Opening up to Vulnerability
Cross Pollination Residency: January 4-10, 2016
An epic nearly 24 hour overnight with Sean Hoots, Lorna Williams, and Adrienne Mackey literally took them into the air.
Before the start of their week of interdisciplinary explorations for Cross Pollination, Adrienne Mackey, Sean Hoots, and Lorna Williams met a couple times to find shared interests and potential entry points to their time together. From the beginning, they agreed they wanted to push their limits. Early conversations centered around boundaries and expectations, openness and vulnerability. So though they didn’t know how, they agreed that they’d spend their week together finding ways to open themselves up and dig into moments of discomfort. As a jumping off point, they decided they would spend twenty hours of their week together in one continuous session, going beyond a more usual collaborative duration to see how it would affect their process and open them up.
I’m Sam Wend, by the way. I hung out with the trio for the all of their residency, taking notes and recording their experience to share with you from an outside perspective.
Getting to Know You
Adrienne is a theater-maker/director and voice expert. On the first day in the room, spent mostly talking and getting to know each other further, she explained to us that she sometimes has trouble connecting with people quickly and prefers to have more time to genuinely get to know someone. She considers herself pretty private and has strong opinions about the world that she wants to stick to without coming off as disrespectful. This often inclines her towards listening and observing rather than opening up, especially in early interactions. Adrienne has long been interested in vulnerability but has sometimes found it hard to get there, especially as a younger artist. For much of her life, she defined success by excellence, but she has now realized that such a philosophy made finding vulnerability difficult. So, she spent the past several years exploring and focusing on vulnerability as a theme both in her artwork and in critical reflections and writing.
Sean is a musician and writer of songs, solo compositions, and soundscapes who fronts the soulful roots band Hoots & Hellmouth. He has pushed personal limits a lot in the past few years as part of a shift from focusing on the band to a more complete life of artistry. He participated in a Peruvian jungle retreat that led him to massive communal vulnerability and personal revelations, and has since explored other means of catharsis. He has been thinking about ways to continue to let go of things that he’s been holding onto and how to no longer give shame power over him.
Lorna is a sculptor whose work focuses on anatomy and the body. She explained that she wants to defy the many assumptions people make about her when they look at her, and to break boundaries she may not even know she’s put up for herself. She’s often very isolated in her work and doesn’t talk much, which she said is in part because she’s afraid of being misunderstood or of putting too much of her own emotional weight on other people.
The next day, when all three were eager to start “doing” rather than just talking, Adrienne brought a bag of personal objects from her past, Sean a slew of old instruments ripe for dismantling, and Lorna a hard drive of videos of her working on previous artistic projects.
One of Adrienne’s objects was a Build a Bear stuffed dog dressed in punk clothes that a group of her former students gave her after she directed them in a play. As the trio talked, Adrienne pulled that toy apart and integrated it with an old ponytail cut from her hair, a card from her grandmother, and the cloth hearts her students had put in the stuffed animal to create a sculpture that felt to me like a 3-D collage of different parts of her life.
After she’d made this piece, Adrienne explained that she felt done with it – she was ready to move on because the components had been made sense of. Lorna commented that she would never have improvisationally experimented with taking apart and putting together pieces the way Adrienne did. Instead, Lorna is used to treating objects preciously; she doesn’t take them apart until she has a plan for them.
Lorna and Sean found common ground in that their art processes involve constantly changing and rebuilding what others or they themselves have contributed. On the other side of the spectrum, as Adrienne explained, theater is usually about creating a single story/final product, which most people interpret the same way. When that experience has been built, the investigation is complete.
Adrienne’s deconstruction of the dog and these early conversations made the group want more materials and tools on hand for their longer work session. They didn’t know exactly what they wanted to do, but there’d been talk of making an original instrument, incorporating recorded voices into sculpture (inspired by the voice box sewn into the Build a Bear dog), or using pulleys and rope to suspend each other from the rafters. So the four of us left the studio and went scavenging.
The outing brought us to edge of the Delaware River, for driftwood and rocks and found objects; to Home Depot, for tools and ropes and hardware; and to Philly AIDS Thrift, for toys with noise boxes that could potentially be recorded over.
Twenty (!) Hours of Cross Pollinating
The trio laid out the supplies and started taking things apart. The toys felt like an interesting place to start: deconstructing objects, experimenting with sounds they made, and considering what human voices might be interesting to incorporate into a sculpture felt instinctually like a good early integration of everyone’s mediums. Sean DJ’ed, starting with the kind of electronic music Lorna usually listens to while she works, like the electronic duo CRIM3S, and then switching over to some of Sean’s own music/soundscapes.
Lorna tried to take apart a dancing monkey in a specific way to get at its voice box, but it broke in the process. She was so upset by this that she had to leave the room; later, she explained that her preciousness over objects made it really hard to lose control over one. It was a boundary-breaking moment for her that she brought up again throughout the day.
The group took a break from object dismantling for the first “bottle break”: we went out back to the patio adjoining our studio, and the trio each took an empty glass bottle and threw it against the brick wall outside. In one of their meetings before the residency began, they had joked about doing this as a means for catharsis, so Sean brought a whole case of bottles to make it a reality. It became a ritual that was conducted throughout the marathon session, usually when the trio needed a break or felt ready to shift gears to a different investigation/activity.
As we came back inside and the trio expanded their object experiments with other materials beyond the toys, a conversation arose about content vs. form as starting places. Adrienne had trouble not knowing the story of what she was trying to do, while Lorna acknowledged that her regular process was exactly how they were working then: picking things up, considering them, and figuring out ways to put them together. They both wondered if they wanted to be working harder to explore the other people’s usual processes. Sean stayed pretty quiet, and I wondered where his practice fell on the spectrum.
Later, the conversation came up again. Lorna questioned how much they were cross-pollinating, since the only thing different from her usual process was having people work alongside her. They’d started attaching strings from Sean’s old instruments to other objects, and Sean noted that he felt his skill set was being incorporated by experimenting with tension in strings. Adrienne, however, agreed with Lorna that there wasn’t much theater or voice being incorporated, and that she was just taking in what was happening from the others’ disciplines.
They decided to try something new. Stepping away from the objects and tools for a while, Adrienne turned the lights off and led Sean and Lorna in a sonic improvisation. They laid on the floor and listened to the sounds of the room in silence for five minutes, then started sounding themselves, listening to each other and layering noises into the space in response to what they heard, trying to build a connected soundscape.
Lorna found that she had a really hard time opening up to this. She explained that she’s not used to making sounds out of her own mouth, but instead to making sounds with objects and tools; she can easily go days at a time without speaking. Meanwhile, Adrienne compared this to her practice: she talks all the time and is constantly making sounds and explaining what’s happening. Sean said he falls somewhere in the middle depending on the activity. He is quiet for long spells while composing at home, but talks constantly when he’s working with his band.
As they continued discussing their processes, Lorna explained the difficulty she feels in having to always produce a product. She said, “There’s all this pressure around me to create this precious object that can be presented and sold, so I can make more objects. Really I just like working with my hands, and I want the object to function and my intentions to come across. But that’s it, that’s really the goal. […] I wish I could just sell the process, or display or present the process. Looking at this stuff I’m just like, ‘ugh’… I create too many problems or possibilities. There’s no right or wrong, and sometimes I wish there was a right or wrong.”
Adrienne and Sean both murmured in agreement, and Adrienne affirmed, “It’s like there’s a world of possibilities in [the [process of] putting something together, and there’s a bit of a letdown when you have to put it all together.” Sean compared it to an open toy box, how once the play is ready to open or the song to be recorded, you have to close the lid and can no longer see all the options that were so exciting to explore.
Out of this, they questioned whether it was possible to create something that uses that process-oriented philosophy, something that’s designed to be put together and taken apart as a function of what it does.
This felt like a point of transition, so they went outside to break another round of bottles against the wall. This time I joined in, throwing a bottle as well, and found it every bit as satisfying as one might imagine.
After coming back inside, the trio briefly experimented with another area of interest – being bound and suspended, and the way it forces vulnerability by requiring the bound person to give up control of their body to someone else. Adrienne hooked a large C-clamp to one of the rafters, and Lorna attached a pulley from it that the rope could slide back and forth on. Adrienne tried a couple experiments to see if she could pull herself up with the rope, but couldn’t get more than a couple feet off the ground without sliding down again, so they let the task go for the time being.
Then they went back to experimenting with objects, with Sean again DJ’ing music to set the mood of the room. I sat on the tarp and listened to music and soaked in the focused, calm busyness of the room. It seemed like there was a little more intention to this period of time; the repurposing of objects started going towards making a connected musical instrument. It incorporated materials like driftwood, a bike wheel, and a vibrating box in a drum head, connected by strings from dismantled instruments.
No one talked much, but the trio went in and out of working individually and then recognizing how another’s work connected to their own and joining together. The atmosphere of the space seemed a little more peaceful, and I felt like the trio had settled into a flow. Though questions about the “goal” of the work and the “quality” of the intersections of their forms hadn’t quite been answered, it seemed that they were discovering a sense of purpose as they worked.
We left the building to take a delicious dinner break at Pho Ha. It felt good to get out of the studio for a while, and to get to know each other more on a social, non-artistic level. I didn’t take many notes during dinner, but I do remember Adrienne and Lorna declaring a shared antipathy for dogs, because my childhood dog had been sick all week and I’d missed a call earlier that night which I knew even without calling back meant that he had died. But as long as I didn’t return the call or think about it, I could pretend that it wasn’t true. So, in direct opposition of the trio’s search for vulnerability, I walked away from it, in an effort to maintain my outsider’s perspective.
Back at the studio, the trio dove right back into their object projects. Adrienne initially returned to a doll she’d been building out of a mandolin body, a doll’s head, a sock monkeys arms, and the cut-off ponytail she’d brought in with her personal memorabilia, while Sean and Lorna tried to find something to attach to the bike wheel so it would strum the strings on the branch when it was spun.
After working quietly for a bit, Lorna put down her tools and called for a break to clean up the space. She said she couldn’t see anything anymore – after hours of trying one thing, setting it down, and trying another, found objects and Home Depot supplies and bits of fluff from inside stuffed animals were strewn about and jumbled together. It felt like Lorna had tried for a while to push back about her tendency to be precious about objects and need for specificity about her plans for them, but now that she was building towards something specific, she needed the clarity of tidiness back.
Adrienne was still drawn to her mandolin doll after the cleaning, but it didn’t take her long to put it down and come together with the others, whether because she felt like her project was complete or because the instrument structure was more centralized as a focal point in the workspace. Without a conversation deciding to do so, all three had come together to collaborate on a singular piece for the first time.
The sculpture developed into an eclectic instrument that was played by spinning a bicycle wheel, which would hit two guitar/mandolin strings and a tuning fork on its way around. The slightest shift in the height of the wheel or placement of the strings would knock the parts out of alignment and render it soundless, and there was no variation in the notes that could be played. However, after the instrument became successfully playable, the group easily reached a consensus to move on. There was no conversation to clarify if it was because they were satisfied with the creation or if they’d reached the stage they’d previously talked about hating, when work becomes too oriented towards a final product. Either way, it was on to the next thing.
As before, the transition was marked with another ritual bottle break, which I again participated in. This time, we also lit a fire in the pit in the back patio. It was short-lived, since the kindling was a little damp, but offered a relaxing liminal space at the halfway point of the twenty hours.
When we came back inside, Sean spontaneously went over to his microphone and sang a sequence of notes, then ran it through a looper, reverb unit, and analog delay unit to build some trippy sound sequences. Adrienne and Lorna asked him to explain what he was doing, and he told them that his tools can loop sound in live time and play it back while continuing to record new material on top as another layer. I joined them in experimenting for a while, keeping the mic live as everyone brought different objects (from tuning forks to screw guns to hammers on wood pieces and so on) up to the mic to record their sounds and create a many-layered looped recording.
In a way, this was like the machine version of the voice exercise Adrienne lead earlier in the night: the noises made by objects layered in relationship to each other similarly because the technology enabled each sound to continue playing while others were added.
The trio returned to the idea of exploring vulnerability by giving up control to others through Shibari, a Japanese artistic form of rope bondage. This was an experiment Lorna repeatedly expressed enthusiasm in trying; it offered a strong intersection between her work’s focus on human anatomy and the residency’s found theme of vulnerability. I didn’t get the sense that Adrienne and Sean were as interested in Shibari for its own sake, but because everyone was striving for openness, they seemed ready and willing to dig into the experiment. Lorna worked on building a rig from the ceiling rafters, while Adrienne and Sean explored different tying methods.
Lorna and Adrienne tried all different methods to prepare Sean to be lifted into the air, with some contributions from myself and our photographer, Adachi. It took a long time and a lot of experimenting with pulleys and rope-tying and ways to exert force on the ends. Sean waited, bound and immobile, throughout the exploration. He was asked repeatedly if he was okay, if he felt safe and supported. I was blown away at his patience and his ability to stay calm and quiet and totally in the hands of others while unable to move his legs for well over an hour.
Finally they succeeded. Adrienne and Lorna wrapped either end of the rope around their waists – protected by yoga maps to prevent rope burn – and climbed ladders to get a little height. Adachi and I each helped pull one of them down, which finally exerted enough force on either end to lift Sean up into the air from the center. The unexpected side benefit was that not only was he suspended, but Adrienne and Lorna were as well, impossible as it was to pull down any further on either end of the rope.
After Sean was untied, the whole group took another bottle break. The trio discussed what would continue pushing them towards greater vulnerability. Sean talked about how out of his comfort zone he felt being bound and in the air; he’d been, unsurprisingly, very uncomfortable with the rope tied around him, but had committed from the beginning to breathe into the experience and let it happen however it unfolded. I remembered him talking about the Peruvian jungle retreat and about seeing a bone setter for another pain-inducing but cathartic/therapeutic experience, and it made sense to me that he would embrace this challenge. The others expressed eagerness to try it as well.
The tying process for Lorna took an equally long time, but this time the suspension was much easier. They used the lessons learned from the experiments earlier in the night and added a small pulley where either end of the rope went over the rafters, which made it much easier for Sean and Adrienne to pull the rope down. Lorna seemed to be in bliss as she sat bound upright in midair, a common effect from Shibari due to the increased level of endorphins and other hormones from having knots digging at pressure points (similar to acupuncture and Japanese massage). Adrienne and Sean seemed equally pleased, enjoying the back stretch and the unusual feeling of being able to be upside-down totally unsupported when they leaned back in their rope seats.
Adrienne’s turn. The others carefully tied knots up and down her legs, aiming to get a position with one leg up in the air.
Having now reached 4 AM, it was interesting to realize that no one had really gotten tired. I had a couple points of sleepiness when I was just sitting and observing, but being so engaged in their explorations seemed to keep the trio wide awake. I think something about always being in the thick of it – never nearing the end in a way that let them think about sleep as imminent – made the hours of the night blur together. 4 AM was just the same as 4 PM had been: another hour of exploration, rather than the 16th hour and well past any normal bedtime. The time as told by a clock meant very little.
Adrienne’s suspension was a little less objectively successful than the others; there was not enough stabilization under her arm and shoulder, so rather than staying parallel to the ground with just one leg lifted, she was almost immediately upside-down, hung by her raised foot. Still, she felt the lack of control of the position regardless, and said she did not feel cheated by being out of the intended position (or by having to come down a little quicker than the others, since Sean was in a lot of pain from his rope sliding off the yoga mat and swinging him all the way upside-down).
The last nine bottles were smashed in the final round of bottle breaking at 6 AM, one after another after another. The back patio was covered in shards of shattered glass, slowly becoming visible over the next couple hours as the sun rose.
Throughout the day and night, Sean had recorded the sounds filling the room. The trio and I all gathered around his computer and listened as he experimented with different layers and lengthening and shortening of sounds.
Like the rest of the work session, there was little conversation towards deciding to just sit and listen in a return to the interest in sound that had been woven intermittently throughout the twenty hours.
After spending so much time together, everyone seemed relaxed and themselves around the others. Although the work itself didn’t seem affected by the marathon length of the session, openness and authenticity was created seemingly inevitably from the duration.
A final check-in.
Lorna wasn’t used to collaborating or sharing space with other artists, so she explained that she had pushed herself to not be controlling or tell people how to handle objects or take them apart. Since so much of the process became about dismantling, she also pushed back against her instinct to be precious, opening up to the explorations of the whole group.
Sean was very satisfied by fulfilling the challenge of maintaining goallessness. When he works alone at home, not having a goal feels problematically aimless. But here, he had the opportunity to just explore, to find freedom in being open to what others were doing in the undefined space and time.
Adrienne too was satisfied by the goalless creative space. She’s rarely able to maintain that comfortably even in Cross Pollination residencies. This time, though, she felt she found peace with the openness. She was also surprised to find that she created something that she felt was interesting to make and see, a feeling she doesn’t often get when she experiments in the visual art field.
After a day off to catch up on sleep, Sean, Lorna, Adrienne, and I met at Sitar India for a final meal to close out the residency.
They realized that almost without meaning to, they did basically everything they thought they might: they built an original instrument, tied each other up and hung from the ceilings, experimented with sounds, and even smashed glass bottles. And of course, they sought out and unearthed places of vulnerability. In fact, at this final lunch, Sean mentioned for the first time that letting others touch him was rare for him, which came as a bit of a surprise after his total willingness to engage with the tying-up process, without even a mention of that particular discomfort.
Though they achieved all their loosely articulated goals, something about the long stretch of time also made them feel like they were able to just let things happen, rather than like they were constantly working towards meeting a deadline. This was true from my perspective as well – as the person who usually keeps time, I was pleasantly surprised during the twenty hours by not needing to give hour warnings or worry about how much time was left on their schedule.
Most of the conversation, though, focused on the dichotomy between a life as an artist versus a career as an artist. Sean felt like this residency was an affirmation of his pre-exiting shift towards the former, and of a desire to embrace that everything is and can be part of the creative process. Similarly, Lorna applied to Cross Pollination to begin with because she wanted a chance to experiment without a career/product goal. When she started becoming more successful and making more money, as there was a higher demand for her work, she shifted more into a “career artist,” feeling like she never got to play anymore. She moved back to her hometown of New Orleans five months before the residency in large part out of a desire to return to a place that offered a sense of play because of its associations with childhood for her. Therefore, returning to Philly for this program that offered freedom to play gave her what she said felt like a kind of weird closure with her life as an artist in this city.
Adrienne observed that part of what built the sensibility of this residency was the meals that the group ate together. Lunch during the prep day, dinner at Pho Ha, and this final meal intentionally blurred the lines between professional and social, and Adrienne noted that it created a sense of community that she felt acknowledged the whole person and not just the professional artist.
They talked too about the weight of expectations others have for an artist’s work and its order of operations. They all expressed interest in and desire to find ways to work around codified constraints: Lorna said she wants to find a theater group in New Orleans and keep cross-pollinating, so she has the chance to do creative work outside of her “career.” Sean explained that breaks or a hiatus for his band help a lot when there are creative lulls or interest in exploring outside the band’s expected life cycle of content, and Adrienne talked about the ways she’s developed of getting funding for a theater without a traditional season model.
Program evaluative conversation flowed into casual conversation as art flows into life, and at last, everyone said their farewells and parted ways to carry the experience with them into the next thing.
Lorna Williams was born in 1986 in New Orleans, Louisiana. She received her BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art in 2010. She studied at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, School of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia. In 2009, she attended the Norfolk Program at Yale University. Her work has been exhibited at the Studio Museum Harlem, Harlem, NY; Montserrat College of Art, Beverly, MA; and University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA. Williams’ work has been reviewed in The Wall Street Journal, Art in America, The New York Times, FLATT, Boston Magazine, Concierge Magazine, and The Boston Globe, among others. She was the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions including Presidential Scholars Program Semifinalist, ARTS Recognition Finalist, National Foundation for the Advancement in the Arts Finalist, Art and Change Grantee of the Leeway Foundation, Ellen Battell Stockel Fellowship Recipient. Her work is included in the collection of 21C Museum, The Pizzuti Collection and Wellington Management. Williams lives and works in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Sean Hoots is a maker of music and writer of words from the land of West Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Allison, and their animals, Penelope, Behemoth, and Webster. Perhaps best known for his work with the musical group Hoots & Hellmouth, Hoots has been writing, recording, and performing music for over two decades in a myriad of styles, from rock to roots to electronic to just plain weird. This Cross-Pollination project will mark the third creative encounter between Hoots and Mackey and should prove to be the wildest one yet.