Shannon Jackson is the director of the Arts Research Center at University of California at Berkeley where she is also Professor of Rhetoric and of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies. Jackson is author of Social Works: Performing Arts, Supporting Publics (Routledge, 2011), described by one reviewer as “an interdisciplinary approach to the forms, goals and histories of innovative social practice in both contemporary methodologies to mediate between the fields of visual performance studies.” Her previous publications include Professing Performance (2004) and Lines of Activity (2000). Jackson, who is currently working on a book about The Builders Association, serves on the boards of Cal Performances, the Berkeley Art Museum, and the Berkeley Center for New Media, as well as on the editorial boards of several journals.
by Micah Cupid-Benons
Dr. Shannon Jackson eloquently invites us to examine how we understand performance and ultimately artistic expression. Dr. Jackson’s book Social Works focuses on performance in contemporary art. Jackson’s essay, Working Publics served as a basis for our lecture. Both works illustrate the ways in which the language of performance allows for what she refers to as a break from the traditions of visual art practice. As analyzers and producers of visual culture it is critical for us to understand our positioning within the university system as well as its relationship to art and public engagement. Dr. Jackson reminds us that our understanding of a work is relational to our engagement with a discipline, we understand groundbreaking in terms of our own territory. To illustrate this phenomena she presents several disciplinary genealogies of performance studies including: experimental arts (undoing the conventions of theatre, dance and visual art practice), social sciences (anthropology, nature of community, and sociology), and presentation of self and everyday life to name a few.
Jackson urges us to think critically about the focus of socially engaged art as strictly oppositional rather than towards developing and thinking about new forms of agency within an already established system. What is at stake is the notion of support, which Jackson claims is needed to sustain all living entities. Where antagonistic art may fail, is the intersection of agency and the materiality of systems. Initially this type of performance art was rooted in socialist strategy, but eventually became adapted for the use of “edgy material.” The antagonistic concern became one for discomfort of the viewer, which may not speak to the pursuit.
According to Jackson we should think of a successful social work as having the potential for provoking thought on systems of social support by bringing out the aesthetic of social support. If we understand material relations as themselves constituted by processes of ideology, then perhaps performance can bring about an awareness of the non-givenness of certain social roles and situations. Thus we can evaluate reality as a given reality and expose the limits of everyday objectivity.
We’re all occupying a mixed economy, and measuring agency as one’s degree of opposition to the state may be short sighted. Performance allows us to think about, “how systems can strain and sustain, and work through the inconveniences of them.” As a closing thought Jackson left us with the following questions: How do you enable? how do you situate yourself in the system? If by participating in the system you sustain it, what gets re-inscribed is an awareness. Let’s shine a proportionate light on support systems and think critically about the distribution of power.
As scholars and contributors to the Field of Visual Studies I believe the poignancy of her work is multifaceted. Our engagement and evaluation of work should be mindful. Moreover, it is imperative that we take stock of our own contributions to the system: the implications of our gaze, or academic positions, and many other factors before sharing our analysis or historization of a work.