Our final Artist-in-Residence of the 2015-2016 season is Eric F. Avery. His interactive site-specific work, The (Fabled) Life and (Imaginary) Death of Eric F. Avery is set to be staged May 19–21 at University Settlement's Atlantic Terminal Community Center in Brooklyn.
We sat down with Eric for our season's last installment of "5 Questions with…"
QUESTION: Eric! You come to NYC by way of Minneapolis, MN. Here at University Settlement we are huge fans of the Pillsbury House in Minneapolis and were very excited to learn of your previous work created there, [Play]ing + (P) House. What has it been like making art in Settlement Houses across cities? How have the experiences complimented each other and what have been some of the differences and/or challenges?
Making art in NYC is hard! It's been so incredible being able to have someplace that feels like an artistic home even though I've been there for less than a year. The Performance Project at University Settlement absolutely does that for me. I think that's a common theme for people and places that are good at supporting artists. The two entities are incredibly different on paper and in practice, but caring about the same kinds of things is where I draw parallels.
I think the Settlements are trying to reach for similar kinds of goals in their respective communities. How can we all feel happy, healthy, safe, and fulfilled? Art is a part of that equation for all of us, especially art that is trying to reach those who might not know how to seek it out, trying to tell stories that might matter to the people they are sharing a neighborhood with and not just the same old art crowd. It's been really challenging trying to figure out how to connect in meaningful ways as an outsider. I like a challenge though and I will continue to work on making my art as agile as possible as I consider continuing to offer it in places in which I don't have permanent residence.
QUESTION: Your show "The (Fabled) Life and (Imaginary) Death of Eric F. Avery" leads audiences on a 'fictional' account of your own life and death. What is your impetus for creating this 'autobiographical' work? What is the relationship to your 'true life' and to your fabled / imagined version?
I think it's a lot of fun when people don't really know where the line is. What line? Exactly. If audiences don't exactly know what's true and what's not it opens up a world of possibilities. Suddenly we are confronted with questions like "What if?" or imaginative prompts like "Maybe…" So often we consume art and media that is binary. Right or wrong, bad or good, win or lose. The world as I've experienced it is so much more grey and confusing. Rather than encouraging people to take the easy road and chose one or the other it is my hope that they realize they don't want either and create their own meaning. It's an attitude I don't think is encouraged often enough when considering art, especially art that attempts to moralize or make meaning out of the world. I embrace option D: None of the above!
QUESTION: From what I have witnessed of your work, it is highly interactive, with the audience playing a huge role in the telling of your story. What is your relationship as an artist presenting to an audience? How does your ideal audience engage with your work?
I can't really do my work without an audience. A lot of people say that, but I mean it. I make structures that rely upon an audience. I think it's useful for artists to give audiences the opportunity to experiment with the power dynamics of the event. There are sections of this particular piece that are entirely out of my hands. One section in particular I won't even be in the room for, so I'm curious about how it will go. I trust in people and I'm sure my work is better for giving space for others voices.
I'm also not a fan of the 4th wall. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept it's when you're watching a live event unfold in front of you and the performers pretend that they can't see or hear you. I just think that's dumb. Kidding. I think it's a choice that people are comfortable with and I respect that. In my work I'm more invested in what is uncomfortable. For me that can refer to the content I might be dealing with on a given project or the forms in which that project might be presented. I think my work can be really weird right up until it's really fun. I like to think of feeling awkward as an opportunity to reflect internally and externally. It's a chance to examine a given stimulus and really ask "why do I feel this way?"
QUESTION: In a similar vein, you have a highly visual and tactile aesthetic. It seems that the design is an integral part of your story telling. How do you conceive of these designs? When in your process are they born out?
My designs are usually an absurd response to a given reality OR a practical solution creatively executed. In the show I did at Pillsbury for instance I created a 10 foot long medical form that people took turns filing out. Some questions were real and some were totally bizarre, but because people are familiar with that construct no instructions were required when the form was given to an individual. In this piece, I'm really excited about a couple of things that will be happening on the floor. I don't want to give anything away, so you'll have to come to ATL to see for yourself.
I think it's important to make work that's realistic with its audience. Not that audiences are dumb, far from it. I think work needs to be designed to engage a 21st century person. I make work with lots of stuff to look at and/or to do. I think it's important that people have the opportunity to move their bodies especially if it's a way that they aren't used to. I'm much less interested in audiences "getting it," because in my work there's no one thing to get. I want to create an embodied experience where people are free to choose how they engage and make their own meaning. Not all of us have the privilege to decide how we spend every moment, so when people are in a space I create I want them to feel enough autonomy to decide what kind of experience they want to have.
QUESTION: Lastly, you have spent the past year getting to know The University Settlement community! From creating participatory events at Atlantic Terminal, to performing in SHARE, to the final stages of your rehearsal process, you have been integrating yourself into the vastness of our community. How has this experience shaped or colored your creative process with US?
It has. Vast is a good word to describe it. It's been quite humbling to try and take in so much new information about a place and it's people or people and their place. It's been great to always be able to keep in perspective who this show is for. Like many artists I have aspirations to bring my work to ever widening audiences, but being in residence at US will leave an indelible mark on this particular show no matter where it goes.
Performances of The Fabled Life and Imaginary Death of Eric F. Avery will be held on Thursday and Friday, May 19 and 20, at 7 p.m. and again on Saturday, May 21, at 2 p.m. These performances are FREE and take place at Atlantic Terminal Community Center (501 Carlton Avenue, Brooklyn).