by Liz Clayton Scofield
Art happens in the in-between, in the late-night conversations, the days of skip-work- and-hang-out-at-(insert local coffee shop here)-with-beautiful-people, the space between you and me and the air we share. In the learning who you are and who I am and how we teach that to each other to learn more. Art is in the bike ride from your house to my house. Art is life and life is collaborative, and I am becoming and you are becoming, and in that space, that’s where my practice is, and that’s where I want to meet you for a conversation about what we learned to love today. Because conversation is a radical creative act, and art is resistance, and love is resistance, and the resistance is collaborative, and we need that now if we ever did.
The artist, facing constant uncertainty, makes decision after decision, each one to choose one trajectory of infinite possibilities: this mark, that mark, this color, that tone, this word among all of the words they know. It goes on like that, mark after mark, word after word to form a sentence, then another, slowly to form a paragraph and then a page. Eventually a story unfolds, or a feeling.
Art practice is hard, aggravating action and inaction: dirty work.
Artists are well acquainted with the anxiety of uncertainty, the looming question of mattering. How to matter and/or not matter, and the anxiety on both sides of that binary, mostly faced simultaneously.
In my work, I have been experimenting with ways to overcome these consuming anxieties. One aspect of this process is learning not to overcome but coexist, not to resist but accept it, welcoming it as a reliable old friend, the annoying, nagging kind that you tolerate because it knows you so well. Through this acceptance, practice becomes possible.
To me, comfort and relief in the anxiety comes in reimagining what an artist is or can be. Today I propose artists as worms; art as dirt.In Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett, in challenging the human/nonhuman divide and proposing an agency and vitalism of objects, discusses Charles Darwin’s observations of worms. Worms, as small, seemingly insignificant creatures, are constantly consuming, digesting, and redistributing dirt. These small acts actually preserve human culture.
As worms, artists become agents in networks of humans, objects, and otherwise (worms, dirt, etc.), each pushing against each other with their actions, affecting one another for some unexpected outcome: art, as dirt.
I’m invested in modes of art-making and -being that reimagine what an artist’s role is. The quest for external validation is toxic to the artist. Professional demands squash artistic potential, so we must strive to free ourselves, as artists, from external demands (social, capital, professional, etc.) and embrace some internal value.
What could it mean to develop an art practice as small gestures repeated? How do these iterative gestures build to have some significance? An artist not striving for a sole masterpiece, but a constant practice of small gestures? The accumulation of such gestures/dirt, collectively with other artists/worms, having unintended and unexpectedly significant impact on human society.
Collaboration is necessary for artist worms. A single artist worm moving art dirt is inconsequential. When artist worms move art dirt en masse, the piles accumulate. Artist worms thrive in conversation with one another. Conversation is a critical component of artist worm collaboration. In this process, a conversation can be something that constantly unfolds: words participating and flowing with other words. If we practice conversation as a collaborative act, we exist in a work-in-progress that reveals itself over time and changes. We could allow things to flow and grow and change: the fluid nature of conversations and/or art and/or being/ becoming.Approaching our conversations as a radical form of art, we allow space to open ourselves up beyond our own understandings of what it is to be. We again are rethinking art not as something produced by a sole individual, but rather something done—as a way of being, becoming, living. As artist worms, we are taking these small actions, digesting and redistributing. Collectively our small gestures become something much larger together than any individual action taken or object produced. The art dirt as we shift it around may then uncover or recover or reveal some truth about our world. It may preserve something. It may change something. We may realize new opportunities for us to become, to live in unexpected ways, to engage in new conversations.
How does one become an artist? Freeing oneself from external expectations or ideas of what it is to be an artist. Then simply become.
I offer these words as an experiment in the practice of this process. I’m just shifting around some dirt: a flowing gesture to offer forth in an ongoing, complex, winding, unfinished conversation; an invitation.