When the coronavirus pandemic slammed into the arts sector, we responded with movements toward both transformation and resistance. Across the art world, but especially among practitioners and artists with an ongoing investment in the “live” (theatre makers, dancers, circus artists, musicians, and more), displays of solidarity splashed across our social media feeds and our local media. Stories trumpeted our resilience as artists made their transition to online and asynchronous work. But others were more critical of the rapid increase in what was already an evolving rhetoric of digitalization from our institutional funders at the Canada Council and Canadian Heritage.
When Ken Schwartz of Two Planks and a Passion declaimed, “I am not a digital artist” to the CBC in April of 2020, many echoed the scary sentiment of being, “a cobbler in a world of people who no longer wear shoes.”
Many of these stories speak of our relationship to audiences and the new world of artistic production ushered in by the pressures of the global pandemic. These are vital stories, but they have a tendency to crowd out a key relationship in the pursuit of arts work, that of advocacy. What I want to suggest here in this blog, is that we are missing an opportunity to consider the importance of presence and the dangers of a continued reliance on digitally mediated relationships in the work of advocacy.
Behind the curtain of “advocacy”
First, what exactly are we talking about when we speak of advocacy? I understand advocacy as the work of building relationships within artistic networks, and with those that legitimate the work of artists. Legitimacy for artists is often demonstrated by the support of public money from government-sponsored departments and arts councils, and so advocacy work often relates to these structures, both administrative and political. The work of advocacy is a demonstration and a performance, or as sociologist Nirmal Puwar puts it (2004), a means for those in the margins to be made visible in spaces where they are often not allowed. Many artists identify as marginalized, not always in terms of class, race, and gender (though those play into the equation certainly), but rather because cultural policy continues to exist on the sidelines of governmental priorities. The spaces in which policy is developed and enacted are often occupied by economic and political interests that see the arts sector as a means to other ends: education, social welfare, mental health, job creation, and perhaps national pride and cohesion. These interests may sometimes be in alignment with artistic vision, but most often they trump the critical reflection of society that many artists see as their primary function, along with entertainment.
In much of our art world, with its limited resources and political power, artists themselves are often put in the position of taking up this advocacy role, despite the desire to pursue artistic creation exclusively. Many will recall being “volun-told” to form relationships with funders, political representatives, and fellow artists, even to join an advocacy organization, as a necessary part of building a viable and sustainable practice. For many of these artists, and particularly for those in the emerging stages of their career, the advocate is not necessarily a comfortable space, nor a familiar role, to inhabit. It may not be the kind of position that Bonnie Green aspirationally suggested when she stated in a Professional Association of Canadian Theatres newsletter, “if one works in theatre, one is an advocate for theatre.”
The advocate, therefore, is one who works to make the artist visible, or to put it another way, to make them present. And, more often than not, that individual is the artist, a fellow practitioner, trying to establish their own presence in the world of advocacy. How can we understand presence as a means to advocate? What is presence beyond the idea proposed by geographer Allison Bain (2004), who argues that artists are present when they take up space in the public imaginary: in galleries and museums, for instance? As artists and critics of art work, many of us will have an innate sense of presence. In the visual arts, it is often described as a feeling, the hand of the artist visible on the canvas; en francais, on experience un frisson, a shiver in the soul as one encounters the work. In the performing arts, presence is that sense that the performers are really there, truly engaged with one another in the scene, and thereby drawing us, the audience, into the world of the play, or dance, or song. Presence is a quality of performance, an openness to the moment, to improvising and reacting to the situation viscerally and with commitment.
“She is so present,” we exclaim, when we witness the kind of directness and vulnerability enacted by an artist like Marina Abramović. Presence is almost invariably a good thing, but the shift toward digital presentation of art works challenges the idea of presence. We have to wonder if the increase in digital mediation will begin to crowd out or fundamentally alter our idea of how our work is received.
These are important considerations for the production and presentation of art works, and our relationship with audiences. But as many of us have experienced, artists run on parallel tracks, both as creators and advocates. How do these questions surrounding presence help us to better understand the advocacy role? What does “being there” mean in the pursuit of advocacy?
We need to consider how artists, acting as advocates, come into contact with the institutions that legitimate their work. Here in Canada, we must acknowledge that the funding apparatus, whether on the federal, provincial, or increasingly municipal levels, is a primary arbiter of the legitimacy of artists and artistic practices. For example, in 2009, years before the reorganization of Canada Council programs, the Council recognized circus arts as a new artistic discipline, bringing what was once considered a marginal practice into the mainstream. This recognition was facilitated by the recognition of the importance of circus in places like training institutions, and the success of organizations like Cirque du Soleil. Lindsay Stephens (2015), a researcher who studied the working lives of circus artists around this transformative moment, reminds us that this legitimation also required, “many years of lobbying from key figures in the Canadian circus community.” What did that advocacy look like, and what might it be transforming into considering our current social, political, and communicative situation?
In the early days of the Canadian Arts Coalition, one of our most well-recognized and successful advocacy organizations, they launched a program called Arts308, calling on advocates in each federal riding to meet with their MP and advance an arts agenda. The call here was not to fill out an online form, not to send an email or letter, not even to phone, but to visit the offices, to be present and visible in the eyes of political power. In a similar manner, Arts Day on the Hill, the CAC’s annual lobby day where advocates from across the country physically travel to Ottawa to meet with MPs and Senators at Parliament, demonstrates the power of human bodies invading the corridors of power.
Presence as a state of being
To be present, as I have suggested, is not simply a question of physical location, it is an openness to improvisation and the commitment to the situation in which an advocate finds oneself. Let me share a personal experience as a researcher that took place during Arts Day 2018. I was attached to a group of advocates set to meet with a Conservative MP. Upon arriving at the offices, as is often the case, the MP herself was not available, and so our group gathered around a rough circle of chairs in an outer office with a staffer. As we launched into our well-prepared pitch, the resistance was palpable. The conversation quickly shifted from the pleasantries and polite discourse one might expect, to a profanity-laden screed against “elitist” artists from big cities that “real Canadians” are not interested in hearing whine about grants. While some in our team seemed taken aback and tried valiantly to remain on the agenda we had prepared, I observed others making that shift to another level of presentation. Some participants were able to meet this individual on their own level, and while they did not descend into the same scatological language, they nonetheless were open to receiving the criticism and finding a way to ask questions that still allowed us to leave the meeting with key information about how certain political ideologues might view the arts: in this case as an economic salve for a suffering tourism industry, or an exercise in local pride and community cohesion.
Presence, in this example, is the ability to adapt to an unexpected advocacy situation, and to shift one’s own performance from a well-rehearsed and scripted role, to something entirely improvisational. I strongly believe that it is in these moments when a theatrical language can actually help advocates to better engage with the political and bureaucratic apparatus that legitimates our work, as much as it can help us as researchers to theorize advocacy in a way that directly implicates the art world.
I would argue that we need to pay more attention to presence, and not only as artists and advocates, but as those who study and critique the work of cultural bureaucrats. Arts council program officers, for instance, are a prime example of art world members that are constantly negotiating presence. The Council has been called to task, most recently in testimony before the Canadian Heritage committee of Parliament, for a lack of “presence” in communities outside the major centres of Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. The disbursement of financial resources like grants in these communities is key, certainly, but that issue is closely tied to the physical presence of the Council as an institution, represented by these officers. In its defense, the Council is slowly addressing this lack of presence with “road show” type tours in communities large and small. At least they were before the pandemic hit.
But program officers that I have spoken to have also expressed concern over the digital mediation of their work. The Council’s application portal is the digital intermediary that now stands at the gates of legitimacy with the Council. One officer suggested that when this kind of digital portal is the primary means of introducing the Council’s work to members of the art world, there can be a strong sense of alienation. Artists have trouble finding the humanity in the institution, and in a field of practice that is meant to reflect the human condition, this is of concern.
What do I wish for?
This blog is supposed to address “what I wish existed” in our research on the arts and cultural sector. Let me be clear, I think we have an increasingly robust and engaged research culture, and so I am not suggesting there is something that does not exist that I want to bring into being.
Nor am I suggesting that we ignore the massive disruption ushered in by the pandemic and put ourselves and our communities at risk through careless disregard of physical distancing. Presence is not just about physical togetherness, and that is the point. What I want is a language, and a theorization of art work, and advocacy in particular, that aligns with how artists like Ken Schwartz see their place in the art world. I want us to theatricalize our research and challenge this moment of unprecedented mediation with a push for presence. Being visible and open is a constant in the artistic practice of many, if not most, of our best practitioners. It must become a more central aspect of our advocacy, and of our interactions with the legitimating structures that facilitate viable and sustainable art work.
Bain, A. L. (2004). In/visible geographies: Absence, emergence, presence, and the fine art of identity construction. Journal of Economic and Social Geography, 95(4), 419–426. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9663.2004.00318.x
Puwar, N. (2004). Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place (1st edition). Bloomsbury Academic.
Stephens, L. K. (2015). The Economic Lives of Circus “Artists”: Canadian Circus Performers and the New Economy. Canadian Journal of Communication, 40(2), 243–260.