Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Phantom Zone: Failing @ Skowhegan

I love eavesdropping at the gym.

There must be something about the testosterone or the endorphins at the gym that acts like truth serum. Suddenly, when pushed to a point of exhaustion, people give-up on social restraint and start saying what they really feel.

Interrogators don’t need to torture anyone; they just need to put people on the treadmill for an hour. I once heard the most macho guy at the gym blurt out that he really liked Miley Cyrus’s latest album while he was blatantly staring at his partner’s ass (all of this was while they were spotting each other during squats.)

I was at the gym the other day and there was this guy doing bicep curls with the rubber-coated weights that people usually use during aerobics classes. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it looked really easy for him. The gym’s trainer walked up and asked him why he was using such a low weight.

Then, the strangest thing happened; he answered with the truth:

“Yeah, I know I should be using more, but I really don’t like it when I set a goal for my self and can’t make it. So I use these weights because I know I will succeed and then when I leave the gym I feel really good about myself.”

“Well, if you’re not working the muscle to failure, then you’re not really doing anything. There’s really no point in coming to the gym at all …” the trainer replied.

“Ooooo, I really hate that word, ‘Failure’. I can’t stand failure. I don’t even like the word. So please, leave me alone. I’m not using the equipment in a way that will hurt me or anyone else, so please keep your advice to yourself. If you want to fail everyday, that’s fine, but I couldn’t live with myself. I’m a winner.”

What struck me as interesting about this is that I have heard so many artists say the same thing in one way or another, but they say it in their studio rather than the gym.

How many artists do you know who have been doing the same thing for years and won’t risk doing anything that might fail?

I think we should begin treating the studio like a gym.
If your not going to the studio to work yourself to a point of failure, then why are you there?

Risk is good.
Failure is good.

This weekend I visited the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, one of the world’s most prestigious artists residency programs. If your don’t know about Skowhegan, there is a lot of information on their website. One thing I did not know about the program is that it is a place that is both for artists and run by artists (much like Big Red and Shiny). My friends Steve Locke and Avantika Bawa were there as an administrator and a participant respectively and they both said that one of the best things about Skowhegan is that it is a place where people are encouraged to take risks and try something that may fail. Skowhegan is an artist residency that, unlike many other residencies, does not have an expectation for anyone there to produce work, none-the-less pressure to produce “good” work.

No wonder Skowhegan is such a sought after artist residency; it is a place where failure is allowed and in one sense, it is even encouraged.

Why aren’t there more places like Skowhegan?
Obviously, art school is not a place where a positive notion of failure is encouraged because at the end of the semester, everyone is evaluated in one form or another.

Failure at art school is rewarded with exactly that: Failure with a capital “F” written on a transcript.

I know for a fact that Big Red was started with the same sensibility as Skowhegan: A place for artists, by artists, where failure is encouraged.

If you have a chance to visit or attend Skowhegan, I encourage you to do so. It is filled with smart people and it will change your art practice. And if you’ve ever wanted to try writing for Big Red, but were afraid that you’d fail: Just write/do something and send it to the editors.

Failure is ok, that means your doing it right.
Just trust me.

Watch a video of our trip

Skowhegan Participants working in fresco in the Fresco Barn (photo by Katja Mater '06)

Steve Locke

"ask me again"
2005, oil on canvas, 60 inches square.
Private collection.

Avantika Bawa installation @ the Contemporary in Atlanta

Miley Cyrus

Some guys at the gym failing


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