How to Throw Yourself a DIY Retrospective
(as an artist with a community-based live art practice and a side of polymath)
I curated a DIY retrospective of my artwork, and it was awesome. Here’s how you can do it too.
June 21–23, 2019 I showed a retrospective of my creative cultural production to date. I’m newly 40 and I wanted to take stock of the output of my community-based practice, as a live performing artist, and as a writer. I hoped to find patterns and perhaps another part of my story. And, crucially, I had the time and resources to make it happen.
So many friends said “I’m taking this idea!” — Good! Do yourself the favor of an introspective retrospective time. Below are the steps I took, takeaways, and photos of the process. Keep scrolling to see the curatorial statement and, of course, community thank-yous!
To see documentation of the shows: Retro-speculative/spectacular/spective, check out the archive here, or check out the Catalog at this link with a Full CV To Date, at itself is a mini archive of LGBTQ art and activism.
STEP 1: Make stuff and keep it.
This might be obvious, but in our increasingly digital age it might be difficult to produce actual artifacts of your work, unless you’ve kept a lot of things like ephemera, costumes, notes, and/or are meticulous about organizing documentation afterwards.
For those of us in community practice, we’re often working at the edges of subcultures and our documentation is important. We may well be THE ones to tell our stories, and to lift up the voices around us. That alone is worth the time of archiving, to me. I don’t want some historian to get it wrong later: we’ve been creating our stories ourselves this whole time.
STEP 2: Identify the time and place for the retrospective.
If you live in a giant city that’s undergoing an increasingly-expensive gentrification process this is going to be tough, but if you’ve been embedded in community start there. I was lucky that my friend and co-Board member of a small arts org had an opening in her gallery just at the time I was hoping to find space, and that I was smart enough to mention the project to her.
Pick a time when you’ll have a few weeks that aren’t slammed at your job(s), where you might get a little breathing room to think, pull content to curate, manage the project, and have a giant ass mess all over your home. I planned months in advance so that I could take off most of June to work on the …
I don’t think a retrospective, the way I wanted to do it, would have been possible without the super generous gift of space, including a week of install and three days of event, that my friends at Lair Fera gave me.
STEP 3: Gather a team
I didn’t make all this art by myself and I certainly wasn’t going to get it up and organized all by myself either. Add that to the fact that this was also going to be a Big Grown Lady Party and I knew I’d need help. Luckily, BECAUSE I’d spent time producing and curating hundreds of events in the past, I knew exactly who to call. I recruited a dear friend to be stage manager and another to coordinate performers. I called on folks I know who are expert video installers, event space builders, lighting/industrial designers, installation artists, photographers, and so on.
Not pictured: SO MANY other people: Sully, Andre, Yana, Rosin, Nogga …THANK YOU
Key to this process was reinforcing my learning that I do not need to be good at all things — nor am I. It was really beautiful to see my various friends come through and flex their expertise, giving me everything from literal hands on building help to ideas that never would have crossed my mind. It WAS better because I collaborated and diverse viewpoints DID make a big difference: theory in practice!
STEP 4: Retro-spect
Once the basics were cooking, I sent myself out of town for a week to get away from the emails and promo and dust my unearthing of stuff did to reflect and retrospect as well as make a list of all the work I’d done. Costumes, albums, multiple unpublished books, workshops, speaking gigs, performances, poems, videos, anthologies, community events, two musicals…
I had to lay it all out to get underneath and ask: What WAS all this work about? Why HAD I made this? What message, story, purpose, or objectives did I have?
“WOW SELF YOU SURE DID A LOT SO FAR.” I had to contend with the materiality as well as the psychology of being a maker of stuff. At times, it felt like this:
Others, like this (actual face during curation):
STEP 5: Dream it Up
Along with pulling past work, I decided to create a Retrospeculative Game to invite the audience into the work. I figured if *I* was overwhelmed — and I knew what all this crap was, that others might need a goal in order to create a meaningful pathway through the content. I also wanted very much not for the show to be an exercise in 90s and 00s nostalgia. I wanted to make a new thing that could live forward.
Over the last few years I’ve gotten a ton of experience designing participatory experiences, so I did a little more research into the nature of fun, went to the desert to focus and visit Meow Wolf, and with some brainstorming help from my longtime collaborators Heather Acs and Ariel Speedwagon came up with Escape Artists immersive game. You entered a near future, where participants got challenges and interacted with clue maestros and the art in order to gain points, to get through the levels of the gallery into an autonomous decentralized pirate utopia. (more on that in another post).
PARTICIPATION FOREVER. I hope to get to run another pilot of this game again at a conference or gallery show, since engagement was high and authentic, and the creativity ran wild. It was amazing to test a non-didactic way to give in-person event attendees ways to genuinely engage with the content. How often do you go to a gallery and folks are just hanging out talking not looking at the work? The inclusion of the clue maestros was KEY, as they provided the intervention between the work and the game and participants.
However, putting together the whole retrospective AND the game simultaneously was Too Much Work (and I can do a LOT of work) and I ended up voice-to-text writing the instructions in a frantic taxi day of the event. Do not recommend, would not repeat.
STEP 6: Find the Stuff
I’m a natural archivist and trained as a digital asset manager so finding the content was doable, even though I had to dig around in my files.
One of my rules was: print nothing, which I was able to stick to successfully…except for writing.
I found that I had books — with an s — on my computer that had been hanging around for YEARS. Set them free, I thought. Just put them out there. So, without going into an editing hole from which I feared I’d never emerge, I just … printed them. All seven of them: collections from 1999–2014, and threw in my Masters’ thesis and two Ride Free Fearless Money books for good measure.
I also dug up eight zines, five of which were from The Nineties.
Prepare for some casual weeping. Who was that girl who made those 90’s zines? Who was that young babe who wrote those poems about lack and heartbreak? Why did she worry so much and where the hell did all that fight and resilience even come from? I didn’t make the show because I feel lost or in a crisis, but I couldn’t help having moments of deep WOW and some serious amazement at where I’ve been and where I am today.
STEP 7: Place the stuff in a space
Bless gay people because we can take raw materials, scrunch them, and create DECOR. See, pink zuzzh (zhusshz?) center right:
Here’s the original layout “plan”:
You may note that there’s a general spatial feel but not instructions. Which is, you know, lean and agile and how we do things around here. I knew that install would be my biggest challenge, having no damn idea how to do it, so it’s what I called people in to help with.
Getting the costume wall up was key, since it was the first thing you saw when walking in. Creating chain boobs adorned with wigs made me wish I could just have a general wall o wigs around me always:
Other people are miracles and you need their help. Honestly without Sully, Heather, Andre, Yana & Sabina… The stuff would not have been in the space in any way that made sense or had pizazz. Or it might have been in the room, but without Bitsy and Caitlin it would have looked less amazing. Plus look at what keying two projectors can do (the yellow is the doorway to the gallery room, from the video room):
STEP 8: Get folks there and enjoy!
On my own I would have failed at promo. But: I had a team. That team, in particular my production manager / dear friend Sabina Ibarolla helped me get people there. And Heather Acs, my longtime collaborator corralled a bunch of people into a Saturday night Retrospectacular
The backyard stage was perfect, on a warm June evening:
And of course the queens came out in force!
Why, even Harry — Rocky and Rhoda’s old manager/booking agent came out!
And…is this me, Damien? Why NO! It’s Heather!
If you can get your beloved artist friends to reperform any of your work, DO IT. And consider yourself blessed.
And never forget: PIZZA SLAP AMONG FRIENDS MAKES BETTER FRIENDS.
Looking back, there’s no way I could have ever, EVER guessed all of this artmaking might happen in my life. I believe life is random. We’re not here for a reason, there’s no God, and none of us are “where we need to be” or “getting what we deserve.”
HOWEVER. I also believe we each have choice and free will, no matter our circumstances. And we absolutely must exercise that will and those choices precisely because it’s random and chaotic around us. Because we must also make constrained choices due to our situations. Because entropy is constantly taking hold. Because we still can nudge the universe and our experience this way or that. Because there is no plan, we have agency. I find this incredibly freeing, and I act on that.
Forcing the introspection of a retrospective at 40 was an excellent idea. I’d MUCH rather have done this now, than wait. Do you have any idea how many things working class people wait for? I never waited to make art, and therefore I didn’t want to wait until I died to get a retrospective. Fuck waiting, you don’t need permission to be creative! My philosophy: be suspicious of anyone who tries to control you and anything that’s not giving you creative freedom, and don’t be so sure you’ll get another chance so make your own damn chances. It’s as serious and as light as your one life after all.
What’s In the show? Things I thought came from creativity, artistry, collaboration and a desire to tell stories and shift thinking, which were made with the joy of nonwork. This includes a few things that crossover into work skills, like graphic design, or felt like work at the time, like ephemera from organizing conferences and tours.
Costumes from performances hung on one wall, and people were free to play live paper doll with them by hanging them on the form.
I published ALL my unpublished books (seven) along with a workbook that’s sold a few hundred copies and a bunch of my zines, performance text notes, and LOTS of show ephemera. Attendees could cozy up in a chair and read anything that’s out.
Selecting video was a challenge, since I have both video I made to be Video Art, and videos of performances which were meant to live only in person; both kinds play in the video room (fully thanks to André Azevedo of For the Love of Video who did everything from hang and key the two projectors to make the two keynotes which played: one on a loop and one on an iPad so you could Choose Your Own Video Adventure.)
WHAT’S NOT IN THE SHOW
My many websites did not make sense to include. What does it mean that I started building them almost 20 years ago and yet struggle to share them? What does it mean for all the content that we can only share digitally? And what kind of art should that encourage me, and us, to want to make instead?
About a dozen videos didn’t make it in, including perennial favorite Hells Bells Handbell Choir. Documentation from my time in/with MIX didn’t exist and neither could I find Department of Transformation or SciFi Action Club.
Thanks to Heather Renee Russ and Chris Mielen of Lair Fera for the gallery space, sharing of their home, and support. This event was only possible because of your generosity!!!
This retrospective also would not have been possible without expertise, assistance by, and materials from: Ariel Speedwagon, André Azevedo, Sully Ross, Bitsy Bentley, Heather Acs, Sabina Ibarrola, Caitlin Rose, Felice Shays, Rosin Kaplan, Yana Calou, M Milks, Nogga Schwartz, anonymous, and anyone who tapped in after I wrote this. The most fun part of this was my time with you all. ❤
Thanks also to my hosts in NM Bett Williams and Tinkledy Spring, who provided beautiful & peaceful space for portions of the catalog, curatorial work, and game design to take place.
Thank you to my amazing job at ConsenSys and to my wonderful clients of Ride Free Fearless Money and Staircase Strategy, who provided me the financial resources for this to happen!
Thank you to friends participating in the RETROSPECULATIVE & RETROSPECTATUCLAR. If I try to name you all I will fuck it up. I love creating, playing, and making stuff with other people more than anything else. You playing along means the world to me.
Thank you everyone I’ve gotten the chance to create with so far. No artist is an island, no culture gets made without community. Here’s to another 25 years of weird, loud, creative, smart art making.
Hadassah Damien is an artist, technologist, writer and iconoclast. Here is the original announcement and call for performers. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to write up more about the retro-speculative game design soon. Republished from: http://www.damienluxe.com/how-to-throw-yourself-a-diy-retrospective/