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  • Writer's pictureJamie McCarthy

Feedback and its Double.

15th August 2015.

For a long while and until recently I worked in many different situations where part of my job was to give feedback on dance (and sometimes music) pieces / processes. I always aimed to be as non-directive as possible - to hand power over to the person who’d made the thing we were considering – not to presume to have any notion of what would make the piece work ‘better’ or ‘be better’, but to see if through my being a perceiver of their work, I could maybe help them see it in a light that helped them carry on with it in the way that was best for them. I like to think there are times when I’ve been successful at that and I’m sure there are times when I haven’t been.

In recent years, my approach to feedback has been heavily influenced by my years involved in the study and practice of Person Centred Counselling, which seeks in a collaborative way, to work with people to feel and perceive things more clearly for themselves and to find their own ways of being and dealing with things, rather than offering perspectives or supposed solutions from the outside. I guess this always struck a chord with me with regard to being an artist: I’ve always felt that you can’t impose an artistic approach, or a way of working / living on someone from the outside without committing a kind of violence. I’ve always felt that the most generous thing is to help people to have the conditions and opportunities in which they can do what they do and newness will come out of the doing.

As a teacher or feedback person I’ve always felt that I couldn’t possibly know how a person should go on with their art, because I’m not that person – I’m not shaped by their social, historical, relational, political etc. existence and experience, so how could I know how those things would manifest through their art and their life? (It’s tricky enough working that out for myself!) One of the joys of giving feedback to people much younger than me has always been being surprised at what evolves – things that I couldn’t possibly foresee and that I might even find challenging to me. I always thought that was how it should be: younger people, having grown up in a different historical moment exploring the stuff of their OWN historical moment and not trying somehow to adopt the expectations, tastes, biases etc. of people like me who have lived at a different historical, social, political (etc.) moment.

By contrast I’ve witnessed some things that I consider to be travesties of what is labelled as feedback. And by this I don’t mean people who were genuinely doing their best to give feedback, but didn’t manage for whatever reason to do it in a way that was empowering for the person receiving it, but more to do with the kind of ‘feedback’ that is in fact a form of control disguised by touchy feely labels.

I’ve noticed it in feedback organised, or even imposed as a condition of support by some institutions (quite often by people who don’t have their own experiences – or maybe their own current experiences - of making art), that turn out actually to be exercises in enforcing an orthodoxy. The orthodoxy can come in different forms. Sometimes it’s enforcing a kind of ‘house-style’ about what is acceptable as art in that institution (be it a theatre, an arts support agency of some kind, a school etc.). Sometimes it’s about enforcing a kind of ideological conformity, (perhaps something to do with a scene that has a particular take on critical theory informing art in a particular way for example, or I guess more often, something more structurally, socially conservative than that). Sometimes it’s about enforcing a certain class-specific taste upon the work, or it’s more to do with a particular reading of gender, sexuality, physical ability, racial / cultural background and so on – often a combination of many of those things.

The one that often seems the most blatant to me is when people who might fund, book, or promote the work that’s emerging, either insist, or put pressure on artists to receive feedback. It’s usually couched in a way that seems like it’s ‘for’ the artists; that it’s open and you can invite who you’d like to be there. But a big element of the feedback ends up being the people who structure-in the feedback sessions, making remarks and suggestions about what the artists would need to do to make the work fit more neatly into the kind of work they can ‘support’, promote or ultimately … sell.

I think we need to keep our eyes, ears, minds and hearts open as artists when we receive ‘feeedback’, especially when we have had the feedback process imposed on us from the outside. I think it’s really useful to ask ourselves whether in fact we WANT any feedback: in some environments, it’s become so unquestioned that it’s useful to have feedback, that artists seek it out because it’s the ‘way things are done’ and not because they actually want it or believe it will be a positive thing for them.

In my own experience feedback has sometimes had a very negative effect on a piece of my work, or indeed, my ability to keep going as an artist. In fairly recent times, I made the beginnings of a piece with another person. We decided to have a sharing of work-in-progress, for my part, based on the feeling that simply having others present can help me to perceive what I’m doing more clearly. I felt that what we’d put together was beautiful, spacious, allusive, rich in experience … and I still do.

We’d never intended to have a formal feedback thing at the end, but somehow the power of expectation that that would happen took over without our even setting it up, and there we were at the mercy of a group of feed-backers! By the end of it, I felt like almost no-one had talked about what had actually just happened and it was hard not to feel like we’d done something completely lacking in any positive qualities whatsoever; seemingly we’d even managed to put something together that had embodied ‘reactionary approaches to the power relationships inherent in the hierarchies of the notion of performance space’ to boot! Luckily, my inner response was: ‘Fuck that right off!’ (In fact I said pretty much that with a few less ‘fucks’). I’m a sceptical old codger who is able these days just to ignore and sometimes challenge the bollocks that other people sometimes spout, but it makes me think: isn’t there something wrong when a thing that’s supposed to assist us as artists is something we have to develop defences against?

Now … I know there are many people who have developed really thoughtful, non-coercive approaches to feedback, but I have to say, that in my experience, on the ground, those people are few and far between (especially within ‘professional’ institutional settings), so … until the day when everyone is fluent in these wonderful empowering techniques, I urge scepticism and downright refusal if that feels right to you! Don’t let people package your work into their own biases and perceptions of what art should be, or into their own conception of what’s marketable and sellable. Don’t get fooled by touchy-feely ‘empowering’ words that are a smokescreen for coercion and imposition of artistic uniformity, used by those people who hold power over you, either through their control over funding, other forms of ‘support’ or the status that their ‘seal of approval’ could give you.

Ask yourself:

Who is the feedback actually serving?

Do I really want feedback?

Do I want it in this form / structure or in this time and place?

Do I want feedback from these people or do I just feel like I ‘should’?

If someone else is pressuring me to have a feedback session, is there something they’re hoping to get from that session happening? (The imposition of a set of values? The polishing-up of their ‘touchy-feely, caring-sharing’ veneer?)

Is what someone is saying actually about my work or more about them and their thoughts / biases / ideological position?

Is someone exerting power, or trying to exert power over me, either in the feedback session or through the very structure of how the feedback is offered / imposed?

Are the feed-backers offering something of themselves, perhaps revealing and admitting to their own feelings, biases and leanings, or do you get the feeling that you’re something of a ‘specimen’ being observed by ‘neutral’, ‘professional’ observers?

Do I come away from the feedback feeling empowered (which doesn’t mean that it can’t be challenging)? If not, then I humbly suggest you just ignore the fuck out of it! (Or don’t, if you don’t want to. It is, of course, up to you!)

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