Cross Pollination Squared

[Let me start with a moment of clarification: I am not Adrienne. I’m Sam, and as I work full-time for Swim Pony, I have now become a more regular blog contributor alongside Adrienne. She’ll still be writing as much as ever, but as there was some confusion when my last post was published, I just want to make sure I’m not given any false impressions. Also, thanks to MJ Kaufman for the snazzy title to this post. Onward!]

We are knee-deep in our first week of Cross Pollination right now, with Chris Forsyth and MJ Kaufman. My job for the project is logistics coordinator and documentarian; I schedule meetings, book spaces, coordinate bringing in outside artists to help out, purchase supplies, process paychecks, and manage much of the social media and web presence. At the end of each Cross Pollination week, I’ll also be writing and publishing Swim Pony’s official documentation of the residency. All this allows Adrienne to be fully invested in cross pollinating as an artist, without having to simultaneously stress about micro details that take her out of the process.

For me, it also means that I have the fascinating observational perspective of getting to be at every meeting and every rehearsal for every group, to soak in and take notes on the conversations that happen and ideas that develop. The whole idea of Cross Pollination is to bring together artists who would probably never all be in a group or collaborating. Therefore, I am continually struck by surprise over how many parallels exist across different groups, even in these early stages.

Some parallels make sense, of course: with Adrienne as a common factor in each group, it’s not surprising that I’ve heard about storytelling through collage, aversion to plot, and an interest in gaming systems as a way into audience integration in almost every meeting. However, much more interesting are the commonalities that have come up in unexpected ways, which seem to say a lot about how Philadelphia inspires people and the questions that artists of all kinds ask themselves.

Each group starts with a preliminary “coffee date,” where the three artists grouped together meet and do some initial getting-to-know-you chatter to make sure there’s not a horrendous personality clash. Then there are two more preparatory meetings before the group’s Cross Pollination round, which allows time for more concrete conversations about what might happen during the week in terms of both content and form (allowing me to make sure they have an appropriate space and any supplies they can think of ahead of time).

One of our groups, Mark Lord and Shelley Spector, along with Adrienne, had their first of the two preparatory meetings last week. There was a lot of interest in marking art from found objects and spaces, particularly those found in a space that is a really tight, specific container, such as an Amtrak train. They talked about a core value of audience takeaway, about building something tangible and offering a tactile experience, and the desire to work in a space that’s not neutral. There was a conversation about “interventions,” an art term for something existing in a place where it’s not supposed to be (such as when Shelley and her family were offered a hayride in the middle of Philadelphia). The group hit a stride on the topic of undercutting American consumerism, things that could be done in or relating to retail spaces to poke fun at them, or alternatively to bring tranquility into holiday shopping spaces (especially since their residency will be the week immediately following Black Friday). Then they veered back to the idea of objects’ stories and the spirit of gift-giving that exists alongside the rampant consumerism come December. We all left the meeting with heads spinning, excited and inspired to let the thoughts simmer and talk more next time.

The next morning, Shelley sent us a follow-up email that offered a new proposal that brought together many of the ideas that had been discussed: translating the idea of a train into the more diversified subway, and building a collapsible tent or “store” that gives gifts of objects or performance to subway riders. Adrienne responded with interest and curiosity in what can make something on the subway a “gift” in a way that genuinely offers a positive experience rather than bothering people. The conversation ended there for the time being; it will come up again at our final prep meeting, and it’s anyone’s guess if we will ultimately end up doing anything close to that, given the number of ideas that float around in all the Cross Pollination conversations.

But regardless of whether it happens, that idea is out there. Now, let me talk a little about this week… Adrienne, Chris, and MJ’s prep conversations were very different. Topics included family, education, structure vs. freedom, what it means to be “productive,” funders, event coordination, making theatre feel like a rock concert, artistic inspirations, and collaging of different elements in one space. We went into the week with a lot of topics of interest but no concrete plans. The week started with some slow explorations, but towards the end of the second day, we landed on an idea that inspired the rest of the week.

Chris, MJ, and Adrienne tried a couple different ways of layering all their expertises on top of each other: Chris playing guitar, MJ writing, and Adrienne directing all at the same time. One of the later experiments explored the question of how to bring instrumental music to the foreground instead of it always being supplemental to text/plot. Two actors were asked to read from a long, non-dramatic text that MJ had written previously, a sentence at a time, with long gaps between each that let the music swell and exist as the priority. The result was something that felt like a live podcast, with the way the music interwove with snippets of texts in a powerful auditory (but visually relatively unstimulating) experience. The group connected this to a comment Adrienne had made about particularly enjoying listening to music in the car, as part of a journey. So we talked about maybe making this “live podcast” a performance piece in the back seat of vehicles: what if we called an Uber driver, then a musician and two actors got in and suddenly were providing art to the driver?

The next day:
-So, are we riding around in a car today?
-Cars are a little small; we couldn’t all fit…
-They’re also unsustainable.
-…Yeah, driving a car around totally aimlessly is probably not a great idea.
-What if we do it on the subway?

And with that, we were off. We spent the rest of the day riding the Market-Frankford line back and forth, particularly the elevated section going all the way out to Frankford Transportation Center, and experimenting with ways to bring performance into a subway car without it feeling overly intrusive, like something we were offering to the riders but not forcing upon them. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t; there’s still more to explore and tweaks to work out.

But all I could think about was how, totally unexpectedly, we’d ended up doing something so similar to what Shelley had proposed for their week. Artists of totally different mediums, in very different ways and for totally different reasons, hit upon the idea of working on the subway as a public and meaningful place/opportunity to share different kinds of art with people.

As I said, I don’t know if Shelley and Mark’s week will result in subway art at all. But at this moment, the connectedness of these experiences – the fact that each week of Cross Pollination doesn’t exist in isolation but is fed by shared inputs of the same city and issues in the world – feels both serendipitous and meaningful.

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