Organizational Performance Art: Breaking It Down

Monday, December 7th, 2020

Organizational Performance Art.
Organizational. Performance. Art. 

These three words, separately and together, make my heart sing. I slow down and breathe and feel their warming, tingling, energizing, expansive impact on my body. They help me remember why I do what I do and know that, at its core, it’s the same thing I’ve been doing for a very long time, part of my lifelong inquiry in group process, always undertaken through a lens/value stance of social justice, social constructionism, creative expansiveness, and possibility.  

Organizational Performance Art. 

So… what IS that?! Perhaps it sounds esoteric or holier-than-thou or self-absorbed to you. It gets your attention, but you may be turned off. Let me break it down a bit. Here’s what happens when I look at two of the three terms in interaction with each other, an easier endeavor than taking on all three immediately. 

1. Organizational Performance. Duh. My work is only good as the influence it has on organizations making a positive social impact in the world. 

2. Organizational Art. Duh again. That’s whatever I do to support organizations to get where they need to go. It’s art. As in an expanded, reclaimed definition of the word “art”. For too long the term “art” has been ghettoized and narrowly used almost exclusively to refer to visual, media, and performing arts. In our racialized capitalist society, where value is defined by the ability to make money, art is considered a luxury, a side item, not worthy of investment (although readily consumed as entertainment). This means that the term “art” is associated with what is not valued and therefore the word is generally not applied to work that is considered to be higher up on the food chain, including –here’s the connection—the support of nonprofits and communities. Which means the work I do is generally not considered art. But it is. 

My understanding of an artistic lens or stance embodies a high tolerance for ambiguity and emergence; understands and plays with the social construction of reality; and works from a place of expansiveness and possibility. An artistic stance invites creativity, positivity, interconnectedness, and collaboration. [1] 

When the housing bubble burst in 2008 and people started freaking out about their livelihoods and resources during the recession, many artists (using the narrower definition) were like, “welcome to our world.” Most artists already know how to live with uncertainty. They’re resilient and critical and fierce. This is a stance I bring to my work with individuals, groups, organizations, and systems. And it’s needed even more now, as we deal with massive social, political, and ecological trauma at the personal, institutional, and systemic levels. 

So, Organizational Art. 

3. Which leaves us with Performance Art. Yikes! A term that may strike some as insider, elitest, niche. The term, of course, references “performance art,” an avant garde artistic (in the narrower use of the word “art”) discipline. Late 20th century performance art comes from a long history of visual and performing arts which share an esprit de corps with the gatherings I design and facilitate. As I apply the term to organizational work, I think of Performance Art inviting a specific stance that centers human performance as the art, an artistic practice of facilitating live, emergent interaction. 

Now it’s getting time to put all three words together and dig a little deeper.

4. Organizational Peformance Art. Here we go! Organizational Performance Art reminds me, is a clarion call, to apply a particular set of values and practices to my work with organizations and communities. The term and my work is inspired by several theatrical traditions, beyond those of performance art. I am also deeply inspired by theater groups and directors, largely from the 1960s and 70s, that focus on group process, audience participation, breaking the fourth wall, utilizing an entire environment, building community, and engaging in social criticism. [2] 

I have been revisiting early and abiding theater friends in print, to see how they now hold up for me, inform, and interact with my current work. The work of Richard Schechner, a New York City-based theater director and academic whose work spans several decades has been one. When I read Schechner’s writings as an undergrad, I was learning and yearning. Three decades later, I commune with the same texts and sense the soul of a person on a similar journey, quest, as mine.  

One of my favorite texts of his is Environmental Theater, published in 1973. At the core of this work is Schechner’s desire to define –and elevate– Environmental Theater, which he distinguishes from traditional Orthodox Theater. (The term “environmental” isn’t used by Schechner to mean ecology in a narrow sense of interacting biosystems, rather in making use of everything that is available to a performance, beyond a traditional proscenium space and its accompanying behaviors and assumptions).  

Environmental Theater’s defining features are quite similar to those that distinguish my approach to group process work in counterpoint to traditional group process, which is often centered on trainings and workshops. I could switch the term “Orthodox Organizational Process” for Orthodox Theater and “Organizational Performance Art” for “Environmental Theater” and it would resonate:

Orthodox Theater (Orthodox Organizational Process)

  • Use of traditional spaces
  • Rigid boundaries: audience and performers 
  • Custom-bound
  • Pre-determined
  • Concerned with illusion, how things look
  • Rehearsal dependent
  • Focus is on end product
  • Audience has private reactions
  • Audience willingly suspends belief
  • Mimetic of life
  • Purpose: the experience of magic  

Environmental Theater (Organizational Performance Art)

  • Use of alternative spaces
  • Fluid boundaries: audience and performers
  • Experimental
  • Emergent
  • Concerned with functioning, how things work
  • Preparation Dependent
  • Focus is on group development 
  • Audience may share reactions
  • Audience’s reality is changed
  • Is real life
  • Purpose: the experience of ecstasy

Schechner is also interested in applying his Environmental Theater lens to the world at large, in service of social change. Following The Performance Group’s 1971 production of Commune, some of the questions he found both performers and audience members continually looping back to during post-performance conversations resonate for me, my work, and the world today: 

  • How can there be solidarity in the theater when there is none in the streets?
  • Isn’t the animosity between performers and spectators a function of the general reification of human relationships in modern, urban society?
  • Why does the performer fear the spectator? Why does the spectator fear the performer?
  • Why do we think stopping the performance in order to allow/incorporate participation is a disruption? Can it not be an integral part of the event?

 These wonderings inspire the following questions for myself, my field, and the world at large: 

  • How can we move from Orthodox Organizational Process where staff (=performers) are doing something for their boss (=director) and other stakeholders (=audience) to something more environmental (i.e. collaborative, real, present, emergent, uncertain, and fluid with life in general)? 
  • How can we infuse what happens in the meetings and retreats we design and facilitate—the lifting up, examination of, and intention setting of the taken-for-granted organizational culture– so that it can shift and allow for a new way to be back in the day-to-day functioning of an organization and life at large?
  • How can Organizational Performance Artists use illusion (the artifice of a meeting or retreat) in the service of dis-illusion? (That is, how can we develop the connective tissue to bridge from artifice back to day-to-day functioning that has been transformed by the artifice?)
  • Why is the norm to perform at work and not that of showing up as our full selves? Why is there no invitation to yoke together passion and responsibility, to initiate, to live? 
  • Why are we so afraid of uncertainty and emergence?

[1] When Bread and Puppet Theater invite all who attend their show to pass through a door to join the Possibilitarian state and enjoy a bit of bread and aioli, they are inviting all to take on an artistic stance, in service of social change.

[2] These include Peter Schuman’s Bread and Puppet Theater, Andre Gregory’s Manhattan Theater Project, Richard Schechner’s Performance Group , Judith Malina and Julian Beck’s Living Theater, and Jerzy Grotowski’s Laboratory Theatre. And there are many others. I acknowledge these influences being dominated by white folk, largely male, but I don’t apologize for what caught my attention in in my early 20s in the 1980s, captivated me, and continues to serve as one of my guideposts and inspiration. 

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