Absolute Bliss, curation by Fire Drill

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When a couple people bring in new performance from two or three corners of the nation and pull in a full house on a snowy November night, you know something is missing from the larger arts landscape. Fire Drill’s curation of Absolute Bliss provides a map of that gap.

We may all acknowledge, in our various small and bitter ways, the inevitability of crowd-sourcing as the babyfat new face of contemporary arts funding — or at least as the wallet-worn image we all see trotted out at artist pity parties — and I am not the first to wish that the fading away of cultural support since its heyday in the, what, 70s(ish?) would be replaced with something other than the robbing of Peter to pay Paul, both of whom make their living (if you can call it that) as bourgie as they can by supplementing their food with starvation while the fat get richer — but the slow sideways slinking from the room by Money suggests that while we are re-evaluating what is important, the window for meaningful change is closing behind that sneaky exit.

Suck it up, Campbell, that’s the way things are! (Oh yeah?)

While there is undoubtedly an unassailable virtue to paying your friends to put out an album, it is clearly another side of Too Big To Fail: Too Small To Care. I may be wrong, and if so we can all go home and watch Netflix without guilt or despair, but part of this shifting suggests an evaluation of the criteria by which money gets to artists.

Sure, okay, not one of us here has a Patron commissioning works to the glorification of a Deity (i.e., the centralizing facade that masks the Patron’s Greed and Imperialism as Grace and Inevitability)…

Huh.

Or maybe some of us ARE supported by Target or Best Buy. (No(t much) judgement: to live is to make a deal with the devil, even though some deals are clearly better than others.)

In any case, a reorganization of knowledge and resources around art, of the ecosystem in which it is made, is past due. Artists are like icebergs: hulking, cold, and a danger to shipping — but that’s only the big names. The rest of us are a swarming mass of hydrogen and oxygen, lifting them up and hiding their bulk. But whatever. Fire Drill‘s curation of Absolute Bliss reminds us — artist and institution alike — of the already open door out of the let-them-eat-cake spirals of deferred responsibility/crowd-sourced grassroots lawn-mowing that is already clearly marked EXIT. There’s always a better way and this time it could come from looking at how artists live and work now rather than from looking at existing models of art production and extrapolating backwards. This exit is human-shaped.

Come January, many of us will be watching the crowds come out of the WAC for the annual dose of Out-There-to-make-us-Regular saying, Well see, it’s not “Out There” meaning “unconventional” or “experimental,” it’s “Out There” meaning, you know, just what’s out there: what’s going on in other places (you know, where the NPN goes). And some of us will point out the multitudinous discrepancies between what we see and what we know to be true, how this is old, that is bad, there is so much better stuff right here, and I saw something in Austin/Oslo/San Juan that was REALLY great. Samey-McSamester.

And we’ll all dream of being able to travel to other festivals in other places, troll the internet for the ephemeral links to grainy videos of other dim corners of New York or Berlin, drink good wine out of bad glasses in shitholes posing as pompous parlors, live the life of the contemporary artist who can’t be making money or working or planning or schmoozing all the time (well okay maybe they are, but who is right now also trying to find a sense of awareness of others who call themselves artists (or maybe even those who don’t, but we like to watch anyway)). And stop there. Because who has the energy to even finish this sentence?

Right now we seem to be looking to ourselves (artists, entrepreneurs…artrepraneurysmists, whatever) for money and support, and looking to others (organizations, institutions, businesses, things we read about in glossy over-designed online pages, horticultural metaphors) for models and structures and ways to improve. I suggest we reverse that, or at least break it open. Where is the local, personal, material connection?

It seems to me that at the least there ought to be resources organized in a way that facilitates this hungry movement towards awareness-of-others. And those who are old enough, knowledgeable enough, or perspicacious enough may object: yes, that’s what Dance Theater Workshop was doing when it started NPN 30 years ago. (Sure, but now look at them.)

Okay, but one question:
What if what Fire Drill is presenting a model, not merely providing another example of an established system on a local level? If Fire Drill (or any of the artists present in Absolute Bliss) become merely another artist to be carried by NPN to other places (at more expense and for less impact than perhaps they had initially imagined or hoped for), then this is nothing but a lost opportunity.

Okay, just one more question:
What if Fire Drill themselves and the artists they chose were to be given significant funding to ensure that each of their travels resulted in further opportunities for their performance, for encouraging others to come to Minneapolis, for making new work, and/or Whatever The Hell They Want To Do Because They Are The Artists?

No, really this time, just one more question:
What if these artists were given money to do what they do because they are doing it?

The model I see in Absolute Bliss is a model in which the maker of the work is primary, not the style, not the mode, not the audience, not whether it’s Really Dance or More Like Theater or Just Performance Art, or whether the naked tap-dancing Keyon Gaskin waving a cast iron skillet around sucking dice broke any house rules. It is a model in which artists are funded because they are making art, because they are working hard and making something that is skirting the edge of the reasonable, that is searching for the undetermined, the relevant, and the engaging all at once. That is, in other words, an art worthy of the sacrifices made for its existence. Absolute Bliss was made by people who met each other, respect each other, and sacrifice for each other, at least enough so that the work can be seen. I’ve witnessed this many times over. Enough to suggest that it is more-or-less the Artist’s Way. It is personal, it is intensely local (in this sense), and it is materially human.  Others have and will, but Fire Drill did it here now. Human art in a larger landscape.

Currently in the sharing economy, it’s still the rich who get the money. Am I suggesting subsidies for art in the way that certain corporations are subsidized, that certain farming is subsidized, that the security-industrial complex is subsidized, that (even in its ineffectual way) the political process is subsidized?

Why yes, I am.

Helping your friends is good. Of course. Building community through grassroots participation is good, yes. Of course art like this will happen anyway no matter the funding structure, up to a point. But let’s not let the positive points of the messy shift out of a hierarchical model into a ramshackle peer-to-peer model blind us to the fact that for it to be meaningfully and sustainably peer-to-peer, it needs to take place on a much greater scale (Big Money needs to take part in every crowd-funding campaign, maybe), but equally it needs to avoid the cloying smothering greedyass hands of postcapitalist neo-liberal “free-market” evil that rationalizes the poverty of the many as “failure” by means of the example of the “success” of the few. Unless everyone benefits, it’s not a collective sharing economy, it’s a bureaucratic-authoritarian-corporatist suppression zone.

Fire Drill’s curation of Absolute Bliss shows a way out of this room. Let’s use it.

by Charles Campbell

Fire Drill
Absolute Bliss
Bedlam Lowertown
November 15, 2014

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