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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).

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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 perspectives. – Holly Unruh, UCIRA

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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

 

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