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  • Matthew Short

Illusory Ecodramaturgies: Phantom units filling “art-shaped holes”

After reading David Maggs and John Robinson’s “Sustainability in an Imaginary World”, I was excited to follow Maggs’ work as a Metcalf Fellow on Arts and Society — you can read his writing here. In Canada, David Maggs is creating interesting and thought-provoking challenges to our current systems of practice in the arts arena, striving to illustrate the inherent (and potential) connection between art and society whilst mindful to not get caught up in the instrumentalisation of art. Collaborating with artistic leaders, he sheds light on the ongoing evolution of non-profit arts in Canada following multiple simultaneous and continuing crises: Covid-19, racial injustice, and the climate crisis. His work has hit home for me here in the UK, as the systems of art-creation and the ideals of its progress seem to be very similar to what is happening in Canada, and I also worry that Sweden, which has previously functioned somewhat differently, could be heading in the same direction under new governmental ambitions. In this new year, I wanted to take some time to reflect on his work through an ecodramaturgical lens, and so here I seek to examine illusory ecodramaturgies and their phantom units.


Currently I have both feet straddled across two dramaturgical practices: on one side, I am a practising artistic dramaturg and writer, and on the other I am a researching theoretical dramaturg and ethnographer focussing on heritage processes. Whilst I have to somewhat delineate the two separately in different contexts, they are very much linked within my embodied experience and disentangling them seems futile. As such, I’ve been arguing on ways to expand dramaturgical ideas and practices to embrace the complexity. To loosely summarise, I distribute the act of dramaturgy in dramatic performing arts to all collaborators on a project, and I ascribe the dramaturgical narrative to not only the story being told on stage, but the entire lore surrounding a production: the way in which artists talk about the show.


Following this, an ecodramaturgy is the corpus of lore that becomes agential in conversations regarding sustainability. Typically, I use it to express endeavours relating to environmentalism and the climate crisis, but within the arts industry one cannot really separate ecological sustainability from social and cultural sustainability too. They are all entangled in the ecodramaturgical endeavour. I talk about it as a body of lore to represent its relationship with folklore, and how we can deconstruct the various narratives into social and cultural units/motifs. And I believe that these units typically relate to the “art-shaped holes” that Maggs discusses. He says:


“First, can we understand problems in terms of their “arts-shaped holes” — those aspects of an issue most suitable for artistic engagement… Understanding the arts-shaped holes in an issue allows genuine creative processes to explore rather than illustrate, inquire rather than instruct, fostering more fruitful intersections between art and issue. Here, we take a crucial first step in connecting social challenges to the core capacities of arts practices.”


Within my other work as an independent evaluator I assess how arts organisations fulfil their aims of socially-driven artistic/community projects. I’ve noticed project leaders utilise narrative units to address those spaces within an issue where artistic engagement can stir action, from conception of the project, to its delivery, and ultimately in how they perceive the project went. However, I often find these units to be somewhat phantom-like in nature, creating an illusory dramaturgical corpus which seldom translates to effective artistic production. They are phantom units because they are seldom built of actual art making, and Maggs consistently reminds us that in such processes we need to anchor them to “the core capacities of our sector — artists making art”.


One of the important parts of expanding dramaturgy is that it highlights external forces from the art-piece itself that manage to hold and exert power over the narratives surrounding it and subsequently the perception of it. These external forces might be nonhuman in some instances, but most often they are non-artistic human interventions. If sustaining art practice in some way requires the organisation and institutionalisation of it, then that subsequently comes with greater needs outside of the expertise of artists themselves. This takes us to a point where now, of the projects I’ve evaluated, the ratio of artists to non-artists/administrators is worryingly skewed to the latter. This dislocates art from the artists and transforms it into an instrument; an instrument that too easily is applied to various social dilemmas securing additional money from non-arts funding bodies, removing us even further from our core capacity.


This could, in one way, be seen as a democratisation of art. Just as Art Council England’s language change from “artist” to “creative practitioner” could be seen as more inclusive and democratic. But dramaturgically, I would argue it is mostly illusory, painting a veneer over something that is not actually there. If we acknowledge the external power structures within the expanded dramaturgical body, and then hone in once more to the art product and its personal dramaturgy, then we can see how it loses agency and becomes diluted from its artistic value. It not longer aestheticises our world, but it becomes instrumentalised by the exertions of non-artistic will.


If we can think of sustainability in terms of reparation and rewilding, then we should perhaps apply this logic to ecodramaturgy too. Beyond the art form itself, how can we repair the expansive dramaturgical narratives surrounding it, and how can we rewild those narratives to ensure that artists and artistic materials are the ones shaping them? Illusory ecodramaturgies are easy and quite comfortable to rely on when advocating for the role that dramatic performing arts can play in issues of sustainability, but to ensure the longevity of this art and its power to affect, we must return to the radical nature of ecodramatury: the disruptive, challenging, and sticky nature of opposition to modernist anthropocentrism.

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