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Melissa Wyman on Diplomacy and the Beauty of Awkward

December 8, 2009 Point of View No Comments

Melissa Wyman Spring Play

Have you ever been in a different country with different codes of conduct and reached out for a handshake but been met with a bow?… or embarrassed yourself by moving in for a second cheek kiss when only one was necessary?

My work:  Diplomacy and the Beauty of Awkward …
…an experience that is simultaneously aggressive, strikingly symbiotic and awkwardly frictional: a form of collaboration that could otherwise be described as human connectivity…

Relationship building depends on the flow of both verbal and non-verbal communication between ‘grappling partners’…with many cultural subtleties lost and discovered in transition – and translation. Even those trained in diplomatic exchanges find themselves in clumsy situations that can variably lead to laughter, embarrassment, or anger. Drawing together the personal with the global – ‘international relations’ are like wrestling, simultaneously beautiful, awkward, and exploratory.

Drawing from exhilarating and sometimes awkward experiences practicing close-contact martial arts and working in various countries over a period of ten years, I have been investigating the humor and aggressions involved in interpersonal and cross-cultural (mis)communications.

Fight Therapy
I began the project, Fight Therapy, in graduate school after returning to the U.S. as a way of recreating some of those unpredictable moments.

Let me set the stage:
Two people are entangled in a rather strange looking shape. One person (person A) is on her back with her legs wrapped around the head and one arm of another person (person B). Person A squeezes her legs together in this triangular formation restricting the blood flow through B’s neck.  But B reverses the situation by staking A’s legs (which are still wrapped around B) onto her head and pulling his arm free – running his feet around while attempting to squash A flat to the ground… but A turns towards him and shoves her hips away, thus escaping the pin… And they continue like this; morphing from one strange and awkward-looking position into another until one is caught in the other’s web of limbs and has to submit or the time runs out then it’s time to switch partners.  And then they return the next day for more.

Fight Therapy is a place where this behavior is acceptable and encouraged. It involves teaching Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to sometimes unlikely participants (including professors and other students) as a method of exploring psychological and physical relationships with both themselves and others.

Both humor and discomfort come into play as the absurdity of some of the moves break down walls of composure. The awkward and uncomfortable moments can be valuable in understandings one’s physical role in the relationship being explored. One person outside their comfort zone while the other person is comfortably within theirs creates an imbalance of power.

Two people outside their comfort zones opens up the possibility for mutual understanding or “empathy” – here, the ability to feel, understand, and possibly identify with the other person’s situation. The discussions after the training session often reflect this newly opened space in that they are usually less composed. I have follow-up sessions with those that want to continue training.

The culmination of their training results in a public or private grappling match. I act as both a Fight Therapist and referee, sometimes putting myself in the role of one of the grapplers.

Quick Backdrop
I’m an artist in a partnership with a diplomat. In our work, we both explore possibilities for inter-human relationships. In the art world, this medium falls under the umbrella of ‘Social Practice’ , which utilizes the ‘social’ as it’s medium, it’s context, and it’s stage as it explores the aesthetics of these relationships (‘Relational Aesthetics’). ‘Relational Aesthetics’ is a term coined by curator and theorist Nicolas Bourriad in the late 1990’s, referring “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context….”

Now based in Santiago, Chile I am continually interested in how strange, ungraceful, or unexpected interactions might be helpful in opening up spaces for new kinds of understanding and negotiation.  My work is represented through performances, videos, drawings, and installations.


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