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

Project Pulse: Richard Ross

24 Jan

The statistic presented poster-style on photographer Richard Ross’s website (www.juvenile-in-justice.com) is gripping. California spends nearly $225,000 annually to house a young person in Alameda County’s new, green, LEED certified Juvenile Justice Center. At the same time, Alameda county is spending just $4945 annually per child in its Oakland public schools. The numbers grab us. Crime clearly pays someone. Ross’s beautiful color photographs of imprisoned youth grab us, too. A row of half grown boys lined up, backs turned, before a gigantic guard; a fifteen year old in bright orange Crocs sits in a bare concrete-block cell.

How to create that grab and channel it toward meaningful change is the focus of Project Pulse, a collaborative course and lecture series offered this winter at UCSB. Three professors, Ross in the art department, Victor Rios in sociology  and Cissy Ross in the writing department, invite students in four courses—Studying People, Writing for the Social Sciences, Journalism and News Writing, and Photojournalism—to explore multiple strategies for creating effective advocacy. The course is called Justice.

Between them, the Rosses and Rios have an array of investigative tools. Cissy Ross spent 25 years as an award-winning  journalist and editor in New York and California. Rios’s recent book Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys is not only the result of his academic research and youth mentoring in San Francisco and Santa Barbara, but also of his own gang experience as a young teenager. Richard Ross, trained as a fine art photographer, has for the past five years interviewed and photographed and more than 1000 youths in detention facilities in 30 states. ( A show of the work, Juvenile-in-Justice opens in the Nevada Museum of Art later this year.) Justice, the course, is a hands-on practicum in the art of integrating observation and action. It’s organized around individual research projects, which will be published on paper and on the web.

A series of guest speakers will also address the joint classes, beginning January 25th with David Inocencio, founder of The Beat Within, whose writing workshops for juvenile offenders in 13 CA counties have resulted  an 80 page  biweekly magazine, published by Pacific New Service. Other speakers range from the glamorous to the provocative: Mauro Bedoni, photo journalist and picture editor of Colors, the international  youth-oriented issue and design magazine, Karen Grau, head of Calamari Productions, whose child welfare documentaries include the MTV series Juvies, and letterpress printmaker, teacher, and activist, Amos Kennedy. Based in Alabama, Kennedy gave up a career as a computer programmer to master pre-digital crafts including paper-making. His hand-printed posters re-imagine the sound byte as a meaningful statement, artistically presented and sold at near cost.

Discussing his prison photography Ross told an interviewer, “Nobody says, oh sure, come in.” Access is in large part a function of being sensitive to how institutions work—and what it’s like to work within them. To that end, the speaker series will also include the chief strategist for juvenile justice reform at the Annie E Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization dedicated to children and families, and two members of local law enforcement: Dustin Olsen, Chief of the UC Santa Barbara Police Department & Lieutenant Ray Vuillemainroy, Isla Vista Foot Patrol, Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office.

The course’s collaborative structure extends to students as well. As they identify the area they will research they are urged to contact one another on the class website. Posts may begin with a proposal to share transportation but easily expand to a discussion of approaches and methods. Researchers need photographers and vice versa Professors weigh in, too,: a terrific idea still needs to take a tangible shape. an approach has to go beyond the image everyone knows. Great reporting demands more of everything: legwork, questions, thought, art.

 

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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

Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration. Tyler Stallings & Marko Peljhan

18 Jan

Fly Me To the Moon will soon not be a figurative request. Tickets are already available from XCOR Aerospace in Mohave, CA for flights into a microgravity environment 338,000 feet above sea level. The flights, aboard XCOR’s Lynx Suborbital Spacecraft, are scheduled to begin in 2014. The cost for boldly going as a tourist: $95,000. Current ticket-holders include a Victoria’s Secret model and a trance DJ.

XCOR Aerospace is one of nine groups represented in Free Enterprise: The Art of Citizen Space Exploration opening January 19 at UC Riverside’s Sweeney Art Gallery. Curated by Sweeney director Tyler Stallings and UCSB professor of Media Arts and Technology, Marko Peljhan, Free Enterprise calls on both artists and engineers to explore the implications of the contemporary shift away from space travel as a highly restricted government monopoly and toward a privatized, free-market model.

Outer space exerts a liberating effect on emotional as well as physical gravity—as the exhibition makes clear. Like jolts of canned oxygen, the combination of sober crew cut technicians in the undignified postures of weightlessness has long propelled observers into an uncertain atmosphere where documentation and fantasy—or earnestness and satire—share a weirdly similar molecular structure.

For the Manhattan and Mannheim based duo, eteam, the uncertainty turns playful as they explore virtual landlordism and the possibilities of acquiring lunar real estate. Connie Samaras, who has examined ambition-filled landscapes from Antarctica to Dubai, tracks the actual construction of Spaceport America, a new space-tourist facility. In her large scale color photographs, the exuberant parabolas of the passenger terminal rise science-fiction-like out of the blank sands of the New Mexico desert.

For all the imminence of personal space travel, a paradox remains. The wide open regions of the new frontier can only be sampled via a cramped capsule or a clumsy suit. Images of space travelers have so far been similarly confined to the militarized and mostly male. Carrie Paterson’s scent carriers are intended as an antidote to orbital claustrophobia and homesickness, while inducing a less-specifically visual—and therefore, she hopes, less gendered and media-determined image of outer space.

Although California’s historic ties to the space industry helped inspire the exhibit, current rocket science, like the current economy, is global and as Free Enterprise shows, surprisingly multi-disciplinary. Danish artist Simone Aaberg Kaern is working with nonprofit spacecraft developers, Copenhagen Suborbitals to expand her video examinations of women’s attempts to claim their share of sky-space. Agnes Meyer-Brandis  whose previous works Moon Goose Analogue and Cloud Core Scanner interweave imagined narrative with laboratory data , extends the latter project’s contemplation of the physical state of weightlessness and the fantasies it engenders.

US artist and aerospace engineer Bradley Pitts has been collaborating with the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Russia, where Peljhan also coordinates microgravity and space-art experiments. Using a parabolic-flight aircraft capable of producing brief periods of weightlessness, Pitts records the experience within the cleared cabin. His photographs of himself floating naked, curled, and vulnerable transform the fluorescent-lit capsule into the womb of the future.

Collaboration and privatization does not equal government transparency. Trevor Paglen’s large-format photographs show classified US space objects streaking through the night sky. They were obtained with the help of amateur satellite observers, sophisticated new software, and old fashioned camping-in-the-desert. Paglen compares the covert reconnaissance satellites (189, so far)  to Jupiter’s hidden moons, which before Kepler and Galileo were both there and officially, emphatically not.

Uncovering the shapes of hidden data is also the mission of the Center for Land Use Interpretation. Since 1999 CLUI has documented, so far as possible, the 5000 square miles of the Air Force’s restricted Nellis Range complex in Nevada. In one of the recurrent ironies of the American West, the military’s high-tech reservation has unintentionally preserved a vanishing desert landscape: home to wild horses, ancient rock art and sun baked miner’s cabins.

It’s possible to imagine a similar constellation on the moon: glittering tools, abandoned hopes, undeciphered messages, and groups of introduced beings well adapted to challenging conditions. The proportions of each, Free Enterprise suggests, are ours to determine.

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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

Art Occupies at Occupy Cal

28 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                                  

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

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

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

          

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

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

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

    

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

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

  

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

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

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

Deracination, Artworld-Style (by Arlene Goldbard)

15 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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?

#####

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.”

###

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).

_____________________________________________________________________________________

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

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PART IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

20 Oct

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

_____________________________________________________________________________________

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

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PART III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why accept a perspective we know is false?

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

 

CONTINUE READING: CLICK FOR PART 4

 

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

20 Oct

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

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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

PART II:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

CONTINUE READING (CLICK FOR PART 3)


 

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

20 Oct

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

_____________________________________________________________________________________

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

PART I:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–       Generate donations to support new projects

–       Participate in organization and group matching funds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–       Only accomplished artists are invited to post projects

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

–       All donations are tax deductible

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

–       Artists receive full-service support and education

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

 

 

CONTINUE READING (CLICK FOR PART 2)

 

 

Dee Hibbert-Jones: Living Condition

19 Oct

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

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