Editor’s note: Conceived of in collaboration with Obie award-winning playwright and former Center visiting artist Ain Gordon, An Experiment in Five Acts is aimed at artists and cultural producers working in the Philadelphia region who are negotiating mid-career challenges—be they purely aesthetic or more practical. The primary goal is to stimulate refractive dialogue that may under-gird each participant’s ongoing process and address its quandaries. In an effort to share the project as it unfolds with the field, we have enlisted the services of nonfiction writer and 2005 Pew Fellow Jay Kirk, as “creative documentarian” for each of the five sessions.
Abandon Your Practice.
This is the First Rule of Ghana ThinkTank.
The ThinkTank founder, Chris Robbins, is our Act II guest today.
Chris came to this position after taking a closer look at the unintended consequences of his own do-gooding in West Africa. He questioned the unexamined impulse of the “first world” to impose its good intentions on the developing world. For instance, an anecdote: A Peace Corps volunteer notices there’s a lot of smoke in a hut and decides that what this place needs is a chimney. She sets about the work of building chimneys, but a few years down the road there’s a massive spike in malaria. Another example: An NGO visits a village, sees an open well, warns the villagers about the danger of goats falling in the well, and then benevolently arranges to have it sealed and replaced with a costly pump. Five years later when the pump breaks, the NGO is long gone, so the entire village must get up and move to a new water source. So Chris decided to flip the process. He began to collect first-world problems instead, asking people to share their gripes at New York galleries. Then he outsourced think tanks in Iran, El Salvador, a VFW in Queens, the Think Tank of Incarcerated Girls, etc., to come up with solutions, to provide answers, i.e., creative directives.
First World Problem: How do we treat our elderly with more compassion?
A: Listen to old people tell their dirty stories.
No matter the directive, they had to execute the command. This became more intensive once Chris took it on the road to places like Sremska Mitrovica, Palestine, and the U.S.-Mexico border. Hire hot Albanians to be lifeguards. Have tea with Hezbollah. Start a “Deport me to Canada” campaign. Set off bombs in your dreams, though, with luck, in real life, the directives will never come to that. It is jarring and exhilarating for us—the Chorus of Act II—to think about substituting our own intentions. It is just as liberating to hear our guest say, without seeming the least hung up about it, that whether it is “ART” or not is completely irrelevant.
Especially in light (in lighght) of this morning’s dialogue around the overly hung-up manifesto “How to be Dumb” by Kenny Goldsmith—thinking partner, laureate poetaster, creative plagiarist, man of intentionally mismatched socks—a manifesto which got us onto the hierarchies of intuition, intellect, status-mongering, and other questions of egoistic cosmology, and which lent us the useful language—dumb-dumb, smart-dumb, smart-smart—for discussing how we might balance our multiplex roles as organizers, editors, creators, and makers, all divergent but essential parts to our identities as artists, the dumb-smart intuitive parts working in tandem (not versus) our more managerial-admin smart-smart parts.
Dumb-dumb. Smart-smart. We tend to dismiss such categories. NASCAR is dumb-dumb? NPR is smart-smart? Gertrude Stein is smart-dumb? This porridge is just right? These pigeonholes seem facile and over limiting. We feel there can sometimes be a danger of “knowing” what you’re doing. Whereas if you’re spending too much time fretting over your status or your classifications—manifesto writing being manifestly the work of the hung-up smart-smart—when do you get to the smart-dumb work of discovery? At what point while transcribing weather reports—the allegedly smart-dumb work of Goldsmith—does one shout Eureka? We all abandon our practice (in the best sense) and we abandon our best intentions each time we actually get down to the dumb-smart instinctual thing, making things, creating, working just out of reach of intention. But, even if you’re like the bona fide smart-smartest among us, our museum exhibit director, whose job it is to shape and organize the objets and ideas of her learned colleagues, and to balance those multitudinous smart-smart voices with the demands of the academic institution, and all those immaculate intentions, all ultimately intended to impose edification on the public—whose own intention, for better or worse, is only to have an experience—even if you are that smart-smart, you still acknowledge the essential F-U-N of letting all those parts messily collide.
Otherwise isn’t it just another tired exercise in reduction?
Otherwise, won’t you just get trapped by the static of your own intentions?
To illustrate his own erstwhile folly, our guest, Chris, shows us the dead fish machine. It is an essay of sorts. The fish machine is a diagram, a schema. The fish hangs from a branch, fatally looped to a misguided but perfectly calibrated automaton. The machine shows the process of his thinking. A windshield wiper motor, a system of moving gears and dowels. A coping saw slowly cutting the branch. When the fish drops in the pail, we understand. This is all designed to fail at its own intended purpose. “A concentric or inward pointing system,” Chris says; this is what the fish machine is meant to demonstrate. There is only one outcome. Chris built it to better comprehend, to point out the flaw of following his own wrongly intuited command sequences, to liberate himself from his own practice, to out-maneuver the obstacle of his own overly determined intentions.
Whereas for the manifesto writer, one suspects he would see the dead fish machine as a good day’s work. A predetermined success. When one sets out to transcribe the telephone book, the machine is the concept is the intention. Of course, for some of us, it’s enough to stay inside our dead fish machines. It’s enough to remain happily oblivious to the stench of trout. But for today’s chorus, both strophe and antistrophe (we take turns), we wonder: Shouldn’t art, by definition, have more than one outcome? How much of our own flawed process do we want to show? How can we learn by first deconstructing those processes and exhibiting them via constructed diagrammatic machines? What would our own dead fish symbolize? How about the pail? Coping saw? How do we get outside the process of our own thinking? How do we escape, let alone abandon, our own practice? Do we still have a practice once we’ve deciphered our own process? What if our machine generates nothing but questions? Most people outsource transcribing: Can we outsource ambition? How about a new aesthetic? How can we better protect our audience from our own inclination to impose our best, however misguided, intentions? Or do we just let the machine continue to execute its commands ad infinitum? Transcribe. Cut and paste. Execute objective. Drop fish in pail. Plunk. If, then, again. Execute objective, execute objective. Perhaps, at this point, would it not be better to outsource our work to a think tank of swineherds in the Hindu Kush? Is that question culturally insensitive? What if our machines generate nothing but questions? Most people outsource transcribing: Can we outsource ambition? How about a new aesthetic? How can we better protect our audience from our own inclination to impose our best, however misguided, intentions? Or do we just let the machine continue to execute its commands ad infinitum? Transcribe. Cut and paste. Execute objective. Drop fish in pail. Plunk. If, then, again…