Glass Hours

In 2018 and 2019, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced that the Doomsday Clock had reached “2 minutes to midnight.” For 70 years, the Clock has been a symbol for how close we are to a man-made disaster, where midnight is a point of no return. As our planet suffers around us, quietly and with frightening potential, are we able to make sacrifices for a future we can’t know or see? As we benefit from our privileges today, are we prepared to give up what is necessary to enable liberation for all tomorrow?

In reflecting on these questions, I read about the science of memory and how we think about time. I also spent months re-treading my own memory footprints, as well as discovering dozens of memories of my husband’s that I had never heard. The result was Glass Hours, an installation and card game exploring whether our connection, even love, of the future can grow stronger if we creatively engage with both our past and future in the same space.

Creators first picked a painted coin and were asked to share a memory that was evoked or invoked by the colors. For some, the spark was immediate, and experiences from many decades ago, or that hadn’t been recalled for decades, bubbled forth. One individual recalled a 60-year-old memory of a friend from childhood, someone who they hadn’t thought about or remembered for decades. Another remembered the color of the wall in the den of her old childhood home on a particular day. Her sister, who was by her side, then shared with us an old memory of skinny-dipping for the only time in her life. Neither sister had ever heard these stories before. Other creators noticed new details or colors in familiar memories, bonding with the paintings that evoked them.

Then, creators turned their coin over to a different painting and blended the color with a word. For example, some shared electric blue memories of heritage; or red memories of bias. Slightly different variations of the game were also made to help children engage equally. Many stories emerged, in private conversations and small groups. Some, however found it easier to engage with the words, rather than colors, making me realize that Glass Hours needs a 2.0.

Next, creators tossed their past memories into an unknown future and discovered that each future shape of the game board represented a different experience, from apocalypse, to extreme pollution, to a world of glass or colored orange. They were then asked to describe a future memory in that world and find a painting that looked like it, reversing the flow between color and memory.

I was invited by the amazing Jaime Faye-Bean to install Glass Hours at Bliss Plaza in Sunnyside, Queens, in 2019, thanks to support from Sunnyside Shines and the Queens Council on the Arts with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Rather than showing only my work, I welcomed several other artists committed to interaction to help Queens residents explore and linger on 2 minutes. My hope was for New York’s public spaces to become hubs enabling local communities to connect with their creativity and surface solutions in diverse ways. The event, 2 Minutes to Midnight, became a free, interactive outdoor co-creation lab under the 7 train. Click here to learn more about the lab and other artists.

Installation

Card Game(s)

Bending the Universe

Today, the Earth is around 13.8 billion years old. To think about how all of this happened, and the blip of human existence so far in an expansive Universal story, is sublime: awe-inspiring, frightening, beautiful, spiritual, existential, and creative. I hoped to share that with others in my usual spirit of shared, embodied generativity: working within “games” to create space for sublimeness to sink into soul, flowing on a quiet current of Earth’s fragility and well-being.

Thanks to the Queens Council on the Arts in 2015, Bending the Universe was installed on the Brooklyn Grange’s LIC rooftop farm in Queens. Creators first selected a ‘game piece’ with a word written on it, from “hope” to “witches” to “love” to “books,” and more. They could freely choose or be given one at random. But they didn’t know yet what they were going to do with it- only that their choice mattered. They were asked to put their game piece down on a game board. The game board was a timeline, chronicling and visualizing phases of Universe creation, from the Big Bang, to the unknown end.

To choose their spot, people walked along one side of the board and explored a continuous timeline of our Universe’s history as we know it today. The timeline marked milestones in time, detailing how the Forces work and when they came into being, when matters started to form, how Earth started to form, the emergence of life, the death of our beloved sun, and billions of journeys of matter and energy beyond. Peoples’ choices were conceptual and aesthetic as they changed the game board in their painterly ways.

When creators finished, they met me at the end of time. I gave them a blank milestone marker and asked them a simple question: what happened to your word at the moment in time that you chose? They reflected and wrote strange and beautiful stories, weaving in real facts about the Universe, and placed them on an alternate timeline mirroring the real one. Throughout the day, an alternate collective timeline emerged as stories accumulated, about love at the end of time, ideology at the beginning, and so much more.

Based on how they participated, they received a horoscope.

The Nature of Horoscopes

From reading hundreds of pages about the Universe to create this game, I experienced two understandings of my own:

1. From beginning to end, our Universe is a rainbow, filled with red explosion at the beginning, dreams of quiet blue in silent expansion, birthing in green majesty as galaxies and planets form, and sunsetting yellow and orange as we prepare for endings and beginnings.

2. Matter and energy, as one becomes the other, are us. We seek contraction, quiet, containment, introversion, and introspection as matter takes form by pulling into itself under the force of gravity. When we contract to far, do we absorb others? We seek expansion, explosion, dissolution, and distance as energy takes identity and stretches with the Universe. If we stretch too far, do we get absorbed?

These two understandings took creative form in a final step: a horoscope system that I designed. People who wished for a horoscope tied to how they played were asked to share which moment in time they chose and whether they saw themselves as matter or energy. Based on their answer, they received a ‘horoscope,’ which predicted their life stage or their stage of mind, a mirror for the Universe. The horoscope, often eerily prophetic, framed an opportunity for participants to make a decision in their real lives. For those that chose to make a decision, I followed up one year later.

Prototype
Horoscope Systems

Video

Micro-Fiction Game_Anjali-Deshmukh from Anjali Deshmukh on Vimeo.

Can Art Change Lives?

How do we know that art has a lasting impact?

Ideally, social sector organizations enact interventions that will lead to a specific change that they seek. They use unbiased evidence to develop those interventions, and then they track whether the interventions are actually having the effect they want. If they’re not, organizations know that they should change what they’re doing. This can be a difficult process, especially when funding for this analysis is scarce, and so many factors shape our lives.

Nonetheless, it’s been on my mind as an artist for a decade. I wanted to better understand whether art can be an intervention, without losing the individuality and pure creativity that differentiates it from institutional enactments with narrowly defined goals. I also wondered whether art can function as a medium, where the participant decides their direction. Can art help build creative space for participants to choose their change?

This was where my games began, as site-specific installations that ask viewers to creatively confront their way of looking at the world, slowly walking a road from audience to maker. While every game is different, here’s how one of them works: You pick a “gamepiece” that has a unique meaning. But you don’t yet know what it means. You put it on a “game board,” carefully selecting an event from thousands laid out in front of you like a whirlwind of human experience. You’re surrounded by people, collectively making choices together. At the end, you find out that your game piece stands for an emotion. You’re asked to write a work of microfiction, combining the emotion and event.

A simple game generated a dramatic spectrum of experiences. Some picked an event reflecting their lived histories; others, their hopes; others, pure fiction. Some discovered that the emotion they picked was exactly what they felt; others, the exact opposite; others, a hidden layer of truth; others, pure conjecture shaping their story.

The reactions were personal, emotional, creative, and generative. People working in local businesses told their customers to come play. One participant told me that the game changed her life. Another shared with me, a complete stranger, a secret that was causing her intense guilt.

What they reminded me was that meaningful, and sometimes uncomfortable, rules can unlock creativity in people that even they didn’t realize was possible.

By developing longer connections with participant-creators, I believe that art can foster, and possibly cause, life change. To test this, I designed a horoscope system around an installation on the past and future of our Universe. Creators received a “fortune” based on how they expressed themselves. Sometimes, their fortunes were eerily prophetic. From there, they decided on a life change they wanted to make. I offered to contact them a year later to find out if they followed through. And on August 29th, 2016, I did.

What I found out from people who wrote back is that an artwork can manifest or move along change that was in-the-making, helping people turn their lives into art, like a micro-movement of soul. But life-change takes time, and sometimes it needs to gather momentum through different and complementary reinforcements, like a snowball rolling down a hill.

The more time people have with art, the less fleeting their artistic experiences, and the more makers listen to the people we make for & with, the deeper we can understand and support movements, of souls and communities.

Visions of the Future

In invitations to play, even when there are constraints, we can find ways to answer both personal and community challenges. And our solutions can be art; they can open the doors to other solutions, rather than close them. They can create moments of possibility and defy rigidity. And our art can be plurality; a solution can find itself in images, in sound, in words, and the spaces between and across.

In 2014, creators came across a game board installed at the intersection of a cobblestone street in Dumbo, during the Dumbo Arts Festival. The board laid out about 500 unique events and 300 unique hand drawn symbols. Some of the written events were mundane, others were fantastical, some were about family, others were about sensory experiences. Similarly, the symbols ranged far and wide, from a flying cape, to a mushroom cloud, to a roller coaster, to a rocket, and more.

At the beginning, creators picked a penny with a number on it. They knew the number stood for one of about 900 emotions, objects, or symbols, but they didn’t yet know which one. They were invited to put their penny down on an event on the game board. Some people picked events that were connected to real experiences; others related to things they wished for; others purely imaginary. Many picked symbols.

At the other end of the board, they found out which symbol, object, or emotion their number stood for and were invited to write a simple story or equation. Their creative work was guided by how their choice, on the game board, and an unknown factor, their penny, came together. Creators then added their story to the game board.

People who chose to play Level 2 of Visions of the Future blind-selected a card from a deck with an unfinished sentence on it, such as: “Your feelings will change when…” or “The next step is…” They were invited to respond to a story or equation written by a creator from Level 1 or an event or symbol from the original board, contributing to a growing web of dialogue designed in creative constraint.

This was the first time that I created a game that had levels of advancement. After playing Level 2 a few times, some creators came back and asked me for a Level 3, which I hadn’t formalized into the game rules, assuming that people wouldn’t want to stay that long on a beautiful fall day. In Level 3, creators were invited to visually connect symbols, events, and responses across the board to create the backbone of a complete short story. A handful of people did so, writing out and emailing me complete short stories, composed with time and care.

Visions of the Future was a variation on Micro-Fiction Game and Random Fortune Generators, which go into detail on the underlying purpose of play and where it came from.

See the complete album by clicking below

Visions of the Future, Anjali Deshmukh

Random Fortune Generators

Lila is a Sanskrit-origin word describing the Universe as the outcome of cosmic play. It’s about fate — whether the paths of our lives are pre-determined or up to us. But it’s also an invitation to see beauty in the unexpected outcomes of systems sparking change in our Universe. Through our hardships, it can be incredibly difficult and painful to perceive Lila. But the pursuit of spiritual transcendence invites us to practice, and sinking into the stars, natural beauty, gravity, time, opens doors.

Micro-Fiction Game, Random Fortune Generators, and Visions of the Future all root themselves in Lila. Installed on a cobblestone street in Dumbo during the 2013 Dumbo Arts Festival as part of a group show with the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective, Random Fortune Generators was a game board of about 900 unique events. Some of them were mundane, others were fantastical, some were about family, others were about sensory experiences.

At the beginning, creators picked a penny with a number on it. They knew the number stood for one of about 900 emotions, but they didn’t yet know which one. They were invited to put their penny down on an event on the game board. Some people pick events that were connected to their real lives or experiences; others related to things they wished for; others purely imaginary. At the other end of the board, they found out which emotion their number stood for and were invited to write a simple story making sense of the two together. For example: I see a ghost, and it makes me feel elation, because…

Creators put their stories on the street, going further and further down the block.

When I first created this game, my intention was to help spark creativity for writers, who had told me that a small-scale version of it had helped them overcome writers block; and invite people to see elasticity in our states of mind as we all encounter fateful events in our lives.

But the experiences were unexpected, emotional, and personal. Many people saw truths mirrored back to them, telling me the game “read their mind” or shared a hidden layer to their emotions that they hadn’t fully realized. Some people asked to volunteer to help others walk through the game, as I had helped them. 2 psychologists asked if they could use it in their practice. While I was told that 300 people were likely to participate, 8000 people came, standing in line to play, and I found out that people in local businesses had been spreading the word about my game to their customers.

There was also another unexpected outcome. As a result of having so many people participate in public space, we started to see patterns emerge. For example, dozens of creators selected the event “I don’t finish something important,” organically moving along an emergent, real-time creative voting exercise. But the time the festival was over, dozens of people stayed to help us clean up, especially children.

I Do Not Walk In a Dream

Intentionality. When an artist picks up their paintbrush or a mathematician is in the depths of a problem, intentionality is often at full power. In Hinduism, the concept of karma yoga is a spiritual tint on the word. In it is the idea that deliberate action or “work” is like a form of prayer, whether or not it’s directed towards a specific religion. But for all of the intentionality that we put into objects and ideas that leave us, what about the pieces of us that no one can fully see? Do we think of our lives as works of art?

I Do Not Walk In a Dream explored whether art could help people set intentions for their lives. Creators picked a card, one of 26 cards describing different dimensions of personality, from the Introvert, to the Peacemaker, to the BridgeBuilder. We chatted about whether that card was a lot like them or very different from them, and why. For a simple, experimental online version of this game, including 2021 updates and the complete card deck, please click here.

For example, many people received cards that resonated closely with their personalities and were struck by the outcome, wondering if it was a sign. Several people who received the Extrovert or Expressionist card spoke openly about how they struggled with introversion; one individual who received the Negotiator card spoke about how she was frustrated by challenges receiving fair pay as a woman in the workplace. Several returned and brought others to play.

From there, creators were offered the chance to set an intention for the day to practice the personality dimension that they received. If they chose to, they were offered the chance to wear a ribbon on their wrist to remind themselves throughout the day of the intention they set.

I Do Not Walk In A Dream was shown at Propelify Innovation Festival in early 2017. The installation involved a memorial to creators’ intentions, color coded by the personality type they evoked when setting their intention. When I received the invitation to participate, I knew that the installation space, location, and time would be very unpredictable. Rather than focusing all my time on space and design, I took the chance to create my first card game.

New York City’s Culture Plan

On July 19, 2017, the City of New York released CreateNYC, New York City’s first-ever cultural plan. To shape the plan design, the city worked with dozens of local organizations, which helped gather feedback from nearly 200,000 residents. Among those many partners was the Asian American Arts Alliance (A4), which was committed to ensuring that the voices of NYC artists & residents in the AAPI community were included in the planning process.

In February 2017, I worked with the amazing Andrea Louie, Anjali Goyal, and Ariel Estrada of A4 to create an interactive workshop and online survey infused with a social practice artist’s spirit, to delve into what A4’s community believed was and wasn’t working when it came to arts and culture in New York City. About 50 people attended the workshop at Elmhurst Library in Queens, and 70 additional people participated in the online survey.

Over and over again, we heard that city’s arts & culture needs, challenges, and plans must be intrinsically connected to the other critical challenges facing the city, including affordable housing, arts education, and fostering a more compassionate and equitable culture. As sharers moved fluidly between social issues, economic issues, and recommendations specific to makers and arts & culture institutions, they emphasized that mindset shifts were needed, not just completing a set of tactics.

“Help us control the out-of-control rents in New York City,” shared one survey respondent. “It is choking everyone on all levels. The biggest expense for artists, especially performing artists, is space. When artists cannot afford space, no art will be created. For communities, the struggle to afford rent has a hugely negative impact on our quality of life, our ability to progress in our career endeavors, and how we spend our time and money… The arts are leaving New York City because it is simply impossible to survive here.”

If we want to protect the future vibrancy of the city, then we must see the arts as integral to health and development, supporting STEAM from the beginning of education; if we want arts and culture planning and funding to be equitable and inclusive, then city employees must first deeply understand and acknowledge the manifestations of bias before they can build processes that will be successful.

Many participants in the workshop expressed appreciation for the opportunity to voice their concerns and contribute their creativity. What we recognized in planning for feedback, however, was that there are no common definitions or understanding of what ‘arts’ and ‘culture’ are– let alone what they should be. To understand what’s missing and needed requires ongoing engagement, listening, and time.

A4 ultimately encouraged the Department of Cultural Affairs to integrate ongoing engagement and feedback loops into the ten-year plan itself, particularly if DCA is committed to equity and seeks to build relationships with communities that are currently not included in dialogue.

Click here for the full report I wrote and designed, including background materials for facilitators and participants.

circlefor

Circlefor is a new home for collaboration between me and the amazing poet, Purvi Shah. Our purpose is to foster space where art emerges through connection, participation, and listening. Our Etsy shop is a home for affordable, community engaged artwork, featuring digital drawings and poetry inspired by vital community stories.

Learn more at our shared project site, circlefor.com.