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.