Improvisation and the New Normal

We're familiar with improvisation in comedy and theater and jazz. When you get right down to it, we live our lives improvisationally every day. We're constantly adjusting and reacting to the world around us. Unplanned and unforeseen events pepper us without notice and sometimes at the most inconvenient times—a detour on the way to work or the printer stops working right before a deadline. Or something more fun like playing a made-up game with our kids or co-creating a story with them right before bedtime. Improvisation helps us to navigate the complex nature of our lived experiences. It provides the tools to help us confidently sit in a space of uncertainty and constant change. It allows us to participate in the recursive relationships between order and disorder, constraints and possibilities, cognitive and unconscious processes. It provides a method that offers a dialectic and non-judgmental stage that is open to the world as it unfolds in the present moment, generating creative connections that help us take that next step.

Most artists use some form of improvisation when working. Things never go exactly as planned. An initial idea may be fuzzy needing space to mature during the art-making process. Artists must improvise in order to reach that desired end state. However, improvisational abstract (nonrepresentational) painting is different in a sense that improvisation becomes more than just a small piece of the process. In improvisational nonrepresentational painting, it is the foundation for the work, in effect it becomes the subject of the work.

I place improvisation into two camps: reactive and generative. Reactive improvisation is used when you have a plan and an expected outcome, for example, you’re trying to get to work or you're painting a bowl of fruit. On your way to work, or in the process of painting your still life, an unforeseen obstacle appears and forces you to react and change course. Eventually you still end up in the place you planned—at work or with a wonderful picture of fruit—albeit maybe a little later than anticipated. Generative improvisation, on the other hand, actually creates content. It generates a song or performance or joke or painting in real time. Each piece is wholly unique and cannot be recreated or re-presented because there is no formula, no script, no sheet music to follow. It's a call and response. It's a dialogue between an artist's interiority and their materials or a polylogue between performers (musicians, comedians, actors) co-creating in the present moment without a plan—letting go of any expectations of what the end result should be.

The mindset of the Modern era (including the last 60 or so years of postmodernism) has driven Western culture (and affected all cultures) for centuries and is ill-equipped to handle the complexity of living in the 21st century on its own. Every generation inherits a world that is more complex than the previous and expectations are challenged to cope with the new, conflicting knowledge that arises. Lately it seems that complexity has been turned up to 11 in an unprecedented way and in an absurdly short amount of time. The world is changing at a blistering pace and it's hard to keep our bearings. The foundation of what we unquestioningly believed for so long feels like it's no longer built of concrete but of shifting sand. We feel we have lost our connection to each other and our place in the world around us. But that is a mirage which is designed to keep us in the dark and only leads to pain and suffering.

Still, we're unsure of what comes next, what are we so tirelessly working towards? These are not normal times because there is no normal any more[1]. We live in ambiguous, unpredictable, fascinating, unprecedented, alarming and exciting times. We are, right now, at a unique time in history where we have this gift of an opportunity to be a part of creating what comes next. A future that can continually adapt to uncertainty and can integrate the best of what humanity has to offer while celebrating our individual identities. The old is dying and the new is not (yet) born. [2]

Participating in generative improvisation (as creator or spectator) is a profound lived experience that not only feeds the creative spirit but also illuminates a way to live a full life, a way that helps each of us participate in the making of our individual and collective song. Improvisation frees us to engage with the complexities we experience every day. It thrives in uncertainties and ambiguities. It is open to an authentic reality that we can no longer see as binary, it is no longer limited by the outdated either-or, black-and-white thinking of the past. Improvisation celebrates the recursive, creative, and inclusive relationships between order and disorder, constraint and possibility constantly making room for the state of not knowing. Allowing us to embrace (not hide from) our ignorance with honesty, humility and grace. It empowers us to continue moving forward even when we don't yet know what the destination is and at the same time grounding us in the present moment, connecting us to each other and to the world we share.

*Image above: From the one to the other (2021), 42” x 62”, Graphite on paper

1. The idea of “postnormal times” was initiated by Ziauddin Sardar.

2. Written by Antonio Gramsci around 1930 and used as a book title by Nancy Fraser in 2019.