Consenses Art Project
I would like it to be accepted that each of us knows but a sliver of the larger nature of reality and that by ourselves we can never really understand the greater whole.
Interview by Heidi Legg
In late August, when the golden light of summer takes pause, Sally Taylor, musician and creator of the Consenses Project, will host Festival for the Senses on Martha’s Vineyard from August 18th to the 20th at Grange Hall in West Tisbury. Her exhibit of interpretive art will feature over 130 different artists. Like a game of old-fashion "Telephone", individual works of art from musicians, painters, poets, perfumers, and dancers will unfold a chain of interpretation based on 22 photos that were taken of one singular thing. Taylor invited artists to express what they saw in their own medium. Evening performances with Jennifer Nettles, Carly Simon, John Forte, Ben Taylor, Sally Taylor and Something Underground will rock Grange Hall. And while much of the art may not resemble that original singular image, the interpretation itself is Taylor’s tour de force.
Two years ago, Taylor began to hand out these 22 photographs to artists and as one artist would finish their work, she would pass it along to another. Taylor, the daughter of musicians Carly Simon and James Taylor, talks about the influence of metaphorical play in her childhood which seems to have led her on this intention to share it with the rest of us. I sat down with her to explore the genesis of Consenses and what she is trying to create.
What is the Consenses Art Project?
When I was touring as a musician, I was feeling as though I was only able to express one aspect of something larger. I kept coming back to this fable about six blind men and an elephant that I heard while I was studying anthropology at Brown University. A group of blind men is traveling down this road and they come across this elephant in their path. Each man feels a different aspect of the elephant's body before coming to a determination that it is an elephant. One man feels the elephant's tail and says, ‘well, it has to be a rope' and then one feels his ears and says, 'actually, it’s probably more of a fan' and the one that feels the trunk, thinks the elephant's a branch. They all have these different understandings of what stands in front of them. They argue the righteousness of their perception until a king comes along and says, 'if you actually stop fighting, you might actually listen to one another and come up with a better description of the larger beast.'
This fable to me has always been sort of a metaphor for the individuation of our human experience on the planet. We have these five senses to explore the entirety of our experience and we only actually manage to explore a tiny fraction of the mysterious fabric of the universe. Yet, we imagine that we know much more of the greater whole. We then argue the righteousness of our perceptions with each other and tag onto those who agree with us and negate and undermine those who disagree with us.
As a musician, I realized that I had the sense of the auditory but I couldn't get in touch with the larger beast because I only had that one avenue of exploration and expression. So I decided to create an elephant of my own. I didn't tell any of the other artists that there was a ‘one thing’. They knew other things were being interpreted but they didn't know that there was an elephant which we won’t reveal until the exhibit opens.
How long is the current chain?
Given there are twenty-two chains in constant motion and it's been going for two years, we have about 130 pieces.
Did you give them any guidelines?
There are very few constraints. One of them is that they can't know who else is participating. Another is that they have a week, but of course no artist actually takes a week. There are very few artists who can actually create in a week but the reason for the rush is that I want the integrity of their original perception to be maintained. I don't want the artist to get hold of it and then let their ego and their head evolve it into something that it wasn’t to begin with. I want them to take their original perception and create from it.
What public opinion would you like to change?
I would like people to see that there is no right or wrong answer. I would like it to be accepted that all of us know our sliver but none of us really know anything. I'd like to change the fear surrounding us when someone says, 'I have no idea'. I think that that would solve world peace and dissolve some of the isolation and separateness between us. People grasp onto their interpretations because of fear and they grasp onto their perceptions because they can't imagine not having the answer to what this all means.
With Consenses I'm trying to erase some of the fear that keeps us separate, some of the fear in the form of prejudice or of biases and opinions. Most of us are locked inside an understanding of how we move about in the universe but artists have their medium, they have their auditory expression, or visual expression, or their taste expression. It’s incredibly liberating to have a paintbrush and be able to express the art that you’re seeing in your daily life and to be able to visualize that for others and see if they actually resonate with it.
I also really wanted to demystify elitism that is associated with art appreciation. I'm hoping to lend some of the lesser-known artists a greater fan base opportunity. It's really important to me that all artists get some recognition and I would also like to inspire community.
Are the artists all based in America?
They're from all over the world. We have work from twenty-two different countries, mostly European including the Netherlands, UK, Spain, France, and Italy.
Has something surprised you?
Everything surprised me. There’s a different language in each medium so getting to know that new language is a complete journey within itself.
It was interesting for me to see the different levels of freedom artists have to express themselves in different genres. For example when I handed perfumers a painting, they said, ‘...and then will you send it back and ask us to change it?’ And I said, ‘no, that's not part of the gist. You're actually free to do whatever you want.’ They were surprised. They’ve always been owned by an organization that actually manipulates their work to the customer's preferences. Whereas when you ask a painter to take this song and interpret it, most will say, ‘that's such a restraint.’
As an artist yourself, what is your process?
I think about writing as a collaborative process: me and muse or me and spirit. I basically sit down with a guitar and I start playing and a mood strikes me and that's like spirit coming through and the mood then inspires a melody line, usually over whatever the notes are that I'm creating. Then some spirit engages again by throwing out some words into the melody lines (Sally starts to sing) and then it's my job to connect the dots between the words and the emotional content and to create the emotional melody line and then the rhythm of that the phrasing wants to come out. I basically go, ‘okay, oh, that's that and oh, that's that.’ I never know what a song is about until I'm finished and then I basically go back in and project my own story onto it.
Do you remember us talking about auditory learning after I interviewed the poet Robert Pinsky? Would you explain it again?
Yeah. I think it stems from a Dan Levitin book called This is Your Brain on Music. Basically, musical learning happens in a sort of a cycle where you have listening and then you have practicing. And then you have this thing called ‘Audiation’ (which is the foundation of musicianship) where you are basically processing it and making sense of it. Before you're five years old, all of your neurological pathways are still pretty intact and nothing's been pruned away. By the time you're five, you've basically created the palate from with which you’re able to listen to music. As a result, the other neurological pathways that you haven't used by the time you're five are basically being pruned away. As a result, when you hear a Chinese scale (Sally sounds this out for me again) and because you’ve perhaps never heard that before, it's not in your palate, and therefore, it's upsetting to you. It's not safe.
Generally, here in the US, when you hear Mary Had a Little Lamb, that's right in the center of your palate and so familiar that it's kind of boring. It's super boring, right?
People, generally speaking, like to listen to music that's on the periphery of their palate. They like to be right on the border of being uncomfortable but being not so uncomfortable that they don't feel safe within it. I think that's true of all the senses although I don't have any way of backing that up.
To come back to the metaphor of the elephant, you're only actually able to feel the elephant before you're five and what I mean by that is that you can only actually touch a thing without projecting your top-down cognitive processing onto it. After the age of five, you're just naming things. You're not actually feeling it.
How does your childhood influence your work today?
I was talking to Daniel Levitan, who's one of these brilliant, brilliant neuroscientists who I so wish that I were, and he we were talking about dyslexia. I’m dyslexic and I think that this has a lot to do with my capability as an artist. I'm not really a very good decoder of information. In fact, what I was saying to Daniel is that I have to turn everything into metaphor before I can understand it. I don't have the capability of just hearing you talk and making meaning of it. I think that that's pretty much why I created Consenses because I don't think I can fully understand people without metaphor and art is the metaphor. That's the only way that I actually can decode.
Do you think growing surrounded by artists played a part?
When I was a kid, my mom taught us this game called 'Essences'. The game was played when one person selected an individual in their mind to play with and everybody else had to guess who the individual was based on asking metaphoric questions. They'd say, 'if this person were a car, what kind of car would they be?' or a body of water or a time of day, etc. You basically would go through all these sort of metaphoric questions and you would answer about the essence of that individual and then once somebody guessed it, a really incredible conversation would happen, 'Oh, no. I wouldn't have seen him as a waterfall. Where did you get that? That threw me off,' and every time somebody would say, 'oh, no. I see that differently’, you would be able to put yourself in that person's perception for a second. It would be like a little snapshot of who they were as seer on the planet and it was such a more intimate way of communicating people's perceptions to each other than sort of saying, 'I see you as a really sort of sophisticated funny person.' What does that mean? I'm just projecting my own idea of what is funny.
I think more than anything else that game and being infused with constant types of art and music that have influenced me. When I would look at a painting, I could also hear the music and I could see the fragrance of it. That game of Essences lent me that perspective. Everybody in my life has sort of taken on those qualities. I just play the game of Essences subliminally when I meet people.
Are seeing the elephant come together?
The thing that's come out of this exhibit is that I don't know anything. That’s maybe the biggest lesson for me from this project. Whatever I say becomes. Every now and then there's like an introduction of a slightly different palate: a different flavor, a different texture, something else that sort of makes up the larger palate through which I can draw understanding of the world.
This project loosens up my grasp on that understanding of the world and I'm hoping it will for other people too. I want people to be in the same space at the same time. There's so much Facebook and there's so much social media interaction. I wanted people to actually meet in a place where they are forced to be in the present moment, to interpret art and use all their senses.
I've been working with MassArt, with their interaction/design program graduate students, to design a way to show the art so that it’s cohesive and it's understandable but at the same time creating something that's on the periphery of the palate, yet not being so avant-garde that nobody can get inside it, although it's kind of avant-garde too.
What makes art unique is that you're forced to interpret something from a bottom-up cognitive process because it's something that you've never heard before. It's something you've never seen before or tasted before. As much as you want to throw your story onto it or your history or your perception or your palate, you have to take a second.
However, children are different. They are actually feeling it, making an understanding about it and then they're discussing it and that's what artists are doing too with their work. They're interpreting something because they've never seen it before. They're making meaning out of it and then they're passing it along and that's the discussion. They're not talking about it. They're 'art-ing' about it.
We are now taking the Consenses curriculum into schools around Greater Boston including Berklee College of Music, Brimmer & May, Tabor Academy, Walnut Hill and Shady Hill to name a few to generate interconnectivity within the classrooms and encourage student's tolerance of one another's perspectives.
Do you have a secret source in Boston?
That would be Darwin's. I often go there and just hold meetings. I just go there with my cable and my computer and I'll be there all day. It's a really creative spot for me.
Taylor formed her own record label in 1998, ambitiously producing and recording three albums as well as touring 180 days a year. When she retired from the road, Taylor moved to Boston and began teaching music at The Berklee School of Music. She is currently working exclusively on Consenses.
Consensus in Boston:
The exhibit will travel to Boston to Davis Square, 212 Elm Street in Somerville from Sept 25-Oct 12th, 2014 and to Cambridge at the Oberon from Sept 29-Oct 1st, 2014. Tickets are for sale at https://www.artful.ly/consenses