Isaiah Zeavin-Moss: In conversation with vulnerability

Wednesday, April 6, 2016 - 12:18pm

This past weekend, I attended the first annual Threads All Arts Festival. I had an especially fun time — dancing, singing, playing, laughing — both with friends who I knew before the festivities as well as with those I met at the Yellow Barn. In reflecting on why this festival made me so happy, I’ve concluded that in our current age of social media and technology at large, we have begun to lose track of these kind of collaborations, where one person or group gets up onto a stage and vulnerably, openly expresses themselves through various artistic media (poetry, music, movement, performance), only to be greeted with stunned and entirely appreciative applause by an audience.

 

Both our generation and our moment are infatuated with the idea of sharing. We share photos, videos — moments of our day that would otherwise simply happen, come and go, unseen by our absent friends and families. We cater our images to what is trending, we must capture the material that will get “likes.” Ultimately, by letting other people into our lives, through sharing, we seek to feel popular and appreciated.

 

But in this process, we lose something crucially human. We don’t publish our moments of vulnerability. Through heavily filtered Instagram photos, 10-second Snapchat videos and 140-character tweets, we pass over our most vulnerable, human moments. Instead, we try to create a kind of alternate profile, another personality for ourselves, one that is always active, always playing, always feeling alive and well. In this way, social media has disciplined us, has instilled within us strictly defined ideas of what is “cool,” what is “shareable,” what can be seen by a larger audience, and what must be kept quiet, beneath the surface, only visible to you.

 

And the images that we do publish feed our need to be instantly gratified, because we know that our friends will consume our images as they scroll down a much larger feed. We publish what will provoke an immediate reaction. We ignore material which takes further time to ponder, reconsider, observe. To react deliberately, then, is to react too slowly, to be behind on what is going on.

 

At Threads, I noticed a lot of different performances whose focus was, in some form, to take this extra time, and to allow for the audience to consume the art, meditatively, at its own pace. Musical performers, for example, who sat with their instruments and played them in never-before-seen, subtle, nuanced ways (an upright bassist who used all parts of the instrument, tapping the strings as if they were a drum, plucking from all sorts of angles, etc.). Or theatrical performers who worked in extended silences, giving time and space, both for performer and audience, for us to observe their movements within stillness. At last, there was no pressure to consume what we were sharing at any particular speed or according to any rules.  

 

Threads, and festivals like it, I’m sure (this was the first festival of this kind that I have attended), turned these strictly disciplining regulations on their head. Notions of what can be shared were shattered — personal and intimate performances of all media were on display. And it was beautiful!

 

In the audience, whether I was dancing with newly made friends, joints rotating and colliding and shaking in ways I never knew to be possible, or sitting in a semi-circle, listening to poetry, feeling the air and energy among us connect, rising and falling with the verses that were read, I felt the lifted weight of our collectively shared social discipline.

 

People told their stories, in whatever form they wanted. No restrictions, character limits or quickly snapped videos. Artists broke, ignored, moved past these rules that have been decided for us by companies that now, seemingly, we cannot ignore or escape from in our everyday lives, as we observe virtual feeds, heads down, instead of addressing the world in front of us. They are inescapable, at least, until we gather to celebrate forms of expression and performance that ignore these rules altogether, like so many did at Threads.

 

Of course, artists like those who performed at Threads are also restricted, disciplined by some rules. They are all, at least in some aspect, trying to leave a positive imprint upon the audience, trying to appease their aesthetic notions about what is “good.” But this is an entirely different set of rules; it promotes and even demands free, fluid expression of self.

In this way, within today’s larger climate of “sharing” and social media, arts festivals are inherently subversive. Because within the world of social media, material that actually pertains to the human experience is rare. Instead, we filter; we are highly selective about what can be seen by an audience. But instead of reserving our most personal, “weird,” human moments for our private lives, Threads and festivals like it remind us to actively celebrate one another’s humanity and vulnerability. In response to and in conversation with these moments — of anguish or anxiety or frustration or misunderstanding — our creativity flows most profoundly.

Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at izeavinm@umich.edu.