Add a Little Bit of Meaning

Artist to Artist

Add a Little Bit of Meaning

Veronica Cianfrano is a multimedia artist who has been examining “the communication breakdown” through photographic images and memories of her familial ties and through our current reliance on digital communication. Her work displays her examinations, whether it be through memory decay, new meanings found in old footage, or the effects of the news media on our state of mind. Since receiving her MFA from the University of the Arts in 2010, Cianfrano has served as both co-founder and curator for Manifesto-ish and Champions of Empty Rooms. Here, she interviews video artist Zach Zecha about his work and the value of art via handwritten notes.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

 

Zach Zecha

My Problem with the Arts in Philadelphia

Nothing Out of the Ordinary

Zach Zecha is a fairly recent Philly transplant, moving here from Colorado in 2013 to get his MFA from PAFA. He was a founding member of Automat, a gallery he started with some fellow PAFA MFA-ers on the second floor of the 319 N. 11th st. building. He makes paintings and assemblages that remind that we are not in control, and that is beautiful. His work is glorious chaos at first glance and then slowly you begin to find meaning in the connections he makes, going from a loud scream to gentle whisper. I never thought hot pink duct tape could make me so sad. An inner conflict ever-present. Symbolism both invented and universal is presented, redacted, and then re-presented in a different form. He cites Baudrillard, Plato, and the like; but really, in the most human terms, his work asks us to stand back and appreciate the beauty of our chaotic, broken world as it crumbles in front of us; at the same time, he asks us to work hard to make meaningful connections. Very relevant work for our current political climate.

-Veronica Cianfrano, curator

 

OITNB, Jessica Anne Clark, Curate This

Homework

Treat Yourself

Jessica Anne Clark paints, draws, curates, reads voraciously (ask about joining her sci-fi book club), and writes. She is a staggeringly intelligent and empathic human being which makes her an amazing collaborative partner. She wonders what your life is like, who you love, what you love, what kinds of things decorate your house. She wonders these things because thoughtfulness is her superpower and because she comes from a theater and film background. Her work retains these qualities. When you encounter one of her paintings or drawings, you feel as if you have interrupted a staged scene and for a moment, her super power rubs off on you and you begin to wonder and care about her lovingly depicted characters. When she’s not working in the studio, she’s helping me curate and install exhibitions through my pop-up project, CHampions of Empty Rooms (CHER), she’s organizing Philly Art Talks, or she’s managing Manifesto-ish collective’s online artist in residence program. If she tells you to read something or look at something, you should do it because she’s thought a lot about it.

-Veronica Cianfrano, curator

Growing up, one of my mother’s favorite phrases was “de gustibus non est disputandum.” In colloquial English this loosely translates to “there is no accounting for taste.” She’d cart this puppy out whenever my sister and I would turn our nose up at something my mother enjoyed (be it food or entertainment) or when we’d fight amongst ourselves on matters of preference. Her words have stayed with me and as such, I am always hesitant to make recommendations regarding any subject where taste is concerned. However, after much consideration I have comprised the following list of items for your viewing/reading pleasure. They have something to offer beyond pure enjoyment and entertainment. Many provide insight into relevant social and historical issues as well as observations on the human condition. Though you may not share some of the ideas expressed in these works, they provide an opportunity for discussion and understanding.

On the Beach, Jessica Anne Clark, Curate This

1. On the Beach by Nevil Shute (book). This book takes place in Australia, post-World War III. A nuclear war has devastated the northern hemisphere and Australia and New Zealand are among the last nations awaiting an inescapable radioactive cloud to make its way south. In a perfect world, I would hope this book would have the power to truly drive home the dangers of military escalation and nuclear warfare. Super important, super relevant. There are plenty of problematic elements to this book. As a product of 1950’s, On the Beach’s presentation of women and gender roles is dated. There are just two main female characters: one a housewife/stay at home mom type (Mary) and one pseudo-manic pixie dream girl (Moira) drinking her way through the apocalypse. Mary spends most of the novel worried about her garden, in complete denial of the coming destruction. In the throws of radiation poisoning, she is found struggling to place mothballs in all the closets. In contrast, Moira’s coping mechanism is brandy and parties. She forms a relationship with an American Navy captain and through this friendship, her last days are improved. While I do not enjoy encountering narrow and ill-defined portrayals of women in literary products from the past, reading these types of works gives me an appreciation for how far we’ve come as a society. On the whole, On the Beach’s flaws do not outweigh the import of its message and the profound sadness I felt upon reaching the last page.

2. Inverted World by Christopher Priest. This book creates a compelling metaphor regarding the subjectivity of our experiences and how our experience of reality can be skewed. I’ve already said too much.

Love and Friendship, Jessica Anne Clark, Curate This, PMA3. Love and Friendship (The Sacrifice of the Arrows of Love on the Altar of Friendship) by Jean-Pierre-Antoine Tassaert. I first encountered this piece during a trip to the PMA. It fast became one of my favorite items in the PMA’s collection. To me, this sculpture exactly encapsulates how art enables us to make connections to artists of the past. It also demonstrates how an artwork can feel like a relic while simultaneously feeling fresh and relevant to the present day. Love and Friendship implies that the movement of burning desire towards far less tempestuous feelings of friendship is a timeless cycle, rather than a product of modernity. At times the past seems so far and foreign; artworks like this circumvent those impressions.

4. Something you don’t like. I think it can be important to force yourself to read/watch/listen to something you don’t like (or think you don’t like). You may be surprised or you might just come to understand something about people who are fans of the things you abhor.

OITNB, Jessica Anne Clark, Curate This

5. Episode 12 (and part of episode 13) of season four of Orange is the New Black. This is a cheat because you kind of have to see the entire series for this episode to really hit home. Partial SPOILERS to follow. This episode tackles the subject of law enforcement brutality and race (the case of Eric Garner comes to mind, specifically). A longtime and much beloved character (who had been in all four seasons of OITNB) is unintentionally killed during a peaceful prison protest. There’s nothing anyone can to do bring back the dead and it often feels like there’s nothing we can do to stop the same thing from happening over and over. This episode feels very of-the-moment in light of events of the past few years/weeks/days. Critics of the show (and this season in particular) call out the use of serious issues for entertainment purposes as being tasteless and exploitative. These arguments cannot be ignored and create an opportunity for important discussions regarding race and the representation of race in popular entertainment. OITNB is definitely a flawed show, but nowhere else will you find depictions of such a wide variety of women’s stories, presenting women of all sizes, shapes, and colors. This isn’t a perfect show but perhaps it’s paving the way for new types of series.

6. The Killing. While I’m hesitant to recommend everyone partake in murder-for-entertainment shows, I think this series stands out in a couple of ways. Each episode represents one day in the murder investigation of a teenager. In this way, the pacing is slowed. This allows the show to really take its time to come to the conclusion. Time usually feels so sped up in TV series/movies, so this is a nice departure. The Killing is just as much about those affected by death as it is about discovering whodunnit. Also, the show does an excellent job of highlighting why circumstantial evidence isn’t always dependable. Just because someone looks guilty doesn’t mean they are.

FRONTLINE, Jessica Anne Clark, Curate This7. Frontline (PBS documentary series). Each episode of Frontline is essentially a rich investigation on a compelling subject. Frontline has reported on concussions in football, mental illness in prison, physician-assisted suicide, and more. Some episodes focus on an issue/topic at large, others follow a specific person (or persons) and the specific issues they deal with on a daily basis. The New Asylums centers on mental health issues and how prisons have become a repository for the mentally ill (especially people with no support system). Country Boys follows two teenagers coming of age in Appalachia. Watching Frontline can feel a little like an “eat your peas” viewing experience in that the subject matter is not always easy to swallow: the reports are often heart wrenching and may leave you feeling a little hopeless . . . but it’s good for you.

8. Burn This (Lanford Wilson), specifically one night in the run of a Syracuse Stage production of this play in 1999. This night at the theater felt like magic. One of the things I’ve come to value most about theater is the possibility of variation within a run. One night will never be exactly the same as the next. This can cut both ways. You may attend on an off night, a night where actors were not at their best. Or, you could be present on a night where the actors are firing on all cylinders, everything is clicking exactly right and you are invigorated with the energy crackling on stage. That night at Syracuse Stage was one of those nights. I am recommending the performance rather than the play because it is the performance that has stayed with me all these years, not the story. Instead of teleporting back to 1999, take a chance and see some theater. You may just hit one of those magic nights.

9. Translations by Brian Friel. This is a play about language/communication/communication breakdown. It also has to do with cultural identity as well as “cultural imperialism” (thanks, wikipedia). The play takes place in small, fictional Irish town in the mid 1800’s. Issues between the Irish and English during occupation factor in heavily. Language is so essential to our daily lives, but it is flawed and fragile. Can we be understood without a common verbal language? Are we really being understood in our common tongue?

Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman, Jessica Anne Clark, Curate This

10. Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman). This film exemplifies the strength of visual storytelling. On paper, Anomalisa is the story of a man who is really just a terrible, completely self-involved asshole. He’s so wrapped up in his own feelings of dissatisfaction that he is unable to differentiate between any of the people he comes into contact with as the movie progresses. Kaufman allowed us to experience the world as this man does, and it is not a pleasant world. Perhaps you too will be left conflicted, left with the odd feeling that you’ve just enjoyed something you shouldn’t have.

11. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Charlie Kaufman). I saw this a year or so after breaking up with my first serious boyfriend, the absolute right/wrong time to see this film. Anyone who has had the exquisitely terrible/kind of not terrible feelings of heartbreak would do well to see this movie.

Moonstruck, Nicholas Cage, Olympia Dukakis, Jessica Anne Clark, Curate This

12. Moonstruck: Olympia Dukakis. Cher. Nicolas Cage. Treat yourself.

13. Kindred by Octavia Butler. I read this book in one night a couple of years ago. It had been a long time since I had read a book that I could not put down when bedtime rolled around. This time travel story-meets-investigation of slavery in America allows us to experience life on a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation through the eyes of an African American woman from 1976. The effect is really powerful. Why is this relevant? I’d say it’s at least relevant to any and all Americans because this is our heritage. The time of (legal) slavery in America is still so close to the surface. It’s wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things. In many ways we are still feeling the effects of that point in our nation’s history. There is a poignancy to sending a woman living in post-Civil Rights era America to pre-Civil War era America, especially in light of the current events (re: police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement). America has yet to reach a point of full fairness and equal treatment for all its inhabitants, for all races and sexes. While 1978 may afford a better quality of life/more rights for an African American woman than 1815, and 2016 may have even more opportunities/possibilities than 1978, things still aren’t what they should be. The scales are still tipped: in this way the specters of past wrongs have not been vanquished.

Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch

Artist to Artist

Podding from Ramallah

I first met Rebecca Katherine Hirsch four years ago at a Permanent Wave Philly meeting where we spent many hours compiling entries into the collective’s zine. I remember feeling really loopy from concentrating on the layout, but Rebecca was right there with me as I got all of my giggles out. I recall a few extra cat doodles making it into that edition somehow. I’ve always had respect for the way Rebecca takes on serious topics in her work with a signature feisty sense of humor. While I don’t necessarily share all of her opinions, I am immensely appreciative of how strongly she pursues her ideals through activist art. Rebecca makes art as Humble Mumbles, a podcast about feminism, queerness, Palestine & other stines. Other art projects of hers include the collaborative multimedia bit BARBARISM, the unknown entity Slappy Pancake Private Eye as well as Intensely Staring, a 90s alternative guitarist who has no guitar. She inspires me to “go for it” when I truly believe in something. At the time of this interview Rebecca was traveling in Palestine and Israel researching her work so we corresponded via email.

-Mira Treatman, curator

These are a few things I saw in Palestine/Israel/48, which are different political terms for similar and different "disputed" (usually meaning international law and Orwellian self-absolving Israeli law contradict each other) and overlapping geographical places. All of historic Palestine encompasses the modern-day state of Israel and the Israeli-occupied territories of the West Bank--including East Jerusalem ("disputed")--and Gaza. What do these photos mean to me? West Bank Palestine and Israel/48/historic Palestine have a lot of different effects on a lot of different people? These photos are pretty or depressing, with friends or without, with ideological frames that make me go hmmm.
This is Qalandia Checkpoint (how you get from Ramallah to Jerusalem). Throughout this interview are photographs Hirsch has taken in Palestine/Israel/48.

Mira Treatman: What media are you working in today? What attracted you to them?

Rebecca Katherine Hirsch: Media. What is media? . . . I think, ostensibly, I am working in pod (that is: making a podcast—so I guess that’s the media of audio—as well as writing). The process, I guess, is that first I have the interest, then I collect the audio, then I write the script/story to frame the collected audio, add music, and then hopefully the result is a podcast episode. I first started my weird podcast in (let me check my website) October 2014. A good time, October 2014. I don’t know if anything actually attracted me to doing a podcast outside of Dan from Never Forget Radio doing one. I LOVE NEVER FORGET RADIO, I love how layered and lyrical the political-psycho-sociological thinking is and how much fun it is to listen to, and Dan said, why don’t you make a podcast too, so I did. Also, I’m a writer and a person interested in feminism/Palestine so a pod was a cool new way to write about it . . . using . . . audio.

Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
Hebron Old City protest art plus counter-art

MT: Where are you currently on your journey as a live performer?

RKH: I read this question fast and thought you asked me how my past experience with Birthright Israel influenced where I am today to which the answer is: WHOA SO MUCH in terms of increasing interest in uses of narrative and manipulation. OK, but to answer your real question, I think I am in a constant liminal threshold purgatory and it is terrible and potentially liberating and SO IS LIFE. Thanks for asking. I am very subjective and unreliable in my answers, by the way, but I guess that’s what interviews are, OK, let me try to think about this. I think . . . I am on the road. That’s where I am on my journey. Not at the starting line, never gonna win the race, just sort of slowly jogging but very tired and reactively overexcited, sometimes. Past live performance experiences with BARBARISM and Slappy Pancake Private Eye have emboldened me and enlivened me, puffed me up with unmerited overconfidence and acted as excuses for subsequent performances where I didn’t know what I was doing but assumed I could just float on the wings of past experiences and I was wrong, so wrong. But bad performances can also be helpful humility-inspirers and instigators to change/actually prepare so that’s cool. Sometimes, especially at NIGHT KITCHEN and at The A-Space things have gone very well.

Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
Demoralizing Jewish stars on Israeli army tanks in Hebron
Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
Ramadan in Hebron

MT: What can we expect from Humble Mumbles’ upcoming live show, How to Get from Hebron to Ramallah?

RKH: Um, so when that show happens—which it WILL happen unless I stay in Palestine until the very end of my visa here in which case this show will 100% happen but a little bit later than originally expected—I hope it will consist of a lo-fi live-action recreation of West Bank travel between cities, complete with burdensome, Orwellian (strategically needlessly bureaucratic) checkpoints (an excitingly depressing mixture of intimidating bigness + claustrophobia, for the visitor equipped with a trusty American passport and Jewish surname). We’ll also recreate interactions with bored to vitriolic, well-intentioned to power-crazed teenaged Israeli soldiers and a few scary, god-promised-me-this-land West Bank settlers. Why is travel so hard for Palestinians in the West Bank? What mechanisms keep people under control, and what is their function?

Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
Hebron Old City, nighttime edition

MT: Where have you traveled recently? Where are you right now? What brought you there?

RKH: Oh god. I don’t even know anymore. Right now I’m in the sweet town of Beit Sahour, a 10 minute walk from Bethlehem. Beit Sahour is a town with a rich history of resistance (see this half live action, half cartoon movie about cows-as-threat-to-Israeli-security during the first intifada for more!) and also, interestingly, one of the very few Christian majority towns in the West Bank (Christians make up 2% of the Palestinian population of the West Bank; most have emigrated—in large part to South and North America). I was recently in Ramallah, East and West Jerusalem, and another Bethlehem-area town of Beit Jala. And before that, fellow Philadelphian Megan Bailey (!) and I traveled to Haifa and Akka and Nazareth up in the north of historic Palestine (or current ‘48,’ as many pro-Palestine people will sometimes call Israel in reference to the 1948 War of Independence to Israelis, the Nakba (Arabic for ‘catastrophe’) to Palestinians). I plan to return to Hebron in a few days. Hebron! Oh, so many things to say about Hebron. I’m fascinated by this city of incredible everyday Israeli brutality and humiliation (at least in the H2 Israeli state-controlled area… as opposed to H1, the nominally Palestinian Authority-controlled area… which is still UNDERNEATH Israeli military occupation. So dystopian), as well as incredible kindness and resilience in the Palestinians who live there. I’ve also had some really heartwarming, weirdly unexpected talks with the odd Israeli soldier. Hebron like many (if not most?) Palestinian places has a history of perfectly neighborly relations between peoples of many faiths until it was overwhelmed by one ethnonationalist state (ugh, let’s all just take another moment to be so annoyed with Israel. WHAT THE HELL). I’ve met some of the nicest people in Hebron and I try to interview them about their experiences with the city, with travel, culture(s), etc. I try to be as obsessed as I am without letting it get in the way. Which is hard. I’m bad at humility so I gave my podcast an aspirational/joke of a name.

Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
The apartheid wall as seen from Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem
Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
Beit Sahour

MT: I often perceive really entertaining idiosyncrasies like surprising non-sequiturs in your humor. Where does this come from?

RKH: Sadness. (America/Ashkenazi mid-century Philip Roth-yaw-shucks Jewish patriarchy stuff led me to believe humor was a magically-native-to-the-Jews trait but no, it’s just a general coping/defense mechanism used by many peoples given many contexts. Better late to de-essentialize my thinking than never!)

Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
Ramallah
Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
JERUSALEM // hyperbolic favorite place on earth

MT: What are you most looking forward to when you get back to Philly this summer? What’s the best part of living in Philadelphia? What is the worst?

RKH: Hmm . . . I’m looking forward to editing and making episodes out of much of the audio I’ve collected over the past months (including rollicking Arabic pop music in shared taxis! Sober-minded interviews with smokey-voiced Old City Jerusalem hotel proprietors! Rare snippets with Israeli leftists, Palestinian kids I met on streets, Palestinian rappers in 48/Israel, my mom as we walked on a highway to the settlement of Har Gilo from the city of Beit Jala, etc.) Philly is more affordable than some cities and has thriving arts. It is not New York. That’s cool. I probably like Philly a lot but I like Palestine more, I just can’t stay here. Look what happened the last time Jews got too comfortable in Palestine.

Humble Mumbles, Mira Treatman, photo by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch
Ramallah

All photos by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch.

Mira Treatman, Curate This, In Search of Resting Bitch Body

Lecture Hall

In Search of Resting Bitch Body

I met director and dancer Mira Treatman at a workshop series on Grotowski technique run by Scott Rodrigue. At first I thought, who is this quiet, intensely internal person? And then I thought, wow, who IS this quiet, intensely internal person? Though we only worked together in five workshops, I was struck by her unusual seriousness and determination, and was extremely pleased when she agreed to collaborate with Curate This. Mira has performed in works by Sylvain Emard, Renee Archibald, Gina T’ai, Chris Johnson, and Cie Carabosse/Teatro Linea de Sombra. Other long-term collaborations include three full-length narrative dances with Corinne “Marilu” Wiesner (Mod Nut, Cinder Ella, and Protestant Reggae Ballet) and Rejected Thoughts with filmmaker and actor Irina Varina.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

In making a performance my prerogative is to have supreme control over how people view the performer. This stems not from narcissism, but from an authentic desire to communicate my ideas clearly. Keeping folks’ attention is the only surefire way to get my points across and if no one gets those points, then I find the whole process of mounting work to be meaningless.

To create a performance I seek credibility. To appear this way, especially when portraying a version of myself, I forge a powerful and control-demanding physicality. I do not think this is necessary for all performers to gain credibility, but with my social status as female and youthful and 5 feet tall, it is perhaps a necessary evil (although I do derive much pleasure from feeling powerful and strong). To appear powerful in front of a public, I seek a neutral stance when I am not engaging directly in an action, one I lovingly dub “resting bitch body.”

Much like a “resting bitch face,” this neutral way of holding the body communicates disinterest in others while commanding others’ attention toward itself (see this summary in the New York Times). The stance frightens but no one can look away. This tension of “I want to look but it scares me” or “I want to look but I don’t know what I’m seeing” or “I’m looking and I like it but I don’t want to like it” is my goal. I desire the bitchy resting body because it serves as a poker face and is open for interpretation. At times this body’s manifestation is an authoritative public speaker; for example a lecturer may easily command attention because she’s moving intuitively like some kind of bird of prey. The tension of tracking her next move makes it hard for an audience member to look away. Other times this body is Mona Lisa-subtle. An audience member could stare at a bitchy resting body performer for the entire duration of her performance and have no sense of her emotional state. I am attracted to the fear-inciting ambiguity.

Codified performance forms come with their own neutral or default body positions and dance is probably the finest example of this. For concert dance-forms there is a default way that a trained performer carries herself when not executing a major step or theatrical action. Concert dance audiences come to the theater with a set of expectations, regardless of their familiarity with the choreography, of how to interpret or even read the performance through the neutral body stance of the performers. On the balletic end of the spectrum dancers are supported from their core with an erect spine conjuring a regal image while perhaps on the contemporary side dancers may have more fluidity and asymmetry in their spine. Regardless of these differences these neutral stances serve the same purpose in concert dance, which is to communicate the status of the performer. Through reading the bodies in neutral, the audience is primed to know who’s a hero or villain in a narrative and non-narrative work alike within the context of the dance-form. This is exactly the kind of tool kit I am pursuing in dance-theater making: to create a bitchy resting lens from which an audience clearly views my creation.

In addition to priming audience members, having a default neutral body serves as the barometer of normal. This might be one of my favorite parts about making new work, which is that I can sculpt the status quo to be whatever I desire. I create and set the barometer of normal. If a performer is portraying an ingenue, I can hypothetically have her assume the physicality of a wild turkey vulture and she can still be an ingenue in the world I’ve created. In actuality, I can also have this ingenue hold herself in a bitchy resting body stance where she’s still holding the role of the ingenue thematically, but her body is powerful, tough and authoritative. Using my own barometer of normal, this bitchy ingenue anomaly makes total sense.

Then there’s what in all of this keeps me up at night: my concern over whether or not having a resting bitch body as my neutral stance in fact reinforces stereotypes and the structures that cause cycles of violence and injustice propagated by the hierarchy resting bitch is trying to get away from. I know that I am perceived as a weak, lower status body in the Western performance canon, therefore I should present myself as tough and powerful to counteract the binary, right? But what if I just eschew the Western performance canon altogether and just have fun and portray my body ignoring all of that uber liberal crap drilled into my head since age 5. I seriously do not know! That’s why this keeps me up at night. Intentionally performing a resting bitch stance is reactionary and defensive towards the powers-that-be and it could be more powerful to ignore those powers altogether.

My favorite physical theater teacher of all time once made a comment to me that has stuck forever. I was trying to negotiate something with him, probably something like a deadline for an assignment or something of little consequence. He happened to be about a foot taller than me and so it was next to impossible to make eye contact with him without jutting my face up unless he was sitting. I found myself addressing him in this way frequently and began to develop a habit of sticking my chin out and widening my eyes for reasons I didn’t fully understand at the time. In my memory it was an instinctive way of communicating with a superior. That one day when I was making the negotiation, he called me out that sticking out my chin and widening my eyes did not make me appear more powerful whatsoever in the bargaining process. Ever since I’ve tried to figure out how to make things go my way through my physicality knowing that every little movement, whether consciously or subconsciously, becomes a data point for those viewing me to interpret. This favorite teacher even identified as a lefty feminist non-hierarchical experimental theater PhD and still I found myself viewing him as a superior. Ultimately, my drive to cultivate a powerful physicality comes down to something of a Napoleon complex. I’m okay with it.

Transcending Medium Emily Bate. Photo by Kristin Goehring

Transcending Medium

The Practice of Failure

Right now the world is in dire need of a lot of different things, but in my opinion one of them is for more women’s voices to be heard in the public. When I heard that musician Emily Bate has a theatrical choral project with a women’s chorus I got so excited! She’s a killer singer-songwriter, composer and “harmony fanatic” whose ethos I really connect with. If that weren’t enough, Emily’s choral arrangements really remind me of some of my all-time favorite vocal groups like Kate and Anna McGarrigle and The Roches. Both of these bands are comprised of sisters whose voices just blend together naturally. One of Emily’s current projects includes Going Down Mount Moriah, a theater piece based around a 9-voice women’s choir. As far as I know Emily doesn’t have any sisters in this choir, but combined the women’s voices come out sounding like they’re siblings who’ve been making noise together for many years. I’m delighted that Emily has opened up about her experience going from singing and songwriting to leading a hybrid theatre project.

-Mira Treatman, curator

So I want to say a few things about working between, amongst, around, and in the thick of different disciplines, and to talk about my little explorations in that regard.

My background is music—specifically, the DIY singer-songwriter scene. I put out my first album on home-duplicated cassette tape at age 15, and for years after that I made records in my bedroom, played house shows, and went on tour. By my late 20s, I’d run through that cycle so many times that boredom had set in hard. I was rewriting the same songs and singing them with less and less conviction.

I found my work so stale I’d slink off to play shows in secret, not even bothering to tell my friends. Then I’d play very boring sets to a bunch of nice people who deserved to see art that at least one person in the room gave a fuck about, and hurry home as fast I as I could to groan on my couch.

All sorts of things drive an artist to make work. In the deep throes of musical ennui, surprising myself became the only measure of success I cared about. I started writing little short stories, micro-short, just trying to make myself laugh or dazzle myself by revealing something true I hadn’t considered before. If a sentence made me shake my head and say “Emily, you are a complete freak,” I kept working on it. I didn’t consider myself a “writer”; I was just tinkering around, playing with little sentences with casual absorption, like a kid would play with toy trains.

I put some of these shorty short stories into a zine, my favorite amateur-driven form. Actually it was a zingle (a zine + a music single). You download the music, and then read the writing that goes with. The word “zingle,” which I invented, was so delightful I immediately wanted to make another one. And performing the zingle live, by interspersing the songs and the stories, was my first big, exciting, interdisciplinary “aha!” It was nerve-wracking to read stories out loud, but then I’d retreat to the safer territory of songs. The experiment had an exciting result: the quality of the audience’s attention was palpably different when I mixed writing and music. The quality of my attention was different, too. The ideas in both elements leapt out into the room, buzzing with possible connections, like a performance collage.

At that point, the floodgates kinda flew open. In a year, that zingle transformed into a 9-person choral theater piece.

Here’s the bridge between a little xeroxed pamphlet and a big staged show with choral arrangements. I got from A to Z, basically, by witnessing and participating in art of other disciplines and learning little bits about how different people make work. I went to see dance, theater, visual art, and performance art, instead of just folk shows. And I became a collaborator on other people’s projects. When I started creating music for theater, for instance, I got to shed the idea (very prevalent and annoying in the singer-songwriter world) that a song is primarily a personal statement of feeling. The songs I wrote for the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz were freer and wilder than the things I’d been writing before, since I was concerned only with being a frightening green villainess.

I gained so much by experiencing artistic process in other disciplines. It wasn’t always easy – in theater it’s completely normal to perform a work-in-progress that’s so egregiously unfinished you might stop mid-sentence and say “Now skipping ahead two scenes . . .” I co-wrote a musical, and every time we had a work-in-progress showing, I felt like I had peed my pants onstage and was pointing to the stain the entire time. Eventually it sunk in that these showings are a convention in theater, and everybody in the audience knows that. But nobody ever did that in the music world. Surviving that process, and seeing the positive effect it had on what we were making, was a big mental shift for me.

I think we’re all familiar with anxiety around being bad at something. But circling back to the writing I did for my “zingles,” creating something outside your discipline is an exciting chance to play in that anxiety and push through. Since I’m not an actor, I’m not devastated if I don’t act well. If somebody asks me to act, I say “fuck it” and see what happens, without feeling overly exposed. It is an opportunity to safely practice failure, since I will certainly fail many times in my primary discipline.

The failure practice allowed me to be creatively ambitious again. I wanted to create a theater piece with music and movement, and I didn’t know what I was doing. It wasn’t a painless process—the giant roiling knot of out-of-my-league anxiety was a big thing—but the fresh air I’d gulped in as a collaborator had helped me cultivate bravery. I plunged forward in some combination of curiosity-plus-anxiety, and it produced lots of work. I think my ideal creative state is a tightrope walk between the two. If, inside of a challenging and high-stakes moment, you can become really present and interested in the outcome, whatever it might be, you’re onto something.

Plus, here’s the great part: nothing’s wasted! Whatever didn’t work out as planned is information to use next time.

Which brings me to how I’ve started to evaluate the creating process, once I’ve finished something. After I make something new, I’m really interested in 1) how the piece worked out in the world and 2) how it felt to make it. When combatting self-doubt, encouraging yourself out of a creative slump, or battling other creative demons, how it feels is a really important consideration. For instance: I created a really rich piece of theater that connected with the collaborators and the audience. It entailed emptying my bank account, not sleeping for 3 weeks, and walking around with the sensation that my head was clamped in a vice. After my show ended, I spent some analyzing how those sacrifices felt as I was making them. It was important not to trick myself into giving a particular answer, or judge myself for what I actually want. It’s all information I can use to change or commit to my process, and keep myself working for the long haul.

I know that a major criteria for my sense of success will always be chasing the spark of surprise. I can’t think of any reason to create something otherwise. The surest way I know to find that surprise is by stretching myself sideways, into other artistic worlds, and playing in the spaces in-between.

Catch Emily Bate and collaborator Erin Markey at L’Etage on August 24th, in a buddy comedy performance project masquerading as a night of duets. The show, called “Hey Girl! That’s My Girl!” features a full band. For tickets & info visit emilybate.com.

Barry Kerollis, photo by Bill Hebert

Crossing the Border

Disorganization, Nepotism, and Lack of Community

I first became aware of Barry Kerollis several years ago when I saw him dance with BalletX. His strong stage presence and sensitivity as a performer made him a stand out in this contemporary ballet company. Years later I discovered that not only was he an accomplished dancer, but he also possessed a unique voice as a storyteller. What I appreciate most is how candid he is on a variety of topics from his own point of view, influenced by years as a professional dancer, choreographer and teacher. Dance Magazine sums up Barry’s work perfectly as an “innovator using unique new media to break the fourth wall with audiences.” His current forays into media, which include the blog Life of a Freelance Dancer and podcast Pas de Chát: Talking Dance, are just the beginning of ways Barry will continue to transform the public’s perception of dance.

-Mira Treatman, curator

Here I am again. Writing in the dark, sitting on a Greyhound bus on my way home from New York City. This trip has become a regular commute of mine since I decided to transition my career goals from the birthplace of our nation to the capital of the dance world. I’ve considered this move for nearly four years since working in the city where I was born didn’t work out as I had envisioned. I’m tired from these bi-weekly (or more often) commutes that eat away at my bedtime hours. But it’s worth it. It’s worth it, even if I am only in the early stages of renewing my hope for opportunity.

When I think about Philadelphia, one thing that defines this city is opportunity. In the past, it was historic opportunity for a new union. Today, it’s entrepreneurial opportunity in an affordable city, and, more importantly for me, artistic opportunity in one of the artsiest cities I’ve explored (and I’ve been to many a US city). But when I moved to Philly five years ago, I moved here for the opportunity to expand my experience in an area that holds my greatest passion: the dance scene.

Let’s get to the point. I left Pacific Northwest Ballet, one of the nation’s top five ballet companies, in 2011 to live for my art and try my hand at something new. I left a 40-week contract for half of that and left a $60,000 a year salary for one-third. But I came to Philly to join a company outside of my comfort zone in order to stretch my range as an artist, so it didn’t feel like that great of a sacrifice. That daring risk I took didn’t pan out as I had hoped. I quickly found myself without the job that brought me here after suffering a career-threatening injury that the company chose not to support.

I remember thinking to myself that day, “It’s going to be okay. I’ll post that I’m looking for a teaching job on Facebook and email all of the schools in the area. It shouldn’t take that long to find something. And, I’ve got credentials, experience, and something different to offer the scene (having danced at PNB) to boot.” Very quickly, reality set in.

I was grateful for the support of Koresh Dance Company’s school and local modern dance guru Gwendolyn Bye, but what I found in my new community was a combination of disorganization, nepotism, lack of community, and across-the-board organizational struggle. Here I was, green in our scene and eager to share my experience dancing with PNB and Houston Ballet. But a lack of work opportunity and, even more difficult, a lack of fair wage forced me to embark on an extended national tour that would change my life.

All I wanted to do was live in my new home city. But with little local opportunity, I turned to the national dance scene, which embraced me almost immediately. From this point, I began to tour our great nation as a freelance guest artist. While performing, teaching, and choreographing everywhere from New York to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Alaska, I kept trying to make Philly work for me, even when I was only in town for a week at a time. During one of these occasions, I performed in a questionable dance film where the director considered firing me because I asked to be paid a dishonorable $75 for 12 hours of committment. This stressful situation transpired over a mere $25 raise from the $50 he offered. Either salary was still well below minimum wage. A 6-week open class series I ran at a West Philly studio couldn’t hold one class because attendance was often one or none. I finally stopped looking for local gigs after a school director complained that my rate wasn’t worth my experience. I easily charge $25 more per hour in any other city. I tried to sacrifice as much as I could. But while some met me with understanding, more did not.

After suffering severe burnout from years of non-stop travel, I was ready to give the Philadelphia dance scene one last-ditch effort to make it my artistic home. After four years on the road, four months on the job as Interim Artistic Director of Alaska Dance Theatre, being selected as one of four choreographers out of a pool of 60 international applicants to create a work at the prestigious National Choreographers Initiative, and more, and I was finally committed to find a place at home where I felt my value was needed and respected. Over the longest period I stayed in Philadelphia since 2011 (five months at the beginning of 2015), every pre-professional school, university program, and professional organization aside from the one that brought me back east received an email humbly asking to take me into consideration for work. The only response I received was from Temple University’s dance program (who kindly told me they couldn’t offer any work). Otherwise, no respectful notice of receipt, no “No, Thank You,” no response at all. Aside from my contributions as a substitute at Koresh, I felt at a loss and like I didn’t belong to our community.

In my disappointment, I found myself seeking local collaboration outside the dance scene. Applying for a collaborative arts grant sealed the deal. I was told my application was declined because “I seemed more interested in meeting other artists than collaborating with them.” Instead of becoming a part of the community, I ended up collaborating with myself, again, on a national scale. Here, I created a web series interviewing highly-respected professional dancers, which garnered national attention from multiple dance periodicals. While Dance Magazine recognized my work as a Philly-based artist, I still felt like I hadn’t been accepted as a part of my community.

For all of my hard work and all of my effort throughout 13 years as a working professional, I have found that in Philly I would have to settle for a burnout level of work in recreational dance to afford only just covering my bills (none to put away into savings or to pay off debts). Since transitioning my focus to the New York City dance scene in January, a few Philadelphia organizations have reached out to me for work. The difference this time seems to be that my profile on the national dance scene has risen. I feel a sense of respect for my work. Still, I achingly choose to attempt to transition my career two hours north, potentially transitioning away from the city I love and the city in which my partner has grown a thriving organizational business.

Philadelphia doesn’t feel like a tragic loss for me, as I have gained way more in my life and art from five years calling Philly my home base than in seven years living in Seattle. Though, I still feel a sense of melancholy in saying that Philly has yet to work for me as the place I call my artistic home. Like the residents of Philadelphia as they see the renaissance of this glorious city, I have yet to give up hope on this place that I love. But, at the same time, I can’t sit around and hope that the brick and mortar of our dance scene will change its fabric and accept the architecture that I have to offer.

Editors Note: At the time of publication, Barry was contracted as Guest Faculty at Steps on Broadway and Broadway Dance Center

Photo by Bill Hebert.

Mira Treatman and the finger wag, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

In the Studio

All-Consuming Zealotry

I met director and dancer Mira Treatman at a workshop series on Grotowski technique run by Scott Rodrigue. At first I thought, who is this quiet, intensely internal person? And then I thought, wow, who IS this quiet, intensely internal person? Though we only worked together in five workshops, I was struck by her unusual seriousness and determination, and was extremely pleased when she agreed to collaborate with Curate This. Mira has performed in works by Sylvain Emard, Renee Archibald, Gina T’ai, Chris Johnson, and Cie Carabosse/Teatro Linea de Sombra. Other long-term collaborations include three full-length narrative dances with Corinne “Marilu” Wiesner (Mod Nut, Cinder Ella, and Protestant Reggae Ballet) and Rejected Thoughts with filmmaker and actor Irina Varina.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

For the last six months I’ve had the privilege of working with Irina Varina on Rejected Thoughts, the first full-length piece we have made together. We only met nine months ago and thus this process has been nothing short of a whirlwind, a tornado, and an all-consuming zealotry for making live performance. I welcome you into the studio with reflections on this time exclusively from my perspective. My views do not necessarily reflect Irina’s; however, I have her permission to share my thoughts on our collaborative process.

Mira Treatman tumbles for Irina Varina, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

Mira Treatman stands over meditative Irina Varina, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

Rejected Thoughts ended up being a collection of dance-theater experiments we performed in a home as part of SoLow Fest in June 2016. We started noticing when we would reject our own ideas in their infancy, before they even had a fighting chance to become something. This focus on the discarded eventually became the uniting force in our process. At times this was where the unity ended. Despite having a shared goal and passion for working, we came to the studio with different tools and preferences.

To give you some background: my training is in dance, but I also hold a degree in theater directing. I’m a nerd. I read statistics for fun. I founded a Latin language club in high school. I enjoy symmetry, organization, athletic challenges, and control. I don’t do well with ruminating. Irina comes from an acting and filmmaking background. She’s come to live performance after working as a director and an actor on screen. She hasn’t been on a stage her entire life the way some of my peers have, which I find refreshing. Aesthetically, though, we really differ. She loves seeing vulnerability and authenticity before anything else in performance. I love stage magic and starting from the codified rules I have studied. On my own, I prioritize magic over authenticity. I don’t believe either way is better or more correct, but it can be challenging to communicate when your past experiences have less overlap. When it comes to the meat of the work, Irina is able to lock herself up in her own mind. I find it challenging to be in my own brain without physical embodiment. I admire her ability to concentrate on thinking, but it is the opposite of my default way of working. This hit home for me when I realized that even our tea preferences reflected this: she would go for ginger and lemon to warm up and I chose peppermint to cool down.

A touch of alchemy happens when Irina and I work together because we want to make performances so badly. Despite our differences, we desire to make performances about what we care about, which I deeply cherish even though we would sometimes spend hours on a single detail. Working on my own I would never stick with one little detail for more than a few minutes. Both openly arguing and sharing disagreements were radical changes to the way I work. Our rehearsals were not geared toward productivity as at times it felt like taking a slow train towards mindfulness or something. After all, we were making art about thinking!

Irina Varina and Mira Treatman laughing about babushkas, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens
Mira Treatman and Irina Varina in babushkas and thought, Curate This, Lauren Karstens Mira and Irina working, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

Completely unintentionally, Irina and I both had our ancestry on our minds during our process. We chose to hone in one area of our backgrounds, our individual relationships with wearing a babushka. Once we started playing with this part of our costume I began to feel so at ease, entertained, and on the cusp of making a breakthrough surrounding my identity. Physically embodying one part of my culture was the key here. No matter what I did or said while wearing the babushka, I knew Irina would be open to it, so I really really went for it and was able to say a lot of things that I had pent up for years. She gave me the full respect of truly listening. I enjoyed having space to explore our individuality in relation to the babushkas, but I still felt unity in our choice to wear them together. Just like our separate tea preferences and methods of working, our respective ancestries are another joyous celebration of difference.

Mira Treatman and Irina Varina notes, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

Long shot of Irina Varina and Mira Treatman, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

There were times over the last six months when I felt frustrated with the way Irina and I openly disagreed with each other. Hypothetically, if there were only one director leading the project and the other collaborator following along, I know that we would have used our time very differently and knowing this made patience hard to maintain. If we had little to no dissension we would have made the piece faster, but perhaps, if we had made the show with none of the that tension, it would have come out too vanilla or lacking intensity.

I committed myself to this project despite my frustrations because the tone of the rehearsal room was always respectful and constructive and with little whining or defeatism. When I look at Lauren Karstens’ photographs, I see two polar-opposite people who choose to build on common ground and to seek that common ground before difference. To be the artist I desire to be, which is one who stands strongly on her personal philosophy, I desire equally strong-willed people to keep me grounded in my own voice. Working just with people similar to me only provides a skewed version of the world.

Mira Treatman and Irina Varina, the art of the finger wag, Curate This, photo by Lauren Karstens

All photos by Lauren Karstens.

Yours as Much as Mine, Maria Dumlao

Homework

Picking Up a Pencil and Other Directions

Maria Dumlao works with photography, artists’ books, installation, performance, sound, and video. Her fantastic exhibition at Vox Populi last September, Next to Nothing, consisted of three works: one single-channel video, a multi-channel video, and a portable record player with a 7-inch painted vinyl record, spinning. The video, Yours As Much As Mine, isolates everyday house-hold objects in a suspended animation which takes these objects out of context and takes the viewer out of this world.

For her contribution to Curate This, I asked Maria to give me a set of items that everybody should read, view, watch, etc.

-Julianna Foster, curator

Some homework for Curate This‘ readers, in no particular order:

  • Read “Some Sound Observations” written by Pauline Oliveros. This essay appears in the anthology Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner. Here’s a pdf I found online.
  • Read this sentence and tell me you can’t hear the lamp in your room, the electricity behind the walls, the creaking beams in your house, the construction outside, and the motorbikes in Philly. See if you succeed in unhearing them.
  • John Whitney, “Catalogue” 1961, 16mm film (color and sound) 9 minutes. A digital video from the film is currently exhibited at the MoMA, but here it is in YouTube. Feast on abstraction in motion.

John Whitney, “Catalogue” 1961

  • Oblique Strategies, written instructions by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt. When you’re in the studio and you just need to take a break, get ready to pick a card from a deck and “play.” Be open to diversions. If you want to play with me, I’ll post one a day on Instagram.

Oblique Strategies, written instructions by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt

  • Visit the non-western wing of PMA, the Met, or any big museum. Whether it’s called primitive, pre-Columbian, African, pre-historic, Oceanic, whatever it is, it’s a reminder that art (and the art world) as we know it is one of many narratives. An example I like to ponder is the ubiquitous crucifix and how its symbolism was used by some cultures as a representation of the cyclical birth/life/death/underworld before the Christian conquistadors colonized.
  • Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge (A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution), written by Terence McKenna in 1992, is relevant due to our search into altered states of consciousness and as an elucidation of many of our sorrows, be it addiction, materialism, and the fear of self-awareness. Solutions have been in front of us all along.

Food of the Gods by Terence McKenna

  • Sharpen a #2 pencil or take hold of a Sharpie. With these power tools, draw/write what you would otherwise post in social media. Try it for a day and don’t stop if you can help it.

Maria Dumlao pencils

  • Living Photograph: Chris with Teacup on YouTube. I discovered this one-minute video in 2007 (YouTube was established in 2005) and I don’t know who the maker is or what it is about. I can’t believe it’s still up after 9 years. I revisit it to be reminded of the possibilities of YouTube and how it has now become our everyday landscape. It’s not as strange as anything we see now, but it’s a prominent early memory.