There’s a little time left before the show is supposed to start, and paying audience members are gathered outside the black-box theater behind the furniture store in Boulder, Colorado. Laura Ann Samuelson, who is in charge here, is worried about the garbage bags. She has passed around a box of them to the dozen or so of us who have arrived early—performers, crew, supporters and pre-performance hangers-on. We’ve been told to put them on like ponchos. First you poke a small hole for your head in the base of the bag, then you push your head through that hole, expanding it as you move through it. Then you reach your arms up and press a finger into each of the two corners, stretching the plastic seams until they begin to tear. Then you move your arms through each hole. Colin, a friend of a friend who’s here to make a documentary, screws it up. He makes the head hole way too big, so the bag is more like a strapless dress than a poncho. I help him fix it along with my other friend, Ethan. We bunch up the bag just below his armpits, bringing the straps up over his shoulders and stretching to tie them together. It works, though I worry it will constrict his blood flow.
The bags function surprisingly well as ponchos, but there is some trepidation as to why we must wear them in the first place, not to mention why black plastic and tape coat the windows, why the back wall of the stage is covered with a semi-transparent tarp, why there is a big bucket of sopping wet tomatoes onstage. Samuelson has something else on her mind, though. She’s worried that the bags’ false lavender scent will linger on attendees’ clothes. “Is that bad?” she asks.
There’s no time to dwell on it, so Samuelson continues fast-walking her crew through how all of this will unfold. She makes laps around the tiny black-box theater, appearing and reappearing amid the rows of fold-up chairs, or near the doors that swing out onto the parking lot behind the boutique furniture store/experimental arts space. Her cropped blond hair can’t keep up with her head as she spins in all sorts of directions, throwing her attention to this or that unresolved issue. She’s onstage with a pantomimed microphone in her hand, demonstrating how she’ll welcome the audience to this, the first night of Boulder’s first-ever Failure Festival. Most of her sentences begin with things like “What I think I’ll do…” or “I don’t know what…” or “I think I may…”
None of us could say we weren’t prepared for improvisation. The ads for the Failure Festival read more like warnings:
FAILURE FESTIVAL is an invitation. An invitation for you to help us engage failure in a public setting. We need you because we don’t know how to do it on our own. We don’t know whether to barrel towards it, argue with it, or sit on its lap. We don’t know if we should give it keys to our apartment, or ask it to apologize. Sometimes we cower in the corner. Sometimes we lie down and try to convince it that we are asleep… or dead.
We want to know what failure reveals about our world that success masks. We do not expect easy answers. We may find none at all. This is a celebration and acknowledgement of the fact that when things inevitably don’t go as we plan, somehow, we must adapt. Please help.
Instead of trumpeting career highlights, the performer bios document shortcomings and insecurities (e.g. “Though she has yet to reach wide acclaim within her own family, her brother’s girlfriend has repeatedly praised her work”). When I went to order a three-day pass as advertised, there was no option to do so. In at least one message to ticketholders, there was discussion about whether or not attendees should bring their own chairs. Were I attending any other performance, I would have thought this was going to be a disaster. Since this was the Failure Festival, I couldn’t be so sure. Here was a festival dedicated to the opposite of what most festivals aspire to achieve. Over three nights, in a box under the Rockies, men and women would clamor onstage to fail miserably before their peers.
“Failure isn’t necessarily given attention, in some way,” Samuelson would tell me later. “Well, actually I think that we give it a lot of attention in that we’re all fixated in our own quiet way on all of the ways that we’re failing all the time. But I didn’t know—and I’m really curious—what it means to create a space for failure that is collective.”
It’s no coincidence that the phrase “Failure is not an option” is so often attributed to Gene Kranz, a man who worked at NASA, on the most American of all endeavors. The sentiment resonates well beyond fixing a broken spaceship. From its inception, America has felt the need to prove itself; mandatory success is a national neurosis passed down from one trembling generation to the next. Shit. What if we’re the ones who finally let our fathers down?
In Born Losers: A History of Failure in America, Scott Sandage charts the rise of the Great American Neurosis throughout the nineteenth century. Antebellum America was perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown amid rapid urbanization and industrialization. The adolescent nation bounced from one economic crisis to the next. Slavery nearly tore it apart. Meanwhile, capital accumulated in a few hands and everybody wrung their hands over “the most imperious of all necessities, that of not sinking in the world,” as Alexis de Tocqueville put it. Its status as an experiment, Sandage reminds us, was still fresh in everyone’s minds back then, and its success was by no means guaranteed. “Twins were born in antebellum America,” Sandage writes. “Success and failure grew up as the Romulus and Remus of capitalism. Failure was intrinsic, not antithetical, to the culture of individualism. ‘Not sinking’ took both self-reliance and self-criticism, lest a dream become a nightmare.”
One hundred and fifty years later, failure is having something of a moment. The New York Times Magazine declared as much last fall when it dedicated its annual special innovations issue to failure. Innovation is, “by necessity, inextricably linked with failure,” Adam Davis wrote in “Welcome to the Failure Age!” As the speed of human invention has accelerated, so too has the failure rate. “We’re now suffering through a cycle of destabilization, whereby each new technology makes it ever easier and faster to create the next one, which, of course, leads to more and more failure.” The solution, as Davis would have it, is to establish new and better systems. Systems exist for a reason, after all: to make life safer, better and more efficient. “The only way to harness this new age of failure is to learn how to bounce back from disaster and create the societal institutions that help us do so.”
Maybe. Or maybe that’s a cop-out. When the Times emblazons failure across the cover of its magazine, we’d like to think we’re reconciling ourselves with a debilitating fear. But our obsession with success is never far behind. Conversations about losing almost always end up being about winning. We tell ourselves, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” “Fail again,” Samuel Beckett calls back at us. “Fail better.”
The Failure Festival is trying to confront failure on its own terms, apart from the win/fail binary. Failing at a “Failure Festival” makes as much sense as taking the stairs in an M. C. Escher painting. You wouldn’t call it a success, but you wouldn’t call it a failure either. Does that make it a success?
At this point everyone—Samuelson included—is covered in black plastic. The only outliers are a handful of lithe dancers dressed all in black, with their long legs and shoulders and arms exposed. They wear laboratory goggles too, and stand clustered near the door to the back parking lot, shaking out their limbs and discussing which parts of their bare skin it is OK for the audience to write on with permanent marker. The tomatoes in the bucket are still on the stage, next to a pile of baby carrots. I picture a rifle above a mantle in a Chekhov play.
Now the rest of the audience comes through the big door at the back of the theater. Samuelson is back up onstage. This time she’s got a real microphone in her hand, with the cord curving down along her body. She’s perched on a black block against the back of the black-box stage, squinting out through the white light at the audience.
“There’s sort of a three-part process going on here,” Samuelson says, directing traffic. “First, we’re putting on our trash bags, which you guys are doing a great job of, by the way. Then, two, we’re going over to that corner there, see where the dancers are over there? And we’re writing one, or more, failures of our own on their bodies, OK, with the markers there. Someone should have markers to give to you. Christina? Can you make sure the markers are there for people to write with? And then, three, once you’ve written down your failures, we’re all coming up here and sitting onstage together. OK? So, yeah. You’re all doing great.”
Once everybody has written their personal failures on the bodies of the begoggled dancers, we all hunch cross-legged onstage, our bodies red with proximity. “If you’re feeling claustrophobic, it’s because there are a lot of things going on that might make you feel that way,” Samuelson says, still perched with mic in hand lording over the audience. Her nasal exhaling comes flooding through the other end of the tinny wires and metal speakers. “The trash bags alone… and now we’re all crowded onstage here. And all I can say is that I’m sorry. I know it feels warm in here, and, well, we’re in it here together. That’s all I can say.”
At least one audience member has fashioned a sort of bandanna with his garbage bag, instead of a poncho. “I failed the garbage bag,” he quips. (He will not be the last person to make this joke; in that respect, it will be a long three days.) Some carrots are now being passed around, along with a fistful of toothpicks. “Take a carrot and a toothpick,” Samuelson instructs us, “then use the toothpick to carve one expectation we have about the evening into the carrot—any thing or word that we think might or should happen tonight.” Jet-lagged and hungry, I carve “FOOD” into the carrot.
At this point, Samuelson’s blond hair is beginning to darken with sweat. I, too, begin to notice a certain dampness. We place our carrots onto toothpicks like hors d’oeuvres at a fancy party and pass them back up to her. Participants begin plopping tomatoes into paper bowls and passing them around. One bowl spills onto somebody’s pants, which are not covered by plastic (a troubling flaw in the garbage-bag poncho system). Everyone recoils in gleeful disgust. Several participants get the same idea at the same time and yell “FAIL!” in unison.
“OK, so, we’ve had our first kind of moment here where, ‘This is real,’ OK?” Samuelson says. “Does everyone have a tomato now?”
“Yeah!” they yell.
“Welcome to the Failure Festival.”
Samuelson, 25, grew up in Boulder and went to Hampshire College, majoring in dance. She stuck around the East Coast after graduating, trying to gain a foothold in the dance scene. It didn’t pan out like she expected and she ended up back in Boulder, where she’s been teaching, dancing and nannying to help pay the bills. “It’s been a really interesting process,” she tells me, “of kind of—how do you sort of take ownership of what you want to be doing, and being real about where you are?”
Maybe failure flourishes somewhere between those two points. Everyone has big ideas about who they should be and how that person is different from who they actually are. We think of failure as marking discrete events in time— stuck landing gear, chapter-eleven bankruptcy or the love that got away. But the feeling we’re dealing with here, under the Rockies, is more pervasive. In a culture that values success above all else, failure is a turbine that spins all day and all night. It either catches and consumes us, or the thrust of it propels us forward.
Most of us here, at this festival, have got that background application running in our minds that tells us we’re subpar. Every day we log on to view the infinite display of our acquaintances’ successes, browsing in a state of perpetual relative inferiority. There are always more posts of people’s new jobs, new loves, new babies. They are better than us, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. What losers we all are—the lot of us.
I mostly came to Boulder to see my college friend Ethan perform in the festival, but another reason I went was because I used to be a performer too. I did a lot of theater and improv in high school and college, and I imagined that’s what I’d keep doing. Others thought the same—at the festival I ran into two old acquaintances who asked me if I was “still doing performance stuff.” It’s a perfectly reasonable question, but I never know how to answer it. Time passed, I got interested in other things, and performance dissolved into the background. That’s one interpretation. Another is that I was afraid of failing.
Now that we’ve all got our tomatoes in the bowls, we are told to take a seat among the rows of chairs half-circling the Saran-wrapped stage. As we settle in, Samuelson makes her way to the lip of the small stage with the mic cord trailing behind her. “So, just so you know,” she says, “should you feel uncomfortable at any point throughout tonight’s performance, there will be a stack of catalogs in the back there. And, whenever you want, you can just escape and go and grab a catalog, and, you know,” she begins idly thumbing through one of the catalogs, “just flip through a catalog, OK? Look at the things in the catalog.”
Samuelson finally introduces the night’s first performer: Lauren Beale, a performance artist and dance instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder. “There are so many voices inside of Lauren’s head that distract her or convince her that just being her self is not worthy of artistic creation or unconditional love for that matter,” Beale had written in her failure bio. “Making choreography is a painful process filled with self-deprecating back talk and self-sabotaging procrastination … and so she improvises … on stage and in life, because being spontaneously present is a coping mechanism and a strategy for getting out of her own way.”
Beale kneels down near the carrots on the block at the rear of the stage. The dancers we tattooed with our failures escort her, blindfolded and begoggled, to center stage. They position themselves at the four corners of the stage. Out of the stillness, the supporting cast begins stomping and running in place while shouting various insults at Beale. When Beale touches her index finger to her body or the floor, the four others sprint to the center. They use their bare palms to push and rub and slap the unseeing Beale all over her body.
They repeat this cycle a few times. Eventually, one of the dancers begins yelling the word “Throw!” It’s unclear if we’ve heard her correctly. “Throw?” There’s stomping and shouting and there it is again: “Throw!” More stomping and shouting. Again, “Throw!” And from another dancer, “Throw!” And another, “Throw!” Nervous laughter rumbles through the audience. “Throw?”
Everything about being human in public tells us to leave the sopping tomato undisturbed in the bowl in our laps. But all it takes is for a first shot to be fired. One brave hand dips down into the paper bowl and slings a tomato. And then another and another. Now everyone has permission to throw. And we all do. Tomatoes and their juice and pieces fly everywhere. Many land with a hard splat on Beale’s arm or chest or neck or face. The tomatoes that don’t hit their target are recovered by the dancers and chucked at her or smushed in her hair or squeezed all over her head and down her chest. She squirms and writhes, doing what she can to protect herself.
Samuelson crouches, folded in on herself, declaiming the words we have carved on the toothpicked carrots. “Getting a nosebleed while giving a blowjob,” reads one. “Committing a fox paws,” another of the dancers says. (“I think it’s pronounced foh pah,” Samuelson says from her perch.) Dancers gather bits of tomatoes into buckets and resupply the audience with ammunition. The stage is now sopping wet. My greatest concern is that one of the dancers might slip and break their skull open. Already there are some near slips and small spills, which are kind of fun to watch. Everything is a mess of black and red.
At one point, Beale lashes out at the audience. On her knees, she gathers tomato debris into her fists and holds it up in the air, scanning around in her blindfolded and tomato-stained goggles. The audience oohs in a low register, recognizing the threat and daring her to go through with it—not quite believing she actually will. She does. The tomatoes fly blindly out from her clenched fists and splat somewhere in the back. The spectator-performer dynamic has shifted, perhaps irrevocably. The perfect way into three nights of failure—play tinged with violence, on the verge of spiraling wildly out of control.
After the last tomato is thrown, the audience gets a short break and a “limited number of towels.” Samuelson tells us we can remove our garbage bags if we’d like. Many do, but some, including Samuelson and me, keep them on. Months later, I would learn that the name of this first piece was “Aim.”
After a more subdued video projection by a local filmmaker, we come to the final performance of the night. The piece is about a piece that will never happen. Samuelson tells us about Bhanu Kapil, a Boulder-based British writer whom she very much wanted to perform at the festival. They corresponded over the phone and left one another lengthy voice messages—a few of which Samuelson plays for us through the loudspeakers. Kapil speaks eloquently about the frustrations of life in academia.
“Bhanu Kapil could have been a doctor and married a dentist and written creative nonfiction set in the suburbs of London during the time of riots,” she tells us in quiet, British tones. “Instead, she became a creative-writing industry expert, failed to cook a lasagna or ten … and wrote experimental prose set in the suburbs of London during the time of riots.” Later, she says, “Is Bhanu amazing? No, she is a loser who makes life worth it in radical bursts.”
Kapil couldn’t be in Boulder for the festival, but Samuelson wants to convey something in her stead. The tension—born out in Samuelson’s stops and starts—is that Samuelson also doesn’t want to occupy someone else’s space or rob them of their narrative. The violent nature of that narrative adds to the tension. In 2012, a young woman in India was raped, brutally violated and left to die on a highway for forty minutes before being spotted by passersby. Kapil had all sorts of ideas about how to interpret this onstage, which we hear in her audio recordings or because Samuelson tells us about them. One includes giving an audience member a ball of red twine, taking the other end outside and into a car and driving away, allowing the twine to unspool disembodied in the spectator’s hands.
Samuelson sits legs straight-out onstage, explaining it using Kapil’s recordings and a massive flow chart she has laid piece by piece on the tomato and tarp covered stage. She has lugged onto the stage a bag of potting soil, spools of red twine, bags of rose hips and other earthly elements. The audience is quiet; we are tired, but we are still with Samuelson. Everything comes to the point of lying down, she tells us, poring over the flowchart that stretches out in front of her. Kapil told her to be “a ghost of the intestines” and she is trying, in real time, in front of us all, to do justice to that. After twenty minutes of talking through the various ideas she has had, or is having, Samuelson settles hesitantly on one: “I’m just gonna lie down,” she says, telling us she’s going to put tape on her mouth and lie down for exactly forty minutes—the same amount of time the woman lay dying on the street in India. She is quick to assure the audience that there is no obligation to stay. All of us are free to leave or watch or join her or do as we feel with the various elements scattered about onstage.
She puts the tape over her mouth and lies down flat on her belly, her arms at her sides and her face turned out to her right, looking just past me. I can see that her eyes stay open. Certain audience members rise from their seats to move about onstage or take photos with their phones. One man goes straight for the tape, puts it across his mouth and lies down with Samuelson. Somebody opens the potting soil and begins pouring it on Samuelson. Others rub handfuls of it in their hair. One approaches other spectators, takes their hands, presses her forehead to them and whispers. A woman takes the red twine and laces it through the hands of others to create a web. Some clamor onstage just to get a closer look at Samuelson’s chart—and a few begin to read from it.