Art as Research: Grace of a Happy Death

Theater’s Success in a Better Unreality

Erik Ehn

This is part of the special section, Art as Research.

There’s a lot of talk in the air about assessment, rubrics, social utility, and the arts. This picks up on momentum developed in the 1980s, when the NEA, on the ropes and unavoidably obedient to concentrated power and wealth, bent over backward in advancing a discourse around practicality. Sustainability was held to be, first, a matter of administrative and economic savvy (front-brain thinking that found its way even into dissidence, where the obsession went to scamming or otherwise critiquing administration and dollars with mirror — but not free — energies, while retaining the aim of a centralized, or famous disposition; the 501(c)(3) model was used as a nerve agent infecting every tissue in the body of performance with shame and fear: “We are not making money because we are neither real nor fabulous enough”). Over time this stance has taken on an even more moralistic tone, and art’s right to any resources is called into question on the basis that it is useless to Industry (to Recovery and Building): art is slack, louche, digressive; bad. (Below are some of my thoughts on recent efforts to housebreak theater, especially.)

But this obsession with objectives and outcomes is a basic theological dilemma, and a habit of long standing. It is spiritual discount: a belief that one may be saved by works alone. Naturally enough, we want to know what we can do to secure our own happiness (applied to the theater, we want to know that going to the theater is a good; we want to apply and derive instruments from art acts). Theater, however, being made of goodwill, time, and other powers that live only in motion, is not well equipped for prime use as or on the stable, the received, the landed, the concluded. This is part of our difficulty in translating catharsis? Catharsis may be a verb; impacted by the show, we are impelled to clear a way for our showing forth; we are incited to engage in acts of clearing out, emptying ourselves of the world, and simplifying paths so that the social will may move more effectively.

Our identity is in our processes and we refrain from outcome — even literarily — scripts make short shelves. We’re the enlivening of life, the materialization of material, the thinging of things (I heard John Emigh talk about this lately, pointing to Viktor Shklovsky’s notions). One may not assess the life-in-life, from the vantage of life. One has to be dead to assess theater. More on that later.

About works: we have to do all we can, while reconciling ourselves to the impossibility of fully taking care of ourselves, as humans. Nothing sustains itself — we need to lay our teleology next to grace. The ethicist John Paul Lederach, in his book The Moral Imagination, points to four ways art is responsible for peace building; this is one way of tracking art’s practical tracings:

  1. Art embodies a practice whereby relationships are central, in acknowledged interdependence.
  2. Art moves forward with paradoxical curiosity (conundrum, the knot, is invitation).
  3. More important than what it creates, art makes space for creative acts (space for imagining the Americas, for example).
  4. Art models risk taking. 1

Overall art fortifies “habits of heart and mind used to construct meaning, build relationships, and act.” 2

In solidarity and committed to risk, we have nothing to fear except the end of meaning, and we should go toward this fear, pursuing the end of meaning. Being creative artists, we believe the end, the beyond-which-nothing of meaning, can only be in its beginning — specifically: the point before articulation, where the impulse is specific and is capable of meaning everything and nothing. We graduate out from there, but always publicly and memorially.

Find the end of meaning, and then go public.

The memorial space: navigable, prophetic; it occasions restored creativity.

Public space today is crucially memorial, because the rate of erasure under neoliberal policies in an age of efficient and habitual genocide is leaving us with mostly loss as our capital. Mostly we don’t know things, mostly we are estranged. How can theater be a form that converts not-knowing to ability, through poetry, where the silence and stillness in the humiliation of articulation are ground for loving insight? Where estrangement is the fertility of a new identity (a transcending of colonial categories, for example)?

Theater has lost the public space, the space where a people may compose themselves as people, freely, imaginatively, on their own terms. The manifestations in Egypt, Rio, Turkey, Providence, elsewhere represent the theatrical will to be public at (with) the ground of meaning — even prior to agenda. When theater is in and of the public space, one is real, in reality. About this:

In daily life, the context is real and one is imaginary, constantly composing oneself in conformity with one’s surroundings. In the case of performance, the space is unreal, and the actors are real — this is why we watch them. A home/homeland is a site of performance. We are real there, and determine the behavior of the space. The market makes us lonely. There is a lot of performance, but a crushing of performance spaces. You are never at home . . . Your unreality is ambiguous, slippery, and shallow.

Theater in a space that’s available to daily life — where we eat, make out, miss appointments, wait, function and fail to function on behalf of others — theater-in-life lets us really, riskily perform ourselves really; and lets us fictive ourselves theatrically, in a fabulous explosion of artifice. We are less lonely, we are more than ourselves, we are citizens, we are gone, baby, gone.

To what degree is theater speaking about . . . theater? Or speaking for someone? When we “go after” or “reach out to” our audiences, we accept and exacerbate a divide. In an auditorium, it is theater that demonstrates listening; it is among and from, its content is the consequence of an audience . . . Otherwise — we are contributing to loneliness, which is the definitional root of moral disorder.

Performance is the past tense of our process; awake when it is a feature of process (halfway to the next thing; a means). We are how we do. We are the process of listening to our audience.

The theatrical compact composes the vibrating metaphor that occurs when performance and people are intercomplicated; the Show — which may occur at any point along the process — converts memory to a plan of action and renders public space a chaotic site of becoming . . . theater, active, apophatic, agitated — is a rubric. Our archive: the preservation of the imprecise. We have a hard time settling on rubrics because theater itself is a tool of assessment. In particular, who are we, what are we doing, and how do we move through suffering to peace? Consideration of the latter is what we’re listening for — the impossible answer there; the endless, endless parables that circle there. Theater isn’t sustainable, but it is survivable. It is a mentee of survival.

Survival means: to take care of your elders and mothers, to bear your stories forward (in the fire, not on your back), and to know your place (humility and obedience — to site yourself in all authenticity in the not-you).

We need to pay the bills; theater is also a way of getting in trouble. Anything may be assessed, except me. Where there is assessment — judgment and the fixed point — that’s precisely where I want to make trouble. The design of one kind of theater requires the preservation of the precisely imprecise and inefficient. Wisdom is indiscernible, a gift, a loan; wisdom is the ground of discernment, and is itself beyond understanding; it is consort of God, as inscrutable.

Theater is losing its impact in the cultural dialogue because of the ways it is archived and the ways it is in repertoire. It is nicely difficult to share, to reconfigure . . . Is there a space outside of the elite museum archive, and outside of the rapid and massive digital repertoire, where one can practice contemplation in the spirit of nonownership, and where play isn’t professionalized (another job)? I think so, and we’ve seen some examples over the past few days. As researchers, we need to help our resources elude the archive. How may we keep our secrets? Without capacity for secrets, how will we hold a path to secret knowledge (the School of the Dead, the School of Dreams, the School of Roots, Hélène Cixous’s three steps on the ladder of writing)? 3 Text is below the process, not leading — at least not leading in the (surgical) light. Writing is a dark art.

If part of the neoliberal project is to replace (or reconfigure) old national borders to promote new capital borders, is this moment of bleed, damage, half-formed rhetoric and under-rehearsed performances ripe for aesthetic intervention? Breakdown is just fine by me. We need loose, free stuff to make loose, free art with; don’t hunt the new buildings, hunt the new ruins, new places of exile in which to expend our noise and impulse, new hiding places in exile in which to practice silence and cunning.

A quick summing up of key terms: Silence, Space, Transformation, Sustainability, Public Space.

The world makes and consumes more product than at any point in history. In the midst of so much that is created, may we as artists and scholars be owned by creation, original in silence. In writing terms, let’s shut up and write.
We want to move from being factors of our market preferences to prime agents. Néstor García Canclini says in the aftermath of national fidelities, we are what we consume; we want to reclaim a broader cultural basis for our self-composition. 4
We move between the royal court (in multiple senses), the good hustle, the normal life; we are pseudonymous (inside our art) in every circumstance; have identities for diverse encounters.
Public space:
a state of embarrassment, where one becomes entangled with one’s context. May we be embarrassed and embarrassing.

Closing out with a couple of quotations:

Christopher Merrill in his book The Tree of the Doves: It is enough for the poet to be the guilty conscience of his time.
And, performance artist Rosa Galindo: The desire is not to change the world, but to create. For each travesty, a song.

Very briefly — Recent projects and the effort to create public space:

Soulographie — The seventeen plays I wrote on genocide written over twenty years; produced during a three-year window in Warsaw, Los Angeles, Bronxville, Minneapolis, New York, Kampala, Dallas, and elsewhere . . . brought together over the course of a week last November at La MaMa in New York. The team was over a hundred; we had a ninety-nine-seat limit; we watched each other’s shows, so never needed more than a few ticket buyers. We had more than a few: but — your cast is your audience. (

Station Nation — Thirty-seven short scripts performed simultaneously on the tenth anniversary of the Station Nightclub fire in Rhode Island. A team of us wanted to create a space where we mourned by making from various vantages — folks directly involved, remotely; a solidarity of the remote with the proximal. The audience moves through the experience as through a garden, gathering together for a concert at the end, a rock suite written by the music teacher of the youngest victim. Cast your audience. (Facebook: Station Nation)

Tenderloin Opera Company — Bring strangeness in where literalness prevails. (Facebook: Tenderloin Opera Company)


The Joe Strummer Memorial Barbecue (The Future Is Unwritten)

The Silence Riots of 2014 (not a withholding, but a deployment of the creative capacity of silence)

Footnote: On Stupidity

I prize weird work, and believe that the healthy energies in theater run deeper than style — so I like fomenting formally strange work in response to poverty, trauma, and other emergencies. Kinetic in the business of metaphor, the work is sometimes received as opaque — willfully obscure. Some answers to this:

  • We can work to enhance permissions that give audiences access to their natural love of the inscrutable. Luck, love, cancer, family, and other cataclysms are deeply mysterious and evasive of fixed meanings, but we admit their deep presence. We are well equipped to handle the outlandish; we do it daily. Theater has stepped back from a site of romance, from ritual/talismanic features? We’re harder to read because we’re undervaluing our theses?
  • When someone says, “This work made me feel stupid,” they may actually be saying, “This work is stupid” — not really a bad thing. For me, stupidity may be my strong suit — my ability to in-articulate my way forward — to collapse (prior to language), is the muscle I most want to work. This takes great exactitude (Calvino). Vagueness is a waste of energy; paradox is energy, is food.

from Station Fire: Lori Durante (a monologue)

Glory is clarity, obstacles removed. The sons she loved, are love returned; proof of love is pattern grooved, the habit of othering, the ethic of nursing, mothering, parenting, becoming by ceding self at the progressive edge of self over-spilling to public, like grief, like mourning, a way of happening, transforming loss enlarging love, and for the stranger, the saving basis: love of stranger, love of stranger. Love all the way through. I don’t know you.

(Everything unsafe is safe. Nothing is safe forever. Everything is nothing for a while.)

May we strangers be saved, may we participate in credence of safety, in the space mourning makes. Memorial — not memory, we don’t have those memories — but memorial: architecture unfurnished; a station nation; what’s left we can’t see, but the lacking is a premise, a fidelity, a promise, a chance in which to be. Memorial construction — weight turned to line, line bent to transformation, information dropping through to musical score, and musical is the mathematical claim we make on silence, converting recalcitrant matter to silence, knots a net for the empty or crazing across our faience, the ornamental cracking across our ten-year empty bowl. Bowling is a science, silence is a math. Relativity of mass. I learn, and meanwhile give you all my silence, in barter for perseverance.

Spare, strike, stride; torque, arc slide; silent return, balance weight, stride, arc, slide.

I stand aside to stand beside. There is a woman here.

We came to listen.


  1. John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 34.
  2. Cynthia E. Cohen, Roberto Gutiérrez Varea, and Polly O. Walker, eds., Acting Together: Performance and the Creative Transformation of Conflict, vol. 1: Resistance and Reconciliation in Regions of Violence (New York: New Village Press, 2011), 12.
  3. Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, trans. Sarah Cornell and Susan Sellers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).
  4. Néstor García Canclini, Consumers and Citizens: Globalizations and Multicultural Conflicts, trans. George Yúdice (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).