Each individual goes into circus performance for a variety of reasons. Some are born into it, some are attracted to the physicality, still many view it as an alternative sub-culture in which they seek community, while others just love skin-tight bodysuits and sequins. None of us go into it for the money. Perhaps even fewer of us enter into circus training with the idea that it is a great vehicle for making experimental performance art. But I did.
I began training in circus in the early 1990’s after being involved in underground/experimental art and music scenes since I was a teenager. At the time, my interest was solely artistic and not really financial. Eventually, I became proficient enough to start presenting my skills, but by then I had strayed far from my original intent. Having been convinced of the idea that to be considered a real circus artist, I must pursue paid circus work, I unintentionally stepped away from my own artistic development in order to prove myself as a professional circus performer. I said in the previous paragraph that circus artists don’t go into it for the money—but at some point we do usually end up hustling to make a living within an industry which forces us to think more about what sells than what satisfies the artist in us.
But the question still begs to be asked; Is circus an accessible genre for exploring conceptual or abstract live art?
Enter “Risk Agitator for Circus Experimentation”.
The Risk Agitatoris primarily an emerging network of people or organizations in the United States who are interested in pursuing different contexts and expressions of the skills they have acquired through circus. We believe that there is room in the world for the entire spectrum of circus arts—from classical forms to the avant garde where one often hears the comment “That’s not circus!”
Risk Agitatorproposes to place artists in the precarious position of creative circus experimentation by offering its members access to custom-designed “Agitator Sessions”– finding space for creation residencies, instigating and seeking site-specific performance opportunities, and advocating for the funding of circus as a contemporary art. The acronym for our organization is “R.A.C.E.” (Risk Agitator Circus Experimentation) —and that is how we see it– as a race to catch up with other art forms in terms of currency, without turning our backs on the uniqueness of our traditions.
In 2008, I co-founded and directed a collaborative contemporary art space in Istanbul, Turkey called Caravansarai. While managing collaborative cross-genre projects, I had an epiphany: I could use my circus skills within the context of other art works! So I invited non-circus artists to collaborate with me. I began by asking myself whether the pieces I was working on neededcircus in them to express what I was going for. I stopped looking for gigs, I stopped making 7-minute acts. In fact, I ceased with acts altogether. I made the decision to never repeat myself—to never perform something more than once, to improvise performances, to place myself in uncomfortable site-specific situations, to collaborate more, to find new contexts for my very prescribed skills. I swore off cabarets and act-to-act shows. That doesn’t mean that I arrived at some sort of artistic excellence—far from it! It means that I was willing to take the risk of looking unskilled. It means I left audiences and reviewers scratching their heads. It means I sometimes failed spectacularly. It also means that I had complete artistic control. It was liberating!
Upon moving back to the United States, I was inspired to reconnect with old colleagues and meet new artists who may also be carving out new horizons for themselves within their circus backgrounds. In March 2017, I was invited to participate in a circus incubator event called 48-Hour Project at Aloft in Chicago. From my experience with that event (featured here) I was inspired to develop something with a more enduring mission as well as more rigorous actions for stimulating artistic risk-taking. Gathering together individuals with the same objectives seemed important in order to maximize and share resources to sustain such an endeavor.
Like open-source code, the hope is that all artists and circus organizations can benefit from ideas generated from Risk Agitator Sessions. The information uncovered will be documented, disseminated and made available for free to all circus communities for their own usage is fundamental for the development of contemporary circus.
Traditionally, circus in the U.S. is a commercial endeavor (Hello, P.T. Barnum?). The circus industryis what typically drives everything about how we express and present ourselves artistically. The commercial machine dictates how and where we train and learn, what we wear, how we move, the duration of our performances, as well as the types of spaces in which we can perform. These are all expectations that are not determined by performers, but we try to fulfill them nonetheless.
Experimentation is not about turning our backs on the commercial aspects of circus, but instead about giving the artist control over their production by supporting innovation of new contexts and audiences, or seeking resources for artists to create individual works that may not have commercial appeal. Instead of following the dictates and tastes of the industry, the artist should be empowered with a sense of their own expressiveness, which in turn will expand and enhance the world of circus by cross-pollinating with other fields, or attracting new audiences who may not otherwise have been interested in circus as they currently perceive it.
While such diversity is institutionally supported in Europe, in the U.S. it is up to the artists themselves to chance upon opportunities outside of the commercial circus industry. These skills are not built into the U.S. circus education. Risk Agitator is a step towards making those opportunities more accessible by offering exposure to other alternatives—such as forming small alternative circus companies or finding virtual venues in which audiences can view circus arts.
DEBUT AGITATOR SESSIONS IN 2017-2018
For others who seek liberation from the dominant commercial industry, or even those who want to expand their ideas from within it, Risk Agitator designs custom actions for each specific host or venue. Our intent is to collaborate with hosts on what would work with the particular site, target potential mentors, and put together juries for selecting session participants. The goal is to fashion exercises or catalysts that tackle issues that may be slowing the evolution of circus into a true contemporary art form. For example, taking a topic that limits circus performers–such as our perception of performance “space”–and bringing an artist or other who has worked extensively on this topic in their careers. Marilyn Arsem is a well-known performance artist who has spent her long career exploring questions related to space perception. Having taught live art at School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, she has developed exercises to pull people out of their habits of relating to space. Finding suitable mentors who can help jog us out of our habitual modes of creation is one way of helping us take risks. There are many other ways to take artistic risks, such as arranging site-specific performances, stimulating cross-genre collaboration, and instigating artistic dialogue, and each Risk Agitator session will feature various ways to be risky.
If this sounds intriguing, we will be conducting the first Agitator Sessions this coming October, 2017 at Big Sky Works in Brooklyn, NY.
5-10 circus artists will bring their issues to Big Sky Works in Brooklyn, NY. Participants should be currently working with concepts that confront obstacles particular to circus performance. Perhaps it is the idea of letting go of tricks, or playing with what constitutes performance space, or even audience expectation.
Whatever the problem, the group will attempt to solve it over 2 days of presentation/workshopping, guided by mentors from circus and beyond. Mentors TBA. The next two sessions will be spent “working out” our issues and presenting them again to a public audience
Further details will be available soon. To participate: Become a member of Risk Agitator. We will issue a call for applications to members only at the end of August. The Big Sky Works Sessions is limited to 10 people who have at least 5 years of performance experience—no age limits. Collaborative spirit is a must.
Take a risk. (But not one that will land you in traction!)
Featured photo courtesy of Ivar Prickett “Welcome to the Dollhouse” Part of Galata Visibility Project, Istanbul 2013