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Ain Gordon in Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell. Photo by Sara Krulwich, courtesy of the New York Times.

Push Me, Pull You: Ain Gordon

Push Me, Pull You: Ain Gordon

Ain Gordon in Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell. Photo by Sara Krulwich, courtesy of the New York Times.

This is the eleventh and final entry in Act I of Push Me, Pull You, the Center’s series on (co-)authorship. For a full list of posts in this series, visit the main Push Me, Pull You page.

As we conclude Act I of our Push Me, Pull You series, we’re left with many new questions stemming from our contributors’ insights and commentaries on issues surrounding co-authorship. We posed some of these questions to three-time Obie Award-winning writer, director, and actor Ain Gordon, the 2011–13 Visiting Artist at The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. As a theater artist interested in pursuing avenues for interdisciplinary practice, who has investigated similar queries since the start of his residency, Gordon was an ideal sounding board for our expanded thoughts on everything from the “authority” of a physical site to notions of “excellence” and “failure” in co-authorship and collaboration. It all took place during a dinner party…

A note from Ain Gordon: I ordered these questions via my own logic. I answered them as I might, fueled by tons of red wine, in smart company, during a long dinner out.

(Insert sound of uncorking and amicably judgmental laughter here.)

Peter Nesbett: Let’s say you’ve written a play about an old house, or choreographed a dance for a quarry. You will make decisions in response to the particularities of the site. You might even say that the site is, in a sense, a co-author, because it contributes substantially to the meaning of the piece. But isn’t a site instead a partially erased text, a weather- and time-worn relic, and as such, simply a springboard for your own imagination?

Ain Gordon: I believe a site can be a co-author, even an active one; a physical space redolent of spent passion and prior personal effort that impact tangibly or not. If the “author” chooses to engage these sensorial remnants (to “channel” them) they enter and hew the work. Ditto for a work constructed to inhabit the physical insistences of given space rather than the so-called narrative ones (though I would argue that the physical and narrative are always wed). Yes, maybe some would reject this as co-authorship because the site does not have creative “intent.” But is every acknowledged instance of co-authorship born of intended collaboration? Yes, maybe I, or someone, have imposed a performative “fiction” on the non-fiction site but who said co-authorship is amicable or egalitarian? So, maybe embedded in your question is perhaps a question about authorial “use” or appropriation versus mutual collaboration? Am I, or someone, “using” the house or quarry or collaborating with it? Who is to decide which is which? Why decide? Do we need the chaos of multiple answers funneled into concision for a purpose that is actually not germane to artistic practice itself?

(Our waitperson taps our empty bottle. We nod for another, plus French fries, please.)

Josie Smith: As I am reading these posts (well, mostly skimming due to time factors) I discovered that I “landed” in my particular discipline of dance. As a reader it was clear that the language that was being spoken was my own (despite the difference in genre from the one that I practice—Bharata Natyam vs. “po-mo”/improvisational forms). There is no question that I am interested in the other disciplines and the writings that have been posted, but the attention I need to pay to the words and how they are put together to form meaning is heightened; again, I don’t land there. Can you comment on the issue of discipline-specific literacy and how it has played out in this arena?

Ain Gordon: Yup, this also interests me. I think I talked about it some with Nicole [Steinberg] upon beginning my residency at the Center. I am a word guy—and I am word guy who comes out of and maintains close ties to the movement (dance) and performance world. (Even blithely using words like “movement” and “performance” worries me.) I think words are traps and are liberty, and casually agreeing that we agree can also be a trap. I think words are repositories for bundled up complexities—then we forget those hidden “subtexts” and are stuck with the summaries we call words. I think learning/using words from other disciplines is, for me, a great way to explode a creative road block. I think even collaboration between artists of the same discipline requires constant interrogation of words being tossed off as if they are jointly held.

(I eat too many fries and decide, too late, they need mustard.)

Roy Wilbur: What are your thoughts on amateur artists utilizing the work of professional artists to create a “mash-up?”

Ain Gordon: Honestly, I am not quite sure what an amateur artist is—not really your question, sorry. I don’t believe getting paid makes you not an amateur or vice versa—or recognition. I question agreeing upon agreed-upon terms (like I was just saying with Josie). Art-making is a precarious career that by much of society’s definitions of “career” isn’t one. I have to think I am an artist if I say I am. There are years when no one wants to be within six thousand feet of my “art” but I am still making it and my identity is intact (OK, maybe not emotionally, but that is definitely not your question). So maybe if you asked what I think when an artist uses the work of another artist to create a “mash-up?” I think artists are always doing that (sort of what I was just saying to Peter re: collaboration versus appropriation, etc). Sometimes the artist using the other artist makes sure it is visible and acknowledged and sometimes –the artist doesn’t—so maybe nobody knows. I personally think the newly made thing had better be as interesting as the pre-existent thing getting “used.” Maybe my own question is about the line between inspiration and rip-off? I am not sure I can answer that except personally and case-by-case.

(A glass is accidentally knocked over. Someone gasps because she’s wearing white.)

Nicole Steinberg: What does failed collaboration look like? Is collaboration always a successful and/or worthwhile venture for reasons of process rather than end product? If not, what constitutes that failure?

Ain Gordon: Gosh. Who’s judging the failure? And when? I mean, there is collaboration that is no fun. No synergy, no ease, you end up collaborating in defense. But the work turns out great. And maybe then, consequently, you decide you need that particular battle in your creative arsenal even though you don’t “enjoy” it. Or not! Also there is collaboration that is fun but the chemical mix does not yield work equal to the process-oriented pleasure. Or, as you say, different collaborators value the process vs. the product (or the process as the product) so they would have different answers. Sometimes you make something terrible but it was a crucial stepping stone to something worthy. Honestly, I think the question of failure as problematic has more to do with exterior forces/realities (funding, reviews, ability to work) then an internal sifting of what ultimately did and didn’t feel interesting.

(The fries are gone…)

Murph Henderson: My real questions about co-authorship are the kind I’m not supposed to ask out loud. I like excellence. I think co-authorship often dilutes excellence by forcing visionaries to compromise. What do those of us who need excellence in the way we need nourishment do in response to the dilution of artistic vision, in an age when we are practically shamed into embracing co-authorship? (I do recognize that the western theater is a collaborative art form. I’ll be the first to tell you which actor has the gift and how much the lights enhanced the production. In essence, though, I believe that playwright or director or preferably both need to be visionary if excellence is to result.)

Ain Gordon: First, I have questions about the word “excellence” (not news to anyone at the Center). I don’t think an artist goes into the studio (or sits at the laptop, etc.) to make “excellence.” It’s a word that comes after the fact—a viewer’s perception bundling personal and cultural qualitative assessments (back to what Josie and I were saying about words). But yes, Murph, I like great work, too, and I like rabidly authorial vision; being plopped in a world I can’t imagine making. But I don’t think co-authorship necessarily precludes that or “mono-authorship” necessarily delivers it. I think the “dilution of artistic vision” can come from budget issues, a producer’s interference, PR imperatives (back to what Nicole and I were saying re: failure) etc, etc. I do think a lot of my peers are now interested in publically annotating their sources and process to include recognition of generative partners (places, humans, cultures; real-time and imagined). Perhaps this is a manifestation of middle-age; we have worked through so much of what our own heads will produce that we are eager to engage elsewhere and to “out” that “collaborative” engagement because so much of the mainstream funding and dissemination system does not recognize that creative research is on par with resulting product. I think this kind of work has always been there but no one used to “name” it. Jeff should jump in here…

(Management starts wiping tables and turning on unflattering overheads. Time to go?)

Jeff Arnal: Often artists that consider themselves “true practitioners” of an art form are more interested in the experience, process, or research and not necessarily interested in authorship credit. Outside of economics why credit an artist at all? What is at stake: the artist’s ego or legacy?

Ain Gordon: I’m not sure ego/legacy can be parted from economics. Maybe a superhuman can divorce self-image from perceived image or from opportunity to forge image (a.k.a. make work). I can only speak for myself; I value the full arc of my creative life including periodic public manifestations; I don’t expect the public to value what they cannot see, nor do I prize what others see above my own lifelong continuum. But I have to work at that equilibrium because recognition does confer options. Don’t we keep circling back to how outside ingredients (the systems of supporting and disseminating and then viewing work) impact the interior ingredients of actually making that work and then talking about “how” it got made? I personally don’t have as much of a beef with that impact as I do with pretending it does not exist….

(The staff is impatiently hovering…)

Mike Barsanti: I’ve been thinking that our discussions around the topic of co-authorship seem to always come back to the idea that there has always been co-authorship in the arts—that that is really the way most work is created. So I wonder about the fantasy of the individual genius: Is this something that we have to believe in order to not freak out about a world where so much is determined by, created by, group metrics like polls and web analytics and ratings and market performance?

Laura Koloski: In her response, Roxane Gay writes: “We want to believe in the idea of literary genius as singular and we are, I think, a bit opposed to the idea that sometimes literary genius, however one chooses to define genius, can rise out of collaboration.” She’s writing specifically about writing here, but I think this threads through a number of the responses we received. Do you agree that we’re (as a culture) invested in this idea of a singular genius? If so, do you have any thoughts on why this might be so? And, does this “bias” prevent us for seeing, or being open to other potentially worthwhile kinds of cultural production?

Ain Gordon: Combining Mike and Laura’s because of territorial overlap…I do believe there are individual geniuses (or temporary states of genius), I also believe they see other work and talk with other people and sometimes collaborate (sometimes we don’t find out till they’re dead that there was a collaboration—see: numerous wrongly invisible historical spouses). I think the question might be “what counts as authorship, co-authorship, or collaboration, when, and to whom?” Can there be a standard for such a mercurial and personalized process? Why would we want one? This brings me back to questions of the systems (my exchange with Jeff) by which any kind of art is supported, disseminated and viewed. It’s generally easier to promote and track one voice. It is also generally easier for an artist to allow all creative responsibility to accrue to your own reputation as you look toward securing future work. But is calibrating the multi-headed complexity of each project’s generative influence to one name actually feeding that same individual’s ability to be radical in future work? Isn’t being reductive, well…reductive?

Is influence co-authorship? If we discard conscious intent and real-time participation where are the borders of co-authorship? Is collectively generated work co-authorship or has the collective fused into a single many-headed author? I am not trying to end mono-authorship; I am bossy and totally like things my way but I also like brilliant interference, intended or not. I don’t wish to assert co-authorship everywhere, only to audibly/visually annotate the vast physical and ideological “population” inside the many forms of mono-authorship.

Asimina Chremos: What is an author?

Ain Gordon: Well, exactly!

(Did someone pay the bill?)