The Imagination of the Artist

Helen Marriage (LF 2013) continues her occasional Friday series "The Power of Cultural Disruption” with a conversation with Jim Lasko (LF 2013) and Elizabeth Streb on March 8.

Marriage believes that art is the possibility of new meanings and when the imagination of the artist intrudes on daily life people can see their cities differently. She actively strives to promote artists who set out to change culture and who want to move art outside. She talked with Jim Lasko and Elizabeth Streb about their impetus to be outside and their compulsion to disrupt.

Lasko, the co-artistic director of Redmoon theatre, worried that bringing people into theaters set parameters of behavior and put too many layers of convention between the audience and the performance. His commitment to public space pushed him to move his work out into the symbolic center of democracy. Using outdoor venues serves as "a mechanism for illuminating humanity,” but there is a struggle to demonstrate that grand things aren’t "mere spectacle” and producing art that appeals to many doesn’t mean dumbing it down.

Streb, who has been called the Evel Knievel of Dance, is in pursuit of finding a "real move” that changes everyone’s hearts forever. Where the biomechanics of the human body are insufficient, her troupe adds hardware to enhance their actions. The result is stunning.

Just before the London 2012 Olympics , Streb and her company descended the face of City Hall, fell like a waterfall in Trafalgar Square, jumped off the Millennium Bridge, and moved across the London Eye in order to "pierce the sky with images of the human form” and make everyone who saw it see the city differently.

Yet, while Marriage regularly supports these kinds of artists, it is challenging to defy so many conventions, including the potential for negative critical response. Streb’s work often gets negative critical reviews, but she remains confident that "music is the true enemy of dance” and that she shouldn’t "camouflage gravity” – there should be content, not meaning, in motion. By creating something that no one can look away from and selling out venues like the Park Avenue Armory, Streb is able to brush aside some of the critics.

Much as there are individuals - and cities - that appreciate the work of Lasko and Streb, the conversation quickly demonstrated that these artists don’t really want to be appeased. Lasko waits for something to infuriate him and then uses that as inspiration. For example, seeing that a museum’s motto "fear no art” was contradicted by its stark façade, Lasko created a graphic novel that could be seen through the windows and watched from the plaza.  Even Marriage, as a producer of disruptive art, enjoys the challenges of cutting through red tape to bring projects like these to fruition.

Marriage also observed that most artists ignore the amphitheater and look at the abandoned factory down the street.  Acknowledging this, Streb scorned the preciousness of cultural monuments and Lasko pointed out that "if you put too many parameters on the box, it’s not interesting to go into the box.” A space that can be wrecked is more valuable than trying to create space just for artists. However, Lasko did hope that more spaces could be created where people other than artists could feel more liberty.

If city officials are hoping to attract exciting new art, the conversation suggested that trust and patience are the most valuable things they can provide. The creativity of artists like these seems to thrive on uncertainty, surprise, and freedom.  While Lasko can’t say with confidence that community empowerment takes place at his performances, it’s a goal.

Still, in the era of measuring the effectiveness of so many programs, Marriage asked about metrics the artists are comfortable using. Engagement seems to be the answer. With an open rehearsal policy, Streb can use the combination of strangers and interruptions to test attention spans. Similarly, Lasko observed that with outdoor rehearsals and performances, if no one is stopping by, you’re doing something wrong. He also tries to feel vibrancy and admitted that he has loved pieces even when the audience doesn’t.

Finally, there’s a question of value. Disruptive outdoor urban art is expensive to produce. In her largest outdoor projects, Marriage has designed them as gifts and needed big quiet chunks of money. They feel magical because nothing’s been sold. Likewise, Lasko strongly believes that you don’t have to purchase something for it to have value. He suggested that the real test of art is establishing a new cultural vocabulary and creating an experience that resonates in someone’s heart.

Read more about the conversation with Elizabeth Streb and Jim Lasko in the Havard Gazette, “Bringing culture outdoors.” 

Images by Redmoon

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