As it happens, inspiration for What We Leave Behind (WWLB) had been forming before the opportunity for the project even came to life. Months before WWLB was even a thought, I was introduced to the work of Dallas Willard. His writing and speaking, rooted in an intent following of Jesus Christ, speak directly to the idea of human formation. That is, how we become who we are becoming. I was coming out of an experience with severe burnout and found it easy to relate Dallas’s work. Even more, I found connections between his propositions around human choice and action, and my own practice of improvisational tap dancing. Both are undergirded by similar ideas: an honoring of individual choice, a recognition of the impact of our social relationships on such things, and the acknowledgement of many choices as automatic, to name a few. Dallas’s work served as a key to opening the thinking that undergirds What We Leave Behind.
The second point of inspiration for WWLB came from a visual artist. Julia Hendrickson’s work – contemplative, meditative, and generative – provided a visual reference to the ideas of choice and impact. I was so drawn to her process videos of paint slowly spreading on wet paper, turning into something her initial choice could not dictate, that I approached her about it. Our initial conversation, and the visual inspiration of her pieces were formative for this project.
Lastly the InBreak Residency provided the key questions that birthed WWLB: “What would a post-racial America look like?” and “How do we get there?” Considering what I might be able to uniquely bring to the conversation, the connections between tap dance, Dallas’s work, and Julia’s artwork began to form. Tap dancing, like many of our choices, leaves little visible trace. Yet, immense impact can happen through both. The combination of ephemerality and immense impact, is something that I’ve wrestled with as an artist for a long time. The six movements of WWLB came to life as I contemplated my own journey from discovery to engagement with regards to choice and impact. With Choice and Impact as the pillars, I decided on six movements: Coming to Choice, The Interruption, The Application, What is Good?, Imposition, and Indirect Action. Three would work to unveil the inner world of choice-making, while three would aim to reframe the way we approach impact.
The Making – Preparation
With the basic intention of the piece in place, I had to think through the method. How would each of these ideas be brought to life? How can tap dancing be used to talk about the relationship between choice and impact? I settled on two ideas. First, I would use digital video techniques to create manipulation videos of my dancing to illuminate the idea of trails (the consequences of choices). Second, I would use the boards themselves, treating the markings my shoes make as I dance as a physical manifestation of my choices. All the dancing would be improvised, just as many of the choices in life are. Further I would comment on reductionist ideas around race in the color schemes (a simple black/white motif). With these basic ideas in place I began preparing the materials.
I began with preparing the tap dance surfaces that would be used to capture the markings of each improvised performance. This included designing the specifications, choosing materials, and producing the final boards. This project was the first for which I built floors that were purposely painted – my preferred surface (by tradition) is unfinished hard wood. Adding the painting process added many hours to the preparation of the boards, and the disequilibration of a different texture when it finally came time to dance on them.
The Making – Performance
The video shoot was next. I selected two venues that I hoped would work for what I wanted to accomplish. The boards were ready. I had prepared six of them. One for each movement. Each performance would last roughly one minute, and be completely improvised. There was no accompanying music involved.
I began by meditating about the theme of each movement. I spent time thinking through want it meant to encounter choice, experience the interruption, or see impact as an imposition, for example. There were no practice takes, no second takes, and no going back. The boards captured the marks left by my dancing, in the moment, and without editing. The camera captured the movement while audio recording equipment captured the sounds. I was nervous. I wouldn’t know if anything really worked until after the performance was done.
The Making – Digital Video
The video recorded from each performance was then prepared through a process known as rotoscoping. I had an image in my mind of what I wanted to convey – this idea of my body leaving a trail as it moved through space. The trail would become an image, as if I was painting with my body.
In order to achieve the desired result, I had to create what is called a mask – in order to separate the image of my dancing from everything else that had been captured by the camera. The stark colors allowed me to use some automated tools in this process, but not everything could be easily separated. Using automated mechanisms (meant to make the process more time efficient) caused areas of my body to be cut off. The automated systems couldn’t discern where the line of separation between my body and everything else actually was. I ended up having to engage in a significant amount of rotoscoping – a technique of making a mask by painting it frame-by-frame – to make sure the clip of my dancing would be as clean as possible.
As I went through this process I reflected on the idea of “difference” that has caused so much pain in human history. In light of the automated system’s mistakes, I sat with the thought of how wrong we can be when using automatic thoughts, when it comes to what actually makes us different or the same.
The Making – The Ideas
One of the beautiful things about this journey is the amount that I have been shaped by it. The residency, the work, and the teaching of the course, all had a deep impact on me. Throughout the process of creating the artwork I was writing – working out my thinking. In addition to the essays for each movement preparing course material deepened my interaction with the ideas behind this project. Everything fed each other. The framework of the movements fed the art making, which fed the writing, which fed the course materials, which fed the participants feedback, which caused me to think about my own thinking and the framing of the entire project. This re-encountering of my thinking was the whole point of this project in the first place. Not just for me, but for everyone involved. Transformation begins by re-thinking.
What We Leave Behind began as an inquiry around how we think about change. The project aimed to ask a number of questions. What if we looked at the world as something that is made over time rather than some we can institute quickly? What if transformation (for example from a racial to post-racial society) is something that is a function of small, personal, and daily choices rather than large scale campaigns? Instead of thinking about transformation as something we instigate or impress upon others, what if we thought about it as something each of us has a responsibility to in our own lives and spheres of influence? All these questions are meant to jar our assumptions about the way things are and the way they might be. I offer them here because they have, and continue to affect my thinking. Maybe these questions will do the same for you?