Photographer Ethan Rafal explores our topic Monument in Shock and Awe, a part journal/part photo essay multimedia work about homeland decay.Read More
Jan Wallace honors her dear friend and renowned poet, Denise Levertov with a poem and a reflection on memory, loss, and monuments. "She taught me how to be still and regard each marvel; no maple tree with its autumn colors, or pack of raccoons 'like busy little criminals' could be mundane in her gaze."Read More
TPR Editor Tessa Hulls reflects on death, the desert, and how we mourn loss.
A monument marks a boundary, a line that we cannot cross. On the night when I learned that Angie had died, I stumbled outside because I wanted to return to the constellation that had tied us all together. But the clouds were out that night, and although I raised my eyes and searched the sky...Read More
TPR Founder Jess Van Nostrand writes about how to be the dumbest and the smartest person in the room and how to engage individuals and an audience simultaneously.
"The allure of looking inside an artist’s mind largely rests in the assumption that they know something we don’t; that they make things we don’t know how to make, that they look at the world differently, that—perhaps—they are more interesting people than we are."Read More
Well, I have finally made my way into the world. I arrived only forty-three minutes after my parents arrived at the hospital, a very rushed event that stressed out my mom somewhat (and you do not want to see my mom stressed out- my first bit of advice to you).Read More
It has been quite a while since I last wrote and, although many things have changed like my ability to talk and use the bathroom, much remains as it was when I joined you all in this world in the summer of 2011.Read More
By Jess Van Nostrand and Susie Lee
Posted on November 8th
“The work I did is the work I know, and the work I do is the work I don’t know.” - Philip Glass, 2012
Throughout the summer of 2012, The Project Room focused on “Solutions.” For this series, TPR Founder Jess Van Nostrand and artist Susie J Lee collaborated on a three-part experiment that brought together artists and technologists for some meeting, talking and making. The three parts were titled as follows: Speed Dating (Event #1), Dinner & A Movie (Event #2), and Gettin’ It On (Event #3).
Here they field questions from Off Paper Editor Jenifer Ward, who also participated in the experiment.
Jenifer: How did the two of you get started with this project?
Jess: I take my collaboration relationships very seriously. There is a mental strain in working within and around another person’s brain, and I save that experience for very special circumstances in which I know I will greatly enjoy nearly every minute of time spent with that person and their brain. Susie was that person for me.
Susie and I found that we both wanted to find a productive and inspiring way to bring artists and technologists together. We spent countless hours forging a formal structure that was not just another social mixer. We carved a structure that was considered, balanced, and activated through the time spent. It would be based on the development of a romantic relationship, from a blind date through, well, you know.
My job as the Founder/Director/bathroom cleaner of The Project Room is to identify themes that possess relevance for an audience, and to guide the programming as it responds to that theme. Susie also has a big-picture way of thinking, but as an artist, which means she is a maker of things. We complement each other well in what we know, what we are curious about, and who we are able to force to participate in an experiment like this. We spent time fretting about hypotheticals and distracting details like the starting time of an event, but we checked our fretting by remembering the experimental nature of the entire undertaking; as long as people were engaged, all would be fine.
Jenifer: Why now?
Susie: As a new media artist, I have a complicated and deeply ambivalent relationship with new media. My cell phone is from 2001. I don’t facebook. I couldn’t code to save my life (but I think I was tainted by my first C++ programming instructor who came in wearing a lab coat. I was like, “Uh….seriously? Those aren’t REAL viruses, you know….”) And yet I find an addictive cycle of returning to new media by asking the question: What are the ways that technology can touch humanity and bring us closer together? My collaborative practice makes things inherently messy, unpredictable and human. I have had fantastic collaborations with technologists because when we work together the conversations aren’t cyborg mind-melds but more like, “What the hell are you talking about??” Yet, it’s not a start of an argument, but a fascination that the one person is accessing a totally different language, visualization, order of operations and value system from other. Technologists and artists look at the same problem space through completely different filters.
There is a high percentage of technologists in this region. A few of those are interested in cultural endeavors and are curious about what others think in the same problem space. There are also artists (and I’d venture to say the percentage is higher) that are mystified and slightly suspicious of technologists’ thoughts and operations. Jess and I wanted to tap into that energy and curiosity to merge intelligent and motivated artists and technologists together in a room.
Jenifer: Did any of the results of the experiment surprise you?
Jess: Speed Dating was like a big hot noisy party, and then Dinner & A Movie was more work for everyone, I think. It was interesting—and surprising— how uncomfortable we all seemed to be with having an inconclusive event that was open to the public. I think there were a few times when someone said, “What are our deliverables here? What do you want us to do?” If we were at a real dinner party, no one would have asked that, but in a public event, we are trained to conclude something, or present something tangible. I was wondering if anyone would come back for the third event after that one! But, then, the third and final event brought the ideas together into a presentation format that was meant to demonstrate where we might go as a group if we worked together. So, ideally, those who participated in all three events saw what different ways of thinking around the same topic can look like.
Susie: I was quite floored at the serious application of effort that happened at Getting’ It On. You get a sense why people are successful at their careers—they bust a move when the pressure’s on. What it showed me was that—even though people are busy— we might very well see a new sense of community with relationships that continue beyond this particular program. New people were introduced to TPR. Participants visited each other’s studios, blogged about what they experienced, and have stayed in touch since. So perhaps like any good dating platform, we formed threads of possibilities.
Gertrude Stein: “What is the answer?”
Alice B. Toklas [silent]
Gertrude Stein: “In that case, what is the question?”
There was a time, long long ago, when I thought I might enjoy life as a writer. I began as a child by creating homemade newsletters for my family to read (which is odd since they had been, in most cases, there for whatever I was writing about). I dabbled in composing bad poetry in high school and then fought my way through college and graduate school critical writing exercises, only to find myself hungry to touch art and talk to artists rather than write about it.
I ended up living in Amsterdam for a year, and my best friend, who was an actually good writer working on her MFA in creative writing, started connecting me with writing opportunities for various publications to keep me busy between bartending shifts. This was very rewarding because I had wanted very badly to be a Broadway star when I was a child and seeing my name in print felt like a decent consolation prize to seeing my name in lights.
Anyway, things changed when I started experimenting with curating, and I have come to love writing as a necessary part of being a good curator but not my true calling.
I’m sharing all of this as a way to state my deep respect for writing and writers, and to explain why it became important to include a literary component of The Project Room. More than that, however, I wanted to continue the conversation that would take place in the physical space. The Big Question, “Why Do We Make Things?” has universal relevance, and someone who does not spend time in The Project Room should still be able to access the issues, discussions, and events that form around this question.
As we move forward and explore the Big Question deeper, you can expect writing from a wide range of contributors with different points of view. Some content will respond to the Big Question directly, some of it will be taken from conversations that occurred in The Project Room, and some will be both theoretical and personal, my favorite combination in writing.
Off Paper is lucky to have a new Editor, Jenifer Ward, who starts things off with just such an essay in “In the Making.” Jenifer is an incredible thinker and prolific doer, another one of my favorite combinations.
Welcome to Off Paper!
Before I explain the reasons behind the current topic, Solutions, I’d like to review some of what I learned during our previous topic, Beginnings. [Each topic of focus in TPR is inspired by what occurred in previous programs, so articulating the connections between them helps me define what’s coming next and—more interestingly—why.]
I learned from Beginnings that many makers do, in fact, have an “aha moment” that sparks a new idea, and that this aha moment is a real thing that occurs in the brain and can be explained, as of very recently, by scientists. I also learned that it’s helpful to be ignorant about your idea when you begin working on it, and that using your personal beginnings as subject matter is actually not a straightforward way of finding the truth about your family.
Some highlights: Musician and filmmaker David Mitsuo Nixon presented his new film-in-progress, Bladfold, about his enigmatic and infamous father, Bradford Nixon. His research into his family’s past revealed complex issues around what defines the “truth,” as it also did for author Alison Bechdel, who visited TPR for a conversation about her new graphic novel Are You My Mother? Kevin and Jennifer McCoy created mock art tours by actors of works by Northwest Masters, which allowed a refreshingly new way to look at the region’s art history. It was also very, very funny. I also learned that no matter the field, people who make things are often inspired by a problem or a challenge to which they have found no satisfying response. Some may even create a problem that can be researched, but it leads to the same place: creativity is often an act of problem solving.
The Start Up roundtable discussion that took place in March inspired the idea, but I was interested in the topic before then, even before I made myself a job as an independent curator sometime around 2003.*
So I ran the idea of seeking solutions as a motivator by a few other makers, including author of Imagine, Jonah Lehrer. Jonah had this to say about why he wrote a book about creativity:
“I’m just drawn to mysteries, to things I can’t begin to understand. So for me it began with moments of insight. We all have them all the time and they are so befuddling. And I knew I wanted to write a book on creativity because it seemed like a vague enough subject where I could tell lots of good stories, which is the other kind of subject I’m drawn to. But I kept bumping into creative people and asking them questions, and they couldn’t explain their epiphanies any better than anyone else. It’s just as mysterious to them. And that’s why I thought the science could be interesting.” Read more about our conversation here.
With solutions on the mind, Decide Co-Founder Hsu-Ken Ooi, visual artist Susie Lee, and I have invited ten artists and ten technologists to participate in a mock “speed-dating” event, during which they will identify some problems to tackle. To add more complexity to the conversation, ten “Chaperones” will facilitate the “dates” and tweet in real time so we can all follow along. The event is June 27, and the Twitter name is projectroomSEA. More info about that is coming soon.
And I’ll present other perspectives, including those of composer Garrett Fisher and filmmaker Ryan K. Adams, who shared the next installment of the making of Magda G in a film script reading June 3. Read about Garrett’s approach to problem-solving here. Printmaker Charles Spitzack will continue making new work in response to all TPR’s topics—including Solutions—and we’ll continue to hear from other makers, both in and outside of the arts. And save the date for July 14, when TPR celebrates its first birthday!
What Solutions is really about is motivation: What motivates us? What gets us so fired up that we decide to make something about it? How often is that thing a problem of some kind? In other words, Why Do We Make Things?
Solutions proves that there is still much fertile ground to cover within this big question.
*My experience with problem solving can be traced back deep into my past, to when my new gym teacher in sixth grade kept forgetting the students’ names well into the school year. This inspired me to ask my dad to bring me sticky nametags from his office so I could organize my classmates into wearing them in class. My dad told me at this time that this was called creative problem solving.
I like the juxtaposition of touch-stones and off-paper—the one physical, the other virtual. This “off paper” and online presence of The Project Room is entering its third year this summer and it seems like time to take stock, touch stones, and think of what has been and what is to come. While I carry the official title of Editor, the truth is that we operate as a collective Editorium: Jess Van Nostrand’s voice is always there as founder of The Project Room; Assistant Editor Tessa Hulls has provided a sense of continuity to us and has taken on steady leadership for content development in “The Seen” section of Off Paper; Brangien Davis is always available as a helpful resource and scout for potential connections between Off Paper and goings-on in the broader realm of arts and culture. And, truth be told, I was MIA for the last several months, dealing with some personal upheaval/laid flatness that I’ll write about soon. Without Tessa, Off Paper would have been offline—so first, a huzzah to her! And second, after a quick google, I am annoyed to learn that I did not coin the word “editorium”—but I still claim our identity as such.
Jess, Tessa, and I met last week at my apartment to reaffirm what we want Off Paper to be (and to nibble on treats, sip coffee and tea, and pour milk out of a porcelain cat’s mouth).
What Off Paper is not: a slick magazine, with a fixed production schedule and paid employees. What it is: an online companion to The Project Room; a conversation partner to the events and programs of the physical space—liberated from time and place. Some of the pieces in Off Paper are directly related to programs; sometimes they inspire or are inspired by programs; sometimes they are just riffs on the themes of The Project Room (currently: How Are We Remembered?).
Coming up, we have musings by artists, makers, and thinkers—from around the world—in response to the question “Who Was Your First Hero?” Our own Tessa starts us off here; others include Author and Physicist Lee Smolin, followed by other creative voices in the arts and beyond.
We’re taken by how varied the forms of self-memorialization and remembrances of others are, and will be exploring some of them in Off Paper. Look for travelblogues, culinary histories, photo-chronicles, poems, essays, cartoons, and scribblings.
Are you working on something related to remembering or being remembered? We would love to hear from you. Whatever else Off Paper is, we want it to be reflective: of our days, our questions, our communities, our makings. Contact us at editor[at]projectroomseattle.org, and visit often for new writing!
Jenifer, Tessa, Jess
By Jess Van Nostrand
Posted on February 27th
“… The split second when I know what is right, but choose not to heed that truth: that is failure. ”
–Barbara Earl Thomas
“Fear is a good thing for me.”
“When important things happened in my life, I was very uncomfortable.”
I am often asked how I select the Big Questions and the related topics for each TPR programming series. It sounds like I’m joking when I respond, “These are the things that keep me up at night.” Sadly, this is true. Happily, I have a place to work through these things. Using The Project Room as my therapist to identify and address what I can’t understand, I have created topics that stimulate me (in either a positive or negative way), and which I hope carry some meaning for others as well. This should be good news for my husband who does not always want the job of Jess’ therapist, but he is still very much needed- sorry dear! I realize this is a very self-centered way of explaining what drives the organization but, like everything at TPR, it’s a partly intellectual/partly personal endeavor.
In the case of the Failure series, I was thinking through all of the interesting things that were said during the previous Solutions topic. My thinking went something like this: In order to seek a solution, you need a problem. And, in order to tackle an especially complicated problem, you need to take a risk of some kind. “Risk” didn’t get me very excited, probably because I find it a very safe word creatively, one that we can all feel good about making use of regardless of the outcome. It feels good to say to someone else, “Wow, that was really risky” as in “Glad I’m not you!” So, I was not losing sleep over that. But what got my nerves in a jumble was the idea of what lives on the other side of that risk: failure. How close we live to it, how we don’t like talking about it, and maybe- just maybe- how essential it is to making something and to simply being a person.
Bringing it back to ME again, I wonder where the future of TPR lies and how it can sustain itself- what’s my definition of failure for this organization? That cost me at least a few night’s decent sleep right there. So, in keeping with my format, I decided to dedicate some time to Failure and see what others think.
In order to inform the conversations— and bring some inspiration to this potentially dreary topic—I created the series “Successful People Talking About Failure.” I didn’t want to kick anyone who might already be down, so to speak (“Sorry your career tanked and no one knows who you are- would you like to be featured in a series called “failure?”) These lively presentations featured a diverse group of people sharing their different points of view, and ended with many people telling me they wanted it to continue because it was the TPR topic they most connected with personally. The humor in this is not lost on me: the people have requested more failure! I agree- it was great fun and needs to make a comeback, so look for an encore presentation in the future…
You can read more about what occurred in Off Paper Editor Tessa Hulls’ perceptive response, A Failed Essay on Failure.
It has been nearly two years since we began the main theme “Why Do We Make Things?” I had originally created the Big Question structure to allow for a theme to be explored in depth, something I found lacking in my curatorial practice. As I learned, however, “nearly two years” is not long enough for something this interesting. This is why there are scholars who have devoted their careers to the work of one person, or one body of work, for example. Overall, I was surprised by how much substantial programming grew out of this theme and have come to understand that, if you have a good idea, you can make it last a loooong time.
But it is time to get into a new theme, so here we go. For the next eighteen months, The Project Room will ask the question, How Are We Remembered?
In this new theme, you will be invited to participate in conversations and other happenings around the idea of legacy and what it means to leave your mark in this world. There will be some experimentation with new event formats along with lots of roundtable conversations and other happenings online and on-site. I am also proud to announce the forthcoming launch of The TPR Book Circle, which employs an unusual book-club format. Expect lots of special guests and great reads around the current theme! More about that is also coming soon…
Thanks to everyone who joined the conversation during the first Big Question and made it a diverse, informative, and really fun programming experiment!
*These quotes are from three of the presenters from the Successful People Talking About Failure series. To read more about this program, go here.
By Jess Van Nostrand
Posted on February 8th
Before I explain my interest in the theme of “Beginnings,” I would like to make it known that The Project Room is all about me. It has been created (by me) to respond to my Curiosity About Things* in partnership with what I think are the most exciting creative people in Seattle and beyond. Therefore, everything that takes place in the space and on the website feeds this curiosity and helps move me closer to my goal of becoming a Person of Increased Understanding of the World. Creating research-based programming (or programming my research, if you want to look at it from that direction) shows the inner workings of The Project Room itself. This makes me uncomfortable and gives me the impression that I must be learning something.
Anyway, new ideas are scary and wonderful at the same time, because they don’t yet have support behind them but possess endless possibilities. There have been many times when I have thought of an idea for an exhibition, for example, and gotten sort of tingly imagining how fun it would be to curate it. Sometimes the ideas became something, and other times they remained in notebooks, never to be produced (yet, anyway!). “So,” I thought to myself a few months ago, “what if I devoted some time to reflecting on that tingly feeling? How does that phase of creativity work for different makers of things? Where do the ideas come from? How does one know a good idea from a bad one?” Beginnings came to be the next series in The Project Room, one in which we can share and discuss new ideas while following the progress of specific projects.
It takes a brave and confident maker to present their new ideas in progress—something I have mentioned in previous writings—and it continues to be thrilling when a participating artist uses what occurred in the space or what was said in a public discussion as a way to improve upon an idea. This means I’m not the only one researching and learning things; this means that, perhaps, it isn’t all about me. Hmmmm.
*I have been reading Winnie-the-Pooh to my four year-old daughter, and enjoy borrowing A.A. Milne’s use of capitals as a form of emphasis, as in “Owl hasn’t exactly got a Brain, but he Knows Things.”
Like Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions, we look back over the first half-year of Off Paper and look forward to what might come…
Off Paper was conceived to be a literary counterpart to what happens in the physical space of The Project Room—a way to engage The Big Question for people removed from Capitol Hill in Seattle. The first few months have allowed us to refine what that might mean, quite organically, and to think about what we want to accomplish going forward.
My own piece—in which I crosscut between Mandy Greer’s Solstenen project at The Project Room, A.S. Byatt’s story A Stone Woman, reflections on my history as a scholar, adaptation theory, and an interview with Mandy—served as a kind of test run for an approach I hoped we could take in Off Paper: foster writing that could occupy the space between straight criticism, straight scholarship, straight blog, straight anything. I wanted us to find an interstitial space that would defy conclusion and certitude, thus mirroring the mission of The Project Room. The writing that has followed has been quite diverse: different from mine, different from each other.
What holds across contributions, though, is this: every piece takes up subjective space. It is someone’s personal response to something that has happened in The Project Room or in Seattle, or responds to The Big Question, or ponders the evolution of this experiment unfolding on Pine Street. It is as transparent as possible, opens up rather than resolves questions, and is comfortable with being “always in the process of becoming” (pardon my invoking German Romanticism). From Amanda Manitach’s interpretive response to a group discussion among Seattle artists who interview other artists to Sharon Arnold’s personal tangle with the role of process in artmaking to Dan Webb’s exhortation that The Project Room not become just another art gallery, writers have entered an unfolding conversation.
So what might readers expect going forward, now that we’re ready to take off our training wheels? First, some “staff” changes (I put this in quotes, since we’re all volunteers): Brangien Davis joins us as Editorial Consultant aka Content Scout; Jane Wong joins us as Editorial Assistant aka Content Wrangler. The holidays are over, we have dug out from the snow (I love making us sound like pioneers on the frozen prairie), and we are excited to yoke up next to the newest project in the space, Beginnings.
Emmett V. Smith will follow up on his fall appearance in The Project Room with a reflection on his role as a curator in a maritime museum. Jentery Sayers will tell us about Digital Humanities: a movement firing up academe in which traditional humanities and arts scholarship evolves into “maker” culture. And that’s just the, well, beginning of Beginnings—more of which will emerge from the events in The Project Room.
Finally, we hope to hear more from YOU: as contributors outright, or as commenters on pieces by others. Have an idea? Do send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you.
*”Going off paper” is a slang idiom that means to go off probation, off parole.
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!”
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.
Gertrude Stein: “What is the answer?”
Alice B. Toklas [silent]
Gertrude Stein: “In that case, what is the question?”
We need to talk. I have always considered myself a dutiful curator, a well-behaved thinker who has dedicated her academic and professional life to learning and writing about you. As rewarding as this is — and I happen to think I have the best job ever – for the last few years I’ve been thinking that there might be something more out there for me, something even better than what we have going now. Rather than continuing with our relationship using my standard methods and comfortable formats, I’ve decided that you and I are going to have a conversation, and we’re going to include all kinds of interesting people and record what happens.
This shift in my thinking, which can be most simply described as a shift from talker to listener, is the reason I decided to create an arts space. Right from the start I asked myself why I wanted to build a non-profit arts organization (an undertaking that would seem the hardest possible option while one is pregnant, the parent of a toddler, and looking to save money). What about this undertaking mattered so much to me? While I was thinking this over, I challenged myself to step as far back as possible, to think beyond art and into more general territory about, well, life.
It became immediately clear to me that, like Ms. Stein, I was not actually looking for an answer, but rather for a question. And the question that confronted me was, “Why do we make things?” In that moment, the idea for the Big Question at The Project Room (TPR) was born, followed by the satisfying realization that I could be on my way towards learning, not only more from art, but from life as well.
I choose the word “we” because this question is not only about me, or the artists who might be featured, or the arts community, but everyone who has ever made anything. In other words, Why Do We Make Things? is a question that can be considered by anyone, regardless of their interests, expertise or background. The emphasis is on inclusivity, an important element for me, and one of TPR’s founding principles.
Proposing a question rather than a statement also mirrors TPR’s interest in supporting works-in-progress by allowing things to be less than completely figured out. In other words, I’m not telling you what the projects are about – I’m asking you to tell me. In doing this, my hope is that this Big Question generates discussion, engages all kinds of people, and offers a platform—online and in person—for different points of view.
Chronologically, the theme of “making,” had to be the first formally tackled question because it includes the building of TPR, a process that I wanted to present in a transparent way to the public and parallel with the programming itself.
“Why on earth would you expose your incomplete work to ridicule and judgment like that,” you might ask.
First, I’m asking the artists to do it so why shouldn’t I? In other words, there is an element of risk in showing the world what you believe, and I’d like my contribution to contain no less risk than those of the artists with whom I work.
Second, I can relax into the process as an experiment and enjoy what happens without having my position on an idea determined at the outset. One of my favorite examples of this comes from the late choreographer Merce Cunningham, who believed in allowing forces beyond his control—such as chance operations—to determine outcomes. After all, I’m in charge here so I don’t have to worry about misusing patron dollars or creating a disaster that costs people their jobs, especially since there are no current patrons or staff.
Third, I believe that putting the process of creating an arts center on display will allow me to learn much more than if I had presented only what I considered a polished result. This is the most exciting part, because I’m creating a collaboration of sorts between the artists the public and myself, in which we all probably know something someone else doesn’t and can share our perspectives accordingly. And, if I’m in it to win it, as they say, I need to learn as much as possible.
My past in the performing arts likely has something to do with this works-in-progress interest. Performing (in my case, singing) is ironed out in front of your colleagues during events such as rehearsals, recitals and master classes. Mistakes get made, and rarely are you making them in the comforting solitude of your own home. One of my proudest moments came after a solo recital in which I botched up a section of a piece. I stopped, asked the accompanist to start from where I got stuck, and finished the performance feeling as if nothing had happened. The first thing my voice teacher said to me afterwards was “You have nerves of steel!” That meant much more to me than if he had said something like, “You sang beautifully!” The lesson learned from these difficult and rewarding experiences was that you only get better when practicing in front of an audience. And getting better is really what I’m after.
In this spirit, TPR will address each Big Question by inviting the public to participate in conversations, happenings, rehearsals and other experiments that challenge our assumptions not only about art, but also about contemporary life.
On an administrative note, I must acknowledge the holes in the calendar of events. This is an intentional act that allows for changes and additions to be made as we move forward, and uncover ideas that I might not have thought of yet. It’s another example of choosing the hardest possible option—curators usually like to secure programming at least two years in advance—but these gaps in programming allow TPR to be an idea in the making, rather than a fully-formed calendar-driven organization.
So, Art, here we are at the very beginning of a story, one that will unfold over the next fourteen months under this particular Big Question. Rather than publish a standard “Curator Statement” I’m choosing to give you a prologue. After all, I’m practicing as well and have a lot to learn between now and then. I’m the first to admit that I don’t know what to expect. But then, that’s part of the fun.
Jess Van Nostrand, Founder of The Project Room