Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Developmentally Enabled

Back when I was in elementary and junior high school, I often spent part of the afternoon alone. There was a small playground that had a metal slide where I'd go to sit, lean back, and stare at the sky for seemingly endless stretches of time as I watched clouds pass by, birds fly overhead, and let my thoughts wander in all directions.

At the time, I had no idea that what I was doing was a simple form of enabling my mind to set its creative juices into motion. I was totally unaware that the simple act of staring at the sky and letting one's mind go blank could have any kind of artistic benefit.

Originally published in 1957, Robert Paul Smith's memoir, Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing was soon followed by his How To Do Nothing With Nobody All Alone By Yourself. According to to Wikipedia:
"Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing is a nostalgic evocation of the inner life of childhood. It advocates the value to children of privacy; the importance of unstructured time; the joys of boredom; and the virtues of freedom from adult supervision. He opens by saying 'The thing is, I don't understand what kids do with themselves any more.' He contrasts the over-structured, over-scheduled, and over-supervised suburban life of the child in the suburban 1950s with reminiscences of his own childhood. He concludes 'I guess what I am saying is that people who don't have nightmares don't have dreams. If you will excuse me, I have an appointment with myself to sit on the front steps and watch some grass growing.'"
In his book, Smith stressed how children learn the art of creative and critical thinking using a methodology long abandoned by adults. Fifty years after it was first published, his observations still hold true:
"All of us, for a long time, spent a long time picking wild flowers. Catching tadpoles. Looking for arrowheads. Getting our feet wet. Playing with mud. And sand. And water. You understand, not doing anything. What there was to do with sand was let it run through your fingers. What there was to do with mud was pat it, and thrust in it, lift it up and throw it down....We were superb actors, aided in no small measure by the total lack of an audience, other than ourselves.

You see, it never occurred to us that there was anything wrong in doing nothing, so long as we kept out of the way of grownups. We did a lot of nothing. And let’s face it, we still do it -- all of us grownups and kids. But now, for some reason, we’re ashamed of it. I’ll leave the grownups out, but take a kid these days, standing or sitting or lying down all by himself not actively engaged in any recognizable (by grownups) socially acceptable activity. We want to know what’s the matter. That’s because we don’t know how to do nothing anymore.
When we were kids, we had the sense to keep these things to ourselves. We didn't go around asking grownups about them. They obviously didn't know...I think we were right about grownups being the natural enemies of kids, because we knew that what they wanted us to do was to be like them. And that was for the birds. "Hey, mother, you know what? Ted Fenster's kid brother eats dirt." "Well, don't let me catch you doing it," said your mother. "Go-wan," a kid would say. "Eats dirt? You mean, really eats dirt? Yer full of it." "He'll do it for a penny," you said, and you went off to find Ted Fenster's kid brother, and by God, he ate dirt, lots of it, spoonfuls of it, for a penny."
From one generation to another, parents have struggled to make sure that their children were given the opportunities they never had. Whether those opportunities involved piano lessons or ballet classes, sporting events or birthday parties, many a child's adolescence was crammed full of meaningful activities. In addition to a host of advanced placement programs for bright students, my high school had a girls chorus, boys chorus, mixed chorus, student orchestra, and a marching band.

In many of today's school systems, the arts have taken a beating due to decreased funding and a rising tide of anti-intellectualism. Although parents who can afford to pay for dance classes, private tutors, and other extracurricular activities still try to cram as much information as possible into their child's brain (or support the slightest whiff of talent), rare is the child who is given the freedom to develop his own artistic process. Rare is the child who is allowed to let concepts form of his own free will. Rare is the child whose creative urges are simply allowed to breathe and develop at their own pace.

A trio of recent experiences highlighted the evolution of artistic process from childhood to a point in life where a mature performance artist is seen to be still experimenting with new ideas, still searching for new answers, still finding new meaning in her work. Examining a trajectory of artistic development offered a rare chance to see -- from an artistic standpoint -- not only that we sow what we reap, but how we must remain vigilant about avoiding a natural tendency to overwater and drown new crops.

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A provocative new documentary that will receive its world premiere at the 2009 Mill Valley Film Festival, Race To Nowhere is dedicated to the memory of Devon Marvin, a bright 13-year-old girl who seemed to have everything going for her until she received a less-than-perfect grade and committed suicide on February 9, 2008. Filmmaker Vicki H. Abeles was inspired to make Race To Nowhere when she began to notice how continually rising levels of stress and depression had started to affect her three children.

As Abeles dove deeper into researching the source of her children's symptoms, she discovered that many families are obsessed with a "fast-track to success" formula that starts in preschool and never lets up.
"I came to understand that kids everywhere are under a new kind of cultural pressure to perform, the kind of pressure that impacts not only health and wellness, but interrupts healthy development, too. These pressures aren’t just cultural. They are educational pressures from a system too focused on test scores and grades arising from colleges whose endowments depend on donations, which in turn depend on the GPA and Honors status of its student body. For too many, childhood today has become a time of productivity. No longer is there time for children to play, to discover their passions, to rest, to make mistakes, to self-reflect or to build the resiliency needed for a healthy adulthood. People in business began telling me that this newest crop of employees lack critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, communication skills, and need a great deal of guidance and instruction."
Much of what Abeles discovered was genuinely unnerving:
  • Increasing levels of homework and extracurricular activities have robbed many children of their adolescence.
  • Constant pressure to succeed has taught children how to create an appearance of success that masks their doubts and fears.
  • Thanks to the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind legislation, children have learned how to cram for exams without actually learning anything.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of overweight children has tripled since 1980.
  • According to the Surgeon General, a young person commits suicide every two hours.
  • 80% of the country's best students cheated to get to the top of their class.
  • 80% of teenagers do not get the recommended amount of sleep.
In keeping with the pressure placed on children, Race To Nowhere presents an unrelenting condemnation of how parents, teachers, and school administrators have all become trapped in a spiral of competitive educational practices that frequently do more harm than good. As Abeles interviews a wide variety of parents and teachers, she makes some surprising discoveries:
  • One teacher who eliminated homework discovered that his students were actually learning more.
  • Many of America's top CEOs were "C" students who simply persisted.
  • Because today's texting technology allows children to interact electronically instead of face-to-face, many lack the social skills they will need in order to function in the workplace.
  • Because so many children have had coaches and private tutors, many expect to be similarly coddled by prospective employers.
There is, of course, one basic fault with this film: the population of sampled students comes primarily from heavily Caucasian and middle to upper middle class suburban school districts. Many of their parents are white collar professionals whose intense focus on their own successful career tracks (Abeles, who lives in Lafayette, California, has a law degree; her husband is often shown wearing a blue surgical scrub shirt) can translate into an insatiable need for attention to and achievement by their children.

After watching several documentaries this year that focused on student life in troubled inner city schools (where a child's complaint of a headache would generate much less concern), I found it curious that the most noticeable minority student to be featured in this documentary was an obese African American boy. Although their children are often under incredible pressure to achieve good grades, no Asian-American families were interviewed. Nor did there seem to be any noticeably overweight white girls, factors which might have clouded the important points Abeles is trying to make in her film. It seemed as if there was more ethnic diversity among the teachers and other education professionals who were interviewed by Abeles than the students from whom she drew her stories.

There are times when Race to Nowhere sounds like a desperate cry for help for upwardly mobile suburban families. However, if you are involved in any facet of education, are having trouble hiring qualified workers, or are simply another parent struggling to ensure that your child can survive in an overly competitive school environment, you'll definitely want to see this documentary. Here's the trailer:

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Watching professional artists play with and stretch their skills often allows audiences to understand how some parts of one's artistic process have become stronger than others, how certain talents seem to appear effortless while others require more methodology and concentration.

Not too many acts juggle origami, acrobatics, film, and letter writing. But for Bonnie Duncan and Tim Gallagher (whose Post Restante was a big hit at the 2009 San Francisco Fringe Festival), their medley of talents has led to a never-ending exploration of creative energy.

Tim Gallagher and Bonnie Duncan (Photo by: Androo Sokol)

Some bits worked better than others. in the following clip, you can watch them performing their "contortionist" number outdoors, accompanied by some pretty hot klezmer music from Emperor Norton's Stationary Marching Band.

This appealing duo (who met while performing with the Snappy Dance Theatre), shares a love for puppetry, found objects, and performance art. "We swing from the ceiling, fling each other across stage, and delight in both the impossibly grand and the intensely intimate."

Some parts of their act involve playing with shadows created by flashlight as silhouettes move about in shrouded mini-environments. Gallagher, who has also worked as a cinematographer, a medical assistant, and is studying to become a certified yoga instructor, loves to fly in his dreams (as evidenced in this short film that was shown during Poste Restante).

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Now in her mid-sixties, Meredith Monk has been defying categorization for decades. "I work in between the cracks," she explains, "where the voice starts dancing, where the body starts singing, where theater becomes cinema."

Soon to be screened at the 2009 Mill Valley Film Festival, Babeth M. VanLoo's documentary, Meredith Monk: Inner Voice, accomplishes the rare feat of capturing a multidisciplinary artist's creative process on film as she documents Monk futzing around with sound and movement at home, in dance studios, during rehearsals, and with friends. The sequences shot at Ann Hamilton's Tower in Geyserville, California, have a near-hypnotic beauty.

The following clip, taken from Peter Greenaway's 1983 documentary about Monk, illustrates her word-free style of musical soundscapes. As VanLoo's new documentary demonstrates, Monk's artistic process has evolved to the point where her instrumental musicians must now be able to move around while playing their instruments as video offers a new set of images in the background.

Monk is an artist of multiple disciplines who seeks inspiration in everything she sees and hears, and may spend years refining a certain piece of performance art. What I particularly like about this new documentary is how it stresses the mercurial nature of her art and the inability of critics to cram Meredith Monk into any kind of disciplinary, ethnic, or national pigeonhole.

In the following clip, as Monk discusses her favorite memory of working with Charles Reinhart of the American Dance Festival, one senses the fearlessness and fluidity of an artist who is constantly heading into uncharted territory. Part of the beauty of VanLoo's documentary is that the audience is given a rare chance to witness an artist's creative growth while understanding the kind of personal growth that has fed the depth and breadth of Monk's creativity.

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