When history comes to the surface: backstory on a new piece in four parts: Introduction

I am making a new piece. The starting point is “Kol Isha,” the ancient custom that forbids women to sing while men pray. I find this a difficult topic.

Sometimes the work that I did with Right Brain Performancelab was very challenging, but my first rule entering into a project was always that it wasn’t about me, except for in the most subtle ways. We worked with topics that were so broad and so universal that each of us could pull from our life stories. It was important to me that my story did not overwhelm the others. The stories were also abstracted into movement and visual languages.

I have been told that Right Brain Performancelab’s work was hard to parse because it went deeper than what was visible during performance. I love making and facilitating work that is thickly layered, encoded, decoded and recoded. There was a lot of complexity in RBP’s pieces, since each person has a universe of material that they bring to the studio. As a result, each moment was so tightly interwoven with what came before and after and it was hard to find a section that could show the essence of the piece. For this reason it was very hard to isolate a short clip, or describe it clearly. I remember Wayne Hazzard of Dancers’ Group, our fiscal sponsor in the Bay Area, shaking his head in exasperation as we tried to find a clip that would encapsulate “State Of The Union/Anonymous Sources.” This observation was originally his and I am grateful for this help in clarifying something difficult but true.

His response, and many responses that I have received was always to be simpler in the approach to new work. One way that I have done this was to start from one story: mine. Which is weird to me, but seems right at this time.

Then, instead of winnowing farther, I decided to go deeper, and to show some of the layers as they emerge. That requires some breaking of old habits, one of which is to keep the inner workings of a piece to myself in case the magic is lessened by its revelation.

The truth, though, is that the magic is always there, and knowing how the science of a beautiful illusion works is magic in itself. If it’s a really good idea, then the magic stays and multiplies.

It’s time to push the curtain aside.

Stay tuned for a deeper dive.

Links: Right Brain Performancelab

When history comes to the surface: backstory on a new piece in four parts. (Part 1)

Part 1:

On being a Jewish girl in the 1970s & 1980s.

I was brought up in the Philadelphia suburbs to a family that attended a Reform congregation a few times a year and didn't keep kosher, although we felt ethnically Jewish. My parents sent me to Solomon Schechter Day School and Akiba Academy because they hoped that I could find a depth of knowledge that their families could not give to them and that they could not give to me. 

Philadelphia in the 1970s was actually not a bad place or time to be a Jewish girl. My mother subscribed to Ms. Magazine and read Betty Friedan. She taught herself Fortran and Cobol in the 80s and put herself through a second round of college to become a programmer at fifty-two, the same age that I will be in a few months. My father was a choral director and music teacher who taught teens how to sing with a combination of high expectations, compassion, impeccable comic timing, a sense of justice and the ability to be fiercely vulnerable.  My teachers, especially at Akiba, were mostly women who rode the second feminist wave along with several sensitive and thoughtful men. Learning to leyn (chant) Torah with the rest of the sixth grade seemed like the most normal thing in the world for a girl to do and while it was true that in some situations that I was less likely to be called on in class, I think that the faculty included girls in the learning process as a conscious choice. 

My interest in Hebrew language and Jewish practice was magnified because my family was not observant. I loved the sacred musicality of prayer and the complexity of the Torah. My love of languages probably resulted from a brief period when Hebrew felt pretty much like English to me. I look back on what I now call “1980s Jewish Hogwarts” with nostalgia, despite years of social challenges and a habit of chronic, uncomfortable silence that was often mistaken for shyness. Despite the fact that bnai mitzvot in our Reform congregation usually didn’t do much more than wear a fancy new outfit and read a few passages during the service, I decided that I wanted to fulfill the traditional mitzvot. I can still see the faces in the pews of our reform congregation watching me with a combination of confusion and boredom while I chanted the Aliyah prayer and then leyned the week’s portion in its entirety because no one else in the congregation either wanted to or knew how. I still remember my Bat Mitzvah parsha - Akedat Yitzhak - the sacrifice of Isaac - a story that has always been deeply moving to me.  Despite the awkwardness of standing alone before my community and knowing that what I was doing was not at all understood, or worse, valued, I powered through with a ferocity that has, I think, been a quality that has assisted me well throughout my life. I learned early that being the only one with an idea doesn’t make it wrong. Experiences like this one gave me the mental callouses that are required to get out there and do silly, sacred and crazy things in the name of art.

Stay tuned for Part 2: A Bat Mitzvah (sort of) at the Western Wall

The Nature of a Solo

The nature of a solo is that it is alone,
To fold sight backwards into myself to see from the inside.
What a peculiar sight.

I spend so much time slightly worried,
That what I am doing looks ridiculous.
But we are all asymmetrical on the inside.
A small gooey being.
Sad clown.

I built a career on the fact that
While I wanted desperately to dance Swan Lake
That I wound up as The Duck in Peter and the Wolf,
One hundred thirteen shows
That made hundreds of small children in Atlanta laugh
Who are now in their thirties
(Holy crap)

Thirty freaking years of silly dancing.

I turn my old pan of whiteface over in my hand.
Knowing that I am a silly (empty), inside-out presence, even when I’m the most serious and thinking
This is it, really.
(What…? Stare at a star sideways, and lost again.)

The negative spaces
The gaps between the breath around me and the breath inside
Betrays the truth.
It is always something other than what I think
I am trying to say.

More laughing.
More strange looks from the audience, which is fine, really.

So this thing that I am making?
I have no idea.
It is a ridiculous prayer
To make the Spirit laugh.

Fieldwork: A Journey

I have often found myself at a loss for words or phrases that adequately describe the magical thing that happens during a Field session, and for that reason have so far avoided writing about it. It’s long overdue, though, so here is an attempt to dive deeper into the two-decade-old Fieldwork Guidelines with the hope that in the spirit of Field, that it can be brought into further dialogue.

I love Fieldwork. Before I found The Field, I was a person who performed in other people’s dances. I did have a history of making work in a visual/performance art setting, but I did not know how to continually generate my own work or to connect the methods that I used in a way that spoke to me. I also didn’t know what was meaningful to me or other people. Then, in the late 90s I stumbled onto a Fieldwork workgroup led by Maxine Moerman at a small space in San Francisco. Since then, Field has been the challenge that spurs me to continue working.

Fieldwork breaks me out of my blocks and inspires me to think deeper. It calls on participants make an effort to share another person’s experience. My Fieldwork colleagues over the years are the ones with whom I still feel a bond over time and distance. My husband, John, and I are a walking advertisement for Fieldwork ever since we met in a work group in 1998 with the help of two fellow Field-mates who orchestrated our initial encounters outside of the group. Our relationship has weathered two decades, one child and all the ups and downs that come with that territory, at least partly because the foundational philosophy that underpins our marriage comes from Fieldwork. 

The goal of Fieldwork goes beyond understanding, knowledge, accuracy or expertise. A good turn of phrase is “to put yourself into someone else’s shoes.” The participant has to leave behind their needs in order to see and hear what happens on the stage or in a work of music or art. A skilled participant is more of a witness than a watcher, leaving themselves open to new ideas. No matter how moving the work is, the witness moves beyond catharsis to see the workings of the piece, and can address opinions and observations in a way that puts the maker first in their feedback, whether it addresses the most obvious points or the meanings below the surface. The witnesses see the flaws and they may comment on them, but most importantly, they are looking for the foundation that underlies the work and can show clearly if the work is true to those intentions or not.

Showing work in Field is always at least a little awkward. Aside from the basic information that might appear in a program, there is no presentation, no lights, and no curtain before the piece starts. Afterwards there is no applause, because clapping colors the experience of the witnesses and possibly changes their feedback in ways that are less than authentic. For the performer, there is always the chance that they don’t quite understand the underpinnings of their own work, which is where the feedback can be its most helpful, and difficult. This kind of vulnerability is where the most beautiful results comes from. I have found that I usually make my best work in Field, partly because it is challenging in this way. The process of getting past my ego and what I think I want versus what I am really doing is one of the biggest hurdles that I often face when I make work. It is that constant uncovering of intention and meaning that keeps me going both in art and life.

Fieldwork is an exercise in empathy. The interchange that results can be difficult because it requires that people experience themselves and witness others in a vulnerable state. Like much of art making it is what it is and at the same time serves as a metaphor for how to walk in the wider world. It is from this kind of empathetic work that compassion can emerge.




A poem.

This is not exactly on-topic, I am including it anyway. My relationship with our dog is definitely a dance, although it is more scored improvisation than it is a set choreography. So here, for your enjoyment, is the first of a series.

Dog Poem #1

It was because you did not pay attention
When I sat on the couch, waiting for you. 
I don’t know what the thing was,
I know that you probably wanted it. 
Or maybe I made a mistake, because you wanted something like this yesterday,

So today I took this one hostage. 
And perhaps you didn’t want it at all.
I found it on the floor. 

Actually I didn’t. 

Actually the puppy left her backpack open and I fished it out when you weren’t looking,
But that’s not the part that’s important. 

What’s the most upsetting is that you didn’t even notice the rustling when I was digging around  in her bag that she always leaves open when she gets home, 
Even when you tell her to zip it up
Because the dog might get into it. 


I’m an opportunist when it comes to love. 
I’m transactional that way. 
I sit. I get a snack.
You come to the couch and scratch my belly
and I do not chew up things that you want. 

Or fluffy, white things. 
I love those - bits of that stuff you write on
Or put up to your nose and make that weird barking sound. 
I have learned that you are really okay when you do that.
It’s just disturbing.

Now I sit here in a pile of lovely white fluff,
Bits of wood and paper,
Waiting for you.

You must come to the couch.

The window in the front of the house is open
Men with fur on their faces and scary things on their heads walk by all the time.

If you do not come to the couch
I cannot guarantee your safety. 

On process/practice.

I do this all the time.

I sit down and say to myself,

"The ideas of “process” and “practice” are really on my mind. I should get serious and write about it."

So I sit down and start off with a classic topic paragraph worthy of someone with an MFA and a decent amount of reading under my belt:

“I have been thinking about the practice of work with "practice" being a step beyond "process." For the purpose of this post, "process" is the internal monologue that goes with the making of work. "Practice" takes "process" farther into a routine or a ritual of doing.”

Then I get excited because this idea goes back years. I’m thinking about feminist art history, especially on the West Coast. Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro, Anna Halprin…Oh, and then Carolee Schneeman on the East Coast. But wait a minute. Then there are all the photographers (Cindy Sherman!!!!) and the designers (Barbara Kruger!). They had a huge impact and it could be said that the immediacy of photography and agitprop-based work was maybe not so process-oriented. But the actions behind the photography…Sherman’s self-portraits in character, the crafting processes behind the final results of Woman House…Agitprop was clearly a response to negate the ghettoization of “woman’s work.” 

Then I realize. I don’t have enough information. That is often why nothing gets done around here. I’m never one to just make a statement without something to back it up, so I get stuck trying to recall footnotes from twenty years ago. 

Lucy Lippard is who I am thinking about. (I no longer have her book, and it’s not available from our library, so I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies.)

Meanwhile I am still sitting here writing conversationally, trying to write a serious article, when I laugh at myself and realize that that is exactly what I am writing about. I'll explain further...

Let's go back to the ongoing conversation in the 80s and 90s about the transformation of the material into the conceptual, which is what Lippard tracked in her book, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. The increasing value and the possibly ironic heft of the conceptual was, after all, what convinced me to change my study focus from painting to sculpture and from sculpture to “New Genres,” whatever that is. Then Umberto Eco wrote his marvelous book, The Open Work, in 1989 about the way that interactivity had become a performative process that broke open the structure of narrative. Suddenly it seemed okay to turn art into something so ephemeral that the documentation suddenly became more important than the thing itself because the art wasn’t so much the made thing as it was the interchange between the maker, the object and the viewer. (Check out Foucault, of course.) 

Anyway, back to thinking about how feminism changed the way artists approach their work, this time in a more specific and focused way. (Yes, the personal is political, the performance of identity reveals the fuzzy line between nature and nurture, etc…now let’s move on.) 

Female time is about waiting and interruptions. It’s about sitting there while the baby is napping for a spare few hours, before the older child gets picked up from school. It’s not enough time and not predictable enough so that a woman can actually hold down a job, keep a career going, or to finish all the housework. Washing dishes or vacuuming will wake the baby. A woman's focus is too divided to spend hours doing desk work for anyone, including herself. 

There may have a big pile of old sheets that would make a good rag rug, or mending, or knitting. Or maybe there are drawers to organize, dinners to plan and floors to clean. 

It’s quiet. The baby wakes up and needs to nurse. Now she works with only one arm free and someone trying to get her attention. It takes a lot of skill and there's no manual. Mothers of twins deserve medals.

The tasks are meant to be finished at some point, but more importantly they are there to mark time, to feather the nest. Each feather represents a collection of seconds, minutes, thoughts, ideas. A knitted sock is a map of what was on the knitter's mind while she turned the heel. I know a knitter who labels each of her pieces with the names of television programs that she watched while making them. 

Motherhood is the most banal, abject, and at the same time, the most elevated and even sacred activity that I have, personally, ever done. It is the original “work-in-progress” that is never finished. It is the ultimate “process” art. *

If the endless, time-counting activities of motherhood is feminist process, then what is “practice?” I would argue that building a ritual or a routine out of one or multiple processes is what makes a “practice.” A “practice” can, potentially, be anything. Motherhood takes a great deal of discipline, and when done right, becomes a practice that grows healthy and happy children into mature adults, and mothers into older women who have a life’s work behind them. 

We, as mothers, as process-doers and practicers, don’t make the work. We make the container that holds the work. The work makes itself. Somewhere back in the 60s and 70s, there were suddenly lots of female-made art that looked like and acted like containers. Mothers need lots of them, whether they hold yesterday’s leftovers or piles of sketches that go back seven years. I can’t presume to make any assumptions as to whether women are genetically predisposed to make containers or whether it’s just something we have on our minds because that’s what women have to do every day. My mother once told me that women make work that reflects the function of our wombs, which is a saying rather than a confirmed fact. I do know that a lot of art that I have made are things that hold other things and I have seen lots of made objects by women that function as containers - clothes, bags, sculptures, films that are more than the sums of their parts. We make matryoshka dolls out of our lives, worlds within worlds. Each sock holds hundreds of stitches that, in turn, hold a child’s foot as she grows. When it is taken off, the sock documents that once the child’s foot was that small. It has a small worn spot where the ball of her foot was where she pressed repeatedly onto the ground when she ran. Then there’s the question as to whether the art is the sock, or whether it’s the invisible relationship between the sock, the worn spot, the maker and the child who may now be an adult years later. Perhaps the art asks questions about the spaces in between all of these elements. The practice is what gets us there. The process is the building block. 

A practice is a daily activity that draws the boundaries of space and time in order to hold a process. The process is the making of the map that documents life or time or ideas. Each practice is different. The sum total of a practice is possibly a life, or a history. Or perhaps it’s just another question.

*(Another topic for a later date is that men are not without process and practice, and in 2017 they are also more likely to be the "lead parent" than in previous times. I am interested in how men approach this kind of work, whether it is "lead parenting" or finding ways to create their practices and lifes' work.)

©2017 by Jennifer Gwirtz, all rights reserved.