In this series, the identity of the participating artists is undisclosed until the following month’s post. We invite artists from different backgrounds who previously do not know each other to hang out together and record their first meeting. Perhaps they will be people you know! This experiment is a getting to know you first date, for the arts. This approach explores encounters through language, as a means to learn from each other.
This conversation is between Lydia Okrent (Artist 1) and Ni'Ja Whitson (Artist 2).
A1: We’re here having a casual conversation…
A2: With ice packs and wine. Which I think are probably…
A1: I think those are good together. The wine helps the ice pack...work.
A2: Energetically for sure.
A1: And you need to be able to be relaxed to heal, so…
A2: Great, this is kind of productive.
A1: So what kind of work do you make, or how are you?
A2: I’ll choose the latter. How am I? I came from an event and realized that I am holding a lot of anger and there’s nothing wrong with that. Anger can be productive, it’s certainly a veil that can be lifted to help understand what else is present, so I feel like we can have functional anger, functional rage. I have not worked through the impact of this presidential election on my emotional self. I’ve been very aware what it has meant for me politically, in terms of community, and the intersections of those communities. Tuning into how it’s impacted me emotionally is another process and I’ve just started it so I’m most present to anger, and fatigue, and wanting to take time and to take care. It’s also made me want to step back, and quiet down, which I plan to do. So I am in a evaluative, contemplative space right now, processing and moving through anger and rage, which I say very calmly. So how are you?
A1: I am vacillating between anger and fear and basic sadness, it feels like I’m having the emotions of an infant. It’s in my gut when I wake up, my gut is determining how I feel. Today I was thinking about how the country voted. About half of the people didn’t vote and i can’t help label them as complacent. The other half, all of the rest of us, are fearful and angry. If you voted for Trump you’re a fearful person and an angry person. If you voted for Hilary, there is fear and anger there as well. The whole country is angry at very different things. Anger is...something... Unfortunately I fear that I’m not very good at anger. I feel stuck, don’t know what to do with it. But I also think that this day feels ok and being in New York feels right. Making eye contact with strangers has felt really helpful, being on the subway has felt really helpful, smushed up against people whom (I’ve decided) believe in the same things. No, I am not doing well, I don’t think anyone is doing well. Even the people that got what they wanted out of this election. They are still scared and angry.
A2: What a feeling to walk the world with right now. I smile heartily to this post-it, ritual-making, altar-making at 14th St, and I’m seeing one starting to build at Atlantic. Today it said, mother-wisdom or something like that, I’ve not been in New York when there’s been a trauma, there’s a particular way that New Yorkers respond to a collective trauma. New Yorkers respond with love and care and certainly with riot as well, with marches and protests, as it should be, has been soothing to witness, the heart outpouring as much as there’s been political fervor and organizing. I love the idea of those two coexisting simultaneously, yeah folks are taking care of each other in an important way, and I certainly hope it continues and I will do my own work and part in that, so that response isn’t momentary.
A1: As far as the work that you make, how do you feel this newly realized truth will affect your work? Even if it was previously influencing your work, or the way you work, do you think it will become more palpable now?
A2: I’m like a lot of folks of color who have felt at the margins or are oppressed by white supremacy. We have already been doing the work and Trump’s election continues to call for us to the work, so it will continue to be that. I do believe that what it has ignited is an investment in being loud and dangerous and I use loud because I think there is something about an unabashed visibility that loudness speaks to and I want to be that, ‘cuz it’s also more dangerous, it feels more dangerous in this moment and it is a vulnerable place for an artist to be in. I’m committed to that. If it’s good for my spirit and community, then that’s what I am interested in
A1: That makes sense.
A2: What about for you? Do you imagine that there will be an impact on the work you make?
A1: I’m primarily a dancer so the way I make work is primarily being in spaces with other people. I use empathy a lot as a dancer, an effort to try and understand and embody what a choreographer wants from me or is wanting from the project. I work with people whose visions and ideas I believe in, and I listen and try to bring my physical and cognitive attention to them. So I am wondering how I can carry that same kind of attentive energy towards people who I really, really don’t agree with? How can I use my dancer empathy power there? I am not a body at risk so it is much easier for me to go into spaces with people with really awful ideas and try to listen to them or try to talk to them. Visibly I hold no threat. I am a really white small woman. I think that my dancing work won’t change, but how it influences my other day to day action will change. I hope. It’s lazy of me if I don’t let it change me.
A2: Yeah. That is inspiring, to hear, ‘cuz that is apart of…
I didn’t say what my work is. I make interdisciplinary performance, I write. The interdisciplinary nature of my work includes dance and movement and installation and creating immersive environments, spoken texts and media. I pretty much work project to project in terms of understanding what something wants to be and live and how it wants to live in the live, depending [on the project]. I tend to be a director-choreographer in my work, and I’m a performer in my current project. There’s another arm of my work that is doing improvisation performances with creative musicians, jazz musicians, and I make choreography for theater and directing and dramaturgy for theater. It’s kind of the roundedness of that. What one of your questions has me engaging is how that work can serve a, or further a conversation about the divide in our country, about oppression, about systemic racism, wherever I am. Because it’s easier in my own choreographic work of course, because I can, that’s my space. I can ask folk in the room who are having that conversation already for that conversation. There’s so much more agency when you’re helping to facilitate the space. When I’m collaborating on a creative team and the project isn’t mine, I don’t have the same agency, it’s more challenging, I’m finding a rub for myself in feeling urgency to have this kind of dialogue limited by a project’s capacity. So I am thinking about your answer about what else gets done because I don’t think art alone is all we can do. If we’re interested in social justice and freedom then I don’t believe art-making alone will do that. It isn’t the only contribution I want to make, or I feel is my responsibility to make. So certainly I feel an urgency to increase the efforts of those. Those that exist outside of creative practice.
A1: Art can’t do it alone but it has been so helpful. After the election I had rehearsals all day and I was lucky because I went from one circle of people sitting on the floor to the next. Talking or not talking, sharing, having deep emotional responses, intellectual responses, anger— it was really the whole gamut. It felt really good to be there and not stuck at a desk switching between one screen and the next.
A2: I was also nervous the day after I had a similar experience, of being very grateful for it. And thinking, “If this is going to be the choice I’m making to be in this room, doing this work in this moment then it better matter, it better mean something beyond the room, beyond my own interests or inquiry as an artist.”
A1: I went to see a performance last night and as I was sitting in the audience I watched as a bunch of different dancers and choreographers filtered into their seats. Our audiences and the the performers are a web of people that spend their time looking at each other and applauding one another. I know that doesn’t affect a greater swath of people— it is a pretty small community — but it felt really powerful to me. We’re spending all this time really looking at each other, supporting each other, and applauding each other. That feels good even though it’s small and not reaching the rest of the country...
A2: But like you’re saying, folks who are feeling responsible to their family and people in middle and southern America can only feel the ripple effect, I can only hope… I’m from the midwest so I think about those folks and I think about there being such a significant Klan population there as well and the importance of white folks in those places to be talking with their families, this is the time. It’s always been the time, if we were not clear about the real need for there to be some ally work happening, now is the time. I was in this artist circle yesterday and found myself struggling with having the conversation about the aesthetics of my practice. I do not care about this conversation right now, I care about the conversation, yes, but why is this what we’re talking about? I know we just saw art, art is wonderful and it’s important and it’s powerful but we have a room full of people of different background and ages and orientations and we’re talking about art aesthetics.
A1: [laughter] Yeah…
A2: No. No, absolutely not. I just wonder, where do we bridge that? If we get ourselves in a room and we’re just talking about the aesthetics of making in our in our performance lexicons then we’re missing rich opportunities, and that’s apart of the risk that I hope more folks will be taking in our creative communities.
A1: Yeah, for sure. Let’s see, what do you wish you made instead?
A2: What do you wish you made instead? Or do you, is there anything you wish you made instead?
A1: Sometimes I want to push dance to the side and performance aside and have something else at my center and dedicate my time to whatever that new thing is and then if I have time for a dance project I do it. I wouldn’t want it to become a governing force though, I’m not ready to do that right now, but I fantasize about it. If you were to say “I’ve got this job for you and you can do it but you have to stop dancing”, and then you said “I could offer you a position designing waiting rooms and interstitial spaces in homeless shelters and health clinics” I’d say “Ok, I’ll put dance on hold for a bit.” I’ve spent a lot of time in waiting rooms and I hate them so much. They’re very triggering, they’re awful places to hold bodies experiencing trauma. You’re watching the crappy news, you’re sitting in this weird chair, you’re listening to the phone ringing and ringing and ringing. I’m interested in changing that space. Especially for organizations that don’t have the money to do that kind of work, which is why their waiting rooms or lobbies are dusty, rickety, unpleasant spaces. I would do that.
A2: Wow that’s super clear.
A1: I think it’s because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and really just want to do it, and for some reason I’m not doing it. I’m almost using dance as an excuse to not follow this other dream.
A2: Oh that’s interesting. Could you find a relationship between— of course I can’t help myself, my choreographic brain’s like “oh, how to connect your activist work in some way with this idea”— redesigning and empowering the waiting room and dance?
A1: I mean I could potentially do dance and this together, I think it’s more like, I don’t know how to start doing this other thing. I don’t want to go to school for it, ‘cuz I think, “Yeah, I just don’t want to.” So I’m not going to [laughter] But how else do I get inside?
A2: Mmm. Mhhm...Is there anything else I wish I made?
A1: Well the questions is what you wish you did instead but I don’t think it has to be that.
A2: Oh, got it. Instead? If this question had come up a year ago I probably would have said writing but I’m doing more of that now so I feel that I’m making that investment. Yeah I guess nothing because
A1: Woohoo, best answer!
A2: ...I tend to do what I want to do— not in the egotistical way that that just sounded.
A1: No that sounded great.
A2: If I’m curious about something then it’s captured me; I’m probably losing sleep about it, I follow it until I’ve exhausted it and sometimes that evolves into a creative project and sometimes it just becomes something I write in a journal about. Then I’ve discovered what I needed to discover and I let it go. I tend to be pretty free-form, I wouldn’t say that there’s something I wish I made instead. I do wish— I really really really enjoy film, particularly documentaries and experimental film— I think if there was a way of making work that wasn’t live performance then it would be something in film, or experimental film/video. I’ve done some video, but it’s different to really commit your practice to something that would certainly be more lucrative, presumably than performance [laughter]. It’s a thing I could sell if I wanted to, and probably a part of my brain wishes I could do it.
A1: You probably will do it then.
A2: Maybe, maybe.
A1: Or it will get incorporated into what you do.
A2: For sure, yeah [laughter].
A1: Do you care about talking about regrets?
A2: Do I care about it?
A1: Well, the question is how do you feel about regrets but you don’t need to answer that, unless it’s interesting to you.
A2: I’m indifferent.
A1: Yeah, they just...they are there. [laughter] Regrets exists.
A2: Right, we do not have to do anything with them.
A1: They’re just like this pesky word in the dictionary.
A2: Yeah, why have that? Why have that? I don’t believe in that. It’s so annoying to me. I think it’s annoying because it is, it assumes that your practice is finite, that you’ve made something that exists in perpetuity in some strange way. Or that to fail is somehow a problem. I think failure should be elegant and in public. It’s one of those spaces where we learn a lot and I don’t regret places to learn about myself or my work or the folks that I’m sharing that with. It’s not easy, I’m not saying “Oh yes, there’s a failure” of course there are emotions but I also embrace them as a part of the process. If I invest in regret then I’m working antithetically to being in process. I try, I really try to avoid regretting.
A1: Well that makes a lot of sense and resonates with me because there’s something kind of lazy about regret, because you’re just like “Ooh I wish I didn’t do that and now I’m going to focus my energy on thinking about how I wish I didn’t do that” instead of saying “Well… I did that.” Maybe I have more of an optimist's view of things. I don’t get anything from spending my time inside of regret.
A2: Yea, that’s great language. It doesn’t really serve you… why?
A1: Yes, I’ve made weird bad decisions, but—
A2: [laughs] Weird and bad [both laugh]. Like, “Oh that was a choice…” [laughs]
A1: I feel like people use regret a lot. I’ve heard people talk about it around having kids: “When you are older will you regret that you didn’t have a kid?” “No, that will be what my life is.”
A1: Or predicting this process of predicting regret.
A2: As if that’s the end goal of being an adult— to say that I brought a human kid into the world. So check that off…
A1: Yea, no regrets. [both laugh]
A2: Had a baby.
A1: Had a baby. You're probably also going to regret having a baby. I mean, maybe sometimes. What is your pre-performance ritual?
A2: Pre- performance… I’m not going to share all of them. I’m really really spiritual and the stakes are always high for me in performance. It doesn’t matter what kind of performance it is. I take them all very seriously and I take them all as a serious contribution. So I often times meditate or pray in the performance space. I like to bring ritual into that. Sometimes it involves a four corner blessing, circling the space, creating a portal for it to be made new, and to be made specific to my body in it or my work in it. If I’m performing I’m probably listening to hip hop. Jay Z is always in the rotation. Jay Z and Kendrick Lamar. And if it’s a group it also includes a circle of some sort. Positive affirmation, expressing gratitude, and encouragement of joy of having fun on stage. Often times I don’t eat and that’s not intentional— just the running around on performance day, I find myself completely starved by the end because I just haven’t had enough food.
A1: Yea, I definitely do that one. Jitters. I run on jitters. But my pre-performance ritual makes me feel like a total hack. I say, “I’m going to go warm up” and then I’m just staring off into space. And I’m just standing here not doing anything. I have various physical needs that I don’t attend to. I make it up every single time. It’s makes it really kind of hard for me. You're supposed to roll out this thing or the next thing. Sometimes I roll out but still I don’t feel like I’m ever giving that effort enough attention, it serves me well in some ways— emotionally, just not physically. Something good is happening in that space, but it is not intentional. I don’t have a system down. I like to lay on the ground with my eyes closed.
A2: I do that too. I end up going to performance venues very early for that reason. If I don’t get there with enough time to do emotional spiritual work then I don’t get the body’s base working. I always need an hour or two just to get all of my faculties working. [laughs] Otherwise it’s just, I’ve meditated and I’ve sat and I feel under stretched.
A1: Yeah, for me it really depends on the process. For some things I need to run through the material over and over because there are certain parts that make me scared or I feel unsure about them. I try to get into the motion before the piece starts. In other performances I just eat a Snickers bar and lay down.
A2: If I’m in the work that I’ve choreographed or directed then I need time not to talk to people. It’s astounding to me how close to curtain folks will want to engage you in whatever. Whatever production needs and it's also making sure that people feel empowered to do what they need to do for themselves. That includes me shutting down so people have to make decisions— “I trust you, you’re in the room for a reason.”— I can’t be both after a certain point, so cutting off the producer/director half at a certain point helps.
A1: Quiet is really good. Sometimes I’ll wear headphones but not listen to anything— just as a signal, “I’m not here for you right now.” I also go to the bathroom like every half hour or fifteen minutes before a show. [both laugh] Just in case.
A2: Don’t want this show to be the one...
A1: ‘Cuz it always could happen any day now, so gotta be careful.
A2: I love what I’m hearing from you and I’m feeling much less insane. It does feel that every time... This happens sometimes at the beginning of a process where, it’s not a self-doubt issue, where I say “Wait, how do I start this process, getting ready for a show?” All the things, packing my bag and having to remind myself of the things I need when I get to a venue becomes a part of pre-performance. It’s a ritual of, “Do I have knee high socks?” and I need to make sure I have things to warm up. Even if all I’m doing is walking around the space, taking care of the layers of need at my house before I even get to the show is a part of that. ‘Cuz there’s nothing worse than arriving and not having your tennis ball or you forgot the sports bra that you really wanted to wear. Having time for quiet at your home before even leaving the house is important to ready spirit and ready motion before contending with the world of the work outside of yourself.
A1: Is there a part of your spiritual practice that happens after the work?
A2: Quiet, also. That’s inconsistent because it’s very challenging to do, because of the ritual of going to greet your public. Some of the work is hard to come down from. It takes time, and that pressure means that I can’t completely do that. Which is where I think some injuries come from and illness comes from after shows not having the proper time to release a project or a process post-performance. So I aim for quiet and am sometimes unsuccessful— I think sometimes to the detriment of my body and spirit. I wear my amulets or crystals or anything that I need to help ground me or give me more energy or protect me as I’m letting go of the show. I always do that. There’s always some quick prayer involved of gratitude. Then, when in doubt, tiger balm. [both laugh]
A1: Tiger balm and whiskey. I’ve been trying to get better at that moment after the performance when you’re greeting your fans. It’s so hard. I want to be able to be very gracious, and not be having what feels like a very different experience. I want to say “Thank you for coming” but I’m still inside of the piece. My energy is probably really amped up. It’s really hard to just be chill and be like, “Oh hey it’s great that you came” [laughs] when really I’m feeling something totally different. Again, I guess that does depend on the piece. But it is something that I’m trying to do. Or get better at— I don’t know why. For some reason, I decided it was important to make a clean break right after. Then get back into however I feel, but to first be a host in that moment… If I’m being a real good version of myself when a show is over, I usually go to the Russian baths for a day— especially if it’s been a highly physical piece. But even if it wasn’t it is a nice place to close the work. I have rheumatoid arthritis, so really at the end of the night I should be rolling out and stretching. Not just jumping up and drinking whiskey. But that’s what I do. I’ve started not liking the post-show festivities as much, going out to the bar can be hard because you’ve just been so exposed. The switch back to myself is hard sometimes. People have just spent 45 minutes looking at you, it is a nice feeling and is probably one reason that I’m inside performance, but it is also vulnerable. I think I do just want to go home after and choose when I’m seen next. Be more intentional.
A2: That makes a lot of sense. And it’s true for me too. It’s become harder and harder to do the festivities. The older I get the more I want to be quiet and reflective or veg out, I work so hard right before a performance. Typically, the energy leading up that I expel is significant and if I have a multi-day run then I really try to conserve between them and at the end it’s like, “I kinda just wanna lay down.” [both laugh] You’re encouraging me to think more critically about that. I think there’s a way to balance being gracious and generous with folks who are supporting you because that is an important exchange. We won’t have our practices out in the world if we don’t have the people there to receive. It’s important to encourage people and to hear them and to be with them, because they’ve also given to you, right? And to know that in order to be well enough to continue to do it you also have to prioritize self care which sometimes means quiet and quietude.
A1: I guess there’s also the potential pressure of the verbal feedback that you’ll get from people in the post-show moment. So if you do skip out on that you may not get to hear some of the comments because people don’t write it to you. I’m not saying this to be a brat— but I’m think the choreographers get a lot of feedback from people. But dancers don’t. Unless someone has especially taken to you. It often trickles through the choreographer but I don’t get a lot of direct response, so I feel like that part is nice in the post-show. You have that applause and then maybe a few people saying they liked what you did. Or they saw you. It’s a nice ego moment. An ego soothing moment if you stay around for it, which you maybe wouldn’t get if you left.
A2: And conversely for the choreographers, it’s the feedback that post-show is not always useful. People take liberties with what they say to you post-show, if you’ve been successful at being vulnerable or asking people to be vulnerable on stage then it does invite honesty from people. The things that they love about it are things that they find challenging at the same time. Post-show isn’t always the best time for me where I can receive that. Or I think that people are even ready to say what they’ve really experienced. From my work anyways, I hope that it requires more time. Certainly more than the five minutes between going to the bathroom and seeing me. I can always hear it but it’s not always easy to receive right after so I much prefer something jovial and relaxed that happens post-show then a conversation. I think to some audiences those conversations are precious to them and I’d love to honor that every chance I’m asked. I wonder about what we’re actually asking an audience to do after, and how it really serves them being in the work. I like to be able to leave, but you can’t always go. [both laugh] It’s an interesting question, because I’m doing open studios with Mariana on Saturday.
A1: I’ll be there. [laughs]
A2: It’ll be fine, I’m not worried. I also know it’s going to be different. It’s an open studio. It’s raw. But I am contending with this question right now of how to handle, invite, or disinvite post- sharing conversation. The last two I did I self-facilitated, and I’m fine with that. I prefer it if there’s not someone who’s in the aesthetics and knows my work then it doesn’t serve me to have them facilitate. But I don’t know— jumping back to my emotional state— if I can really engage with people in a way that’s going to be generative, generous, and honest, then I think honesty is really all I have. I really want to re-envision what it means to be in a conversation with people right now about my work in a place where I feel difficulty in being in circle with people. Not just talking about things more pressing and important than what my work is doing.
A1: I think that would make a lot of sense— “So you saw my work, now what do we do? What can the people who are in this room right now do to contend with this awful reality?”