A couple days ago, I got a funny text message from Andy Horwitz out in sunny San Diego. It read simply, “OMG my head is going to explode.” He pointed me to a Facebook discussion initiated mainly by Andrew Dinwiddie, who was lamenting the news that Time Out New York may be completely folding its dance page due to lack of interest. It’s not surprising, nor is it new news: that’s probably been in the works since Gia Kourlas left months ago, leaving Helen Shaw as the publication’s part-time dance writer. The Village Voice, of course, axed its dance coverage a couple years ago. Not much real estate left for dance writing in NYC.
I couldn’t help but think about this when my latest article for Culturebot went up this morning. It’s a 4,500-word profile of Parabasis blogger Isaac Butler. It covers nearly 15 years of New York theater history. It’s very long, and I suspect few people will read it.
A couple years ago, Brian Rogers told me one of the reasons he appreciated what we do at Culturebot is because it’s the closest we have today to what C. Carr used to do for performance in the ’80s and ’90s in her long reviews for the Voice. The writing is a record of ephemeral events, a living, ever-developing history of contemporary performance in New York (and, insofar as we can, elsewhere). I appreciated Brian’s point and took it to heart. I read Carr’s collection On Edge and did my best to be inspired by it.
The funny thing is, though, that I sometimes wonder how much people care. And please understand: The point isn’t about being under-appreciated. Quite the opposite, I almost always feel appreciated for my work. Jim Findlay has occasionally messaged me with incredibly kind words. The subjects of my work always seem to appreciate it, particularly since I often do the pain in the ass thing of writing interview features, which is hard work. And usually I’m not paid for it.
So no, it’s not any lack of appreciation that bothers me. It’s what I see as a lack of enthusiasm on the part of members of the arts community for cultural writing in general that’s disappointing. It’s rare that I hear from others about the work I write (Findlay is somewhat unique in this). And that does bother me, because it leads to wonder first if the work I’m putting out just isn’t interesting enough in its own right to deserve consideration, and second, if maybe people in the performing arts just aren’t that interested in reading about art at all (leaving aside the entire question of general audiences).
That’s where the frustration with dialogues such as the one Dinwiddie inspired comes from. He’s certainly right: It’s a damn crime that when I travel to a city I don’t know, it’s unlikely (in the US at least) that I can expect to find a good, accessible resource on the arts I care about.
But more profoundly, I feel like people don’t seem that interested in the more ambitious work writers like me are doing. Conversations about the future of criticism are always based around some notion of publicity and marketing communications. It’s always, “But if no one publishes it, how will people know about it?” Fair enough, but that’s a marketing problem, not a journalism or criticism problem. The question is, are people (including the community that is the subject of the writing) actually interested in reading work that tries to do something more than pump a show?
I sometimes wonder if people think I’ve actually quit writing about the arts. It’s true that by article count, my output has slowed considerably, but that doesn’t mean I actually do less.
I just got back from Tel Aviv where I went to prepare to write an art catalogue about a piece made with current Shin Bet and Mossad agents. I wrote an essay on the development of French contemporary dance for Theater magazine. And for the past two years I’ve been an editor for Chance magazine. I’ve written a 12,000-word feature on Temporary Distortion. Another 10,000-word story based on two years of coast-to-coast research with the company zoe | juniper that surfaces the challenges of creating a large-scale contemporary dance piece in the US today. I’m working on piece about and with the remarkable Jaamil Olawale Kosoko for an upcoming issue. I just finished a draft that tells the entire story of Radiohole’s career, from meeting in the mid-1990s, through the boozy history of the Collapsable Hole, to Tarzana which I traveled to Massachusetts to see last summer. These stories, I’d add, are all beautifully illustrated with photography, preferably by my go-to photog Maria Baranova. Which is why each issue costs $24, which is why, in turn, I’ve never heard so much as a peep from anyone who wasn’t a subject about any of these articles.
Which is a shame. I’d prefer people disliking my work and telling me so to the sense that no one pays any attention. Do a lot of people really want to read a 15-page history of Radiohole? In the grand scheme of things, no. But for people who care about their work, people who may want to know about it, I hope the article serves as a primary document of who they are and what they do. And I wrote it because I’ll never forget the first time I saw their work (Fluke, on tour in Seattle at On the Boards). Nor will I forget the countless crazy evenings at the Collapsable Hole, Eric Dyer humping Liz Lecompte on a bank of snow. The Shadows crew staging a fight that spilled out the doors into the sidewalks to the bewilderment of passsersby. And good lord, the funeral when it closed…
The reason I try to write these sorts of stories–like the profile of Isaac I mentioned above–is because these are our collective history. I believe they’re important and should be told. I also think that the community itself, given its perennial concern for the state of arts writing, should perhaps grapple with how to support the work that’s being done already. Last year, American Realness set up a small bookshop at Abrons, with Theatre and PAJ and 53rd State Press. No one contacted me or Chance to get our publication on the shelf. I heard nothing from PS122 about it, even though we’d just published the Temporary Distortion piece that was concerned with My Voice Has an Echo In It, which they were premiering at COIL.
Under the Radar is having a book section this year, too. Interestingly, we still haven’t heard from anyone at Chance. But Time Out cancelling dance listings? It probably isn’t the end of the world.