On Small Art

February 9, 2015

I'm plenty opinionated, but I struggle with committing to one thing. (Maybe that's why this blog space has had no fewer than 6 names in 4 years.) I think it's wanting it all; it's being afraid of missing out. Last week when I showed a little piece of choreography in a traditional theater in front of dance colleagues, I started thinking again about applying for grants to make big things in big spaces. I started thinking about being an artist. You know, all in! It certainly seems like it would be nice to be a member of the Real Artist Club.


And that brings me to another sore spot: fitting in. I've always felt like an outsider in life, beginning with the days I was a soymilk drinking homeschooler living in the woods of rural Ohio, refusing kool-aid and processed sugar at birthday parties. Later on it was my lack of pop culture knowledge that make me stick out (a byproduct of the homeschooling and the woods), and then it was the strange performance pieces I was drawn to making-- not quite dance, not quite theater. There's a part of me that has always wanted to sit at the cool kids table and to be really good at one thing: I am a _______________, just like _______________ and _______________. We probably all search (at least a little) for that sense of belonging and affirmation of our choices.


Last week I worked Hotline at the Walker, an installation where visitors can call a number and ask people like (*gulp*) me (?) anything. Someone called and asked how they could ensure being the next Van Gogh. I attempted to walk the line between being cheesy and helpful: you can't be the next Van Gogh, but you can be you, or something like that. We talked about developing a voice and how it's actually pretty problematic in the arts when your work looks like everyone else's.


I've been pondering my own advice as I think about what the next year might hold for me artistically. I write a lot here about how I'm a fan of parameters and assignments for making work. It's almost impossible to walk into a studio with the assignment to "just make something" without coming out with either nothing or something about as interesting as lukewarm dishwater. We need specifications and intention and restriction to create. When I choose projects, I try to begin with my 'why'-- why the hell do I make things in the first place? What can I offer that's unique to me? This helps me choose from what could otherwise be an overwhelming list of possibilities. 


What I keep coming back to is that I want to put my energy and time into making small art. And I'm not just referring to the living room performance series, but also to things that don't look like performance at all; 'small art' as more of a mantra or approach. I've been thinking about...

+ Committing to life-making as much as art-making: According to a lot of the art-as-social-practice folks I met through Open Field, there isn't much of a line between the two-- how we live our lives is how we make our art, and life is art (or at least can be); why would be try to separate them? In the last few years I've worked through some pretty intense life things-- sorting through a lot of my own emotional garbage, supporting my husband as he entered recovery from alcoholism and works to manage depression, learning how to, ugh, be an adult and create a life I like. And some of this intensity has made me feel less "man, I just really want to make a performance!" and more "wow! we made it! Let's quietly relish in this big joy. Let's take a nap and eat a meal and check out our Netflix queue." These moments, along with the seemingly insignificant nights of conversation with friends over wine in my living room, punctuate my life as much as any big project or achievement. I don't need to be pushing the boundaries of my art form in order to find value in an experience.

+ Coming together: My biggest passion is creating opportunities for people to come together, and I think that performance is a really great vehicle for this and that artists excel at encouraging connection. Ben and I have been working to find ways to fund and expand Small Art-- the performance series, that is. For now I'm happy to say that we'll be hosting another one on April 23 & 24. I'm also excited about finding way of integrating my own choreography/performance work into this small-scale, barebones format.

+ More dinner parties: And while we're at it, why not just have more dinner parties? (Or resource parties?) We had a super social January, and though I still think I'm more of an introvert at heart, I've really loved coming together with other humans. I don't need a Small Art performance to do this-- sometimes it's just nice to drink wine (or exotic sparkling water) with good friends or perfect strangers. (I had hoped to do a series of dinners with strangers this winter-- maybe it's not too late?) Point being: small occasions for coming together can be just as satisfying as the big, carefully planned performances. Again, the 'life-as-art' thing.

+ V is for 'values': So yes, I value intimate experiences with other humans, and opportunities to share the good and hard of life. And I also value living within my means and being able to afford my health insurance and being able to pay the artists I work with fairly. I'm able to make performance more affordably when I make it on a smaller scale with fewer dancers in a small (free!) venue. And yes, I do get downright jealous when I see 12 dancers on stage in someone's work. But, until I find a money tree, that's where I'm at. I have certain parameters I'm working with. I like to buy my groceries at the coop; I need to make my work with consideration to money and time (like a musician makes an album).

+ Art for me: I've been improvising more regularly on my own-- sometimes in a studio and sometimes in my living room. It's free, except for the cost of my time and the space (which is often discounted or free). I notice things that work...or don't...and write a lot in between. It might end up finding its way into a piece someday or not. But the point is: I find it satisfying and a nice way to continue to 'practice' without needing to commit to the expense of making a whole formal piece. And sometimes writing in this blog space is a really nice change of pace from performance making or directing.

+ Art for you: I've continue to find a surprising amount of satisfaction in producing and attending and promoting the work that other artists are making.


So, this is the approach to art-making I want to take this year. I want to ask, what can I do with what I have and how can I make it fun? How can it be used to make people feel closer to one another?  And yes, committing to this approach means saying goodbye to some things (and missing out on the cool kids' table) --  at least for now. Maybe 'big art' will be the thing of my 40's. I'm not closed off to the idea. 

[Photos of our small house by Marie Ketring for Pollen Midwest.]

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