Nodding in eager agreement during one of initial planning sessions, we listen attentively to Peter Rollins tell us about the importance of feeling. Pete is the primus inter pares of the New York-area iteration of Ikon, a collective “on the outer edges of religious life” that “offer[s] anarchic experiments in transformance art […] [c]hallenging the distinction between theist and atheist, faith and no faith”. For several minutes, he extols the virtues of feeling, the necessity of feeling. It all sounds very good. And then he looks at us funny and asks, “are yous guys getting what I mean when I say feeling?”
We weren’t. We mistook a lesson on failing for one on feeling because of his Belfast brogue. The mistake was supremely apt. If my fellow IkonNYC organizers and planners were anything like me, we went into the project of a ‘one year church’ or a new incarnation of Ikon with the understanding that it would be an experience geared toward our own transformation. We were going to delve into the depths of doubt and faith and experience surefire pretested spiritual practices whose success in Belfast we’d heard so much about. I had come to feel in as far as feeling refers to passive experience. I was a little thrown, then, when I learned that we were all taking an active role in planning events and carrying out practices aimed at getting others to find a liminal space in which to engage with their Christian faith and their Christian doubts. What could I, still trying to claim that space for myself, offer to others?
Despite my misgivings, I was on board. As often as my schedule has allowed, I’ve attended the weekly meetings where we plan our monthly transformance art events and participated in one way or another in most of them. I also became one of the coordinators of the Evangelism Project which consists of monthly visits to churches, synagogues, mosques, temples whose practitioners’ beliefs and practices help us see our own differently.
This process was one of moving from feeling to failing. After a half-year of excitement and build-up, I missed the inaugural transformance art event as well as the next one responding to the vagaries of the job market and trying to make sound decisions about my next steps. And, over the course of the following six months, IkonNYC failed and succeed in various ways and I with it. Pete already having a following was a boon to our first several events. A combination of factors—figuring out exactly what transformance art meant to a planning group with dozens of voices and scores of ideas, perhaps pricing, a lack of marketing prowess, etc.—quickly shrank the number of attendees. At the same time, some of us found our voices and the increased intimacy of a group consisting of those executing the event and a cluster of reliable friends was important for that. So far we’ve learned practical lessons and spiritual ones, we’ve learned about each other. We’ve built strong friendships that’ve enhanced our lives.
When several members of IkonNYC traveled to the second Subverting the Norm conference, a subset of us participated in a panel discussion moderated by our friend Krista Dalton. I was overwhelmed by the positive responses and many questions we received about how to replicate what we were up to. Was our audience really interested in our modest and failure-ridden attempts?
On the heels of the conference, one of the attendees, Stephen Keating, used his inaugural post at An und für sich to criticize “transformance art collectives” of which IkonNYC is not only one, but perhaps the most susceptible to the critiques he levels. And while initially I felt very defensive as did a lot of people in and connected to Ikon, IkonNYC, and VOID, it did make me think about how I was conceiving of failure, which is after all one of the coordinates for Ikon. Did the concern with marketing and numbers some of us had or the emphasis on branding and replicability represent a failure more than the lack of marketing and the low numbers themselves? How did the questions about diversity and political engagement and awareness of power structures and prevailing ideologies apply to us?
These are questions we’d asked of ourselves and one another, these are questions we continue to ask. In fact, you can join IkonNYC tomorrow (Sunday, 19 May) at Prospect Park where we’ll be discussing issues like these in lieu of our monthly transformance art event. Whatever answers and solutions come up, no doubt they’ll be imperfect, but what’s important is that we keep failing. We must move from feeling, a process of recognition that is necessary, to failing which entails reacting constructively to our experiences with the knowledge and expectation that we’ll get it wrong, at least in part. Without risking getting it wrong though, we will get it categorically wrong. Failing well means acting thoughtfully and with self-awareness, resisting the paralysis that comes with fearing failure.