On residency-ing

( a reflection)

Oct 2014, a note:
The following text has been in the making for about a year now. During this time, my drive to write it passed from full engagement to indifference, and everything in-between; while wondering if anyone else would share my point of view, since my work, needs and experience are just as particular as anybody elses.
Accepting the impossibility of exhausting the subject (while keeping the text under two pages long), what is left a conglomerate. It should be read in the context of a two year outside-and-inside experience of a four year project that was Modul Dance, while the rest of life and work didn’t really stop either. If any part of what’s written will speak to any reader, and will stimulate discussion, then the objective of this article has been met.

During the Dusseldorf Modul Dance conference in September 2013, a meeting on residencies took place. There were perhaps thirty participants, that talked for one hour. Oppinions were varied and time was short; but there seemed to be a general consent among us, that a debate on the subject was welcome and there was space for improvement.

I see a residency as a custom made working tool, crafted between the host and the participant. Its purpose is to be useful in any stage of the process that leads to a creation of a work of art. Often however, the usefullness of such a situation is taken for granted and not much attention is given to the details that either make or break the tool itself. With improvement in mind, I’ll try to name some of those details.

To first provide some context, my working situation is that of an independent artist, who works without a producer, manager or administrator. My field of expertise is dance, particularly movement, particularly improvisation; focusing on training, research, writing and performance. Some years ago I was overwhelmed by the amount of office work required to fund, produce and tour my work. Paying an administrator was not an option. Less is more, I thought; so in order to minimalize the sitting work while still be able to follow my working interest, I’ve ended up working exclusively on solos for the last seven years. Then, when I was asked to propose a project for Modul Dance, I’ve chosen to work on a series of short duets, building towards one, meta-duet; for the same considerations of practicality. This duet process took place in seven residencies, all between ten days and two weeks long.

Then it’s clear, at least in my case, that practicalities and working conditions define the type, format and also quality of the work, not to speak of the personal life of an artist. My situation being a somewhat extreme version of the reality of many independent artists, who patch together a working-and-living continuity between wish, possibility and crisis management.

I’d like to think that the original purpose of an artistic residency is to serve the artist. The residency is mutually successful if the conditions are engineered to enable the work to happen. Following that line of thought, whatever takes away from the work takes away from the purpose of the residency.

Preparing a ten day working residency can take as long as six months of emailing, getting and sending documents, waiting for answers, negotiations and explanations. As in the EU administration in Brussels, I find that more often then not there is much e-waste.

Smaller structures, run by a collective or sometimess run by one person, seem to be closer to independent artists in their ways of fighting to survive. They’re often undersourced and sometimes run by artists juggling two jobs and perhaps a family. Working with them can be a rollercoaster, but familiarly so. They mite offer less, but are adaptable.

It’s when working with larger structures with their own administration – those that somehow setup the standard, that space for improvement can be found. While setting up a residency, I’m often in contact with four different people, keeping up this months-long sporadic correspondence with each, in the end amounting to what could be a twenty minute phone conversation. To draw a paralell, in development of computer operating systems, progress means not only more effective, but also simpler to use. In a similar way, could those organizations, that have the means, recognize the strain on the artist? Could they simplify, personalize that proces taking place BEFORE the actual residency begins?

For example: what if, when dealing with an organization, an independent artist would only have one contact person there, who would function as their temporary producer, for that residency only? Exceptions exempt, one weekly email would be sent to the artist, and returned. All communication with other parts of the house: the technique, PR, contracts, transport, housing… would happen within the organization.

While I’m told this is impossible (Is it?!), what happens if we think along these lines? And invent new ones? In residency-ing we usually accept complexity as the only reality; that, which seems to escalate from a simple agreement towards chaos, before it hopefully resolves in a successful residency. There is no reason however, why an orderly administrative situation could not better feed the thunderstorm of inspiration inside the body, mind and studio of the artist. Perhaps the possibilities of a successfull residency would improve. Maybe, in time, the number of lap-top dancers would diminish.

When the quality of process is favored over the end product, long residencies are a cherished friend. I’ve had experiences of near utopian residencies, where on arrival one’s own rhythm is encouraged to unravel. The working space is constantly available, yet as the studio doors never need to be opened, neither do they close. The work of attention spills from indoor to outdoor freely. In absence of the need to plan ahead, all of life slows down to a pace of observation/creation. Plans are made, then unmade for the benefit of living the moment – a process, which is expected and encouraged. What WILL BE becomes less interesting then what IS taking place. Interaction with the local needn’t be ingeneered, since the local is not constructed daily, but continued. It’s what you are emmersed in. There is house work to be done, conversations to be had… the communal work is there, to be attempted at will. The place moves at a pace of its own and you slowly come in sync. The movements are slow,  tectonic.

For most of us, residencies are sinonimous with travel. One gets away from home supposedly in order to get away from external interruptions. To allow for perspective and make space for transformation. If within a time of ten days to two weeks one is expected to build another schedule and stick to it, that primary purpose is only replaced by stress. All of the residency then takes place in a state of arrival, sometimess worsened by the pressure of achieving goals, set in advance.

The reason this goes by largely unnoticed, or is at least accepted, is only because it’s so similar to our everyday lives.  Running behind is the way we tend to administer our time. Short residencies finish with some result, and usually with a quiet wish of “Now would be a good moment to begin…” It makes one wonder if the few moments of true arrival to the process are worth the “cold turkey” of preparation that precedes them, and the exhaustion plus the financial black hole that remains after. It’s only natural then, that a creation, done in a in a series of short residencies, is like going for a roadtrip while having to jump-start the car on every corner. Which can be fun; but the trip becomes about jump-starting…

Ten or more years ago residencies abroad were a sign of quality if not prestige. But with the open EU labour market, budget airlines, national culture-budget cuts, EU cultural funds, the spreading of networks, internet, laptops and mobile phones… the way we live and work has changed.  To be away, one needs only to switch off one’s mobile phone and internet, and one will be isolated, and be able to work. Likewise, if one remains plugged-in, then in most cases one is always home-and-available, no matter what the distance. Then why leave home?

These days, many of us travel far too much; and are looking for a way to work more locally. It’s is one way the residencies could evolve; to offer good working conditions locally, continuously, building a relationship with a community by returning to the same places. As oppose to offering places to foreign artists in search of the “new”, what is already there would be nourished and supported.  Less time wasted for less organization would leave more time for the work itself. Less travelling would mean less pollution; and less cost for whoever is paying for the travel.

Travelling far for residencies starts making more sense when it benefits the place one is travelling to, and especially the people there. If one raises the gaze to look outside of the performing arts’ inner circle, there are many places that would benefit from such an exchange. In less supported, financially poorer environments, residencies can be a way of getting information in. Groups, collectives or small communities are often happy to offer the basics in exchange for coming in touch with a world outside their own. As a result, both sides are left richer. This model satisfies those that travel to residencies for input and new ideas, as oppose to those that would like, for at least a short period, work in conditions that a funded company would spend years designing for themselves.

One step further could be an equally rewarding experience; that is, of going and practicing one’s art in troubled areas; abandoning the view of being the central Sun orbited by the planets, and instead putting oneself in service of whatever one meets there. And THEN doing one’s work, in whatever conditions the people there are working in. It’s a humbling experience that can be transformative, giving some meaning to what we do, in a largely nihilist and self-congratulatory society. I’d go as far as to say, that everybody should do this sometimes, if not for the others, then for oneself.

*this article was part of a Modul-Dance publication, 2014