[a title which invites the cheesiest images ever... just wait]
Let’s start with something we might all be able to agree on. Art is a subjective experience. What you get from this theatre piece or that sculpture will be different to the way I experience it. We’ll have different cultural reference points, different associations – and we’ll probably be in different emotional states when we experience it, even if we’re sitting next to each other. For me, it may be great; for you, it’s two hours of your life that you’ll never get back.
So what’s the appropriate critical framework we should use to reflect on it? Who gets to decide whether something is ‘good’ or not? Often the definite assessment is presented as that from a national newspaper – and it’s often authored by white, male people. Let’s also make the assumption that these guys have some level of socio-economic privilege. And while of course there will be some variation in the reference points that -to pick 2 names at random- Dominic and Michael have, their cultural baggage is likely to come from broadly the same department store.
Every now and again, there’s a wave of articles elaborating on this problem and questioning the perceived expertise of The Established Critics. And while I think that our theatre culture is impoverished by lack of different perspectives, I’m wary of the slippery slope to expert-trashing. Yes, everyone’s response to everything is valid, but someone who spends a large amount of their time watching and thinking about a form will bring different insights and contextualisations than someone for whom it’s their first experience. With dance, I tell you what I saw and what I felt but that’s about it; a white man who spends a lot of time in the presence of dance –let’s call him Donald- will be able to tell you these things and more. (And yes, there are questions about the structures which allowed Donald and not someone else to be able to acquire this level of expertise, but if we start with them, we’ll be here all day).
(Side thought: No one benefits from a monoculture of critical response. I’ve seen work that from a theatre perspective, I found lacking in craft and dramaturgically-muddled but because of subject matter –something that I have no first hand experience of- I felt like perhaps I was missing something, that my critique would come from a place of thematic ignorance – and of perpetuating the very dominant culture that the artwork was critiquing. But if the majority of critics come from a white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, middle-class background and self-censor in the way I do, then there’s an awful lot of artists missing out on rigourous critique of their work.)
I suppose what worries me is a) how one person’s voice can become definitive and b) the universalisation of their reaction. A genuine question to critics: what do you do if a lot of the people around you seem to be having a very different experience to you? You can only write from your subjective position of course, but to what extent can/ do acknowledge this? What if everyone around you is having a ball and you’re counting the minutes until you can leave? I’m struggling to recall reading critical coverage that alluded to this dynamic. For me, it’s the presentation of the reaction of Default Man as universal that is problematic. As I glance back over what I’ve written, I notice how many times I’ve written ‘I feel’ or ‘I found’ or ‘I think’ i.e. this is my experience and it may not be yours. I rarely get that sense in mainstream criticism (and yes word counts limit this, I get that, and yes I know people like Maddy Costa and probably some others I don’t know are an exception to this ‘rule’).
I didn’t start writing this to talk about mainstream criticism. I’m writing it to figure out what a critical framework could be for a form that is much more subjective than a performance on a stage, a form where the people watching/ participating in the artwork will have wildly different experiences: they will see and hear different things, and some of what they hear will be down to decisions that they themselves make. Immersive seems to be the word of the moment but how are we building critical frameworks for immersive work, whether that's immersive theatre or VR or any other mixed reality form? Yes, with immersive work, we can comment on how clear what we’re being asked to do is; the feel with which the activity is introduced and the space is held. Perhaps we can also talk about the range of emotions we feel/ if we were bored at any point; the elegance or otherwise of the realization (could we see the joins?); we can also talk about how form/ theme/ aesthetics resonated with each other if that’s our thing.
But any response to the artwork necessitates a degree of self-reflection, and I wonder, from my experience of reading (mainly mainstream theatre) criticism whether this is something we need to build pretty much from scratch. And I guess I think it’s a biggish question because writing in that way offends the sense of objective truth that some people cling to – and also because it’s potentially quite exposing for the person writing. It will involve them revealing and interrogating their reference points and triggers, rather than accepting them as universal. And maybe this isn’t what they –especially the ‘professional critics’- signed up for. At the end of the Edinburgh Fringe this year, I read a piece on interactive work by one of our most valued theatre critics, which confessed nostalgia for a time when it was more customary to be left to sit in the dark. And while I appreciate this is a totally valid standpoint, especially in the festival context where back-to-back shows can lead to emotion fatigue/ seepage, I wonder if there’s a dialogue we –as makers of what I’m broadly going to call immersive stuff- need to be taking responsibility for, in terms of shaping the critical/ documentation framework that our work exists in. This felt like a present strand of Limina’s VR Weekender, with curator Catherine Allen facilitating a discussion space after every session (a staggering 50 discussions over the weekend).
Of course, all this dovetails with age-old conversations about quality in participatory/ relational work (oh haiii Clare Bishop). These are not new questions. But the immersion explosion, across live and tech-enabled experiences, seems to suggest that we need to review them. What are we expecting of the people experiencing our work? What are we taking responsibility for? How do we balance subjective experience with some baseline of quality (whatever that is)? And given the cuts in arts coverage in mainstream media, who are we expecting to write about this work that doesn’t neatly fit into any existing artform? How can we ensure that this doesn’t become a monoculture? Who can we learn from? And how can we help each other do all this?