I recently had a conversation with a dear one in my life about being an artist and how excited I am to be able to travel.
“I feel so lucky!” I exclaimed excitedly after reporting back on a new opportunity.
“Lucky you,” he said [and probably repeated, “Lucky you,” as he often does in a more pensive voice second and third times.]
Standing where I am right now, it may appear that sheer luck has gotten me here. I’m 37 and I live in a rural area where there are very few opportunities to genuinely and publicly practice my work. It may appear that my younger self was much harder working than this self but, gratefully, I now reap the benefits of the younger, more success-driven Rachel. I’m not saying I don’t work: I practice more than I have in years and I am much more intelligent about how I strategise and spend time and money.
We who have stuck with the vision of being an artist for whatever reason - opportunity, stubbornness, debt, desire, joy - are not here due to chance. I had a conversation with another friend recently who proudly told me that if you’re still an artist at 30, you’re an artist for life.* Like any dream, it takes commitment, sacrifice, and delusion.
But something that we are not often told in the narrative of “What It Takes to Be an Artist” at a young age is something I wish I had known a long time ago. I read about it once in a collection of essays called “Women, Creativity, and the Arts.” Hand in hand with commitment is security. Lost in the post-renaissance-romantic-era shuffle, security for the artist has been seen to belong to the realm of a privileged class of institution-supported beings. Here in the US, if you step out as a full-timer, you do so as one of those romantic types. However, in parts of Europe, where I lived for well over a decade, it’s easier to find support that can give you the mental energy to be the secure type.
Why is security so imperative for an artist? I can only speak from my personal experience at this point. I have spent a great deal of my creative energy worrying about my car, buying equipment, getting public liability insurance, whether I can join my friends for dinner, having enough money to apply for residencies, etc etc - the list goes on and on. I also spent a lot of time wondering if the people with whom I spent my time had my best interests at heart personally and emotionally. Instead of investing that energy into love, I invested it into fear. And it’s a basic principle in life that whatever you sow you will reap.
In the last 6 months, I have decided to sow my energy into love and, delightfully, I have found myself creating more than I have in years and seeing very clearly what it is that fills me with unfettered joy. I am unashamed of my love; I am still young at this, so at times I must discern between love and obligation; between obligation and fear. But love is easy to find: you just follow your joy, like Bambi did in his first few steps. You follow your joy and as it grows and grows to exploding point, people can only stop and notice. It’s so beautiful.
I’m excited about the opportunities that are ahead of me this year. I love making enough money so I can undergird my practice; I love that my life is so flexible that I can take up those opportunities and, although I’m not living in a place that has a Great Cloud of [Avant Garde / Improvising] Witnesses in body, I am deeply blessed with long-term collaborators and mentors who hear my voice when I need reflection.
Maybe you’re older than me and feel you’ve missed the mark. Maybe you’re younger and are bent on stardom. Or maybe, like me, you’re mid-career and aren’t sure how to move ahead. In whatever case it is, tune into love. You’ll know what it is. When you find your love, you’ll find it difficult to catch your breath; your heart rate will speed up and, as you give it time and space, you’ll have no choice but to follow it.
But whatever you do, follow it. It will come back to you.
*I later realised the haughty note in his voice appeared because he’s 30 and had assumed I was in my mid-20s.
I'm spending 6 weeks working at Christchurch Cathedral in honour of giving voice to questions over Lent. This is not a coincidence. Throughout my time in my original home in Virginia, I found myself face to face with the most difficult parts of my psyche. The questions were coming too quickly and, as I have made a pact with myself to pay attention to the difficult moments in my life, I have spoken with things that I have until now not understood or wanted to address about myself.
Here are the words we use as a starting point for our questions at the Giving Voice workshop coming up on Saturday:
What questions do you need to ask?
This moment will be a time of call and response; part of the call will be external, though part will also come from within you. An internal call is an act of faith - creating space and resonance in your body to allow the question somewhere to grow.
What are the questions you cannot ask? Are there questions you can verbalise, or things that can only be sent out by your body to the Universe or to the deepest self and universe inside of you?
What are the questions you can ask? Give space to those.
Let's search for the elusive questions, knowing that the season of Lent gives us a time to reflect with full knowledge that hope is in the pipeline. Until then, we must come to rest with the difficult things that must be asked.
Rachel, I've never seen you dance. Are you a real dancer?
Yes, although I don't point my toe quite enough. I've trained in various Modern dance techniques but, unfortunately, my training is mostly in improvisation, alignment-based techniques and Japanese performance art informed forms.
What's the difference between Butoh and booty dance?
Not much, except that Butoh is a bit scarier, more nobbly and often moves more slowly than booty-shake informed arts.
Do you have to train to improvise?
Technically, of course not! BUT[T], like any improvisation - music, theatre, legal, social, grammatical - the more you practice, the more skills you have to draw upon.
Erm... none of this sounds pretty. Dance is about beauty, no?
Well, yes, of course, dance is essentially a celebration of female grace and the straighter the leg, the better. Hence this kind of thing cannot compare in dancitude to this kind of thing, which is pure beauty and imagination. But no, I can't disparage that dancer's excellent control and lifelong commitment to training. Still, you apply your own score to the first example.
What was that first thing you posted?
That "thing," as you so disrespectfully put it, is one of the more vigourously perceptive and committed performers I've met and - to answer your next question - she's a butoh dancer and yes, I'm training with her this week in Berlin.
So this is the kind of thing that's just done like in Berlin, right?
Right. It's not meant for 'the real world', nor is it meant to challenge anyone else's sense or understanding of self-reflection except those who have access to a Berlin travel pass.
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Fine, I'll cut to the chase. Basically, Butoh engages with both internal and external processes of the dancer mind, just as many other post-Modern forms do. Except, really, this extreme level of embodiment allows the dancer to see their body as both what it is and what it isn't, therefore exploring a kind of anthropomorphism or semblance of another existence. I guess you could say a lot of performance focuses on how to inhabit character or just how to communicate one's internal workings on a social level. But it's not just Butoh - you have many disciplines, performers, dancers, choreographers who do this. What I love about dance is finding the milky lip, the tender borders that divide all that is inhabited within the skin and intention of our bodies // mind, thought, sickness, evolution, joy // and sending it directly to the body of collaborator, viewer, etc. What stirs in me may shake in you. I don't know. But if your eyes are open, we may find out. Best way to do it is to let me come to your house and perform for you.
Uhhh, that's a bizarre offer.
Well... I would. I would genuinely love to do that.
What about your songwriting - where has that gone?
It's still there. I mean, of course it is, although writing words that seem to cut out much of the mystery of the interior is less interesting to me now BUT I think there's a simplicity of saying with mouths that can be more easily digestible. I love writing songs and love listening to them. It's just that dance makes me want to live.
You win the interview battle.
in the late morning i arrive here and make music. then i stay until late at night. this is my domain.
The symbol of Austria, the mythical panther, which clearly - so clearly - embodies my nature. Much love to you, Panther!
Two things I discovered yesterday:
1. Garlic so fresh that the bulbs are tender, there is no dry skin, and when you crush it, it turns into water. As I was preparing to cook with it, I had the impulse to weep with gratitude to the farmers at the Lendplatz Market for selling it to me.
2. Eva Reiter.
Schizophone: bass block flute and viola de gamba player, singer, electronic artist, and composer who has introduced me to material that I didn't even know was possible. Seeing her was life-changing.
Apologies that I have no pictures. It turns out when I'm in the throes of discovering things that touch my core, I don't have the impulse to reach for the camera.
I also went to a Baroque-Riccocco palace on the edge of Graz and got caught in the flow of an at-first-confusing-and-then-intensely-connected site specific collaborations between contemporary dancers and Baroque musicians.
i am living on the top floor of a four-storey building. when i return home through the fresh evening air, i climb stairs that slowly get narrower and narrower with each flight until i reach my door. it's just next to the door that takes you into the rundown attic and up onto the roof.
i dwell where the birds fly; i see their flight change path before joining me in my flat. i have two large views of the mountains surrounding the city and at night i hear the daily celebrators fixing their bodies after a day's work, intermingled with the beautifully deep bells ringing from gothic cathedrals. i sit on my balcony, drinking a cup of tea, or a glass of wine, or a peculiar mix of rhubarb, grape, and pickle. tonight, the old fortified hill was lit up with a saturday night party from the top of schlossberg. there once was a castle on this unnaturally high, raised hump in the middle of the city.
napoleon had it dismantled brick by brick as a symbolic gesture when he conquered that height; for him, knocking it over wasn't enough.
tonight the tower on that hill was lit up in multiple colours. i gazed at it for awhile, enjoying the breeze, the moment, the stillness, the knowledge that i'm in the right place. i stepped inside for a second, and when i returned, there were chimes ringing from the hill and the lights went off.
midnight. time for day to go out.
I got to do some work today in a beautiful little studio. It's good to be getting back to reality. Thank you, Fred, for organising this!
I made some great memories yesterday as captured in the polaroids below. I mean, travelling as an artist is super exotic and enriching and amazing, no? Except that you spend your day organising your bags and - in Switzerland - attempting to eat for less than 40 CHF per day (about $50/£38). The day was mostly bent on surviving the triple prong plug system that - as it turns out - ONLY Switzerland uses. There wasn't a moment when I had both wifi and power access. The struggle is real, kids, der Kampf ist echt. The implications of this are long lasting.
I did, however, fall asleep during a beautifully lyrical guitar recital and also improvised like my life depended on it because - goddammmmmit - something had better work!
after many times of preparation / perpetration, i arrived hier, to temp home no. 1: lothringerstrasse, basel, switzerland. yes, i was served a proper cup of tea at london gatwick airport when my friend & collaborator jenn came to keep me company during my layover. yes, i took a foot ferry across the rhine on certainly the best intro to a city: fred frith's listening walk (european sound-absorbing tarmac, silent water that eventually became aural all over the place, the quiet phrases of duck conversation). and yes, you heard correctly - i accidentally ended up in basel during the uefa cup final with thousands of liverpool supporters.
und, ja, ich bin HELLA jet lagged, as summed up in skeletor's crying eyes at basel münster: