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Dee Hibbert-Jones: Living Condition

19 Oct

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Some Birds

10 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Shannon Jackson: Art +

4 Oct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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written by Ariel Swartley

UCIRA Board Member on Egypt

8 Mar

Bruce Ferguson, current UCIRA Advisory Board member, is currently working in Egypt and did this interview about his experiences:

http://www.studio360.org/media/audioplayer/player5.swf//

 

Bruce W. Ferguson has been a curator and critic for more than thirty years. Bruce previously served as the Dean, School of Arts at Columbia University; President and Executive Director of the New York Academy of Art, and is the founding Director and first biennial curator of SITE Santa Fe, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.Bruce has curated more than 35 exhibitions for institutions such as the Louisiana Museum in Copenhagen, the Barbican Art Gallery in London, the Winnipeg and Vancouver Art Galleries in Canada and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. He also organized exhibitions in the international Biennale of Sao Paulo, Sydney, Venice and Istanbul.A prolific writer, Bruce has written for art publications like Canadian Art, Art Forum, Art in America, Art + Text, Flash Art, Bomb Magazine, Art Press, Borders Crossing and Parachute. Along with Reesa Greenberg and Sandy Nairne, he received a Getty Senior Research Fellowship grant, which resulted in the publication of a seminal anthology of essays on the theories of exhibitions titled, Thinking About Exhibitions (Routledge: 1996). Bruce received his B.A. in Art History from the University of Saskatchewan and his M.A. in Communication from McGill University in Montreal.

What Counts? SOTA Call for Participation

25 Jan

What Counts?
A Call for Proposals for the UCIRA’s 2nd Volume of State of the Arts/SOTA publication
Rolling Submissions: Accepted on an ongoing basis from Jan 20 – June 1, 2011
Send submissions to ucirasota@gmail.com
Accepted submissions will be presented online at https://ucsota.wordpress.com/and in a print publication compiled after 6 months

What Counts? CFP

What do we mean “What Counts?”

There is a battle going on in the University of California over how value is perceived within the arts and humanities. Working within a university context holds the expectation that people are always thinking about their future, their credentials, advancing and developing themselves in preparation for an academic career. Making art within a research university generally infers that the artistic practice is evaluated according to how it “counts as research.” Teaching art within this context means that the questions we are asked and are attempting to pose are framed by the politics and culture of the university.

SOTA wants you to investigate ideas behind “What Counts?” through personal, pedagogical, critical, aesthetic and organizational means.

We encourage an array of submissions that might include writing/reflections/ creative projects about:

  • How do you define art making as research?…
  • A creative way you made the case for your work or works which couldn’t be evaluated under existing standards…
  • New directions in artistic research…
  • What shouldn’t count? Are there approaches which get valued without critical consideration or reevaluation?
  • Tensions within your department’s approach(es) to the tenure process…
  • Unusual projects students have received credit for….
  • Experimental models in the co-evaluation with students and faculty…
  • Social practices in dialogue with formal practices…
  • How Modern dance teachers are engaging competition dance students or, how art professors are addressing student expectations within a market economy?…
  • Are PhDs good for the artist or for art education?..

Please get in touch with ideas, proposals and questions: ucirasota@gmail.com

What is SOTA?
UC State of the Arts/SOTA is an irregular publication dedicated to documenting and fostering communication in the arts across the University of California system of 10 campuses. SOTA is published by the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts/UCIRA.

Download “What Counts?” CFP flier here.

UCIRA: State of the Arts Conference at UCSD

17 Aug

UCIRA presents the 2010 State of the Arts Conference at UC San Diego

We are pleased to announce that registration is now available for the 4th annual University of California system-wide UCIRA State of the Arts Conference. This year’s conference will take place on the beautiful La Jolla campus of UC San Diego November 18th – 21st.

The theme of the conference, Future Tense: Alternative Arts and Economies in the University, provides a broad umbrella under which to consider the encroaching privatization of public education and the complex mix of economic, cultural and social forces currently placing pressure on the status of the arts within the research university, as well as the notion of the university itself. The conference schedule will include a welcome reception, social networking dinners, keynote speakers, presenters, performers, panels, a Pecha Kucha* style presentation, and the opportunity to attend music and theatre performances on campus.

For more information and to register for the conference please visit: http://www.ucira.ucsb.edu/conference.html.

This year is also UCSD’s 50th Anniversary and we invite you to join the celebration. For more information please visit www.50th.ucsd.edu and http://ucsdbydesign.ucsd.edu/SaveTheDate/.

We hope you’ll join in our journey through the conference, the state of the arts, and the UCSD campus as a shared experience.

See you in November!

The 2010 State of the Arts Planning Committee

Kim Yasuda + Marko Peljhan, UCIRA Co-Directors

Seth Lerer, Dean of Arts and Humanities, UC San Diego

*Pecha Kucha is a simple presentation format where the presenter shows 20 images, each for 20 seconds. The images forward automatically and the presenter provides commentary.

Reply to SOTA’s first Q&A

12 Aug

Please FWD to your colleagues!

Q&As for SOTA:

UCIRA’s State of the Arts/SOTA (https://ucsota.wordpress.com/) publication is looking to hear what you think. Q&A is where we ask a number of specific people across the system what they are thinking and then compile the results to re-circulate back to the UC arts community. People are often too busy to write their own perspectives on every development and news item, and everyone else is too busy to read them. By compiling and editing Q&A we are packing quality content on urgent issues together so people can easily get a sense of a wide range of views. Please participate and propose your own Q&A to ucirasota@gmail.com

This fall, SOTA’s inaugural theme is on Public Ed and the Public Good, hence these questions need to be asked (and answered!):

Q: How are you balancing the need for efficiency in your programs with the recognition that the arts cannot fit into an efficiency model?
A: Please send 200 words in response to this Q

Q: Online education is getting pushed in the UC Regent’s Commission on the Future report and through Regent Blum’s direct ties to for-profit online education companies. We are wondering what arts professors across the system are thinking they will do when it gets proposed that art classes be taught online?
A: Please send 200 words in response to this Q

Q: What challenges do people need to be preparing for, thinking about as the school year creeps closer? What is on your mind?
A: Please send 200 words in response to this Q

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