In this week's edition of Things I Miss From My Past Life, my mind keeps wandering into the performing arts realm. It's funny how this topic always seems to come up, despite my short-lived tenure and limited skillset in the scene. Recently I've been super inspired by watching Ukraine President Zelenskyy leverage his stage skills into mobilizing his entire nation and winning the PR information war. This is a guy who built his career on comedy, who masterfully played to audiences, who hedged on-stage fumbles through improv.
I think this feeling also goes back to how the style and substance of improvisation are so intricately linked to how I live authentically. This is not new news, and few would argue with that sentiment. But the real fun comes when someone I trust challenges that principle to its core, in an attempt to excavate a deeper truth underlying the premise of “Sam is a performer”.
During a writer's room, my internet friend Charlene once asked me a question about how I view improv. I gave my well-intentioned answer:
What inspires me the most to explore comedy more as an art form is how it combines multiple sources of media together — written language, stage performance, video production — to convey unique points of view.
Charlene, in response: “That's great, and I'm curious. What does "art form" mean to you? What does it look like and feel like?"
It took me a long time to leap through the first hurdle — to associate myself with anything "art"-related. Over time, and especially through this past year, I've expanded my interest in all things art. The ratio of my artistic & creative to technical writing has been consistently increasing, which should be a lagging indicator of my rising curiosity, and naturally, confidence in the art domain. But when Charlene hit me with such a meaty ask, my brain scrambled to make sense of the significance of those two simple words. Art. Forms. I say: "Hmm, well maybe I'm referring to ways of expression that you feel uniquely positioned to convey". I was certainly not certain. My eyes glittered with excitement, knowing that there was a whole Pandora's box waiting for me to unpack.
My time in Madrid was a gamechanger when it came to being exposed to a gorge of artistic influence. I'll highlight two particular exhibits that had particularly profound effects on my current thinking:
(1) La Casa Encendida's Fantastic Interior is a curatorial project with four Spanish artists that explores questions such as intimacy, the creative potential of solitude, and the role of bodies in building communities. I love how the power of curation is showcased at the highest level — exhibitions like this celebrate the plurality of “forms” and honour practices like inner work and community building as inherently artistic acts. You see the intention mapped out at the start:
This journey aims to create a polyphonic chorus which, like a leisurely, intimate conversation, aspires to weave a web of empathy of which visitors can also feel a part. Each scene in the exhibition cycle invites us to think about how we have construcuted our own perception of the “inner world”, a sphere we tend to associate — perhaps because modernity has taught us to — with vulnerability and intimacy. The cycle appeals to those emotions, aspiring to share spaces of fragility that increasingly demand our care and attention, giving us the agency to maybe comprehend their restorative power and their ability to forge a sense of community.
(2) Vari Caramés has become one of my favourite artists after his memorable exhibition at Sala Canal de Isabel II. Aptly titled: Something, nothing, always to reflect both the timeless and the indefinite. I find myself enamoured with his quote, “I don't see myself as a photographer, a painter, an artist, or anything else. I'm doing something that entertains me." In this way, he proposes an alternative perspective of what an art form is: intimately personal to the individual. His photography provokes a different viewpoint, one that provides a theatrical language charged with hidden meanings, leaving interpretations to our imaginations. The curator‘s commentary of Caramés’ work is just too exquisite for me to exclude (especially the last bit on spontaneity and jazz):
The reality that the Galician photographer aspires to represent is like a polyhedron that, in a subtle game of magic, displaces, deconstructs, recomposes, and reconstructs, altering its shapes to the point of depriving them of their testimonial nature so that they comprise a non-referential, illusory object bordering on fictional. Born of a fluid procedure, it is to be expected that the identity of Caramés's images refuses to crystallize into solid forms; defining them would close down a horizon of possibilities, diminishing the resonances in the spectator. Instead, each photograph is a note in a composition of life. Separately they may sound good, but their purpose together is to spontaneously partner up with others without a rigid order. Like jazz.
Armed with inspiration, let's return to the seminal question of this exploration: what is an art form? I'd like to challenge the conventional definitions which point to themes of “structure”, “shape”, “pattern”, and “category”. I think all of those things are essential pieces of the puzzle. But it feels restrictive to me — and probably for other “non-artists” — if we sketch arbitrary boundaries around our preferred means of creation. Painting, sculpture, literature, architecture, cinema, music, theatre are firmly in the mix... but don't forget about every other medium that involves expressing our ideas, our feelings, and ourselves.
Art forms are simultaneously a window, a mirror, and a microphone. Art is giving your voice tangibility — something is artistic because it has soul, heart, and essence that only you can imbue. Art forms are a container that enables the delivery of a fundamental human craving: connection.
Improv is an art form. Writing is an art form. Hacking is an art form. I just need to remember that all the things I enjoy are artistic in their own right, as long as I stay true to my intuition and imagination that I've nurtured all this time.
Here's to alchemizing our own art forms to share with the world :)