Work Independently, Not Alone
Allison Wyper on Los Angeles performance, community, and supporting other artists.
By Karina Vahitova
Allison Wyper is a movement-based artist and arts organizer based in Los Angeles. Her performance work has been seen across the United States, Canada, Australia, and Germany, and she has been published in Platform, The Dancer-Citizen, Itch, The Present Tense, Contemporary Performance Almanac, and Emergency Index. In this interview, we chat with Allison about her role in supporting other artists, what community can look like, and the difference between being famous and being respected.
How do you describe yourself as an artist?
I am a movement-based performance artist who tends to create intimate, site-specific, participatory encounters. My projects invite empathy, collaboration, and exchange between performer and spectator, activating the performance space as a site of critical action. Offstage, I have always been an organizer and supporter of other artists, and that has taken many formal roles, from stage manager to bookkeeper to workshop facilitator, and on and on…
In 2014, I created Rhizomatic Arts as a way to formalize the various ways that I support artists under one conceptual umbrella, and to claim my space as an independent entrepreneur, and to conceptualize that work as a creative social practice. Through Rhizomatic Arts I facilitate a peer network of artists and lead workshops on collaborative creation, all of which is funded by designing websites in collaboration with individual artists and artists with very small companies (usually 1 staff member). I also work part time as Artists Knowledge Manager at the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI), which provides professional development funding and training to artists.
What does sustainability mean to you?
In terms of cultivating a sustainable life and a sustainable career, it means living in abundance as opposed to lack. Abundance for me includes healthy and plentiful relationships, dependable income, not being ruled by debt, and constantly fueling the fire of curiosity, growth, and happiness. For me, it involves a great deal of autonomy. I’m not someone who is happy being dependent upon an employer, institution, parent, or partner for my financial, professional, or emotional health. But it’s also important to me that I feel like I’m part of a community—a family, even—so I would never want to go it entirely on my own. That’s why my slogan is “work independently, not alone.” I think that strong relationships and horizontal structures for exchange and resource sharing are essential to sustainability.
How has living in Los Angeles impacted you creatively and emotionally?
When I moved here in 2008 for grad school, I immediately became part of a close-knit family of peers. The friends I made in UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance are still some of my deepest adult relationships. When I finished UCLA, though, I shifted my center further outside the dance world, into the performance art community. Los Angeles has an incredible experimental performance scene, and the first thing that made an impression on me was that people here are constantly creating opportunities for one another—from opening art spaces, to producing festivals or guerilla-style pop-up performance events, I immediately felt the invitation to join in, as opposed to a pressure to compete. Resources here are as scarce as anywhere, but the artists I gravitated to seemed to feel like we would all have a better chance of succeeding together, rather than in competition.
How do you balance between supporting other artists through your work at CCI and Rhizomatic Arts and your own arts practice? What has shifted for you over the years in terms of this balance?
It’s definitely a challenge. I don’t dedicate nearly as much time to creating my performance works as I would like to. But I’ve also been shifting the way I think about my work as an artist. I’ve started writing, and I am more frequently facilitating collaborations around the actual creation process—which is actually my favorite part of making work. I’m much more interested in the process than in the product.
Los Angeles has an incredible experimental performance scene, and the first thing that made an impression on me was that people here are constantly creating opportunities for one another—from opening art spaces, to producing festivals or guerilla-style pop-up performance events, I immediately felt the invitation to join in, as opposed to a pressure to compete.
But also, after the 2016 presidential election fiasco I quickly re-assessed my goals and decided that I would rather put my energy into creating opportunities for more marginalized artists than focusing on “making it” myself, because there are some voices that we really need to hear right now, and some bodies that we need to see in institutional spaces. Shortly thereafter, I got the job at CCI, which has given me the opportunity to hire artists of color as trainers, and administer a grant program supporting arts-based entrepreneurial projects serving marginalized communities in Los Angeles. Working at CCI forced me to step up to the plate as an arts worker in Los Angeles, not as a performer, but as a facilitator of interpersonal connections and equitable resource distribution. It’s pretty radical work, when I step back and look at it. I’m pretty proud of what I’m contributing to there, and it’s totally in alignment with Rhizomatic Arts, which continues to sustain me as well.
How have you been able to fund the creation of your artworks? Is there anything you've learned about the business of art that you wish you knew when you first got started?
Funding is always a challenge. My larger projects have been funded by international festivals (in Canada, specifically) and in partnerships with my collaborators in Australia. But I’ve generally scaled back my work in the past 10 years so that I’m doing very low-impact, easily tourable work—work that can be performed essentially anywhere. I’m not super interested in working in theaters for hundreds of people. I’m more interested in performances for one person at a time, or popping up in a public space unexpectedly, for an accidental audience. For the past 6 years I’ve been part of a group of artists in Los Angeles who engage in a practice called “Encounter.” Encounters are unplanned, improvisational events that take place in public and private spaces usually without any announcement. We’re not interested in performing for an audience or documenting the event; we’re instead interested in how we encounter different spaces and different collections of co-performers, in performance mode.
De-coupling the work from the funding structure can be really healthy. I think I’d encourage young people to make the work they want to make regardless of its fundability, and to work with the human network in your community.
So, to return to your question about funding—I suppose I could have been exposed earlier to different models for performance outside the concert format… But I was, really. I was always interested in performance in protest settings, street performances, salons, poor theater, and things like Fluxus, Allan Kaprow’s “happenings,” or Anna Halprin’s dances in nature. Those kinds of works or experiences don’t require the kind of funding that concert performances do. (To say nothing of the fact that they’re often unfundable.) De-coupling the work from the funding structure can be really healthy. I think I’d encourage young people to make the work they want to make regardless of its fundability, and to work with the human network in your community. There’s a lot of abundance there if you ask.
Do you feel that community building for performance art is uniquely different from community building for other forms of art?
I don’t know… My community is very interdisciplinary, and includes primarily visual artists, as well as dancers, and also philosophers and writers. I have never found much value in identifying performance art as something distinct from the “fine arts” or “performing arts” because we all tend to bump up against one another, and our work mixes together… I suppose if anything live performance has the advantage of generally calling upon people to show up, in person, at the same time and place, so in that way it is theoretically conducive to face-to-face community building… though you can be plenty anonymous in a dark theater, and art openings are all about the social. So, I guess the answer is “no.”
What is Rhizomatic Arts and why did you decide to create it?
The mission of Rhizomatic Arts is to cultivate sustainable creative lives. We offer web and graphic design services, professional coaching, workshops, and community hangouts that help artists work independently, not alone. Through Rhizomatic Studio we produce artistic projects (performances and workshops) premised on collaboration and exchange. We are dedicated to social and economic justice from a grassroots, person-to-person level, and uphold the feminist ethos: if one thrives, we all thrive. You can learn more at http://rhizomaticarts.com!
Bonus! Is there a question you wish someone would ask you so you could answer it? What is it and what is its answer?
“What is your definition of success? Is it more important to be famous or respected?"
I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of being a person of integrity. Like, being a model for others in your community. To me, that’s more important than being well known (or even well funded). Having worked on all sides of this industry, I think people forget that when you behave badly, people notice. And people talk about you. And you’re probably not going to be invited to participate in things when you have a bad reputation. Now, that said, we all know there are plenty of successful assholes getting shows and grants all the time. But, honestly, do YOU want to work with them? Because, honestly, you don’t HAVE to. I believe in being a good person, being kind to everyone I work with (Performers: BE NICE TO YOUR TECHNICIANS! THEY’RE RESPONSIBLE FOR LIGHTING YOU/MAKING SURE YOU LOOK GOOD ONSTAGE!) I also believe in the power of what my college improv teacher called “the good natured NOPE.” You can choose not to take part in systems that are oppressive. Maybe not all the time, but when you can, I think you should. And you ALWAYS have the power to not be an asshole. People notice. Young people learn from your example. People in positions of power might learn something, too.
For more of Allison's work, visit allisonwyper.com.
Allison is generously offering free 30 minute consultations on artist statements and general presentation of your art identity (including writing about yourself and your work for grants, funding campaigns, websites, social media, as well as visual presentation.) Become a member today to receive the code!
Allison Wyper is a Los Angeles-based interdisciplinary performance artist and founder of Rhizomatic Arts, which provides professional services and community for independent artists and creatives. Her performance works produce charged, often participatory encounters between performer and viewer that encourage intimate exchange and critical solidarity. Her performance work has been seen across the US, Canada, Australia, and Germany, and she has been published in Platform, The Dancer-Citizen, Itch, The Present Tense, Contemporary Performance Almanac, and Emergency Index. Allison curated performances for Play the L.A. River, a year-long interdisciplinary civic art project. She is a former Artistic Associate of Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s La Pocha Nostra, and she founded San Francisco-based Black Stone Ensemble from 2005-2008. She has an MFA in Dance from UCLA, and a BA in Theatre Studies from Emerson College. Allison currently works as Artists Knowledge Manager at the Center for Cultural Innovation.
Rhizomatic Arts takes an holistic approach to creative sustainability, supporting the cultural eco-system through professional consulting, services, and training for artists and creatively-oriented businesses, and cultivating networks in which these communities can interconnect through short-term collaborations and lasting partnerships. Rhizomatic Arts implements the creative vision of director Allison Wyper through interdisciplinary art projects, performances, and workshops that activate the performance space as a site for critical action, challenging viewers to become participants. We are dedicated to social and economic justice on a grassroots, person-to-person level, and uphold the feminist ethos: if one thrives,
we all thrive.