What Do We Really Know About People Who Get Arts Degrees?

12 Jul

re-posted from http://blog.artsusa.org/

by Sally Gaskill On July – 2 – 2012

Sally Gaskill

 

As it turns out, quite a bit.

Since 2008, the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) has surveyed graduates of arts training programs—people who received undergraduate and/or graduate arts degrees from colleges and universities as well as diplomas from arts high schools…people who majored in architecture, arts education, creative writing, dance, design, film, fine arts, media arts, music, theater, and more.

To date, SNAAP has collected data from over 50,000 arts graduates of all ages and nationalities. These respondents, as we call them in the survey world, graduated from nearly 250 different educational institutions in the U.S. and Canada.

In a few short years, SNAAP has become what is believed to be the largest database ever assembled about the arts and arts education, as well as the most comprehensive alumni survey conducted in any field.

Recently, we published our latest findings: A Diverse Palette: What Arts Graduates Say About Their Education and Careers. The report provides findings from over 33,000 arts graduates who responded to the online survey last fall.

Our report has attracted media coverage from the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Inside Higher Ed and—we were gawked on gawker.com! My favorite may be Forbes, which compares getting an arts degree with getting a law degree—and recommends that prospective law students consider an arts career instead.

Here are some of the big questions that SNAAP data begin to answer.

1.      Where do arts graduates go?

  • First, they are largely employed. Only 4% of SNAAP respondents are unemployed and looking for work, as opposed to the national average of 8.9%.
  • 72% have worked as professional artist at some point in their career, and just over half (51%) do so currently.
  • Dance, music performance, and theater majors are the most likely to work as professional artists at some point in their careers (all at 82%). Design comes in at 81%. The lowest, not surprisingly, are arts administration (42%) and art history (30%) majors.
  • Between 10–20% of students in most arts disciplines never intended to become professional artists.

2.     What does a successful career look like? Is it all about income?

The more we learn about arts graduates, the more we confirm that there is little correlation between income satisfaction and overall job satisfaction. Sure, most of us in the arts would like to earn more, but the same can be said of doctors, lawyers, and shoe salesmen.

SNAAP data provide strong evidence that income is not the primary driver for job satisfaction for arts graduates.

  • Nine of ten (87%) arts graduates responding to the survey who are currently employed are satisfied with the job in which they spend the majority of their work time.
  • 82% are satisfied with their ability to be creative in their current job, whether working in the arts or in other fields.
  • 84% of employed respondents agree that their current primary job reflects their personalities, interests and values, whether their work is in the arts or other fields.

3.     How do outcomes differ for graduates from different arts disciplines?

One could write many blogs on this subject, so here are a few tidbits that have to do with earnings.

  • Dancers and choreographers earn the least but are most satisfied with their arts-related jobs: 97% of dancers and choreographers are satisfied with their incomes but only 9% earned more than $50,000.
  • Those graduating with a degree in architecture have the highest median income (at $55,000) while those majoring in art history, creative and other writing, dance, fine and studio art, theater, and “other” arts fields have the lowest ($35,000).
  • Sound and lighting engineers or technicians (79%) and K–12 arts educators (72%) are the most satisfied with their income while fine artists report the lowest rate of satisfaction (38%).

A view of part of the SNAAPShot interactive website.

These findings represent the tip of the iceberg. We ask arts alumni lots of questions about the skills they developed in school, how they use those skills in the workplace, and about their educational experiences. The vast majority would ‘do it again.’

Having said all that, we know that it’s essential to put our findings in context and dangerous to paint too rosy a picture. Of course, some arts graduates are employed in jobs that don’t adequately use their arts education, some suffer from heavy student debt, and some regret getting an arts degree. Many wish they had had a better education on the business of being an artist. But it’s still true that the majority are generally satisfied and happy with their life choices.

SNAAP’s primary purpose is to collect alumni data and report it back to each participating institution so they can assess and improve their curriculum, programs, and services. The deadline for institutions to participate in the 2012 survey is TODAY, July 2 (we can be somewhat flexible).

SNAAP is a big, collaborative project based at Indiana University and the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt. We are advised by a terrific National Advisory Board. Everything we have accomplished to date is thanks to generous funding from Surdna Foundation, Houston Endowment, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and others. Our first-rate team, including Steven Tepper and Danielle Lindemann, is currently busy writing a report on the cultural workforce funded by our most recent NEA grant. (Thank you, taxpayers.)

“Like” us on Facebook and you can be among the first to learn about our latest work.

Did you get an arts degree? How does your experience fit in with our findings? If you are interested in digging in to the data, read our 2012 annual report. Play with our interactive SnaapShot. Encourage your institution to participate, so that your story can be added to those of your fellow arts graduates.

Spotlight on UCIRA Artist Tim Schwartz: America’s Time Capsule

20 Jun

What’s in a book? In 2011 UCSD visual arts student Tim Schwartz exhibited two copies of a 1904 text, Modern Methods of Book Composition. One was an elegantly bound copy of the book that had been scanned by archive.org. The other was a Kindle which contained the digital version that had been created from the scan. Under their covers there was a crucial difference. For the traditionally bound copy, Schwartz had written software that covered up all of the book’s text, leaving only pages of black rectangles along with some unexplained diagrams. Everything in other words that hadn’t made it to the Kindle.

Like the blacked-out book, Schwartz’s America’s Time Capsule—now renamed STAT-US—is a project that started out being about what’s there and ended up being about what isn’t.

When he left UCSD in the summer of 2010 Schwartz’s plan was to travel the country in a mobile research lab, a.k.a. an Airstream trailer–shiny and rounded like the 1950s image of a time capsule. To fill it, he was hoping to strike a historian’s version of the Motherlode. His route as a digital data miner stretched from San Diego to Boston with stops at fifty or so libraries, museums and archives in between, and, as Schwartz recalls it, his particular version of gold fever went like this:

”I thought I would be able to find, say, water table data going back a hundred or two hundred years in some small town.  Could I collect these long pieces of data? And visualize them in different ways to juxtapose them with larger data trends that I could see?“ His ultimate goal was to compile an image of the United States through local data sources.

The idea was an ambitious expansion of his earlier work. From a college major in physics, through a stint building and curating the digital technology at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, to the decision to enter art school, Schwartz had been increasingly occupied with giving statistics a tangible, even sensual, form. His first project as a graduate student was a piece called Paris.

It’s an old analog gauge, he explains. “In the middle it says Paris and on one side it says Hilton and on the other it says France. It’s hooked up to the internet and in real time it compares those two Google search values.” The project is still running.  Paris, Schwartz says, was his aha moment: “I could make a physical object that captured the essence of the internet and do it a different way than I’d seen before. That’s what moved me on this trajectory.”

The trajectory, though, hit a significant bump almost as soon as his tour began. One of Schwartz’s first stops was at the California State Archive in Sacramento. Among its holdings, he explains, are the computers of every legislator, handed over as they leave office. But like most other state institutions today, the archive has a limited budget. As a result, he says, “they’re sitting in a room. All those hard drives. Nothing has been touched.“

It’s an intriguing image, the room stacked with  hard drives, their data sealed away in so much schist, but not the one Schwartz was aiming for. “I had done work before, analyzing usage of The New York Times,” he says. (And embodying that usage in a soaring panel of antique gauges). “But I had to have the full history of The New York Times, all of the data extracted in packages to do that.”

As the tour continued, so did the pattern.  Yes, he was finding gold—“there are definitely forgotten archives out there,” he says. Among his finds documented on the STAT-US website are typed note cards describing ski-boots (in Colorado) and a 1930s book of recipes designed for trailer kitchens.  But the problem remained, extraction.  Little was digitized, he says “and it was everywhere. It would take me weeks to put together one data set.”

Quickly, however, Schwartz realized that he had come across another rich and perhaps more interesting seam. Instead of perusing records he was having conversations. Specifically he began asking how these archives were taking their holdings and making them digital. “What were the challenges? What did they know how to do and what did they not know how to do?” What he soon figured out, he says  is that “no one really knew. The digital technology hadn’t been around long enough.”

Unlike Nicholson Baker whose book Double Fold painted archivists as villains heedlessly destroying hard copies of books and newspapers in a spate of digital glee, Schwartz found that the institutions he visited were quite concerned to keep their original items.  What digitization offered was wider access to a library’s rarities without the concomitant risk of damage from increased handling. And yet, Schwartz found, gain invariably comes with some kind of loss.

A visit to the Missouri Botanical Garden Research Library brought the problem into sharp relief. In retrospect, he says, it was his favorite stop.  “Just getting to see what they physically had, walking around the space or seeing the herbarium with a couple of million plant samples.

The discrepancy between the Library’s antique  botanical illustrations and their digitized versions  on-line, inspired the piece Botanical Loss, another in Schwartz’s s trio of works from what he term the Digital Dark Age. At first glance, many of the photographs on the gallery walls look black. On closer inspection pale images of flowers emerge. Some have more color than others, but still very subdued. The flowers seem to come from a world without sun.

The originals of the photographs can be found in Robert John Thornton’s illustrated 1799 work, The Temple Of Flora, one of the rarer books in the Missouri Botanical Garden Research Library. A few years ago high quality scans of the Thornton’s lavishly colored plates were made for a Taschen edition of the book. Subsequently, the library made the images of baroquely flared lilies and historic varieties of roses available on line, by uploading jpeg versions to the Biodiversity Heritage Library website.

Loss is often visualized as a black hole, but the connotation is ours, from the analog world. In Schwartz’s version of the Flora, which uses software he wrote to compare the original scans with the online jpegs, black represent a true rendering of the color. It is, in other words, a coded value chosen to denote a pixel that retains the same color in both versions. The lighter the image, the more loss there has been.

Translation, in any language, is imperfect. Translation of color between print and screen especially so. The pixel values, Schwartz say were stated the same in each version of the image, but registered differently in the different mediums. Botanical Loss addresses our assumptions about the digital process as well as its nuts and bolts.

And sometimes, Schwartz found, loss can be opportunity. When Harpers digitized its entire archive, a glitch occurred. (Not surprising for a magazine which has been in business for a century and a half.) In a verbally colorful article on Wild Bill Hickok, published in 1867, a page got skipped in the scanning. For his piece Reimagining Wild Bill, Schwartz asked 15 writers to fill in that blank. Some chose to make a seamless transition, continuing the same American Victorian sentence structure while offering surprising twists to the story of gunslinging prowess. Others imagined streams of consciousness or transmissions from the future.  One lovingly created period ads.

The copies, each with a new page, that Schwartz bound and exhibited remind us not only of digital’s pitfalls, but of the whole fragile enterprise of a culture documenting itself. One story out of many gets reported. Accurately or not. A legend may take root, get twisted, be reborn in a dozen new media. A facility may have the disc but not the hardware to open it. The data may become corrupted. The repository go up in smoke. Or the story might never get told at all.

This spring Schwartz had the pleasure of seeing his works infiltrate the libraries that inspired them. He is delivering a set of his botanical prints to Missouri. Meanwhile, one of the six copies of his two volume Kindle composition was purchased by Stanford for its  rare book collection. “I love the idea that I’ve been able to push the killer of libraries back into the library,” he says.

For Schwartz technology is a more of a bridge than a tower. “I still think there is inherent value in the physical,” he says. I use digital technology happily, and I am totally ingrained within the digital world in everything I do. But I made a conscious decision a couple of years ago to use digital technology to make physical objects. Because we are all engaged with the digital constantly thru screens. And I think by changing the packaging, it’s easier to reflect about it or understand it.”

“Sitting in my studio in San Diego,” he notes, “I would not have picked up on these ideas. I figured them out along the journey. And through talking to people.”

 

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Spotlight on UCIRA Artist John Jota Leaños: Frontera

20 Jun

The idea behind Frontera, a 45 minute animated feature-in-progress, is simple. John Jota Leaños aims to retell the history of the United States and Mexico in the contemporary languages of cartoons and popular music. But Leaños, who teaches in the Social Documentation program of UCSC’s Department of Film and Digital Media, was a visual and installation artist before he turned filmmaker and an activist in both incarnations. He knows that the lines between nations or genres are rarely as clear on the ground as they are on a map.

“We began more than a year ago,” Leaños says “to think about ways to tell untold stories—or undertold stories—in American history.” The “we” is a team of Xicano-identified collaborators Leaños has been working with for the past several years:  San Francisco based writer Sean Levon Nash, New Mexican composer Cristóbal Martinez, animators including Texas artist Natalia Anciso and Reno artist Crystal Gonzalez, plus the Tucson mariachi ensemble Los Cuatro Vientos

Their common area of concern is the US/ Mexico borderlands as constituted both in the past and in the present. Their interest lies not only in a geopolitical boundary, but in the territories of identification scattered across a common landscape. “Especially now, Leaños says, “with the emergence of new digital technology and new political and policing strategies, the border has become fluid. The elasticity of the border makes the issue a lot more complex.”

Frontera, draws on three less-than-household-word events spanning 170 years from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The first is the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when seven separate and sometimes warring peoples in New Mexico joined forces to push the Spanish conquerors out of Santa Fe and back to Texas; The second is the Taos revolt of 1847 when, during the Mexican/American war, Mexican and Pueblo residents joined to assassinate the newly appointed American governor of New Mexico, Charles Bent. The final episode is at least a year from production, Leaños says, and will look at the California Gold rush. “How it became the epicenter for mass migration and mass racial and political and economic conflict.” That conflict included John Sutter’s using local Indians as slave labor.

The trick, Leaños says ”is trying to make the history relevant today. To draw connections, draw lines not necessarily a to b to c,  but to show that this complicated kind of formula is a legacy.  “The medium, of course, is part of the message. We’re working on multiple ways of having people view these episodes,” he says. ”Not only on public television, and but also film festivals, and on the web and downloadable webisodes that can be viewed on any mobile device.” Fluidity is a plus in a delivery system.

Leaños came San Francisco State from Pomona in LA’s Inland empire. Both places are border cites, bilingual and bicultural. His early work as a an MFA candidate took traditional forms. He was a photographer and also did a series of sculptures, The Burden of Objective Representation, that paired antique devices—globes, hourglasses–with tongue-in-cheek titles like “Post-historical object against equidistant positioning.”

As a volunteer in schools and community art programs he found himself exploring digital media both an aesthetic and a mass communication tool.  Projects like Mapping Myself which had middle school students combine their photographs and writings in large mosaic-like self-and-family portraits, suggested parallels between the multiple platforms emerging with new technology and the fragmented experiences of his urban, often disenfranchised students.

Adopting Critical Art Ensemble’s maxim. “by any media necessary,” Leaños began experimenting with hybrid forms in his own work. One result: the multimedia opera Imperial Silences which combines projected animations of his political Mother Goose, and ABCs of war with a live performance of an underworld journey and onstage dancers and mariachi band. The opera, which has been performed in New York and Los Angeles, will open at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in September.

Leaños’s definitive turn to animation came when he was teaching at Arizona State University. One of his students there was a member of the newly formed Los Cuatro Vientos, Southwest-born veterans of a larger mariachi band, they wanted to take the  music in a different direction. Their take, which Leaños describes as being “a kind of Chicano north of the border mariachi” and “interestingly fluid” included influences drawn from hip hop and pop and rap.

In the same period, Leaños was looking for a new direction for politically based art. He had recently created a  project on Pat Tillman, an Arizona Cardinals football player whose death while serving in Afghanistan was only slowly and reluctantly revealed to be the result of friendly fire. Leaños’s poster, in which a green-bereted Tillman announces that “the war on terror resulted in the disastrous end to my life,” drew huge volumes of hate mail, though Tillman’s family had themselves refuted the military’s attempt to cover the facts and use their son as a poster hero for the war effort.

In the aftermath, Leaños says he thought: “There are so many political posters in the world, why was this one so shocking to people? I know—the theme, and the person—but I also keep looking at the aesthetics. My question to myself was: How do I do critical work about taboo issues in America that is informative and possibly transformative without getting a knee jerk reaction? Where is there a buffer?” At that point, he says, a light bulb went on and he turned to ancient teaching tools—nursery rhymes and ABCs –that could be presented in the brightly animated and cheerfully scored form familiar from children’s television.

Blending serious history and popular art forms has a parallel history in the corridos that mariachis compose, and in the biting political cartoons of Mexico’s José Guadalupe Posada (with whom Leaños conducts a lengthy imagined dialogue in his essay, “Dead Conversations on Art and Politics.”)

As in those genres, part of the buffering that occurs in Leaños’s Los ABCs: a Wartime Primer from the Other Side, or in his Deadtime Stories with Mariachi Goose and Friends, comes from a disarming, almost innocent lack of polish. Leaños identifies it as rasquachismo.

 

“A lot of Xicanos play around with that term, rasquache“ he says. He defines it as “an aesthetic of the poor, a DIY notion of how to create a certain kind of feel, a barrio notion. Its laughable too. It doesn’t look ‘right.’ It’s not all fine tuned.”

“We’re using the medium in the way that we can, he says, and we’re getting better at it. But animation can be so technically challenging that three seconds sometime take three weeks to do. And we re trying to figure out how to do it with the limited amount of funds that we have.”

Work has recently shifted into high gear thanks to a  sabbatical and the news in April that Leaños has been awarded a 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship. In Frontera Leaños and his illustrators and animators are drawing on more sophisticated techniques that combine layers of historical and mythological images, and an interplay of black-and-white, old-map-sepia and vivid, dreamlike color.

A major influence he says is the Cherokee artist, Joseph Erb, who uses animation (and the Cherokee language) to tell tribal myths and elder stories. In Frontera  the sky serpent of the Pueblo myths is a central –and visually dramatic—motif. The myth itself,  Leaños says becomes both witness and narrator. “I see it as a documentary form, even though a lot of these stories are what we’d consider mythological. They are documenting a paradigm, a way in which the community sees the world.”

At this point they are still on the third draft of the script for the first episode—the one  about the Pueblo Revolt. Documentary animation is research based, Leaños explains. “There are old stories and old histories that have been told and at the same time there’s so much missing from the archives. The Spanish records from the 17th century are kind of tainted—they have a very particular perspective. As for the indigenous perspectives, they’re there, but they’re really kind of quieted and very internal. Some people say the pueblos have Spanish documents that they haven’t released—still.”

Working in the Rio Grande region means another border to cross. “Not being from there, Leaños says, I’m an outsider.  And an outsider perspective is damning, but it also can be a benefit in a lot of ways, too. So I’m trying to quilt this history together within a script—we’re talking about hundreds of years through ten minutes. Its really hard. But it’s also a way of telling the story: What has to be edited out and what points have to be made. What to look for and how to look—that something we’re trying to get at.”

As for the Pueblo Revolt itself, he says, “you have all these different peoples  who speak several different languages. Some of the pueblos didn’t like each other, some of them were at war with each other, but during the Spanish colonization they came together. It’s one of those moments when the 99 percent expelled the one percent.“

He continues: “It’s an amazing look, I think, at how we can put our differences aside and do what is necessary to create a real revolution. It was done through the acknowledgement that we are being occupied, and how do we get out? How do we look beyond the situation, and come to terms with its reality–and change it?”

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Spotlight on UCIRA Artist Heather Logas: Experimental Game Design

15 May

What do Demosthenes, Wordsworth, and students in Heather Logas’s UCSC course in experimental game design have in common? Solitary walks! Art 146, offered this spring, asked students to examine not only the underlying assumptions involved in game-making, but how inspiration can be cultivated.

Among the strategies explored in the interdisciplinary course—comprised, Logas notes, of roughly half computer science majors and half art majors—was a thirty minute walk.  According to a student on the class blog, “the goal, was to seek places and things you normally wouldn’t think about, challenging the definition of what games are.”

Logas proposed only two rules: to be open to possibilities and to walk alone. In one sense, that’s the underlying framework of many of the digital games the students have grown up playing. As to actually taking a solitary walk—that, the blogger reported, was for her an unusual and somewhat challenging experience.

Logas, who is an MFA candidate in Digital Arts and New Media, describes herself as “a game designer and an artist who wants to take these two worlds and moosh them together.” Her own games specialize in allowing players to examine the reasons behind their responses. A player of her Before You Close Your Eyes can come to a seemingly tragic end, receive a score on their compassion and timidity, and find themselves revived and back on the road to the palace, armed perhaps with more awareness.

In addition to Mechanics ( “rules you play a game by” ), Dynamics (“things that happen as a result of the rules”), and Aesthetics (“the packaging, what the game looks like”), Logas told her class, game designers need to think about the thoughts and emotions they want their game to elicit from players.

To that end, classroom strategies included spider web maps representing all the associations that came to peoples’ minds when a particular word –“saw,” say—was mentioned.  Seeing the tangled pathways that emerged between physical objects, metaphorical actions and pop-cultural references (Texas Chain Saw!) gave students another way of viewing the multiple levels that may be involved in a game.  Or an artwork.

Logas’s current interest is what she calls “physical interfaces for digital games.” She’s not talking about joysticks. After watching a speech by Bernie DeKoven, a founder of the New Game Movement (an on-the-ground outgrowth of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue) and Junkyard Sports (using found and everyday objects like chalk and shopping carts) Art146 students went outside to devise games that embody DeKoven’s idea of “coliberation.” By that he means games which address the question of how to truly play with other people rather than merely playing with a game.

What did they come up with?  Students, Logas observed, were “rolling down hills, rhyming in circles,” as well as inventing an energetic form of charades in which a player not only had to communicate an idea to his teammates but get them to perform it.

The solitary walks inspired other games. Hunters and Prey (subtitled Logarithmic Dodge Ball) uses teams made up of two kinds of players—those who can only hunt and those who can only be hunted. What makes things more interesting are rules that limit the hunters’ options and permit prey to develop strategic collaborations.

In Shadow Cube, a solo player uses actual cubes and the sun to cast a shadow line in prescribed patterns. As the student blog reports: “Some designs were easy to achieve whilst others proved to be quite challenging.” Like the art-making strategies of Fluxus, a movement which included John Cage and Yoko Ono and which Logas cites as one of her inspirations, Shadow Cube directs players’ attention to the intricate interplay between plan and chance. A useful observation whether the subject is games, art, or life.

 

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Spotlight on UCIRA Artist Sharon Daniel: Causes and Effects

10 May

The sound of silence in Sharon Daniel’s work is multi-toned. A woman details her life in a California prison sewing American flags for 55 cents an hour. A recovered addict turns the back streets of East Oakland into a photographic portrait of rutted asphalt and benign blue skies. The silence in Daniel’s decade’s worth of interrelated projects—Need X-Change, Blood Sugar, Undoing Time, and Golden Rule—is that of voices muffled. The silencers are poverty, abuse, discrimination, lack of education—and also public policy.

Daniel describes her role as that of ”context provider.” While using traditional documentary methods like filmed and printed interviews, she distributes tools—software, disposable cameras, walkmen, one-one-one instruction—she hopes will widen the public domain. Her aim is an internet that publishes the stories and perspectives of all members of society—as told by themselves.

One topic, closely examined, often leads to new perspectives on another. Need X-Change began with a demonstrated cause and effect: Disposable needles could significantly lessen an injected-drug user’s risk of catching or transmitting HIV. Working with participants in Casa Segura’s needle exchange program to record their thoughts and experiences, Daniel hoped to ensure the program’s continuance despite neighborhood fears and political resistance.

Their stories, however, pointed to a wider web of cause and consequence, including the revolving door by which addicts become inmates and inmates become addicts (explored in Blood Sugar), and the economic usefulness of an incarcerated population examined in Undoing Time (formerly titled Capitalist Punishment) and the upcoming Golden Rule.

In an introduction to Public Secrets–a work which like Undoing Time looks at the corporate use of prison labor—Daniel distinguishes between “secrets that are kept from the public,” and so called public secrets, those “secrets that the public chooses to keep safe from itself.” One such open secret is the widespread use of prisons to provide a cheap domestic labor force.

Offering inmates a chance to earn money while learning marketable skills sounds like a reasonable idea. Closer investigation reveals what Daniels calls an mushrooming, exploitative “security economy” in which, she writes, “private companies receive substantial tax incentives from state and local governments to establish facilities on prison sites and hire prison laborers who often work for less than a dollar a day.” It’s a powerful incentive, Daniel suggests, for acquiring ever more prisoners through harsher sentencing laws.

Recording inmates’ stories required another kind of secrecy. California has a media ban which makes it illegal for reporters to conduct face to face interviews with prisoners that are not monitored by prison officials. Daniel’s solution was to go undercover. Posing as a legal advocate, she spent five years interviewing women at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, the largest female correctional facility in the United States.

Among the video portrait that emerge from the interviews, one—from Undoing Time—gives the phrase ‘draped in the flag’ a chilling twist. A sixty-one year old African-American woman sits half covered by one of the large American flags she spends much of her time sewing and lists the labels by which she has been systematically dismissed: “black girl,” “lesbian,” “drug addict,” “HIV positive.” As she talks, it becomes harder to connect the symbolic flag that’s so vigorously waved over political debates with the stiff, painstakingly stitched fabric that engulfs her. The labels too begin to seem insubstantial in the presence of this thoughtful, articulate person, sentenced to fifteen years for possession of 20 dollars worth of heroin, who works for a tiny fraction of America’s minimum wage.

It’s shocking when the woman first rips a star off the flag in her lap. Then a hopeful thought occurs. Perhaps, just as stitches can be undone, the tightly woven networks of abuse can begin to be dismantled.

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Spotlight on UCIRA Artist Annie Loui: Blue Light

1 May

A dark opening in an overgrown hillside; the opportunity for a daring feat of discovery—these are near-irresistible lures in any century. In 2002 they proved fatal for Glenn and Nicholas Anderson, 18 and 23 year-old brothers who drowned while exploring an abandoned Orange County silver mine. Annie Loui, choreographer, director and UCI professor, moved to Silverado canyon not long afterward and learned about the accident, which occurred nearby, from neighbors. Eight years later Blue Light, Loui’s multimedia production inspired by the story, premiered at UCI Irvine’s Studio Theater.

Named for the mine where the accident took place, Blue Light turns a tragic but not infrequent statistic—nationwide, old mines had already claimed 11 lives that year –into an examination and evocation of the adventurous impulse. Loui’s production, designed with the help of Cornerstone Theater’s Greg Pacificar and UCI graduate student Adam Levine, is built around giant, high-definition projections of the Santa Ana mountains. They fill the stage and the invitation they hold out is visceral. Actors turned superheroes  leap joyously toward the looming boulders and steel themselves to face the unknown darkness. The script, written by novelist and UCI professor Michelle Latiolais, and based on interviews with family and friends of the brothers, portrays adolescents who are sensitive to the world around them, excited by their own potential, but still untested.

Loui wanted the images to be huge in order to convey the larger than life scale of the terrain she sees out her windows. She was drawn to the story, she says, “partially because it was part of the community I was moving into. But what I ended up realizing was also really attaching me to it was that I’m an adventurous person. I’ll head off into the mountains by myself. If I were their age I would have probably been going in right there with them. I think there’s a sense of exploring, and the limitless of life, and not really knowing where any boundaries are when you’re a teenager. It’s a certain youthful energy and a certain ability to take off into the unknown with absolutely no thought for the ramifications. “

Leaps into the unknown  are in some sense fundamental to Loui’s work.

Falling Girl (2008), a collaboration with Scott Snibbe, is an interactive animation of a girl falling gently from a skyscraper and the people she encounters in the building’s windows on her way down—a journey which transforms her from girl to old woman and includes the film’s viewers. In that piece, the point of contact between the girl and the animated spectators is virtual–-as it is between viewers and the adjacent screen which captures and incorporates their movements into the girl’s fall. In much of Loui’s work, though, the contact point is tactile.

As a dancer and teacher she uses the principles of Contact Improvisation, a now widely used dance practice first developed in the 1970s. Contact begins with a single point of touch and shared weight between partners and uses it as the fulcrum of a 360 degree sphere of improvised movement. In her 2009 book, The Physical Actor, Loui extends the practice to partners working with text in a traditional theatre setting and teaches it in UCI’s graduate acting program.

She explains: “In the way I teach Contact, it’s very much about the relationship between the two people, and the most important thing is the authenticity of the relationship. So every physical movement of energy and weight exchange has to be authentically followed through in real attentiveness to your partner.”

The next step is adding words. She says she usually starts with scenes like those in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ones with “really quick exchanges that happen to rhyme. You find that if you’re just speaking the language while you’re moving and the movement comes first, you start embodying a lot of the meaning of the text without intending to. You don’t try to act it out in any way, or act out a character. You start allowing the text to inform your movement.”

She finds the process is “very liberating for the actors. You can take it down to more realistic scenes and keep that same energy going. You might end up doing a Chekhov scene where you’re sitting in a parlor drinking tea, and you’re flipping people over your back, as you’re talking about when the doctor is coming and how the samovar is doing. If you’ve done this work, if you’ve just Contacted the scene, and then you take it down to realism, its much more charged, because the relationship is already physically established between the two people. So if somebody crosses their legs and looks at their watch, somebody else will turn their head and look out the window. There’s a really interesting reciprocity that starts to happen.”

In “Blue Light” she extended the practice even further: “The video was so enormous and overwhelming, I had people responding to the projection like a contact partner. There’s one section where the screen is showing somebody going up a gorge, and the actor is dealing with the screen, ducking and jumping as new things come up.”

In some ways that sense of untamed nature has been informing her work ever since Loui, raised in Saint Louis, relocated to Southern California from Boston in the early 1990s. “The Midwest where I grew up is agrarian,” she says, “and where I trained was in Europe where, as we know, it’s been settled for so many thousands of years that wilderness isn’t really an option. But here, particularly in California, I feel that wilderness is part of the manifest destiny model. You go West and there’s this ever-expansive horizon of possibility. And in some ways I have actually found this to be true.”

Another Day in Paradise,  which Loui created soon after her arrival, dramatized the war between the promoters of cookie-cutter suburban development—like Irvine Ranch’s Donald Bren—and the mythic California of open spaces and individual freedom. Both that piece and Blue Light, Louie explains, were in part attempts to come to terms with her own transcontinental leap into a new environment.

“I was in Boston enough time to feel the constraints.” she says.“ And I was married to a New Englander, so I was well ensconced in that whole aesthetic of New England as a territory as well as a cultural—well I won’t quite say Mecca, but as a long tradition.”

Orange County was very much another country. “I was absolutely horrified when I first moved here by the amount of development and the accepted artificiality of the landscape that was being superimposed on top of this wilderness. I think part of the way I’ve made peace with it is to begin to understand that some of what I thought was artificial is really California. Palm trees do grow right here. And part of it was to move up into a landscape that’s completely indigenous.”

California’s shifting mix of myth and reality was brought back to Loui during the research for Blue Light. Heard today, the name of the mine sounds romantic, suggesting the gleam of silver or the beckoning flicker of a will of the wisp.  Loui found otherwise. Cave-ins are a mine danger most people recognize, but with the last of the Silverado mine operations shuttered since the early 1950s, few area residents knew that a blue light was a traditional warning sign. It signaled that oxygen-sapping methane gas, often present in rock faults, had seeped into the shaft. The Anderson brothers were both strong swimmers, but rescuers found oxygen levels in the tunnels where they drowned to be fatally low.

Loui had the sad job of informing the boys’ mother that the mine’s danger had at some point been well known. At the same time she encountered the outrage of cave buffs who resented any forest service efforts to restrict mine entrance. These paradoxical pulls of risk and restraint—central to contemporary discussions of wilderness, and, it might be noted, to contact improvisation—are neatly caught in Michelle Latiolais’s script. Glenn Anderson speaks admiringly of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and its romantic protagonist. His friend thinks the boy was stupidly unprepared. Their English teacher suggests that Krakauer may invented some details—which “would not be an issue” if the book were fiction.

Blue Light’s use of real people and events was for Loui another venture into new territory. It was, she says, “like writing biography in a way. You want to stay as close to truth as you can, and honor everybody’s memory.” The boys’ family, she notes, was “outrageously supportive” and the sold–out run during the UCI theatre season brought out a lot of the Silverado community. “It ended up”, she says, “being a bit of a commemorative event.”

Still, she adds, “it’s an interesting line to walk.” Full of push and pull, or as Loui puts it: “There’s only a certain amount of license you can take. And, taking license is what makes things theatrically interesting.” What seems to be required is an ever-shifting balance.

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Cauleen Smith: From Eclipse to Solar Flare

26 Apr

 

The boy in the cape appears out of a corner of the screen to run down the walkways of a public housing complex Another appears doing a loping walk-run on the grass. Once joined together, they’re no longer random oddballs. With instruments lifted and steps synchronized, they’ve become members of a spirited unit: The Solar Flare Arkestral Marching Band. The explosive jazz-funk piece the band is playing is “Where Pathways Meet,” a 1978 composition by Sun Ra, a former resident of the housing complex.

In the project formerly known as Eclipse—now morphing into several separately titled strands including the marching band appearances—filmmaker Cauleen Smith’s central concern is the Unidentified Flying Object that is cultural innovation. Specifically, black cultural innovation. Ultimately envisioned as the second of three film projects linked to historic hubs of African-American musical expression (New Orleans, Chicago, and Kansas City), Smith’s current work centers on jazz musician Sun Ra and the radical reshaping both he and his music underwent during the years 1945 to 1961 that he spent on Chicago’s South Side.

When Sun Ra traveled north from Alabama at the end of WWII he was thirty year old Herman ‘Sonny’ Blount, a jazz pianist and respected Birmingham band leader, He was also a conscientious objector who had spent time in both prison and conservation camps. By the time he died in 1993, he had been internationally celebrated (including a 1969 cover-of Rolling Stone) as a visionary composer and performer and an influential Afro-futurist.

Not only a pioneer of free jazz and electronic music, he was a showman whose Arkestra might contain two dozen musicians, singers, and dancers wearing anything from satin robes to beanies with lighted propellers on top. By the early 1950s he had also created an elaborate and enduring persona. By renaming himself after the Egyptian sun god and claiming to be a member of the Angel Race born on Saturn, he pulled questions of race out of confining stereotypes and into buoyant, imaginative space.

Tracing Sun Ra’s transformative Chicago years leads Smith to two streams of questions. One: What was it about that place and time that spurred Herman Blount to reinvent himself and his music. Two: How can similar artistic transformations take place today?

Next month at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Smith debuts a dual-screen projection inspired by her research in Chicago. Titled “A Seed is a Star,” it includes video portraits of the last living members of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, some of whom first played with him at Chicago’s Wonder Inn in 1960—gigs which saw the Arkestra’s first use of costume: capes and doublets acquired from a local opera company.

Over the past two years, Smith has produced flash mob touch-downs in other parts of the city, including Chinatown Square where the Rich South High School band, brilliantly uniformed in reds and blues, materializes before visibly intrigued onlookers to play Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place.“ This and other filmed appearances will be part of Smith’s installation at Chicago’s threewalls gallery opening in September 2012

Sun Ra, according to his biographer, said that his space-inspired costumes, began as a message, a sign to people “that there are other things outside their closed environment.” And, he stressed, other cultures. For Smith, the marching band appearances serve a similar purpose. Providing what she calls “fleeting ecstatic moments of visual and aural incongruence,” they are like otherworldly beings or inspiration itself, interrupting ordinary life and proposing a new patterns. What if the city were not just, as she writes, “grey and gritty,” but “awash” in sparkling brilliance. Not just a cluster of separate spheres, but an interdependent galaxy. Not just what we expect, but what we might imagine.

 

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

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