Probing Performance Art
Given his deep, ongoing explorations into contemporary theater and performance studies, it’s no surprise that Assistant Professor of Literary Arts + Studies Avishek Ganguly would jump at the opportunity to develop a new course supported by the Robert L. Turner Theatrical and Performance Design Fund.
Theater lover and interior designer Robert Turner 74 IL established the fund in 2014 to support new interdisciplinary courses at RISD focused on everything from costumes and set design to experimental staging and dance. However, in creating the spring seminar Performance Studies: An Introduction, Ganguly’s goal was not to immerse students in theatrical design but to introduce them to performance studies as a discipline and familiarize them with a wide range of performance practices.
“I designed the class as a semester-long colloquium in which I was the lead instructor and a host of guest lecturers and performance artists acted as my collaborators and co-teachers.” Ganguly explains. “I envisioned it as an advanced introduction to the interdisciplinary genealogies and key theoretical concepts that define this still-emerging field.”
Performance studies dates back to the 1960s when it first began to coalesce as a discipline based on a combination of literary studies, anthropology, media studies, philosophy, feminism, dance and more, says Ganguly. Grounding the class in seminal writings by such scholars as Richard Schechner, Victor Turner and Dwight Conquergood, he worked with student assistant Danielle Gomez 17 PT to arrange for a series of cutting-edge practitioners who offered performances, lectures, workshops and panel discussions.
Students got a taste of a range of theatrical approaches and styles thanks to presentations by performance sociologist Jackie Orr, actor, writer and solo artist Dan Hoyle and the Chicago collective Honey Pot Performance (HPP), among many others. Orr presented a 40-minute digital performance piece in response to the 2010 BP oil spill that encouraged viewers to consider image, body, disaster, time and performance itself. Hoyle’s “journalistic theater piece” Each and Every Thing exposed students to his singular take on information overload. And HPP performed Juke Cry Hand Clap, a conceptual work focused on house music as a form of cultural resistance among African Americans in the 20th century.
Though organized specifically for this class, all of the performances were free and open to the public, Ganguly notes, and provided multiple opportunities for students to engage in wide-ranging discussions “about performance as both an object of knowledge and a means of acquiring knowledge.” He selected events to provide the background and tools students would need to ask the right questions. “The framing of the questions is very important,” Ganguly explains, adding that it’s “much more important than coming up with quick answers.”
In discussions students wrestled with conceptual notions such as the role of mediation in performance. “When we say ‘performance,’ we generally think of live events,” Ganguly explains. “But there are only so many live things you can do in a teaching situation. You also need to look at performances that have been recorded and documented. Is it still a theater performance if you’re watching a video?”
Other interesting discussions focused on identity, race, class, gender, politics and sexuality. “All of these ideas flow naturally from the students’ studio work,” says Ganguly. “And by grappling with these difficult questions, they were able to develop a critical vocabulary to talk about their own artistic practices and how politics and culture intersect with the study of theater and performance.”
During the 2015/16 academic year, the Turner Fund will support a fall studio on set design co-taught by Nick DePace BArch 95 in Interior Architecture and Bob Moody 94 IL in Illustration, and a spring course on radical performance techniques co-taught by Senior Critic Martha Swetzoff in Film/Animation/Video and Professor Mairéad Byrne in Literary Arts + Studies.
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