The International Presenting Commons Convenes at Last
International Presenting Now was a coming out party of sorts for the International Presenting Commons (IPC), a volunteer collective of US-based arts professionals formed early in the pandemic with the purpose of keeping international cultural engagement alive and forward-looking, despite the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19. After thirty-two months of virtual conversation, commiseration, information-sharing, and online events organized in collaboration with and supported by HowlRound, the IPC was finally able to offer an in-person, public-facing symposium to bring greater visibility to its mission, champion the ongoing efforts of its dedicated steering committee, invite new voices and new energies into the mix, and, as the convening’s subtitle laid out, open the door to “Collaborative Models, Practices, and Pathways Toward a Sustainable Future.”
Held on 9 January 2023 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, an apt setting for global arts advocacy given its own decades-long commitment to cutting-edge international work, the celebratory gathering was introduced by Jamie Gahlon, the director and co-founder of HowlRound Theatre Commons, who began with a land acknowledgement and a thumbnail description of HowlRound, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. Housed in the Office of the Arts at Emerson College in Boston, HowlRound maintains an online journal and a livestreaming TV network, partners with the Latinx Theatre Commons, co-manages the National Playwright Residency Program, and “incubate[s] collective action and organize[s] in-person convenings, like this one, around urgent issues facing the field.” With that she passed the microphone to David Howse (ArtsEmerson), one of three attendees she recognized as co-champions of the IPC convening along with Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, executive director of Arizona State University’s Gammage Center, and Olga Garay-English of OMGArtsPlus and the National Latinx Theater Initiative, who was unable to attend in person because she was recovering from COVID. Luckily, the convening was a hybrid event, livestreamed on HowlRound TV and now available to be viewed.
David detailed the emergence of the IPC in early 2020 as an ad-hoc cluster of US-based presenters of international work who kept the flame burning in January of 2021 with virtual sessions for International Society for the Performing Arts (ISPA), Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP), and Under the Radar (UTR). In March of that year, the IPC hosted an online symposium featuring several pioneers of international arts exchange; and in June of 2021, the IPC and Global Pillow co-presented a digital convening of arts presenters and global festival directors discussing changing festival models and practices. “So, as you can hear,” David said, “we have been busy.”
Colleen Jennings-Roggensack explained that the IPC is “premised on the belief that global, live art exchange remains essential to the world… and to the wide, whole, and diverse individual communities” that presenters and artists serve. Before turning the proceedings over to moderator Emil Kang of the Mellon Foundation, she enjoined everyone in attendance to practice “active listening,” and to remember that this was only one conversation, not the conversation, around international cultural exchange.
There was one more procedural task to carry out before the larger conversation got underway: all of the featured speakers, after providing their names, pronouns, and affiliations, were asked to give a brief visual description of themselves. This slightly awkward, slightly performative ritual (“I’m a person of mixed descent, wearing a very fly green serpent outfit,” “I’m a middle-aged, aging white man with a receding hairline, sadly,” “I’m short, I’m forever young”)—undertaken to make the event accessible to those with low-vision—had the added benefit of breaking the ice before any speechifying set in.
Given that the pandemic has impeded the flow of international exchange and laid bare the inequities, infrastructure flaws, and climate costs of our systems, how do we want to work differently?
Members of the IPC steering committee—perhaps worried about speechifying—had gathered on the morning of 9 January for a pre-convening work session. As a group, they were more than ready to move beyond the talking phase and lay the groundwork for revitalized international collaboration; the convening was a level-up opportunity for the field. Facilitator Kevin Becerra (ArtsEmerson) primed the pump by asking committee members to name a question in their own work that the IPC could help them answer. The responses—thoughtful, far-ranging, and frank—toggled between the pragmatic (How can we share information with other presenters about upcoming international trips?) and the contemplative (How do we replace negotiation with conversation?). The question beneath those questions was the one that initially engendered the IPC and now propels its steering committee to keep pushing forward: given that the pandemic has impeded the flow of international exchange and laid bare the inequities, infrastructure flaws, and climate costs of our systems, how do we want to work differently?
The convening itself was a start. Using a variation of the “Long Table” model, which is designed to break down the hierarches of a traditional panel presentation, the convening was divided into two segments. For the first hour, an intimate “conversation circle” (made up of select IPC steering committee members and invited guests from the international presenting field) tackled specific prompts; in the second half, speakers were free to cede their spots to participants in the larger “listening circle” who wanted to offer comments and questions, allowing for a rotating cast of principals, if not a consistently on-topic or diagrammable exchange.
Inviting speakers to redirect the conversation as they chose, Emil led off with three inter-related questions: What has the field learned from the pandemic? Has it changed for the better in any way due to COVID? What are the challenges and opportunities for international presenting moving forward?
The first two questions were the low-hanging fruit, and several speakers offered quick testimonies from their own experiences. “Digital platforms created access,” said Mara Isaacs (Octopus Theatricals), whose collaboration with NYU/Abu Dhabi on Theatre for One: We Are Here (Nairobi Edition) transformed an in-person theatrical event into a live digital experience with theatremakers from Kenya, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. Ronee Penoi (ArtsEmerson) cited a shift to “intentional mobilizing” and to greater self-reflection: “Are we really doing what we mean to be doing?” For Edgar Miramontes (REDCAT), intentional mobilizing meant that a cancelled touring production of Chilean artist Guillermo Calderón’s political play Dragón wasn’t the end of a project but the beginning of partnership with ArtsEmerson to create a provocative video essay—filmed in Chile—that was subsequently streamed to audiences of both institutions.
Both Roya Amirsoleymani (Portland Institute of Contemporary Art) and Zeyba Rahman (Doris Duke Charitable Foundation for Islamic Art) held up the resilience of artists and institutions forced to radically re-think their practices in times of stress. We have, Zeyba said, “the capacity to reimagine, to pivot very quickly and adapt.” She recalled a pre-pandemic example at the Lab for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University in 2014, when Syrian refugees who were to appear in a celebrated adaptation of The Trojan Women were denied their visas. In response, the Lab organized The Trojan Women Summit, a one-time event that included documentary footage from the production, live discussion with the Syrian women (who Skyped from Amman), commentary from policymakers and artists, and conversation with an audience (including a State department representative) seated in the space where the production was to have taken place.
Virtual programming became a staple of lockdown arts engagement, of course, but what, Emil wondered, does it mean for the future of international work?
Virtual programming became a staple of lockdown arts engagement, of course, but what, Emil wondered, does it mean for the future of international work? Is there a balance between the immediacy of physical performance and the greater accessibility of online platforms? In Edgar’s view, virtual connectivity could be an invaluable tool, bringing local communities into the picture in advance of a performance or residency and elongating the arc of the artistic dialogue. “I think there’s a fear of the ‘live-ness’ getting lost in the context of technology,” he said, but “digital communities exist and they’re really robust.”
Rika Iino (Sozo Artists) called out the false binary between the physical and virtual in artistic creation, and the tendency among many in the room to insist that “in-person is always so much better.” There’s a lot of synergy, she remarked, around experiments that blend the two in complex, communal, and multi-sensory ways, and which hold a lot of promise for international collaboration. “Artists are already creating in these spaces. We don’t have to make it up, right? We’re just following the lead of artists.”
Virtual platforms have their place, argued Roya, but “we’re all here because we believe in international work and exchange in real time and space.” She praised the way organizations, artists, and their communities “relied on each other to stay afloat,” but also warned that pandemic-related cutbacks, which threaten to harden into policy, will adversely affect the opportunities afforded to up-and-coming programmers, curators, and artists, particularly Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), queer, and trans theatremakers just as they’re gaining traction. “We’re all being told there’s no money, and you can’t travel. And if you’re going to be responsible to the climate crisis, you shouldn’t be going anywhere. [You] have to scale everything back, and you have to put it online.” What’s essential moving forward, she stressed, is the need to “build both informal and formal systems of support and resourced redistribution and exchange.”
That, in a nutshell, is the aspirational brief of the IPC, which is looking to leverage the “brain trust” of established practitioners and to engage the participation of emerging and under-represented communities in the effort—to move beyond, as the indispensable Olga Garay-English exhorted via Zoom in the morning meeting, its status as an “ad-hoc collegial body” and become a political tool.
Rika articulated a related proposition that tied organizational reform to more fundamental questions of artistic worth. The pandemic, she said, prompted a shift in perspective from “short-term value extraction” to what she dubbed “long-termism.” How do we, she challenged, start thinking about process as well as product, thereby “stretching the timeline of our work together?”
The multi-disciplinary artist and activist Samora Pinderhughes agreed, calling the pandemic “a real reckoning” for many performing artists whose gigs disappeared and who found themselves without a safety net. He decried the “one-off” model of artistic delivery, advocating instead for a chance to “build something over time with a collective,” to be part of a network invested in an artist’s livelihood. For composer and performer Du Yun, an artist’s livelihood can have far-reaching implications. “A lot of the work is not just about the artists, it’s also about the communities they come from,” she said. “I think that aftercare is really important to have.” A continuing relationship with artists on their home turf, she suggested, can help “shift ecosystems” there too.
Meiyin Wang (Perelman Center) wondered how to balance a more curated and long-term approach to artist support—her default as a former independent producer—with the realities of programming for a large performing arts center with a wide remit. On the one hand, she explained, “there’s this idea of Jerry McGuire, right? This idea of ‘of course process! of course artist!’” But because that kind of all-in commitment isn’t possible across the board, she mused, there’s a trade-off between providing customized, creative structures for some and the fact that with others, ”you just have to be more transactional.” Bill Bragin (the Arts Center at NYU/Abu Dhabi) likewise admitted to the “stress and strain” of knowing that a slower, more relational process also means serving fewer artists.
Mara Isaacs widened the scope of the conversation, reflecting on the sense of isolation that artists and producers everywhere have been feeling, and which has led, on the global exchange front, to isolationism, retrenchment, and risk-averseness. “’The room for error has gotten smaller,” she said. “We need to re-open the pathways… for how we collaborate.” Derek Goldman (the Lab for Global Performance and Politics, Georgetown University) found pandemic inspiration in the Lab’s Global Fellows, artists and activists from around the world, most working in isolation, who met online regularly and became a “kind of lifeline” for each other across cultural, geographic, and disciplinary borders. “It’s not an industry-driven model,” he said, and went on to advocate for “mixing the stew in really unusual ways—trusting that this artist working in refugee environments in Cambodia and this artist from Zimbabwe might have nothing they need except the chance to be together and be supported in that work.”
The energies of the convening coalesced around resisting the noes and looking for the good news in how the pandemic disrupted business-as-usual. The subject of funding came up frequently, and Michael Orlove (National Endowment for the Arts) was the first to call for greater flexibility and outside-the-box thinking among funders. “It’s okay to be a funder and not have all the answers,” he said. Susan Feldman (St. Ann’s Warehouse) acknowledged the life-saving monetary infusions from the government and from foundations like Mellon and Gilman, adding “it would be nice if that could become a sustainable thing.” Joshua Heim (Western Arts Alliance), who until recently oversaw grant-making for a quasi-governmental agency in Seattle, described the liberating thrill of seeing funding rules go “out the door” during the pandemic. Many private family foundations, he said, “excused the need to prove outcomes, what?!!” His COVID-time takeaway is that “anything is possible,” with the caveat that the door for systemic change “is closing really, really quickly.”
It all comes down to the capital that exists in human relationships.
Matthew Covey (Tamizdat), whose non-profit organization facilitates international artist mobility and assists with problems related to international borders and United States visa policies, had some in-the-trenches advice about formalizing and improving the relationships between presenters and artists. “We can have a lot of great conversations about building community and building relationships, but then it goes to Legal and it all falls apart. But I want to say, as the lawyer in the room, it doesn’t have to.” It takes work, he conceded, and it takes having lawyers on your side. “Push through the bureaucratic changes that are needed to come up with better contracts that create better relationships. Because if you can do it, they will spread and become best practices in the industry.”
“What does it look like,” asked Michelle Witt (Meany Center for the Performing Arts), “when we really start to look outside the arts box and build relationships with other sectors?” Several speakers saw potential for innovation and common-cause with academic institutions, climate scientists, business leaders, and for-profit enterprises; Miranda Wright (Center for the Arts at Kayenta) went so far as to get an MBA during the pandemic. “I tried to be a capitalist,” she laughed. “I’m not a capitalist yet, like I can’t figure out,” but she allowed that capital, in the broadest sense, is needed for the challenges under discussion. “Capital doesn’t need to mean money,” she said. “What are we personally… willing to put on the table in a practice of generosity when we leave the room today?” Time, space, mentorship, funding flexibility, and legal support were among the resources ticked off during the session; but as Emil reminded the presenters, creative producers, and artists sharing the space, “it all comes down to the capital that exists in human relationships.”
The convening ended as it began, with questions begetting questions, and if it sometimes fell short of specific action-items, it provided something else: an actual room where a diverse and lively group of Zoom-weary human beings could ask “what if?” and “who’s with me?” and instead of clicking on “Leave Meeting” when the clock ran out, could, and did, continue those conversations at the reception that followed.
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