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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.

###

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.

###

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.

###

Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

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

29 Mar

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

UCSD’s Sixth College Conference

Education in Action: Mobilizing the Next Generation for Social Reform

January 26, 2012

by Kim Yasuda (UCIRA Co-Director)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


10 Proposals for Life After Art School

5 Mar

I was just on a panel with some of my fellow MFA students here at the University of Illinois at Chicago about life after undergraduate study in the arts. I was writing up some notes yesterday to prepare and then it turned into this manifesto of sorts. The benefit of the manifesto is it kept me from rambling as much as I would’ve otherwise (because all the rambling was put onto paper and turned into this handout). I should say in advance that it is a bit more focused on having an “art career” than having a good life and so some other time I will have to write-up those proposals and see where they correspond or conflict with these. So if you are curious, have a look:

10 Proposals for Life After your BFA: These are not rules, they are proposals and advice based on my personal experience

  1. Do not be afraid to know how things work. This applies to research in general or to your life and career. If you seriously want to be a famous rapper – learn how people become famous rappers and what systems they have to navigate to do so. Learn it all, learn about the PR agencies, the magazines, the unpaid interns, the talent scouts, the corruption, the street teams, the fans, and especially about the contracts. If you understand how stuff works then it is easier to make an informed decision about if you really want to participate in that system or not. This will also help you not talk about stuff you don’t know.


  1. Try not to go to graduate school until you have done (think about a minimum of 5 years) of other stuff. Do something impressive. Fail at something ambitious. This will help ensure you have questions that really need to be addressed in grad school. Actually learn how stuff works (see #1). Try not to teach adults before you are 30 (unless you are in a co-learning environment). College students are getting older and you want to be sure you actually have enough life experience to share with them. Surely there is something else you can do for money up until that point.


  1. Find or create a community that gives you support, helps you continue to develop as a person and artist, and that is critical. Support other people because there is much to be gained from being a good audience, the kind of audience you would want to have for your work. It is a great learning experience to be intimately aware of how other people work and even collaborate with them. And the critical thing is important to…if you just hang out with people think everything is great then you will not learn anything from each other. This will help you avoid shelling out more money to go to grad school, because these are the things most people go back to school for (community and critical dialogue).. Then if you end up going to school, you will have a really good reason to do so.


  1. Sincerely and seriously participate in “conversations” or fields outside of your job and outside of art. While some people can be fulfilled by solving artistic problems with art their entire lives, many more people get inspiration by being deeply aware of other aspects of the world around them (and their art). The sincere part matters – people universally hate tourists and fakers. Seriously consider getting a graduate degree in another field. This will also help you not talk about stuff you don’t know.


  1. Don’t let people scam you into thinking that their little project is the most important thing in the world. These people are like parasites and they prey on smart people who just got BFA degrees. They make you think that life will be better one day if you “get exposure” or “make connections.” Think long and hard about what you actually want to be doing. Remember suggestion #1. Participate in things you want to participate in (especially if they are unpaid volunteer work). Once people start paying you to do stuff, then you have to do the internal negotiation about what you will and will not do for filthy cash money. Also, don’t be afraid to get contracts if you are working with large sums of money (whatever that means to you).


  1. Consider what forms of labor and administration are necessary to do different kinds of projects. Don’t get into running a gallery or a collaborative art group or whatever without thinking about if you want to and how you want to raise money and make decisions in a group. Just like you shouldn’t make videos if you dont like editing them or make graffiti if you aren’t ok with getting arrested.


  1. Get internships or crap jobs that will give you resources or inspiration. Everyone does stupid stuff for money, but maybe you can be a little strategic about what stupid stuff you do.


  1. Do not be afraid to talk honestly about your desire for work and/or financial situation. There is a tendency in art communities and when there is a power imbalance (artist talking to curator; unemployed teacher talking to employed teacher). But there is a recession going on and it needs to be understood that some people have jobs and others do not. If you need a job and someone can give you one, politely say, “You know that sometimes I teach art and I would be happy to work with you if there was ever an opening.” That way you will not regret it as a missed opportunity. Just don’t be tacky. After all, most people are in the same boat these days.


  1. Organize your stuff, answer emails, and don’t be afraid of spreadsheets. Being a slacker on communication is not charming. Find a Getting Things Done system. Find a balance between self-promoting and self-marginalization. Figure out what that means to you. People hate people who talk about themselves all the time but people don’t even hate people who self-marginalize because they don’t even know who they are.


  1. Self-Care. Do not neglect your body/mind/soul needs. There is more to life than work and it is important to have boundaries. Smart phones and smart-phone-culture can make you feel like you do not know when you are “on” or “off.” For instance, the weekend is something that people died so we could have (and I mean organized workers died). So consider relaxing on the weekend or at least one day a week.

(Daniel Tucker, 2/20/12)

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

Kaleidoscope of Pacific Standard Time

19 Jan
Friday & Saturday, January 27 & 28, 2012, 8:00 p.m.
Details: Visit the project website: k-pst.org
Admission: Tickets available at the door for $15 (general admission) and $12 (seniors and students).
Location: SCI-Arc, 960 E 3rd St., Los Angeles, CA 90013 Map

Kaleidoscope of Pacific Standard Time’s is a website resource for artworks and ideas that shape California’s fertile contemporary art landscape, and four new performance artworks. K-PST.org‘s growing archive is comprised of unique curated programs, artworks, commissions, interviews and related documents. To honor California-native John Cage’s centenary and influence, K-PST’s thematic performance program, RE:COMPOSITION, considers how current compositional practices and tools enable artists from all disciplines to re-conceive or reconstitute aspects of their art production. Featuring: JD Beltran with Marc Barrite, Sandro Dukic, Joan Jeanrenaud with Paul de Jong, and Joan Retallack with Michael Ives.

The full program is presented both nights. See K-PST.org for further details.

Organized by:Freewaves and Julie Lazar

Art Occupies at Occupy Cal

28 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                                  

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

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

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

          

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

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

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

    

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

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

  

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

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

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

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

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