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Art as Resistance: New York Festival Crosses the Line

The Crossing the Line art festival features works from independent artists and thinkers challenging conventional social, economic and political norms.

The Crossing the Line art festival features works from independent artists and thinkers challenging conventional social, economic and political norms.

French playwright and director Pascal Rambert wants to teach you a world history of economics — through dance.

His large-scale dance performance piece called “A (Micro) History of World Economics, Danced,” is one of 17 works from international artists heading to New York City in 2013 for the seventh edition of the French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line interdisciplinary art festival.

Rambert said the idea struck him after reading in a French newspaper about an eviction of a Detroit family from their home after the economic crash of 2008. He told Truthout that as he read more about the housing crisis he wanted to understand how people could use and benefit from knowledge of global economic history.

The production originally was created in the suburbs of Paris in 2009, and has premiered in France, Japan and Germany, and now comes to the U.S.

For this piece, Rambert recruits New Yorkers from diverse neighborhoods throughout the city who discuss, through writing workshops which lead up to the dance act, the impacts the economy has on their everyday lives and daily activities. A professional choir accompanies a spoken economic history by economist Eric Méchoulan from the University of Montréal, as professional dancers join workshop participants to recreate their daily routines on stage in a choreographed performance.

“It’s something that’s been very well received, because it’s something which is a kind of mix of economics, geography, dance, theater, bodies on stage,” Rambert said.

The piece doesn’t take any kind of ideological position or advocate for any particular economic system. Instead, it seeks to give audience members the tools to make up their own minds. “It’s something which really shows different perspectives and so many ways to ask this question. And through that, I guess people, when they go out [of the show], I won’t say they know everything about economics, but they have thought for reflection.”

Another piece that makes its premiere in New York in September 2013 as part of the Crossing the Line festival is Steve Lambert’s “Capitalism Works for Me! (True/False),” in which a giant illuminated scoreboard keeps a running tally of how a public audience has voted on the phrase “Capitalism Works for Me!” This year, the piece will use Times Square as an appropriate backdrop to create a public forum about a topic Americans live with every day.

“When I was dreaming it up, it was before Occupy stuff had happened, and I was getting the sense that capitalism was this big issue that needed to be talked about. But there was really no forum for it that didn’t have a lot of baggage. So the question was: How can I create a piece that could deal with such a big, intense, sticky subject that would be interesting to people, that would draw them in instead of repel them? I got really obsessed with that challenge,” Lambert told Truthout.

He said the reactions he has seen to his piece have been an even split in most places he’s visited. But overall, even those who answered that the current economic system does “work” for them, aren’t always excited about that fact. The vagueness of the question, and unpacking what it means, is all intentional to the creation of the larger forum.

Among other works featured in this year’s Crossing the Line festival are American theater artist Kyle deCamp and video artist Joshua Thorson’s “Urban Renewal” which looks at a child’s experience of growing up in Chicago during ’60s and another work by contemporary dancers Boyzie Cekwana and Panaibra Canda called, “The Inkomati (Dis)cord” examines post-colonial Africa.

Crossing the Line co-curator and artistic director Simon Dove said the French Institute Alliance Française wanted to support artists whose work did not fit the conventional places where theater, music or visual arts are normally presented. The artists featured in this year’s festival are working in interdisciplinary ways that don’t always fit with traditional venues for the arts. Additionally, he hopes the festival can offer a sense of public engagement with works of art that other venues perhaps cannot.

“It seems that, increasingly, people are losing faith in the structures that we imagined would support or guide or offer us direction and there’s a whole number of things, formal education, organized religion, government, even the notion of democratic process,” Dove told Truthout. “As a society I think we are increasingly interrogating those, and seeing that these systems are actually quite deeply flawed. And the festival for us comes at a moment when we can help place artists in this venue because the way artists think, what they propose and therefore, their role in society becomes even more important because they can offer those challenging perspectives.”

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