August 5, 2015

Art (Blogger) of the Week: Claudia La Rocco and The Performance Club in New York, USA

Photo by José Carlos Teixeira of Claudia La Rocco in front of her poem 173-177 [or: Facebook Is Inescapable]a site-specific wall text for Teixeira’s Translation(s) at Headlands Center for the Arts.

This week's Art Blogger is not about a blog as such. It's about a club, which is equally awesome (remember, I foresaw that clubs were going to be the new thing to do?!). Plus, The Performance Club takes place online, involves art writing and is about creating a conversation. It was started in 2008 by Claudia La Rocco, who is of the opinion that criticism "is also, or at least aspires to be, art...." And that's exactly what brought me to Claudia La Rocco in the first place. I came upon her book The Best Most Useless Dress (Badlands Unlimited, 2014) and I was excited. Finally, a criticism that dares to play with the "genre", extending it to poetry and fiction, yes even going as far as creating a kind of phenomenology. Let me quote one of the many excerpts that I highlighted on my kindle: "Why do we repeat? To emphasize or distort, to drown out the world and make strange the banal, to give a lie to the impossibility of perfection. Why do we repeat? Why do we repeat?" 

Art scene  
"Hmmm. It’s difficult to say anything sensible about America as a single entity, or to make sensible generalizations about its art. There are so many scenes, so it depends what region you’re in, and then whether we’re talking about traditional or progressive work, and so on and so forth … the world I’ve been most embedded in for the bulk of my career has been the New York performance world, which itself is several worlds." 

"I’m not sure I even think of myself as a blogger! Would you say I am? These days I’m more connected to folks through social media, mainly Twitter, which I am always thinking about quitting … 

But here’s the Performance Club history: I started it in 2008, while working as a cultural critic for WNYC New York Public Radio. WNYC had gotten a big chunk of foundation change, with the mandate to promote online community. With the initiative languishing and the foundation demanding results, WNYC ordered its contributors to drum up proposals for its website. Mine was the Performance Club, which I imagined as a sort of book club for live art, one that would unfold in the flesh and virtually, so that people could take part in the discussions through monthly social gatherings around performances, while also having conversations that would continue on my WNYC blog, forming an archive of discussions and debates.

My proposal was responding to two things which had been frustrating me for a while. One was that I would take friends to the live art I was then writing about and, in spite of being smart and knowledgeable in other fields of contemporary culture, they would come out of these performances and just say “I don’t know how to talk about this stuff.” The critical minds they would use to read any other sort of text were not being activated. 

At the same time, conversations with my colleagues, the actual critics, often tended toward the petty. Little clusters of us marooned in lobbies throughout New York, spending our intermissions making these hierarchical distinctions that were not about reading the work either, but about taste-based assessments: “So and so was better than so and so” or “This work used to look better than it does now.”

I was interested in the possibility of creating a third space. If we brought together people who were already intensely knowledgeable about live art and people who were curious but felt they had no way to talk about performance, I wondered if we could collectively create a more fruitful conversation.

Since then, the site has had several different lives … after I left WNYC it folded for a bit, but I was urged by two members to restart it, with their help. The site was awarded a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant, and for awhile it ran in the same way it had at WNYC. But then … I needed a break from the organizing aspect of it, and I was more and more interested in it as a little archive. So it’s right now functioning as a space for writing. And it’s idiosyncratic—there’s no schedule of when things need to or should go up, or what should be addressed, or how … I always call it my island of misfit toys."

"I’ve worked for the last 15 years as a critic, journalist, essayist, dramaturg, collaborator, teacher…my education is in literature and poetry, and early on I was writing more about visual art and books, and then I got pulled into the dance world, which led to a wider interest in performance. For many years I was pretty strictly a critic, writing for The New York Times  and other publications, and while I still do that work, including as a columnist for ARTFORUM, I am these days working much more in collaborative veins with other artists and institutions. For example, earlier this year I was the guest curator for Danspace Project’s Platform 2015, Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets, for which I also edited the catalogue. And I’m right now collaborating with the composer and saxophonist Phillip Greenlief to make an album and gearing up for the publication at the end of this year of my first novel—it will be published by a theater, The Chocolate Factory, and there will be a “live copy” that will be performed … so I’m kind of all over the place, but anchored by a few things, like teaching at the School of Visual Arts’ graduated program in Art Writing and Criticism. 

The Performance Club is all a part of the mix—sometimes I will publish things there that I’ve written for very small journals, so as to give the work a longer life, and writings on the site will often come out of collaborative relationships. I like for things to be all mixed up and jostle against one another—my first book, a selected writings called The Best Most Useless Dress, was very purposefully cross-genre. Categories can be useful, but mostly they’re just tedious." 

"So much of my work is bound up in the freelancer hustle … I like that this site isn’t really about that. Early on, it was funded by the Warhol grant, and I used that money to commission writers, pay designers and support my related editing/writing/hosting work. And yes, I am sometimes invited to give talks and workshops and such related to The Performance Club. But I don’t tend to chase those opportunities, and I think after the first grant I only applied for one other—it’s good to have something that doesn’t have an evangelical angle to it. I’m not trying to convince anyone about anything, or to make something bigger and bigger and bigger. It’s just a space for strange little bits and pieces of writing about art, mostly live art. And that to me is the value."

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