In 2012 I decided to put together a book. A book about a kind of work called "DIY": 'do it yourself' Theatre and Performance.
What compelled me to write about DIY theatre and performance was simple: it was a loosely defined label, style, ethos, and sometimes provocation, for something I felt I did with my company Bootworks, and as a teacher in higher education, and I wanted to explore the term further. I also saw it in various ways in the work and practice of a lot of my peers. I wanted to try and develop the critical and contextual understanding into something more 'defined'.
It was also an opportunity to snapshot, and give some space to, what I saw as a really exciting scene and community of makers who were outside of the mainstream sector of commercial arts practice, and to give voice to makers, forms, attitudes and politics, mainstream positions tend to overlook. DIY Performance is fairly understood / recognised as a genre or scene and part of what the books aim to do is try and make it more understood / recognised.
The term "do it yourself" is well rooted as a movement in all sorts of contexts, but is rarely talked about in theatre making and performance terms. Artists (such as those who've contributed to books 1 and 2) use it as a verb and noun to label their practice or a political/economic agenda, critics mostly use it to define a small-scale style or aesthetic (like they did Physical Theatre in the 80s), and some (critics / artists / academics / audiences) use other terms synonymous with DIY. It will definitely be familiar for LADA’s associates and followers; LADA uses the term to describe their flagship professional development opportunity, which, given the act of supported self-empowerment and emphasis on practice and exchange, could not be more apt.
It is a term that one can find in the lexicon of myriad other genres, disciplines and fields. In most instances, whether it be self-employed portfolio artists, permaculture activists, Live Art communities/networks or radical educators, DIY (or whatever it can be, and is also called) has clear (ish) recurring features in all of them that most often reside in a (supposed) dichotomy between a symbolic style and an underpinning ethos. This dualism can be best seen in the Punk movement, for instance, but to call this "punk performance" is to miss its specific value as a means to imagine new performance in a today's culture and society. High-Modern Auteurs and Post-Modern interdisciplinary makers are as much part of the DIY movement as those who follow consciously 'alternative' or counter-cultural ideologies such as (any manifestation of) the 'radical' avant garde.
Previous occurrences of DIY (like Punk, or DADA, or guerrilla art) in other disciplines are valued as important aspects to the wider field. Can you imagine music historians writing punk out of the canon; Art theorists skipping over DADA; Live / Performance Art refusing to acknowledge the implicit act of anti-commerciality protest in their practice? In Theatre and Performance writing these kinds of omissions aren't rare at all. I get frustrated when new books come out if they don't reference or mention new artists or works. Always the same vieille-garde carted out and revered. I liked the way journals, Zines and the like were nothing short of absolutely current. They just reached fewer people. So... yeah... I decided to "write the book I want[ed] to read" (Kleon, 2012: 42).
And I found there were lots of people doing it themselves.
Each year I produce a book, I encounter more artists in various disciplines and see more work that embodies and embraces the DIY ethos or form, and another list of new artists and collectives appears too; with young companies emerging from universities and the like every summer that evoke and perpetuate DIY ideologies and methods.
One of the things self-published books (or commissioned texts, zines and journals) can do is give voice to current practices, artists, and works. They are (were) about as topical as one can get in printed form. There was also something political in making a book... making something 'permanent' of a term (and scene) in need of some advocacy.
Truth be told I'm also a bit of a bibliophile. I like books, in a fetishistic way. Basically, I wanted to see myself on my own shelf. I have always been particularly interested in books and texts/documents by artists and academics that seek to share their practice, and I wanted to contribute to the corpus somehow.
There were other - less perverse and egotistical - reasons too. In my past, there used to be numerous publications - books, magazines, journals, 'zines' etc. - that helped document, archive and promote a range of (alternative-to-mainstream) practices and forms, but many of them - almost all of them - have since been lost. For various reasons they died and were never replaced with newer or alternative formats. With the exception of a couple, like Total Theatre Magazine, which managed to survive the decline of its print subscription by going online, Performance, Live Art Magazine, Dance Theatre Journal, and many more, didn't. These journals and zines were (for me, and I’m sure many others) great places to discover and learn about new forms and areas of the arts. They were current too. There was also something satisfying in that thud on the doorstep and the new edition being presented. The benefit is in the exposure they give, or permanence they hold. ‘Books’, over blogs, magazines / zines, or websites, still hold a special sense of importance and prestige. For me at least. I'm not being a nostalgic bore either. There's a physical difference: just as there's a difference between ‘owning' (possessing) vinyl records and MP3s. No one covets an MP3. The MP3 player perhaps, but not the digital code.
Moreover, if one wants to know what's out there these days, one has to do it themselves! Ironically, whilst I've spent two editions preaching how DIY can be seen as empowering and progressive, in this instance I preferred someone doing it for me.
With the exception of some great new (online) magazines such as Exeunt, or Bellyflop (to name a couple that I read on a regular basis), and some equally useful resources and articles on platforms such as IdeasTap (now lost), the Live Art Development Agency, Artsadmin, and Theatre Bristol, the available resource (or rather: the availability of resource) has become fairly narrow. One should, however, acknowledge the phenomenon of the blog, and its place in redefining the ways writing (critical, creative or other) exists in the world: Podcasts by Deborah Pearson and Chris Goode, Wordpress essayists Hanna Nicklin, Megan Vaughan, Andy Field, Andrew Haydon... all keeping the zeitgeist accessible and visible.
Anyways, I'm rambling. I do that, sorry. You can read all about what DIY is and why I'm doing this by buying my books (HERE!). You know what? Fuck it. You can read them for free HERE. I'm nice like that.
Besides, maybe the demise of these magazine and journals is simply a natural (capitalist) evolutionary process(?). The fittest survived. There has to be an acknowledgment that perhaps they failed or died because they weren't needed or wanted. Perhaps there’s a limited audience for such mediums. Because of this decline though, there's something inherently political in committing myself to putting a book together on this subject. I see the threat of a limited audience issue as a clear warning. One of my own criticisms about DIY theatre and performance, and articulating ethos and practice (and the producing of a book) was in how artists shroud their work in esotericism and exclusivity. I made clear insistence that contributors try to articulate themselves in accessible ways, and even encouraged them away from 'theorising' their practice. The abstract of Hannah Nicklin's Wikipedia project is an argument I'm completely on board with in this respect: there's a need, in order to sustain itself as a viable alternative to the status quo long term, to tap into the hegemony.
Hopefully this blog post helps do that a little. LADA has been pivotal in giving me space and support to develop this project, and - stay tuned - this post marks the start of an exciting new phase and book on the subject. In this next volume I'm interested in looking deeper at practice. Specifically the practising of performance making. Obviously taking time to theorise, and/or contextualise the enveloping ethos or critical and historical underpinning, but more so to account for the doing of Do It Yourself, and less of the (defining of) 'it', or (problematising of) 'yourself'.
"... the imperative form 'do' and the indexical pronouns 'it' and 'yourself' are, grammatically speaking, performative; they are contingent on the specific situation in which they are used." (Dezeuze, 2012: 3)
It has to be acknowledged that books 1 and 2 have made a clear effort to articulate what the 'doing' is, and who, or what, 'yourself' might actually mean, but it's also fair to say that it's only brushed the surface of what could be a fairly unique attempt to engage in the ontology of the 'doing'. It's all very well to frame the doing, but if the doing is the thing I want to share, then I have to try and use a language that doesn't need supporting by languages and vocabularies deemed more 'objective' or 'theoretically rigourous'. So, to speak in the language of making rather than the language of analysis, theorising and underpinning. Let us cast off our hermeneutical crutches and imagine a way to communicate what we do in the way we do it. There are loads of great texts out there that give critical narrative to the frameworks of process, production, and the bio-genealogical and political contexts of contemporary theatre, performance and art; but few that critically and creatively articulate the physical language of making itself.
That's probably because it's quite hard. It's easy to narrate/describe the 'typical' practice, and it's easy to contextualise and underpin practice, but to theorise its vocabularies in its own language? I guess if it was easy it would've been done already.
Can we at least give it a try?
Dezeuze, A. (ed.) (2012) The ‘Do-it-Yourself’ Artwork: Participation from Fluxus to New Media. United Kingdom: Manchester University Press.
Kleon, A (2012) Steal Like an Artist: 10 things nobody told me about the creative life, Workman Publishing
All images in this blog are from the DIY 1 and 2 publications.