Precarity, Precedents, and the Pandemic Pivot: Fusebox Goes Virtual

by Sean J Patrick Carney April 18, 2020

“A certain amount of chaos just comes with producing an international festival across multiple sites,” explained Ron Berry, Executive and Artistic Director of Fusebox Festival, the ambitious, multi-day contemporary performance showcase that takes Austin by storm each April. “Every year there are things you can’t plan for that are just going to happen.”

There was the year Fusebox staff spent a week atop scaffolding, scraping generations of caked-on insulation from a venue’s rafters so the fire marshal would greenlight their fundraising gala. In 2009, exploding plumbing canceled several Nature Theater of Oklahoma performances. Then there were the Icelandic volcanic eruptions in 2010 that massively disrupted air travel, grounding artists and crews en route to Austin from Europe. 

“We weren’t expecting a volcano,” Berry chuckled. 

It was late in March and we were speaking from an appropriate social distance over the suddenly ubiquitous video platform Zoom. Anna Gallagher-Ross, Fusebox Associate Artistic Director, joined us. Just two weeks prior, we were all chatting in-person at an event when news broke that flights from Europe to the United States had been suspended in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The outbreak was more a far serious event than those volcanic eruptions a decade prior, and things in the United States were about to change rapidly.  

So it came as no surprise on March 17 when Fusebox announced that the 2020 festival could no longer happen as originally conceived. Fusebox centers “liveness” — attendees hungrily pack shoulder-to-shoulder into Austin’s theater spaces, warehouses, and music halls to experience the pulse of contemporary performance in real-time — a practice which violates basically every social-distancing protocol. The March 17 communiqué stressed the gravity of their decision, acknowledging the commitments already made by artists and their companies across the globe, as well as an entire year’s work by Fusebox staff and crew. But they weren’t throwing in the towel just yet. 

“We’re imagining an experience that is able to be responsive to our current moment,” the press release read, “that honors the incredible work of our 2020 artists, that can reach our audiences wherever they are, and that explores what liveness can mean online.”

Fusebox 2020: Virtual Edition is taking place online April 24-26

I love Fusebox and I’m no luddite, but I’ll admit to feeling ambivalent about the avalanche of arts organizations doing the pandemic pivot to virtual programming. It feels perfunctory, almost mechanical. Individual artists’ hearts are in the right place; I don’t doubt that. But what precedents are arts organizations setting by capitulating, with such absolute promptitude, to virtual art experiences? Are we producers of culture or content? The gig economy peddles its “hustle harder” Kool-Aid ad nauseum and it’s an insidious, slippery slope between live streaming an endurance piece and thinking somebody should launch an “Uber for performance art.” This warrants critical discussion, and I was eager to hear how Berry and Gallagher-Ross were considering these concerns when it came to Fusebox. 

But let me back up a bit first. 

One year ago I wrote a piece for Art in America called “Dark Eco-Comedy,” a review of my first Fusebox experience. The festival’s curatorial theme last year pointed to comedy as a tool for social criticism, and plenty of the performances were acerbically funny. But as I noted in my review, beneath the belly laughs something gnawed at my guts: a rumbling ecological anxiety. At performance after performance, a pummeling callback reared its demoralizing head. Late capitalism is marching, callously and relentlessly, towards catastrophic climate disaster. 

So in the lead-up to Fusebox 2020, the irony of an actual pandemic breaching the United States was not lost on me. The exponential international spread of COVID-19 infections is part and parcel of the climate change crisis, as was recently noted in Al Jazeera, Politico, and other outlets. Our country’s continued prioritization of economic systems at the expense of ecological ones has wildly exacerbated the virus’s metastization. Accordingly, those same behaviors are guaranteeing imminent and irreversible environmental crises. 

While some local governments in the United States advocated social distancing early on to stave off the spread of the virus, the federal government downplayed its very literal virality in an unvarnished blood sacrifice to a fussy free market. Yes, the Trump administration suspended some international air travel by mid-March, but it was already too late. 

Finally though, things in the United States ground (mostly) to a halt. Bars and theaters went dark. Teachers tried to adapt lesson plans for unfamiliar online classrooms. And arts organizations canceled public programs, then scrambled to concoct slapdash streaming stand-ins: artist interviews on Instagram Live; iPhone video tours of lonely paintings in echoey exhibition spaces; online sales rooms, panel discussions made somehow even more awkward thanks to Zoom. It became immediately clear how cursory much of this was. What also became clear was just how razor thin these arts organizations’ operating margins truly are. Staggering numbers of arts and culture workers lost their jobs only days into the “temporary” closures. 

Several workers who were lucky enough to keep their jobs, at least for now, have privately expressed frustration at the expectation that they can somehow seamlessly pivot physical institutions to virtual ones overnight — with gutted teams of personnel, no less. Board members and trustees are applying pressure, one arts worker told me on the condition of anonymity, to be constantly producing content, lest fickle donors get spooked that the organization is struggling and take their tax write-offs elsewhere. It appears that not everyone’s heart is in the right place. 

Throughout my conversation with Berry and Gallagher-Ross, I expressed these concerns and my skepticism about the virtual trend. In addition to socioeconomic issues, there were basic experiential ones: could my screen ever provide a true analog to the event horizon of stepping into one of Michelle Ellsworth’s reality-razing performances? Of course not. But Berry and Gallagher-Ross were refreshingly candid that the virtual festival was an imperfect, less-than-ideal experiment. What I came to understand was that their motivation for pushing forward with the festival was sincere and artist-centered. Fusebox’s charge of liveness asks artists to be consistently nimble and adaptive amidst the potential of blown speakers, falling dancers, or poorly received punchlines. Fusebox then is precisely the organization we should expect to reciprocate that kind of dexterity. After fifteen years of chaos management, they’re an empathetic institution; they understand the perpetual stakes for working artists.  

“As an organization, responsiveness is in our DNA,” Gallagher-Ross said. “We’re always rethinking what a festival can be. Look at what’s happening in our field because of coronavirus: cancelations nationally and internationally, serious economic impacts on artists and crews, who are in precarious positions. We didn’t want to cancel, and we wanted to pay our artists and crew, and collaborate with them to envision this new festival. Our pivot isn’t about forcing Fusebox into the online context, and it acknowledges the precarity of the moment. Our first conversation with each artist was whether or not they had the bandwidth to adapt to this. Some didn’t. For others, the majority as we were grateful to learn, this was exactly what they needed right now.”

Berry, Gallagher-Ross, and their entire team are also thinking about their audiences. Present circumstances certainly offer opportunities to test drive au courant technologies for the distribution of contemporary art, but this moment also raises germane questions for cultural institutions about accessibility in general. Fusebox’s existing commitment to “Free Range Art” prioritizes accessibility; every festival performance is 100% free to attend. But they’re taking time to critically examine how Fusebox can expand accessibility even more holistically — a socially-conscious utilization of virtual tools.  

“We’ve made these online accommodations because of COVID-19,” Gallagher-Ross said, “but we realize that some of these are practices that should have been in place already.” 

Arts organizations ought to maintain lucidity about their motivations for going virtual. It can come across as opportunistic and cynical, or even painfully trivial. It can also set precarious expectations. Next time — and there will be a next time, sooner rather than later — the capitalists will presuppose our inexhaustible flexibility. But I’m confident that Fusebox’s decision to pivot to an online festival was a sober and generative one. Plus, the recently announced virtual lineup looks great. I’ll definitely be tuning in. 

Of course, this all a gamble; Fusebox cannot predict how artists and audiences will ultimately feel about the online edition. Berry remains characteristically undeterred. “That sense of not knowing, that’s part of our ethos,” he said before logging off. “It’s not all figured out, and that’s something that I value and cherish about liveness.”

Fusebox 2020: Virtual Edition is taking place online April 24-26, 2020

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