Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Street Art Exhibit That Didn't Censor (or why I love New Mexico)

Hip Hop poet/playwright Idris Goodwin teamed up with renowned graffiti artist Chaz Bojórquez in October 2010 to create New Mexico Remix, an interdisciplinary project which incorporates oral history, performance and painting into an exhibition at 516 arts. Goodwin's performance, presented with a projection of Bojórquez's mural, weaves together local sights, sounds and stories to create a multimedia experience.

Despite taking on some difficult themes, the recent street art exhibit at 516 Arts in Albuquerque didn't have to resort to censorship. The 2-month-long celebration of freedom of expression spilled over to spoken word, music and film as well as visual arts.  The gallery walls were too small to contain all the art, so the whole town collaborated. Albuquerqueans will enjoy the many new murals scattered over downtown for years to come,  none of them buffed after a few hours. 

Meanwhile, the controversy over Blu's removal from MOCA LA's street art exhibit continues.

My first foray

In honor of John T. Williams, I tried my hand at a little street art photo-graffeur-ism tonight

the original photo

Friday, December 10, 2010

Blu Buffed!

Looking at street art in a museum, or in this case on a museum’s wall, is sort of like “looking at wild animals in the zoo.” (Daniel Lahoda)
If you know anything about Blu, it's probably as incomprehensible to you as it was to me how any self-respecting curator of a "street art" exhibit could invite him to create a mural and then be shocked (shocked!) about its political message. But that's apparently what happened the other day at MOCA in LA just one day after the mural was completed, and one day before a media preview at the museum for another exhibit.

photo from unurth

If you don't know anything about Blu, his specialty is beautiful large-scale murals that often reflect local or global political themes.  Here are some favorites:

from Nicaragua, "Hombre Banano"   

Sao Paulo, Brazil

And my favorite, from Lisbon, a collaboration with Os Gemeos
Also check out his brilliant graffiti videos.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Song of John T. Williams

Maybe only poets can cut through the surrealistic double-speak and crazy bureaucratic excuses that pass for justice to make sense of recent events following the cold-blooded murder on August 30th.  The victim was shot in the side while innocently crossing the street in broad daylight.  He carried a closed pocket knife and a small plank of wood.  The event was videotaped and witnessed by several bystanders.  The murderer is on a long paid vacation.  The victim's family is nearly destitute, living hand-to-mouth in cheap motels, being harassed by the killer's colleagues, men with guns, at every turn.


Storme Webber's poetic justice doesn't right this wrong. Clearly, the story would be different if we weren't talking about a cop shrouded in impunity and a non-threatening Native American carver, now dead. It's coming on winter, and the combination of the cold wet weather and the cops'  harsh treatment has people spooked and uneasy.  Rick Williams, John's brother, sells his carved totem poles and masks near Pike Market or at the Seattle Center, now he's wary as the police try to intimidate him.  He's asking for support and needs accompaniment.  Maybe something like Peace Brigades is called for, someone to serve as a witness and non-violently defend the human rights of those living on the street.

Poet A K Mimi Allin is embarking on another kind of witness, her own self-imposed residency at Seattle's Tent City 3 beginning in December. From her blog, Song of Tent City: "while living in a tent, she'll work full-time at Seattle's migrating, outdoor, homeless encampment. Like Whitman, she believes in the democracy of poetry. 'This is the meal equally set, this the meat for natural hunger, It is for the wicked just same as the righteous, I make appointments with all, I will not have a single person slighted or left away…' From Song of Myself by Walt Whitman."

final n'est pas un arme

Monday, November 8, 2010

Homage to the ghosts of deportees

A friend, artist Katy Krantz, recently took a studio space in the old INS building in the Sodo neighborhood of Seattle.  In the shadow of the stadiums, this is where immigrants were "processed" from 1930 until 2004, when the building closed.  That could mean detention and deportation, or citizenship swearing-in ceremonies.  The building evokes strong memories and emotions in Seattle immigrants and, presumably, among countless others who were turned away.  The deported left their mark on the building in the form of graffiti they painted with hot roof tar. The words in many languages cover the brick walls surrounding the upper floor courtyards which were used for "recreation" by the detainees.

I admit to feeling ambivalent about Katy's choice of studio space.  How could you "convert" a former prison into artists' studios?  Would the history and the fate of those no longer here be remembered and commemorated?  How would it affect the art created there? Katy struggled with the same questions and her response was an installation which brought her in intimate contact with those detained years or decades before, a visual memorial to the symbols they left on the building. She talks about her piece here on KPLU's Artscape

During the opening, other artists also presented thoughtful responses to the building's past.  The Seattle Butoh dance troupe performed a powerful work, other installations acknowledged the pain and joy contained within the walls, and a group of Seattle immigrants held a storytelling festival featuring immigrants and refugees telling their own histories with the building.

Inscape is the name of the new conversion, but also the name of a concept developed by English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins referring to "the distinctive design that constitutes individual identity, [an] identity is not static but dynamic."  After the successful opening last month, most of building is now rented to artists and creative non-profits. I hope the commemoration of the past and retelling of the stories that the building holds will also be dynamic and not forgotten as the building's new tenants shape its future.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Magically transform annoying web ads into art!

Just found out about this firefox add-on which will replace those banner ads with curated art.  Brought to you by the same guy who worked with The Yes Men to create the utopian version of the New York Times:

Monday, October 25, 2010

Cornel West on Artivizm, Bob Marley's mother, Pearl Jam and "artistic witnesses"

"We all have different gifts, sometimes that gift is one of organizing, mobilizing, sometimes that gift is one of speaking, sometimes that gift is one of painting, sometimes it's being a musician like John Coltrane, a silent man of few words but had so much to say through his horn. I think we have to be in tune with our own callings, in tune with our own vocation, what are the gifts that we have, that we can give to others, in the context of struggle for freedom and justice, that make the world a better place? That's a question that only each person can answer for themselves."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Sheep is Life

photo by Chip Thomas
JR might have won the TED prize this week for his inspirational work from Kibera to Shanghai, but in Northern Arizona another "photograffeur" is working his craft in the community he's shared and served for 23 years.  Chip Thomas' path to wheatpasting the Navajo Nation was long and circuitous, passing through John Coltrane's front yard with stops in the street art havens of New York and Brazil.  The journey embodies the philosophy of "tropicalismo", a concept that finds expression on the bricks of abandoned trading posts, the wood planks of rodeo arenas, in videos of the installations, and more recently in the galleries and urban walls of Albuquerque and North Carolina.  I had the great privilege a few weeks ago to help Chip install his Albuquerque show and it was like studying with a guru, with constant metaphorical lessons in impermanence, connection, commitment, observation, healing and beauty.

When asked about his inspiration, Chip, a family practice doc, says it's about the "creation of beauty at the service of healing--and then letting go."  He tells the story of an infant patient of his, maybe 18 months old, who had a febrile seizure.  The medical work-up was negative and the family was reassured that the child was in good health and would be fine.  They wanted to do everything they could to ensure their daughter's continued health, so they took her to a traditional healer and invited Chip to attend the ceremony.  The healer worked all night to create an intricate and beautiful multi-colored sand painting and the next morning, the child was brought into the hogan, disrobed except for her diaper, and then placed squarely in the middle of the beautiful work of art.  She enjoyed the painting thoroughly, as any toddler would, grasping at the mounds of bright colors and smearing them on her skin and over the floor.  Was she destroying the art, or becoming part of it?  Beauty at the service of healing.

photo by Chip Thomas
 Sheep is life is a Navajo saying that Chip learned intimately while photographing an elderly couple and their 40-something daughter bringing the sheep in from the summer to the winter pastures.  He walked with them for 5 days across the stunning desert landscape and these photos are the source for some of his wheatpastes. Spanning nearly two and a half decades of observing, participating in and photographing Navajo life, Chip's images are remarkable and striking specifically because they're so honest and devoid of cliche.  Looking at them, we realize how inured we've become to the stereotypical images of the exotic native ceremony, or miserable Indian poverty. When asked about his audiences, he talks about three groups, first mentioning the overwhelming positive response from the Navajo community.  A patient will say, "you made my grandmother smile when she saw the sheep on the kiosk." He mentions how moved he is when young people feel inspired by his work to view their own community through different eyes and create art themselves.  Finally, the images give tourists something nuanced to consider, beyond the "noble savage" or the "poor victim." 

Monday, August 16, 2010

Less Clicktivizm, more. . . .

Finally, someone's saying it out loud, what we all think when we get a request to sign the 5000th online petition to end the war in Afghanistan, or support gay marriage, or protest the border wall or . . .  fill in the cause du jour here__________.  Micah White calls out not only the futility inherent in online "Clicktivism" in his recent article in the Guardian, but also explains how the combined passivity and ineffectualness of this new form of engagement based on marketing principles actually damages social movements and alienates new activists:
"The truth is that as the novelty of online activism wears off, millions of formerly socially engaged individuals who trusted digital organisations are coming away believing in the impotence of all forms of activism. Even leading Bay Area clicktivist organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to motivate their members to any action whatsoever. . .  . The Clicktivists are to blame for alienating a generation of would-be activists with their ineffectual campaigns that resemble marketing."
Today's antidote to Clicktivism?  A protest flash mob performs an impromptu musical number in a Seattle-area Target.  Hope it inspires you to go beyond clicks and petitions and boycotts.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Police stop community conversation enlived by art and place, maybe we need a People's Atlas of Seattle.

 Saviour Knowledge, from 23rd and Union's flickr site

The Corner: 23rd and Union  stood for a little over a year at a Seattle intersection near the geographic center of the city in the heart of the Central District, the city's historic African American neighborhood as seen in segregation maps from the 1960s.  The installation was an experiment in community storytelling and dialogue using public art as the spark, inspiring neighbors to react, sing, remember, speak and listen to each other across chasms.  They called comments and reflections into a voice recording which was then uploaded and curated onto a companion web site. 

Created by KUOW public radio producer Jenny Asarnow, the project was well received in the neighborhood.  Asarnow said "I felt like it had been an outlet for people, for a large number of people. They had been able to speak their minds and be creative and listen to people from their own community who they might not have heard from otherwise."

Slide show of the installation

Last Monday, the installation was abruptly dismantled after police told the owner of the vacant lot and Asarnow that they had received complaints about one of the photographs in particular, shown above.  Read the full story here. It's unclear if it the police themselves were objecting to this image of a black man with a criminal record, or if they were merely passing on complaints of anonymous neighbors.  Either way, the police clearly wanted the installation taken down, ending the community dialogue on a one-sided note.  The phone number connected to the site is no longer accepting messages, unfortunately cutting off the possibility of a real community response.

The installation may be resurrected as an exhibit at the Northwest African American Museum, but it will be removed from the corner that gave it significance and life.  The location itself was an integral part of the piece, evoking memories and creating interactions that would have been impossible otherwise, giving "site specific" new meaning. 

Preserving "The Corner" in place and time, making sure events like these don't slowly fade away as a footnote or a fuzzy memory, is one idea behind "People's Atlas" project.  Creating a People's Atlas of Seattle could be an archive for the history and importance of place that "The Corner" uncovered. 

“Notes for a Peoples Atlas” is a multi-city, participatory mapping and design project that began under the sponsorship of AREA Chicago in 2005 with a Chicago-based project, and has now traveled to Zagreb, Croatia and Syracuse, NY. “Notes” invites participants to fill in the blank outline of the political border of their city or region with individual and collective local knowledge, forgotten histories, ongoing debates, and changing definitions of urban space. “Notes” generates dialogue and open-ended imagining about urban space and history, taking seriously the expertise and ideas of “nonspecialist” community members. When archived, it presents information in a form that is accessible, well-designed, and visually rich.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Proliferating or Metastasizing?

Created by Paul Rucker at the Blue Mountain Residency for Prison Issues

Green: 1778-1900
Yellow: 1901-1940
Orange: 1941-1980
Red: 1981-2005

Nathan Eyring - Animation
Aaron Bourget- Video Editing
Rose Heyer - Research
Troy Glessner - Music Mastering

Since 1976, we've been building on average one prison per week. There are now nearly 2.5 million people in prison in the United States, about equal to the number of farmers. 
Number of people incarcerated, per 100,000 population in the US:  760

Rank of the US among countries with the highest incarceration rate: 1

The incarceration rate per 100,000 for black and hispanic men respectively: 4618 and 1747

Number of black men, per 100,000, incarcerated in South Africa in 1993: 681

Percent of black males in the US between 25 and 29 who are in prison: 10

 Percent of blacks in the total US population and the prison population, respectively: 12,44

 Percent of total world's incarcerated held by the US: 23.4

 Percentage of the estimated total population of extraterritorial U.S. prisons that is held at Guantánamo: 1
Percentage change during the first ten months of the Iraq war “surge” in the number of Iraqis detained in U.S.-run prisons: +63 

    Percentage change in the number of Iraqis aged nine to seventeen detained: +285 

Amount that a Colorado state prisoner is paid to work a day as a field hand at a local farm: 60¢
    Amount the prisons are paid by farmers for each inmate’s daily work: $77.20

Estimated number of children with a mother in prison: 147,400 

Number of states that prohibit shackling women prisoners while in labor: 10

Monday, July 19, 2010


A few years ago, at a party in Mozambique, I wandered over to a group of women co-workers whooping it up and telling stories. As I neared, I realized that they were good-naturedly one-upping each other relating the times they'd been hit or beaten by their husbands and lovers--all while laughing raucously. There was a bitter edge to the laughter, but there was also, undeniably, joy. Hard to understand where that joy came from, maybe it was about release or celebrating the bond that knit these sisters together. I've never been able to describe adequately the intense mixture of grief and joy that runs though life in Mozambique. Our media-filtered version of Africa tempts us to interpret it as bereft, tragic, and somehow diminishes the suffering by making it seem either commonplace and ordinary or exotic and foreign. The effect is anti-empathic. Certainly death is more common among my Mozambican friends and their families, but it is felt no less deeply. I've labored to portray the full range of the culture and emotional life I experienced vicariously, hoping to dispel myths and make personal connections among people who will never meet.

"Ruined" attempts something similar with a place and subject more tragic and less accessible. Can fostering a sense of empathy on a personal level translate into a political response as well? Is that the difference between activist art and propaganda?

At a recent Night School symposium, Director Kate Whoriskey explained that the play grew out of a "desire for us to have more power than we had, we are theater artists and we have very little power in the global community." She and playwright Lynn Nottage started with the idea of setting Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage in the Congo, but after visiting 15 Congolese survivors of sexual violence in southern Uganda, they abandoned that idea in favor of trying to tell the stories of the women more directly. The ghost of Mother Courage may still haunt the play, but unlike Brecht's work, Ruined appeals to the heart, not the head. Kate explained, "Life happens everywhere. If you're in a refugee camp people are having sex, having children, falling in love. The human instinct is to create relationships. . . the goal is to keep burrowing through and make a life."

So does it work? The play won a Pulitzer Prize, many awards and accolades, and has raised thousands of dollars for the Panzi Hospital in the Congo. Kate: "I think theater has extraordinary potential and it's very hard to meet it. It's such an untamable beast. It can have such significance and so often fails, over and over it fails. . . . Did it change the way I see theater and its depth? Yes. It definitely has gotten attention to the issue that hasn't been there. Theater can be part of an activist movement."

Ruined works on a Western dramatic structure, so the audience can be familiar with the cadence, if not the subject matter. We know what to expect. Emotionally, the right buttons are pushed, but does pushing those buttons lead to charity, to pulling out the wallet as a kind of catharsis, or can it lead people to dig deeper and explore the larger political issues?

Intiman bills itself as an activist theater, and promises over the next 5 years a new initiative, the International Cycle, "designed to inspire a dialogue with global culture." Ruined will tour next to South Africa and be seen by Africans and Congolese refugees living there. In a sense the play is returning home, to the seed of its inspiration. When Whoriskey and Nottage explained the Brecht play to women parlimentarians in Uganda, they had not heard of it but the title, "Mother Courage," resonated, the way the words sounded together seemed right. Opening up this conversation between Africans and Americans, about courage and grief and joy and survival, may be the play's best accomplishment.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010