The weekend before last, Carolina Performing Arts’ new festival, The Commons, debuted at CURRENT ArtSpace + Studio. Envisioned and spearheaded by CPA postdoctoral fellow Alexandra Ripp, the festival offered three weeks of free studio space, technical equipment and staff, marketing, and photo and video documentation to three local performing artists or groups, who then showed their in-process works in the festival. 

One of several ways in which the festival was untraditional was that critical coverage, instead of being simply hoped for, was baked in. In addition to funding the artists, CPA also funded two writers per artist group, one who was embedded throughout the process and one who only engaged with the final showing. The premise was that critical documentation is at once changing in form, diminishing in frequency, and urgently needed. And it’s not just documentation of performances that is needed, but also of the work and conversation that surrounds and sustains them.

The Commons Crit, a collaboration between Ripp and INDY arts and culture editor Brian Howe, grew out of conversations about these issues and attempted to address them. 

The festival was a rich experience, from Megan Yankee’s participatory dance theater piece on Mestizx identity and border policy and Justin Tornow’s audience-improvised happening to a ritual reconstruction of masculinity by Eb. Brown, Daniel Coleman, and Joie Lou Shakur. But we were just as inspired by the conversations among artists, presenters, and attendees that rolled on through the afterparties at Bowbarr and took shape more formally on June 1 in a roundtable discussion about criticism with area arts professionals. Through these conversations, we learned both how we might cultivate a healthy arts-crit symbiosis in the new media landscape and how much we still have to figure out. 

With oodles of documentation of the performances already posted in The Commons Crit section of the INDY’s website, we want to also document this conversation, offering some preliminary answers to the questions we raised in the project’s introduction, now that the results of our critical experiment are in.   

The Commons Crit was designed to test several hypotheses, which we raised again at the start of the roundtable: that criticism should not always be beholden to a coverage model; that critics should have the space and freedom to experiment; that critics and artists are allies, not adversaries; that artistic process deserves as much attention as the final product; and that artists have legitimate ideas about who can authentically represent the cultural perspective of their work. 

This seed was planted two years ago, when Ripp, trained as a critic and dramaturg, moved to the area and observed that, after the dailies made significant cuts to arts criticism, the INDY was almost the only place to find it. This created a need for wide coverage, both pre- and post-show, that is both urgent and virtually impossible for one paper to fulfill alone. 

The INDY is intent on remaining a leading voice in local criticism, but we need more critics generating more work than one outlet alone can support. Reviews are not lucrative, and given the current market landscape, it seems unlikely that additional critical voices will emerge from a standard business model. But if traditional outlets operate within certain practical and financial limits, there is another cultural site that has a vested interest in a healthy critical climate and fewer constraints of resources and readership: the academy.

Arts organizations and universities could invest in fostering criticism, whether by training students in it, producing it themselves, or working with outlets like the INDY. If The Commons Crit, a collaboration between a university arts presenter and an independent newspaper, taught us one crucial thing, it’s that this model is not only possible, it is fertile, and remains full of unexplored possibilities. And while universities might shy away from training critics as a professional “dead-end,” criticism develops the capacities that a liberal arts education purports to teach: analysis, interpretation, composition, and even empathy. 

We also learned about the valuable range of expressive possibilities that lie beyond and complement a standard coverage model. We encouraged the writers to take risks in form and to foreground their subjective experiences. (It’s worth mentioning that the writers were also following the lead of the Commons artists, all of whom created radically participatory pieces that would have been ill-suited to standard reviews.) 

Don Holmes, an African-American literature scholar and first-time performance writer, documented Eb. Brown and company’s work from an inextricably involved perspective. Victoria Bouloubasis, the INDY’s former food editor, and Michaela Dwyer, a current dance critic at the paper, experimented with fragmented, poetic forms dictated by personal experiences and intuitions, framed by Chris Vitiello and Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s more comprehensive vantages on the same works. In the contrasts between the perspectives of embedded and final writers, between critics and scholars, and between broad and acute takes, we discovered unique insights that couldn’t have been found in univocal sources.  

Nor could they have been found in dispassionate ones, which the critic on a general assignment and a tight deadline can sometimes be. In journalism, it’s a no-no to let an artist pick their reviewer, but in The Commons, to a large extent, we did. At least, we consulted the writers about what sort of person would be an apt conduit for their cultural perspective. For example, Victoria and Stephanie—accomplished writers, but not performance critics—were selected for their fluency in Spanish and border issues, while Chris and Michaela built upon longstanding relationships with Justin. For Eb. Brown, a male African-American embedded writer was essential, but it would take the perspective of a female African-American writer (Danielle Purifoy) to round out the performance’s meaning.  

The principles of The Commons Crit are general, but there are also ways in which they are locally specific. The Triangle is a vibrant and growing yet still small and underfunded arts community, which makes it essential that artists and writers support one another, when so much largely uncompensated time and labor goes into the enterprise. Through The Commons, we glimpsed the outline of a new community of artists and writers, presenters and media, united in producing robust documentation and vetting one another’s perspectives and critiques. We glimpsed the possibility of decentralizing the expert, who remains necessary but could occupy a chorus of voices with equally invaluable perspectives. By weaning ourselves off the ingrained ideal of critical objectivity, we might discover a model more enriching to this community.

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