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The Complexities of You

A Binary Battle

painting of a woman
“Double exposure portrait” by Victor Tondee, cc

There is comfort in binary thinking—right/wrong, with us/against us, fact/fiction, teacher/student, female/male. The adult mind assesses, categorizes, and then moves on to other people and moments to stamp: thumbs up or thumbs down.

Oh, binary mind, how efficient of you, how tidy. How deceptive…

That comfort is merely a book jacket titled “Truth” obscuring infinite pages of “What if…?”

How much space are you willing to give to the unanswerable? How much complexity in your story, your character, your process, your identity, are you willing to entertain without simple answers?

It’s not the title, but the pages inside the book—with more questions than answers—that hold the weight of truth. Many believe they understand it as they see it sitting on their bookshelf, yet rarely open the book to explore.

O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. But come;
(Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5, William Shakespeare)

As an artist, with the curiosity of a child, you can playfully hold two contradictory ideas in your hand, in your artistic process, and even in your identity. Beyond the pressures for predictable, bite-size answers, you can choose your own adventure inside the complexities of knowing and not knowing.

It’s doable. It’s necessary.

It’s going to take some conscious rewiring, because we were trained on Scantron. We comment about quotes posted from articles without reading the articles themselves. We look at a headshot and decide whether or not they’re right for the role. It’s immediate. It’s decisive. We are busy here, people, why did things have to be so complicated?

Life became complex the same way the earth became round. It was always that way. We just weren’t ready or able to see it.

Slow down, make time. Complications, contradictions, these frictions cause sparks you can fan into flames. Fires that comfort us, shed light, and burn previous structures to the ground. It’s all in how you interpret them.

Interpretation is where collaboration begins. It is where connection occurs—even if we don’t agree, we connect as we express different perspectives of the same moment.

This is difficult for some because they hold a hardline attachment to binary descriptions. To question the description is to question their identity. This blinder-vision is a major obstacle in expanding one’s process. Whether I’m coaching educators, students, or working artists, identification-attachment is always addressed.

The freedom to question the institution you are actively involved in is chained to the fear of questioning yourself. Be at peace questioning yourself. There’s the real antidote to binary blinder-vision: unconditional curiosity.

Art is a playground for rediscovering that skill, that desire to play. It is allows us to entertain seemingly preposterous ideas to their fullest extent. It allows us to explore aspects of ourselves that don’t fit into tiny boxes of yes or no. The more we play in those grey areas, with empathy and mindfulness, the more we affect how our society owns binary ideas.

Artists and educators truly have the power to influence a society’s ability to suspend their disbelief, experience not only the “other” but a truly outlier point of view beyond binaries.

In order to do that, as artists and educators, we have to stay curious and invite complexities. I suggest setting a place at the table for the unknown during your creation process, during rehearsals, and during performances. How much space are you willing to give to the unanswerable? How much complexity in your story, your character, your process, your identity, are you willing to entertain without simple answers?

Often my clients laugh nervously, get deadly quiet, list a litany of obstacles, cry with relief, or a mashup of all this and more as if to say, “You’re suggesting I not only accept my complexities, but actively invite more in?! To stand both inside them without needing to explain through oversimplifications?!”

It is unsettling for a reason, because to settle is to end the inquiry.


net of bamboo
“Bamboo Complexity” by taufuuu, cc.

It’s not for me, or anyone else, to judge what is simple and what is complex in your life or your artistic process. It’s for you to observe out of necessity. What need is your binary or complex perspective serving?

For example, a nest is complex out of necessity. Interwoven materials found and bonded together for the basic need of shelter. Each piece is necessary to keep you safe, warm, and give shelter for creating something fragile (like a life, a piece, a relationship).

When you travel, though, that nest needs to simplify.

If you’ve ever been on tour, you have felt the tension of “What are the bare essentials I need to take care of myself physically and emotionally that fit in this suitcase? If I lose it on the road, will I be okay?”

These tough questions are really asking: What reminds me of who I am? What helps me sustain my artistry regardless of my setting? Do you I have the energy/resource to carry all that? If it’s lost, will I be lost?

The journey between “at home” and “on tour” allows us the space to remain curious about what our artistic needs are based on your identity and intention.

Hold on to too many, and they become armor protecting you from the unknowns. Let go of too many, and you move with the breeze, reactionary without a nest to nurture growth.

So, I ask you, out of love, what are your necessities? Which ones help you thrive? Which ones are armor to survive?

Some complexities may be necessary, some may not.
Some may have been necessary in the past, but now are not.
Parts of your process, your identity, may have been simple in the past, but now are quite complex out of necessity.

How to know which is which and who is who?

Clarity comes by being ever curious about your artistic needs based in your identity, your intention, and your impact. Sustainability comes from honoring those needs.

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Thoughts from the curator

Jess Pilmore explores sustainable artistry by breaking down the starving artist myths and giving mindful support for blazing your own, flexible, dependable path.

Sustainable Artistry by Jess Pillmore


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The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

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I am reminded of how Joseph Campbell (on PBS) would explain how we live in the field of time, surrounded by pairs of opposites (hot/cold, male/female, up/down, et cetera) and that when we die we transcend (or return) to an eternal state that has no sense of time or of opposites... and that we are all one.

His point wasn't (I don't think) to diss this life, but by understanding the context one can have a richer experience of it.

I think this article makes, in a different way, a similar point. Well done.

Yes, the extremes can define a finite play-space to explore within. I think people are trying to understand the difference, though, of rebounding off those walls to enjoy the space between and plastering themselves up against a wall to "stay safe", because like Campbell brought up, there will be a time without those contrasts... only the infinite.

Joseph Campbell was a great contributor to the exploration of life and storytelling. Thank you for bringing him to this conversation. What a joy!

You're welcome! (I just saw your comment as I often forget to check back after I make a comment. But after commenting on your most recent essay just now I checked your previous ones and discovered that I've commented on most of them! (I think I must have missed the others somehow... I'm sure I would have mentioned how much I liked them, especially "Choose Your Role Models Wisely"!)

As an artist myself I am constantly running into walls due to the complexities I’ve either consciously or subconsciously deemed important. I know for a fact not all of them are necessities and that in order to create powerful and meaningful art it’s important to broaden one’s view of the world. I think for me personally the best way to begin overcoming my own armor is to not only talk about it, but see it talked about through art. Knowing that others experience similar struggles to expand and open up helps me realize it’s okay to have those discussions and see things from new and exciting perspectives.

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