Awareness Spa: Finding Authenticity and Meaning on the Delaware
Cross Pollination Residency: November 7-December 6, 2015
With Mark Lord and Shelley Spector, Swim Pony took a deep dive into reflecting on perception and process, creating tiny tours, and mining the artistic potential of a floating houseboat.
From a large pool of applicants across a variety of artistic genres, sculptor Shelley Spector and theater/dance dramaturg/director Mark Lord were selected to spend a week with theater-maker (and Swim Pony founder) Adrienne Mackey as part of Cross Pollination, an interdisciplinary residency program that puts together trios of artists to research the nebulous center of where their forms and processes meet.
Shelley, Mark, and Adrienne met three times before their week together to get to know each other, brainstorm potential ideas and find common points of interest. One of their main ideas for the week was to develop their “ideal” residency, in a space that would feel like a retreat rather than a traditional studio/rehearsal space, incorporating community-building components such as shared meals and focusing on work with lasting resonance.
With these goals in mind, they decided to spend their work week in a houseboat on the Delaware River near Old City Philadelphia. Over the course of their time together, they developed a pattern of trying creative experiments, unpacking them and related threads of conversation, and then channeling those discussions back into new experiments. It was an ongoing flow of process made possible by a dedication to maintaining openness and letting action and reflection continually inform each other.
I’m Sam Wend. Although I was not part of the trio, I observed their initial meetings and the residency. I had the task of documenting Mark, Shelley, and Adrienne’s experience to share the work with you.
This is an essentially impossible task. The trio had conversations of all kinds, including identifying ten defining markers in the timelines of their lives, discussing the results of The 9/11 Commission Report and how the report can motivate art-making in the face of tragedy, and comparing the role of an audience in each person’s creative processes. They cast a miniature version of The Tempest entirely with objects from around the boat and experimented with telling the story through them, gave each other tours around Old City relating to their own lives, and built a communal sculpture out of debris found on the dock at the end of the marina — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I’ve found that there’s no way to fully capture the experience of such a residency week. The three artists agree, but each have different ideas about how to respond to the dilemma. Generally, Shelley seeks concrete, simple documentation that offers solid and specific portrayals to clarify an abstract experience or idea. Adrienne is more interested in capturing the vastness of the experience by using multiple perspectives to achieve greater three-dimensionality. Mark often won’t document at all, since his sense is that the “liveness” of his art-making is intended to be experienced in the moment and that, as the saying goes, you had to be there.
Keeping all that in mind, there are many ways I could’ve documented their week (and quite a few I tried), not one of which would be comprehensive. That being said, what you have here are a few representative moments from the residency. With them, I seek to offer you a sense of the week through a deep dive into a few explorations that embody much of the spirit and themes of Mark, Shelley, and Adrienne’s work together.
Now, all aboard the good houseboat Pisces…
Analyzing for Authenticity
Before the residency, Adrienne, Mark, and Shelley’s conception of a houseboat had a special mythos. It felt like it should be a warm, cozy place, with dark wood and character, the aquatic equivalent of a rustic log cabin in the woods. This image was part of what made a houseboat seem like a good location for the “retreat” effect they wanted out of their location.
The houseboat Pisces was not the kind of houseboat conjured up in such romantic imaginings. It was booked through SleepAfloat (though the group didn’t do any sleeping on the boat), an organization that rents out houseboats like hotel rooms. It felt like exactly that, a hotel room: tidy and pleasant enough, but sterile and unimaginative. As Mark noted, the only part of the houseboat mythos Pisces achieved was in its surroundings: floating on water, next to the brick wall exterior of a neighboring building that was covered with moss and growth and decay in equal measure, moored in a tucked-away marina that felt very far from Philly despite being mere blocks from the most popular Old City attractions. No matter what the space looked like, there was something special about the magic of the surroundings.
The houseboat was tiny, probably less than 300 square feet, but it had everything that one might need to live for a few days. The floor plan looked like this:
Though the boat maximized efficiency of space, it wasn’t completely unadorned: there was a huge variety of nautical-themed decorations, including a small wooden captain figurine, a seagull model with one leg up in the air, a garland made of fish netting, and a fake life preserver. The group commented that it was almost like the decorator was working really hard to remind renters that they’re on a boat. Halfway through the residency, this décor inspired a lengthy conversation about authenticity in art and how context affects perception of value.
One of the decorations was a small wooden lighthouse painted with red and white stripes. It was octagonal, with a door at the bottom that was a third of the height of the whole, far too large proportionally for the lighthouse to be realistic. But that didn’t particularly matter, since the triangular roof also had no hint of a place for light to exude from, making it about as unrealistic a lighthouse as could be.
Shelley in particular hated it, the phoniness of this symbol attempting to make the space more “nautical” without any authenticity. In an earlier conversation, the trio had talked about the value that can be added to objects when they’re associated with people or memories. With that in mind, one of the others asked Shelley if she could love this lighthouse if her daughter gave it to her with some meaningful intention. Even then, Shelley admitted, it’d be difficult to change her mind about a piece of art that so offended her artistic sensibilities.
Someone pointed out that the lighthouse wasn’t just decoration: it was a birdhouse, with a small round hole, a perch, and a looped rope attached to the top so it could be hung from a tree. There was something a little comforting about the knowledge that the absurd structure at least served a real world purpose, but even so it was hard to picture this lighthouse looking right hanging from a leafy green tree.
The group then compared the objectionableness of the lighthouse birdhouse to two other decorations: matching paintings hung on the wall next to the dining room table. The trio found these paintings of model boats against a background of a nautical-themed room pretty absurd, especially since the paintings were in an actual nautical-themed room inside an actual boat. Upon closer inspection it was clear that, like the lighthouse birdhouse, these paintings were just a bit “off.” Looking at the lighthouse pictures in the paintings, the group noticed that the scale of the pushpins in the corners suggests that the boats are very large, and therefore perhaps not models at all. So, they considered, maybe the boats aren’t real boats, they’re just being stored indoors — but that didn’t seem right either, because the boats are clearly sitting on ledges or shelves rather than on flat ground. On the walls of the pristine houseboat the trio thought the paintings felt very “faux nautical,” as if the decorator was trying too hard to represent someone’s idea of nautical instead of actually having any knowledge of the sea.
Mark, Shelley, and Adrienne wondered if there were contexts in which the paintings would seem better than they did on the houseboat, and noted that the paintings featured the kind of design one might be taught at a social painting party. If these paintings were produced at such an event, they would likely be seen as “good” because they’d have been made by an amateur, and amateurs wouldn’t be expected to consider details such as the scale of pushpin to boat, since their primary achievement would be painting a clear image at all. But there on the houseboat, the work had a different context: because someone paid to buy the paintings and then hung them as decorations, they had an implied value and professionalism behind them that set higher expectations for quality and consideration.
Mark thought of an alternate way the paintings could be recontextualized more valuably: they could be said to express something about the poverty of our moment and the tendency to mass produce art or view it commercially. If these paintings were in a gallery by a conceptual artist with a placard describing them as an expression of our moment, they might even be seen as “good,” because what’s “bad” about them would become very intentional. This idea felt in line with hipster culture; it’d be a trendy/witty thing to do, but the trio agreed that it probably wouldn’t be an intrinsically valuable artistic contribution to the world.
These conversations swirled for an hour or more; Shelley, Mark, and Adrienne were always game to invest in whatever was capturing the interest of any one of them. Later in the week, they explored the debris and driftwood-strewn dock bordering the edge of marina. They brought the decorations out there, curious if the genuine nautical environment could lend any authenticity to the faux-nautical art pieces.
In a way, it worked. There was something about removing the items from such a sterile room and putting them on an actual dock, with real water glistening in the background, that made the kitschy items feel a little more like they belonged.
Mark tired of the exploration relatively quickly, but Adrienne and Shelley happily explored artistic placements, including photographing the lighthouse at an angle that made it look like a seagull was sitting on the perch, and hanging the paintings by a life preserver and coiled rope to further their meta-narrative.
When everything was returned to its proper home at the end of the week, the group agreed that they may not have grown to like the decorations, per se, but they felt like they utilized them more than any other tenants likely ever will, and expressed appreciation for the consistent theme of seeking the authentic nautical.
“No one will ever scrutinize those paintings as closely again,” acknowledged Mark.
“Yeah,” Adrienne responded. “They’ll never be as artfully displayed as they were this morning.”
One of the first tangible steps when Shelley begins a new project is to organize and categorize everything in her space. To give Adrienne and Mark a window into her process, she invited them to do that there on the houseboat: to take every item out of every nook and cranny of each room and put them all into categories.
They weren’t quite sure where to start, so Shelley encouraged them to begin with what felt easy or obvious and trust that answers would emerge as categories started to form. Shelley put on a Pandora station of post-World War II era tunes that she likes to work to, and everyone dove in.
Although the houseboat was tiny and minimalist, it quickly became evident that there were far more objects there than one saw from a quick glance around. Before long, all the chairs were stacked in a heap in the corner, stripped of their cushions, which were stacked on the couch with all the pillows. A box of tiny pink pushpins had been emptied, each one individually tacked into the holes of a pink sponge. Two long lines of pinecones found homes next to an autumnal leaf garland. Towels and sheets and pillowcases were stacked high, accompanied by pastel blue hangers the same shade as the sheets. The dining room table became a rainbow of bright colors, where function and even material was irrelevant in deference to color. Each sugar packet was laid out in a perfect grid on the floor, and the utensils were laid out in geometric shapes on the bed. Few words were spoken as everyone moved around each other, switching things from one place to another, opening boxes and cabinets to make sure each individual object had made it out and into a category.
It felt like everyone’s minds were opening up. As she worked, Adrienne lost track of the functions of the objects completely. Mark noted the shift from an initial inclination to reveal everything to a very meditative space of wanting to perfectly align each object (he was responsible for the sugar packet grid). Everyone wished for more space to spread everything out.
After around two hours, Shelley called a halt. This could go on forever, she pointed out, as there was just enough overlap between categories that the group could have continued refining and rearranging again and again and again (why, for example, were the blue hangers grouped with the pastel soft goods instead of in the blue pile on the color table?). The items could also have gotten even more individuated: each sugar packet could be opened up, the granules removed and placed one next to the other.
There were a variety of continuation options available to them then: they could’ve created some sort of event or scene, built an installation out of the objects, continued categorizing, made a timeline or a dwelling, or refined the categories. Shelley explained that in her process, she generally repositions things until she reaches the point where she feels like she really knows what’s there and what she wants to be doing. Sometimes, the whole initial plan for a piece changes or disappears in the process of laying out her options and realizing she’s supposed to be making something else.
Adrienne noted that while she really enjoyed the activity, she wanted more of a narrative to it; there were points when the need for story and content became a limiting factor. She wondered about busting that open and finding the convergence of that need with sculpture-building. Shelley replied that it’s absolutely there; narrative is important in her art-making as well.
Other than when things actively needed to be used for other activities, the objects stayed clustered about the boat in their categories for the rest of the week. By the end, the trio noted that the process completely altered the way they utilized the space and made it their own. Mark commented that this was one of the exercises that pushed him most, because giving himself permission to really tune into the arrangement of sugar packets or the patterns on pinecones felt like an expansion of capability.
After an early conversation about the kind of value associated with possessions that once belonged to loved ones, Adrienne brought in a bag of items that had been her grandmother’s. The most compelling to all three of the artists was a long letter written to Adrienne’s grandmother; despite only Adrienne knowing the recipient, and none of them knowing the sender, the item fascinated them with its embedded narrative and authenticity. It was an item not trying to be anything other than exactly what it was, a letter that hadn’t been made precious. It was just a line of communication from an ordinary person to another ordinary person, and yet evocative of a different era and of journey, absence, connection, and distance. Adrienne, Shelley, and Mark also loved the word choices in the letter; it was rife with slightly outdated whimsical words and phrases like “such good intentions” and “whilst.”
Throughout the week, Shelley expressed a keen desire to engage in the theatrical process. Even after she’d tried a couple exercises and heard a lot about their processes, she felt like she didn’t have a full grasp on what Adrienne and Mark actually do in rehearsal rooms with actors. She explained her image of directors’ work as involving a lot of anger and telling people “No, no, that’s not right.” She wanted a chance to dive into their work as gamely as they had dived into hers with the categorizing.
It’s hard without content, they pointed out. There’s not really a way to demonstrate directing without something to direct; even in a devising process, the prompts are working towards opening up a particular theme or narrative aim. So, Shelley proposed they direct her using Adrienne’s grandmother’s letter as a monologue.
They started with Shelley reading the letter aloud, and Adrienne provided some background of what she knew of the involved parties and where her grandmother was in life at the time the letter was sent. Mark invented some plot and character details that would likely be known if the letter was actually a monologue in a larger play. He also asked Shelley many questions to get her thinking about character and motivation and backstory for herself. Adrienne cast Mark as a character in the scene for Shelley to read the letter aloud to (Adrienne’s grandfather), since no one ever actually reads letters aloud to themselves.
It was evening, dark outside. The room was warm from leaving the heater on during the day and had been made homey from the objects strewn about after the categorizing process and following experiments. For a couple hours, in this cozy environment, Adrienne and Mark pushed and pulled, asking questions and challenging Shelley.
She was fascinated, and later explained that this was one of the most engaging moments for her throughout the week. There was a moment where she looked up from reading to interact with Mark’s character, and realized that he wasn’t Mark anymore, but had become the person she was supposed to be reading the letter to. She was taken aback by how, without saying a word and with so little visible effort, he’d transformed into someone completely different to her, even while she felt like she was unable to produce the simplest performative ideas she was thinking of.
It was an interesting exercise for Mark and Adrienne, too. Adrienne pointed out that she almost never shares space with another director, so there was something unique about working with equal authority with Mark. Mark agreed, observing that there was also a constantly shifting negotiation of their relationships during the exercise, much like the constantly shifting center of the triangle created by three artists in Cross Pollination. Shelley noted that the difficulty was likely expounded even more by how many details they didn’t know, so they were writing story as well as directing and acting.
Shelley felt like her mind was blown open by the exercise, like she suddenly discovered a muscle that had started to atrophy because she hadn’t been using it. She shared how mentally healthy it felt to stretch this newly discovered creative muscle and her desire to continue that practice beyond this exploration.
Mining for authenticity in faux-nautical decorations, categorizing every item on board the houseboat, and turning a personal letter into a monologue to be directed are three experiments that give a window into the week that Adrienne, Mark, and Shelley spent together. Ultimately, though, they show only a small piece of the larger and much more comprehensive dialogue about and exploration into being present and following the authentic artistic impulse. At the end of the week, the group talked about how their cultivation of trust, openness, and gameness resulted in an environment that let conversations and actions be in constant concert with each other, thus making every piece of their residency interconnected. I have done my best to give you a taste of what that means, but to eat the full meal, alas… you had to be there.
Mark Lord is Theresa Helburn Chair of Drama at Bryn Mawr College, where he has taught since 1987. A graduate of Swarthmore College and The Yale School of Drama, he is known for his direction of site-specific theater projects, including the world premiere of Gertrude Stein’s Pink Melon Joy, an award-winning production of Beckett’s Endgame, and Nothing a site-specific Hamlet In/sights, and numerous commissioned productions for the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, including Peter Handke’s The Ride Across Lake Constance, Zone, an existential vaudeville based on Apollinaire’s poem of that name, and Across, an immersive performance spread over a ten-block area in Old City Philadelphia.
His writing on theater and dramaturgy is widely taught and has been published in many leading journals. He has worked as a dramaturg in acclaimed theaters (Yale Rep, BACA Downtown, Actors Theatre of Louisville, The Wilma Theater) and, since 2004, has been pioneering the fields of dance and performance dramaturgy. He has served as dramaturg for all of Headlong’s major productions since 2004.
Mark is the Academic Director of the Headlong Performance Institute, where he teaches Dramaturgy for Performance and is a Contributing Editor of Yale’s Theater Magazine. Still, he opens all his own mail.
Shelley Spector has been actively engaged in Philadelphia’s arts community for years as a respected artist, innovative gallery owner, and champion of emerging talent. In 2015, the Philadelphia Museum of Art presented Spector’s first solo museum exhibition, Keep the Home Fires Burning, a walk-through multisensory experience of wood textile-based sculpture that reflects on our quest for hope, home, and connectedness.
Spector deconstructs found and collected objects like clothing and furniture. She uses the materials to build new forms that explore universal themes like legacy, communal identity, personal history and our environment. Her works are part of many private and public collections including The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the West Collection in Oaks, PA and the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, DC. She has received grants from the Independence Foundation Fellowship in the Arts, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and Leeway Foundation. She founded SPECTOR Gallery/Projects in 1999 and Artjaw.com in 2006, working to present new concepts outside of traditional venues.