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UCIRA Artist Brings Music and Mentorship to Local Schools

19 Dec

UC Santa Barbara Brings Music and Mentorship to Local Schools

Source: University of California, Santa Barbara
Thursday, December 13, 2012
UC Santa Barbara Brings Music and Mentorship to Local Schools

The notes float in fits and starts, bubbles of whimsy breaking the surface. A music lesson is under way.

Selena Ross, a second-year student at UC Santa Barbara, is sharing her instrument and her expertise with Jasmine, an Isla Vista Elementary pupil and participant in the afterschool program that brought the pair together. Ross is mentoring Jasmine in music –– and tutoring her in math –– as a volunteer for a campus-based student organization and nonprofit called The MUSIC Club.

More commonly known by its acronym than its full name –– Musicians United in Supplemental Instruction for Children –– the club sends music-inclined college students into elementary schools, providing homework help and instrument instruction for underprivileged youth.

“It’s a wonderful experience to see all these kids so thrilled by music and instruments,” said Ross, a double major in sociology and English who is the club’s co-president and on-site coordinator for Isla Vista Elementary. “They love to learn. The fact that we’re able to work with these kids especially is such an important part of the program, and I feel we can have a true impact on kids who really appreciate it.”

And that’s the whole point. In 2006, on a $10,000 service-project grant from the Donald Strauss Foundation, founder Areo Saffarzadeh (’07, business economics, biology) positioned music as a means of academic motivation for underprivileged children: Bang out the homework, then bang on the piano.

The MUSIC Club functions exactly the same way today, partnering with established afterschool programs to deliver its vision to socioeconomically disadvantaged fourth, fifth, and sixth graders in Goleta. Volunteers from UCSB –– the club averages more than 20 active mentors each quarter –– visit Isla Vista and El Camino elementary schools each afternoon. They have also served students from La Patera Elementary through an afterschool program at the Boys & Girls Club in Goleta.

“What makes being involved with this program so refreshing is these kids, because learning music, for them, is a huge privilege,” said David Lee, the group’s executive director and a UCSB alumnus (’11, biopsychology). “For them there is no entitlement. They love learning music and they know that when they work hard, behave well, and do their homework, they get to learn music. They don’t have to, they get to, and that makes teaching and working with them all the better for us. That’s a huge part of why we stay focused on serving an underserved population –– to open the opportunity to learn music to people who otherwise may not be able to.”

That opportunity may one day be available to additional children, and not just in the immediate area. Local growth is imminent, said Lee, but The MUSIC Club’s long-range goals also include expanding its efforts elsewhere by launching new chapters, or satellite operations, on other college campuses with underprivileged youth nearby. They also aspire to a capital project, aiming to eventually offer a music and tutoring site that could be shared by multiple programs.

The organization’s steadfast devotion to engaging kids through music has struck a chord with teachers, who credit the still-small club with big impact.

“As a music teacher, I know in my core that music is essential for the development of children –– for their neural development, for their social development, for their self-esteem, and for the pure joy that it brings them,” said Blair Looker, a music and art teacher at Isla Vista Elementary. “So when I see The MUSIC Club bringing both one-on-one mentoring, tutoring for children, and music, I think it’s the best of both worlds … It’s all part of a large dialogue between these excellent mentors and our young students, and I value it totally.”

Looker has known The MUSIC Club since its 2006 inception, when Saffarzadeh and four friends first showed up at her school. She has since become an active advocate for the nascent nonprofit, recently joining its board of directors, and, through her Looker Family Foundation, awarding the group a $10,000 grant.

“It is a strong organization that has grown into a really coherent program,” Looker said. “I’m really appreciative of their vision and I think it’s a model that can be used throughout the UC system –– at the minimum –– statewide, and possibly nationwide. It’s a beautiful, simple model that enriches the UCSB students that are giving of their talent, and completely feeds and nourishes our students.”

Such strong belief in the group appears to be growing. As a registered student organization and community nonprofit, The MUSIC Club has received a $2,000 grant from the UC Institute for Research in the Arts, and a $2,000 Community Arts Enrichment Grant through the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission and the Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation, in addition to the Looker Foundation award.

“Funding for arts education is oftentimes targeted as one of the lowest priorities when budgets are reduced for K-12 public education,” said Catherine Boyer, acting director of Student Affairs Grants and Development. “The Looker Foundation gift demonstrates a strong commitment to both nurture the arts and make arts opportunities accessible for all our children. It also inspires our UCSB students to live their dreams: our student musicians are teaching their love of music to the next generation.”

 

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 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

Adam Tinkle: The Universal Language Orchestra of Spring Valley CA

3 Apr

Music may be a universal language, but the music made by the Universal Language Orchestra of Spring Valley CA is deliberately designed to emerge from the specifics of time and place. Among those specifics—the contemporary existence of cheap electronics; San Diego County’s network of recreation centers; and the region’s long tradition of visionary eccentrics.

If the orchestra has a spiritual godfather it’s probably Harry Partch, the maverick American composer, instrument designer, lover of found language, and student of universal myth, who spent the last decade of his life in and around San Diego. ULO creators—UCSD Music Department graduate student Adam Tinkle along with Bonnie Whiting Smith, Joe Marigilio, and others—believe like Partch, that instruments exist to serve musicians and not the other way around.

Orchestra players may or may not have musical experience. The 8 to 12 year olds who attend once-a-week ULO classes in the Spring Valley Community Center, begin not with traditional scales but by customizing their personal instruments. One that Tinkle is especially proud of is an electro-acoustic kalimba, which, he claims, “to our knowledge, bests all extant designs for a portable, amplifiable, user-customizable, and inexpensive musical instrument.”

The kalimba’s parts cost less than ten dollars, and the wiry keys are made from straightened hairpins (a green enterprise some girls particularly appreciated: providing new life for outmoded fashion accessories.) An introductory session is spent adjusting the length of the wires with a teacher’s help to create a range of pitches the student chooses. The next step: using music to tell a story.

The sound of rain is particularly prized in dry San Diego, and it’s the dominant note in the ULO opera students and teachers created last fall from a resonant piece of local history. A mile and a half south of the Center’s now suburban location the Sweetwater Reservoir was built in the 1880s as a hedge against the area’s frequent droughts. In early 1916 tradition reversed. Rainfall was so heavy that the Sweetwater dam failed, and countywide flooding washed away miles of railroad track and whole communities. Ironically, a month earlier the city of San Diego had hired local rainmaker Charley Hatfield whose experiments with chemical evaporations had produced results and testimonials from Texas to Tujunga. But the city, fearing lawsuits after the flood, refused to pay Hatfield, claiming the rains either weren’t his doing or weren’t covered by his contract.

For storm effects ULO players relied on recycled vegetable cans filled with rice or dried beans, sections of steel conduit of assorted lengths mounted on wood blocks—referred to as  metallophones—and plastic tubing restyled as didgeridoos. The performance, recorded at UCSD studios in December, was spirited and also underscored the project’s point: creativity like rain arises from a number of factors working in concert.

New sound-makers, too, may arrive at any moment. The ULO practicum offered at UCSD this spring focuses on alternative musical instrument design. In addition to touring a banjo factory and exploring signal processing, its students will draft their own innovative instruments as well as help Spring Valley children build their orchestra parts.

But the underlying purpose of ULO is less DIY than what Whiting Smith described as “a system in which the creativity and being of each individual is valued and collaboration between those individuals is essential.” Coming again this June under ULO’s aegis, is the Spring Valley Center’s Intergenerational jazz camp—a one week intensive led by saxophonist Tinkle. The faculty includes an undergraduate and a graduate student, a middle school bandleader, a retired teacher, and a former New Orleans musician. If a flood of never-before-heard-sounds inundates the area—so much the better.

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

SOTA: Report Back: Alternative Pedagogies and Uses of the University

29 Mar

SOTA: Report Back: Alternative Pedagogies  and Uses of the University

UCSD’s Sixth College Conference

Education in Action: Mobilizing the Next Generation for Social Reform

January 26, 2012

by Kim Yasuda (UCIRA Co-Director)

http://sixth.ucsd.edu/experiential-learning-conference/#more

A day-long event of concurrent panels hosted by UCSD’s Sixth College proposed numerous case studies in undergraduate and graduate education emerging out of the UCSD campus.  Cross-cutting “experiential learning’ projects from the arts, design, planning, education, media studies, STEM, social sciences and business contributed to thought sessions under an array of thematic frames, such as Public Dialogue, Digital Literacy, Global Education as well as Student Development, Business Opportunity and Campus-Community Collaboration.  Regardless of discipline, the integral role of the arts featured prominently throughout the presentations.

The conference was an outgrowth of the Sixth College Practicum ((http://sixth.ucsd.edu/) and its collaboration with campus and community partners. With close to 1,000 students engaged yearly, Sixth College Practicum promotes “civic engagement and global consciousness, satisfying general education requirements through alternative, innovative projects”.

Particularly striking and atypical of most academic conferences was the degree to which the student agency was valued as a critical part of the discourse.  Student-lead activism guides the work of Sixth College community and this was evident in the mixed panel sessions in which students, faculty, administrators and community members presented as co-investigators in research, repurposing the academic space as we know it and desperately need to rethink it.

Student presence was a primary goal for lead conference organizers, Sixth College Acting Provost and Professor of Mathematics, James Lin, Practicum Director and Diane Forbes , Director of Academic Programs, Liz Losh and Associate Director, Eliza Slavet.

The youngest of UCSD’s six college divisions, Sixth College was established in 2001 as a “21st century pedagogy” and alternative to “disciplined studies of the previous millennium”. Sixth College curriculum was designed to arm students with a distinctive skill-set in “self knowledge, technical know-how, interpersonal skills and cultural awareness” to become “effective global citizens who engage creatively and ethically with the complex issues facing the world”.

Experiential learning strategies emerging from Sixth College address the pressing need for larger institutional change on the part of the university to invest its intellectual capital beyond campus borders. Whether local or global, conceptions of classroom learning took place within vastly expanded fields, with students actively engaged in the broad and complex arena of public culture. Projects highlight student-centered research that confront emerging questions around the efficacy of current learning models in higher education, especially at a large public research university, pressed to educate its increasing and diverse California population.

Sixth College has undertaken its own ‘repurposing’ of UCSD’s existing academic structures and resources into more relevant instructional strategies. Through the College’s unique co-curricular programs, undergraduate students are encouraged to think nimbly across disciplines, while becoming “more engaged innovators within an ever-expanding global arena”.  For example, to address campus GE requirements, Sixth College Practicum courses have been combined under the CAT: Culture, Art+Technology program (http://cat.ucsd.edu/). CAT curriculum fulfills the basic writing requirement for graduation from UCSD, while providing a more relevant foundation for students to gain “an understanding of society in an integrated, interdisciplinary way”. Discussion sections of each course in the CAT program are led by graduate students from many different departments to encourage interdisciplinary discussion. Faculty are also recruited to CAT from across the disciplinary spectrum (anthropology, communication, history, literature, music, philosophy, sociology, visual arts, etc.).

As part of its expanded mission, the CAT learning model tackles research questions such as “In the 21stCentury, how do we shape the world and how does it shape us? What are the ethical questions raised by designed objects, environments and interactions? How do cultures manage change? How far back in time should we look? What forms of production and consumption do we take for granted in contemporary life? How do new solutions sometimes create new problems?”  These lines of inquiry shape CAT curriculum, programs and activities.

ARTiffact Gallery, housed in the public spaces in and around the offices of Academic programs at Sixth College, showcases works conceptually related to the courses in the CAT program.  Currently on exhibition this winter is Mapping Occupations, “an exhibition that explores our preoccupations with space through the practices of mapping, diagramming, modeling and speculating. The exhibit, curated by Associate Director, Eliza Slavet, features the work of UCSD arts faculty, Teddy Cruz, cog-nate Collective, Matthew Hebert, High Tech Media Arts program, David Kim, Stephanie Lie, The Periscope Project, Hermione Spriggs and Patricia Stone

With the support of a second UCIRA art-science planning grant for its curricular launch in the CAT program next year, “Something from Nothing: Audacious Speculations in Art, Science and Entrepreneurialism” CAT 3is a teaching-research initiative to explore “connections, overlaps and productive tensions” between conceptual/activist art, scientific research and business.

CAT program director, Liz Losh, recently appointed to UCIRA’s system wide advisory board, came to UCSD in 2010 to assume her interdisciplinary appointment as faculty and director of academic programs for Sixth College.  Teaching in 3 departments (Literature, Visual Arts, and Communications), Losh’s own research investigates multiple vectors across digital humanities, public culture, offering theoretical reflection on the role of democracy and new media.  Losh’s commitment to alternative pedagogies and creative practice translates effectively between her roles as researcher, program administrator and faculty member.

A interview with Liz Losh will be featured in an upcoming post of UCIRA’s SOTA blogpost.


Spotlight on UCIRA Artists Lisa Wymore and Amara Tabor-Smith: Sabar in the Studio

14 Feb

Ciré Beye. photo courtesy of CDG

In October, 2011, Berkeley and Oakland became part of greater Dakar. The occasion was the arrival of from Senegal of dancer Ciré Beye and master drummer Khadim Niang to conduct workshops in Sabar, the vigorous yet fluid dance form of the Wolof peoples of West Africa. For three weeks UC Berkeley’s Bancroft studio and Oakland’s Malonga Center for the Arts reverberated to the polyrhythmns of drums originally developed to communicate long distances in the dry regions at the edge of the Sahara, and to the cries of dance classes answering the drums.

For Lisa Wymore, assistant professor of dance at UC Berkeley, and for visiting faculty/resident artist Amara Tabor-Smith, the chance to expose their modern dance students to three weeks of “Sabar in the Studio” was not simply an exercise in learning new steps. Both teachers, Wymore says, felt “it would help students engage with dance as a world practice. Get them out of just imagining modern dance as a western phenomenon.”

Tabor-Smith, founder of Deep Waters Dance Theatre, had studied and danced with Beye in Senegal at L’École des Sables, an international center for traditional and contemporary African dance founded by choreographer Germaine Acogny. Beye, she knew, was not only a gifted teacher of traditional forms but an accomplished modern dancer, who performs internationally with Acogny’s Companie Jant-Bi. His “understanding of the body and his contemporary aesthetics,” Wymore said, made him a good fit for both their advanced and intermediate  classes.

Sabar—the word refers to the drumming and the dancing—is itself a citizen of two worlds. While a traditional accompaniment to weddings and funerals, it is also an urban phenomenon, flowering on the streets of Dakar in the wake of Senegal’s independence from France. Unlike traditional folk forms, Wymore says, Sabar “is always evolving and adapting. Like any dance—but particularly street forms of dance, it’s in flux—adopting and borrowing from other styles and developing new steps.”

It is also an exuberantly interactive effort with dancers and musicians trading rhythms and egging each other on to ever more insouciant displays of virtuosity. In the classes, the interactive or collaborative mode continued, Wymore says. “What was exciting—and Ciré kept saying this—he wanted to not be the teacher but the sharer of information, so the students could then take this form into their own practices”.

An important aspect of Sabar, Wymore says, is its involvement of the whole spine and pelvis in a kind of undulating movement—a stretch in more ways than one for those students who come out of a ballet background where the torso is held rigid—but important to developing the fluidity and versatility demanded by modern dance.

Another basic Sabar movement involves stepping from foot to foot. Wymore describes the resultant motion as “strong, earthy, and grounded.” The constant transferring of weight, she says, forces dancers to be aware of their own substance. Emotional engagement is required, too. “You have to bring your full self to it. It really requires that you not be embarrassed or holding back or shying away.” At the same time, she says, “Sabar is soft, older people do it. You don’t have to jump that high. It has this incredible gracefulness in the arms and this powerful pelvis. You can see how it was created by women.”

As a women’s dance from a patriarchal society, (the Muslim sub Sahara) Sabar also seems to carry a quietly confident assertiveness that blends well with political expression. It does so in the choreography of Acogny and Tabor-Smith. It did so again in early November. As part of the Occupy Cal/ Walkout at UCB over tuition increases, Sabar students and a class drummer left the studio to perform a kind of resistance dance as Wymore calls it on the Plaza. As their teachers had hoped, they were incorporating the form into their own practice. They were also showing—as Sabar vividly does—what mutual respect and dialog can look like.

 

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Spotlight on UCIRA Artist Mira Kingsley: Discourse in Action

14 Dec

Dance is a wordless art—or so the assumption goes. Mira Kingsley and the members of Choreographers Working Group (CWG) would argue otherwise. For the past three years, Kingsley, assistant professor of Dance at UCSB, and fellow choreographers Arianne Hoffman, Sarah Leddy, Kristen Smiarowski, and Sara Wookey, have been devising ways to connect language and motion. Their investigations, initially titled Discourse in Action, combine individual and collective movement with individual and collective writing and group discussion. One goal: to open paths and categories often kept closed, and to dismantle the assumptions that block inspiration. Easier said than done.

Emails exchanged before the group’s first dance-meeting in 2008 and published on their website (www.cwgspace.org ) suggest one aspect of the problem. Choreography as pursued by the various members spans large group work and solo improvisation, dance as theatre, dance as installation, dance as site-specific, dance as the absence of narrative, and draws on a variety of contemporary practices including Laban Movement Analysis and The Viewpoints technique for improvisation. What happens when all these starting points intersect in the same collective?

That challenge—what the group describes yin-yang fashion as both “peer mentorship” and “intentionally rigorous provocation”—was what attracted members to the project in the first place. As the website puts it “We didn’t want to feel like we were taking a class from one another. We didn’t want to teach in the way we were used to teaching.” Instead of hierarchically imparted instruction, they began to imagine a play of information and response. Could a practice offering the unsettledness and exhilaration of working without a script be formulated? And could it be effectively shared with others, whether or not they were in the room?

How artificial the divide is between language and movement comes clear in comments written during early meetings. Physically and mentally the dancers are feeling their way. Wookey writes: “Space factors in everything—sensations of new space—having to adjust.” From Smiarowski: “I enter the space because I think I should. Not the best reason. But I do it anyway.” From Kingsley: “The choice between being “in” or “out.” I find I am often in the murky space between.” As a method for the sessions emerges and is refined, it takes on a new name: MAKESPACE.

The approach, detailed on CWG’s website, and taught by its founders in workshops for professional dancers and students, is constructed yet flexible. In the beginning there is the dance—people warm up, establish a relationship to the space, begin, eventually, to move in relation to others. A pad of paper and pen is always available at the periphery, and the movement of a participant to the edge to write down a group note or reflection becomes another piece of the improvisation.

The hour of mostly movement is followed by a silent period of individual writing –trying to put what was danced into words. A second shorter movement session follows, where participants try to retranslate their words into motion. Next comes a time for talk. The group notes from the pad at the periphery are read. People contribute thoughts or quotes from their individual writing. From the conversation, the group designates a concept—usually encompassed in a single familiar word like “event”—to  explore further.

Language is now are set in motion in another way. A graphic map is drawn on a large pad, with the chosen concept circled in the center. All responses then offered by the group—definitions, connotations, historical associations—are arranged ray-fashion around it. The map will point the way to more specific  improvisational destinations as participants choose—individually or collectively—a word or idea to explore in the following movement session.

The initial cycle —move in company, write individually, speak together —repeats, this time with a tighter focus. Fittingly the event concludes with group discussion, speech being the original pattern of language in motion. In the end, what has taken place is not only a dance. Kingsley and her collaborators have devised a means of invigorating inspiration—a necessary tool for all kinds of creative and collective action.

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Joe Dumit: Expressing the CAVES

30 Nov

What’s one difference between artists and scientists? Artists don’t sit still. This is not the question Joe Dumit set out to answer when he proposed bringing a group of dancers, sculptors, writers, and others to explore the virtual reality environment of UC Davis’s Keck CAVES. But, Dumit—whose own research focuses on the anthropology of science, technology, medicine, and media—says the CAVES’ scientists “were continually struck by how much the artists physically moved within the CAVE environment, how much of their bodies were in motion, in contrast to how little they (the scientists) tend to move while doing their research.” The artists, it seems, were used to doing physical work in imagined spaces.

Expressing the Caves, co-designed by Dumit, sculptor Robin Hill and geologist Dawn Sumner, was originally planned as a daylong session for 18 artists and computer scientists to brainstorm new ideas, but thanks to the exigencies of scheduling, it morphed into an ongoing series of visits by individuals or small groups. Whatever was lost in general conversation, was made up for, Dumit says, by the chance to focus on specific projects. The artists, needless to say, loved having more time at the controls.

Data in motion, according to Dumit, was what the artists were most intrigued with, and it’s an experience the CAVES are uniquely positioned to deliver. Initially a collaboration between earth and computer scientists, the CAVE—3 walls and a floor equipped with stereoscopic displays and various tracking devices—has allowed researchers to seemingly fly around, through, and under a Laguna Beach landslide, and examine a 100 year history of California’s seismic activity from a vantage point close to the center of the earth. Informative yes, but also visually stunning. Immersive worlds, wildly intersecting planes, data points colored a pleasingly grassy green: Artists have already recognized the possibilities.

According to UCDavis professor of sculpture Robin Hill, the CAVES are  almost a genre unto themselves. “I could not help but think of it as a performance space of sorts, as the authentic image experience takes place there and no where else,” she says. “No forms of documentation do it justice, as one’s perception/understanding is completely dependent on the technology.”

What sort of art is now emerging from the CAVES? Semi-solid might be one description. Dancers doing contact improvisation maintain balance by sharing weight. What happens when the dancers are miles apart and represented by three-dimensional avatars moving at a slight time delay? Using Remote Collaboration techniques pioneered by Oliver Kreylos—one of the architects of the Keck CAVES’ visualization software—and based on hacked game technology (Microsoft Kinects), a group of visiting dancers and CAVE scientists have been exploring the idea of weightless weight and the sensory requirements of silent communication.

Perhaps because it allows data to be viewed from so many angles simultaneously, the CAVE seems to inspire a similar mashup of disciplines and approaches. Hill brought one of the images of snowflakes she’s been exploring with mathematician Janko Gravner to the CAVE where she viewed it as an object that one might fly through. Having seen the inside of the flake, she is now working on translating that image for a 3D printer to render in sculptural form.

For a virtual installation possibly titled Take Me To Your Dream, San Francisco writer/artist Meredith Tromble has compiled “ a vortex”  of dream elements from the biographies of computer scientists, geologists, and mathematicians which participants will choose and arrange in virtual environments, “subject,” says Dumit, “to a dream-appropriate degree of chance and surprise.” Once home from Antarctica, Tromble’s collaborator, UC geologist Dawn Sumner will be creating the vortex and programming it to replace text with images.

And what have the scientists come away with? The artists’ propensity for movement created programming challenges, Dumit admits, but also generated new gestures, commands, and playback features. Dumit’s own project—fitting for the organizer of all this collaborative inquiry—is a study of “research presence” among CAVE users. It was inspired, he says by the vocabulary used during the brainstorming sessions. It’s one thing to be comfortable moving in imaginary space; another to find words to describe the where there.

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Art Occupies at Occupy Cal

28 Nov

The first Occupy Cal encampment at the University of California Berkeley was set up on Wednesday, November 9, 2011 on an area of grass in front of Sproul Hall, an administration building, and broken down that day in two brutal police assaults on nonviolent students, faculty, and others who linked arms to protect themselves and the camp. Many were injured by baton thrusts and blows and by being dragged and shoved to the ground. This excessive police force was captured on video, posted widely, and fiercely condemned. It prompted the strike/day of action centered at Sproul Plaza on Tuesday, November 15th. The culmination of this day of solidarity and community, which included numerous works of art placed on the Mario Savio Steps as well as seating areas with rugs, couches, and two pianos for an Open University, was an evening General Assembly attended by thousands of people who voted to reestablish the Occupy Cal camp. Then followed the 15th Annual Mario Savio Memorial event, which included a speech and spoken word performances by the Young Activist Award winners Ellen Choy (Youth for Climate Justice) and Christsna Sot and Josh Healy (Youth Speaks) and a keynote lecture given by UC Berkeley professor of public policy Robert Reich. Then, in the early morning hours of Thursday, November 17 police officers and sheriff’s deputies dispersed those in the encampment and bulldozed it. Since November 21, Sproul Plaza has become the site of Occupy Cal’s renewed Open University, with teach-ins, new artwork, and musical performances. 

By the time I arrived at Sproul Plaza on the morning of Thursday, November 17, the Occupy Cal camp was gone. Not a tent was in sight. There were only a few people about, including refugees from the camp huddled in blankets. But the plaza that morning brought quickly to mind Josh Healy’s “When Hope Comes Back (A Poem for the 99%),” spoken there two days earlier before as many as 10,000 people. Despite the camp’s absence, it seemed that hope had returned to this enduring place of conscience—this space of the Free Speech Movement of 1964-65, protests against the Vietnam War, the anti-apartheid protests of 1985, and, since 2009, protests against the privatization of this public university and attacks against diversity and the public good.

Hope had returned to Sproul that Thursday despite the police and sheriff’s deputies in riot gear who cleared the Occupy Cal tents on the Mario Savio Steps at 3:30 am that morning.

Hope had returned to Sproul that morning despite the backhoe and trucks brought in by the university administration to crush, clear away, and dump not only the tents but also the couches, chairs, benches, rugs, blackboard, bookshelf, tree-branch teepees, and art installations assembled for the November 15 strike/day of action.

Hope returned to Sproul Thursday despite the fact that the administration deemed it necessary not merely to shut down the second Occupy Cal encampment (the first broken down on November 9) but to power wash the space, as if it needed to be “sanitized” of the courageous acts and embodiments of free speech that for days had spellbound many passing through and sitting in Sproul Plaza.

Never mind that this “cleansing” action could not remove the deep moral stain, or heal the physical and psychic wounds, caused by the police violence that has been visited upon the campus community not only since November 9 of this year, when nonviolent students and faculty were beaten, but indeed, in recent memory, repeatedly since 2009.

Hope returned to Sproul that morning and thereafter in the bodies and voices of those in the Berkeley community and beyond who continue to speak out and act in opposition to the militarization of the campus in response to peaceful protest and against the destruction of public education within a wider landscape of injustice and economic disparity.

And hope returned to Sproul in the form of books. Literally, in Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (2004), and in several dozen other “knowledge tents” that, rescued from the encampment library, were placed at the Mario Savio Steps.

                                                                                  

 I found the sight of these books, where tents and people had briefly rested, deeply moving. Partly it was the uncanny aptness of their substitution. Their spines peaked toward the blue sky, their covers sloped downward, and their reference to the tents destroyed by the police quite obvious. But this substitution was no mere formal pun. Books too, and their authors, we know, are vulnerable to autocratic power; censored, disappeared, burned. By the same token, books and their author’s words and presences survive, resist, and return, sometimes in secret readings and hidden possession but also in determined, public vocalization. If there were any object I would wish to serve as my replacement, it would be a book—a real book, found in a space where ideas, words, and expression matter deeply, and especially a space that has witnessed both assaults upon free speech and expression and hard-won liberation.

With their visually and symbolically charged forms and arrangement, these “knowledge tents” sheltered words of history, non-violence, justice, inner cultivation, reconciliation, wonder, and transformation—the values shared, I believe, by the overwhelming majority of protesters who have filled Sproul Plaza in recent weeks and those who have resided in the Occupy Cal encampment. Entirely out of proportion to their relative smallness, literal silence, and metaphorical weightlessness, therefore, the book tents took over this space and made the air at Sproul vibrate loudly with the unassailable power of imagination in the expression of dissent. This, it seemed to me, is the work that art does in times such as these.

Art has taken hold of Sproul Plaza in many ways over the past several weeks as an insistently creative response to wounding violence, loss of trust, and fear. Its installation began spectacularly on November 15, when painting, photomontage, sculpture, and other artworks produced by the Occupy Cal art committee and others were joined by spoken word, music, and dance. Together, they enlivened Sproul as a multi-sensory space of free speech and assembly. The plaza has never looked better, some commented, while others suggested that it should always be this way.

          

Art has occupied—and still occupies—Sproul so convincingly because it seizes attention immediately, fostering encounters with the startling yet contained shape and text or equally the elliptical and unfinished object. It is not always literal to the protest speech or slogan; it may exploit the poetic, the pun, and the non sequitur. It therefore draws the eye away from the oppressively institutional correctness of the architecture of Sproul Hall and the plaza’s unyielding paving stones and concrete. It introduces branches, flowers, and earth that live in ways that the pollarded Plane Trees and contained grass of official campus landscape cannot.

The art in Sproul has been conspicuous and compelling because it invites one to enter, bend down, touch, recall, wonder, even laugh—in unexpected ways. It brings the sounds of wind chimes, single voices, a choir, drums, guitars, and ragtag pianos.

It builds upon existing symbolic spaces and monuments: a shrine embracing the plaque commemorating the Mario Savio Steps (1996), for instance, and Scott O’Keefe’s collaboratively built and rebuilt mandala adorning Mark Brest van Kampen’s Column of Earth and Air (Free Speech Monument) (1991). The artists know this space, its history, and make its history anew.

    

The very frailness of the temporary art placed, marked, and offered in Sproul over the past few weeks—vulnerable to the wind and the crowds that pass through and fill the space—conveys an urgency that defies the obdurateness of official power and the obstinate inhumanity of administration responses to nonviolent protest.

The art that occupies Sproul is about the commons of imagination and of responsibility for each other on the campus—and our larger commons that reaches far beyond the university. Before you know it, you’re part of it, part of art making a new space for face-to-face participation—real people, real objects, real conversations and discoveries, which then flow into social media in all its forms. And it is as beautiful as it is subversive. Symbolically, materially, and in its regeneration and transformation, the art made and remade in Sproul by students and others is many steps ahead of the administration and police. The tent, we all know now, cannot so easily be prohibited and removed, either by force or the repression of speech and meaning. It shape-shifts and each time grows more inclusive and powerful.

  

As I return each day to Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, and try but fail to comprehend the pepper-spray torture of students at UC Davis, I see tents and non-tents return as well. Book tents, wall-less tents. Structures of poles and banners that look tent-like, draw police scrutiny, and morph quickly into forms that defy policy enforcement. Actual tents that ride fully set up upon raised hands, and tents filled with helium balloons that float above the plaza, tethered to the Mario Savio Steps with thin but resilient cord. Each day, on our own and together, we create metaphorical tents that shelter the intellectual, technological, spiritual, artistic, and personal and common worlds and futures that are the soul of Our University.

With these various tents and non-tents, some in forms and materials yet to be imagined, it seems quite possible that hope will remain in Sproul Plaza.

[Gregory P.A. Levine is Associate Professor in the Department of the History of Art, UC Berkeley, an appointed member of the Berkeley Faculty Association and a member of the independent faculty organization SAVE.]

Deracination, Artworld-Style (by Arlene Goldbard)

15 Nov

Deracination is a great word: it means to pull something up by the roots, to sever or isolate someone (or something) from its native culture. All week, I have been chewing on an example I encountered at last week’s arts conference, and still, I just can’t swallow it.

The meeting was convened by arts funders, part of a multimillion-dollar, multi-year initiative by the Wallace Foundation to expand participation in arts groups’ programs. It was packed in all ways: many interesting snippets of performance; human traffic jams in the lobbies and elevators; many competing sessions. Everything I heard and saw was interesting, offered by presenters who seemed both sincere and excited about what they were sharing. (Clayton Lord had an interesting take on the session I moderated, the one I referred to in my last blog.)

In the opening session, Josephine Ramirez of the James Irvine Foundation talked about a new report: Getting In On the Act: How Arts Groups are Creating Opportunities for Active Participation.

I started out as an eager listener, but quickly lost heart, and reading the report in its entirety hasn’t helped one bit. The report makes many important points, such as the essential need to see an ecology of culture, an “ecosystem” rather than isolated phenomena; but it falls far short of taking its own advice. I respect the people who commissioned and created this report, and honor their intention of deepening understanding of the phenomenon. But in some important respects, the report does the opposite.

Sometimes deracination is an intentional process—a forced assimilation that disappears troubling differences, a cleansing of certain ideas that rewrites history in favor of the authors—but I strongly doubt this was undertaken in that spirit. Instead, apparent gaps in knowledge and understanding on the part of those who commissioned and created this report were magnified into a rewriting of reality that has the unfortunate effect of severing insurgent practices from their liberatory roots.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: the way we shape our stories shapes our lives. This can be seen very clearly in the writing of history, of course, because the perspectives of victors and vanquished are so different, and by definition, the victors are more likely to shape history. The Ewe-mina of Benin, Ghana, and Togo have a proverb (loosely translated): “Until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always have the best part.” For the last few decades, the lions have been telling much more of the story (as haved the gazelles) in alternative histories grounded in first-person narratives that show there are many sides to truth. But not here.

The report is a thoughtful, thoroughly footnoted account of the expanding idea of participation in various art forms and practices, framed almost as reportage on an interesting new phenomenon, a “seismic shift toward a participatory arts culture” that occurs as mushrooms spring from the earth. Except for the value placed on participation itself, it is more or less value-neutral. With a few notable exceptions, the examples are drawn from the conventional artworld’s forays in recent years into expanded participation (e.g., pro-am symphony concerts, site-specific participatory dance in a museum, audience members affecting onstage action through hand-held controllers, and so on). The influences it describes—the economy, the internet and social media, a Zeitgeist of interactivity—are important, but by no means inclusive.

Here are some of the influences and concepts that aren’t explored in the narrative (a couple of these words appear just once, in a throwaway sequence): social justice; democracy; liberation; cultural development; Paulo Freire (whose analysis of speaking one’s own words in one’s own voice is a foundation for so much participatory culture); Augusto Boal (whose notion of the “spectactor” erased the theater’s fourth wall in so many places around the globe); theater for development and other forms of popular theater in Africa; and many, many, many others.

When I start mentally building my own list of inventors and formative influences on an expanding “participatory arts culture,” it is crowded with work from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. There are interesting examples in the report, but they are almost all from North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and overwhelmingly depict largely white organizations (while still omitting even from those categories most of the important work grounded in social justice: what about Roadside Theater’s systematic development of story circle-based participatory theater? What about the influential People’s Portrait Projects devised by Jubilee Arts in the West Midlands of Britain, and their many successors?). The Irvine report doesn’t purport to offer an exhaustive history, but it also omits present-day work that derives from these innovative, social justice-grounded projects.

It is more than a simple omission to elide huge categories of essential influence and innovation that include the lions and gazelles of the story, such as the aforementioned African popular theater, or the great and enormously influential Philippines Educational Theater Association.

But the real problem is the report’s failure to tell the deeper (and far more useful and enlightening) story behind the erosion of the barrier between artist and audience: how the evolution of meaningful participation, collaboration, and co-creation are all rooted in decades of brilliant, critical thinking and dedicated practice by artists working for deep democracy, social justice, and the development of community through collective solutions driven by those most directly affected by social problems; and how those artists and those they influenced are continuing to practice and expand this work today. The report leaves out the pioneers of participatory art, the people who were actually doing the types of work described long before the cited exemplars discovered it, indeed, whose R&D made much of the cited work possible.

I have been writing and speaking for a long time about the danger in focusing on participatory practices as techniques without understanding why to use them. (For example, in a 2008 study of higher education for community cultural development, I wrote of “concern about the degree to which techniques are taught without reference to the social-justice roots of community cultural development practice, to the deepest reasons to deploy those techniques.”)

A footnote to the Irvine report regrets “the omission of many, many excellent programs that will surface after this paper is released.” But of course, those programs have been in plain sight all the time for those aware of the current scope and history of participatory work through community arts; the community murals movement; the many worlds of social issue-based practice; theater for development and Boal-inspired theater in the developing world; and much, much, more. The heavy reliance on secondary sources—academics and researchers studying phenomena, with few primary accounts by practitioners and participants—means that much of the report redigests material that has already been processed through someone else’s filters, dimming the picture. When I look at the sources and informants cited, I can only surmise that gaps in the commissioners’ or creators’ own knowledge, understanding, and networks created the yawning gaps evident in the result.

A classic focus-group exercise illustrates this. Shown a picture of sick cattle in a field, people are asked how the animals got that way. People say that the farmer has neglected the cows’ nutrition, or a virus has gotten into the animals’ food or water. Then the picture is enlarged to show a factory just beyond the farm, belching black smoke and effluent. Suddenly, larger answers emerge. The way we frame our stories matters greatly.

Intentional or not, omitting all the things I’ve mentioned is not a minor oversight, but a severing of the roots of these practices akin to “The Jefferson Bible,” in which Thomas Jefferson excised all references to the divine and supernatural to achieve an account of Jesus’s teachings severed from the source to which Jesus attributed them. It makes me sad.

Now the people who commissioned and created this report really need to find a way to fix this—at the very least, through a meaty, substantial addendum to the report—before this distortion of reality becomes the definitive story for people who don’t have a way to know better.

The great Andy Bey on the necessity of critical reading:“It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

 

Visit Arlene’s blog: http://arlenegoldbard.com/

 

 

Ken Rogers: Off Peak:

27 Oct

In 1924 when oil was discovered in Los Angeles’s Baldwin Hills, the city’s westward expansion was just getting underway, and the community of Inglewood, lying southeast of the oil field, was said to be the fastest growing city in the US. Fast but not crowded: Its biggest industry was chinchilla farming. Within a year the oil field was in peak production, its crumpled hills lined with bird-like pump jacks.

 

By 2000 the flow of oil and populations had reversed. The Inglewood field was a dusty hole in a donut of mostly residential development. Well production had dwindled and plans were laid for many of its 1000-plus acres to be reclaimed as parkland. It was a tantalizing prospect, as UCR’s Ken Rogers writes in Off Peak, the collaborative public practice project he’s organized around the oilfield debate. A giant swath of accessible open space would occupy “an elevated geological peak located at the geographic center of the city of Los Angeles.”

 

Instead, the flow reversed again. PXP, the site’s operator, used new prospecting methods to map access to deep reserves in a 21 square mile area. The discovery coincided with the rise in oil prices which led Los Angeles County to ignore plans for the park and permit 600 new wells. One result of the drilling was the venting of fumes that forced the evacuation of surrounding communities.

 

Rogers’ initial involvement with the oilfield was personal. As a resident of an affected neighborhood, he attended meetings that brought together various streams: concerned citizens, environmentalists and community activists. In 2006 a coalition of these group sued PXP and the County, charging violations of environmental standards. As the suit meandered through the courts, Rogers saw an opportunity to support the coalition in a more formal way, through his work with artists using collaborative strategies.

 

He invited Bulbo, a Tijuana, and now Los Angeles, media collective, to create a video documentary about neighborhood response to the oilfields. Bulbo’s methodology is participatory rather than distanced. For a piece about traditional Mexican pottery making, Rogers says, members of collective lived with the potters for several months. Community access to the finished product is not only via internet. In Mexico their videos are screened and distributed in local market stalls, racked beside pirated Hollywood films and telenovelas. Shooting a series of workshops and conversations at various locations around the Baldwin Hills, Bulbo has worked to create a record that will become part of the oilfield neighbors’ own history of themselves. Community screenings are planned for the end of the year.

 

Events took another turn this July when the lawsuit was settled, forcing PXP to drill fewer new wells Oil production, however, will continue until 2028, delaying park plans for decades. What happens in the meantime is the subject of Roger’s next planned event, Off Peak: Reclaiming the Baldwin Hills. The day-in-the-field, which includes an urban hike and a roundtable discussion, will look at means of sustaining the community that Inglewood field unintentionally created.

 

Participants bring expertise with different models of engagement. As a founding member of Los Angeles Urban Rangers, the hike’s leader, Sara Daleiden, creates guides and tools, including walking tours that foster a direct experience of the city’s landscape, both natural and cultural. Lark Galloway-Gilliam grew up in South Los Angeles, the area of the city surrounding the oilfields, and is executive director of Community Health Councils, an organization that advocates for consumer rights, public accountability, and quality healthcare for all residents. Bill Kelley jr. is an art historian, teacher, curator, and critic, whose fields include contemporary Latin American and collaborative art.

 

Fittingly, this art-health-environment colloquy—Rogers calls it a think-tank—will conduct its discussion at the Baldwin Hills Conservancy’s Scenic Overlook, the one piece of the envisioned great park that has materialized. From this green vantage point, with it views to mountains and sea, Rogers hopes a new kind of community action will arise. Instead of finding common ground in being against something, Rogers says, “there’s now the possibility of being for something. There’s the possibility of city residents taking ownership of their immediate environment.”

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Crowdfunding and the Arts: UCIRA Interviews Thuy Tran of United States Artists (USA), Steve Lambert, Jeff Crouse and Dan Froot (UCLA) (PART 4)

20 Oct

Crowdfunding and the Arts: UCIRA Interviews Thuy Tran of United States Artists (USA), Steve Lambert, Jeff Crouse and Dan Froot (UCLA).

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Last April, an article appeared in the Seattle weekly The Stranger that caught my eye with the provocative title  ‘Could Kickstarter Be Evil?’ The very next day, Steve Lambert, an artist I’ve known for a while, posed a provocative question through facebook: ‘Crowdfunding: how artists help support right-wing tax cuts. Discuss.’ As an arts funder myself I am always interested in new ways of supporting artists, but was feeling some ambivalence about the steep rise in crowdfunding platforms. As an entry into this subject I gathered a few people with experience in crowdfunding together to see what this new strategy looks like from their persepctives. – Holly Unruh, UCIRA

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PART IV

UCIRA: Jeff, you recently had a project funded on Kickstarter. Can you talk a bit about your experiences with the process?

Jeff: My campaign was for a project that I am still working on called Unlogo, and I actually started it twice.  It is going to be a community-driven video filtering service that filters logos out of videos. The first time it failed, but right after it ended, it was picked up by BoingBoing and a bunch of people contacted me saying that they wanted to support it, so I relaunched it. I felt weird about this because I thought it kind of betrayed the “all or nothing” spirit of Kickstarter, but I did it anyway.

My experience actually wasn’t ideal, but it was my own fault.  As you probably know, on Kickstarter you are encouraged to offer a range or prizes to contributors at different levels — kind of like an NPR pledge drive. I offered prizes like a simple credit on the site, t-shirt, stickers, to a private lesson in computer vision.  I had contributors at every level – I think close to 200 in all.  So I ended up spending over half of the money on the prizes that I had promised to people. So I didn’t really make enough to fund the project, but it did raise the visibility of the project quite a bit and generally got people talking about it, so that helped me in other tangible ways.

The biggest benefit, I think, was the inspiration that came from tons of strangers getting behind my idea.

UCIRA: You also responded to Steve’s question of a few weeks ago with the observation that Kickstarter (and others) may be introducing the concept of support for the arts to a whole new group of people. Who do you imagine this new group to be and how might their participation in arts funding change things?

Jeff:  I’m not sure I have any idea. In my case, I think it was mostly Vimeo and BoingBoing readers, but I don’t know how to generalize that for crowdfunding in general. But in terms of my comments about Steve’s purposefully inflammatory statement (Steve is good at that – like Fox News good), I think I was mostly just conforming to a reputation that I have worked to cultivate with Steve as a pro Internet flame-warrior and arguing against the absurdity of the proposition. To propose that people who contribute their own money to art projects are supporting some right-wing de-funding agenda is like saying that doctors who volunteer in clinics are supporting lack of universal health care. There is no causality there at all, and no proof offered. I don’t think Kickstarter is perfect. I think that it is a great idea, and I know that it has made lots of projects possible that otherwise wouldn’t have been, but in the end, it didn’t really do much for me. It was the statement itself that made me feel the need to defend crowdfunding.

UCIRA: Dan, since UCIRA initially funded your project Who’s Hungry West Hollywood (with Dan Hurlin), you’ve expanded the project to other cities, and have raised a considerable amount of money to support your work. I want to list the funders you credit on your website as introduction to my first question to you (see below). My sense is that individual artists are often in the position of having to raise little sums of money from a great many funders in order to see their work through to completion. Does this list represent the usual scope of fundraising you do in order to see a project happen? How much of your time and creative energy is spent on capital- as opposed to creative development?

Dan: Yes, artists are most often forced to slice the revenue pie into slender pieces.  Still, I firmly believe (and I tell my students and anyone who will listen) that there is enough money out there to fund projects.  Because I have been building this project over a number of iterations for several years, I have gotten better at articulating it to funders (though apparently not to presenters!). At the same time, the project has been building its own archive, and so appears to be more and more substantial, which seems to attract attention.  So, yes, this is the usual scope of grants that I apply for, but the percentage of successful proposals is getting larger and larger.  In addition to the reasons I stated above, I also think that I stumbled into a project that touches a lot of funders’ missions at this cultural moment, whose themes include community engagement, interdisciplinarity, food scarcity, and oral narratives.  I would say my time is pretty evenly split between ‘capital,’ as you say, and studio practice.  But those two things are not, of course, mutually exclusive.  I feel strongly that there is intrinsic value in every proposal, as each different one forces you to consider the value of your project from different perspectives.  The big problem for me is that I haven’t found a way to do both at the same time: to the extent that they are separate activities, they are in conflict with each other.

[the list] The National Endowment for the Arts, Los Angeles County Arts Commission, UCLA Center for Community Partnership, Southwest Oral History Association, MAP Fund, a program of Creative Capital supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Music scores commissioned by Meet The Composer’s Commissioning Music/USA program, which is made possible by generous support from the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, the Ford Foundation, the Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trusts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, New York State Council on the Arts, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Helen F. Whitaker Fund.

UCIRA:  You were also recently invited to participate in United States Artists projects. Can you talk a bit about your experience with using this mechanism to fund your work in comparison to some of the others listed above?

Dan: I came to US Artists Project Site through my collaborator, Dan Hurlin, who is a US Artists fellow.  USA invited Dan to participate in the site, and he chose to raise funds for Who’s Hungry.  The system was (is?) still in its beta phase, and was not particularly user-friendly.  It took a long time to figure out how to set it up and operate it.  Dan and I chose to raise a small amount ($3,000). Somewhere along the way, we both were given the impression that this is what was expected of us.  Now, of course, I wish we had set a higher goal, as the $3,000 was easily reached.

Interestingly, my participation in the site attracted a lot of attention, way out of proportion to the amount we raised.  It seemed to be very well publicized; USA made excellent use of social media networking in this regard.

One really good thing about this site and others like it is that it is as much about developing and maintaining relationships around the work as it is about fundraising.  The maintenance part of that equation takes a good deal of work, ongoing, and it’s easy (in my case, for instance) to start out keeping those connections warm and then over the subsequent weeks and months allowing them to cool.

In a way, these kinds of sites are a logical extension of the ‘personal appeal’ letter that many artists send out in November/December of most years.  I think it’s a great way of asking yourself what the value of your work is to the communities it serves.  I also think that donor fatigue is no longer the exclusive province of the rich.  As Kickstarter-type sites have proliferated, they have democratized the field, so that anyone can easily and legitimately ask for funding at any time.  And anyone can be asked – and more and more often are.

UCIRA: After looking over the campaigns launched on various microfunding sites, it seems like artists are asked to present (even sell) their work very differently than they would to secure other sorts of funding. Do you agree? How do you feel about asking for money in this way? 

Dan: I don’t think so.  Like I say, it’s an extension of an existing practice that artists have been doing for a long time.  Personally, I tend to be very circumspect when it comes to this kind of direct fundraising.  I want to communicate to individual donors that I only ask when I feel it’s very important, and when their contribution will mean the most.  So, I feel perfectly fine about asking for support, because I will only do so when I truly believe the project deserves it – and can articulate why it does.

Jeff: My work is in a space between technology and art that a lot of traditional grant institutions usually don’t respond very well to.  I’ve only applied for a few traditional art grants in my lifetime, so I’m not sure I’m an expert, but I *always* feel like I am selling myself. I actually think it’s worse in traditional arts grants because you have to conform to the taste of a particular panel of judges. For instance, Rhizome and Turbulence are very different than NYFA and NYSCA, which means that you have to frame the same work differently. At least on the Internet you can be pretty sure that your work is going to appeal to someone out there. Although I toned down the nerdiness a bit in my Kickstarter campaign, I was more or less myself and just described the project as I would to a friend. It’s just a matter of finding the right community.

UCIRA:  Another characteristic of these kinds of campaigns is an attempt, at least, at relationship-building with donors who give at higher levels through the promise of continued communication about the project, or some kind of promotional schwag, from totebags to signed editions. What was your experience with this element of the process ? Did it (as some say it is supposed to do) build a better ‘fan base’, audience or community for your project?

Dan: It was definitely fun to imagine what might be a ‘reward’ for funders at different levels.  In the end, not so fun to follow through!  But people responded to the premiums.  Again, I think there is intrinsic value in providing swag for people.  It’s another way to brand yourself, and I don’t mean that cynically…. I am [also] still playing catch-up on this!  I’m not proud of this.  I’m interested to know if other artists find themselves in the same boat.  It may be a generational thing, in part, as well.  I’m still a neophyte when it comes to social media networking, and I find it difficult to be consistent.

Jeff:  I didn’t much care for this element of Kickstarter.  I am a very slow worker, and I didn’t want to feel like the donors were waiting by their computers for status updates.  And as I mentioned above, the prizes nearly broke the bank.  It was [also] a bad fit for me because I wasn’t making anything physical. I had to go out of my way to get t-shirts and USB drives printed and all that.  It did build a kind of fan base, though.  I actually ended up getting a completely separate grant from someone at the UN who found out about the project through Kickstarter for twice as much as my original campaign.

UCIRA:  I think that the situation of the artist working in the Academy is quite different from those who make their living through the market. How does the academic focus on research and practice fit with the hybrid nature of mechanisms like USA projects or Kickstarter? Is there a qualitative difference in finding one’s funding in this way as opposed to being funded through a non-profit or with government support?   

Dan:  I don’t find a huge qualitative difference in these different funding mechanisms.  Frankly, I try to keep my work in the university and my work in the non-profit sector separate as much as possible.  In general, I don’t feel it enhances my image as an independent artist to be associated with a university.  If anything, university funding is often the most difficult to deal with, as it is generally more restricted than foundation or government grants, and it is extremely difficult to pay out expenses through our department.

UCIRA:  One argument that has been made about this kind of group arts funding is that what will emerge at the end is a watered-down version of culture – that with ‘the masses’ deciding who gets funding and who doesn’t, more experimental and risk-taking work will go undone. Thoughts?  

Thuy: That argument is understandable and one that was considered very seriously during the research and development phase of USA Projects. In creating a micro-philanthropy platform, it was critical for us that caliber of artistic quality remained consistently high while being accessible to people everywhere. We believe that the vetting process ensures this level of quality and excellence. It takes the guesswork out of crowdfunding.

This platform allows artists the flexibility to do experimental and risky-taking work because they are not using traditional fundraising sources. New York filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris raised $11,500 to complete his documentary connecting the Black civil rights movement with the gay and lesbian marriage equality movement. Los Angeles furniture designer Tanya Aguiñiga raised more than $8,000 to launch Artists Helping Artisans, a collaboration with artisans in Chiapas, Mexico, whose craft traditions are at risk. Jim Woodring, a pen and ink cartoonist, manufactured a giant seven-foot-long steel dip pen and penholder. Jim mastered the mechanics of operating the pen—which weighs 30 pounds—at public demonstrations in Seattle.

Online fundraising also leverages the immediacy of the Internet. Zoe Strauss, a photographer in Philadelphia, raised over $5,000 for On the Beach, a photo series documenting the people and places affected by the Gulf Oil Spill. Zoe raised the money in just 4 days! Had she proposed funding for this project from an organization, it would have most likely taken much longer.

With USA Projects, artists can also raise money for different stages of a project. This provides valuable assistance at the naissance period. Success is more than just getting funding–it also means seeing the development of fresh ideas. Mickael Broth, a visual artist and writer, is currently seeking funding for the development phase of a print memoir about his time incarcerated for graffiti vandalism. It’s a story of art, graffiti, the legal system, and about taking risks in the pursuit of making art.

Andrew Okpeaha MacLean’s On the Ice is the first feature-length fiction film made in Alaska by an Iñupiaq writer/director with an entirely Inuit cast. Andrew successfully raised funds to help get the film to the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered this year. He was able to bring the actors down from Alaska, pay for food and lodging, and hire a publicist. Additionally, the Rasmuson Foundation generously matched the funds he raised.

Dan:  I don’t think that this kind of funding replaces, in theory or practice, the need for traditional funding in the arts.  And it doesn’t seem to me that the stakes are high enough to effect culture with a capital ‘C’.  I think the benefits of engagement outweigh the possible risks. However, I feel much more ambivalent about things like the A.W.A.R.D. show, in which live audiences decide who among a small group of artist who perform that evening get $10,000 of somebody else’s money.  That kind of competition sets up winners and losers and does not, I think, build community.

Jeff:  I think this is a kind of zero-sum view.  There was this idea that was brought up on Facebook that institutions (I like to imagine personified as a moustachioed fat guy in a top hat) would look at Kickstarter and feel better about cutting his contributions to the arts, but this is a made-up narrative. I haven’t come across any proof that crowdfunding sites are contributing in any way to the decrease of institutional grant giving.  And even if they were, it completely ignores the intention of the people contributing to crowdsourcing sites.  Rather than wasting energy blaming well-meaning people for contributing money to art projects that inspire them, wouldn’t it be better to think about how individuals and institutions can work together to find some model that allows both kinds of giving?

I’d also take issue with the fact that “the masses” never support experimental and risky ideas, or that grant-giving institutions always do.  At the risk of just sounding like a naive/bitter loser, I’ve had projects turned down by art institutions and been personally informed that it was for insurance reasons (a ParkingDay idea involving launching people into the air), because it wasn’t appropriate for children (Laborers of Love – a crowdsourced porn creation site).  I’ve had others that I think are strong ideas, but that I haven’t bothered to submit because they are legally dubious (DeleteCity – saves deleted YouTube videos), or it would be offensive to donors/board members (Praying@Home/GodBlock – critical of religion).  Kickstarter wouldn’t necessarily be constrained by these issues.

UCIRA:  I am also wondering what the proliferation of this kind of funding model might mean when we think about issues of sustainability. At UCIRA, we modeled our grants partially on what Creative Capital has tried to do – thinking through what our particular set of artists might need in order to support the life of their projects. We were tired of just writing checks and sending people on their way. Not that I think we have come up with an answer, but I’m interested to hear your thoughts on question of arts funding and sustainability.  

Thuy: Unfortunately, government arts funding will always have its limitations with budget deficits. At United States Artists, a robust organization is envisioned with a 100+ year horizon, providing artists’ significant resources to do their work.  To meet this goal, USA hopes to permanently endow the USA Fellows program with $50 million. To date, $9 million has been raised toward the goal.

Dan:  I think that what UCIRA and Creative Capital are up to addresses the issue of sustainability much more than social media micro-funding.  I see the latter as one very small – and very positive -piece of the puzzle, but not one that can or should be relied on in an ongoing way.  I think that the model of combining non-monetary support with funding does a much better job.

 

Crowdfunding and the Arts: UCIRA Interviews Thuy Tran of United States Artists (USA), Steve Lambert, Jeff Crouse and Dan Froot (UCLA) (PART 3)

20 Oct

Crowdfunding and the Arts: UCIRA Interviews Thuy Tran of United States Artists (USA), Steve Lambert, Jeff Crouse and Dan Froot (UCLA).

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Last April, an article appeared in the Seattle weekly The Stranger that caught my eye with the provocative title  ‘Could Kickstarter Be Evil?’ The very next day, Steve Lambert, an artist I’ve known for a while, posed a provocative question through facebook: ‘Crowdfunding: how artists help support right-wing tax cuts. Discuss.’ As an arts funder myself I am always interested in new ways of supporting artists, but was feeling some ambivalence about the steep rise in crowdfunding platforms. As an entry into this subject I gathered a few people with experience in crowdfunding together to see what this new strategy looks like from their perspectives. – Holly Unruh, UCIRA

********

PART III

UCIRA:  What kids of shifts might we see in terms of the kinds of research, work, projects supported in this emerging funding climate? i.e. do you see a demonstrable difference in the kind of support offered through governmental versus private avenues?

Steve:  You’re asking about what kinds of projects will get supported and if that will change, but I am going to expand your question to both projects and the processes involved at the artist level and beyond.

First, I need to acknowledge the many advantages of crowdfunding because they are significant. For someone with a great idea and little track record crowdfunding can be incredible. I remember how hard it was for me in 2000, without even a complete slide sheet, trying to prove to a foundation that I could pull off an ambitious project. When an organization is fronting $12,000 dollars, they want to make sure it won’t be wasted. As a newcomer, this barrier can be discouraging. Crowdfunding gives more people access because arguably all you need is a good idea and the ability to communicate it well.

For me, I’ve been claiming ‘artist’ on my taxes since 2000. That’s 11 years of hustling, from being a newcomer, bending over backwards proving myself, and advancing to where I turn down opportunities I would have fought for in years prior. Having been through a variety of positions and situations, I like that I can sidestep the demands of the bureaucracy (the California Arts Council application process was the most elaborate I’ve ever navigated) and instead make a video, go straight to my base, and raise the money more quickly. That’s good.

Part of your question touches on a idea that ‘appealing to the masses’ for funding would mean that projects chasing the lowest common denominator will be successful, but I don’t believe art will follow the path of reality television. People are very smart, are able to learn, and have a variety of interests. Crowdfunding allows niche creators to find the niche audiences who love them.

I believe that what is funded depends much more on how well the artist can communicate why they are passionate about the project and why people should care. Ironically, this very thing is what I’m convinced destroyed the NEA. The NEA wasn’t able to communicate the value of funding artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Karen Finley, and Andres Serrano. These were artists who made groundbreaking work, but had no place in the market. They deserved to be supported by the government because the market never supports such challenging, but valuable work. (See my video on why public funds should be used to support artwork that may be considered offensive:

( http://visitsteve.com/made/video-for-power-taboo-and-the-artist/)

Setting aside my skepticism I read an amazing interview were Serrano explained ‘Piss Christ’ in his own words. I was completely won over. I went from a skeptic to now advocating for Serrano when he comes up in conversations. This direct communication from the artist that turns the viewer into a supporter is exactly what happens in a Kickstarter video! The same communication with the audience doesn’t happen when the artist is isolated in their studio and issued a check. The viewer isn’t as likely to become an advocate.

So I’m not concerned about the quality or types of projects supported with this funding model. I think this is where public funding could learn a lot when if we could plan a successful hybrid.

However, focusing on the funding of projects is a mistake.

A friend argued that this direct funding meant that artists receive a higher percentage of the resources. They argued the bureaucracy of arts organizations is inefficient, stating only [fill in some horrifying percentage] reaches the actual artists. I won’t argue that any given arts organization couldn’t be more efficient. It probably could, but that argument is a red herring. Let me explain.

As artists, our job is to make art. If you make your living as one, you know being an artist is less hanging out at cafés and ruminating on the way the light lands on your danish and much more similar to managing the day to day operations of a one person small business. You are responsible for everything. Arts organizations and their ‘bureaucracy,’ when at their best, take some of these burdens away so artists can make art. I might need to get to a different location to focus on a new important project. A residency program, with all its overhead, helps do that. If I want to have an exhibition, I’ll need to work with a gallery, with all its overhead. The non-profit galleries and residency programs that receive NEA funds help artists accomplish things we couldn’t do on our own. In fact, some take on securing funding for our projects so we don’t have to – lets not forget fundraising is a lot of work and most of us would rather be in the studio.

Public funding doesn’t only mean supporting artists and projects financially, but supporting an arts infrastructure that is needed and wanted, but can’t exist in a strictly capitalist system.

If we move further towards privatized funding and crowdfunding, what happens to the infrastructure? I’ll gladly throw in a few dollars for an exciting project through crowdfunding, but what about a roof repair?

Art requires public funding because art simply doesn’t exist exclusively in the marketplace. Republican leaders and libertarian ideologues see things that don’t thrive under capitalism as weak, unnecessary, or inherently unpopular. We know this isn’t true, they’re simply using the wrong lens to look at the problem.

So why accept a perspective we know is false?

It’s time to create a vision, taking the best from every model, and work toward our ideals. Caring about culture means effectively communicating it’s value. It means engaging power by working to tax the wealthy and corporations at pre-Reagan rates and working to cut defense spending. It means advocating for, increasing, and securing public funding for the arts and our arts infrastructure now and for the future. It means instead of settling for short-term solutions, pushing to make our dreams reality.

 

CONTINUE READING: CLICK FOR PART 4

 

Crowdfunding and the Arts: UCIRA Interviews Thuy Tran of United States Artists (USA), Steve Lambert, Jeff Crouse and Dan Froot (UCLA) (PART 2)

20 Oct

Crowdfunding and the Arts: UCIRA Interviews Thuy Tran of United States Artists (USA), Steve Lambert, Jeff Crouse and Dan Froot (UCLA).

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Last April, an article appeared in the Seattle weekly The Stranger that caught my eye with the provocative title  ‘Could Kickstarter Be Evil?’ The very next day, Steve Lambert, an artist I’ve known for a while, posed a provocative question through facebook: ‘Crowdfunding: how artists help support right-wing tax cuts. Discuss.’ As an arts funder myself I am always interested in new ways of supporting artists, but was feeling some ambivalence about the steep rise in crowdfunding platforms. As an entry into this subject I gathered a few people with experience in crowdfunding together to see what this new strategy looks like from their persepctives. – Holly Unruh, UCIRA

PART II:

UCIRA: Steve, I contacted you about this topic after you made the observation that crowdfunding essentially equates to artists support for right wing tax cuts. Can you expand on this idea a bit?

Steve: In George H. W. Bush’s 1989 presidential campaign he began using the phrase ‘the thousand points of light.’ In his inauguration speech he explained the thousand points of light are ‘all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. [?] The old ideas are new again because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.’

Well that sounds good. It means community and supporting each other, I am for that. But I’d argue George H. W. Bush didn’t mean it exactly like I do. When George H.W. Bush talked about a thousand points of light, it led directly into talk about ‘balancing’ the federal budget – or, to cut to the chase, continuing the Reagan administration’s policy of smaller government. The idea being: when we cut government spending, everything will be just fine because all those wonderful community organizations and charitable people, the thousand points of light, will sweep in. Government programs aren’t needed because volunteers will do the work.

This brings me to my fear: how is what the right wing dreamed of years ago different than what we celebrate as crowd-funding today? The NEA hasn’t funded individual artists since the early 1990s and state art budgets are getting cut in record numbers to record lows. Kansas recently cut its arts funding entirely. On the other hand, Kickstarter has moved $60,000,000 for over 10,000 projects since it’s launch just a few years ago.

As someone who’s personally created various crowd-funding strategies and campaigns, I know from experience this support comes primarily from our own networks. While we individually route our money (perhaps losing some to Amazon.com along the way) to help support each other, public funding could use one dollar per taxpayer to each year quintuple the amount Kickstarter has distributed since it began. Even more if we taxed corporations at the rate we did a few decades ago. Don’t we all agree this form of ‘crowd-sourcing’ is less of a burden on our already strained communities and a better use of our state funds?

We’re artists. We’re independent, creative, and resourceful. When we see a problem, we find ways to solve it. But instead of using our skills to engage power and secure public funding of the arts for now and the future, we’ve accepted the right-wing paradigm and started working within it.

 

And we’ve done a great job. Crowdfunding is remarkable in solving short term problems: artists need to get paid, our culture needs (and clearly wants) these projects to exist, we want to participate in a community. But how are we solving our long term problems – our government should truly be a representation, a reflection of us as a people and support culture instead of conflict, artists instead of bankers – when looking at the much bigger picture, is crowdfunding exacerbating those long-term problems and enabling us to move government further from our ideals?

As crowdfunding solves the short term problem so well, does it pacify our outrage at the defunding of the arts and culture? After all, my project still got funded, so what does it matter where the money came from?? Does it stall our ability to envision improvements to public funding? Looking at the WPA or the NEA, these models had benefits and flaws. Instead of looking at the advantages of crowdfunding and other innovations to improve current and past models of public funding, I think most people may, more or less, accept the extreme right position that these past efforts are only failures to be abandoned.

 

UCIRA: It does of course seem interesting that so many crowdfunding platforms for the arts have come online in the last two years just as arguments over government support for the arts have again heated up (i.e. recent threats to/cuts from the NEA budget, as well as total elimination of funding for the Kansas arts commission, for instance). Does the emergence of new mechanisms for private support for the arts necessarily have to be linked to this re-emergent neoliberal dialogue or can we think about it differently? 

Steve: Well of course, you could argue both ways.

If one said ‘crowd-funding shouldn’t be paralleled with public funding, it democratizes philanthropy and makes it accessible to all instead of isolated to the ultra wealthy’ they’d be partially right. It does do that. There are many lenses to view crowd-funding:

• As a streamlined and democratic update to private philanthropy and foundations

• Pre-sales of market goods (i.e. a DVD of my band, a limited edition print of my photography) that allows the creator to gauge the market before beginning a project

• An innovation that better connects audiences to the process throughout a project’s life

If the arts were better funded publicly (and I mean qualitatively and quantitatively) we wouldn’t see private crowd funding emerge with such popularity. If the innovation that’s happening with even the concept of websites like Indie-go-go, Kickstarter, Eventful, and Artists Share happened in public art commissions, perhaps we wouldn’t be where we are. There is definitely a link.

More than this, I’ve heard arts administrators say candidly ‘we lost funding for that program, so instead we’re going to do a crowdfunding thing.’ When the NEA stopped funding individual artists the Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital stepped in to give individual artists grants at the national level. More recently, after cutting the Kansas state arts budget to zero this year, to take its place the Governor established a private foundation to fund the arts. Conscious and not, there is a direct connection between the neoliberal agenda and the privatization of arts funding.

Certainly the core of crowdfunding is not new. Artists are resourceful by nature and we tend to support each other. Lots of people understand art’s tangible and intangible value and are willing to chip in and support us in our efforts. I remember being a student in community college and unable to afford Super 8 film to make my final film project. I wrote to family and relatives and asked for help and their small contributions of $5 to $100 allowed me to make a film I am still proud of. 15 years later we funded the $18,000 New York Times Special Edition a similar way. It works, it always has, though it works more efficiently than just a couple years ago.

A healthy culture has opportunities for artists from a variety of sources; private support, foundations, the commercial art world, and public funding. None of these pieces are new, but the shift in balance is. The defunding of arts programs at this level is new, and the shift from public to private funding is new. We’re moving out of balance.

For some perspective, imagine if we crowdfunded wars. ‘C’mon everyone, If we can hit 1.25 trillion dollars we can invade Iraq and Afghanistan!’ If you believe the government represents the people when spending trillions on nuclear weapons, the military, and international intelligence, but barely funding the arts, then great. For the rest of us, I can’t emphasize how important it is to remember: we don’t need to make these cuts to culture. Our country is overflowing with wealth and abundance, it’s just being withheld by the ultra-rich thanks to changes in our tax structure designed by the extreme right. (And paying for wars, of course.) When we accept the notion that ‘austerity’ is necessary, accept privatization as a solution, and abandon a long-term vision we play right into Grover Norquist’s bathtub fantasies.

Every organization working to solve the short term problem of lack of funding also has a duty to dedicate some energy to long-term thinking, innovation, and advocacy that will reinstate that funding.

 

CONTINUE READING (CLICK FOR PART 3)


 

Crowdfunding and the Arts: UCIRA Interviews Thuy Tran of United States Artists (USA), Steve Lambert, Jeff Crouse and Dan Froot (UCLA) (PART 1)

20 Oct

Crowdfunding and the Arts: UCIRA Interviews Thuy Tran of United States Artists (USA), Steve Lambert, Jeff Crouse and Dan Froot (UCLA).

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Last April, an article appeared in the Seattle weekly The Stranger that caught my eye with the provocative title  ‘Could Kickstarter Be Evil?’ The very next day, Steve Lambert, an artist I’ve known for a while, posed a provocative question through facebook: ‘Crowdfunding: how artists help support right-wing tax cuts. Discuss.’ As an arts funder myself I am always interested in new ways of supporting artists, but was feeling some ambivalence about the steep rise in crowdfunding platforms. As an entry into this subject I gathered a few people with experience in crowdfunding together to see what this new strategy looks like from their perspectives. – Holly Unruh, UCIRA

PART I:

UCIRA: Thuy, you come to this question from an organizational perspective, as a Senior Program Officer for United States Artists. Can you tell me some more about how your organization decided to enter the crowdfunding field?

Thuy: United States Artists (USA) was founded in 2006 with a mission to invest in America’s finest artists and illuminate the value of artists to society. USA operates from the premise that art can be the impetus for building enormous stores of social, political, and economic capital in the 21st century. It also affirms that individual artists are an important cultural resource and recognizes that the needs of American artists today are extraordinary.

USA is committed to addressing these needs. USA was founded in part to fill the gap left when the National Endowment for the Arts cut back its individual artist fellowships. Through the USA Fellows program, which annually awards 50 unrestricted grants of $50,000 each to outstanding performing, visual, media, and literary artists across the country, USA has put $12.5 million in the hands of artists in the five years since its founding.

Last year we launched USA Projects, the first microphilanthropy site dedicated exclusively to artists living and working in the United States, where anyone can discover original projects from some of today’s most innovative artists and make tax-deductible donations to support their work. Donations–of any amount, even $1–also support artist training, artist education, and the broader mission of United States Artists.  USA Projects was created to foster direct connections between artists and the public, catalyze new funding for artists, bring creative projects to life, and build community support for the most accomplished artists in America.

UCIRA: How are the artists chosen for the projects area?  

Thuy: In the course of developing this initiative, research showed that it was important both to artists and potential supporters to ensure a high level of experience and quality among the participating artists. The artists seeking funding on USA Projects have been vetted and recognized for the caliber of their work by USA or by one of more than 100 qualifying organizations across the country. Experts review projects within their fields of expertise for legitimacy, viability, artistic quality, and appropriateness of the scale of the project. Reviewers will change periodically.

USA Projects Partners include organizations such as Creative Capital, Austin Film Society, Penland School of Crafts, the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture (NALAC), National Performance Network, The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, and the California Community Foundation. (A complete list of qualifying organizations, along with artist eligibility requirements and a brief application, are posted online at www.unitedstatesartists.org.)

UCIRA: How do you see this kind of support mechanism changing your relationship with the artists who participate?

Thuy: We believe USA Projects will be a game changing tool for artists and cultural philanthropy in this country.  We know that artists need more money for their work. It is a misconception to think that artists have the funding necessary to develop new creative work just because they have already received recognition. The unfortunate reality is that many of the finest artists in this country are struggling to make ends meet. Even in the short time since the USA Fellows program launched in 2006, there has been a rise in the number of artists who have used their $50,000 award to cover essential needs like medical bills, health insurance, and even housing. Particularly in this difficult economy, the other forms of employment or funding that most artists depend upon have grown scarce, and new sources of support are more critical than ever.

USA Projects was inspired by a desire to leverage the power of the Internet to extend its mission to accomplished artists everywhere. Some benefits for artists include:

–       Generate donations to support new projects

–       Participate in organization and group matching funds

–       Increase their following by showcasing their work to a community of art lovers, supporters, and premier art organizations

–       Build an ever-increasing database of donors that they can come back to time and again

–       Support at every step of the process; USA’s Artist Education and Support Program is designed to help artists thrive in an online fundraising environment (project development, budgeting, segmentation, video production and editing, donor relations, building an online following)

USA Projects offers a sophisticated matching fund system that gives any organization, foundation, group or individual the ability to create a matching fund, specify their criteria, and automatically identify and apply funds to appropriate projects. One of the site’s first matching funds was pioneered by visual artist Mark Bradford, who donated the proceeds from the sale of one of his own paintings to create the Artist2Artist Fund. Every participating artist benefits from this fund, which continues to grow through support from other participating USA Fellows.

This model has proven to be successful for the organization as well as participating artists. Since USA Projects began last year, 75% of all projects successfully reach their goal (another site averages under 50%); average donations are $120 (this is also quite high); and over $1 million has been raised for artists’ projects.

“One of the valuable things that I got from this endeavor was losing my fear to ask. Even though philanthropists slammed doors in my face I was determined to succeed. So the fear was gone and I used every opportunity to ask whenever possible. This led to 48 hours before the deadline and still just over a thousand dollars to raise, I find myself at the symphony where I run into a friend and colleague and decided to ask. The next day she donated $1,000. And as they say the rest is history. Thank you for all your help and guidance throughout this process, I needed your support every step of the way.”

UCIRA: How would you describe the difference between the USA process and others such as  Kickstarter or Rockethub?

Thuy: USA Projects builds on best practices in the burgeoning crowdfunding arena and represents the first online community where the public can find, learn about, and make tax-deductible contributions directly to highly accomplished artists in all disciplines.  USA owes a debt of gratitude to pioneering sites like DonorsChoose, Kiva, and Kickstarter for demonstrating how the web can foster new support for educational and creative endeavors.

What sets United States Artists apart is its network of leading artists in all artistic disciplines and geographic regions of the country; an esteemed annual artist fellowship program; relationships with leading cultural peer organizations; great brand equity among a focused group of committed donors; and an engaged and influential Board of Directors. Some of the key differentiators between USA Projects and the others are:

–       First online community exclusively for artists, their friends, fans and followers

–       Only accomplished artists are invited to post projects

–       Donors directly contribute to a project at any level and may qualify for a range of perks

–       All donations are tax deductible

–       Matching grants allow artists to raise additional money and donors to double their perks

–       Artists receive full-service support and education

–       USAP Partners are a powerful force to help artists advance their work

 

 

CONTINUE READING (CLICK FOR PART 2)

 

 

Dee Hibbert-Jones: Living Condition

19 Oct

 

 

Dee Hibbert-Jones‘s first conception of the project now known as Living Condition was relatively simple–or so she says by phone, during a pre-lunch break from drawing. “We thought we would produce an animated clip that dealt with the manifestations of trauma. Stuttering, hesitations, those kind of things.” It’s a subject—call it the outward and visible signs of inward denial and turmoil–that Hibbert-Jones, Associate Professor of Art and co-director of UCSC‘s Social Practice Research Center, has been investigating for the past decade.

 

But stories, as journalists and novelists often discover, develop a life of their own. In choosing relatives of prisoners on death row as their subject, Hibbert-Jones and her collaborative partner Nomi Talisman, found themselves in a crosscurrent of intersecting narratives and unheard voices. Facts in the cases were sometimes in dispute or unknown; testimony changed over time. And while some family members had spoken publicly about their relative’s case, their own experience of events before and after the sentence often went unmentioned

 

“It became clear,” Hibbert-Jones says, “that we needed a more narrative version. These stories needed telling. We couldn’t just extract the emotional content from them.“ Seven years, dozens of hours of interviews, and thousands of drawings later, Living Condition, intended as one project, is on its way to becoming three: a thirty minute animated film, a series of politically focused webisodes, and an installation highlighting the expressive manifestations of trauma.

 

Animation is notoriously time-consuming. The 5-minute clip that’s posted at http://deehibbert-jones.ucsc.edu/Impact_03.html took Hibbert -Jones and Talisman 3 months to draw. Its final section–from an interview with Bill Babbitt, whose brother, a Viet Nam veteran, was executed in 1999–consists of about 2000 drawings. Hibbert-Jones says that her own morning’s work has yielded about 25 drawings, though there is an advantage to the repetitious frame-by-frame process. “If it’s something I’ve drawn before, I can actually talk to friends and family while doing it.”

 

In its expanded version, Living Condition will relate the experiences of three people whose relatives—a son in one case, a sibling in two others—faced the death penalty. Visually, the film’s focus moves from black and white headshots—line-drawn in a tight frame-by frame sequence that follows the speakers’ mouth movements—to more distant, views of crowds, neighborhoods, and events. These—sometimes fragmented or almost dream-like—are accented with washes of color. There’s an unreal quality to some sections, Hibbert-Jones says, “because elements of the story are being told second-hand, or they’re telling how they reacted. We’re still experimenting with animating those sections in very different ways to create these surrealistic moods.”

 

They plan to weave the participants’ narratives around a linear chronology: childhood, to sentencing to execution or release. The cases are all different, she notes, but everybody says the same things. “Everyone says ‘it was one thing after another.’ Everybody says ‘I couldn’t think about that. Death. How could it be death?’ There are these utterances, these phrases and denials, these accepting of responsibilities that we want to echo through the film.”

 

For Hibbert-Jones who grew up in England—a country that doesn’t have capital punishment—the notion itself is “almost unbelievable.” What, she wonders, are “the implications of a decision made democratically to execute someone?” The question looms larger after Troy Davis’s recent execution. Davis’s sister, Martina Correia, who actively fought for a reconsideration of his case in Georgia and federal courts, is one of their three voices. Her narrative, which once occupied a hopeful middle ground in the film’s structure, with the prisoner’s fate still undecided, has turned into another with a grim outcome. The artists now must go back and re-interview her. The story has grown again.

 

There is another similarity between the speakers. Although it wasn’t the artists’ intention, all of the families in the film are African American. Hibbert-Jones says she and Talisman chose to present the stories as animation, “partly for anonymity for some of the people involved,” and partly because animation makes it easier for people to identify with what they’re watching. Rather than making physical details of race or, class explicit, a drawing creates the opportunity for viewers to see themselves in the character. It’s as though the space inside the animator’s frame becomes a kind of hologram—multidimensional, but always clearly elsewhere.

 

An illustration of that power to confer both perspective and intimacy came when Hibbert-Jones showed the clip of Bill Babbitt to audiences in its video version, before it was animated. In it, he describes in wrenching detail the guilt he continues to feel over his brother Manny’s death. (Bill turned him in to the police hoping he would get treatment for his obvious psychological and stress-related disorders. The rest of his family has not forgiven him.).

 

“People couldn’t deal with it,” Hibbert-Jones says of the un-animated version. “It’s hard to witness his pain.” She links the audience’s response to Eve Sedgwick’s studies of shame and the overwhelming urge to look away it produces. Animated, Babbitt’s testimony remains anguishing, but it’s also riveting. The illusory wall created by the moving screen becomes a kind of shared ground, like the psychological territory that Sedgwick sees shame creating.

 

“Bill bangs the microphone at one point,” Hibbert-Jones says, ”and it becomes really real. His hand comes up and somehow breaks the flat wall of animation, and part of you is going, Wow! You have a relationship. You can connect to the experience without feeling implicated too much. That’s our hope, at least.” The idea, in other words, is that Living Condition will construct, for both speaker and audience, a safe space to inhabit together.

 

Unfinished stories and unattended voices are a constant in HIbbert-Jones’ work. Her first degree was in literature and she went on to do masters degrees in women’s studies and teaching. “Part of my investment in teaching,” she says “is allowing people these voices that they don’t get to hear.” The turn toward images– and an MFA –came later, inspired by her father’s stroke. In wiping out his ability to speak or write, it abruptly halted their weekly letters. In their absence, Hibbert-Jones found herself relying more and more on artwork to express her feelings.

 

Her first collaboration with Talisman, Letter to an Unknown Friend (2004), was inspired by correspondence Hibbert-Jones salvaged from the San Francisco Landfill. Visitors were invited to sit at a desk with a manipulated typewriter equipped with an LCD screen (Talisman is a new media specialist) and reply to letters that dated from almost every decade in the 20th century

 

Some of the unheard voices she investigates are those enshrined in language. In “Metaphors We Live By” (2006) the physical implications usually ignored in common synonyms like “help” and “support” or “similarity” and “closeness” become the subject of iconic line drawings. In I-140 the voices are more personal. The 2009 video shows Talisman and Hibbert-Jones–life as well as artistic partners– holding signs by the highway chronicling Talisman’s struggle with the US Immigration Service. “It was extremely difficult to do the piece. We were both shocked at how abject and pathetically middle-aged and worn we looked, standing on the side of streets. But we wanted it to have that rawness to it,” Hibbert-Jones says. That sense of rawness and openness to emotion has become increasingly important to them in Living Condition.

 

Pursuing it, they’ve become willing to go where the story leads—even when it heads in an unplanned direction. When Community Resource Initiative, the San Francisco capital defense office they worked with on the project, recommended Bill Babbitt as an interview subject, Hibbert- Jones declined, fearing the fact that his brother was a Viet Nam veteran would add too many extra elements and distract their focus. But, she recalls, one of the women in the office kept telling them “you know, you want to interview Bill.” Eventually, Hibbert-Jones heard what the woman was saying: “You want to interview Bill.” “And,” the artist says, “she was right.”

 

Getting a story is one thing; listening to it is another.

 

 

Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Some Birds

10 Oct

Like the sky-filling flocks of snow geese that descend on the Sacramento Valley in fall, Birds, Chico MacMurtrie’s kinetic installation which opened September 29th at UC Davis’s Nelson gallery, transforms a familiar landscape into a mysterious one.

Entering, visitors encounter ten large white fabric objects, tapered at each end —MacMurtrie has described them as recalling “the simplest line drawing of a bird”— hanging in the air above their heads. The installation has itself migrated up the Pacific flyway, having spent the spring at UC Irvine’s Beale Gallery. At the Nelson, curator Renny Pritikin calls the set-up “quite theatrical, with the only lights coming from underneath the birds.” Hung in a line, they fill one arm of the U-shaped gallery, then turn the corner.

Initially, though, the birds remain objects: pendulous, limp. For MacMurtrie, artistic director of Amorphic Robot Works (ARW), creation means bringing some thing to life. He and his congregation of artists, engineers, fabricators and software designers have spent two decades —first in the Bay Area, now in Brooklyn— devising sculptural machines that seem to be self-propelled, even self-motivated. An early example, Urge, in San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens, sets a life-size bronze androgyne on top of a 12 foot globe. When a sufficiently heavy visitor sits on a facing bench, the figure flexes and lowers —via underground lever and counterweight—to a similar sitting position.

In Birds, the animating mechanisms that ARW formerly constructed from metal or wood have been re-envisioned in high-tensile fabric. Each bird contains an arrangement of flexible joints and textile “muscles” (some originally designed for military use but reshaped here.) With air valves and potentiometers under computer control, these featherweight pneumatic structures fill and gradually lift their enveloping material: a flock rising in answer to an in-borne call.

Fully inflated, each pair of wings at the Nelson stretches almost from wall to wall. Once the sculptures have achieved lift-off, rhythmic alternation of inflation and deflation can create a flapping motion and a breathing sound. What is not always apparent is that the entire process is impacted by its viewers.

The presence of people in the gallery not only triggers the birds’ inflation, but can also have an inhibiting effect. A computer vision system tracks the number of humans in any given space. Too much human presence—too many, too close?—initiates a different cycle. Flight can falter. The disruptive effects on one unit in time extend to the rest.

“As in most digital interaction,” Pritikin says, “there is not an immediate, one-to-one reaction. It takes a while for the sculpture to react, and it reacts subtly. So sometimes people are impatient and don’t wait or don’t appreciate the tremors that their presence sets off in the birds.”

In their earliest conception, robots moved via exterior controls, usually with a wild-haired inventor at the knobs. Later friendlier models like R2D2 activated their own built-in circuitry —a process sometimes known as intelligence. MacMurtrie’s new generations of robots reflect a world in which control is not simply a matter of power or will but a network of impulses, reactions, instincts, and information.

For Pritikin, though, MacMurtrie’s installation is “not primarily about the interactivity, but rather about the meditative, silent evolution of the birds, just as though you were watching a flock of swans on a pond, oblivious of you.”

Breaking movement down into its nuts and bolts —or, in the case of Birds, to a fabric, four-muscle universal joint— robots illuminate the similarities all species share beneath their startling diversity. Still, the puzzle remains: what exactly propels us?

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Shannon Jackson: Art +

4 Oct

In the arithmetic of the arts, minus (-) is the sign of the times. It’s depressingly visible in the dwindling funding for arts institutions and the shrinking wallets of audiences. Shannon Jackson’s reading of the equation, however, reverses the terms. Director of UC Berkeley’s Arts Research Center, Jackson looks at the ways artists, museums, landlords and communities are adding on value (and sometimes headaches) by joining forces or commingling formerly separate practices. No longer Rapunzels in their separate towers, the arts, she finds, are busy hailing passing boats and making common cause with their neighbors, both aesthetic and actual.

On October 10, two of Jackson’s current research initiatives will themselves be added together: Art + Time which explores the increasing hybridization of the visual and performing arts (with the resulting complications for curators turned casting directors and museum staffs turned stage hands) and Art + Neighborhoods, which examines the supports and stresses involved in the creation and sustenance of new urban arts districts. The resulting symposium, titled Time-Based Art and Neighborhood Ecologies, will focus on places in the Bay Area and in other parts of the country where boundaries between the art world and the so-called real world are being creatively and compassionately blurred.

The titles of Jackson’s initiatives may sound simple but her intentions are not: “Can we stay complicated about this?” she asked an interviewer.

Developers eyeing property, performers dreaming of venues, and  residents feeling the squeeze perceive the role of the arts in their communities differently. Yet, she says, they depend on the same kinds of support, and many of the same institutions. Her field is performance studies: With its interest in integrating disciplines and historic links to anthropology, it’s a good background for framing an exchange conducted in multiple tongues. Or gestures. “My hope,” she told Art Practical’s Cristina Linden, “is that by thinking about support as a complex system, as a social question but also as an aesthetic question, we can activate a different conversation.”

The conversation at Monday’s symposium will involve an array of artists who juggle the sometimes-seen-to-be mutually-exclusive terrains of social engagement and aesthetic innovation. Among them: the Cornerstone Theatre, initially formed to stage classic dramas with the residents of rural communities, but for the last 20 years creating theatre with the varied populations, neighborhoods and workplaces of Los Angeles; California College of Arts’ Allison Smith whose investigation of historic needle crafts and implements has resulted not only in ambivalently object-laden sculptures but has also prompted her to develop skill sharing communities among recovering veterans; Oakland poet-educator Marc Bamuthi Joseph, whose Life is Living urban festivals join music, spoken word and performance art with environmental action; and University of Chicago’s Theaster Gates, whose CV unites studies in urban planning, ceramics and Religious Studies and whose installations may combine Zen temples, downtown blocks, and gospel choirs.

The theme of addition is evident in the titles of the symposium’s panels: Expanding Audience/Expanded Theatre, Expanding Craft/ Expanded Objects, Expanding Environmentalism/Expanded Pedagogy.

But along with the excitement of pushing outward, Jackson sees new, fruitful limitations arising from practices that “not only celebrate freedom” but explore networks of obligation and responsibility.

The question which underlies the work of all the participants in Time-Based Art and Neighborhood Ecologies,  is two-fold : “How,” she asks, “do we make an ensemble? How does ensemble make us?” In talking about adding and subtracting, it seems, we are also talking about interdependence: a process akin to breathing in and breathing out.

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written by Ariel Swartley

Cultivating the Next Generation of Teaching Artists

26 Sep
 written by Mark Slavkin (re-posted from Americans for the Arts blog)

When we consider careers in the arts, I would like to see more attention paid and resources assigned to cultivate the next generation of teaching artists.

At the Los Angeles Music Center, teaching artists are central to our work helping schools gain capacity to provide quality arts education. Our teaching artists provide inspiration and support for teachers to develop the courage, confidence, and skills to engage their students in meaningful learning in and through the arts. As “real artists” the teaching artists bring a different sensibility than students may experience in a typical school.

In spite of the central role teaching artists play in our work and that of many other organizations around the country, it seems these opportunities are not showcased as part of the core curriculum in most college level arts programs.

How can young artists aspire to a career they do not know even exists? Even in those cases when students are introduced to the idea of becoming a teaching artist, it is often in the context of “service learning” as opposed to an integral part of the life of a professional artist.

The absence of a defined set of academic expectations coupled with the lack of visibility for this career path, means many artists stumble across the possibility of becoming a teaching artist by chance.

With few barriers to entry, one can pronounce themselves a teaching artist and approach a school or community agency without any real training or grounding in effective practice. This lack of quality control is a threat to the larger efforts to advocate for the value of arts education.

To address these needs, the Music Center has offered an intensive training course for aspiring teaching artists. While our courses and artist seminars provide valuable support to the participants, these individual efforts do not solve the greater need of informing young art students of this potential part of their professional lives.

It’s time we have a conversation about our ultimate vision for a career path for teaching artists.

•    What if all high school arts students were expected to spend time in a local elementary school working with younger kids in their arts discipline?
•    What if all BFA and MFA programs required all students to take a course about the role of a teaching artist and then do “field work” at a local school or arts agency?
•    What if teaching artistry became an area of emphasis within conservatory programs?
•    What if our leading orchestras made it a core expectation that all great musicians also work as teaching artists?
•    What if school districts required a certificate in teaching artistry before someone can come in to work with their students and teachers?
•    What if we celebrated and recognized outstanding teaching artists in a way to rival other important accolades for artists?

As we consider these ideas, I am mindful of the concern that we do not regulate and structure the artistry and magic out of the teaching artist. But as we know from the arts, excellence, and creative license go hand in hand.

The work of every great artist is to transcend the structure and technique of their discipline to reach a higher level of expression and meaning. This too should be the calling of teaching artists.

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