07 December 2019

Consensual Art (iiia)

The portion of LA Metro's Red Line between Hollywood/Highland and Universal City frequently becomes a stage for pop-up dance performers. It is the longest stretch on this route without a stop, and in my experience also among the least likely to be boarded by police. The greater duration and lesser enforcement hence seem to jointly determine performers' choice of venue. I rode home from work this way for a solid year and have thereby been treated to dozens of Friday evening performances.

Performers always announce their presence, literally in most cases, but if not that way than via one of a few other available methods. One guy has perfected the art of allowing the doors to close on his outstretched arm without the motion detectors causing them to release; having thereby gotten our attention (Will he be dragged to his death?! Does he deserve it?!), he pulls the emergency release, enters the train, joins the troupe, gives his introduction, and starts dancing. By the time I was this guy's age I had done a dozen stupider, more dangerous things than this, but I was not driven to do them either by art or by necessity. Please keep that important distinction in mind as the series continues.

Needless to say that most people ride the subway for transportation rather than for entertainment, and that none of these entertainers ever ask permission to perform for riders, nor would they nor could they get explicit permission either from a 21st century big-city bureaucracy or from a haphazard collection of 21st century plebes in a confined space during rush hour. Does this matter? Anecdotally I'd say that rider reactions are fairly evenly split between subdued receptiveness and willful disregard. I've never seen a train delayed, nor an intervention by authorities, nor an explicit expression of displeasure directed at the performers. Implied consent carries the day here. As that day becomes months and years, precedent is established incrementally and informally, by convention rather than by fiat. Perhaps even a few people do start riding the subway for entertainment. Is that enough? Isn't this the way real-life, bottom-up social discourse tends to work, when it works? Who would object to dancing on the subway anyway? If this doesn't brighten your day, what does that say about you?

There are many such possibilities that would brighten my day, but this is not one of them. For that opinion I will accept any personal counterjudgment that might come my way, but I will not accept any postmodern ethical triangulation regarding the general phenomenon of which this is merely one thought-provoking instance. As with the airport checkpoint, implied consent here is not really consent at all, and abstention is heavily disincentivized. Unlike the checkpoint, which is an artifact of top-down democratic sausage-making, the flash mob is the work of a comparatively tiny group with no such mandate. In this specific case it is, for better or worse, also a cut-and-dried violation of earthly Law. Have any higher laws been violated?

Admittedly, it is difficult for me to achieve objectivity on these questions. Happenings which are transparently rooted in an established art practice and intentionally placed in my path through public space unavoidably trigger reception in the context of said art practice. It is impossible for me to compartmentalize these happenings from my own identity and experiences as an artist; rather, where I see art I see my own affinity group, and so where I see artists misbehaving I see Family Business to be handled. It is unsatisfying to be writing rather than acting on this feeling, but I see no good options in the latter realm. The option of somehow disrupting the performance or expressing displeasure, whether passively or actively, is exactly the response to provocation by which the unconsenting cede the moral high ground to the provocateur. This is true, I think, no less for the authorities than for ordinary riders. Despite having the letter of the law at their disposal should they choose to enforce it, they must contend with a complex web of unofficial precedents, popular perceptions, and general volatility. Not least among these is the fact that both material and symbolic artifacts of authority are only ever seen by riders when the law is to be immediately enforced: I am confident in generalizing the perfect mutual exclusivity I have observed between the conditions "Dancing on the Subway" and "Cops on the Subway." This is an image problem for the cops, especially when speech/expression are at stake. It is, I suspect, the same reason my high school teachers were reluctant to scold me for being "off task" when I used in-class work time to sketch compositions. In a big-city subway traincar there is no way to know which way the silent majority is leaning or how strongly until someone forces the issue, and this is not the kind of role I have ever been comfortable in. But I do feel strongly that the fact that we don't know this without asking people (or giving them a chance to tell us with their actions) in and of itself makes certain public spaces quite poorly-suited to bear the brunt of an entire city's freedom to express themselves and to solicit tips for their trouble. I do not want to live in a society without freedom of speech, expression or assembly; it sure would be nice, though, if more people had read the user guide.

Because I know that artists and audiences need each other, I reject the notion that consent could ever be irrelevant on either end of the transaction. I further reject the notion that such consent could be difficult to establish or confounded by cultural barriers; rather, it is most commonly confounded by manipulation of circumstances, and that is something I cannot abide. Leave the door open to a gallery or a concert hall and allow people to come and go freely and they will tell you unequivocally whether or not they want to receive your art. It is also true that there are a million and one reasons why people are not equally able to take this decision freely and that addressing this problem is absolutely part of the artist's mandate. For me, at least, forcing the choice defeats the purpose. That inhibition is thought to be a psychologically healthy, socially constructive one in many other applications of consent, but it seems not to have penetrated terribly deeply into the world of art and artists, be that in the street or the ivory tower.

Of course the rhetorical escape hatch here is to deny such performances the status of art, for their own good as it were, thereby unburdening them of all sorts of accreted cultural and philosophical baggage. At that point they cease to be transgressions of a hallowed social institution and become quotidian transgressions of the municipal code, perhaps also of (un)common courtesy. They then are no worse than the proverbial jackhammer at 3am, ripping apart mere asphalt rather than the very fabric of society. Perhaps by a twisted SoCal logic borne of class war, the logic which makes the unlikeliest of relativists out of the staunchest of conservatives, the dancers fall on the morally superior side of a dichotomy between ordinary subway beggars and enterprising spirits down on their luck who are "at least doing something." Or, resolving the structure-agency problem in the opposite direction (all while clinging to the same relativism), perhaps these people are merely desperate in one respect or another and they are behaving the way any organism would in desperation.

I want to anticipate and address the objection that my notion of consent has in this case become a rationale for shutting down someone else's expression, "punching down" as it were from the position of a bourgeois artist, wielding law-and-order as a muzzle against street artists, and casting my lot with proprietors of tightly-drawn, fully-administrated Free Speech Zones. I am wary indeed of the severe restrictions which already exist on LA County property, even though in this case they make official a prohibition on something which I see as wrong in the abstract. It is not inconsistent to hold these positions. A fundamental right is, precisely because it is fundamental and therefore far-reaching, a rope that is long enough to hang ourselves. Similarly, it is impossible to narrowly target restrictions of such far-reaching rights to address very specific behaviors; inevitably the net that is cast is too wide. Currently this is much-discussed regarding hate-speech-as-free-speech; the stakes are not as high in my example here, but the dynamic is the same. I don't want to live in a world where it is illegal to dance on the subway, but nor do I want to be cornered, blasted, bugged and begged. I can envision constructive purposes for consensual subway dance parties and I can envision draconian policing of misdemeanor offenses being wielded selectively against dissidents and minorities. What I cannot see is a justification for availing oneself of a captive audience, no matter what you're peddling, and I cannot explain it away as the isolated actions of a few heedless extroverts because it happens constantly in this city, at the hands of both the rich and the poor, from photo shoots to Car Operas and everything in between. I want to be part of a community that has earned the right to free expression by the ways we choose to use it, and not a community where its abuse is so rampant that it must be progressively curtailed just to keep the lights on. And because I am not a relativist, I refuse to absolve the poor, the oppressed, the underappreciated artist, or the so-called "naive" or "outsider" artist of this responsibility simply because they are naive of their Family Resemblance to those of us who have the luxury to stop and consider all of this. Placing your dancing self and a high-output sound source where people literally can't escape is as easy an action to read as is an orchestra patron exiting the concert hall mid-performance. What they both say is that the process leading up to the presentation was flawed.

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