Part of Exeunt's relaunch is a new Critical Futures section in which to publish the results of our research project into the state of theatre criticism in the UK, and Provocations will provide an experimental review format for pieces curated by Exeunt Editors. Here our Curating Editor and Performance editor discuss their vision for what's ahead.
DBY:We were in the pub drinking Sam Smiths in the hazy afternoon, and I, candidly naive and ahistorical as ever, asked you the question: ” How much do you think, to what extent, is the kind of critical practice we want to formalise, and make accessible, and roll out across the whole landscape as the big beasts gradually fade and the broadsheets inexorably melt away. How much is this generational hype? A soft Manheimian thing, rather than actually transforming the field and its practices before we’re ringfenced into the critic’s circle and settled in an established web of middle-age.” By which I meant – kind of imploringly, really – all these ideas and all this energy that Exeunt currently is: how successful can we really be at this? And you smiled and blew your fringe, and your answer, which began at performance art in the ‘70s, tracing theatre’s isolation, and on to current modalities in art and architecture criticism, was fascinating.
DD: I remember I was pointing towards the latest issue of Art Monthly, which at the back, has a little hidden away section on Performance- and what that was saying to theatre and performance criticism, what that formal link and appropriation mean. I was discussing how art criticism – and yes, architecture criticism as well – has already shown that particular critical modalities that are displaced away from the normative but still present in the public sphere, demonstrate that criticism can change and respond aptly and adequately to its referent. In architecture, this involves consideration of embodiment and site of writing in critical considerations, and a language that is both open and particular. In art criticism, a rich – albeit problematic (like any type of criticism)- mosaic of engagements problematises ways of reading and engaging with work. We returned to theatre and performance, and I mentioned just how important it is to tie in formal considerations of criticism with a questioning of the critical encounter- of notions surrounding affect, site, gaze, participation, authorship, in relation to its referent. Because we were discussing Exeunt’s new section, Critical Futures, and what the theatrical critical economy and taxonomy is- and how no one really knows. It’s a tower built on marshland.
I think I started by talking about how something in the artistic landscape was shifting in the seventies; art critic Rosalind Krauss speaks very eloquently about this when she says that seventies art was ‘split, factionalised’, explaining the emergence in the public sphere of performance and body art, video based work and installation, photo-realism and hyper-realism in painting (she tried to respond to this medium problematisation by launching October). This wasn’t just about formal innovation, but an unsustained collective ambition for a different engagement and dialogue between art and the public sphere. Looking back, art critics from Krauss to Sayer have associated this cultural moment with a particular surfacing of postmodernism (I think we can include Hans Thies Lehmann’s Postdramatic Theatre here too), not for the purposes of defining an art movement, but signalling a particular plurality which, in its guises, was calling for different modalities of critical engagement. That materialisation of artistic practice recalled and echoed Umberto Eco’s plea for a poetics of the open work- and gave rise to the surfacing of textual practices, art writing, but also the development of an embedded criticality within artistic practice itself. Criticism had to respond through the curatorial, the verbal- and consider its presence within this new cultural dynamic. What we were speculating is just how much this has permeated particular aspects of critical practice, but theatre has remained somewhat isolated in the exploration of these paradigms- when it’s visible just how much that wider landscape is shifting now in the same loud way as it was in the seventies (academic and critic Gavin Butt has picked up on this shift into capitalist displacement of authority and cultural production in After Criticism: New Responses to Art and Performance). And we need to try and understand how, and create infrastructures to free that.
The relationship between performance, live and critical practice over the past thirty odd years has been far more multiple than the public sphere would suggest (because somehow, theatre still holds its disciplinary ties strongly, despite artists doing the opposite). From collaborations such as the three-year research project Performance Matters, bringing together artists, academics, writers and audiences, through to works such as Ron Athey’s Gifts of the Spirit: Automated Writing at Fierce Festival this year and projects like Open-Dialogues, the landscape of interdisciplinary practice is paved with a mosaic of critical engagements. That being said, there’s a certain reluctance for mainstream criticism to reconsider not just its formal practices, but also its mode of engagement with an increasingly textured landscape of theatre and performance that has shifted since the participatory turn into another plural cultural moment that seeks a different relationship between art and the social sphere- and within that I think there’s a questioning of social normative practices, and political ones for that matter.
These formal explorations – more recently via discourses around embedded criticism, as well as platforms such as US’s Culturebot- certainly attempt to break-down and question the rules that have dominated critical practice over the last fifty-years-rules that as we discussed, are historically grounded but publicly appropriated (where’s the canon of critical practice?). This has been fuelled by an interest to respond to the opportunities offered by critic-artist collaborations, as well as the open remit of the digital sphere in its displacement of traditional hierarchies of authority and perhaps, legitimacy. Sometimes, the negotiation of form and content has been slippery, but all these practices- ones which we are trying to make visible in our Provocations section and contextualise within Critical Futures- have brought about interesting and productive intersections: Can we think about criticism outside of its mainstream specificity? Can we consider criticism in relation to failure, accident, aesthetic presence, embodiment? Some of these concerns are not new, but we want to surface them, provide them with a space to engage in a wider landscape, and perhaps then we can develop a critical culture more responsive to its climate, and understand how, at a time of social and political shift, of the rise of nationalism and the sedentarism of particular artistic practices, how criticism can engage more productively and discursively not only with its referent, but also with audiences. Because ultimately, criticism is always responsible to respond aptly to its source and speak to a wide audience, without being reductive or stubborn.
Here is where Critical Futures comes in particularly strongly. We are announcing a research project that will seek to examine – through quantitative and qualitative research, interviews, field/practice-based work, and commissioned texts- how the digital is shaping critical practice. We want to understand what regulates normative practices, how they isolate criticism to such a transparency in a remit that can offer multiple possibilities- where is criticism’s presence, and how can it best respond to the multiplicity of performance and theatre practices? Within that, there is also a questioning of how criticism can engage with form whilst still maintaining rigour of judgment- there needs to be a critique of criticism within there, too. We want to understand the ways in which these are already fuelling experimentations and modalities of work that might be hidden in the tapestry of the web. If there is a distinction between the professional specificity of mainstream criticism, and a wider critical practice, then it’s important to acknowledge the presence of the latter not solely in an isolated critical landscape, but often embedded in artistic and curatorial practices and discursive interventions. It’s first and foremost about tapping into what is already there, and has been there historically and culturally, then creating a practical infrastructure to question and develop it.
Perhaps I think you’ve understated the crisis that theatre criticism is in, and overcoloured its mosaic.
As we know, mainstream or journalistic theatre criticism has been understood as located solely in the priestly figure of “the critic” – a site which has suffered an unbearable trauma in recent years. It’s a noble and beautiful tradition, and yet under the yoke of new epistemes and technologies, it can sweat with the most ludicrous demagoguery. Those that would have the critic as the elite folk devil, the The Grand Inquisitor of the column-inch (“thou hast no right to add anything”) are willing them to hear the dogmatic drone and whistle recede. I salute what’s going, but the question that digital criticism has to resolve, as its basic claim to life, is what happens in the wake.
As time’s arrow flies, theatre’s historical decline as a public good has been joined by an entropy of critical infrastructure. This began happening way before the dawn of ‘content’; from the ‘70s onward theatre sections were seen as soft-targets as market rules became harder and faster, and along with sclerotic tabloidism we began the stripping of mainstream criticism to the skeleton staff of today. Instead of bringing on new generations their ranks became supplemented by lifestyle and sports journalists, and farmed out to the punitively unimaginative trade rags. The way the generational ranks closed was kind of politburo stuff, except no one died.
As online grew concurrently, so arose in the gap the interminable critics vs. bloggers debates that afflicts other industries. But what was industrially peculiar was that this division held for so long. Unlike film, or gaming, multi-authored blogs never became viable institutions. Unlike architecture or art no blogger was folded into wider intellectual milieus. It laid no claim to the third space. It laid no claim to the future. It had no politics to speak of. No one got a book on Zero. And bar the brilliant future-defining work of Matt Trueman, Andrew Haydon and Miriam Gillinson, it never really sought to parse itself as criticism. And all of this has contributed to this real sense of institutional despair about theatre criticism at the moment, and the current inability for anyone to kid themselves that it’s working.
You point out there is no canon, and this is particularly true for theatre criticism with its rigid distance between press night purgatory and the four tight walls of the academy. And yet even this sparse lineage tells a story of decline. You can see this really striking gap between Wardle’s chipper and peppy tone in 1992 in Theatre Criticism, which really has this sort of Esslin, Tynan, Billington cocksurety about its inheritance of itself, and Nicholas Dromgoole’s faintly quaint and dusty Role of the Critic from a couple of years ago.
This latter exudes loss. Almost everything is “regrettable”. Expressing this in classical enquiry, the loss third of Longinus’s Treatise is “regrettable”; that an Alexandrine Greek painting should fall between two scholarly disciplines of Egyptology and Greek Studies is “depressing”; the relative dearth of classical literature existing as criticism is “even more depressing”. Dromgoole is extremely keen to point out that criticism is historically intermittent and contested. But what is extraordinary, in this ostensible piece of avuncular advice to young critics, is that it goes straight from an Ur Arisotlean revisionism to the future. Contemporary criticism is already lost, like dust from ruined pots.
You mention Hans Thies Lehmann’s book, and there he undertakes a similarly, to my mind, audacious circumlocution. When he does refer to critics it’s in terms of the mob, they are “enthusiastic”, they are squarely part of the confusion which has the new theatre materialising as a discursive object which is only negatively defined in piecemeal. And that’s Europe for fuck’s sake.
So digital criticism emerges from this crisis. And let’s note it’s not “online criticism” – it’s taxonomic not descriptive. And while here I won’t minge on about Gutenberg (pace the design of the my glasses that’s not my style) this digital criticism is definitely partly technology determined. In what ways it’s determined , and how we separate that from its other determinations, is absolutely key to digicrit as it incorporates a critique of the new formats available to it: how they are black-boxed, what their norms and orthodoxies turn out to be. And this is fascinating terrain, comparable I would contend to a time when theatre would appear on the front page of a newspaper as a public political matter (not the lifestyle thumbnail it is there now) because here we are thrown right back into warp and weft of a general media, making claims for criticism, theatre, and the public.
One of the surprises of the web was the way that early cybercultural ideas of the virtual, all this frontierspace, spatial metaphor, quasi religious liberation from embodiment, pomo identity games cut with fear of the hyperreal cave paintings – everything that now looks like so much mysticism – pretty much evaporated with mobile tech and social media. Suddenly the autonomous individual could actually centre itself, and moreover organise meatspace. Producers like Coney and Hide & Seek have been at the forefront of how theatre might entwine with the “distribution of the sensible”, not just detourning but collapsing spectacle, aligning the political and the aesthetic – and this is exactly what criticism can be mirroring. What we’ve tentatively called 360 degree criticism, but what might be better called pervasive criticism, is looking at how a smart-phone enabled critic might be able to produce criticism as a networked subjectivity. Recuperating social media idioms into site format, getting much closer to the event – along with these newly technologised ontologies, returning this generalised sense of critical thought which has escaped theatre criticism for so long.
As so as journalism is globally revised, so is journalistic criticism. When you pull a critic off the treadmill of 200 shows a year, these networked critics are much more likely to be viewing theatre in the context of its wider culture. They can elide the gap between the stylish broadsheet critic and the theorist, in the way that visual art does so well. They can read widely and with selective depth. In and out of the academy, they are much closer in design to something like New Historicism than the empty stage. They interlocute with other disciplines. They are skeptical of the closed routine world of pseudo-ludic antagonism that theatre critics have set-up against the artists they interpret. As Eton throws up a generation of actors, networked subjectivities are differently-classed and variously politicised. And so Critical Futures becomes a process of describing and formalising this kind of current practice which joins upstream and mainstream critics together in a generationally novel context.
And all of those engagements you mention, I would echo as being part of the Geist and Muth: Culturebot’s “horizontalism”, discourses of “embeddedness” and dialogue all promise a healthy state of dissensus in theatre criticism. At the same time I see the future of criticism as more robust than some of the thinking there might have it, and I have no interest in dismantling barriers between artists and critics as if that’s somehow a spatial matter, or a gap of understanding. A healthy criticism is respected because it makes apparent the fact it already comes from the same place as its referent, from the workshop of culture, from the place where culture explains itself to itself. If it competes it is not to say it antagonises, but that it is alongside reordering the ordering of social experience the referent provides. It does this as non-reductively and as dazzlingly as it can in the space allotted. When it does antagonise, to engage dialectically with its referent, it does so according to sustained, evolving, critical value-sets. At the same time it can throw off its formalities and be flexible with what it produces. For me our Provocations section, with satire, practice-based reviewing, experimentalism, political exercise and whatever else Exeunt critics make of it, is the chance to produce these kind of responses; and as we fold back innovations into the general review format, over time, we can aim at nothing more modest than a new critical standard.