"DO YOU WANT TO BE RIGHT OR IN RELATIONSHIP?"
Chances are you've seen this quote bandied about in self-improvement circles, usually in the context of dating or marriage – one partner wants to be right and defends their point of view, the pair gets caught in a power struggle, unspoken expectations lead to feelings of unmet needs, an argument flairs, and the other partner is left on the attack, feeling defensive / powerless or even worse, gaslit.
This idea of “being in relationship” also resonates in the context of creativity and collaboration, particularly in this cultural moment as we consider the uneven power dynamics and privileges at play within our creative spaces, workplaces, institutions -- and, inside the larger social and cultural systems within which we work, create and live.
What might it mean to build a creative or collaborative process or, to work towards any individual or shared goal while trying to stay in relationship?
The truth is, we already ARE in relationship, but what kind?
What if being in right relationship and taking care of our relationships were our #1 priority - taking precedence over being right and even, for a moment, gasp, over a project's goal or outcome?
How might "being in relationship" change how we show up, how we problem solve, how we respond to harm or conflict (either done to or inflicted by us), and how might this approach begin to shift other aspects of our creative, collaborative and even, collective processes?
In bringing this lens to my creative collaborations, I find that being in and staying in relationship calls for slowing down, for a commitment to creating transparency and a process built on genuine participation, for ensuring access to the process across a full spectrum of needs, for establishing a set of shared (and not assumed) values & agreements for our work, for staying vulnerable (not just once but again and again), for making sustained efforts to reduce harm, to acknowledge and be held accountable to harm done and to ensure that relationships that have been broken, receive the necessary care of repair. And, all this happens before the art-making begins, or rather, as part of the art-making, and certainly before the final product or "show" goes on.
My artistic origins are in the theater, so this maxim that “the show must go on” is in my DNA. The idea that "no matter what happens the show must go on", is often upheld as a testament to the discipline, tenacious spirit and unwavering commitment of the theater artist, but it also speaks to our sacrifice, our ongoing exploitation and let’s be honest, the de-humanizing dangers of capitalism over our individual and collective well-being.
It seems to me that this maxim exists in direct anti-thesis to the relationship-centered model of collaboration that I (and many other artists before me and to the left and right of me who work within anti-oppressive frameworks) have been uplifting.
No matter what creative or collaborative field you call home, I’m wondering –
Who and what are you in relationship to or with in your work, and how conscious are you inside those relationships?
If you were to fully embrace this idea of “being in relationship”, essentially taking care of peoples’ well-being before product, valuing the means as much as the ends, looking for right (and by right I mean, not perfect, but conscious) relationship in all aspects of your process from start to finish, how might this ethos transform not what you are collaborating on -- but what you are collaborating towards?
What else are you in relationship to as you collaborate and create you art? What ideas, histories, institutions, systems, structures, processes might you unwittingly or consciously be in cahoots with?
What does your Art of Being In Relationship look like?
As a white, able-bodied person with unearned privilege, and also as a queer artist, a parent, daughter, partner, citizen, and human animal living in a complex and tender ecosystem – I approach being in relationship as an ongoing life and creative practice. Many days this practice is a big fat flop and my perfectionism, fear of not getting it right, or my need to create a polished outcome, diverts my attention to the end goal thereby sacrificing relationality. Other days, I make progress - engaging in a process of conscious co-creation with collaborators that calls for deeper self and social awareness, and that enables the collaborators to render an artistic outcome that respects the difficult, awkward and tender negotiations of getting into right relationship as part of the work.
In any given moment, we, artists, can ask ourselves: Who and what am I in relationship to right now and how conscious am I in those relationships? If I find myself needing to be "right", what becomes possible when I shift my attention and intention to getting into right relationship -- to people and to the world around me?
Image by Sister Corita Kent
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Familiar with this Chinese proverb?
While a few of you may be energized by the possibility of taking off on a thousand mile journey towards a distant, yet-unknown future destination, chances are, many of you feel daunted by the prospect. Wow, a thousand miles? I was about to strap on my knapsack and lace up my sensible walking shoes, but I’m already feeling worn out, and a little discouraged.
Or, maybe, like me, you feel both ways at once? Ready, eager and yearning to step into something new and challenging, and also fearful. Is this journey gonna be hard? But I want to grow! Is it gonna lead anywhere satisfying and rewarding? But I value surprise and risk! Am I gonna make the same mistakes/choices as I have before and end up more-or-less back where I started? But messing up is part of learning. Is this a loop trail cause I want to be on the mountaintop?!
For the non-starters in the group, the pre-conditions for your journey may need to feel just right before you can begin. You need the perfect starting point, plenty of free time, all the right gear, snacks, good weather, and you just need to finish just this ooooone other thing before we set off.
Others of you may have no problem taking that first, or even second or third step, but maybe you get lost, distracted, lose hope or direction along the way? Maybe you like to have multiple thousand step journeys going on at once like open tabs on a computer screen? For the non-finishers, you may set off with gusto and then get sucked into self-doubts, blocks or battles with your inner critic along the way.
Whether you’re challenged by starting or completing a creative project, or a bit of both - there’s a certain degree of perfectionism in play that can stymie progress, no matter where we are along the way.
An offering: Whether you‘re currently trying to start or complete something right now, can you embrace an attitude of ready enough, or finished enough?
I had a dance teacher who would end each of her classes by saying, “we’ll stop here for now” – which to me, suggested that our work was not complete, but part of a continuum. Her comments conveyed that we’d return next week to pick up where we left off or we’d meet ourselves wherever we’d find ourselves then.
The same logic applies to starting a project, try this out: “I’m gonna start here for now”.
If we can develop a softer relationship to our perfectionism, our need to “get it right”, our pressure for polish – all rigid standards that much of mainstream society normalizes and perpetuates (and that have roots in white supremacy culture, btw) – then perhaps we can begin to make space for other values and norms to come forward: the values of vulnerability, authenticity, experimentation, exploration and growth.
These values 👆are the playground (and the creative ground) of the artist and anyone earnestly attempting to take on something new and challenging.
How can you apply the idea of “ready enough”, “finished enough”, “we’ll start here for now” and “we’ll end here for now” in your life and/or creative pursuits? How can you hold true to the values of vulnerability, authenticity, experimentation, exploration or growth as you begin or move on from a project?
What old beliefs or norms might you need to shed to embrace these new mindsets?
What might be possible if you were ready or finished enough and could start or stop here for now?