- Personal Is Political, Practice as Critical: The freedom of information Performer as Site for Change and Discourse
It is New Year’s Eve. I am wearing two blindfolds, a pair of earplugs, and a few layers of dance clothes. I am in a public art space, a single rectangular small room, with its entrance on the main street in downtown Decorah, Iowa. There are several wooden chairs, a couch, a Christmas tree. I navigate my way around the room with these as landmarks, as well as the utility sink, where I have a jug of water, and the table next to it, where I am keeping a notebook. Over time, I become sore. I get tired of moving, and tired of how I move, but I keep moving. I keep this up because I am performing freedom of information 2008 (foi), a twenty-four-hour-long improvisational score designed by dance artist Miguel Gutierrez, during which the solo performer moves continuously, wears a blindfold and earplugs, and refrains from eating in order to create solidarity with people displaced in US-occupied war zones. Gutierrez calls foi a “performance/protest/ritual.” He did not originally position it as a practice-based research (PBR) project, yet the piece demonstrates that physical practice can produce knowledge. Performers’ reflective writings on the work come to bear as evidence for foi ’s sociopolitical efficacy, and this essay evidences that the twenty-four-hour practice itself produces bodies with new knowledge, generating political and scholarly discourses prior to anyone’s writing. Fulfillment of the foi score creates what I call experiential empathy in the performer, which proves politically critical.
Gutierrez first carried out foi in his apartment studio in Brooklyn in 2001, following the United States’s invasion of Afghanistan. In 2008, he recalled the performance, but made it a broader, nation-wide event. He expanded the project in order to mark the continued war in Afghanistan (and, by then, Iraq as well), to make the contemplative act accessible to more audiences (including both live and online viewers via internet video streaming), and to allow the piece various expressions by multiple artists (Gutierrez 2008b). In Gutierrez’s words, foi intends to “create solidarity with people displaced by armed conflict,” as well as “with the community of people who still resist and reject the U.S.’s interventionist tactics abroad” (Gutierrez 2008a). He designed foi to raise a felt consciousness about displacement. The score cultivates in its performers physical recognition of people “who do not have the basic right of rest after an active day, and who instead have to remain ever-vigilant for violence,” and awareness that “my ability to roam where I want when I want is actually a privilege, while for others, having to constantly move and find new shelter is a form of imprisonment” (ibid.). Thirty-one participants, each performing in and representing a separate state, simultaneously enacted foi on 31 December 2008, during the last twenty-four hours of the calendar year (fig. 1).
When invited to participate as the Iowa representative I agreed, but performed the twenty-four-hour action interrogating my entitlement to create solidarity with people from whom I had remarkable distance—so sharp was the difference between my choice and their coercion. More practically, how could anything I was doing in the middle of the United States affect anything in the Middle East? In terms of PBR, what does foi produce? How can the piece be an effective protest if it does not disrupt the status quo? Questions regarding the efficacy of ritualistic and sociopolitical acts staged by performing artists have been taken up before. Analyzed through Richard Schechner’s [End Page 185] concepts in Performance Theory, foi has strands of both efficacy and entertainment, aspects that are both social and aesthetic, goal-oriented and display-oriented (125, 129–36). foi resembles actuals, a 1970s American genre of homemade rituals that sought change, but, Schechner remarks, failed to accomplish it (127–28). He argues about the actuals: “In contemporary western societies only a charade of power can be displayed at theatrical performances; or the actual changes played through by the performance artists affect very...