Too Many Windows: The Emcee Form at Pitch Dark Cabaret

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Image via Minnesota Daily

The performance works at Pitch Dark Cabaret, which took place at Patrick’s Cabaret in December 2015, were generated from a central curatorial conceit, a single prompt given to the artists by curator Scott Artley: that all the works must be performed in complete darkness. As Artley explained in the opening of the show, he became curious what it would be like to limit some sensory input and heighten others after working with a group of visually impaired artists. The winter solstice brought on another thematic layer about seasonal changes and the cycles of dark and light. The evening included a vocal performance inspired by Norse mythology by Kari Tauring and Lynette Reini-Grandell, a participatory and conceptual work by Eric Larson, a movement and sound work by duo Gender Tender, songs by Evan Boyce, musical comedy by Chris Lear, and flamenco dance and guitar by Majas, the Zorongo Flamenco apprentices. Some pieces worked with the theme formally, others thematically, some both, and others simply did their act with the lights off.

Artley’s proposal to artists to work with darkness warrants its own essay, but what stood out to me the most in this evening of work was another curatorial issue: Artley’s own performance as an emcee, and the discussion he wove between the pieces over the course of the evening. I’ve decided to focus on the curatorial methods of providing context for each of the pieces, rather than the works themselves. Though the darkness often made me feel visually and socially isolated sitting in the audience, Artley spoke genially and effusively through the transitions between pieces. He shared a range of anecdotes relating to the performance: the legalities associated with covering up an exit sign, the concepts that inspired several pieces of music, his personal reaction to one of the works, a story from tech rehearsal when he learned that one of the performances actually would be using some lighting elements. My reaction to these anecdotes varied as they related to the different pieces in the evening—for some, I appreciated the background, and for others, I felt like the genial conversation detracted from the contemplative or sharp tone of the piece. I wondered to what extent this chatter was intentional, decided with respect to the theme or the specific works that artists brought—and to what extent it just repeated the standard format for these cabarets.

My response made me wonder about the history of emceeing: What values are actually at stake this format, and what makes it seem so standardized that we hardly ever notice it as a form? Normative histories tie the history back to the Catholic church and monarchies of Europe, while a history of hip hop emcees traces it back to the griots of West Africa. We see variants of this form on game shows and awards shows, at comedy clubs and wedding receptions. The emcee usually serves as the lubricant of the event, a person who is there to cover transitions, warm up the crowd, give information, entertain lightly but not to become the main event. A more performative emcee, like in the musical Cabaret, can also provide commentary on the work, aestheticizing critique that isn’t stated explicitly in the piece. The cabaret format hearkens back to the socially, politically, sexually transgressive underground performance scenes of bohemian Paris or 1930s Berlin. From what I understand, this format is integral to Patrick’s Cabaret as an organization, with founder Patrick Scully serving as emcee in the early days. Artley’s style of emceeing, though, was not so much subversive commentary as generous and expository. This emcee did not veil, but rather openly shared, information. His general manner was warm and off the cuff—though I wondered to what degree the anecdotes were planned in advance, despite the casual tone.

This performance makes an interesting case study for some central questions about curation: What context should be provided around a work? How much information is desirable? How should it be delivered to the audience? How do different formats change how the work is read by the audience? For a certain school of thinking—one that I think of as populist, audience-focused, concerned with accessibility, wanting to expand arts audiences—sharing conversational anecdotes is an admirable tactic. Providing friendly and informative details around a work can create a sense of invitation for people who don’t often see live performance, a tool for interpreting what might otherwise be impenetrable. The use of stories in particular, rather than dates or theories, is coming to the forefront in the field: Mia just changed many of their didactics to be more approachable and narrative-based. There’s definitely a case to be made for providing context in an engaging, performative manner, and providing multiple points of entry or, as I’ve also heard them described, windows into the work.

It’s interesting that the phrase “windows into the work” implies than an artwork is necessarily closed, that it requires specific pathways to be forcibly opened before it can be entered or understood. I don’t believe this is categorically true of all artworks—artists already construct pathways for the audience to approach a work (or if it’s opaque, it’s likely on purpose.) This brings us to the opposite school of thought, which proposes that the curator should not impose on either the artist nor the artwork by suggesting an interpretation. This thinking assumes that less intrusion and less information will give the viewer more agency, more room to interpret the works freely. This approach refuses pandering, and endows the viewer with respect by giving them what is, essentially, a role in creating the artwork’s meaning.

As a viewer myself, I can’t say that I’m anti-context. I usually read program notes and didactics in galleries, and often read up on an artist beforehand if I’m unfamiliar with their work. But I tend to resent context when it is imposed—when I don’t have a choice whether or not to experience it. I am also attuned to contextual materials that seem out of step with the actual artwork—by breaking the tone, oversimplifying or over-explaining. All too often, I see contextual elements like program notes and curtain speeches used lazily, along the lines of disciplinary convention, without respect to their own history. When contextual material is deployed without attention to its own form, it’s even more glaring when placed next to works of art that do pay careful attention to medium, mood, and context.

I’ve certainly experienced when contextual material goes so far as to detract from the work itself, to overpower it and close down possibilities for its interpretation. The producers of the 2014 SOLO concert at Northrop auditorium, an evening of commissioned works performed by McKnight Artist Fellows in Dance, chose to contextualize the works with video program notes. They were played on a large screen, and came in sets of two between the performances—so that you’d watch a solo, view the video program notes, and then immediately see the video for the performance that was about to come after it. The videos included interviews with the dancer and the choreographer about the fellowship and the process of creating the work, as well as rehearsal footage that gave a sneak peak of the aesthetic of the piece. My most crucial complaint lies with the fact that in this case, the viewer is not able to decide whether or not to take in the contextual material—and moreover, that the curators did not afford the viewer that choice. If I as a viewer preferred to approach the work on its own terms, rather than hear first how the artists conceived of it, that was unfortunately not an option, as it would have been with written program notes. Another issue here was the medium: projected video played onstage often overpowers live bodies, just by its sheer size, slick production and close-ups. I find there is a fundamental difference between the experience of viewing a live body and that of viewing a mediated body on a screen, whether in work samples, trailers, documentation, projections for performance, or standalone dance films. Of course, there are a myriad of ways to approach that difference—but the cost of entry is an understanding of how the two forms intersect.

On the other hand, here’s a visual art parallel to illustrate how a curator might lean too far towards omitting contextual material. Curators David Peterson and John Marks caught a lot of heat for the 2013 Minnesota Biennial (,,,) at the Soap Factory for failing to provide, as some reviewers argued, adequate entry points into the work. Peterson and Marks were of the latter school I described above, preferring to let the works stand alone and let the viewer connect the dots. Writers argued that by allowing the artists to select which pieces to include and where to site them in the gallery, omitting any curatorial statement or even didactic information about the pieces, the curators hamstrung the viewer experience. Even knowledgeable gallery goers might need a little bit of context, and many of the pieces in the show included concepts or back stories that were integral to the artwork. This begs several more questions: To what extent is an artwork not just an object to be encountered and experienced? If an artwork is an idea, can that idea be expressed in the object alone? For performance, then, what is necessary beyond the experience of the piece? (Full disclosure, I had a piece in this show that was, by design, difficult to parse when you encountered it in the gallery, but was accompanied with reams of accompanying data and contextual information. Perhaps providing too much information is also a way to block understanding.)

I can see both sides in this debate: I tend to err on the side of providing less information and leaving it open for the viewer, but I also know that I personally spent two months in that gallery and missed a lot of nuance about the artists’ practices. A major issue is that artists, particularly visual artists, are accustomed to a distribution of labor in which they are not responsible for contextualizing the work, because that’s the curator’s job. I wonder if a more interesting practice would be to task the artists with creating the context for their own work, as many independent and self-producing performing artists already do. If the artist understands their own formal logic for the work, their artistic process can be extended into the creation of peripheral materials, which will likely be more inventive and appropriate than those provided by a curator.

I find that comparisons to visual art curating can create a productive tension—not least of which because much of the literature on curatorial practice emanates from that discipline, while performance-specific discourse has been expanding more recently. This piece on performing arts curation by Florian Malzacher contrasts the role of contextual material in visual vs. performing arts:

It is not by chance that the curator in the visual arts sphere emerged at a time when artworks often no longer functioned without a context, refused to function without a context. When they on the contrary began to define themselves precisely through their contexts, when they began to search or even create them, and to critically question the institutions that surrounded them. When the idea of an auratic artwork and auratic author disappeared and was replaced by art that was no longer understandable without relations. Additionally, the amount of information about and from our world and the complexity of art has risen exponentially – as has the amount of art produced. The curator was both a cause and a result of this development. Thus, the frequently expressed wish of artists in the fields of dance and theatre (and quite logically much more seldom in the visual arts) that their work be presented unexplained and un-contextualised, standing there alone, without a framework, moves along the thin line between justified fear of reduction, simplification, and domestication on the one side, and the misjudgement of the ways their work functions on the other. The muteness of the genre extends to all those who participate in it.

 

Thus, good curatorial work would consist not in damaging the autonomous art work in its autonomy, but on the contrary, in reinforcing it, yet without considering it untouchable, too weak, needy of protection. How near should the framework get to the artwork, how closely should one be juxtaposed to the other, how charged should the surrounding be: these are central points of discussion between artists and curators in exhibition art – but they are just as valid when making programmes for a festival or a theatre house. Contexts can offer artworks a proper reception – but they can also incapacitate them.

I appreciate the power this author grants to the artwork, while also shying away from knee-jerk fears that any context will reduce the performance experience. I wonder how a curator might prepare a viewer to experience a particular work without referencing the specifics of that piece at all. Even within a cabaret, emcee, narrative format, what if a piece was introduced with a story about another artist whose lineage is important to the piece? Sharing news of a recent conversation or controversy in the field? A parallel in another field entirely? Or for audiences who are not typical arts goers, what about some information to help them understand the amount of labor and funding that goes into the works they’re seeing presented—and not as part of an ask? How can the emcee performatively modulate their vocal tone and gestures to complement the mood of the piece? What if a piece would best be introduced by five minutes of silence? 30 minutes of silence? What if the audience should get up, go walk around the block, and come back? There are endless answers to this question, and it just can’t be true that an anecdote about the process is the best context for all the works in an evening. Let’s ask: What does each piece ask of the body, the intellect, the attention span, the emotions? How can each of these faculties be conditioned to fully receive the work?

Digging into this issue makes me think that there can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to curating, no standard format for providing contextual material. Different works of art require varying amounts and formats of information—what illuminates one work may detract from another. This precept would be tough to apply to a performance series, which by their nature repeat formats. A recognizable format can present a number of benefits: drawing and retaining an audience, introducing audiences to new artists, allowing artists to calibrate their work specifically for that context. (I’m thinking of how much I’ve learned by watching many artists navigate the social and discursive formats of 9×22 Dance/Lab.) With a series, it’s important for the artist to anticipate the full context when crafting the work: for example, that there will be a discussion afterwards, that the audience will be drinking, that the other works in the evening will share a particular theme, that there will be an ask for donations right before your piece, that the show will be emceed, that the emcee may share their reaction to your piece right before or after the audience views it.

A smart artist can incorporate and play off of these elements, situating the work into the particularities of the environment. I’d hope that curatorial practice, and in particular contextual information, can also situate itself to the environment and the particular artworks, forgoing any kind of standardized approach. My argument goes beyond the specifics of Pitch Dark Cabaret—though it’s true that the contextual information at that event was more than I desired, and I wished it was more calibrated to each specific work. (I imagine that someone also could have felt invited and enlightened from the same material, and I’d be curious to hear about their experience.) In general, I’d like to see curatorial practice go beyond administrative and promotional functions, and step up to the level of consideration and experimentation that we find in artistic practice. Thinking like an artist means that we must always forge new strategies, and that often, less is more.

Emily Gastineau

Pitch Dark Cabaret

Curated by Scott Artley

Patrick’s Cabaret

December 11-12, 2015

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