The Spirits Sitting on My Shoulder
This post is part of our Excellence and Equity in Arts for Change blog salon.
“I am apparently a ‘writer-activist’ (like a sofa-bed),” commented Arundhati Roy, in response to the hybrid label the press had given her. She said it made her cringe because the title “writer-activist” also implied artists could not engage in real, meaningful social issues.
I agree with Roy. At least in the circles in which I run, artists by their very nature are activists. Maybe that should be my motto.
But it’s not.
In fact, having created work as a performance artist for over 25 years, and having cut my teeth in performance at the radical, grass roots Highways Performance Space, I still don’t put the activist expectation on myself in the studio. I might talk about social change publicly, and how it relates to my work. But in the studio, it’s about creation, imagination, nuance, transformation.
I create work that excites/frightens/haunts me. I figure if it affects me in that way, it will probably excite/frighten/haunt the people with whom I wish to share it. And when working in ensemble form, I ask the same of my fellow creators.
I offer up this memory:
In the mid ‘90s, I was part of the Mentor Playwrights Program at the Mark Taper Forum. A guest playwright shared the following insight with us, which I summarize for you here:
You have a Public Persona, and a Private Persona. The Public Persona is what is expected of you, what the audience thought about your work, what the press said about your last play. But when you create you must do so from your Private Persona. If you write from your Public Persona, you are dead as an artist.
I would argue that an artist must first create from a Private Persona—the idea, the impulse, the vision, the “what if?” The same is true when creating in ensemble—generating work in ensemble comes from an intimate or relational space, and then this radiates outward to family, audience, community, etc.
But, problems might arise. Maybe these are familiar to you: you have a great idea but you cannot get it off the ground because funders cannot see its worth; or, worse yet, you cannot get the community you want to come see it to actually come. Those are real problems.
So, that’s when the Aesthetic Perspectives: Attributes of Excellence in Arts for Change could beautifully help guide our creations, and to truly engage community: when your Private Persona is ready to see work actualized, write about the work to the rest of the world, or take step-by-step plans to make it happen.
The Attributes are kind of like a good spirit, sitting on our shoulder (as I’m not into angels, maybe mine is an Okinawan shisa lion-dog) saying, yes, it’s okay to make work that is about community, it holds value. And maybe the work will be what you want, or maybe it will just be what it needs to be. And by the way, have you considered one of us (the spirits pointing to pictures of themselves among the Attributes diagram). And you say, “Hmmm, that might work.”
The Attributes were present when our Fifth World Collective was working on a multi-year project, Shooting Columbus, which sprung from the question: If Indigenous scientists built a time machine and traveled back to 1492 to assassinate Columbus, how would life be different?
Our Collective comprised Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists who hailed from Yaqui, Diné, Hopi, Omaha, Northern Ute, Cherokee, European, and Okinawan heritage. The lead artists in the Collective (Rachel Bowditch, Adam Cooper-Terán, T Loving, Ryan Pinto, and myself) considered ourselves artists first, and had a high aesthetic bar. In our work, we wanted to address some contemporary Indigenous issues, but also wanted to develop new, alternate universes that splintered off from Columbus’ assassination. But as we developed the performance, we realized that the community’s voice, and the urgent issues of the border wall, pollution of the body and spirit, and coal mining, were extremely urgent, and they became the meat of the performance.
Without articulating it directly, I think we consulted at least three of the Attributes as we developed the project: openness, cultural integrity, and communal meaning. We had to be open to shifting our format, and to the urgency of certain issues. We also were honored to have Gertie Lopez and Mattew Saraficio, who lived on Tohono O’Odham land, join our performance.
Shooting Columbus premiered at La Pilita Cultural Space in Tucson as part of the Borderlands Theater season. We played to diverse audiences and near sold-out houses. All Indigenous people were admitted free of charge (we had many discussions about this, as well). On the final night of this outdoor performance, two homeless Tohono O’Odham men watched intently from the back of the audience, and, at one point, I turned to find one of them was standing on stage telling the audience, in his language, “I am Tohono O’Odham.” Most of the audience thought this was just part of the performance, but as artists we knew he was moved to speak because he saw fellow Tohono O’Odham on stage, and he became part of the story. Probably, he was the story.
Really, what could be better theater than that?
So the questions to all of my fellow artists are these: What is the balance? How much do we need to shift the form/content/vision of our work to truly engage the communities we wish to reach? How far are we willing to go?
I don’t know the answers. But I do know that during the development of our project these Attributes were the spirits sitting on my shoulder. And my Private Persona consulted with them daily. Eventually, we offered up a performance that was a dialogue between artists and community.
In the end, the whole thing was greater than the sum of its parts.