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Masking as Performance Art in the Contemporary Economy

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A person with shaved head, holding a hand to their mouth, standing in front of a screen with colourful wavey lines being projected onto it.

Photograph: algal__bloom performing at Pollinator, 2020, Projection: Clunkk, Image: Meg Keene

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It was not until I personally identified with that powerful and complex word ~autism~ that I saw with clarity how much the art industry truly demands of its artists.

While we talk a lot about inclusive community, our industry is mired in the attention economy, where the currency of in-the-moment visibility reigns both artistically and socially. Working under notions of creative freedom and autonomy outside of rigid capitalist bureaucracies, artists often operate as freelancers; relying on consistently networking and exhibiting to maintain enough social and creative capital for production. We practise in temporary project models where the creation of art is defined by rolling funding and exhibition structures. They reinforce what Jacinda Woodhead calls “an era of throwaway art... prioritising new programs that are disposable, that will be abandoned for some different idea in the next funding round”, rather than maintaining core ongoing activities. Like a social media feed and the functions of capitalism at large, this social, funding and presentation structure incentivises the constant generation of the ‘new’, rather than fostering practices and relationships which are more iterative, person-centred, process-oriented, emplaced or ongoing. And, like a social media feed, if constant social and material production lapses, so does one's visibility in the flow. Attention economies have created a new kind of maintenance work: maintaining curren(t)cy in a never ending flow for fear of being forgotten by the system. I think people often get abandoned after single use, as well as projects—only as good as the last time you socially or creatively produced.

The social aspects of art production present certain challenges that, for me, require the labour of neurodivergent masking: a neurotypical facade developed over time to maintain social coherence that is not always conscious but is generally exhausting, “forced onto us from the outside”. Whether I’m at an exhibition opening or the pub afterwards, participating in the arts requires me to operate on a social-networking wavelength that I have never quite tuned into. I must present cool, creative, personable, professional, available, critical, flexible and willing, without letting my anxiety, excitability, deeper social difference or financial dependence on the outcome of each interaction leak. To reveal such things is to put pressure on someone which could hinder the smooth process of production. Thus, I suppress these parts, labelling them things like ‘needy’ or 'intense’, and masking them with more socially and economically acceptable others. These masking parts can be charming, funny, chill, and appropriately expressive. They assist me to engage with all kinds of people, and oftentimes I genuinely enjoy inhabiting them. I’m proud of this improvisational performance. But in the aftermath, I am left simultaneously wired and tired, needing long recuperations. The inherent, invisible labour becomes anxiety inducing if there is nowhere safe in sight for the performance to relax.

I view masking as a powerful performance practice that requires artful wielding. Of course, it carries risk that I understand from experience: do it without awareness and you can internalise the order of production and do its work for it without even knowing. You can burn out, lose touch with who you are, and believe it’s your fault. You can shape yourself to what Lane Relyea calls the DIY artist subjectivity, which appears free on the surface but hides a deep dependence:

“... the subject of DIY is not an autonomous individual; rather it’s a “free agent” or networker who, by being so thoroughly defined in her or his predisposition to “doing” and making connections, is always situated and contextualized, externalized and performative. And yet this agent remains “free,” despite being context-dependent, because the new context is not thought to be the all-determining social structure or the rigid bureaucratic institution or the brain washing ideological apparatus. It’s the temporary project.”

Photograph: algal__bloom performing at Pollinator, 2020, Projection: Clunkk, Image: Meg Keene[Image description: A person with a shaved head on hands and knees with one hand being held out in front of them, looking up to the sky. In the background is a screen with projected brushstroke-like marks.]

In this industry paradigm, realising how and where I am masking helps me to see the systems more clearly. Noticing where I feel I must perform, I reveal what Berardi describes as the ideological fiction that hides a new and growing form of capitalist dependency which no longer needs formal, centralised hierarchy to command. I’m not ‘needy’ or ‘intense’, I’m legitimately dependent. The dependence is just less visible than if it was taking place in one building with one boss, because the dependence is ambient and decentralised, infused throughout our social networking interactions.

I have come to view neurodivergent masking as a specific and concentrated category of practice in a whole ecology of affective, performative and masking practices. Devon Price’s Unmasking Autism beautifully traces how neurodivergent masking maps onto and reinforces the affective strains of moderating oneself as a member of other racial, cultural, gendered and disabled minorities. However, affective labour is also an increasing expectation across many contemporary systems of production. It’s the customer service worker who must bring a “genuine” bubbliness to each interaction. It’s the managerial pressure to not just to turn up politely at work but to “bring your best self” to your team and demonstrate constant willingness to “reach your potential”. It’s the influencer who is not selling a product but a lifestyle, performing enthusiasm for the work of influencing itself and transmitting it as a value-signal amongst the collective. It’s the female politician adopting a vocal prosody that is perceived with more authority. As pointed out by Paolo Virno, in a contemporary economy running on immaterial commodities and labour, the boundaries between intellectual/communicative/creative activity (art), work and politics have collapsed. Work and politics now share some key goals and qualities with art: the prevailing aim of changing the subjectivity of others with affective, communicative power. Such activities all utilise the labour and skills of the performance artist, with the system commodifying our performances to an ever-greater degree. I see myself in solidarity with all of these labourers.

In his essay ‘I Can, I Can’t, Who Cares?’, art critic Jan Verwoet calls on artists to take a specific position on the labour of performance. He notes that we all need to perform sometimes, and thus we need to find a useful criteria for when to do so, and when to refuse or resist: “Performance is all about the right timing.” For him, the critical factor is care. He says, “You perform because you care”, because you recognise the interdependence of the other which empowers performance. It’s a form of care work. Conversely, you might recognise that you are exhausting yourself and need to take care of yourself, and thus turn down an offer to perform. This is an ethic which might underpin an attitude to performance on and off the stage, with more interdependence rather than dependence alone. In this sense, it would become less subconscious, and more artful.

After all, community has always involved the acts of care. The issue is when it is rendered invisible as people are instrumentalised by dominant systems in a production flow. However, in languaging this labour, there are mythologies to be challenged, realities to be revealed and controls to be rejected. My dream is that the labour of performance art receives recognition of its value in both economic and social forms. That masking is no longer required as part of a networking practice but is part of a solidarity practice, with less compulsive affects, less exploitative dependencies, and less temporary legacies. And since such practice puts our innate humanity in service, I imagine how this mindset could spread beyond the arts into a recognition for human value itself, changing the structure of our economic system from the ground up.