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Questioning Artists

I often interview artists about their stories, practices, and values. Here’s question set that I developed.

  1. What’s your story as an artist? What drew you to your art? What are the big turns in the story?
  2. Who are your primary artistic relationships, influences, compatriots, or mentors?
  3. Where are you in your arts career (emerging, established, mid-career, etc.)?
  4. What is your art? What do you name or describe it? How do you think of your art (e.g., as a calling? as a hobby? as a profession, as a part-time job)?
  5. In your view, what is creativity? What is art?
  6. Give me a nuts-and-bolts description of what you do as an artist. Describe a specific day, hour, task, project, or interaction . Describe typical day, hour, task, project, or interaction.
  7. Describe one space in which you work (either because you want to or have to). Take an exterior perspective and picture yourself in that space. Describe what you see/hear.
    1. Take an interior perspective; describe what you feel, see, think, hear.
  8. If you had to summarize or epitomize your artistic identity in 2-3 actual or imagined photos or images, what would they look like?
  9. As an artist, what feelings, attitudes, and values do you cultivate? Not cultivate, avoid, or reject?
  10. What things or objects are most necessary to your artistic practice? What do you do with them? Where are they? Why are they important?
  11. What rhythms (hourly, daily, weekly, yearly) shape your artistic practice?
  12. Is your art framed by, or embedded in a ritual, practice, or routine? How do you sustain your art? In what ways does it sustain you? Fail to sustain you?
  13. What’s your artistic process? What are the “products” that come from it? How do you think of the relationship between artistic processes and products?
  14. How social or solitary are you as an artist?
  15. When you talk about your art, what words and phrases recur?
  16. What is your art not? What does it say “no” to? What is it “against?”
  17. Characterize the ups and downs of your life as an artist.
  18. Which of your works of art are you most proud of? Why? Least proud of? Why?
  19. Locate yourself in the arts community? What is your “tribe?” How big is your “pond,” and how big or small a fish are you in it? To whom is your art important?
  20. Do you ever flatline, plateau, or become blocked or burned out as an artist? Describe one of your failures.
  21. How do you recover? What are the difficulties in bouncing back?
  22. What are your limitations or constraints as an artist?
  23. Do you teach your art? What’s your teaching style? In your experience, what’s the relationship between teaching and learning in your art?
  24. Do you value art for its own sake? For the sake of what it can do or achieve? Are you an activist or a contemplative? What does your art do for others, for society? How efficacious is your art? What can your art not do?
  25. What’s the relationship between your art and your life?
  26. How do your family and living situation influence your art?
  27. Do you have any images or stories of artistic aging, decline, or death? How do you imagine the “dying of the light” in your artistic clan? When a dancer/singer/etc. ages, gets sick, or becomes deeply compromised, what happens?
  28. What question that you’ve not been asked would you like to be asked? Feel free to revise any of these questions to make them more appropriate to you.

Questioning “MaidenForge”

MaidenForge” is now public. In February we will present both the sculpture and film in a nearby Mennonite Church. We’re brainstorming prompts, questions we might ask or that people might ask us.

  1. What is “Gun Shy?” If you described it to a friend, you’d call it a _________.
  2. What do you see? …if you stand back at a distance? …if you get close?
  3. What do you want to touch? Not touch? What are its textures?
  4. If “Gun Shy” were given to you, what would you do with it?
  5. Does a piece of art ever change anything?
  6. Does “GunShy” simply fetishize, idolize, or mystify guns?
  7. What message will you take away from “GunShy?” Does that match what Irian says the sculpture means?
  8. Would changing the context of display change “GunShy’s” meaning? For instance, on display at a gun show, might the sculpture be seen as pro-gun?
  9. Why should rural people care about gun violence? Isn’t that an urban problem? How can rural dwellers engage with this issue?
  10.  Does it matter than the owner of this shotgun was a Mennonite who used it for hunting? Would “GunShy” be more effective if a handgun had been used instead?
  11.  How does the film shape, or change, your experience of “Gun Shy?”
  12. Were you carried by the story?
  13.  How does the music in the film affect you? Did its rhythms or intensity add to (or detract from) your experience?
  14.  What’s left out of the film?
  15.  What needs more explanation?
  16.  What was your initial impression of “Gun Shy?” Has it changed?
  17.  What alternative title might you give this piece?
  18.  What thoughts, feelings, or memories are triggered by “Gun Shy” (the piece) or “MaidenForge” (the film)?
  19.  Imagine that you wanted to make something to encourage disarming, what might it be? A song? A poem? A quilt? A story? A painting? A sculpture? A piece of music? A tool? Something else? What’s it made of? What would you call it?
  20.  Who else should see the sculpture or the film?

Questions we might ask you:

  1. Why are the two of you working together?
  2. How much time and materials were invested by both of you in this project? Was it worth the cost?
  3. How has this project changed your thinking about the issue?
  4. How has this project affected your family and friends?
  5. Since we’re members of a peace tradition, you’re preaching to the choir, right? So, what should we do from here? How can we help?

Truth be told

“Truth Be Told,” ice sculpture by Nora Ligorano & Marshall Reese

After my last post about the pope’s view of truth, fake news and lies, my son Bryn, born and bred on Big Questions, played the devil and wrote:

BSG: ​Are you suggesting that no mortal human can ever speak or know ‘the truth’? That we’re all just guessing? What if one of our guesses is ‘the truth’, and God has a little checklist with all the Big Questions & answers, and whoever guesses one right gets rewarded in (or punished) in some manner?

Or what about scientific facts: water boils at 100 degrees. Isn’t that ‘a truth’ that was discovered and is now professed by humans?

RLG: You are raising two questions, one about God, the other about truth. If God, in fact, has a list of questions and answers, none of us can see it. I wouldn’t believe anyone who claims to have taken a peek at it.

Pascal argued that humans should wager in favor of God. If He exists and we don’t join up, we’re in trouble. So, for ass/soul-covering purposes, it’s best to bet on God. But what kind of a god does that imply? A heavenly father who rewards guessing, betting, and ass-covering? My dad wasn’t perfect, but he was fairer and more compassionate than that.

I’m not really saying there is no truth, only that no one, including clergy, politicians, or scientists, has a monopoly on it. I’m also saying that every uttered truth comes from a perspective. In quantum theory, this is called the observer effect. The observer changes–at least somewhat–the observed. I’m certain this effect is true about social interactions, social truths, but quantum theory holds that it is also true of physical interactions.

Water only boils at 100 degrees if you participate in the social convention called the metric system. If you live in a Fahrenheit country, water boils at 180 degrees. Right?

 

As I await Bryn’s reply, The Daily Beast reports on an art show containing a 3000-pound ice sculpture by Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese for an international Art Action Day. The sculpture, “TRUTH BE TOLD,” has, unfortunately, melted already, along with other ice sculptures: “DEMOCRACY,” “THE FUTURE,” “MIDDLE CLASS,” and “THE AMERICAN DREAM.”

 

 

Three places I never went to when I was alive

“Three Places I Never Went” by Paul Antick, who is a founding member of the Terror and the Tour research group and co-editor of Liminalities’ Terror and the Tour special issue. His recent contributions include, “Bhopal to Bridgehampton: schema for a disaster tourism event,” in the Journal of Visual Culture. Antick is Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Roehampton, London.You can find some notes about the video here.

Think of Antick’s videography as slow food. It’s the work of a photographer. You will need to practice meditation to watch this remarkable video.

How to ride an iron horse?

I’ve been riding the Iron Horse Trail for years. In 1997 Kitchener-Waterloo drizzled a ribbon of asphalt over an old rail bed connecting the twin cities. Since then, we fine, upstanding citizens have been practicing–ambling, walking, riding, jogging.  I say “practicing” because for some of us this is lifelong learning, and because some of us aren’t especially adept at it. So practice it is.

Some mornings I grumble at the thought that the trail calls. Should a trail “call?” It has friends enough. The neighbors are out there walking, biking, jogging, slicked out in sweats or pooping their pets. Others of us, early or late in life, trot out our iron horses: bikes, wheelchairs, strollers.

trotify-horse-bike-silhouetteI bike. When people ask why, I say “to stay alive, why else?” I mean it. Secretly, I’m lazy. One of my Dutch students initiated the Walk of Wisdom, a circular pilgrimage around Nijmegen. It’s 136 km. I’d never make it. That’s why you have enterprising students students: so they will walk the walk you could only talk.

Unlike the trail up Boulder Creek Canyon, the K-W Iron Horse Trail is flat, reminding me of the terrain around Nijmegen. (Ah, for one of those fine Dutch bikes, which I still can’t afford!) The flatness of the Iron Horse is, I suppose, easy on aging hearts and muscles, but flatness also provokes anxiety. I grew up in the high dry, dusty plains of eastern New Mexico, and I’m not fan of flatitude. In western Canada, they call these level expanses prairies. As a kid, I imagined prairies were places for prayer. Places where people asked God to help them escape to the mountains. Mountains and coasts are holy. The great continental mid-section is safe.

An iron horse is a train. If  you’re not too young, you know this already.

“Horsing around.” Did you use that phrase as a synonym for “play?”

“Ironing:” what we used to do to our clothes before stay-pressed and no-iron were invented.

“Ironing your horse:” nailing shoes on it. By pounding them through an iron shoe and then through the horse’s “nails,” you render the poor beast roadworthy. In the process, of course, you damage the hooves. Take your pick: asphalt damage or nail damage.

I imagine animating the Spirit of the Iron Horse Trail. Raising it from the flatlands of the urban imagination.

I revel, conjuring an evening of processing and parading, of candle lanterns and steampunk horses, of kids inventing new kinds of horses.

Steampunk Iron Horse (cut paper) by Phillip Valdez
Steampunk Iron Horse (cut paper) by Phillip Valdez

War Horse by Larry Agnello, Assemblique.com
War Horse by Larry Agnello, Assemblique.com

I went to an Iron Horse Trail town meeting and could find no compatriots. I wanted to reimagine the trail, conjure its spirits, fill it with masked processions, have funeral processions down it, dance down up, have a yearly contest to build an Iron Horse Trail horse. But most participants wanted to enhance safety, make the trail wider, and post courtesy instructions.

Within a few months the trail was widened to accommodate Catalyst137, “The World’s Largest Internet of Things Manufacturing Space. I love technology, even the technology of machine horses. But, damn, I wish we would stock the trail with imaginary creatures. This ain’t Silicone Valley, although the city mothers and fathers wish it were.

How to keep your dead family photographically alive?

Susan talks about downsizing. I’m not ready for such a move even though people our age are doing it. For one thing, it would cost us more, not less, to move into a condo. For another, I am still capable of maintaining the house, so enjoy it. In a condo I’d have fewer reasons to get up out of this fabulous writing chair. Even if you have only lived in a bachelor apartment, after a year or two you realize how much crap you accumulate. When I’m tired of moving it around or dusting it, it’s crap. When I’m enjoying it, or even when I think I might use it in the future, it’s a resource, a comfort, a prized possession. We’d have to dispense with several truckloads of stuff. Even if we’re still physically capable of packing, lifting, and dumping it all, why go to all that trouble until you have to? Susan says that means it’ll all fall to her.

This morning, with Susan out of town, I started going through slides. Most are pre-Susan, so she doesn’t have any interest in them. If I were sorting family photos, pictures you can hold in your hand, she would care mightily.

Old slide: Dad, winding up his 8mm. camera

It’s easy to feel sad, then get angry at Kodak (let “Kodak” stand for all electronics manufacturers that build obsolescence into their products).

Old slide: Mom, camera-in-hand

Kodak spawned the slide-tray technology that lured us into shooting slides instead of pictures. Since slides were shown on a screen and were bigger than 4″ x 6″, they were more dramatic than photos. The lights went down, and the family gathered. We dads bought into the notion that photos and slides were “memories.” But gone are the days of slide projectors.

Most of the time, in the cosmic scheme of things, it hardly matters that you are always falling behind the technological curve. Some categories of slides were easier to dispense with than others. Buildings, gone. Colorful flowers, gone. Sunsets, into the bucket. What a lot of landscapes, into the trash. How easy it is now to let go of them. Their beauty is of little consequence as you circle the edge. Even vacation slides were not all that difficult to toss. Vacations were just vacations unless something significant happened to the family during one of them.

But when technological change costs your family memories, that’s immoral. Having to toss slides (last year it was CDs), I began to realize that they were semblances of memories, not memories. They were memory-triggers, mnemonic devices, not actual memories. Still, as I put slide after slide to death, it felt like, “Ah, there goes my old life, my pre-Susan, pre-Cailleah, pre-Bryn life.” It felt good to trash some of those slides, but others hurt. So I projected a few of the slides onto a rusted only screen, then shot them into digital eternity. But what suffering my kids will have when the technicians trash jpgs, not eternal after all.

Old slide: Ron, age 17, running a TV camera