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SPRINGBOARD COLLECTIVE ON FUN AND TOGETHERNESS

Sarah Dahlinger, Danny Crump, Micah Snyder, and Stephanie Wadman of Springboard Collective. Credit Danny Crump.   

Sarah Dahlinger, Danny Crump, Micah Snyder, and Stephanie Wadman of Springboard Collective. Credit Danny Crump.

 

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. 

It’s not about me or you, it’s about us.

 

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.

 

Good Humor , 2015. Credit Danny Crump.

Good Humor, 2015. Credit Danny Crump.

 

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.

 

We aim to be impish.

 

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.

 

Good Humor,  2015. Credit Matt Hannon

Good Humor, 2015. Credit Matt Hannon

 

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.

 

We’ve learned that you can make art out of anything if you just put enough effort into it and belief behind it.

 

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.

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Interview by Ana Freeman. 

EMMA SULKOWICZ ON THE PERFORMANCE OF LIFE AND THE MAGIC OF PARTICIPATION

Emma Sulkowicz. Credit Joshua Boggs.

Emma Sulkowicz. Credit Joshua Boggs.

EMMA SULKOWICZ lives and makes art in her hometown, New York City. She is best known for her senior thesis at Columbia University, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), an endurance performance artwork in which she carried a dorm mattress everywhere she went on campus for as long as she attended the same school as the student who assaulted her. Her more recent works include Ceci N'est Pas Un Viol, an Internet-based participatory artwork, and Self-Portrait (Performance With Object), in which she made herself available to answer questions from viewers, but referred questions she was not willing to answer to Emmatron, her life-sized robotic double.

 

 

Odyssey Works: A lot of the work you do is long durational, and that’s unusual in our age of fast-paced media and fast-paced lives. However, you also heavily utilize technology. What inspires you to work in these differing forms?

Emma Sulkowicz: Well, how boring would it have been if I had carried the mattress for only one day? For that piece, it seemed like long durational performance art was the only form in which anything productive and interesting could happen, given what I was trying to work with. Two of my pieces have been long durational; however, most of my other work is not. I consider myself an artist who works in many different mediums, but for Mattress Performance and Self-Portrait, long durational performance art was the best way to convey my ideas.

All of my work falls under the umbrella of relational aesthetics, which, the way I understand it, includes not just the performance or the objects in the room, but also all the audience reactions to the performance and the objects. Framing things that way changes the way the audience engages with your work. The mattress performance was kind of a crash course in relational aesthetics when I saw how much it took off on the internet, more than it even took off on the ground. So in a way, the technology is unavoidable, because everything, at a certain point, is going to get reproduced for the internet.

 

The parameters of  Mattress Performance.  Credit Emma Sulkowicz. 

The parameters of Mattress Performance. Credit Emma Sulkowicz. 

 

OW: What influences led you to start creating these more experimental kinds of art? And what is your current process like?

ES: I would have to point to a specific moment in time when I went to the Yale Norfolk Residency.  You know, when you’re a student, you make a certain type of  work that you’re assigned to make, whereas when I went to this residency, and I was so fortunate to be able to do that at such a young age, we were encouraged to make really anything we wanted. That was my first taste of what it’s actually like to be an artist, because once you leave school, no one’s ever going to give you an assignment again. So being in the residency and having all this freedom to make whatever I wanted led me to explore new forms.

When I’m working on a project, I do research. For example, right now I’m working on a piece that would take the form of a fake doctor’s office that would be open for a month. In some respects, I started getting interested in it when I read Derrida’s writings on hospitality. From there, I figure out what I have to read next. Maybe I have to refresh my Lacan, or I have to revisit a Freud essay. One thing leads to another, and throughout my readings, I’m picking up material to use for my art.

And sometimes I find inspiration from more concrete objects or experiences. I did this one piece recently where I saw advertising on the subway for the Alberto Burri show at the Guggenheim that made me really angry, so within the same week I made a counter advertisement of my own and installed it on the subway. I didn’t need any theory for that. It just comes from an impulse. I see something, it either upsets me or gets me excited for some reason, and then I decide how to engage with it. I think that I speak most clearly through my art, so it just sort of naturally comes out as an art piece, rather than, say, an essay.

 

I was really interested in the idea that every human being is performing all the time, whether it’s to another person or for themself.

 

OW: Your recent piece in LA spoke to how you are perceived and mediated. And a lot of your other work is in public space and is very engaged with the real world. So how do you view the relationship between reality and performance? 

ES: I think that when I began Mattress Performance, I really thought there was a distinction between when you’re performing and when you’re living, and I worked really hard to delineate the two. But whenever I see some sort of binary forming, I try to break it down, so in Self-Portrait, my goal was to perform as my usual self on the platform. I was really interested in the idea that every human being is performing all the time, whether it’s to another person or for themself. I was interested in how people would—because I was on a platform in a gallery—treat me differently from how I expect they would have treated me had we met somewhere else, like at a party. They approached me differently simply because I was in a different space, in a different context—when my assignment, on the other hand, was just to act normally.

I mean, if the person I was talking to was pissing me off, I’d be very blunt with them, and if the person was being really nice and I enjoyed the conversation, I would engage with just as much excitement as I would normally. 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.

 

Self-Portrait . Credit JK Russ. 

Self-Portrait. Credit JK Russ. 

 

OW: Do think that the piece was successful? And how do you define success in your work?

ES: Yes. I learned a lot from it. I saw how some people would come in and really engage with the piece, and would leave feeling like they’d learned something, too, whereas other people would not be willing to give themselves over to the piece, and would then come away from it not having gained anything. For example, this one guy, who was a professor somewhere, came in, sat down on the platform across from me, and just decided it was his time to give me sort of an artful critique. However, he seemed to know nothing about political performance art. You know, I’m really excited to talk to people no matter how much reading they’ve done, but it’s frustrating when they’re then going to feel entitled to educate me on their beliefs, when I haven’t asked them to educate me. His combative mode of conversation was really off-putting. I explained why he was wrong, and I think he left feeling not so great about the piece. Overall, I think everyone’s reactions to the piece were so dependent on how they entered the room. This guy decided that he wanted to have an argument with me, so he left with kind of a sour taste in his mouth. But people who came in wanting to have fun or something like that tended to leave feeling happy. It was full of nuance and different for every person.

I definitely had envisioned it initially as a piece in which I’d show people that I’m human and not this robot they think I am, but as the piece evolved, I realized that actually there was something else going on. A lot of people came not because they wanted to engage with this game of “Is it Emma or Emmatron?” but because they had an agenda for something they wanted to tell me or something they wanted to give me…I can’t even tell you how many people brought gifts. A lot of people brought gifts as if they were offerings, a lot of people cried. That’s not really engaging with the artwork as I set it up, but I realized that everyone had their own agenda for coming.

 

OW: Mattress Performance was centered around an object that carried a symbolic meaning you and others put on it. Did you consider the mattress a magical object? 

ES: I certainly did not, but I think other people did. Marcel Mauss’ A General Theory of Magic is a really interesting book to me. One exercise you can do with that book is actually replacing the word “magician” with “artist” every time it comes up. I think that you can really understand why people might consider the mattress a magical object when you read that book that way.

People would come up to me and say “You know, I’ve been sitting in the middle of campus all day, waiting for you to walk by, so that I can help you carry that.” And I was so surprised. Because to me, at that point…the mattress was dirty. I had to wash my hands after I touched it, it was so gross, and all these people thought they were going to have some crazy transcendental experience touching it? In a certain sense, that does mean it was magical, because if it made people feel a certain way when they touched it, then sure, I guess it worked a kind of magic.  But from my perspective, we were really all just touching this dirty rectangle thing.

The sign of the mattress functions on two levels. There’s the purely symbolic level, which bears all this meaning, and perhaps magic, and then there’s the level at which it could have been any mattress. It’s just another object.

 

Once a large number of people believe that this magical thing happened, who’s to say that it didn’t happen?

 

OW: What do you see as the purpose of participation in your work?

ES: What I took away from Marcel Mauss’ book is that magic works because people believe in it. There’s an old example in the book, which is Moses at the rock producing water in front of the people of Israel, and Mauss says “…while Moses may have felt some doubts, Israel certainly did not.”  Once a large number of people believe that this magical thing happened, who’s to say that it didn’t happen?  So, if I didn’t have participants, there would be no magic. And if art is very similar to magic, then there would be no art.

 

OW: At Odyssey Works, we try to cultivate an inner journey for our participant. Did you feel that Mattress Performance was transformative in this way for you and for those witnessing it?

ES: It was extremely transformative for me. The final product was something entirely different from what I had planned, and it was amazing to see how it took on a life of its own. I am not sure if people were immediately transformed upon seeing the performance in person. However, if we are to believe that it transformed the discourse on sexual assault, it must have been transformative for others. At least, I hope it was.

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Interview by Ana Freeman. 

Adam Robert Dickerson on Dancing Out into the Unknown

Adam Robert Dickerson. Credit Ally Lai. 

Adam Robert Dickerson. Credit Ally Lai. 

ADAM ROBERT DICKERSON is the founder and artistic director of Fooju Dance Collaborative. Fooju began in 2014 as a cerebral playground for exploring what dance is and where it can happen. Engaging multiple disciplines and all the senses, Fooju's work takes place onstage, online, in public spaces, and in private homes. It is social, experimental, playful, messy, and often accidental. Dickerson has also choreographed works for the American College Dance Festival, the Youth America Grand Prix semifinals, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, and musician RJD2. A former member of Graham 2 at the Martha Graham Dance Company, he currently dances with Amanda Selwyn Dance Theatre and Amy Marshall Dance Company. 

We want to make the chimerical intimately real.

Odyssey Works: What is Fooju? How did it originate, and what is its purpose?

Adam Robert Dickerson: The name “Fooju” was birthed out of my own clumsiness. I mixed up “feng shui" and "juju," and just blurted it out.  Immediately, I wanted the word to stick. The principle of accepting happenstance as creativity is central to my choreographic process: playful clumsiness gets refined into crafted dance. The word became an important reflection of my work.

Before officially beginning Fooju, I had worked closely for several years with my dance partner, Dolo McComb, at Colorado College. The work that we developed together as students there was the embryonic foundation for my future Fooju creations. After we graduated, Dolo moved to Minneapolis and I came to Brooklyn. Separate, yet forever choreographically tied, Dolo and I collaborated on a project we funded with Kickstarter in January 2015. Our long distance relationship fostered a new way of generating work togetherthrough the Internet.  By way of YouTube and FaceTime, we created an evening-length work, the first production under the name of Fooju Dance Collaborative. The performers, dancers and a few non-dancers, were a collection of my local friends and acquaintances, and would come to form the basis of the collaborative. We performed in a studio at the Martha Graham school, where several of us had trained, used Christmas lights as lighting, and invited audience members to drink and heckle us during the show and to donate objects to us in lieu of paying for tickets. Since then, Dolo has continued to create work in Minneapolis with with her own collective, //CATHEDRAL\\, while Fooju Dance Collaborative has grown in both size and vision under my direction in New York City.

Fooju Dance Collaborative is meant to frame the queerer qualities of existence by placing performative dance theatre outside the context of the proscenium; its purpose is to expressively and colorfully highlight the idiosyncrasies of the human experience. Fooju is the manipulation of visceral, incidental, or accidental creative impulses into dance that mimics the unconscious. We want to make the chimerical intimately real. 

 

OW: How and why did the Works in Progresso series get started? What makes your kitchen shows different from typical dance performances, and whats the point of doing things this way?

AD: Works in Progresso was borne of necessity. Producing a show in a traditional venue in New York City is prohibitively expensive for most choreographers, aside from the famous ones. More often than not, choreographers are losing money to create work, and significant profit is abnormal. So I made up my mind to make as much dance as I could manage without spending any money. The resources that were most readily available to me were my kitchen and my network of talented and willing friends.

I had long been choreographing, dancing, and filming dance videos in my kitchen, because the space was there. While looking towards developing a new full-length show last year, I had trouble finding a space. I eventually resolved to create work in my kitchen, for my kitchen. The goal was not to emulate concert dance in a kitchen, which would stretch the viewer's ability to suspend disbelief past its breaking point. Instead, my aim was to facilitate a harmonious, equal collaboration of hosts, choreographers, performers, photographers, videographers, and guests. I wanted to make the work specific to the venue, and to highlight our kitchen as the space where we make and share both meals and dances.

 

Lia Bentley and Adam Robert Dickerson dance in a kitchen. Dancer Vera Paganin and composer Wes Braver watch from "onstage;" Keenan Parry films. Credit Joe Desimone. 

Lia Bentley and Adam Robert Dickerson dance in a kitchen. Dancer Vera Paganin and composer Wes Braver watch from "onstage;" Keenan Parry films. Credit Joe Desimone. 

 

Once I decided to make a show with no budget, I began the rehearsal process at my apartment. My choreographic process was loose and quick. With most of the pieces, I gave my dancers a framework with few specifics. We embraced the chance of error. More often than not, the mistakes from a dancer’s body catalyze my choreography and lead it towards sincerity.

When we had a show ready, we invited our friends, bought a box of wine, and showed the work we had created together.  The opening piece involved asking those watching for cookie recipes, and then baking a batch of cookies on the spot. Guests used their memories, phones, and collective tastes to contribute to the experience. This reliance on audience involvement initiated open communication between the "stage" and the viewers. The smell of the cookies gradually filled the room, until the oven timer sounded ten minutes into the dancing, and we served the audience warm cookies. We named the whole experience "Works in Progresso," an homage both to our home-brewed aesthetic and to the belief that all art is always a work in progress. We also served Progresso soup, although this was less popular than the cookies. Since then, we've brought various iterations of the Works in Progresso series to kitchens and living rooms throughout New York City. 

 

Stoking collaboration results in a splattering of new ideas onto what feels like a giant drawing board of new ways for dance to exist.

 

OW: Why does Fooju involve performers and collaborators who work in disciplines other than dance? What do they bring to the table, and how do they change things?

AD: Collaboration ensures we have a varied array of talent under the Fooju umbrella, and it ties together differing modalities from each of the participating disciplines. We encourage all our artists to share their developing work with the group, and to present it at showsso we all feed off of each other, and we all benefit from the experience of working with or around different mediums. In that way, Works in Progresso provides an opportunity for the artists in Fooju Dance Collaborative to experiment and share new ideas. This aspect of the series is what most compels me to continue curating shows for large and small audiences and to keep our collective motor running.

Stoking collaboration results in a splattering of new ideas onto what feels like a giant drawing board of new ways for dance to exist. Every show is different. We always throw in new pieces and complete re-workings of old pieces. We are often still playing around with things right up until our audience arrives!   The “trial and error” mentality of Fooju amplifies our energy and makes us feel as if we are dancing out into the unknown with each new show.

Fooju not only serves as a source of mutual experimentation and inspiration for our members, but it has also become something of a support group for those of us with questions about how to navigate the performing arts world. Also, I enjoy the wider audience and increased opportunities that naturally follow a more diverse group. This has proven helpful to us in connecting with prospective collaborators and hosts.  

 

OW: Your kitchen shows take place in small, semi-private spaces amongst people who mostly know each other; the dancers and audience members intermingle. At these events, where do you draw the line between a dance party and a dance performance? Between the artists and the audience? Where is the artwork itself located?

AD: Fooju’s Works in Progresso series is an invitation for showgoers to unlearn audience etiquette, and for our performers to unlearn stage etiquette.  We are still testing and determining the boundary between the audience and the performers, but it is definitely porous. Those who keep coming back to our shows are just beginning to understand the fluidity of roles we embrace. Our performers watch the showsometimes with our guests and sometimes from within the designated performance spaceduring the pieces they are not in. Fooju performers are also encouraged to include the audience in their performances, just as a host includes their guests in conversation. 

Deciding to put dance in a kitchen generated many questions for us about the meanings of terms like "audience," "dancer," and "stage." We are constantly in the process of deciding which performance conventions we want to keep, which we want to modify, and which we want to discard. Generally, we do engage the traditions of lighting, music, and a suggested area for the dancing to take place.

Yet we do not pretend to be in a theatre. Our events are free of charge and involve food, drink, and socializing before, after, and even during the show. We do usually lose track of where the show ends and the party begins and where the party ends and the show begins. We have a running joke where whenever anyone asks when the performance is starting, we say "The show already started! This has all been the show!" Works in Progresso is, in fact, about the multi-faceted magic of the entire experience.  Dance is something we like to do among friends and new acquaintances, not something we want to present to strangers. We see it as a social gift that we will share with anyone generous enough to receive it. We work to maintain the honesty of being "at home."

However, it is important to us to still create a theatrical, heightened experience. This is more, not less, possible in a kitchen than in a theatre. Whatever we might lose from not being on a stage, we gain back tenfold from being in our own sacred spaces. Having a show in an a small, private space yields qualities of intimacy similar to a religious ritual or ceremony. I choose to highlight these qualities by asking the audience to wear party hats for unity and drink our special (alcoholic) Foojuice. We begin each show by smudging the space and annointing the performers with glitter face paint. A Fooju show is a quiet spectacle, like a dream. 

 

Adam spreads glitter on dancer Anna Zekan's face before a show in Astoria. Credit Joe Desimone.

Adam spreads glitter on dancer Anna Zekan's face before a show in Astoria. Credit Joe Desimone.

 

OW: Fooju relies heavily on technology. Earlier projects have included Photobooth Ballet and Kitschy Kitchen, both video series. All your shows are recorded, and you encourage performers and audience members to use social media during each performance for documentary and promotional purposes. What does all this mean in the context of an art form founded on liveness? 

AD: As with dancing in people's homes, lack of funds were the initial impetus for the use of technology in my work. YouTube and social media are free, and almost everyone I know has a phone with a camera on it. Technology also enables the members of Fooju to collaborate long distance and without having to always set aside time to all meet together in person. It is such an easy tool for creating and sharing work. Beyond that, when audience members post on social media, it brings Fooju beyond the boundaries of the performance space. It allows them to perpetuate the performance by putting their own creative take on what they see and experience. It's one more means of inviting the audience to collaborate with us. 

While live dance will always be the genesis of my process, I have also always been passionate about film as a way to structure and frame movement. Keenan Parry has been Fooju's resident filmmaker from the beginning, and his artistry with the camera complements my choreography well. His delightfully playful cinematography highlights new dimensions of the dancing that may not have been as apparent during the live performance. He does not document the art, but co-creates it with us. He's also an integral part of our live performances. In our more recent shows, he has dressed in a green screen suit and followed dancers around the apartment with his camera. He's not quite audience member, not quite dancer, but something of a transitional object.  

 

I trust my unconscious, so I rely on chance and circumstance to sift through choreographic choices, allowing mishaps and obstacles to make decisions for me.

 

OW: Who are your influences, and within what aesthetic and conceptual traditions do you locate your work?

 AD: My exposure to collaborative theatre groups such as Elevator Repair Service and Forced Entertainment has influenced my sense of humor and my way of using found movement and improvisation to lay a foundation for my work. Eiko & Koma have inspired my use of time and imagination to modulate my choreography. Elements of Pina Bausch often find their way into Fooju shows: large choruses of dancers, quasi-pedestrian choreography, vocalization, and seemingly disconnected vignettes. Finally, my passion for the legacy of Martha Graham was what initially brought me to New York to study at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and dance with the Graham 2 company; this is the foundation of my dance technique and my choreography.

On the theoretical side of things, I draw from Antonin Artaud’s idea of the dream aesthetic and Richard Schechner’s insights on ceremony.  I am a romantic surrealist with hopes of physicalizing and ritualizing the queerness I experience in my dreams. I trust my unconscious, so I rely on chance and circumstance to sift through choreographic choices, allowing mishaps and obstacles to make decisions for me. If the language of dreams and the language of movement are universal, my aim is to resonate with the unconscious language of the individual. That’s you! And that’s Fooju. 

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Interview by Ana Freeman

 

 

 

 

 

TIU DE HAAN ON ACCESSING WONDER

Tiu de Haan. Credit Neal Houghton.

Tiu de Haan. Credit Neal Houghton.

 

TIU DE HAAN is an Oxford-educated celebrant, creative facilitator, writer, and singer. She marries, buries, and names people, as well as creating experiential workshops that remind people of all ages how to see the magic in the mundane.

My measure of professional success is if I have managed to make people cry.

Odyssey Works: What are you trying to do with your work?

Tiu de Haan: My work is about creating experiences that connect people to the heart, to the possibility of wonder, to each other, and to their own creativity.

As a celebrant, I create non-religious ceremonies, like weddings, funerals, and baby namings, as well as other rituals of all kinds. As a facilitator, I create experiential workshops that wake up the imagination, reboot our innate playfulness, and shift our perspective to see the wonder in the world.

My measure of professional success is if I have managed to make people cry. Or at the very least, get a little shiny-eyed. And I’m only half joking when I say this.

The celebrant work I do is about creating rituals that honor the big moments, the transitions of life, love, and death that merit a moment of reflection, emotion, and celebration. As my line of work entails tackling the big subjects, namely love and death, I have this incredible privilege of co-creating the emotional heart of some of the biggest days of people’s lives. So, yes, weird as it may sound, I am trying to make people cry. Or, to put it another way, to create an experience in which everyone present will feel truly touched.

In the case of the experiential workshops, I aim for a slightly less dramatic result—tears are welcome and they have often arrived, but when I send people off on adventures that crack open their capacity for wonder, I look for shining eyes at the end, rather than out-and-out weeping. An openness, an aliveness, an awe, a joy, visible on the features.

In both cases, my aim is to create moments of real meaning and magic, unique and profound experiences where people connect to the heart as well as to each other.

 

OW: Why create experiences?

TdH: Bringing creativity to the matter of making meaningful experiences is to marry our innate imagination with the very stuff of being alive.

We all create experiences as a matter of course, whether intentionally or not. It’s just that some of us choose to use it as our artistic medium, which is when things get really interesting.

When treated as an art form, experience is like no other medium. It can encompass all sorts of other art forms and weave them into one powerful whole.  It can incorporate the written and spoken word, music, scent, flavor, light, color, movement, and the creation of a physical space that houses the experience itself. It creates a liminal field where everyone has the possibility of contributing to the experience with both their attention and their intention, even if they don’t play an obviously active role. It harnesses emotions and channels them towards a point of focus that has the power to transform. It is inclusive, nebulous, malleable, and potentially profoundly meaningful.

Candle ceremony for families. Credit Robert Davidson.

Candle ceremony for families. Credit Robert Davidson.

It spans all emotional states and needs, too—a bespoke experience can be calibrated to serve joy or grief, silence or celebration, playfulness or empowerment. It can be solitary or communal, simple or complex. It can feed body and soul as well as heart and mind. It cannot be captured and it is fleeting—and all the more beautiful for it.

 

OW: What is the collaboration between artist and audience as you see it? Where is the artwork itself located?

TdH: In my line of work as a celebrant, the term “audience” doesn’t really cover what is going on. Similarly, with the experiential workshops, the artwork is the experience of the people who participate in it. The content is in part my contribution, but ultimately, it is the emotions, realizations, words, thoughts, and experiences of those who step into the frame. They are not merely passive receptors. They are making it what it is by being a part of it, by bringing their energy to the collaboration.

Their participation is what gives the moment the power to transform. I am there as a facilitator, a catalyst, a guide, a creator of the parameters, and the holder of the space—the frame in which we co-create the magic of the moment.

 

OW: What is the role of wonder and discovery in your work?

TdH: The light on my horizon, the point by which I steer in all that I do, is the possibility of wonder. To me, wonder speaks to the moments when something beautiful, astonishing, and enlivening happens and our worldview tilts on its axis and new ways of seeing open up — if only for an instant. It is the state that makes life feel like an adventure. I seek it selfishly, in how I live my own life and navigate my own waters, because it is what lights me up. In so doing, I have picked up a lot of clues along the way as to how to share my findings with others, through the myriad treasures of artists, teachers, explorers, and livers of magical lives throughout our world—as well as through the experiences I create.

There are few clearly defined maps to show us how to reconnect with that universal human experience of awe, delight, and mind-opening possibility—and I emphasize the fact that it is a possibility rather than a probability, because accessing wonder is an inexact science. It exists in the moments, in the gaps, in the tributaries and the serendipities, so you can’t guarantee its appearance. But you can create the optimum conditions that will allow it to happen all by itself.

This is where my work resides. Exploring those conditions, through non-religious experiences, and learning for myself and others how to access and prompt the possibility of that state of wonder at will, in all areas of life, including love, work, and play.

 

OW: You have a unique process for creating your work; talk about how you developed it.

TdH: There is a clear distinction between the process for my celebrant work and the process of the creation of the experiential workshops.

However, in both cases, I start with the moment of most emotive power in mind and work back from there.  The expressions on the faces, the richness of the silence, the tears in the eyes, the inaudible sound of hearts opening in unison following a moment of magic, connection, and power—these nebulous things are my guides and my goals. I keep coming back to them when logistics and practicalities start to usurp the to-do list. I navigate by the light of the heart, and it always shines through if you know to give it due attention and care.

The celebrant work is always bespoke, so that the process is about getting to know the stories of the people with whom I am collaborating. I spend as much time as possible with the people I am marrying, the families of those who have died, the parents of the baby I am naming, or the person who needs a particular ceremony to be created just for their particular needs. The questions I ask are intimate, spanning everything from divergent spiritual traditions, to dysfunctional family dynamics, to the biggest moments that have defined their lives, to the meaning of love itself. I empathize with their emotions, 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.

Marrying a couple under a 500-year-old oak tree. Credit Benjamin Thomas Wheeler.

Marrying a couple under a 500-year-old oak tree. Credit Benjamin Thomas Wheeler.

In order to be able to do my job well, I need to tune myself up to be at the top of my game, both inner and outer, so I have practices I use daily to keep myself present, healthy, and emotionally open. I choose to work from the heart, and so sometimes this means being with raw, visceral grief, as well as vast, heart-cracking love. I am configured for it. I know both love and death all too well. And I consider myself blessed to be able to be a part of such powerful experiences in the lives of others, to learn from them, and to share what tools I can with anyone who chooses to collaborate with me. It is intense, glorious, profound, and the most fulfilling work imaginable.

 

OW: How does your art practice influence your life?

TdH: I don’t know where one begins and the other ends. Since my medium is experience, the way I live my life is my art practice. Without wanting to sound preposterously pompous, the art of living a creative life blurs all boundaries between experience and the creativity with which I try to live. I mean, ok, not every day contains life-changing moments of wonder and magic. But I might argue that that’s just a failure of the imagination.

The world can be a wonderful place if only we know how to see it as such. And that is where a shift of perspective, a reinvigoration of the imagination, and a retraining of our senses can take us. That is what I see as my art practice—indistinguishable from life itself, because it’s not what we see, it’s how we see it. And in seeing the magic, I find ways to draw back the invisible curtain so that others can see, too.

 

OW: Who are your influences? Can you describe an experience in which art changed you?

So many. But in terms of experiences that move the heart, it has to be Marina Abramovic. It was the last day of her residency at the Serpentine Gallery in London, in August 2014. The exhibit consisted of only Marina and her facilitators, the public, and time. I should also say that I was in a very intense and dream-like grief. A week earlier, a huge love of mine had died.

I entered this big white space full of people in silence and stillness. About an hour after I entered the space, I approached a plinth in the middle of a room.  I stepped on and took my place in one of the concentric circles of people, and closed my eyes. It didn’t take long before I felt this enormous sense of love and gratitude cracking me open. I started to hear a kind of voice in my head, which started to list all that I was grateful for. The love I had felt and still felt for the man who had died and the love he had felt, and perhaps still felt, for me. The very fact that people could gather in such a profoundly beautiful way, without a deity or a discipline to draw them together. I became quietly euphoric, tears streaming down my cheeks. I opened my eyes to see that the plinth had now filled up, circles upon circles of people standing in silence, overflowing into the rest of the space which was now full of people also standing with eyes closed and palms open, their faces beatific, intense, smiling, crying, joyful, alive, still.  I stood there a little longer, then I decided to leave while it remained at this silent crescendo.

As I gathered up my things, I saw that there was still a huge queue outside, hoping for a glimpse of the artist. I was asked by a security guard to hang back inside. When the exhibition ended, Marina appeared. She came out to speak to the waiting crowds and the news cameras that clustered together in the rain. When she finished, the security guard told me I could leave. But she was still standing in the doorway and so I had to go right past her in order to exit. She stopped me, held me in an embrace, looked me in the eye, and asked me how I was. I simply said “I am in my heart” and smiled with the tears in my eyes. “Yes! Yes!” she replied, and gave me a huge hug. And then I walked off into the rain, heart open wide, mind still overflowing with gratitude, soul restored, grief released—forever changed.