By Dr Asher Warren
Is engagement a dirty word? It’s one of the dirtiest words I know. Like many words that have come before it (synergy, impact, interaction), it has been taken up as a buzzword, stretched to such levels of generalised abstraction it can stand for almost anything. As scholars such as Bishop (2012), Harvie (2013), and Alston (2016) have argued, the neoliberal turn in arts policy has sought to instrumentalise aesthetic and cultural projects toward the provision of social welfare and cultivation of more individualistic, entrepreneurial spectatorship.
My own research examining contemporary Australian participatory practices has drawn me to recognise the mixed impacts of these policy shifts in the Australian arts ecology, and recognise that engaged and thoughtful artists are able to create artworks that are not, as Bishop suggests, unthinking handmaidens to policy, but rather, able to navigate the rhetoric and ‘metrics’ to meet funding requirements, while also reaching beyond them to challenge, provoke, and even undermine instrumentality (Warren 2018). Which is to point out an often-overlooked reality: projects may say they are doing one thing, but in practice might do something different.
It is in this respect that I argue engagement is a dirty word. It is not dirty because it has been instrumentalised, but dirty because engagement is a messy, complex process, across and between a wide range of actants, including but not limited to individuals, organisations, places and discourses. Some aspects of this dirty work are illustrated by a series of challenges that emerged in a project I am currently undertaking.
This project came about through my engagement with the performing arts community in the city of Launceston, Tasmania, where I moved in 2018 to teach theatre and performance at the University of Tasmania. I was struck by the immense popularity of musical theatre, particularly in schools and community groups. The productions staged, however, were predominately Broadway and West-end blockbusters that don’t tell local Tasmanian stories and histories. Nor was participation easy for those in remote locations or with other barriers. I have called this project ‘Living Room Musicals’, and as the title suggests, it is built around developing a do-it-yourself musical theatre toolkit for people to stage musicals in their own homes, to address some key barriers to participation and promote place-based storytelling. In developing this toolkit, I have engaged with Tasmanian composers, local community groups, and schools across the state, and applied for, and received funding first through the University of Tasmania, and secondly through the Tasmanian Community Fund (TCF).
To guide the project, I began a series of informal discussions, which began to tease out the complexity of the local ecology with its various community theatre groups, and the way schools were in fact quite closely linked. Ethics approval became a complex process, as I sought to undertake workshops with high school theatre students and observe how they approached creative practice in rehearsal. This expert observation became a sticking point. It would have been much easier to get approval for an iPad questionnaire, and much less messy. However, this would not have been meaningful engagement with the students, nor would it give me the rich, complex research material that I have spent years in the theatre developing the skills to observe, describe and respond to.
While working on the institutional ethics front, a second front soon opened up regarding the licencing and intellectual property rights of the toolkit, which asked participants to add their own lyrics to the compositions. These ‘derived works’ would be the creative outcome of the project, for presentation for family and friends in their own homes. If they wished, participants could film and submit their performances to an online archive. This archive would then become a research object, to investigate vernacular and quotidian expressions of creativity and regional identity.
To date, the process has been arduous, as the ethical, legal, and intellectual issues have met institutional hurdles. At the very heart of these issues, I believe, is a difficulty understanding that artistic practice can be a research method, a research outcome, as well as an object of research. This is part of the wealth of non-traditional research outputs, because they can maintain, respond to, and extend the complex and entangled findings that emerge from engagement with community. Moreover, I would argue that mess is a hallmark of meaningful engagement – and that it is from the dirty work of engagement that fertile new ground is developed, and the unexpected and unknown are given opportunity to emerge. Engagement is dirty work, because engagement is dirty work. But it’s exactly the kind of work that we, as makers and researchers in the creative arts, are best placed to roll up our sleeves and do – and the reason we need to keep arguing that a little mess can be a good thing.
Alston, A 2016, Beyond Immersive Theatre: Aesthetics, Politics and Productive Participation, Palgrave MacMillan, London.
Bishop, C 2012, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Verso, London and New York.
Harvie, J 2013, Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neoliberalism, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.
Warren, A 2018, ‘Devisive Dramaturgy: Community Engagement in Contemporary Mediated Publics’, Australasian Drama Studies, vol. 72, no. April, pp. 204–237.
Dr Asher Warren is a Lecturer in Theatre at the University of Tasmania. His research interests include intermedial and networked performance, participatory and collaborative practices, and the sites of contemporary artistic practice. He is a member of Performance Studies international, the IFTR intermediality working group, and currently sits on the PSi Future Advisory Board. His writing has been published in Performance Paradigm, Performance Research, Australiasian Drama Studies, Refractory: Journal of Entertainment Media, and in the edited collection Performance in a Militarized Culture (2017).