The Authorship of Awe

The other day, as I listened to archived episodes of Invisibilia and turned old potatoes into new samosas, an interview* popped up with a woman who hosts Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel introduced as “SM.” SM is afflicted by Urbakvita, a rare recessive genetic disorder. As a result, SM is an intelligent, logical, happy mother of three, who is biologically fearless. She could be standing in the street and see a bus coming right at her and she would think, “I should move or that bus will kill me,” and she would move but there would be no heart racing, adrenaline pumping, sweat-producing terror attached to that thought or that action. Her body has calcified her fear.


Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller
Blue wig clad curator Anna Trier with the Happy Collaborationists, installation by Jennifer Mills.

At work I’ve been spending a lot of time contemplating Links Hall’s primary mission, risk–and its primary obstacle, fear.

Over my twelve years working in the arts, I have encountered a lot of fear. Audience members are afraid to come to a venue they have not been to before. They are afraid to see work by an artist they don’t know, or who does not remind them of themselves. They are afraid that their reaction to the work being offered is somehow incorrect or invalid.

Artists are afraid to invite people they know to see their work; they are afraid to invite people they don’t know to see their work. They are sometimes afraid to make their work, or to start their work, or to finish their work. They are afraid to ask people to support their work because they are afraid those people will say no.

Organizers are afraid that the people we have persuaded to support a work won’t like it, and won’t support art in the future. We are afraid of failing the artists and audiences to whom we are committed. We are afraid that the artists won’t complete the work, or the audiences won’t show up. We are afraid because the needs of artists always outweigh the resources on hand. We are afraid that by supporting others we are neglecting ourselves.

Temple at the Ellora Caves
(un-finished sketch by Anna Trier)

Funders, I am fairly certain, are just afraid of everything.

Yes, the arts have always been a swamp of fear, a swamp that you have to soak in until your toes and fingers turn pruny if you want to push any project through the muck to completion. Still, doing this work got a lot harder two years ago. Who has the energy to take on all of that fear after spending a day slugging though traumatizing headlines and hoisting yourself over a similar barrier of anxiety to attend a protest or a town hall meeting? For months, in addition to our usual responsibilities, we have been shouldering the age-old question of why fund/support/cultivate the arts when so many human afflictions are still unsolved, when our country is unraveling around us?

Bree Newsome (photo by Adam Anderson)
Standing Rock (photo by Justin Deegan)

Assata’s Daughters (photo by Kelly Hayes)

Most of my life I have dismissed this question out of hand as both absurd and anti-democratic in a vein similar to underfunding public education. The implication that food, shelter, medical care, education, or culture should be rights reserved for the wealthy is across the board deplorable. As such, refusing to support the arts is unconscionable. But the political reality of our moment, and our state’s budget crisis before that, have been twisting my arm for quite some time now, forcing me to occasionally question the pertinency of my chosen work.

I lost sleep over the matter for months before realizing that the protests that have most inspired me these past two years have all been expressed through art: Bree Newsome pulling down the confederate flag, Veterans Stand with Standing Rock publicly apologizing to Sioux spiritual leaders, Assata’s Daughters clad in pvc pipes or purple berets — all real, meticulously planned, stunningly brave performances. Though it often goes unrecognized, it is the performative execution that renders activism effective. If protests need strong performance to articulate the power of personal risk triumphing over fear, then art – which allows us to witness transformation, practice bravery, and challenge our fright – is how we can craft that power.

In “The Hour of Landauthor, conservationist, and activist Terry Tempest Williams states “the difference between fear and awe is a matter of our eyes adjusting.” From her time spent in the desert at night in Big Bend National Park, a natural habitat recently threatened with complete destruction by a proposed border wall, she is acknowledging the moments in our lives that force our pupils to dilate and take in more light to penetrate our own blindness. These open aperture experiences let us glimpse the vast beauty of the unknown and consume us with our own sense of smallness. Moments that leave us trembling, transported from fear to awe–a shift that makes spines tingle and offers more insight into what art is than any I have ever been able to articulate.

Moments where awe has rendered me conscious of my smallness, rather than cultivating apathy, have always liberated me from the the ever-present possibility of failure and gifted me the space needed to try harder.

Katie Mazzini in
Walkabout Theater Company’s

The Brink

I have found the strength of my insignificance in the middle of Lake Michigan afloat on a desert of water, and on the rooftops of Istanbul as the evening call to prayer rolled out across the Sea of Marmara. I have also found it in Links Hall’s studios where I have been subsumed by the voice of Katie Mazzini belting out torch songs in Walkabout Theater Company’s “The Brink!” and, lubricated by a chorus of gossips whispering the words of Sharon Bridgforth’s “River See,” I have slipped beneath the surface of the Mississippi River.

Sonja Parks and Marie Casimir
in Sharon Bridgforth’s
River See
(photo by Dan Plehal)

Awe is at work in art, and in activism, and in the natural world. It brings our smallness down around us and makes a vast expanse perceptible to our newly opened eyes. It gives us the space to feel more, to do more.

As I listened to SM’s small, raspy voice detail an encounter she had with a mugger where she calmly invited him “go ahead and cut me” and let him know that she would “come back and hunt [his] ass” as he held a knife to her throat, I thought, “I need this woman.” I need her on our board, and in our audience, and making work in our studios. For the past two years, we have been swimming upstream against the current of our daily terror and simply being conscious of this fearlessness offered a profound sense of relief against that struggle. It made me recognize a hunger I did know I had–the need for respite from the exhaustion of fear.

Damon D. Green and J’Sun Howard at Dance Box in Kobe Japan performing CLUTCH by Darrell Jones.
(Co-commisioned by Links Hall.)

There have only ever been about 400 diagnosed cases of Urbakvita so it seems nearly pointless to waste time hoping that liberating calcium deposits will start to build up in my brain. As I contemplated how to leave fear behind, I began to wonder if, fearless, would we still have the ability to be enraptured by awe and by the potential that belies what can seem like our own insignificance? SM has joy, but does she have awe? Without that physical and chemical shift that transports me from alarm to astonishment, would I still be able to break through to that second wind that pushes me to work longer, harder?

Fear and inspiration are inexplicably related and the creation of art, like an act of protest and defiance, is a demonstration of personal risk in spite of fear. Art can take the fear held by audience and performer and render a crowd awestruck, busting open our mental and emotional space for joy, or perseverance, or open-mindedness. Throughout our lives we have chance encounters with awe, or we travel the globe seeking it out, but in the creative act of art-making, we take up the authorship of awe. We are living in a time when our daily lives are being pushed and prodded along by people trying to motivate us to action or inaction by fear because they lack the creativity to conceive of hard work and hope. In such a time isn’t this the stuff of progress? Don’t we need to hold on to every awe-inspiring, goosebump-raising moment within reach? Don’t we need to make more?

Istanbul’s Blue Mosque
(sketch by Anna Trier)

Because I am not fearless I need the overwhelming power of nature and the transformative bravery of protest and of art in order to push forward — in order to survive. Fear plays upon the limitation of our vision and narrows our field of sight but art, like the desert at night, transfigures our fear into awe, and the power and the splendor found in that magnanimous darkness is worth every risk.

*Invisibilia, Fearless, World With No Fear, Friday January 16, 2015