Walker Art Center
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Content, Context, and Cultural Commitment: Curating the Performing Arts


What really concerns me about using those terms when we work with other cultures is that it's our language, not theirs. I remember the first time I mentioned "multiculturalism" to an Africa Exchange artist. He said, "That is not our term. We do not subscribe to American or European intellectual, aesthetic terminologies, or to your curatorial philosophies. We're doing something else over here." That was a revelation to me. I began to realize that I couldn't go to Africa or other places and use a word like avant-garde because people said to me, "That applies specifically to a European or American aesthetic and has nothing to do with what we're doing."

Most of us in the presenting and producing field don't know the terminologies used in other countries, don't know the aesthetic histories of those countries. So we come with preconceived notions about what contemporary work is. So many times when I thought I was looking at traditional work in Africa, people told me that I was looking at contemporary work. Irčne Tassembedo, a choreographer from Burkina Faso, said to us, "You don't even know what traditional work is because Americans have never seen it. Traditional work is sacred. It is a sacred ritual and if I were to put it on a stage, I would drop dead, and you would drop dead from seeing it." She also said, "You don't know what our contemporary practice is. You are still trying to keep us in the eighteenth or nineteenth century and, yes, we treasure that tradition, we build upon that tradition, but we are doing something else now. Our work is informed by contemporary practice and training. I have been trained in all the same modern techniques that American and European artists have been trained in, but that doesn't mean we throw out all the tradition that came before us. It is now something new and different. It is not traditional. But we would also not call it totally contemporary." So we have to start learning what that work is. If we haven't actually seen traditional African work, according to this choreographer, what are we comparing it to? What are we talking about? How do we put some label on this?

PB: Those are key issues that we deal with continually. When we bring an artist to the U.S for the first time, the temptation is, of course, to prefer the prestige of bringing them exclusively to your own city. But don't we have a responsibility to spread the wealth of knowledge, the privilege of access, to our colleagues? Gerald Yoshitomi noted in 1995, "The only way that things will move forward is if these nodes of expertise can be encouraged or even funded to support the spread of that knowledge and the building of those networks around the country."[4] How can we become those "nodes of information," rather than having our programs benefit only the Walker or NJPAC?

BS: One way is by taking on this new role of being in direct relationship with the artist, even though when there is no middleman for me, my work becomes more labor-intensive. I now have to figure out transportation, touring, funding, visas. There's a whole new set of tasks and responsibilities when you function as a producer and not just as a presenter.

PB: It's a huge, huge undertaking. In the past few years we've done it for the God Squad from Berlin and dumb type from Japan, among others. It requires, I would estimate, five times more effort than being part of an existing tour or engaging a project that comes to a single city.

For good or ill, the box office drives so much of our field at large and keeps it, in some ways, susceptible to its worst tendencies. The market does drive certain ways that we position events. There tends to be a sense of selling the exotic, especially when dealing with cultures that are interestingly alien or different from what one's own population knows about. How do you address that issue?

BS: I'm glad you brought this up, because I was hoping we would eventually get to this notion of the exotic. Someone once said to me, "Let's be clear. As soon as you take something out of its home, out of the context in which it was created, you are exoticizing it." To be quite honest, I agree. I know that I am exoticizing almost everything I do because I am in no way presenting it in its original cultural, political, and geographical context. What I hope I'm not doing is exploiting the artists and their work.

PB: What's the line between the two?

4 "International Presenting in the United States," Pew Charitable Trusts.