In March 2010, the Women’s Campaign Fund (WCF), the only non-partisan venture capitalist organization supporting women leaders in the United States at all levels of office, premiered Voices from the Ladder at Christie’s, the art auction house in Manhattan. Dressed in colorful jackets and black slacks, approximately a dozen high-ranking women positioned themselves at the tops of ladders as part of a performance piece demonstrating women’s unequal representation in government. The WCF was, in part, trying to make a statement that putting more women into office would save the nation from the recession; the audience of mostly political and financial female elites applauded enthusiastically. The performance tapped into gendered debates about the origins and solutions to the 2008 financial crisis. Like other accounts disseminated through different types of media circulating at the time, it articulated a divide between masculine, greedy, risk-taking financial behavior that fostered the zombie economy and caused the crisis, and a more feminine, risk-averse, conservative approach that would fix the crisis.
Six years later, in May 2016, radical choreographer Elizabeth Streb spoke at the New York University’s Women’s Leadership Forum on How to Become an Extreme Action Heroine. Clad in her signature dark men’s suit and boots, she regaled us with stories and images of herself and her dancers performing on the London Eye during the 2012 Olympics “at night, after the economy closes” so that people could watch. Throughout her talk Streb asked us to re-think the meaning of risk-taking and to find a new language for taking action. She asked: “Can risk ever be planned? … Isn’t risk something that doesn’t occur to you ever to do?” She pushed us to think about how bodies, including our own, move through the world and generate new ways of being - and I argue, how bodies thus enact gender, risk, and the economy.
A sea of representations and performances about gender and the economy – including those enacted at professional women’s meetings – permeate our world. My aim in this piece is to consider how such contemporary performance provides a way of understanding as well as re-imagining what inclusive economies look like, particularly during crises. Here performance refers to staged productions. It includes the growing trend, since the nineties, of performers engaging audiences socially – by inviting audiences to interact with them and their work spatially and sometimes through outright participation and it often entails site-specific performance – work created in response to a particular place or site such as a city building, and inspired by that sites history or current use.
Financial crises are complex social and cultural phenomena requiring processes of mediation. Indeed, given the obscure nature of finance, performances of the economy are critical in urgent times. It matters whether we understand the 2008 financial crisis as a problem of the system, or as a result of the masculine risk taking behavior of bankers and traders. Recognizing that certain gendered performances about solutions to the crisis dominate, like risk-averse female leaders standing at the helm of actual and metaphorical corporate ladders, is also crucial.
Understanding there are powerful hegemonies in place, in which certain cultural performances about gender and the economy dominate and which are aligned with the dominant culture of the society is important. But it is also critical to recognize, as Raymond Williams has classically argued, that no hegemony remains uncontested, and there are emergent cultural forces that challenge the existing “dominant” arrangement. This then is the relationship between the WCF’s “Voices” piece and Streb’s extreme action heroine talk. While “Voices” challenges sexism in government, it nevertheless performs a key message of neoliberal feminism: the idea that elite, predominantly white females will save the global economy given their risk-averse or risk-aware orientation. Streb’s extreme action heroes and heroines, composed of diverse races, genders, and sexualities, engaged in experimenting with new forms of risk taking off of buildings, challenging the existing dominant arrangement between gender, risk, race and leadership.
There is a long history of performance art in the United States, but most of it, until relatively recently, took place in small, marginal, alternative locations like warehouses in major cities like NYC. What is different about performance art since the 1990s is that some performers, like Streb, have also moved into more well-known places, like the London Eye, playing for more mainstream publics. It would be too much to say that Streb and her dancers performing as extreme action heroes and heroines poses a serious challenge to the global cultural economy and neoliberal feminism. But I would argue that performances created by Streb and some of her contemporaries are beginning to make themselves felt as alternatives in the mainstream.
We can interpret Streb’s career, performance making, and politics in relation to shifts in the cities in which she lives and works, namely NYC and more recently London. Both global cities are positioned within increasingly volatile, financialized circuits of capital accumulation. The expanding landscapes of their glass towers serve as everyday reminders of their vast wealth. As David Harvey argues, money “creates an enormous capacity to concentrate social power in space, for … it can be accumulated at a particular place without restraint. And these immense concentrations of social power can be put to work to realize massive transformations of nature, the construction of the built environment.” The most powerful group on Wall Street and the City of London – white professional-managerial men – use their money and power in part to impose their views on the urban landscape of finance. Through their daily and long term interactions – shouting on trading floors, making decisions in executive board rooms, drinking in pubs after the market closes – they build a male dominated atmosphere of meaning and power in the spaces of finance. In order to contest the male-dominated system, people actively engage in performative practices. The WCF “Voices” women discursively claim their place in finance or government and their positions as leaders-saviors of the system. Streb’s heroes and heroines engage in extreme action, throwing themselves off of key urban sites to purposely disrupt the everyday movement, hierarchical structure and flow of the city, the marketplace, and its inhabitants.
Capitalist cities, like NYC and London, are not only sites for strategies of capital accumulation; currently they also serve as spaces for envisioning, and indeed, mobilizing towards alternatives to capitalism as well as neoliberal feminism. Streb, her heroes and heroines, and their performances queer urban and economic space. They challenge the heteronormative relationship between gender and risk-taking in everyday life. Indeed, Streb sees living outside the hetero social script as a primary influence on her creativity as a choreographer: she is adamant that a straight woman wouldn't make the kind of no-holds-barred work she creates. "The whole nature of how you ordain your life as a lesbian is just organically, physically different," she says.
During the past decade, NYC has witnessed a proliferation in the creation of alternative and solidarity economies. These have taken the form of worker and other kinds of cooperatives. Solidarity economy practices utilize values of justice, democracy, cooperation, and mutualism to meet community needs. Indeed, Laura Flanders, Streb’s partner, and founder of Grit TV which serves as an online channel for rethinking economics and politics, has made a documentary to bring attention to worker cooperatives. Looking at the ways in which Streb and Flanders influence each-other’s work and cultural politics is beyond the scope of this article. However, it does seems to me that Streb’s risky movement, which often relies upon serious collaboration between performers, embodies some solidarity economy values.
Well-framed, well-crafted, and often repeated, the gendered story about the crisis and its solution continue to shape how many think about and talk about the economy. New performances, in alternative media and spaces, can work to disrupt these stories. Streb and her dancers are performing new narratives. They push us to think about the ways in which hegemonic performances – and ways of thinking – about gender and the economy are circulating in our midst. And, for those of us not fully willing (or able) to propel ourselves off buildings, their wild movement can inspire us to find our voices and bodies to take risks and make change.
This contribution was part of the Beyond the Zombie Economy conference hosted by the Political Economy Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London, and funded by the ESRC, for more details visit perc.org.uk