Cross Pollination

Week 1: Liz and Nick

Liz portrait

Harpist Elizabeth Huston has dedicated much of her career to furthering audience appreciation of music by living composers through advocacy, education, and performances, and has been credited with helping to “bring the harp into the 21st century” by Harp Columneditor Kimberly Rowe. Her 2014 show 14 Sequenzas was acclaimed as the “Most daring presentation of classical music in 2015” by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Elizabeth received her master’s degree in harp performance from Temple University. Since graduation, she has maintained a rigorous performance schedule, including solo appearances in the Delaware Center for Contemporary Art, the Grand Ballroom of the Philadelphia Conference Center, Dalet Art Gallery, the Maas Center for Performing arts, among others. She has performed harp composition workshops at Temple University and Western Washington University, as well as one-on-one work with composers across the US.  Elizabeth is currently serving her first term as the president of the Philadelphia Chapter Harp Society.

 

Nick portrait

 

Nick Cassway received a BFA in painting from the Tyler School of Art in 1990. He has exhibited his drawings, prints as well as site specific installations both locally and nationally. He is deeply vested in the Philadelphia arts community and was formerly the executive director of NEXUS/foundation for today’s art. Nick currently teaches computer graphics, editorial design and brand identity at Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts and Design and is a current Fellow in CFEVA’s Visual Artist Fellowship program.

 


The Logic Model

Here. Listen to this while you read. It’ll help you know what to feel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you wanna do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I dunno.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you wanna do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

(first days are funny things)

 

 

 

 

 

What do you do to warm up?
What are the mechanics of what you do?

 

 

 

 

 

What are the restrictions?

 

 

 

Can I try?

 

 

 

 

 

Did you know that the average age of a classical music audience member in 1995 was 55 years old and today it’s 75 years old? The same people have been listening to classical music for the last twenty years.

 

 

What’s gonna happen when they die?

 

 

 

 

Here.
Take this survey.
It’ll tell you what to think.

 

 

Don’t worry it opens in a new tab so you don’t lose us.

 

Also keep the music playing while you do it

 

 

 

 

And don’t worry. I logged on with Facebook too.

It’s secure.

 

 

 

 

Y’know what, I lied. I didn’t actually log on with Facebook. I created a password and used my e-mail.

 

 

 

 

But I’m sure it’s still secure.

 

 

 

 

Did you feel like the survey answer was true to your personality type?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

….did you even take the survey?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe it would be better if I drew a picture to show you what the week was like…

Here.
photo-10

A. The beginning, and questions about beginnings. An empty room promising [perhaps overwhelming] possibility. Three people sitting on the wooden studio floor, knees up, notebooks open. What if…?

 

 

 

 

 

 

B. 

 

C. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

D. Laughing and weaving lies. Stealing from artist statements, personality quizzes, and the Chinese zodiac. What if we winked at the ways we try to tell each other what to think and how to feel? What if we gave the audiences a survey and then assigned them a “personality type” at random?

 

 

What’s next for you?

 

 


Week 1 Photo Gallery

Photos by Adachi Pimentel

Week 3: Being and Storytelling

Raph is a breakdancer, Adrienne is a director and vocalist, and Manu is a director and clown. Before the residency week started, the three started discussing an interest in masks via email. From what I gathered, they were curious about masks in both a theatrical and an emotional sense. Which are the masks we wear that allow us to pretend to be something we’re not on stage, and which are the masks we hide behind offstage, in real life? Thematically, the week revolved around the act of unmasking, and I’ll go through the exercises that brought this about.

On the first day of the residency, the group decided to take turns leading each other in exercises. Adrienne would lead a vocal exercise, Manu a clowning one, and Raph a dancing one. Of course, Raph said he couldn’t sing, Adrienne complained that she wasn’t funny, and Manu insisted she was a terrible dancer. In the spirit of overcoming fears, they determined that Raph had to sing, Manu had to breakdance, and Adrienne had to be funny. The focus shifted quickly from the artists leading exercises in the things they are good at to the other artists doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do.

Eager to try breakdancing, Adrienne and Manu tried one of Raph’s dancing exercises. Laying on their backs, knees bent, they were directed to “find the hole,” with no further direction. At first, Raph looked on while Adrienne did somersaults, and Manu comically pantomimed falling through the hole. Raph joined them on the floor and turned gracefully over his shoulders a few times, showing us that you “find the hole” by finding the space between your body and the floor and threading yourself through that space. Though the “point” of the exercise was to introduce us to Raph’s style of dance, the exercise encouraged a sense of playful experimentation along with some laughter and flailing.

after raph singing

Next, Manu introduced an exercise I’ll call “Being in Front of an Audience.” The instructions were short; one by one, each person would get up in front of the rest of us and “be.” This meant no thinking ahead, no joke-telling, no forced movement. The exercise focuses on letting no, not forcing a performance in to being, and just allowing yourself to “be.”

I know this exercise sounds like it should have been really easy for Raph, Manu, and Adrienne, but it wasn’t. In fact, I think it’s a very difficult exercise for most trained performers. Performers spend years learning how to perform in front of and audience. Performers are required to bring about a series of premeditated actions when they get on stage, and spend years learning acting techniques that obfuscate this fact. Traditionally, performers are conditioned to perform on stage, rather than enter a state of “being,” the performance flowing organically from that state.

To get at the heart this concept, and to understand exactly what these performers were asking of each other this week, I want to take a quick detour and talk a little more about what it means to perform. If I go to see my friend, Jill, as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. I know that Jill’s actions on stage are not representative or indicative of who Jill is when she’s not on stage. In this example, Jill is performing actions she’s practiced and is repeated. She is “forcing” the performance of Juliet into being. She is not just “being.” This also applies to performers that perform on stage. Take the case of singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell. When Joni is performing on stage, who is she? She is not performing a character like our friend Jill was performing Juliet. Yet, I suspect that when Joni is performing on stage, she’s not just Joni Mitchell. She’s Joni Mitchell performing the very practiced, premeditated role of Joni Mitchell. No matter how confessional, convincing, or personal the performance might be, I think Joni Mitchell on stage is not representative of who Joni Mitchell is when she’s not on stage. From this it follows that traditional modes of performance are almost the opposite of “being” as Manu describes it.

So, what fascinates me about Manu’s exercise? It’s a performance that runs contrary to a lot of what we understand to be performance. “Being in front of an audience” is so different from performing, even if it might not look like it. “Being” is not Jill performing the role of Juliet, and it’s not Joni performing Joni. It’s a little more transcendent.

So, back to the room, in which Adrienne, Manu, and Raph are all about to try this exercise. It was Adrienne who said she could feel her heart beating in her ears when she stood in front of us – not on stage, just in the middle of a big room in front of friendly faces. She stood and Manu guided her through the exercise, offering suggestions like “breathe,” and “try adding in a little movement.” Adrienne stood for a good few minutes, punctuated by deep breathing and a few sighs of nervous laughter. And then, out of the silence, something happened. Or maybe it was that something stopped happening. Adrienne was “being.” Manu invited her to follow her impulses, and invited Adrienne to start swearing as a way in to the exercise. Adrienne dropped into a new body. This body was playful, mischievous, and definitely rude. This body had a silly voice, pointy and piercing. This body yelled a terrible and ridiculous word (that Adrienne would never say) over and over again, each time funnier than the last.

Manu was the last to get up and do the exercise. She had led everyone else through it, and now we all had to lead her in her own exercise. At first she stood in front of us and stood still, looking out. She started shaking subtly, tears welling up in her eyes. “This always happens to me,” she said. She took a few deep breaths and, regaining composure, stood in front of us. Watching her “be” was difficult at first. It’s easy to watch a performance, but this was observing humanity. It was active. It was empathetic. It was hard.

The next day Raph, Manu, and Adrienne started talking more explicitly about the masks they wear. Honest conversations, like the very candid one we had about masks, were brainstorming sessions as much as they were therapy. This particular conversation yielded the idea to use a technique, seen in Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s show, Romeo and Juliet, that would help them “be” on stage. Nature Theater’s Romeo and Juliet consists of two actors reciting recordings of people attempting to recount, from memory, the plot of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Underneath the actors’ faux-Elizabethan garb and hokey trans-continental accents, the actors are wearing headphones, listening to recordings of real people and repeating those stories, verbatim, to the audience. Intrigued by the kind of fidelity this technique offered, they began recording stories about the masks they have adopted in their lives.

Raph went first. He recorded a story about prejudice he faced in grade school as a suburban black boy and how that moment transformed the way he sees himself to this day. You can hear the original recording below:

Manu listened to Raph’s recording through headphones and repeated his words in front of Adrienne, Raph, and I. Suddenly, the story Raph had recorded just moments before was Manu’s. The story was no longer about a black boy dealing with racial prejudice; it was about an immigrant girl in a suburban school facing a different racial prejudice. The words, pacing, and pauses were all Raph’s, but the same words in a different mouth told an entirely different, yet equally convincing, story.

Manu described performing as “being overwhelmed” by Raph’s recording. Left with little time for judgment or interpretation, she was left to recite his words without thinking. This state was similar to “being.” Watching her, I felt uncomfortable. Even though I knew it was Raph’s story, the disjunction between Raph’s words and Manu’s extreme honesty on stage was troubling. Imagining I didn’t know Manu, I started asking myself questions – “Why would a white girl be grouped with the bussed in black city kids?” Then, doubling back on myself, “Am I that sure of her racial identification?” and “Why do I assume she’s female?” Raph’s story directly contradicted the assumptions I had made about Manu, and Manu’s honest delivery made me evaluate what felt true in the story against the assumptions I made about Manu based on her physical appearance.

They continued to experiment with different people reading different stories, and came away with two observations about this technique. Firstly, it works best when the person reading the story has never heard it before and cannot predict where it is going. By the time Adrienne recited Raph’s story, we’d heard it a few times. While it remained difficult to stay with the recording, as an audience member I could tell when she was remembering part of the story versus saying it blind. Those moments stood out because the remembering took her out of the moment of “being.” Secondly, they found that things were actually more interesting when the performer and the narrator were noticeably or physically different. For example, a man telling a story written by a woman, or a person with an accent reading a story recorded by someone who has a different accent. While they were initially concerned that these differences might confuse people, they decided that they were also more thought provoking and challenged people’s assumptions and prejudices in a more profound way.

At the end of the week, sitting in a coffee shop, we all got really excited about the ways this storytelling technique might bring people together. We imagined the power of hearing one person’s recording of their side of a fight, and hearing the other person they’re fighting with tell their story. The other person would have to say the other person’s side of the argument and that could be a really powerful experience. Can you imagine your significant other telling you the story of how you first met them? Can you imagine what it would feel like to hear someone decades older tell your story? How about your boss?

If the beginning of the residency was about these artists unmasking each other by the end they’d found a way to unmask their audiences too. While this was a very process-oriented week (compared to Ken and Cindy’s very product-oriented residency), they walked away with a new way to “be” onstage. While this residency week started in a nebulous place, it ended with a tool that help’s people feel empathy. It encourages people to change, or at least reexamine, their beliefs because it forces them to see and hear their exact words in another person’s mouth. They might be surprised to find them equally true, equally relatable, and equally human.


Arianna Gass is a recent graduate of Vassar College. In addition to documenting Cross Pollination, she is the Program Manager for Drexel University’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio. Her own art practice is located at the intersection of digital and embodied play, and her scholarship focuses on feminism, performance studies, and game studies. You can find more of her writing and work at www.ariannagass.com.

Week 2: Just Up Ahead

Cindy Working

Ken Working

The second collaboration in the Cross-Pollination series was between Ken Kalfus, a novelist, Cindy Stockton Moore, a visual artist, and Adrienne (aka Swim Pony). This group was very project oriented; the majority of tour time was spent telling story we devised together. Consequently, I chose to focus on the process that lead us to that story and the story itself.

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Week 1: The Logic Model

Here. Listen to this while you read. It’ll help you know what to feel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you wanna do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I dunno.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you wanna do?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(first days are funny things)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What do you do to warm up?

 

 
What are the mechanics of what you do?

 

 

 

What are the restrictions?

 

 

 

 

Can I try?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you know that the average age of a classical music audience member in 1995 was 55 years old and today it’s 75 years old? The same people have been listening to classical music for the last twenty years.

 

 

What’s gonna happen when they die?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here.
Take this survey.
It’ll tell you what to think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t worry it opens in a new tab so you don’t lose us.

Also keep the music playing while you do it

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And don’t worry. I logged on with Facebook too.

It’s secure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Y’know what, I lied. I didn’t actually log on with Facebook. I created a password and used my e-mail.

 

 

 

 

 

But I’m sure it’s still secure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you feel like the survey answer was true to your personality type?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

….did you even take the survey?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe it would be better if I drew a picture to show you what the week was like…

Here.
photo-10

 

 

A. The beginning, and questions about beginnings. An empty room promising [perhaps overwhelming] possibility. Three people sitting on the wooden studio floor, knees up, notebooks open. What if…?

 

 

 

 

 

B. 

 

 

 

 

 

C. 

 

 

 

 

 

D. Laughing and weaving lies. Stealing from artist statements, personality quizzes, and the Chinese zodiac. What if we winked at the ways we try to tell each other what to think and how to feel? What if we gave the audiences a survey and then assigned them a “personality type” at random?

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s next for you?

A totally blank canvas

blank

White. Open. Unknown.

This is the feeling I had this morning. This is the premise of this project: Starting from a totally blank canvas.

Not even a canvas. The idea that something has to be painted on. The idea of paint. The idea of having an idea to paint something at all.

Because really, where do a visual artist, a theater maker and writer and harpist logically begin if they want to try and make something together?

foot

This morning I walked into a room with two creators I’d met only once before. I had butterflies in my stomach, big fat ones, like first day of school jitters. We started, carefully, delicately, hesitantly to… What? Carefully try to suss out exactly who the other is and what exactly we might find in this insane thing we’ll be doing.

I thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”

I thought, “I have literally no idea what is going to happen.”

I thought, “Do your best not to fall into things you already know how to do because they are easy, or familiar, or you know how to make them work.”

I thought, “This is terrifying.”

I thought, “It is really tough to know where to begin.”

I thought, “Listen.”

I thought, “Try and stay open to something you’ve never imagined before.”

NickIt is a pace I am so thoroughly uneasy with because it is so thoroughly rare in my regular artistic life. So rare that I allow myself permission not to be in charge, not to have the active working idea, not to try and keep the energy of the room moving forward and productive. As a director, I feel myself wanting to know the answer, wanting to show people their faith in me as leader is secure, wanting to get us on track already towards where we are going.

But all this well-intentioned Midwestern productive attitude-ery also means that you can slip into taking yourself where it’s easiest to lead, rather than really waiting until the very new, very strange, very uncertain thing emerges.

And despite my fear, despite my worry that it feels like nothing is happening, after 8 hours I can see there are some things emerging.

I have put my hands on an instrument I have never touched before. I have watched an artist demonstrate his iterative process – one that normally takes acetate and photoshop and a vinyl cutting machine – on a sideways laptop screen with a piece of tracing paper, some scissors and tape. I’ve enjoyed seeing an actor confront a harpist on stage and I’ve seen that interaction photographed and then turned into a looping gif on a computer screen with a different selection of the musician’s playing as it repeats again and again and again and again and again. I’ve talked about why a video on Vine might be a meditative experience and what it would mean to create audience customize-able art.

I’ve shared a vision for a super strange, exciting and foreign line of inquiry. And despite my fears, I think it’s pretty interesting. Even if I have no idea of how to evaluate it yet. Maybe especially because of that.

I think I also had a moment where I realized that contrary to how I feel on almost every other artistic project I work on, in trying strange, potentially crazy ideas with these two I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

I also ate a lunch of donuts and fried chicken. That was pretty good too.

At the end of the day I am tired. It is work, searching so hard across the ocean of discipline to find some common ground. But tired in a good way. In a way that makes me excited to get up tomorrow and try again.

Thanks Nick and Liz. I’m excited about more to come…

A

An interplay between effort and ease: Lauren Rile Smith and Francois Zayas

Lauren and Francois

The latest “blind date” from Cross Pollination! Today we meet:

Lauren Rile Smith (trapeze, circus arts)

Francois Zayas (music, composition, percussion)

Muscularity mixed with grace. This was a theme that emerged in both their applications.

lauren door 1Whether expressed through a virtuosic solo on maracas or the twisting expertness of a trapeze act, this pairing grew partly from a sense that both acrobatics and jazz are art forms that require intense training, years of study in almost formulaic muscle memory, in order to achieve a sense of freedom and flight in the moment of performance. They are also both mediums that depend on deep trust – of the instruments/objects used to perform, of the people who join us in that performance – in order not to falter and fall.

Francois: “Through all the years of my career I have experienced the benefit of collaboration with other artists many times. This is something that I seek out in francois maracasmy everyday life and constitutes an essential part of my creative process.”

Lauren has mentioned to me in the past that she is often seen as unique in her work for being a woman who acts as an acrobatic “base” or support (a position usually occupied by male performers). It strikes me that perhaps (though I will admit to having had only the first tastes of the banquet that is jazz music) it is also unique to have a percussionist as the leader of a jazz ensemble. In this way both of these creators strike me as participating in tradition while simultaneously innovating within it. It also seems as if your part in your artworks creates a kind of foundation, a ground floor on which everything else can be built.lauren trapeze

Lauren: “I see a powerfully interdisciplinary potential in circus, as an art form that straddles genre, from dance theater to variety-hall burlesque.”

And there’s a parallel too in the way that their works re also a vehicle to express personal identity: be it in the way we are allowed to see a female body moving through the air or in the awareness of how one’s Caribbean roots can be expressed through pulsating waves of rhythm.

Pick three adjectives that describe the stuff you make:

Lauren: feminist, muscular, inventive

Francois: Unique, thoughtful, Cuban

francois drums close

Credit: Alan Jackman

This was a conversation that wove its way through all these things and more: Lauren talking about the way that the aesthetics of ballet are sometimes necessary in trapeze but sometimes not, Francois talking about how standard jazz improvisation has become a default that people expect but might not really strengthen the composition of the music.

Thanks to both of you!

– A