Sunday, September 25, 2016

Immersive Adventures in Los Angeles: TENSION: ASCENSION, and mirrors held up to ourselves

"This is a mirror being held up to a person. It's an art installation. It's a living, breathing thing that you interact with. And it will only be unlocked based on how far you're willing to go."
- Darren Lynn Bousman

"None of you understand. I'm not locked up in here with you. You're locked up in here with me."
- Rorschach

Two quotes that, combined, encapsulate my experience on Friday night at The Tension Experience: Ascension.

This is going to take some explaining, and it's going to get personal.

Recently I had a surreal conversation with a friend from high school who made a confession to me that took me completely by surprise. A confession that he could have made twenty years ago when it mattered, but now comes twenty years too late and no longer DOES matter beyond fond memories and ego stroking and reflections on how stupid we all are at that age, how limited our perspectives on our selves and others really can be. After the confession he also said that he wished we were closer friends now, and that we were more regularly in touch now. I thought to myself, dude, we are 40. Not 80. Unless someone isn't telling me something - and that happens regularly, so it's a distinct possibility - there is no reason why we can't be closer friends now, and be more regularly in touch now. But shortly after attempting to do this it became clear to me that he wanted to discuss high school, and sit in the past, and think about those times and those memories, not talk about the 20 years since, or what's going on today.

Normally I would not write something personal about someone else publicly, but in this case I'm 99% certain he is not going to read it, because he isn't interested in who I am. He's interested in who he WAS.

Moments like these highlight a profound difference in how I interact with people and it hits me like a fresh ton of bricks every damn time. People do make me uncomfortable. Please don't read into what I'm about to say that they don't. But I think in many ways that I often make THEM more uncomfortable than they make me.

I engage with the world as myself all of the time. This causes pain and stress because it's difficult for me to move from the role of Megan the Wife to Megan the Designer to Megan the Professor to Megan the.....whatever. I'm not any of those things, I am Megan. And I'm in the process of trying to put up Big Beautiful Walls in my brain between these parts of myself so that I can partition different selves off from one another and interact in more productive ways with people. But in the meantime, it can be difficult. I hide my feelings to the extent that I feel an adult should hide her feelings and I am able to do so, but that's it. I will react to things, truthfully, painfully, joyfully. loudly, quietly, tearfully. When people I care about hurt, I hurt for them. I cry when talking about the situation of women's health care in Texas because it's important, it's THAT important to me, and that's the right response to things that are important. I also can frequently get emotional when talking passionately about anything or anyone I love. It can be really freaking annoying to be in the middle of a conversation with someone and have to stop and say "no my eyes just leak water like that for no reason."

So when it comes to that mirror that Tension put in front of me, I don't know that it reflected back to me what the creators intended, but it did reflect something back. This past summer, the mirror showed me that the words "friendship" and "community" have different meanings to me than they do to others, and moving forward I need to remember that next time I engage fully in an online world. Who I am does not read well over 1's and 0's. My intentions have repeatedly been misconstrued and I am not blaming anyone for that except myself - I'm in Rome, not doing what the Romans do. And I've been here for nearly 40 years, still not doing it.

More accurately, I'm in Minnesota, doing what a New Hampshirite/Texan hybrid does. And there's no translator microbe on the planet that will help with that. Shortly after moving last year, I was actually having small moments of panic where I would repeat entire conversations to people and ask them to tell me what they meant. Because Minnesotans don't say what they mean. And I was assuming they did, because I do.

* * *

When others say that they are looking for the experience found in "The Game," the 1997 Fincher film, I think what they are saying is they are looking for a cool experience. And what I am saying is I'm looking for a real experience. A better comparison is to John Fowles's The Magus, which many believe was ripped off by "The Game." If you are familiar with "The Game" and not with The Magus, just stop reading this right now and go read that, because there is something wrong with you.

(Incidentally, while trying to come up with a thank you gift for the creators of Tension, I came across a signed first edition hardcover of The Magus. $1600. No, I did not buy it, but DAMN.)

It's been a very long time since I read the book, but the difference is in the level of reality the protagonist believes he is in. I don't care about spoiling a book that's 50something years old so...there is a point in The Magus where a character who committed suicide in the beginning of the book, before any of the crazy shit hit the fan, before "the game" starts at all, steps out of a car in front of her ex-boyfriend, the protagonist. It's messed up. Beyond messed up. The game that the protagonist endures in that book causes him to fall in love, to believe he's saving lives, to really live and to feel in the moment. What he is put through in that book creates real emotions, real reactions, not theatrics and acting.

When I say I want what's real, that is the feeling I'm talking about.
When I had my first encounter with Hecate, there was a part of me that fell in love a little.

Repeatedly over the past several months I've had real emotions and been laughed at for it. That's fine, it's not the first time and won't be the last. I've had people who've known me since breakfast commenting with authority on what I can and can't handle. Lovely. I have listened (read) and listened (read, because it's the internet, not actual physically present conversation) to participants having difficulties with other participants, to participants having difficulties with creators, and even to creators having difficulties with participants, and I've tried to step through several of those problems in different ways, hopefully with empathy and logic at the same time. Those conversations meant something to me, though I'm not really sure if that was reciprocated.

One of the major touchstones that the creators have come back to repeatedly with the themes of Tension is the subject of presence in an age of digital communications and social media. And from my experience, there is so much to unpack there. I remember the June Echo Park dead drop distinctly, and coming back to Terami's house afterward to find that she had been on Twitter when my Periscope went up, and she'd seen the whole thing. I sat down and told her about it, my phone on vibrate (because it's never on) in my purse. And at some point the conversation shifted from that to books to art to pottery, and she said one of the most beautiful things I'd ever heard, I'm going to get it wrong (sorry Terami) - that pottery was the "recording of a gesture." Which brought tears to my eyes, still does. And we talked and talked and talked for maybe two or three hours about art, and life, over tea, with Steve the cat.

And then I realized my phone was vibrating.
I had a TON of messages. People wanting to know where I was. Why I hadn't logged on to Slack after the Tension dead drop. Why hadn't I logged on to the forums. Tension wanting to know why I hadn't gone to the forums to share things. Friends wanting to know if Tension had thrown me in the back of a van after the park. I was so frustrated that I spent the rest of the evening  passive-aggressively asking for people's permission to leave my computer or phone and go do a thing somewhere else (yes, I do learn a few Minnesotan tricks).

Later in the summer I had an unfortunate moment where I called the creators of Tension out for something publicly on the forums. I deeply regretted doing it, but I have to admit that even months later I'm not entirely sure what other reaction they had expected me to have to what they were doing, given the claims of feeling like they "know" me. Regardless, I apologized, and then got really emotional. But I wanted to turn it into something positive, so I tried to channel the emotions that I was feeling into some sort of positive change for myself and went back to the forums as supportive enthusiastic Megan, even though inside I was tearing myself apart every day. That's one thing that no one has ever really understood about the years of work I've put into myself: I haven't gotten "better," I've just gotten better at pretending that things are fine. I've gotten better at making others comfortable. I have never managed to figure out how to actually be kinder to myself.

* * *

There are Ascension spoilers going forward, you have been warned.

Some things about immersive/interactive theatre are set up for me to fail. Ascension places you in a group of 8-9 people and I knew none of the people with whom I was seeing it - they all knew each other. I was the only "Apostle of the Beginning" in my group, one of the players from the summer. It started off beautifully, when I had the most agency. My favorite moments were in one of the earliest rooms where I interacted with several different actors, including Emilie Autumn, and because I am me, tried to engage personally with them, and to some extent succeeded. Except there was one member of my group who just kept saying "what are you doing? what is she saying? why are you talking to her? what does this mean? how does he know your name?" I snapped at that guy a few times, came very close to explaining to him that in New Hampshire we don't talk to each other and I prefer it that way. Engage with the work, not with ME. Engage with the characters, with the actors, not with ME. I can NOT be the most interesting thing in this room to you, dude. If that's the case just give me the $125 you spent on this ticket, because that's what it's going to cost for me to put up with your annoying questions.

Next room, there was a moment where I thought I saw how screwed I was. As has been discussed I am not good with being told what to do. And when I get angry in a situation where I need to shut up and be compliant, I do with with a lot of rage in my eyes that I don't consciously put there. The man in the next room, I think, saw that, and he locked eyes with me and said something like "just give in, trust me." Those words have meaning to me, and impact.

Next room, drill sergeant guy spends a LOT of time an inch from my face, yelling at me. I think moreso than the others, though they probably felt the same. And it was probably, again, that I was locking eyes with him and not backing down. And the more he yelled at me, the more I locked eyes, and the more he yelled...and again, I thought, I'm so screwed. Because this was playing directly on ME and things specific to me, reactions I specifically have. And I thought, was this going to be 2 hours of THIS, until I broke and cried? How long would that be? Most people give up before they get me to that point.

I had been given a mysterious key and ended up with a thing in my hands as a result. This thing (I don't want to give details here) ended up being a trick that didn't work, but the way that I read it was that it was a trick INTENDED for me to not work. And I even mentally filled in the blanks, I really thought I'd fucked up, I'd broken things, and then thought no, they did this to me to make me think I did. And, again, I thought - I'm screwed. They're playing directly on me, my fears of messing things up, of missing out on things.

After that, though, my sense of alienation from the rest of my group set in because I saw just how much I was Other. I wanted to engage with this piece of art deeply and seriously, and I think they wanted Legends of the Hidden Temple. They wanted a puzzle box to figure out and I wanted catharsis.

There's another thing that deeply informs my experience of Ascension that I can't really get into here, but suffice to say that I know very, very well how to endure pain and discomfort in order to get through an experience. There isn't a part of me that questions whether I will safeword out of something like this due to physical distress. It has to be psychological. There comes a point in this where you are made to drink something. I was the last person in my group to drink, and heard the reactions from everyone before me. At that point I knew, I just had to do it. It was an ordeal, and that was all. But in that moment, I'm no longer in the moment. I'm completely in my head, putting up the defense mechanisms necessary to do this thing, accomplish this task, and get through it. Right after that there was something we had to eat that was being sold to us as "flesh" of some kind, and the girl three people down from me didn't want to eat meat. I felt bad for her, and wanted to say to her, just do it, it isn't meat, it's going to be fine. Of course I didn't know what it was, still really don't, and don't really care. It wasn't a live caterpillar, that's what was important to me. But again, I don't think I was mentally and emotionally where they wanted me to be - I was with her, wanting to help her.

Regarding the Rorschach quote - at one point I was handed a cup and told they needed a sample. The man then turned his back on me. And I didn't know what to do. I asked him if he really wanted me to pee, not because I was uncomfortable for myself but because I was uncomfortable for him, and for the people backstage I knew were watching. I was willing to do it. I'm not locked up in here with you. You're locked up in here with me.

And, at the end, when I was being sacrificed to Anoch for the cult, I couldn't see but I could hear the cries of people trying to save me. I could hear their voices. And I could tell that they didn't believe I was really dead/dying/hurt/in danger. And again, I thought back to The Magus, and my brain starts going...what do I have to do to make them FEEL those very real feelings? Not to act like they're feeling them, but really to feel them?

And what do I have to do to make myself feel them?

I still don't know the answer to that question.

* * *

Afterwards in a bar over drinks one of my friends said "yeah, Megan, what you're looking for is out there - it's called snuff." I know he was joking but part of him wasn't, and it was an exaggeration of the truth, but the experience that I'm thinking of does not exist.

So. What scares me?
At one point I was seated in front of a camera and told to say my goodbyes to the world. In that room a man was standing facing the corner. Was he there because someone knew of my panic attack during the final scene of Blair Witch Project in the middle of the movie theatre in 1999?

I think what I've concluded from this is that, surprisingly, shockingly, what scares others simply doesn't scare me. I don't know why. And maybe people *are* only interested in playing pretend, and going along with something, and I come along and ruin their fun by pointing out when things are obviously fake. It goes back to a first day in grad school when we had to go around and talk about ourselves, name one thing that scared us, and they got to me and my answer was "climate change." And the room kind of just died. Because they didn't mean FOR REAL. They meant for fun.

So what the mirror has shown me, Tension, is that what I am is still outside of others' comfort zones. And I still don't really know what to do with that. I don't know if that makes me an impossible audience member/participant or not. Maybe I just need to come to some terms with that and keep going.

Let's set one thing straight here: I did not hate the show.
And I really, really dislike grapevine gossip.
I would really, respectfully, like to ask everyone associated with Tension - creators, participants, everyone - to talk TO me and not about me.
Other things transpired last night that made yesterday a very difficult day, and finding out that there was a rumor going around that I "hated" the show and had "very negative reactions" to it was upsetting.
My oldest friend's father died. I've known him since I was three. I have a vivid memory of my friend and her mom holding each other at my mom's funeral nearly 30 years ago, and I can't be there to do that for her.
On top of that, another friend tried to kill me with Bernie Sanders laser beams in his eyes because I have not bought into a carefully constructed narrative about Hillary Clinton that I've been sold for twenty years.  Because I'm not fucking stupid. And another friend told me that my dreams were impossible and I should give up. (cue Locke, in his wheelchair, screaming "DON'T TELL ME WHAT I CAN AND CAN'T DO!")
If you can't take the time to have a conversation with me about the show, then don't bother having a conversation about my reaction to it. I have put a lot of time and love into this, and effort in pushing it out to communities beyond the haunt community. I believe wholeheartedly and enthusiastically in this work and still do. That hasn't wavered one bit. This is really, truly a case of "it's not YOU it's ME." YOU are locked in here with ME. Just like I have been for 39.9 years.
If my reaction and opinion matters it has to matter in conversation with me. I am allowed, as a human being, someone who has had no sleep, who has been stuck at an airport with a demon horse from hell, someone who had a two-Relpax migraine yesterday AND all of the above stuff happen, to vent emotionally to people.
If you are one of those people to whom I vented emotionally, you're right, I should have been more discerning in my choice of friends. That is a thing I need to work on and have needed to work on for awhile. I have poor judgement when it comes to moments when I'm tired and emotional and passionate about something, and there's a person who is asking me "so what did you think?????????" I own that mistake. There is no need to go running back to someone to report on what I said.

You should probably be aware, going forward, of what you're getting when you ask me questions like "what did you think of this thing I created?" or "what's your greatest fear?" I really, really wish - you have no idea how badly - that I knew how to not tell the truth, or how to "play," or how to not just be brutally honest and kill all the fun in a room. I come from a close-knit community of theatre artists that DOES NOT ask my opinion on their work unless they really and truly want it because it's in a venue where having that opinion is valued and respected highly (this is most often true in the immersive/gaming/interactive realm of theatre). Unless your name is David Bowie, I will not ever respond as a "fan." I am a theatre artist with two decades of professional experience. This is what I do. I will respond critically, honestly, always, because I care an amount you can't even spell, and I want to find out if we can answer questions about performance and immersive theatre and games and all of that fun stuff together more than anything in the world.

If you're asking what I'm afraid of you're going to get genuine fear, not things that go bump in the night. Be prepared to hear that I really don't think the environment can be saved. Know that there are lots of things I keep to myself in order to make YOU feel a little less uncomfortable.

If you want to play Two Truths and a Lie with me...well, you don't. Let's just say that. If I had been asked to play that in that room I think the show would have just fallen down around me.

And if you are some guy who decides after 20 years to tell me that 20 years ago you loved me, don't follow it up with talk about how you wish we were more in touch and closer now. I am here now. And when I say I am willing to be friends I am ALL IN. But I'm not interested in who we were then. Or in what songs by The Cure you thought were the most awesomenest. I'm interested in You. Me. This moment. Here. Now. The recording of a gesture while the clay is still wet, not the dusty thing sitting on my bookshelf half-forgotten that I made before I knew what art and life even were.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Shifting of the gaze.

On Tuesdays I have my students bring in images they find compelling, and we discuss each one of them in turn and why - attempting to keep the discussion to elements of design, or the storytelling that might be going on in the image. (Thanks, Laura Eckelman, for this exercise!) Sometimes that can be difficult - why THIS IMAGE, not the movie it's advertising or the book that it's from or the memories it evokes, but the image we are looking at on this paper. It's also challenging to get students in both a digital world AND an increasingly environmentally conscious one to work with actual paper. I love that Mac students are as aware as they are and as enthusiastic about making change, but it can be a challenge for art and design classes where resources are consumed.

Recently one student brought in this image:

I don't actually know the story behind this image, where it's from, who to attribute it to, and I will be happy to do that if someone can tell me. The discussion that it sparked was interesting though, and has had me thinking on several different tangents since that day about this culture we find ourselves in, the direction of our "gaze" and what that means.

Given that I know nothing about the image I'm about to make all sorts of egregious mistakes and my art history friends will start shaking their heads at me and petitioning to take my MFA away, but here goes. What I'm seeing when I look at this is either a Greek or Roman or Renaissance-like statue, or one intended to be taken as such, which is supposed to depict a woman perhaps dancing, uninhibited, unaware of her self. The gaze through which we are seeing this is not her own but the artist's, presumably male, but the point is that it's someone else's. Through the addition of the cell phone the gaze turns inwards - now, instead of dancing or being uninhibited, she is extremely self-aware. She is watching herself, photographing herself, possibly even not dancing but arranging her hair to get the perfect selfie. We aren't really looking at this through someone else's gaze anymore but seeing her simultaneously through another's and through her own.

And here's where there is a cultural shift that I can't quite reconcile. To many, this shift is seen as a positive thing - instead of being trapped by the presumably male gaze, she is now admiring herself. And I get that, I really do. However I wonder if we are too quick to equate the motivations behind the sculpting of the human body during these periods with the obsession we have today with objectifying the female body. Not all art depicting nudity is the same, it's not all bad, it's not all objectifying, and it's not all done through a leering male gaze. Much of it was a celebration of the beauty of the human body.

At the same time I wonder if we are too quick to defend the selfie culture. I don't really have a problem with selfies, though I frequently have a hard time understanding the need to take them (other people take much better photographs of you than you do if you hold the camera out at arm's length, you know). I've seen defenses of it that talk about wanting to see people post positive images of themselves, which is great, that's much better than the swirling negativity I live with inside my head vis a vis myself on a daily basis. It could be said that a selfie celebrates the self in a way that Renaissance art celebrated the human body. But how much do we really need to celebrate OURSELVES?
I don't think it's unknown, but good try.
The above quote is on a sign that hangs behind the counter at the art supply store near my house. It's within walking distance which means I spend too much time and too much money there, and see this quote far too often, and each time I do I think the same thing - what if life just isn't about yourself at all? Forget finding yourself, creating yourself, celebrating yourself. We are wrapped up in so many issues today that revolve around the self and we forget just how privileged we are to even be able to think about those issues. We are so wrapped up in celebrating ourselves that we even have a tendency to vilify anyone who wants to celebrate another person - see: the male gaze regarding the above statue. I'm not talking about sexual harassment and women learning to take catcalling as somehow a "compliment" - that's gross and ridiculous, and obviously unwelcome. But we even have two presidential candidates that exemplify this - one who has spent her life in the service of others, and one who has spent his life in the service of himself, and she is being cast as the villain.

The other thing to remember about the selfie culture and social media in general is that we are NOT celebrating ourselves. We are celebrating a carefully curated version of ourselves. To say that who we are on Facebook is genuinely who we are in real life is a joke. We are all politicians online, all of us making sure that our "image" is what we want it to be.

Today I'm going to attempt to not think about myself beyond the necessities and practicalities. I'm not going to worry about who likes me, who doesn't like me, whether anyone finds me funny or reads what I write or likes what I post online, who respects me or my work, whether I do anything of any importance or not, what my "identity" is and if I've stayed true to it and if others have violated it. Or - whether I've been too emotional and have put off people with it - that's a big one for me. I'm just going to get my work done and try to be a good person.

I would like to be uninhibited by all of that, unaware of myself.
It really doesn't matter what I do, my cats won't respect me anyway.

Notes from Dublin: Rambling, Emotional, Barely Coherent.

This has been a strange two weeks to be in another country, especially one that isn't a major world power. Ireland doesn't have the ...