What I've learned about Authorship (so far)

By Jess Van Nostrand
Posted on December 1st

Authorship was a series of events and written work that was advertised to take place between September 23 and November 1. In fact, the sign in the window still states those dates for those of you who have thought to yourselves, “That’s odd; I’m attending an Authorship event at this moment and it’s November 19!”

What happened?

Many, many things happened, and they were all good, resulting in new ideas for programs and new artists I wanted to feature, so luckily the calendar was flexible and these new ideas for events and things just slipped right on in. That’s when the paralyzing fear associated with not knowing what you’re doing in a month’s time is crushed by the satisfying joy of planning something one week in advance.

Now that Authorship is (really) coming to a close December 10, I feel the urge to look back and reflect on what this program has taught me. This is, after all, a learning experiment for me and I have to do my homework by writing about the results.

As opposed to other artistic experiments I’ve encountered, Authorship has been particularly experimental because I asked groups of artists to work together within a concept—without any other framework—and present the results to an audience. If I were a typical curator, I would have some control over what I ask them to present: a work of art, a lecture, a performance perhaps. However, I am making an effort to go against the norm in many ways at The Project Room, so I asked the artists to do any of the above, or something else entirely.

So, when should you give up control and when should you hold onto it?

My job, especially during authorship, has been to guide the conversation and highlight the most interesting and relevant ideas that it produces. I jokingly called myself the Lab Supervisor because there is controlled freedom that requires a careful balance.

Because of this uncontrolled control, I was able to be surprised repeatedly by what I would learn. For example, I had no idea that the poets collaborating on the Authorship Experiment would choose to make hilarious and smart erasures about virginity stories, but this made me think of making-by-erasing, which came up in a separate conversation with filmmaker Salise Hughes whose films also feature making-by-erasing.

I also learned that improvisation is a thread that connects many musicians, something that cellist Paul Rucker and opera composer Garrett Fisher found in common. I was surprised that the maritime historian Emmett Smith and sculptors John Grade and Leo Berk would all find powerful meaning in water (I programmed them to present their work on the same night, and I still didn’t see it coming!).

I also learned that ownership—another word for authorship—is tense with controversy in the world of dance. This allowed for me to not only feature members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in a discussion about it, but it also inspired me to invite choreographer Amy O’Neal to show us how she makes a dance that contains various types of appropriation. It’s been a wonderful surprise to develop authorship around dance, an art form I knew so little about two months ago.

And filmmaker Oliver Laxe showed us his feature film, You All Are Captains (2010), in short clips with behind-the-scenes footage, while artfully teaching me that he makes things because it “shortens distance between the person and the object.”

I have long thought that the ultimate sign of trust in another person’s talent is to give them no limits. How else to explain all the activities I managed during my high school and college years? I owe all those teachers and administrators a lot of gratitude for trusting me with such assignments as “Jess Van (as I was known then), how about you direct your fellow students in a poetry show to be attended by everyone in the high school? You can do whatever you want.” Or, “Jess, you would be a good person to organize (and perform in) all the gigs for our a cappella group,” which sometimes resulted in statements from those giving me no limits such as “Jess, did you hold team practice on the day that I canceled it?”* In other words, how would I have learned anything if the process had been strictly directed?

However, as many who were subjected to my poetry show can attest to, this only succeeds if you have the best possible people involved. With Authorship, I got lucky. In bringing to The Project Room my absolutely favorite creative people and giving them time, space, and trust, I knew that the results would be interesting, productive, and well worth whatever worry it caused me (a good example of this can be read about here in CrossCut.com).

Cheers to everyone who attended an event, wrote an essay, shared their work, or responded to me directly during this series. Now on to more learning!

*This totally did happen. We needed it.