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Read Here Now: 3 Essential New Books by Radical Performing Artists

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A woman in a vintage red dress holds a pair of scissors in a classic 1950s pose.
Detail from 'The Auntie Sewing Squad Guide to Mask Making, Radical Care, and Racial Justice,' one of three recent Bay Area books touching on the performing arts during the pandemic.  (University of California Press)

Although the performing arts have begun to bring back live, in-person performance experiences, it’ll probably be months, even years, before a full recovery in that direction is achieved. Fortunately, many artists have expanded their skills into the digital realm, creating multi-disciplinary and multi-platform works that reach well beyond the fourth wall and right into our living rooms when we need them to.

A more analog way to get your theater fix at home is to pick up one of several amazing books by local performing artists published over the past few months. These include Shifting Cultural Power: Case Studies and Questions in Performance, by Hope Mohr; The Auntie Sewing Squad Guide to Mask Making, Radical Care, and Racial Justice, inspired by and featuring Kristina Wong, and Performing Truth: Works of Radical Memory for Times of Social Amnesia, by L. M. Bogad.

Each of these books addresses the current turbulent moment in the performing arts from multiple angles. Mohr’s book targets arts organizations hoping to create more equitable and transparent governance structures. Wong’s details the emergence of a multi-faceted, long-term pandemic response and mutual aid project, the Auntie Sewing Squad, which harnessed the creative energies of out-of-work artists and others to sew and distribute thousands of masks and PPE to underserved communities. And Bogad’s book offers a variety of road-tested activist artist tactics to create moments of creative protest and inspire radical consciousness.

‘Shifting Cultural Power: Case Studies and Questions in Performance,’ by Hope Mohr. (University of Akron Press)

In Shifting Cultural Power, dance choreographer and performance curator Hope Mohr reflects on the changing landscape of dance, and the ways in which she herself—a white woman steeped in traditions of ballet and postmodern dance—has had to reckon with her own positionality and privilege in the dance community of the now. It’s a frank look at the ways in which a white-led arts organization (such as her own) can transition to a more intentional, diverse, and equitable space, in which leadership roles are shared and curatorial powers become more expansive.

“Curators must make space for artists to step into power,” Mohr writes. “Decentering myself…letting other artists lead…has become my central curatorial commitment.” This artist-led process can manifest itself in different ways, but ultimately, according to Mohr, “for white curators (such as herself), shifting cultural power means curating artists of color in ways that advance the artist, not the presenting organization.”

Hope Mohr, author of ‘Shifting Cultural Power’ and founder of HMD/The Bridge Project (courtesy of HMD)

Like the art of dance, organizational governance can take many shapes and prioritize different methods of engagement and decision-making. Mohr describes the process of shifting her own organization to a co-leadership of three, while also communicating that shift to a wider, interconnected ecosystem of participating artists, audiences, and funders. Throughout the book, she includes multiple voices describing the effect of these intentional shifts on their own artistic and aesthetic processes. Along the way, she documents in print some of the many conversations that are being held in the performance community at large, as legacy organizations grapple with existential questions such as who the work is for and how its development and production can better reflect and support its constituents rather than outmoded organizational structures.

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In her keynote speech at last year’s BUILD convening hosted by FoolsFURY, San Francisco-born Kristina Wong spoke of her ongoing pandemic project of sewing and distributing masks and essential supplies from home. At first a solo project begun in the early, desperate days of the first COVID-19 shutdown—when masks were in short supply and no one knew how long they’d be needed—Wong’s efforts quickly inspired an entire squadron of “Aunties” and “Unties” around the country, making masks and distributing them to the most vulnerable members of their communities: seniors, farmworkers, frontline essential workers, and indigenous “water protectors,” to name a few.

Kristina Wong in her one-person show, ‘Kristina Wong for Public Office.’ (Annie Lesser)

“Culture has the power to organize faster than our politicians,” Wong told the BUILD participants, using her grassroots, multi-ethnic Auntie Sewing Squad (A.S.S.) as an example. While federal and state governments faltered and quibbled over supply distribution and stockpiling, A.S.S. stepped in to fill the void. Wong utilized her solo artist production skills, her “half-assed home ec skills,” and an online cohort of Facebook friends and allies to enlist folks with sewing machines, delivery vehicles, mask patterns, access to fabrics and supplies, and the willingness to spend many unpaid hours “rage-sewing” as members of a decentralized, ad hoc PPE factory.

‘The Auntie Sewing Squad Guide to Mask Making, Radical Care, and Racial Justice,’ featuring Kristina Wong. (University of California Press)

The Auntie Sewing Squad Guide to Mask Making, Radical Care, and Racial Justice provides an essential snapshot of how arts workers and culture-shapers can channel their creative drive into meaningful mutual aid. As a collectively built project, it’s fitting that the resulting book also be collectively assembled. With three co-editors (Mai-Linh K. Hong, Chrissy Yee Lau, and Preeti Sharma) and more than 50 contributors, the book is an engaging assemblage of essays, photos, cartoons, and recipes collected from around the country. It captures not just of a particular historical moment, but the ways that larger movements are made up of individuals who contribute how they can.

Repping the very niche discipline of activist clowning, UC Davis Professor and recent Guggenheim Fellow L.M. Bogad is an internationally-acclaimed expert in “tactical performance.” His latest book, Performing Truth: Works of Radical Memory for Times of Social Amnesia, collects scripts, production notes, and strategies for staging performative disruptions gleaned from over 20 years of practice. There are dissonant scores created from the statistics of inequality (Economusic), rigorously researched roleplay based on historical oppressions (Possible Pasts), a comic dialogue involving a piece of radically self-aware technology and a professional leftist blind to their own privilege (The Guillermo Gómez-Peña Global Positioning System), and even a solo family history reflecting on generational violence and the roots of resistance (A Fair Fight).

L.M. Bogad performing ‘Economusic.’ (Antti Yrjönen)

Bogad’s many years as an instructor and an instigator give Performing Truth a pedagogical foundation for activist artists looking to create work that challenges and disrupts the status quo. In one example, he writes a step-by-step reconstruction of his 2020 Delivering Democracy project, an image-driven action he refers to as “mobilized Dada.” Detailing the creative process that brought cohorts of dancing mailboxes to the streets of Pennsylvania to disseminate voting information, and then re-deployed for subsequent actions from Berkeley to Brooklyn, Bogad shows how a single strong concept can expand to contain infinite variations. By incorporating interdisciplinary strategies and engaging with statistics, factual data, and the historical record, he also shows how to integrate elements of surprise and recognition often missing from less purposefully conceptualized political performances.

In a politically charged time where the “pseudopopulist spectacle” that Bogad calls “Fasctasia” infects our public spaces and discourse like a virus, arts workers can inject what Bogad refers to as “cultural vaccines” back into the body politic. “Fasctasia is spectacular but ultimately circular and redundant,” Bogad asserts in his foreword. “Provide a more compelling alternative…that gives the audience agency and impactful choice.” His book suggests some places to start—the rest is up to our boundless imaginations and our willingness to act.

Shifting Cultural Power: Case Studies and Questions in Performance, by Hope Mohr
(University of Akron Press, 134 pages, $30 paperback/ebook)

The Auntie Sewing Squad Guide to Mask Making, Radical Care, and Racial Justice, by Mai-Linh K. Hong (Editor), Chrissy Yee Lau (Editor), Preeti Sharma (Editor), Kristina Wong (Foreword)
(University of California Press, 288 pages, $24.95 Paperback/ebook)

Sponsored

Performing Truth: Works of Radical Memory for Times of Social Amnesia, by L. M. Bogad
(Routledge, 290 pages, $30.06 paperback)

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