I've been re-reading Patti Smith's Just Kids, a memoir about her early years in New York when she and Robert Mapplethorpe were growing into a sense of themselves as artists. The insecurity of that process strikes a chord with me-the idea of not being sure who you are or where you are headed. We don't always know where our choices will lead us--but that shouldn't lead us to entropy, should it?  The memoir reminds me that art often comes from doubt, that the artist wills herself into existence.

Life is so unpredictable. We are capable of transformation at any moment. I love this passage from a Mary Oliver poem, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"

Sometimes, we assign questions like that to the young. . . but I've been thinking about how--no matter what age we are--that question still applies. We still have choices about what we will do with the rest of our lives, no matter how many years remain.

My spring break is going by way too fast. I'm writing, reading, cooking, and enjoying the beauty of Fresno in the spring. My wisteria is just about to burst into bloom, the seeds I planted are starting to sprout, and all is right in my world.

Last Sunday, I had a perfect day. I wrote all morning--7 pages of an article I hope to finish by early May. I was in a city that I love doing things that I love; I ate good food, shopped, walked forever, saw a movie, and ate more good food. In the movie, Ginger and Rosa, there's a line that describes how I felt. A young girl, Ginger, returns home late and her mother asks angrily where she's been. Ginger replies dreamily, "We were just roving about, being free." Of course, the movie complicates that line, but I'll save the serious for another post.

Yesterday: different city, activities, circumstances--but still that same feeling of freedom. I rode my bike to a friend's house--and then we biked downtown and met another friend to talk all afternoon. Our conversation moved from books, to music, to writing. And my friends gave me ideas about where to move next with a project that has been teasing at me since last summer. I want my summer to be like these past few days, full of the freedom of exploring ideas in many different forms.

And then I went home and made recipe #2 of my cooking with Janet week: french onion soup. It took 90 minutes for the onions to cook down, so I stirred and listened to my friend's radio show before finally eating a fantastic bowl of soup.

Ah, spring.

Today I attended a dance performance at the Oslo Opera House. I was intrigued by the description, a combination of Indian dance and music with Norwegian Black Metal. I bought a ticket, not quite sure what to expect.

Right from the start, the performance captured my attention. The narration explained that the Hindu call our current era "the time of darkness," a description that was echoed by the music of Vreid. The band members took the stage with their frenetic music, energizing the audience but also creating a serious, even somber tone. As two Indian dancers took the stage, there was a shift, but the shift was one of degree rather than tone. The dancers' movements, their use of their bare feet to drive the urgent rhythm of the music provided a continuation of the energy and chaos that the band had created. To this point, the performance was good, but with the emergence of Rukmini Chatterjee, the dancer who was also the choreographer, the performance took on layers of meaning that I didn't anticipate. Chatterjee is a mesmerizing presence; she communicates a strength and power that more than stood up to the driving rhythms of Vreid's music. Moreover, Chatterjee's facial expressions, which at times included eyes turned up so far that only the whites remained, reinforced the theme of darkness at the heart of this piece. Her strength combined with the anguish and pain that are part of both the ethos of heavy metal and the Hindu prophecies about the contemporary moment.

As the performance continued, I thought about the events of the last year in Norway, in which the issues of immigration and the shift to a more culturally diverse society have been key. Certainly one outcome of these challenges to Norwegian identity could be continued violence and conflict. And Questionings most definitely does not posit a "happily ever after" ending. Rather, it does what great art should do: provoke, challenge, and reveal. Yet, the piece also embodies the artistic and even philosophical shifts that can emerge from cultural collisions. As Norway deals with the aftermath of the events of June 22, 2011, it can live up to the stirring reaction of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg which drew from the traditions that have made Norway the home of the Nobel Peace Prize . . . or not. At least for me, that's what Questionings made me think about, in part, because it illustrated the ways that two strong cultures/traditions can be maintained side by side and even fused together in ways that don't lessen the power of either.

Chatterjee has a long relationship to Norway, according to her website, but she's from India and is a resident of Paris. Her work over the past decade has combined Indian dance with other types of music like flamenco and hip hop. I'm not sure what her intentions were in this collaboration, but, in my opinion, it was an incredible performance, one that I'll continue to think about.

Spoiler Alert: Do not read further if you actually want to the see the irritating Black Swan.

I've been thinking today about autobiographical screenplays I could write. I started with the title Middle Aged Geek a narrative chronicling my movement from technological ignorance (think Natalie Portman as simpering, foolish White Swan) to competency (powerful Black Swan-like performance which, I hope, will not lead to an early demise). Or maybe I should write Cyberstalker, a noir thriller in which I'd gradually go crazy (yes, think Black Swan again) because of my paralyzing devotion to google. Or how about Intellectual Dilettante, a mannered, pretentious film (you know, like Black Swan) in which Natalie Portman (playing me) would submerge herself in a long, long string of ever changing academic pursuits punctuated by one scene in which she lets loose and actually lives life.

I have no point in this post, although I have to admit that Black Swan did give me a lot to think about--and I really did love that amazing Black Swan scene . . . I need a scene like that in my screenplay, Emerging from Seclusion, the story of how I re-integrated back into life after secluding myself because of a crushing disappointment.

On Thursday, I attended one of the events commemorating the Fresno Feminist Art Movement. In 1970, Judy Chicago, whose collaborative work "The Dinner Party" is one of the most important feminist art pieces, taught for a year at what was then Fresno State College. 15 students studied art in a collaborative setting, resisting the "genius who works alone" model that is such a prevalent practice in art. Many of these students followed Chicago to Cal Arts to continue their studies . . . and many have made their career in art.

The first presentation I attended was by Vanalyne Green. Green's current project focuses on "provisional moments of utopia"--she has interviewed the chaplains for both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate . . . and she has interviewed people about which days' prayers they would like to read. She also went to a cemetery in Chicago where different Wobblies and activists are buried under strident and still confrontational gravestones. It was a fascinating presentation.

Nancy Youdelman began as a costume designer and has continued to create art using dresses. Especially interesting was her work incorporating letters written by 30 different women to one man, Allen Watkins. Youdelman talked about how they share a narrative arc: love, insecurity about why the man hasn't responded, and finally anger. I love that she uses materials bought on e-Bay in her work. Youdelman also showed pictures and told stories about "A Studio of Their Own," the Fresno State studio where she worked with Judy Chicago.

Both these women made me think about artistic production--using non-traditional forms and materials to produce thoughtful responses to the world. I love what YouTube has done to expose the work that even amateurs do to pay homage to or even parody the contemporary world. I love the use of found objects in all kinds of artistic production. I love texts that experiment with how to tell a story. I love that all kinds of creativity have expression right now.

Make it new!

When John B. came to visit me in Oslo, we spent some time at the National Museum of Contemporary Art. It's an interesting juxtaposition: the cutting edge art work in a staid old bank building. We really enjoyed many of the pieces, and two in particular have stayed with me. One was a series of photographs taken by Sophie Calle, an artist who worked as a maid in a hotel. She took pictures of and created captions describing the detritus that travelers leave behind in the "safety" of their hotel rooms. The photos and captions provide a cautionary tale for travelers, but they also invite the voyeurism that has become such a prevalent part of contemporary society.

Another interesting piece was created by Jenny Holzer, an artist known for her combination of text and art. Holzer's piece was a lengthy list of adages or truisms that invite the viewer to read, ponder, and wonder. I found myself laughing at some of the statements that I might have taken seriously in a different setting. There was something so incongruous about reading this representation of received "wisdom" viewed in an art gallery where we are more accustomed to viewing shapes and forms.

Recently, I've been talking with an art professor about co-teaching a class on art and text. He referred me to the Korean group Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries who create internet-based presentations that pair music with words. I've watched a couple of their pieces--they have made me laugh, wonder, and think. I don't love them, but I admire this group's innovative high tech/low tech approach to art.

I'm looking for more artists like these, if you know of any.

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A couple of years ago I was visiting San Francisco and happened upon several artists showing their work in Union Square. There was one woodcut I just couldn't get out of my head, "Transplant" by Bridget Henry, a Santa Cruz based artist. Over a period of about nine months, I sent her regular payments until finally I'd paid off my "art on layaway." My friend Sam and I drove to Santa Cruz to pick up the woodcut one weekend when we were going to a play in San Juan Bautista (at El Teatro Campesino).

I still love the piece. I moved on average every three years when I was growing up. Frequently, I went through the process of putting down new roots in a seemingly barren place. Usually I flourished, but the beginnings sometimes produced anxiety. This woodcut reminds me of who I am. I still sometimes experience that delicate feeling of starting new growth with hopes for a healthy, strong, happy future.

Yesterday I received an invitation to the Santa Cruz Open Studios 2007 tour (October 6, 7, 13, 14) which will include Bridget's studio. For more information, check out Bridget's website under events. If you're near Santa Cruz, you should drop by to see more work by this talented artist!

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Yesterday I attended my last performance for this season's subscription to the San Francisco Ballet. It was a full-length piece, Don Quixote. Although I enjoyed it, I couldn't help but reflect on some of the other, more experimental pieces we've seen this season. The first program ended with Artifact Suite, choreographed by William Forsythe. Before I go further, I should admit from the outset that I'm relatively ignorant about ballet--my friends Toni and Brynn (with whom I attend these performances) are much more knowledgeable about choreographers, movement, and dance history. In any event, before Artifact Suite, there had been some problems with the curtain falling midway down in the midst of a performance. When the curtain fell to the stage with a loud boom in the midst of Artifact Suite, we all assumed that the curtain problems continued. When this happened repeatedly and the dancers were in perfect form and a new configuration every time the curtain went up, we began to suspect that perhaps this was part of the choreography. Still, I wasn't willing to trust that idea until it was verified by an usher after the performance. And in the midst of the piece when I still thought the curtain problems were accidental, I remember thinking, "What a great idea. A choreographer should use the curtain as part of the performance." I was and still am intrigued by the element of the surprise--how an audience, even an informed one, can be suspicious of what is happening, wondering what is choreographed and what is accidental. I'm also intrigued by the idea of re-conceiving traditional elements in choreography--the set, the costumes, the music, the movements have been mainstays of ballet for decades. But the curtain has, as well. It signals the beginning and the end of a performance, it sometimes descends in mid performance to signal breaks between segments (as it did in Don Quixote yesterday)--how brilliant to use the curtain to defamiliarize the audience and move it towards a new relationship with the performance.

Even more stunning to me was the piece Eden/Eden which we saw in March. This piece, choreographed by Wayne McGregor, was a multi-media combination of music/video/audio/dance elements. It began with clips which emphasized the main idea of the piece, cloning specifically, but more broadly what it means to be alive in an increasingly technological era. When the main dancer, the amazing Muriel Maffre, appeared, her gender was obscured by a flesh colored bodysuit and cap. Her movements were jerky, uneven, awkward, communicating an alien relationship to one's body. As other dancers, dressed and moving similarly, joined her, the effect was a disjointed, fragmented world in which harmony isn't possible. Or perhaps the point was that the offspring of technology and human intellect is at present in a developmental stage, and, like toddlers, we stumble about precariously trying to learn how to move, be, and function in a new world.

One audio clip during the piece was striking "We and all other animals are machines created by our genes." That statement still reverberates with me. We not only construct selves, our bodies, too, are constructed. Machines aren't foreign/outside of human existence, they are congruent with what (who?) we are. In an insightful review, Allan Ulrich (see URL below) comments: "The mixed vocabulary doesn’t propose a solution, but it does dare to suggest that the distinction between life as we know it and life as we manufacture it grows ever slimmer."

I didn't expect to be intellectually stimulated by ballet. I expected to enjoy the beautiful movements of impeccably trained dancers. This season has taught me that ballet is much more than this. In fact, seeing Don Quixote yesterday was anti-climatic after such an intellectually challenging season. My friend Brynn is working to establish a connection between philosophy and dance theory. Thanks, Brynn, for sharing your ideas about the "Dance of the Cyborg."

Works Cited

Alan Ulrich, Review of "Eden/Eden." Accessed May 6, 2007.