Major shifts in artistic practices are difficult to effectively catalogue in real time. Hindsight affords us the privilege of outlining nebulous and organic progressions into neatly defined movements. We can casually mention performance art in the United States during the 1960s or 1970s to an artist, and they’ll understand it as a distinct, canonized window that includes the work of people like Yayoi Kusama, Joan Jonas, Chris Burden, Yoko Ono, and their peers. Similarly, when we speak of relational aesthetics, someone versed in art history will likely use the work of Philippe Parreno, Rirkrit Tiravanija, or Andrea Zittel in the 1990s and early 2000s as their point of reference.
Art critics and curators try, not necessarily in vain, to identify these changes in real time. Nicolas Bourriaud did just that in the catalogue for the 1996 exhibition Traffic and again in his 1998 book Relational Aesthetics. Though Bourriaud’s attempt to encapsulate a major shift in contemporary art seems to have been accepted as theoretical canon, this isn’t always the case. More recently, as quickly as writers started to toss around the concept of post-internet art as a new genre or movement, many of the very artists to whom the term was applied vehemently denounced it. Reporting on these changes as they’re happening is speculative and imperfect, but not an exercise in futility. Sometimes those trying to codify what’s happening into narratives for art history are too close to something to imagine what its real impact will be. Other times, somebody hits the nail on the head.
Historical canon can be useful and convenient, clearly, as it provides the aforementioned reference points to make discussing the history of art more streamlined. Ostensibly, it puts us all on the same page. But the fact of the matter is that in clearly outlining these movements for the sake of clarity, we ignore a great deal of work being made by, and the influence resonating from, those who don’t get documented by the gatekeepers. As in broader culture, the work of women, people of color, queer individuals, and both trans and gender nonconforming folks is whitewashed out of the historical narrative. Many people who, at that time and in those scenes, may have been groundbreaking and game-changing in the eyes of their peers, are lucky to be a footnote in the future. We’re fortunate that the millennial generation seems energized to not only critically address this, but to actively change it. The ability to broadcast one’s voice and reach audiences through social media has been instrumental in changing the way that artists become part of the conversation. Despite what’s espoused in public—and in print—by middle-aging, well-actually-ing white conceptual artists and academics who get off on playing devil’s advocate in regards to identity politics, we’re a lot better off for it.
I’ve been thinking about this quandary of cataloguing sea changes for the last several years, not so much in relationship to the mainstream field of contemporary art, but rather, in regards to comedy. I don’t mean the latest standup specials on Netflix or the fact that, albeit slowly, mainstream sitcoms and comedy films are becoming incrementally more representational. What I’m referring to is a radical and community-driven transformation happening in the comedy scene in Brooklyn. There’s no name for it, yet, but people will casually refer to what’s happening as indie comedy or alternative comedy. As one might expect, the bulk of the comedians being described as such would prefer not to be for a variety of reasons.
I’m intrigued because there’s a palpable energy being developed that, perhaps naively, I imagine might have been present when artists put down paintbrushes, picked up Portapak cameras, and started documenting themselves experimenting with performances in the studio or creating proto-video art. Something truly progressive is happening, and at the risk of sounding like a total fanboy, I feel incredibly lucky to be witnessing it. As a 35 year-old, I haven’t seen much in my adult life that felt like an artistic revolution. The earlier movements, while I have been technically alive for some of them, weren’t anything I ever knew about, or felt like I was watching unfold.
The boom of West Coast social practice in the mid-to-late-aughts felt like it might just be that jolt of progressivism that the art world needed, but at the end of the day it looked, by and large, like a conceptual playground for predominantly white, mostly heteronormative MFA candidates to get away with not developing any sort of practical, technical art-making skills while enjoying the fruits of the academy. I know this, because I was one of them. Admittedly, the medium had an allure; a veneer of anti-market, pro-social justice actionism that initially seduced me. It was also pretty fun and I met a lot of interesting artists while in graduate school at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, OR. We were neighbors with Portland State University, whose Art & Social Practice MFA Program was getting a lot of attention.
Eventually though, as social media came into its own and I encountered multiple new voices online from outside of my little bubble, I had to zoom out and really look at the situation. I became turned off by our engagements with social practice as I realized my own privilege. I’d binged on social practice, and then attempted a puerile purge. In response, I made satirical social practice work that I viewed at the time as “comedy.” In hindsight, my own attempts at irony, and my affectation of the politically incorrect as a “meta-critique” of white supremacy in social practice, were myopic and immature. Much of the work I made in the late aughts has not aged well. I pointed fingers at other people because I was too afraid to interrogate my own complicity. For a couple years, I made work as a proto-alt-right character named Tanner Dobson, “a conservative artist in a liberal world.” I wrote reviews of Pacific Northwest art shows and hosted a podcast under that pseudonym, both of which were deeply irreverent and steeped in irony. I’m all for satirizing white liberals—they can be insufferable—but I was relying on cheap jokes that used socially-derisive stereotypes to ruffle their feathers. That isn’t the kind of generative comedic work that expands discourse. Further, that kind of comedic work is by-the-book and lazy. I thought I was skewering liberals and conservatives at the same time when in actuality I was just being conservative.
Despite what I learned about in school or via art blogs, clearly there were artists in the United States a decade ago whose artistic practices employed social interactions as the fabric of their medium, but who weren’t recipients of the Golden Hall Pass of White Privilege. It’s my own fault for not having researched them at the time, and for not challenging the reductive dog-whistle murmurs within the academy that socially-engaged art created by those outside of the academy was automatically demoted to “activism” or “community art.” Jesus Christ. Like there’s something wrong with artists engaging in activism or working within their communities outside of institutions. They mix the Kool-Aid hell of strong in art school, don’t they?
I still perform standup, but have grown comfortable accepting that perhaps I’m a much better as cheerleading fan or comedy administrator. Right now, I’m content to help out where I can to support the comedians who are actually out there doing the real work.
I’m talking about comedians like Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Elsa Waithe, Julio Torres, Lena Einbinder, Peter Smith, Lorelei Ramirez, or Ikechukwu Ufomadu. Any of these folks could just as seamlessly perform in a traditional comedy venue or at the New Museum. Many of them also have art practices, even if they would prefer that I not describe those endeavors that way. Their comedy is more in line with Dada performance than Amy Schumer schtick. It’s injected more so with the politics of Guillermo Gómez-Peña or Juliana Huxtable than with the predictable liberal outrage rants of Lewis Black. They run in a circle of hysterically funny comedy misfits who throw shows at bars, proper comedy venues, alternative spaces, Brooklyn rooftops, and gallery backyards. I think most people cringe at the term DIY in 2017—I know that’s my first instinct. But if we shake off the cynicism for a minute, and think about the history of DIY that doesn’t make it into bloated-but-narrow historical documents like Michael Azerrad’s widely-acclaimed Our Band Could Be Your Life, I think the term applies. What these comedians are fostering is DIY as fuck, in the same way that queer people of color producing and distributing zines before web 2.0 to amplify one another’s voices was DIY as fuck. Of course, there are thousands of people who don’t look like me still out there making hugely influential zines, but I imagine that you catch my drift.
I have a lot of friends, people whose opinions and perspectives I value greatly, who have repeatedly told me that they don’t like comedy. I get it. Mainstream comedy, despite the small steps it’s taken in becoming more representational, is at large a vacuous and grossly conservative realm. Like I said, I’ve previously contributed to that reality. In 2017 though, when I hear this from them, I plead, “But you haven’t seen Mitra Jouhari or Arti Gollapudi! And Casey Jane Ellison will change your life!” Often, I’ve managed to drag these comedy skeptics to a night organized by these folks and so far I’m batting a thousand in my evangelical quest to convert them into comedy enthusiasts.
Their skepticism is not unfounded. Wander into the majority of open mics in Manhattan, and it’s a predictable scene. Men, typically white ones who look like me, use their five minutes of stage time to spew vitriol about the women who won’t return their advances. When they discuss one who actually did, she’s a “bitch” ex-girlfriend or a wife who no longer “puts out.” Add to that already off-putting cocktail the litany of sexual harassment, abuse and rape allegations brought forth against major players like Woody Allen, Louis CK, and Bill Cosby—which are only high-profile examples of the harassment and abuse carried out at all levels of the comedy world—and it’s understandable why people might write off the art form. It’s incredibly difficult to connect with anything that seems, at least in mainstream circles, to not only make gross light of your lived experience but to also tell you to fuck off because you just can’t take a joke made at your expense. Many people, accurately I might add, just don’t see themselves represented in comedy.
What’s happening in Brooklyn is an explicit, political response to that. The brilliant and infinitely talented Amy Zimmer has been hosting a monthly called That Was Fantastic in Williamsburg at New Women Space, a venue designed with the explicit purpose of providing a space where “100% of [their] programming is led by self-identified women, femme, queer, trans and gender nonconforming individuals as an active response to the social inequalities and implications we face in our daily lives.” Its first iteration, in May 2017, featured a knockout list of comedians and performers including the aforementioned Jaboukie Young-White, Casey Jane Ellison, Patti Harrison, Lena Einbinder, and Peter Smith, plus writer Darcie Wilder. In a single night, the stage was graced by performers with myriad racial, gender, and sexual identities, all of whom had the room screaming. These are all individuals with an evident mastery of their take on standup or performance, and the packed, sweaty room felt almost conspiratorial in its energy. Things are changing because audiences, if they’re going to look and feel like New York City as a whole, demand it.
The art world is extremely exclusionary, something that’s been identified, critiqued, and rallied against for decades by those it marginalizes most explicitly. Institutions, galleries, and magazines have a profound influence on who gets recognized and who gets ignored. So many great individuals and initiatives have boldly challenged art world hegemony. From the historicizing work by Visual AIDS that highlights and archives artists who live with or who have passed away from HIV/AIDS-related illnesses, to the deeply relevant work of ARTS.BLACK in canonizing the work of Black artists and criticism by Black writers, examples of people creating people’s histories of art are too numerous to list.
In comedy this also happens, though somewhat less frequently. The 1994 book On the Real Side: A History of African American Comedy by Mel Watkins or contemporary feminist writing and satire website Reductress are both examples of giving voice to the historically marginalized, but perhaps because comedy is perceived as entertainment and not capital-A Art, the bibliography of dissent is not quite as robust. Instead of fretting over this, the comedians that are shaking things up in Brooklyn have taken it upon themselves to lead by example. If the visible comedy scene in New York doesn’t seem interested in providing space for their voices, they’ll create the space themselves.
Comedian Rachel Kaly tackled this need for space head-on. In the summer of 2016, she ran the Absurd Comedy Collective, an experimental, tuition-free comedy school and a series of open mics with a mission to “provide a safe space for women-identifying people of color, and all genderqueer, non-binary, and trans people to create and perform comedy—all for free!” Instructors included comedians Elsa Waithe, Alise Morales, Rheka Shankar, and Eliza Cossio, amongst many other folks listed in this article. Kaly hosted regular comedy nights that began with a supportive open mic for students, followed by side-splitting sets by their teachers and special guests like Joel Kim Booster, Tessa Skara, Bowen Yang, and Sam Taggart. Places to study comedy already exist—Upright Citizens Brigade, Groundlings—but Kaly’s more nimble and scrappier approach doesn’t just echo not the storied beginnings of those comedy schools, it asserts itself politically in relationship to issues of social justice. Artists start schools and comedians start schools; they’re not so different after all.
Lorelei Ramirez hosts a monthly that’s been at multiple venues, called Not Dead Yet. The majority of the performers could effectively be called comedians, but because Lorelei herself is both a contemporary artist and a comic, she’s crafted an environment that’s atypical of your average night of comedy. At a recent one, the laughter calmed down for a spell as poet Sam Sax read some deeply moving, painfully honest work. Lorelei curates an intentionally diametric night of standup, video works, readings, and musical performances, making one feel like they’re participating as an audience member in a true cabaret. Here, we are introduced to not only a diverse roster of politically-engaged comedians, but also the bleeding edge misfits from Brooklyn’s writing, performance art, and music scenes. I’ve read many an art text that romanticized the lofts or classrooms where Allan Kaprow’s happenings occurred. Of course, I take those with a grain of salt, but I can finally understand the bubbling energy surrounding something wildly new that they attempt to describe.
I’ve asked a lot of funny artists, and artistic comedians, about whether what they’re doing is political art. Pretty consistently, they’ll tell me that they don’t perceive themselves as being outwardly political or playing the role cultural commentators. But they seem to agree that what they’re doing is inherently political. When a queer kid of color, even one who grew up in New York City, goes to Ana Fabrega’s monthly Sundays with Ana, or to It’s A Guy Thing hosted by Patti Harrison, Catherine Cohen, and Mitra Jouhari, they’re presented with a cultural event that squarely includes them and their lived experience. Creating these spaces, and making them welcoming and inclusive, is a more radical act than any anti-capitalist, pro-feminist, queer-friendly painting hanging on a gallery wall. The warmth of the spaces, the openness of the comedians to frankly discuss an experience of marginalization, and to openly talk about mental health, galvanizes the next generation of performers and comics to feel enfranchised. “These spaces are for you to inhabit and advance,” they say. “Your voice is next.”
I don’t have a name for this movement, and I don’t think that I should try to generate one. While I’m involved, in some capacity, I’m much more of an audience member than an author. It will be exciting, ten years from now, to hear how the scene these comedians have fostered is remembered. My biased guess is that it’ll be thought of as a historical breeding ground of comedic talent that infiltrated and drastically changed both mainstream comedy and institutionally-recognized performance art. Julio Torres is writing for Saturday Night Live. Ana Fabrega is writing for The Chris Gethard Show. And in the next few years, I expect that we’ll be seeing several of the people I’ve mentioned previously on television, in galleries and museums, and represented in future media spaces that I can’t presently conceive of.
Of course, this is a double-edged sword. As the venues, curators, and producers who have historically ignored voices like this begin to embrace them, it will be essential to interrogate if they’re doing so out of enlightenment, or simply to virtue signal their fashionable wokeness. But this is capitalism, and them’s the breaks. The other edge of the sword, the one that cuts in the right direction, is that a generation to come will more equally see themselves represented in both art and comedy. They’ll feel just a little more enfranchised, like they have a little more permission to take up space. Social change is always a glacial process that regularly includes brutal instances of demoralizing regression. That’s the case right now, and I can’t imagine that it will, systematically, be too radically different in a decade.
Earlier, I argued that we ought to try to shake off a little cynicism and revisit the value of DIY thinking. Perhaps that term is far too co-opted at this point by the likes of Pinterest or Good Housekeeping to remain in rotation. But just as I’m not the person to name this crackling comedic movement, I’m also not the person to name its methodologies. There are plenty of reasons to be cynical in 2017, but in direct response to them, a loosely-affiliated band of comedians have become radical architects of a parallel 2017 where optimism rattles the walls of venues, courtesy of explosive laughter. So apologies for lacking the prescience of Bourriaud, but I’m only a cheerleader. I just wanted to tell you all about my brilliant friends.