Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Social Acupuncture Treatment Has Been Successful

Hi All, Susan here. I’ve read this book twice in the past few weeks. Not because I’m enamored with the book but it takes two readings to get the benefits from the social acupuncture treatment. In the first part of the book the author is just so freaken open about his thoughts on the arts, and does not tiptoe around the topic of the arts and its many failures to make a difference in the twenty-first century. After the first reading I came away believing the reviews that O’Donnell was schizophrenic and did not really care about how his writing affected the reader. Could he be practicing tough love? Is his agenda to unclog the blockages that society has created in artists or the blockages that artists have created in themselves or in each other? O’Donnell’s approach is rather extreme but interesting, and surprisingly beneficial, but it took the second reading for me to understand this.
What is acupuncture? The Oxford English Dictionary describes the word as a system of complementary medicine in which fine needles are inserted in the skin at specific points along supposed lines of energy. I am assuming, that O’Donnell is assuming, that any person who picks up his book is more open minded than to buy into the dictionaries description “supposed lines of energy”. I should let you know I am a great believer in acupuncture. My treatments have included traditional Chinese acupuncture and acupressure, Japanese’s Jin Shin Jyutsu pressure points, and long distance acupressure treatments (separated from the acupuncturist by one thousand-four hundred miles). In these forms of treatments "what happens in one part of the body is reflected in the rest of the body. It emphasizes the interconnectedness of everything in the universe." So my interest in this book was to learn what would come of Social + Acupuncture + the arts.
Basically, O’Donnell begins the book by letting us know all our worries and protesting, and energy spent and invested in making a difference, is wasted energy. From his point of view, the world is just too busy fighting each other to hear the message of let’s just get along. O’Donnell is introducing us to his social acupuncture technique by getting us worked up, and doubting our worth and ourselves as artists. Then he throws in the line to justify how he has spoken to his audience, “Essentially, I’m a twerp, a powerless pipsqueak, strong enough to push around a few of my dazed and less-informed comrades… This angered me but I pushed through his distancing tactics.
There are moments in this book when I hear sad disillusionment in his voice. For example when he questions, “How did I end up spending so much time believing that culture had some revolutionary potential? What was I thinking?” At that point I stopped reading and shouted “What the Hell was I thinking?” When the Trade Towers fell I became obsessed with waking up the public and reaching them by using the tool of the arts. I believed that art was everything and that art had the power to inform everyone and empower everyone and that art could make a difference. Wait a minute I am allowing O’Donnell to get in my head. I believe in the power of the arts. Yet, I do acknowledge THE general lack of support that the arts face. Are we bringing this on ourselves? As an artist and an arts administrator, this is a conversation that I had with myself too often.
O’Donnell forces the reader to understand we, artists, have a choice. We can choose to be powerful or powerless. There was a period in the twentieth century when artists worked as individuals and together and with the public to bring about positive changes. Today, as Nicolas Bourriaud states in his book Relational Aesthetics, it is simply about maintaining relationships rather than building partnerships. It’s easier to mind your own life and live in isolation than become involved with community concerns. What can one person really do? At this point in reading Social Acupuncture, I became frustrated with that question. As an artist, I have heard this question too often. Well, if we look at that from a negative impact, it took only one Hitler to bring the world to a new level of destruction. Where is that one positive impact that can bring the world to a new level of positive growth? Maybe it is not a person that creates this change maybe it is the arts as a whole. Then again just yesterday the political hope of positive world growth was placed squarely on the shoulders of President Obama with his recent Nobel Peace award. Positive growth takes a team.
Thus far, this social acupuncture has been an interesting treatment. When receiving an acupuncture at a traditional office visit, thought is given to the physical, spiritual, and emotional environment. The mood is calming. This is important since the affects can be unpredictable. Darren O’Donnell’s book has not been calming. The author appears to be using the symbolism of acupuncture to rattle our isolated studio cages. He knows that social engagement is difficult to maintain in this busy world but as artists we have a responsibility to get out there and participant in creating connections and maintaining communications with the global community.
Back to Mr. O’Donnell, I was impressed with his walking the social acupuncture walk of implementing the project The Talking Creature, a participatory event examining the art of conversing with strangers in public. This project was implemented in the summer and fall of 2003 in Toronto, Canada. The city was quarantined due to threat of SARS. Although many residents evacuated the area, there were those who stayed behind for a multitude of reasons. O’Donnell had the truly brilliant idea to bring together the public by crossing a an uncrossable boundary. He held five “participatory events examining the art of conversing with strangers in public.” The words used to describe this project are manic, urgent, catalyst, risk taking, energy. All rather dramatic words but talking to strangers is moving the energy. Moving energy is the goal of acupuncture. It was this experience that brought about his writing the play A Suicide-Site Guide to the City, an autobiographical play of multiple situations that came to life over the summer of 2003.
How do you know if you have been affected by a social acupuncture treatment? For me, it has the visual of my handwritten notes on the sides of the pages of the book Social Acupuncture. My writing became larger and larger as I traveled deeper into the book. I became and more and more annoyed yet more focused. Then, I was suddenly right there with O’Donnell. Right there with him in the theater of imagination. Provoking the unexpected. Breaking with theater traditions of maintaining the fourth wall. Providing the catalyst in a safe environment was energy needed to encourage the audience to participate. I was right there with him, the playwright creating an open-ended situation of control/non-control. A potential place/site/community constructed by the artist where trust, creativity, and growth could occur and where the materials of engagement flourished.
Social Acupuncture lighten my spirit by playing with my mind, which in acupuncture terms could be said to have unlock energy that is stagnated, thereby creating harmony!

I like this O'Donnell guy.


  1. Hey Susan, thanks for all of that. And please pass on a thanks to all of your classmates; it's been a really great experience for me to have my book so thoroughly engaged with.

    Hopefully someday all our paths will have the opporutnity to cross.

  2. Thanks for describing your process with this book, Susan. I found it very honest and brave as you stuck with O'Donnell through your obvious discomfort. As an aside, I am continuing my accupuncture treatments for my asthma and amazed at how much better I am than two months ago. Of course when I go for my treatment, there is some definite discomfort involved. The needles can prick at times (especially in the ear!) and I must trust the process of being vulnerable and a bit frightened, as the accupuncture office is off my regular beaten track (even tho it's down the block). Yet I am trying to make a bridge for myself to that office from my home in order to feel better.

    I distictly remeber how many strangers talked to each other incessantly after 9-11 here in the city. It felt like riding the subway was a communal event and that living here was as well and strangers became kinder and more open with each other. The binding thread was, however, FEAR.

    When I have worked in socailly engaged ways as an artist there are also many strangers who talk with each other incessantly. The binding thread is creativity, however, and the possibility of change that comes after the fear and frsutration. It touches everyone who particiaptes even if only for a moment. What I am saying is that it might not matter if art can change the "whole world"; it might matter much more that art can change individuals. Accupuncture can only heal people one person at a time too. If each of us artist helped only a few individuals the world would still be a more amazing place, no?