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An Open Letter to my Awesome Ladies and my Awesome Lady Allies

Before I get started lemme just say if you’re not in the mood to read a lot and just want the details on the upcoming Awesome Lady Squad event, jump down to the bolded stuff down below…


At the end of April of last year, as civic unrest was sweeping Baltimore in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, I was feeling awfully heavy about the world. That sense of weight was born out of the inequity I saw in society, in the brutality of an “othered” community being discriminated against, and a sense of helplessness about what to do about it. It seemed clear to me that I could no longer sit back in my own privilege, that I needed to ask myself some hard questions and begin to find better ways to hold myself accountable for how my personal actions echoed out into larger cultural forces in the world around me.

At the same time, I was teaching a class called Voice for the Stage. The course was structured to end with students performing a monologue of their choosing in the college’s main stage theater, a place that required them to show off their newly acquired vocal prowess. During the final session of that class I watched a female student perform a monologue from the movie Lord of the Rings in which she took on and totally owned the character of Gandalf the Gray. As I watched her I felt a moment of something cracking. It was a thread that pulled on my desire to show empathy for those who were suffering unfairly. It also pulled on the frustration I felt as a teacher for the way that our society’s impoverished narrative landscape had pushed so many of my female students towards male roles as they sought to embody power and status as characters.

In the wake of that class, I wrote a post for the Swim Pony blog called A Million Female Gandalfs. That post was my attempt to make sense of a deep heaviness I felt at the time. A bit from that writing:

I have seen female Gandalfs and female Jack Nicholsons from A Few Good Men. I have seen African-American students play Abraham Lincoln and Tom Cruise and Liam Neeson (saving his daughter from kidnappers) and Liam Neeson again (this time fighting wolves in the woods). Today I see two girls with long black hair, girls whose heritages are both Mexican, play Carrie Bradshaw and Gretchen Weiner from Mean Girls. I am sad that between the very occasional For Colored Girls… monologue there is so much Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap and Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone.

Another quote from farther on in the piece:

I think about the stories we as a culture force on people without their consent. I think about how we also allow those stories to be forced onto people while apathetically doing nothing. It makes me think about the way that stories about thugs and gangs and riots are used to distract us from the larger more terrible and oppressive stories about the world we live in. It makes me think about the way that we shove these stories into the brains of children who do not yet have the ability to judge these stories for the garbage they are. I think about all the work we are now responsible to do as adults to pull them out of ourselves.

Awesome Ladies and Awesome Ladies’ friends, I don’t know about you, but the last few weeks have evoked a lot of the same heaviness of feeling. I’ve been feeling a lot of the same sense of frustration about the landscape of dialogue and narrative we’ve been living in. And similarly, I don’t have a clear sense yet about what exactly it is we do about it.

But, once again, I do know that I can’t sit passively by.

And so.

I’m reconvening the Squad.

Because if there’s anything possible to be done, I know that Awesome Ladies are the ones to do it. And thanks to a generous space donation from Headlong, Swim Pony’s Awesome Lady Squad will host:

A Two-Part Awesome Brainstorming Town Hall

Monday Dec 5 from 8 – 10pm &

Saturday Dec 10 from 2 – 4pm

at Headlong Studios (1170 S Broad)

The focus of this time will be to share our feelings and responses to recent events, imagine some concrete actions that we as an intersectional Lady community might imagine being useful to the world, and come up with a plan to put our Awesome might into action.

Come to one or both armed with your ideas and your readiness. We’ll do our best to facilitate a convo that helps create a plan of attack from there.

RSVP to SwimponyPA@gmail.com if you can (though please still come if you haven’t and pass along to anyone in the creative community you think would want to take part) so we get a sense of size to watch for.

Keep on Awesome-ing and hope to see you soon.

– Adrienne

Orlando

True fact.

On the dressing room mirror of the Macy’s bridal boutique at the Cherry Hill mall there is a decal that says the following:

Be the kind of SPECIAL you want to be.

If you are Adrienne Mackey such a decal will make you cry.

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Now I’d like to talk about Orlando.

(deep breath and another warning shot to those who might need it)

I have followed the story of the Orlando shooting with the predictable mix of sadness and anger. I do not carry an LGBTQ+ status and in the aftermath of the events, I’ve felt a thorny mix of privilege and frustration: a feeling that has coalesced into uncertainty about what exactly to do, lo these several weeks later, for the beautiful colleagues and friends and students that I know and love who have been reminded with this event that no, they are not safe and that yes, they are under attack, and that indeed, we still live in a culture that denies them the equity they deserve.

And in my sadness and privilege and anger, I’ve wanted to come up with a plan of action because this is how I understand myself useful in the world: not in my sympathy or feelings (which should be a given), but in my doings towards different outcomes for the future. I want to come up with something that moves our culture even a tiny step away from such a thing that seems so thoroughly and obviously horrible.

Weirdly, I have also spent the last weeks planning a wedding.

It’s my wedding, if you’re wondering, one that has been in the works for about 8 years now. Or rather it’s mostly not been in the works for 8 years now. Up until a couple months ago when I told people I was engaged and they said the usual, “Oh my god! Congrats! You must be SO SO SO HAPPY!!! When’s the date?” I would usually look at the ground and tell them that it’s not that big a deal and we’ve essentially been all but legally married for a while now and please, please, please just don’t make a big fuss about it.

There are a lot of things about a wedding that freak me out, many that I am only just beginning to realize the depth of my discomfort with. I don’t like engaging in an activity that makes me feel so poor. I don’t like events that constantly put me in a place to feel super girly and hyper stereotypically feminized. I don’t like feeling that my relationship to a man (however genuinely wonderful he happens to be) is the most salient feature about me as a person.

For a long time after getting engaged, my husband to-be and I continued not setting a date and thus the wedding just kept not happening. At some point, when the length of betrothal got long enough (somewhere on the scale of three years) people started to tilt their heads and raise one eyebrow and then sort of shrug their shoulders about it with a meaningful kind of look and say, “Huh…” or “Oh… That’s interesting… What are you waiting for?”

Eventually, when the engagement got really really long (somewhere on the scale of six years) people would say the same thing and then I’d see this silent other thing pass through their faces which I always took to mean, “Well clearly you can’t really be in love and want to marry this guy if it’s taken you so damn long to get around to doing it, I mean Jesus, he’s already given you a ring, girl.”

On the Sunday when the news of the shooting broke, I had tasked myself to follow up with a myriad of emails to caterers I’d been putting off all week. It seemed about the single stupidest thing to be focusing on the midst of such a terrible tragedy but my mom and I had planned months before that she would come into town and tag along with me on a variety of wedding related events the following few days.

So this is what I did in the midst of the news about 49 innocent dead people: set up meetings to talk to people about dress fittings and pressed bamboo disposable plates and rose gold earrings that matched the shoes I’d ordered.

“You family is safe. You partner is safe,” I kept thinking as I did all this. “Do not take these blessings lightly.”

At this point, I’d like to say for the record that I love my partner. I care about him deeply. He is unequivocally one of the most important people in my life. But on the same token, taking part in the stereotypical “head over heels” goo-goo ga-ga romance narrative one sees in dumb rom com movies has always made me feel uncomfortable.

The most extreme and cliché stories about romantic love – one in which a person happily, eagerly, gives up their individuality and throws themself into being part of an eternally linked soulmate-style couple – uniformly upset me. Women who take their husband’s names freak me out. Wearing a veil and dressing in the symbolism of white, walking down an aisle and being “given away” from one man to another, standing in front of people all dolled up like the star of some wedding play I’ve dreamed about my entire life, all these things feel like they cut hard against aspects of my self-definition that I’ve worked quite hard to cultivate in my life.

There are plenty of people that take these traditions and re-appropriate them in ways that make them happy, and for those folks, power to ‘em. For me, such rituals are things that feel disempowering and trigger-y. They make me feel like an archetype, like a generic thing I don’t identify with. They make me feel like an imperfect version of “bride” rather than the actual person I am.

And at this point, let me say that I’m going to try not to “wedding” all over Orlando. One is a huge and massive tragedy and the other is a small and totally self-oriented event. One is so so so big and the other so so so small.

At the same time, I bring up my personal struggle over my wedding because I see it as an example of the sensation that arises when one’s personal sense of self is in conflict with a larger cultural story. Surprisingly intense feelings of helplessness have sprung from moments in which I feel myself wholly out of sync with the way that I sense this wedding story is supposed to be told.

It feels like there is this way, a way that we all can sort of intuitively feel, that such a thing is supposed to be done. And yeah, sure, one can unseat and come up with an alternate solution to every single one of the defaults. It is indeed possible to ask to please not be shown a white dress, or quietly undercut people’s assumptions that you believe that this is the most magical day of your life, or say that no you really won’t need to set up the dining area like a 12 year-old’s idea of a royal palace. You can politely negate the assumption that someone will give you away like a set of family dishes or awkwardly explain that you have to check with your partner about the rental agreement not because he’s in charge of paying for shit but because he actually and seriously cares about the aesthetics of table linens, maybe more than you do if we’re honest, and he’s the one whose done most of the research on decorative place settings.

One can do all these things but eventually it just gets tiring explaining that all the things people assume about you are wrong. It’s tiring even when they aren’t mean about it. It’s tiring because you have to keep doing it over and over and over. It starts to feel like you’re being a pain in the ass when you just wish someone would shut up about telling you that you’re going to look so pretty. It’s even more tiring to try and explain that it’s not even that you hate looking pretty, you just wish pretty was maybe 2% instead of 99% of the data coming at you.

You can do these things but – for me anyway – it mostly feels like you’re some kind of cranky and difficult person that hates the things that everybody else blissfully and easily loves doing. Like you’re some kind of problem that needs to be solved.

Here’s a thing I kept thinking about in my cranky difficultness and privileged sadness of wedding planning in the wake of Orlando: I don’t think people go from zero to massacre. I don’t think people are born murderous.

I think they accrue tiny morsels of discomfort within themselves, discomforts about things in themselves they do not like and discomforts about the people around them they do not know well enough. I think these discomforts can slowly aggregate into a kind of soil into which hate can be seeded. And I think that once in a while such seeds find a particular climate and soil that grows into the kind of rage that makes an Orlando.

Tangent: once when I was in high school, a close family member told me that the idea of two men dating each other made him uncomfortable.

As I remember it, admittedly now nearly two decades later, we were out to dinner when the topic came up. I was performing in a musical at the time and mentioned offhandedly that the lead role of the play had been double cast – two young men splitting a role and performing it on alternate nights.

“You know what’s funny,” I said. “I think they’re also together. Both pretending onstage to like the girl playing the lead while offstage they’re dating each other. At least, that’s the rumor.”

“Can I admit something?” my family member said. “The idea of two men holding hands, kissing, anything romantic… It weirds me out. I mean, I know that’s wrong. I would never do anything because of it… but if I’m honest, that’s how I feel.”

I remember a very particular state of dissonance that my relative kept articulating: that logically they understood it was not good to feel grossed out by a man holding hands with another man they care about, but that this “ick” factor was an instinct, one born out of the environment in which they were raised.

I think there are stories that as a culture are collectively comfortable with and I think there are those that we are not. I think some stories cause this discomfort simply because we haven’t encountered them enough. Like the first taste of coffee or red wine, they are foreign and untested to the aesthetic palate and as such give our senses a shock. But such discomfort doesn’t appear because they are bad stories. It is simply that our brains and guts have not yet figured out what to do with them in their newness. As we grow, hopefully, we learn to widen our circle of comfort and not only tolerate but appreciate the ways in which such things make our lives richer than we have previously known the world to be.

But what if we don’t? What if we spit out otherness and confine ourselves to only a small number of definitions about what stories are good stories to hear? What if we continue to needlessly limit our ability to acclimate to such diversity of narrative? What happens when we confront people who do not, cannot, and should not need to fit their tales into the limited palate we have created?

And as I wrote in regards to another mass shooting, I have been wondering in the wake of Orlando if this kind of rage might not stem in part from a kind of poverty in our narrative landscape. I wonder what would happen if we lived in a world in which we had swaths of stories about lives that looked like the ones in all those tragic articles I have been reading: ones about people living as theme park ride operators and travel agents and restaurant managers and community college students while simultaneously being gay.

What do we do with people who elicit discomfort in us because our experience is not yet adequate to the depth and fullness of this complicated world?

What we should do is figure out how to hold our discomfort in our mouths and taste it for richness. What we should do is sit with that discomfort and wrap ourselves in it so that we might get to know it. What we should do is mine our own patterns of defense so we might notice when that discomfort is everything to do with we the havers of dissonance and unquestionably not to do with those that provoke it within us.

But this is hard to do when we live in a culture that gives some of us the leeway not to bother.

It is hard when some of us are never required to imagine ourselves holding the dissonance of difference, when some of us never have to bother to strengthen the muscles of such holding.

What if we had, say, a whole three mainstream sitcoms or rom coms or heady dramas in which the central romance between main characters we narratively invest in wasn’t a straight couple? And not because they are doomed or tragic but because we like watching such a couple fall in love? What if we had a lead character that was trans and their trans-ness wasn’t the point of the story?

Is it possible that if we decided something like those things were important that the inherent discomfort of such things might be something we all had to practice getting comfortable with earlier and more often?

This is what I was thinking about as I tried to be the kind of SPECIAL that I wanted to be.

And so it was that Orlando plus one final stink eye from the saleswoman communicating nonverbally that I was being the bizarre kind of woman who seems not to want to be beautiful and happy and celebrate my love in a white dress made me start to cry in the Cherry Hill Macy’s bridal salon dressing room.

Just before it happened I said I didn’t want to wear white. The woman replied, “Ah ok… So a color more like… Champagne? Or Eggshell?”

And as I walked into that dressing room with a dark blue dress she begrudgingly handed me I was so fucking mad at that stupid woman and her shitty pen with a giant fake flower taped to it for being able to make me feel small and dumb and unlike the person I generally believe myself to be. I was so fucking mad she had elicited this feeling over something as insignificant as a color choice. I was so fucking mad at myself for feeling sorry for myself three days after a crazy person shot 49 people for no reason other than just being who they are.

I looked at that word “SPECIAL” hovering on the mirror and I just started bawling. I stood there weeping over feeling so tired at having to re-write the script of my wedding story in all these tiny but slowly accumulating ways. It was a moment of actually letting myself feel the freaking work of subverting all the defaults of this one dumb ceremony that I voluntarily bought into. It was, to paraphrase Ann Patchett, the realization that I was reading one slender volume of such hardship while others I cared about had catalogued an entire library. It was me feeling so goddamn angry at the stupid vinyl decal that lyingly promised to hold people in their specialness in their moments of major personal catharsis and growth.

I see the story written on that Macy’s mirror in this way: the world would appreciate it if you, the dissonance provokers, could just be a little less weird, that it would be great if you could just make things a little less hard for those of us that aren’t used to your desire for otherness, that if you could just default into a story that’s not quite so umm… odd it would be easier, and if you could just do things in this way that’s a little less stereotypically gender-non-conforming this story would just be so much better and satisfying, so yeah, if you can just be a slightly different kind of person than the one you are and act a little more normal so that you’re recognizable as something I am used to seeing, if you could do all that it would be so so so SO great!

I mean, you don’t have to be exactly the same – be the kind of SPECIAL you want to be! – but a little decorum would be appreciated.

So.

(deep breath)

Here’s what I figured out about what I think we can start to actively do.

I think we find the moments in which we feel a dissonance within ourselves and note that we could give over to the ease of weakness, that there are times when we can sense in the back of our minds and hearts that what the “other” is asking of us is to imagine our usual stories in a way slightly out of our “normal” conceptions and that it would be easier for us to do what feels comfortable.

And then we actively work to make the opposite choice.

I think we intentionally work to put ourselves into such places where we must hold discomforts. Not the discomforts that we have already acclimated to. Not the red wines and coffees we have already learned to love. No, we put ourselves in places where these dissonances make us itch, where they make us feel weird and maybe stupid, like we can’t instinctually sense what’s “normal.”

We put that discomfort in our mouths and chew on it until we’ve acclimated to the taste.

This cannot happen if we fill our theaters’ seasons with love stories only between women and men.

This cannot happen if we never allow those who look unlike us to design, act and direct for our companies.

This cannot happen if we only cast minorities as sidekicks to the central journeys of straight white cis male characters.

I think we need to look at our choices and say, “Hey, it feels a little weird to let this person do this thing that I am not used to someone like them doing. It feels like maybe I’m taking something from this white/straight/dude/cis/whatever person who I know is super talented and with whom I am used to working. It feels like it’s a little out of my comfort and knowledge zone. But I’m going to trust that the dissonance I feel is the thing that eventually gives me a wider understanding. That discomfort is an opportunity to take my own internalized and problematic instincts and make them mine to hold.”

I think this is what we do so we starve those fertile climates of hate of the seeds that grow rage.

I think this is what we do to truly let people be the kind of SPECIAL they want to be.

I think this is what we do to help stop an Orlando.

So for now, it’s what I plan to do.

– A

 

This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.

young me now me

Quit romanticizing whatever you had then. Whatever it was, you can always get it back again…

Several weeks ago I was on the phone with my sister.

She lives in Knoxville and among other things runs a business in which she sells delicious pastry treats under the aegis Dale’s Fried Pies. Her pies, I think, are something like my plays. They are the most obvious manifestation of what she does with her days. They, semi-imperfectly, become a container for her myriad of interests. They become a vehicle for the underlying questions she wants to explore. Anyway, Dale and I were on the phone several weeks ago. She was in prep stages for an official opening of a new building she and her husband purchased, renovated, and turned into a professional kitchen, office, art gallery and community space called The Central Collective. I was just coming off of opening The Children’s Hour at Ego Po and was readying to head into another tech this time at Drexel for some Halloween Lovecraftian silliness with my student cast for From Beneath It LurksDale told me about the myriad million little things she was discovering one needs for a building about to open to the public in a shmancy ceremony complete with a mayorial ribbon cutting: paper towel dispensers and garbage cans for example. I told her about the emotional drain of gearing up to head into another weekend of 12-hour days and lots and lots of light cues.

At some point, Dale said to me, “I mean it’s good. It’s not hard, really. Just busy. There’s just lots and lots to do. But it gets done, right? In some way it gets done.” At least, this is some approximation of what she said, to the best of my memory’s ability to recall.

And, in the best of my ability to remember my response, I stepped off the curb at Tasker and 10th as I walked to the subway and replied, “Yes. I mean, all the times I have down time and I’m dreaming about doing my work. All the times I’m imaging the future utopia I’ll be in when I’m making the art… This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.”

When I think back to the projects I enjoy the most in retrospect, the only thing I regret is that at the time I was so busy in the making that I often forgot to remember that I was there in the present tense moment. I’m so often imaging back to a bygone time when the work I made was younger, simpler, more directly created somehow or thinking ahead to a day when I’ll be making that ideal project in that ideal way with all the support and resource I don’t currently possess. It’s a comfort in some ways, this imagining that at some point in the past or future there’s this amazing thing. But it also means that that amazingness is never actually happening.

Has there ever been a milestone that when actually achieved felt solidly like the end of something, like a destination?

Maybe you all are better than I am but if I’m honest the answer is: Not for me. Too often by the time I’ve gotten to the thing I set out to do in some “back then” moment, I’ve already defined a plan and a road map to some other future moment when for sure this time it’ll really be the thing I need and actually feel like I’ve landed.

When was the last time you stopped for a second, a minute, an hour, and thought about the fact that the thing you always say you’re waiting for is in some way happening right this very now?

What if in that brief sliver of time we just all stopped to relax and enjoy our work in its present tensity?

For today, this is my mantra, however humble it may be: “This is it, I guess. It’s happening now.”

Week 8: Exploring Shame

Jaime Alvarez, a multimedia artist and photographer, Adrienne, and Magda San Millan and Chelsea Murphy (aka Magda and Chelsea), dance and performance artists, came together for a week to think about the performance of shame and depictions of shame in art. How do we document shame? How can we recreate the feeling of shame or inspire it in others?

Early in the process, the group came up with the idea to create “still life images of shame,” brainstorming ideas about specific gestures or situations that might communicate that emotional state through art. Examples included images in which people were laying face down on the floor, hiding their face, or looked as though they were “caught” by the camera. The group was also interested in creating images of things that “might feel shameful” while making them feel “soft or inviting [by] diffusing them with pleasure.” Interested in experiments that would integrate elements of vocal improvisation, performance, movement, and photography, they set out to find ways to expand their own perceptions of live performance and photography. As a witness to this process, I will offer some insight into the exercises they performed during the course of their research, as well as what was going on just outside of the frame of some of the photographs captured in their sharing, here.

A brief critical context might help frame the experiments they conducted throughout their collaboration. Conversations throughout the week coalesced around the differences in both temporality and subjectivity between live performance and photography. Live performance disappears as it is happening; those exact moments in time can never be recreated or repeated. Photographs, however, are indexical signs of the past – they capture a moment “as it was,” preserving it precisely and in perpetuity. Similarly, as a medium, performance capitalizes on the subjectivity of individual performers while photography has the power to objectify and reproduces subjects. These distinctions prompted them to explore how they might combine live performance and photography in ways that challenged the traditional intersection of these two mediums: bad PR photos. What could they do instead of using photography to document or prove the existence of performance?

As a way through this question, the group experimented with “translation.” What if a photographer listened to a violinist, then used photography to recreate that music without capturing the actual violinists’ performance? As much of Jaime’s previous work proves, photography can be used to create art that is non-literal and non-documentary. The group brainstormed ways to use photography as an instigator, and end-in-and-of-itself.

The early exercises the group worked with were movement and vocal improvisations. Magda and Chelsea lead the group in exercises that required a leader to influence the movements of their follower with touch, and later, sound. Leaders would translate an impulse they had into the body of their follower, concentrating on different touch and sound qualities. A brusque or rough touch might inspire a skeletal or jerky movement, while a deep sound may encourage a follower to sit down or plod forward in a heavy way.

The group continued to explore the interactions between live performance and photography, creating movement-photography duets. One person was directed to move or complete a series of actions, while the other would follow with the camera.

Chelsea and Magda created a movement piece in which Chelsea moved throughout the space while Magda followed her with the camera. It was fascinating to observe this documentary dance, noticing the ways in which the framing impulse of the camera influenced Chelsea’s movement in the space. At which moments was she most conscious of the camera’s gaze? How was she responding to Magda’s efforts to frame the photograph? Magda’s dance as she maneuvered the camera was not captured by the camera’s lens. Instead, her movements are recorded by the perspective of the images in this series. This photo series is the translation of a movement impulse into a photograph.

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Another translation exercise required everyone to think about what they are ashamed of and prepare a self-portrait. Chelsea drew a picture of herself, titled “Vapid Teeny-Bopper Portrait”.

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Here’s what she had to say about the drawing:

Chelsea Murphy: I am small and I’m cute on the outside, but on the inside I’m not cute. Sometimes I don’t even feel like a girl. I am bigger than that. I’m like a young boy and a grandma. I counteract my outside by taking up more space. I’m really afraid of being called stupid or ditzy, I make my voice lower. I try to own the bigness of me.

Arianna Gass: Why did you draw such big eyes in your photo?

CM: I feel like big eyes make me look like a little stupid girl.

AG: And the headphones?

CM: That’s a teeny-bopper thing. The thing I’m shameful of is that [this picture] exists in me. I didn’t expect to feel shame [while] taking these photos, but I totally did.

Taking her drawing as inspiration, the whole team worked together to create a “shameful” scenario for Chelsea. We had 90s pop music playing loudly, we gave Chelsea some gum to chew, Magda chose her dress, and everyone shouted encouragement as she posed for the photograph. Here’s one of the shots:

Chelsea

Sometimes, these shameful photos took more than just a scenario. Adrienne’s shame portrait was about being “afraid that I’m a huge giant that crushes things, that I’m too big, I make big sounds.” She had brought in an assortment of objects that evoked shame, including a box of jewelry she had broken on stage while performing as The Truth. Magda commented that if Adrienne was afraid of being too big, she should pose in a “barbaric” way. As we had with Chelsea, we costumed Adrienne and got her to pose in front of the camera, but a costume, some music, and encouragement weren’t quite enough. As Jaime captured the photographs, Adrienne started to sing opera. Soon, Magda and Chelsea hung off of her arms, just out of frame. We had Adrienne bang loudly on a drum. It was not enough to create the situation – she had to perform it.

AdrienneBarbarian

As the group continued to work together, they experimented with more photo series, both posed and improvised, that included aspects of shame and the translation of musical or movement impulses into photographs. Photographs of Kewpie-doll Magda; hair, both chest and pubic; bare bellies and butt-cracks were the results of this work, and they all proved that photography could augment live performance, working in more than just the traditional documentary realm.

In several photographs, they demonstrated the ways that photography could capture what was never really there, or erase what exists.

blue cloud

no head

They also showed ways in which photographs could tell a story, and how the modern dance structure of accumulation could manifest itself visually.

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Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 10.45.11 PM

This residency week culminated in the creation of a “story box of shame” – a series of photographs and one transcribed story that evoke and invoke elements of shame. The box is like a Flux Kit: a mixed-media experience that encourages participants to excavate their own feelings about shame. Shame is a floating blue cloud or disappearing white glow. It is exactly how dumb we look when we are dancing, or moving, or singing, or smiling. It’s what we fear we are, or know we aren’t, but still think about sometimes. The box (or digitally, the PDF) is more than a record of this collaboration. Its a short performance, an uncanny dance of those things that we hide away, that make us blush, that beg for a second look.


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.

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

Singing

Close truthLast night I finished recording backing vocals for a second album with Johnny Showcase.

It is a funny thing, this.

Funny to think that there might be people in the world who pick up this object or pull its digital instance out of the interwebs, and might see my name and think, “Oh she’s a professional singer.”

This strikes me as so impossibly strange.

How can I explain why?

Well…

It is funny to me because this thing has always been something of a joke on the audience. I’ve always done it in a kind of air quotes way, as if to say, “If I were a singer, and I knew how to sing, and I were someone who did this, this is what I’d do.” When I sing I play act at a character who is a singer who thinks they are amazing. I pretend as if I am someone who is fierce and believes fully in her own ability. I play someone who is almost bored with this endeavor and wears the virtuosity of performance with an almost disdainful air.

I can sing in this way because it is so pointedly not me. So not me that I delight in showing it, like a magic trick, to those who have seen the “real” me and watching them meld these two disparate pieces into a messy collage. They know me as an intellectual, a thinker, a director, a serious type. The sequins, the makeup, the eyelashes, the hair, these are costumes yes, but they are also talismans of transformation. They are portals that allow me to transcend the self that I tend to walk around in and become free. And their power feels tied to the audience. Without a power that summons them forth, they have no meaning and they are not able to be filled.

In the spaces before the transformation, in rehearsals and the studio, I am a hybrid half formation. I am not onstage, I am without my armor and I am so much more clearly myself. It is here that I can grow nervous and tense. It is here that I have to take responsibility head on. It is here that I am simply a singer trying to sing a song. And it is here that I feel like a fraud and a fake who has been getting away with this for a long time. It is here, every time that I hope that I will not expose myself too much as a counterfeit.

Something that I have learned: every other person in the room knows more about this than I do.

This is not false modesty. It is simple objective truth.

If you ask me what things I can claim some level of expertise at I will say that at one point in time I knew a lot about a particular bit of chemistry. I currently know a lot about a particular brand of theater making. And as with anything, the more one learns, the more one realizes that there is so much more to know. But in theater the confrontation of the unknown has become itself something familiar. I know that I can walk into a room and run a rehearsal. I know better how to take comfort in the early stages of a process. I don’t fear my capacity to produce a show.

On some deep level, somewhere along the way, I gave myself permission with theater. As a director, I can say that I really do believe that my “right” is just as right as another’s. And so my work flows from a place where I see that the formal structures I began with are scaffolding that eventually can fall away if I need to build in a new way.

Not so with singing.

I have pursued music with a kind of “Really? Ok… If you think I ought to” attitude from the beginning. I sang mostly because people said I had a nice voice. I sang because I was rewarded for doing so. But I don’t think I can say that I sang because I loved my voice. I didn’t sing because I needed to, I sang because it seemed like something I could use as a way to be special or impressive. All my singing was for other people’s ears.

And so my measure of musical success was also in the ears of others. My sound was “right” only in as much as it was valued externally.

My formal study of voice was plagued by constant uncertainty. I did not have a terribly developed ear, pitch matching and recall were middling at best. I had little aptitude for music theory and too little time or space to really devote to its study. What I did have was a decently developed instrument for my age and a keen facility to hide faults in my sound. So when I sang in groups, rather than really learning to read music, I often relied overly heavily on mimicry of those next to me in choir and eventually recordings of other singers for solo works. I did whatever I could to sneak by without being noticed as out of tune or worse missing the melody entirely.

What this did was develop a tendency in me to pull back when uncertain. To really sing out only when I could be totally sure of success. It meant that I never asked for help or gave myself permission to be a learner. Instead I would get quiet or drop out and then go home and furiously try to fix the problem alone where no one could see my mistakes. But there are times when this is not the most efficient way to solve problems, and it often means that the underlying ear training isn’t addressed. It meant that I could not be in my body and sound around others, it meant that I incrementally pulled my identity as a singer inside of myself. It meant that I only wanted to sing when I could be perfect and therefore meant that I never allowed myself space to learn.

What makes me a good director, I think, is not that I come into the room with all the best ideas ready and laid out. It is that I am able to watch and listen and respond and try things that fail and discuss and then try again and fail again and try some more. I think my directing skill is tied to an ability to risk and reap such risk’s rewards. I do not take negative response as a referendum on me but as useful information to help the thing I’m trying to do get closer to what I think it’s capable of.

So when I look back at that fledgling singer who was so afraid of disappointing it seems clear that her need to do it right got in the way of her ability to genuinely grow. When a flaw was exposed it was like a raw nerve. It was the part of me that I had worked so very hard to keep secret. And so it meant that such vulnerability was often debilitating to the point of paralysis. I cried in solo lessons, the one place that I truly couldn’t hide, almost as a matter of course. I learned bad habits of tensing my body, my jaw, my mind, in an effort to force out the right thing. My senses were focused only on the listener, gauging their interest and assessment rather than actually figuring out how I felt when I made these sounds. I did not trust myself, ever.

But I comforted myself by saying this was not something I “really” did. Singing was a hobby, a side project, one that I loved but knew that I didn’t work hard enough at. I wasn’t a “real” singer but I took solace that if I ever actually had the time I could have tried “for real.” If I’d actually buckled down and focused on it, I would have done better. I would have done it right.

I made my way through music in this fashion though middle and high school, through auditions and jazz choirs, through madrigal ensembles and state competitions, through musicals and recitals, through college scholarships and choral solos, through diction coaching and operatic arias, through Brahms and Mozart and Puccini and Stravinsky and Wagner and Bach.

The first three things that occur to me when I think about my four years studying voice in college are this:

  • Not being allowed into the chamber choir because my vibrato was too big
  • Being called a “wall of sound” in a vocal jury
  • Not having enough time to learn the Russian for the Rachmaninov set in my senior recital

So it seems the height of irony, if to no one else than myself, that I am known in my community as an expert in voice. That I have carved out a tiny niche of experience in a technique whose central tenet is exploring the edges of vocal sound, the pieces that we normally exclude and cover up and refine out. That I have the excuse that it’s supposed to sound ‘bad’ has been the out that I have given myself.

I remember when I first learned that Roy Hart’s early work was driven by a deep desire to be a classical musician, that he had a facility in this regard, that so much of his exploration was in part motivated by a wish to be validated by the classical community. I remember hearing this and thinking, “Ah. Yes. We are the same in this regard.” And it is such a funny thing that I spend so much time as a teacher trying to instill the very thing I still struggle to find for myself. A belief that one’s voice is worth hearing. A trust that the sounds that come naturally are not broken. That the failure is the most useful part of the journey because it begins a conversation about where we can grow.

I have this exercise I often do with students where I ask them to take everything we’ve done and forget it. I ask them to improvise song or speech or sound with no other goal than to simply voice something that pleases them. It is often the most difficult thing. It is this exercise that most often makes people cry or laugh or shake without knowing why. This is the most radical thing it seems – to express a sound for no one but ourselves.

So much of my experience with classical training is one of need and fear. A desire to do right, to be right, to sound right, to know the right notes and almost mechanically find myself able to become a vehicle for them. What is the sense to make of all that formal training? Is it just necessity that we fight and fight and fight with ourselves to internalize these rules only to find ourselves desperately needing to throw them away later?

I think of the experience of what it feels like to have to drill as scale again and again and again. To run the same sequence in a recitatif ad nauseum in a lesson until it becomes unconscious, until it is in me and of my body. Until it is simply a pattern than has become carved deep into my being. I can see that in the best moments, in the ones when I could just give myself permission to be deeply “wrong,” I could finally open enough to try until I finally got to something new and that felt like an opening. That felt like deepening. And it was these kind of times when I felt like maybe I wasn’t such a fake, that I was just a learner trying to master something currently bigger than myself.

The sections of those long ago songs that came easy, the bits that I could get on the first or second try, these musical sequences have faded in the ten years since I stopped singing classically. But those asshole passages with tiny twists and bits that ensnared me so deeply and so thoroughly, the ones that made me cry, these are the same ones that I can remember perfectly now. These are the ones I will know in my bones until I am nothing but.

Last night I found myself at the end of the evening having to make up a harmony with no prep time, on the spot, with people much more skilled at this than I. It was clear that it was harder for me to find my spot that the others. And normally this is a very hard place for me. I often lock up and resign myself to taking the work home and trying to drill it in alone with no one to hear. In the first album’s recording session I stayed in a state of abject terror over whether I was the problematic sound. But over these past few days, I have told myself to just try, earnestly without judgment, as best as I am able.

With the laser specificity that is a recording session I have come to see that I am not the only one who sometimes strays out of tune or misses a note when really trying to get it perfect. I have realized that in the years at this I am actually getting better. I am not perfect, but I am also not the total fraud I fear.

I am exactly where I am, with some degree of facility and a lifetime of learning more in front of me.

And this is sort of what I wanted to explain, I think. That we must give ourselves the gift of failure. That we must come to believe we need it or the need to deny it will take us over completely.

– A

This is why, this is why, this is why…

I had promised myself that this time I wouldn’t.

But I did it anyway.

Afterwards, I always feel dirty. I always feel awful. I always feel sad and conflicted and implicated when I partake in the coverage that flares up in the wake of a tragedy like the one at UCSB.

And I certainly wouldn’t be writing about it here on the blog if my rabbit hole of darkness and anger and violence and misogyny hadn’t lead me to a spinoff rabbit warren of articles by and about film critic Ann Hornaday’s recent response to the tragedy.

Ok look. I’m not going to spend much time here rehashing exactly what went down in this exchange. If you haven’t seen it online and formed an opinion, here’s the original essay (with a follow up video in which Hornaday contextualizes some of her initial statements).  And here are two other thoughtful articles, one by a woman and one by a man, that follow the original one’s social media aftermath and point out some very salient and relevant points about said online responses to it.

And here’s the thing that’s messy and hard for me to explain.

In my view, as a women who shares stories with audiences for a living, Hornaday raises interesting and worthy points of discussion. I don’t know much about the recent work of Judd Apatow and Seth Rogan because my first experiences with both these artists fell very much in line with Ms Hornaday’s assessments of their collaborations as “outsized frat-boy fantasies.” But given the little I have seen, I see validity in her central argument: that casual misogyny present in works like these (and much of our mainstream media) can and probably do play a role in the way young men (including the one from the UCSB shooting) adjust their expectations of how the world (and in particular the women in it) should behave in relation to them.

Any honest and intelligent reader of her article should not claim that she makes a causal link between the movie type she mentions and the UCSB killing spree. She does not. But this does not stop lots of people from saying she did.

In a way, she actually implies a much deeper, and possibly scarier thing: that this one act of aggression by a single deranged individual might reflects strains of deep seated misogyny in our larger cultural consciousness. She implies that these movies could be affecting us all and not simply those that seem obviously ill. That in some small measure they are training every one of us to buy into values and desires that are hurtful to women and that it is not unreasonable to expect them to be manifested, to some degree, in reality.

Artists know this. They know that the stories we tell our audiences, the art and culture we offer them to consume, these are a kind of mirror of the sensibilities. Our works are the ideas and values that exist within all of us made visible and tangible to the viewer. To those that rant about simply understanding the difference between fantasy and reality I say this: just because I know that they are different, doesn’t mean one does not affect the other. Just because I know it’s probably not realistic when I see a pudgy character with few resources or skills in life able to “bag” an intelligent and successful and beautiful Katherine Heigl in a movie doesn’t mean it isn’t conditioning me to normalize it once I have seen it.

This is the stuff that dreams are made of…

In some measure art is indicative of the collective needs and desires of that culture we as a people are connecting to. But art is a feedback loop that flows in both directions. These stories come from us but they also reinforce our current mores within their narrative structures. They are a way in which the creators that produce them are able to mold and shape the creative landscape of influence in the future. Simply by watching a story we must take it into ourselves. Consciously or not we reflect on ourselves in relation to it. And the more something appears to us in narrative form, the more we feel its weight in our collective cultural consciousness. The more it seems like what’s normal and around us all the time.

If a prevalent type of story irritates us what are we to do? We might disengage with this aspect of our dominant culture (an act that is sometimes only possible with great effort and little external reward) or perhaps we might find ourselves slowly grinding down our rough edged opinions until they can coexist within the dominant ones.

Perhaps this how casually racist, sexist, genderist, classist, all the ist-ists out there are able to continue so much longer than they ought. Because the ordinariness, the omnipresent banality of such isms, wears down our outrage. Until such things become repeated to the point of cliche. Until they seem like the stories we’ve always been telling. Until it doesn’t occur to us that another story could even exist. Until they are as common and invisible as the air all around us.

And I imagine it’s tough if you fashion yourself a kind and funny and sensitive human, tougher still if you really ARE a kind and funny and sensitive human, to find that without intending to you’ve been standing in such air. That you didn’t want to breathe it in but you were without knowing it. That you just were going along about your business not trying to hurt anyone and now you feel trapped and can’t breathe and you’re labeled bad for just being yourself. And that this labeling someone is maybe not just indicting you with a single and simple solvable accusation, but something much bigger, something that you are deeply entangled with, something that would take a lot of life changing to really get into conversation real with.

To engage with that question is the hard hard hard thing. To dismiss a small aspect of it… To pick apart the argument and allay one’s unease with a sense that the accuser is the problem… To name call and take the fight to a simpler, lower level… much easier.

Much easier than admitting you are NOT a bad person but that sometimes we all do things that have many valences of impact on the world and about which all kinds of judgements can be made.

So I think it’s understandable that someone would react on the defensive, with anger and with outrage. Because for that person it is much more complicated that simply regretting one thing they said or did. It’s reckoning with all of it. No one wants to be called an “ist.” I think maybe no one is just an “ist.” Or that we’re all “ists” to some degree. But that label, that over-simplification of one’s identity, is what I think they fear. So they fight (Oh how they fight!!) not to end up in this box or stuck with that label or categorized in ways they didn’t agree to.

A little bit ironic, no?

This is why, this is why, this is why… it hits me so hard. Why some days the allies feel like the furthest ones away.

It is so hard to read that article and think that anyone imagines that it is anything but a woman who wanted to create a seasoned and reasoned and thoughtful raising of the question that perhaps, perhaps, perhaps there might be a way in which the stories we are currently telling have an effect on us, and perhaps especially on our weakest members.

It is so hard when at every turn in the article she raises questions rather than declaring angry blanket statements.

It is so hard when she reminds the reader that this influence is by no means the sole or even dominant force underpinning the choices that this sad and ill child made.

It is so hard to imagine that someone in that field in a position of power could completely and totally write off a statement like, “it’s worth examining who gets to be represented on screen, and how.”

When this article is perceived as a vicious, angry and male-hating attack. When an intellectual and well articulated argument on a huge number of societal and cultural forces is reduced to “How dare you imply that me getting girls in movies caused a lunatic to go on a rampage.”

And it is the hardest, the kind of hard that almost makes me weep, when that kind and funny and sensitive person, one clearly inspired by hurt feelings and a desire not to be labeled as part of the problem, responds in a way that incites a devolution into the EXACT kind of casual misogyny the article intended to address in the first place:

reaction seth 1

reaction seth 2

If how Ms Hornaday brought up the subject is the (WRONG! HORRIBLE! INSENSITIVE TO THIS ENTERTAINER’S FEELINGS YOU HORRIBLE BITCH SLUT WHORE!!!!!!) incorrect way to address this…

How on earth are we supposed to talk about it?

<sigh>

This is why, this is why, this is why we need to start telling better, fuller, more complete versions of our society’s stories.

This is why, this is why, this is why as female creators we must not be satisfied with our currently limited and problematic options.

This is why, this is why, this is why as Ms. Hornaday says we must realize:

“As Rodger himself made so grievously clear, we’re only as strong as the stories we tell ourselves.”

– A