Collaborative Artworks and Decision Making

Artist talk. 2009. California State University.

As an artist I explore the intimate and the sexual capacities of human nature, and its changing boundary of private and public expression. I am interested in investigating the intimate space around erotic activities and how these spaces move through and change with time.

My work addresses both physical changes within an individual’s body, as well as cultural changes that occur over generations. I explore intimacy by creating a playground of discussion around and through my work. The use of humor in my work serves a two-fold purpose. It defrays the tension that is often found coalescing around the notion of sexuality in our culture. It also lays an emotional map by which to navigate the subjects I am considering in a particular work. Humor belies my approach to the potential playfulness of the human sexual experience. My work generates a dialog about the sexual and erotic by combining interactivity, playfulness, and humor. I attempt to bring attention to blind spots surrounding intimacy by utilizing forms and objects that are associated with intimacy, but may be ephemeral in nature.

Within my work, I pursue an idea across several different mediums. Each medium naturally presents its own limitations and differences. However, I have found with each iteration, and with the challenges proposed by each change in format, the expression of the core idea becomes more complex. The complexity and layering of perspectives within my work comes from a collaborative development process that occurs when I move work into an installation based performance environment.

The development of a specific work often arises from a question or idea posed by a previous work. In one of my previous works, Knockers, etc., slang words for sexualized body parts were incorporated into a larger context of social views about the human breast. I felt upon completing Knockers, etc. that the semiotics of the slang words, and the idea of socially defined attitudes as expressed in the ephemeral language of slang, had not been fully explored. Therefore, sexualized slang words became the underlying theme for the work Name Game, the piece I will be focusing upon for this discussion.

I decided from the outset it was important this new piece meet several criteria. Firstly, the slang should include both positive and negative social attitudes  some words would be positive/loving while others would be negative/hateful. In essence, this would portray an objective survey of slang words that actually exist in various cultures. In this way my work functions as a form of social cataloging. I also felt that the words should be presented in a non-hierarchical manner, without bias towards positive or negative slang words. While there is an aspect of social critique to my work, it is important to me that the audience is presented with a relatively unbiased representation of the aspect of sexuality I am presenting.

Secondly, the body parts referred to should not be exclusive to one gender. Both the namer and the named would be from both genders. In the actual piece, however, color does give a clue as to whether the words represent a male, female, or gender-neutral body.

Aesthetically, I wanted the experience to be both temporal and spatial, so the viewer felt they were on a journey which moved through time and space. In retrospect, this approach gave a physical concreteness to an ephemeral social construct; slang words are not found in the dictionary.

I also felt it was important that each user’s experience was unique. I wanted the experience to have some parallels with my own real-life experience of having slang words, both positive and negative, be directed at me. The experience is not entirely random, as the user does navigate through the text and to some extent chooses their destination. This aspect, and the presence of slang as a very aural experience, most directly influenced the audio aspect of the piece.

When the user interacts with the piece they hear cowboy callouts, such as Yee-Haw! In this work, the cowboy / cowgirl serves as an access point for the viewer. The specific references chosen were representative of social icons that employed a freedom of sexuality and sexual exploration. These references serve as my personal social commentary for the piece and reveal my own bias towards the possibilities of human sexual expression in this particular work. Specifically, I appropriated images from Thelma and Louise, the scene in which they spontaneously decide to intimately enjoy the companionship of a hitchhiking cowboy; and the scene from Smokey and the Bandit, in which the Bandit and Frog also decide to explore a more intimate relationship.

Many of my pieces begin as an online project; the user can view the work and interact with it in real time. Consequently, the distillation of my artistic vision into the creation of the aesthetic experience is primarily done through technical coding. Similarly, technical presentation solutions to the above criteria are based on this specific presentation format; a single user navigating through an online environment, as viewed through their monitor. As the piece will be viewed through various Internet connections, the structure of the piece must allow for scalability in the form of swift download times. As the piece will be viewed on a monitor with unknown resolution settings, the dimensions and visual components of the piece must be adaptable to the individual user.

It was not technically possible to have all the words load into the piece at the same time, as it required too much processing power to be feasible for online viewers. This made it necessary to break the slang into sections, a new section loads after a specified number of mouse-clicks, regardless of what you clicked on.

From previous installations I had noticed the shadows of the dancers becoming a distinct presence in the visuals of the piece, and thought that a belly-dancer, which I discovered during my research online, could become a virtual dancer’s shadow. She was given a lasso to unite her presence with the audio “cowboy yells.” The use of a standard cursor was also substituted for a lasso to further reinforce the call-out audio.

Once the first iteration of this piece was complete, I had the opportunity to present the work as an installation. I regularly work with an inter-media performance group, Double-Vision. Many of the members are regular, and many of the dancers for the group are contracted on an annual basis. The five people I would be working with for this performance are all people whom I have worked together with before, we have an established relationship. These five collaborators chose to work with me, I didn’t have to solicit them, they liked my original project and were interested in exploring new possibilities for it as a performance piece.

For this performance we met once every week for two months. With this new performance format came several parameters that had to be incorporated, which included: a two hour performance, the collaboration with five professional dancers, a multi-installation performance environment, and a 50′x80′ installation area.

It also required new decisions to be made in collaboration with the dancers. They specifically wanted direct interaction with the audience. Additionally, the theme of the larger, group performance environment called for campfire and other thematic outdoor props, along with concrete evidence of audience interaction, and a greater audio presence. Overall, the new iteration of the piece would create a carnival-type of atmosphere; fun and games on the surface level, while addressing less pleasant aspects of society through pastiche. I have personally found that working in a collaborative environment requires a degree of flexibility in your artistic vision, a keen re-evaluation of which concepts and ideas are critical to the understanding of the work, and which ones can be left open-ended.

Decisions made through my collaboration with the dancers included having a VJ operate the slang-word animation aspects of the piece, having several “Hoe-Downs” allowing the dancers to interact with groups of audience members, and incorporating slang words into the call-out dance steps. A new component used the slang words printed on stickers, which the audience members used to complete a series of Mad-Lib Poems that I created using country love songs and ballads. Additionally, the dancers took the same slang word stickers and branded  the audience members, signifying their participation with the piece. The slang stickers were one way to address the differences between actively navigating the slang words in the online version and passively walking through them in the performance version.

Audio clips from the narration of the poems were incorporated into the animation to complement the existing audio of the piece. This audio was echoed by the dancers; if an audience member decided not to join the Hoe-Down, the dancer would read them one of the poems. Lastly, a live video feed of the interactions was introduced within the animation, to further incorporate the audience into the visual projection.

I have found that having simple protocols best facilitates audience interaction by presenting understood rules of engagement that only require low levels of commitment on behalf of the audience.

The slang stickers were non-threatening and used only positive slang words, were easy to dispense, and do not damage clothing. By having the audience carry over this artifact from the interaction with the dancers to the cowboy love poems, the audience could extend their interaction with the slang words in a less demanding, self-guided format. On the other hand, the Hoe-Downs are more interactive and require a greater commitment from an audience member, but also have clearly pre-defined rules of engagement, and easily recognized beginning and ending points. The use of Contra dancing specifically uses called-out instructions to guide the dance, thereby requiring much less foreknowledge on behalf of the participants.

Direct benefits of the collaborative process include a new vision for the core ideas of the original piece. This vision, because several people develop it, is a more complex and layered experience of the original piece, which embraces an aesthetic of montage, revealing a greater diversity of expressions within the final piece. The performance installation creates a dynamic and compelling experience for the audience and the performers with each expression of the piece.

Each expression allows for a great deal of variation, despite the guiding rules of engagement set-up beforehand. In this way, there is a relationship between performance improvisation occurring in my work and the Performance Art and Happenings of the 1960s. The performance piece also becomes an archive of cultural rituals by employing familiar games and structured interactions with the audience.

After the live performance, the work can be recreated again as pseudo-documentary montage images of the event. I use montage images because the piece being documented is temporal, a single image rarely captures the cumulative experience of the event. The life of the original work becomes cyclic in nature once the work has been performed. The live performance imagery can be reincorporated into the original web-based project, adding a greater sense of complexity and depth to the original experience.

Allowing the piece to evolve through collaboration creates diversity and surprise. That can be the greatest benefit to a collaborative decision making process in the creation and expression of an idea.