In late June, PICA hosted a four-day symposium centered on Keith Hennessy’s TBA:12 residency for Turbulence (a dance about the economy). Over the course of the events, a shifting group of participants, artists, and local thinkers gathered for performances, screenings, dinners, and the conversations that percolated from the activities. Symposium coordinator (and Turbulence company member) Roya Amirsoleymani reflects here on one of the big ideas underlying the weekend—namely, is it possible to make “political” art?

Open rehearsal for Turbulence (a dance about the economy). Photo: Patrick Leonard.

As coordinator of the recent PICA symposium, Bodies, Identities, & Alternative Economies, as well as a guest artist in Keith Hennessy’s Turbulence (a dance about the economy), the primary point of departure for the symposium’s questions and themes, I have a richly complicated and unresolved relationship to the intersections between Turbulence as a political performance project and the symposium as an exercise in artistic and political discourse.

PICA presents contemporary art—“the art of our time,” as we often say. It is, in many ways, not only captivated by, but obsessed with, what artists are doing with and about the present. Angela Mattox, PICA’s Artistic Director, recognized the political potency of Turbulence, and that Keith Hennessy and his group of collaborative dancers and choreographers are grappling, on both aesthetic and conceptual levels, with the most timely of concerns—the sociopolitical dimensions of our economic moment.

I could use this space to reflect on so many aspects of the symposium experience and the audiences and artists who came together to build it as it happened. For now, I sense the most urgency in a question that both frames and emerges from Turbulence and the symposium—how do we make political art now, and how do we create moments to talk about it? In retrospect, this feels like a question of structure extracted from architecture, sustainability without popularity, and support systems that make a gift of discomfort; and like dances and symposia, it is rendered by bodies in time and space.

In one sense, we can locate the politics in any work of art, which puts “political art” at risk of banality. But if we decide that our cultural moment demands more attention to the violence of financial capitalism than ever before, and we want to make performance art about it, then we have to ask ourselves some serious questions while contending with their unanswerability in the face of very high, and very real, stakes.

During the Turbulence residency in Portland, we asked ourselves everyday, alone and in group process, what we are doing and how we are doing it. We avoided asking why, because why leads to dead ends, and because if there is anything we know about this project, it’s that it matters. What we do know is that we are sourcing a range of texts and visual images to inform the work; using tools of improvisation to unpack queer as practice and failure as tactic; purposefully introducing turbulence as a physical and emotional element in the piece; and collectively creating a bodily response to the economic crisis that is contingent upon public engagement. Some of us are hurt, some of us hopeful, and most of us angry. Now we’re making something unnamable out of it.

Happy hour reading group at Green Dragon. Photo: Patrick Leonard.

In many ways, PICA approached our symposium planning similarly. We knew that making space for generative public dialogue about economy, queerness, and the politics of bodies carried weight, but we didn’t know what that would look or feel like or how it would all come together. In this way, we reimagined the concept of symposium as an arts-based community experience rather than a strictly academic one, thus queering the symposium space to privilege inclusivity, pleasure, and open dialogue that doesn’t shy away from difficulty.

We also aimed to cultivate place-based connections, putting people in contact with each other and artistic processes, in many ways defying the friction between isolation and intimacy engendered by new media. We were curious about what would happen if artists, activists, academics, and community workers encountered each other with loose intentions and zero promises, occupying space for the purposes of sharing, learning, exploring, and doing in real time.

So, how do we make political theatre, political dances, or political symposia of and about today? How do we make a dance about the economy? What happens when we try to center marginalized bodies (in presentation, in performance, in conversation, in film)? If queer always already fails, than can a symposium about queer and failure fail? Can it succeed? Are we breaking down central tenets and problematic dichotomies of capitalism simply by staging a platform for intentional failure and imagining typologies of risk that have nothing to do with the precariousness of markets or the loss of homes? Do we feel alone when we choose violence, when we give up on pacifism in the face of oppression, when we use our bodies—in public, private, and liminal spaces—not just as commentary or riposte, but as response? In what ways are we responsible for the structures we build and the systems we tear down?

Among many other things, the symposium and Turbulence–and Turbulence in the context of the symposium—reinforced for me the imperativeness of unanswerable questions and served as a reminder that we mustn’t stop making space for the act of asking to unfold.

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