How to Make Art in The Real World

This is a terrible To Do list for an artist. But a perfect one for cold winter days.
This is a terrible To Do list for an artist. But a perfect one for cold winter days.

Hello, Furious Faithful.

Welcome to the Inaugural Guest Post on mdibiasio.com. I’ve got a busy couple of years coming up (mischief is in the making) but I want to keep up a dialogue in between potentially more sporadic posts from me — so you may see some more entries from guests as the year continues. I’m especially busy for the next month (planning of the making of the mischief), but will still chime in now and then and I’ll probably do what I’m doing now and introduce and comment briefly on guest material.

Now, some info on our guest writer, Liam Billingham.

Recent posts about navigating life as an artist and indie filmmaker have been popular here, so when I noticed the below-mentioned conversation on Facebook — and read and enjoyed and agreed with many of the points made — I reached out to Liam to share his findings and his thoughts.

I first met Liam during a Seed&Spark Twitter chat, which, incidentally, you should check out if you’re a filmmaker and if this sort of material is of particular interest to you. Seed&Spark has been bringing great energy to the discussion and growth of a rising movement towards empowered, sustainable and self-directed indie filmmaking, offering support that ranges from crowd-building to funding to distribution, and their momentum and influence seems to really be growing. I’ve enjoyed becoming a part of their #FilmCurious community (the hashtag used during chats). Anyway, Liam is an indie writer/director living in Brooklyn, who recently finished a short film and is developing his first feature. Since I’m in the same position, more or less, we realized we had a lot in common and have become friends.

All of the below came out of an informal poll Liam took on Facebook, asking for some added insight from other seasoned artists in regards to providing advice to college seniors in the arts who will be graduating this year. I agree with all of what came up in the conversation, and believe many of the observations and advice shared by Liam’s friends can be of value to emerging and established artists as well as those who are nominally in more of a beginner’s position.

I’ll leave it to Liam to contextualize his specific findings. The reasons why I asked him if he wouldn’t mind sharing them, for the benefit of all, should become readily apparent as he works through each.

In spots, I’ve made some personal notes, which appear in italics and are tagged in the front with my name. All remaining text is from Liam unless otherwise indicated by him.

What’s Next

Just before Christmas, my former undergraduate theatre professor at the University of New Hampshire asked me to Skype in to a class of graduating seniors and talk about my experience as an artist since graduating. Specifically, the topic was ‘What Next?,’ and dealt with looking at the journeys alumni took that led to where they are right now.

The morning of the talk, I decided it was best to poll a group of friends and fellow artists who had been making art since we graduated. I didn’t want to restrict the poll to UNH alumni. I wanted to cast as wide a net as possible. I didn’t want to just ask theatre people only, either, since I don’t really work much in theatre anymore. For these reasons, I turned to all my Facebook friends in asking for advice for seniors.

The post got a lot of traction, and we got about 40 comments, most of which were incredibly useful. Reviewing what was sent in, a few key ideas popped up that I thought I’d share:

The More You Know…

From Stage Manager Natalie Lynch: “Do as much as you can and learn as many skills as you can. The more you know the more areas you can work. And you never know what may be asked of you…”

From UNH Student Engagement and Young Alumni Programs Director Megan Hales: “…ask as many questions and talk to as many people as possible. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know and the only way to make progress is by talking to people!”

The More People You Meet…

When I was at UNH, I had an intellectually challenging professor named David Kaye, who turned me on to Anne Bogart and the SITI Company. I read Anne’s book and applied to train with them. At their month-long training program in Saratoga, I met Jean Ann Douglass, whom, years later, introduced me to Nicholas Nelson and Jared Mezzocchi. Nick has been a constant collaborator, and Jared introduced me to Ben Jaeger-Thomas, who has been a client and collaborator for the past few years. Both Jean Ann and Ben comment below on how to make it as an artist. They’re lifers, fully committed to making art a part of their lives.

The more people you meet, the more you learn, the more experiences you have, the more these wonderful people will feed you. (MICHAEL: And you, them. In my experience, after I have summoned up the courage to “butt in” on someone, particularly online (though I do it in person as well) and open up to how I’m feeling about whatever they said or did (in a positive and/or constructive way) and then offered help — down the line, they’ve offered to help me too. A simple and obvious lesson but one that can be easy to forget). You’ll also meet assholes. You need to meet those people too, so you know you don’t want to be around them. (MICHAEL: This is a very good point. There are unfortunately a lot of negative people, in every industry. Negative artists can be particularly damaging to your progress and momentum. I should know. I used to struggle against one who used to live in my head, and still does — behind a series of locked doors).

From actor Jesse Presler: “…foster artistic relationships outside of your comfort zone. It can be an artistic hindrance to only spend time with people who speak the same artistic language in which one is indoctrinated. It can be a hindrance to personal growth to only spend time with and hide among one’s recently-graduated friends. College comrades are very important, of course, but part of being an artist is growth — growth which is and should be uncomfortable, painful at times even.”

So, find your people.

Carve Out A Life Course

From Seven Stages Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Dan Beaulieu: “Go out and see as much as possible. Now that classes are over, take 15 hours a week and carve out your own “life course”. Shows, concerts, movies, art exhibits, artisan craft fairs, anything creative. And read! And read. And read.” (MICHAEL: This is fantastic advice, that I whole-heartedly agree with. To me, it speaks to the importance of immersion. Personally, I long struggled with a tendency to explain away reasons why I don’t have the time (or, worse, don’t need to take the time) to do my due diligence as an artist and do as Dan says and “go out and see” stuff. A few additional added points: 1) Don’t wait for perfect circumstances when choosing what to do or not do, just be open and experiment and allow yourself to be led from there; 2) Be wary of the line between immersion and avoidance; 3) Apart from reading, mix in a healthy dose of private creative consumption. There’s even a difference between seeing a movie or a play with friends, and experiencing it privately and then talking — and doing the same thing but having another hour or more to process before the conversation.)

From Artist/Fractured Atlas Insurance genius Jean Ann Douglass : “Also, don’t kid yourself that you’ll be able to make rent off your art. There are lots of ways to make money, and they all have trade-offs. Irregular paychecks may be more stressful than the confines of working 9 to 5. Or vice versa.”

And, again from Jean Ann: “Don’t burn yourself out before you’re 30 years old. Taking care of yourself as a whole person is the most important thing you can do.”

Adaptation

From Voice over Artist/Actor Ben Jaeger-Thomas: “Really think about what it is realistically that you want to do in the arts. Being famous isn’t specific enough. Are you going to be okay
being on tour six months out of the year, every year, to piece together a living? You aren’t 20 forever.” (MICHAEL: Another good point. I’ve been trying hard lately to not only focus more on “the work,” but on how my work fits into reality. Accepting reality and adapting to it can be so much better for us as artists than we may think when we are following fear-laden trains of thought that tell us conditions need to be perfect).

Take Risks

From artist/musician/graphic designer/filmmaker Ken Nash: “If it doesn’t scare the hell out of you, it’s probably not worth doing. Set a goal each year to do one thing you’re completely terrified about doing.” (MICHAEL: He’s right. I would add that, invariably, what scares us the most can often produce our best work, if not directly — in some way or form at least).

Don’t be a dick

From filmmaker Chris Ungco: “People will respond better to good ideas from people who seem like good people. You get more, and you live better by not being a dick. Good luck.” (MICHAEL: This can be a hard piece of advice to adhere to, as time goes on and the (understandable) propensity for bitterness grows. Adhere to it anyway. Toxic people invariably release their poison to disastrous effect, even if they succeed in a short term way. Further, while we of course always want every single project to be the best it can be, acting monstrously towards collaborators (or worse, to or in front of potential audience members) endangers or destroys future prospects. Finally, in my opinion, no piece of art is worth the cost of dehumanization — in terms of what damage you could do to yourself or others. “Don’t be a dick” could also be translated to “be human”.)
So what did we learn?

  • Being an artist takes time, and it shouldn’t ruin your life. Have a life.
  • Constantly go out and meet new people, learn new things, and find a new niche.
  • Treat people right. Seriously, don’t be a dick.

I think the most important lesson is to really evaluate where you are right now. If it isn’t where you want to be, don’t beat yourself up. Make changes, slowly but surely. Once you’ve started making those changes, you’re doing it right. Being an artist isn’t a race. It’s a long, slow walk forward.

Liam Billingham
Liam Bilingham is a filmmaker and media educator in Brooklyn, NY. He’s currently developing his first feature film and working on several short-term projects. He’s just starting up his own blog, ‘Somewhat Suspect’, on his website, liambillingham.com.

 

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A Graduation Speech From Your Drunk, Crazy Uncle

I think about the future a lot. A lot. Some days, I worry about the end of the human race. That we’ll blow this whole place up before we find a way to get off the rock and find some other habitable planets to blow up. This does actually go through my head.

Other days, I scale it back a bit. I think about the near future — mine, as well as that of the coming generation of young adults. Perhaps I am thinking about them, particularly, because it’s graduation season. The time when young college graduates in particular exit the buffer that exists between life as a child and life as an adult. I worry for this group, because the adult world the majority of them face is nothing more than a tall wall of shit.

Look. I’m not being dramatic. I’m telling the truth.

When I try to think about the near-future, on a larger national level, I find it nearly impossible. Thinking about the future, for so many Americans, invariably results in being yanked back to the sad reality of the present and past. There is little to look forward to, in terms of the old narrative of The American Dream. For most Americans, there is only more of the same circumstances they have had to live with for decades.

You work. You go home. You get up tomorrow and you do it again. As this cycle repeats, you increasingly receive less in the way of compensation for your work, even as you are asked to give more. Prices go up, the cost of living increases, and wages go up insufficiently in proportion. You borrow, and you cut expenses. You make do. Then, for all purposes, it’s over.

Subsequent decades of life — if you’re lucky — will be represented by a trustworthy repetition of this pattern. Along the way, you will be lied to — more so via lies of omission or misdirection than direct deceit. It’s going to be fine, they’ll say. It’s necessary. Things will get better. You can still save. If you work hard enough, or if other non-workers stop weighing us all down, it will be all right.

But it won’t be all right. Not unless you — we — make it all right.

This is not the way it used to be; and it is definitely not the way it’s supposed to be. If we push forward despite the uncertainty, and think anyway about the future that the current generation of young professionals entering and/or floundering in the American work force face, it’s not even the worst scenario.

There’s been a lot of talk in the news and on the web this week, about surveillance. Spying. About the implications of the ability of the government to leverage corporate data to know who you are talking to and when, for how long. What you do online. Whatever.

It doesn’t bother me.

For a few minutes (and not much longer), I wondered why it didn’t bother me. This news seems like something that should bother all of us. But, do you know what I realized? It doesn’t matter.

What are they going to catch us doing? What do we do, other than acquiesce, daily, to this unjust, rigged system of indenture — wherein, in the supposed “land of the free” we live forever yoked to The Market?

Who among us, who isn’t at or near the “top” of society, does anything but quietly play along by all the rules, everyday — who can afford not to?

I have grown weary of the tired, lazy comparisons to the dystopian future forewarned in Orwell’s 1984. I found them wearying during the Bush years and I find them wearying again now that they’ve cropped back up in the news.

It’s a brilliant book — but it’s also just a book. It remains chained to the constraints of the page. By virtue of its medium, it remains beholden to the need, on the part of its author, to both suggest a chillingly possible future, and yet paint a picture of that future that is limited to the point of view of one main protagonist.

Winston, the protagonist of 1984, lives at one point in time, in a particular place. He experiences a limited set of mounting tragedies that, even if they are poetically drawn and made to approximate the universal, cannot ever encapsulate the breadth of what it is like for millions upon millions to suffer a similar fate at the hands of totalitarianism. Definitely it can’t measure up to the actual tragic fate that millions throughout history have suffered at the hands of totalitarianism. Ultimately, Winston’s world disappears from our immediate view when we turn the last page, even if its lesson lingers.

We do not live in a time that recalls the dystopia of 1984. Our time is in most ways much, much better; and in certain, albeit tamer ways — a little worse.

The students graduating today face a very different job market than the one I just barely squeaked into seven years ago. And I’m a pretty smart, hard-working guy — who graduated from one of the best colleges in the country. But I also used to be a naive guy. I used to believe the narrative, that these two qualities, with perhaps a few others appended to them, were enough to succeed, and be happy, in America.

Students graduating today? I’m sorry, but I’m here to play the role of your drunk uncle — the guy yelling the truth in some corner at your graduation party while everyone else pretends he’s the crazy one (in their defense, he should stop drinking).

Our latest crop of graduates should be proud of their accomplishments. Getting through college, for most of us at least, is not easy. It wasn’t for me, at any event. So, graduates — be proud. Celebrate. Rest a bit.

And then, once you have celebrated and rested, get on your feet and prepare for a fight.

Your country is not with you or for you. I’m sorry to have to say that. But at least right now, it is against you. Investment in the future is being withheld as a means of preserving the past. The present hardly exists. It too, withers in the grip of past. The last several years, for those holding all the power and money and influence, have been about little else but storming the walls of the fortress and drawing the ladders up behind.

This post started as the usual recap of What I Liked This Week, which as we all know by now, is just as often an ironic title than a genuine one. That’s been bothering me, lately. As much as I default to it at times, out of habit — I dislike irony. It does not fit our current plight. Like the Orwellian comparisons, it is lazy, and it misses the point. Irony fails as us much as acquiescence.

There is no reason to fear a future in which all lived cowed to an image or a character akin to Orwell’s Big Brother. As readers of the novel might recall, the character himself is but a symbol of oppression, wielded by a plutocracy of a few in order to exploit, keep down, and control — the many.

And so, I admit to playing a little loosely with the example to better serve my point. I know that 1984, like so many fine examples of science fiction, is meant as a warning. I know that it’s meant to be only a dramatized expression of the very real potential repercussions of a failure, on the part of those living in the present, to protect ourselves and the future from oppression and institutional control.

This post was going to be about two news items, that I meant to include as follow-ups on previous items about the looming student debt crisis, the severe repercussions of rampant income inequality on the future, and the decision by members of the elite (Congress) to take food from the mouths of the poor in the name of reducing a budget deficit caused by the wealthy. Essentially, this post was going to be about pointing at the fortresses and disappearing ladders.

But I think I’m done with the news. And with screaming into the void.

There will be no more lists of links in this space, no more distractions from the real work of doing what is urgently needed, here and now, to help free ourselves and future generations from our (partially self-imposed) oppression. We must focus not on what has happened, but what must happen. We must take a look around us, catalog what is available, and begin working together to build new ladders. Beyond that, we should be thinking of what new fortresses need to be built — and how tall their walls should or shouldn’t be — as we consider what we as young Americans want this place to look like once it is finally ours.

We, the young, are almost completely on our own. We have each other, and we have new technologies and new paradigms of thought and collaboration to help us grow. It will not be easy to fix this mess, because we did not end up on our own by accident. We were — and are being — left behind. For the last several years, through no fault of our own, we young adults have been left to enter a world that has been wounded and picked clean by the greed and obliviousness and the cowardice of those who came before us, and who now refuse us entry to the future that is supposed to be ours.

Do not fear Big Brother, America. Fear yourselves, for you are unfortunately complicit. Fear your mothers and your fathers, no matter how painful that suggestion may be — no matter what you owe them. Any American parent who truly loves their children should be worried for them right now. Their intrinsic need to want to see their children safe, to see them thrive…if this need cannot subsist under the light of the truth — then it was never fully there to begin with.

Most of all, fear the aging lords and ladies scheming in the board rooms of your major cities. The government is not trying to control your life. It can’t. The government is a hostage. The fact that the government is spying is worrisome. The fact that it must ask permission from corporate interests, in order to do so, is more worrisome.

Fear the machinery that the lords and ladies wield against you. Fear Big Business. It’s oppression is not symbolized by a boot that stamps on a human face. The genius and the horror of its power is its omnipresence and omnipotence in your life as a consumer. Most of us, in one way or another, owe Big Business our food, our medicine, our debt, our homes and our livelihood. It used to be that your consumerism was desired. Then it was expected. Then assumed. Now it is demanded. 

This is what’s frightening about the future. I have made it a point to leave clear indications on this site that I am not anti-business. I am not even anti-corporation. A well-run corporation, with the right leaders and mission, can do amazing things. But banks that are too big to fail, and small groups of mega-corporations with few competitors, who together own entire billion-dollar industries like oil and agriculture, and thus wield incredible power over the direction of the country — well, let’s just say there’s a reason we had a historical precedent for not allowing organizations to grow to the levels they’re at now. When business gets too big, and too consolidated — and thus too influential — those in control become too far removed, from the lives their businesses affect, to be trusted.

From a high-level, social perspective, business is supposed to exist in order to provide us with a means of assuring a livelihood. We do not exist to ensure the continued livelihood of business.

If we really want a future for ourselves, a real future that is ours, we’d do well to think about the perversity of our current relationship with the world around us. We work, we go home, they give us less, they ask for more. In between, we spend. We do not invest, we do not create, because we have little opportunity or capital. We are the capital.

Nothing will change unless we change it. Future generations will continue to be fed into this increasingly vile system, if we do not work together to free ourselves and them from the shackles of debt, of living-to-work instead of working-to-live, of existing in unnatural opposition to our fundamental desire to be free. If we do not fight, do not scratch and claw and stand up for ourselves, while at the same time supporting and embracing new, community-based, disruptive ideas for building a new, open infrastructure of commerce based on fairness and equal opportunity — it will get worse.

The artistic world, as it often does, has begun to lead the way. The tools are out there, and (obviously) so is the need. It is just left for us to do the work. I’m not afraid — not anymore. Are you?

It’s okay to be afraid. But it’s okay to get angry too.

Have a good week, Furious Faithful. Thank you, forever, for reading.