We Are Acting

Roberto Gutiérrez Varea, associate professor at USF, visited the Professional Development Track during March’s evening session to discuss how performance-based art can engage and transform society.

weareactingImage from a performance in Serbia as seen in Acting Together

Roberto Gutiérrez Varea has been studying theater because of his belief that art can bring transformation. Why else, he cited, would artists be disappeared in his native South America if art did not have transformation power?

There is usually one prevailing thought in mainstream culture, Varea explained, and anything that could subvert or question it is often shunned and censored by the mainstream. Varea is the co-author of Acting Together, a series of conversations that discuss art in the context of violent conflict, art in the aftermath of such conflict and art in the context of ongoing systems of violence. Performance art has been a way to both showcase peace and serve as a powerful form of resistance.

Varea shared with the Professional Development Track the first act of the documentary, Acting Together on the World Stage, in which professionals discuss their experiences with art as a transformational tool. One even states that it can be a “weapon for peace.” Theater brings out issues that are taboo and the question Varea posed is when and how can art create those safe and nonjudgmental spaces where people can have conversations about what is affecting them?

Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, explains the artist as a content provider and a context provider. As a content provider, the artist tells the audience about what they should be thinking. As a content provider, the artist creates a space in which the audience can ascribe their own meaning. Both forms of art are essential and perhaps there is always an interplay happening between the two: artists can choreograph every microbeat of a song and compose an instrumental piece specifically with only drums of Asian origin, and the audience will still have room to relay their interpretations and their meaning onto the finished piece before them.

So, where does transformation occur? Most transformations occur in process-driven work, not product-driven work. Most transformations occur when there is time dedicated to exploring the humanity of the people involved, as opposed to art that is solely focused on presenting a polished piece.

Varea described such a transformational piece that occurred when politicians, sex workers, media and service-providing individuals met under guidance of artist-activists to discuss the marginalization of the sex workers.

Media were there as actors, but not to report or record. A pact was made that nothing would be broadcast as the groups sat in boats in the middle of a lake, in symbolism of the isolation sex workers were facing, to discuss what could be done to stop the marginalization of the sex workers. In this transformational piece, a building was designated for sex workers as a refuge– to do drugs under care and supervision, a place to spend the night, etc.

Under the guidance of artists and the stage of a lake, people agreed to come together to have an honest conversation and transformation resulted.

In his discussion with the Professional Development Track and community members, Varea mentioned the importance of knowing what is appropriate for a particular place and time. At a particular place in time, the performative action of protesting the Google Shuttle buses seemed appropriate. Now, however, that is not something that is happening and one wonders whether about the appropriateness of the action. Varea also emphasized the importance of asking whether people are being put at risk by the art that occurs in conflict-ridden communities. If an artist arrives in a space, creates vulnerable work with the community and leaves, is the community then at risk for more violence?

Performance is an act of transfer. Performance is an opportunity to pass along a memory, a story. What do our own movements, our performances, perpetuate in each other?

Aleksandra Bril, Red Poppy Art House Writer