Lessa Bouchard of Arc:Hive Discusses “A Moment (Un)bound”

Imagine an art instillation that inspires a play that’s Harry Potter meets the X-Men. Imagine an evolving play about an archive of the world and hidden family secrets. If you can, you’ve got what’s going on A Moment (Un) Bound, an art/play event going on here in Silicon Valley. When I heard of it, I had to interview Lessa Bouchard, a Producing Ensemble Member of the Arc:Hive collective.

1) So, let’s first get to what Arch:Hive is first.

Arc:Hive is a story collective- Arc as in story arc, or arc of electricity, and Hive for collective working process. The : indicates a listing, a compilation- bringing together multiple elements in the service of a single goal.

2) Tell us a bit about how your play A Moment (Un)Bound came about?

This show came about out of the creation of “Off-line,” a conceptual art installation of swaying bookshelves featuring my very humble personal library, installed on boards hung with wire in my studio at Cubberley, as an exploration of my own relationship with books and technology, and as a response to Robert Darnton’s notion of “the inherent instability of texts.” I’ve been a bookseller off and on my whole life, and was working part time at the Borders on University when Borders closed it’s doors. I had also just moved here with a ton of books that didn’t fit in our one bedroom apartment, and was newly installed as a media artist in my Cubberley studio- with no macbook or media equipment and no internet at the time.

I wanted to grow the installation into an open performative work. Since my art studio is at the Cubberley Community Center, and so is the Friends of the Palo Alto Library, I thought that FOPAL would be a great place to do some further research while developing my ideas. While volunteering there, I stumbled across a box marked “Stuff Found in Books.” Which is pretty much what it sounds like! The newspaper clippings, old letters, ticket stubs and other ephemera that people had left behind in the books they had donated were perfectly evocative writing prompts for the show I had been itching to write.

3) (Un)Bound is a kind of evolving collaboration. For our audience – who often collaborates on projects – what helped it come together.

What initially began our “evolving collaboration” was deadlines, friendship, a common interest in books and story and some more deadlines. Early in 2013, foolsFURY in SF put out a call for their foolsFURY Factory Parts series, so I had to come up with a pitch for that- and to my friends. I reached out to Susie Danzig and Joyce McClure to apply with me to create a new play together using my swaying bookshelves and the ephemera from the Friends of the Library as a jumping off point. We were accepted into that series, and not long after that, Dragon announced their new Second Stages program and we were awarded our spot with them for this year. The performance schedule deadlines with foolsFURY really helped us a lot, along with the pressure to create a complete play for this September. The generosity of spirit of everyone involved in the process was impressive, really, there was a lot of gentleness and discipline combined… We were willing to put a lot of our most vulnerable selves out there via various drafts, shared notes, journal entries etc, and mulch it all into a story. And, then, the story came first. Well, first after the laugh. We read things out loud with each other to test it out- often I’d want to cut something, then it would read totally differently out loud. Something Seth McFarlane said about the Family Guy team really sticks with me- “The laugh wins.”

Our collaboration is always evolving. People have come and gone throughout the process, due to all kinds of life circumstances. We have a small core group who has been there from the start, but some have moved on to other demands and projects, and we’ve acquired new partners and performers along the way. Bill Olson and Susie Danzig had worked together for years. Richard Newton walked into my studio during Silicon Valley Open Studios and we hit it off over the masks and general themes of the show. I really work hard to be inclusive and stay open to the possibility of new partnerships. Nancy Hurxthal and I met while volunteering at the Friends of the Palo Alto Library, and started chatting about children’s books and theater….

4) You’re doing the play over time and raising money for it. How far can you take this – because it sounds like it could exist in many media.

Laugh! Yes- we are raising money, and a few of us have put a good deal of our own personal funds in, too. It feels important to do this as a live performance, first of all, because we are talking about ephemera, the aura of objects and liveness. My big dream for this is to grow it into an interactive installation/aerial performance- something that could exist in a warehouse at Fort Mason by the SF Friends of the Library, that could work as a Cirque style show or at a theatre like Chicago’s Looking Glass. We didn’t have the time or training to get into the air in an intimate space like Dragon, but a girl can dream…. I am fascinated with the characters and the story, and Bell’s Books has said that we could shoot there, so I also have an idea for a web series set there. I love field work and community documentary too, working in a real setting is potent to me.

5) How has reception been so far?

So far the reception has been very positive, very supportive, and very curious about where the story will end up (since we did a version of Act 1 at our last performance in April). We performed 3 times though out the year in SF with foolsFuRY’s Factory Parts, at the Noh Space, ACT’s Costume Shop, and also at the Meridian Gallery during a group show featuring Cubberley artists. We acquired more writers, designers, performers, and Equity approval so that we could work with Bill Olson* (member AEA), crafting and testing out new material as we went. Very early in the process we developed our book sprite characters JuMP and Vertigo. Thanks primarily to the construction talents of Susie Danzig and Nancy Hurxthal, with plenty of kibitzing from myself, Joyce, and my studio mate Ann McMillan, the masks have been an integral part of the piece since the first performances and have been a big hit.

6) Has the internet helped artistic collaboration in these times, and specifically how does it help you?

The internet has been key in helping collaboration for our project- sharing documents and notes back and forth, and some of our collaborators have participated via Google hang out, FaceTime and Skype. In particular our sound designer, Jasmine Serena Greer, is a media artist and one of my fellow Columbia College Chicago alums participating from Arkansas. Dropbox has been useful- I’m sure there are a ton of sharing tools that we haven’t tried out yet. One of my past collaborators has mentioned Evernote as a powerful tool. We rely very heavily on Gmail calendars and Google docs, but this has sometimes backfired when everyone has different phone and computer interfaces and uses 3 different systems already and would rather not try to integrate a forth, etc. We are using Google Glass, though we are reluctant to actually rely on an internet connection during the show- we just don’t have enough control over signal strength. Nearby building’s usage can be a variable and we don’t have a dedicated technician that could keep our connection speed up- interruptions in a live performance are a drag. Artistic collaboration definitely works best face to face, so when we do have to have distance meetings, video helps.

And then of course, there’s the research. The internet has been ridiculously central to our research this year. It all started with my personal library, and then the ephemera. It has now landed us squarely in the midst of a million and one safari bookmarks and links that we share back and forth between us- at least those of us who are interested in that sort of thing. Some of us are more kinetic. The breadth of information science and media ecology that we’ve investigated this year together has been breathtaking, and I wish we had documented it better. I’ve really resonated with Nicholas Carr’s assessment of the effects on reading style and concentration issues. He articulates the pros and cons of internet reading in The Shallows incredibly well. I’ve also intentionally let myself be swallowed up into Facebook and other kinds of electronic writing a bit more than I used to this year, as my own sort of experiment. I look forward to going on a bit of a media diet after this performance, just to cleanse my palette. I love tech, but trees have been what’s kept me sane this year.

7) Being an artist is often financially trying. How do you and your fellow artists make do?

We need to be more aware of the monetary value of artistic work. Sometimes there’s another partner in the household that acts as a supporting patron. Multiple jobs is the most common answer- it is tough not to burn out. Many of us teach, both adults and children. Susie teaches a specialized form of dance movement for breast cancer survivors. Bill directs for the Palo Alto Children’s Theater. Temping is popular because it often affords quite a bit of flexibility. Trying to set yourself up as a small business or a non-profit is tough- all that administration leaves little time to actually make work. This is why having the seed support of foolsFURY and Dragon is so critical to our making this happen this year. Dragon in particular is acting as a fiduciary agent for us. That infrastructure is takes so much time and work- it’s invaluable.

8) Your events would appeal heavily to geek crowds. Have you considered involvements in things like local SF/Anime/Game conventions?

Wow. Yeah. Of course now that you say this it is certainly obvious. Local SF/Anime/Game conventions here we come! We have been so deeply immersed in our ephemerarium that it just hadn’t occurred to us yet.

9) Let’s talk about you. What drives you and how did you get here?

What drives me? Asking questions. Looking around me and listening to the people in the community and trying to respond as authentically as I can, and whenever possible to create opportunities for dialogue, especially if I suspect someone isn’t being heard. Art as dialogue- my own art, others art…. I think that since we all have different styles of learning, the more ways we can find to express things, through movement, sound, color, shape, narrative, non-narrative, the more likely we are to broaden and deepen our understanding and compassion for the whole of life.

I grew up in Detroit, worked at the MI Renaissance Festival, John King Used Bookstore and Borders, cofounded a feminist theatre collective POW!, and got a BFA in theatre at University of Detroit Mercy. I did black box and social justice theatre in Detroit until I decided I wanted to pursue graduate school in Chicago. I worked at the ACCESS project at Victory Gardens Theatre with Mike Ervin and Claudia Allen, studied Improv and Viewpoints at Act One and IO and the Annoyance. Around this time that I discovered that you could take computers apart while teaching at the Museum of Science and Industry. I have an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts and Media at Columbia College Chicago, where I got to study with Audrey Niffenegger, Clifton Meador, Eric Scholl, Bryan Saner and John Manning- heavenly! In 2009 I installed my thesis- a multichannel video installation at the Chicago Center for Book and Paper. After graduation, my engineer spouse moved us to Palo Alto. It was a bit of a culture shock for someone who had spent a great deal of her life as an activist in Detroit to land in such a tech industry boom town. The community has been incredible- I have learned so much since moving here, and the opportunities to pursue my art practice have been astonishing. Almost immediately I started working with Dragon, where I met Susie Danzig and later writing partner Evan Michael Schumacher. My first role at Dragon was in The Memory of Water, and I soon began working for them as an education and marketing manager/admin/rental coordinator while they were still in Palo Alto. I directed Tongue of a Bird there, and most recently performed in Miss Reardon Drinks a Little with them in Redwood City last fall. It was wonderful to find a theatre committed to doing intimate black box theatre on the SF peninsula- doing what Dragon Artistic Director Meredith Hagedorn likes to call “theatre in your living room.” Also was thrilled to participate in the Shaped by Water and Faces of Los Altos exhibits at the Los Alto History Museum, and I am very excited about the body of work that came out of “All of This,” an installation at City Lights Theatre last summer. I teach media and book making classes at the Palo Alto Art Center for the Children’s Fine Arts program, and participate in the Midpeninsula Media Center’s Zoom In program when I can- that’s where Joyce McClure and I first met. The studio program at Cubberley is unique- I am intensely grateful to have a studio space to work out of and a diverse community of professional artists with whom to share ideas, resources, critique and moral support.

10) What advice can you give to our career and creative geeks on living the dream – effectively?

Actually I am listening to you, and the people on your site for advice on living the dream! I am listening all the time- and I’m convinced that I’m only getting the tiniest bit of it through my head because of all the nonsense there. I am finding that the more I focus on other people- on listening to them with my full attention- and enjoying them and our relationship in that moment, the happier I am, and the less concerned I am with things that sometimes I get all freaked out about, but that ultimately aren’t what’s most important. People are, and preserving the water and precious world around us. Listening makes it easier to trust and love each other, and ourselves. Listening- that’s the advice I’m trying to take.