Deeply Fascinating @ Fusebox 2016: A Retrospective

In April 2016, New York-based critic Jeremy M. Barker was invited to cover the Fusebox Festival in Austin. The following is a end-of-festival wrap-up of his thoughts and experiences, and a reflection on the events.

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  1. Every song I've ever written: band night #fusebox2016
    Every song I've ever written: band night #fusebox2016
  2. The Project

  3. While my attendance at Fusebox 2016 was the result of several discussions going back to summer of 2015, the idea for what I’d do at the festival—for what “Deeply Fascinating at Fusebox” would consist of—emerged from a conversation with festival director and curator Ron Berry in January 2016, while he was in New York to catch “January festival season,” a collection of dance and performance festivals that occur each year timed to the Association of Performing Arts Presenter’s annual conference in the city.

    The problem that we were both aware of is that coverage of an arts festival is often spotty and problematic. On the one hand, there are precious few arts writers with proper platforms (like newspapers) left, and those that exist often aren’t responsive and flexible enough to grapple with the critical mass of work happening at a festival. Compounding this is the tendency of most writers covering contemporary art to seek to “review” it, writing closed assessments of each work. Which is fine in some contexts, but by limiting themselves to discussions of a specific show critics often fail to support the festival’s intent to present works in dialogue with one another. And as for the supplementary programming, the discussions and more informal events that make up the spirit and experience of attending a festival, these are rarely mentioned or covered at all.

    Yet if writing about the art is to serve a purpose of advancing a festival’s mission (which is why festivals have begun sponsoring such writing themselves) , all of these tendencies have to be overcome. For criticism to advance discussion of the art, it has to reach the spectators in a fashion where it can add to the experience of the work—the “experience” having once (in a quote the authorship of I can never recall) been described as beginning when someone first hears about a show, and ending when they stop thinking about.

    In the past, I’d once or twice tried to sort “live-blog” January festival season in New York, publishing frequent brief posts (often working with a variety of contributors) that captured some of the urgency of the season. Reviews, such as they were, avoided lengthy analysis; it would suffice to say, “Such a work is a can’t-miss” and further, such assessments were buttressed by on- or off-record endorsements from fellow festival goers. Additionally, such blogging served to make public some of the discussions festival goers were having between shows and after hours, which supported (and occasionally challenged) the narratives programmers sought to advance through the work they presented. I compared such an approach to covering a festival to how political reporters cover political campaigns, the "horse race" approach, most of which can be done via smart phone: Breaking stories through Tweets, capturing visually compelling moments on Instagram, sharing audio through services like Soundcloud, and so on. My own website, Deeply Fascinating, would serve as the central hub for the coverage, which would be produced by myself and collaborators (ultimately just one: Christine Gwillim).

    Ron was receptive to the idea as an experiment, as he shared my desire to see writing about the art grapple with the totality of the festival experience: the shows, surely, but also the conversations about them—officially sponsored and self-initiated—which, once shared, could help push them further.
  4. The Work

  5. One of the joys of a festival is watching how themes linking the works emerge. Sometimes these are explicitly intended, sometimes they’re more coincidental, but it’s one of the functions of a festival to put diverse pieces in dialogue with one another. An essential result of that is to begin to discern similar thematic tendencies or concerns, and to appreciate the different ways artists investigate or employ such ideas.

    In the case of Fusebox 2016, I very quickly was provoked by the ways the artists at this year’s festival were playing with the idea of interpretation of material in performance as a mode of investigation and challenging audience expectations. That is,these shows all used one or another device to alienate the text or the content of the work from the performance of it, thereby raising a provocative question of authorship of a work (is it the artist who conceptualizes the piece, the performer who enacts it, or some combination thereof).

    Several shows explicitly used tactics around this idea. The Royal Court’s anonymously authored Manwatching, in which a male comedian performs a cold reading of a deeply personal exploration of the female author’s sexuality. Jacob Wren’s multipart Every Song I’ve Ever Written makes use of his catalog of youthful song compositions, either covered by professional bands, sung by audiences as karaoke, interpreted by himself, or existing as pre-performance compositions online. Deborah Pearson’s Like You Were Before is essentially a performance about a five-year-old performance, itself a performance about an amateur video filmed five years before that, the content of the piece being the change in her own life separating each moment, with the person she was at any historical point being somehow distant or other than the person she is now. Rachel Mars’s and Greg Wohead’s Story #1 was a fantastical exercise in theatrical imagination based on a cheesy British reality TV show, in which the creative act is understood to constantly be a matter of fictionalizing the real, in problematic and challenging ways. And finally, and most provocatively, Dickie Beau’s Dickie Beau Unplugged used drag lip-syncing to explore the democratic power of publicly performed theater,discussing what it means to appropriate and perform the voice of another.

    It’s hard to know how much Ron Berry programmed this theme into the festival, and how much of it emerged coincidentally, by placing these shows in relation to one another. This theme is certainly not the only thing that can be said about these pieces (it’s actually a description of a tactic or device employed rather than the “content” of the pieces), but it struck me as somehow essential. I know that Ron sees Fusebox as a platform for introducing diverse ideas into the Austin art world—it’s part of the festival’s DNA in its relation to the place it comes from. Part of Ron Berry’s mission—and I hope I’m not mischaracterizing his goals here—in launching his own festival a decade or so ago was to have the chance to bring the work that provoked him to Austin.And on the face of it, this theme of interpretation that emerged from this year’s festival speaks to one of the tactics that this mode of hybrid and multidisciplinary work uses to achieve its effect.

    Consider Manwatching,the most straight forward example of this and one of the shows that generated the most interest among attendees (at least based on the variety of conversations I had). The work on the face of it explicitly violates our conventional expectations of theater to make its point. Rather than relying on rehearsed effect, it’s predicated on being cold read by the performer who’s only vaguely aware of the monologue’s content. Instead of being embodied in a compelling fiction, it relies on the fact that it’s performed by a man rather than a woman. Rather than the suspension of disbelief it demands we accept its performative immediacy. And finally, rather than a crafted character persona,it’s emotional power exists between the words the performer speaks and his occasional and palpable discomfort. Which is fascinating to consider, since conventional compelling fiction theater aims to achieve its ends through the audience’s empathetic response, yet here, with no rehearsal nor tech at all, a very authentic sort of empathy emerges between the audience and the performer.
  6. The Experience

  7. One of the biggest changes to the experience of the festival this year was the decision to program it all for one week instead of two. While driven in part, I’m sure, by financial considerations (one week has got to be somewhat cheaper than two, without reducing the number of distinct events), it also is an experiment in seeing how the festival can better achieve its ends.For several years, Fusebox has been free to attend, using an online RSVP system rather than paid tickets. The intent was to open up the work to audiences by lowering the bar to attendance and encouraging risk-taking. Programming all the shows in one long week could help further that purpose by making the festival even more of a destination event, encouraging attendees to commit to a more intense (and, hopefully, rewarding) engagement with the shows the festival promoted.

    It’s hard for me, as an outsider, to assess whether it served those ends or not, but it did strike me as a problematic choice in one important way: by reducing the number of performances of each show it made it near impossible for any given piece to get attention for its successes. Even using my own accelerated horse-race-style blogging, it was simply not possible for most shows to enjoy a boost from word-of-mouth responses.
  8. The most tragic case of this was Dickie Beau’s Unplugged performance. While far from perfect, Beau’s presence and the ideas and moments in the piece made it, for me and several other curators and critics I know who came to Austin for the festival, the stand-out show. Partially that was based on our own sense of discovery—Beau was new to us—but it was also just a good show. It was, however,performed twice on the same day. In previous attempts to rapid-fire cover festivals I considered it one of my main goals to help call out those shows that really surprised audiences and caught people’s attention. That was thevalue of short-form blogging over longer form criticism. But without the chance to serve the shows and audiences with the attention, I found myself struggling with what could really be achieved through the writing we were doing.

    It also gave the festival a sort of frantic pacing, which is somewhat odd to say given that I regularly cover the festivals in New York in January in which dozens more shows are playing than at Fusebox. On the one hand, that lent Fusebox a sense of urgency; on the other, it left me feeling like there was no time to digest what was happening. It was one piece after another after another, including the late night performances at the festival Hub. Fun, yes, and possibly the best mode for audiences to experience so much work, but just as the brief runs left me feeling that I didn’t know how or what to write about, the pacing left me feeling doubly as though the time for consideration and thought would follow the events, and during the festival I should focus on just plain getting through it all.
  9. Summation

  10. Trying to wrap up this essay, which is focused on my own experiences, I found myself considering instead the experience of Christine Gwillin. Gwillim was my collaborator in blogging the festival, and a grad student in the University of Texas’s Performance as Public Practice program.We’d been connected by Ron Berry, and Gwillim’s experiences surprised me. After I’d explained what the project would look like, the shorter posts and so on,and the desire to use various media to report on the festival, Gwillim took to it fervently. She commented part way through that this sort of work was harder than she expected, but surprisingly, on reviewing the work published at DeeplyFascinating over the course of the festival, I found her work far more compelling than my own.

    Gwillim daily recorded and then uploaded to our site the audio of each of the Waffle Talks, lunch-time panel discussions with artists and presenters. Although she no doubt struggled with purpose—what to write, and why—the results of her efforts were much more in line with my intent going into the festival than my own. And I think I know why. Whereas I was trying to be programmatic, to accomplish a fairly abstract set of goals I’d established for myself, Gwillim just did it. Her writing was personal response (my goal, too),based on what she knew going in and what she saw, and was informed by her interests and enthusiasm. For my part, I kept trying to figure out how to craft short articles that would serve to open up and inspire conversation. Gwillim just did what she did, and the results were far more compelling, and her efforts to share other material and content were successful and, I think,important.
  11. For myself, I think I got caught up in a struggle over purpose. As a critic, I basically write about art and share what I know.Interestingly I largely failed to do that, and nowhere more glaringly than failing to actually discuss and engage with the work I knew best: Big Dance Theater’s Short Form and Okwui Okpokwasili’s Bronx Gothic. Both shows received—for good reason!—a great deal of attention from local audiences.But I essentially wrote them out of my planning and narrative for covering the festival since I already knew the work. That was a major omission, and if my goal was to help generate interest in the work for people unfamiliar with it, I failed to use myself and my own resources to do so.

    As for the festival itself, I think it served its purposes as best it could. Presenting challenging contemporary art is always an uphill battle, and in the frantic pace of trying to see the work, I failed to engage as much as I should have with other attendees, to see what was percolating among audiences. But two experiences stand out.

    The first I want to recall was Saturday night at the Hub,drinking with people on the roof around midnight. Shortly before, Narcissister had performed downstairs, and we wound up talking about her show. I’ve seen Narcissister before, and while I appreciate her work I’m not incredibly enthusiastic about it. It’s provocative and accomplished but as a form of feminist performance I think it’s of a time and a place and there are plenty of feminist critiques to be had of it. It’s not that I think it’s bad, it’s just not necessarily something that grabs me. This man though, an Austin theater artist,and his wife had been pretty blown away. What I kept being told was, “I’d never seen anything like that.” Which struck me a lot. One of the most important things about live performance is access, and what I was experiencing was the gap in access between my own experience as a critic living in New York who gets to travel (occasionally, at least) to see work, and someone who’s in a different artistic community, experienced and committed to certain forms, who’s being exposed to something that strikes them as new and unfamiliar and inspiring. If the festival’s goal is to introduce new models and aesthetics to the community, then I was hearing just how that can happen.

    The second event was a couple days earlier. We were near Canopy, waiting (as I recall) for Rachel Mars’s Our Carnal Hearts and having a coffee before going in. I was with anew friend that I’d been introduced to as part of the coverage of the festival,and a man recognized us from a show earlier that day. Forty-something and apparently catching Mars’s show alone, he politely introduced himself and began to chat with us about the work he’d seen. He asked in particular about Manwatching, which surprised and provoked him, shared his thoughts, inquired of ours, and then, as it neared curtain, excused himself to go into the theater. As he was leaving, this man—not an artist himself, apparently, just an interested spectator—commented to the effect that he was just going to keep going with it, and see where the festival took him.

    There are probably fewer people like that who make it to Fusebox than anyone would like. Contemporary arts generate dedicated audiences, and Fusebox no less than in New York seemed largely frequented by arts community members,artists, and visiting curators and critics like myself. But it was pleasant to meet someone who, without any real connection to the art world, was enjoying taking the risk and experiencing the work. Those are the people we’re all in service of, and I hope we were good people to talk with.
  12. Errata

  13. In addition to the work published on Deeply Fascinating, I also took part in a long podcast discussion with Lindsey Barenz at Maxamoo, a NYC based theater podcast, about Fusebox 2016.
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