In Bloomington, near Kingston, in a 19th-century brick house, artist, writer, and scholar Bethany Ides is organizing a performance project that she describes as “a political and communitarian proposition as well as an art form,” adding, “I take direction from Mister Rogers.”
Ides has taught courses in literary and critical theory, theology, art history, and text-as-art at Pratt Institute, the School of Visual Arts, Bard College, and other institutions. While she is devoted to teaching, her true passion is to gather people in a wide-ranging creative process that has recently migrated from New York City to the Catskills.
An event billed as an opera, entitled Transient’s Theme, was presented at the Knockdown Center in Queens last fall, based largely on group improvisations conducted in Bloomington, with groups of artists riffing on themes from prisons to hospitals to encampments. “Almost-Although” was a two-month summer retreat in Shandaken, attended by a rotating group of artists, writers, musicians, scholars and activists from across the country. She is now bringing together creative upstate residents in a slowly evolving project called Deathbeds, which will result in a series of 22-minute videos. “Upstate there isn’t this scarcity of time and space,” said Ides. “That’s why I need to be doing this here and now. It can’t happen in the city.”
The brick house she is renting has a back yard graced by black walnut trees, with the Rondout Creek beyond. Despite two feet of snow on the ground, early participants have begun two Deathbeds installations. One is made of snow, smoothed out like a bed, with a drift mounded at the head. The other consists of six mats laid flush in two rows. Since the design process has barely begun, it’s too soon to say what the piece is about.
“We’re just starting,” Ides explained. “We’re working on a theme song and an opening sequence that will be tacked onto the beginning of each episode. We’re doing a lot of drawing and talking together, and we have lists of running ideas. You bring your own subject that you want to explore, and the video will come about through a conversation. Thinking about deathbeds is a way of thinking about immediacy, about anticipating expiration, so it’s really a symbol for what is at stake.” She does not plan to post the resultant videos online but hopes to show them in venues familiar to participants of the project, places where they already meet for work or enjoyment, like coffee shops and bars and living rooms, as well as in more standard art and academic settings.
Although Ides’ work is guided by the writings of contemporary philosophers, including Jean-Luc Nancy, Lauren Berlant, and Fred Moten, her basic model is the operas of the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood TV shows for children that ran from 1963 to 2001. Within the Neighborhood that Rogers created, there was a Neighborhood of Make-Believe in which characters would devise each opera together, discussing roles and plot in a collaborative process that helped them deal with life problems. “It was a community ritual,” said Ides, “an expression of communitas, which Victor Turner describes as a period that’s in a kind of no-time, where everyone’s roles, necessary for a community to run, get thrown up in the air and switched around. It’s not so much non-hierarchical as anti-hierarchal — the body of the community becomes inhospitable to hierarchical roles. And the audience is invited to enter into the ritual.” Operas in the Neighborhood revolved around themes as various as bubbles, jealousy, and seat belts.
For her group projects, Ides provides a skeletal structure, sometimes a topic, usually a few simple rules. I was involved in last summer’s “Almost-Although,” where participants took turns leading a daily “Composition,” an exercise that might involve movement, translation, mapping, radio broadcasting, or any other medium the leader wished to explore. Ides incorporated her interest in roles, encouraging each person to adopt three roles from a list she provided: actor, interviewer, teacher, archivist, for example. The exercises were playful, the outcomes fresh, and bonds were formed among the participants.
I led two Compositions, a metaphysical nature walk and an ancestor workshop. Both ventures have had subsequent incarnations in other venues, such as “festival of fundraising rituals” for Ides, who needed the cash after renting the retreat cabins, since she did not charge the attendees. In fact, although tickets to her recent opera-within-the-opera were available for purchase, she is reluctant to charge for any of the group work because she doesn’t want the form of collaboration to be constrained by financial considerations.
“How do people feel really free to create when there’s the bottom line?” she asked. “I’m against commodifying people’s input.” To help figure out how to pay the bills, she’s established an advisory board and formed an organization, Doors Unlimited, with the tag line “a center for investigative operatics.” The board is helping her apply for grants and brainstorming other money-making ideas, most of which Ides resists. “I don’t want to ignore money — that’s silly,” she sighed. “But I do want to use the fact that money is a problem to invent as many ways as possible to work with that problem. Or work against the problem. Our festival of fundraising rituals was built to be the most ineffective fundraiser of all time, and it succeeded. We made $222.28.”
This summer she wants to hold another kind of retreat, hosting two or three week-long sessions at which a dozen people will live and work together in a think-tank atmosphere. Ides envisions a mix of thinkers and makers representing a wide range of ages. She hopes that use of a site, or more than one site, will be donated.
Ides is keeping her day job, teaching at colleges, but she doesn’t see why being the catalyst for group process shouldn’t be her main occupation. “It’s not making money,” she observed, “but it’s what I want to be accountable for. Being a mother doesn’t make any money either.”
Meanwhile, upstate residents are welcome to attend the weekly potlucks at Bloomington, where brainstorming sessions for Deathbeds continue in the living room, which is strewn with art supplies, knickknacks, bird cages, books, and other tools of Ides’ quirky trade. Inquiries are welcome and should be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.