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A picture manipulated to look like a photo of a painting of an empty room in black and white

I can be confusing at the best of times, so I want to clarify this. (Ha! – ed.)

An image is not a picture.

What is an image? What is imagination? What is imaging? What is the/an imaginary? Some of you with certain specific histories and experiences can probably stop here because you may get the point. Lo, it may not even be you I am talking to. And a word to the wary, this is not philosophical, scientific, or linguistic foray into these questions. It is a practical, artistic exercise.

If you travel even just across the threshold of academic writing it is easy to come across familiar words used in unfamiliar ways. Nouns used as verbs, newly — and sometimes awkwardly — forged compound neologisms that (seem to) require lengthy exegesis and substantiation to justify their use (and by extension, to rationalize the existence and purpose of the writing and writer). Oof. This is apparently an existential attribute of academic writing (and I know the line between academic and “non-academic” writing is blurry and fraught (another one of my favorite academic words).

Okay, look: I’m not a complete Luddite. I acknowledge there are subtleties and nuances that demand hard-won meticulous efforts to try to bring something important and delicate into existence — and that this is as true of academic writing as it is of artistic endeavor, or of plumbing (fight me). And I deeply believe in the importance of getting thought OUT THERE in the world. But it is equally true that for any of these hard-won notions to find their way into a circulation beyond the conferences and journals, post-faculty meeting venting sessions, and college-town bar freakouts, the more subtle and elaborate the means of getting this language to be accurate the more difficult it is for these ideas to land in the larger world. (And usually by the time they make it out, they — and the worlds they fit into — have changed so much that they have become merely a short-hand for something much clunkier. And wrong.) So, naturally, I’m both conflicted AND ambivalent. (Or am I?)

But, to try and catch my earlier train of thought, (‘Which train?’ I hear you cry. ‘You’ve got an entire roundhouse going here!’ O my friend, welcome to the disorder of my head), ahem: An image is not a picture.

An image is the particular subset of “pictures” that are not necessarily visual, that are — like ideas, mental constructions (or maybe better: occurrences) that we interact with (sometimes thinking we’ve made them — or “had” them, sometimes thinking we only make use of them) as we go about our lives, fixing the plumbing and complaining about the weather (multiple metaphor alert) and that work in a reciprocal way on us.

Who do you want to be when you grow up? A plumber. Where do you want to be in five years? Healthy, wealthy, and wise. What do you want your legacy to be? The end of injustice in the world. The answers are images, expressed in language. Do you have a visual picture in your head of a plumber? Okay, what about “healthy, wealthy, and wise”? Often when we are asked about this, i.e. Do you have a picture in your head of this? (more usually it comes as a command or a request: “I want you to picture in your head…”) and we formulate one, at least semi-consciously. The visual is not always first or primary.

Image, then, is a term for something percolating in the mind (and body, of course! A penny has two sides but it’s still only one cent) that we can refer to, work on, have a metaphorical conversation with, and that will sometimes tell us what to do, where to go, or stump us with unreasonable demands and unanswerable questions. Metaphorically, of course, but also completely, deadly in earnest and for real-world stakes with real-world consequences.

As a theater artist (I am once again asking dispensation to allow me to temporarily claim this title before I shuffle it off in disgust, coiled around my feet, mortally), when I come up with an idea for a “show” (as I’ve recently taken to calling them, despite the term’s numerous drawbacks: it’s short and common, like I wish I was) I don’t usually have a visual picture in my head that needs to be manifested in the physical world. If I do have a visual picture, it is always subservient to the IMAGE that I have “in my head” (where else would it be? O man, don’t ask a choreographer that).

This image is hard to describe both in terms of its content and its form (if we are going to use these tools to open this box, let’s commit to them and see what comes out). This IMAGE is more like a set of criteria, floating in the darkness, tethered to their purpose and the world by a few invisible threads of seeming logic. What are these criteria for? How many are there? Who will be the judge of whether they are met or not? Who selected these criteria?

So many interesting questions that are more interesting to pose than to answer. Anyway.

Sometimes this IMAGE controls the real world. Sometimes the real world wreaks havoc on the IMAGE, deforming and/or amputating it through blind ignorance or malice.

Sometimes this IMAGE is so large and encompassing that it functions to structure the nature of the world, from behavioral choices to the sweep historical events. (These are never MY images, to be clear.)

And because we’re talking in language, because we’re talking about art, because we’re talking about mind and reality, we are talking about our old-time, once-favorite, glittering fantasy of mental gymanstication: REPRESENTATION. How does it happen? Who makes it happen? Why does it happen? What happens?

So I have chosen to use the word IMAGE to stand in language for this particular type of me-in-the-world instance that will go on (if I am lucky and determined enough) to be manifested in some kind of SHOW.

Next week, children, we begin to think about why the word “SHOW.”

these are some dots

So the idea came out of a bunch of dots. Back in February of 2020, pre-pandemic, I had watched American Psycho in preparation for an upcoming Screen event (I like to watch the movies first so I can present them with some kind of fore-knowledge, if possible). There is a murder scene in the movie where you don’t see the act, but just the splattering of blood. It was a case of the representation of violence without direct imitation of an act. I wanted to explore the possibilities of this in a live performance. I had been reading about the history of concentration camps and was interested in how decisions of violence get made, how they play out, and if there was a way to explore that violence in a visceral way without either actual violence or imitative representation. Not the first, because I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. And not the second because this is one of the misunderstandings of theater/live performance: it can look like a cheaper version of tv or a movie, and often functions that way because audiences have been trained to pretend they are going along with the amateurism of what they are being presented with on a stage, but that is theater in an identity crisis. Audiences do not need to have their ability to pretend-something-is real-when-it is-not reinforced. This version of “using your imagination” is deeply limited and fundamentally destructive to engaging in the political, social, economic, and cultural realities of life.

So anyway, I started throwing red paint against a large white paper on the wall. I was interested in whether and how watching someone throw this paint in a way that resembled a “blood splatter” might be read by an audience and what effect different contexts and circumstances might have on that live image. It may have developed into something, but we had to cancel rehearsals shortly after and I haven’t tried again.

But I did throw some game pieces on the wooden floor of my living room. It was interesting how the round black randomly arranged pieces lay against the straight lines of the maple floorboards. I started looking at representations of data online, especially scatter-plot graphs, with their juxtapositions of chaos and order, rationality and the irrational. How the multiplicity of dots were meant to represent a multiplicity of data. How the lines both embodied the dots and simultaneously demonstrated the distance between what the line represented and what the dots represented.

Then in the depth of the pandemic here, out of frustration and depression, I began to write imaginary scores for performances. Since I felt they would never get made, I felt I could describe things that would be impossible to realize. I wrote down “Impossible Performances” at the top of the page and started making things up. At first this impossibility was an aspect of my frustration and depression, but it quickly became a challenge — was this thing truly impossible to realize? Could I think of something more impossible? Looking back at them when Emily Gastineau at MNartists.org agreed to publish them, I saw that they were also explorations of the positions of audience/spectator and performer/performance. (Of course I was not the only one to have this idea.) Emily suggested that I include some images with this piece and I turned to what I had been playing with — data graphs, inverted night sky images, spills and splatters of different kinds, and photos of fallen petals.

Then the story takes over that I have been laying out occasionally on the ol’ Instagram feed. I think it was always going to have something to do with the pandemic, but after seeing the February 21 front page of the New York Times, I think I started to think of it as a kind of memorial. A memorial in motion, over time, in layers, incomplete, and ongoing.

So there’s some background. Do let me know if you have questions, comments, or suggestions. I’m out of a job and have a lot of time….

Don’t tell anyone, but despite what has been said or written in other places, Skewed Visions is not a company. Or a mission, or a set of values, or even a community. Skewed Visions is not even the people who founded it. Much less is it a Position, a Place, or Goal. But Skewed Visions is born out of the work we have done, are doing, and will do. (But what is that?)

Many artists have difficulty with grants, applications, and artist’s statements because this question requires an answer. Who are you as an artist? What is your work? It can be useful to come up with language that satisfies these questions, if only to slot yourself into a structure that can lend order to a messy and complex human range of processes, behaviors, and relationships (and get you some of that long green).

But when we tell ourselves the truth — which, I will be the first to admit, I had thought was only just my ignorance and inexperience rather than a real true thing that ought to be protected and nourished — we know that the tighter we hold to these predetermined structures, the looser is our grip on the deeper reality of what we are doing, thinking, believing, and how we engage all the messy and complex human range of processes, behaviors, and relationships.

So while thinking about this over the last couple days (usually in the shower or on the toilet, when, you know, I’ve got some “free time”) I threw away all the work produced in response to outside demand and let this question sit and bubble a little in the way that I do with what have been called “artistic” or “aesthetic” questions.

And here is a first rough draft…

Skewed Visions is rushing into the wrong restaurant by mistake, realizing you’re not where you should be but sticking around, so that before long every diner, every server, every plate, fork and crumb, every chair and every conversation, is a unique piece of evidence pieced together to forensically construct a perfect model of an irreplaceable slice of the world at this precise moment.

Skewed Visions is when you are searching through the dusty boxes in the attic of your childhood home and you come across a ribbon that is all that remains of your sister’s favorite security blanket you had completely forgotten about, but which suddenly takes your body back to when you could both sit side by side in one chair, listening to the radio.

Skewed Visions is when you meet someone you’ve never seen before but you feel like you’ve known them forever and you realize you’re already in love and that every future moment you spend with them will do nothing to augment this experience of intimacy and openness you feel right here and now.

I’m just here to take part in this as much as possible.