As it happens, inspiration for What We Leave Behind had been forming before the project came to life. Months before the project was even a thought, I was introduced to the work of Dallas Willard. His writing and speaking, rooted in the context of Jesus Christ, speak to the idea of human formation. I was coming out of an experience with severe burnout and found it easy to relate his ideas. Even more, I found connections between his propositions around human choice and action, and the 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 fueled What We Leave Behind.
The second point of inspiration for What We Leave Behind 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 videos of paint slowly spreading on wet paper, turning into something her initial choice could not dictate, that I approached her for a collaboration. While that collaboration never materialized, 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 What We Leave Behind: “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. This truth, 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 What We Leave Behind 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, six movements would be expressed: Coming to Choice, The Interruption, The Application, What is Good?, Imposition, and Indirect Action.
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 video shoot was next. I had scouted to venues that I thought would be good for what we hoped 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. I would be thinking about the theme of the movement but nothing more would be prepared. There would be no second takes, and no going back. The boards would capture the marks left by my dancing. The camera would capture the sounds and the movement. I was nervous. I wouldn’t know if anything really worked until I started working with the video files.
Each video file needed to be treated to provide the desired effect. I had to create what is called a mask in order to separate the clip of my dancing from the background. The stark colors helped in this process but it turned out that not everything could be easily separated. Using automated mechanisms (meant to make the process more time efficient) caused areas of my dancing to be cut off. In short the automated systems couldn’t discern where the line of separation actually needed to be. I ended up having to engage in a significant amount of rotoscoping – a technique of making mask by painting it frame-by-frame – to make sure the clip of my dancing would be clean. As I went through this process I reflected a lot 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 it comes to what actually makes us different or the same.
One of the beautiful things about this journey is the amount that I have been shaped by it. It happened through the residency, the actual work, and finally the teaching of the course. Throughout the process of creating the artwork I was writing. In addition to the essays for each movement I would prepare course material. 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 thinking, which was the whole point in the first place. Not just for me, but for everyone involved. Transformation begins by inquiring about the way in which we think.
What We Leave Behind began as an inquiry around how we think about change. The project aimed to ask number of questions. What if we looked at the world as something that is made over time rather than some we can institute? What if transformation (for example from a racial to post-racial society) is something that is a function of small, daily choices rather than large scale efforts? Instead of thinking about transformation as something we instigate or impress upon others, what if we thought about it as something each of us have a responsibility in our own worlds? All these questions are meant to jar our possible assumptions about the way things work. I offer them here because they have, and continue to affect my way of thinking. Maybe these questions will do the same for you.