School of Music, Theatre and Dance alum Maya Ballester started her career at the University in the vocal performance program, but soon realized her heart lay closer to musical theatre. Through the Bachelor of Musical Arts track, she customized her degree to add acting and dance classes and then started work as a photographer as well.
“It’s hard for me to tie down one thing that I want to do at a time,” Ballester said recently in an interview with The Daily over the phone from her native Kansas. She graduated last May, at the height of COVID-19’s first wave. Now, she joins the ranks of an arts industry endangered by and dying from the country’s mishandling of this pandemic. But those stressors aside, Ballester faces even deeper conundrums when it comes to personal income.
“There’s this kind of switch that goes off in my head that when I am doing something for income, and to survive, it automatically becomes less fun, and becomes less expressive,” Ballester said. Her art comes from a place that she aches to keep separate from money — but without a paycheck, will she have the resources to make more art?
Stamps and Music, Theatre & Dance senior Rhett Shepherd currently navigates a similar paradoxical question. Their senior thesis involves the development of a videogame that uses characters from diverse working-class communities, a group rarely represented by the white, straight and wealthy communities of online gaming. The project aims to fill a gap in representation, but Shepherd’s thesis must also reckon with the fact that videogames remain luxury products that are out of reach for many low income families. How can their art make the difference it intends to without access to the group that it’s made for?
These questions leave both Shepherd and Ballester running in circles: Art and money compete for attention but also never seem to find a compromise.
Stamps professor Rebekah Modrak is quite familiar with this paradox. As an artist, she makes work dedicated to the resistance of consumer culture — her “Re Made Co.” installment replaced Best Made Co.’s $350 artisanal designer axe with a $350 toilet plunger. The piece offered cutting humorous commentary on the absurd consumption of glorified tools and Modrak eventually received a cease and desist document from the company’s lawyers.
“Resistance to consumer culture was part of my upbringing,” Modrak recently wrote in an email to The Michigan Daily. Her parents started by teaching her to ask “why we pay companies money to advertise for them.”
Now, as a professor, Modrak teaches the Stamps Interventions in Commerce class. This evolved from an older class on Shopdropping, a project in which students made false products to leave in a store — a reverse shoplift. The idea started in 2004, guided by Modrak’s question: “How can we take opportunities to encounter audiences outside of a gallery system, to introduce messages (critical, poetic, personal) contrary to the narrow conceptual boundaries of branding?”
For Shepherd’s videogame, this separation starts by reimagining the power of ordinary objects, an idea that started while mopping the floor at a summer housekeeping job.
“I look at this mop,” Shepherd said, “and I think to myself, ‘this mop could be a really great weapon!’” The realization sent them into a world of imagined Expo marker jousts and cleaning pole lances, the result of which will become fully fledged working-class video game characters, aptly titled “The Working Clash.”
Shepherd sees power in a choice like this, lifting the mundane into the creative, moving from mandatory to leisurely. The game will hopefully make space for products and professions often considered boring or less-than to take on new meaning beyond their measurable contributions to the economy.
Finding space outside consumption is also quite important for Ballester. At home in quarantine, she watched the country’s economy melt, leaving millions to live on small unemployment checks. As the weeks turned to months, Ballester grew resentful of the system at large, maddened by America’s workaholic tendencies.
“I’ve grown very irritated with capitalism in general,” she said, “and how that has led to people defining who they are by their career, defining their worth by their career.” At the same time, this conclusion doesn’t solve her conflict — “I’m still struggling to form a healthy relationship with making money and also getting to do what I want to do,” she said.
Shepherd echoed Ballester’s sentiment: “You can talk in circles about it for a long time,” they said, “I don’t really have a good answer for it.”
For Modrak, the answer lies in actively disentangling oneself from consumer culture. “I used to exhibit [my work] in gallery spaces,” she wrote, but now it’s “intentionally net-based,” meaning it can reach any browser of a consumer space. The result gives Modrak independence and control over her own ideas and, according to her, is far more liberating.
This idea holds special importance for Modrak now that we live in an age of “self-promotional culture.” The growth of influencers and freelance artists pushes individuals to think of themselves as brands and thus “define success according to the narrow rationale of corporate culture,” she wrote.
Ballester’s work in acting and photography are both heavily operated by such models of self-promotion — “you are your business,” she said. There are drawbacks to both, but performance work feels especially vulnerable to her.
“Photography is a bit less nerve-wracking because there is something external that I am producing that is representative of my work,” Ballester explained. But when she’s performing, “I’m selling me.” When the self-promotion requirements of a capitalistic industry butt up against her acting or singing, there is nothing to shield her from a reduction to worth defined by dollar signs. “I’m selling my body, I’m selling my personality, I’m selling whatever I am in a vessel,” Ballester said.
Shepherd’s career goals are a bit more separated from freelanced spheres, but no less complicated. “I want to run a cartoon show, I’d like to have my own concept air on a mainstream network,” they said, an industry heavily motivated by business contracts: “Cartoon shows only get more episodes if they sell.” Nevertheless, Shepherd wants to make work that does more than just sell — their videogame, along with other goals for the future, is intended “to promote thought, to just allow people to enjoy.”
To them, the limitations of an audience without access or an industry bound by budgets simply must come second to a respect for human joy — “everybody should get to experience entertainment,” they said.
Ballester aims for a similar mindset. “I don’t have to make money doing the thing that I love most,” she said, “I can pursue something else for monetary reasons and still pursue being a performer and that is just as valid as pursuing it as a full time career.” Her identity will never be one job, or even one stop along the road, and in maneuvering that discovery she untangles her art from her money.
For all three artists, this dance between art and money, job and identity, is not a stationary question. As such, the answer must move as quickly as the fastest leaps, twirls and jumps: “I am one very tiny salmon,” Shepherd said, “and I’m swimming up a stream that has gotten to flow the way it has for as long as it’s been in existence … Hopefully I will find a school of like-minded salmon and we will be able to climb this waterfall and then we will cross the dragon gate and get to change the flow of water ourselves.”
Senior Arts Editor Zoe Phillips can be reached at email@example.com
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