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  • Improvisation
  • Ric Knowles

At the end of the twentieth century, performance emerged as the dominant paradigm in all walks of life—from the cultural through the organizational to the technological—as Jon McKenzie demonstrated in his powerful, idiosyncratic 2001 book, Perform or Else. Everything and everyone, it seemed, were assessed by their performance, and if found wanting were given the hook. Around the same time, in the wake of Philip Auslander’s groundbreaking 1999 book, Liveness, folks debated the continued relevance of the concept of live performance, which was read as simulacrum in an increasingly mediatized culture. Everything, it seemed, was performance, and performance was always already mediated.

Ten years later, as the new century enters its second hectic decade, a key, indeed definitive characteristic of performance in all of these fields, and what constitutes its “liveness,” has surfaced as improvisation. When the one economic constant, ironically, is instability; when all aspects of our lives are driven by exponentially quickening technological change; and when education is increasingly under pressure to train people for jobs that by the time of their graduation are no longer needed, it is increasingly the case that the best performances—human, corporate, or technological—are improvisational; which however mediated, mediatized, or prosthetic, are also adaptive, instantaneous, and therefore “live.”

But what exactly is improvisation, and (when) is it a good thing? In these pages Kathleen Gallagher begins with a key problem: unstructured, unconsidered, or hurried improvisation in the classroom, the theatre, the jazz ensemble, or the world tends to reproduce the clichéd, the stereotypical, or the hegemonic. Improvisation threatens to function as the unfiltered “common sense” of spontaneous action, a vacuum that ideology rushes to fill. Many of the contributors to this issue, however, celebrate the libratory potential of improvising outside of the box (or in Camellia Koo’s case, outside, inside, and around the box). It is doubtlessly true that the capacity to adapt to whatever is thrown at you can come in handy. But as T.L. Cowan here reminds us (via Amy Sehan), the notion of pure improvisational spontaneity is a myth, and, I would argue, a dangerous one. Left to our own devices, our “spontaneous” actions tend to be culturally affirmative.

But not all improvisation leaves us to our own devices; sometimes it is productively “curated,” as in the work Cowan discusses. But the line between reproductive and productive improvisation—between the improvisor as the free-market individual entrepreneur [End Page 3] promoted by the neoliberal turn in political life, and group improvisation characterized by deep listening and a sense of ensemble—may be understood to be the social. The editor and two of the contributors to this issue are participants in the international research project, Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice (ICASP), housed at the University of Guelph under the direction of Ajay Heble. Heble himself, as well as another ICASP member, Robert Wallace, contributes to the Views and Reviews section. ICASP explores improvisation as a model for social change rather than individual competitive advantage. As the ICASP website says,

[W]e argue that the innovative working models of improvisation developed by creative practitioners have helped to promote a dynamic exchange of cultural forms and to encourage new, socially responsive forms of community building across national, cultural, and artistic boundaries. Improvisation, in short, has much to tell us about the ways in which communities based on such forms are politically and materially pertinent to envisioning and sounding alternative ways of knowing and being in the world. Improvisation demands shared responsibility for participation in community, an ability to negotiate differences, and a willingness to accept the challenges of risk and contingency.


The “c” word (community), of course, has become so compromised through its use in rhetorically shoring up the neoliberal inclusionist/exclusionist agenda that it’s only good for grant applications and web sites. As Alan Filewod pointed out in an editorial in CTR as early as 1995, “the language of community coincides . . . too neatly . . . with the instrumental language used by the conservative right.” But the wish to subvert the entrepreneurial individualism of neoliberalism nevertheless needs to function in the (on one hand) difficult, power-inflected and (on the other hand...


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