One of the things art is for

by david

My pal Stephanie has a relatively new job in New York, managing a dance company. She wrote to me about it, saying she thought I’d be interested in the production they’re about to open, and holy hell, am I ever. I’m not going to make a claim about the show without having seen it. I’m responding to the marketing materials they’ve produced, and to a few short pieces of video on the company’s site. Based on that, I’d see it (and will, if I end up in New York during that span). But without even seeing it, it’s got me thinking.

It’s called “Borrowed Prey” and the company is Carrie Ahern Dance. It’s being performed at a butcher shop. Here’s Carrie’s description from the company’s site:

Borrowed Prey is an investigation of our relationship to the animals that most of us consume. Bringing together 4 strands of research: hunting, butchering, and slaughtering of animals, plus the work of animal behavior scientist and autistic Dr. Temple Grandin, I am attempting to illuminate more about the true “farm to table” process and our human capacity for empathy. The work includes butchering of a lamb and meat will be made available for sale post show.

So, she’s got my attention a few ways here. I’ve been mulling our relationship to animals, and the unreflective way we consume meat. Many, many people have been, if Michael Pollan’s book sales are any indication. What got me thinking, though, was something else: Check out this video, where people who went to a preview event talk about their reactions:

“Borrowed Prey” says it is an “investigation of our relationship to the animals that most of us consume” and the audience’s reaction here is to examine their relationship to the animals they consume. She’s doing something right.* The entire stated purpose of her piece is to encourage engagement with a topic society has made it easy to disengage from. Staging this in a butcher shop is so natural and so smart and so right, and now I can’t think that there’s any other way she could do this. There’s an element of spectacle to it, but it’s not mere spectacle. She’s asking people to engage, and she herself is engaging fully. It’s not contrived. The butcher is here, in the open, doing the work you don’t usually ask to see. The dancer is here, in the butcher shop, connecting the human and the animal in the place where so much of the unsaid is made clear. You don’t pull the animal into the sanctified performance space of a theater, where people get to nod and say, “Hmm. Interesting.”*

I’m not a believer that art is for any one thing, but I think this is one of the things art can be for: to expose something that is part of your everyday but has remained invisible, to not just cast a light on it, but to reframe it in a way that raises questions rather than insists on answers. I haven’t been in that butcher shop with her, but this is what the show seems to promise. And if I’m in New York in late April/early May, I’ll let you know.

* When you’re doing something new and unconventional and have an audience talking, reflecting, examining, saying anything other than “INTERESTING”* after a performance, it’s the beginning of a success. “Interesting” is such a terrible word. I dread “interesting.” Usually it means, “this is something I’m supposed to have serious thoughts about. Smart people are supposed to like this. Truth is, the details are already slipping away.”