- Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics
In mid-November 2011, a controversy erupted surrounding the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MOCA) annual gala fundraiser. As the featured artist for the event, Marina Abramović devised a series of performances and installations for the celebrity-laden evening. Among the works was a piece that featured performers as living centerpieces, many of them lying naked in the middle of the table where guests dined on their $2500 per plate meal. A letter by choreographer Yvonne Rainer, which was also signed by a number of other artists [End Page 248] and prominent cultural figures, criticized the piece as exploitative precisely because of the fundraising context in which it was situated. While the museum ultimately went forward with the event as planned, much public dialogue ensued regarding the piece. Scholars seeking to critically assess this event or further explore the ramifications of performance art within the context of established institutions such as MOCA will find Shannon Jackson’s Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics indispensable.
Jackson’s latest monograph deftly addresses the liminal space between visual art that has taken a “performative turn” and what Hans-Thiess Lehmann refers to as “post-dramatic theatre,” or theatre that has exceeded the bounds of the conventional proscenium space and embraced facets of painting and sculpture. The artists featured in her study employ cross-disciplinary techniques, people their works with live performers (many of whom are not artists themselves), situate their pieces in meaningful locations, and invite audiences to witness or participate in provocative ways.
Social Works is densely theoretical, applying and questioning a range of writings including not only Lehmann, but also Bertolt Brecht, Nicolas Bourriaud (specifically his work on “relational aesthetics”), and Wendy Brown (particularly her work on neo-liberalism). Throughout the book, Jackson’s artful wordplay underscores the ways in which socially engaged art is productively contradictive and how artists are at once autonomous and interdependent. Jackson troubles boundaries between aesthetics and politics, materiality and immateriality, technology and liveness, and local-ness and globalism. As with her previous writings, this text affirms Jackson’s prominence within performance studies scholarship.
Jackson opens her book by explicating the theoretical precepts and performative and artistic genealogies that inform her work. While her early chapters may challenge readers unfamiliar with these legacies, the central tenets of her study recirculate throughout the book, made clearer through their application to various case studies of specific artists and their works. The case studies range from the explorations of artists such as Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Allan Sekula, and Andrea Fraser to collectives such as the Builders Association and Rimini Protokoll. The featured artists are unified by the circumstances of their work in which “time and collectivity serve as medium and material for exploring forms of interdependent support” (14). The majority of the artists included in this collection began their work within the art world—within or outside (and sometimes both) conventional museum structures. Yet all incorporate performance, making this study of interest to scholars in theatre and performance studies. In addition to theatre companies, Jackson also includes artists such as Paul Chan and William Pope.L, who have worked in both the art and theatre worlds. Indeed, her study underscores the arbitrary nature of such designations. [End Page 249]
Throughout her book, Jackson unsettles long held perceptions such as those that measure art’s radicality by its seeming anti-institutionality. Instead, as Jackson persuasively argues in her discussion of public artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, many contemporary artists find themselves “[p]oised as usual between criticizing an institutional world and announcing their absorption by it” (182). Similarly, in a chapter devoted to global new media theatre companies that employ complex technology, Jackson asserts that “a twenty-first century post-Brechtianism would also be skeptical of any theatre that imagined itself outside or uncorrupted by the social structures it tried to question” (148). Social art is therefore paradoxical: situated yet contingent, bolstered yet constrained by the public and institutional frameworks that enable its creation.