Local musician David Bernabo sat down with our latest Community Supported Artist, Jennifer Myers, to talk about her process of translating unique works of public performance for a traditional stage.
Q: TRANSLATIONS is a piece for stage that is based on two years of programmed performance actions. What is the process of transforming public performances into a staged piece for a limited public audience? Does the randomness of public access add to the appeal?
One of the things that really interested me about translating these pieces for the stage was that when producing them in public spaces, so much was unknown and nothing (basically) is under your control. It is all pretty wild, off-the-cuff, unrehearsed, unknown. The performance happens once (typically) and that’s it. That kind of energy and instability is exciting and energizing but very difficult to accurately predict what is going to happen. The biggest factor, when working outside, was the wild card of the weather. Especially in Pittsburgh, the weather is always changing. So being able to put these inside the controlled space of the theater was really exciting to me, and allows for a lot of control that I cannot achieve outside. In terms of audience, there is something wonderful about the randomness of people finding your work when it is placed outside and they literally just stumble upon it. There was just an element of surprise on people’s faces because they are not expecting this public space to be used in such a creative and semi-theatrical way, even though that potential is always right there in all the spaces we inhabit.
For the theater, there is obviously a great expectation of what the audience is going to encounter.
They are expecting, and paying for, an experience. Maybe it is still going to be experimental, unknown, they have never seen any of my other work, but still there is an expectation that I think we can all agree on. I am interested in pushing the limits (as well as I can in my first theatrical work) of what is expected inside the four walls of the theater – and try my very best to create surprises, mysteries, and a definite playfulness that hopefully will speak to people in a bright, energetic way.
Q: The performance actions do not necessarily involve dance, but much of the cast is comprised of dancers. Is the performance going to push some of the concepts that were developed in the public pieces?
Having the controlled space of the theater inspired me to work with performers who are comfortable and confident working on the stage. Part of that is due to the fact that the dancers have more experience working on a stage than I do, and it is nice to have them there as collaborators and even mentors to me in developing the work. It is certainly a conversation I am having with the entire cast, and I am probably learning more or just as much as everyone else. Dance has always inspired me greatly. Many close friends are choreographers and dancers, I just have not had the chance yet to work with them. It feels like the act of translating these for stage is really geared towards performance-based artists: whether that is dance, acting, performance art, or musicians.
My main goal is to give each of these performers a character / role, and then allow and encourage them to develop and expand that role within their own creative language. I trust them all as artists and am interested in being able to provide a space for them to explore these roles and their own creativity.
Q: I’m a big fan of defining actions as art, either proactively or retroactively. How does activism become art? Why is it important that art confronts things like environmental destruction or the inequality between women and men?
I am committed to living a life that is inseparable from my art, so that my life is my art and my art is my life. It is a total work in progress, I feel I am going slowly, but steadily, and I only want to deepen and strengthen this philosophy so that it carries me far and I push it farther. As far as I am concerned, it’s the only way to live because separating my roles just gets too confusing and disjointed. One life, one aim, one breath. The aim of that life is to stay awake and remain awake. That is simple, and yet revolutionary. That is how I define my life as an artist.
In terms of being politically active, and called or considered an activist, that works for me. I don’t get hung up on titles. I am alive, awake, and we are living in extraordinary times (the irony is that all times have been extraordinary, the world has never been dull) and there is so much work to do that we must, we must, do as a group and not individually. I can’t imagine not being amazed and inspired by these times – and engaging in the stories unfolding as directly and creatively as I can imagine.
I have always been aware and extremely sensitive to any injustice – whether I saw it in my own family or in the world around me. Living in Southwestern PA for the past 5 years has been like getting front row seats to the show. I see, from these seats, the corruption that has eroded our county, state and federal government. It has been terrible to see it, and the best education I could ever wish for. From these front row seats – I cannot look away.
The artist must define for herself what it is she is doing. I have defined it for myself, it means I am awake. Therefore it is important that my art confronts the dominant systems of power, all of which are seen clearly and with great pride in the USA: heteropatriarchy and white supremacy, corporate capitalism, a military-industrial complex, sexism, deep racism, and the overarching concept of the American Dream which began and ends as the American Nightmare. I can easily sum up the concept of all my work with the following question, which runs through everything for me: What is this world that destroys the sacred, and then defends that violence again and again?
Q: Archiving, in various forms, tends to run through your work. Is the thought of archiving experience or emotion an important concept to you?
Yes. It is part of my heritage. My mother is a professional journalist. She is also an archivist, a talented photographer, a gifted creative writer, a matriarch. She has 103 photographic albums in her bedroom that line the walls and spill into the closet, full of more than 10,000 family photographs. It is her life-work. My father was a storyteller, a writer, a father of five daughters, a man who made his life up from the complete and total wreckage of an abusive and brutal childhood. In my family, everything is story. Everything. It is how you survive and how you define and how you relate. It is the meat at the table and the blood in our veins. It is essential, like air. I took all that and kept it and used it for my work, in my own way.
Q: Do we/society learn from preservation of information? Are some things more important than others?
Society is a mystery to me. I can’t speak to it. Why we seem unable to learn the most obvious lessons just eludes me. We are afraid of change? We are scared of each other? We are zombies? We have terrible leaders? We are brainwashed? All or none of the above? I don’t know. I think we do learn, slowly, from the preservation of information. I think information and knowledge is extremely important, but it can also be easily manipulated. Emotions are more persuasive than any fact. That’s why studies show that people who are told a lie first as the truth, and then afterwards it is revealed as a lie, cannot believe that it is a lie, and always believe it is a truth. That is Fox News in a nutshell. Some things are more important, yes: human beings are important. The planet earth is important. The air we breathe is important. Our bodies and how they are poisoned everyday is important. It seems that the most important things have been corrupted, co-opted, sold and traded on a free market. I don’t get it. It’s not the world I want to live in. I do believe, as Duane Michals said in his recent artist lecture: direct experience is the only form of true knowledge one can have. Walk a day in someone else’s shoes and you will learn a lifetime.
There are so many people in our society who are so evolved, so beautiful, so extraordinary, it saddens me deeply that we always seem to have to wait, and get held back, because of the lowest common denominators in our group. It is time for the transformation where we realize we are one group of people on a planet that is approaching a total climate collapse.