My nine-year-old son came into my office the other night ten minutes before the lights were to be turned off for bed. He exclaimed he felt like writing a non-fictional essay about his life, starting with his first year. I suggested that perhaps he might instead start by sharing the story of the new bike trick he discovered that afternoon, because trying to tell about something mammoth in a linear way can often overwhelm us. He did not take my suggestion. He took a new notebook from my desk drawer and titled the first page, “Sunny’s Life Year One”. After sixty long seconds, he desperately exclaimed, “I can’t remember anything! This is stupid! I don’t even want to write!” and he left the room crying.
Luckily, I saw this edge coming, having just been over it myself. I wrangled him back into the room, held him between my arms, and shared the story of when I found my mother’s life story. Which was similar to his, a black notebook with one title page, “This Is the Story of My Life” with about one hundred blank pages following. We shared a good giggle about our family’s epic auto biographies. As we laughed about the challenge of how to begin a story, he had one of those ah-ha flashes, “Oh! I can make a doodle story!” (It should be noted that my son is a precocious child who has a recent interest in Keith Herring and has been making comic books since he was five-years-old). He ran upstairs to his bed with his notebook, begging for his remaining five minutes to be twenty so he could doodle, and he began drawing the story of his life; gliding through time to illustrate his past, present, and future, including his dislike of Trump (noted by the pile of poop on his head) and his interest in snowboarding.
I was delighted to witness his desire to share a personal story, including the impossibility of the task he initially set, and his creative recovery and novel solution. Funnily enough, I had had the exact same experience just days before.
Meeting Rebecca Bray
I met Rebecca Bray this past fall at a parent meeting at my son’s school. During the meeting, I briefly mentioned wanting to start Parenting Praxis at Instar Lodge, and Rebecca offered to help in any way. Weeks later, we ran into one another at a child’s birthday. We picked up the type of small talk that one does when you don’t know each other, and imagine all you have in common is having children.
In two quick turns, instead of talking about Lego’s we were discussing socially engaged art, digital and interdisciplinary experiential art practices, art and educational nature-based projects, and quickly falling down the well of love. I asked Rebecca if she would consider co- facilitating Parenting Praxis with me, and she resoundingly agreed.
In our brief engagements imagining Parenting Praxis together, I began to learn how Rebecca and her creative practices are extraordinary. I determined that I wanted to share her story with the Instar Lodge community.
Here we are
Excited to visit Rebecca Bray’s studio, Rebecca Cosenza (Instar’s newest star, aka Community Outreach Associate) and myself geared up for an official artist interview. We came prepared with open ended questions and imagined an oral history methodology, coupling note taking with snapshot photo's, which we would distill into a narrative.
I can’t say what type of content I was imagining beforehand, but can say we left weighted with awe, wonderment, and twenty years of an artist’s biography told in over an hour to be replayed back as an audio file.
That night we discovered that the audio file did not save. We were left with pages of notes, a small sound clip on parenting (an afterthought recorded on my phone), our memory, and photographs of Rebecca and the enchantments sprinkled through her home.
Giraffe's are Kinda My Thing
I decided to start at the beginning, imagining the title. The story(s) of Rebecca Bray could be titled:
- The Girl Behind the Meatrix
- The Role of the Translator
- Hudson Valley, My Soul Home
- Twenty Year Loop
- The Tale of the Experiential Designer
- Is it Art, Science, Education, or Sociology?
- Why Collaborate?
- Giraffe’s Are Kinda My Thing
Like my son, I quickly became overwhelmed. I realized I wanted to share a story that illustrated the circulatory path of a complex artist, and the content was rich enough for a four-hundred page mouth-watering biography. How could I even begin to imagine condensing it into a four page story? I felt like crying, and then I had my ah-ha moment, and became determined to create a visual map that brought the viewer on Rebecca’s twenty-year journey from graduating Bard in ‘97 as a sociology major, to returning to the Hudson Valley twenty years later as an accomplished artist.
I began drawing. Soon I discovered my limitations as a graphic designer, as I had wanted to be able to turn my drawings into an actively linked map to highlight Rebecca’s many incredible projects including: The Meatrix, a short film she created to bring awareness to animal cruelty. Or Botanicalls, the project she made that had houseplants calling you on the phone to be asked to be watered, or Drink Your Pee, the DIY kit to turn your pee into fertilizer while also removing pharmaceuticals from the ocean.
This was the real sob stage: confronting my personal limitations and inability to create a piece I imagined. Sitting embarrassed in my failure, I thought about Rebecca’s practice as an artist which is one hundred percent collaborative. I recognized the value she described by applying diverse expertise to shared ideas. Rebecca spoke of her current project 'Let's Get Lost', an interactive sound art experience that invites audiences to create improvised music using a site-specific wall-drawing as an instrument, commissioned by Bowdoin College Museum of Art.
She mentioned how her role has been defined as the “translator” between the visual artist, digital artist, and sound artist. She described how the team needed and desired her ability to connect them and the audience to the experience. She spoke of how her role would end up being the invisible part of the whole, but was integral—and she needed the team to articulate that for her, because often we don’t name the invisible components of a creation and therefore don't value them.
Sitting in the quagmire of my failed pdf. and imagining a collaborative utopia, I remembered Rebecca and my recent Parenting Praxis planning session. We were discussing the notion of failure and solutions in parenting. We arrived at the thought that in art we do not see mistakes as failures, but rather as next steps in a process of creation. We see what first appears as challenges or mistakes to be essential components of the final piece.
We loved the words of Shaun McNiff, from his book Trust the Process
“Whether in painting, poetry, performance, music, dance, or life, there is an intelligence working in every situation. This force is the primary carrier of creation. If we trust it and follow its natural movement, it will astound us with its ability to find a way through problems – and even make creative use of our mistakes and failures...There is a magic to this process that cannot be controlled by the ego. Somehow it always finds the way to the place where you need to be, and a destination you never could have known in advance. When everything seems as if it is hopeless and going nowhere . . . trust the process”
Again, a flashing ah-ha! I realized I did not want to retell Rebecca Bray’s story, but rather share her own words, and create an opportunity for her to do that. I created the Instar Lodge Artist Questionnaire. A questionnaire that asks the types of questions we are deeply interested in exploring with our community, like, “what is art?”. I also had the opportunity to do another mini-interview recording based on the highlights learned in our first interview.
These last Rebecca Bray iterations resonate with the Instar Lodge aesthetic and values. They share the labor of storytelling and give the artist full authorship. Rebecca spoke often of how she revels in iteration and that process is perhaps the most compelling aspect of making art for her.
I agree completely, and yet I often forget, that one must trust the process in order to lean past failure and greet what meets us beyond the tears.
Iterate Iterate Iterate
Rebecca Bray shares her own words below about her creative practice, as an artist, translator, experiential designer, and mother-collaborator. She talks about her interests in social change, having led her ever forward into incredible experiences; including being the Chief of Experiential Design at the Smithsonian, to currently working as the Managing Director of Arts and Activism, to returning to her “soul-home” the Hudson Valley, with her forever collaborators: son, Sam, and sound artist husband, Jimmy Garver. We look forward to her responses to the Instar Lodge questionnaire and will publish that as an addition to this piece.
Listen to Rebecca speak about being an artist-mother:
Listen to Rebecca speak to collaboration, art and science, and socially engaged practice:
Check out Rebecca's work via the following links.
Silosphere - The Silosphere is a personal audio and visual experience designed for one participant, who wears the device like a diving bell. A camera mounted on top of the Silosphere transmits a live video feed to the wearer and is her only visual connection to the outside world. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSj8BJIrYZg&feature=youtu.be
Botanicalls allows plants to call and text people to ask for water, and extend thanks when they get enough. The project is fundamentally about new avenues of interaction between plants and people - plants that might otherwise be neglected are given the ability to communicate with their caregivers to request assistance. In collaboration with Kati London, Kate Hartman and Rob Faludi. https://www.botanicalls.com/
Windowfarms are suspended, hydroponic, modular, low-energy, high-yield light-augmented window farms built using low-impact local materials, created in collaboration with a vast network of online and local collaborators as an experiment in using collaborative design to solve environmental problems. https://www.designboom.com/design/britta-riley-and-rebecca-bray-windowfarms/
The Meatrix is a short animated film I co-produced in 2002 as part of my work as the Artistic Director at GRACE, a nonprofit focused on educating about factory farms. http://www.themeatrix.com/
Framing Device, An interactive audio performance that explores the personal and social perception of experience. Framing Device invites participants to wear viewing masks and choose their own aural pathways on wireless headphones to navigate the psychic and physical space of the art museum. At the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum https://wamu.org/story/16/07/08/at_hirshhorn_an_exhibit_for_audio_adventurers/
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. One of the projects I was in charge of there: Q?rius, a participatory science experimental space - https://qrius.si.edu/
Center for Artistic Activism: https://c4aa.org/. A webinar I did that's up on the site: https://c4aa.org/2017/02/how-to-win-webinar-12-learn-from-hollywood/ and an interview I did with them many years ago: https://c4aa.org/2010/04/rebecca-bray-and-britta-riley/.
Projects I've collaborated on with Jimmy: Let's Get Lost, Silosphere, D:GET, Framing Device. These are listed here: https://www.thebrayverconcern.com/portfolio/