An economy wrung dry, mixed with whiskey-soaked nights, stolen bikes, bad art shows and expensive health insurance: I began to learn what it was to fail. Crashing is hard. The crash was hard. But wishing wells spring up sometimes through cracks in the pavement, and we are born anew.
I didn’t really understand the crash of 2008 until I graduated the following year. I’d never been out of school before, never had to fend for myself without “study” or “artmaking” to excuse my often-empty bank account.
Post-graduate school became a free-for-all of part-time teaching jobs mixed with waitressing, struggles to make student loan payments, traveling every chance I could to blow off steam and also blow my hard-earned money on good wine and old friends. I was teaching video production on the South Side to teenagers whose backgrounds were so utterly different from mine that I would spend nights panic-stricken over the state of arts education in America and over my own white, middle-class privilege (though I had never seen it that way before). My own art practice, the thing I’d spent my whole life cultivating, slowed to a halt as I flip-flopped between lives as an urban teacher/activist, barmaid and Logan Square socialite. After too many gun-induced in-school lockdowns and drunken one-night sexcapades, I decided enough was enough, for Chicago and for America.
It’s been over a year now since I left Chicago to move to France. In August 2011, I left with three suitcases and no definitive plans for returning. Survival takes on a new meaning when one embarks on an experience like this: part nomad, part long-long-term houseguest, part orphan. You get used to not being understood, or, more often, to being misunderstood. The French word for foreigner is person étranger,or “stranger.” The first few weeks you are in some sort of elated shock-state. You drink wine and eat croissants all the time. You marvel at the old stone facades of buildings twice or three times as old as anything you see in the USA. You fall in love with everyone. Then, suddenly, as if by magic, life becomes normal again. The French exoticism dissolves and you are left with the same old pressing problems of yesterday. And France becomes something that looks a lot like Chicago, or a lot like failure. And with this realization, I began the slow process of learning to love my failures. I realized I had spent too much time trying to figure out how to be the right kind of woman, the right kind of artist, teacher, daughter, friend, sex object. The stuffing started to spill out of my flawless facade, slowly but surely. I had brought all the pieces with me across the ocean. And these pieces of failure taught me how to build.
To fail is to learn, truly, what it means to have a body. We teach ourselves over and over how to walk again, how to be reborn. We teach our hands over and over again to write and our lungs to breathe and our vocal cords to thunder slowly towards reason. Life without failure leads to complacency, to a place without fire.
Alison Rhoades is an interdisciplinary artist working in performance, video and painting. She has an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a BFA from Columbia College Chicago. She currently lives and works in Paris, France.