Project Proposal – Performance and Poetry: Resisting the Commodification of Political Art.

Rationale, Aims and Objectives.
As a performance poet, my cultural context has been in hip-hop MC-ing, and the urban music subculture. My poetry is often rhythmic, electronically produced and arranged over looped samples. My artistic intention is to ask questions, to question the dominant ideologies presented to us through the mass-produced culture industry. Our current context of cultural production is inescapably tied to the goal of ‘market saturation’. Homogenous product for sale stifles the plurality of creative voices and we are left with the self-serving dominant myth that commercial viability is the only measure of success. Alternative values, and indeed alternative artists and thinkers, those Philips (2005) refers to as marginalised, are all too invisible in mainstream, mass culture where they are financially out muscled within the industrial system of a reproductive economy.
“The need for many voices is a condition of the cultural health of any complex society, and so the creation of conditions for the freedom of the artist is in that sense the duty of society.” (Williams, 1989, 89)
Rather than having a desire to see the individuals who make up the multitudes of mass society awoken from some kind of a passive slumber, I have instead an angry hope to see the machinery of mass and homogenous production challenged by the undeniable artistic presence of a subversive and creative voice communicated in fresh and original ways.

In ‘At the Edge of Art’, Blais and Ippolito (2006) take the idea of an unhealthy society further; they liken the role of Art to that of Antibodies in the human immune system. In the same way as Antibodies fight infection in the biological body of an individual, art fights the infections in the social body. Blais and Ippolito (2006) assert that these infections can be seen as excessive commerce and technological proliferation.

My aim is to produce a collective enquiry into the social function of performance art as a resistance to the process of commodification and the invalidation of culture that is not commercially viable. Formulaic, mainstream reproduction hegemonically disempowers alternative ideology and grass roots community and this enquiry will investigate ways in which this hegemony may be challenged through performance and the free dissemination of digital community art. This project will take the form of a live show, which both makes space for my own poetic social commentary whilst also facilitating the contributions of the interactive and interpretative audience. The show will feature performances from a community of grass roots artists and performers and will be based around the same themes and questions. Rather than financial, through ticket purchase, the audience’s contribution will be creative. The venue will be arranged like an art gallery but all the canvases will be blank. The audience will be invited to contribute anything they wish in creative response to the theme of the show, which will be a set of questions about world-view. These questions are directly linked to Blais and Ippolito’s (2206) concept of the way in which art can operate as an antibody in the face of society’s infections. A video booth will also be set up providing opportunities for verbal and performative responses. The audience will have ample opportunity to respond between the pre-arranged performances. There will also be visual artists and VJs working as part of the show and the contribution of the audience will be incorporated into the visual projections in real time allowing the audience to also be the artists and directly influence the content of the installation and the ideological direction of the show. The completed artwork, including the contributions of the audience will then be shaped into a collective documentary poem for free digital distribution online through an interactive ‘open mic’ web page.


Considering the Theoretical Context.

Adam Phillips (2005) asserts that Art is against suicide, that art is about ‘renewal’ and ‘hope’. Simply put, “It is one of art’s jobs to make us feel that more life is worth having.” (Phillips A, 2005, ITV). Raymond Williams (1989) further identifies art as serving an important political function. He recognises art as a ‘resource for hope’. In his essay ‘Art: Freedom as Duty’ Williams points to the capacity of art to challenge the ‘limitations on freedom’. These limitations may be in the form of a political oppression through state interference, censorship or administrative and legal control. However, In Western, capitalist contexts, this ‘limitation on freedom’ manifests as a pressure for ‘commercial viability’.
“Freedom in our kind of society amounts to the freedom to say anything you wish, providing you can say it profitably… There is a deep correlation with profit, and this does impose constraints… The duty to serve the state or serve the cause, the duty to entertain which usually means something that fits somebody’s marketing prediction.” (Williams 1989: 88).
In our sociological context, the pursuit of profit and the commodification of art can therefore be seen as a limitation on freedom and a constraint against the hope inducing and renewing qualities of art. This commercial pressure exerted on creativity is even more sinister in the context of ideological art, where creative expression seeks to ask questions of the dominant culture and engage politically in conveying real freedom. Williams (1989) points out that, whist a kind of freedom is encouraged – the freedom to pursue capital gain at near any cost – the freedom to question that very value is muted. Indeed, hegemonic, dominant values normalise subversive and alternative thought by consuming it within a system of homogenous, popular reproduction. The process of commodification invalidates and disempowers alternative political comment because it makes it a beneficiary of the system it opposes. Our Western culture of capitalist consumerism has created an impressively efficient defence against potentially revolutionary ideology through its enticing ability to turn revolution into a product for sale and a commodity for capital gain. Despite the political artists who have called for the revolution to ‘not be televised’, the messages of alternative performers and creatives have found themselves submitting to the power of a commodity driven consumer culture.

Williams (1989) further suggests that the function of hegemony attempts to trick us. He clearly states his dislike for the ‘way of talking about cultural production’ where one takes ‘a professional tone’ as they belittle the non-professional works of art produced by unknown, or indeed commercially unsuccessful, artists. It is in fact within creative communities free from the pressure to please an audience or to commercially succeed that truly significant works are likely to emerge. Indeed, Philips asks that we look to poetry at this time precisely because it is so marginalised. “There’s no money in it and very little glamour” (Phillips, 2005, ITV). The fact that poetry is an art form currently excluded from popular audience appeal is exactly why it is so well suited to the resistance of ‘commercial viability’ and the challenge against such ‘limitations on freedom’.
My research and project outcome are to investigate the best ways in which to display, perform and communicate my art, that of performance poetry, in such a way that the pressures of ‘commercial viability’ are resisted, and the contribution of the non-professional artist or interactive interpreter are encouraged and resourced.

Performance can be seen as the first strategy in the resistance of these limitations on artistic freedom.
“Performance in a strict ontological sense is non-reproductive. It is this quality which makes performance the runt of the litter of contemporary art. Performance clogs the smooth machinery of reproductive representation necessary to the circulation of capital.” (Phelan, 1993, 148).
The ontology of performance is naturally set against the hegemonic tendency to undermine and normalise radical and alternative artistic statement. Walter Benjamin (1999) also refers to the ‘authenticity of the original’ and the ‘essence’ of a performance. “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.” (Benjamin, 1999, 214). He explains that an original work of art has an ‘authority’; it’s authority is linked to its performance or existence in a specific time, place context.
“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be… that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” (Benjamin, 1999, 214).
Phelan also asserts the importance “the ’now’ to which performance addresses its deepest questions” (Phelan, 1993, 146). The focus on ‘now’ is, by definition, anti-reproduction. Phelan (1993) refers to reproductions as ‘memorabilia’; Benjamin (1999) also talks of ‘remembrance’. Clearly they both suggest that reproduction changes the ontology of artistic performance and makes it something else, something with less aura, something which “succumbs to the laws of the reproductive economy”. (Phelan, 1993, 146).
Reproduction conveys information but performance allows impartation. Performance art is personal and relational; it is experienced and enjoyed rather than critiqued. A consequence of reproducing a performance is that the audience lose engagement with the ‘aura’; they lose the impact of the art’s ‘magic’.
“The camera that presents the performance to the public need not respect the performance as an integral whole. Guided by the cameraman, the camera continually changes its position with respect to the performance… This permits the audience to take the position of a critic… The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera.” (Benjamin, 1999, 222).
In a way, the process of reproduction sterilises art or, to use Phelan’s metaphor, it places the piece under “house arrest” (Phelan, 1993, 147). The function of art as an experience or interaction shared within a community in a specific time and place is lost. The audience is positioned as spectator rather than empowered as a creative interpreter and contributor to the performance and context.
“Interpretation is worked out as performance between artists and spectators (whether ‘professional’ or non-specialist)… the ‘complicity of the audience’.” (Jones & Stephenson, 1999, 14). Interpretation should be seen as a creative process, which evidences the cultural competence of audiences and their important role in contextualizing art as a social function. The role of poetry as an art form has its historical identity in traditions of oral history and ritualistic story telling, from Beowulf to modern folk poetry traditions. Benjamin (1999) identifies this principal when he writes of the two planes on which poetic works are received; he recognises that art can carry a ‘cult value’ or an ‘exhibition value’. Whereas ‘cult value’ serves a social function, ‘exhibition value’ is about a communication with a mass audience and therefore serves a political function; reproduction adjusts reality for the masses. It is interesting to note therefore that an original performance has authority and a value for community and corporate identity whereas reproduced prints or copies serve a ‘power’, which aims to exert a mass influence and reap an economic gain. Could it be the function of the latter that destroys the ‘aura’ of the former?

The importance of ‘cult value’ and the problems posed by ‘exhibition value’ are also evident in the work of Ali Mohammadi and Anabelle Sreberny Mohammadi (1994). In their book ‘Small Media, Big Revolution’, they further investigate the tension between social and political functioning. In their study of media communication during the Iranian revolution, they identify the conflicting agendas of ‘big media’, which serves the oppressive agenda of the dominant political system and ‘small media’ which seeks to challenge the dominant ideology and “express continuity and cultural identity.” (Mohammadi, & Sreberny-Mohammadi, 1994, 189). It could be argued that in our current context where, as previously discussed with reference to Williams, limitations are still acting upon artistic freedoms, all be it more subtly, the digital, ‘new media’ may be able to function in a ‘small media’ capacity – that is to say in a ‘grass roots’ and subversive opposition to the broadcast mainstream of ‘big media’ communication.
“Small media can be effective in undermining a strong regime with universal mass media reach. It can mobilise massive popular movement… It has immense political potential in developing public spaces where none seems possible.” (Mohammadi & Sreberny-Mohammadi, 1994, 189)
If performance is the primary means by which the pressures of commodification can be resisted, could the role of new, small media communication be the second? Whilst the ontology of performance seems naturally incompatible with commercial reproduction, the ontology of digital new media seems to be entirely suited to limitless copies. Stallman, a software freedom activist, highlights this dynamic of digital production and reproduction with his concept of ‘copyleft’, which is simply the practice of using copyright law to remove restrictions on distributing copies or modified versions of digital production – namely computer software, documents, music, and art. It is interesting that while the obvious play on words is to invert the idea of ‘copyright’, it is clear that the ‘copyleft’ principal is also ‘left’ in its political implications. While the reproduction of performance poetry in a real world context seems to create a product without ‘aura’ for success as a commodity, the completely free and uncontrolled availability in the digital world seems to further undermine the powers of the ‘reproductive economy’.
“The technology of digital ‘capturing and sharing’ promises a world of extraordinarily diverse creativity that can be easily and broadly shared. And as that creativity is applied to democracy, it will enable a broad range of citizens to use technology to express and criticize and contribute to the culture all around.” (Lessig, 2004, 184).
These two strategic positions can be drawn together by recognising that both the ontology of performance and the fundamental nature of new digital media are allied in their opposition to the commodification of artistic product in the ‘reproductive economy’. They both have their strength in interactive dialogue and interpretation and both serve to define and facilitate communities of cultural competence. It is interesting to note also that both performance and digital sharing have acted, and continue to act, as a resource for sub-cultural identity and resistance.

It is for this reason that the intended project outlined in this proposal will exist firstly as a performance in actual time and space, it is also why the audience will be invited to contribute as a creative and active interpreter. Furthermore, it is why this performance will not be reproduced; its aura will remain in tact and its authenticity undisturbed. Instead, it will bring forth a collective work, a shared poem and visual piece, which will be distributed digitally within the public domain according to the values of ‘copyleft’ and the creative commons licence.

Skills and Resources.

I already have proficient knowledge of digital music production and accompanying visual montage. I am an increasingly experienced and accomplished performer and I own or have access to all the necessary equipment for my own performance. For the contributions of an interactive and interpretive audience, I need to develop knowledge of live, real time film projection and I will need to hire or purchase the necessary projectors and screens. I am already in collaborative relationships with two VJ / visual artists who can help me with both the know-how and the information for what technology I need to acquire.

Further relationships with other unsigned and ‘grass-roots’ artists will also need to be developed, as it is my intension to deliberately make space for other struggling or unknown artists, the kinds of artist that Williams (1989) insists should be recognised. I am already in collaborative relationships with a number of such artists and have established channels for finding more. I will need to design a brief that explains my aims and objectives in an accessible format.

Further work is required on my ‘freestyle’ skills, as it is my intention to directly interact with the contributions of the creative audience. I can and have performed freestyle but tend to get rather scared of it, however this possible embarrassment is part of the ‘unprofessional’ dynamic I desire and part of the ontology of performance, which makes it so potentially radical and unique to a precise, unreproducible time and space context.

A venue for the show and exhibition will need to be selected. Depending on the venue, I will need to consider the necessary PA equipment for the various performances. I may also need to arrange some form of staff to facilitate venue entry.

Ethical and Legal Considerations.

The latter part of my project is to edit together the contributions of the audience into a documentary style poem, with the comments of interactive members of the audience spliced together as ‘talking heads’ as they complete each others’ lines of one collective poem. This will require the informed consent of each contributor, so they will need to be made aware of the intended outcome.

The nature of my work will mean that I am forever engaging with issues of copyright and intellectual property ownership as I work with loops and samples. Indeed, I will further be engaging with this issue as I decide how my own artwork will be distributed and licensed, or indeed made deliberately free for distribution and creative adaptation.

Bibliography and References.

Adorno, T (1991) The Culture Industry, London: Routledge.

Benjamin, W (1999) Illuminations, London: Pimlico.

Blais, J & Ippolito, J (2006) At the Edge of Art, London: Thames & Hudson.

Clarke, J & Hall, S & Jefferson, T & Roberts, B (1975) Subcultures, Cultures and Class in Hall, S & Jefferson, T (eds) Resistance through Rituals, Cambridge: Routledge.

Fiske, J (1989) Understanding Popular Culture, London and New York: Routledge.

Jones, A & Stephenson, A (1999) Performing the body/performing the text, London and New York: Routledge.

Lessig, L (2004) Free Culture, New York: The Penguin Press.

Mohammadi, A & Sreberny-Mohammadi, A (1994) Small Media, Big Revolution, Minneapolis: Minnesota.

Phelan, P (1993) Unmarked, London and New York: Routledge.

Williams, R (1989) Resources of Hope, London and New York: Verso.

Willis, P (1990) Common Culture, Buckingham: Open University Press.


Internet Sources.

Raymond, E (2000) The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Open Publication
License available for PDF download, Eric S. Raymond’s Home Page, 1/5/07, http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings.


Broadcasting: TV Programme

Philips, A (2205) The South Bank Show: Going Sane (6/3/2005, UK).

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About William Stopha

I am a performance poet and media artist who goes by the name of William Stopha. Also know as Chris by some. You can read, hear and watch my material at www.williamstopha.com or www.myspace.com/williamstopha. You can also follow my shorter bullet thoughts at www.twitter.com/williamstopha. My artwork and research explore grass roots creativity, collaboration, the communication of alternative ideology and the politics of performance.
This entry was posted in My Art / Films / Words..., My research ideas, Stuff like politics. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Project Proposal – Performance and Poetry: Resisting the Commodification of Political Art.

  1. Scott Hughes says:

    I don’t think spoken word poetry will be commodified. I think the corporations will focus more on the most sellable, namely music. Anyway, people interested in pop music and pop stars will find them in pop culture. Those of us interested in the genuine arts will always go out and find it. People who like music as an art don’t listen to Brittany Spears.

    You might like SpokenWordArt.com.

  2. Thanks Scott…
    Broadly I agree with you, although does that mean that what you call ‘genuine art’ is always destined to be niche with small specialist audiences – in which case, how does art with a comment to make for the betterment of culture make a difference?

  3. Unwiply says:

    hmmmm…very interesting!
    Thanks google

  4. Pingback: Is performance non-reproductive? | thinking practices

  5. Pingback: Art as Cure and Curiosity | thinking practices

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