That is, I believe, why I read poetry and seek out jarring art: for a cognitive sneak attack that tricks me into thinking in new ways. It is also why the smart, minimal, dark, rhythmic, unexpected staging of New Paradise Laboratory’s Hello Blackout! won’t leave me alone even now, a month after my having seen it. The piece was choreographed to trick me into thinking in a feeling-being-melancholic way about some big ideas.
by Ana Freeman
"The desire for connection and the impossibility of it,” said Jim Findlay in our latest interview, “pretty much sum up the whole of human experience, from the criminal to the holy.” Since taking over the editorship of this interview series last January, I’ve spoken with more than a dozen artists. They’ve all had very insightful things to say, but none have stuck with me more than this particular comment. I’m inclined to think it’s true that a desire for connection is at the root of, well, everything. However, I don’t quite agree with Jim that connection is ultimately impossible. I would say that it is rare, but still possible. While we can perhaps never fully know or be known by another person, we can at least feel glimmers of what Marina Keegan called “the opposite of loneliness.” There are many means we have for reaching towards those glimmers. I have recently been working on withholding judgments on the myriad ways people have found to feel whole in the world: to use Jim’s terms, one person’s "criminal" is another person’s "holy."
I moved to New York City about two years ago. It is a cliché to talk about feeling alone in a crowded city, but I have noticed that many people I know do seem to feel disconnected, despite most of us interacting with many people on a daily basis. There are multiple possible explanations: the rise of technologies that enable communicating in impersonal ways; alienation resulting from an urban, capitalist, and competitive environment; rising rates of clinical depression; and the recent inauguration in the United States of a particularly oppressive administration. The extreme political polarization of our country and the violence in our world seem evidence enough that disconnection is not a problem unique to New York. It’s also possible that it has become more popular to talk of a perceived lack of community in recent years because increasing numbers of people have the resources to protect themselves from more pressing practical worries. Nevertheless, we are living in a time where the seeming impossibility of connection is especially potent.
I’ve always believed that art is perhaps more particularly positioned to address the universal human need for connection than most other experiences. But then, where’s the human connection in an abstract painting? There is some message being passed from artist to viewer, of course, but it may be more of an aesthetic or conceptual message than a heartfelt one—more akin to receiving a text than to gazing into someone’s eyes. So though all art is communicative, some of these communications are more intimate than others. It is through the possibility of intimacy that the experience of art can be truly transformative.
Odyssey Works’ first principle is to begin with empathy. For us, this means that we begin the process of creating an Odyssey by extensively researching and interviewing our participant, in order to get to know them as much as possible and gain an understanding of what life in their skin might feel like. It also means that the first intention of the work is that it be designed from the point of view of the participant’s experience, rather than our own. This is the only way for us to make an experience that is truly for and about one person.
I was the production manager for Pilgrimage, the Odyssey we created last November for Ayden LeRoux, our assistant director. Early into the process, I found myself Google-stalking Ayden and constantly thinking about her and how she might react to various pieces of the experience we were planning. For example, when writing couplets that Ayden would find hidden in the New York Picture Library, I adhered not to my own poetic sensibilities, but to what I knew of Ayden’s tastes and history.
The Odyssey centered around Ayden’s knowledge that she carried a gene that put her at high risk for breast cancer. This was not an experience I shared, though I have had medical problems of my own and could relate to the sense of being betrayed by my body. During the planning for the Odyssey, I thought a lot about how it would feel to be in this situation.
When watching a movie or play, there’s a certain process that occurs by which, for the length of the piece, you become the protagonist. The character becomes your avatar for navigating the fictional world, and you share their emotional, intellectual (and sometimes physical, in the case of immersive or VR work) experience. In Pilgrimage, Ayden was the audience member, and I was one of the creators of the work, yet I found myself seeing through her perspective in a similar way, both when planning the Odyssey and during it. Since we spent months creating the piece, this was an experience of prolonged and deep empathy unlike anything else.
The fact that Ayden was a real person was also key to this. Imagined characters and situations are often complex and potent, but they can only go so far. Sharing in a character’s experience can be very moving, but I do not believe a relationship with an artwork can compare to a human relationship—unless that artwork itself constitutes a genuine human relationship.
It is for this reason that Odyssey Works strives to create real, rather than make-believe, experiences. Just as an Odyssey is based on a participant’s life, so the Odyssey comes to exist within the real world. Though an Odyssey is composed of scenes, those scenes are not populated by actors, but rather by real people interacting with the participant.
In one scene during Pilgrimage, I gave Ayden a talismanic necklace as she walked across a bridge leading to her final destination, the site of her pilgrimage. As she walked towards me, there was a moment of recognition between us. I recognized her, of course, because I’d been waiting for her, and all my energy was focused on her imminent arrival. But she also recognized me—I was someone she already knew, and she knew I had a role in creating her Odyssey. So I both saw her approaching and saw her realizing that it was me standing there once she got close enough.
I’ve found that acting in front of people I know can be awkward, because they recognize me in spite of the character I’m playing, and this can feel like it threatens the performance. The mutual recognition I felt with Ayden did not threaten the experience, but actually enabled it. Looking back at that moment, I feel that I shared a piece of Ayden’s real journey, not that I played a part in an immersive play created about her journey.
Ayden and I have never sat down and had a long conversation, but I still feel close to her, and protective of her, and like I gave her something that I am proud of giving. I felt privileged to be allowed such deep knowledge of someone. I dove into and explored her experience not because I am her close friend or family member or lover, but simply as in end in itself. In some way it’s the arbitrariness of it that made it so powerful. To partake in someone’s Odyssey is to know that we are all connected, or at least that we can be, if we work at it.
In the spirit of connection, we decided to start this blog in August 2015 to interview artists with similar intentions to our own. Last year, Princeton Architectural Press released a book about our theory and practice called Odyssey Works: Transformative Experiences for an Audience of One, by Abraham Burickson and Ayden LeRoux. If the digitization of communication is one cause of alienation, it also has the power to connect people all over the world, and through the book and this blog we’ve hoped to begin an inclusive conversation. Over the last couple of years, we’ve spoken to conceptual artists, experience designers, performance artists, experimental musicians, game designers, theatre-makers, and culture-creators of all stripes. Via email, phone, and fountain-side conversation, these artists have told us about their ideas, inspirations, and processes. Though we would love to continue the series forever, it is time for us to bring it to a close for the time being. We’ve found a significant sense of solidarity through engaging with like-minded artists, and every one of our interviewees had something new and enlightening to add to the dialogue. With that in mind, I’d like to highlight just a few of the interviews that particularly contributed to our understanding of intimacy in art.
Our interview with Olive Bieringa offered us a stunning view of what making art that stems from empathy can look like. As co-director of the Body Cartography Project with Otto Ramstad, Olive has created several one-on-one dance projects. In her words, this kind of work is a way to “practice being present with another person.” Through movement, artist and audience member give and receive their perspectives and come to a place of mutual understanding. This performance structure facilitates an exciting reciprocal dialogue that disrupts traditional notions of the roles of dancers and audience members.
Christine Jones’ work demonstrates a similar kind of mutuality. Her Theatre for One series consisted of private performances shared between one performer and one audience member. In this model, theatre is not a spectacle or a transaction, but a genuine exchange between two people who share a particular slice of time with one another. She is “an artist who uses intimacy the way a painter uses paint…to make people feel seen, and sometimes…loved.”
Intimacy can go even further when the narrative and symbolic material of the art comes from real life. Tiu de Haan is a beautiful example of this. As a celebrant, she designs experiences for people around major life events, such as deaths and marriages. By using events that are already significant to people as her starting point, she can make experiences that are profoundly meaningful. In detailing her process of working with her participants, she said: “I empathize with their…hopes, and their fears. I build trust, I become their confidant, and I help them to channel their thoughts into a creative container that reflects what is truly important to them.” Her practice is thus founded on authentic listening, which engenders wonder through connectedness.
Emma Sulkowicz also relentlessly pursues truth in her art. Her most famous piece, Mattress Performance, was inspired by sexual trauma that happened in her real life. In her later performances, she has gone even further in working with reality. For example, in Self-Portrait, she answered audience members' questions, but passed along the over-asked ones she no longer wished to answer to a robot version of herself. Reflecting on the performance, she said “I wasn’t changing the way I acted because I was in a gallery. Other people assumed that I would be, because most people really believe in this distinction between art and life, but I’m trying to break down that distinction.” For a more recent piece, The Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center, Emma took on the role of a psychiatrist. My experience of the work was the same as my experience of Emma as a person. In other words, though the work had a specific framework, Emma wasn’t acting. She does not have a medical degree, but she was still her real self in a fictional situation. In a later conversation, she referenced the stereotype that performing artists are performing all the time, even in their real lives. She tries to do the opposite, which is to live her real life even when she’s performing.
It is paradoxical to suggest that the truest intimacy, which is both real and mutual, can be found through art, a medium traditionally thought to be both fictional and unidirectional. I think this paradox rings true because art simply provides a container—a time and space in which we can be with each other—which we don’t often have time to do in the superficial hustle and bustle of our daily lives. The connection found through art is something that is captured rather than invented. As Todd Shalom said to us about his work with Elastic City, “We already have everything that we need, so it’s just a question of reframing.”
ANA FREEMAN was Odyssey Works' 2016-2017 intern, editor of the artists' interview series, and the production manager of Pilgrimage. She also writes for Theatre is Easy and performs with Fooju Dance Collaborative.
JIM FINDLAY works across boundaries as a theatre artist, visual artist, and filmmaker. His recent work includes Vine of the Dead (2015), Dream of the Red Chamber (2014), and Botanica (2012). His video installation Meditation, created in collaboration with Ralph Lemon, was acquired by the Walker Art Center for its permanent collection in 2011. Findlay is a founding member of artists' group Collapsable Giraffe and performance space The Collapsable Hole. His work has been seen at BAM, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Arena Stage, A.R.T., and over 50 cities worldwide, including Berlin, Istanbul, London, Moscow, and Paris.
Odyssey Works: What are you trying to achieve with your art?
Jim Findlay: I’m just trying to achieve some art with my art. I’m pretty satisfied when I feel like I’ve done that.
Thinking of the work I make in terms of other senses of "achievement" feels like trying to change a tire with a poem—which sounds like a good way to make art, even though it’s a stupid way to change a tire.
I’m basically down with the idea that what makes art unique is its uselessness. If its use is immediately apparent, then it’s hard for it to be interesting. You have to look at a wrench for a really long time to see the poetry in it, because it’s hard to stop seeing the wrench. But if you can make something that's interesting and also quite apparently useless, then I feel like that’s something that fires up the curiosity neurons.
OW: Why integrate multiple disciplines? What is the best way to approach this?
JF: Approach it by just diving in and using it, whatever it is. Use it wrong, use it stupidly, use it as incorrectly as possible. Don’t fall into the trap of having to understand it before you try it. It’s not about mastering something, it’s about bending it to its own special state of uselessness.
Humans are omnivores, utter generalists, pansexual, and inherently curious. We are probably one of the least specialized species on the planet. Why would we be wildly dextrous and flexible in every other aspect of our existence, but not in our art-making?
I find words and speech much more foreign than the physics of electrons and photons or the elaborate syntax of contemporary digital language. We’re living in a time of widespread visual and sonic literacy. Lay people are incredibly sophisticated about the language of the jump cut and the slow fade. Using multiple disciplines feels quite organic. I don’t think about it much. I just do it.
OW: Speaking of combining forms, your work frequently combines recorded and live performance. What is the reason behind this?
JF: It’s so much more mixed up than anyone can imagine! A lot of the media work I do is predicated on live performers using the technological medium, sometimes swimming in it. Integration of media for me means that it’s integrated into the bodies and actions of the performers. For example, in Dream of the Red Chamber, there is constant video presence in a truly epic way. But a deceptively large portion of that video is live. The technology’s main function in the world of the piece isn’t its content. Rather, its most essential function is that it occupies the performers' actions. I enjoy watching people struggle to do something difficult; using technology in performance in a rigorous way is difficult, especially when it’s largely controlled by the performers themselves.
OW: A lot of your work has an epic quality. Yet it has also been described as "intimate." This seems counterintuitive, as we usually associate intimacy in art with a more minimalist aesthetic. How can a vast scope be intimate?
JF: Creating dichotomies, tensions, and seemingly incongruous feelings is something that is very conscious in my work. And I think that we never feel more intimate to ourselves than when we feel ourselves small inside the vastness of life and the universe. There’s something about loneliness that’s not on the surface often, but that nonetheless is a strong undercurrent to everything I am. I think the desire for connection and the impossibility of it pretty much sum up the whole of human experience, from the criminal to the holy.
When I make worlds—and to me, making a piece is like making a world because it has its own set of functions and rules and features—I always want my worlds to have their own integrity. They don’t have to be realistic, or operate on the same principles as our experience, but they have to make sense on their own terms. I think that epic feeling in my work may come from my desire for a piece to have its own special autonomous feeling. I feel like the intimacy element is even more essential, and that comes from my real desire to just be there with everyone. The performers and I are not going to pretend to be other people, at least not in ways that aren’t utterly transparent, and you don’t have to pretend you’re not here either. We’re all here. Alone and together.
OW: In your performance Dream of the Red Chamber, the audience is encouraged to experience the work while drifting in and out of sleep. How does this enhance the experience? What is the connection between dreams and art?
JF: The piece makes a simple proposition: What happens when we disrupt the usual transaction between the audience and the performer? What if the audience doesn’t have to pay attention and the performer is released from their duty to entertain? Everything in the piece is in service of this proposition in some way.
I also admit that I have a lot of firsthand experience of sleeping in theaters. And I always find the haze of liminal states between being asleep and awake very pleasant. So when formulating the piece, I had a pretty good idea of the experience I was proposing to the audience.
The other aspect of this that became important for me on an aesthetic development level was that it forced me to relinquish control of the experience. A friend at the show fell asleep, and in her dream the show continued, but there was a large curtain near where she was sleeping. The performers made a big show of opening this curtain, and behind it was this very large beloved painting she had done 20 years ago that she thought had been lost forever. It was still lost in real life, but was returned in the dream. She woke up at the show crying because we had returned her painting to her, and it took her five to ten minutes to sort out what the reality was and what had been in her dream. Did I make that? Did she make that? Did it happen? Does it matter? That’s a pretty good demonstration of the connection between dreams and art, I think.
OW: Who are your influences?
JF: Captain Beefheart, La Monte Young, Elizabeth LeCompte, Reza Abdoh, Derek Jarman, Mark Twain, Kathy Acker, Werner Schroeter, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ralph Lemon, Amy Huggans, Iver Findlay, Radiohole.
Interview by Ana Freeman.
Springboard Collective produces collaborative, site-specific, interactive, and immersive sculptural environments. Utilizing experimental and imaginative approaches to everyday materials, their installations focus on transforming the physical and psychological aspects of fun through socially engaged events. Their works include Good Humor (an ice cream-making extravaganza), Total Limbo (a fanciful fort), and Soft Surplus and Soft Surplus+ (inclusive playlands). Springboard Collective is directed by Danny Crump, Micah Snyder, and Sarah Dahlinger, and is also comprised of Stephanie Wadman and Barry O’Keefe. Contributing artists include Todd Irwin, Siavash Tohidi, Matt Hannon, Juniper Nova, and Ryan Davis.
Odyssey Works: What led you to your current approach to art-making? How did you start breaking traditional molds?
Springboard Collective: Springboard Collective started in graduate school at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Danny had done a residency at Flux Factory in 2014, and got inspired by all the collaborative work happening there; it dawned on him that you could get a lot more stuff done faster and be more improvisational with other people. So he proposed starting a kind of band where we would make collaborative art shows. We were all a bit disillusioned with the isolation of the grad school grind, and we wanted to experiment without the pressure of individual authorship. We wanted to let ourselves be really playful with materials and with ideas without overthinking them beforehand. So we began making these ambitious spectacles with a little bit of painting, a little bit of sculpture, and some kind of social interstice all coming together.
OW: Tell us about your process.
SC: We all bring different skill sets to the table and we are continually pushing and pulling and learning from one another. There are specific things that one of us will get obsessed with doing, like individual videos, but part of the process of working collaboratively is to surrender ownership, and to share credit and responsibility. It’s not about me or you, it’s about us. We tend to work on tight timelines, so it’s a really intensive work period. We might plan a project for three weeks. We usually have a big brainstorm on a big piece of paper, and we just write down every idea that anybody comes up with. And then we figure out how we’re going to fit it all together. We mock up the bigger structural elements, sketching things out in real space. We often have only a few days to build the whole entire thing. So there’s a lot of thinking, then a lot of work, and little sleep. And that’s liberating because it's gestural and fast and we don’t have to nitpick all the little details. We follow the impulse, follow the imagery, follow the materials, and just let those lead us wherever they go.
OW: “Fun” is a word you frequently use to describe your work. What does this mean to you?
SC: We aim to be impish. Our pieces give people permission to act a little crazy and be a little weird, which ends up facilitating fun and togetherness. We are creating a new sort of environment that’s a land of escape from actual reality, and the levity of it is refreshing. The things we reference, like ice cream, bouncy castles, and mazes, are all very playful and childlike. One reason we have for working together is wanting get back to a childlike sense of making, and being really open and fearless. It helps people get out of the day-to-day. A lot of times when you go to shows and museums, you’re still contained in yourself, you’re still reserved. But if you have box of costumes, and you put on a wig, and you get thrown into this tiny area where there are 20 people jumping and everything’s going crazy, it facilitates this experience of breaking free and letting loose for a minute. Another thing about a lot of our work is that the pace of people moving through the space is totally different from a typical art-viewing experience. When you walk into an art space, you typically slow down, but all of our shows have this buzz to them. People are really moving around, getting comfortable, getting immersed.
OW: Can you speak more to immersivity and interactivity? What do those words mean to you and why are those elements that you want to include in your work?
SC: The installation format is nice, because you’re not dealing with one material or one medium. Everything all has to work together. In all of our pieces, we’re making something that is interactive because we want to give ownership to the people that are coming to become a part of it. We set up this template for them to inject their own creativity into. They’re churning the ice cream that they’re going to taste, they’re making the sculptures that they’re going to take home. It’s an extension of the process of making to the audience. And it’s a really awesome kind of leveling of different hierarchies of people. Our environments are something that you come and interact freely with. There are no rules. And immersion is necessary because it’s a break from reality. We all need to have moments of escape from whatever pressures we experience, so we provide a space that you can step into and, at least momentarily, be liberated. It’s an offering of a space to be together and work together, and that’s a genuine gesture on our part. If you look at the headlines recently, our type of fun, cheeky event might be just the type of thing that we need right now. In our work, nothing’s too serious.
OW: In interactive environments, where do you locate the art?
SC: All of it is the art. And we don’t keep track of any individual’s physical input into a piece. That’s the beauty of it, that it all sort of melts together.
OW: Why create experiences?
SC: We do have relics from our pieces: the objects produced as part of the event. Those have spread out—some people have taken them home—and they do carry a little bit of the energy from the show. But it’s hard to describe all the stuff that happened in any one of our pieces. You really had to be there. We’ve learned that you can make art out of anything if you just put enough effort into it and belief behind it. We start from kind of silly ideas, but then take them to a level where there are much more interesting questions being opened. And the overall experience of the event is where that magic happens.
Interview by Ana Freeman.
How does language make meaning? When we witness a narrative unfolding – especially one that is structured and performed as fiction and thus as a composition to be comprehended – how tightly do the words need to relate to the structure of the story to be relevant? We see it all the time – the words we speak careening from direct communication to a masking of subtext to comfort-inducing digressions. Language folds and overlays and flees meaning and yet somehow we are able to assemble stories from its incredible choreography. Such complexity! And still we find time to revel, on occasion, in the pleasures of language.
Stranger Kindness, a violently disassembled adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, features Marlon Brando’s recorded voice (from the movie) in the role of Stanley Kowalski. It’s a movie I’ve seen countless times – a hot and raw film indulgent with the sweet pleasures of language. The story is a classic tale of a fallen woman, returned to New Orleans after losing everything and leaving her hometown in shame. It’s a story about masculinity and femininity, and the tortuously structured choreography of a woman’s role in a world dominated by men. It is tragic and elegant, and one of my favorite movies. I recommend seeing it.
Then, I recommend going to Stranger Kindness. None of the rest of the lines in the play spoken by the actors are from the actual play. Rather, they speak lines from other plays and other texts. The cast learned the original lines first, along with the original intonation – the accents and the mid-century exuberances – and matched it to the blocking. Then the directors (Lola B. Pierson and Stephen Nunns) replaced the lines with lines from other texts that were relevant but egregiously different. Stella and Blanche and Mitch argue and cry out and insist with complete conviction, but with the wrong words. Sometimes the words are relevant – when Blanche is disappointed by someone’s reaction, she says, for instance, "One day you'll be blind like me and you'll be sitting there a speck in the void," words that get at the emotional valence of the moment but fudge the informational content. Or Blanche’s suitor, Mitch – the man who just might be her last hope for a decent life – while trying to force an unwanted kiss will pronounce feminist critiques, declaring “Woman’s degradation is in man's idea of his sexual rights.”
Sometimes the words themselves are a commentary on the actions of the character – the critic’s voice moving through the scene. Sometimes they are a displacement of meaning. Sometimes they are just funny. The whole experience is uncanny, difficult, and exhilarating. The actors’ exaggerated body language and intonations loudly structure the meanings of their utterances, so that we can pretty much read the intent, but the language they use both undermines and enlightens the scene. We are never certain if the text is text or subtext or commentary or just confusingly relevant; because of this, I spent the entire play as a birdwatcher in a language sanctuary, observing the behaviors of words, seeing how they accrue to meaning and leave it, and occasionally stepping aside from the confusion of it all to wonder at the sublime mechanics of this system we take for granted.
In a nod to the great Polish director Jerszy Grotowsky, the audience is seated above the stage, looking down upon the action. I was not sure why Grotowsky did this, and if there was some meaning in the Acme Corporation’s version it was lost on me as well. There were also a lot of televisions with cut up scenes from the movie occasionally interrupting the action. For me these were helpful as a grounding device, but I suspect there was something deeper intended with them that was lost on me.
The play is also, of course, about mental illness – such a taboo and important subject. I often feel that art is all about mental illness in some way or another – at least the art I enjoy – as it tends to break with standard patternings for “normal” life, working both as a critique of normalcy and a remedy for it. We track mental illness primarily through language. Most markers for madness are perceived through language and, more specifically, through language that deviates from expectation. This production is all about that deviation, so it is appropriate that Blanche only returns to the original text at the end, when she is being carted off by the men in white jackets. It is the title line – her go-to line: that she has “always depended upon the kindness of strangers.” The final note of Blanche’s story is a desperate grasping for a normalcy that will everafter evade her, and one that this adaptation refuses to strive for at all.
The Acme Corporation’s Stranger Kindness is directed by Lola B. Pierson and Stephen Nunns, and is playing at St. Mark’s Church at 1900 St. Paul Street in Baltimore through Dec 17, 2016.
review by Abraham Burickson
cover image by Tania Karpenkina
I woke up this morning uncertain how I would be able to attend the book release of the book I co-wrote with Ayden LeRoux. It seemed frivolous, like painting the house while Vesuvius is erupting. Add to that the performance I’m producing with the Odyssey Works team this weekend — a thirty-six hour long experience for an audience of one person — an experience aimed at the subtle narratives of that person’s existence, at the interplay between meaning and states of perception, at the potency of empathy. How to do such a thing when facing the reality that a man who has admitted to sexual assault, reveled in racism, and celebrated his megalomaniacal narcissism is now poised to be our commander-in-chief?
Chloë Bass is a conceptual artist working in the co-creation of performance, situation, publication, and installation. She's recently returned to Brooklyn after a summer making work in such places as Greensboro, New Orleans, St. Louis, and rural Nebraska. Chloë is a visiting assistant professor in social practice and sculpture at Queens College, CUNY. She is sometimes a collaborator, sometimes published on Hyperallergic, and adamantly and always a New Yorker. You can learn more about her at chloebass.com.
Odyssey Works: What is the collaboration between artist and audience as you see it? Where is the artwork itself located?
Chloë Bass: The world is something that we make together. (Joseph Beuys even called the world a collaborative artwork.) There are a million tiny gestures that go into the fabrication, presentation, and maintenance of art, not to mention society. We are not always equal players; equality may be rare, or even impossible. I have no problem being an authorial voice, a game-maker, an editor, a social designer, or a leader. But I think what we forget is that these positions, except in extreme fascist cases, actually require the participation of others. My work is a series of experiences for people. It exists in the moments where it’s happening, in the echoes my participants take with them, and in the ways they and I find to share some element of what occurred with those not present.
OW: Your work often relies on relationships or interactions between two people. How does intimacy play a role in what you create?
CB: I’m actually scaling up. I’m going gradually, so I think it’s pretty hard to tell at the moment. From 2011 to 2013 I worked at the scale of the self, and produced The Bureau of Self-Recognition, a conceptual performance and installation project designed to track the process of self-recognition and its myriad outcomes. Since the beginning of 2015, I’ve been working on The Book of Everyday Instruction, which explores on-on-one social interaction. I have some exciting ideas for the next phase after that. I don’t want to say too much at the moment, but I’m looking to work with family-sized groups, and I want to make a film.
I’m preparing myself to tackle groups of people the size of entire cities, eventually. The artist Elisabeth Smolarz came to visit me in my studio a few months ago, and she joked that the ultimate manifestation of my practice would be to become president so I could do a project with the entire country. I'm learning alongside my work. I am genuinely teaching myself about the world through these artistic actions, interventions, and experiences.
I'm not necessarily an extroverted person. I think I really thrive in the depth of the magical space that can be created between two people—until one of them has to get up and go to the bathroom, and the moment breaks, and they’re back to being their regular, awkward selves in the world. I like the connection and the breakage, to be honest. I think there’s a lot of power and material in both.
But I want the breakage in my practice to be a conscious choice. Can we maintain the intimacy of the pair at the scale of a city? What remains, and what is lost? How can I hold people, and when is it informative to let go?
I wonder often about incorrect intimacy, and the special space it creates. I was in Cleveland for two months in 2015 spending time with strangers, joining them in their daily lives. A large part of this project turned out to be getting in the car with strangers, something we’re told not to do from the time we’re very young. There was something about beginning with an “incorrect” gesture that made my participants and I responsible to one another. Changing the usual circumstances of how and where we meet people brought us into a different kind of social and aesthetic world. Doing things wrong can hold high imaginative potential.
Recently, I was in St. Louis, where I talked to people about safety and safe places. For me, taking a stranger to a safe place and having a conversation about safety is really odd and anxiety-provoking. It’s essential to make sure that the best parts of that oddness are preserved and turned into something productive. At the same time, I have to work hard to make myself extra comfortable for the person who’s allowing for this vulnerable interaction to happen. Balancing these kinds of dynamics is a huge part of my craft.
OW: How do you understand immersivity and interactivity? How do they work and why do you use them?
CB: Well, those are the materials of life! Every experience that I have in my daily life is, to some extent, unavoidable. I might willingly choose to enter a situation, but what happens once I’ve entered it is just the product of being there.
That said, people can occupy the same space and have entirely different lived experiences. I feel a little bit suspicious about immersivity right now. What does it really mean to be immersed in anything other than your own subjectivity? How can we extend the bounds of the personal in order to improve our treatment of others? I am not speaking of empathy, which does the work of making us all affectively the same, but of a certain kind of non-understanding that teaches us we need to do better.
OW: How does the social component of your work relate to the material forms you create? How do you categorize your work?
There was a time when I used to edit my artist's statement to rename myself as the type of artist I had most recently been called by others. If a review came out and said I was a performance artist, then I would call myself that. I did this not out of inherent resistance to categorization, but because I felt really new to making my own work, and was just as willing to trust others to name it as I was to trust myself.
Now I teach social practice in the art department at Queens College, and there are so many people who call me a social practice artist. From an academic and art historical perspective, I have to say that I’m not so sure they’re right. I think social practice is best described as a series of tactics that’s been culled from many fields: anthropology, sociology, psychology, community organizing, trauma studies, journalism, and, yes, art. I can only classify some of my own projects in this category. But I am an artist who works with people, that much is certain.
My current statement says that I’m a conceptual artist working in a variety of forms: situation, installation, publication. Naming myself a conceptual artist has made it ok to be making work that exists in service of a series of related ideas, rather than a series of related material practices. Form is a kind of stitching, a way of putting a temporary experience into a more permanent shell. However, the shell is really just a reminder that something has happened.
OW: Who are your influences? Can you describe an experience of art that transformed you?
CB: When I was about eight, the Guggenheim had a retrospective of Rebecca Horn’s work on view. In the museum’s oculus, Horn had hung a grand piano, which “exploded” a set number of times per hour: keys and hammers appeared to fly out of the instrument, accompanied by a dramatic sound. I loved how scary it was, how funny it was, and how we couldn’t avoid it. I don’t know that Horn’s work is a visual influence on what I do, but I’ll never forget that moment, or how it’s continued to shape my social and emotional responses to artworks.
I am also hugely influenced by Adrian Piper, Andrea Fraser, Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, and Doug Ashford. And I’m a habitual eavesdropper and casual voyeur; I don’t intend to stop being inspired by these arguably creepy practices.
OW: What are you trying to do with your work?
My goal is both incredibly simple and insanely grandiose: I want us to live better together. Every piece of work that I make is in service of this aspiration. The experiences I make are triggers for a feeling. It’s on you to figure out what to do with that feeling, and how to use it in your relationships to others. The objects I make are souvenirs, tagged with memories that you might rediscover later. The words I offer are guidelines. But making the world? That’s yours.
Interview by Ayden LeRoux and Ana Freeman.