Tag Archives: UC Irvine

Spotlight on UCIRA Artist Annie Loui: Blue Light

1 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

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Catherine Liu: Learning From Irvine

2 Nov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if California reinvented itself instead of its history?

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Calm Before the Storm: Gearing Up For 2010/2011

31 Aug
Q&A is an irregular series on SOTA which will pose a question to a small group of faculty, staff or students from different campuses and compile their responses. If you would like to respond to the question, please do so in the comments section of this post or email ucirasota@gmail.com. Thanks to Ken Ehrlich, Marc Herbst, Peter Krapp, Brett Stalbaum, and Fred Lonidier for their responses. “Calm Before the Storm” is the 3rd installment of Q & A:
Q: Recently on Remaking the University blog Michael Meranze (UCLA) reflected on the summer and the upcoming school year: “This year crucial issues about the organization of University life and work, about the relationships between the campuses, the intersection between UC and the larger Higher Education system, about pensions, staff layoffs, and student fees are going to confront us all. This summer may have been quiet—but in all likelihood it is the calm before the storm.” SOTA wants to know what challenges do people need to be preparing for, thinking about as the school year begins? What is on your mind?
A: Ken Ehrlich (UCR – Lecturer, Art Department) – The seeds of non-cooperation have been planted. Students I’m speaking with are organizing a massive outreach campaign to refuse to pay further fee increases. They understand that such an action would only work if significant numbers of students were willing to face the consequences of non-cooperation. Faculty members on several campuses have also been mulling over active refusal of certain restrictions that limit the productive pursuit of research and instruction. One concrete proposal put forth that seems to be gaining support is actively opening classes to the un-enrolled so long as it does not disrupt the learning environment. The contest over the meaning of “public” education is far from over. It seems clear that both faculty and students refuse to make demands on an administration whose priorities lie not with education but with efficiency and further marginalization. Students, in particular, are shifting from protest to action. Continue reading

Online Education: Q&A with Peter Krapp (UCI) and Brett Stalbaum (UCSD)

24 Aug

Q&A is an irregular series on SOTA which will pose a question to a small group of faculty, staff or students from different campuses and compile their responses. If you would like to respond to the question, please do so in the comments section of this post or email ucirasota@gmail.com. Here is the 2nd SOTA Q&A:

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

Kid on Computer

Photo by Arvind Balaraman

A: Peter Krapp (UCI) – This is a major scandal. If the US Senate hearings have started to shine a light on the practices of for-profit higher ed, then why is UC still indulging in dot-com fantasies? Who does [UC Dean Christopher] Edley hope to please with his authoritarian imposition of wage suppression, layoffs, and watered-down education?

A: Brett Stalbaum (UCSD) – My experience is that when faculty committees examine the application of online education to large undergraduate classes, they properly identify the hidden costs, the mixed experience of peer institutions, and very real concerns about quality. These same committees often find on the contrary that distance education could be a real revenue generator at the graduate level – especially in programs where producing a thesis requiring the student to be in a different location. (Say a deeply engaged, situated anthropology study or special collections.) Drafts and viva voce examination and support can be done with word processors, email, Skype, and other low cost tools. Using online technologies for “savings” is probably a folly tied to special interests who want to sell the UC on expensive platforms, and simultaneously distracts from the development of potentially very profitable, specialized graduate programs that are bound to our main mission as a research system.

On Efficiency: Q&A with Peter Krapp (UCI) and Brett Stalbaum (UCSD)

19 Aug

Q&A is an irregular series on SOTA which will pose a question to a small group of faculty, staff or students from different campuses and compile their responses. If you would like to respond to the question, please do so in the comments section of this post or email ucirasota@gmail.com. Here is the first SOTA Q&A:

Q: How are you balancing the need for efficiency in your programs with the recognition that the arts cannot fit into an efficiency model?

Graph

by jscreationzs

A: Peter Krapp (UCI) – Efficiency does not have to be defined by corporate metrics. UC is a global leader in research, education, and service. Why can’t we
stop making important what corporate managers consider measurable, and start making measurable what is important?

There seem to be too few people in positions of influence at UCOP who have any significant experience on a UC main campus teaching undergraduates. Appropriate metrics need to be developed by faculty who are fully engaged in, and familiar with, the core mission.

A: Brett Stalbaum (UCSD) – The arts can and often do fit into an “efficiency model”, that they don’t is a canard that we largely impose on ourselves when we nod in agreement with the president. UC Administrators regularly fail to take into account that all enrolled students bring in the same state funds, and especially with fees increasing in recent years, departments such as English and Literature are cash cows because the students themselves don’t use nearly the same capital intensive infrastructure as students in the sciences do. Further, humanities and social science departments tend to have heavier teaching loads and lower salaries! The president’s assumption is almost certainly false, but don’t expect robust apples to apples efforts to correctly quantify any of these questions to come from UCOP. This president is not an honest player.

Reflections on the Master Plan Reading

27 Jul

A duration performance reminding passerbys at UCI about the progressive history of free education in California which is currently being dismantled.

From: Eric Morrill (UCI – June 26, 2010)

3:25 AM. People coming and going. Flood lights on a solitary reader. Espresso. All of this is happening in the middle of the UC Irvine campus, on an outdoor stage by the Student Center. This was the 15th hour of a 24-hour reading of the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education in California, May 3rd-4th, 2010. We, a group of all ages, students and faculty, came and went, our numbers ranging from between 4 to 40 throughout the event. The purpose: encourage discussions about public education, publically funded education, raises in tuition, and politics generally. Thousands of people walked by, some stopping to inquire, contribute, or debate.

Continue reading

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