Feedback: Liz Lerman and John Borstel
ICE Conversation Series Episode 006

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Produced by Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE), an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. All rights reserved. For more information visit: http://ideasforcreativeexploration.com/podcasts/

Mark Callahan: Welcome to Feedback! You're about to hear an interview with Liz Lerman and John Borstel, co-authors of Critical Response Process, a book that has influenced art makers and teachers across multiple disciplines. Liz Lerman is a visionary choreographer, performer, and educator who has been recognized by awards such as the MacArthur Fellowship and the United States Artists Ford Fellowship. John Borstel is a visual artist and Senior Advisor in the Humanities for Dance Exchange, an innovative dance company that was founded by Liz Lerman in 1976. They spent a week here at the University of Georgia, sharing their work through lectures and workshops with students and faculty. Here's John Borstel, with an overview of the Critical Response Process:

John Borstel: The critical response process is a four-step process for getting and giving feedback on artistic work in progress. People are engaged in this process in three distinctive roles. The first, because we're looking at a work of art, the first of those roles is the artist. And there are a group of people or a single person or a whole audience of people who we identify as the responders: They're the people who have come into the room invested in the artist's ability to do the artist's own best work, and they are invested in that moment in helping the artist think about the work. Finally, because there are a series of disciplines and protocols engages in the process, we have somebody who plays the role of facilitator and this is a key role in the process.

The process consists of four steps. Each of the four steps engages inquiry at some kind of level, so all of the four steps have some kind of question in them. In step one that question is asked by the facilitator. After we've looked at the work, the facilitator will initiate the process by asking the question: What is exciting, meaningful, memorable, stimulating, interesting about the work in question? And we'll hear a group of responses from the responders about that. We have a few things that we really stress in telling people how to give these responses. They have to be honest. Detail is always great, so we encourage people that nothing is too small to notice, and through this step we tend to collect a group of responses that help the artist understand what had meaning for people, and then it also helps the responders to gain another series of lenses through their peers in the group for how to look at the work. So it makes a great platform for the process as a whole.

Step two continues the spirit of inquiry, and it's now the artist who gets to ask questions about his or her own work. So in initiating a real dialogue about the work, it's the artist who gets to initiate it. And based on the idea that this is work in progress, that the artist still will feel like there are some things to be answered, there are some unresolved issues about the work, we generally base it in the idea that the artist will have questions. And the artist poses the questions, and any response that's an honest and direct response that stays on topic with the question is legitimate. The only thing that responders can't do is try to change the topic of the question to address the thing they want to talk about. They will have a chance to do that, and that chance comes in the following steps, steps three and four, and you can initiate that in step three when it's the responder's opportunity to pose questions to the artist.

So the responders get to ask questions to the artist. There is one particular discipline we ask for here, and that's that the responders must ask neutral questions. So if you have an opinion you must find a way to ask a question about it that does not reveal the opinion. One of the key principles here is that when you ask a question that's highly charged with opinion, you tend to get a defensive reaction, and the principle here is that when defensiveness starts, learning stops. And we want to conduct critique in a way that it's a learning experience for everyone, especially the artist.

After this round of neutral questions, we finally move on to step four, which is the step in which responders are invited to give opinions. Again, there's protocol. There's a particular discipline for this, and it's this: In offering an opinion, a responder must first say, "I have an opinion about 'X.' I have an opinion about 'blank.' Would you like to hear it?" And the artist has the option of saying "yes" or "no." Now most of the time, particularly if the responder in question has been a really active participant in the entire process, most of the time the artist will say "yes," but the artist always has the option to say "no," and to do so without giving a rationale for why they're saying no.

MC: How did you settle on the name "Critical Response Process?"

Liz Lerman: You know, the name of it came about quite serendipitously. I mean I didn't realize I was making something that was going to last, and I think certainly the fact that process was part of it was important. I like the word "critical" because it, the process engages people in what some might call a wide range of positive and negative reactions, and I like using that word to describe all of that.

MC: When did you realize that people were using this method outside of your world of dance and choreography?

JB: Well, actually, I think Liz initiated it in contexts where it was beyond dance originally, particularly through her work with Alternate Roots, which is a regional gathering of artists who work in multiple disciplines, so it even started there I think, though one of the laboratories was also, if I'm correct, the department of dance at the University of Colorado in Boulder. So, but as the 90s went on, there was more and more inquiry coming to the institution we were at, the Dance Exchange, about the process from all kinds of directions: theater companies, university departments, independent artists wanting to know more about the process, and at that time the key reference was a couple of articles Liz had written that seemed to be swiftly going out of date in terms of how they represented the process, and that was the point at which we resolved to write a little book that would kind of settle some of the description of the process.

MC: So you were tweaking and changing, and is it still in a state of change?

LL: I think it's use demands a kind of flexibility about it, and as we understand it more we see its usefulness in a variety of ways but the essential four steps have remained the same with one caveat, that is to say the beginning, the first step, had a different name when I first began the process. And when I think about it, I think that the naming of that speaks to my own sort of brokenness around feedback. By saying that step one was affirmation, I myself I think was looking for affirmation for my work. What I soon realized is that it really wasn't about me or any of the artists really, it was really about the work, and that by changing that step to be about what was meaningful in the work, we got much more rigorous, we got much more information. Maybe I couldn't have gotten to that had I not gone through those first things and sometimes I observe an artist who begins to use the process, that step one has different uses, different meanings, whereas for me now I see it as an essential part of the rigor.

JB: One of the remarkable things that I always say about the process is that it's extremely simple, you can put its basic tenets on a single sheet of paper, you can describe it in five minutes. It's extremely complex as well. And having done myself the process for actively for about twelve years now, I never fail to make a new discovery about it when I engage the process in a new context, so in that way, yes, there are some basic principles about it that are unchanging and at the same time it's always a sort of portal for discovery.

MC: What's been the most surprising application? Were there any inquiries that really caught you off guard, the people who wanted to know more about it?

LL: You know, I think when the scientists began to ask for it, is pretty interesting, and we've gotten some of that through NIH [National Institutes of Health] as well as individual scientists in relationship to their own writing. That's one that comes to mind. But when I think about surprising outcomes I have a different answer, and that is the pleasure that I take when there's a good Critical Response Process. And that is often surprising when it kicks in. I'm thinking in particular of a time at a university where there was a group of engineers trying to problem-solve how to make a spine. Turns out we don't have enough cadavers in the United States, or maybe anywhere, and they're trying to build bodies that will be usable in medical schools. And they couldn't get the spine to work right, so they brought in about a ten-inch model. But because we were there with the dance program, we had everybody in the room that - they had their scientists there and their engineers there, but there were also dancers, massage therapists that for some reason we had a bunch of somatic people in the room - it was a fantastic session because of course people ask them questions no one had put to them. And you know, they sailed out of the room, they could not wait to get back into their lab, and that's one of those wonderful - when I think of surprises I just think of that particular one.

MC: What would you say are the main benefits of feedback?

LL: I suppose that feedback comes in all forms. You know, you can walk down the hallway and if you're weaving a lot you'll hit the wall, and you'll right yourself and you'll realize, "Oh, I can't do that, I have to go this other way." So we get feedback all the time. And it's like a good dialogue, it helps you know where you're going in some regard. So I think it's interesting in relationship to art making, when at least one of the myths is you pursue it, you pursue your vision on your own terms in relationship to what you think. And at one end of the spectrum I think that's quite viable and quite amazing. Although my suspicion is even artists who work that way - and I do too, but when I'm doing it I'm in dialogue with myself, I'm giving my own self feedback constantly, "Are you sure that's what you want to do, Liz?" I mean, it's constant, really. So what happens though when you get feedback in the way in which we do within the Critical Response Process is that you get asked - if you're lucky - really good questions that make you deepen your essential purpose.

JB: There's a quote from Marcel Duchamp that we have in the book where we have a bunch of quotes about questions around feedback, and I can't repeat it verbatim but it's something to the effect that art isn't just created by the artist, it's actually constructed in the mind of the audience or the viewer ["The creative act is not formed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act."]. And that point could be argued - I think there are some artists who would like to argue that point. But I think I've observed it both from the standpoint of a high-theory conceptual person like Marcel Duchamp, and also looking, as I have recently, at a lot of work that's designed for children under the age of five. A lot of what's going on there is not only how do we create something to put in front of a viewer, but how do we encourage the viewer to create something in their minds. So if that's an idea that you want to embrace about art, as I do, the notion there really can't be progressive creativity without some sort of dialogue in which the artist finds out what's being created in the mind of the viewer. And a feedback process that unfolds that is going to be beneficial to the construction of art. And you know, I'd say the principle exists by extension into other things that get engaged by an audience.

LL: I think too the essential four steps in the process have equal validity to me. They each do something different. So the nature of what is the kind of feedback that is going, because a lot of times when we think about feedback we think of "how do we make this thing better"? And so it's around fixing it, possibly it's around criticizing it in some form, saying "it's not this, it's not that." So with the four steps you get a sense that actually feedback consists on a much broader plain and that you get the artist and the community involved in the feedback, get more by looking at the four different steps. So if you're looking at what's meaningful, very very rarely do artists get to hear about what their work has meaning, first of all, you just don't hear it. Sometimes you can be emboldened just by that first step, and you realize "oh, I'm on a track here. Well, gee, if they're into this, let me take it further." And you know you really could just get up and leave right at that point. So I think each of those steps take us somewhere, I hope, for the artist and the community and for the person that's making the commentary.

MC: In your opinion, what makes a successful critique?

JB: Does discovery occur, would be my short answer to the question. And, to my mind, this is the sort of golden moment that can happen in good critique and it's the kind of moment that critical response is particularly designed for. By virtue of it, in contrast to some systems of critique by virtue of it actively engaging the artist's own voice. And being a process to which inquiry is essential. So it's really a series of questions and answers, and if the responders who are looking at the work of the artists can frame the sort of question that will guide the artist to make a discovery, that is where the prime moment in critique can happen.

LL: Sometimes I think the outcome of a good critique happens later. It happens when the artist gets back to the studio and they actually remember that thing and try it, but it also happens with responders too, or even what we observed here, where one of the - we got to talk to one of the artists who had it done earlier in the day, and then she went off to a critique session somewhere off on campus, and in that moment she just was really surprised by what she was observing, but what counted for critique, which was, as she said, a lot of questions coming at once - fix this, fix this, fix this, fix this - and I think just the fact that she had that opportunity to see those two things gives her some power in how she may want to use these things as her life unfolds.

MC: What were your first feedback experiences like?

LL: You know, I think that my - what were my first feedback experiences? I'm trying to remember back... what were my first feedback experiences? I was surprised to discover when John and I were in Brussels and we had this whole week together doing critical response that a memory came back to me, that I hadn't thought about in a while, that I opened our public discussion with that night. I am less than two years old, because we're still living in the house I can see it in, and I'm on the floor and I have all my crayons out and I have drawn hundreds and hundreds of circles in different colors on this piece of paper, and my mother comes by and she says, "Liz, can't you do something different?" And I was shocked. Because I thought I had done something different. The circles were all different sizes, and I had used all those different colors. So even at that very early age I was like, "Well wait, you're not really seeing this."

Now, of course, you'd have to know my mom. Being different was the most important thing to my mom besides anything else in the world, so I was clearly not different enough in that moment, but that's an early one, and then as I've mentioned my classical training which I was very serious for many years, classical ballet training which went until I was fourteen. But I mean I was one of these really serious ballerinas. That feedback, and it's funny, I think I was in ballet at a time when there were certain privileges given to teachers that I think is less true these days maybe, but the extreme favoritism that teachers would play with, the incredible tantrums that teachers would do, the screaming, the yelling. So part of it's tone, even though I make jokes when I'm teaching critical response that it's not about tone, actually it can be terrifying when you have a teacher really screaming at you. So that was unhappy for me, those early days. I like the praise, of course, I'm not sure though I even counted the praise. I think in those classical forms the praise is fleeting. And you're right back to the bottom of the barrel pretty fast.

JB: You know, I'm thinking back to high school and two things. I went to an odd, funky, alternative high school, and because it was very small I had the benefit of, like, I had a large research paper I wrote, at least large for a high school student, and I would sort of write in chunks and then show it to one of our two English teachers, and they would sit with me and go through the whole thing and talk through it word by word with me, and tell me why they might make a particular edit, or I should think about the principle of parallelism when I may construct a sentence, or what did I mean here, so it was detailed. It was conversational. It was supportive but it was also holding me to a standard, and I really believe that's how I learned to write, because of that kind of attention.

At the same time, I remember in art classes having, doing life drawing and having a teacher actually come over and marking up my drawing, actually taking the implement from my hand and doing the drawing on top of my drawing. And I remember how deflating that always felt. That sense of ownership being taken away from me, even as I understand you're supposed to detach from your ownership and think of it as an exercise, it always left me feeling that there was something that I was doing wrong and that I should give up a kind of aspiration toward what I was doing.

LL: Of course, John, in the anecdote you just described, perhaps if the teacher said to you, "I'm going to take this chalk for a minute. I'm going to draw on top of yours. And one of the things I'm curious about is, you know, I'll be asking you in a minute how you feel about that, because you know one of the things we have to work on as artists is our relationship to our own work and how are we detached and why are we with it." And then you could have done all that and you could have actually learned something and not been deflated, and of course the key to critical response is that notion of naming what's happening even when it's a really strong opinion like that one that you just told.

I think in my case another form of feedback, and I'm not sure it's exactly true to the question but I realized growing up in an activist household that my father's version of "you see the world, you fix the world" is a certain way of saying, "Here's how you make change." And in a funny way when you think of feedback as sort of encouraging you to make change, you see the steps: You have to see something, you have to critique it, you have to look at it, you have to say what are the forces that are causing this thing to be in place, how many different ways can I get at it, can I change that thing? That was pretty regular at our house, and I don't know to what extent I may have absorbed that, but it's interesting when you ask the question, what do we even think feedback is, or where the mechanisms are for our learning.

MC: Is there are particular time when feedback is most beneficial?

JB: It's interesting, doing a particular process people sometimes ask us, "Well what's the best point for it"? And I tend to say, "This process, Critical Response Process, can really work at any point." And it's interesting to be here at the University of Georgia, looking at work which has been represented by sort of project proposals, project presentations, as opposed to, "Here's my sculpture, what do you think of it?" It's like, here's the conceptual framework for an installation and here's an example of some of the work I'd put in the installation. So, this is sort of a work early in development, you have one relationship that, on the other hand we looked at work where the artist said she'd been working on it for five years, and she had set up a situation where people came up to her studio and gave feedback and she had gotten feedback from eight hundred people already.

So those are just two examples of things at different ends of the spectrum. I think it's useful at any stage, but the nature of the information, of the experience can be very different, and in that we're working on a process in which the artist must actively engage their own questions, the nature of the kinds of questions that an artist is going to ask as appropriate to the stage they're at is the critical thing, or one of the critical things, as opposed to whether this is the right moment for feedback.

LL: Yes, I think for myself, I've observed over time that I could use critical response in a rehearsal when I'm having trouble. Just sit everybody down, and if I really really want to work on the section - because I can also just put it aside and work on something else and come back to it later when I may be able to solve it - but I've gotten a lot of help that way, we go really fast, and really good ideas and sometimes I don't even need to sit everybody down and do the process, I can just say "I'm stuck, do you guys have any questions for me?" And they're trained enough to know what I mean.

MC: Almost a way to move through a block?

LL: Yes. Or even other solutions to the problem that I'm having or they may get me to talk again about what I'm trying to accomplish here, or something like that. Yes.

MC: That's interesting because it's not just looking at "here's what I did, what do you think of it"? It's "here, we're encountering some resistance. Let's go into a feedback mode as a way of finding ways forward."

LL: Yes, it's been very helpful. Also, one of the times we, when I premiered the genome piece [Ferocious Beauty: Genome], which was a huge project, and we premiered it at Wesleyan, and then we did a critical response the next day and it was a very useful session, I'm surprised I was able to take it all in because we had just got it. But I got some really important feedback that I changed immediately, it was one of those things where I had people, well I wanted people to understand the moment of discovery of DNA, the structure of DNA, 1953, and we had these, we had written on bodies and people got unzipped, because everyone is always saying that the DNA unzips - that's what metaphor that the scientists use - so we unzipped and there was writing on the dancers that sort of talked about something, but it also said 1953. And they were dressed a certain way to think that you were in the 50s and that's not anything that people, that they all thought, because as soon as you put numbers on a body you're in the Holocaust. So it would, you know, I didn't have to do a whole huge Critical Response Process, but I don't know that anyone would have ever said to me after a show, especially opening night, "By the way, I was thinking it's the Holocaust." So that is one of those times, it's nice, you want to create work where people can have multiple points of view about what you put out, but not when it's completely, completely wrong. Or wrong-headed, you know. And so I fixed it, and that's a huge relief to me.

JB: So Liz's anecdote points to a case where work is, well it's a premiere, so you might assume that the work is finished, but in Liz's case, she continues to craft work after a premiere, and really you, there's certain stuff you can't know about a piece until you put it in front of a formal audience with all the trappings of a full production. So in that case, we're very close to the end of an artistic process, and there's some refinement to happen. But, so the nature of the question is very different. I guess in answer to your question, one thing I'd say is the moment when feedback is not meaningful is when things are truly finished, when we are really done with everything. That's when people try to engage in a conversation and the conversation really has no place to go because the artist isn't invested in any kind of change. Unless we're talking about, for instance, how can I go on and do my next work in a different way, and in that case the artist needs to at least be framing that idea in their own mind.

MC: One of the interesting components of the Critical Response Process, I think, is when the responder offers an opinion but must ask the artist's permission to share it, and the artist has the option of declining.

LL: You know, I'm not sure I understand why I was smart enough to insert that. I really don't, I don't recall the origin well enough to know. But in retrospect, what seemed clear to me then and clear to me now is that opinions in step one we say are in the spirit of good will. Opinions in step four should also be in the spirit of good will, and that good will is that people are essentially on my side. But I think my experience in feedback in that point in time was actually not like that in that people might give me an opinion that was really more about something else, maybe it was about their point of view about art, maybe it was more about their competition with me as a person, maybe it was more about their status in the community. But you could tell, and I actually didn't want to hear it, actually. Because I knew how much work it was going to take me to get out from under it, over the next three to five days.

Now, as I understand the process, I understand that if you actually do the process, even someone who comes in with that perspective is not going to be in that place by the end, when they're ready to offer their opinion, if they've done the process they won't be able to do it like that. And that's interesting. It's like a kind of a shift. But I also think the environment has changed a lot in the last twenty years, and of course I'm a different person now so I have a lot of other skills that I can put in play if I were an artist as to whether I would say yes or no. What we see most often, though, is that people say no when the question is out of left field. When the opinion is coming, you know, what I often say is that if you tell me you want to talk about my costume and these aren't the costumes, it's ... why listen? Why take up the time?

JB: Liz has emphasized the fact that the artist does in fact have the option to say no and can exercise that option. It usually isn't exercised if the process has gone well, but I like to emphasize the other ways that that request is still functional, even when the artist is saying yes, and one is that we're simply reiterating the idea each time we say that that this is an opinion. We're naming an opinion as an opinion. We're reminding ourselves of that. The other is that it's so interesting to see how challenged people sometimes are, they can say their opinion, but just to have to say what their opinion is about, just to have to step back from it enough to label it or frame it up into its bigger category can be quite a challenge for people, and I just feel like that exercise is a good one for people to engage in before they launch into the opinion. Finally, you know, I do this thing sometimes, especially with teenagers, which is I'll wad up a piece of paper at somebody who's a little distracted, not focused at me, throw it at them, and they'll flinch and they'll be surprised and then I'll pick it up again and I'll make eye contact with them, and I'll toss it to them, and they'll catch it. And I sometimes feel like an opinion is like an object: It helps us to know what's coming at us a little bit before we get it, and how we prepare to receive a wad of piece of paper is very different from how we prepare to receive a bowling ball for instance.

MC: What advice would you give someone who is about to receive feedback?

JB: Well, it's interesting. I've done this process for over twelve years, most often I'm the facilitator because I'm so often in an opportunity to train people in the process, but I always emphasize that if you really want to learn and embrace the principles of the process, it's great ot have experience in all three roles. Now, occasionally I am the artist, and I always feel nervous, I always feel discomfort, even as I know how great this process is, even as I know that the process is helpful and it's structured to give me concrete stuff to work with. I still feel nervous, I still feel discomfort. So one of the things I say to people is that if you're feeling that discomfort, that is natural. That is great. That is where you need to be because this moment is a bigger moment. This moment, you've worked a long time to get to the place where you're ready to show the work, or you have a big idea that you want to share, and now you've got a group of people who are devoting their time to giving it to you. It's a heightened moment, so your discomfort is normal. Can you partner your discomfort, can you work with your functional discomfort and make it work with you and can we get the dysfunctional discomfort - and there's a lot of that that comes up in conventional experiences of feedback - can we get that out of the way so that you can actually focus your energy?

LL: I think the more you do it, the better you get at step two. And really find the questions to ask. I think at first artists are maybe a little afraid to ask the deep questions that they know they have, but when I've done critical response, it's almost like I want to get it all done in step two and then I want to go to work, I get impatient because I just want to go, "OK, that's everything I want. OK, I'm going." So I think that's interesting and I think, you know, some of the conversations we have had here around how artists ask and receive the information in those questions tells us again that it takes a while, you have to practice. You can do a lot right there.

MC: Feedback is a production of Ideas for Creative Exploration, an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at the University of Georgia. The Liz Lerman Residency was sponsored by the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, the Department of Dance, the Department of Theatre and Film Studies, Lamar Dodd School of Art, and Hodgson School of Music. The program was also supported in part by the President's Venture Fund through the generous gifts of the University of Georgia Partners and other donors. I'm Mark Callahan. This podcast was produced with the assistance of Hanna Lisa Stefansson and featured music by The Noisettes.

Recorded on November 1, 2012
Transcription by Taylor Hobson