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The Democratic Set—Back to Back Theatre (Melbourne, Australia) (PuSh Fest 2020)

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

Jan 21-23, 35. The Roundhouse. PuSh Festival 2020.

By Alex Lazaridis F.

(Warning: This is article is part review and part discussion of current arts funding trends in Canada. It’s long. If you’re up for the ride, strap in.)

A personal turning point: The PuSh Festival in 2008

The 2008 PuSh Festival was, for me, a transformative experience. I saw several shows that radically expanded my understanding of what performance is. They made me want to learn more, do more, and become a better performance maker. Small Metal Objects by Back to Back Theatre was one of those shows.

Small Metal Objects took place in the atrium of the Vancouver Public Library where a a drug deal unfolded, rather gently, between two neurotypical and two neurodiverse characters/actors. (These terms from the autistic rights movement are increasingly employed to describe different types of perceptual skill—"neurotypical" being goal-oriented, and "neurodiverse" being more holistic and less object-oriented. The latter is often associated with autistic individuals, but all of us take part, to a greater or lesser degree, in either orientation; there is no hard line between them. You can find fuller definitions of these terms elsewhere).

As I wrote in a review of the show for RealTime Arts that year: “We are witnessing a genuine clash of cultures: one is slow and considered [the neurodiverse], one is madly goal-oriented [the neurotypical].” And: “This is what great art can do. It can re-organise your bones, re-wire your brain, and perform open-heart surgery all at the same time. Far from the confines of a theatre box and the spatial concerns that accompany conventional scripts and conventional acting, we get to re-imagine how the conflicting cultures of our world might fit together a little easier, what little adjustments it might take for us to approach each other and make contact with difference. It’s a very moving exercise in the art of the possible, and it left me with a surprisingly untainted sense of hope.”

Small Metal Objects.

I've awaited the return to Back to Back since 2008. So it was with some excitement that I arrived at the Roundhouse on January 25th and settled in to watch The Democratic Set.

The Democratic Set

It’s worth taking a moment to consider two obvious meanings at play in that title—The Democratic Set. The first implies a ‘set’ of people—a democratically-minded group. The second references the physical and formal structures of the work—the setting: a video projection of a plywood room, 8 feet wide, 8 feet high, and 12 feet deep.

During the show we watch a large cinema screen on which the video of the plywood room slides into view from the left edge and exits out the right. Before it is completely gone, a second plywood room appears at the left. It too makes its way to the right, to be followed by another. This succession of rooms continues for about 12 minutes in the Vancouver version. You can watch the whole thing here: In fact, you can watch every one of the thrirty-three existing versions, each in a different city, on the same website.

The room is usually lit by a single fluorescent tube affixed to the ceiling. Each room features one or more individuals putting on a very brief performance. As a whole the individuals are intended to represent a community of diverse abilities, genders, ethnicities, and cultures.

The formal device is clever, especially from a video editing point of view. Each of the short performances has been created in the preceding days on a stage that contains two of the plywood rooms. Having two rooms allows for the camera to dolly between one and the other while the various performances take place. It also allows, in the video, for the illusion of innumerable continuous rooms. The editor chooses to make each brief performance precede one that seems logically continuous with it, or illogically discontinuous.

I like the formal structure. As a device it allows for anything to be put in the boxes. One of my personal favourites was of two women blowing bubbles out the door of one room, followed by a room featuring someone in an amorphous red costume, and moving about within a projection that gave the impression of an underwater world. The unrealistic yet delightful cause-and-effect was that the little bubbles blown from one room turned into an 8 foot high aquarium in the next.

Someone else’s party

But, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I didn’t love this show. Before getting to why, I want to reiterate my love of Back to Back Theatre. It’s a brilliant, cutting edge company. It’s just that this show is, in my opinion, not so brilliant. And I’m about to use it as a poster child for some of the problems with current arts funding ideology in Canada. Which isn’t really fair to The Democratic Set. But now that I’ve qualified my upcoming criticism…

My issues concern the words inclusivity, diversity, and community—and the way these social values have been deployed in The Democratic Set and shows like it.

Prior to the screening, representatives of the PuSh Festival and Neworld Theatre (co-presenters of the show) spent a lot of time—longer than the screening itself—addressing the performers that were featured in the show. These performers were referred to as an inclusive and diverse community. There were about 120 of them in the production, not to mention behind-the-scenes’ artists and crew. If most of those 120 performers were in attendance in the 220 seat capacity Roundhouse theatre, that would leave about 100 seats for their friends and family, who likely bought most of the remaining tickets, a number of PuSh Pass holders, and a few others. So this show is mostly presented for those who made it. Why were the rest of us there?

The longer the representatives of Neworld and Push went on about community, diversity and inclusivity—and exclusively addressed those who made the show—the more I felt like an accidentally invited guest. One of the presenters paternalistically congratulated the “community” that had made the show, and by implication congratulated himself (he was one of the performers). The 12-minute video played. Then there was a talk-back, which was mostly a discussion between those who had made the piece or presented it, including the Back to Back team from Australia. They, too, were very congratulatory toward one another.

I felt like I was watching someone else’s party, but minus the voyeuristic pleasure of seeing a play in which a party is staged, or the voyeurism of actually watching a party in a neighbouring apartment. Instead it felt like an in-crowd conversation I was never meant to be part of.

I have to wonder why this show was made public in a live theatre setting, and why it wasn’t an in-house, video-making project by-and-for those who made it? I think the reason has something to do with the current discourse around those words, community, inclusivity, and diversity and how they relate to arts funding. All three of these terms are social values that have been adopted and instrumentalized by arts funding organizations like the City of Vancouver Cultural Affairs, the BC Arts Council, the Canada Council, and private foundations. Arts funding organizations have been pressured to challenge the dominance of ‘white’ artists of European descent, male artists of privilege, and the privilege of able-bodied individuals. The intent is to open things up to those who have traditionally been marginalized or shut out of the performing arts world. All good.

The current orthodoxy of arts funding

But in doing so, these organizations, under the infuence of hand-picked advisories, have created a list of boxes that artists and arts organizations must check if they want to get funding. In order to justify getting a grant just about every artist and arts organization has to claim they serve an inclusive and diverse community, one that emphasizes one or another of the growing categories of who is marginalized. And like the ever expanding acronym, “LGBTQ2,” categories of marginalization continue to be added to the check boxes, to the extent that pretty much everyone is included except certain ‘white’ men.

For example, the City of Vancouver’s Department of Cultural Affairs has a data collection question to be filled out by organizations applying for arts funding. The deparmtent wants to determine if an artistic organization is serving a marginalized community or “population” (weirdly, one of their definitions of a “population” is “women and girls”).

Upon further scrutiny the identified communities and populations include everyone except ‘white’ men who are not youth, not seniors, and not low-income. In other words white men who are between the ages of 25 and 64 and make more than, say, $20,000 per year. So, aside from them, everyone can be part of a marginalized community. You can be an “Asian” multi-millionaire and still be marginalized (Asian: Sikh? Chinese? Japanese? Iranian? Indian? Afghani?—what does this category of ethnic type actually mean?). I suppose I coud make a show for a marginalized community of millionaire Punjabis in Surrey—marginalized due to skin colour—and that would warrant funding.

My own “community” of Greek immigrants doesn’t rate, even though we are under-represented in the arts in Canada and people with Greek names are 20% less likely to be hired for a job due to “implicit bias” (unconscious prejudice on the part of the person doing the hiring). I’m not complaining, just pointing out the discrepancy. Maybe we’ll make the list next year? Jewish people—who as a “community” are once again victims of increasing, violent, anti-Jewish sentiment in Canada—also don’t make the cut, to the dismay of some Jewish artists I know. Presumably the logic is that all Jews are rich bankers who control the world’s finances, and by extension the world. It says so in The Protocols of Zion so it must be true, right? So I guess there just aren't any communities of marginalized Jews?

Art market capitalism and the commodification of inclusivity

What is often attached to the values of community, diversity, and inclusivity, is an anti-capitalist, anti-“free market” rhetoric that regards all Western art as an instrument of colonial oppression. Western capitalism became truly global during the period of European expansionism, so there is some logic to the idea that art made by people of European descent is part of a continuing cultural conquest. But the argument is reductive in that it ignores counter-hegemonic resistances from within Western models, often draws arbitrary lines between what is Western and not-Western, and tends to treat anyone of European descent as privileged aristocracy.

The issue of the exploitation of the lower classes by the upper classes is pretty much ignored, as are a plethora of other issues. “Western” comes to equal “colonial, white supremacist, privileged oppressor.” The number of times I’ve heard (often ‘white’) fellow artists, administrators and arts funding beauracrats say things like, “We have to get away from the Western model,” or “We have to decolonize ourselves,” and so on, is, well, very often. Meanwhile that other significant marker of privilege—economic status and material prosperity—is conveniently ignored by those who have a lot of it, regardless of their gender or ethnic background.

Art, so the argument goes, should be free of this oppressive, market-based, corporate-friendly, colonial system. I agree. Let’s keep not-for-profit culture production not-for-profit, and open to all. The funding agencies and their advisories, however, don’t seem to have clarity on the issue. While the funder mandates the artist to prove they serve an identifiably marginalized community, one that is also a diverse marginalized community, the funder also insists the artist should be good at marketing, building a “brand,” having a great website, robust administrative capacity, and a solid social media strategy that amasses followers. While insisting that artists—most of them low income and struggling to survive—shoulder the burden of correcting the inequities and oppressions created by capitalism and colonialism, they should also treat their marginalized “communities” as potential consumers—consumers of art. A diverse, marginalized community of consumers of art. This is, as a friend said of The Democratic Set, “the commodification of inclusivity,.”

Framing disability

You can’t really blame the artists. They have to check the boxes to get the money. (I said this to a very aggressive beauracrat at Cultural Affairs and she turned red with anger, clinging to the belief that the new cultural strategies plan had suddenly made everyone, brown or white, altruistic and willing to sacrifice their pittance of arts funding for the greater good of inclusivity). But it’s a very confused situation. One that results in shows like The Democratic Set. The show checks all the funding boxes. It’s like a Noah’s Ark of inclusivity: it aspires to include some of every kind of disability, ethnicity, gender identity, etc. And like other shows of this nature, it tends to frame disability. In this case it literally frames it—within the rectangle of a movie screen.

Shows like The Democratic Set, in framing disability and various marginalized identities, continue to “other” them (and to be fair, this is not the norm for Back to Back Theatre). The non-marginalized audience or artist (an increasingly hypothetical audience or aritist) remains the foundational identity in the binary. When we say the work is inclusive, we have to ask who is doing the including? The foundational part of the broad binary of “we” and “other” is “we.” The “we” is somehow a non-marginalized group of art makers and consumers that is graciously holding the door open for the “other.”

A clear example of this, for me, is a show that was recently making the rounds in Canada—to great praise—called King Arthur’s Night, produced by Neworld Theatre. In that show an “abled” actor playing Merlin prefaced the performance by warning us, somewhat euphemistically, that we didn’t have to worry, controls had been placed on the disabled actors, and we were in safe hands; he wouldn’t let the show be derailed. This paternalistic attitude toward the disabled actors, down-syndrome actors in this case, persisted in one way or another throughout the performance. “Ability” was the foundational pole in the ability-disability binary.

Billy Marchenski, Marcus Youssef and Niall McNeil in King Arthur's Night. Image by Tim Matheson.

And this reminds me of what I found so striking about Small Metal Objects, that Back to Back show in 2008. For me it wasn’t about framing disability. It was about different ways of relating interpersonally. The neurodiverse culture approached things at a different tempo than the nuerotypical culture. The very idea of disability became a by-product of just aquiring greater insight into the complexities, and yes diversity, of human behaviour.

Fast forward to 2020: in the talk-back after the showing of the The Democratic Set video, the individuals on stage, all artists and managers, were, well, “abled”—if I can put it that way—or at least apparently so. So it’s clear who is doing the including: the abled artists, administrators of the presenting companies, and by extension the abled beauracrats and politicians that, from their stable, salaried positions, bestow portions of arts funding dollars to well funded organizations like Neworld, PuSh, and Back to Back, and of course to not-well-funded, economically marginalized artists as well (many of whom were in the video).

In the market-economy logic of the performing arts festival circuit, to which PuSh belongs, we can make noise about serving community or about the evils of capitalism, while fully taking part in the commodification of art and inclusivity.

Ignoring social class in arts funding

Maybe it has to be this way for now. Maybe the current structures, both the hierarchical administrative structures and the confused supply-and-demand structures of the arts market economy, create this approach to inclusivity. Maybe it would be unfair and unrealistic at this point to have shows like The Democratic Set or King Arthur’s Night driven by down-syndrome artists. But I can’t help noticing how much attention some of the abled “includers” (can I create a neologism?) draw to themselves in the process. Who is really getting the most benefit from this new regime of inclusivity?

On the one hand I hope that lasting good comes out this. I hope there will be greater visibility and greater empowerment for all in this state-driven exercise. (And—long digression here: it is state-driven. The state—city, province, or country—has embraced this because it makes each level of government look good to its progressive voter base. And it's cheap: it puts the emphasis of enacting social change on poor, under-resourced artists, not all of whom are skilled social workers. But, hey, that’s way cheaper than actually paying for quality social welfare agencies and support systems; or, you know, making all those salaried administrative positions at the government level as contingent on yearly reviews as artist funding is. And wouldn’t that be a cultural revolution? To take all the money that goes to the bureaucracies—the same bureaucracies that insist small arts organisations should have more administrative capacity—and spread it around to the artists? Do we need so much administration? I mean just imagine this scenario: every six months the bureaucrat with the high five- or six-figure salary has to submit an application to a jury of artists that assess whether the bureaucrat deserves another six months of wages.)

On the other hand (yeah this other hand took a while to arrive), I worry that the system is too fragile and ideologically strident, and that the first stiff backlash will just knock it all down. As in the world at large, if this happens in the art market the wealthier parts of the “we” will continue on, somewhat bufffered against funding cuts and shifts in cultural policy priorities. They’ll have enough resources to check whatever new boxes are put before them (boxes that they themselves may have created). But low-income artists, who tend to come from both officially marginalized and officially not-marginalized categories, will be cut off and left to disappear. There’s a lot of identity politicking around gender and ethnicity, but as I’ve said above, not much around economic social class.

It remains convenient to leave that out. You can speak about what you’ve suffered as a marginalized person, even if you’re doing well in terms of material support systems and money in the bank, property, or investments. But what if your main identity marker was income? “My identity is $15,000 per year.” “My identity is $150,000 per year plus equity in the form of property and investments worth $2,000,000.” If the goal is to truly include the marginalized through arts funding, this would sort things out nicely. Many indigenous people, traditionally at the bottom of the economic heap, would be first in line. But then so would some of those who are drug-addicted, some of those who suffer from mental health challenges, refugees, most trans gender people, poor white “trash,” and the many elderly living in poverty, especially women, and so on.

I'm not saying arts funding should replace other forms of social welfare. I don't think it should. But if we really want to live up to the new cultural agenda ideologies, how can we keep ignoring income inequality as the main identity marker?

Short epilogue

Before ending, I want to restate my admiration for Back to Back Theatre. Though I didn’t love the in-theatre version of The Democratic Set, the online video works well. Watching it on my laptop I don’t have to pretend to notions of community and inclusivity. It offers an intriguing formal structure, one that creates interesting and sometimes surprising progressions from one performance box to the next. While it isn’t my favourite Back to Back show, the company continues to create provocative performances of the highest standard.


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