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

20 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Spotlight on UCIRA Artist John Jota Leaños: Frontera

20 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Spotlight on UCIRA Artist Heather Logas: Experimental Game Design

15 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Spotlight on UCIRA Artist Sharon Daniel: Causes and Effects

10 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Spotlight on UCIRA Artist Annie Loui: Blue Light

1 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Cauleen Smith: From Eclipse to Solar Flare

26 Apr

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

UCIRA Spotlight on Shahrokh Yadegari: Scarlet Stone

18 Apr

photo by Jim Carmody

A dazzling image emerges from Scarlet Stone, UCSD composer Shahrokh Yadegari’s fusion of music, dance, poetry, and interactive electronics. A long haired young man stands still, arms at his sides, as he is being slowly wrapped from the feet up in sheets of scarlet silk. The cloth flows from a bolt held by a woman in filmy black who declaims sonorous poetic cadences as she circles and immobilizes the anguished-faced youth.

In the ancient Persian story being told in Scarlet Stone, the young man, Sohrab—danced by Yadegari’s collaborator, French-Iranian choreographer Shahrokh Moshkin-Ghalam—is dying from a wound inflicted by his father. But another tale is being spun as well. In Yadegari’s version—based on a poem by the 20th century Iranian writer Siavash Kasrai and performed by members of the contemporary Iranian diaspora—storytellers and their subjects are engaged in a continuous dance. A hero is wrapped in the fabric of one era only to be set free to illuminate another—an image brought alive by the buoyant unfurling of the silk as Moshkin-Ghalam, left alone on the stage, whirls and whirls.

Like stories and storytellers, politics and culture are the warp and weft of Scarlet Stone. The story of Sohrab and his father Rostam was first written in Shahnameh (Tale of Kings) by the poet Ferdowsi at the end of the ninth century. Muslims had successfully invaded the kingdom of Persia two centuries earlier, and Arabic had become the dominant language. In collecting and turning into verse the tales of fifty mythic and historic kings of Persia—an enterprise that took Ferdowsi more than thirty years—he succeeded not only in creating a national epic, but in preserving the Persian language for continuing generations.

In Ferdowsi’s telling, the hero-king Rostam is wooed and seduced by the daughter of a neighboring king. She intends that their child be a force to bring their peoples together, but events conspire to separate the lovers. In time her son grows into a great warrior and is sent to battle against Rostam. The father does not recognize his son, and Sohrab receives a fatal blow

Poet Siavash Kasrai was born in 1927, two years after the Pahlevi regime took power. A leftist, he welcomed the end of the shah’s rule in 1979 but later was driven to leave the country. Mohre-ye Sorkh (Scarlet Stone), was the last poem Kasrai wrote before dying in Vienna in 1996. In his version of the ancient story, Sohrab confronts the poet Ferdowsi, demanding to know why his murderer-father seems to be the hero of the tale and what meaning his own death has in the face of his and his mother’s hopes of peace and brotherhood.

For Yadegari, Kasrai’s  poem remains a pertinent commentary on present events. Writing about his own Scarlet Stone which has been in production since the 2009 uprising in Iran, he notes: “For many years, the only option for defining a structural basis for a social or political movement was either leaning towards the left or the right. We feel the current movements in Iran, where all sections of people have come together to voice their desire for peaceful reform and freedom, are a living example of what Kasrai has presented in this work.”

One striking portrayal of changes that have already come: The roles of Ferdowsi and that of a modern storyteller in Yadegari’s production are both played by a woman, Fatemeh Habibizad (a.k.a. Gordafarid). Habibizad is recognized as modern Iran’s first female Naqqal, the name given to the professional storytellers who have, in the centuries following Ferdowsi’s writing of Shahnameh, recited its tales to rapt audiences in king’s courts and village coffeehouses—the latter, especially, a traditional male preserve.

When Habibizad as Ferdowsi in Scarlet Stone tells Sohrab that he is both responsible for his own fate and a hero to others, a story begun with the ancient oral traditions that were Ferdowsi’s sources, and shaped for the needs of fresh audiences by generations of Naqqali and poets, spirals up and outward like the scarlet silk on the performance stage. An unbroken line in a new figure.

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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

UCIRA Artist Spotlight on Holley Moyes: Raising the Sky in 2012

7 Mar

What does it mean to discover the past? For an archaeologist like Holley Moyes, the experience includes dirt, ambiguous fragments, and the tedium of sorting and cataloging. But there is also the imaginative moment, the sudden seeing of a distant culture come alive in a particular space and time. For Moyes, associate professor of anthropology at UC Merced, both kinds of discovery are essential.

The two year interdisciplinary project, Raising the Sky in 2012, encourages students as well as residents of the University’s surrounding Central Valley community to encounter the ancient Maya, Moyes’s specialty, via multiple paths—literary, visual, scholarly and popular. Moyes draws on her own work excavating caves in Belize, on the array of artifacts uncovered in Mesoamerican jungles—pottery, sculpture, hieroglyphic inscriptions—on historical accounts from the Spanish conquest, and on the studies of modern ethnographers. She’s also, she says “been reminding students that the Maya aren’t dead. They’re still alive and well and there’s millions of them. There are actually a lot who live right in San Francisco.”

At the center of the project is the Popol Vuh, the most extensive example of pre-Columbian literature yet discovered. Like the bible and other ancient epics it blends history with myth, opening with an account of the world’s creation, “out of a calm sea and a great expanse of sky.” Once an acceptable version of man is created—the forefathers make several attempts using mud, wood, and corn—the narrative turns to tales of the Hero Twins (there are, in fact, two sets) and their battles with the lords of the underworld. The final section relates the history of a particular people, the Quiché of the Guatemala highlands—their migrations, rituals, and the genealogies of their rulers.

Besides teaching the work in her anthropology classes on the Maya, Moyes has used it in an interdisciplinary course, “Writing Narrative for Archaeology,” and lectured on it in both literature and studio art classes. In a nice piece of synergy, Popol Vuh was chosen this year as the basic text for the Core I class required of all freshmen. Moyes is also developing an original script in collaboration with Gerardo Aldana, a Maya scholar at  UC Santa Barbara, that’s based on one of the Popol Vuh characters—a woman.

Epics may be the original science fiction, envisioning in great detail what for readers in another culture amounts to an alternate reality. The problem for Moyes is all the unscientific, supposedly Mayan realities that are propounded by Hollywood film makers, New Age mystics and historical novelists who keep “bringing in aliens” rather than doing research. In her classes, she says. “I try to debunk some of their ideas. I talk to them a little bit about 2012 and what it really is, and how it’s not going to be the end of the world like the movie says.”

Rather than calling the Maya prophets, she suggests, why not see them as the great astronomers they demonstrably were: “They knew that Venus was the morning star and the evening star, which is something the Greeks didn’t figure out for a really long time. They had a more accurate calendar than the Spanish did when they came to conquer them.”

The survival of the Popol Vuh is also a dramatic story. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the Maya had been using a hieroglyphic script to keep written records in bark-paper books. Church fathers, intent on converting the population to Christianity, burned all the manuscripts they could find and persecuted those known to be scribes. In his introduction to Popol Vuh, Allen Christenson, the translator of the edition that Moyes chose for her classes, explains that a group of Quiché nobles transcribed the epic into Latin letters soon after their lands fell to the Spanish, then kept the text hidden for two centuries. In the 1700s a sympathetic priest, Francisco Ximénez, was allowed to make a copy—the only one now known to survive.

Christenson has been a frequent visitor to the Merced campus. Moyes’ students, tempted to think of the Quiché as vanished people like the Trojans, instead hear Christenson’s stories of living among them, What had largely vanished, he reports, was the idea that their language could be written. Working with elders who burned copal over a Xerox copy of the Popol Vuh to mark the seriousness of the undertaking, Christenson was able to use the Quiché text discovered by Ximénez as the basis of his new translation.

Written in the present tense, the epic seems almost cinematic, and students, Moyes says, respond to the work strongly. The Hero Twins are appealing action characters, relying on cleverness when they are overmatched. More contemporary still, they are ball players. Their game—versions are still played among the Maya and ancient ball courts have been excavated—features a solid rubber ball. Today Moyes says, it’s usually played something like volleyball. In the past, she says “based on what we can see in the iconography, they might have used an implement to hit the ball.”

At the beginning of March, a multidisciplinary symposium on the Popol Vuh kicked off with a public lecture at downtown Merced‘s Multicultural Arts Center  The lecturer was Michael Coe, professor of anthropology emeritus at Yale, whose best-selling works on pre-Columbian-history include the academic detective story, Breaking the Maya Code. Also  opening at the Center was of a show of student art work based on Mayan iconography.

Included along with two and three dimensional works from Tonya Lopez-Craig’s classes were videos from Popol Vuh in Flatlandia –a project of Cyber Heritage students. In one, two avatars, a female herbalist and a younger woman, converse in a torch-lit Mayan garden among seemingly indigenous plants. Topics covered in the student-written dialogue include marriage, mothers; men, and the political pressures on women.

Cyber Heritage classes, Moyes says “focus on the relationship between cultural heritage and technology, in particular social media and virtual worlds.”  Using Flatlandia, an independent Open Simulator platform, the students first created a virtual reconstruction –complete with archaeologically accurate temples, palaces and ball courts–of the ancient Maya capital of Tikal, Guatemala. The classes then read the first act of Moyes’ script based on the Popol Vuh, and created their own versions with dialogue.

“We’re hoping to create some writers who want to write historic fiction,” Moyes says “What I’ve tried to do with my classes is calibrate my students’ judgment about what’s good and what’s kind of cheesy.” She tells the “Writing Narrative for Archaeology,” students: “You don’t need aliens to make it interesting. These people are fascinating in their own right.” But they do need to be able to cite sources for their ideas.

Moyes made her own imaginative connection with ancient history after a decade in New York acting with a socially conscious theatre group. When the group shut down at the end of the 1980s, a circuitous path led her through dental hygiene school (her father was a dentist; and the degree meant she could get part time work that paid  “a lot better” than waitressing) and on to anthropology, where they were delighted to have her study teeth. A vacation job on a survey in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness sparked her interest in archaeology and having transferred to that department, her choice of a Belize cave excavation as the site of her required Field School semester completed a circle. Caves had been a passion since childhood, but they also, as she is still discovering, served the Maya as a kind of theatre.

“Caves among the Maya are always ritual spaces,“ Moyes explains. She has a book coming out in the fall, Sacred Darkness– about the ritual use of caves from a cross cultural perspective. “People live in rock shelters,” she finds, “they’ll live in the mouth of the cave, but people don’t live in the dark zones.”

In the cave she’s now working on in Belize, “the entrance is bigger than a cathedral, and its completely modified with architecture—platforms and stairs. It’s a giant performance space. So I’ve started to really think about Maya performance. And think how to reconstruct that from a scientific basis.”

Archaeology she thinks “moved away from understanding what people might have felt or any kind of phenomenology in the 70s and 80s.” Instead it took a more consciously scientific and materialist approach, and “talked a lot about what people were eating,” Things now are moving in the other direction, she says, to bring people back into archaeology.

“I think this is something that archaeologists really want to do,” Moyes says. “We can answer a lot of questions about the past. But they may not be what people really want to know. We have the material record, but ultimately, as humans, we want to know what it was like to be human in the past.”

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

UCIRA Spotlight on Artist jesikah maria ross: Restore/Restory

21 Feb

If the trail itself is the earliest form of narrative—a clear path though dense thickets of competing data—then  stories, too, are a kind of map, limning relationships, connecting sights with sounds and history with emotions. Here in California, the trails left by geological events, by the earliest inhabitants, by the various users of the land, lie across one another in a confusing and eroding web. So too do the stories of successive waves of inhabitants. Gold is a different color to a farmer than to an ecologist. A basket weaver sees one terrain; a gravel miner sees another. How to tell those trails and map those narratives so that they engage  as broad an audience as possible is the aim of Restore/Restory, jesikah maria ross’s current project as director of UC Davis’s Art of Regional Change.

A documentary producer and sound recordist, ross has created films and radio features on social issues including workers rights, globalization and environmental issues and worked with communities in South Africa, Tijuana and remote Sierra towns. The Art of Regional Change, which she co-founded, is a joint initiative of two different colleges—the Davis Humanities Institute in the College of Humanities, Art and Cultural Studies, and the Center for Regional Change in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Science.

“Being cross-disciplinary,” ross says, “was hard wired into our DNA from the get go.” The social scientists, she says, were interested in combining storytelling with their data maps and models in order to make their research more compelling for policy makers. The humanists meanwhile “wanted to figure out ways they could do research more in connection to community questions and needs.”

The interests flow together in Restore/Restory which focuses on the Cache Creek Nature Preserve, a 130 acre tract of water, wildlife, gravel, and contested land-use 25 minutes from the Davis campus. Working with community members, faculty and students,  ross hopes to weld modern methods (an interactive website) and ancient forms (anecdote and poetry) in a multi-layered and many-voiced history of the region.

A tributary of the Sacramento River, Cache Creek has a rich and well documented past. The lake and stream valley, abundant with fish, game, and migratory birds, show evidence of having been occupied by Native Americans for at least 11,000 years. In the 19th century, French trappers from the Hudson’s Bay Company, attracted by the same abundance, used the creek as a convenient stashing place for the furs they were collecting—leading to its present name. Later settlers found the presence of year round water and the alluvium it had brought ideal for the farming that continues to be a major feature of the valley.

Still, as Anne Brice, founding executive director of the Cache Creek Conservancy tells Restore/Restory’s student interviewers, the site chosen for the Nature Preserve was ”not all that attractive.” Gravel miners—drawn by centuries of deposits rushed downhill by the high speed spring flow—had left a legacy of gaping pits and grey dust. What green there was mostly came from the state’s latest water-hogging in-comers, giant reed (Arundo) and salt cedar (tamarisk). Both species choke out native reeds and shade trees.

But then, the site had not exactly been chosen. The land the preserve occupies was donated and remains funded by a local mining company in the wake of two decades of ‘gravel wars’ that resulted in restrictions on the practice. As Eric Larsen a fluvial Geomorphologist, tells another Restore/Restory interviewer, “the creek was changing its nature because of the amount of gravel that was being taken out…. in ‘95, there was a balance proposed: the amount taken out shouldn’t exceed the amount coming in.”  The Preserve is one expression of that balance.

For ross the site with both its negative and positives was perfect.

“A lot of the projects we have done in the Art of Regional Change,” she explains “have been in the rural Sierra Nevada which is somewhere between an hour and a half and 3 hours away. So it was difficult for faculty and students to have a high level of engagement.”

The Preserve was recommended by a colleague who worked in its Tending and Gathering garden. There, native food and fiber plants –now often inaccessible thanks to farming, mining, and residential development—are being grown and harvested in traditional ways. Created in collaboration with California Indian Basketweaving Association and funded in part by a local Rancheria, the garden, like the Preserve, testified not only to the competing interests tugging at the land, but also to the kinds of cooperation and dialog that were emerging between the various stake holders.

As a community media specialist, ross’s purpose is not simply to uncover the story of a place but to empower its residents. Discovering the Cache Creek Preserve, she says, was “like going down the rabbit hole. The more I started looking into it,” she says “the more I realized I could tell the story of California by telling the story of a small patch of land in my own backyard.”

One of the arts of community media is deciding who decides how and what stories get told. The people involved in Restore/ Restory are almost equally divided between those from the university –72 students and faculty—and those from the community—59. Those categories, of course, aren’t hard and fast. The Tending and Gathering garden’s traditional burn-over was organized by a university doctoral candidate; ross’s mother’s people are still farming in the Central Valley. “Being connected to the land and having debates over land use,” she says, “isn’t new to me.”

For Restore/Restory, she assembled a community advisory group representative of the Creek’s diverse constituents. It was they who came up with the list of people to interview. Those interviews, 48 in all, with miners, ranchers, hydrologists, garden volunteers, ecoscientists, directors, activists, and members of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation form the core of ross’s Cache Creek narrative.

Conducted and compiled by five classes of students in three different departments (Techno-Cultural  Studies, English, and American Studies), the interviews exist in multiple formats. Two to three minute audio versions will be accessible on the website ross is currently constructing. These will be also be part of pod casts that will be available to visitors at the Preserve. Two-page text versions will also appear on the website, while the full transcripts rest in the Yolo County archives.

Students did the audio editing, transcribed the thirty-minute interviews, composed the print profiles, and then presented the results to each other. That was an important moment, says ross. “They could see how different it is to craft a story in audio and to craft a story in print. In audio you only have what they (the interview subjects) say to work with.” Print allows paraphrase and parentheses.

The website ross is designing will contain a historical time line of the Cache Creek area. There will be places to encounter each storyteller with options to hear their story or read it. There will be poems written by attendees at the Preserve’s Writers Workshops (The Nature Preserve proudly calls itself  home to the only conservancy-sponsored public arts program in the country.) There will be links to educational curricula. And at the center, will be what ross describes as digital murals–one for each of the habitats in the Preserve. As the mouse passes over a time-tunnel like panoply of archival, family and student photos the voices of the storytellers will be heard, and the changing outlines of time space and perspective will take vivid shape.

In forming the community advisory board, ross also drew up a memorandum of agreement that specifies a review and feedback process. It might happen, ross says, now that the website is becoming a reality, that there are stories that people won’t want told. She is granted editorial control but not the kind of solo vision artists are used to having.  It can be frustrating, she says, when she is aiming at perfection, but that shift of focus—from  product to process—is the point. History, the communal narrative reminds those who listen, is not what happened in the past. It’s the stories that we keep telling about it.

For ross, the telling of Cache Creek is as much a reparation as the tearing out of Arundo and the turning of old gravel pits into new ponds. “There’s so much invisible history in any square inch of land,” she says. “The more we can peel back those layers, the more we can have a connection—not just to our shared geography, but to our shared history and our shared humanity. You can see the realities of California play out if you just keep saying: what was this land used for 20 years ago? How about 50? 100? 200?”

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

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

The Sounds of Singing: Nina Eidsheim’s Body Music

6 Feb


What does it mean to sing? Body Music, the opera that UCLA musicology  professor and singer Nina Eidsheim is creating with composer Alba Triana, looks beyond the notes that come out of the musician’s mouth. It asks instead that we listen to the astonishing medley of sound involved in the seemingly simple act of vocalizing.

As Eidsheim writes, “each one of us is an entire orchestra made of a host of moving, internal instruments.” But what if we could see and hear “the diaphragm rising, the larynx mutating…the shoulders lifting, the breath entering and exiting?” With the help of a fashion designer and a dramaturge as well as digital artists, a programmer and an electrical engineer, Eidsheim and Triana will lead audiences on an exploration of this usually invisible and inaudible landscape.

To make the anatomical processes loud (enough) and clear, Body Music relies on electronic bio-sensors originally developed to monitor pre-mature babies. When the opera premiers in Bogotá this summer, the sensors attached to the singer will amplify the sounds of breath’s journey though the body as a result of the singer’s shifting postures and almost dance-like motions. The electronic data will be transmitted to the digital and visual artists Carole Kim and Jesse Gilbert. who will use it to generate real time sound and lightscapes.

Body Music relies not only on technology but on Eidsheim’s and Triana’s ongoing study  of the motions—muscular and skeletal, deliberate or involuntary—that produce the sounds of singing. They describe the work—begun in 2007, when they were both living in Bogotá—similar to Eadweard Muybridge’s 19th century photographs of walking men and galloping horses.

After isolating each step of the voice’s bodily mechanics, the pair began to formulate categories. There were movements like inhalation and exhalation that passed breath in and out of the body, and others that shaped the cavities—chest, throat, nose, mouth—that the breath passed through.

As a trained singer, Eidsheim was aware of the effects even small facial motions—a forced smile for example—can have on timbre and overtones. She and Triana also considered the effects of various kinds of breathing and stance. From these formulations they began to assemble a “vocabulary of gesture” to produce the sounds that make up Body Music’s score.

One of Eidsheim’s aims in this project and the two that preceded it is to cut the cord (so to speak!) that ties the verb “to sing” so exclusively to the larynx and the vibrating folds it contains. (“Vocal cords”, she notes, “take all the attention.”) What are also cut in the process are performers’ expectations of what notes and actions are proper to singing.

In Eidsheim’s 2000 project Noisy Clothes, (a collaboration with designer Elodie Blanchard who is also creating costumes and sets for Body Music), the costumes themselves contained sound-makers. With “playing an instrument” redefined as “moving in what you are wearing” the Cal Arts performers were free to listen without judgment to the sounds that arose rather than trying to match a pre-conceived tone. Most important, Eidsheim writes, “there was no fear of failure.” Music making was returned to a practice of play and discovery.

In bringing a similar liberation to the voice, Eidsheim sees Body Music not only as a performance but as a teaching tool for singers. As a product of membrane and muscle, the voice is subject to the same constraints as the rest of the body. Trying to achieve vocal ideals, Eidsheim writes “physically shapes the vocal apparatus (and) slowly encapsulates our voices within.” By breaking habitual patterns, she hopes to return singing—and thinking about singing—to a fresher and more flexible state.

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

David White, Jessica Sledge, and Stephanie Lie: There Goes the Neighborhood

3 Feb

Long before #Occupy was a hash tag, David White, an MFA candidate at UCSD’s school of Visual Arts, began to imagine an intensive arts-and- culture occupation of San Diego’s once shabby, now gentrifying North Park section. The neighborhood’s designation as an Arts District a decade earlier had done what such designations often do—encouraged a proliferation of hope-to-be hip bars and restaurants, while threatening to price out local artists and the small businesses that supported them. Looking to liberate the arts from price-per-square-foot, White and fellow Visual Arts students Jessica Sledge and Stephanie Lie planned an imaginative, low-rent alternative to the long running, North Park Festival of the Arts. Called There Goes the Neighborhood, and running for four days of June 2010,  the new festival aimed at re-introducing North Park to itself.

In addition to  featuring arts-fest staple—music performances and a poetry reading–the organizers focused on  activist community-building. The Chicken Pie Shop, in business since 1938, was the site of a brunch and panel discussion on how to produce a community newspaper. San Diego artist Joe Yorty who makes collages from vintage wallpaper and vinyl and has memorialized the free sofas of Craig’s List in book form led a Saturday morning bicycle tour of North Park’s thrift stores.

Architect/Designer Megan Willis, whose installation Free Space: A street level look at interfaces between public and private was showing at the district’s Art Produce Gallery, offered a walking tour of actual spaces “strategically appropriated, reclaimed, and adapted by North Park residents.” Sites included a vacant lot repurposed as a skate park and a parking lot turned temporary market. The discussion turned on further repurposing, especially in the form of guerrilla gardens and arts spaces. The Arts Produce Gallery is itself an example of strategic space-use. A former produce mart, its glass front design allows exhibitions to be viewed from the sidewalk day and night, lighting a dark street as well as imaginations.

The festival’s anchor–-and to some extent model– was Agitprop, an actual and an electronic arts space White founded in 2007. With its gallery and studios carved out of space once used as storage by the adjacent grocery store, and its web links to academic, political  and art world events, Agitprop embodied White’s idea that institutions should be embedded community networks, rather than intrusive or isolated edifices.

One example of networking in action: There Goes the Neighborhood ‘s opening night concert – Vibrating Milk, an act of “drawing with sound”  performed  by organizer Stephanie Lie– was held at San Diego Museum of Art. Those arriving early were invited to hear more music on a bus parked outside the museum. The bus was also the site of a literally moving concert by Bombshell, a group whose dedication to improvisation and audience participation includes making and/or discovering their own instruments.(Bicycle horns!) The moving part came as the bus shuttled riders to the openings at San Diego’s Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla and at downtown’s Sushi performance space.

Without big admission fees and booths of microbrew and  jewelry for sale, how do you judge a festival’s success? Two walking tours on the agenda examined North Park yards and public spaces with an eye to food production. Art and Produce’s garden, begun in a parking lot the same year, now hosts a home-grower’s food exchange as well as garden-sited performances. Agitprop’s gallery reading series has expanded to include a summer salon at San Diego Museum of Art. But art-by-the-numbers took its toll as well. Sushi, home to edgy alternative arts since the 1980s is now closed.

White’s idea of institutions as fluid rather than static was pointedly articulated in a festival workshop, Given the question, could __be a classroom? museum? civic space?, participants were asked to fill in the blank. Results naming specific as well as generic locations were screened on tee shirts, washed at a local laundromat and worn to the evening performances. The questions still hover. Imagine a space occupied in a different way and you have already begun to transform it.

This just in: The second There goes the Neighborhood will take place May 31 to June 3, 2012. North Park is facing another source of transformation with the coming expansion of Interstate 805, and in acknowledgment, this year’s festival’s theme is “displacement.” White says he and the other organizers are not only thinking of the word’s negative connotations –“developers (both financial and cultural) displacing existing bodies from a particular locality”—but  also of displacement in its contemporary intellectual sense as “a tool for creating interdisciplinary investigations, collaborations and dialogue.” This year, the tool will also come with instructions—a collaboration with the journal Pros which will not only be a festival history and events guide but a manual for other neighborhoods on how to create a similar celebration of community debate and engagement.

Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Spotlight on UCIRA Artists Michael Dessen, Mark Dresser, Victoria Petrovich, John Crawford: Telematic Performance

9 Jan

It sounds like the beginning of riddle: Three people and three instruments are on stage together but not all of them are there. This was in fact the scene at the Telemotions concert presented in April 2011 by Mark Dresser on contra bass, Michael Dessen on trombone, and Myra Melford on piano. Their improvisational jazz set happened in one continuous 75 minute present, but the players were 80 miles apart. As in all good riddles there is both a rational explanation and a lingering sense of magic.

To even say where the concert took place requires some calculation. Dresser and Melford were in San Diego at UCSD’s Calit2 Theatre, while Dessen was performing at UC Irvine. Audiences were present at both sites along with projected backdrops designed by Victoria Petrovich, and so were visual manifestations of the performers—thanks to John Crawford’s Active Space system. In development at UCI since 1994, Active Space uses multiple networked computers to process live video feeds of performers. In the April Telemotions concert, these combined to create both direct and fluidly improvisational renderings of all three people on both stages.

The performers are quick to say that making music this way takes a village. Essential components include the high performance computer network that links the universities and the people who maintain it. But technology is also creating a village.

In a non-networked world, scheduling rehearsals between players in three different cities would have been daunting; (Melford teaches at Berkeley, Dessen at Irvine, and Dresser at San Diego). But with the software platform Jack Trip (designed by former UCSD music student Chris Chafe), the players were able to test out ideas, workshop new pieces, and improvise together—all without leaving their offices.

In an interview for Alexander Mclean’s Under Your Skin, Dresser credited composer Pauline Oliveros with spurring his interest in telematics. She told him: It’s a community affair. It isn’t just artistic. There’s a technological level and an administrative level.

Just thinking of that kind of structure, Dresser explained, opened his mind to a new way of collaborating. If the organizing component—he mentions Google docs and Chat—brought a new, perhaps somewhat analytic dimension to brainstorming, the ability to just work on music together allowed the kind of intensive organic development that used to only happen on the road.

Integrating that which seems separate—a theme suggested by the technology—found expression in non-digital ways in the concert, too. Part of the set included large images of abstract paintings by California artist Don Reich. Some, like “Deep Forest” were used by the players as departure points for an improvised journey accompanied by chimes, insect-like fluttering, and a trombone swarm. (Melford, who has composed solo piano music based on Reich’s paintings, can be seen playing in the concert video with small reproductions placed on the piano.)

Another painting, “Curtain,” whose horizontal bands of color are divided vertically into fabric–like folds, was treated by the musicians, as a score that could literally be read: in this case, one full of sliding, droning and tinkling.

Perhaps the least expected effect of all the technology was the heightened attention it gave to flesh and blood. When Melford reached into the piano to grab strings, or when Dresser surrounded his bass, slapping and bowing simultaneously, the sheer physicality was both affirming and startling. Wherever there was, the force of inspiration was here and now.

Concert videos: http://www.mdessen.com/projects/telematics/telemotions.html

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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

Anastasia Hill: Psychonautica: Mind, Media and Mysticism

8 Nov

Arguably, a psychonaut is anyone who’s ever experienced REM sleep—or more particularly, anyone who’s tried to pinpoint the coordinates of a city they’ve only visited in dreams. The term psychonaut, or mind-sailor, seems to have been first used–-admiringly—in a 1970 essay by Ernst Jünger on drugs and inebriation. Efforts to categorize and codify routes to trance states, however, date to early Buddhist and Hindu texts and possibly to the walls of pre-historic caves. They encompass philosophical investigations of Greek drama and laboratory attempts to discover why—physiologically speaking—Jimi Hendrix might have seen a purple haze and not an olive green one.

The course readings for Anastasia Yumeko Hill’s Psychonautica: Mind, Media and Mysticism (UCSB, Winter 2011) for the most part span only the 19th  through 21st centuries —an exception is Euripides’ Bacchae. But they cover the exploration of deliberately altered consciousness from a number of compass points: art, philosophy, chemistry, psychoanalysis, cybernetics, anthropology, spirituality, and media studies. To name some. Among the syllabus authors: sociologist/critic Walter Benjamin, dolphin researcher John C Lilly, painter and media artist Teresa Wennberg, and Zen Buddhist abbot Joan Halifax.

The kind of paradox encountered when the mind tries to study itself was elegantly stated by Benjamin in his 1929 essay, Surrealism (one of the course readings) “The most passionate investigation of the hashish trance will not teach us half as much about thinking (which is eminently narcotic), as the profane illumination of thinking about the hashish trance.”  Psychonautica: Mind, Media and Mysticism attempted both—pairing class discussion of “Trance and Form,” “Intoxication and Surrealism” and “Psychotechnology” with field trips to a variety of immersive experiences including a ritual sweat in a traditional sweat lodge and an acoustic sound bath in the Integraton, a geo-magnetically enhanced wooden dome built on the edge of the Mojave desert by aircraft mechanic turned ufologist George Van Tassel.

Hill’s survey of Psychonautic literature begins with psychedelic pioneers Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzger who faced a paradox similar to those Benjamin described when trying to program an LSD experience. A subject might have difficulty remembering an intention, or balk when reminded by the bodiless head of Ishtar. Altered realities demand altered language: Leary and his colleagues found it in Tibetan Book of the Dead whose specialized vocabulary reinforced the idea of trip as initiation. Hill pairs them with contemporary writers–Technosis author and Wired contributor Erik Davis (“Spiritual Cyborg”) and UCSD new media theorist, Lev Manovich—who look to digital paradigms to suggest broader questions of aesthetics, perception, and social reality.

Fittingly the course finale was an outdoor festival in Isla Vista—attended, Hill says, by about 200 people. The 19 students, whose backgrounds included film and media, art, philosophy, and environmental studies, presented group projects oriented around themes covered during the semester: Dionysia, 19th century Mesmerism, Surrealism, Psychedelia, and Techno-Spiritualism. The idea, Hill says, was to “give a sense of how we experience and construct meaning around culturally and historically specific variations” of altered consciousness.

Drawing on writing by Edgar Allen Poe and working  with a student outside the course who practices hypnotism, the Mesmer group “reproduced Mesmer’s salon wherein ‘patients’ could receive treatment from a hypnotist accompanied by two of the students dressed in 19th century garb. They also created an oversized see-saw with a large mirror erected in the center, blocking each see-sawer’s view of the other and creating a very disorienting spacial experience.”

The festival also had a guest star, artist Gary Hill.  In a workshop with students before the event he showed a piece of his concurrent NYC exhibition of surf, death, tropes & tableaux: The Psychedelic Gedankenexperiment—an installation of sculpture, painting and manipulated video, accompanied by mediated viewing devices. Gary Hill, a pioneer of new media art and “electronic linguistics” is also Anastasia’s father. As a girl she appeared in some of his works. In a time-honored generational reversal– though one that almost always involves some alteration of consciousness—he now appeared in hers. At the festival he performed sound and voice improvisations to student videos and invited visitors to experiment with handheld wands that transform the user’s gestures into a remotely synthesized music.

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Catherine Liu: Learning From Irvine

2 Nov

In 1972 “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” was filmed at UC Irvine—an apt choice not only because William Pereira, chief architect of  newly-built campus-on-a-hill, was a sometime Hollywood art director. To many, the movie’s scenes of shaggy but kindly-eyed slave-apes toiling in a landscape of stark modernist monoliths encapsulated a popular view of the campus and its surrounding community. Irvine was synonymous with sterile corporate planning, and both the university architecture and the Irvine corporation’s policies were seen as hostile to freedom and creativity along with unkempt appearances.

According to Catherine Liu, UCI professor of Film & Media Studies, that view has not changed much. “Usually people denigrate the plannedness of this community,” she says. “I find it visually not very stimulating, and it’s also kind of awful the way the Irvine company controls things. But you have to keep in mind that there’s a definite utopian aspiration—for green spaces, for public spaces. There’s a lot more park space and natural landscape here than in, say, Newport Beach And the vision that we have of homogeneity is really wrong. It’s become one of the most diverse small cities in America—because of the changing immigrant population.”

1972 was also the year that architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour first published Learning from Las Vegas, the book that inspired Liu’s and Cole Aker’s project, Learning from Irvine. Like the book’s authors, who carefully examined that most maligned and ubiquitous Western landscape, the roadside commercial strip—and suspended the usual judgments about visual clutter and vulgar ornamentation in order to understand how and why these features functioned—Liu’s ongoing  project takes a closer look at the supposedly bland or creepily authoritarian landscapes of suburban Orange County.

“Certain things shape the way Irvine looks,” Liu says. “The demise of the city and the rise of suburbia has often been deplored as the demise of the intellectual and the rise of the organization man. But if you actually look at the 50s and 60s—at the popular discourse as well as the academic discourse–there’s a lot of fear about conformity. Irvine is usually seen as a space designed for the white-collar worker -conformist, but I’m really interested in how and why there’s this incredibly robust support for a public university at this site, during the same period.”

Learning from Irvine grew out of Liu’s own interdisciplinary interests. She names post-1945 American intellectual history, the history of built environments, corporate modernism, visual studies. “And institutional history—that has been the basis of a lot of my work for the past 5 years, including the more political work I’ve done about defending public and higher education.” There was a time, she says  “when the public university actually stood on the side of the people of California, and it seems as if that has been sundered. I’m interested to see if we can read some of these histories against the grain.”

Among the things Liu is looking at in examining the Irvine Master Plan, and its early architects, Pereira and David Neuman, are “the ways in which we erase local histories” Part of her inspiration, she says comes from Joan Didion’s Where I Was From,  particularly  the essays about de-industrialization in Orange County, and California’s inability to think about itself as a place with a history.

For its first event, in April 2010, Learning from Irvine brought Neuman, now campus architect at University of Virginia back to Orange County for a talk titled “Learning from Denise, Bob, and Bill: A UCI Lesson.” Neuman, who was UCI’s Associate Vice Chancellor of Planning in the 1980s, commissioned buildings by well known innovators including Venturi (the Bob of his lecture) and Frank Gehry.

“These architecture-driven projects were deeply related to William Pereira’s buildings,” Liu says. “Neuman and Pereira both felt that architecture is meant to serve but at the same time Neuman was willing to give these young architects a chance to design something that would be challenging.”

One way he was able to relate the buildings—and perhaps cushion the challenge–was with green space. “Neuman,” Liu says, “spent probably a lot of his budget on landscaping and creating a context for his buildings.“ Nonetheless, the Gehry building he commissioned is a prime example of erased history. It was torn down in 2007, not quite two decades after it was built.

UCI has had only three chief architects in its fifty years, but that’s been ample time for styles and approaches—corporate modernism,  post-modernism, contextualism—to fall in and out of repute. Looking back at the building of the campus, Liu sees connections that haven’t always been recognized. Neuman and Pereira, she says, “defined a sense of the active, participatory white collar worker, someone who’s trying to forge aesthetically challenging, architecturally challenging spaces in this public university. That architectural vision—maybe it shapes a sense of visual conformity, but it also shapes challenges to and anxieties about visual conformity and large organizations. That’s something my students and I are really interested in”

Irvine’s unexpected challenges to visual conformity are also the subject of an exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum this fall: Best Kept Secret: UCI and the Development of Contemporary Art in Southern California 1964-1971. For artists including Robert Irwin, Craig Kaufman, and Frank Stella, the campus frequently dismissed as a corporate monolith served instead as a blank canvas. Located, Eden-like, far from the art world’s hubs—and blessed with California light and clothing-optional weather–it offered an ideal experimental climate. In their work of the period, materials, surface, line and political engagement took unexpected and influential directions.

Liu sees the exhibit tying in with Learning from Irvine’s investigation of what actually happened on campus in its earliest days. Partnering with the museum, the project will present films in the Humanities Gateway building’s McCormick screening. room by two of the exhibit’s artists: Richard Newton—whose performances and installations create luminous landscapes from stale bread or motel bathrooms–and Gary Beydler who turned familiar L.A. icons –freeways, the Venice pier—into lingering mysteries.  “The campus is not very accessible or open to outsiders,” Liu says, “so this seemed like a natural fit. Laguna Museum of Art has no screening facility, and we have this new bijou theatre”

Asked if her project’s various aspects can be described as “proximity studies,”—a term current in  several disciplines including art, physics, social science, and real estate—Liu  explains: “For me it’s better to think of it as local histories, institutional histories, political discourse–these are things that have been motivating me, and I think proximity studies is just a summary of all that. It translates into artistic practice. I’m not an artist and we’re not necessarily an arts organization, but we definitely have this very powerful interdisciplinary project. I like to  understand it as the organization of spaces and the organization of histories.“

The goal, she says, is not only establishing better links between the academic world and other overlapping communities, but identifying “what it is we’re defending when we’re defending public higher education and public space.”

From Spanish Land Grant to cattle baron fiefdom to embattled family trust to Donald Bren’s sole ownership, Irvine-the- acreage has a complicated history. “One of the things that Joan Didion points out” Liu says, “is that unlike the big ranch owners of Santa Barbara, the Irvine family never sold off its land piecemeal. This is why it was able to control this area of Orange County–because it kept it in the family. And now its president and CEO Donald Bren is one of the biggest donors to UCI. This has huge problems, but at the same time you have to look at the history of US philanthropy. If we de-fund public universities, these kinds of figures will have much more power in the future. But to say that it’s all bad is to forget the history of why the Irvine family gave this land to the state for a dollar so the UC could build a campus here.”

“I’m not defending the Irvine corporation, but I am saying that planning might allow for positive use of public spaces and preservation. Ever since there were these disastrous public housing projects built in the 50s, The trend in urban studies has been has been to denounce planning. To see it as the will of the elite being imposed on people. My question would be—what if there were a collective agency that had the power of the Irvine corporation to actually think through multiple needs, the uses of space. And to not go through these ad hoc reactive processes by which most of L.A. has been planned—or unplanned? What if we put the Irvine company aside and thought about a public agency, or  about a collective sense of the big picture?”

What if California reinvented itself instead of its history?

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

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.

 

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