E|MERGE is an annual interdisciplinary collaborative artist retreat that I have curated and produced the past three winters with collaborators Krista Denio (Earthdance director) and Karen Bernard (New Dance Alliance director). 30-40 artists are grouped into 5-8 projects and have 12 days to produce a new collaborative work. The artists work in the disciplines of dance, theatre, video, music, visual arts, media arts, writing, dramaturgy, and all the spaces in between. The focus of the residency is on creative relationship building and resource sharing. Artists lead workshops for each other and the public at the start of the residency and it ends with a public showing. Performances for this event happen in dance studios, cabins, kitchens, outdoors, and in various other site-specific locations.
A partial list of my responsibilities for this project can be found on the extended resume. What follows are a few of the lessons gleaned from the past few years working on the project. This year I was especially struck by the art of producing. There is so much subtlety that goes into the creation of the containers that creation happens within.
Over the life of E|MERGE, we have had the pleasure of experimenting with subtle variations of the form of the residency. The first year was an invitational year, made up entirely of artists that the curators knew. It was only 10 days long. When they arrived, we had chosen what the projects would be and who would be leading them, but not who would be in which group. We spent the entire first day introducing ourselves and watching videos of eachother's work. Many artists were slightly nervous, with a sense that they needed to prove themselves to the group so they would be wanted. During the initial workshop weekend they got to know each other and found natural affinities and shared interests. A great deal of time (and emotional energy) was spent after that weekend sorting the artists into different projects. Many artists ended up in multiple projects and scheduling proved a massive undertaking. We had slated the closing performance as a marathon weekend. We invited performers to show pieces above and beyond what they'd created at the residency. Because of publicly announcing it as an epic marathon, there was a great deal of emphasis and pressure put on the performance. Most everyone had a rich and rewarding time that year, and in some ways, the rough and raw, figure it out as we go attitude empowered the group and made the artists grow closer.
The second year we put out a larger open call for applications, and set up the groups and a great deal of the schedule ahead of time. We based our groupings on the artists' expressions of interest in their applications and what we knew of them. This felt like a bold move. Most collaborations come out of shared resonance. What would it be like to put together professional artists with different backgrounds and styles of working to figure it out? We discovered definite pros and cons to this arrangement. There was less of the "will I be chosen for the team" anxiety upon arriving. This was also buffeted by having a healthy handful of return artists who knew each other and trusted us and the residency. Artist collaborators could start dialogue and idea exchange before the residency began. The project leaders and Ispent less energy juggling logistics. The down side was that we couldn't easily respond to the natural affinities that arose as artists met each other. There was one woman who eventually left her group and participated as a floating dramaturg. That group had a bit of a hard time with the transition, but overall this was perhaps the smoothest year in terms of navigating personnel.
The third year, we cast a wider net, so we had more applications from people who had no relation to us or to Earthdance. We lengthened the residency by two days and added more workshops, labs, and panel discussions so artists not working together could still have a vital exchange with each other.
This year we also had a community project in collaborateion with a (rather liberal, almost pagan) church in the neighborhood. One evening of the performances took place as a site-specific show at the church. This created a bridge between to neighbouring, and yet historically quite distant, communities. The evening was perhaps the biggest success of the residency's history. After the show there was a panel discussion on socially engaged art. The idea exchange and appreciations between the active international group of artists and the small town craftsmen, poets, and folk of the church was intimate, palpable and potent. There was a woman who decided to float again this year and another group that required mediation because the performers felt like their skills weren't being used as collaborators. We ended up inviting that group to present two projects based on the same source material. One piece was directed as planned and the other was created quite horizontally.
Initial conversations about next year's residency indicate we'll be focusing the initial workshops specifically on themes of collaboration and communication. We will keep a community based project thread, and perhaps a social justice thread. And we will invite fewer projects so space is not strained.
What I have learned through this project, and my previous years at Earthdance, is that creating an event is like baking a cake. When there are resources available, such as Earthdance, one need only tell a whole slough of people that something is happening. Get them excited about participating, welcome them, set up the structures that orient them to what's happening. Introduce the right people to each other. Build a web of community to help get the resources needed to bring to the undertaking. Bring a modicum of trust to a container of space and time. Step back and let it simmer... And serve (Of course, there's also the publicity, fundraising, etc. but these are all details of what's above). When you find a recipe that is generally pretty good, you can start tweaking details and adding variations without concern as to whether it's going to come out ok.