This fall, the Film department is featuring a new course called “The Art of Doing,” which takes a nontraditional approach to filmmaking. Taught by musician-singer-writer Amanda Palmer ’98 and independent filmmaker Michael Pope, the 15-person course fosters a collaborative environment, aiming to equip students with alternative filmmaking techniques and culminating in a student-produced music video with performance and music from Palmer at the end of the semester.
“I like the idea that at Wesleyan you can do something once,” said Film Department Chair Scott Higgins. “Not everything we do has to be part of some master plan. That frees us up a lot to experiment. [Palmer] is taking time out of her life and career to do this and I’m sure the class will live in infamy.”
The conception of the class began with a phone call that Palmer received from President Michael Roth ’78, giving her free rein to channel her unorthodox musical fervor into an organized class of her choice.
“Michael Roth called me and said, ‘Hi Amanda Palmer, Wesleyan would like to have you; you can do a show, you can make a play, you can do a seminar; you can do anything you want,’ and the first thing I did was call Michael Pope,” Palmer said.
Pope and Palmer have been an artistic duo for the past 17 years, often working with one another on their various projects. The two met through the Cloud Club, an art collective in Cambridge, Mass., in the early 2000s, which led to Palmer acting in one of Pope’s films. Since then, Pope has directed most of Palmer’s music videos over the course of her career, from her stint with the Dresden Dolls to her current solo career.
“Amanda Palmer called up and said, ‘This is going to sound like a crazy idea, but how would you like to teach,’” Pope said. “The context for that is that I am notoriously not designed to be in formal academic situations. We have specific things we can share with students, nontraditional ways of opening the creative engine and actually turning that into action, and really start focusing on the creative process in its totality, and I get to learn from that process.”
As both artists begin to enter the middle stage of their careers, teaching offers a new frontier for the development of their creative work, allowing them to reflect on their artistic accomplishments and share their experiential knowledge with students.
“There is something liberating that neither Pope or I need or want a career in academia, so we get to do whatever we want,” Palmer said. “The freedom of the format means that Pope and I get to look at our 19-year-old selves and say, ‘Okay, what would we teach ourselves?’”
The class project, however, has a much deeper personal resonance for Palmer, who went through a self-proclaimed “dark period” during her college years at Wesleyan. Returning to campus as a teacher can be seen as her own attempt at getting a sense of closure from that tumultuous period.
“I was so disoriented when I got to this place having come from wherever I came from—and who knows why and who knows how—but I hit the wall having arrived here and looked around in bewildered confusion for four years asking the questions: What am I doing here, who are these people, [how] am I supposed to be spending my time,” Palmer said. “I was frightened of rejection and so bad at being social when I was eighteen that my solution was to close the door and drink and smoke cigarettes. When I look back at the landscape there were tons of opportunities, tons of interesting people, tons of interesting theatrical productions, lots of available energy, but I was just not shaped yet to access it. I had to break [out] of my own cage, that did not happen to me until my 20s.”
However, Palmer’s time at the University was certainly not lacking in subject material for her future career. During her freshman year, she took an experimental music class taught by the composer Alvin Lucier, a contemporary of John Cage and Philip Glass. Parallelling Palmer’s current transition to teaching, at the time Lucier was also navigating towards the academic world. The class culminated in a massive retrospective of his work facilitated by the University. Palmer, along with her peers in the experimental music class, were allowed to take part in the performances that Lucier put on as part of this retrospective.
“I found it so empowering that, as an 18-year-old kid, I was a part of this piece,” Palmer said. “This guy who was clearly an important experimental musician in his field—and was in his sixties—was inviting me not to sit and watch the thing that he does but to actually be included in making the things that he makes. Unfortunately, that experience was singular because, while a lot of my education at Wesleyan was fantastic, most of it was absorbing information.”
That experience served as an inspiration and reference point for “The Art of Doing,” which she hopes might give her students similar revelations about the excitement of the artistic process and nonlinear academic work.
“I remember how nice it was to feel that, at some level, I was being included in the artistic conversation of the world instead of just sitting at a desk and being told how things were … the conversations going on outside Wesleyan University, and maybe some day when you leave this place you will get to take part in that conversation,” Palmer said.
Almost 20 years later, Palmer still feels the insecurity and vulnerability of her four years when she steps foot on campus. However, with Pope by her side, she plans to use the collaborative process that has given her so much success throughout her career to internalize and overcome these memories.
“Part of me, since graduating, has yearned to come back here and not just understand my experience, but somehow compose it into some kind of positive entity, because for me understanding is never enough,” she said. “There had to be some kind of transformation, and making a project with one of my life-time-trusted, kung-fu collaborators was the way to do it. I am fundamentally more a collaborator than an artist: To me, the collaborating part comes first, and then the art part is second, and then music way after.”
In addition to the personal catharsis that Palmer seeks, both Pope and Palmer also strive to reveal a deeper meditation that art can offer for the hardships of modern life.
“What we’re trying to facilitate is that life is inherently awesome and horrible, magnificently shockingly horrible, and how we’re going to move through that is important, and how we’re going to move through that is kind of seizing this very brief moment,” Pope said. “If that brief moment is at Wesleyan, then don’t sit inside smoking cigarettes and bemoaning the state of the world. Go find the piano, or video camera and find that one other person; there are others out there and find them and work with them.”
The final video will screen on campus as part of the Amanda Palmer concert organized by the University, which will take place on Dec. 9.
Luke Goldstein can be reached at email@example.com