Performing the Archive and Building Community In Real Time (Part I: The Story)
I have come to view human history as an epic tragedy of inadequate knowledge management. While I am dubious that we will ever finally solve the problem of knowledge lost across generations and cultures, much less the greater problem of recognizing wisdom when we see it, I’m hopeful that we can change our society’s perception of how history is constructed, and encourage a collaborative, peer-driven model of cultural discourse and documentation.
As Jamie Haft has inferred, it would be difficult to overstate the urgency around building new practices for discourse and documentation, not just in the field of community-based arts, but for society as a whole. We inhabit a moment of both great crisis as legacy systems fail and even greater opportunity to create new systems to supersede the old.
To do so, however, we are called upon to relinquish our attachment to the old frameworks, specifically oppositional binaries such as “professional” and “amateur,” “digital” and “real life,” “documentation” and “critical analysis.” In a massively networked world we increasingly find ourselves occupying minimal spaces, traversing ever-shifting boundaries and working collaboratively in conditional hierarchies. We are always both observers and participants, which presents a new set of questions and challenges.
I say this based on my ten-plus years of experience at Culturebot.org, the website I launched as a blog at NYC’s Performance Space 122 in 2003 which has operated independently since 2007, and more recently as co-organizer of The Brooklyn Commune Project - an artist-driven grassroots initiative of Culturebot.org and The Invisible Dog Art Center to educate, activate and unify performing artists of all disciplines to work together towards a more equitable, just, and sustainable arts ecology.
I would like to share some of what I’ve learned from these projects and in so doing propose increased efforts at knowledge sharing and collaboration between community-based arts and arts-based communities.
When I came to work at Performance Space 122 in the spring of 2002, I was already a long-time Netizen and passionate advocate for the power of the Internet to create positive social change. Performance Space 122 – or P.S.122, as it was then known – was home to a vibrant, contentious, diverse, and adventurous community of performing artists. And though I had been an audience member since I first arrive in NYC in 1995 and had dreams of performing there one day, I could never quite figure out how to get involved.
During my first year at PS122 I began to realize that this was due in part to a critical gap between the interior life of the organization and the external lives of its community of artists and audiences. While I was daily having meaningful, enriching interactions with a diverse group of artists and community members, the individual stakeholders themselves were only partially aware of the vast social matrix they inhabited. Not only did the community lack “situational awareness”, but also there was no commonly shared and widely accessible knowledge of its history, its aesthetic, and its political lineages.
The exigency of keeping the doors open and the lights on while producing the shows made it almost impossible for the organization to adequately manage the ever-growing mountains of material – programs, scripts, correspondence, photographs, props, contracts, budgets – the artifacts that told the story of this community over time. There was no authoritative book or official historian; the only published records were the reams of reviews and features from the daily and weekly newspapers, the occasional essay in an obscure academic journal.
Realizing that a substantial archiving project was beyond PS122’s capacity or existing skills, I decided to address these needs by building a widely available online resource for the community: a living archive and historical record, created in real time, that would both reach back into history and look forward into the future. This resource would share the sounds, images, ideas and conversations of the community as they were created. Significantly, we would propose online discourse as a form of documentation. It was not enough merely to create an archive, but also to record the concerns and debates of the moment and be able to track them over time.
Thus, in December 2003 we launched Culturebot.org at P.S.122 and until community demand exceeded organizational capacity in 2007, and we left P.S.122, taking a wider view of our mission. I’ll note that apart from a small grant from the National Performance Network to build the first version of the site, we were never officially funded by P.S.122; we have been working arduously – and without funding – since 2003, even as the urgent need for discourse and documentation has reached a crisis point.
Back to the Future: Forward-Thinking Documentation & Archiving is generously sponsored by Drexel University Online.