As part of an ongoing personal exploration into art + the artistic process, and in preparation for the second ArtLab event, I sat down with actor // performance artist [and co-founder // creative director of arts company Our Ladies] Sophia Treanor to talk about her creative process. As a result, after my conversation with Sophia, I felt compelled to share some of her insights and experiences, as well as some of my own thoughts following our discussion.
As a starting point, can you talk about how your creative process begins? About how you begin getting into your creative body and mindset?
Attention and focus is the very broad methodology of beginning to compose a piece. That is, attention and focus to my own inner life—my intuition and my impulses—which for me personally are synonymous with the experience of living in my body … There’s this drastic difference between how I’m usually experiencing my day versus if I do some form of bringing all of that awareness into my body. I feel like my emotions, my intuition, my impulses of expression are embedded in my bones and muscles. So when I bring awareness to the experience of living inside my body, it feels like I’m waking up my entire spirit. It feels like my cells are actually changing and my brain is working differently … like my cells are literally waking up from being asleep and spider webs are clearing off my brain. Whether it’s pain or pleasure or ecstasy … it’s the holistic experience of being your body. That cellularly you are alive.
How does this inward sense of attention and focus in your practice change your relationship to your body and its impulses of movement?
Once a teacher told me that every single impulse that you do not execute is stored … I experience that as being true in that the tensions in my body—my preoccupations—are where my work often starts … from areas that seem [to be holding] things that I’ve tried to quiet in my daily life or things I have shame about. There are definitely [parts of my body] that tighten up the fastest when I’m not in my creative practice. These are the places where I feel like it’s a problem that I’m not creating—I get physical pain from stagnation in those same areas. And then usually they’re the first places to warm up.
For me a big area of attention is my esophagus—the throat and the vocal chords producing sound and breathing. It feels like a blockage there and constriction … Often, a really big part of me trying to create work is going in and ironing into the crease. Instead of trying to go around the tenseness [in your body] or massage it, you go into the experience of it. You move into it in a way that almost makes it more extreme than it is. Or just to feel it as much as you can and work into the pain of it. Work into the meaning [of that tenseness] rather than backing off … so that you can transform it … It’s a mixture of art and therapy.
So how do you learn how to recognize that tenseness? Is it a sort of subconscious sense of understanding of what your body wants as you move?
I feel that creative impulses are existing all the time, which include physical impulses [of what I] could be doing right now if I wasn’t in a public setting and thinking about being appropriate. That is, submitting or tapping into what I just call a stream of impulses because they’re unending. They’re happening all the time, but the more I practice devoting my attention to them, the closer to the surface it is in my subconsciousness. So the easier it is to go into.
But then there’s also this beautiful duality between [on one hand] following these impulses … like what am I doing? Here I go I’m moving this way … And [on the other hand] really putting your focus on what you’re doing and asking your body what does it want? What feels good? I think moving on impulse and moving with focus can be combined into this really ecstatic thing.
Has there been a piece of work in the last year that has really affected your practice or your work more generally?
For me, it was Einstein on the Beach. It is made of 20-minute segments and each segment is really repetitive in itself … It gives the audience the tiniest thing to watch for a very long time—tiny art. It made me look at sameness as a very dynamic thing … About how closely can you listen to one thing. How closely can we listen to the inner workings of our subconscious? Our body? Our intuition? And I think this is about attention … About sitting with something long enough to see subtlety and sitting with a repetition enough to take a different kind of journey.Because [a repeated action] will always change because nothing that is live or organic can happen the same way more than once … watching the same thing happen over and over and over and over again let’s you see the subtlety of the changes. That repetition as a singular event can tell you something about the entire group of repetitions. It gives you the ability—if you can keep your focus on it—to garner tons of information.
Being someone who almost exclusively occupies her head space, I have seldom given much thought to what it means to turn your awareness inside yourself, or what it takes to send your consciousness into your body. After our interview, Sophia was kind enough to show me how she brings her body and mind into her creative practice by moving into different parts of her body through a body scan. Afterwards, I went home and gave it a whirl, excited to get this body high she spoke of. Suffice it to say that even in the privacy of my own room, I felt extremely awkward and completely confused about what to do with myself. Why?
Part of the problem, I think, goes back to this idea that Sophia mentioned of “appropriateness”—about how we are conditioned to hold back many impulses of movement because they are deemed inappropriate for social life. This conditioning is rooted in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which weighs outcomes, forms judgments, and controls impulses + emotions. As we mature to adulthood, our pre-frontal cortex keeps track of the consequences of our actions to evaluate whether or not we should follow through with our impulses through a cost-benefit analysis. Because humans don’t exist in a social vacuum, our idea of what is okay to do and what is not are intimately tied to the reactions of others. So if mid-conversation you decided to roll around on the floor and someone looked at you funny, your pre-frontal cortex would make you reconsider the next time you felt so inclined.
Even alone in my room, my body just couldn’t shake what 24 years of appropriateness training had engrained into my mind. Instead, shedding these impulse-control mechanisms requires practice—an intentional reappropriation of certain impulses as being emotive // efective // meaningful rather than strange and inappropriate. This sort of contextual reconditioning requires a specific kind of attention + focus not only to what is happening at your pre-frontal cortex, but also to consciously drawing on other senses like the inner sense of the body’s position in space [proprioception], the sense of our body’s relationship to objects surrounding us [the body schema], and the body’s sense of motion [kinesthesia].
To tap into her body, Sophia rather amazingly has mastered her mind in a way that I had never before considered. What’s even more remarkable is how she translates this mastery into making art that moves on every conceivable level. Watching her transition to her creative practice was like watching a switch flip, almost as though her brain was rapidly re-wiring to take on this utterly expressive persona.
For the last few months I have been interviewing local artists and am constantly amazed // invigorated by how my conversations with them have added an entirely new dimension to my own scientific thoughts and curiosities. This post marks the first in a series of conversations with artists. Stay tuned for more!!
Photographs by Maryam Zaringhalam.