A Piece of the Collective Pie: A Slice From the Artist Group: Muse Map Walk

By Maureen Walsh


Can you imagine laughing for thirty minutes straight? I mean, straight through. Laughing. Non-stop. No pause. Not stopping to talk or relax for a second. Pure laughter for a whole thirty minutes.

Eight people did just this in the studio space at Million Fishes Gallery on Bryant Street—they laughed for 30 minutes. Straight. Why? It was an experiment—part of Jorge De Hoyos’ exploration of boundaries in his art making. Every kind of laughing happened in that room, in that thirty minutes. Soft laughs, great guffaws, shrieking contests, quiet shakes and utter ridiculousness. What for? That’s what De Hoyos asked the group to do. That was the score, the map he planned out, and the others were there to make it happen, to support his curiosity, to walk through the exercise and make it a reality. So they laughed for thirty minutes straight.

This exercise, which was as much about laughter as about personal stamina, is just one small nugget of the experimental working group called Muse Map Walk. A self-described artist think-tank, the project is a collaboration of 10 artists who gather to explore and discuss their art, art making and artistic process. There is no end result, no final performance, no culminating thesis (although there is talk of writing a book of some kind), it’s pure exploration and play, trial without judgment, free space and time to investigate.

As the appointed documentarian of the group, I have the task of making sure the process gets recorded, that the multitude of ideas constantly being generated get onto a printed page of some sort. As I stare at my notes from the past eight sessions, I’m not sure I’ve adequately captured the vitality and liveliness. The spirit of this group is vibrant and curious, and there is a spark not qualified in my bulleted list of discussion points. I will try my best to divulge not just the dry ideas but the creative energy that emanates from this group.

Muse Map Walk as a whole is based on a cycle of three things: musing—generating discussion and mulling over new ideas and possibilities; mapping—creating a path and structure for ideas through practical applications like writing, diagramming, movement exploration, etc; and walking—testing the reality and accuracy of these musings and mappings. To fulfill this cycle each artist is given two sessions, of three to four hours each, to work through the Muse Map Walk sequence. Theoretically one session is devoted to discussion and the second is for practical research, however, there are no rules about the order or structure, and each artist is free to lead the group in whatever way they see fit, to explore a topic of their choosing.

This project was born out of musings between Jennifer Chien and Erika Shuch. After agreeing that they both desired more time for uninterrupted creative conversation, they began inviting fellow artists to join them.

The collaborative and organic structure of Muse Map Walk means each artist has input and impact on the outcome. As Jennifer Chien puts it, “Each session is devoted to one person, and devoted to their particular research. We each have our own little piece of the pie to do whatever we want with it.”

Most artists chose to lead a discussion-based session first and follow with a practical or movement-based session. Chien was the first of the nine to lead. Her topic, headier than others’, broached the expansive “Art and Community.” Discussion flowed on topics relating to everything from privilege, outreach and engagement, to personal accounts of value, cultural connection and artistic stamina. It was a session of rich and dense intellectuality.

Intertwined with mindful discussion there are resonant moments of movement expression and questioning, like in Peter Grigg’s session titled “The Ego and the Artiste.” A particularly revealing exercise asked each artist to create a movement solo answering the question, “Who are you as an artist?” In response, Kegan Marling began dragging metal framed chairs from the closet of the dance studio, and piling them, one on top of the other. After five minutes, now with a pile of approximately 15 chairs, he stood on top of his massive sculpture and took a bow. There was no “dancing,” no choreographed movement score, no text explaining what he was doing, yet it was elegantly clear his answer to the question: he is a sculptor. His process was organic, candid, honest and poetic.

The best part about Muse Map Walk is that it is purely time set aside to play. There is no performance to prepare for, no culminating presentation of ideas, no pressure to produce something to give away. This is a laboratory. When explaining the group to others, Chien describes it as “a collaborative project of dance-based artists, doing collaboratively chosen thematic research—a research and practical lab group; a working group.” That may seem like a mouthful, but it is on point and drives home the working, processing, methodical, and collegial nature of Muse Map Walk. While a dance performance also takes worthy time and care to cultivate, these musers are consciously free from the constraints of any one outcome.

That’s not to say that these artists won’t share their ideas. In October of 2009, Muse Map Walk brought their discussion into the larger Bay Area dance community. Using Shuch’s session topic of artistic “Likes v. Dislikes,” they held a fun and engaging open forum. While mapping their thoughts, together the group collectively sketched a Venn Diagram with multiple examples of loved and hated facets of performance aesthetics, throwing out ideas (left to your imagination which of these were liked or disliked!) ranging from leotards and hot-bods, to self-indulgence in performance and feeling up-rooted as an audience member.

The process is individual and personalized for each participant, yet always within a structure of unconditional family-style system of support during each session. “We are all each others’ guinea pigs, sounding boards, devils advocates, and cheerleaders.” says Shuch.

All participants are there to facilitate and follow; they all contribute to the process for each other, adding to the pot, or pie as it were. And it is this organic and personal candor coupled with a variety of personalities, experiences, dance styles, movement practices, and ages that is what gives Muse Map Walk its life and spark. Shuch describes her germinating thoughts on the project, “I thought a lot about the nine muses in Greek mythology, and how they are the spirits who inspired creation. In coming up with the title I thought about how I want to cultivate my own ‘muse’ community of artists who inspire my own creativity.” These nine artists (and one documenter) have formed a tight community in the here and now. There is talk of future groups following the same cycles, no one is sure if or when that will happen. For now, it is still in progress and very of-the-moment. Ask any of these muses their experience and they’re sure to respond with a multiplicity of ideas. They are all experimenters, thinkers, creators, and compatriots in curiosity. They each muse on the nuances of art and art-making. They map out what that means for them. And collectively they walk through the motions of the reality they’re creating. Muse. Map. Walk. It’s a notion that I am quite sure is as functional as it is profound.

Muse Map Walk artists: Mary Ann Brooks, Jessie Bie, Jennifer Chien, Jorge Rodolfo De Hoyos, Jessica Fudim, Peter Griggs, Kegan Marling, Erika Chong Shuch, Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, and Maureen Walsh. Funded in part by the CA$H grant.

This article appeared in the May 2010 issue of In Dance.

Maureen Walsh lives in San Francisco and enjoys the city’s craziness and wonder. She spends her time dancing, playing, finding funny things on the internet, giggling, baking, working as a Social Media Strategist, learning to play the bass guitar, surfing, and adventuring.