Forest Call with Slobodan Dan Paich, Aug. 4, 2012 : Art For Social Change
by , Aug 4, 2012
Each week servicespace.org and its friends conduct a global conference call with a special guest. This week the featured guest was San Francisco's multi-faceted artist Slobodan Dan Paich.
Chris Walker: Hello everyone. I’d like to start by describing Slobodan and then I’d like to talk a little about my experiences with him and what he means to me personally before saying what I think other people can receive from this conversation.
Slobodan grew up in Communist Yugoslavia and was actually a child actor and singer. He performed on television and radio. So from a young age, he had quite an unusual life. He was quite famous in Yugoslavia. In his teenage life, he went more of his own way and founded a number of small independent theaters which, at the time, was completely unheard of. He also became involved with a group of people who were attempting to institute a political party in Yugoslavia, which in the Communist era, wasn’t allowed. So this landed Slobodan into some hot water, which perhaps has been a bit of a theme in Slobadan’s life, if you don’t mind my saying that, Slobodan. And because of this he got on the wrong side of the state. He was interrogated a few times and was being followed by state officials. Because of this eventually he fled to London.
He arrived in London with very little money, not speaking English and not knowing anyone. It was quite a terrible situation. Slobodan found two jobs, one restoring icons and one cleaning stairways. From that simple beginning, he built up his life effectively through a lot of perseverance and some good fortune. And throughout his life Slobodan has worked in the field of theater and art. Hence the title of this conversation is “Art For Social Change.”
Slobodan lived in England for a couple of decades and then he moved to America where he continued his involvement in art and theater. He’s a founding figure of the Artship organization, which is dedicated to the theater and the arts and is still going to this day. And recently, he’s also started painting with tea. I recommend that you ask Slobodan about his tea paintings. They’re quite interesting.
On a more personal note, I’d like to talk about the Slobodan I remember. Slobodan met my parents and I remember, as a small child, Slobodan coming to our house in London to visit. For my sister and I it was always an experience to meet Slobodan. He has a big heart and in many ways is an incredible human being. My sister and I used to call him Santa Claus. I can’t exaggerate enough what an interesting man he is. And for anyone on this call who doesn’t know Slobodan, I think it’s worth really listening because here’s a man who is really connected to life, connected to inspiration behind life. If anyone really wants to reflect about living their own life, Slobodan is a man to listen to.
I’d just like to finish with a small quote from Slobodan from a recent interview he did. Slobodan is speaking of culture here and human inspiration behind culture. He says, “There is a spark there. Everybody is called to respond to that spark. It is not something unique to artists. Everyone potentially can procreate something, a work of art or being good at a job. Culture is not something so sensitive that it belongs just to the refined. It belongs to everyone.” I think that’s quite a neat summary of what Slobodan brings to the world and anyone listening to this conversation could hopefully be in touch with that, too.
Nipun Mehta: Wow. Thank you, Chris. Slobodan, welcome to the call.
Slobodan Dan Paich: Thank you very much. Now I’m speechless, it’s so beautiful, but of course, I’m looking forward to it.
Nipun: And whenever you get introduced as Santa Claus, that tops the list.
Slobodan: Yes. Well, children in the park couldn’t remember my name so they just called me Santa. We were working in urban parks in Oakland. I was working with a Japanese man. He was called Ninja and I was called Santa. It was easy to understand.
Nipun: What were you doing in the park with Ninja?
Slobodan: We were working in the toughest part in Oakland restoring a burned amphitheater with families who gathered together to reclaim the public space. It had become a place of drug deals and murder. So we began the project by simply cleaning the place before we ever started working on memories of people’s families and how they got to live in that part of Oakland.
Sam Bower: Thank you so much for joining us. I actually met you at the inauguration of the art ship in Oakland. So it’s wonderful to come full circle and participate in this today. One of the things that struck me about your career —you taught architecture at UC Berkeley for a while, is that correct?
Slobodan: Yes. It is correct. I have so many hats I have to keep them on the little pegs on the wall.
Sam: Since you also have a background as a performer and an organizer, I’m curious about how you see the relationship between physical spaces like a theater or a building, or even if it’s a community or a watershed, how do those physical spaces influence the type of work that’s possible and needed when you’re doing community-based theater or something that relates to the commons in some way?
Slobodan: Well, our work is very much to do with the commons. It really starts with gathering anywhere. It could be with people standing on the corners because they don’t have anywhere to go. It is their commons. It’s about how to elicit from people congregating something which is more meaningful and which then is contained by a space.
My interest in architecture was always from people into space rather than from space fitting people into it. We have the whole array of excessive buildings and spaces like art museums, which are kind of architectural sculptures where you can neither exhibit art or congregate in them. And I have always been interested in smaller spaces and meaningful spaces. And theater is part of it.
Theater is where people come together and share the mythos, which can be just the dailyness of something that one wouldn’t really think of as a myth. If you think of Tennesse Williams’ plays, they talk about people in daily life, but the depth of these plays evokes the mythological and important layers of experience. Any congregating place, including the theater can offer that.
Sam: I love that vision of theater as a way of gathering people. Often you think of going to the theater not to gather with people, really, but to see the art. So it’s nice to see it from the other side as a creator of these types of events.
Nipun: On that note, Slobodan, could just speak a little about your illustrious start in theater. From what we read, it was from the age of five or six. And you had to flee your country around the age of sixteen. It sounds like from early on it was a calling and something you felt led to do. Can you speak a little about your early days and your start in the world of theater?
Slobodan: Yes. I’m sometimes embarrassed by the drama of my story. Sometimes it creates a kind of barrier. But nevertheless, the kernel of it is that I was pretty isolated as a child, so my friend was the radio. I even used to embrace the radio. I listened to everything and I heard about an audition for a children’s performance. I knew that was something I had to do.
When I told my mother about this she told me she had no time. She was always busy and exhausted. And she told me I had no talent, so there was no point to do it. But I just was not going to have it. Not because I was willful or stubborn. I just knew this is what I had to do. And so I have often gotten myself into huge trouble because I just knew there was something that needed to be done. And I’ve done it.
Of course, [laughs] it never got me tenure anywhere or comfortable housing or any of those things which, if one keeps one’s mouth shut and doesn’t follow some impossible trajectory, would allow one to be a little more comfy. I wouldn’t, of course, have it any other way.
Now I have calmed down and I’m drawing with tea and ink. In a way, it’s a defiance to the gallery system. I do them in a café and I give them to people. I don’t sell them. It’s much more subdued than going through Congress for five years, basically, with African-American grandmothers and Latina mothers and artists and getting an art-deco ocean liner turned military ship for Oakland for free! And then, of course, being evicted because we were introducing culinary maritime training programs and addressing the crisis of perseverance—artists as role models of perseverance. And so on and so forth. Well, the little tea drawings are less dramatic.
Nipun: Just to clarify, what are tea drawings?
Slobodan: I go to a teahouse in Yerba Buena Gardens and they have a nice teas which make a dark color. I have two cups, one I’m drinking from and one I’m dipping the brush in. Sometimes I make a mistake and drink from the one with a little bit of ink in it. I do the drawings on Japanese paper just starting with lines and tea and then, kind of like Rorshach inkblots, they give me a sense of some form. It’s usually organic, growing things with leaves and roots and clouds or buildings and things. They’re very small, as big as a hand, and can be easily scanned and shared.
Nipun: And they’re beautiful. You know, we get so many emails and some are deleted or put in a folder or put over there, but all of your paintings, there’s a feel of sacredness to them and I just cannot bring myself to delete any of them. So I have a special folder with all the paintings that you’ve sent.
Slobodan: Lovely, lovely. And you’re welcome to delete them [laughing]. I send them without people needing to say, “Oh, this is nice.” It just comes like a little butterfly through electronic space.
Nipun: As a follow-up, what has been your inspiration? You have done art for social change in so many different countries. You have this spirit of the commons and also this spirit of the small, just in the way you describe these tea paintings, and how you give them to people. There is a different quality to the work you’re doing. It doesn’t quite fit into the typical description of an activist. Your gentleness is really unique. Can you share a little bit about what has been your motivating force and the inspiration behind the work that has guided your life?
Slobodan: I wish I could say it like, oh, it’s like alpha and omega, or this or that. It’s really internal and archetypal presences and gifts, and the amazing mentors and teachers one has met. Really, the activism is not the cause. It’s the effect of an engagement. If one is deeply connected, and not in some extraordinary way, but just as close to connected as one can come, humbly, but living it, then it must pour into life. One can’t help it.
Life and inner journey are inevitably connected, even if one wanted to separate them, I suppose. Some people are more suited to go and sit in a cave. I love people. I suppose I was drawn to theater because it tells people-stories. But you cannot help people unless somewhere you’re searching, looking, touching, aspiring to the deepest sapien, human intentions and, you know, without any specific religious label. Otherwise it immediately brands it, immediately gives it a name and limits the person who is hearing it by what they know.
I always feel religious and emotional experience—one’s loves and things—are something personal, something that just happens. You love them and they go, and you lose them. But they leave something and you live with it. You don’t go around and talk about it. It’s the same with a deep religious experience. I don’t even want to call it religious—whatever you find at the edges of meditation and aspiration. One can’t name these things. They are just there to really connect us in and out.
Nipun: Can you share perhaps a moment, the first moment, when you had this sense of a religious experience through the work that you’re doing.
Slobodan: Much earlier on when I was a small child, I lived in very hard conditions and the grownups never made sense to me. I was so upset by them. So I went under the comforter and just cried. Everything just looked completely pointless. And suddenly, literally, there was something. It would be banal to say like a light at the end of the tunnel. But figuratively, it had that quality. It was a profound presence, comforting, nameless, there. And I can always go back to it in some way. And there are many little things like that. Then one knew that all of that confusion and poverty and hunger are not everything.
Richard Whittaker: That’s beautiful. You spoke earlier about perseverance, and I don’t think I’d ever heard anyone talk about it the way you put it, as if it there was a larger need for this quality. Would you say something more about that?
Slobodan: Of course, because I’m in the doing and making and manifesting thing. Perseverance is about mastery. We now know from neurologists that to be master of anything one has to have approximately 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. But perseverance is, again, being with one’s child who is just growing up and having all kinds of manifestations, persevering to understand them, to stick with this child, to guide it through life. I mean every mother faces the issues of perseverance to an existential degree, and also anybody who has to stick to a job to make a living.
These outer demands of perseverance bring the irresistible desire to be, to be here, to be born. Perseverance, and life’s continuity, are incredibly linked together. There is something very natural about the perseverance.
So when we erode it through electronic means, when we invade a young mind with products, we’re actually eroding the edges of perseverance and disabling it.
My efforts in these last years have been really about the ecology of the inner world and the mind. What are we surrounding our children with? How many kills and bombs and explosions have they seen by the time they are five? And then we are surprised when somebody goes into a cinema and does something! Because we are numbing this very, very vital flow of internal perseverance.
Richard: What I’m hearing you say is that one of the central impulses of a normal person, someone who hasn’t been numbed by the things that are invading our minds, as you say, with the advertising and all the other stuff, that the natural trajectory of any one of us, as you put it, is to be, to be here, to be born—that is, if we’re only supported somehow in our natural movement. Does that sound right to you?
Slobodan: Oh yes! Absolutely. And I suppose this call is like that. People are gathered around values, which need to be cherished. I was so impressed by the earlier sharing that all came from real life, from real moments. It’s not a fantasy of grandeur. It’s the reality of sharing.
Richard: There’s this beautiful little video on YouTube that Slobodan made that’s called, I think, “Gift to CharityFocus” or something like that. It’s a little over a minute long. Do you know which one I’m talking about?
Slobodan: Yes. I loved doing that. It’s my gift to Nipun.
Richard: It’s beautiful and I think it will show everyone some good examples of your tea drawings.
Slobodan: Yes. It’s all made of tea drawings.
Richard: Did you do that entire thing yourself?
Slobodan: No. I was helped. But I directed it.
Richard: Well, it’s a masterful little piece. If you Google Slobodan Dan Paich, you’ll find it probably on the first page of the search.
Sam: I just searched for it right now and it’s called, “Gift From Slobodan.” It’s on YouTube.
Slobodan: It shouldn’t be my name because it was a gift to Nipun. People say that they Google themselves. I have never Googled myself. I'm not superstitious, but why would I Google myself? All kinds of things might tumble out [laughs].
Richard: There’s a lot of Slobodan Dan Paich out there in Googleland, let me tell you [laughs].
Slobodan: Well, I’ll leave it to you people to look at this. Maybe one day, I’ll peep.
Sam: The range of things that you’ve been involved with is pretty impressive. I’m wondering what sorts of things you’re working on now.
Slobodan: Yes. There’s another life I have, and that is the history of art and ideas. I have been writing papers, mostly for academic conferences, to make the links which have been broken or systematically negated through nationalism, chauvinism or other things that are so endemic within academia and which are all under this guise of being “objective.”
Currently I’m writing a paper which will be presented in Istanbul. I’m showing something about the incredible intercultural relationships. People do relate. History is not about conquest and the conquered. It’s about how it all flows between. So I’m going to eight conferences between September and January. I will be in beautiful, dynamic Istanbul full of people of the world and working there also on a small exhibition and gathering of people to do a spontaneous performance.
We did that last year. And then I will be going to Taiwan and a very important conference in Tunisia on the education of the future. So since 2005 I have done thirty-four different papers and have been to all these different conferences. Of course, at my age, my second name becomes “Jetlag.”
At these conferences, I get some dismissive arguments from my colleagues who say, “Well, you’re an artist. You really don’t know.” But also people invite me because, in some way, I’m the only one who can say these things, because I don’t care. I’m not looking for tenure. I'm not looking for anything. I think these bridges need to be made and I’ll help a little if I can.
Nipun: Richard, I’ll put you on the spot. You wrote in the preamble to your earlier interview that in meeting Slobodan, and you hadn’t known him before, that he’s one of the most interesting guys you’d ever met. Could you speak a little about what was it about meeting him?
Richard: I have a pretty good intuition and I grasped rather quickly the breadth and depth of Slobodan’s life, and the unusual nature of it. And I also sensed the persistence with which he has been pursuing his vision, one which I feel is needed today. When Slobodan and I met with Lissa Renaud, an old friend of Slobodan’s, he mentioned that while in Oakland with his Artship organization, he had helped some 5000 art events take place. And that’s just one part of his life.
Slobodan: Yes. That was the project with the store windows. We adopted an enormous number of empty store windows and exhibited whoever wanted to exhibit. That was an informal art school behind the scenes. Over ten years we had some five thousand little window installations and exhibits.
A number of people’s careers started that way because the galleries wouldn’t have them. And of course, we didn’t charge. We had tiny little grants. We just did that non-stop, day and night. And every single artist was handled individually, as if it were their own one-person show. It was open to anybody. The exhibits were in the street—twenty-four hours, day and night. It really was the moment when Oakland turned from having a derelict downtown. Of course, it soon became yuppified and gentrified. and all those things.
Richard: That’s just remarkable. And the spirit of generosity and service you bring to these things is so clear. I couldn’t help thinking of the phrase that Prakesh used earlier in the check-in that, while we can wonder if there’s life after death, there can be life before death. I figured this would be a formulation you would like.
Slobodan: Yes. I love that. And imagine if it continues after in some distilled form, absolute engagement!
Nipun: Before we go to the other callers, one of the things I wanted to ask you about is fear. Earlier Chris said one of the things he remembered as a child knowing you, he said “that man just doesn’t have any fear.” Can you speak a little about fear? What has been something that has challenged you in that way and how have you overcome that?
Slobodan: I understand the question and, of course, I have fear. Good Lord! Everybody has fear. Some people are just foolhardy. They bang their heads against the wall. But overcoming fear, I think it’s in every situation. Sometimes one is better at it and sometimes one just can’t help it. If one represents oneself, you know, “I have no fear”—well… We are all vulnerable. We are all just trying our best.
Nipun: Was there a moment, Slobodan, when you were able to conquer even a little fear? Where life challenged you and you were able to overcome that with your spiritual practice, perhaps.
Slobodan: I think this is a daily thing. I don’t have a dramatic example of it. I think fear is something one needs to work on all the time. Fear is the other side of love. It’s not hate. It’s fear. So if one is engaged with love, fear is there. It just is a process.
An emptiness, an ontological fear in front of the unknown, is part of the meditation. It’s the breathing in and looking beyond and hoping that the beyond would be there. But I think it’s also important to accept that if one is fearful and one doesn’t have an answer, and one is having a difficult time, and one doesn’t know if one is going to have a job, if it is a medical situation or anything, it is okay not to be strong. It is okay to have fear; it is okay to be vulnerable. Because there, one is really true to oneself. And something might happen.
I have had many, many of those moments, just stewing humbly in my own juices and my own limitations.
Richard: There’s a quote from you Slobodan, I found somewhere, “Having nowhere to go, one might arrive.”
Slobodan: Yes. That’s my refugee experience. When you have nowhere to go, where to you arrive? Into nothing. But it’s so comforting.
[Session is opened up now to all callers…]
Question: Slobodan, thank you so much for this gift of your wonderful wisdom. And my question is just to ask what are you occupied with these days?
Slobodan: It’s more about these papers and these conferences I was talking about. This is very much on my mind, these themes and issues. I live with them and I struggle with them and I care for them. After we lost our beautiful ship all doors were closed except two foundations that really care for our work, Kalliopeia, mostly, and the Tides Foundation. After the loss of our ship nobody else came forward and said, “Okay, what can we do?”
Then I really turned to these papers, because people out there suddenly started inviting me. So the world has room for this thought. It just isn’t in the immediate environment because the immediate environment is closed. So my thoughts now are how to answer those calls from those other places the best I can. It doesn’t matter if it’s hard to get there. How to do eight papers in the prescribed time, but not to rush and make them superficial?
Of course, one is always, not just planning, but incubating the next performance, the next exhibition. We have booked the wooden amphitheater in the Berkeley Botanical Gardens for the longest day of the year next June. We will be performing there. It’s such a beautiful place and so suitable for poetic, archetypal dreamlike work. It’s in a tiny redwood forest. So those are the things I’m thinking about, but not just by myself—with other people.
Question: [from Boston] Hi. I’ve been thinking about the creative process and I was wondering if you could share about what inspires you and also when you’re in the process what do you do in those moments when you feel uninspired or when you’re stuck?
Slobodan: Yeah. Well, we live in a culture which puts creativity first. You can go to a creativity workshop and you stretch arms and this or that. My approach to creativity has always been that it’s a by-product of problem-solving. I’m not seeking some kind of ecstasy when I’m being creative. I’m problem-solving. Then the moment of epiphany happens because I’m engaged with something.
It might be a social problem, it might be an artistic problem, it might be how to choreograph something. What is the real depth of the story? If you go to the artship website there is a paper called “Creativity, Art and Science” and it really explores to a considerable depth the whole issue of creativity. But if one feels stuck, if you’re writing something or drawing something, and you feel stuck, start on another one. I don’t want to give advice because that can sound patronizing.
Question: Have you ever had a moment when you felt stuck and had to work through that?
Slobodan: Yeah. But you don’t get paralyzed. Of course, you’re stuck. It’s the same like with fear. You just don’t get stuck. I mean, you do. I do. Everybody does. It’s just the way how one wiggles out of it. Each person does it according to their own temperament. So, in my case, I always try to wiggle out of any shackles.
Slobodan means freedom, it’s the word that means freedom. So they branded me. Then they complain, my parents. They said I was too restless and impossible. You have to find some kind of internal freedom, some kind of tiny little move that gets you out. And if nothing else, one can sing in shackles.
Nipun: Do you have a practice when you get stuck, or do you just kind of be with that and let it unfold?
Slobodan: I don’t have a methodology. I just know there is no time to be stuck, but now one is stuck. So let’s be unstuck within the issue where one got stuck.
Nipun: [laughing] That’s a practice.
Slobodan: I only articulated it now. It’s not something I put on my fridge “get unstuck when you’re stuck by going back into the stuckness.”
Richard: It’s kind of great, this thing about how if you’re stuck or in shackles, at least you can sing.
Slobodan: That was always my idea. If one is completely chained and there is no hope for anything, you can still sing, even if they put a tape over your mouth.
Nipun: We have two more questions.
Question: I was struck early on where you said theater is where people come together and share daily myths. I was wondering if you could speak a little about what is the importance of myth.
Slobodan: Yes. Actually every story is a myth. If you tell about your grandmother or someone, just a story—and even if it’s an ordinary story—“she went by train and she found…”—in the narrating, the simple re-telling of something it evokes a timeless level, which is a kind of transpersonal level where the experiences can be shared. And that’s the power of story, just story itself.
I believe a layer of every story is mythos. Of course if one analyzes the stories and wants to put them in categories—oh yeah, this a myth of the wise old woman or of the innocent child, or one could say it’s like the Hindu myth, oh, this is like Shiva or Brahma or this is like Zeus or Hera, because within each story there is an archetypal layer—it makes the story self-conscious.
If the story flows and reaches the hearts and minds of others, there is the myth. Some friends who have worked among refugees and the global poor have told me that very young people are rediscovering the oral tradition. They have no other means than by telling and re-telling stories and remembering them. In ancient times people could remember so much. Their capacity was extraordinary. The shepherds would know thousands of songs. Of course, we have shrunk that capacity because we have deferred it to machines. And so the mythos lives. It’s an organic part of sapien reality of being a conscious human.
Question: [from Washington D.C.] I’m just curious to know more about the experience of being an artist. How does your art in all its forms help you to be with your truest self? How does it help you to embrace your vulnerability?
Slobodan: I wish I knew. What is your profession?
Questioner: I work in international education.
Slobodan: Art is like international education, or like nursing or like being a doctor or something. It’s not any different. It’s just an engagement with the world. It’s put on some pedestal. It presumes something, but it’s a job. Yes, one is passionate about it and there are some jobs which one is not passionate about. But I have known some extraordinary nurses. As a child, I remember women who were rescuing half-frozen children abandoned after the war. I shared space with them. In various countries where I’ve lived there are people who are so dedicated to help patients. That was their passion. They really transcended the profession. So any profession gives us the grind, the sandpaper that makes us a pebble. And so with the arts, too. It’s not different.
More can be learned about Slobodan’s work at http://www.artship.org/