- Mining the Past to Inform the Present: Two Artists Discuss Performance as Protest
In the following conversation, artists and dance educators Kimani Fowlin and Megan J. Minturn discuss their work as it relates to a shared vision for the field of performance and the role of collaboration in creating art as a form of protest. In this conversation, collaboration is defined as the sharing of space, voice, and the creation of a democratic process wherein dancers and musicians are equally present as choreographers and investigators. The choreographer becomes more of an artistic director, whereas the “dancers” explore and mine their bodies with historical and present-day topics for information and movement-making. During the conversation, Kimani and Megan talk about pieces that premiered in the fall 2016 and spring/summer 2017, as well as a piece that premiered on the centennial anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. The 2017 political environment was an especially strong impetus to create pieces that served as an aesthetic form of protest; it was equally important to create work that provided a historical thread to frame for the audience the ways in which current realities connect to past injustices. This conversation uses the term protest to refer to a communal expression of discontent to the status quo. Ideally, the art pieces discussed connect and contribute to collective forms of resistance.
Creating Art as Protest
A way of protest is to find joy in the work of creating and performing. Expressing joy can be considered a form of protest against the chaos of our current moment and the pain inflicted by oppressive actions. Where do we find the joy? My students and I, we look for that in the work we create.
I agree with you, Kimani. Collaboration and play inherently push us to protest against a culture of individualism that celebrates achievements based on one person’s profits and privilege over that of another. Sometimes when I’m creating work I begin to question how my work will impact an audience, and sometimes I question whether my work can make a difference in a political sense. Kurt Jooss, as quoted by Alexander Kolb in “Dance and Political Conflict,” said, “[o]ne should not try, in a piece of art, to improve life or mankind or politics. . . . That is not for the arts do.”1 Jooss choreographed The Green Table, an iconic antiwar dance. Despite creating what is regarded as a quintessential piece of art that serves to protest injustice, we still do have war and suffering as Jooss anticipates. Nevertheless, his work matters, and while it may not have improved life for “mankind” or humankind as a whole, I would question whether it did not make a difference for the dancers and audience members who experience it. I similarly remember Kara Walker’s recent artist statement saying that her art is “a show of works on paper and on linen, drawn and collaged using ink, blade, glue and oil stick.”2 She says that her work is not “activist” in any way. Nevertheless, Walker’s work is analyzed for its important role in considering the country’s racist past and present. Despite what either Jooss or Walker may say about their work, the public seems to respond differently; it seems to me that as an audience we desperately want our artists to be storytellers who tell us and inspire us to aspire for something better, for a more just world. Jooss and Walker remind me that art and political activism are different. Yet, we still create, and we still need artists to speak up against injustice. [End Page E-15]
Art and political activism. You can see them as different, but art is constantly responding to society and the injustices in the world. Whether it is seen through the lens of an activist or an audience member who comes purely for entertainment, the purpose of the art is the same. With the activist eye you cannot be passive. This creative platform engages people in a way that potentially accesses agency. I am hoping that this creative...