Clare 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.