The Symbolic Trespass
An argument for Augusto Boal as the future of feminist performance
and feminist art as a reflexive pedagogical necessity for social reimaginings.
The work of Augusto Boal is a crucial and incredibly valuable way of thinking about performance, and conversely, about performativity as a necessary aspect of lived life. The nature of his work is both tied to a larger ritualized history and also a reimagined state of the societies of potential futurities. This new state he speaks to is not the ritualized aristocratic entertainment centuries of patrons have come to expect, but a functional tool that inflicts social and individual change.
Boal’s work demands questions of institutionalized theater and ways of theatrical making: what are direct and clear ways that theatrical tropes can be used to engage various publics? How can theater potentially serve as a tool of democracy? How has it historically served as a tool of propaganda and classism? Through his development of a theater method that empowers those experiencing social and political strife, he begins to break with tradition and renegotiate the use of bodies, script, improvisation, and space. It is worth noting that these things (bodies, script, improvisation, space) are both marked as theatrical tools and also as the basic tenants of social organization. This is useful to remember as Boal’s work tends to migrate out of the theater and into politics and social structure with little explanation. His lack of need to explain these moments of transcendence serve to be both telling as to his approach and instructive to a new way of viewing performance as fully integrated into society.
Over the following pages, I will propose that Boal’s work brings us in direct contradiction with the predominant message and focus of the selffocused theatrical productions of the Western traditions dating back to Greek theater, and instead asks for a return to the ancient spontaneous participatory structures of ritual and celebration as well as a yet to be seen future state. I see Boal’s methods as linked directly to modes of feminist and postmodern art practices via his strategies of making, existing
in a poetic semiconscious conversation with feminist standpoint theory. Rather than engaging directly with these ideas, he does it tangentially, by moving deeply into identity politics, and finding new vocabularies of representation, looking, and identifying. I will propose that his work offers us a practical logistical path to reshape and reutilize our existing systems in a way that offers productive paths forward through complex identities and issues.
A brief biography...
Augusto Boal was born in Rio de Janeiro. He first traveled to the United States in the 1950s to pursue studies in Chemical Engineering at Columbia College. Although he was interested in theater from an early age, he didn’t embrace it as a career until after his graduation from Columbia, when he returned to Brazil to work for the Arena Theater in Sao Paulo. While in New York, he had worked with contemporary heavyweights of the period, such as John Gassner and The Actors Studio. Because of this exposure, he returned to Brazil with a deep interest in and understanding of Stanislavski’s Method approach and a strong awareness of the midcentury excitement in Europe and the United States for realism in theater.
In 1956, The Arena Theater in San Paol entered headlong into its own “realism” stage (Boal, 136). The technique, presentation, and packaging was very familiar to anyone comfortable with European methods of midcentury theater making. It was, as Boal described it; “theater made by money for people who had money” (Boal, 136). For several years, Boal directed such English classics as “Of Mice and Men” for The Arena Theater. However, also according to Baol, Brazilians quickly began to tire of what he referred to as “perfect English diction” ( 137) and become hungry for authentic works of theater that reflected national identity and experience, which was completely uncharted territory. There was, at the time, no publicly produced theater that reflected Brazilian experience.
It is impossible to separate Boal’s work from the specificities of Brazilian politics of the 1960’s and 70’s. Throughout the 1950’s and ‘60s, the Brazilian economy experienced unparallelled growth. The gross national product was swelling by eight percent a year, largely due to the fact that the country was
turning away from its legacy as an agricultural exporter and toward a future of industrialization. This newfound wealth was also felt in the art world the bossa nova emerged, and cinemanova (led by Glauber Rocha), literature, and poetry all took a turn for the psychological and the political. The middle classes saw an emergence of a politically radicalized group of artists and intellectuals (de Abru).
In response to the new selfreflective cultural hunger, the Arena Theater attempted to create a national theatrical core of twelve young Brazillian playwrights in 1958 (Boal, 138). Over the following years, many young playwrights began to produce consistently and successfully, Boal among them. Brazilian nationalism was on the rise, which was reflected on stage: traditional European plays began to fall further and further out of favor. As Boal remembers, the Arena “opened their doors to anybody who wanted to talk about Brazil to a Brazilian audience” (139). For a period of time, what was popular in Brazilian theater was the simple realistic representation of lives and identities which had been previously missing from popular visual culture. Boal remembers plays about people going to soccer matches, people going shopping and planning dinners pedestrian things. There was a frantic joy in finally seeing the Brazilian proletariat portrayed visually (Boal, 137). This kind of interest in visual selfrepresentation of underrepresented minorities is incredibly important in the early development of Boal’s work.
In her article “PostRacial Visual Culture” Laura Hargarten writes that minorities in television in the 1950’s in the US were “represented as whites saw them, not as they saw themselves.” While the location and the context between the two countries are obviously different, the class divides in Brazil of the period are comparable to the United States, and the representation of people who looked and sounded like Brazilians was almost nonexistent in theater before the 1950’s, and the representation of people from South America at all were in plays that played heavily off of otherized stereotypes of dark skinned people written by European playwrights or playwrights from the United States. The representation of people that looked, sounded, or experienced in ways that Brazilians could identify with were most often offensive and reductive representations. These were hardly deep and profound representations of the the experiences of marginalized Brazilians, and Boal felt this deeply.
Even at this early stage in his creative work, his impulse to create democratic involvement in theater is evident even in his earliest days at The Arena, while he was producing and directing fairly traditional plays, he continuously troubled traditional expectations by asking audience members to stay after the performance to speak about their experience. The urge to pull the audience in and get them talking was evident from the beginning of his career. Quite quickly, however, he began to push this even further. In 1979’s “The Joker” Boal wrote a play which played out multiple endings and intricate possibilities, allowing the audience to examine and critique specific choices made by the characters, and the power structures they participated in. He called this approach dealing with theater "within the transitoriness of theatrical techniques"(Lovelace).
As he moved deeper into developing these interactive techniques, the way in which Boal responded to traditional theater was not just to change the message, but also the media itself. He became deeply invested in questioning the basic tenants of the ways we make theater, as well as what we use it to say, and to whom. Even very early in his career, his interest in democratic representation led not just to writing plays that represented people that looked, sounded, and experienced life in ways that felt authentic to his Brazilian identity he began to critique and reshape the entire framework of how we think about dramatic action. This began innocuously enough Boal often encouraged audience members to suggest alternative actions and conclusions for the actors in his traditional plays in his audience feedback sessions. During one performance, one particularly vocal woman jumped out of the audience and got on stage to show an actor what she envisioned (Boal, 12). For Boal, this moment of embodiment was a revelation that would spark years of research and a lifetime of experimentation. He went on to work extensively around the world developing his theatrical process, which he called The Theater of the Oppressed, write many books, and found centers across the world that strive to articulate and change the experiences of oppressed peoples.
Boal was specifically influenced by Paulo Freire, a radical theorist and developer of what he called the Pedagogy of the Oppressed Boal’s TO is a direct reference to this (Boal, 17). Freire asked that artists show their support of the people's struggle by giving themselves over to the thinking of the people. He
did not encourage focusing on the actions of man, such a focusing causes confusion, but rather he encouraged a focus on "the thoughtlanguage with which men refer to reality, the levels at which they perceive that reality, and their view of the world." Do not go to the people with the objective to bring them salvation, he cautions, but rather to understand through dialogue, "their objective situation and their awareness of that situation." (Lovelace). This was a major aesthetic and philosophical tenant for Boal, who took took these ideas deeply to heart, and began to craft new ways of making to incorporate them. “Boal looked to theater as an instrument of education, rejecting the popular idea of theater as only spectacle and entertainment. His objective was to increase the capacity to confront internal and external factors in deeply rooted conflict by increasing the capacity to conceive of change” (Lovelace).
Boal often romanticized a return to the dithyrambic notions of theater as he writes in “Theater of the Oppressed:
“in the beginning there was the dithyrambic song; free people singing in the open air. The carnival. The feast. Later, the ruling classes took possession of the theater and built their dividing walls. First, they divided the people, separating actors from spectators; people who act and people who watch the party’s over! Secondly, among the actors, they separated the protagonists from the mass. The coercive indoctrination has begun!” ( Boal, 95)
His life work became dedicated to intervening in this cycle a perpetual quest of a dithyrambically centered theatrical expression for the masses and the spectators with the goal that these notions would begin to erase themselves in favor of a chaotic and imaginative voice of the people. Boal was primarily interested in effectiveness in this way, he reveals himself as a deeply intermediary artist his work ranged from traditional theater to workshops to holding political office. Boal was not chasing media or technique, he was chasing ideas, and this manifested as constantly morphing artistic expression.
The overlapping shadows of Politics and Aesthetics
Since much of Boal's work is in such direct and aggressive dialogue with ingrained tropes of western theater, it is necessary to touch on this briefly. Specifically, a quick look at the work of Aristotle and
Bertold Brecht is valuable to flesh out the world that Boal was working within, as well as exposing the tensions he spent a lifetime responding to in regards to the modes, expressions, history, and theory of theatrical and social expression.
Boal deal extensively with Aristotle's seminal work on western tragedy; his notorious "Poetics". In this work, Aristotle laid out rules and regulations for the “poetics”, which translates from Greek as the entire concept of making. There are two primary areas of "Poetics" worth addressing in relation to Boal first, the idea of subject and subjectivity (memisis), specifically around the development of character/and the concepts of cathartic emotional release of the audience. Second the ways and methods in which theater functioned in the larger Greek society. The ways these concepts are inextricably linked and the things they say about value, work, and the individual is crucial to understanding Boal's method and thinking.
In regards to memisis the idea of imitation or representation is very specifically laid out in "Poetics". The tragic hero i.e., the protagonist of the narrative functions very specifically as an agent to create what Boal referred to as an "emotional prosthetic" (Boal, 11) which allows a passive audience to be emotionally moved by an artificial series of events unfolding in front of them. In Artistotle’s mind, this identification is crucial, as it allows for an emotional buildup that can lead to a cathartic purging of emotional energy at the climax of the play. In order for this to happen, Aristotle states that the tragic hero must have a litany of very specific traits so that everybody who saw the play could quickly and easily identify the tragic hero and follow their storyline (Boal, 13). In short, theater is not a reflective tool in and of itself, it is a mirroring device that he believed should allow people to safely navigate emotional journeys that traced predictable trajectories with secured outcomes.
Aristotle saw all systems of making as attributes of poetics, and all arts linked to one another in a hierarchical way. For example, leatherworking is a form that relies of others a butcher and a toolmaker come to mind but leatherworking also cloths the more dignified artisans and politicians further up the chain. In systems of hierarchy, it is always valuable to ask who sits at the top, and for Aristotle, the answer was politics. The lives and processes of the politics of Athens were the highest form of poetics,
and all other art forms served to support them.
With this in mind, theater takes on a new cultural functionality. The ideas of art and art making were central to politics, and theater in Aristotle’s time was the biggest mouthpiece that existed thousands gathered to watch the theater. Therefore, theater became a crucial aspect to politics, and quite openly was a way to sway minds and hearts, as well as control the actions of the body politic (Boal, 15). The effectiveness of theater centered around the idea of the cathartic release.
The cathartic release that the audience felt plays directly into Aristotle’s views of the constant yearning of the human condition toward perfect form. As Plato had proposed, Aristotle believed that there were perfect forms of all things, and that the world we experience was not that of the most ideal forms. However, Aristotle diverged from his teacher in the concept that humanity was constantly moving in the right direction but that sometimes humanity still fails to embody perfection. He stated that “the world of perfection is yearning, a movement which develops matters toward its final form” (Boal, 10). Poetics, and the theater in particular, is a perfect corrective tool for these slippages away from perfection that we so often experience. By exposing the audience to a narrative in which an individual falls prey to some kind of sinful quirk in their personality (greed, murder, lust, etc) and then evoking perpetia (or a massive raising of the stakes) and then dropping the character to the depths of despair, the ultimate emotional purging was allowed for all in attendance. Greeks watching a tragedy were allowed to passively play
out their worst vices, and then experience the total terror of their fall from grace. Theoretically, this allowed the audience to expunge their urge for vice without actually polluting society by physically acting these things out. Boal describes this by saying“the cathartic effect is entirely avoided. We are used to plays in which the characters make the revolution on stage and the spectators in their seats feel themselves to be triumphant revolutionaries. Why make a revolution in reality if we have already made
it in the theater?” (Boal, 120).
This process has become so ingrained in our ways of storytelling that it becomes difficult to even see, much less critique. For Boal, this system undeniably mirrors complex and oppressive class politics.
From the moment Thespis stepped out of the chorus and developed the duality of protagonist and chorus, theatrical expression became undeniably aristocratic. The crowd became the individual, and the individual was chosen and marked as special. Boal believed that this method of telling stories was oppressive and reaffirming of class structures, all the more dangerous because it allowed for audiences to feel that they were fulfilling their desires, when in fact, they were releasing them into a highly controlled environment where they would have no impact or outcome (Boal, 14). He saw the theatrical climax as a direct move away from the possibility of revolution of societal.
These ideas have shaped the way theater has been made on the most profound levels. Of course, there have been thousands of years of theatrical flux that allows for new reimaginings, but the core of Westernized theater has almost always aligned itself with these ideas of cathartic release. Perhaps the most profound and deeply felt move away from this happened with Bertold Brecht in the 1940’s in Germany. Brecht began to play with the format and expectations of theater via denial of character as “real” and attempts to expose the actor as the real “character” in the first half of the 20th century. Boal saw Bretcht’s work as interesting, but still disembodied. As he writes in “Theater of the Oppressed”, “there is still this idea of of power: the audience must be still and passive. They are denied the right to speak, to empower themselves. There is this idea of this essential truth that the drama must impart” (xx). He began to imagine a theater of messy surprises a place where there is no set script, no prescribed moral lesson, and no telling where the action may take us. In short, a move toward chaos which required incredible faith in others. “I want the Spectator to take on the role of of Actor and invade the Character and the stage” (xxi).
Aristotle proposed a poetics in which the spectator delegates power to the dramatic character so that the later may think and act for him. Bretch proposes a poetics in which the Spectator delegates power to the character who thus acts in his place bus the spectator reserves the right to think for himself, often in opposition to the character. “In the first case, a catharsis occurs, in the second, an awakening of critical consciousness” (Boal, 98). But in both cases the audience was physically inert. This is where Boal began to intervene at the bodily level of the artist.
Much of Boal’s work is in direct and very conscious contentious conversation with these methods of making. Informed by both but mirroring neither, Boal set out to create a new way of making theater
that could remake his systems in a way that empowered those at the bottom of the power hierarchies. This is directly influenced by his time working as a political legislator in Brazil during which his radical approach to politics (primarily, his interest in advocating for the poor and other minorities) in a time of conservative antiCommunist fluxus of the late 60’s, got him kidnapped, tortured for four months, and exiled to Peru (Boal, 72). While in exile, he wrote his most influential book, The Theater of the Oppressed, and began to develop the theatrical method by the same name.
With this turn in his career, Boal moves from the implicit to the explicit embracement of politics as society as a forum for theater, ripe for theatrical intervention. As he wrote, “the poetics of the
oppressed focuses on the action itself; the spectator delegates no power (or actor) either to act or think
in his place; on the contrary he himself assumes the protagonistic role, changes the dramatic action, tries out solutions, discusses plans for change in short, he trains himself for real action” (Boal, 98). The development of the Theater of the Oppressed was done with absolute clarity and focus on one thing: the goal of upward mobility of the lowest classes in a given society, with one eye firmly on the possibility of total societal upheaval and revolution. “... instead of taking something away from the spectator (these forms of ‘rehearsal theater’) evoke in him a desire to practice in reality the act he has rehearsed in the theater. The practice of these theatrical forms creates an uneasy sense of incompleteness that seeks fulfillment through real action” (120).
Fleshing out theory
As soon as he began engaging with these ideas, Boal found himself pushing the limits of what theater and performativity could do. Instead of crafting entertainment, he found himself working as a literacy director, a teacher, and a community organizer. Anita Wenden writes that “discourse can also be the focus of politics, that is, the struggle for the power of representation and proponents of various views
use a variety of strategies to ensure that their framing of the nature of a particular issue predominates”
(90). Thus representation, the symbolmaking of the self, becomes crucial. By intervening in the ingrained translated representations between the self, social frameworks, and larger communities, a radical differentiation becomes possible, which is felt/manifested politically. This became the core of Boal’s work a way to offer a space for reframing the ways of representing the self. If the self and the community can be represented in new ways, power structures become visible and named, and therefore opened for editing and recrafting.
Much of Boal’s work specifically addresses the complex problems of trying to bring a traditionally aristocratic art form to groups of people who have rarely had any specific contact with theater, and
those who have often have notions of sentimentality, leisure, and expense connected to the art form.
Boal describes this process as “very difficult” (103). He goes on to say that to avoid “the very fact that the educator comes with the mission of eradicating illiteracy (or some other inequality the people face) with presupposes a coercive, forceful action, is in itself an alienating factor between the agent and the local people. For this reason, the theatrical action should not begin with something alien to the people... but from their own bodies.” (Boal, 103). In these messy and confusing negotiations with race, class,
and privilege, Boal’s work begins to create an interesting friction with feminist standpoint theory. As the IEP describes it, feminist standpoint theory has three basic principles (1) Knowledge is socially
situated. (2) Marginalized groups are socially situated in ways that make it more possible for them to be aware of things and ask questions than it is for the nonmarginalized people. (3) Research, particularly that focused on power relations, should begin with the lives of the marginalized. This outlines the approach that Boal took the work should begin with the bodies and voices of the people not with his preconceived ideas.
Boal’s incorporation of all of these principles into his work is maybe not intentional, but it is hard to deny. His genius lies in his ability to take these ideas and animate them through a variety of particular social interventions. Specially, he used the following modes as a way to track an individual's transition from a passive spectator into an active participant. This is a transition that is agreed upon as crucial by so many people interested in power interventions, but is also incredibly hard to manifest. The specific
activities he lays out in his workshops create a clear and focused approach to this transition.
Knowing the body: in this stage, an individual begins to explore the ways in which their body has potentials for reconciliations, limits, and possibilities.
Making the body expressive: a series of exercises and explorations allows an individual to begin to become aware of their body as a powerful site of expression and nuance.
The theater as language: participants become aware of the current and evolving nature of theatrical expression. Via use of simultaneous dramaturgy (all participants writing a script or timeline together) image theater (spectators intervening via “images” made by the body, and forum theater (all spectators intervening directly on the dramatic action) the participants become aware of theater as a mode of selfempowerment.
Theater as discourse: simple skits in which the actors create 'spectacles' in which they can act out or rehearse specific problems, concerns, or social issues. Modes of this include: invisible theater, newspaper theater, rituals and masks, and myth theater.
One of Boal’s strengths as a critical writer and revolutionary artist is his willingness to engage with theory while keeping it grounded in a sense of practical application. It is precisely this insistence that his artmaking be accessible and open to the public that lends a revolutionary and intermediary bent to all his work. This opensource feel to his work demystifies the artmaking process and allows it to break new and fertile ground in form and content. In all of his ventures, Boal invited people inside his flexible and accommodating practice, allowing them to shape and change it along with him.
In 1973, Boal worked with The People’s Theater in Peru and a radical national literacy program that planned to eradicate illiteracy in the nation within four years (Boal, 96). This ambitious project clearly shows the flexible ways in which Boal envisions performative interventions in social context. One of the
primary problems facing the program was the sheer volume of languages spoken in Peru. In one region, over forty five languages (not dialects) were spoken (Boal, 97). This posed a serious barrier to any
kind of communication in a teaching context. Rather than force participants to learn Spanish and abandon their native tongues in order to be literate, Boal moved away from language altogether in favor of alternative modes of communication. He developed a project where he passed out cameras and
asked participants to take an image that they thought represented their home. In order to explain their photographs, the participants had to learn to communicate nonverbally or across great language
divides. By asking them to use language to communicate something personal and emotional, he was giving voice to the experiences of these people as they lived it, with no expectation of outcome or narrative. He was using common symbols and ideas (home) and asking that people make them specific and personal. By not privileging one language over another, he created a context that wasn’t just about developing literacy for cultural capital, but about allowing the voices of the disadvantaged to be the shaping mechanism of the program. As Friere writes, “no pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption” (54).
In discussing this program, Boal goes on to talk about the power of symbols “it happens many times that wellintentioned theatrical groups are unable to communicate with an audience because they use symbols that are meaningless for that audience” (Boal, 101). In these cases, listening to the actual lived narratives of people are essential for developing a relevant and constantly evolving visual vocabulary. Boal describes this kind of paying attention to symbols and how different people craft and obey them as a crucial tool in understanding power structures. He cites image theater as a very clear and useful way to expose preconceived notions and generate new potentials. he describes is as showing "how we
come to create the Other: a negativelycharged rigid perception that generates bias and hate" (Lovelace). This harkens back to ideas of representation as Wendon writes, “when we talk about politics, we are talking about representation, and we must focus “ on discourse as the focus of political struggle, i.e. the struggle for the power of representation.”
Boal recounts a formative experience he had in a Peruvian town called Otuzco, which had a very specific history. In this town, a peasantled revolutionary uprising had been squelched when the leader of the peasants was hauled into the town square and publically castrated by the wealthy landowners. When Boal visited on a literacy campaign, this history divided the town sharply across class lines, even generations later.
In the workshops that he did in this location, Boal asked the participants to use image theater (the physical placement of other bodies by one person in order to explain something nonverbally). Boal asked the group to describe how they saw their town in one image, then another image that described what they desired their town to be like. For the third image, the group brainstormed about things that could change in the first image in order to create the second. Boal writes that using image theater in situations such as this gets around the “denotationconnotation problem” (115). Take for instance, the word “revolution.” Most people will have a pretty good idea of the textual meaning of this word some kind of abrupt change in the power of a given system. But the connotations of this word will vary wildly from person to person. As Boal points out, using imagery that clearly visually states where the power lies and how it could change and what that change might look like is an entirely different conversation (116). Finally, the individual is asked to place themselves within the scene they have created locating and visualizing their own power. From this vantage point, clear paths present themselves action becomes a tangible and obvious course, not an abstracted and elitist notion of theoretical
Boal describes this as a fertile way for the residents to this town to clearly see and therefore begin to understand where their power and agency lay within the situation they all shared. By exposing this, new ways of moving forward to heal were envisioned. As Boal writes, “in my version of revolution, what are the statues doing? Do they have guns or ballots?” (115). Quite often, the group would settle on a logic solution to craft the first image into the idealized image, and this would give a group a clear forward trajectory. In many situations, Boal cites image theater as an extremely successful way of giving social
dynamics a new visual vocabulary that allows for creative reimagining of possibility, rather than acceptance of oppressive dynamics.
Sometimes, however, the participants in a workshop would not agree on a solution via image theater exercises, and in this case, forum theater would be turned to. By acting out the scenario multiple times and allowing people to take turns dictating the action, new knowledge could be gained. By acting walking through the steps, problems, conflicts, and potential solutions could be visualized in new ways.
Theater as active provocation
The ethical and moral implications of this kind of working are quite profound. Something quite interesting happens when you allow these ideas to coexist with the philosophies and struggles of feminist philosophies. As Peggy Phelan writes in Seeing the Invisible, “attempting to link ancient, inherited knowledge of the body with a newly expanded interest in alternative modes of consciousness” is the implicit and explicit in feminist performance (1). This statement alone draws striking similarities to the work of Boal deeply invested in political and social revolution, which he felt could only be accessed through the body. I would venture here that feminist performance art is highly invested in and therefore tied to our Greek ideas of catharsis. In much of feminist performance art we see a fairly constant dwelling on the moment's of catharsis the emotional climax of another, given to us in great detail or consciously withheld. In the first example, we are flooded with sensory information, in another, we are denied the possibility of empathetic response. This kind of art is absolutely crucial in the development of the representation of women’s experience, but the aesthetic of much of this work centers around exposing what is oppressive in women’s experience. There are few performers who imagine new futures. The content is indescribably important, and the effects of these artist’s work has reverberated deeply throughout performance of all kinds since. As Phelan writes, “feminists saw in performance an opportunity to explore ideas that had been systematically ignored in western thought” (2). However, I would venture to respond that this kind of art making can only take us so far. To watch will always only take us so far, as it is directive and doesn’t allow for the surprise of participation the moments that
break our ingrained systems and allow for revolutionary spaces that change and activate.
By joining the ideas of feminist thought with the practices of Boal, a new kind of performance can be imagined one that holds deeply with the value of speaking and exposing that which our cultures deny, repress, or silence, and twines it with the practical methods of Boal’s work. This speaks directly to the main structural problems of much of feminist thinking: society has found ways to marginalize and degrade the academic and artistic modes of feminism. Therefore, it speaks most directly to people who are already seeking it out and studying it, allowing it to otherize itself from the rest of society, creating the illusion of neat and firm boundaries where there are in fact, none. This removes the power of feminism to be a true interruption of power dynamics. Culturally, we have created systems that remove feminist power from feminist interventions.
Because of this, feminist thinking, and perhaps even more than that, feminist art, has needed alternative vehicles for decades. By turning to radically embodied participatory reimagining, these futures suddenly become clearer. The need for explanation and oppositional rhetoric becomes unnecessary to cause the friction that feminist often relies on the onus is no longer on an intellectual “wake up” from those in power, but on a group of people being asked to move through power and privilege defining moments. This kind of thinking involves ageold practice, and postmodern content. As Alice Lovelace writes, for thousands of years, many nonwestern forms of performance involved
“the community (artists were always a part of the community) gathered in the open, under the sky, nature providing the scenery and backdrop. The action was interdisciplinary, using mask, songs, dance, ritual, and unscripted so that the audience/community was free to intervene and shape it to their needs. This theater was under the authority of the community. Together they told their stories reflecting their values and worldview. In the age of Christian theater forms, the actor became the focus. The community's role was reduced to listener/respondent. The drama moved indoors, onto a stage, raised above the audience/community.”
Feminism demands a move away from these power structures. There is incredible power and
excitement in imagining art that does not tell or show, but art that listens, art that opens itself up to the possibilities of surprising itself and creating new modes of being and showing. As George Ikishawa writes,
“the bourgeois theater is the finished theater. The bourgeoisie already knows what the world is like, their world, and is able to present images of this complete, finished world. The bourgeoisie presents the spectacle. On the other hand, the proletariat and the oppressed
classes do not know yet what their world will be like; consequently their theater will be the rehearsal , not the finished spectacle.” (Gordon, 269).
Much of feminist thought insists (and rightly so) that an awakening of the proletariat to their oppression without an accompanying awakening of the controlling classes is useless the only option in this case would be a violent reassignment of power, not the radical restructuring of the basic tenets of society itself. In this scenario, we are only able to recreate the power dynamics we strive against. Perhaps Boal perfectly placed the individual and their need for action within our age old oppressive tactics when he said
“the poetics of Aristotle are the poetics of oppression: the world is known, perfect, or about to be perfect, and all its values are imposed on the spectator, who passively delegate power to the characters to think or act in their place. In doing so the spectators purge themselves of their ‘tragic flaw’ that is, of something capable of changing society” (134).
It is in the underlying philosophies of Boal’s work that we begin to see linkages and dialogues emerging between the seemingly disparate fields of feminist standpoint theory, theatrical methods of making, and politics. This conversation creates a crucial and new tension all of these areas speak to the mishandling of power and the hierarchy of knowledge, and the systems that support them. The lines begin to blur between these seemingly disparate categories when the conversation becomes about empowerment.
As Anita Wenden writes, “one can attempt to silence one’s opponents by attacking their positions... when one mode of representation prevails, a hierarchy is formed among the competing representations with the winner’s being given primacy as a way of framing a particular issue” (91). She is speaking
particularly about political positioning, but it is literally impossible to not see the deep connection between this kind of capitalist emphasis on meaning being made by representation, and the work of artists. Boal writes that “popular audiences are interested in experimenting, in rehearsing, and they abhor the ‘closed’ spectacle. In those cases they try to enter into a dialogue with the actors, to interrupt the action, to ask for explanations without waiting politely for the end of the play. Contrary to the bourgeois code of manners, the people’s code allows and encourages the spectator to ask questions, to dialogue, to participate” (120). This statement stands against Anita Wenden’s assertion that “while the power of language in the realm of politics is intuitively recognized by the lay person, less appreciated is the fact that, like liberty, power and money ̧discourse can also be the focus of struggle, i.e. a struggle
for the power of representation.”Augusto Boal spent a lifetime focusing on this profound power of representation. His playful and flexible use of a variety of engagements on this topic marks him clearly as an intermediary artist, and also as a thinker and artist with an incredible ability to challenge and reshape our most basic systemic understandings of the world.
1. de Abreu, Alzira Alves. Published in History Today: Volume: 47 Issue: 10 “History and Memory, Brazil’s Guerilla Trap” http://www.historytoday.com/taxonomy/term/22686
2. Boal, August. “The Theater of the Oppressed.” Translated by Charles McBride and Maria OdiliaLeal McBridge. Theater Communications Group: 1979.
3. Gordon, Robert. “The Purpose of Playing: Modern Acting Theories in Perspective.” University of Michigan Press: 2006.
4. Lovelace, Alice. “A Mutual Alliance: Mediation and Theater of the Oppressed in a Process for Social Change.” In Motion Magazine February 15, 1996.
5. Phelan, Peggy. “Making the Invisible Seen.” Art and Performance LIVE. Routledge: 2006. Ed. by Adrian Heathfield.
6. Martin Reisigl, Ruth Wodak. “Discourse and Rhetorics of Racism and Antisemitism” Routledge: 2001.
7. Wenden, Anita L. “The Politics of Representation: a critical discourse of an Aljazeera special report.” International Journal of Peace Studies, Volume 10, Number 2, Autumn/Winter 2005
Claire Bishop 90 minute video on "Participation and Spectacle: Where Are We Now?," Presented as part of Living as Form
Claire Bishop is an Associate Professor in the Ph.D. Program in Art History at The Graduate Center, The City University of New York, and an internationally recognized scholar and curator of contemporary art. Her critical work focuses on socially engaged art and theories of spectatorship.
"Participation and Spectacle: Where Are We Now" is the first in a series of talks leading up Creative Time's Living as Form exhibition, opening September 23, 2011.
Has 51 videos from “the most innovative art in the public realm. From our base in New York, we work with artists who ignite the imagination and explore ideas that shape society.”
This is the homepage of artist Stuart Brisley and has a short excerpt of a video of him applying paint to himself as the centrally located image. An explanation of the performance Black, White and Red is given. I hope the paint tasted OK.
Entire performance here
Writing, painting and The Museum of Ordure can be explored on this huge website.
and addtional performances here
Although this artist uses many intermedial ways of making art, painting and drawing are still part of his practice. Activism, Collaboration and Community seems the best fit, performance, conceptual, environmental, intstallation, video, situationism and photography all work too.
The Atlantic is reporting on this... hmm. I will file it under "activist art" and see what happenes.
Cool interview with Chris Cummings on protest as social intervention/Russian poetry, etc.
This is especially interesting considering all our conversations about the creative breain first semester...
Mierle Laderman Ukeles' Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969
I don't feel as though much has changed.
Link to Groundswell article on Occupy posters about the 99% versus the 1%.
The posters are reminiscent of older imagery, perhaps.
Link to the LilySarahGrace Fund page featuring a movie narrated by Sir Ken Robinson. This short movie is not intended to be intermedial, but raises a host of questions about where creativity fits in our culture.
The LilySarahGrace Fund has recently funded two projects for me to provide art supplies to low income schools where I work and I feel extremely grateful to them. As part of the second grant I have to document students designing and creating chess sets.
Link to ABC News article about the tragic deaths of Lily, Sarah and Grace who died with their grandparents in a fire in Stamford Ct. On Christmas Day 2011.
Slide show of El Anatsui’s work:
By ALEXI WORTH
Published: February 19, 2009 NYT
One day 10 years ago in the countryside of southern Nigeria, a slim middle-aged man drove past a bag of garbage. Garbage is not an unusual sight in West Africa; village roads are often lined with a parallel hillock of trash — dusty bottles, spoiled food, tin cans, car parts — out of which small trees sometimes grow. But this solitary bag looked promising. It was a quiet, sunny late afternoon in the dry season. The man stopped the car and walked over to look inside.
A decade later, the contents of that bag have toured the world from Wales to Arizona and come to rest, transformed but recognizable, in some of the world’s most famous museums. Next year they will arrive in New York to be celebrated as part of the opening of the dramatically transformed Museum for African Art, in its new home on upper Fifth Avenue. They will be a centerpiece of the museum’s reopening exhibition — and, more than that, a proof of the growing prominence of contemporary African art on the world stage. It’s possible that they may join the short list, along with Duchamp’s bicycle wheel, Rauschenberg’s bed and Koons’s basketballs, of masterpiece detritus: once mundane objects that permanently transform our expectations about what art is, and where it comes from.
The one thing least transformed by that accidental discovery is the man himself, a West African artist who goes by the name of El Anatsui. At the Nigerian university where he has taught for three decades, Anatsui is known simply as “Prof” — a quiet, white-haired, bachelor member of the Senior Faculty Club, where he can be found most evenings playing checkers. As a puzzled but admiring Nigerian art dealer put it, “He’s almost a kind of messiah for us. . . . But in person, there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, remarkable about him.”
Nor was there anything especially remarkable inside the bag Anatsui found. Discarded by a local distillery, it held thousands of aluminum screw-tops from bottles of whiskey, rum and gin, bearing names like Flying Horse, Castello, Bakassi, Liquor Headmaster, Ecomog and Dark Sailor. For a few months, the bag sat untouched in Anatsui’s studio, while the artist continued to work on the abstract wood sculptures that had made him, in his mid-50s, among the most widely recognized African artists. At his own unhurried pace, Anatsui began experimenting with the bottle tops — cutting and folding their pliable metal into flat swatches, and then stitching these together with copper wire. The result, as it grew, began to resemble fabric, a coarse, jangly metal cloth.
On first seeing one of these cloths a few years later in London, Kwame Anthony Appiah experienced “one of the great artistic epiphanies of my life.” Appiah, a Princeton University philosopher and art collector, remembers “a vast cascading piece of cloth, glistening in red and gold, draped more than 20 feet high, and just as wide. I confess I was completely delighted.” Appiah was also puzzled; like many viewers, he assumed “El Anatsui” was an Arabic name, and hence that the artist was North African. But in fact, Anatsui is a fellow Ghanaian, and the intricate, narrow-banded compositions of Anatsui’s first cloths were recognizable variations of kente cloth, the emblematic fabric of Ghana. The works’ Africanness was specific and emphatic but also complicated. A rich tradition was honored in poor materials, and those materials — the flattened bottle caps, with their legible brand names — suggested other connections as well: to global consumerism and, more obliquely, to slavery’s economics, of which liquor was a key part. An elegant emulsion of history and craft, Post-Minimal form and Pop recycling, Anatsui’s work left Appiah feeling “enraptured.”
Two years later in Venice, where Anatsui’s wall hangings appeared as part of the 2007 Biennale, Gary Tinterow, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s curator of Modern art, felt equally smitten. “I was blown away,” Tinterow remembers. Curators often profess admiration, but in this case Tinterow picked up his cellphone — there, in the exhibition hall — and put in a call to his assistant in New York. The Met set about purchasing an Anatsui that day — following in the footsteps of the British Museum in London, the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Met’s own African department, which had purchased a smaller cloth sculpture the year before.
For many visitors to Venice, the mosaic-like beauty of Anatsui’s glittering sculptures made them an unquestioned highlight of, and in some ways an antidote to, much of the rest of the Biennale. As Susan Vogel, a professor of African art at Columbia University, remembers, Anatsui’s work was “the last thing you saw in the Arsenale. And it was so different from everything else. Not only in materials and scale, but in beauty. It was the only thing that wasn’t pessimistic. . . . You trudge past images of ruination, and you arrive at uplift, at resolution.”
Robert Storr, the director of the 2007 Biennale, had deliberately set out to give Anatsui “pride of place.” More important, he hoped to tip him out of the orbit of strictly African exhibitions. In retrospect, that process had already begun, thanks to “Gawu,” a traveling Anatsui exhibition that began its tour of eight international venues in 2003. There were also shows at London’s October Gallery and at two modest places in New York: Skoto Gallery and David Krut Projects. But Venice, for most observers, was the break-out moment. A follow-up solo show last January, at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery, confirmed the depth — not to mention the commercial implications — of Anatsui’s appeal. As Shainman recalls, “Even the people doing the electrical were freaking out over the work.” At the end of the year, a Sotheby’s auction catalog featured a wraparound reproduction of an Anatsui, folded around a Gerhard Richter. It was impossible to miss the implication: Anatsui had joined the big leagues.
Of course, in a sense, Anatsui had been in the big leagues for decades: he had exhibited on five continents, been reviewed extensively and even participated in a previous Venice Biennale, in 1990. But his work then remained subtly marginalized, paid a kind of respectful attention that was not entirely different from lip service. Skoto Aghahowa, whose New York gallery showed Anatsui back in 1996, has watched his current ascent with pleasure, but speaks about the condescension of well-meaning Westerners with a sigh. “They get so focused on, ‘How do you pronounce his name? How many wives does he have? He’s from Ghana? Oh, my husband and I went to Ghana; we really love Ghana!’ ” Only a few African artists have moved out of this atmosphere of benighted sympathy, and of these, the best known — Yinka Shonibare, for instance — tend to have made their homes and careers in the West. Among major contemporary artists, Anatsui is exceptional not only in being African but in being an African who has remained in Africa. A Ghanaian among Nigerians, he is a different, quieter kind of exile.
ANATSUI WAS BORN IN 1944, in what was then still the British colony of the Gold Coast — the youngest, he says, of his father’s 32 children. His mother died when he was young, so he grew up in the mission house of his uncle, a Presbyterian minister. At art school, in a country that had just achieved its independence, the curriculum was almost entirely Western: only in his last year did he realize that he felt restless, and began looking for “something that had more relationship to me, as someone growing up in an African country.” After graduation, Anatsui got a job teaching art and began studying African ideographs. In Ghana, the most common of these appear on cloths worn at funerals and are called adinkra. For his first mature body of work, Anatsui bought wooden food trays from local markets and burned or carved versions of adinkra symbols onto them. The effect was a kind of abstract painting, but one in which every element — not just the graphic patterns but the material as well — was adamantly local.
One of the adinkra symbols, sankofa, is an image of a bird turning back toward its tail; its meaning is sometimes translated as “return and retrieve,” or “go back and pick.” To Anatsui and his peers, sankofa symbolized their effort to find useful traditions — from their own region, from elsewhere in Africa and even from the West. The critic and artist Olu Oguibe would later paraphrase sankofa as “sitting square on your own tree while picking whatever is good from others.” In Nigeria, a charismatic older artist named Uche Okeke was promoting a similar kind of open-minded traditionalism, usually referred to as “Natural Synthesis.” In 1975, Anatsui was invited to come teach with Okeke at the rural campus of the University of Nigeria in Nsukka.
By this time, in the second decade of independence, the political situation in West Africa was becoming less stable. Anatsui’s next body of work, a series of broken, partially mended clay pots, reflected this precariousness while also drawing on his continuing research into indigenous traditions. “We de Patcham,” a reconstituted ceramic globe, took its title from a fatalist pidgin aphorism, “We dey patch am e dey leak,” meaning “It leaks even as we struggle to mend it.” Most of Anatsui’s broken pots, though, suggested an underlying optimism, based on clay’s capacity for reuse. “When a pot breaks,” Anatsui has said, “it’s not the end of its useful life.” To Anatsui, breakage was above all “a condition for new growth.”
At the end of the 1970s, Anatsui’s growing prominence led to invitations to travel — first to a sculpture conference in Toronto, where he saw contemporary Western art in the flesh for the first time (a Louise Nevelson sculpture), and then to a residency in rural Cummington, Mass., where he had an accidental epiphany: while using a chain saw to cut some wood, he was struck by the saw’s sheer, unconstrained power. “It’s so easy, so fast, it has a tendency to get . . . expansive.” He began to associate chain saw cuts with certain kinds of lines on a map — the long, straight borders into which Western powers divvied up Africa in the 19th century, for instance.
Anatsui wasn’t interested in making overtly political work — “taking sides,” as he puts it. But his sense of the chain saw’s metaphorical weight led him to return to working in wood. Over the next two decades, photographs of Anatsui at work in a visor and protective clothing, holding a heavy saw, would complement the abstract delicacy of his symbol-ornamented planks and stumps. This combination of power-tool machismo, scholarly symbology and organic material was a potent mix, but in retrospect, the work’s variety can also seem discomfiting: Anatsui veered from gridlike abstractions to pictographs and even topical figuration. A piece called “Visa Queue,” from 1992, with its winding line of diminutive figures, is a carved cartoon about the travails of refugees or immigrants — or even of newly itinerant artists, unused to the hassles of travel.
African critics, who knew and championed Anatsui’s work first, tend to emphasize its continuity. The wood, clay and metal cloth works are all “part and parcel,” says the Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, of his lifelong “experimentation with materials — materials that are meaningful in the context of the local culture.” In the West, however, there is a divide between the earlier work, which can seem heavy-handed in its Africanness, and the new sculptures, which are more spectacular and, at the same time, subtler. An apparent fusion of Klimt and Christo, Seurat and Tuttle, Anatsui’s wall hangings recall disparate Modernist sweet spots without quite settling into any familiar category.
Their most peculiar feature is that they are physically unfixed:
Anatsui insists that his hangings be draped rather than hung flat, but he doesn’t insist on draping them himself, and in fact is perfectly happy to have galleries or museums do so. He has preferences — horizontal ripples are better than vertical ones — but he doesn’t regard any particular arrangement as final. Naturally, professional curators are disconcerted by this freedom; Anatsui has little patience with their scruples. “Museum people are trained not to be creative,” Anatsui complains. “I find that very frustrating.” To Storr, the provisional, shifting shape of Anatsui’s art is one of the keys to its originality. In the catalog to the coming Museum for African Art retrospective, Storr argues that Anatsui’s work “is fundamentally anti-monumental: it does not stand its ground. . . . Rather it takes the shape of circumstances and so epitomizes contingency.” For Storr, that is no minor innovation: Anatsui “opens a new chapter in the history of sculpture.” It’s possible that the appetite for “contingency” that Storr praises is particularly African. Lisa Binder, the curator in charge of the Anatsui exhibition, points out that “traditional African objects, unlike European paintings and sculpture, are often highly adaptable, designed to be reused.” Anatsui’s work brings this adaptable, unfixed quality into sculptural practice — as jazz brought an African “unfixedness” into Western music.
Anatsui’s studio, a small warehouse near the Nsukka campus, is now a virtual factory: instead of waiting to find discarded bottle caps, he buys them in bulk from neighboring distilleries. More than a dozen assistants, young men in their 20s, work six days a week cutting and folding the aluminum pieces, and then joining these into blocks. When he feels ready, Anatsui has them laid out on the cement floor and begins to compose a new sculpture. If he is happy with the results, the blocks are wired together and the finished work is folded up like a blanket. If he is not satisfied, he simply says, “Pick them up.”
On a recent afternoon, I drove with Anatsui and Susan Vogel, who is filming a documentary about him, from the crowded studio back to the quiet, grassy hill where he happened upon the first bag of bottle tops. At the site where he had found them, there was a scattering of colored aluminum — crushed and dusty but probably, Anatsui agreed, remnants of the original bag. We stood at the spot, talking about his long career. Anatsui is an almost preternaturally calm man, reserved and modest, but also firm in his views. At one point, Vogel asked whether Anatsui felt satisfied by his recent success. There was a pause. “Oh, no,” Anatsui answered. “My ambition is . . . to get better.” He spoke briefly about artists he admires: Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, James Turrell. “I’m not there yet.” He continued with a faint smile, “I know there’s more room up there.”