Eleven weeks ago, I started making a show. I had two questions: What roles can dance, dance-making, performance, and art play in creating change? What might bodies moving together teach us about the actual labor of social movements?
In The Art of Protest, cultural theorist T.V. Reed suggests that art can serve a number of “functions” within social movements:
Encourage social change
Empower and deepen commitment
Inform larger society about social issues
Harmonize social activists within the movement
Inform internally to express or reinforce values and ideas
Inform externally as a more effective way to communicate movement ideals to people outside the movement
Enact movement goals directly
Historicize to invent, tell and retell the history of the movement
Set a new emotional tone
Critique movement ideology
Provide elements of pleasure and aesthetic joy.
I like this list for a variety of reasons, but mostly for how deeply its vagueness inspires my imagination. “Encourage social change”, for example. “Encourage”? Who? How? How does “encouragement” translate to “change”? On the other hand, underlying the 11 points is a fairly specific vision of how social movements occur - lots of people get on the same page about something, feel urgently enough to act, and are able to adjust their action as the situation requires without scattering to too many disparate pages. Effective communication is the main thrust of nearly every item on the list.
I agree that art is one of the most versatile and powerful modes of communication we have. And yet, once I got over the satisfaction of reading such a tidy list, I found I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. Here’s one thing I noticed: it focuses almost exclusively on art as a consumable commodity or experience. It frames art primarily as a product, not a process; suggests the power of viewing or experiencing art is an individual experience, not a collective one; and that the primary beneficiaries of the transformative power of art are the consumers of it, not the makers.
So what is the role of art-making in social movements? What does it mean to be an artist in today’s world - not just for the potential our finished work offers change-making efforts, but for how our artistic practices might help us to build the worlds we dream of?
“Social Movement” is Group Action
When I started making “Social Movement”, I was deeply inspired by the poetic parallels of large-scale social movements and bodies moving on stage. What might we learn about consensus, negotiation, decision-making and resilience through improvisational (unscripted), highly-rigorous physical investigation? How do we navigate conflict and discomfort? How do we reconcile the needs of many with the reality of limited resources? How do we sustain our energy, spirits, and capacity to connect under duress and exhaustion?
I visualized the bulk of this research happening through improvisational movement scores: “Flocking” (a group finds dynamic, non-verbal agreements on synchronized movement and constantly changing leadership), “One Move Story” (a group creates a coherent narrative arc through the collaborative accumulation of single movements), “Head To Ground” (individuals navigate physical power dynamics by leading one another’s heads to the ground and choosing to agree or resist) etc..
Our early rehearsals were filled with sweat, laughs, and lots of movement. Fascinating, deeply-evocative physical poetry began to emerge, and it wasn’t long before it felt the show was essentially writing itself. But our physicality wasn’t translating as clearly in my intellectual brain as I had thought it would into the realm of large-scale social movements. All the political themes I had imagined - consensus, negotiation, decision-making, resilience etc. - were there, and powerfully so. But I was having a hard time composing their physical expression into a narrative that spoke legibly to real social movements.
Is it possible to make abstract political work? How important is it that we understand what we’re making? What forms of “knowing” do we recognize as legitimate within our creative practices?
“Social Movement” is Personal and Political
About a month into creation, we took a break from ensemble explorations. Create a solo physical investigation based on a question in your life right now, I prompted my collaborators. The Kavanaugh
hearings raging outside, the resulting phrases were the most profoundly political work of the process so far: from meditations on masculinity, the patriarchy, and questions around the inevitability of gender-based violence, to the hegemonic influence of Western-based medical practices on our bodies, and the paralysis of identity-based shame - we danced, cried, and fervently discussed.
It struck me leaving the studio that I hadn’t known what any of my collaborators pieces were “about” as I watched, but felt deeply moved for each. This emotional charge translated through discussion to a stronger sense of connection to the group, and a sense of greater collective agency in the face of the issues we had explored. Most immediately, I felt a weight lifted from my chest, as if sharing my question had dissolved the density of carrying its burden alone.
In his book Hope and Healing in Urban Education, author, scholar, and activist Shawn Ginwright suggests that while political transformation happens in relationship (community), it’s predicated on personal transformation: “healing [...] is a form of political action,” he suggests. We “need to place healing and hope at the center of our [...] political strategies.” The “radical healing” he describes - personal transformation that facilitates political change through building agency, intention, and connection - is identity-based, intersectional, and demands different labor from everyone (for example, in the case of a white cis-male, it may look more akin to “dismantling” than “healing”). In the context of art-making, a natural corollary for me is that curiosity is both an artistic tool and a political one. Asking genuine questions in our practice holds unique potential for bridging the personal and political. When we create collaboratively, we are already connecting the two.
How do we support personal and collective transformation within our artistic practices, especially in collaborative processes? What might this type of work look like with an audience?
“Social Movement” is Navigating the Unknown in Community
“I think the real “Social Movement” happens in the transitional moments,” Galen, one of my collaborators, suggested a couple weeks later as we sat debriefing our most recent run-through - “when the rules change and we have to figure out how to move as a group into a new paradigm.” Author and cultural scholar Jeff Chang echoes this view of social change as transition: “When people talk about change, they often only focus on politics, on events such as an election or the signing of legislation. But change is not about discrete political events. It’s an ongoing cultural process.”
To me, the process of navigating the unknown is as deeply rooted in communication and collective decision-making as it is in the courage of the collective imagination. If “cultural change always precedes political change”, as Chang suggests, then collective imagination is of utmost importance: without a vision of what could be, we flounder in our attempts to construct an alternative to what already is. What if we were to approach out work with a belief that introducing new possibilities into the collective imagination were not simply an accidental by-product of making art, but a specific skill honed through ongoing artistic practice?
What responsibility do we hold in terms of the proposals we make with our work? How do we hone our capacity to intentionally conjure new possibilities?
“Social Movement” is an Ongoing Process
At this point, I’m still wary to describe the show we’re making with words. This is both a cop-out - a surrender to the lack of rigor I am occasionally seduced by when a process gets complex - and also a genuine reflection of my belief that the work speaks most clearly for itself. What I will say with utmost earnesty, is that I would be thrilled to share “Social Movement” with you, and even more thrilled to hear about what you see, think, and feel after.
1. Milbrandt, Melody K.. "Understanding The Role of Art in Social Movements and Transformation". Journal of Art for Life: vol 1, no 10 (2010). http://journals.fcla.edu/jafl/article/view/84087/0
2. Ginwright, Shawn. Hope and Healing In Urban Education: How Urban Activists and Teachers Are Reclaiming Matters of the Heart. Routledge (2015). More at: http://www.shawnginwright.com/books/
3. Lavin: Keynote Review. "Jeff Chang Speaks At Sundance: "Cultural Change Always Precedes Political Change". Lavin. January 23, 2011. https://www.thelavinagency.com/news/jeff-chang-speaks-at-sundance-cultural-change-always-precedes-political-change