Process v. Product: What Does the Artist Do?

What Does the Artist Do by Anna Martine Whitehead

In 2015 the BBC produced a short documentary on Tracey Emin as part of their “What Do Artists Do All Day” series. In it, the painter/drawer/fibers/conceptual artist — one of the breakout Young British Artists of the 90s and a personal hero of mine as a young woman studying painting in undergrad — talks about how she gets grounded before approaching a large blank canvas. Throughout the episode, she makes references to needing to feel “confident” or “bold” or “strong in [her] head” in order to step into such a wide open space successfully.

For me, stepping into the wide open empty studio with a new project is like that, every time.

When I think of the moments I’ve felt boldest, there’s a certain aspect of unreality, or ultra-reality, which allows access to that fire; an internal voice of encouragement that is certainly mine but mic’d, with the bass and reverb turned up and distorted beyond decipherability. It’s a sort of other-self boldness that allows me to make without interference. Meditation helps. Turning my phone off helps. Anything that keeps the outside world from getting in helps.

What’s tricky is that my work is informed by the outside world. I make work about prisons, black culture, police violence, queer sociality. I frequently work with others. I suppose there’s a sort of schizophrenia at play in my practice: an un-delicate balance of inward-lookingness and outward-drawing-in which outputs itself in a shuffle between drawings, objects, movement, writing, video, and hanging around. Hanging around helps: with others, I get to practice receiving and producing knowledge dynamically, verbally or otherwise. At rest with myself, my body absorbs the day’s research, and becomes a more accessible site of knowledge production.

As I get older, I’ve come to value hanging out more and more. Aging in America is antithetical to hanging out, and what I once did as unconsciously as breathing air or eating carry-out Chinese three nights a week, I now have to intentionally make space for. There’s always work to be done; hanging out can always be put off ‘til next week. There’s always more external incentive to be legibly productive. One of the gifts I received from my graduate education was the mandate we all have as contemporary artists to reframe hanging out as work. This not only keeps us working but it keeps us present to ourselves, to the (only occasionally commodifiable) value of our own actualization. My time in school, now a decade ago, happened to coincide with the rise of social media, which further encourages a practice of documenting leisure and reframing the mundane as not only desirable but consumable. Indeed, Instagramming my studio practice from time to time has served as shorthand publicity and helped me as I test out new ideas—the most affirming studio visit with close friends that I could imagine. Yet again, that urge to turn away from the public—the compulsion to turn off my phone and look inward—takes over. All that public, that framing of my self as an ever developing project, is a useful site of production to visit for a short while, but stay too long and it becomes a trap, leading me away from the pure unconscious state of being that derives from doing nothing in particular. The work is always there to be presented as the work, but as Jill Scott taught us (to paraphrase), it is often getting in the way of what we’re feeling.

In one of my favorite tracks off of her Grammy-nominated first album, Scott sings to another woman who’s stepping to her man, for whom Scott has developed “feelings… I see your intentions / You can’t handle the truth / …it’s time to turn him loose” she sings. I listen to this song whenever I feel overwhelmed by adversity. I listen to this song a lot. For me, the other woman can operate as a metaphor for any threat, the song a warning to the devils you don’t want to smack down but will if you must. Scott identifies herself as well as the other woman as a queen, before threatening to throw punches. It’s a song you sing to a formidable opponent, one you have enough respect for to let her know you respect yourself over everything. Listening to songs like Scott’s is part of how I access that fiery boldness that lets me step into that wide open empty space, my mind echoing with a woman’s voice that could be my own. It is how I remember that—despite the beautiful, horrible, unbelievably powerful world all around me— ground zero is me and my feelings. If I can be that brave, that down for my own ultra-real self, the work will figure itself out.

Above: Anna Martine Whitehead’s Hold Yourself In Mid-Air (2010). Photo courtesy of artist.

This blog entry is part of the Dance Center’s Process v. Product Festival (March 28-April 7). This two-week festival examines how concert dance presentation can be a document of process rather than a consumable product. Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak and Bebe Miller Company headline the festival through a series of performances, artist discussions, panels, workshops, and more. The Process v. Product Festival invites dance-makers, dance lovers, and other artists to reflect on the process of creation