Skillful Means

The next three months will be (partly) devoted to exploring skillful means - upaya in Sanskrit.  In Zen practice, one might say that zazen is the most skillful of the skillful means but there are lots of other ways to look at it, too.  What is the most skillful thing in any given moment?  It's not always obvious.

In art making, I have always loved the idea of virtuosity.  It is the next step after establishing a level of skillfulness.  I remember my Chinese art history professor describing the categories of artists in ancient China, with "skillful" being the lowest - almost an insult.  The idea is that anyone can be trained to make nice pictures so it is what you do with that skill that really makes the master.  The virtuoso.  

In both zazen and art, I have a long way to go before I can lay claim to virtuosity.  For the next three months, I especially hope to think about and express what it means to use time skillfully, to use my materials skillfully, to interact with people skillfully.  Everyday we make all sorts of decisions - why choose this but not this?  So, how do you discriminate among objects and ideas without setting heaven and Earth infinitely apart?  I hope to find out.

As part of this exploration, I am going on a social media fast.  I truly value how Facebook keeps me connected to people from all areas of my life but I know that I waste a lot of time there too.  Will it be more skillful to take a break?  Again, let's find out!  I suspect it will mean more posts here since I do love to blather on (and on).

And meanwhile, here is a glimpse of the gloves for the performance The Demon Under the Bed.  It also signals that I have finally figured out how to add photographs to my blog posts.  Baby steps, people.  Baby steps.

Mirror Gloves, 2017 (for The Demon Under the Bed)

Mirror Gloves, 2017 (for The Demon Under the Bed)

Stepping Into Empty Space

For the past several months, I have been working on a new piece that is nothing like anything that I have ever done before.  It enters territory that I would have died rather than step foot into not so long ago.  It is still slightly (read: hugely) horrifying but I find that I must do it - everything is pointing in that direction and who am I to ignore such a calling?  

It started last summer in Newfoundland.  I got an idea for a performance that would take place on the brook (read: river) that empties into the bay near my house.  The idea, which may yet become reality, is to create a full-on spectacle.  Launch myself, in a fabulous costume, down the brook and set to sea.  The details of that performance are still cooking in my head but, with the seeds of it planted, I came up with another idea for a performance as part of The Bedroom/T.W.A.T. project (see earlier post on that).  I call this project The Demon Under the Bed.

In my previous work, there has been a performative element, as I like to call it.  That means I am physically active within the piece - my body and presence moves the work along - but I am just myself.  I don't have costumes, there is no choreography, no soundtrack, no special meaning to my being there beyond as a way of making the larger meaning of the work come forward.  The Demon Under the Bed is different.  There is a costume.  There is a soundtrack.  There is choreography.  The meaning of the piece is in all that stuff.  That is the larger work.

The idea of moving and performing - maybe dancing - has been simmering under the surface for awhile.  For years, that kind of thing was something that I would rather hide under my seat than even watch someone else do.  It seemed self-indulgent and exhibitionist.  Finally, I realized that such a strong reaction deserves attention.  I explored it a little a couple of years ago with the result that I sat in a chair and said, "No, you can't make me move." for three months.  I never quite found out who the "you" was but whoever it was, they surely weren't going to make me move.  In retrospect, that is a kind of interesting in and of itself, but it was pure torture for those three months.  Clearly I wasn't ready.  

Fast forward two years and I began to remember a time when I was a little girl, begging my mother for dance lessons.  Living a rural area, the nearest city an hour away, with three other siblings and very little money, the answer was no.  But I began to remember the strong impulse of wanting to move in a certain way - an expressive way.  Alas, with adolescence and a family where female bodies were heavily scrutinized and always found lacking, I became far too self-conscious and, frankly, self-loathing to take it up on my own.  Maybe some of the horror of watching others do it is actually based in envy or longing?  I don't know.

But, here I am 35 years or so later, stepping into the unknown.  No ground beneath my feet, the potential for utter humiliation at near 100% certainty.  At the same time, it is so clear that this is moment to take this up.  I hear the demon under the bed starting to rumble and rouse.  Are you ready?

Not All Pussies are Pink

Like so many - millions! - of my global sisters and brothers, I marched on the 21st to protest the new administration in the US and to celebrate and advocate for the rights of women around the world.  As the signs said, Women's Rights are Human Rights.  It should be obvious but, obviously, it isn't.  

Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you noticed that hundreds of thousands of people - men and women - wore handknit pink hats to the march.  "Slyly" as the New York Times put it, referencing DJT's words when he was caught on audio tape bragging about sexually assaulting women.  Somehow this was not enough to prevent him from becoming president (I am still shaking my head in disbelief about that) and two women used this moment to create the idea of making these pink hats in protest.  Their idea caught on and they put up a website.  And then...hundreds of thousands of people were knitting hats!  I had a tinge of jealousy that I didn't think of the project for a split second but then I let it go because it was such a joyous moment to see the sea of pink and to know that so many hands worked to make it happen.  It was visually and viscerally stunning and it put knitting as activism "above the fold" as they say, in the news.  It was glorious.

Until it wasn't.  Among the comments about the sea of pink knit hats, some started to point out that not all pussies are pink...and not all people who identify as women have pussies.  At first, I admit, these comments felt a bit like a slap in the face and I thought how there is always someone who tries to bring down a good thing.  Like, can't we just enjoy our wonderful moment after months of depression and anxiety?  Then I thought that the pussy hats weren't about pink or any other color pussies, they were about taking back colors and words that have been used to diminish, negate and violate women of all colors and sexual identities and to limit our reading of this spontaneous show of knitting to some kind of literal depiction was wrong.  I still think that (a little).  

Then I started to read some responses to the march from women of color that felt like another slap in the face.  They witnessed and experienced things that I didn't see or hear but I believe happened - acts of disrespect and disparagement from white women in the march.  Just because I hadn't witnessed such things doesn't mean they didn't happen - and perhaps the fact that I didn't see it points to something else at work and my ability to notice (or not) bias from my place of white privilege.  They rightly wondered where the hell we have all been while they have been marching and being attacked for, well, lifetimes.  I realized that some of the sting I was feeling was the very uncomfortable sting of being shown the truth of something ugly that I play a part in, even if I don't like it myself or condone it or support it.  Every time I began to sputter, "But...but...." in my head, the words, "white fragility" would dance through my thoughts.  

Ouch!  

I tried to just stay with that feeling of discomfort, which, let's face it, is a lot less discomforting than - oh, I don't know - being attacked by police dogs or tasered or shot.  In my life, I have known violence and discrimination because of the fact of being female.  Can I hold those experiences and know that they are not diminished by acknowledging that the experiences of my Black and Brown sisters, who also have had experiences that are equally valid and, most likely, even more challenging and insidious. Can I allow myself to just feel all of it - the discomfort, the not-knowing-what-to-do, the fear, the shame, the horror?  Sit still...there.  Can I have faith that by sitting still in the midst of all that discomfort, the next steps will become clear?

I want everyone to feel what I felt last Saturday - marching and then looking at picture after picture of people wearing pink hats and realizing that we will be counted; our voices will be heard.  I felt it.  I want you to feel it too.  I'm working on it.

The Year of No (But in a Good Way)

Being a glass half full kind of person, I have begun to see 2017 as a year with a lot of promise.  It's true, the doomsday scenarios are plenty - and I can travel down that road pretty easily given the political situation in the US.   But if you haven't noticed, there is a resistance movement happening that is so lively and creative that it is giving me this sense of hope.  

In 2008, I made my first "Yes" piece to celebrate the end of the Bush years.  It just kind of popped out of me and I knew it was just what the moment called for.  A couple of weeks ago, in my studio, I had a similar moment with "No".  It's what the moment seems to be calling for.

As I mentioned, I am a silver lining kind of gal so "No" isn't really my thing.  Yet, I think there is an upside to No.  I think of how we chant the Heart Sutra, which spends a lot of time on No: "No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind.... no ignorance and no end to ignorance, no old age and death and no end to old age and death...."  and on and on we chant, no this and no that.  After what seems to be an endless list of No's, we say thus the bodhisattva lives in pure, perfected enlightenment (paraphrasing here).  All those No's bring you to a big Yes.  The biggest Yes of all!

So that is how I like to think of this year of No.  We need our No's right now to bring us to a big, old Yes.

I think we can do it.

With No Time to Waste

Like most of the people I know, I have been in a state of alternating disbelief, anger, helplessness and depression since November 9th.  I honestly felt in my bones that Hillary Clinton was going to win (and I think one could make a strong case that she did actually win!) so the shock of witnessing this person who is so ill-suited and dangerous claim the position has been difficult.  I admit to practicing some deep denial, which manifested in signing every damn petition and sending emails in the hopes that the Electoral College would do the right thing.  Of course they did not.  Part of me holds out hope that, until that man-baby has his tiny little hand on the Bible, there is a chance that this nightmare might end happily.  

I will not be the first person to say that, even  by some stroke of luck or actual justice, he doesn't place his teeny-weeny paw on the Bible, the nightmare will not be over.  A light has been shone on a deep and shameful ugliness in the USA - the legacy or karma of how the country was created - and it can not be unseen.  Nor should it.  A friend asked for ideas of what could actually be done - not just talked about or clicked or emailed - in the face of things.  My answer is to use what I have, which is art.  

Some people are born with the skills to organize and lead people, to show up and fight, to inspire and give words to the powerful emotions that are swirling around in each of us.  But that ain't me!  I was born to make things and that is what I can offer.  Towards that end, I have joined forces with some other artists (who all happen to be women) for a project titled The Bedroom.  It is a collaborative installation - a monochromatic bedroom.  You can read about here.  We call ourselves The Women Artists Team (T.W.A.T).  While it isn't directly aimed at the state of affairs we find ourselves in, I think it is no surprise that it is coming together at this very moment.

So that's a start.  

I wouldn't be surprised if Kay McCarthy made a re-appearance.  Who is Kay McCarthy?  Well, the inspiration was this woman, who made a strong impression on me in my youth.  (Noting here that we were born in the same hospital in Winchester, MA!)  During the early Bush years, which now seem like a time of intellectual renaissance and profound humanity, I created a character whom I named Kay McCarthy.  She hosted a DIY television show called The Well-Made Weapon in which she made decorative weapons from commonly found household materials.  I made a few videos and her work appeared in a couple of exhibitions.  The project lost some steam after a friend told me that she felt there was an edge of meanness to it - that I was making fun of people who, I suppose in retrospect, were a lot like current day Trump supporters.  Well, it was a parody, so I guess I was making fun of them in an indirect way.  But I thought I was doing it with love.  In any case, I dropped it after that because I am not really interested in being mean.  But Kay has haunted me.  I still think she has a lot to offer and a lot to say.

Digging around to see if any of the videos are available online (my copies are all tucked away on external drives or DVDs - update:  here is a little promo that I made in a very low-tech way in 2005), I found this exchange from another collaboration that I participated in titled Fridgefest (Diva/Divan), organized by Nick Fracaro and Gabriele Schafer .  Here Kay discussed the project with her assigned partner for the project.  Enjoy!

 

 

In the freezer compartment, I will have a running loop of video (or DVD) of close-up of hands engaged in daily domestic tasks that take place in the kitchen, i.e. washing dishes, kneading bread, churning butter. Perhaps this will be framed in a set of curtains so one only sees the image and not the equipment. In the fridge part, I will make it a kind of doll house with furniture made from various containers and packages found in a fridge. Maybe people could play in (with) the doll house?

My name is Kay MacCarthy and I am the host of a half-hour DIY program called "The Well-Made Weapon." Right now I don't have a regular time slot but I am in onversations with QPTV and others so I am really hoping to share my work with lots and lots of viewers, who (like me) love to make decorative, non-functional weaponry from materials easily found around the home.

 

My show blends a little bit of history with a pinch of resourcefulness and a whole lot of excitement about weapons and how they can be used as beautiful and creative additions to any home. Robyn told me about her idea to put a doll house in a fridge and, well, I love the woman, but I wasn't terribly impressed with her idea.

So we got to talking and I mentioned some of my more edible creations (the pineapple pineapple grenade springs to mind), and she agreed that perhaps she might feature some of my work in the fridge. I am really psyched to be a part of your group. It is so inspirational to be around so many creative minds, all working together. If you want to see some more of my work, you can check it out on Robyn's website.

*****************

Dear Kay,

Robyn Love gave (sold) me your name.So I guess I'm now the MONSTER of your dreams.

I think your Well-Made Weapon show will fit nicely into our fall lineup of The Homely Household. Of course we'll need to make some cosmetic changes to your overall presentation. First and foremost we need to identify you and your decorative weapons as uniquely American. I've mocked up a web site intro that may be helpful for suggesting to you the direction I think we need to go with your makeover.

http://www.mccarthy.com

The name change from Mac to Mc may seem insignificant but these are the subtle details that fall into my domain as your producer. I need to think ahead to matters such as product placement. So first think Abstraction, Cubism, Expressionism, Impressionism, Magic Realism, and Minimalism. Now think of one day soon having a pure all American art-ism. That's right, McCarthyism. Dream big, Kay. Dream big.

For the Well-Made Weapon we will introduce a new "recipe" for a decorative weapon in each half-hour television segment. The following is a rough outline of the pilot show.The segment will feature the decorative IED. Most viewers switching over from Martha Stewart of course will not know what an IED is. So part of this pilot show and every show will be educating the public as to the exact nature of the weapon used as model for the art object. But first we will have a little fun with audience's naiveté on weapons.

Many viewers will confuse your pronunciation of IED with the acronym IUD. You will exploit this confusion through most of the segment but later go on to educate the audience as to the true nature of Improvised Explosive Devise and the high percentage of fatalities and amputees in Iraq from these weapons. Blah blah blah.

I am also talking to the writers about inserting ICE into the segment somehow. ICE is a nice little acronym for IED Countermeasure Equipment. At one part of the segment we'll have you run to the freezer to put some ICE on your forehead as remedy to your exploding IUD. A little clumsy in concept but the writers might be able to make it work.

Best,
Ben Trovato,
Producer
The Homely Household

 

*******

why so fast, Ben? a girl likes a little romance...

love, Kay

******

Kay,

You have to be fast to play in the big leagues. I know what
housewives want and I'm determined to give it to them. By the way I got the title of my show The Homely Household from a verse in Lord Byron's Don Juan.

Love,
Ben

'Tis melancholy, and a fearful sign
Of human frailty, folly, also crime,
That love and marriage rarely can combine,
Although they both are born in the same clime;
Marriage from love, like vinegar from wine--
A sad, sour, sober beverage---by time
Is sharpened from its high celestial flavor
Down to a very homely household savor.

************

I am so excited!!! Yesterday I found a butter mold that allows you to
remove the carved portion (it is hinged at the sides and the bottom
piece--the carved piece-- releases from a set of clips). It means that
I (along with my viewers) can carve a new bottom piece so that one's
butter will have the impression of whatever you want--a landmine, a
machine gun, the H-bomb, whatever! The possibilities are endless!

*******************

From "Weapons: A Pictorial History" by Edwin Tunis:

"The first automatic pistol made in America was the Colt .38 introduced
in 1900...The caliber was increased to .45 in 1905 and in 1911 the gun
was adopted as the official US Army side arm. The Colt is the most
dependable of all automatics, an important characteristic since it is
intended for personal protection at close range and close range is no
time for a gun to jam or miss fire. It's quite a gun. It will stop a
running man in his tracks and will flip a light man clear over. It
delivers a mighty wallop and it jumps in the shooting hand like
fresh-caught salmon. This makes it a dangerous weapon for bystanders."