When Performance Fails

I should have written this in July, while we were still at the Mellon School but, because of a combination of dealing with a lingering summer cold and how overwhelmed I was feeling at the end of our two weeks, I did not.  Now it is early October, fall semesters are well underway, and I’m still trying to figure out how to respond to my experiences this summer - how to tie several different threads together.  How to write something that will be – oh, how I hate the word – productive.

Perhaps I should simply resolve not to write anything.  We’re three months out from our experience – will anyone care to read it now anyway?  It’s not like I don’t have plenty of other things I could be writing right now.  But it won’t leave me alone, this piece, these thoughts vaguely coalescing after drifting around in my brain all summer.  While the official theme for our two weeks was migration, some of the other themes I think we have taken from the week include trauma, the ethics of performance and pedagogy, theory in the face of urgent current events, and the limits of performance.  These are some of the ideas that I have been ruminating on since our time together this summer.

Another part of the reason for my hesitancy in writing is, I think, that the assignment, as it were, was to recap a day of the Mellon School, and the day I was assigned (July 3rd) was less eventful for me than, for instance, the previous day.  However, since we are so far out from our sessions, I’m going to give myself a little leeway and simply write about what feels important now.

The morning of July 2nd was eventful for me because I had a PTSD-related panic attack as a result of our morning seminar.  Some of my fellow workshop participants were also traumatized by the events at the start of the seminar.  And some of my fellow workshop participants put into action the events that caused this traumatization.  I’m writing about this now, not so that I can “call-out” anyone’s actions, but because I think we all might have something we can take away from my recounting of the morning.  Without describing the events in great detail (because I have no need to re-experience the trauma), a group presentation attempted to immerse us in the sounds of ICE detention centers, and re-create the experience of being asked to justify our attempt to cross a border (the border for our purposes being the threshold of our classroom) by showing our IDs. 

Because I had spent months in a NICU the previous year, the sound of babies crying is particularly distressing to me.  The fact that I never heard my own daughter make a noise only adds to that distress.  I left our classroom area and did not return for most of the morning, so I can’t recount what happened once folks entered the room, but others have spoken after the fact to me about feeling that these performative elements were more harmful than helpful, and that there was not an attempt to debrief and discuss these elements of the presentation.  I do know that when I re-entered the space, a different group was discussing their topic and, when the subject of the potential for discomfort to be a teaching tool came up, I took a moment to differentiate the difference between discomfort and trauma, and to share with the group that my newborn daughter had passed away a year before and that I had just experienced a panic attack triggered by the sounds of our morning. 

Part of my ongoing frustration with this experience is that I do not want to deny or ignore my trauma (and my anger) in the sphere of my professional life but also that I want control over how others meet my daughter and come to know her.  This was not the way I want my daughter introduced to others.  Bringing up the death of your child outside of family and close friends feels taboo and transgressive enough, to do so in a traumatizing way – especially as opposed to telling you about how strong and beautiful she was and recounting positive moments in our too-too short life together – is even more upsetting and contributes to the feeling of a lack of control one has over one’s life when someone dies so young.

As happens to all artists within their lives, the first group to present that morning had created a performance that failed.  As happens to all teachers in their lives, the first group had created a lesson plan that failed.  None of this is an indictment of their intelligence, kindness, or artistry.  It is a chance to reflect about how we understand our roles as artists, teachers, and scholars.  How do we navigate the thin cracks and fault lines that emerge when theory and art and pedagogy rub up against world events, individual lived experience, and physical conflict?

I began my first week at the Mellon School struck by how conflicted I felt.  I was already experiencing the tension of these fault lines.  My excitement over coming to and studying at HHHHHHHHHarvard (emphasis intended) existed alongside my awareness that this is a deeply problematic place – the academy in general, Harvard’s history, its position of power within a city, and so on.  I would spend the rest of my second week pondering, in addition to this general conflicted feeling, the questions prompted by Tuesday’s session.  I worried that my grief, in addition to the respiratory infection I contracted early in the intensive, plus these already lingering feelings, meant that I had not made the most of my time, especially when it came to getting to know my fellow participants, and allowing them to get to know me.

The morning’s seminar was not the only reason that the 2nd was a significant day of the School for me.  It was also the day that my writing was work-shopped in our afternoon session.  The feedback I received was very useful, especially when it illuminated where my argument failed to reach my reader.  Just as helpful was the long conversation I had with fellow participant Patricia Nguyen after our session.  My writing was a piece about the work of Theaster Gates, a Chicago-based artist I discuss at length in my dissertation.  He is a sculptor and an urban planner, and his work has included developing major properties on the South Side of Chicago, including the Stony Island Arts Bank, a renovated Savings and Loan building.  Gates has come under scrutiny recently when his foundation purchased, deconstructed, and moved the gazebo where Tamir Rice was killed from Cleveland to Chicago.  Many of the foundation employees felt that they were not consulted about this work, and members of the community were critical of removing the memorial site from its original location, placing it within a “museum” space and all the meaning-making that comes with considering such an object as “art.”  My conversation with Patricia reminded me of this incident, and she updated me on the gazebo, letting me know it had been reconstructed outside of the Arts Bank.  This structure, migrating from Cleveland to Chicago, is both an object of labor and of trauma.  My writing group had noted that perhaps I needed to de-center Gates himself from my work in order to more directly address the ideas and the tension in urban planning and art-making that I intended to be the focus of my argument.

But will this de-centering also serve to de-personalize the very real pain and conflict behind my argument?  Gates’ intention with the gazebo may be to make visitors uncomfortable and to provoke thoughtful contemplation about its original circumstances.  However, those original circumstances were the death of a child.  The murder of a young boy.  Forgetting about that traumatic event – forgetting about of the trauma of that event echoes through the lives of those who knew and loved Tamir Rice – or exchanging it for an artistic statement does a disservice to that pain and grief.

Even expecting trauma to live alongside an artistic expression or theoretical argument is to misunderstand the ongoing weight of grief that survivors of child death carry with them for the rest of their lives.  Whether that child is a tiny baby girl in the NICU whose lungs cannot grow enough to support her breath, or a little boy murdered while playing outside, or a small girl traveling north for a better life who drowns next to her father in a river, the lived experience and emotions linked to that loss take precedent over any other potential value that an object, an argument, a lesson, or a performance might have.

The next day, July 3rd, our final evening speaker delivered her talk.  Helena de Bres, a political philosopher who teaches at Wellesley University, spoke on “The Ethics of Immigration.”  The structure of her talk was a script for an imaginary performance – a conversation that might have occurred in some alternate universe between her and the immigration officer she had met with prior to becoming a US citizen.  Her performance led us down the corridors of moral reasoning related to immigration, and I appreciated the clarity with which she spoke regarding whether there should be any constrictions on immigration.  But it was the end of her talk that I still think about the most.   She acknowledged that she was speaking to a room of artist/scholars and said, essentially, then, what about art?  I was struck by her claim that art can tap into feeling and this is perhaps beyond the realm of her field, as she had laid out a philosophical/critically structured argument – emotion and reasoning separated from, or in opposition to, one another.

I noted that I thought emotions were as much of the cause of our current national predicament (surrounding the topic of immigration, specifically, but other issues as well) as was faulty reasoning – that people were conjuring arguments based on their emotion rather than facts and evidence – throwing out any fact that didn’t strike their emotions as true and labeling it “fake news.”  What do we do, I asked, when ethos, pathos, and logos has failed us?  We don’t know.  We don’t know what to do.

Ethics and reason and emotion.  We need all three on the stage, in our classrooms, and in our everyday lives.  When we separate these or put them into opposition, our performances and our lesson plans and our national policy all fail.  When we fail to consider each in turn, especially from a place of empathy, our performances and lessons may fail, and we may encourage trauma, instead of healing it.

See also: Laronika Thomas