State of Emergence: Why We Need Artists Right Now

A dancer with long hair, dressed in a jumpsuit, hinges backward reaching one arm forward and one arm back.
Image by Kathia Wittenborn

The pandemic disruption has amplified the ways in which the systems and policies that shape contemporary Canadian society are producing harmful outcomes for many. A climate crisis. A health crisis. An economic crisis. A crisis of wellbeing. A crisis of spirit. A crisis of care.

Given the existential dilemma we find ourselves in, what would it mean for a society to ambitiously mobilize artists to do their most essential work well and fully, with the aim of catalyzing transformative change? Could the chaotic domain of the artist’s creative process be the fertile ground from which a healthier, more sustainable system of cultural production emerges?

These questions have been at the centre of my pandemic-inspired reflections over the past 18 months. As we in the arts and culture sector emerge from a period of reflection, learning, questioning and reorientation, how will we avoid sliding back into the habits of a world we know is oppressive, inequitable and unsustainable?

While governments, businesses, and many public service organizations continue to lead emergency response strategies, many artists are at the centre of the activism and community organizing that is fuelling a revolution.

Through my work as a practicing dance artist, embodiment facilitator, change-maker, policy thinker and longtime arts advocate, I am invested in the role artists have to play as engaged citizens during this moment of re-emergence and social transformation.

I believe that artists are world-makers and that this work is critical right now.

I also believe that artists are not adequately centred or supported in the professional arts ecosystem in Canada, nor have they been ambitiously mobilized as change agents during this time of crisis, much to the detriment of the arts sector and to society at large. My response to this dilemma is a call for radical experimentation — both to artists and to those who make decisions about the systems that organize our work.

As a contribution to the collective learning and action we need to engage in as artists, I’ve put my reflections into writing in a new thought piece titled State of Emergence: Why We Need Artists Right Now. I presented a version of this essay at CPAMO’s recent Gathering Divergence Multi-Arts Festival and Conference on December 8, 2021 at Native Earth’s Aki Studio. It was followed by a rich conversation with artists Susie Burpee, Greg Frankson, Anita La Selva and Irma Villafuerte who animated the themes of the essay with their own ideas and experiences.

You can access the full text of the presentation here. Sign up for future updates on this work here.

A video recording of the full panel session will be released by CPAMO early in 2022.

Read on for a brief summary of the essay’s four parts.

Part One: The Alienated State of the Artist: An Emergency and a Revolution-in-the-Making

Through the pandemic, emergency response strategies in the arts have deployed ample resources to institutions and organizations to ensure their survival. But what about the survival of artists? As we consider the potential role of artists as agents of change, as healers, as animators of the public imagination, as world-makers, can we first turn our gaze toward the experience of artists inside this moment of great disruption? How are artists doing right now? Are they thriving? Are they being ambitiously mobilized to do their most essential work?

Here I discuss the declining economic situation of the artist and the ways in which this precarity is compromising the artist’s ability to do their most important work.

Part Two: From Culture as a Colonial Project to Culture as a Lever for Change

Building a new foundation of cultural democracy for a future Canada, means re-imagining cultural policies in support of a much more pluralistic expression of the socio-cultural context we share. Radical disruption in the arts means re-evaluating things like standards of artistic excellence, measures of public value and economic viability. It means unpacking the implicit biases hidden underneath notions of talent and merit.

Here I discuss the ways in which global social justice movements like #IdleNoMore, #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, and Indigenous resurgence are levers for transformational change. To create a more just society, I propose that we look beyond strategies of diversified representation and policy reform and work at the level of culture change. To work at the level of culture, we need to engage in embodied creative processes that work with the materials of meaning-making — rituals and symbols, codes of behaviour, communal language and storytelling, rules of belonging. This is what helps move us to new horizons. This is the work of the artist.

Part Three: Artists as World-Makers

Artistic process is, by its very nature, emergent. It is a process capable of world-making because it explores horizons of possibility in ways that engage our fully embodied sensory capacities, including our imagination. Creation processes value integrated forms of knowledge production, including intuition, perception and emotion. As such, these are processes capable of working on our ways of being, as well as on our ways of thinking and doing, all within the volatile conditions we find ourselves in — those of complexity, disconnection and uncertainty.

Here I am proposing the centring of the individual artist and their honed ability to experiment with emergent artistic practice as an organizing strategy during this transitional time between worlds. If we put more of our attention on individual artists concerned with emergence, and less on the system concerned with the emergency, could we better catalyze change?

Part Four: From Emergency to Emergence: Detaching from the Current System to Build the Next One

To transform the system of cultural production we are all embedded in, we will need to examine the habits of being we’ve adopted to survive in this system, resisting conditioned tendencies that no longer serve us. Our near impossible task is to balance our competitive pursuit of scarce resources with the work of collective advancement.

Here I share several proposals for interventions aimed at radically mobilizing artists to do their most important work in service of an emergent world.

This work has been a labour of love, in the hopes that my perspective as an artist on the current crisis might feel resonant for other artists out there who still need to give voice to their experiences in this time of great disruption.

If what you read feels resonant, inspires new ideas, gives rise to action, or motivates you to give voice to your own experiences, I would encourage you to leave a comment below.

postscript: The ideas contained within the essay have been percolating for some time. However, the impetus to write it grew from CPAMO’s Spring 2021 Gathering Divergence Festival, where I was invited to moderate a panel focused on creating a sustainable, diverse arts ecology that equitably supports IBPOC artists. This panel was the first of a series called ‘State of Emergence’ hosted by CPAMO in collaboration with Mass Culture and Art of Festivals. Two subsequent conversations on themes of emergence were hosted through the summer and fall. A report on the ‘State of Emergence’ dialogues will be published in the spring/summer of 2022. Stay tuned!

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Award-winning dance artist and embodiment facilitator working at the intersection of art, leadership and transformational change. www.shannonlitzenberger.com

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Shannon Litzenberger

Award-winning dance artist and embodiment facilitator working at the intersection of art, leadership and transformational change. www.shannonlitzenberger.com