On Permission

I’ve never been one to blow on my soup. I taste food as I’m cooking directly from the pan even as my partner tells me dinner will taste better without a burnt tongue. I want to feel what’s happening as it’s happening.

I think it’s also why I’ve always danced, always taken my shoes off in the sand, always put my hands in public fountains. I want to feel what’s happening as it’s happening.

Letting curiosity drive my hands means acting on inspiration when it comes and not fabricating it when it’s not there. It’s tending to a practice of tracking my own personal rhythms so that no fruit is picked too soon or left to rot. Sight, smell, taste, touch, sound, and spirit. It’s finding truth through incoherence and letting the feeling between my ribs speak for itself.

It also means it’s been a challenge for me to fit into whatever time cycles of whatever fiscal year we happen to be in. It means that yes, I see plenty of websites helpfully collecting resources for emerging artists but no, I haven’t yet figured out how to keep my fire burning in the face of their extinguishing budget templates and google forms. Cooperating with the business structures of The Arts is an art in and of itself. And I haven’t yet decided whether I want to cooperate.

I am fascinated by the concept of permission. Before I can even get halfway through an application, I question the inherent value in a grant or an accolade. Of course… there is monetary value but if what I really need is time, materials, and eager collaborators to make the art I am inspired to make, I’m convinced there are many other ways to come about those things.

Don’t get me wrong, we should pay artists well for their work and value them as vital culture makers and sustainers. But I fear we place the value on the name of the funder or the owner of the house more than the spirit that gives it its life. What I really mean is we artists can’t equate payment with permission.

I feel tension between practice and permission. I relish in the freedom and the challenge to make what I can make with the time and resources that I already have at my disposal.

Sometimes that means all I‘m making is dinner and all I’m doing is burning my tongue. At least nobody is paying me to do it. At least my deadline is my rumbling tummy.

I dream of art and performance being just as accessible as a home cooked meal we share with loved ones and just as beautiful, just as regular. I mean, your auntie can do it just as well as that man who has a gallery opening coming up next month. I mean, we see performance all over social media and yeah, I guess we need some rigor to push creative thinking beyond a 15 second TikTok? I guess?

I dream of an end to the bio in the program. Or at least if we continue to list other people’s names in our own bios, I dream of this list being the names of our mothers, our teachers, and our newest friends who give us butterflies rather than the settler who gave the most money to your alma mater.

How many people do I need to look at me to find creative value in my own practice? How many people do I need to give me money? Where did I save the latest version of my resume? I haven’t yet added a bullet point about how I recently learned to sew because I wanted to mend my great-Tutu’s quilt that she made out of extra mu’umu’u scraps.

In a recent documentary, Black Art: In The Absence of Light, Theaster Gates asked “Do we have the capacity to be great makers in the absence of light? And if Blackness has something to do with the absence of light, does Black Art mean that sometimes I’m making when no one’s looking?” The “we” he speaks of is not a “we” I belong in. I am not Black. I am Native Hawaiian, Chinese, Austrian, and German. I don’t and won’t ever know the particular experience of being Black in an anti-Black culture. But Gates is one of countless past, present, and future Black artists that have shaped and guided my view of the world with their brilliance. He says that until Black artists have their own spaces of exhibition and research, until they become masters of their own light, he is “not happening.” He continues… “I’d rather work in darkness because at least I know I’m working. I don’t want to work only when the light comes on. My fear is that we are being trained and conditioned to only make if there’s a light and that makes us dependent on a thing we don’t control.”

It rings in my ears.

I don’t want to work only when the light comes on. I don’t want to work only when the light comes on. I don’t want to work only when the light comes on.

It reminded me of Rebecca Solnit’s Faraway Nearby

“Creation is always in the dark because you can only do the work of making by not quite knowing what you’re doing, by walking into darkness, not staying in the light. Ideas emerge from edges and shadows to arrive in the light, and though that’s where they may be seen by others, that’s not where they’re born.”

I don’t have to work with the light on. I can stay in the dark. I can decide.

The sudden drawing-back of opportunity and resource that the pandemic set off has been clarifying in many ways. Personally, it clarified my relationship to permission when it comes to my art practice. Despite the closure of studios and theaters, I felt no more limited than I had before. Maybe I felt too limited before? But some improvisation teacher somewhere along the way told me that “limitation is liberation” and whatever truth lies within that statement stuck with me. It means you have a container now so you know how big your canvas is. It means there are less possibilities so you can focus on the options that still do exist. Rather than continuing to scratch my head at my dissatisfaction with the available creative pathways, when the pandemic closed the gate on the pathways I’d been gazing at, I realized I could give myself permission to step away. I could remember that I love watching the sun move across the room through my yellow curtains.

In September 2020, I put on an outdoor gallery exhibition and video release at the Albany Bulb. I put my art outside and in public in hopes it would be stumbled upon. I invited people who have told me they’re interested in what I have to share. Some of them invited other people. This is what I was supposed to be writing about.

I started writing this because I wanted to talk about how I’ve found inherent value in sharing my work publicly and in watching it be broken in anger or blown over by the wind.

In the Fall, I sat masked under a palm tree – bizarrely planted on the shore of former Ohlone fishing waters turned industrial dump turned squatters encampment turned public park – watching people approach the television that my partner and I put on a pedestal in the shady opening. We were showing a dance film we made at the other side of the same park. We left the pedestal and seven other sculptures and way-finding signs spread throughout the park for two weeks during a heat wave and the burning of the state. We dragged the television and portable battery in a wagon through the park every night. No one invited us to the public park. No one told us we couldn’t be there. No one paid us for the work. We borrowed or bought our materials for cheap.

By the end of our two week run, the TV pedestal was spray painted, one of the plaster sculptures was smashed beyond recognition, and a series of mini-billboard signs I had placed along a pathway had been snapped in half and thrown towards the water. The spray paint was inevitable as we left a blank white box in the middle of a popular graffiti hang out. Whoever tagged it did a really nice job. The sculpture and signs were seen being destroyed by an angry middle-aged white man. For context, the writing on the signs were my personal musings on the destructive, divisive, and silencing power of whiteness. In the words of one of my best friends, the destruction of the objects became “a patina of sorts,” or a new layer that added to the conversation. We broke one of our own sculptures, a pristine plaster hand in a gold-painted frame after we de-installed everything and left this framed hand on top of the car before driving away. It was all beautiful and meaningful and touching and all of that but nothing was precious. The show closed without press or accolade and I felt full, curious, and engaged.

I remembered that no one can give me permission to make my art but me. Resources parade as permission but they are something else. And really, if we stop making with what we have while we are waiting for more to become available, what will we make when more becomes available? What will we know how to make? What muscles will we make with?

I don’t have to work only when the light comes on. I don’t have to work with the light on at all.

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