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”.


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:


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.


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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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


How best do you root this shit out?

I have been seriously trying to think on this one in the past couple days.

I keep thinking about #thesummit and I’m still not sure how best to proceed, both when it comes to talking with folks who are semi-anonymous AD’s I don’t personally know and with my close friends and peers. There are a couple of recent specific incidents that have sparked this post’s train of thought, but it’s also an issue that I’ve struggled with for a while, and, based on convos from the Awesome Lady Squad, a phenomenon that I think is much much bigger than just me.

It’s easy to make a list of female directors. I’m glad I did it. But it’s harder, by a lot, to actually get people who are making artistic choices, to take that list and hire them. I really believe that almost everyone, in theory, supports that list. Is there anyone in this community who would admit they don’t want women to hold an equal place? But somehow, seasons get chosen, shows are cast, and it continues to happen. If we all agree it’s bad, how and why do such inequities persist?

The problem, I think, isn’t that any one choice is particular misogynistic or horrifying. I think that’s actually pretty rare in this community. What’s more likely and perhaps far tougher to solve, far more problematic, are singular well-reasoned, well-intentioned choices across many many companies that still add up to a gender inequity in the community as a whole.

The problem, I think, isn’t intentions, but a lack of culpability for outcomes.

Which is why trying to tackle such a thing is so tricky. You don’t want to feel like you’re attacking any particular person or company, any particular choice, because of course those people have well reasoned and thought out plans for why they’ve chosen the way they have. It feels mean. It feels punitive. But then what exactly are you supposed to do about the fact that women are still vastly under-represented on and off the stage in almost every theater in this city? How in particular does one try and make a dent in this?

I’m trying. I’m trying to throw darts at what I think might be the board. I’m trying to initiate conversations with a fair number of different people on both the very tiny and very large scale of company sizes to see if I can get them to engage. I’ve been having this conversation everywhere, from theater lobbies to parties and even in my own home with my own fiancée who has his own company.

But I’ll be honest, right now, I think I’m failing. Right now, this morning, it’s feeling like a real uphill battle. And at this moment, it’s feeling a little defeating. Because despite trying to be intensely careful about my wording, despite continuing to reiterate my respect and admiration for folks, it still feels a little like I’m the one who has to constantly justify what I’m seeing. That if I perceive an imbalance that I want to unpack or converse about, I have to ensure that I’m completely grounded in my observations before we can engage. That it is my job to make sure I don’t put people on the defensive, even if my aim is to provoke and question an aspect of their work. That I better walk in knowing an awful lot about the person or company and their reasons for doing what they’re doing or I’m doing something wrong. It feels like I’m the one with the onus to prove there’s a bias.

And that’s hard to do. And it feels a bit like an impossible task at this moment. It’s hard to know everything about why someone selects a season, why someone has picked a particular play. It’s hard to be sure that under intentions, there are less obvious things that still might be worth addressing.It’s hard to know exactly how the issue is feeding into the situation, especially the closer in you zoom.

What I do know is that as I’ve looked at a few companies, I still see that fewer actresses will get cast and fewer female playwrights will be produced next year. That’s what I wish I could fix.

When I talked about this conversation with my fiancée he said this:

“The thing is, I just think it would be sad if people felt inhibited to talk about things. Or if their imaginations were squashed because they were trying so hard to be careful.”

I thought,  “I feel that way so much of the time.”

I feel that way whenever I try and bring this up. That if I’m not so terribly careful, I’ll make people feel unfairly labeled and then I’m the bad guy. That I’m not giving them a chance to show their side of things. Sometimes I so get tired of always having to hear the other side of things first. Because my aim is never to put people on the defensive but it feels like regardless of my tactic this is always the result.  And many times, the risk of alienating someone doesn’t feel worth it in a given moment and not bringing it up is the only way I can ensure someone won’t get their hackles raised.

So sometimes I don’t.

And sometimes when I do, the result doesn’t always feel that I’ve been able to communicate what I’d hoped. More times than I wish, I’ve walk away feeling further from the person I wanted to engage than when I started. And this in particular makes it harder to do the next time.

This must be part of why these things persist, no?

I don’t want to squash the imagination of others. But it sometimes feels to me, and I hear from other women that they feel this too, that this problem squashes us all the time. And it’s hard to know what to do when I don’t think people aren’t trying to do it. It’s hard because it feels like for me to ask for what I think is fair, I’m also punishing or taking something away from someone else.

We’ll have to think on this one a bit more…

– A

Talking about talking

So I’ve been thinking a lot in the hours since my last post about how to have this conversation.

I’ve been thinking about how we can best begin to discuss issues of unequal representation in a way that both is honest and straightforward and is also productive and provokes dialogue instead of defensiveness?

In other words, I want to start by talking about how we talk about this.

I find it easy to provoke and push when the target seems large and imposing. I find strength in feeling myself becoming a David in the face of a Goliath. My guess, without having been there, is that this was the awesome power of what happened at #thesummit. It was a moment where the folks on the stage, the ones with some degree of sway and power and perhaps a degree of unknowing complacency, had to take in the might of opinion and feeling of the voices sitting on the other side.

But in a business as tiny as this, in a community where community is key, when networking and positive relationships determine your ability to get a job or a grant next week, month or year, it is easy in the micro-moments of inequity to excuse the tiny things. Too often any one moment or choice or thought seems isolated or small enough to swallow.  And as the distance between we and the “giants” gets smaller, the harder it is to see them as the Goliaths they once were. Little things amass because it’s sometimes hard to know what is and isn’t a battleground.

And let’s also point out that these are really hard conversations to have.

Because so often I see an cry to battle dissolve when it has to translate into the daily implementation of such ideas on the nitty gritty detail level. Based on the conversation in our few meetings of the Awesome Lady Squad I hear female artists find the balance of when and how and where to try and bring these issues up the biggest barrier to change. “Do I really want to make this tiny line or scene or interaction a soapbox?” “Do I want to be that actress today, tomorrow, through this whole process.” “Am I really seeing this or am I being overly sensitive?”

It’s exhausting constantly trying to parsing it out in the moment.

And even if you are sure and you do know it’s an issue, it is so so so so so so so much more difficult to say things that are tricky and sticky to people we know and care about. It sucks to be a watchdog. To be a nag. To feel like you’re stopping everyone’s fun. To put people on their guard. It can feel like the opposite of the artistic impulse, where we want to feel open and accepting of each other. And I think it’s so hard because to have that conversation is also to acknowledge that the ills of our culture, the biases and darknesses that float around us all the time, also make their way into our brains. That we are sometimes making choices with little pushes from beliefs or stereotypes we’d never support if we said them out loud.

I wrote a while back about a study that showed how academic scientists displayed preferential treatment of men when filling a position for a lab manager.

In that post I explained how candidates in the study were never seen in person and scored based on identical applications save for the gendered first name of the potential employee.  I underscored that this bias was shown in both men and women assessing the candidate.  And I made a particular point of noting that none of the decision makers felt their choice had been affected by the applicant’s gender in any way. They all felt they were being totally gender objective in their assessments.

In other words, you can display bias and stigma and stereotype even when you don’t subscribe to them, EVEN when YOU are the negative recipient of them.

It is scary to think that stuff is in us. Even scarier to come to terms with the fact that it can affect our actions despite the best of our intentions. And when confronted with it, defense is natural. From the outside it seems ignorant and bigoted. But my guess is that the real cause is that no one wants to find in themselves dark things they didn’t ask to be in there. So sometimes it’s easier to believe they aren’t.

And it is here I want to point out the latent superpower we are missing: Yes, this is hard. Yes, It is tricky to talk David to David rather than David to Goliath. But.  The closer we are, the more potential impact we are likely to have. The closer we are to them, the more likely we can get people to let that guard down. The closer we are to the offending source, the more likely we are to find a safe space to excise these demons with their hosts intact. And if we can win them to our side we grow our army of soldiers. The less it looks like a war and the more it looks like a conversion, I think the faster the battle will be over. If we have to kill them all, we may still do it, but I bet we lose much more time and resource and energy.

So I think we should begin with two assumptions, even if it may seem idealistic or naïve:

1)   No one intentionally wants to make harmful choices to women artists.

2)   Everyone imbibes some level cultural crap that will predispose him or her to doing so.

So when we look at the choices of a company, or another artist (or in our own work for that matter) and we see something that makes us feel squicky, our goal should be to remind them of #1 and help them see where they might be displaying the crap of #2 (pun by the way, totally intended).

To do that I think we start by asking these questions:

Is it conscious? – i.e. Does the person or company know and realize what they’re doing? Do they identify their behavior as a problem or are they truly unaware of it and its effect?


Is it conscionably contextualized? – i.e. Have they passively presented potential problematic material/decisions or have they taken steps (even if imperfectly) to justify them through dialogue or contextualization? In other words, do they balance a guy heavy Glengarry Glen Ross with another play with mostly female cast? Do they perform a problematic cannon text in context of a conversation series about historical representation of women in history to point out the potential in conflict with the morals we have today?

How we assess the answers to these questions will help set the stage for the modes through which we express our concerns and I think also help start to identify the solutions. And in tailoring it in this way, I think we get closer to coming to real understanding of what’s at play in each specific case. Because the devils really are in these details. And if we don’t treat all offenses alike, I think we’re likelier to find specific tailored solutions, likelier to find and commit the people who are ready and wanting to change but may not yet be brave enough or know how on their own to do so.

More on this tomorrow…


PS – For some other awesome follow ups to #thesummit look to this from babelwright and this from Tamara Winters

Some days I’m just tired of talking about money

There’s a moment in Inside Llewyn Davis that absolutely slayed me when I saw it on Monday night. The movie, which follows a young folk singer from Greenwich Village in 1961, shows an artist struggling to survive. There’s plenty of emotional twist and turnage that make this film an engrossing one, but the moment that gutted me, that hit awfully close to my own heart’s home was one about two thirds of the way through. The protagonist has taken an arduous journey from New York to Chicago in hopes of impressing a music mogal named Bud Grossman. Llewyn Davis arrives in Grossman’s office looking beaten. He asks for… what? Recognition, money, help, something he doesn’t even quite know how to ask for, for an opportunity it seems he already believes he has no shot at.

Grossman looks condescendingly at the record he has just been handed, one bearing the same name as the movie, and says something to the effect of “Well show me what you got. Show me what’s Inside Llewyn Davis.

So he does.

In a dark, half lit room, the character nervously sits with this man who holds the potential to change his future, a man who sits like a stone staring, unblinkingly at him.

Here Llewyn Davis sings.

Sing beautifully, achingly, heart-breakingly open. The camera moves so little, it is one of the closest things I have felt in film to the real spirit of live music, to being that close to someone who is filled up with song. For me, it felt as if I was witnessing someone doing the very, exactly, and absolutely necessary thing they were put on the earth to do.  It felt that for Llewyn Davis music is the language that he as a person is truly intended to be speaking to the world. And the song, which I barely remember, is itself almost besides the point. The singing of it, and the feeling of doing it, is what’s really worth watching, and in the act is contained a beautiful kind of holiness.

At the end of the song there is this thick and vulnerable silence that feels like nakedness.

The man with the power looks at the one without and with all the casualness and ease of a Hawaii vacation, with all the finality and solidness of a period at the end of a sentence, says to him:

“Well I don’t see any money in that.”

Sucker punch.

In the heart.

With a spear.

Made of ice.

I’ve thought about that scene for days now. I’ve repeated this line to myself over and over and somehow, it only makes it worse the more I think about it.

Why does this injure me so much? Why does this wound to an imagined artist from 50 in the past get to me so much? Why does the reduction of one person’s lovely song to a lack of dollar signs get in me and stomp around? I keep asking myself these questions. And I really do wonder why, in a life where I spend so much time and effort fretting over and raising and dealing with and paying out and worrying worrying worrying about money why this stupid little line in this movie has got me so twisted and tangled inside.

This happened to me, this moment, in almost exact verbatim.

I was sitting across a table from someone proposing a production of my work. I was asked to describe the project that I wanted to create. I talked about the legacy of a movement and the music that it produced. I talked about the textures of peeling walls and echoing voices down a 200-foot corridor. I spoke about the sweeping grandeur of becoming a legend and the power of watching and listening and singing as the eye bounces between the living humans and the decaying space that contains them. And for once, happily, when I finished speaking I really felt that I had captured it, this vision of my future creation, at least in part, at least enough that I believed I had spoken about it with honesty and truth and sincerity.

And at the end of speaking, I too found myself in a moment of silence, thick and vulnerable, waiting in a kind of nakedness.

“I don’t think we can get enough chairs in there. I don’t know how we’ll be able to cover the costs of this thing.”

Same story, different medium.

And you know the funny thing?

I felt bad for having done it. I felt stupid for bringing such a proposal in. Preposterous, even, for wanting to do something so commercially unviable. That I came to that meeting kind of knowing and not really caring that the thing wasn’t ever going to make money, that it was an inordinate amount of work for such a tiny number of potential audience viewers, but that I didn’t care and wanted to do it anyway. That I believed in its value despite this.

Here is a true statement: I am not a religious person. I was not raised in a tradition of faith.  But sometimes when I make something it opens up a space that is larger than myself. And that space it is the closest thing I know to belief in something higher, bigger and more powerful than me. The moment of creation is the moment in which I feel the distinguishing line between the tiny bits that make up me and the tiny bits that make up the clothes on my body and the tiny bits that make up the people in the room and the lights above my head and the sound that passes between us and the floor that we rest on and the building we reside in and the whole rest of the world, all those tiny pieces become one part of one big thing that we all share together for the moment that the feeling passes through all of us.

Eventually I did end up making that piece that didn’t have enough chairs to make it monetarily worthwhile.

But I will never forget that moment: when you hope that the person sitting across from you, by virtue of being so close to the thing you have committed yourself to will understand, when you dream that they will see the world and the thing you show them with the eyes with which you also see it. When you imagine for a just a moment that it might be as easy as it was before you had to start selling the things you’ve made, things that in truth you would rather give away freely for the sheer love that the creation of them affords. It is the definitive nonchalance with which that hope is shattered, the tedium with which the deepness and sanctity and need you have for what you make is disregarded. This misunderstanding of what the art’s usefulness is, what it is there for, this is what punctures the chest.

It is not intended as cruel, this act of refusal, this alternate measure of art’s worth, but it is presented as truth, which to me is so incredibly much worse. Because it makes one feel that such a feeling is so thoroughly beside the point, and that you the person feeling it are silly and small in doing so.

It’s negotiating the massive space between a dollar sign and the thing that lights you up inside and makes you so much bigger than you were before. It’s taking that thing and then having to figure out how you can push and poke it so that 50 chairs instead of 40 fit inside your vision of it.  It’s taking the most beautiful song that you know how to sing, the one that comes from way way way deep down inside you and being told, as if it’s the simplest thing in the world, that it will never make any money.

It is the definitive and inflexibly casual insignificance of the artistic product when it is unable to be shaped into commodification.

This is the thing that hardens the soul.

This is the moment of singing that song, Llewyn Davis, and I feel it with you.

Sell Out

I wrote a bit last week about the difference that can occur between the way an artist lives their life and the way almost everyone else does. I’ve been thinking a bit more about that difference and what’s been hitting me especially hard is the strange and terrible relationship most artists have to money. I think this issue in particular – how we think about money, what it means in relation to our work, and how we decide to navigate that relationship – has a lot to do with why so many of us feel like no one understands how we live.

While it’s obviously simplistic to reduce an entire nation into one value system, in my own experience I can say that I often find myself a little at odds with the American context in which I exist. Ours is, and of course I’m generalizing, a culture that places a high value on earning as a measure of success. And because of that, it’s one that makes justifying the life of an artist particularly tough, tougher perhaps than countries whose wealth it exceeds.

I would wager that on the whole, the impulse to make and share our work is anti-monetary. Artist are in a rush to give away their product, especially when they first start making it. I would also wager that the impulse to “own” ones work like a product or thing is a learned skill. It’s something we find ourselves having to do, not something that is inherent to the thing itself. Of course this is not always true, and not always true of everyone, but for the purposes of this article, I’m again going to generalize and say that on the whole the artistic process is one that is at its core financially altruistic, and therefore at odds often with commodification. (Read Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book The Gift for more on this.) We do it because it’s what we really want to do. And for whatever reason, we’ve managed to value doing that higher than we value making it value driven.

Think about how radical a notion that is. Seriously.

For most, the conversation about how to navigate career is so thoroughly dominated by money that it’s almost hard to imagine how deeply strange it is to most people. No one is surprised that a doctor might choose a specialty that pays more, but we often feel guilt about picking a role or working with a company for the same reason. We make our work and then we are dying to give it away. We are inclined (and often do) so whether or not other people want to pay us. We don’t want to choose jobs on solely on income potential but equally (if not more) on artistic merit. The fact that you feel that at all means you have decided to step outside a value system that many people accept as a large guiding path in their entire lives.

And weirdly, because art does live outside of this metric in some ways, I think the oddity of such a thing, the mystery of how art can “charm” people out of this traditional way of thinking, becomes romanticized in its own right. We think about “poor” art as something that must be so enrapturing and enthralling that one would give up money to do it. Even I still bring forth the specter of the young impassioned creator in a terribly tiny apartment and having no money but loving your art so so so much that it’s worth it. This is in the cultural subconscious and it’s something we have to contend with.

But we’re not oblivious. There are tangible ways that money matters: it influences who has power and status, it can give us access to security and education, it feeds and houses us, and can give us cool stuff. Wealth can determine an artist’s path – to pursue art in the best way that the work demands or to make difficult choices about the kinds of personal investment they can leverage or the resources and programs they have access to. Frustratingly, training in the arts is almost always expensive. Compensation in the career is generally not. As creators we don’t want to care about it, but as citizens in this country we see we need it. We don’t want to make our work about the money, but we also don’t want the people we work (or ourselves) with to live in an unhealthful and unsustainable way.

This must be why some parents bitterly resist their children embracing a life in the arts. If you don’t have the experience of the intensity and depth of the artistic practice and experience, of course doing such a thing looks like a waste – like deciding to work at the GAP when you could be saving lives in the medical professional or running a business. Not all artists are poor. But in general, a great painter or theater actor or dancer is not making the same income as a doctor or lawyer. We are indoctrinated early that we do our work for love and not money. We are told ad nauseam by our society that “starving” and “artist” are nearly synonymous.

So as artists, we live daily with some pretty insanely contradictory attitudes and behaviors in relation to money. There are a lot of voices saying that we should want to make a lot of money if we’re good at what we do and there are a lot of voices also saying at the same time that if we are doing this art thing then it must be fulfilling enough to do for it’s own sake.

Take for example the phrase: “Sell out.” What’s your gut reaction to it? Is it good or bad? Well, it all depends on what context you’re looking at.

When you are mounting a new work there is this thing that happens when a show starts to “sell out.” This is true even outside of the self-producer realm, where you actually are counting the dollars that those ticket sales are bringing in. Yes, I’d say even in a straight up “actor for hire setting,” if you’re a “sell out” show there is a sense of accomplishment, of pride, of elevation in your work having reached a certain kind of level. That it’s something people connect to. Even if you receive not a single extra cent for the sold out-ness, it makes you feel better, doesn’t it?

What does that phrase even mean? Literally, that all the seats were bought. But it’s come to roughly equate with artistic quality. If all the seats are bought it must be valuable. And if it’s valuable it must be good or why would so many people pay for it? Conversely, there’s an unspoken pressure that says if a beautiful and amazing production has few buyers that something is wrong it. It’s a value system that isn’t concerned whether a piece happens to have picked a bad time of the year to perform. Or that the subject matter happens to have a smaller audience base but for that base the work is HIGHLY impactful. Or that your 3/4 full houses absolutely LOVE your show compared to the full houses for the work down the street that is merely entertaining enough to spend 20 bucks on. It’s a message that uncomplicatedly says more money equals better art.

Even if you know it’s not true, it’s still working on you somewhere in the back of your mind. So it’s worth sometimes saying out loud, even when it seems obvious, that small houses don’t mean you’re a bad artist. You might be, but the two aren’t necessarily related.

And weirdly, while on the one side we’re putting pressure on ourselves to be financially successful, we also have another voice inside telling us that making art for money is a cop out, a cheapening, a bastardization of the “true” impulse for creation. “Sell out” also has the connotation of the artist that is corrupted by money, who makes their work for financial gain alone and has lost touch with a “real” creative spirit. We tend to romanticize the bohemian life, both from within and outside the profession. It’s also a fallacy, this idea that our work without the pressure of money is “purer,” but it’s equally as potent.

It is strange, no, that the exact same phrase is both an indicator of our highest measure of success as well as a total debasement of the form. It is a frustrating dissonance that an art maker is trying to navigate all the time. And if we aren’t vigilant about what the goal is at a given moment we can end up in a kind of schizophrenic negativity where no matter what we do we’re coming up short.

Look, if we only made the work that made the most money, we’d probably cut out the most ambitious, and personally fulfilling projects. And yet, it’s also true that there are limitations on what’s possible with our work and those limitations are often determined by a project’s bottom line.

There are times I’ve looked back at works I made with a thousand dollars and felt wistful about the “purity” of my choices. I look at that work and think about how I did it just because I loved the art, that it was uncomplicated and “true” (or whatever). But, really, when I’m honest, that’s pretty BS right? The impulse for the work wasn’t actually less complicated by money, I was just making the same kinds of choices about how and where to allocate cash but on a much tinier scale.

I think that as we become more successful, we more obviously have to confront these questions – how does money work in out work, what do I spend it on, what kind of aesthetic am I after and how does cost play into that – but I don’t actually think they are new.  People who want to always spend all the cash on fancy stuff do it when they have a little. They do it when they have a lot. We just notice it more.

And troublingly, I have no good answers here. Just an observation that we, like everyone, have to figure out what standard of living we want and what we are and aren’t willing to do to achieve it. What we can do is not abdicate the decision to others but continue to make it for ourselves. You can argue whether you agree with the way that America equates wealth with success and decide how much you’re willing to let it influence your goals in life. You can create a work environment you believe in and pay people whatever you decide you want to and allow them to make the choice if the monetary recompense is equal to the task. Your project can lose money or knock it out of the cashola park. It can be the best thing your ever made or a total hack job. With every choice there are two assessment tools we need to use – one financial and the other artistic. And it’s up to you to decide which one needs to take precedence at this particular moment.

We don’t want to make money the value on which we measure our creations, so we should be wary of allowing it become an indicator of our success. On the same token, our ability to make work is predicated on the rest of our life being functional enough to keep the artistic part going. Money plays a part in that.

I don’t want money to drive my art making process.

I want to make enough money as an artist to live sustainably.

Two statements.

Two totally different standards of measurement.

So the trick is to remember that they have to be either/or and they don’t have to be correlated directly. They both are like spinning plates that I need to pay attention to in order to keep them in balance. Which might mean a little nudge on one for a while and then run back and push on the other a little.

And my guess is that I’ll always have to keep an eye on that balancing act.

– A

Owning It

There’s a great quote that starts one of my favorite books about the artistic process – Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland – that goes like this:

Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.

– Gene Fowler

The book is a pretty straightforward and unsentimental view about art making. It talks about how much of your output will be ignored (“Virtually all artists spend some of their time – and some artists spend virtually all their time – producing work that no one much cares about”) and the various ways we set ourselves up for self-sabotage. What this book also says is that the only way to get better at making work is to make a lot of work. As they say, much of your output is there simply to “teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars.”

I like the idea that when I make crap, it’s not just crap, but crap that builds a bridge towards something else that is not crap. Then at least the crap is useful. And I need that crap to feel useful. Why?

Because I live, work and create in a shame-based economy.

It might not seem like it from the outside, but if I’m really being truthful, most of what I do is to avoid the pain of looking like an idiot. That awesome rehearsal plan didn’t just spring happily from my mind. It took the spectral terror of being left with nothing substantive to say in front of the room to make it come into focus.

People have asked me why this writing project was something I wanted to make public. I might, if I’m being cagey, tell you that I sensed a lot of people were feeling the same way I was.

True. But not actually the truth.

I do appreciate the people who’ve responded to what I’ve written. And I love hearing from you all that these struggles are shared. But the real reason I am writing publically is to shame myself into getting my ass in gear to put words on (virtual) paper on a regular basis.

I do things like this when I know I need a kick in the ass. When I decided I had to leave my day job at NBOME, I wrote a post-it that I affixed to my computer with the date. I gave myself one year from that post it to get out of that job. And then I told everyone I knew about it.

Why? Because, like I said, I live work and create in a shame-based economy.  I knew if I kept telling people about the post-it, people would remember to ask me about it. And when those people asked me about, that feeling that I might not get it together to find some other, more sanity inducing, way to make money would surface. I did get nervous that I would disappoint, and I figured out a way to make life happen without the work that was making me miserable.  And 4 months before the post-it deadline I left.

If I know that someone will think less of me, if I think that someone will perceive me as failing, I work harder. It’s why I love structure and clear evaluative systems. It’s easy to know if you’re staying ahead of the curve if it’s clear what wrong looks like. I spent a lot of my education in high shame-potential situations. I committed to more than seemed possible. I tried things that I saw other people do a lot better than I did and then held myself to their standards. Once in a while I felt a little insane. I beat myself up about stuff a lot. I was also really productive and found myself doing things I never knew I was capable of.

You might say that this is unhealthy. You might be right. Heck for a really long time I felt a lot of shame about feeling so much shame.  That’s how deep it goes.

So for a period of time after school I worked really hard to remove all the shame inducing motivators and gave myself huge swaths of freedom for my art to wander through. I stopped comparing myself to people who had more advantage or resource. I kept things a little closer to the chest so that stuff couldn’t be critiqued until I decided it was ready. I wanted to give my art room to blossom on it’s own, without that fear of failure looming over me.

And while I was in the middle of doing that I noticed something:

I wasn’t making or doing anything I cared about.

I had tried to force myself into a place where I acted as if I didn’t need to care or listen to that niggling feeling in the pit of my stomach when I didn’t do anything creative for a few days. I had convinced myself that the ambition and failure terror weren’t linked. And I was semi-successful for a little while. Until I looked at what a life without one of my biggest motivators actually left me. And that was something I wasn’t really all that excited about.

And then I started to feel bad about that.

Oh, old friends embarrassment and remorse, you’re back! How I missed you so.

I’ve come to terms with regret and shame as ways that I learn from my past mistakes. Just as the impulse to jump too deep into the pleasure pool can get one’s life off track, so similarly can overwhelming feelings of mortification cause one to block their creative selves. But no one sane advocates for the removal of all of life’s pleasures. So maybe we can leave a little room for the negative emotions, so long as they help us get where we’re going.

Thinking about this I recall a thing that I always tell my students when they first start working on their voice. I say that there is no such thing as a “bad” voice, only voices that do what you need them to, and voices that don’t. The voices they have were developed from a style and set of communication patterns that helped them, at some point, achieve something.

High pitched and squeaky? Maybe it helps you to sound small and cute.

Low and monotone? Perhaps you need to show the people around you that you have emotional control.

The point, as I tell them, is that these patterns emerge when doing these things a lot offers some kind of reward. It’s efficient. And there’s nothing wrong with a sound if it’s doing what you need it to. The pattern only becomes a problem, only gets called a bad habit, when you decide you want something and the voice you have gets in the way of doing that.  When the natural voice you have developed is something you can no longer control the way you want to.  Flexibility is the key.

Whether it works for you is what actually matters.

“Ugly” voices aren’t bad if they’re useful. I think “ugly” feelings can be viewed the same way. Some of my best work has come to me when I have felt my worst. Which is different than saying that I need to feel at my worst to get anything done. For as long as I can remember, shame has been a strong motivator. Sometimes towards good things and sometimes not.

So the question isn’t, “Can I remove shame from my life entirely?” because from what I’ve lived so far, the answer will be no. Instead:

How do I use and shape the natural impulses I can’t always control towards a healthy and productive life?

There’s another saying in the Art and Fear book that I really love:

Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.

– Stephen DeStaebler

I write this blog knowing that other eyes will see it.

Because I want to be culpable.

Because I want to be exposed.

Because I want to increase the pain of not working.

It’s already worked, clearly, because I’m still here.