THE WESTERN 2018, WARSAW, POLAND
I work as an artist and operate a studio/workshop in the foothills of East Los Angeles. From the workshop I create collective experiences with music, art, and architecture that explore elements of community, deep listening, and place. Sometimes this means I am making things like bells or sculptures, and at other times I’m making ephemeral works such as immersive installations, happenings, or concerts. I work at a variety of scales and employ a co-operative working method that enables me to work in many different materials and venues, and my rigorous research practice sometimes leads me to work with academic institutions like California Institute of the Arts.
This is how came to form a relationship with CalArts Center for New Performance, and Artistic Director Travis Preston. I found we had a joint interest in un-siloing our fields, and finding ways to work at the messy edge of music, theater, and the ephemeral arts. STUDIO teatrgaleria shares much of the same approach, and coming to Poland felt like meeting distant cousins from my days collaborating with folks at CalArts. In the spirit of the open studio, I’ve done some writing about how I think about art and how I created The Western: an artwork with a diverse team made of disparate communities that might have never met – a Californian artist, a cutting-edge Polish theater, traditionalist pagan performers, and a single horse.
ENSEMBLE (2019) at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Image by Ian Byers-Gamber.
The idea leads.
This is one of the things I’ve learned about making anything in the world. It’s important to think of the idea as something of a visitor—a muse—or a genius in the original Greek sense. This being—a body— a visitor to the studio, is not the artist. And you mustn’t confuse it for you. In the past, I’ve had an idea visit me, and I bring them in and sit them down for tea, we talk, they offer to take me on a journey – but I demur, researching, biding my time until they seem perfect. They rarely grow and flourish. Sometimes the idea is so compelling that they leave the studio to drive the car, so to speak, with you in the passenger seat.
But every once in a while, the idea puts you in the trunk of the car, and takes off down the road at great speed into doing/making/happening. You are tied up in the dark, wondering when the car will stop. The sun sets. Rises again. New horizons come into view. The Western is a story of this third form, and soon after the idea was born I found myself boarding a plane to Poland, meeting a theater company in Warsaw, and driving into the deep south of the country to spend a week tracking down thousand-year-old Slavic rituals in the hollows under southern mountains and old forests of Upper Silesia.
Performers in Cisiec, Poland image courtesy of the artist ciziec
Inside Dobra, Poland City Hall with ritual object
The idea was simple.
What if we merged an ancient tradition with a contemporary tradition to see what would happen: The dziady merged with the cowboy. These identities were chosen for a number of reasons: the dziad acting as a folk figure while the cowboy is a complicated regional figure from my own home and simultaneously an international symbol for individualism. It struck me that Poland is the porous frontier between East and West – using cowboy symbology to drive the turn towards democracy in the 1980’s. These identities meet in many ways. Both the dziad and the cowboy are traditionally silent, male, coming from afar to visit, with a deep wisdom about the nature of life despite their rugged appearance. The ideal dziad never existed, and the ideal cowboy never did either. They are perfect partners.
I became obsessed with visiting the dziady because the costumes are so spectacularly unusual. The practice of masking felt powerful and the mixture of natural materials seemed like the ritual was born from a time I never knew. There are some things that we do today, where we do not know their origin. Our cultural landscape is dotted with elaborate indigenous rituals that come from the pre-remembered time – often with masks, costumes, song, and radical disruption to business as usual. They are like deep core samples of our humanity. Why have they survived? What do they tell us about being human? About the nature of happiness?
Image of the artist’s notebook, upon returning to Warsaw
Artist rendering made in June 2018 in Los Angeles
Returning to Warsaw
with images, sketches, and hours of interviews, I set to work creating an installation and short performance with a team consisting of producers, a costume designer, eight accordionists, and a horse. I had a strong vision all at once: a single masked cowboy on horseback (you can see this in my initial ideation process), entering the plaza of the Palace of Science and Culture to mystic musical drones. But I didn’t know what it might mean in the eyes of our audience, or how a durational performance could pick up on some of the magic of these rituals that bond communities so tightly in the south. I didn’t know about the cowboy being the symbol of the Solidarity Movement – and I certainly didn’t know there was a cowboy store in downtown Warsaw, mere blocks from STUDIO teatrgaleria.
I’m interested in how an ephemeral experience like this can spur layers of thought. The first layer being a shallow and immediate idea (A cowboy in a Stalinist plaza), the second as a medium idea (experiencing the 20-minute performance with music), and the third, a much deeper resonance of community, identity, meaning, and time.
The artist with performers outside Dobra, Poland
I’m left wondering if collaborative public projects like The Western have any power to participate in the social, cultural, and environmental restoration of our shared landscape. In a work like this, the artist operates as a facilitator between multiple micro-communities to make something that gathers each into a shared activity.
The act of gathering in a common task can grant the opportunity to reach across our differences, familiarize ourselves with the other, and make something entirely new. In this situation, art serves as a laboratory as well as a sanctuary. Through this dual purpose, we can make room for one another – and with hope, create a kinder, more generous understanding of the visitors in our lives.
the City of Los Angeles, and other spaces in America and Europe. He has collaborated with artists like Mark Mothersbaugh, Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner, Moses Sumney, and Julia Holter on interdisciplinary projects that live between the fields of music, contemporary art, and architecture. Kallmyer completed his MFA in 2009 at California Institute of the Arts and has worked closely with the art collective Machine Project (LA) creating over 100 projects since 2008 at institutions across the United States.
CalArts Center for New Performance (CNP) and STUDIO teatrgaleria are creating a landmark international partnership focused on defining the future of artmaking practice across all disciplines. Uniting the powerful experimental legacies of both STUDIO and CNP, Artistic Directors Natalia Korczakowska and Travis Preston have created profound collaborations through the CalArts Festival presented in Warsaw, and WITKACY / Two-Headed Calf presented in Warsaw and Los Angeles. This ongoing commitment to collaboration will invite robust possibilities for exchange of new art-making practices, inquiries, and discoveries between the U.S. and Poland.