Keynote Speech: "Essential Service and the Proximate Labor of Performance"

Shannon Jackson, Associate Vice Chancellor

What a treat to be asked by CUNY graduate students of theater, performance and art history to deliver a keynote speech at their conference on the role of labor in the fields of art and performance. Entitled “Net-Works: Mapping Labor in Theatre and Performance” and hosted by The Graduate Center at CUNY, the Martin Segal Art Center, and by Howlround, this conference sought to uncover the collaborative and solitary labor necessitated by creative and performative spaces, the labor of working in a globally connected world, and the labor of working at the intersections of the material, the human, and the ephemeral.

Needless to say, I found that my lecture had to be entirely revised as we grappled with the effects of COVID-19 on the cultural sector, nationally and internationally. In the time leading up to the event, each day exposed new twists, turns, and revelations effectively making yesterday’s thoughts out of date; new stories of institutions closing or furloughing, new data on the lives of the artists/creatives/gig workers, all shifted and morphed any stable assumptions of what I thought I might say. I decided to start with some scene-setting about where we are now (or where we were then), i.e. reviewing the terms and charge of Net-Works, re-hearing the conference’s terms and charge with COVID’s ear. From there, I moved to two inter-related sections. One on the Labor of the Art, including but not exclusively the Labor of the Performing Arts.  And then a second on the Art of Labor, especially on Performance as a theoretically tool for understanding the nature of work in the 21st century. I concluded by trying to synthesize with an emerging inventory of what could increasingly be called the Labor of COVID Art, artistic practices that anticipate, highlight, critique, or reframe the changing parameters of social life now that a virus has revealed the shared precarity that was already there.