A group of blind men chance upon an elephant one day, as so often happens in the suburbs of Boston. The first man grabs the elephant’s tail: “I know what an elephant is!” he exclaims. Holding onto the elephant’s tail, he proclaims astutely that “an elephant is a rope!”
“No, no,” say his companions. The next man, touching the elephant’s leg, says that an elephant must be a pillar. The man near the elephant’s ear is sure that an elephant is a fan, and the man near the tusk argues vehemently that an elephant is a pipe. Rather than being just an extremely dangerous situation for everyone involved, this fable is meant to describe the human experience: we are all blind men, grasping at the whole of reality, only able to comprehend what is closest to us. Consenses — yes, Consenses, as in “senses” -— was born from creator Sally Taylor’s fascination with this fable. Comprising of a visual arts exhibit, workshops and a concert, Consenses was on view at Wellesley College from Nov. 17 to 25.
When asked to explain Consenses, I often feel like the entire group of blind men. Consenses is an artistic game of Telephone. No, Consenses is a giant, impersonal, international artistic collaboration. Consenses is a series of multimedia chains that occasionally reflect a theme. Consenses is, potentially, an educational curriculum. Consenses is an experience. Consenses is evidence that, as Sally Taylor told The Wellesley News, “Art wants to be manifested by the artist that it chooses, so it basically uses the medium of human artistry and human creativity to realize itself.” Consenses is, inevitably, a little confusing.
In its simplest form, Consenses began when Sally Taylor, musician Carly Simon’s daughter, sent 22 photographs of different areas of Martha’s Vineyard to different songwriters, who interpreted the essence of the photograph. Then, the song, without the original picture, was sent to a sculptor, dancer, painter, perfumer, tea-maker and other artists, until all the senses were represented. The artistic chains, meant to play out like a long game of Telephone, were entirely anonymous: at no point did the artists on the project know whose work they were receiving, or to whom their project was being sent.
Of course, no system is perfect. Sally Taylor’s younger brother, Ben Taylor, was one of the musicians asked to participate in the project. Although he was happy to participate in his sister’s project, Ben Taylor described how he originally tried to sabotage the project when he received his photograph.
“What I did was try to ruin the game like just like I did when we were playing Telephone and people used to be like ‘umbrella’ and I’d be like ‘Afghani flying machines.’ ” He was given a photograph of a tree by Janet Woodcock. The musical result? “What I composed was the most un-tree like cosmic insect symphony that you ever could have tried to come up with.”
However, in what seems to be part of the genius of Consenses, even Ben Taylor’s abstract interpretation of the tree reaching to the stars for its light and the ground for its water couldn’t derail what is either true artistic destiny or a series of very weird coincidences. The end of his chain was a sculpture by Kate Raudenbush of moss that one can look into and see what appears to be water.
Of his experience with Consenses, Ben Taylor told The Wellesley News, “It’s really intense. I didn’t expect it to challenge me existentially to the extent that it does, because I had previously always thought of my art as something that was at the mercy of my own will and/or inspiration and/or mood . . . I don’t think that’s true anymore because of this project. I think that my art is itself, it’s chosen me, and I’m damn lucky that it’s chosen me as a way to become itself.”
Consenses came to Wellesley because Jane Howland, a professional set designer and Wellesley theatre studies professor, was one of the artists Sally Taylor chose to build a space for the one of the chains of Consenses. Nora Hussey, the director of Wellesley College’s theatre and theatre studies program, heard about the project through Howland and subsequently procured the funding to bring the whole exhibit to Wellesley. The chains were housed in Tishman Commons and were open for free to both Wellesley students and the public.
Additionally, Sally Taylor had the opportunity to speak to a Wellesley theatre class and test-drive what may become a Consenses educational curriculum, in which students are asked to interpret a piece of artwork in the medium of their choice.
“It was welcomed with open arms and open minds,” she said. “It just blew my mind. It was an incredible interaction with the students here, just because there was such a willingness to put themselves out there and just to be brave. I think that’s the key to life — being afraid and taking the risk anyway, so I was really impressed.”
Wellesley College theatre students Carolyn Rogan ’18, Chelsi Scott ’16, Katherine Tran ’15 and Olin student Casey Alvarado also had the opportunity to add permanently to Consenses by building a set for Chain #1, which includes Ben Taylor’s “Untitled” insect symphony.
Of their work, they said, “As individuals we saw ourselves as blind men and the art on Chain #1 as the elephant. We wanted our space to feel protective yet open, vast yet introspective.” Sally Taylor expressed her excitement about the student-built exhibit that will continue to travel with Consenses.
Ben Taylor attended the Nov. 17 unveiling of Wellesley’s addition to his chain and saw the new set design as a thoughtful addition. “[Wellesley] is not an easy school to get into . . . so these people are all really really qualified to be doing what they do. The most amazing part to me was that they figured out really early on that their job was not to make art to outshine the rest of us less qualified artists. Their job was to create an environment to showcase our art in the most appropriate way possible. That’s a mature artistic decision. That’s not something that you usually expect from a student.”
Consenses also brought together many of the contributing artists for a benefit concert on Nov. 22 in Alumnae Hall. The main attraction was a now rare performance by Carly Simon, who received a standing ovation before even stepping onstage. The concert ended up being as much a Consenses talk-about as a musical show, with every artist who appeared taking the opportunity to reflect on their experience with Consenses.
Musician Libby Kirkpatrick described the paradoxical nature of contributing an intensely personal work to a project where the next person would receive it without a name. “It’s a piece of me,” she said of “This Story,” her song featured in Consenses. “I had a lot of judgments.”
Another singer Eric Erdman spoke to the ability of projects like Consenses to bring artists, viewers and listeners together, inviting the audience to clap along with his song.
“You’re all in my band now,” he laughed. “That’s kind of what Consenses encourages.” Fellow artist Kori Withers agreed when she took the stage. “[Consenses] is so interdependent. We all have each other to thank,” Withers said. Denver-based trio Something Underground might have pushed the emphasis on Consenses bringing people together to the level of cheesiness with “How Many Verses in the Universe (Just One!)”
However, not all the artists present had bought so completely into the warm-and-fuzzy aspect of Consenses. Ben Taylor, acting more as Sally Taylor’s younger brother than professional musician, performed a rousing acoustic version of Kendrick Lamar’s Hip Hop single “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe.”
When first he took the stage, he began, “I’m gonna entertain you wit some of this family bidness shit…the real romantic shit.” He proceeded to play his comic love ballad “Your Boyfriend is a Pretty Nice Guy.”
He hedged the song’s overtly homosexual nature immediately afterwards, remarking, “The idea of making love to a man is kind of intimidating; straight is the new gay….. Food for thought anyway.” I could just feel Sally Taylor wincing offstage. It might have been an obnoxious attempt to sabotage his sister’s concert, but as a Wellesley student, I thought it was the hit of the night. It’s hard to blame someone for being frustrated having to play for their mother’s fans all the time. The concert ended satisfyingly, with all the artists back onstage singing a composition by Withers’ father, “Lean on Me.”
After viewing the exhibit, attending a workshop, hearing the concert and talking to the artists, do I “get” Consenses? I’m not sure. It’s definitely possible to go see the chains and look at the pieces and appreciate them. It’s a neat project to get into on the surface in that it’s a lot of different artists’ work in one place, like the back room of a really cool, relevant museum.
Engaging with Consenses on the higher level that the artists interact with is definitely harder. Sally Taylor described her vision for Consenses: “Each of us is like a blind man feeling various pieces of the unique mystery of the universe and coming to a different conclusion about what it is, but it’s so limited and it doesn’t make sense just to believe in that and hold onto that. There’s so much more clarity that can be birthed if we just listen to one another and share our experiences.”
I’m not sure I have much to say about the unique mystery of the universe, or the intangible power of creativity to breed cultural understanding and world peace. I don’t know if art is a higher power that chooses the artist. But I’m glad Consenses gave us a chance to think some more about it.