Eight tips on creativity and work from a professional performance artist

Breakthroughs will come.
Breakthroughs will come.
Image: Reuters/Luke MacGregor
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1 – Deadlines are your friend

Putting pen to paper and coming up with a coherent text has never been an easy task for me, so when invited to participate in a “major book project” and to offer insight and advice to artists starting out in the field, I was flattered but hesitant.

Plagued by a horrible sense of direction, an inability to distinguish the forest for the trees and no knack for ordering stories, it gave me pause. After years of being on the semester plan, it’s odd that I should be thrown into a tizzy by an assignment.

But since prioritizing has never been a strong suit, the only thing that forces me to focus is a deadline. Most people understand deadlines, but not everyone will be sympathetic when you’re under one. If you’re working on a project of your own, be happy that you’re on a deadline—and be careful with whom you share your feelings.

2 - Start with what you know

If you’re having a hard time getting the creative juices churning, try starting with what you know, whether it’s a story from childhood, a collection of buttons or marbles, an old drawing or an anecdote—the objective is to get busy. Don’t feel that you have to reinvent the wheel; be patient and hopefully something will come from it. If you’re on a deadline, try not to indulge your insecurities; get the job done, and wait until the reviews come in before facing the self-fulfilling prophecy that you are indeed a fraud.

Years ago, I was working on a performance for The Kitchen, a venue in New York. As my deadline loomed on the horizon, a sense of dread and panic took hold of me. In a rare moment of clarity, I realized that I was spending more time at my refrigerator than at my desk, and seeing as I was preparing for a show at The Kitchen, I figured why not make the performance site-specific, relocate my refrigerator and make it the central focus of the evening?

A title came to mind, and eventually took form. I met my deadline and did the show, which was followed by a review. Instead of praising me, the critic took me to task for using the phrase “avant-garde humour” to describe my work in the press release. He went on to carefully take apart my performance, demonstrating how many of the jokes were in fact wellworn comedy tropes, hardly avant-garde.

It was a total drag, but at least my self-loathing was momentarily redirected elsewhere. Some years later, I realized he was right and made a point never to use that term again when referring to my work.

3 – Balance

Before I was a performance artist, I was a young, very serious formal painter. For a few years, it was comforting to be alone in the studio—just me with the canvas, engaged in marks generating marks, colour adjustments, balance and composition, until I got it just right.

I was so involved with a particular approach to painting that I couldn’t consider work outside my formalist purview. In fact, I would have dismissed the kind of art I make today. It wouldn’t have seemed serious enough. This closed-off attitude worked fine until it didn’t.

After long stretches of looking at a blank canvas and nothing coming of it except incredible anxiety, it became apparent that I needed to get out and distract myself from myself. Fortunately, this quest coincided with a reverse maturation process that I was going through at the time.

Drugs, drinking, dancing and dating helped me shed decades, after acting middle-aged for so long. In addition to losing years off my life, I no longer had the need for a large studio space. I felt lucky, portable and adaptable, able to work on any clean, flat surface. If a window was nearby to look out of, I was in the lap of luxury. Meanwhile, my painter and object-maker friends were scrambling to pay for their oversized lofts.

I worked a couple days a week cleaning houses and soon learned that I had a knack for it. It makes sense. I’m a tidy guy, and when I’m not running back and forth to the refrigerator, I’m stacking and ordering piles of papers in the studio. Since my spaces have always been modest, I’m able keep my piles to a minimum.

4 – Everything takes time

Time is perhaps an artist’s most important resource. There are many artists who spend years going from residency programme to residency programme. I’ve only attended one residency, a two-week stint that was more like Club Med than the Rome Prize, so my opinion is based on limited knowledge.

However, from what I can tell, these professional residency artists have figured out a way to buy time in the studio and avoid dealing with the workaday world.

During the 1980s, public funding for individual artists was much more available than it is today. I was fortunate enough to benefit, and it wasn’t until the early 1990s that I realized the gravy train had dried up and I was up to my ears in debt.

With no visible skills or idea of how to earn a living, I was ready to seriously consider teaching. I got one class and then another; work begot work, as grants beget grants.

I’m not familiar with residencies, but I get the feeling that the same might be the case with them: residencies beget residencies. A particular group of artists seems to turn up at residency after residency, similar to the festival/biennial phenomenon.

A specific skill-set is required: terse application prose coupled with a proven history helps ensure acceptance. It’s not unlike the professional tennis circuit where familiar names lend legitimacy.

Face it, people in authority have much on their minds and on their plates, so endorsing someone already vetted is easier and safer than stepping out on a limb for someone new. Good luck in your attempt to buy free time in the studio.

5 - Read emails carefully

A hasty glance may cause unnecessary complications, missed opportunities, or a waste of your energy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stopped reading letters that start with “I regret to inform you…”

Many of these same letters also offer consolation and hope for the future. Be sure to scroll down and read your emails carefully, if not at first then later. When the email came inviting me to take part in this project, I immediately noticed the subject box: An invitation to contribute to a new Phaidon publication.

When I finally realized it wasn’t a solicitation for a benefit but a book project, my interest was piqued. The project had a working title of Art School and the editors were assembling wisdom from some of the “world’s most respected artists.” As I mentioned previously, I was flattered and continued to read.

They were looking for 1,500–2,500 words, accompanying images, readings, a resource list and images of my own work. The more I thought about it, the more work it seemed to involve. I closed the computer and looked inside my refrigerator. A week later, I reviewed the email and began to fixate on the title, Art School. The mere mention of the word “school” and the thought of administrative chores sent me into a familiar panic.

Why is it, after twenty years of teaching at the college level, which I got into based on decades of experience as an artist, that I still go through incredible insecurity every time I feel as if I’m being held accountable for what I teach, its value and effectiveness in preparing young artists for life beyond the institution?

6 - Don’t throw anything away

Keep a notebook—and I mean keep it. You never know when it will come in handy down the line.

Stacking notebooks on a table can give one a sense of accomplishment. Looking through old notes and transcribing them into newer, thicker notepads can also provide distance from projects that never came to fruition; in other words, a productive way to avoid a sense of futility.

Obviously, notebooks are easy to store and don’t take up much space, unlike storage for sculptures and installations. Sounds expensive? It is. But let’s say some interest in your older work does develop—try replacing time-stamped materials and lost objects years later.

eBay is great for some things, but unless you have unlimited amounts of money and time to spend online, it’s best to hold onto your stuff for as long as possible. If you can’t bear to look at it, buy a tarp, cover it up and guard against possible future water damage.

7 - Less is more

After paying out heaps of money on storage for old props and materials, i.e. refrigerators and cinder blocks, I’ve increasingly come to appreciate Mies van der Rohe’s aphorism “less is more.”

It’s a good rule to invoke, especially if you’re contemplating a trajectory in performance art: a little bit of skill or modicum of talent can go a long way in the art context. If you’re considering milking the quotidian, a simple activity with a beginning, middle and end can be very seductive for an audience familiar with watching paint dry.

You’ll be surprised by how many layers of your onion an audience is willing to unpeel and discuss. Would you rather lug a fanny pack or steamer trunk from one venue to another? Be practical—the exchange rate for the metaphors you can pack up in either is pretty damn close.

8 - If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

There’s a certain beauty to being a hack. It implies that one has found a way to get the job done efficiently.

A hack avoids anxiety when an assignment is presented. Why it’s considered a pejorative term escapes me. I’m impressed when someone can deliver without much effort. My own drawing (and possibly writing) style has changed very little since I was a child.

I’m not sure if it’s because I immediately jumped into abstraction and refused to learn how to render the figure, or because of complete ineptitude. In any case, I somehow made it work for myself and, along the way, figured out how to make mistakes seem like ideas.

Fun at Home, a crayon drawing made when I was eight years old, shows surprising sensitivity to symmetry and balance, both still important to me to this day. Fortunately, there’s an accompanying essay to explain that the picture is of my father giving me my allowance. If one were to look only at the drawing, one would be hard-pressed to know what kind of exchange was going on between the two figures: dancing, waving, a stand-off?

I learned a lot from my father, but one thing I learned for sure is a concern for time. My father was a businessman. He was obsessed with time and judged people’s characters according to punctuality. Obviously, I didn’t follow in his footsteps, but he provided a model and a way to think about business in relation to survival, failure and/or success.

I wish I had more to say about money, like how to earn it or manage it, but I don’t. One important lesson that artists should learn is not to expect to draw an allowance from their art.

Very few make a living from their work. If they do, more power to them. My only advice is to find a way to support yourself that does not make you feel compromised, and if you’re lucky, makes you comfortable and happy.