What Remains: Collaboration and Knowledge at a Non-Digital Unconference
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the showcase for "::Bodies in Space: Flow/s:: Second Annual Guerrilla-Style Performance and Theory Bake-Off/Graduate Conference" here at UCSB put on by the Hemispheric South/s Research Initiative, the Center for Literature and the Environment, the American Cultures and Global Contexts Center (all coming out of the English Department) with support from the campus-wide Interdisciplinary Humanities Center and others (full list at the end of this post). Though the conference didn't emerge from within the digital humanities, its spirit was very much aligned with the experimental and free-flowing unconferences like the THATCamps that we hold so dear.
Over 24 hours, conference participants gathered and brought their individual research interests and expertise to the group, which was divided into smaller teams that each had the task of creating a theory-informed academic performance piece for the showcase. The conference organizers provided food, structured activities for sharing intellectual interests and artistic inspiration, and a master class by Black queer theatre artist Sharon Bridgforth, fostering a space of collaboration and non-competition, in the words of Dr. Stephanie Batiste, who gave opening remarks at the showcase.
Batiste, jointly appointed in the departments of Black Studies and English, locates the origins of this style of knowledge production in the Black Performance Theory conference, first convened in 1998, which brings junior scholars together in a non-competitive, collaborative academic performance environment. A good description of its history can be found here, on the 2011 conference schedule, which traces the development of the group and its continued emphasis on networking and support for junior faculty. This is precisely one of the structures of support and collaboration that have long existed outside of mainstream academia that DH can take as a model without needing to reinvent the wheel.
Many of the performers were my colleagues, and I knew of their fields of interest: critical race studies, Chican@ studies, queer theory, digital rhetoric, Caribbean literatures, literature and religion, literature and the environment. The performances that they created with the other scholars and artists with whom I was not familiar were incredibly powerful and transformative - truly the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. Instead of the spectator-audience spatial configuration more familiar to academic venues, witnesses were arranged in a circle around the performance space. The performance began with a powerful round of thanks, with performers surrounding the circle of witnesses and giving thanks to names without explanation and in their language of choice. It set a chilling and reverent tone to the piece, and some of the names - Gloria Anzaldúa, Jack Halberstam, Angela Davis, amongst others - put us in an particular academic space the way that any epigraph or in-text citation would.
There were three separate acts to the showcase. The first group opened with spoken words: binary pairs gradually disrupted first by switching partners and then by whimsical additions thrown into the mix. The three performers continued with round-robin poetry telling deeply personal stories, forcibly moving each other around the performance space when it was time to switch; always two bodies speaking, one body moving in the background. Love poems, proud poems, poems of transition. The second act was a bilingual dance piece: three dancers, agua/water, danza/dance, y frontera/border, with large, shimmering scarves. Different genres of Latin@ music, working northward from South America to Tijuana, interrupted readings of a poem about dancing and death, and the performers weave a love triangle amid dancing and funereal procession that ends, as many things involving la frontera, in tragedy. To finish the showcase, the final group pulled witnesses small groups at a time from our circle into the performance space, using us to contribute to an impromptu cocktail party. There was mundane conversation, snacking on apples, listening to music, and reading prose-poetry under all of the noise. As we were finally instructed, again in small groups, to take (new) seats, the voices reading the poetry (including Sharon Bridgforth herself) rose up and faded away. Pieces of paper littered the floor with snippets of conversation taken from our party, and the last performers moved them around with large brooms proclaiming loudly, "What remains?"
What remains! Both a question and an exclamation - and a useful one for me to close this blog. My sense of what is possible in an academic space has been enriched yet again; the flow of Bodies in Space surpassed even the bottom-up unconference style sought by THATCamp. As witnesses, we were responsible for leading our own discussion after the event, instructed to speak when we were ready to say something after reflecting for a few minutes. It was very much like being in a classroom, with all the anxiety of choosing to speak first heightened by the fact that we were all looking (or not looking) at each other from across the circle. But just like in a classroom, the conversation eventually took off. We spoke about bodies, about movement, about participation, about thankfulness. We spoke about authentic choices and pedagogy and new production of knowledge. And when it was all over, we had cake and spoke to each other some more.
That moment of extending beyond the comfort zone of academia and exposing ourselves to the awkwardness of being performers and students and amateurs was something that the conference participants shared with their witnesses. Several of them chose to participate despite not being "performers" themselves. And as with any non-traditional academic format, execution was not without its difficulties. Despite the call for bodies, not papers, that went out along with a description of the event, some participants elected to discontinue participation after the first day when they found themselves unable to work as openly with the experimental format as successful collaboration requires, and others hesitated at the thought of not having an individual voice and project with which to speak. But these experiments are so, so important in stretching the boundaries of academia, in giving new voices a place to speak, in discovering what types of scholarly activity can produce thoughtful and sustained conversation. I am thankful for the opportunity to have witnessed what 24 hours (!) of brainstorming and collaboration can produce, and excited for the possibility that I might reach outside of my comfort zone next year to see what actually participating in "Bodies and Space" can do for my scholarship.
::Bodies in Space: Flow/s:: was organized by Shannon Brennan (English, UCSB), Jessica Lopez Lyman (Chican@ Studies, UCSB), Alison Reed (English, UCSB), and Kristie Soares (Comparative Literature, UCSB), under the supervision of Dr. Stephanie Batiste (Black Studies, English, UCSB).
Featuring a master class, "Finding Voice," by Sharon Bridgforth and keynote address, "Performing Precarity," by Dr. Jennifer DeVere Brody (Stanford University)
Shannon Brennan, UC Santa Barbara
Liliana Gallegos, UC Santa Barbara
Eireene Nealand, UC Santa Cruz
Jessica Lopez Lyman, UC Santa Barbara
Alison Reed, UC Santa Barbara
Maythé Ruffino, UC Santa Barbara
Marilee “Rusty” Rust, CSU Long Beach
Kristie Soares, UC Santa Barbara
Sponsored by Hemispheric South/s Research Initiative, the Center for Literature & the Environment, the Chicano Studies Institute, the Department of Feminist Studies, the Hull Chair in Feminist Studies, the Department of Film & Media Studies, the Department of Spanish & Portuguese, the UCSB Women’s Center, and the IHC.
(Cross-posted at UC Humanities Forum)