A Sense of Unexpectedness

“Some of those relationships become really close friends and other times it’s like a person I just bump into at the coffee shop, and they’re like, “Thank you for that weird thing you did.’”

Tia Kramer

Tia Kramer is a social choreographer and social practice artist. She is embedded deeply in Walla Walla, Washington and her work taps into many different parts of her experience and community. I’m interested in the ways that people use their practices to explore the places that they live and to ground themselves in the people around them. I was drawn to Tia’s recent series of “performances for one.” In one called, What You Touch You Cannot See, she choreographed a performance for her mail carrier, Phil, where each person on the mail route sent Phil a package filled with stories, drawings, plants, and poems about the things he had delivered for them. In another she created a walk home filled with synchronicity, messages written on sandwich boards, and a parking lot light performance for her friend Guillermo. Tia is so skilled at creating projects that reveal and strengthen the ways we are connected. It was such a pleasure to hear about Tia’s experience working with the different layers of her community.

Marissa Perez: Let’s start with: how do you define social practice? And specifically, how do you define it for anyone who’s not familiar with the term? I’m also curious if you still call what you do social practice? 

Tia Kramer: Yeah, that’s a good question. One of the things that’s been interesting about being in a small community is that when I was in the program, that question felt really important because it is a question I was asked all the time: What is social practice? And how do you define it? But now, six years into my life as an artist making public socially engaged art here, people know me and my work in the community–non artists know me and my work–and so I don’t feel like I have to define social practice very often. They just know, “oh, that’s Tia’s practice.” And now that fellow PSU graduate Amanda Leigh Evans is here they might say to Amanda, “Oh, I think I know a bit about what you do.” I don’t end up defining it a lot. And simultaneously, Amanda and I are often working on defining it together.

In recent years, when people I don’t know ask about my practice I begin by saying that I’m a social choreographer. I’ll say, “I’m a socially engaged artist, which is a little different than what you might expect an artist to be. I don’t necessarily do painting, but instead what I’m interested in is the interactions between people and creating creative experiences for groups of people that shift who is the artist and who has agency and who has power.” Then I’ll say, “Specifically, I am a social choreographer. I have a background in performance and I think a lot about choreography— creating movement for and of people. I choreograph experiences for a group of people that change their perception of each other and their everyday life.”

I also use the term “socially engaged art” more than “social practice,” because that makes more sense in the rural context.

Marissa: Yeah, and it feels like it makes it an active term so then it can click for people a little more.

Tia: And socially engaged art has the word art in the definition, which is helpful. It says I’m inherently working with people in my creative projects. That’s enough for me to then follow with: “for example, as a social choreographer, I created this performance for one person, for my mailman and this is what it looked like…” Or, “I’m an Artist in Residence at Prescott School and instead of teaching art to kids, Amanda and I are collaboratively making art with kids so that their voices have agency. We don’t know what the outcome is going to be.” There’s a sense of unexpectedness, in all the things that happen within our practice, but we’re really facilitating that experience.

Photo from “At Dusk We Walk Home Together: Performance for Guillermo”  2019.
Walla Walla, WA. Courtesy of Tia Kramer

Marissa: I’m curious about your process of feeling rooted in Walla Walla and how it has affected your practice? How has your practice also affected the ways you are rooted in place? 

Tia: I really love this specific question, because I think that both of those things are deeply true in a smaller place. I’ve lived in Seattle, and I moved to Walla Walla in 2016. My current collaborator, Amanda, moved from Portland. I went through the program in a small town and I’ve mainly been doing socially engaged art in a small place. That isn’t true for Amanda and she is constantly surprised at how different social practice is, and the ramifications and the implications of the work are in a small place. In some ways it is a different practice. In a city, you can go put signs up around your neighborhood as an anonymous person. But in a small place, if you put signs up around your neighborhood, most likely people will learn that it’s you that did it and then they’re going to ask you about it. And if they don’t know it’s you, they might think, “Oh, it’s part of a class or a project or an initiative.” So the implications of these actions become different–anonymity isn’t present or possible in the same ways. Because of that, there are positives and negatives that come with those implications. The positive is that there’s potential for deeper work and for complex layers of participation. 

When I lived in Seattle, and in urban places, I wanted to create experiences that were slow and  intimate. And then I moved to Walla Walla. Here EVERYTHING can feel slow and intimate. I think I realized that, in order for a practice to be meaningful to me here, it has to get more specific and less generalized. I would also say that, now that I’ve been working here for six years, all of my relationships are deeply intertwined with the work I do. Even the relationships I have as a parent– the kids in my life know the projects I’m doing, or they encounter me doing my work in the world, and so do their parents. So there’s a really inherent interconnectivity between my social practice work, my community, and the community at large. 

I also know so many people from my work! For example, the performance I made for my mailman was created with 87 people on his mail route, which means that’s 87 more people that I have relationships with in a tiny town where you bump into people all the time. And that’s just the relationships developed in one project. Because of that, there are things in my practice that I don’t do as much anymore. Now I am more hesitant to build really deep, intimate relationships, because I’ve done that with so many people, and now I have a lot of social obligations. 

Marissa: Are there ways that you felt that you needed to be rooted before certain projects were possible?

Tia: I strongly believe that social practice artists should be really careful to consider the “service” or “do-gooder” components to their work, both intended and unintended. I feel strongly about that. The choices that we make as social practice artists have implications on people and those implications need to be considered. For that reason, I feel a really strong obligation to do antiracist training and to work on myself as a white person collaborating with POC artists and communities, and I need to deeply understand what that means in a small town context. For example, I really emphasize building trust, and ethically following through on projects. I did a theater piece where I constructed a theater performance based on the stories of immigrants in the community. And the people who were in that project with me saw how carefully I considered every step, like getting their feedback on the script and asking for their input on the performance. And when we invited their families we wanted it to be fully accessible, so we paid for their tickets and provided childcare and simultaneous interpretation. That level of consideration has had unexpectedly long term consequences. Now when I ask them, “Can I meet with you to have coffee to talk about a new project I’m thinking about?” they are often curious and say yes, because we feel a mutual respect and connection to each other. That makes my work possible. But sometimes that is also a burden. It’s a lot of work to hold those relationships. It is emotional labor. 

When I look at the work Amanda and I are doing together as Artists in Residence at Prescott School [a preK-12 public school in rural Eastern Washington], I think that the work that I’ve done in the community to build trust has paved a way for us and for her, as a newcomer, to just dive right into a project. There’s levels of trust that have to happen and that trust  takes time to build.

Marissa: Yeah. It’s a complex answer and also very simple. I’m wondering about how you use relationships in your work. I’m curious about how you’re being strategic with your relationships.

Tia: I would push back against the word strategic, although I think that that makes sense. But it just has a slightly extractive quality to it. I do think there is strategy, so I’m not ignoring the fact that I’m being strategic— but I would say that I’m consciously working to build relationships that are outside of my inner circle. I know what my family knows and what I have been exposed to in the world, and I see how communities, even in a small town, get super isolated. I’m interested in how we disrupt that isolation. How could I meet someone that I wouldn’t have met or learn something new that I haven’t learned? And some of those relationships become really close friends and other times those relationships are with people I just bump into at the coffee shop, who might say, “thank you for that weird thing you did.” 

Marissa: I get that. It does feel bad to hear the word strategic in these contexts because it feels related to networking. Whereas I feel like what you’re doing is more careful than that, like you’re being careful because you’re trying to create care.

Tia: I might even separate careful into two words: “care” and “full.” Much of my work is based on the feminist ethics of care, and now, because I have worked with feminist care ethics for a long time, I also find myself pushing back against those philosophies. I find myself resisting projects that require too much care. I just want to make

Marissa: That brings me to my next question. It seems like the project with Amanda at Prescott School is not necessarily super different from your other work, but might be part of a departure from your more one-on-one intense relationship-building practices. How are you feeling about this project? And where is it fitting into your practice?

Photo from “When the River Becomes a Cloud,” at Prescott Elementary School. 2022.
Walla Walla, WA. Courtesy of Tia Kramer

Tia: What I would say about the work with the When The River Becomes a Cloud project, is that the work is merging together all of these different aspects of myself. I have a seven year old and a three year old and I have been making art with them since they were little. Through the pandemic, we made an imaginary zoo that had hundreds of imaginary animals that you could visit in the park. I have so many practices around my work with kids that I haven’t formalized yet, and this project formalizes many of them in a very concrete way. I think that the project launch was about helping the students see the dissolving of the boundary between life and art, or between performance and life. We were very intentional and this is where I get into strategy. The students at Prescott School had not had an art teacher at their school for eight years. It’s a pre-K through 12 school, so they haven’t had any exposure besides what their teachers show them. So of course, the very first thing students think is: “Oh, you’re a public, professional artist. That must mean you’re going to make a mural with us.” From the very beginning, we wanted to challenge and expand their notions of what art practice can look like. We wanted to crack open art, and that’s what social practice does, and that’s what performance can do. It can really shift us to ask, “Are we performing? Are we part of this project or is it for us? Who is the audience?” Unlike with a performance for one person as the audience and a huge team of performers, this initial project with the 330 students at the school was a project in which every person was both in it, part of it, and also the audience for it. We created an immersive experience that’s very unusual in a rural context. In fact, I would go so far as to say it was radical for these kids. 

Marissa: So in your performances for an audience of one, you create an immersive experience for one person. I’m curious about how the experience of creating this performance affects the performers and their relationships with each other and the audience members?

Tia: To describe this let me step back, a typical format for theater might be a solo performance,  one person performing for a big group. My performance for an audience of one flipped that form. I created a performance in which a big group of people performed for one person. Conceptually that is very concise. Everyone who’s invited to participate understands the shift in framework. They find unexpectedness in the form which often inspires their participation.  Participants really go all in in a way that’s beautiful to witness and experience. The form ignites the imagination. Very early on participants can understand that as they’re engaging in the process they are getting something out of the performance, which is really different than if you’re performing for a big group. If you’re performing for a big group, you immediately can imagine the audience and you almost disassociate, like, “Okay, this part of myself is behind, and I’m going to just place it this way.” But if it’s for one person, you know how to create a one on one interaction and you know that your experience of what you present to someone is going to change that person, and they are going to change you, because that is an experience we all have on a daily basis. So what I found to be really beautiful is that what I’m often using for these “performances for one” are pre-existing relationships that I’m taking out of one context and putting into another.  

I think that in the example of the performance for Guillermo, he knew all the people that were performing except for a team of musicians and some dancers. And now, two years later, when he bumps into those people he didn’t know, he finds it to be really awkward because he knows nothing about them but knows the other participant might know a lot about him. But, all of the people who participated who had pre-existing relationships with him, those just got even deeper after the performance. However, it was different for Phil, the mail carrier, because in that performance, What You Touch You Cannot See, some of the people who participated were friends, but many of the people he didn’t know. But he knew a lot about them through their mail. Their participation created a new bridge. Once he opened the package that they gave him and the insight they gave him into their life, when he bumped into them on the route, he’d be like, “thank you for that thing you did for me.” And then they would respond, sharing about this new knowledge and experience they share in common. That’s a new starting place for a friendship or a relationship. So I think there’s a lot of relationships that he has that are dramatically different now. And he’s gonna probably be on that mail route for the next 20 years. So it’s also interesting to see how those relationships are changing.  

Photo from “What You Touch You Cannot See: Performance for Phil”. 2021.
Walla Walla, WA. Courtesy of Tia Kramer

Marissa: My dad was a mail carrier for 30 years, and he was a rural mail carrier. And just reading about the project, it felt special to me. And it does feel like such a ripe place for socially engaged work, because it’s a place where there’s so much social engagement and you can’t see it. It’s like my dad, if he’s talking about a customer, my mom will be like, “and what’s their address?” And he can recite their address right here. He’s got them stuck in his brain. You know, all the exchange of information is there, just without the personal connection and you just made a spark to be like, “Look, it’s just one little thing that it takes.” And that’s really special.

Tia: Yeah, it’s interesting, because Phil will say, like, “Hey, Tia, do you know, Bob? 1826 Newell!” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I know, Bob!” He can recite 400 addresses by heart, which is really amazing.

Marissa Perez (she/her) grew up in Portland, Oregon. She is a printmaker, party host, babysitter and youth worker. She’s interested in neighborhoods and the layers of relationships that can be hard to see. Her dad was a mail carrier for 30 years and her mom is a pharmacist. 

Tia Kramer (she/her) is a social choreographer, performer, artist, and educator interested in everyday gestures of human connection. She creates experiences that interrupt the ordinary, engaging participants in embodied poetry and collective imagination. Tia holds an MFA in Art + Social Practice from Portland State University and a Post Bacc in Fiber + Material Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Currently, Tia is developing When The River Becomes a Cloud (2022-2024), a collaborative public artwork as part of her long-term Artist-in-Residence at Prescott School (PreK-12) with Amanda Leigh Evans as part of Carnegie Picture Lab’s Rural Art Initiative.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

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