Essays

Coping with a Conference About Art, Ritual, and Grieving

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Still from “A Requiem for Douglass” (2015), a film by Oren Goldenberg that compiles rituals created and performed during and after the demolition of the Douglass Towers housing project in Detroit (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

DETROIT — You know, I didn’t really want to be at “Art as Ritual: A Conference on Lamentation in Contemporary Performance and Practice,” organized by writer Taylor Aldridge, rector William Danaher from Christ Church of Cranbrook, and filmmaker Oren Goldenberg, in collaboration with the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) and University of Michigan’s Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design. The conference fell on a Monday, September 12, following an action-packed arts weekend, and despite it featuring some of the Detroit’s leading thinkers and most innovative practitioners discussing a compelling topic — the intersection of art and ritual — I felt deeply ambivalent about attending. It sounded exhausting.

“Critics have limits,” writes Jennifer Doyle in the opening chapter of Hold It Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art. “Our faculties break down when an artwork reminds us of something so painful, or makes us mad, or is something we like so much we struggle to write about it. Or when we are tired and having a bad day.” Sitting in the auditorium during Danaher’s opening remarks, I felt the incipient experience of being dragged through some kind of emotional obstacle course, and it made me furious. He was followed by science fiction author adrienne maree brown, who spoke movingly about a shift in her consciousness that seems to correlate with the globalized view afforded by technology.

adrienne maree brown (left) and Nick Cave in coversation.
adrienne maree brown and Nick Cave in conversation at “Art as Ritual: A Conference on Lamentation in Contemporary Performance and Practice” at the Detroit Institute of Arts

“The amount of grief we are expected to hold is increasing,” said brown. “Every day now, I learn the name of someone [to grieve], and I feel distraught.” I didn’t want to feel distraught. I thought: It’s Monday morning; what I want is to have another cup of coffee and meet this week on my own terms. I sure as hell didn’t want to stand and participate in a guided activity, led by brown, involving intense eye contact with the person sitting next to me, followed by a physical demonstration of where I felt the pain of my grief. It seemed like a lot to ask of a basically introverted and intimacy-resistant writer first thing on Monday morning. But I did it, because, as brown asserted, “Moving forward together may depend upon our ability to grieve together.” Certainly, there is no lack of sources for grief in my life, or in the lives of anyone around me.

As the day unfolded, with the audience scattering into two rounds of breakout sessions which took place in various locations throughout the DIA, I had to question the conference format as a successful approach to tackling grief. Observing the Great Hall transformed into an area for the experimental theater ensemble Hinterlands to lead one of their signature, extremely physical training exercises opened up great possibilities in terms of what the hallowed space of the museum might offer outside of housing static artworks on display. Broadly speaking, the conference was a successful embodiment of new Director Salvador Salort-Pons’s vision of the DIA as a community forum for important issues. But, in terms of engagement, I continued to carry a great deal of resistance to the idea of creating an emotionally honest collective experience within a format that’s traditionally professional.

To return to Doyle, now on the subject of sabotaging her own appointment for a one-on-one performance with artist Adrian Howells: “I was afraid of what might happen, of how it might make me feel. I think too I was equally put off by its artificiality — not that my own feelings would be inauthentic but that they would be delivered within a temporary architecture of intimacy.”

Hinterlands leads "Collective Movement as Ritual" in the Great Hall.
Hinterlands leading “Collective Movement as Ritual” in the Great Hall
A participant in "Duration and Memory in a House Full of Objects" led by Biba Bell.
A participant in “Duration and Memory in a House Full of Objects,” led by Biba Bell in the Decorative Arts wing

It is a fascinating question to ask what it would look like if our cultural institutions, in the interest of facilitating connection and understanding, took on the everyday considerations of loss and grief. But to explore this idea, we must take ourselves into murky emotional territory. What accountability does an artist (or a conference facilitator) have for the emotions triggered by their work? Artists are endlessly fond of “questioning” structures or “raising awareness” of painful issues, but what happens to the feelings we are left with in response? In many ways, I am lucky, as a critic, to have an official protocol for processing my feelings; I find that other types of art viewers are often left holding the bag. Perhaps that’s why art openings so easily devolve into superficial social occasions, rather that opportunities to collectively explore the work on display. With “Art as Ritual,” the work on display was that of human emotion, art action as a means of processing difficult experiences, and my immediate response was to recoil and intellectualize. I felt more at ease at the lecture-style sessions, such as “The Making of a Relationship,” with artist Bridget Quinn and Alison Wong, co-director of Butter Projects, and “Exhibition as Ritual: Contemporary Art and Ecstatic Spaces in the Twenty-First Century,” led by Cranbrook curator Laura Mott.

Still from "Up Right: Detroit" by the Right Brothers in collaboration with Nick Cave.
Still from “Up Right: Detroit,” by the Right Brothers in collaboration with Nick Cave (click to enlarge)

Mott collaborated with artist Nick Cave on his yearlong Here Hear project, organized by the Cranbrook Art Museum throughout 2015, and Cave was a keynote speaker of the conference. Cave’s work powerfully employs ritual costumes and dances, such as those performed in Burkina Faso and other African countries, and the event series associated with Here Hear seemed to make definitive headway in healing longstanding rifts between Detroit proper and its surrounding metro area. “As I visual artist, I’ve got to get it out,” Cave said, with respect to his use of art as a processing mechanism for negative emotions. In the wake of the LA riots, “that’s when I realized I was an artist with a civic responsibility.” Wandering the halls of the DIA throughout the day — observing attendees lying on the floor of the Decorative Arts wing and others in the Rivera Court, participating in a session led by vnesswolfchild that encouraged them to writhe around in large, brown paper sacks — I wondered what civic responsibility continues beyond the confines of these 90-minute sessions. Assuming we get to the heart of grief, of feeling, what measures are in place to help us return healed — or at least intact? Given the fine line that many of us walk, as creative people, between out-of-box thinking and being actually out of our minds, who’s to say that we are best positioned to offer guidance on grief?

Then again, who’s to say we aren’t? At the very least, a number of Detroit’s best and brightest boldly addressed these questions at “Art as Ritual,” with all that they had. Ultimately, the decision to take this journey is not for the faint of heart, and I admire those brave enough — braver than I — to step into the ritual, open to transformation.

"Worm Den" in the Riviera Courtyard.
vnesswolfchild leading “Worm Den” in the Rivera Court

Art as Ritual: A Conference on Lamentation in Contemporary Performance and Practice” took place at the Detroit Institute of Arts (5200 Woodward Avenue) on September 12.

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