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Elastic City

ON THE ART OF CONNECTION

by Ana Freeman

It is through the possibility of intimacy that the experience of art can be truly transformative.

 

"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. 

 

Ayden is carried through Brooklyn Bridge Park during her Odyssey. Credit Katy McCarthy.

Ayden is carried through Brooklyn Bridge Park during her Odyssey. Credit Katy McCarthy.

 

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. 

 

Kendra Dennard performing with the Body Cartography Project. Credit Sean Smuda.

Kendra Dennard performing with the Body Cartography Project. Credit Sean Smuda.

 

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. 

 

The connection found through art is something that is captured rather than invented.

 

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.” 

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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.

 

 

TODD SHALOM ON POETIC DECISION-MAKING

Todd Shalom. Credit Todd Shalom. 

Todd Shalom. Credit Todd Shalom. 

TODD SHALOM works with text, sound, and image to recontextualize the body in space with the vocabulary of the everyday. He is the founder and director of Elastic City, a nonprofit participatory walk organization. Elastic City makes its audience active participants in an ongoing poetic exchange with the places we live in and visit. Shalom leads walks alone and in collaboration with other artists, and works with artists in different disciplines to adapt their expertise to the participatory walk format. Walks use sensory-based techniques, reinvented folk rituals, and other exercises to investigate and intervene in the daily life of the city, its variously defined communities, and its identity politics.

We already have everything that we need, so it’s just a question of reframing.

 

Odyssey Works: You talk about framing and the way that you direct people to essentially draw a line around a thing to be beheld—and there’s some kind of magic action that happens when you draw that line. It’s an action upon attention, on the way we see. How does that magic action inform your work writ large?

Todd Shalom: The framing is a prompt I give on a walk in which I say that one person’s going to make a composition with their fingers, drawing a frame, and the other person’s going to name that composition.

Each artist comes to a walk with different things that they can offer, given their practice, and we’re really hoping to shape the participants' relationships to the group and themselves and the neighborhood in a new light. We already have everything that we need, so it’s just a question of reframing.

If we choose to use props, they’re generally very purposeful. Really, everything is purposeful on a walk. For example, the route—how we get from here to there—is just as important as what we do when someone gives a prompt at a spot where we’re all standing. The route is part of the walk. The walk is not about a thing, the walk is the thing. The walk is the performance.

 

Ideally  by Todd Shalom and Niegel Smith. Credit Kate Glicksberg.

Ideally by Todd Shalom and Niegel Smith. Credit Kate Glicksberg.

 

OW: What constitutes good in that moment? What constitutes effective? What constitutes where you’re trying to go?

TS: First, I want to make sure that the prompts are poetic, that they’re clear and concise, and that they give just enough information and boundaries to direct someone to do something, while still giving them space to dream. I think if you’re super specific, it can be really limiting, and someone can really shut down and not open up to the prompt. And if you’re too open, it’s overwhelming. I think there should be a balance.

In rehearsals, I’m always imagining the worst possible participant, and this is someone I love playing. I play the person who reacts against the prompt, who doesn’t want to follow it, who takes someone’s words and twists them into the disruptive or obnoxious.

A good prompt can really hinge on a keyword. If I say "box" instead of "frame," or if I say we’re going to make a “thing” instead of a “composition,” it changes the prompt. It’s good if people are participating, period. But it’s not great. I want more than that, so I change and tweak the prompts. The person leading the walk has so much agency, and I think that I really like to be in a spot where I feel comfortable enough to give that agency back. But again, if you give too much control to the group, the whole thing could kind of fall apart.

If the prompt is good enough, I think that it will get people to see the poetry in the words, and they’ll come up with new meanings. In one sense, this whole project has been about taking poetry off the page. So when people are thinking about the prompts in a poetic way, then I think the walk has been successful.

 

All the decisions that are within our control have the potential to be poetic ones.

 

OW: Tell us about your journey from poetry to your work with Elastic City.

TS: What I’m really interested in is what I call "poetic decision-making." All the decisions that are within our control have the potential to be poetic ones. What one names the file on their desktop, what one chooses to wear today, what route one takes—these are opportunities. In my work, I really want to bring forth these opportunities. Beauty or wonder or sorrow or nostalgia can be aspects of the decision-making process. So I think that everyone is in that way an artist, you know. Whether or not they’re making compelling work is for someone else to judge, but I think my work seeks to foreground the opportunities we have in our decision-making.

After studying poetry for a while, I felt dissatisfied with it. I just didn’t feel like poetry on the page was the best way in which I could express what I wanted to. And the performance of poetry felt limited, because I would have to read a poem aloud a bunch of times for someone to be able to get underneath it. I thought there had to be something else.

I’d always been interested in sound, and especially in how I could combine text and sound. Then I took some courses at Mills College, and someone told me to check out the work of Robert Ashley, and so I did. Then he was on the cover of The Wire, the UK music magazine, and the article following the feature on him was about acoustic ecology, which is the study of sonic environments. It was as if, all of a sudden, I’d found poetics in sound that were gorgeous and accessible. It didn’t seem wrapped in academic jargon. It was something I could easily get into. I especially loved the idea of soundwalks, walks that focus on listening to the soundscape around you. That's what gave me a way into this form. But I felt that the silent soundwalks with maybe some prompts given at the very beginning were a little too purist and a little too boring to me. While that serves a purpose as an academic exercise, I felt like there could be so much more engagement.

I started using a bunch of soundwalk prompts from an acoustic ecology handbook I found in the Mills library. Then I started to create my own. And then I got sick of giving soundwalks, because I’d been giving them for almost five years, and I started to wonder what else I could incorporate into the form.  And I knew poetry, so I realized I could play with text, or maybe make a visual poem. Then I thought, “How can other artists work in this form?” At this point, I knew the walk form. I knew how to get people to participate. So I decided to find artists and work with them to take their knowledge in a given discipline and adapt that to the walk form. In the process, I’ve learned so many different ways of experiencing a place—from designers, therapists, photographers, choreographers—all these different artists. My experiences of many places, but especially of New York, are so layered now. For example, I can tell you what kind of sound a specific manhole cover is going to make when a car goes over it. I have this really weird knowledge of the city now, combined with memories from all these walks and personal memories. It’s saturating.

 

OW: How does the idea of personal or collective histories being part of the space inform the work?

TS: I gave Lucky Walk with Juan Betancurth, and we went near where I used to live on 15th and 6th. We looked around and gleaned text from the signage we saw on the street, and then we performed our text in chorus, almost like a Jackson Mac Low poem. My own personal history is definitely built into the walks, especially into why I may create a given walk. But it's more important to me to make room for a participant's experience.  

 

OW: There’s an idea that to be participatory means to be democratic in some way. If you’re literally and figuratively guiding the participants in one direction or another, do you think that’s still true in the case of what you do, or does it not really apply?

TS: Well, I don’t necessarily think it’s democratic, but the participants are co-creators of the work. They complete the work. Since I use the trope of a walking tour, people are looking to be led. And people are already participating without realizing it, just by walking, so that’s a nice thing that's built in. I’m facilitating, essentially. Everyone is given the option of not participating if they don’t want to. No one is being forced. (And we don’t use blindfolds, for instance, because I think that’s dangerous, especially in the city. It doesn’t allow you control if you need it in a split second, which you may. You may need to see because a bus is coming, who knows.) There’s no control over someone, there are just offerings. It’s up to the individual whether or not to accept them. But if no one goes on the walk, I’m giving prompts to no one, so we do need people to be on the walk.

I don’t think I’d call my work truly democratic, because that would imply total shared authorship, or maybe consensus, and that’s not it. I feel like when I’ve experimented with that, it's felt good, because everyone was involved in the decision-making, but aesthetically, I wasn't usually so pleased with the results. You often end up with a lowest common denominator aesthetic. I want to give some agency or authority back, but I don’t want to give it all over. I think it’s important to lead or facilitate, and it’s just a question of to what degree at a given moment.

 

Fabstractions  by Todd Shalom. Credit Nick Robles.

Fabstractions by Todd Shalom. Credit Nick Robles.

 

OW: Can you demonstrate what a prompt for this space might look like?

TS: Well, there’s a fountain here, and it’s not being activated. The obvious thing that comes to my mind is to throw a coin in there and make a wish. The other thing would be maybe to blow a wish into the fountain, so that you could see a ripple on the water. There’s something about a wish. When I see a fountain, I want to make a wish. Or, since the fountain’s not currently moving, perhaps it’s more melancholic. Maybe it’s a moment to think about someone who’s died, and place all of that in that bird that’s resting there. Our prompt can be, "If the bird were to fly away and travel with a message to someone who’s died, who would that message be to, and what would that message be?Take a minute or two, construct that message, and silently send it to the bird to deliver. We will not share these messages with the others who are seated here.”

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Interview by Abe Burrickson and Ana Freeman. Adapted from the live interview by Ana Freeman.