Experiences: Lessons from Ann Hamilton + Coldplay

I've been listening to the same episode of On Being for weeks and I'd like to share why its resonated with me so much. The episode features an interview with artist/maker, Ann Hamilton.

I'll soon be able to share details about that very vague job opportunity I spoke about a few weeks ago. The opportunity itself consists of a lot of things I'm invested in as a person, things like art, culture, and community. I've begun jotting down ideas and concepts I'd like to explore and those notes gave birth to the post you're reading now. This "essay" may not interest any of you but it's helping me process what I want to do with what I've been given.

Mystical as it sounds, I notice that inspiration finds me when I need it. I don't think it's mere serendipity that I stumbled upon this interview with Ann from three years ago, right before embarking on a new artistic journey. It feels like destiny, it feels like God. Here's part of Ann's conversation with Krista Tippett that really stayed with me:

Ms. Tippett: I was in Israel for the first time a couple of years ago, and we were going to the Wailing Wall, which, you know, I think I wanted to be overtaken by a sense of mystery and God’s presence, and I was, in fact, I was irritated by the separation of the genders, and it was hot, it was touristy, but, when I — have you been there? You walk up to the wall, and here’s the thing. To me, it wasn’t even the prayer that made it incredibly powerful. It was putting — it was putting my hands on that wall and thinking of all of the…

Ms. Hamilton: Hands.

Ms. Tippett: …million, all of the hands.

Ms. Hamilton: Right. And that you’re joining those.

Ms. Tippett: Yes. And that felt sacred.

Ms. Hamilton: Yeah. I think that’s right. And I think we’re trying to, in many ways, trying to find opportunities in which we can have that experience. And we can feel our own presence, gesture, whatever, in relationship to that much larger one across time, and space, and cultures. And so, as an artist working in a contemporary context, it’s like, how do we — how can we create a circumstance in which those kinds of processes of joining and acknowledgement can occur?

Are you still with me? I know that was kind of deep, almost to the point where you wonder if these two are even remotely approachable. The part I want to hone in on is how can we create a circumstance in which those kinds of processes of joining and acknowledgement can occur? in other words how can we create events where people feel part of something larger, sacred, and timeless? 

The Event of a Thread was one of Ann's projects and it was held at the Park Avenue Armory in late 2012. I remember seeing pictures of it online and being instantly mesmerized. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen before and I had a undeniable urge to visit it for myself. Alas, pictures had to do. 

It's seriously one of my great regrets that I didn't just buy a plane ticket and go see this thing in person. Even the pictures make me feel something. I can't imagine what it would be like to actually be there and wander around. Here's a video that shows things up close.

I'm interested in how the audience began to interact with this installation. I can't imagine Ann told them to lay beneath the curtain, but there they are beneath the white cloth, peering up and peering in. It's magical, right? Ann said she enjoyed seeing how people made the piece their own. I think it shows that we want something like this to move around within and that we want that feeling of largeness and space.

I was reminded of this again when I went to see Coldplay a few days ago in Omaha. Halfway through the show, they began playing the melody from Fix You and I just felt this need to raise my hands and close my eyes. In that instant I felt caught up and swept away into exhilarating sense of awe and wonder. I also felt a wonderful sense of attachment to the audience and band, while still feeling like the moment I was having was intimate. That alone was well worth the price of the ticket. In the On Being interview, Ann said something that really puts words to what I felt at the show, 

Ms. Hamilton: "I think one of the questions that is behind a lot of the things I’m working on is, where is it that we can gather and, kind of, be alone together? And, you know, there’s so much, as we all know, “us/them.” And what are the circumstances for “we,” that I can enjoy the pleasure of something I’m seeing here, knowing that I’m also sharing that with a person next to me?"

I've come to understand that I want to help create these kinds of experiences for people. I marvel at how so many came to see Ann transform the Park Avenue Armory into somethjng so otherworldly. And I felt that exact same astonishment during the Coldplay concert. As Ann said, people are looking for places and interactions where they can feel connected and unified, we're all in search of that connection to one another and the world around us. I would say that in a general sense, all artistic expression is directed in search of those transcendent moments. 

I don't think we should be afraid of that word "transcendent," either. It definitely has some spiritual overtones, but I don't think that's reason enough to forego using it to describe things. What artist wouldn't want their work to transcend a normal human experience?

What are your thoughts? Tell me about an experience that you've had that felt "transcendent."