Healing in Public

Healing in Public

Jacob Tobia on their upcoming memoir, social acceptance, and becoming less afraid.

By Siena Oristaglio on August 27th, 2018

Jacob Tobia for The Void Academy
Jacob Tobia | Photo by Andi Elloway for Posture Magazine

Jacob Tobia is a writer, producer, and author of the forthcoming memoir Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story with Putnam Books at Penguin Random House. Currently living in Los Angeles, Jacob was recently named to the Biden Foundation’s Advisory Council for Advancing LGBTQ Equality. In spring of 2018, Jacob produced and starred in a critically acclaimed revival reading of the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright, and was announced as the new face of Fluide Beauty, a line of trans and queer-inclusive makeup. We chatted with them about their upcoming memoir, building emotional sustainability as an artist, and the artists whose work they've been engaging with recently.

How do you describe your work? 

I'd say that, first and foremost, I'm a storyteller and a healer. I try to use the power of language, performance, and the written word to help people reconnect with their own trauma around gender — from small slights to major incidents. We live in a world that destroys our ability to authentically connect with our gender before we can even walk, before we can make a choice for ourselves. We are taught early on which parts of ourselves we must augment and which parts of ourselves we must erase in order to be acceptable in society. For most people, that process is deeply hurtful, even if we can't recall the pain. It is what makes growing up so difficult. We make horcruxes early in our lives by murdering parts of ourselves. As a healer and a storyteller, I believe it's my job to help people find and heal the parts of themselves, however minuscule, that they killed in order fit into the gender binary. That looks like a lot of different things. It looks like pitching and creating TV shows. It looks like writing my first book. It looks like authoring op-eds. It looks like engaging with public policy thinkers and think tanks. And it looks like posting a fuck-ton on Instagram.

What current projects that you're working on are you most excited about? What excites you about them?

Right now, my book Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story is almost all that I can think about. It'll be coming out in Spring of 2019 and we're at a really exciting part of the process, where we're doing things like finalizing fonts and finishing up the cover design and planning the marketing/PR rollout and it's all so thrilling. I can't wait for it to live and breathe in the world. It's my heart and soul and I am so excited to share it with the universe.

I'd love to hear about your upcoming memoir, Sissy. What prompted you to write it? What was the most challenging part of the writing process? 

I started writing Sissy because I couldn't help myself. In my life, I have written so many short, 800-1500 word essays about different facets of my gender identity, but there are more complicated truths that you simply cannot explain in short form. There are certain stories and memories and ideas and concepts that require context and volume in which to be expressed. I needed to write a book because I was desperate to share a fuller version of myself and my story with the world. What's been beautiful about the project is that it's surprised me. Going into it, I assumed that writing the book would just be a lot of grueling work, but it couldn't have been further from that. Writing Sissy is the single most healing, restorative thing I have ever done. I mean, think about it: how often do we center ourselves as the protagonists in our own lives? How often do we take the time to rewrite our historical trauma and challenges, but with our younger selves as the heroes of the story? Writing Sissy was the best therapy I've ever undertaken, because I had to stare my demons in the face and extend radical empathy to them. It's my hope that, the more I can heal in public, the more other queer and trans people can, too. 

Jacob Tobia for The Void Academy
Jacob Tobia | Photo by Andi Elloway for Posture Magazine

We're interested in the notion that creative success means something different to every artist. Can you describe a moment in recent history when you felt that you succeeded creatively?

About a month ago, I was working on the final version of my manuscript before it was to be sent off to my publisher to be formatted into book pages, and there was one part of the book centering around college graduation where I just knew that I hadn't written my best work. I knew that I was glazing over things, but didn't think I had the creative energy or time to fix it. And then, like an eleventh hour miracle, I finally figured out what I needed to say. I sat down at my computer at noon on the day that the draft was set to be finalized and I wrote what was perhaps the most brilliant seven paragraphs of my entire life. It was like nirvana. It was like electricity. It was transcendence. In those moments, when something is just flowing through you from goddess knows where, you almost feel like a prophet. It's sublime. I live for moments like that. That's what success looks like for me.

What are some of channels you use to connect with your audience? How do you most like to make use of these channels?

I mostly use Instagram, but it's hard. I never feel like I'm enough for the platform. It fills me to the brim with feelings of inadequacy. Every time I log on and see who is getting engagement and who isn't, it makes me feel ugly and boring and undesirable and poor. It's something I'm increasingly trying to work on, because on the one hand, people tell me that seeing me on Instagram gives helps them to feel supported and powerful in the world. But participating in Instagram culture makes me feel terrible about myself. So how can I engage with my main audience-building platform when it is also the thing that most undoes me? How can your main source of support also be your greatest trigger, your greatest mental health challenge? That's the unbearable conundrum of queer and trans visibility I guess.

Jacob Tobia for The Void Academy
Jacob Tobia | Photo by Andi Elloway for Posture Magazine
Jacob Tobia for The Void Academy
Jacob Tobia | Photo by Andi Elloway for Posture Magazine

What is something that you've done that has helped you build sustainability (emotional, financial, or otherwise) into your practice?

The best thing I've done for myself lately is learned to walk to work. I never, ever start my day working from home. I always make myself get up, get showered, and walk to the coffeeshop near my apartment to check emails and start my day. Getting out of the house each morning, first thing, puts me on track for a productive day most every day and it's the only reason I'm able to have a career. It's ironic, but Hollywood is extremely difficult for extroverts. As someone who thrives when surrounded by dozens of colleagues and coworkers and other people each day, the isolation of developing my career and building up to making my own show can be punishing. And then I'll get a gig, or a project will move forward, and for about a month or so, I'll be super super busy and back to back and completely surrounded by other people. And then it'll dry up again and I'll be alone. So finding a ritual to combat the feeling of isolation — walking to the coffeeshop first thing, getting out into the world first thing every single day and accepting that that means paying $4 for a latte — is the only way that I've been able to make it through the precarity of my early career. It's been worth every single dollar. Cups of coffee are the best investment I have ever made in my mental and professional health.

Whose work have you been engaging with this summer? How has the work of others influenced your own over the past few months?

I've been super inspired by my friend Blake (@JohnDeeriere on Instagram). His work is such a refreshing rebellion for me. He talks so openly about being a queer person from the south/midwest and feeling completely alienated living in cities like Los Angeles and New York, which is 100% my experience. As someone who grew up in North Carolina, as someone from the "underdeveloped" "uncultured" part of the country, I've always held a lot of resentment about the fact that I HAD TO move to Los Angeles or New York if I wanted to have a career as an artist. It's so unfair that I had to leave behind my family and home community in order to have my voice heard, but it's how our entertainment and media industries are built, even in the internet age. Blake has helped me to be less afraid of claiming my dissonance from Los Angeles, from New York City, from "big cities," and from wealthy/connected/cultured people. These are places and people that have mistreated me as much (if not more) than they have treated me well, and I felt afraid to talk about that for a long time. So I'm super inspired by Blake.

I'm also really inspired by Roxane Gay and her book Hunger. There is something so compelling about her prose. It is accessible yet sublime, literary while effortless. She aches onto the page and compels her audience to face that without remedy. Her work is an exercise in the limits of empathy, in compelling people to feel the kind of powerlessness that unruly bodies (of many types) are subjected to in our world. In a media landscape where I feel constant and relentless pressure to be a "perky trans writer," Roxane is a shining beacon of how you can have a career as a person of difference by simply aching, by bleeding onto the page and not apologizing for the mess.

Where is the best place for people to keep up with your work?

Sadly, Instagram is where I do most of my announcements and stuff. It's the social media platform that is least destructive for my mental health (which is not to say that it isn't destructive for my mental health, just to say that it is least destructive) so it's what I use most often. Follow me if you please, but much, much more importantly, buy my book Sissy when it comes out next Spring <3 And please buy from your local bookstore if you can afford to! And be sure to pass the book around to friends who don't have a lot of money right now so that they can read it too. Borrowed books are happy books 🙂

Jacob Tobia for The Void Academy

Jacob Tobia is a writer, producer, and author of the forthcoming memoir Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story with Putnam Books at Penguin Random House. As a performer, visionary, and internet personality, Jacob helps others embrace the full complexity of gender and own their truth, even when that truth is messy as hell. Currently living in Los Angeles, Jacob was recently named to the Biden Foundation’s Advisory Council for Advancing LGBTQ Equality. In spring of 2018, Jacob produced and starred in a critically acclaimed revival reading of the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright, and was announced as the new face of Fluide Beauty, a line of trans and queer-inclusive makeup.

A member of both the Forbes 30 Under 30 and the OUT 100, Jacob made their debut on the national stage when they were interviewed by Laverne Cox as part of MTV’s The T Word. In 2015, Jacob was profiled by MTV in the one hour, GLAAD Award-nominated episode of True Life: I’m Genderqueer, and in 2016, Jacob created, coproduced, and hosted Queer 2.0, a first-of-its-kind LGBTQ series on NBC News. In 2017, they served as the Social Media Producer on Season 4 of Amazon’s Emmy Award-winning series, Transparent and collaborated with Instagram and GLAAD to produce #KindComments, a custom campaign for Trans Day of Visibility that was viewed over 14 million times.

Point Foundation ScholarHarry S. Truman Scholar, and recipient of the Campus Pride National Voice and Action Award, Jacob has captivated audiences at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, South by Southwest, and conferences across the country with their message of personal fabulosity and social change.  Their writing and advocacy have been featured on MSNBC, MTV, The Washington Post, The New York Times, TIME, New York Magazine, Teen Vogue, Playboy, The Guardian, and Jezebel, among others.

Originally from Raleigh, North Carolina, Jacob graduated Summa Cum Laude from Duke University with a degree in Human Rights Advocacy. Prior to their career in television, Jacob worked at the United Nations Foundation, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. Jacob is an avid Sriracha devotee and has worn high heels in the White House twice (take that Donald!)

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Nobody is Never Not Themselves

Nobody is Never Not Themselves

Writer Charlotte Shane on journalism, the internet, and working towards a better future.

By Karina Vahitova on August 1st, 2018

Charlotte Shane
Charlotte Shane

I first encountered Charlotte Shane's work in 2015 through an article she penned for The Kernel. After reading everything I possibly could and signing up for her Tiny Letter, she very quickly became a crucial voice in my process of self-discovery as a radical feminist. Recently, we chatted over the phone about the mechanics behind the journalism machine, why the end of the capitalism is nigh, and what it might mean to exist on the internet.

Karina Vahitova: On this beautiful day, tell me: how do you describe the work that you currently do in the world?

Charlotte Shane: That’s a great question. Let me think for a minute… Right now I am a writer trying to figure out how to write and make a living without making the world a worse place. It feels really hard to do. Much harder than it should be or one would hope it would be. That definitely seems like one of the central questions of the year for me that probably started last year, but it felt like it really came to a head this year. I think it will take a while to figure out and I don’t think that 2018 will end with me having a really firm grasp on how to participate in the media and feel like I’ve maintained my own integrity. I hope I keep trying. I can’t imagine not writing. I have to figure out ways  to do it and continue to do things like buying groceries and paying rent.

KV: How do you feel that writing can make the world a worse place than it already is?

CS: As somebody who works with words, I haven’t really figured out the right ones to use when talking about the machinery of media making. Mainstream media feels nebulous and also not inclusive enough, weirdly. I think that problems are replicated across all platforms, not just the ones with a lot of funding and not just the ones we might call legacy publications, like the New York Times. Because of the way media has become a hostile environment, it's hard for people to make a living working in it. I kind of saw some of this happening before I was as enmeshed as I feel now, before I lived in New York. You were seeing these outlets failing, a lot of editors being fired. You were seeing young people without editorial experience taking jobs as editors. I don’t fault them — they wanted a salaried job. They didn’t have a lot of mentorship or experience. My general experience of the media as a consumer and as someone who contributes to it is that there are often, not always, but too often, and impulsivity to it. There is a lack of quality control. For me, it’s one thing to be snobby about something like fiction or short stories, but it is a real crisis when that’s happening with things that are supposed to be non-fiction, that are supposed to be journalism, that are supposed to be informative, and things that are really integral to the act of building society, community, a healthy republic.

 

I am a writer trying to figure out how to write and make a living without making the world a worse place.

 

The New York Times is one of those places. I have friends who have written for them, my boyfriend has contributed, the people that I love and respect…But you know liberals watching Fox News? — if I want to get to that degree of angry, I will read the New York TimesI’ve read articles in the New York Times that are not even op-eds (their op-eds are notoriously heinous right now), but things that are supposed to be straightforward news pieces, and the thinking in them is really sloppy. I used to teach composition and if a student turned this in to me I’d be like, “We have to sit down and talk about this because your level of thought is not where it needs to be to make an argument.”

At this point in my career, I love the thought of being able to work with an editor who's really hands-on and can challenge me, but it's hard to find because editors are so strapped and a lot of them are under-trained. I’ve definitely had an editor make a piece worse. It’s not an ego thing — I love being edited. You have to sign up for a series of indignities where your final product might be worse than your first draft. It’s going to take you a long time to get paid and your name is going to be on something you may or may not believe in and the outlet may not stand by you once they publish it, even after they’ve made it the way they want it! It’s just a really awful time to freelance. I don’t mean to sound too bleak, but I do believe it’s kind of an awful time to be trying to sell your writing.

KV: I don’t think you’re being bleak. I think it’s true. It does always come back to the fact that capitalism creates such intense competition, especially in fields where money is a scarce resource. It does drive the quality down and makes people hustle in this way that can oftentimes stop being about facts and about putting genuinely good work out in the world and more about getting to the next thing. Which is understandable, but awful.

CS: Yeah, there’s nothing happening that’s inexplicable, but the way that it is is unacceptable and I just feel way too gross participating in it. I feel very differently now about all these outlets than how I used to feel. I used to believe that the very prestigious by-line had an inherent value. Now, the more I write, learn, and observe, the more I see it as a real shell game. 

Charlotte Shane
Prostitute Laundry by Charlotte Shane. Cover design by Sam Dakota

These publications don't just have things in their past that are embarrassing. You know, like a terrible track record with how they’ve talked about women or how they have not only talked about, but also not employed people of color, particularly Black people. To look at those legacies and see that they didn’t end. Everyone wants to pretend that back in the 60s, people maybe didn’t know any better and now we know better, but then you look and see all this stuff is still happening.

These are all still problems that people inherit when they come into and attach themselves to these institutions and outlets, even as ownership changes hands or the Editor-in-Chief changes names. I don’t think any of these outlets are incentivized to reckon honestly with their mistakes or admit them publicly. That’s incredibly rare. It doesn’t give me a lot of hope for their ability to make it better when they’re just really busy trying to ignore everything from the past and pretend that that isn’t carrying into the present.

KV: Yes, even looking even at the most recent VIDA Count was scary. So, you’re in this career transition from being a full time sex worker to now working full time as a writer, editor, and running your own literary press. You’ve mentioned in other interviews that financially it’s been a difficult transition and I am curious why you’ve chosen to go this route anyway?

CS: I don’t quite think of myself as a sex worker now, but I’m also not entirely not a sex worker anymore. I don’t work the way I used to. I don’t have a site, I don’t advertise. I believe a lot in transparency and anyone who I felt compelled to be honest with, I tell them that I still don’t feel like I make a living from writing. TigerBee, the press, according to my accounting — which is probably not super precise because accounting is hard — is profitable. However, it is a very minor profit. It comes at the expense of me working for free and my partner Sam working for free. It’s not a sustainable profitability. It feels really good and exciting even when it’s such a low margin. I mean it’s literally like a three figure profit, meaning in the low hundreds. People don’t even use the phrase “three figure” to describe it, it’s so small.

Charlotte Shane
Banner for TigerBee Press

KV: It’s still an accomplishment, congratulations!

CS: Thanks! It makes me feel so happy and proud and excited. I'm really honored and touched that we’ve worked with the people that we’ve worked with and that I can do this and that people have supported it and responded to what we do. I also really want to be clear with people that right now I am basically living off my savings because I made so much as a sex worker. It doesn’t really feel like my place to talk about it as candidly on the record as I used to, but I do want to make it clear because it’s important for people to be transparent about their finances.

Most of my income does not come from my writing. I might have a really good month. Recently, I had a month where I more from writing than I ever have. I finally got paid for a bunch of stuff and it felt really good, but even if I made this every month, which is not going to happen, it’s a pretty modest yearly salary. And because I am not actually salaried, I don’t have benefits, I don’t have anyone else helping me pay taxes. It’s really grueling to make it as a writer. I really want to support other writers in any way that I can, which is what I’m exploring now in terms of trying to do a little more work with unions and labor organizing. The downward spiral can’t continue — people won’t be able to do it! The industry has always been gate-kept to a large degree by finances because, of course, notoriously, people from rich families are the ones who can afford to intern at prestigious outlets. They’re the ones who can afford to live on this severely compromised income because it’s supplemented by family wealth. As anyone with a brain can see, capitalism is winding itself down because everything is way too out of whack to continue.

KV: I hope you are right, honestly.

CS: I am! It’s not because I’m insightful, it’s because when you look at history — nothing lasts. This is is honestly what I tell myself all the time to feel better. I might not see the change in my lifetime, I think I will, assuming I live a naturally long life. It will change. It will change soon. It doesn’t mean it won’t get worse before it gets better, but there is no way that things can stay the same.

 

The [writing] industry has always been gate-kept to a large degree by finances because, of course, notoriously, people from rich families are the ones who can afford to intern at prestigious outlets.

KV: I recently read this book The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse by Joanna Zylinska. The book is about the race for space that we have going on again with people like Elon Musk. She writes that wanting to move our planet to a different planet has to do with the fact these men who have power and access to this technology and the money to invest into it basically decided that it’s human nature to exhaust resources, which is why capitalism is not going to end. Their reasonable solution to the mess we made here is just needing to find ways to get off the planet. But I hope you are right and we can figure out a way to stay here and not ruin other planets.

CS: There’s a book, I really don’t like its title and maybe I’m alone in this, but it’s called Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism. It’s a little tongue in cheek but it’s also honestly a little bit of a cynical marketing ploy. The book is better than I think the title indicates. The author, Kristin Ghodsee, writes a lot about how our generation, you and I, we've been convinced that there is no alternative to capitalism because we were not alive during the Cold War. We were either born after or were really young when the Berlin Wall fell, so we don't have the same sense that some older people have of this Socialist threat encroaching. The resurgence of socialism and communism and people identifying strongly either as socialist or communist speaks to that. It was demonized when we were growing up and the sense was that it had vanquished. I think her book is good and encouraging.

TigerBee Press' most recent publication, The Earthquake Room by Davey Davis. Cover design by Kitty Davies

I don’t think I believe in that line, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” — I don’t think that’s true, and I don’t think I believe in progress either. There’s a good book called Straw Dogs by John Gray that’s also really cynical about the idea of progress. I don’t know if the human species ever really progresses in the way we want to believe we progress, but I do think that we change. I think our hubris helps to convince us that we make things that last and I think — for better or for worse — that is usually not true. Things need a lot of maintenance and there is so much that is out of our control. I try to stay optimistic if I’m going to see it. I think that we are in for a lot of huge changes. It’s an exciting time in that respect because I think we’re getting to see things that have been deteriorating for a long time start a true and inexorable collapse.

KV: I agree with you. The writer of that book talks about how the “doomsday” rhetoric, meaning the trope of the world ending and all of us dying unless we escape to another planet, is such a patriarchal rhetoric. Having hope and working towards change and actively coming up with solutions for the social, environmental, and political problems that we have is inherently a feminist act, because all men want to do is go colonize another planet.

CS: [Laughs] Maybe it’s a little trite, but there is very much a stereotype of men loving to abandon things, like the guy who goes out for cigarettes and never comes back and becomes an absentee father. It’s true there is a gendered dimension to care-taking versus bailing out when things get hard and not sticking around to deal with consequences of their actions.

 

I think our hubris helps to convince us that we make things that last and I think — for better or for worse — that is usually not true. 

 

KV: I want to talk a little about you and your community and the people who have supported your writing. I started following you and Prostitute Laundry kind of towards the end. You were my first experience of a Tiny Letter and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Your format has been the most intimate to date of what I have seen. I am curious what you had in mind when you made the transition from your Tumblr blog, Nightmare Brunette, to Prostitute Laundry, the Tiny Letter. Did you want to have this community and have people’s emails in order to feel more connected and supported?

Screenshot of a part of a Tiny Letter from Charlotte Shane's mailing list, September 2015
Screenshot of a part of a Tiny Letter from Charlotte Shane's mailing list, September 2015

CS: I knew that I wanted to do some really personal diaristic writing. It's something that I always go to when I feel lonely inside of myself in a particular way. Because I had the Nightmare Brunette blog before, I knew it felt good to imagine that what I wanted to write had an audience of people who wanted to read it. But I also knew I didn't want to do a blog again because I had a lot of weird feelings left over. I was younger when I had the blog and most of the responses I got were supportive and nice, but of course some of the responses were from creepy men who were overly familiar in a way that I just didn't really protect myself from. That sort of bullshit is something that I didn't want to deal with it at all and I didn't want it to taint the experience. I didn't want to feel like there were readers who are in anyway malevolent or abusive who could just have access to the work whenever they wanted to.

 

I knew it felt good to imagine that what I wanted to write had an audience of people who wanted to read it.

 

My friend Melissa was using Tiny Letter for personal updates and that’s how I found it. It was just a way to send emails. I think I tweeted about it and the first letter had just a few emails on it, some of which I recognized, some of which I didn’t. I thought it was just some of my friends who remember Nightmare Brunette and are willing to read that sort of stuff again, or it’s fellow sex workers who are interested in it, and it took off from there. It was not my intention to have it be serialized but I was happy with it because there were people reading and enjoying it with the kind of purity of enjoying fiction. It felt like their reactions to it were sincere and supportive and warm and invested in the emotional drama of it. That was really fun. I got really lucky with who shared it and who told friends about it and who eventually constituted the bulk of the subscribers.

KV: Yeah, when I first signed up it felt like this beautiful secrete intimacy and I remember literally telling people in person, “Oh, do you know this writer? You should sign up for this thing, here’s the link.” In this way that I haven’t really ever shared something internet based in-person with people by taking their phones and putting in the link to sign up.

CS: That’s really cool.

KV: So, then you ran the Kickstarter for the collection of these letters into the book Prostitute Laundry and the subscribers from the series supported it. Did you foresee having it be this community funded project?

CS: Around maybe January of 2015 I realized that I was getting ready to end it and it just occurred to me that it would be a really nice way to do so.  I don't think that for the vast majority of the time that I was writing the letters that I was writing them with the conscious idea that they would be published or that I would compile a book. I remember I was talking to my friend Susan, who is the co-founder of Tits and Sass, the sex worker blog, and I said something about writing a book and how I can't write one and she was like “You already have!” — and I was like “Haha that's sweet." Now I probably should credit her more explicitly than I have, because I think she was really the first person who said that to me. I just hadn't been thinking about it that way at all until she did.

KV: It's very interesting when you do something so organically and you look back on it and you're like: "Look at all the stuff I made!"

CS: Yeah it's fun and it's fortuitous and is the absolutely best way of working because you can't psych yourself out because you don't even realize what you're doing.

KV:  That's the best way that I make work, when I'm not actually trying to make something that I can then have somebody else be affected by.

CS: Right, to have no idea of a product and not think that this is going to exist as an object in the world, but just to sort of be like: "I want to communicate and this is the best way for me to do that right now."

KV: I was recently listening to merritt k's podcast Woodland Secrets and you both got into a conversation about the internet and it got me thinking about something else you had said in other interviews that I’ve read with you. You had said that you didn't really feel like you had a very drastic persona with your former clients when you were an escort. I'm just curious about how the internet has shaped your writing identity or affected your identity in general? There is a kind of anonymity that people get with the internet even if they're not not actively trying to do that and people talk about personas when it comes to the internet all the time. It's an interesting dichotomy.

 

The internet lets people be different versions of themselves. Nobody is never not themselves. We're always ourselves in everything that we do. Even when we do something experimental, or even when we do something half-heartedly, we’re still ourselves.

 

CS: I think it's really healthy for people to have different avenues to explore different aspects of themselves in a way that maybe would be critically phrased as fragmentation, or compartmentalization, or even dissociation. All of which are things that come up a lot for sex workers — this idea that the work is inherently too traumatic to be present for. Or this idea that in order to prepare to do the work you have to change something about yourself inside. I guess there is a way in which I feel like that's true and not true at the same time. I think it's true in a much more interesting and nuanced and complex way than a lot of people want to make it out to be. The internet lets people be different versions of themselves. Nobody is never not themselves. If I started a different Twitter account right now and I'm like a really despicable person and my Twitter bio is white-supremacist-gamer-reddit-user and I start harassing people, I don't get to pretend that this persona I put on out of curiosity is somehow totally foreign to who I am. We're always ourselves in everything that we do. Even when we do something experimental, or even when we do something half-heartedly, we’re still ourselves.

The internet is so fundamental to who I am and I think that's true for most of us at this point. So many people are on it. It's not a young person thing anymore like it used to be. Our parents and grandparents are all on social media and whether or not they know it, they’re definitely experimenting with public versions of themselves with what they're posting and what they comment on and what they read. For me it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. I feel like I've learned a lot about myself and met a lot of people I would not have met otherwise that I'm so glad to have in my life. Just to be clear, I do not have any secret Twitter accounts that I use to harass people as a gamer.

KV: [Laughs] Oh thank god you don’t! I think it’s a really poignant observation that we’re never not ourselves, that even the performative aspects of us are still something that comes from us.

CS: I don't think it's bad. I think more and more the notion that that is weird or dysfunctional is falling out of favor because the internet is so integral to so many people's lives now. There is still some lingering disapproval, but I think it's misplaced.

For more from Charlotte Shane, visit charoshane.com

Charlotte Shane

Charlotte Shane is the co-founder of TigerBee Press, a Brooklyn-based independent publisher, and author of Prostitute Laundry.

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How to Ask for What You Need

HOW TO ASK FOR WHAT YOU NEED

An excerpt from our guide to asking, published by our friends at
The Creative Independent

By Karina Vahitova on June 26, 2018

Illustrations by Qiong Li
Illustrations by Qiong Li

Learning how to ask for emotional and financial support for your art is a crucial skill to build as you work to develop a sustainable creative practice. We at The Void Academy know that asking for what you need can be daunting, so we’ve put together this guide to help you overcome this common fear with confidence and grace.

If you’re afraid of asking for what you need, you are not alone. In some ways, this fear is what we’re all conditioned to feel in a capitalist society managed by a scarcity-model market. These two factors create competition. Feeling like you have to constantly fight for your space in the world can make you believe that since everyone else is fighting the same fight, people will be unwilling to help you. This fear can be further exacerbated by institutional marginalization of folks other than those privileged within the white-supremacist-racist-ableist-transphobic heteropatriarchy.

There are a few factors that are crucial to shifting this endless cycle of fear and alienation so you can get on with asking for what you need. The first is being able to recognize that this fear is not innate, but rather conditioned; that fear is a symptom and that we do indeed live in a world in which many humans want to help other humans.

Illustrations by Qiong Li
Illustrations by Qiong Li

The second factor to overcoming the fear of asking for support is by recognizing and naming your own needs. What resources or skills do you lack? Where are you struggling? Nobody exists in a vacuum and everyone needs support sometimes. By naming your needs, you can let go of unreasonable expectations you might be holding onto in relation to handling everything yourself.

A third factor to overcoming your fear of asking for support is learning to ask directly for what you need, rather than waiting around for someone to ask if you need anything. When you name your needs and proactively ask others to help you, you allow the ask to do work on your behalf. And, by asking for support, your vulnerability allows a person to make a choice to play a positive part in your creative journey. This kind of exchange opens doors and enables a kind of positive worldbuilding to take place.

In our guide published on The Creative Independent, we take you through the nuances of getting over your fear of asking by using mental exercises, examples, and by going over every single step of an effective ask. Head on over to TCI's website to read the full guide!

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The Perfect Length For Your Crowdfunding Campaign

The perfect length for your crowdfunding campaign

Spoiler alert: it's 30 days. Here are three reasons why.

By Noah Blumenson-Cook on March 14th, 2018

Photo by Paul Gilmore
Photo by Paul Gilmore

So here's a question we get a lot: "How long should my crowdfunding campaign run?"

Most crowdfunding platforms will let you run campaigns as long as 60 days. But should you? The longer you run your campaign, the more money you raise, right?

Well, it turns out it's not quite so simple. We've found 30 days to be the perfect campaign length for three big reasons:

1. The Plateau

The vast majority of crowdfunding campaigns follow a fairly similar funding trend: lots of activity and support in the first and last week of the campaign, and slow, steady progress for the middle. This is what we call the plateau. Every campaign we've worked on has showed this trend, and it's a phenomenon both Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have observed when they look at their platform data.

Campaigns on IndieGoGo, for example, raise 42% of their entire goal in the first and last three days of the campaign's duration. We've observed this same trend for most of the campaigns we've worked with, and if you look at sites like Kicktraq, it's clear that the majority of campaigns follow this trend.

When campaigns run longer than 30 days, those first and last week boosts don't change. Only the middle period is stretched out. Ultimately, what that means is that extending your campaign past 30 days puts you deep into the territory of diminishing returns. More time, in this case, does not equal more money.

2. Sense of Urgency

So what causes this plateau phenomenon? It boils down to one thing: sense of urgency. The initial burst of excitement at the launch of your campaign gives your backers an important energy boost that will motivate them to get in on the ground floor. The drive to the finish line at the end of your campaign is another shot of adrenaline that will push your community to help you achieve your goal (or your stretch goal!)

As we touched on in our article on busting crowdfunding myths, your campaign backers are not a faceless crowd. For people to support you, they need to trust you, and that takes time. By the time you're ready to launch your campaign, your community has been receiving your mailing list content and social media updates for at least a month. That's enough time to develop enough excitement for a fantastic launch, and your backer updates and campaign events can carry that momentum through the end of your campaign.

The more you stretch out the campaign, however, the easier it is for that sense of urgency to fade, and the more effort you'll have to put into maintaining the excitement of your launch. Four weeks is the perfect balance to maintain the momentum you need without overstaying your welcome.

3. Your energy

Crowdfunding is exciting, rewarding, and challenging. A well-run campaign has many moving parts: events to run, copy to write, backers to communicate with, rewards to plan, and video to produce.

In all the excitement of running a campaign, it's easy to forget that you're a human being who needs to pace yourself. Running the best possible campaign means you need to be your best possible self. If you feel like you need to run a long campaign to meet your goal, consider taking more time to plan your strategy instead. If you still feel like you need more than 30 days for your campaign, check out our crowdfunding pre-launch checklist and make sure you have all your ducks in a row.

Ultimately, what's important is that you do the right thing for your campaign and your practice. We've found that for the vast majority of artists, 30 days is the right campaign length. That said, we're sure there are scenarios where it might make sense to run a longer or shorter one. If you've found success with a different strategy, get in touch and let us know! We'd love to hear your story.

 
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Ten Artists Doing Awesome Things On The Internet

Void Spotlight: Ten Artists Doing Awesome Things on the Internet

Get inspired by some of the best artist websites, newsletters, and crowdfunding campaigns we've discovered recently!

By Siena Oristaglio on December 13th, 2017

As you know, we're always on the lookout for artists whose artwork we believe in and who are doing creative things to connect with their communities. This month, we found ten artists who fit that bill perfectly! Read on for this month's features:

Jenna Wortham, Fermentation and Formation (Tinyletter)

How they describe it: "i got tinctures in my bag, swag."

Why it's great: Each email is a beautiful offering complete with storytelling, wisdom, self-care advice, links to articles, recipes, and music, media, and artworks. Truly a joy to read.

About the creator: "Award-winning journalist for The New York Times Magazine, among other things."

Geeta Dayal (Patreon) 

How they describe it: Geeta Dayal is creating articles and essays on music, art, and other subjects

Why it's great: Very descriptive overview page that gives background on the artist, and links to her work, unusual and creative reward tiers, interacts often with patrons in the community tab, regular and fascinating update posts that include various forms of media.

About the creator: "Geeta Dayal is a frequent contributor to Wired and many other publications, writing on art, culture, technology, and design. She is the author of Another Green World, a book on Brian Eno."

Cassie Marketos, mmmm, vol 1. (Tinyletter)

How they describe it: "writing stuff about stuff. you feel me?"

Why It's Great: Detailed storytelling that arrives regularly in your inbox. Each letter is a small, beautiful window to peer through.

About the creator: "I'm a writer and content strategist based in Los Angeles. I've built communities at Kickstarter, Google, and the Obama White House."

Photo by Noor Aqil

Sharine Taylor, shharine.co (Website)

Why it's great: Simple and clean design, clear singular mailing list call-to-action on homepage, well-organized navigation that gives me a great sense of the various projects Taylor is involved in.

About the creator: "Sharine Taylor is an Afro-Jamaican Toronto-based creative, writer, editor and academic. Her work has appeared on VICE Impact, Noisey, Gal Dem Zine, Pitchfork, VICE, LargeUp and more, and she has also been been featured as a panelist on CBC's The Current. She is currently a contributor at Noisey and is on the final leg of pursuing an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in the humanities, majoring in media studies with a double-minor in sociology and and socio-cultural anthropology.

With a body of academic research and freelance work centred around intersectional analyses of Jamaica's cultural production, identity, (mis)representations of Black and Afro-Caribbean bodies and diaspora, she ensure her work applies an anti-colonial, anti-oppressive and anti-racist frameworks." (Portrait photo by Noor Aqil.)

 

Austin Kleon, austinkleon.com (Website)

Why it's great: Well-designed graphics, beautiful use of column layout to include a place to sell work and a clear mailing list call-to-action, fun, frequent, and informative blog posts.

About the creator: "Austin Kleon is the New York Times bestselling author of three illustrated books: Steal Like An ArtistNewspaper Blackout, and Show Your Work! His latest release is The Steal Like An Artist Journal: A Notebook For Creative Kleptomaniacs. His work has been translated into over twenty languages and featured on NPR’s Morning Edition, PBS Newshour, and in The New York Times and The Wall Street JournalNew York Magazine called his work “brilliant,” The Atlantic called him “positively one of the most interesting people on the Internet,” and The New Yorker said his poems “resurrect the newspaper when everybody else is declaring it dead.” He speaks about creativity in the digital age for organizations such as Pixar, Google, SXSW, TEDx, and The Economist. He grew up in the cornfields of Ohio, but now he lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and sons."

Lisa Marie Basile (Tinyletter)

How they describe it: "poetry :: ritual :: light & dark ::"

Why it's great: Emails includes lovely, intimate writing, links to fantastic poetry and upcoming events, and interviews with various artists.

About the creator: "Lisa Marie Basile is an editor, writer and poet living in NYC. She is the founding editor-in-chief of Luna Luna Magazine and the author of APOCRYPHAL (Noctuary Press, 2014). Her book NYMPHOLEPSY, co-authored with poet Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein, will be published by Inside the Castle, 2018. She is also the author of Light Magic for Dark Times (Quarto Books, 2018). She is working on her first poetic fiction novella, to be released by Clash Books/Clash Media."

Mildred Louis (Patreon)

How they describe it: Mildred Louis is creating magical filled comic adventures!

Why it's great: Beautiful and bold illustrations in the header and body of the page, clear breakdown of what patrons receive, creative use of reward tiers with named packages and illustrations, frequent communication with existing patrons, excellent use of livestream to connect with existing patrons, clear goals that inspire further patronage. 

About the creator: "Mildred is a queer comic creator and colorist with a huge love for inspiring and magical storytelling. She currently runs the ongoing magical girl inspired webcomic series Agents of the Realm. The comic updates every Tuesday and Thursday. For more of her work, feel free to stop by her Portfolio."

Jean Hannah Edelstein, Thread (Tinyletter)

How they describe it: "Let me tell you about some things."

Why it's great: Emails are often short vignettes from Edelstein's life, sometimes with links to other published works. Always exciting to read.

About the creator: "I'm Jean Hannah Edelstein, a writer, editor, and author, originally from upstate New York, then a Londoner and a Berliner. Now: New York City."

Niina Pollari, You don't have to buy anything (Tinyletter)

How they describe it: "on major shopping days, i send you something that you don't pay for."

Why it's great: On days when our inboxes are flooded with Black Friday deals or Cyber Monday specials, it couldn't be more refreshing to receive a poem or a piece of writing or art from Pollari. 

About the creator: "Niina Pollari’s first book DEAD HORSE came out from Birds, LLC in 2015; she also translated Tytti Heikkinen’s The Warmth of the Taxidermied Animal (Action Books 2012). She is equally from Finland and Florida but lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter at @heartbarf."

 
Photo by Emily Raw

Natalie Eilbert, To Insist While There is Still Time (Tinyletter)

How they describe it: "I write often about the pain of personal history, the struggles to be active, the anxiety of bravery."

Why it's great: Eilbert's Tinyletter contains stunning, intimate, long-form musings from the writer. Letters include images, announcements about upcoming events and collaborations, and sometimes a close dissection of a poem Eilbert is engaged with. Always a deep and exciting read.

About the creator: Natalie Eilbert is the author of Indictus, winner of Noemi Press's 2016 Poetry Prize, slated for publication in early 2018, as well as the poetry collection, Swan Feast (Bloof Books, 2015). Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Granta, The New Yorker, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, jubilat, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the 2016 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship at University of Wisconsin–Madison and is the founding editor of The Atlas Review.

los angeles arts organizationsa
 
 
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Taking the Risk

TAKING THE RISK

Grammy-winning composer and artist Nancy Rumbel discusses the importance of risk-taking and why developing a mailing list is crucial for community growth

By Siena Oristaglio on May 17, 2017

Nancy Rumbel

Siena Oristaglio: Hi, Nancy! Please introduce yourself as an artist and tell us what your work and practice is about.

Nancy Rumbel: Well, I've been performing music for almost six decades. I mean, I really did start playing when I was five, and I turned sixty five this past December. My mom was a pianist, so I have had music in my life forever. I decided when I was in high school in Texas that I wanted to become a professional oboist. I thought I wanted to become a classical oboist but then when I went up to music school at Northwestern, I became very interested in ethnomusicology. I began to really listen to other types of music outside of the classical field. My instruments now are oboe, English horn, ocarina, various kinds of folk flutes and keyboards. These are primarily the instruments that I've been playing most of my life.

So anyway, I diverged from the classical route and became kind of a pioneer in oboe and English horn-playing in terms of taking those instruments out of that context. I play these instruments out of the familiar context that people generally hear them. Even though they love the sound of the instruments, most people don't know what these instruments are, but they do always love the sound.

SO: So you record music and you also perform. Has that mostly been in collaboration with other musicians?

NR: Yes. I would say either other musicians or dancers. I was a dance accompanist for a number of years. That's how I use to support myself really early on in my career, but because most of the instruments I play are melody instruments. I am usually looking for some other kind of accompaniment or support to bring in harmony lines. I realized over time that most people can listen to a solo melody instrument for a relatively short time and then they lose interest. A person talking can hold your attention for quite awhile due to the nature of words. Most of the time people enjoy having another element added to it — a harmony of some sort.

SO: That's very true. You opened this door earlier than I normally bring it up, but you talked about how you supported yourself earlier in your career by working as a dance accompanist. I'm curious about how you've seen the music industry change? What has your journey been with respect to how you have supported yourself over time?

NR: Well, I think initially that it has to do with a historical change in the music industry. At first, I thought of myself just as a performer. I thought of myself as always performing in a situation where people come in, sit down, get quiet, and listen. That's the classical format of a recital or concert, even to this day, but things really began to change when I worked with the Paul Winter Consort. When I worked with Paul (1978-1972), it was with an ensemble of people and we played for a variety of different kinds of audiences and in a huge variety of settings. That expanded in my own life this possibility of playing in different kinds of venues: inside, outside, parks, national parks, on boats, for environmental rallies, you know, any number of places that music can be performed. Then, I started recording, and so recording offered yet again another avenue. Even in that context Paul showed me that you can record live in any number of environments from the Grand Canyon to the heart of St. John the Divine in the middle of the night in New York City. I eventually moved out to the Pacific Northwest and I’ve had a primary musical collaborator for over thirty years now, Eric Tingstad, who is a wonderful guitar player, and we worked on a project together. He invited me to work on an album at that point entitled The Gift.

The success of that particular release was pretty overwhelming and we found great support from our fans, so we began to do more recordings and concerts. We would market ourselves through flyers, mailers, posters, print ads and radio. I was signed to a major record label Narada in 1987. Then, when the industry changed again, and I would say it was probably in the late 90s maybe early 2000, I shifted into having a home recording studio and learned how to operate the software. So then, not only was I performing and recording, but I began to do engineering at home for some of my tracks. I learned how to become a bit of a sound engineer and then was also marketing things, concerts and recordings. Narada essentially dissolved into larger companies and we embarked out on our own as independent artists.

 

Even though they love the sound of the instruments, most people don't know what these instruments are, but they do always love the sound.

 

SO: So, self-producing, in a way.

NR: Yeah, things really shifted. Initially just thinking of myself as a performer has now shifted into a variety of things. I engineer tracks as a session player and then upload them and send them out across the country, or I perform concerts or I do consults with people. Things have gotten extremely varied, and of course there's always teaching, too.

SO: Is teaching something you feel you have to do, or more something that you want to do to impart education, or both?

NR: Well, I've always done it. It just kind of came with the nature of these instruments that nobody knew what they were and they were interested to learn about them. People really love music and often when they're trying to learn a difficult instrument like the oboe, a lot of it is helping them get over the fear of improvising. With the ocarina, it's like the simplest instrument there is and all you have to do is breathe and you don't even have to breathe very hard. And so, I can accommodate people at a beginner level with an ocarina, or a very advanced focus level if you want to try to play the oboe.

SO: Totally. So you've just given a beautiful map of the ways in which you experience running the business side and how the music side has shifted over time. I'm curious how that relates to who was providing the revenue. There’s always an audience, right, that's either buying the records, or attending the shows? But over time, have you noticed a shift in the ways that audiences like to engage with the work or in the ways that you connect with them on a more transactional level?

NR: I think what happens for an artist that has longevity in their careers is that certain fans will stay with you the whole time and of course, one of the things that The Void Academy has emphasized is the importance of having a mailing list. Keeping a mailing list is so critical because there are people who are going to be your advocates for decades, hopefully. And sometimes they're not necessarily your friends. I mean, there’s this funny little quote, "you can have friends that don't even know what you still do." I have friends that still think I play the flute or they think I'm a singer. They've never been to a concert. But we're still friends. And then there are your fans. And the fans are the people that love your music, they know exactly what you play. They want to hear when the next release is coming out, they want to know when you're performing. They'll write to you and say "I wish you were coming to..." It shifts, but I think now, I'm noticing that there's this whole new generation of people who grew up listening to instrumental melodic music, which is pretty much what I play. And I had thought that I just had an older demographic. I had forgotten the fact that their parents played my music in the house while their kids were growing up. In a sense, I became part of their formative music listening routine. And with New Age music, there are now more and more people recording it. In addition, there's the whole ambient electronic movement that's kind of grown in the melodic instrumental direction as well. It's kind of fascinating to watch, and of course it makes total sense. I just hadn't really looked at it. So now, that's part of my challenge, to reach out and communicate with these younger audiences. How do I get my music to them in a way that they will enjoy, and I will enjoy as well?

SO: Yeah, that's the key and something that we talk about in our educational materials. It's interesting that you say that is what you're searching for now — that intersection of where you can meet this younger audience, but also have fun and make it exciting for you to do that.

NR: Yes. And I think sometimes you have to give yourself permission to take time, to step back every once in awhile.

SO: Completely.

 

So now, that's part of my challenge, to reach out and communicate with these younger audiences. How do I get my music to them in a way that they will enjoy, and I will enjoy as well?

 

NR: It can be overwhelming when I think about all these things about trying to learn how to be a social marketer, and learn how to do my website better, and learn how to this, this, this and this, and it really has nothing to do with practicing and making oboe and English horn reeds, which I really do have to do. It's a different practice. It's another skill set. And it's okay to give yourself permission once in awhile to just step back and say, "You know, I've got to either go outside for awhile, or I've got to do something completely different, to clear my head." Just like you were saying. To take really important breaks from it once in awhile, to renew your energy. So that then you can come back in you will be revitalized. And the other thing is to learn how to prioritize your work.

SO: If there was something in this arena that you wish that someone had told you when you were earlier in your career — like, so you could go back and say, "Young Nancy Rumbel, heed my advice now and you'll save yourself a lot of trouble" — what would it be?

NR: Well, I would definitely encourage artists to take risks. To jump into situations that they might not think would be the normal place that they would perform, or the usual way that they would put on a performance. Definitely take risks, because you don't really know sometimes what they’ll lead to. Sometimes that won’t even become clear for another 10 to 15 years.

The other thing is of course, one we were just talking about, was keeping in touch with your community of supporters. If you're very serious about a career, those are the people that will be behind you. Sometimes that support is not necessarily financial, sometimes it's giving you a room to stay when you show up somewhere and you don't have a place to sleep. Or sometimes it's getting a ride. Any number of wonderful things can happen. Even an opportunity to go to a place that you would never have thought would want to hear your kind of music. Because trust me, I have taken my oboe to more places than probably most oboe players ever will, in terms of small towns across the United States, and I'm so grateful for that. I've seen so much of this beautiful country.

SO: That's wonderful. So you were talking about maintaining your community of supporters. And I want to ask another question about that. You said that your early album with Eric Tingstad was very successful, so your fan base grew. How did you connect with them in the pre-internet age? How did people find out about shows? And how has that shifted now?

NR: We used to make flyers. We had mailing lists, we printed out the labels and stuck the labels on, we put a stamp on, and off it went. Sometimes we would have coupons for people to snip it off and send back if they were purchasing something. We would do radio interviews, buy print ads in newspapers. It was a lot of nose-to-the-grindstone work. Now, the cost of postage is so prohibitive and it’s sad, because if I could, I would still be doing that. I think right now our email is getting flooded. If I could send bulk mail for a reasonable price to advertise shows, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

 

I would definitely encourage artists to take risks. To jump into situations that they might not think would be the normal place that they would perform, or the usual way that they would put on a performance.

 

SO: I'd love to see something like that, you know, in the snail mail, musicians sending flyers. But yeah, that rarely happens anymore.

NR: Well, it’s the printing cost, in addition to the stamp being 49 cents now. Things add up and you have to kind of prioritize and figure out "How much of my budget for a concert do I want to spend on that kind of promotion? What's the most effective promotion?" I would love to do a survey, I should probably do this again because I was doing it for several years at my concerts and it was really interesting. We were giving out cards and asking people "Where are you buying your music? Where are you listening to your music?" Just to kind of find out.

SO: Very cool.

NR: Yeah, unless you get the feedback, you don't really know.

SO: That's so true. That's another really great piece of advice, to ask your people the questions, so that you know how they like to enjoy your work. I think that's a good question — where are you listening to music? That must have also been something that shifted dramatically over time, because we went from from analogue into this digital realm. Do you know how much of your audience listens to your music digitally, versus how many people are still interested in the hardware-style of music listening?

NR: Well I think Pandora really created an easy way to listen to music. And because it would tell you "Oh, you liked this, you might like this." That really did open up a lot of people's minds to "Oh, this way of listening to music is pretty simple. I can do that." Financially, it's been financially very controversial for artists, but at the same time, if that's what your fan base is doing, you can kick and scream on one side about it, but on the other side, that's what they're listening to. The reality is they are using Spotify, they are doing this and that. I know at this point for me, every time Apple comes up with a new version of iTunes, I cringe because you never know how the changes are going to affect your livelihood. I'm not sure what's going to happen to my catalog now.

SO: You're not alone in that. It must be scary, to have this whole digital body of work, the curators of which are not really people that you can communicate with.

NR: I kind of wonder if maybe you've got information for me on this; what has happened to those platforms that I saw some artists using where they were trying to solicit their fans to help them put up posters or do things like that? I don't hear as much about those anymore. Did that just kind of fizzle?

SO: Are you talking about a site where artists build a street team?

NR: Yes.

SO: I think now it's mostly being done through the artist’s own websites, as opposed to a secondary platform. Artists are building their own websites, where they have a blog, or they have a way for their audience to interact with them and join a kind of street team or to help them put up posters. More and more, people are trying to create their own website as the hub for everything that they do. Anytime you outsource something to a secondary platform, you're no longer in control of the content and how your users connect with you. I think artists are trying to be more proprietary a little bit with that, so that they can really have the means to communicate in the way they choose with their audience. You know what I mean?

NR: Absolutely.

 

I think right now our email is getting flooded. If I could send bulk mail for a reasonable price to advertise shows, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

 

SO: So, here’s another question for you. Was it 2003 that you and Eric won a Grammy?

NR: Yes.

SO: I'm just curious about the impact that kind of recognition had on your audience. Did you find that you had an influx of new people listening to your music, or did you find that it strengthened your community of supporters?

NR: Well it was a fantastic thing to happen, first of all. I’ll never forget it. And what it did do, was in a sense bring a certain kind of validation to what we had been doing. It also opened up various presenters' eyes to the fact that even though this was an oboe and guitar duo, which sounds perhaps a little dry and strange, now that it had the support of a Grammy behind it now, they were more willing to take a risk. It was a great marketing tool for them to use. They felt there was a certain validation to what had been voted on by the peers in the field, so they thought "Okay, well we'll take a chance with this." Before, the presenters in a lot of these halls, they were taking risks with their audience. They knew they liked the music, but to sell it to people and to get them into the seats wasn’t always easy. So, in that sense the Grammy really did help kind of open up that access to new audience members.

SO: That's wonderful. That's what I would imagine. I'm really curious about that balance in the arts of external validation, and how it impacts an artist’s trajectory. We talk with artists who apply for a lot of grants. And one thing that artists often say to us is "Yes, we want to do the crowdfunding thing, but the advantage that grants have is that they can come with this external validation that the community doesn't necessarily have.” I'm always asking artists about what that external validation means to them.

NR: A big thing from way back in my career, I must have been in my mid 20’s, was that I for a National Endowment for the Arts grant to study jazz oboe. I applied to study with Paul McCandless, who was the former oboist in the Paul Winter Consort, and then in the wonderful group Oregon. He happened to live in New York City, and I was living outside of New York at the time, and I sent him my application, and I got the grant. Then Paul McCandless recommended me to Paul Winter, and I was able to audition for Paul Winter. I became a member of the Paul Winter Consort and that launched my career into a whole new incredible direction. So the grant opened up this whole other world, and I'm so grateful to both the NEA and Paul McCandless for that opportunity.

SO: This is kind of what you were saying at the beginning, when I asked you about advice you would give young artists. You don't necessarily know what the opportunities you're offered will turn into. I think the one caution that I always give there is, make sure the opportunities don't feel exploitative. Because I think a lot of times artists are offered opportunities and not paid, or they're told that it will be really good exposure, but it's not, it’s actually an exploitative situation. I think there's this real balance in how to recognize a red flag situation, an opportunity that's not an opportunity and is actually just making someone else money. Versus an opportunity that does respect your artistic work. Those kinds of opportunities that feel good on a gut level I think are the ones that tend to spiral into something incredible or take you in a direction you didn't necessarily expect. Would you agree with that?

NR: Oh, I would definitely say that's true. Another thing that came to my mind while you were talking about this is that you also need to be very careful about when you're going to burn a bridge. Because sometimes those people will come back in the field, 20 or 30 years later. You might show up at a gig somewhere and the sound is horrible, or maybe any number of things. Maybe they didn't publicize it like they should have. And you could have all kinds of complaints and gripes that all of this should have been blah, blah, blah, blah. And maybe you've had a long day on the road getting there, and you're really tired, and you blow up at the sound person. And in hindsight, kind of step back when you start feeling these kinds of things, because that person may very well end up running the sound at Carnegie Hall or somewhere else down the road. You don't know.

SO: Sure. That's another thing that's really important.

NR: We often see radio personalities or presenters who will start out at smaller venues and eventually work their way up to larger stations or venues. And just as you are doing the same, all of a sudden your circles will intersect again years later. I’ve seen it happen time and time again.

SO: I think we've all heard horror stories about artists who get very entitled, or forget to thank the little people and forget to be respectful to everyone that they're working with. I think negative actions can really spiral in the same way as positive risk-taking. I think also, how to say no to an opportunity that doesn't feel right to you, without being disrespectful, is an important skill to learn. I was just talking to a friend of mine who is a filmmaker, who got asked to do this enormous film project for a tiny, tiny wage. And they said "Well, but it will be such good exposure for you." He said "This just feels so wrong to me. Because this isn't my rate. I told them what my rate was." I said "You know what? This is a time where you can respectfully and kindly say no. It's not a good opportunity. Don't burn the bridge necessarily but let them know you won’t come down from your rate. In the future if they have a project that could be at that rate, then they might return." You know what I mean?

NR: Right, or they may even take it as an opportunity to go out and find somebody to get additional funding from. You know, often they want to put it on the artist to get the funding, and you as an artist can say no to that. You can say,  “If you really would like us to be a part of this and you can't afford our fee, see if you can get some sponsorship from somebody in your community, or get three or four businesses to put in a bit of money to help balance this out.”

Listen to your gut reaction about what you can do for free, and what you feel is crossing the line for you, where you're just like "God, I just can't do this!", I mean there are a bazillion good things going on out there, and so you really do kind of have to go inward and say yes, I can do this, or no, I've done this other performances this year for free, and I can't stretch it anymore. Don’t allow yourself to be a victim. Being honest with people about those kinds of things is really where it's at. Because it helps educate them as well.

SO: Yes. That's very true.

NR: Often people don't understand. As soon as you get a Grammy, they think that you have a lot of money.

SO: I'm sure.

NR: It's not true. [laughing]

SO: Yeah. Did you see that in how people interacted with you? When you're saying people think you have a lot of money, were they asking you for money, or were they assuming that you would work for free, or what?

NR: They just assume that you're doing really well, because you won a Grammy. You must be doing really well, you played Carnegie Hall, right? You're at the top of your game. The reality of being an artist, is you can have this external validation, and it doesn't necessarily translate into your finances and revenue. There needs to be so much more education and outreach to the public about what's really going on within the music and arts industries as far as bottom line income. I have yet to find a good article in The New Yorker about it, which is kind of confusing, because it's one of those types of publications that you think would kind of delve into some of these issues, to get viewpoints from people across the industry about what's going on right now and help educate the public about it.

I just wish there was information available to the public about the dilemma many artists are in, presented in a way that was palatable, interesting and, as we always say compelling. It has to be presented in a way that really bridges this information gap.

 

The reality of being an artist, is you can have this external validation, and it doesn't necessarily translate into your finances and revenue.

 

SO: I agree. I want the public to want to know, and want to help, too.

NR: This topic has been a huge one ever since "pirating" became possible. For a while I think I personally went through kind of a depression about it all. It was like a death. I went through these stages of grieving and then kind of came out the other side. I think in general, we're still in a place where we're still trying to figure out how we can find adequate support for the arts. I think that is the beauty of The Void Academy. It’s nice to see that there's this support team of people who really are trying to bridge this understanding of what's going on in the arts, and what's going on in the public, what's going on in business, and how do we make this new form of art in our culture go forward and sustain itself, and become better.

SO: Let me ask you one final question then. If there was a course that you could take right now, like a crash course, that would give you some really useful skills in a specific area of arts business, what would that be called?

NR: I’d love to take a course about how to prioritize the time in my day, how much I need to allocate for this or that. In a sense, like a personal trainer. I’ve had to go through physical therapy for a couple of injuries, and I cannot tell you how much I love to have somebody like that to help me. You go to them and you know they're going to help you. They're also keeping an eye on you so you don't stray. I'm a person who is so easily distracted — I can get excited about anything in the room and just be gone. Then I have to kind of come back and go, “Wait a second, you didn't do anything on your web site for five years.” So for me, having that kind of discipline, to come to somebody as a teacher in a sense, and as a coach, would be really critical.

SO: Got it.

NR: I say that when I teach private lessons, too. Yes, some of it is definitely teaching music and skills. A lot of it is therapy — helping people get over their anxiety about something, learning how to relax. Fears like, “if I do this it's going to look stupid. Or it's going to sound bad, nobody's going to like it, etc.” You know, those kinds of things. Or I cannot tell you how many times I have been stuck with a technical issue on my computer or software that takes hours of time to figure out. I don’t have an IT department – I am the IT department.

SO: Absolutely. Sometimes I think artists just need someone looking over their shoulder saying "Hey, it's going to be okay." Whether that's a mentor, whether that's a personal trainer kind of figure, as you say. I think that secondary person, who helps to ease the anxiety and helps to prioritize, is somehow going to be incorporated into what we are trying to provide to our community. You're definitely not the only person who said this. It's a real need.

NR: Yes. It’s another thing I say to younger artists, too — really find people who are supportive of what you're doing. It may not be your family. It may not be your friends. It may be a whole other group of people but this is so important to nurture. Sometimes you literally have to physically leave where you are, and go to a whole new place to find this, but it’s worth it. It all goes back to taking risks.

SO: I think that's a wonderful way to end. Thank you.

For more information please visit nancyrumbel.com

Related article: The Magic and Danger of the Medium, Lauren Renner on finding work/life/art balance and how commercial work has bolstered her fine art practice

Interview with Nancy Rumbel on Community Growth

Nancy Rumbel is a professional composer, recording artist, performer and teacher. Her primary instruments are oboe, English horn, double wooden ocarinas, clay ocarinas and keyboards. She is well known for her work for the past 28 years with the GRAMMY award-winning duo Tingstad & Rumbel. She has also recorded on releases with Susan Osborn, Cris Williamson, Lydia McCauley and most recently Wind Music of Taiwan. In the late 70s/early 80s she toured and recorded extensively with the Paul Winter Consort.

The Magic and Danger of the Medium

The Magic and Danger of The Medium

Lauren Renner on finding work/life/art balance and how commercial work has bolstered her fine art practice

By Noah Blumenson-Cook and Siena Oristaglio on May 10, 2017

Untitled | Photography by Lauren Renner

Lauren Renner has a lot going on. Her upbeat nature and boundless energy seems like a contradiction with the thoughtful, serene introspection that her photographic work inspires. The work of hers I'm most familiar with — In Others Words — explores something primal and vulnerable about humanity, but with her large-format camera she also finds hope, truth, and a unique honesty that only photography can achieve.

When she first came to The Void Academy for consultation, all three of us realized she was seeking a lot of the same answers that that led us to create this company: How do I produce great work if I have to keep a day job? Where is the healthy balance between commissioned work and passion project? And why aren't we taught any of this in school?

Siena Oristaglio: What do you want people to know about your work as an artist?

LR: When we see a photograph, we are conditioned to believe on a subconscious level that it is a document of something real. This is a huge part of both the magic and the danger of this medium — it's a double-edged sword. In our world, photography is often used as a weapon to convince us that our bodies, lifestyles, and self-images aren't good enough. Every day we are bombarded with contrived images of the perfect life that we don't have and the perfect people that we would much rather be instead of who we really are. I am very conscious that this is one of the realities of my medium when I make my work. Personally, I am much more interested in using photography as a force for good — a way to unify people on some common ground and explore the depth, fire, and complexity of the human spirit. Whether I'm working commercially or in the fine art realm, this message is always at the forefront of my mind.

With regards to my recent work In Others' Words, specifically, the main thing I want people to take away from that work is the feeling that they are really engaging with another person and seeing them in an exposed way that they didn't initially think they could.

SO: In your own words, what is In Others' Words?

LR: In Others' Words is a photography series in which I invite people who have never met to show up to a photoshoot with a pre-written list of terms they have been labeled over the course of their lives. The first time my subjects meet, they take their clothes off and write these words on each other's naked bodies. In doing this, they are stripping away preconceived notions of how they identify as a person, what their style is, what their class is, what their sexual orientation is, and so on, so they get to connect in a way they might not have been able to before. Then I transport them to a public outdoor space where I photograph them with a 4x5 view camera.

SO: I'm curious about the backstory of this particular photo, taken in Wroclaw, Poland.

Lauren Renner
Untitled | TEDxWroclaw Adventure Participants photographed for "In Others’ Words" in Wroclaw, Poland | Photography by Lauren Renner

LR: The shoot took place in Sepolno — a Wroclaw suburb constructed in the shape of the symbolic Reichsadler, or Nazi Eagle. The neighborhood was originally built to house Nazi military officers during WWII. Local Poles now inhabit the area, one of whom generously offered for us to use her home as our shoot location. In the midst of the culturally conservative climate, our host insisted that the shoot could only take place if we hung blankets on a clothesline to conceal the revealing act from her surrounding neighbors. Likewise, the participants were reluctant to be photographed completely nude for personal reasons and agreed in solidarity to present only in their underwear. In the middle of shooting this piece, the participant in the center stopped and asked in a moment of bravery if she could remove her bra for the final image.

Noah Blumenson-Cook: Wow. Amazing. Can you talk a little bit about what are you currently working on?

LR: Something that I didn't get to share about myself through In Others' Words is that I have a very seasoned athletic background. A couple of weeks ago, I got my third degree black belt in Japanese Jiu Jitsu. I'm an avid runner, surfer, and snowboarder, and I've been doing yoga since I was 15. I have a deep understanding of the human body and I'm passionate about being active in it. So, right now I'm looking to move my work in a more commercial direction, photographing athletes. I've also been thinking about fine art multimedia projects that I'd like to do with athletes that speak to the human spirit behind athleticism. That's my current direction.

NBC: What’s great. Is there something you currently feel a great sense of pride about, artistically speaking?

LR: I'm very proud of In Others' Words — that project came a long way. I'm proud of the TED talk in Poland that happened based on that work. Seeing the work reach another part of the world that was craving a work that could unify individuals across different cultures was very gratifying. If I look back at myself as a young artist at age 13, when I first fell in love with photography, it was something I felt such a strong sense of purpose with. Starting In Others' Words as a school thesis, I thought about how I wanted it to travel the world and enable a diverse group of people to have their voices be heard. To physically see that happen — to travel across the world and have people who may not have seen the project otherwise be able to participate in it — that was a proud moment for me.

NBC: What was your work/life/art balance like that it allowed you to self-fund In Others' Words? How did you make money, how did you spent money to make art, and how did you make money back from that art?

LR: I worked retail a lot and used that money to fund my work. I also had many assistantships with photographers and I used the money I made from those jobs to fund the work as well. At one point, I worked for Lululemon Athletica and I also photographed athletes for them. That was a 9-5pm deal, so I would do retail shifts and then 4-5 nights a week I would drive into New York City to photograph. At this time, I was showing In Others' Words and it had started to get traction, so I got connected with many magazines. Through the magazines I would partner with writers and would be sent on assignments. These included Fashion Week jobs, profiles of artists, and so on. I realized that I can't work a 9-5 and feel that my soul isn't shriveling, so my life was really intense for a long time.

 

When we see a photograph, we are conditioned to believe on a subconscious level that it is a document of something real. This is a huge part of both the magic and the danger of this medium — it's a double-edged sword. In our world, photography is often used as a weapon to convince us that our bodies, lifestyles, and self-images aren't good enough.

 

SO: Has that work/life/art balance shifted in any way now?

LR: Definitely. Right now, I'm not working in a different industry in any capacity. Both my feet are in the photography industry. I work as a photography assistant and I also do editorial or commercial photoshoots to make money. I then use that money to self-fund my fine art work. I'll admit right now, I'm going through a big transition. For the last 6-7 years, all of my energy has been put into In Others' Words. I've wanted to grow a balanced platform of having a commercial side of my business and then also a fine art side. As I said, I'm currently jumping from the fine art side into having more of a commercial focus, trying to get clients who I want to work with on the basis of my artistic style. That's a really big shift for me.

The patrons that I gained through the In Other's Words world tour crowdfunding project I'm still in touch with very frequently, but I haven't made any type of reach out to say, "hey, I'm doing a new project, would you be interested in funding this?" because, like I said, I'm slowing back my fine art process a little bit during this time.      

SO: That's great that you've been in touch with those people and have maintained relationship that could be long-lasting. Ultimately, if you decide to shift focus again and end up with a different kind of balance, those people will be there and will support your work.

LR: Definitely. I just had a phone call with one of the patrons of that project two hours ago. He started by saying, "You know, I was just thinking of you. I really love that work. How are you doing?" Crowdfunding is a great glue to bind the relationships you make along the way as an artist. It's so important in that regard.

NBC: What's particularly interesting about that in your case is that you didn't reach your crowdfunding goal. I think a lot of people pack up and go home at that point but you didn't. What was your mental process around not making your goal?

LR: It wasn't great. I realized I had a pretty high goal: $35,000 for a fine art tour, in one month. I think if I was to do anything differently, it would be to do what you suggested at the beginning, Siena, which was to break up the tour. I think it could have been more successful financially in that case. When I realized I wasn't going to make that goal, it was a rough feeling. As you know, one of my participants also passed away at that time so it was hard on a lot of levels when that happened. What was really cool, though, was talking to you two during that time and hearing you say, "Hold on. In so many ways this was actually very successful in terms of where you wanted this project to go." If you look at what I actually accomplished with that campaign, the work did reach people all over the world who stood up for it and supported it, I did actually go to Poland and do the TED talk as well as the photo shoot that went with that, and I did get to set up a stronger foundation for my career through all of the networking that took place. These things were a direct result of that Kickstarter campaign. Honestly, I would not feel as solid in my career's foundation if I hadn't done the campaign, regardless of what the outcome was. Also, the financial outcome was $14,000 in two weeks. That's a lot of money in two weeks, especially for a project like this. That definitely fuels me. Going forward, if I want to do something like this again, I know that I can. I've learned from the mistakes that I made that time around and I know that I can take what I learned and apply it to the next stage of my career.

Untitled | Photography by Lauren Renner

SO: I have a question about how you currently connect with your community — you've talked about having phone calls with patrons, you've talked about your TED talk. What are your favorite ways to connect with people who experience your art?

LR: As directly as possible. The work that I do is so intensely about connection. It's about people having this contact with one another and that's really significant and powerful. I really value those kinds of personal connections. Phone calls are great if it's with someone who lives somewhere else in the world, but in person is always the number one way for me to connect with my community, if it's possible.

SO: Where does the internet fall for you in terms of forming those connections. Are there ways that you find it helpful?

LR: The internet is huge. It's interesting because this year, I've dropped off of social media for a little while to preserve my own personal sanity. I think that was amazing because many people really did reach out to me and said, "What are you doing? I was following you and am so amped up about your work." The fact that people are that invested that they look for my work online is exciting and it reminds me that when I do pick that ball up again, there's a crowd of people out there who are excited to see what's next. When I am active on social media, I mainly use Instagram, Facebook, and my mailing list. Those are my main three channels.

NBC: What do feel works best about those channels for you?

LR: Well, I'm a photographer so Instagram is tremendous. It's a huge connecting point for people in my industry. In the past, I've noticed a lot of engagement from Facebook event invitations as well as doing personal reach outs to people via Facebook or email. It's nice if you can link something that you're promoting on the internet to something that's physically happening in the real world. If I'm having an art show, sending out a Facebook invite usually draws more people out. I've had people who I haven't seen since I was in third grade show up out of the woodwork saying, "We see what you're doing, we're following what you're doing, and even though we haven't spoken in over a decade, we're excited about this and we wanted to be here."

 

I realized that I can't work a 9-5 and feel that my soul isn't shriveling...

 

SO: That's awesome. Going back to the two aspects of your work that you mentioned earlier, the commercial side and the fine art side, do you have an idea of what your fantasy balance between those two would be? In a dream scenario, would you be doing each fifty percent of the time, or some other combination?

LR: That's such an interesting question to ask me right now because I'm looking at the commercial side of things as fine art cross-training. Yes, I want to make money and grow a client-base and I'm trying to establish an entrepreneurial lifestyle. But really, I want the commercial work right now because I feel like it's going to sharpen me and challenge me and push me in ways that I haven't conjured up in my own brain. The fine art work is an inner dialogue with something that inspires me or something that comes up organically, so I can't really pick and choose my times with something like that. I think for me, it is important to have a somewhat even balance. In terms of skill-building and sharpening my collaborative sword with people, working in the commercial realm is pretty important. It fulfills another side of me that I carry into my fine art. It's also another way to extend my education by working on projects that I wouldn't otherwise. So, today, that's where I am, but if you ask me in a year or two years, I might feel differently.

NBC: Is there anything that you've learned about the business of art that you wish you know when you first started out?

LR: Yes, so many things. It's honestly some of the most simple stuff that I wish someone had just said to me. For example, I wish someone had told me that there are actually paths that you can follow. That there are other things you can do to make money within your industry that are going to lead you to your end-game goal. For me, that goal is to be a successful photographer with a fine art side of my business and a commercial side of my business. Nobody ever sat down and told me, "If you get a degree in photography, that means you can work in several different industries. You can work in advertising, you could work in marketing, you can do editorial stuff. You could take that creative energy within you and you can "create content." You can write things and conceptualize stories and photograph them or do videography with them. There are so many directions that you can take and that was never a conversation that was had. At the college that I went to, if you asked a question like, "What can I do to support myself from my artwork?" they would laugh and say, "Work at McDonalds." That would be as far it would go and then we'd continue to learn about art history. If I had known there was another way, maybe I wouldn't have worked retail jobs for the first two or three years out of college. Maybe I would have pursued something within my sector. This is what I'm trying to do now and in certain ways I feel a little bit set back, and sometimes a little angry that I didn't have that information.

NBC: You're pointing to an issue with business education that exists in many art schools. There was an avoidance around talking about the business of art as well as a flippant attitude that did an enormous disservice to you.

LR: Totally. Where was the conversation about where your rates should fall as an artist and how to stand up for them and negotiate when necessary? Also, when I'm doing commercial photography, I'm working in studios constantly and I remember in my school they offered only one studio lighting course. I proceeded to take it twice because I had a sneaking suspicion that I'd really need it even though nobody told me that I would.

Untitled | Photography by Lauren Renner

SO: If you were going to go back and teach a class to your younger self, what would it look like?

LR: I've thought about this so many times. The class would be called "Mapping Your Industry." Photography is a huge industry. There are so many niches and so many different types of photographers out there who fit into different niches. The only way that I was able to sample those things was because I was really motivated, I knew this is what I wanted to do so I started interning with people in different parts of the industry when I was 15. But not everybody identifies with something that they're passionate about that early in life — I was very lucky. I went out and tried wedding and event photography, interned in fashion, worked with a fine artist, worked on editorial projects. That way, I managed to see a lot, but only through those experiences. It was never laid out that way in school for me. Something that would be really helpful to let young artists know is that it is possible to structure your path so that it is a web of experiences that lead to the goal that you are aiming for. You don't just have to flail around.

NBC: So, you had to learn on your own how to negotiate with clients for your commercial contract work and for fine art sales. Can you comment on that experience?

LR: In the fine art realm, I recently had a really interesting experience with pricing artwork. I had a gallerist approach me who catered to a very specific demographic and felt strongly that the work wouldn't sell unless it was priced at a very high price point. They set the bar at $7,000 for a work that I was originally going to price it between $1,000 and $3,000. That was a learning experience in how to consider who you are selling to and where you are selling.

Commercially speaking, the industry has changed so vastly. It's switching from print over into media. I'm coming on the scene at a time when people are firing staff photographers — they're a dying breed. Everything's switching over into media houses so you're losing things like page rates. If you shoot a cover for something, you're not really seeing much from that. If you're going through an editorial house, like a Time Inc. or a Hearst, they set their day rates for photographers, so no matter what, you get a set day rate. Doing freelance work, you can set your own rate and charge thousands of dollars just for your time and then factor in your equipment. Though when I first started shooting for local magazines, I did a lot of work for free to establish my style and my name and my basic network.

I have great mentors and that's been really helpful, but you get to a certain point and there are some questions that I wished I'd asked earlier on in the game. Such as, "where do you think I should set my rate with this particular client?" I remember I had something come up a long time ago where there was a yoga mentor who was designing a whole line of clothing and his agent approached me and said, "I really like your stuff, we want you to do the photography work for this." We went through two weeks of negotiating. I had a producer I was working with at the time out of a production house. I was asking him where I should set my rate and he said, "You should definitely be upwards of $3,500 for your time." I was not comfortable quoting a rate like that to someone so I kept saying, "I should come down, I should come down." And he said, "Come down if you want but that's not the way that you should be doing this." That was a hard lesson because in the end, even when I did come down, the client said, "Oh, well we're just going to get someone who we know to shoot it for like $100." This was a two-day photoshoot, multiple locations. It’s scary to stand up for a higher rate when you know there are a thousand other people who will come in and try to undercut it for very little.

 

Honestly, I would not feel as solid in my career's foundation if I hadn't done the [Kickstarter] campaign, regardless of what the outcome was.

 

SO: That is scary, and we see it happening all the time in various fields. Are you now at a point where you are getting work at rates you can live on?

LR: Yeah, I am. I do production as well as shooting and in addition to being a photo assistant. Between those things, I am able to have an income.

SO: How do you get a sense of who's a "real" client and who is going to hire somebody from Craigslist who will do it for $100?

LR: The client I was telling you about before, with the yoga company, they're in the athletic realm, so they didn't realize what they were walking into. They didn't realize there was a $30,000 usage fee if you're planning on printing images on clothing tags, so they got spooked. If you're operating in the correct realm, like some clients I work with are with, they're not going to take somebody who's going to do it for $100 and do a shitty job. You have to target those people who know what they're doing already. That's kind of where you get into a catch-22 because you have to already have clients to get the attention of the clients you want.

SO: Is there anything in the arts business that you wish you could take a course in right now?

LR: Definitely. I’d love one about mapping rates all over your industry, in the current context of what they are in your industry. From a fine art perspective, I'd also like to see a course on how to set up systems within your studio. How do you decide how many editions you should make of a series? Where do you price your work? If you want to go super basic, I'd also like to see a course in how to factor in your cost for producing an artwork into the sales price of the work. We're talking barebones basic building blocks that you could always go back to no matter how far you get in your career. I think these things are needed for a strong foundation.

 

Something that would be really helpful to let young artists know is that it is possible to structure your path so that it is a web of experiences that lead to the goal that you are aiming for. You don't just have to flail around.

 

NBC: So essentially, the fundamental economics of producing, selling, pricing, and living on art.

LR: Exactly — and with respect to pricing, how you price the physical work you produce versus how you price your time and how those two relate.

NBC: Right, so basically, how do you make something realistic when you're producing real goods? What is the cost basis, what can your market support, and is that going to work out? I think a lot of artists don't do that calculation. In fact, when doing crowdfunding, that's one of the first discussions we have with artists when it comes to rewards. How much does it cost to make the reward? At what backer level is that reward? Is that math going to work out? Having that mentality and being able to do some simple math on everything you do is very important.

LR: Yes. Right now, it's exclusively a learn-as-you-go thing, so there is an element of self-consciousness. There is still some stuff that I'm trying to figure out that I'm not totally clear on and that's just where I'm at.

SO: What we've found from talking to artists about this is that many are in the same boat as you. The self-consciousness prevents them from talking about it, which means they're less likely to get the advice that they need. That's one of the reasons why we're starting these discussions.

LR: Awesome. I’m so glad you are.

For additional information please visit laurenrenner.com


Related article: Spinning Such a Word as Poetry, Eileen Myles on the unstoppable democracy of poetry

Lauren Renner
Photo by Nina Subin

Lauren Renner is a New York-based Photographer and creator of the internationally acclaimed award-winning photographic series, In Others' Words. Specializing in Environmental Portraiture, she has worked as a collaborating artist with the Marina Abramovic Institute (MAI) and with industry professionals including Patrick Demarchelier, Heinz Kluetmeier, Elizabeth Heyert, Mitch Epstein and Tina Barney. Her various photographic works have been shown internationally at galleries in Mali, Africa and throughout the Northeastern United States. She has hosted workshops on her work with TEDxWroclaw Adventures in Poland and has been featured in books and publications including the Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan and BuzzFeed. Her commercial clients include Sports Illustrated Kids and lululemon athletica, Inc.

Spinning Such a Word as Poetry

Spinning Such a Word as Poetry

Eileen Myles on the unstoppable democracy of poetry

 

By Karina Vahitova on May 3, 2017

Eileen Myles. Photograph by Ben Sisto

Every day for close to a year I'd walk around with “The stars were glowing tonight / like all the paranoia in the universe / The air was chill / though it’s early March / but that makes sense / Doesn’t it, Love, Doesn’t it?” in my head in the rhythmic voice of Eileen Myles as I heard them read these lines some time in March 2016 at NYU. A few seasons later, I still recite Whax 'N Wayne (from Sappho's Boat, 1982) out loud randomly and make my friends laugh. In September, I saw Myles at a lecture we were both attending and took the opportunity to ask them to talk to me about money and the arts, knowing somewhere in the back of my head that the conversation would encompass so much more. I was right. Myles is refreshingly honest, bold, and to the point. There’s no bullshit, no wavering, no talking around the issue. While they’re speaking, I can’t help but think about how much their candor reminds me of the truths instilled in me by the Soviet women in my family. There’s a large emphasis on hard work and dedication. There’s little room for giving up. There’s an understanding that if you want to be successful you do everything and then do it again and again. There is no tolerance for disrespect and a graceful awareness of their own value in the world.

When we interview artists for this journal, we almost always send them the transcript before it’s published. Sometimes there are large edits, sometimes not. In the case of Eileen and this 6,093 word transcript, they only clarified a few phrases and words and i cut one or two sentences out of my own lines. In the months since this interview, I’ve thought about one thing they said that has stuck with me as a queer in her early 20s. When I asked if there was anything they'd learned over the course of their career that they wished they could have learned sooner, Myles replied, “It would have been helpful to know that I was young when I was young… I wish I was a little more self conscious about the power I actually had with youth.” I have really taken this to heart since September when we sat at a coffee shop in the East Village and I got to buy one of my favorite poets coffee. I am the most confident there is something for everyone in the interview below.

Karina Vahitova: I wrote down some questions, but organic conversation is how I usually try to do this. The first thing I want to ask you is if you could debunk the starving artist trope with me. Let's talk a little bit about it. When I was growing up and wanted to become an artist or a poet, there was this idea that the financial struggle is a part of that and that as an artist this struggle is something necessary — as if starving and poverty and lack of resources is what makes art happen.

Eileen Myles: I don’t know what a lack of resources means, but I think the first part is not untrue. I think context makes a lot of difference. Being starving in a place where you are surrounded by a lot of wealth seems horrendous, but being broke — let’s just avoid the word starving, let’s say just “not having a whole lot of money” — can be very porous to young people. If you're young in a place where there are lots of people like you, where rent is cheap, where the economy is not so much booming, but there are lots of jobs and you can pick them up and you can quit them, it's not so bad. The way it worked in my 20’s in New York in the 70’s was that you could not work for a month and be totally fine, you know? And then you would always find another job and the rent was a hundred and something a month. Everybody had their own spaces unless you were a couple. There was a feeling of a lot of time. Yes, many people came from middle class and upper class backgrounds which I did not, but there was a place where we met and it had to do with the fact of being young and not having a whole lot of resources. However, one of the resources was the real estate market that afforded people large or small spaces depending on what you wanted. For $300 in the 70’s you could get a loft.

KV: How did that compare to the amount of money you were actually earning?

EM: It compared fine! You were making $100 a week and your rent would be $100 a month. It wasn’t bad. I think about growing up in Boston where most of my friends did not want to be artists, just a handful did. It was just the thought of going and living this bohemian, hippie life and not having a nice apartment or money coming in and not having your parents’ approval was quite threatening to most of the people I knew. I wanted to get away from my family so it was very appealing to come and do this. Even of the friends who wanted to be writers there was still this sense of a void or an abyss that you did not want to fall in. The myth that you’re describing, in whatever version it existed in people’s mind at that time, was still threatening enough that most people at that time did not take that road. I think also being from a working class background, my brother and I being the first ones to go to college, it was hugely threatening to my family for me to not do something middle class after college. Coming here made a lot of sense just to get away from them and their tentacles.

KV: I have a similar situation with my mom. I’m from Ukraine originally and so my mom comes from a Soviet background and she struggled to bring me to this country and was like, “you’re going to become a doctor or a lawyer!” I considered it for a while but eventually realized I could not do that. It was a huge blow to her because she worked so hard to bring me here and give me a leg up to some sort of stability she did not have and I still was like, “I’m sorry I can’t do this!” What you described I agree with, but I think there’s another part of the story in which people believe that financial instability is integral to the work.

I think you do need to kind of destabilize your class background, whatever it is, in order to become something different and make something new. Part of what affects our work is class relation and I think that has to be challenged.

EM: Well, I think you do need to kind of destabilize your class background, whatever it is, in order to become something different and make something new. Part of what affects our work is class relation and I think that has to be challenged. To be working class meant that the threat of poverty was huge, and what if you could not get back up? Whereas my more middle class friends who secretly had some money coming from their families or knew that they had someone to fall back on were less threatened.

KV: Something breaks open when you destabilize what you know. In your book Inferno, I remember there is that one section titled “Poetry is Making Money” and in it you say, “I never knew that before!” but then later down in that section you say there is no money in poetry. Can you talk about that dichotomy?

EM: I’m talking about the currency. We do create an alternate currency. For a long time because I was a poet (and a good one) it meant that I had a currency whether I had money or not. It opened doors, it gave me houses in the country, it gave me older friends, it gave me dinner. We were in a network and our currency was our work and our influences and books would travel around through all of us. All sorts of things were exchanged — even money, everybody borrowed money from everybody. It was a sort of barter economy. Everybody sold books and gave each other books and stole from each other. There was just a way in which money wasn’t everything. It was just amazing to think that because I made something I had something. I remember being told by Ted Berrigan, I think because of his own frustration with making a living as a poet, that nobody would make a living as a poet. And I intended to prove him wrong and have proved it wrong. Part of it too is spinning such a word as poetry, or whatever word it is that you’re dealing with, widely, to mean artist. At different points it would mean doing art writing, writing novels, doing performance art, doing activism. To see how all those things are indeed poetry and that what you learn as a poet is applied in all these different situations. Every decade I had to figure out what extension of poetry is the culture currently open to and how I could fit in.

Part of it too is spinning such a word as poetry, or whatever word it is that you’re dealing with, widely, to mean artist.

KV: You know there’ve been rumors that poetry is dead outside of the literary community… [Laughs]

EM: That’s like saying there were no lesbians in the 15th century! People have all these big ideas. In the same way like saying that lesbians are invisible — I’m not invisible! That’s just a way of saying that what you don’t want to be there is not there. It’s creating a hypnotic. If anything, this rumor is just a testament to how poetry is completely threatening to the media, to the academy. It’s really powerful because it’s this unstoppable form of democracy. Nobody is writing these articles in poetry magazines. It’s The New York Times, it’s Atlantic, it’s all these mainstream places. As we know everybody wrote poetry in college, or when they were sad. There are all these ways that poetry is associated with failure and sorrow and youth and then those people become journalists and capitalists and make a living and become functionaries in the literary scene. The only way that they can validate their own existence is to break these unceasing articles about how poetry is dead and how nobody reads poetry anymore. We all waste our fucking time reading those stupid articles and screaming “No, it is not dead!” Just ignore those bitches.

KV: It’s completely not true and yes, super threatening to the academy.

EM: Absolutely! It’s about their own failure to stick with a very ripe persuasion.

KV: I have a small anecdote. My mom grew up on rhyme poetry, that’s the only kinds of poetry she knew.

EM: That’s Russia!

KV: Right! So when I was beginning to study poetry I went back and looked at what she was reading and truly it was all rhyme. When I started writing my own stuff she asked me to send it to her and when I did she said, “How is this poetry? There’s no rhyme!” and it was so crazy because it felt like the totalitarianism of her life is in how she understands language.

EM: Is it Ukrainian or Russian that she speaks?

KV: Both, and I speak both.

EM: Russian is a rhythmic language, you know this. There is such a capacity for rhyme. Romance languages also have so much more in them than English. English is percussive and it’s emphatic.

KV: It’s been a really interesting experience of reconciling these languages, both the lyricism of those languages and also the politics which are inherent to how people speak rhythmically. I’ve been in this country for 10 years and English was my third language, and for my Mom, me breaking up sentences and breaking up the rhyme is threatening to whatever politics she still inherently carries even if she does not necessarily know that she does. I want to ask you a little bit more about the currency of poetry not necessarily being money. Was there a moment where you accepted that as a truth, but also realized that you needed to start getting paid for the things that are published, the readings, etc?

That’s like saying there were no lesbians in the 15th century! People have all these big ideas. In the same way like saying that lesbians are invisible — I’m not invisible! That’s just a way of saying that what you don’t want to be there is not there. It’s creating a hypnotic.

EM: Well, there are two things. One, as you age the need for comfort is visceral. It used to be very easy to live cheaply. Thrifting is a whole different thing now because everyone is thrifting and it’s commodified. It was also not an era of bedbugs. We all found furniture on the street and clothes on the street and thrifting was very good.

One way or another I always found money to go to the dentist because I did not want to look like a poor person. I did not come from poverty, but I came from a class that fears poverty. Then it became increasingly expensive to go to the dentist and I realized that aging politicized me more in terms of money and healthcare. Also, I realized that a lot of people I’d come up with were making poetry not be their primary goal NOW because they were afraid. For me it was never like I said, “I’m going to make money.” It was that I just began to make money. Because I do believe that if you’re good and you stay on long enough, you start to get rewarded. That might sound kind of elitist but I think it’s about not quitting. The break off point is in the early to mid 30’s. A lot of people think “Okay, now I need to get a PhD or I need to work at an art organization, or move out of the city.” If you did not do that, you started to become unique. One of the things about not stopping is that you become more visible.

KV: That’s something that I think a lot about because even in the model that we advocate for, it is not like you wake up one day at 22 or whatever young age you are and just ask random people to support your Kickstarter. There needs to be a period of real hard work to become visible so that people can see you.

Good breakfast. Photograph courtesy of Eileen Myles

EM: You have to have something to show. Also, I was aware that whenever I was exposed to any other world besides the poetry world, I would be sort of affected by the economy of it. Like the art world. When I worked at the poetry project we had an art auction and the art world with its furs and its economy came in. I was like “whoa…” and was drawn to it. These guys have money. What would I get if I worked there…or even did theatre? When I started to move away from the poetry world and into the art world or the performance world and started to write plays, I encountered ethics that we did not have in the poetry world. They were actually really helpful. People would tell me that the reason I needed to show people my play and get people to work on it or act in it was because people needed my work. The whole world of theater is just so different. They’re unabashed. The poetry world does not so much have a projection of failure, but it just isn't so Americana. We’re not teams! Poets don’t work in teams! Theatre is team and the art world is a system. When I brushed against those worlds I did start to see how they had a less puritan relationship to money and support and even just having a sense of “Oh yeah, you NEED my work!” I knew I needed my work, but I did not know others did. Getting out of the poetry world and being a poet outside of the poetry world started to create something new and I experienced the “other” as needing my work. That was a new engine. Every time I traveled, every time there was a distance from the discrete poetry world, I learned something new. I drank and drugged a lot when I was younger and I stopped at a certain point and the sudden problem of money-making looked grim. When I was drinking and I was young people just told me about jobs I could take. It was like I was getting dressed by the culture all the time. And suddenly when I stopped drinking it just stopped happening and it was really scary. I was cleaning apartments and releasing helium balloons at Diana Ross concerts in Central Park. Just doing really crazy jobs. Then the job as the director of the Poetry Project came up and I was like, “This is probably the only job I’m qualified for!” I had been there for 10 years and knew the community and the institution. I got the job and the first most interesting thing was that every poet thought they were the only poet. Everybody was always coming and asking for a reading and asking for things. The poets were really afflicted culturally by their ideas of who they were and who needed them. I started to be in the position of needing to make arguments for the purpose of making money for poetry and why you needed it. I was becoming unashamed to ask for money for poetry. As always, jobs, relationships, and societies usually for me always end up in a fight. I’d been at St. Marks Church for 10 years — unrelentingly. That was a graduate program, that was my poetry education, my community, my lovers, my economy. So when I had a falling out and left that job, I moved over to the art and performance world. And now I had those skills. Now I knew how to ask for money. I realized I knew people in the art world and they would support my play. So I wrote letters to famous artists asking for money and I realized that I had to get a non-profit. Allen Ginsberg had a foundation and I asked if they could be my umbrella organization and people were happy to write checks to Allen’s foundation because that meant that I was somebody. Everything taught me something. The main thing was being willing to move in and out of my comfort zone (i.e. the poetry world and its prejudices, joys, and economies).

KV: It seems like you were able to take the skills you learned at Poetry Project and apply them to your own career. It’s interesting because when you’re working for an organization and doing the work of asking for money, not just for yourself as an individual artist, but for a whole community, you begin to learn how every artist actually is an organization within their own self.

EM: Yes! And I always felt that I was and it was sort of a private joke. Then I thought, “No, I actually am!”

KV: In many ways artists and poets are non-profits. And also entrepreneurs and LLCs and all the things.

Poetry is completely threatening to the media, to the academy. It’s really powerful because it’s this unstoppable form of democracy.

EM: Yes, exactly. I’ll never forget when there started to be home shopping networks and VH1 and Lucy Sexton — who was in a performance duo called DANCENOISE in the 80’s and 90’s— who was trying to figure out who else she could be and move into it. For her to be a kind of merch hostess on VH1 was really funny because everybody around her seemed just sort of crippled in figuring out how to stand there and sell stuff, but for Lucy as a performance artist, that’s all she’d ever been doing: making props and throwing things around and being funny and talking on the hoof and asking for things. She realized that we all have these skills. An interesting organization that I recently worked with is Creative Capital and they’re brilliant because their whole structure of funding artists is teaching us that we’re businesses and how to function like one. And you’re like “Ugh, I have to go to a retreat,” but actually, it has been really amazing.

KV: Creative Capital is an organization we really respect. As compared to theirs, our mission is very specific. Theirs is more of general professional development for artists, but ours is very specific to crowdfunding and online tools. They’re wonderful. I’ve heard many great things about them from other people as well. So what you learned from Poetry Project was that people need to pay for poetry. Journalists for example, get paid per word. What is the value of words socioeconomically?

EM: It’s very interesting because as a poet you largely get paid to read words as opposed to sell words. I wrote a piece for the Poetry Foundation about money. What I found is that you have to get good at judging the context because people will ask you to do things for free. You have to ask, “How am I rewarded by this situation?” I read for free sometimes, but it’s because I am aware that I am making a donation. I don’t read for free because you don’t think I have value. It’s never free, unless it’s a memorial. It’s all about using language to create community literally, which I think you do early, early, early on in your career, but increasingly you have value and do things outside of the poetry community. The poetry community is also a multiple in that there are so many communities. What I think we all learn is that you make a living as a poet based on your capacity to cross through those communities. When they say, “She’s a writers’ writer or she’s a poets’ poet!” that just means that a lot of people think you’re a good poet as opposed to this camp or that camp and that’s desirable.

As you age the need for comfort is visceral…it became increasingly expensive to go to the dentist and I realized that aging politicized me more in terms of money and healthcare.

KV: I think the aspect of choosing to donate your time versus constantly being asked to is very important. When I first moved to New York I often found myself in positions where I was like, “Should I be doing this for free?” I went to The New School and Parsons is under the auspice there and there are a lot of fashion kids and of course the fashion world is a whole other allergy-inducing place. There were kids who had their designs taken by famous brands and they were given no credit, nothing. These famous designers taking the work of youth and putting it in their collections and neither crediting them nor paying them. This is something that is running rampant across the arts. Donating your time and actually getting something out of the experience is one thing, but being taken advantage of is another. I think that’s where younger people need to see the difference.

EM: Right. There are lots of invisible economies in the poetry and art world. That’s one: Youth. You’re rich because you’re young. So you can work for free and you have no associations and you’re working for an association. Bad things happen. I once heard of a writing professor stealing a line from an undergraduate poet. I’m sure that does happen. There’s that and there’s also secret family wealth. The person who is seeming to not be needing to make any money and they’re broke and kind of cool with it, but that’s because they actually secretly getting money, or have money, or will have money. The other thing is the academy. We are asked to do so many things like go to AWP. For free? That’s because the assumption is that you are an academic and your school is flying you and putting you up. Every time you do a conference you get a bump on your CV and every time you get six bumps you get a step-raise. A lot of the presumption in the writing world about doing things for free is because you are installed in another world where you are a part of this rewards system. I did not even really understand that until I was an academic for five years and saw how it worked. They're not doing shit for free, this is like a company gig. Then again, when AWP asks you to come and be on a panel it’s always very interesting which friends of mine will do it and which won’t.

KV: There are lots of conversations happening about the academy now in regards to how art schools are profit-making institutions that are sort of putting kids through school and giving them these interesting majors and then those kids get out and have no idea what to do with those degrees.

EM: Depending on what the school is. Art schools, in a way that writing schools aren’t, are finishing schools. They introduce you to the gallery system and your professor was a famous artist or whatever, and gallery people are coming into your studio. They install you in the art world before you even get out of school. People have their first show before they get out of school sometimes.

I knew I needed my work, but I did not know others did. Getting out of the poetry world and being a poet outside of the poetry world started to create something new and I experienced the “other” as needing my work. That was a new engine.

KV: I have not seen that be the case at Parsons to be honest. But even with me who is in the work of helping artists make a living post art school, at the end of the day it really comes down to hard work. Are you going to really do this? Or are you going to fall off? My other question is about auxiliary jobs. You’ve talked a lot about having many random jobs throughout your life. The question that I often get from artists when I work with them is, "how do I find a balance?" Our days are only 24 hours long and most young artists do have to at some point rely on these auxiliary jobs, so how do you find a balance between what is giving you money and your art work?

EM: Well, that’s the struggle! It’s different for everybody. For me, I for a long time avoided, with a couple of exceptions, doing work that was mental or bourgeois because I saw that as not enabling my writing. I just did rote work, shit jobs. Being an intern, trying to get into publishing, working for arts organizations is all absorbent work. Working at the Poetry Project was all absorbing. When I was an academic, it was all absorbing! It’s interesting because neither of them stopped me from writing, but they did stop the machinery of my career. Both those experiences made me understand that I had a career and it had a business aspect to it and that if I was doing the business of an institution, I was not doing the business of my writing. It’s always a struggle. At this point I accomplish more stuff when I am working with others, like having assistants.

KV: What really stuck out to me in that section of Inferno where you talked about going to get a job as an apple picker and what you are saying now, is that there are jobs that will facilitate your writing and there are jobs that will make you go insane. There are plenty of jobs that will facilitate your life experience. It is about life, it’s about just learning everyday, and if you’re in a space where you’re not learning then you’re not writing.

EM: Right. Jobs have a time schedule and jobs make you physically tired. Ideally, if you have to work a full-time job you want a job where you get to write at work. Somehow or other you get to do that. In a way, as a poet, there is no job where that isn’t the case. Of course some are better than others.

KV: I did a lot of things since I was very young, but the one thing that shut my brain down was waitressing.

EM: I was a very bad waitress too. I just couldn’t do it.

KV: Now I want to talk to you about the internet. How do you feel about it? It’s a very general question and there are some obvious answers, but what spaces are opening up, from your perspective?

EM: It has changed everything. I can’t talk about the internet without talking about the answering machine. Suddenly in the 80’s you came home to your apartment and there was a machine on the floor and it was blinking and you had messages. You would listen to them and wonder if you could ignore these things. I’m not so much talking about the internet as far as email goes. All relationships are different. If I wanted a recommendation I had to call up a famous poet or write them a letter. Writing them a letter meant that you had to be really on point. You would write it a month before the deadline because it needs to go through the U.S. mail. I had to call John Ashbery. Today it’s easier for me to ask for things, but it’s also easier for people to ask for things from me. I’m very critical of the business aspect of how we use the internet.

I was always a little fascinated by people who had the capacity to do things I would never do. They often told stories that I did not need to learn or hear. It’s about being better at editing early. I did not need every experience.

KV: Talk to me about it.

EM: I had a poetry magazine in my 20's. If I wanted a famous poet’s work, I would write them a letter or I would go to their house and literally get the poems. Then you might wait or might have to write them again. Now if somebody wants me for a certain journal they will ask me in an email and I say, “Yeah” and then they don’t do anything and I don’t do anything and then it comes out and I’m like, “Really? You just sort of gave up?” It feels like the desire has sort of shrunk to the size of the gesture which is tiny. I’ve had people ask for a recommendation and it’s clearly a blind cc. I feel like: “Fuck you! You can’t even ask me individually?” Or it’s a thank you for doing a recommendation and it’s a blind cc. I told the person how I felt and they were actually really upset and thought that I was being horrible and I thought “Nobody has ever said this to you, but they should have!”

KV: When we advise on crowdfunding campaigns we tell artists to always, always send out personal messages to a huge chunk of their community. I have this one friend who is very disenchanted with the internet and I tell her: “I see you. I get it. But you can actually take this tool and make more of it than what it is and be genuine.” Talk to me about your Twitter and Instagram. Why are you on those platforms?

Good dog. Photograph courtesy of Eileen Myles

EM: Because they’re amazing tools for distributing photographs and fragments of lines. The thing I always think about is, you know, there was the open mic. I can’t remember who organized it, but there was this event with all these different poetry organizations of very different types and we each had a team and we were in a sort of competition. One of the competitions was to get up and spontaneously write a poem. There was somebody on our team who was totally equipped to do that and she did not want to, so I got pushed to do it and did do it and I was bad at it. The thing that’s amazing about Twitter is that it is improvising publicly, but nobody can see it and you’re doing it on your terms. So it takes what’s really nice about wall art, which is that you do not have to be on time for the art show. I feel that Twitter has the personal quality. You get to express the grade of the day and respond to issues and personal feelings and geography. I’m thinking of mostly Twitter, but both of them are astonishing. It’s really fun to think that if I am taking a picture, and I am deciding whether to put it on Instagram or not, I am thinking about the effect of the caption and determining if that will lead people to want to look at the picture. I am focused on the outcome. I don’t mean in terms of how many people like it, but what will they get from it? These are exactly the issues you encounter when writing poetry. I always think of John Ashbery’s line about wanting to write a poem as if the person is in the same room as him. It means that you write intimately as if someone can see everything you can see. Sometimes you do tell them what you see. It’s this dance between what is withheld and what is revealed. We have this global tool for doing exactly that.

KV: People have arguments about how the internet is separating us rather than bringing us closer together. With your Twitter or Instagram there are days where I’m like: “I have no idea what Eileen is looking at right now.” But it makes me want to know and it inherently brings me closer to you or to whomever else I’m reading. It’s just a more nuanced way of thinking about it than if you were actually sitting in the same room looking at the same thing as me. 

EM: The thing that is so interesting is that it does bring you so much closer to people. There are people whom I’ve met and liked and so we began to follow each other on social media, and then I saw which things of mine they liked and have been surprised by what we have in common. It’s cut across a lot of class lines in terms of my ideas about who people are. People surprise me. And I think I surprise them and that’s really rich.

KV: Is there anything you learned over the course of your career that you wish you would have learned sooner?

EM: It’s all about real estate. Buy your building when you could have. Get a bigger space before it changes so radically. It would have been helpful to know that I was young when I was young. I was a young female. I was being treated a certain way because of who I was and because I wasn’t anybody else. I wish I was a little more self conscious about the power I actually had with youth. It’s so weird to understand that oldness is a preemptive device, that people are so in awe of bold, young people. They’re forthright and self-loving in a kind of self-possessed way. You are running on your good health and trading it as if it is an endless resource. You’re making the conditions of your existence more flawed than they need to be. But maybe you have to make a mess – in time.

KV: Some say that politics of care is the most radical space. The more I live the more I see how true that is. The politics of your own care and your own physical body, but also taking care of the bodies of others.

EM: Yeah and I think that people who struck me intuitively as fucked up and a little evil were not worth my time. And when I stopped drinking I got even better at avoiding them. Because I was always a little fascinated by people who had the capacity to do things I would never do. They often told stories that I did not need to learn or hear. It’s about being better at editing early. I did not need every experience.

The good news is that when I realized I am good enough to make decisions I also realized I am also good enough to have people surrounding me who help me.

KV: What are you currently struggling with?

EM: Oh, that’s a good one...Maybe having the ability to distinguish between an opportunity and something which is not good enough. It seems like when you get attention, lots of worlds begin to open up to you and lots of opportunities come your way. I think I’ve gotten better at asking for help with agents, lawyers, and even shrinks. People who can actually look at the things coming my way and help me distinguish what I need to do and don’t need to do. And really determining when I need to take…I don’t know if “vacation” is the word, but just being out of the fray and saying no to things so I can make stuff and be well. My struggle still is with self care, but also with understanding the difference between an opportunity and a poorly thought out proposition. People are always are telling you so much about what they think of you when they offer you something. “We think it would be really great if you read with blah-blah-blah” and they give you a little twinkle. And you’re like, “What does that mean if you’re putting me with that person and you’re delighted by it? How are you delighted?” Rather than second-guessing who they think I am or why this is awesome, it’s just about asking myself if I am drawn. I have less room for ambivalence. My struggle is to pull away from ambivalent situations as quickly as possible. I’ve gotten better in some parts of my life, but I need to get better in my professional life. The good news is that when I realized I am good enough to make decisions I also realized I am good enough to have people surrounding me who can help me. Surround yourself with people who have your best interests and who are not there to drain you and figure out how you’re the hook up. That’s a loaded one too. My struggle is to figure out who I am glad to be a hook up for and who I don’t want to engage. People start to treat you like a utility when you get shit. And I understand that. Everybody went to John Ashbery, everybody went to Allen Ginsberg.

KV: The whole point of us having the forums on The Void Academy website is specifically to have a space for artists to share resources with one another. So what you said about having people around that can help you professionally — that space is meant to centralize those resources and have people help one another. Yes, the work of being an artist mostly comes from you yourself, but you don’t have to be a lone dog. You can ask for help and give help. That’s one of those invisible currencies that you were talking about that’s very important because it connects and uplifts people. People come up together never truly by themselves. Some people want to disavow that…

EM: I know, I know! Exactly.

For more information please visit eileenmyles.com

Related article: The DIY Professional, musician Anna Vogelzang on being a DIY artist and developing a sustainable career in music

bio

Eileen Myles is the author of nineteen books including I Must Be Living Twice: New & Selected Poems, and a 2015 reissue of Chelsea GirlsAfterglow (a dog memoir) will be out from Grove in September 2017. Eileen is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Warhol/Creative Capital Arts Writers grant, four Lambda Book Awards, the Shelley Prize from the PSA and a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Art. In 2016 Myles received a grant from Creative Capital and the Clark Prize for excellence in art writing. They live in New York and Marfa, Texas. 

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Moments of Transformation

Moments of Transformation

Tathy Yazigi on selling her first work of performance art, connecting with her audience, and creating transformative environments

By Karina Vahitova on November 10th, 2016

FAC-SIMILE, digital self-portrait, 2014
FAC-SIMILE, digital self-portrait, 2014

I’ve never been in the same room with Tathy Yagizi but she captivated me over Skype when The Void Academy was first delivering our forthcoming courses one-on-one. The images of her performance work are striking — they act as both archival materials of live performances and artworks of their own. Tathy is committed to the ephemeral nature of her work but is also discovering, working through, and fine-tuning possibilities of documentation and online presentation. In this interview, we chat about using the internet as a tool for bringing people into a room together physically, Tathy’s yearning for growth as an artist, her desire to transform her audience, and what it's like to try to earn a living from the kind of art that notoriously refuses commodification.

 

Karina Vahitova: What do you want people to know about you and your artwork, currently?

Tathy Yazigi: At this moment in my life and career, that's a very deep question. It's kind of mysterious. I think I want people to know that the things I create can move them and open channels for self-transformation.

KV: What kind of art do you make?

TY: I make performances and photography. In my performances, I like to create an environment and share a personal ritual. I believe that by sharing my own moments of transformation, I can lend an audience my energy. Sometimes I do that by creating an image in a place and sometimes I do that through a sequence of actions in a space.

KV: You also document the performances photographically, yes?

TY: Sometimes, yes. My pieces have a strong visual aesthetic. The way that I create is that I conceive of an image and then I think about what I have to do in order to achieve this image.

FAC-SIMILE, digital self-portrait, 2014
FAC-SIMILE, digital self-portrait, 2014

KV: How do you usually connect with the people who resonate with your work?

TY: I'm not so good on that front. Well, actually, I think I'm kind of good. [Laughs.] I'm starting to get better at it. It requires a lot of work to be on the internet and in the social space. I have a website and I have a newsletter. I use Facebook and Instagram. Currently, I'm posting every day on Instagram about my residency here in Catuçaba, in the countryside of São Paulo. When I have an event coming up, I send out a newsletter. As I have always worked here in São Paulo, I already have an audience here – people who like my work that always come when I do performances, as well as friends of friends. I also feel there's a bigger movement now of people talking about my work when I'm not around. Recently, it happened that a theater character was inspired by my work, which was great.

KV: You mentioned you're starting to use social media more to connect with your community. Is there a reason why you felt you needed to start doing that?

TY: I think if I really want to grow as an artist, I need to reach people and share my work. If they like it, they're going to follow what I'm doing. I used to think that I could be a little evasive but now I'm challenging that theory by making very direct posts. People tend to comment on these kinds of posts a lot. I think I'm going to try to keep using the internet in this way until my next show to see what effect it has.

KV: In talking about wanting to bring transformative experiences to people, it feels like perhaps the internet can't really carry through the power of a performance piece but it can get people interested in seeing a performance in real life.

TY: That's very true. That's why we as performance artists need to create very good documentation of our work, even though documentation is never going to be the performance itself.

KV: Yes. Performance work and the internet really have a special relationship. Both are intangible and ephemeral in some way. In my view, the internet can serve as a platform in between the documentation and the performance.

TY: I like to use both platforms in totally different ways. I don't like documentation, actually, except when I make new artworks from the documentation. My documentation is never going to be just one camera filming the whole action. I don't like that style of documenting — I don't think it's powerful, and I don't think it adds much to the work. It tends to just be too long and tiring to engage with.

KV: So instead you create a secondary artwork for the internet that you feel best represents the live performance work?

TY: Exactly.

KV: In my community building course, I talk about how the social space aspect of an artist's practice is an important part of the artwork itself. Creating documentation that is a new artwork in itself really encapsulates that. It's caring about your audience without compromising the integrity of the work. It's saying, "I'm not going to take a straight video of this performance because this performance is meant to exist in real time, in real space. However, I'm not going to keep you from participating." That's great.

TY: Yeah! It's a lot to do. My to do list is huge. And now I'm in a master's program, and I'm taking another formation in Brazil. It's crazy, but it's been great. I just had the first class of this new program and my classmates are awesome. It's only 10 people in a nomadic low-residency and interdisciplinary MFA in fine arts.

 

I believe that by sharing my own moments of transformation, I can lend an audience my energy.

 

KV: That's fantastic. Getting back to how you connect with your audience, what do you think is working best about how you use the internet? We ask this because I believe each artist has to do it their own way and learn what works for them.

TY: I think the posts on Facebook are working well for me. I'm not always posting about my work, I'm also posting my inspirations. People have really been commenting and engaging and wanting to meet up and inviting me to speak places. That's great for me because being called in for meetings and asked to do talks is part of my work.

KV: Why do you think people are interested in seeing what your inspirations are?

TY: I think my inspirations are really interesting! [Laughs.] I mean, they're interesting for me and what I'm seeing is that they are for other people, too.

KV: Yes. When there are artists whose work I like, I'm very interested in where they're pulling their research from. I wonder what they're looking at that makes them see their world the way they do. Sharing that with others demystifies beauty. It says, "This is what I look at to make something beautiful of my own." Artists aren't magicians — they're people who tend to be really skilled at seeing and listening to the world. I think you can teach other people to see the world more deeply by showing them what you're looking at.

RASTRO, photography (record of performance by Ana Moock), 2015
RASTRO, photography (record of performance by Ana Moock), 2015

TY: Yes, exactly.

KV: So, for you, you feel social media is supporting your artistic practice the most right now. What about your website — how is that working for you?

TY: I need to feed it. [Laughs.] It's kind of there. It's beautiful but I need to move it around a little bit. It's tough. I'm so into other things now that I don't have time to do that.

KV: I'm looking at your website right now; it is beautiful. But you know what you're missing? A mailing list sign up! I want to be updated when you're doing things!

TY: Yes, it's true. I have a way that people can email me but I'm going to try to get a mailing list started too.

KV: Another question: you are a performance artist, which is generally thought to be an especially difficult art form to make a living from because you are not producing a sellable art object. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

TY: Do you want to see me cry? [Laughs.] It's so hard, especially here in Brazil now that everything is so messed up politically. We are in the middle of a political coup and they're cutting all the funding for arts, culture, education. They are cutting every channel that we could previously apply to in order get money from the government.

KV: Usually, that government money comes in the form of grants, right?

TY: Yes. Artists apply directly to the government or organizations with a selection of your work and they select a few people per year to fund. The rest of the artists who don't get that funding have to work on other things. However, in better news, this year was the first year I sold a performance piece to a private institution. I also sold the rights of photographs for my work Degeneradas2, and I'm doing work as a coach to people in the creative business.

 

I used to be lazy about communicating with my audience but I understand now how important it is. I've learned that I can be non-invasive in my communication, which is something I used to worry about.

 

KV: What types of things do you focus on in your coaching?

TY: The head of the class I assist with educates about radical transparency, connectivity, and openness. We have to try to experience these things through the body. There's a series of actions that I conjure with a group of people to get to this embodied experience. It's based around the idea of knowing yourself, giving up your certainties, and being there to be seen and really see another.

KV: That's great. You make a part of your living from this work?

TY: Yes. I'm also really lucky because I have a house and I'm renting it so I'm making money that way too. I'm not paying rent myself because I'm a nomad right now — I'm going from place to place. This month here, next month is São Paulo, another month in Chicago, then in Minneapolis, then back here, than Oakland. Next June, I'll be in New York again.

KV: I'm interested in this coaching that you're doing because it's taking the skills you have as an artist and applying them elsewhere to create value and self-growth for other people and income for yourself. One of the benefits of art is that it really does help people's souls, it transforms them, changes them. You doing this coaching is a way of living that. When someone sees a painting in a museum, they may or not be transformed by it, but when someone signs up to learn specific lessons from an artist who works with the body, who works in performance, it's a whole other level of engagement.

TY: Yes, it's very interesting. The participants change readily. They start in one way and finish completely different. The sessions are short but precise. I'm sharing a tool. Each time I'm there, I'm talking to the participants and I'm also teaching the exercise.

KV: Back to your sale of the performance piece earlier this year, how did that work? Did you sell the documentation of the piece?

TY: No, I sold the action.

KV: How did that work?

TY: I had done the action before, a few times, around the city. SESC Santana wanted me to do the action indoors and they had space. I sold two hours of the action. It's a walking action so I was there walking for two hours in a red dress.

rastro-6
RASTRO, photography (record of performance by Ana Moock), 2015

KV: Often when performance art is sold, it's the instructions or the documentation of the work that is sold. But you sold your time. Do you prefer that?

TY: Yes. I will never sell the instructions to a piece because I need to be the person to do the performance. Maybe in the future, if I'm really powerful, I can sell the work just through the instructions but right now, I feel that I need to be present for the work. Although it does depend on the action and the piece. If you recall, I had an idea for a park: the pieces function as rides and they are in nature and totally interactive. Those pieces work with instructions because they were made for the public “to use” in a certain way. I actually presented that idea in a methodology class for my masters. The assignment was to present a dream project as though it had happened in a real place. So I created these rides. There was a slide in the mountain, following the natural curves of the mountain. This would be an example of a piece that I'm not there for, but I'm still there. [Laughs.] You know?

KV: Yes! Is there anything you've learned about the business of art that you wish you knew earlier on?

TY: Basically, everything. [Laughs.] Well first, I wish I'd known the importance of needing to share and keep my audience posted. I used to be lazy about communicating with my audience but I understand now how important it is. I've learned that I can be non-invasive in my communication, which is something I used to worry about. I don't want to be the kind of person that always posts about themselves and annoys everyone. I feel like I'm baby-stepping, but at least I've started with social media and my mailing list. I've also opened my mind a little bit to the idea of creating a campaign to raising funds for my work. Earlier, I wouldn't have felt comfortable. But now I'm thinking of using crowdfunding to help me to manifest my ideas in the way that I want.

KV: Do you think using social media and seeing a positive response has made you more comfortable with this idea?

TY: Yes, definitely.

KV: What do you hope for yourself in the future with respect to your financial goals and your art?

TY: Actually, I'm trying not to think about that because I always control and plan my life and I started feeling like it wasn't taking me anywhere. When I started experiencing real movement in real time,  big things started to happen, at least inside of me. Now I'm trying to slow down and stay in the moment. I don't know what I hope for the future.

AUPABA, photography (record of residue from performance), 2015.
AUPABA, photography (record of residue from performance), 2015.

KV: It sounds like where you're at is more about staying present and working hard and being genuine and letting the future come as it may.

TY: Yes. And if I need to change my ways a little bit in the future, that will be okay too.

KV: I think often times, the best thing you can do to ensure a good future for yourself is to stay present and work hard. Part of working hard is knowing that you deserve to be making a living from your art.

TY: That's why I'm doing this because I need to feel like I'm deserving of that. I'm not there yet.

KV: Let me ask you: is there any one thing that you wish you knew how to do right now in the realm of the business of art?

TY: Man, I think I'd actually want someone to work with me on organization. I have a really hard time taking care of my list of things that I need to do and the texts that I need to read for the masters and the texts I need to write and the other works I want to read.

KV: Yesterday, we interviewed an artist who said the exact same thing. That's certainly one thing about being an artist — it's not a 9-5 job where you have a series of rote tasks that you accomplish. There's always something new happening and it's often more than one thing at once. I hope that we can come up with the course for that because it's in high demand.

TY: Sounds great. I would take it.

KV One last question: what do you currently feel most proud of about your artistic practice?

I'm proud of the life I’m living right now. It feeds my artistic practice. Being here and having no home and getting rid of things and being centered with less objects in my life really makes me proud.

KV: That's a wonderful. Thank you, Tathy.


Related article: Just Keep Pushing: An interview with Leah Vernon, body-positive activist, fashion blogger, plus model, and fiction writer.

img_3368

Tathy Yazigi graduated with honors in performance from the School of Dramatic Art of the University of São Paulo, with specialization in dance in New York. She has attended festivals and exhibitions in the US, Europe, Latin America, and Central America, among them: Terra Comunal | Marina Abramovic + MAI, São Paulo, 2015, Perfochoroní, Festival Internacional de Performance, Venezuela, 2015, International Documentary FilmFestival Amsterdam, 2014, and The Story of the Creative, See.me Gallery, New York, 2013. She recently had her first individual sow, My Rooms, in the Estúdio Lâmina Gallery, São Paulo. Her research is focused on the creation of transformative environments, actions and records that promote the interaction in between artist, audience, and space. From intervention with the body in everyday scenes, she awakens strangeness in the public and intends to enable mutual transformation. Find more of her work at tathyyazigi.com

We Commit to You

We Commit to You

The Void Academy's ongoing commitment to anti-oppression work

Published by Siena Oristaglio, Karina Vahitova, and Noah Blumenson-Cook on November 17th, 2016

When we started The Void Academy it was because we wanted to see a new arts ecosystem, a kind in which artists were able to fund their work sustainably through the power of communities. We took on this project knowing that the arts do not exist in a vacuum, that the social and political inequities which exist there are a symptom of much larger, systemic forces of oppression. As three white founders, we know we must work daily to confront our privileges and stand up for those who are not afforded the same. We are committed to the ongoing fight against oppression in all its forms and pledge to support artwork of people of color, Muslims, immigrants, Indigenous peoples, women, LGBTQIA2S+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, asexual/aromantic, and two-spirit) individuals, those who are agender and gender nonconforming, survivors of sexual assault, and disabled individuals.

One reason we are deeply passionate about helping artists to fund their art is because we believe in the power of art and education to affect positive social change. Through our work, we’ve been pushing back against inequitable systems by helping artists find alternate and viable ways to live and be. The Void Academy pledges to make it a priority to partner with and bring our educational materials to arts organizations doing the work to support marginalized artistic voices. Though efforts to help artists and arts organizations make a sustainable living remain the core of our organizational mission, we have discussed how the educational content we release can also be of use to organizations fundraising for direct-to-service anti-oppression and anti-racist work. Currently, we are in continued discussions about how our courses can be used by a wider range of social justice initiatives.

It goes without saying that the arts are as important as ever. Creative expression within the current and ongoing political climate is crucial to how we move forward, to how we shape and document history, to how we sing it, write it, paint it, perform it, and sculpt it. We are open to all kinds of suggestions, conversations, criticisms, and support from our community. If you would like to contact us, please email us at contact@voidacademy.com and the three of us will receive and respond to your message.

Related article: Reasons We Exist: Part One