to clarify and specify my thoughts better in a follow-up post in the next day or two.

  5. tonya says:

    Oh hi Anna — I just read your comment on Daniel’s post (which I commented on) and re-read this post, which now has all the more resonance to me since I went to a performance of experimental artist John Jasperse’s new work, wrote what I consider to be a fairly positive review, got several comments by balletomanes saying that the work sounded awful, and then got a rather rude but extremely vague comment by someone I don’t know who wouldn’t leave me their name and whom I’m assuming is either a big fan of Jasperse, associated with him, or an experimental artist him/herself. I didn’t post the comment which was simply, “How is this a review?” because I found it a personalized insult suggesting I was too stupid to write a real review without specifying which of my viewpoints exactly the person disagreed with and why. I worked really hard on that review, I really struggled to find meaning in what Jasperse did, and by blogging about it I gave him a form of publicity (however minor). This person, whoever it was, didn’t recognize that at all but just lashed out against me. I hate to say it, but it made me never want to see an experimental dance performance again. Of course now I’m over it, and I will see more experimental work and I know not to automatically associate this person with Jasperse himself, but now I definitely see what you mean about experimental artists and / or their fans (who are often other experimental artists) condescending to their audience and just lashing out if they don’t get it without trying to explain to them what they were supposed to get! Anyway, sorry to be so long-winded. Thank you for this post!

  6. Responding to “Your Audience”

    I received some great responses to my rather angry rant on Halloween: “Your Audience, Love ’em or Hate ’em?,” in which I complained about feeling contempt from experimental dance artists towards their audiences.

    Levi Gonzalez, a brave soul from the NY…

  7. Anna Brady Nuse says:

    Hi Tonya,

    I just read your excellent post about the Jasperse piece. I also wrote about this piece today in my follow-up post to this article: Responding to “Your Audience”. I think his piece was great at communicating how it feels to live and work in the experimental dance community in New York. I love the way he commented on the economy and forced the audience to deal with it, but it didn’t feel like he was attacking us and saying “oh woe is me.” Instead he grappled with it himself, and even gave nods to his own privileges which include having a rent controlled apartment in the Village for $500/month and a season at BAM Next Wave, both of which are pretty remarkable assets!

  8. Levi Gonzalez at Kinetic Cinema May 5th

    On Monday May 5th at 7:30 pm, Kinetic Cinema will feature choreographer and dance artist, Levi Gonzalez. The theme of his evening will be experimentalism in dance and film. I’m delighted by his topic, and feel like it may be a good way to continue a de…

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