Pegi Christiansen: Failure Round Robin
This is a blog post by Pegi Christiansen, who is a Lynden artist in residence through October 2015. To learn more about her residency, Distance, click here.
On April 15, eleven people sat in a circle in the upstairs Lynden studio for a Failure Round Robin. Eight of us took five to ten minutes to describe a failure and its implications. I let people know it could be any kind of failure, so I had no idea what to expect.
We experienced a heartfelt ninety minutes. It was not a therapy session, though we did comfort each other. We all laughed quite a bit.
At a number of points, I asked people to explain more about the failure aspect of their stories. Some didn’t sound like failures to me. This ended up as one of the themes. As Jeanie put it, “failure is about self-judgment.”
Robin talked about the self-doubt, confusion, isolation, and fear she has felt getting turned down for tenure-track teaching positions. Jeanie commented, “All adjunct instructors feel like failures and second-class citizens.” Robin’s failure has led her to work even harder and drives her to be more adventurous in her studio.
Chuck declared cheerfully, “I rehearse for failure on a daily basis.” Chuck is very involved in bird watching and migratory counts. Although he loves dogs, it is upsetting to him when owners, against rules posted on signs, let their dogs run off-leash in parks and preserves. He wants to be an ambassador for the bird community when he speaks with dog owners about their misbehavior. He gave examples of how he has failed in these interactions. I learned that Milwaukee is on an important migratory path that 300 bird species pass through.
Sarah responded that signs always fail because no one reads them. She also finds public spaces interesting because people’s codes for them don’t line up.
“My naivety is my failure, but it pushes me to the next project,” said Sarah. After a failure she thinks, “I am not naïve now,” and this leads her to try something else and the cycle continues. She summarized: “Failure is a drive to meet your own expectations and assumptions. Nothing plays out the way you think.”
Sarah and Brad have discussed how artists often take the path of most resistance. “Artists want to expand a field,” said Brad. “It is experimental and you are not going to be 100% successful.” For Sarah there is also a percentages aspect to failure. Nothing is ever a total waste.
Brad joked that he was “failing at being a grownup.” He confessed to wearing the same shorts every day from 2010-2012, is just now figuring out the right antiperspirant to use, and has a history of storming off job sites in a fit of childish rage. “I have professional skills, but I am not really a person yet,” he said.
Chuck immediately commented that in his interactions with Brad, “I didn’t have this impression at all.” Jeanie claimed that spiritual teacher Ram Dass, at the age of 75, said he was still dealing with the same issues he had when he was 25. At sixty, Jeanie said, “I am returning to the core of my youth.”
Colleen told Brad, “I didn’t grow up until I was fifty.” Colleen was let go from two management positions in situations where, as Brad noted, “You were designated to be a boss.” Colleen now sees these failures as steppingstones. Colleen tells art students, “In this room failure is expected and you can learn how to go forward.”
Adam brought up that in Western culture everything is binary: success/failure. He thinks we need to “embrace the duality spectrum.” Colleen added, “Failure is inevitable. If you haven’t failed you haven’t evolved.”
Anja graduated from college in 2009. It was during the recession and her friends were all unemployed, but she got her “dream job” in a puppet show. She didn’t realize, “I was expected to train for three years without any opportunity for creative expression.” She had to put on a puppet show with nursery rhymes for children every weekend. After memorizing what she was given to say and rehearsing for weeks, the head puppeteer would nitpick everything she was doing. “I felt like a pathetic idiot,” she said. Then Anja had an epiphany. She started to see the other people in training were broken and wanted someone to control them. “They were puppets!” Anja shouted with glee.
Adam’s was the closing failure story. He had a best friend from third grade through high school. Adam’s senior year, his father passed away and his friend was there when he found out and knew just what to do (stay with him) and was also perfect at the funeral. When Adam was in college studying abroad in Europe, he found out this friend’s mother had died. Adam did not reach out. “He was so generous to me,” said Adam. “I had a barrier and couldn’t respond in kind.”
Anja brought up the Western notion of reciprocity. She reminded Adam that this is another binary.
Chelsea, who came to listen, wrote in graduate school about binaries and ambiguity. She said, “It is all grey with success as failure and failure as success.” She brought up Brené Brown who wrote, “There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.”
Although it wasn’t therapy, I had a catharsis. I spoke about a street intersection painting project I organized. The painting was supposed to last for at least three months and wore away in four days, despite careful preparation. This occurred almost two years ago, and I still wasn’t over it. I am now.