Reflective Statement for the Jardin d’Europe Wild Card Residency at Exerce
By Michael Helland, December 2012
I first learned about the Exerce Wild Card residency when a friend emailed me to suggest that I apply. She knew I had just returned from an intense summer performing in the visual arts world and that I had a lot of questions about how to move forward with my work. Campus, led by Laurent Pichaud within the context of the Montpellier-based masters program, is a six-week choreographic research into the history of the choreographic and plastic arts of the twentieth century – described as a survey from Fluxus to Judson, across nature, public space and political action. Through spontaneous research and nomadic encounters we would manufacture knowledge, questioning how creativity is triggered when we endeavor to learn and what it means to study art – there would be life, community, creations, thoughts, rest, contribution, exchanges, invitations and work. When I packed my bags to leave Brussels for a short tour to France I still didn’t know if I had been accepted into the program, and I doubted it because my availability excluded the first and last weeks, but I figured it was worth a try – the proposal was fascinating and I had the month free, so why the hell not make an adventure out of it! When I got the call in Lyon to come directly to Montpellier it was the first of many great surprises to come.
Upon arrival to Campus, the next great surprise is that we would be speaking French. The Wild Card residency application had clearly stated that the working language was English, but apparently it wasn’t updated since Exerce became an accredited masters program and implemented its French language mandate sometime last year. On my first afternoon, as we sat in a circle to begin our first group conversation I kept wondering, when are we going to switch to English? Until I realized that we wouldn’t! English would happen now and then, since at least one-third of the group struggled with French and everyone was making a concerted effort to accommodate one another, but the lingua franca was certainly French. Of course, having lived in Brussels for the past two years I’ve been motivated to speak French, but it just hasn’t been a top priority since my professional life continues to surround me with opportunities to speak English. However, in my spare time I do listen to ‘Learn French by Podcast’ and this, combined with my previous knowledge of Spanish, means that I arrived in Montpellier primed for a French immersion. But I realized quickly that I must adapt my approach, and accept the fact that negotiating language difficulties would at times take center stage in my experience of Campus.
Once the initial shock and anxiety passed I realized that I could understand what I needed to understand and that I could express what I needed to express – a lot of words are fancy extras anyway. Typically I’m regarded by my peers as a highly articulate person and a great listener, and I’m aware of how to apply my language skills to help build momentum for my ideas and gain traction in a group – but in French I don’t get to necessarily do that. Instead I have to play the role of the quiet person who may or may not understand what’s actually going on in the room – a person who’s easy to overlook or underestimate. As ugly as it is to admit, in the past, while I sympathized with non-native English speakers attempting to work in an English dominated environment, I haven’t always taken the time to fully involve them and have found it easier to buddy up with other English speakers, fellow Americans in particular. But in Campus, for the first time in my professional life I was cut off from this easy form of isolation – also at home where I was staying with a French household, so I really had no cultural escape! As such, my hegemonic impulse to rule the room through English was cordoned off at the source and my limitations with language created a unique opportunity to practice being a curiously uncertain version of myself.
Beyond the language conundrum, another product of the circumstance was working my ‘outsider’ status – as a Wild Card participant in general, but also made extra wild by my agreement to participate in only the middle four weeks of the six-week module. Arriving to something already in progress with people who had already bonded during the first week and beyond, there was a question of how to insert myself into the situation, a basic question of how to participate in a way that is meaningful to both myself and to the group. The structure of Campus was so very loose that the question of how and why we might find ways of working together seemed to be at the heart of it for everyone. I made myself one promise, based on a suggestion from someone in the group, that I would relocate all of my work into the Campus for those weeks. So, on the second day when I started doing my yoga and my writing at home I quickly packed up my bags and ran straight to the CCN – deciding that I would make it a point to just be there and the rest would follow. With or without my own creative agenda for the day, inside or outside my own preferred ways of working, being present with others creates the opportunity to have an impact or exchange that moves someone forward, and if you’re lucky, sometimes that someone is you!
What I discovered is that by removing the pressure to be productive I became surprisingly productive. In the first Exerce Public event each artist was responsible for hosting a handful of audience members on an individual track for the evening, to create a small group experience of Campus. For my visitors I selected three scores from the 2010 book ‘Everybodys Performance Scores’ created by artists who are working in contemporary dance today. These three selected actions, in addition to being accessible to a general public, move the performative body from the internal-private realm to the more external-public world, composing a sort of mini performance art training workshop. Upon completing their training my visitors were invited to occupy a public space in the Campus to perform an iconic archival performance art piece from the 1970’s. By engaging contemporary practices to explore an archival form, this action addressed my interest in how we might celebrate the past without becoming overly fixated by it, where we can pay tribute to the legacy we inherit by creating new entry points to it. After all, the post-Judson proliferation of score-based choreography continues to frame the way many artists work today. The success of my score for that evening was to invert the past-present and performer-public dichotomies.
I was thrilled to harness this alternative economy of interaction with the public, to create a boutique experience with a unique form of intimacy between the artist and the visitors that isn’t ever possible from the main stage. I decided to carry this liberty forward in the next Exerce Public with the proposal to offer private experiences throughout the night inside the greater context of the event. The frame for this evening was a party, and I collaborated with two others to create a bureau of private experience situated at the heart of the festive public space. What impressed me most is the way that my original proposal developed as I engaged in this collaboration. From the architectural situation, to the design of the materials and the refinement and performance of the private experiences – these things all came together in a way that I wouldn’t have been capable of if I had continued to work independently. So in addition to exploring the way in which the stakes are shifted when you engage each member of the public one-on-one, this event was also a realization of how in the right context collaboration can really produce something special. In concert, both Exerce Publics empowered me with a greater sense of purpose and clarity about how to frame my relationship with the public and with my artistic peers.
The open platform of Campus made me feel surprisingly responsible to myself about my work. Perhaps my greatest accomplishment was conducting a trial run of Vita Activa, a project I am working on in the coming month in collaboration with one of my longtime creative partners. We will host a one-week workshop with forty unemployed people in which each person performs one hour of work for another person, and in exchange receives one hour of someone else’s labor, thus creating a web of action that speaks to the value of time and human labor power – perhaps alluding to a possible world beyond the constructs of free market capitalism. The working methods for this platform of social engagement are something that can’t be rehearsed, so this was an invaluable opportunity for me to try things out, get some feedback, and make improvements to ensure a greater degree of success with the upcoming workshop. It also felt important to present Vita Activa within the context of Campus – after our many endlessly problematizing conversations about what is art and what is life and what is the difference, it became much more interesting for me to think about the ways in which work organizes so much of both our lives and our art, and perhaps by highlighting this unifying frame we could find some action.
My weeks at Campus helped me to become more aware of where I am in my artistic development, suggesting some ways in which I might be blocking my full potential, and could certainly do better by opening some new directions and allowing myself to be surprised. Mainly, I’m exhausted with the paradigm of constantly problematizing everything. Indeed, I’ve come a long way by always working in antithesis to something else, to use a position of negation in order to motivate my positive engagement. I think this way of being has run its course for me and in order to move forward I must continue to dig deeper into what excites me, and reinforce it by loving and practicing these things instead of offsetting them by their opposites. Also, I don’t feel as compelled to always do something all the time. It’s easy to take action, but it’s more difficult to create the space for the right action to emerge. Campus reminded me of the value of creating open space for these kinds of surprises. A great artist friend once said that in order to be a good artist you must allow yourself to get bored first, because it’s all too easy to stay in a state of entertained distraction and avoid having your own ideas. Campus helped demonstrate the responsibility I have to myself and to the integrity of my work to not be so full of shit all the time.
From the joys of speaking French, to the joys of knowing when it might be best to not speak at all, Campus reminded me of what’s important and added some surprising new dimensions to my current artistic methods. There was something so natural and so easy about it, but it was at the same time full of challenges. It seemed like we were busy all of the time, but weren’t usually accomplishing anything. In contrast to the direct demands and interpersonal accountability that take place when I’m working in a traditional creative process, there was a slippery slope in Campus where it would have been easy for me to disappear, fading into a fog of uncertainty. The onus is really on each individual to define a position for themselves and bring it into reality. Even after just a few weeks there were times when the gravity of academia was beginning to weigh on me, especially when guest artists would arrive full of quirky attentiveness and remind me that the energy level of a working artist is not that same as the energy level of a group of artists working in a masters program. The novelty of academia quickly subsided, and I passed through states of indifference and even resistance becoming ultimately more and more excited to return to my professional life, but to do it with a new perspective and a fresh sense of wildness.
Go to the The Bureau of Private Experience