Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Complicated Tango at the Back Room

Tonight at the Back Room the guest panelists were Amoreen Armetta, Molly Dilworth, and Alex (Kreb?) aka "the tango master"- a title he resists.

The loose theme of the evening was 'searching' and an inquiry based in the mind and the body. Alex was a surprise guest that Stephanie Snyder provided as a gift to Amoreen and Molly, relieving them of any pressure to plan a dialog. Stephanie really is a most gracious host!

Sean, Andy, Chelsea, and several other of our PNCA colleagues were there. As were Rita, Pat, and Susan Harlan.

The evening started with a brass gypsy band, and for the first time ever dancing at a back room event! I love to dance and don't do enough so this was definitely a bonus for me. And after a delicious and substantial dinner we had a tango lesson. Well Pat and I had part of a tango lesson, we ended up being partners and were unable to master the "careful listening" involved in the relationship of non passive submission. Apparently we are both alpha dogs.

This is ironic as this idea of "duende" achieved by mutual submission and letting go of thought became a metaphor for the discussion afterwards. Alex described very eloquently the place that two dancers -strangers- can achieve when they are able to be in perfect communication, he stressed the equal pressure exchanged between the bodies as a "listening tool" so that in perfect communication the leader is as submissive to the follower, as the follower is to the leader. A total union as it were. He explained that when he first experienced this he was very young and the day after the dance wondered if he was in love, or dating the girl, should he call her? Now he understands that it is not sexual, it is a moment that is made though the connection (it takes two to tango) but the experience is generated and experienced equally. I don't know how to put this exactly so I will clumsily say that there is no residue of personal obligation after the dance. However I can not believe that there is not some lingering connection or knowledge.

Stephanie asked if this might play out in a civic way? The question was never really answered to my satisfaction, at least the question I understood her to be asking. I thought she might be suggesting the possibility of a civic duende. To me the metaphor would go something like this, just as in tango (per Alex) you can learn the steps in 6 months, and it takes a lifetime to still not finish learning the dance, but one has moments after learning the steps of being able to forget them and achieve that feeling of duende, and that is what keeps one dancing. Maybe after learning the basics of ... social interaction, one begins to "dance with them and occasionally has moments of duende that compel one forward to learn more and practice more. To me this would be an example of civic tango.

As it happens at any really good dinner party, the conversation veered from a direction some found more promising and went off into areas that others were most interested in. (that's really obvious code for, I wanted to take another trajectory, but since I didn't speak up I can't really say anything about it) But it came back around too. Amoreen asked the audience if anyone could think of an example in life that was similar to what we had experienced in our tango lesson, of moving together while also experiencing and negotiating a relationship with others around us. (bad paraphrase) Someone mentioned negotiating public transportation (turns out he was talking about crowded trains in Japan) and the wordless communication that he experienced with people, the example he gave was something like asking for just a couple more inches and the other person agreeing and giving him those inches, all with out words.

Amoreen brought up how she actually finds it hard to walk in Portland. She likes to walk when she is frustrated (not the right word) with her writing. She misses the jostling and more aggressive walking style required by the crowds on the streets of New York. Pat then brought up the point that we had been talking a lot about finding this unity this “duende” and she admitted that it is a good thing to experience, but that in fact for her it is the discord and the oppositions that move her forward, they are the things that interest and compel her forward (my paraphrase). Amoreen agreed with this as did Molly. Molly went as far as to say that utopia didn't exist and couldn't. There was then a volley of words about the roots of the word “utopia”.

At some point when Amoreen was asked if writing for her was similar to tango for Alex, she said that really it was more like always chasing after something that was just almost in reach.

At this moment (or at some point including this response) I realized what I thought about the idea that the discord is what is most interesting. I agree, it is the discord and things not being resolved that move me forward too, but I think we are conflating the private with the public. The discord I find valuable (unpleasant but valuable) is internal. I don't personally benefit from discord in the world around me. I have no fear that even if everyone else on the planet were suddenly to find themselves in total accord I would be any less internally conflicted- ok maybe a little, but I'd still have plenty of angst to motivate myself. I think there is a huge value in trying to make, or perceive even fleetingly profound connections with others.

Tango is an interesting metaphor for this to me for a couple of reasons. The idea that a “transcendent” moment can be achieved between strangers, and the concept of this mutually achieved transcendence not mandating any future obligation. This last bit may seem a little cold, but I think not. I think it is honest. I think that one reason we are all so hesitant to engage with each other (strangers especially) is because we fear we will enter into some sort of implicit undefined contract.

Now to shift the focus slightly; during dinner I had a conversation with someone at my table about social practice. She said that the problem with social practice is that it was undefined thus there is no way to have a dialog about it. She said that there is no common language for it, no way to critique it. I am not explaining her point very well so far. I think what she was saying is that from the point of view of an educator, how can you help a student fill in something that is missing if you don't understand what the whole should look like. She said that social practice needs to put its self in a context so that it can be discussed. She also had some very convincing examples of “bad” social practice art. And she said that if we were to do “social practice” it should have a political or social intent/result.

I explained that from my point of view it was unfair to judge the whole genre by a few bad examples. After all there are plenty of bad studio artists as well. Also I suggested that the very nature of collaborating, trying to learn how to best collaborate with people outside of the self selected art world had the potential to make as much difference as working only within it. And the main thing I said was that, from my point of view, what we are doing as students in this program at PSU is really difficult, we are trying to define the parameters of our own practice within a field that we are spending equal amounts of energy defining and not constricting. I told her how much time and energy we spend thinking about and discussing topics such as responsibility, relevance, audience, not to mention our own projects and how they intersect with these topics. We are also concerned with the same things as every other MFA student, such as how can we support our selves as artists, what is ethical etc. It is really a very challenging pursuit that like other art forms requires integrity, intentionality and persistence in order to progress.

Later a man suggested that what all true art has in common (all art, including science etc..) is rigor. My friend who I had been discussing social practice with earlier leaned over and said “you see that's my point”, and I said “no that's my point!”

This all seems really wild (ironic?) as I talked to Pat this morning over coffee about how tired I am of oppositions. I really think framing different approaches oppositionally is not only futile, it reinforces conflict and is lazy. Pat told me something someone told her-no she read it in an obituary- this woman, a painter and teacher told her students "For you to be right doesn't mean that everyone else has to be wrong."

So check it out I tell Pat just this morning that I hate “opposition”, she tells me this really great quote that validates my sentiments, (even though she values opposition) I go to the back room, and make a completely “oppositional” response to my friend about the topic of social practice!

It was an interesting evening and a very complicated tango - but then there were more than two dancing.