It took a few weeks to find a good time to talk to Samantha Shay. In the heart of the Icelandic summer, the long days and pink nights bring out a kind of craziness that doesn’t sit easily with the day-to-day scheduling; over on Samantha’s side of the world, on America’s West Coast, she was often “off the grid,” vanishing on a wilderness retreat in preparation for the Tjarnabíó-hosted premiere of her art-opera, ‘of Light’.
“I was teaching out in a redwood forest,” says Samantha, when we connect on Skype. “It was also kind of a preparation for the performance—to unplug, go inwards, ground myself—so I’m not just running on calls and emails.”
Presence and vulnerability
Mindful self-care is foundational to Samantha’s practise, in which she creates artworks, workshops, performances and situations in an intentional spirit of generosity, inclusion and sharing.
Even so, modern life fights back—the call of email and social media is constant. “It’s really hard to do,” says Samantha. “Even right now, I’m thinking: ‘Do I really have time to do that? What if something goes wrong?’ There’s a culture of overdoing it that’s not conducive to making art at all. Because art is—at its most powerful—about presence and vulnerability. When we’re overworked and overstressed, we’re in a defensive space. It’s challenging, and a constant negotiation. But I just know I’ll be much more ready to handle it when I’ve woken up in the forest for six days.”
But creating the space is worth it, and it’s something Samantha means to bring to Iceland, too. “It’s a huge part of my artistic practise to really make the space for tapping into a deeper sense of creativity and offering,” explains Samantha. “So I’m actually facilitating that for my performers in Iceland. We’ll go out onto the land, and really do some personal work on how we can bring ourselves to the piece.”
Into the light
“of Light” is a multimedia performance that includes dance, text, and music, staged largely in darkness. It was first conceived when Samantha travelled to Iceland and experienced the inverse extremes of the intense winter darkness, and the disorientating 24-hour daylight of the summer.
“The first time I travelled to Iceland,” Samantha remembers, “I’d gone through a hard patch in my life, and took some time off from school. There was a snowstorm three or four times a week. Snow piled up at the door. It was super dark, and I got very introspective.”
“Then Iceland in June was so bright that it totally messed with my senses,” she continues. “When I arrived, I didn’t sleep for three days. I remember having a totally emotional response to the extremity of having been in the dark, and then in the light, and I wanted to make a piece about it.”
Passing the edges
Samantha rolled the idea around, gathering source material and developing alongside collaborators including poet Danielle Vogel, who created a work entitled “A Library Of Light” whilst working in Arnarstapi, and electronic musician and composer KÁRYYN. She also discussed its progression with her mentor, Marina Abramovic.
“Marina has been a mentor of mine since 2011,” she explains. “I talked to her about it. I started to realise I wanted to make a piece about darkness, initiation, personal transformation. What our relationship is to darkness: emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and literally—scientifically. I made it into a durational performance, where darkness is the structure.”
Samantha talks widely about the ideas that inform the work: from poetry, to ritual technology, to meditation practise and collective experience. “There are a lot of ideas in it, and it’s very abstract,” she says. “But I was really excited about how formlessness and chaos create something, and how meeting our intellectual edges and reaching for something greater is where change begins.”
“As the years have gone on it’s gotten simpler,” finishes Samantha. “Marina quoted Marcel Duchamp to me one time, and said: ‘The public has to be able to complete the piece.’ A lot of people come to the theatre to see something, but here they’re coming to listen—they don’t see anything for about 25-30 minutes. So, that’s what I’m hoping for.”
‘of Light’ will take place at Tjarnabíó on July 22nd. An accompanying music event will take place at Mengi on July 23rd.