Tag Archives: UCIRA Grantee Interview

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?”

###

Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Advertisements

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.

 

###

Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

 

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.

###

Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

%d bloggers like this: