Sunday, September 20, 2009

social acupuncture and breaching experiments

Social Acupuncture and Breaching Experiments by Britta

The analogy of holistic healing and acupuncture to society and the social body is brilliant. I love O’Donnell’s humor, intelligence and critique of the powers that be and the ineffectual-isms that be. I also respect and identify with his notion of the “empire of cool” having been a “cool” kid in an uncool place, and then made conscious decisions to reject “cool” as I moved to very cool places. (I am reading a great book now about how to raise your kids to be geeks!) So all of this is relevant on a number of levels.

In my transformations of the last few weeks (as I mentioned in my last post) I am realizing that one’s community determines, in part, one’s audience. I do not consider myself a member of the “art world” in NYC, except perhaps on the fringe edge, and just as O’Donnell is critical of the reasons and practices of theater in its conventional sense, I am also critical of the art museum and gallery worlds, (though there is a place for these and they serve multiple functions that are not wholly wrong or useless.)

So, I completely identify with OD’s effort to render art/theater effective in altering consciousness, and I am inspired to attempt to insert newness/difference/discomfort in order to re-establish the social-chi flow. Making meaning, not profit, and making meaning and connection the goal, not the “bottom line.” My tendency to “hide” and be silent (as much as I am, which is not always) is a reaction to the ongoing commodification of everything, the ignorance of people to “get it,” “think,” and change. But not only the “commodification” but the “threat of being consumed” by the powers that be (and I am being consumed and so is my family, even more than before, simply because of new economic conditions that have increased our work hours, decreased our pay, making us pay for more childcare, be increasingly stressed out and have less time for each other, our art, and our communities).

Questions: How does an artistic intervention influence the president of a company to change *his* view that “everything is about the numbers” or the dean of such company/school to really act differently and lose the apolitical, sold-out, philosophically- minded vision he has of the world being “tragic and beautiful”? To me, those would be the people on the local level who could change things, but they are under pressure to meet the numbers handed down by the corporate machine, and also feel powerless. Ugh. If the guys in charge feel powerless, then the Machine really is in charge. We used to think it was “the Man,” but when the man made the corporation legally into an “individual” then the Machine took over.

O’Donnell stresses the importance of discomfort as part of the healing process. Being social creates discomfort (and will more and more as people become increasingly isolated through their interface with machinery) so strategies that actually get you to talk to each other, work well for creating discomfort. OD uses interviewing, and interaction. I do this in my classroom, especially in my sociology classes.

A mid-century sociologist, Harold Garfinkel, did a series of “breaching experiments” (you can find some on youtube, like the elevator experiment). His goal was to point out what the social rules are. He thought you could only see what they are when they are broken, because people will try to get things back to normal as soon as possible and you can witness what they do in order to render things normal again. Performance art, like O’Donnell’s work, is a type of breaching experiment. They can be really fun! People like to break rules, when it is safe to do so, and then we get to see the social norms at work and how our discomfort is alleviated. I can see why the wealthy folks felt threatened. To make a real intervention, I think you need to establish trust first.

Here is an example of something that happened this term in a sewing class that I am teaching: It is a small class of 4 students. The students are persons of color, mixed, Spanish, and black. I am the only white person in the room; we are all women. One of the girls is really angry. She is always saying how she hates this and that, the overlock machine, the project, this or that teacher etc. Two of the others just laugh at her and tell her she has an anger problem. I tell her she needs to be nice to the overlock machine because it will get back at her. This week she came in to class in good mood. She had a bit of money and had found a second hand store in the neighborhood where she bought a few things. She was inspired to show us her favorite item. It was a purple cloth shoulder bag with a big peace sign embroidered on it. I said that I thought it was perfect and that was exactly what she needed… to project more love and peace. They have given me a hard time, jokingly, about my interest in quilts and the fact that I got my tattoo the year some of them were they born in 1990. We have developed a rapport, and have gotten to know each other over the last 2 months. So the angry girl was happy for a while, then burst into anger again. We found out that she hadn’t slept in more than 24 hours and lived in a household with 11 siblings. I happened to have my new Iphone with me and decided to play some music with some speakers. I played a few things we all agreed on, and then by the end I decided to embrace the purple peace bag vibe and play Joni Mitchell songs. We all settled into a nice relaxed sewing flow. And by the end of the 4 hours, one of the girls said she thought my music had been good to establish that energy. This felt like a small triumph. We have one more week of class.

This is why I like teaching where I do. I often have real interactions with people I normally wouldn’t get to spend time with. I learn so much about their lives. I wish I could share it with others more. Since most of my students are people of color, I feel quite privileged. But, it is painful too, because our school is very expensive. It is an open-admissions school and I witness the kids getting consumed by it. By this, I mean that they are often not prepared to do the work and I am obligated to fail them if they do not do the work or do it well enough, they leave without a degree and deeply in debt. I see the cycles of poverty and the dreams they have, and again the rules of meritocracy that they are unable or unwilling to follow.

Here is something else that I did, not unlike O’Donnell’s interventions. I was invited to Santiago, Chile to take part in a performance art festival in 1996. I gave a talk on my Survey Fairy piece and led a performance workshop. For the workshop, I asked the participants what they wanted to do, what they felt was needed in Santiago at that time. Through a discussion process we decided, as a group, that we wanted to conduct some kissing experiments. All the group members were comfortable with it, except one woman. She was willing to go along but not kiss anyone. I invited her to go with me. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon and we went out in pairs. We walked up to strangers and asked them if we could kiss them. Our group returned and reported back to the wider conference. We were all very elated! It felt so good to cross these boundaries and ask for human contact! I remember when I did ask people only one person said no and I just moved on. There was a lot of laughing and a lot of excitement. And, if I remember correctly, nothing felt creepy or inappropriate. Even the woman who was afraid felt comfortable enough at the end to ask someone to kiss them!

One last note: if I show up with a strange haircut next residency, it may be because I allowed by 4 year old to do the job!

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