Teagan Kuruna, Dan Pasternack, Philadelphia Podcast Festival, Curate This

Artist to Artist

How to Bring a Podcast to Life

I met Dan in the spring of 2011. An innocent time! . . . but what IS innocence? Dan Pasternack, the creator of Never Forget Radio, would never submit to such simplified understandings as innocence or experience, good or evil. NFR is “a feminist podcast that approaches our post-9/11 era as history, cultural quarry, and ongoing catastrophe”

For four years Dan has participated in the Philadelphia Podcast Festival, talking about World War I, Bono at the Superbowl and the Civil War.

– Rebecca Katherine Hirsch, curator

Today we have an interview with Teagan Kuruna, one of the creators of the Philadelphia Podcast Festival, which is happening this year from July 14th to the 23rd. Since this is a celebration of podcasts, the interview is presented both as audio and as an edited transcription. Audio version of this discussion is here. We recorded in the Kurunas’ home studio.

Dan Pasternack: How does it feel to be using your own equipment, to be interviewed on it?

Teagan Kuruna: Well it’s weird to be sitting in my own studio with my computer turned around facing you, to not have headphones on or be able to see what’s going on, but it’s kind of liberating.

DP: You record your podcast here?

TK: I do.

DP: So this is the fifth year? So how did this podcast festival start?

TK: So, it started . . . Nathan, who at that point was my boyfriend of a year, maybe even less, had this crazy idea that he—so this is a quote unquote podcast studio but it’s really the first floor of our house, we get all of the street noise. And it’s also a photography studio obviously, there’s props, there’s also a throne. Yeah, there’s this weird mirror cube that he made. There’s a lot of weird stuff in here. But that’s actually a pretty good insight into the kind of person that Nathan is, immensely creative and always coming up with these new ideas. And he really loves podcasts, and has loved podcasts for a really long time, and he saw that other major cities were creating these podcast festivals and showcasing their local talent but also national talent. At this point, five years ago, it was mostly LA and New York that had festivals, so a lot of popular podcasts were coming out of these cities and the cities were putting on festivals. And so he said, well, Philly has such a huge wealth of talent, there’s got to be people who are making podcasts. The first year we had twelve live recorded shows. From there, as podcasting has grown, the festival has grown. And so now this year we’re up to almost sixty podcasts.

DP: When I talk about this festival people are often surprised that it’s a live event because podcasting is this intemporal medium. So how did it become a live festival rather than, like, a network of podcasts or a shared recording studio?

TK: So that was actually one of the things that we were most excited about doing, was taking podcasts out of people’s ears and putting them in front of people’s eyes. We as listeners build these really strong relationships with the podcasters who we listen to, but we never see their faces. Most of us don’t know what the podcasters look like, and when we see them we’re like, oh, wow you look completely different than what I thought you were. And that’s one of the reasons why live recordings is what we were drawn to: understanding that especially when you’re focusing on local podcasts, that these are the people in your community, who you probably pass by on the street. They’re real people, and so you can actually get a chance to meet them, and that could be really cool. And for the podcaster to look out and see, wow, there are people who actually listen to my show, and actually took the time to come out and see me. For some podcasters that’s three people, and for some that’s thirty, but that doesn’t matter. It brings more of a human element. And to your question about networks, and shared recording space, we just weren’t interested in building a network. Nathan and I are really trying to understand where the value in being in a podcast network is, unless you’re in one of the big podcast networks. And so that was just not one of the options. And shared recording space? When we started this we lived in a one bedroom apartment. We didn’t have a recording studio, we were recording in our living room, so there wasn’t that option.

DP: You do have the podcasting society, which I believe exists just as business cards. Or do you have meet-ups?

TK: Well there’s also a facebook group.

DP: And a logo.

TK: And a logo. We have a facebook group and a logo, and business cards that are really just membership cards that at the very least should get you a 5% discount at Bridgeset Sound. It’s also not our jobs, so we couldn’t create something huge, so we thought, most people use social media, so let’s make a facebook group.

Teagan Kuruna, Dan Pasternack, Philadelphia Podcast Festival, Curate This

DP: So there’s a cat as well.

TK: Yes, my very energetic cat Cleo is running around destroying things.

DP: Over the four years of the festival, what are some cool ways that performers have used the live aspect of it?

TK: So one of the things in the last few years we’ve seen more of is live music, which has been really nice not just for the people who are at the live recording, like who are there to see the show, but also adds a really nice aspect to the recordings. Another interesting thing I’ve seen people do is live burlesque. There was somebody commentating over the burlesque, so it was like: “she’s very slowly putting her finger into her left glove . . . oh no she’s not pulling it off yet.” It was just this weird hilarious way to turn what is entirely visual into something that’s audio. So that was pretty interesting.

Our first year we had a podcast decide to take a bunch of mushrooms a couple hours before they recorded. So they were well into their trip when they started. I hadn’t heard their podcast before then, so I don’t know what they were normally like, but it certainly added an element of, I would say . . . suspense for those of us who knew what was going on.

DP: Suspense, like, what’s going to happen, or what’s going to go right or wrong?

TK: For Nathan and me it was like, how is this going to play out? What are these guys going to do? But if I remember correctly, nothing went horribly awry. That’s maybe the most out there of ways that people have used the live show.

DP: How prepared are you guys for something to go wrong during a live performance? And what kind of responsibility do you feel?

TK: Well, what kind of things? I mean there’s a whole gamut of things that could go wrong.

DP: What I would think of first would be a heckler or belligerent audience member. Then I would think a belligerent creator or podcast performer. Or fighting words. Do you have plans for something like that?

TK: So it’s interesting that you bring this up because one of the things that we did put as a caveat on this year’s festival, which we hadn’t done before, is that we reserve the right to decide whether we think a podcast is topically appropriate. So if somebody was engaging in something that we thought was hate speech, that we didn’t have to let them in, and that was the only reason that we needed. And luckily we didn’t have anything that we were concerned about this year. We’re not interested in providing a platform for anybody who has awful, hateful things to say. Now that’s not to say that we really look deeply into the back episodes of people’s shows to see if we agree with them politically, that’s not where we go with it. So I think that’s the first step in our process.

You know, I don’t know what we would do if a podcaster all of a sudden started saying things that we thought were really awful. A heckler, or an audience member who was being more difficult, that I think is an easier fix: “Hey, we’re going to have to ask you to leave.” But I think it’s a good question and something that me and Nathan should probably talk more about, especially this year when we know that tensions are a lot higher. There’s a fine line to walk, but we’re not in the business of censoring anybody…

DP: No, I didn’t ask this as a trap question for that, that would be gross.

TK: No, I kind of haven’t thought about it, just kind of thinking it through out loud. We don’t want to do that. It’s not like somebody with “I love Donald ***** Podcast” applied to be in the festival this year, so we didn’t have to think about it. But if they did, we would probably listen to that show and try to evaluate: is this person trying to contribute to political discourse, or is this person using so-called political discourse to promote ideas that we think are harmful? So I guess we’ll find out. Hopefully we won’t have to find out.

DP: How do you have a festival that’s joined by something that’s so broad? It’s like a book festival, not a genre of book festival. How do you try to build a setlist, build a structure for something that can be so broad?

TK: So this is one of the things that can be so much fun about putting together this festival. We ask all the shows for a short and long description of their podcast and links to all of their online presence. And we spend a lot of time looking at what the shows’ content is. We try to group similar podcasts together. We kind of have an idea of what fits at each venue. So for example, your show . . . when we brought Kitchen Table Gallery in as a venue, we thought you would be a great fit there. Your content, the pace of your show . . .

DP: It’s a historical project . . . it’s calm, or something. It works in a gallery, I agree.

TK: And it’s hard for me to totally put my finger on how that happens, but the other podcasts that are happening at the gallery are similar in tone and feel, because part of what we’re trying to do is create some bleed-over in listeners. So you might come for one show, and you stick around because you’re finishing your beer, and you hear part of another show, and you’re like “wow, this one’s kind of interesting too,” and you stick around. Another example of that: this is our second year with Amalgam Comics and Coffeehouse as a venue. So we kind of group together all the comics and role-playing game type podcasts and put them at Amalgam. It’s a community center based around those topics, so it makes a lot of sense to put those podcasts there. Of course there’s scheduling needs so sometimes you get one of those comics podcast between two sports podcasts at Tattooed Mom, because that’s how it’s got to go.

A lot of it is thinking about themes that emerge from the applicants, and hoping that the medium itself gives people something to talk about. But it’s a good question, it’s not as if we have a comedy podcast festival, or an arts podcast festival. It’s just the Philadelphia Podcast Festival, which I guess is what makes it interesting. It’s not homogenous. It’s things that Philadelphians are interested in, which is everything from sports, to history, to books, to art, to comics . . . there’s just a huge range. Which is just a good indication of what people in Philadelphia are interested in. We’re not any one thing here.

DP: Do you feel like you’re doing a civic good?

TK: I think that we . . . want to be doing a civic good. I think that we want to be providing a platform for other people to showcase, in some cases their art, in some cases their work. In some cases their . . . hanging around with their friends and drinking beers and talking about garbage. We want to do two things. We want to build a community here in Philly as much as we can. And we want to show that Philadelphia is producing really great podcasts. We’re not New York, we’re not LA, we’re not these entertainment centers. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a huge amount of creativity here, and a huge amount of really great stuff being created. The podcast festival is just one of the ways that Nathan and I have been able to try to elevate that.

Teagan Kuruna, Dan Pasternack, Philadelphia Podcast Festival, Curate This
Teagan Kuruna with her partner and Philadelphia Podcast Festival co-founder Nathan Kuruna.

DP: And not all of the performers are polished. Some of the podcasts are very rudimentary. That’s a nice thing about the festival.

TK: Yeah, and within there’s also topical differences and structural differences. There are interview podcasts, there are roundtable podcasts, which often end up with . . . the podcasters get to Tattooed Mom like two hours early, and they have four drinks each, and they sit around, and they shoot the shit for an hour. That’s their podcast, and it’s weighted just as much in the festival as something that’s more academically minded, or polished, to use your word. Because we see that those are both valuable in terms of entertainment . . . you’re making this face.

DP: Well I was going to say that your podcast festival was the first time that my podcast used a microphone. I didn’t just mean polished in terms of content, I meant also in terms of presentation or recording.

TK: That’s true. We do have a wide range of ways that people make their podcasts. One of the things that Nathan and I do throughout the year, in addition to the festival, is we get requests from people who are interested in starting podcasts. And so we have people come to our studio and we show them the gear that we have, everything from phones to the setup we’re using now, with mixing board and mics and all that stuff. We just kind of walk through the ways that you can record a podcast. Recording it on your phone is just as legitimate as having a dedicated setup with equipment. You don’t need to invest a ton of money to start a podcast. So we love having podcasters who haven’t used mics who’ve just recorded into their phones or are just getting off the ground. It not only gives them a chance to perform live, something most of us have never done (myself included until my show was in the festival), but it also gives us an opportunity to talk to them about what they want to do in the future. So that’s really fun. And then on the other hand we have podcasts who had contracts with WHYY and recorded in their studio booths, and are on the radio.

DP: This year you have well-known guests? Tell me about that.

TK: This is the first year that we’re expanding to podcasts created outside the Philadelphia area. In the past, we’ve been really focused on local podcasts and we still are. The vast majority of podcasts that are recording live are based in the greater Philadelphia area. And then we have a handful of shows that we’re calling our “national shows” that are shows that are on big networks, that potentially have tens if not hundreds of thousands of listeners, subscribers. A lot of big cities have podcasts coming in to them regularly, so people who really love these popular shows have the opportunity to see them. And Philly just hasn’t been getting those, for whatever reason hasn’t been seen as much of a market for live podcasts, for these national shows.

Part of what we’re hoping is that with these higher profile podcasts being part of the festival, that that then brings more attention to some of the local shows. Because Nathan and I both feel really strongly that we have such good content coming out of Philadelphia. Bringing the cachet of these other shows into the festival is going to drive a lot people to look at the website and to look at the rest of the lineup, and to maybe find podcasts that they’re interested in that they’ve never heard of.

It was a hard decision to make, to bring them in. Because we weren’t certain that we wanted to, because we’re so focused on Philly shows, and we don’t want to lose that. It is going to bring us more press, and that press is not for the two of us, but it’s for the festival, and really for trying to bring more attention to the stuff that’s being built here in Philly. It was . . . it was a long decision. We thought about it a long time before we did it.

DP: Was it easy to recruit them?

TK: We’re working with a booking company who’s been really great to work with. They booked four of the five national shows. They’re called New Media Touring and they’re based in Boston.

DP: What is the future of the podcast?

TK: I think there will likely be a handful of podcasts that make it out of this podcast bubble, boom, that we’re in now. Nathan and I have talked about this quite a bit. He thinks they’re a long term thing and I think that we might see podcasts go the way of xanga, livejournal . . .

DP: Zines, blogs

TK: Zines kind of became blogs.

DP: And blogs became podcasts? That question came to mind partially because it’s almost like having the festival as a live experience foregrounds the intemporality of the medium. It’s not something that we know will last . . . In 1950, like, nobody making pop music knew that it was a permanent artifact, but in 1970, they did. So we know that now, that even if you make an album in your basement, it still has this permanence. But I don’t know if this medium does. So I like that live aspect of your festival.

TK: Basically, I have no idea what’s going to happen to podcasts. They certainly are having a cultural impact. I think that independent media has always been important, but it’s not always been long-lasting, and I don’t know that that matters that much.

DP: Will nerd/geek culture superheroes, space operas, sword and sorcery, be replaced on top of the corporate mountain, and by what? And when?

TK: I don’t know because I don’t live in that world. I don’t know anything about that stuff, but a lot of people are into it! It’s a big chunk of the podcast festival, certainly. I don’t think… I think they’re probably all related to fantasy and fantasy’s been around for a long time as a literary genre.. but yeah in terms of people making money off it, of course it’s going to get replaced. It’ll get replaced with whatever they decide is popular next.

DP: Some people who are unfamiliar with this festival might think that it is only that kind of content.

TK: That’s a very good point. It’s not. I would say it’s a big chunk but it’s certainly less than half. And what we have a lot more of than in years past are arts podcasts. Music, books, history, things like that. That genre seems to be growing at least in terms of who’s applying to be in the festival. There’s a completely different type of podcast to listen to, and you can like and listen to both of them at the same time, consecutively. But yeah, it’s not all comic books and swords and dragons and stuff like that. It’s a really wide breadth. I recommend going to our website so you can see the full list of shows. Let’s see. Just the national shows . . . we have a medical history comedy podcast, which sounds weird but was actually my gateway into listening to podcasts, it’s called Sawbones. I was not listening to podcasts and started listening to that one and was like, “oh this is a thing I could get into.” We have kind of . . . two female friends talking about politics and pop culture and intersectionality, Call Your Girlfriend. And then we have a bad movies podcast, The Flop House. That kind of shows, you in those three, the breadth of content in the festival. There are nearly sixty shows, so you could pick out any three of them and it would show you breadth.

DP: Do you want to talk about your own podcast, Teagan Goes Vegan?

TK: My podcast is currently on hiatus, but it will come back, someday. I have a podcast where I interview vegans around the world about what that means to them. And anyone who’s familiar with the vegan community or frankly any kind of social justice type of community understands that every person you talk to is going to have a different perspective on why they do what they do, what matters to them, what they think other people should be doing (there’s a lot of that). And then there’s the added bonus that when talking to vegans, you can talk about food a lot. Everybody wants to talk about food stuff. It’s really fun. It’s been great to talk to people all over the world. People who I would otherwise have no reason to talk to. I send them an email or they send me an email and we set up a time and we get on skype and talk. It’s an amazing thing we can do in 2017.

DP: Do you record those interviews here as well?

TK: I record almost everything here. If the person is local then they’ll come to the studio, if not we’ll skype. So I sit at this table with this very setup. I actually had some bad technical issues in the fall, and then I got pregnant and got sick from that, so I didn’t have the physical capability to do any more podcasts. So now we’re here and it’s festival time and the podcast will continue to be on hiatus until after this human emerges from me.

DP: You could probably do an episode about people telling you to change your eating habits during this time, right?

TK: Luckily nobody has yet.

DP: Oh wow.

TK: I know. I don’t know if I’m just kind of a bitch and people don’t tell me what to do. But luckily my doctors have been more than fine with it. “Oh this is great you don’t have to worry about cutting down on anything.” Like there’s all these things that you can’t eat because of safety reasons but when you’re vegan you’re not eating cheese or deli meat anyway, so who cares?

DP: Well it sounds like there’s an episode in there somewhere. People are going to bother you about it.

TK: I mean there’s certainly a lot to say and I think there will be more to say, like with parenting, also. Just how you navigate teaching vegan values to a kid who lives in a non-vegan world. It’s not that easy. But I’m going to have to learn.

DP: Yeah, you have episodes about a lot of broad topics, about privilege, about sex work, about masculinity, so yeah, to do first-hand episodes about yourself as a pregnant person, as a parent, sounds like a lot to take on.

TK: One of the things that is really interesting is that these are all really personal experiences, but when you talk about personal things in a public way, particularly when your audience is a community of people with a lot of strong opinions, you have to navigate that, and be willing to be vulnerable in different ways. And I think that that will be a challenge for me, should I choose to talk about that kind of stuff on my podcast. It’s very vulnerable.

DP: You seem to cover, you and your guests, a lot of pushback from non-vegans, and so that might get even more serious as a parent.

TK: It’s actually not the non-vegans I’m worried about, it’s the vegans! They have a lot of opinions about things too . . . and I say “they” as if I’m not one of them but I am. There are factions, and people who are certain they’re right about this thing and certain they’re right about that thing, and it’s tough. Veganism isn’t generally seen, at least to non-vegans, as a social justice issue, but I think a lot of us who are vegans do see it as a social justice issue, fitting in with being feminist, being anti-racist, being generally progressive, anti-capitalist, and environmentalist. And for me being a public health professional, there’s huge implications, not just in diet but in antimicrobial resistance, in water use and land use, and all of this stuff . . . there’s so many reasons why people who care about any of those issues should consider a vegan lifestyle

One of the good things about having the podcast is that it gives me a place where I can talk about those things with people. One of the ways that I’ve been able to create the show that I wanted to make is by framing everything as “I’m trying to learn from as many people as I can.” I am not coming into this with a ton of preconceived ideas about this thing or that thing. The only way to really know what you think is expose yourself to a lot of different ideas, and find yourself reacting to them.

DP: You have a really everyperson host voice on it. It’s like a survey of different subcultures within what outsiders would think would be a monochrome subculture.

TK: The one thing that I don’t give a lot of space to are non-scientific health and science claims. So that’s the only line I draw. Other than that, every person I interview has their own story, has their own perspective on things, and I think that being able to share those stories is not only good for the person who is sharing them but also for the people who are listening and hearing these ideas for maybe the first time themselves.

DP: I know you’re not performing this year but this is maybe not the first thing someone would expect from a live podcast festival, this kind of project.

TK: I have only done this podcast live once. We actually did a vegan food taste-test, we did four different chocolate ice creams, and four different cheeses, and then we ran out of time because there was too much food to eat. Oh, and we tried Tattooed Mom’s vegan options. And it was really fun. I had enough to share with the audience, and we rated them and did a blind taste test and decided which was the best. And that’s an example of what people do that’s different with a live festival. Because normally it would be like this where you’re sitting down and I’m asking questions. You’re already more prepared than I ever am for my interviews, you have questions! I just research the person and I’m like, tell me your story.

DP: Well I did that too, that’s how I found Nathan’s Christmas music. I was going to ambush him with one of my prepared questions about it.

TK: Nathan has released a Christmas album every year, except for last year, last year was the lost album. I will tell his story for him, because that’s what I do I guess. So, let’s see, this will be the twelfth year of this. So Nathan is very good at consistency. That’s why we’ve had five years of the podcast festival and twelve years of Yulenog. The story that he tells me is that one year he thought it would be a really great idea to create a Christmas card that looked like a CD cover. I don’t know where this idea came from. It was a long time ago. And so I think he created the album art first, and then talked to his friend Moppa Elliot, who is a fairly well known jazz musician, and he was like “wouldn’t it be kinda cool to make a Christmas album” and Moppa was like “sure,” and so they made a Christmas album. I think the first year was all covers of traditional Christmas songs. Maybe there were some originals in there.

DP: Are you serious? Most Christmas albums are covers. Are you saying there’s originals?

TK: This is one of the things that Nathan does that I just absolutely love about him. He over the years has collected all of these musician friends, all these fantastic, mostly jazz musicians, who get together every year. This year it’s in July. And everybody knows that it’s Yulenog season so everybody is writing original music, now, as we speak, original music for Yulenog. They will write the songs and we will record them all, live, in Moppa’s house. We will practice twice, and then we will record, and that is it. And one of the things that I love the most about it, is that it’s all these beautifully trained musicians who are touring Europe, and are having their albums written about. You have somebody who’s a renowned drummer, and you hand him a recorder, play this on this song, and he just does it. It sounds way better than if I did it, because I’m not a musician, but he still doesn’t know how to play a recorder. They’re just having fun, and this just allows for this crazy creativity. And some insanely offensive songs. So the albums are generally not for the faint of heart.

DP: No Christmas album is.

TK: No, these are really something. The best one so far was the tenth anniversary, a greatest hits album. The cover was a nativity scene where the guys played Joseph and Mary and the wise men and the shepherds, and Nathan built a nativity scene in his friend’s backyard. Nathan was the baby Jesus, and he created some sort of apparatus that allowed a doll’s body to stick out of his chin. So his face was Jesus’s face but there was a doll body. It was upsetting and disturbing. But I highly recommend that you look at the image, because the art direction is really beautiful.

DP: I will attach it to this article. I have to, now.

Teagan Kuruna, Dan Pasternack, Philadelphia Podcast Festival, Curate This

DP: I guess I just have two more questions. So he’s done this Christmas performance for twelve years running. This is only the fifth podcast festival. Can you talk about the first festival, and what you think the twelfth one will look like?

TK: So the first festival looked a lot like the current one, it was just a much smaller scale. Twelve podcasts participated over three nights, at Philamoca. We really didn’t know what to expect, so we were just excited that everyone showed up for their live recording and we had some audience members and that was that. The audience numbers really vary, and that’s something that we embrace. We don’t choose podcasts for the festival based on how many listeners or how many subscribers they have.

DP: I appreciate that.

TK: The twelfth one . . . so seven years from now. Well hopefully people will still be listening to podcasts at that point, so hopefully there will still be a festival. I assume that that’s the case. So I think that at some point we will have to cap the number of podcasts in the festival. This year we were able to accommodate so many podcasts, and at some point we won’t be able to accommodate everybody.

We have a lot of volunteers this year, too. In the past Nathan and I have been able to run every show, one of us has been able to be at one of the venues at all times. This year we can’t do that. At some point we can only do so much. But I think that seven years from now we will continue to focus mostly on Philadelphia based podcasts. That’s where our heart is, that’s what we want the festival to be about. I think in order to be able to do that we’ll continue to bring in some of these national shows, in part to make sure people are coming to Philly, and in part because it will help to continue to build up Philadelphia’s cachet as a podcasting center. At the same time, who knows. Five years ago I wouldn’t have said that we would ever bring in national podcasts. So seven years from now, could be completely different. But I don’t ever see us really deviating from a heavy focus on the locally produced shows.

DP: That kind of sounds like a good ending, but I was going to ask, do you want to tell a couple stories. Like a logistic . . . a horror story of something that went very wrong, and a story of something that went very right.

TK: You know I’m having trouble of thinking of something that’s gone horribly wrong. I’m sorry to disappoint you but I don’t have any horror stories. I think something that’s gone well, I think we left last year’s festival feeling so good about how things went. That was the first year that we had shows simultaneously at two different venues, and that was a big challenge for us. It was the first time that we turned over some of the audio responsibility. Bridgeset sound and Steel Empire did all the recording, and they’re helping us out again this year and we’re so grateful to them. And last year we had more than forty podcasts, and that was really when we started to think that we were getting more of a community going. That there were more people sitting talking to each other, and it wasn’t just podcasters coming in, doing their thing and leaving. So that was just a really good feeling, and I think it inspired us to build up even more this year, which is how we ended up with almost sixty shows and nine venues and more days of programming.

DP: Is there anything else you want to say?

TK: Go to the website, phillypodfest.com, we also are on facebook and twitter. We have almost fifty free podcast events happening, so I hope that everyone is able to come out and at least see one of them. And if you’re interested in any of the ticketed shows, all the links for those are on our website. And you can always reach out to me with questions. And I hope that I see you at one of the shows that I’m at, which is only a fraction of the places where there will be events. So yeah, thank you.

DP: And thanks for having this interview at your own recording studio.

TK: Anytime. It’s just one of the many services we provide.

Philadelphia Podcast Festival runs July 14-23, 2017, many venues.

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


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
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

All photos by Rebecca Katherine Hirsch.

Mother’s Day, 2008, Sharon Koelblinger

Artist to Artist

Inside a Domestic Setting-Turned-Gallery Space

Sharon Koelblinger uses painting, drawing, photography, photo as object, and sculptural forms to explore parallel worlds and spacial relationships. I’m particularly interested in the way she deconstructs the photograph, a medium inherit with authenticity, to reveal a new way of understanding it as object. Sharon asserts in her artist statement: “When seen together, photographs resist representation and sculptures embrace trompe l’oeil affects to emphasize the disconnection between seeing and comprehending while negotiating the boundary between illusion and authenticity.”

I visited Sharon’s exhibit, Auspicious Arguments, at Black Oak House, Catherine Pancake and Miriam Stewart’s contemporary fine art gallery in West Philly, and developed a series of questions based on the work.

-Julianna Foster, curator

Julianna Foster: The Black Oak House is a gallery space in a domestic setting. How did you approach this space differently then you would have a more traditional gallery? In particular, can you speak about the piece Figure-8’s on Your Body and how it was installed?

Sharon Koelblinger: Showing my artwork in a house gallery initially presented a few challenges for me in thinking about how the content of my work relates to the space. Ultimately, I decided to embrace the domestic setting and draw upon my own familial history and consider the objects that my grandparents collected over the 60 years that they lived in their home. These works constitute the bulk of the exhibition.

In the past, the Figure-8’s piece was installed in the corner of a white-wall gallery space. I really liked that I was able to re-present that work for Black Oak House in a domestic setting. The piece references a paper chain that children often make and it seems more natural to be installed within the context of a home rather than a gallery. It greets viewers when they enter through the door as if they are arriving at a celebration, like a welcome to the exhibition.

There's Comfort in Your Lack of Intimacy, Sharon Koelblinger
There’s Comfort in Your Lack of Intimacy

JF: There’s Comfort in Your Lack of Intimacy, installed in the dining room of the gallery, is isolated on the wall. I actually feel it commands the space, it’s quite a powerful image. Tell me about the choice of placement. Was this work made for this exhibit?

SK: Yes, it’s so interesting that you mention that piece, because it was in fact the artwork that was the impetus for the whole show. I had taken the blanket, seen in the photograph, from my grandfather’s house when he passed away. It was a wool blanket that I had never seen while he was alive and I had no personal connection to its history. I struggled with my lack of emotional connection to the blanket and other objects taken from his house. The mark-making on top of the photograph is a way of claiming the blanket as my own and ultimately turning it into something appreciated for its aesthetic value rather than for its utilitarian function.

Feathers From Your Wedding Hat, Sharon Koelblinger
Feathers From Your Wedding Hat

JF: I’m curious about the intersection between your use of photography, mark making, and sculptural forms. Can you speak about your focus on materiality? For instance, in the two works Feathers From Your Wedding Hat and Torn Pages, there is a delicateness to the feathers—pigment-printed on tracing paper—as opposed to the graphite-covered aluminum of Torn pages.

SK: Materials play a huge role in describing metaphor in my work. I was initially trained in sculpture before I worked in photography, so I often think about the form alongside the image. In my photographs, I create unexpected relationships to materials in an effort to ask the viewer to consider the images as objects that exist in the present rather than depicting moments of the past.

Torn Pages, Sharon Koelblinger
Torn Pages

In the works you mentioned, the forms reinforce the image: tracing paper serves as a substrate for delicate feathers and aluminum adds weight to a carved wooden journal. By placing these pieces next to one another, they engage in a dialog about duality: lightness and heaviness, revealing and witholding, ephemerality and permanence.

JF: Your titles, such as Mother’s Day, 2008, Your Coat Collar on Christmas, and There’s Comfort in Your Lack of Intimacy, seem to refer to someone or a specific event or narrative. Does this body of work relate to your personal history?

SK: Yes, I do rely on titles to add a hint of personal narrative to my work. The artwork doesn’t necessarily reveal itself as intensely personal on its own, therefore I utilize titles as a way of creating a more intimate conversation between the works. All of the titles in this show address specific people that I have been in an close relationship with in some way, some who have passed away and some who are still living.

JF: What is your studio practice like?

SK: My process of working is heavily studio-based. I view my studio as a place of refuge where I can seek solice and quietly work on my projects. I typically work very slowly and many of my artworks are made through repeated gestures, therefore my studio practice often assumes a meditative tone.

Mother’s Day, 2008, Sharon Koelblinger
Mother’s Day, 2008

JF: What are some things you are currently reading, listening, to or viewing that are relevant to your work?

SK: Serendipitously, I began reading The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit at the time that I was preparing work for this show. The book touches on a few transitional moments in Solnit’s life, including her mothers declining health due to Alzheimer’s, and considers how she and others narrate their own story. In Auspicious Arguments, I was thinking a lot about the objects that connect me to other people’s histories and how my own present is intertwined with their past.

JF: What are your plans for the summer—what are you working on now?

SK: This summer, I plan on experimenting with video in my practice. I foresee that the inherently ephemeral nature of video will similarly share the tension between the temporal and the enduring that already exists in my work. Using video, I intend to explore the process of human perception through capturing subjects that are transformed throughout the duration of the piece by shifts in subtle nuances. What the viewer anticipates at the beginning may not be what they see at the end.

Sharon Koelblinger

Medium Theater Company - Mason in a cage

Artist to Artist

Podcast: The Mediums Make Theater

Morgan Fitzpatrick Andrews and Mason Rosenthal have been working together since 2012 under the auspices of Medium Theatre Company. Their site-specific productions in Rutherford Hall—about a two hour drive out of Philly into New Jersey—feature large casts activating multiple rooms in the suburban mansion with interactive, multi-sensual performance.

In Curate This‘ first podcast, Dani Solomon, who began working with the Mediums two years ago and is now a company member, talks with Morgan and Mason about their differences—in production style, social sensibilities, artistic strengths, finances—and the particulars of navigating differences as artistic collaborators.

The first time they worked together intimately was Mason’s one-man show Nobody’s Home. For their initial rehearsals, Morgan set up a system where Mason would create a one minute performance with only two minutes of prep in a tiny, cell-like bedroom. Morgan, stopwatch in hand, would enter the room after the two allotted minutes, and leave after one minute of performance. Then the process began again immediately.

“Morgan tortured me, basically,” Mason laughs. “It was amazing, but it felt like torture for a while.”

“It’s a bit of that exquisite corpse,” says Morgan, “of being able to take different images and then sequence them in a way that makes sense. But then also taking those starting images and branching them out and growing them into something that’s a bit more crystallized into an actual scene.”

Mason adds, “Susan Rethorst has this phrase that making is thinking. So the act of making things over and over again is a kind of thinking and a kind of very sophisticated thinking that’s different from talking about what the show might be or writing it out. And we did a lot of making as thinking.” Within these limitations, says Mason, “We were building a vocabulary together.”

Morgan will more often concede control than take it. “You have a specific way that you like to run rehearsals,” Mason describes, “as a collective, that comes from your history of organizing groups and political activism. You play this funny role as the leader but also you want people to step up in certain moments and for you to be able to step back.

“I learned very early on,” he continues, “that if I want this to go the way I want it to go I have to step up and decide that I’m the director now in this moment. And I enjoyed that. It was stressful to have to do that at the last moment, but I enjoyed it.”

“Not everyone will step up in a situation like that,” Dani points out. “It’s one thing to acknowledge an opportunity for someone to step up but not everyone feels empowered to do that, and sometimes that does leave things not getting accomplished.”

”I’m not telling anyone what to do,” Morgan responds. “I’m giving everyone a frame through which to do things.”

In workshops Morgan facilitates through Philadelphia Theatre of the Oppressed, he says, “people start by playing these games, and then the games develop into techniques. It’s not like I give a bunch of kids four crayons and [tell them what to draw]. It’s like, okay, here’s sixty crayons and a piece of paper. How was your day? That’s more the way I want a process to look.

“What ends up happening is people are able to insert their own stories into that framework. I’m basically providing the frame but they’re the artist who then provides the picture.”

Listen to the full conversation:

All photos by Amy Hufnagel

Music in podcast by Kulululu

Red 40 Mike Jackson_small

Artist to Artist

If Mike Didn’t Draw It, It Doesn’t Matter

I met Mike Jackson back in 2011 when he started to hang out and draw at Indy Hall. We were the only artist/illustrators there at the time that were actively creating and drawing.

In April of 2013 I produced his solo show, Fast, for a Catcher, where he filled the entire gallery with artwork and stories surrounding his love of baseball. Since then, Mike and I have produced art shows, collaborated on pieces, painted giant murals ,and have encouraged each other to continue to live our lives as creators.

As my drawing mentor, he is constantly encouraging me to settle for nothing but my best. Mike wants everybody to be at their best so he can share the incredible things that people are capable of.

This is why I chose to interview my friend, teacher and collaborator to find out where this incredible execution of colors and lines came from and the stories he is telling with them.

-Sean Martorana, curator

Fast for a Catcher Mike Jackson

SM: Tell me the story of your earliest art and design influences.

MJ: My grandfather saw that I had an interest in drawing. He sat down with me one Saturday night and showed me how to draw a convertible in one point perspective. I remember him specifically saying “. . . and you can add a little fella in there, and then you can draw a sidewalk and he’s looking at a pretty girl at the stop light. You can just keep adding and adding to this.” This was the first time that I got permission to keep building.

I also remember drawing Batman in the frost on the bus in first grade. I did a different super hero every morning. I knew they were going to the next public school when they dropped us off. So I was leaving something behind to build a legend.

It didn’t work. I was not a legend. But my Batman got tighter.

Was there a moment when you really decided you wanted to focus on illustration full time?

I felt like everybody in grade school was the best at something. For some reason I thought I was the best of the best if I could draw really well. I wanted to be known as “the drawing guy.”

In the third grade there was a girl who took art lessons on Saturdays and I remember thinking, “I can’t afford art lessons.” I thought she was going to be better than me and I was going to lose “my thing.” She stopped taking lessons but I kept drawing because I really liked being the best.

Then I went to art school, at University of the Arts, because I figured this is what I’m good at and it’s worth pursuing. I didn’t know I had to know what I wanted to do with it. Art school was just the next logical step.

Line drawing from a live model by Mike Jackson, collection of Sean Martorana

You have a very strong style that you have crafted over time. It’s your hand, your signature. Was there a specific moment you started to find this approach?

College is when I got introduced to line. Up until then I was just trying to draw as realistically as possible. Then there was this girl in college and her renderings were beautiful. Untouchable. So I thought, ok, I’m going to have to figure out a signature. Otherwise I will just be reaching for something that I am good at, and she’s just better.

There was a class with teacher by name of Roger Roth. He encouraged that every week we draw differently. That is the first time I started thinking about bringing a voice to illustration.

He also introduced me to David Stone Martin and Al Hirschfeld, and from there I started drawing with line.

I find your lines to be very animated. They are very loose but sophisticated and intentional. Is there something in your style of line that helps tell the story of the people you draw?

Usually I try to tell as much story with as little line as possible. The more line I have, the closer I get to rendering, and I am trying to get as far away from that as possible but still pass some kind of recognition onto the viewer.

Jazz Mike Jackson

One thing I appreciate with your lines is that they are so tight. In contrast, your color is not as clean. Is there a reason your color is so much looser in its execution than your lines?

Recently I’ve tried not to paint but to apply color. Color adds depth beyond the line . . . which is fun. I want people to have a smile even if it’s just internal. I want them to feel better about something when looking at my work.

Some guys Mike Jackson

Since you like to capture moments and tell stories of incredible people, is there one particular story that stands out to you?

One would be the Kinetic Sculpture Derby piece. It was just a summarization of this day that I had. We went to the Trenton Avenue Arts Festival and were walking up to Frankford Avenue as these people showed up. It was absurd and wonderful I thought if this isn’t the best gateway for telling this day I don’t know what is.

Just two people covered in balloons.

Kinetic Sculpture Derby Mike Jackson

After watching a parade of a viking ship that had 18 people peddling, which is amazing, then these guys were just wearing balloons. It was this simple display of absurdity that I appreciated.

This was a lot of fun because it is simple. The color is exactly what I wanted to do. It’s just an application of color that ended up emphasizing the story.

Is there a subject you are currently interested in?

I have been drawing the theater around Philadelphia. It’s a thing, which doesn’t get much attention, that I can add my voice to. In my world it doesn’t have a prominent voice. When I get together with my friends we talk about the Phillies.

I feel like it’s completely wide open to do what I want. I really don’t know of many people drawing the theater right now. So it seems like the wild west.

I’ve only been doing it for about 5 months but it’s gotten me into some really great shows and it’s another thing to bounce my drawings off of. I go see what other people are capable of doing and how can I show that through what I am capable of doing.

It’s been really great seeing how much work goes into a production, and then can I do it justice.

It’s so much fun.

Ok, final question, because I could go on and on. Do you have any bucket list projects, mediums or things you would like to see your career?

To be a part of a community where I am a respected influence in the community. That will be cool.

The biggest thing, which is why I do all of it, all these little tiny things, add up to the fact that I want to have been a prolific illustrator who supported himself and his family through illustration.

I also want people to say “If Mike didn’t draw it, it didn’t matter.”

Good answer.

Wait. One more question. Can you capture this interview in one of your daily drawings?

Sean and Mike by Mike Jackson

All images by Mike Jackson. Figure drawing from a live model is from the personal collection of Sean Martorana.

Photos of Gina Hoch-Stall and Scott McPheeters in collaborative piece Presenting: You first, with the hope for reciprocation. Photo by Frank Bicking

Artist to Artist

Owning the “Artist” label and Defining Success

Gina Hoch-Stall is an inspiring, bright woman, who has a way of smiling and looking you straight in the eye that dares you to bullshit her. She is talkative, opinionated, and likes communication to be direct, and you can see these qualities in her dance company RealLivePeople. She is clear about what she wants you to get from a performance, and her choreography, which often includes the dancers speaking earnestly about their own experience, strives to be accessible to dance-lovers and first time dance-goers alike. I sat down with Gina at Good Karma Cafe in Center City to talk about how she sees her art, success, and calling herself an artist.

-Antonia Z Brown, curator

AZB: One of the things I love about your work it that it has a very specific and clear intent to it. You’ve obviously laid out a mission around it and developed a personal style. How did you come to find that direction in your art?

GHS: There were a few moments in my childhood where I can remember seeing a dance performance and feeling simultaneously elated and furious: I was shocked by what dance could do and upset that I hadn’t thought of it first . . . at the age of eight. But aside from specific moments of inspiration I actually think that a lot of my creative process and endeavors have come from a reactive place. I’ve often been more sure of what I did NOT want to make than what I did—although I also value the work of artists who appear to have a clear point-of-view to offer their audience. I have felt like there weren’t many people who were focused on creating “accessible” dance or dance for less familiar audiences in Philadelphia, and that has always been a huge tenet of my mission and work.

Lately I’ve been on a bit of a new journey, questioning everything. Which I think we, as artists, should all be doing, all the time. In the past I’ve started most of my artistic projects from a place that felt safe and clear but I’ve found that having so much clarity in advance can actually stifle my creative process in and around the studio. Since my time at the Ponderosa program in Germany recently I’ve been questioning a lot of my working patterns and impulses: why big group dances? Why make dances in the studio? Why wait until you know more than one thing before you make dance? Is it so bad to make terrible dances—what can I learn from it?

So you question the goals of your art?

All the time! As I said, never more so than right now. I think I’ve spent the last five years becoming more and more clear about the RealLivePeople mission and the type of dances that fit with that model and work for that audience. But there’s a reason that the company is called RLP and not Gina Hoch-Stall and Co—I’ve always wanted to keep a bit of distance between the work created by the company and my own full range of creative output. That is a complex balance though and I feel like I’m always redefining it. I will say this, I definitely have no problem now calling myself the Artistic Director of a dance company because I am. The company is real, it exists, it has some funding, it has paid some artists and other people have come to our shows and really enjoyed themselves. That is immensely satisfying and I feel really good about spending most of my creative time in the last five years making that happen. The next five years? We’ll see . . .

I think that’s hard for a lot of people, owning calling yourself an artist.

Yes, and I think it’s especially hard as a dancer because it’s immediately attached to your physical self—there is literally no way to separate it. So the first thing people will do when you tell them you’re a dancer is look at your body and try to assess it for skill (as if they can see your years of training, rehearsing, creating, exploring) but actually just seeing if you look skinny/strong/anorexic/stereotypical. I don’t, and for many years that was a huge barrier to me calling myself a dancer. But I was lucky to have exposure to other seriously strong, super talented female dancers who gave so little of a shit, on the outside at least, that I was eventually able to own my own self as a dancer and now, just in the past few months, as a choreographer. It’s such a personal journey and really has so little to do with anyone else because when you can say it, “I’m an artist,” and actually believe it, really convince yourself, no one else questions you. But you have to do the work to get there and it’s pretty painful and full of rejection.

What does success look like for you? Because it can be so many different things.

Success is such a tricky concept. I feel like we should be super specific about when we’re discussing internal success and external success because I feel like outsiders are often given the power to determine the success of an artist or a project without that artist’s own opinion being taken into consideration. And my feeling about that type of success, the external variety, is that it’s a bit like luck: if you keep making things, showing up, being a decent human being and giving other people opportunities, eventually you’ll get some—but that’s it. It also helps if you come from privilege and connections.

As for the other kind, internal success, I’ll talk about my all-time favorite metaphor for life: the forest and the trees. I believe that some of us are more oriented to tree thinking: focusing on the day-to-day, short-term, in-the-moment interactions. While others are more focused on forest thinking: big picture, how do I fit in the universe, what will my life mean, how does my work fit in the context of economics, politics, pop culture right now?

And I think I need to satisfy both of these to feel successful. In my tree-brain I need to be in choreographer-mode and move my body thoughtfully at least once a day, every single day. For my forest-brain I need to have a minimum of three, maximum of eight, projects coming down the pipeline that simultaneously thrill and terrify me—specifically things that seem to be in my wheelhouse but that I’ve never attempted before. There’s something about knowing that I will be forced to change and evolve in the future and then doing it in small, bite-sized daily pieces that makes me feel successful—like I’ve got this living-as-an-artist thing down.

And yes, I do feel my most successful when someone who has never even thought about seeing a dance show sees something I’ve created with my collaborators and is like ”Oh, I actually really like dance!” That makes me joyful deep inside.

Does money play into your idea of success in art? (I’ll put it out there, I don’t think the two have to be connected.)

If I have more money I can spend more time making art, if I have less money I have to spend more time working (which can be artistic too). I think it’s much easier to be ‘successful’ when you have money because you have the luxury of spending the time it takes to play and discover something new. Limitations can be wonderful but if they are always the same ones it gets tedious and struggling to pay my collaborators what I know they are worth is often infuriating.

Where do you think the Philly dance scene will go next?

I’m so excited about the young dancers in Philly right now. I am seeing so many new faces at performances and workshops, and they’re really excited about performing and taking classes. And there’s like nothing there. So I hope they’re going to be really entrepreneurial and start building things. I think for a while, my mini generation (dancers who graduated at the height of the recession) all left. They moved to the burbs or out of Philly and I don’t think that’s happening any more. So I’m just really excited about this next group. I also think that people who have been in the dance scene for a lot longer and have been really scrappy and productive have become elders in the community. And they’re being really supportive and generative. There’s Meg Foley with the Whole Shebang and there’s the workshop series that you just did at Mascher which looked really great. I think people are getting excited about dance class again, which always makes me really pumped because it brings people together—in addition to keeping our bodies strong and able. Even though it’s a rough time for funding and presenting, I still feel hopeful.

Photo credit: Gina Hoch-Stall and Scott McPheeters. Photo by Frank Bicking.

Rhenda Fearrington This Moments Sweetness

Artist to Artist

New York Soul

Rhenda Fearrington is is considered a New York soul in the heart of Philly Jazz. Rhenda was singing in local bands throughout Queens when a bandleader named Reginald “Budd” Ellison, who a year later would become Patti Labelle’s Musical Director, asked if she’d sing in his band. An opportunity came to tour with Award-Winning Composer/Producer & Percussionist, James Heath, Jr. aka MTUME, doubling as an opening act for Lionel Ritchie and the Commodores. Later, her years as a backup singer with Multi Grammy Award Winning Roberta Flack took her all over the United States and the world. She later became involved with the Philadelphia jazz scene and has been busy performing throughout the city after releasing her first CD in 2012, “This Moment’s Sweetness.”

-Pamela Hetherington, curator

PH: You are a native New Yorker. How did you end up in Philadelphia?

RF: The short story is that love brought me to Philadelphia. I met a jazz musician from West Philadelphia. We became smitten while touring with MTUME, got married while I was touring with Roberta Flack, and then I started having babies! One son is a New Yorker, one is a Philadelphian, so I always say I have dual-citizenship! Of course, the cost of living and a growing family kept me in Philadelphia, which required that I embrace change.

I’ve known you for about three years, but even for those people who don’t know you, it doesn’t take long to see that you are an extremely optimistic and positive person who takes quite a bit of time to celebrate so many people in the Philly artist community. How do you stay encouraged as an artist, producer and presenter, and what are your favorite ways to encourage others?

I love seeing the glass as half-full and I’ve spent many years encouraging others that the glass was just as full for them as it appeared for everyone else. What keeps my spirits buoyed are the little triumphs, that really aren’t that small—like completing a long-awaited CD while holding down a full-time job, maintaining a mortgage, and being a vigilant advocate for my younger son (who is diagnosed with Schizophrenia), while maintaining my advocacy for Philadelphia Jazz! What keeps me encouraged in my artistic pursuits is trusting that I have time to discover and travel down every avenue that excites me, believing that I’m in a race with no one other than myself, thereby living for the approval of no one else but mine and God’s.

I love it. But let’s be real for a minute. Philadelphia has its issues, and I know you’re not afraid to address them. What is one of your main frustrations with the Philly music scene?

I suppose one of my pet peeves with Philadelphia’s music scene is that musicians and vocalists seem reticent to spread the word about other performers, right here in their town. If you have a voice or an audience of people who follow you, then you could let others know where the venues are. I know it isn’t fair to speak in extremes, so while it’s not every musician, there’re so many who have never shared a post or event advertising other musicians. I think it would be revolutionary if people just used that little ‘ol SHARE button a tad more often! Social media is powerful when it’s utilized for all the good things. Besides, what’s better than sharing good stuff about Philadelphia Jazz?

You do so much good and consistent sharing of others’ work on social media that it is absolutely infectious. I think it’s easy to get siloed as an artist; we work alone so often on our own projects that it is challenging to have an awareness of where we exist in a larger community. And speaking of a large musical community, do you miss the New York scene at all, and if so, in what way?

I don’t miss the New York scene, as I suspect it’s changed dramatically since I left it in 1985. As a native, I was blessed to have made prudent choices in working with great artists, from whom I learned. I was always paid, but I made more money for gigs than many people I know make now for the same kind of gigs. I doubt that’s a New York thing or a Philly thing.

Maybe it’s a timing thing. The flip side of social media: when you can hear any musician or album for free or close to free on Youtube or Spotify, it’s challenging for any musician to capture the true dollar amount for their music in performance. What does Philly jazz need right now to become more visible?

If I were a psychic, I could tell you what Philly Jazz needed to become visible, but I’m not! Many fine non-profits are investing greatly in building an audience for Philly Jazz, which is a slow process. I am told that the jazz audience is dying, an audience to which I belong. I show up. What I would love to see is the city taking on a campaign to market Jazz nationally, and not just through social media. Television is still viewed. The same demographic that’s on Facebook also watches “Scandal” or “How To Get Away With Murder.”

I totally agree. I’m really interested in how you stay focused as an artist. How do you choose the projects that you want to do? What really excites you to do something new?

What gets me excited about any new project is performing new material and the potential of connecting with a new audience! Creating a theme for a show, or switching up and performing for children. My other consideration always turns to not just the band I assemble, but am I being contracted for an equitable/liveable wage?

So, what is your dream project and could you do it in Philadelphia?

I have several “Dream” projects that I can’t begin to explain, but my current project involves reaching out to children! I have been cultivating relationships with schools in Delaware County for over 20 years, so this project necessitates being in Pennsylvania.

Thanks, Rhenda!

Teatro Nacional Sucre, photo by Héctor López

Artist to Artist

Arterial Opera House and Philly’s Poetry Scene

I chose Anne-Adele Wight for Curate This because her poems are a constant rush of poetic experiments, of surprises, of kaleidoscopic gladness, of images that mix fancy with science and art. She animates buildings, for example, a globe-trotting opera house! Who else could have thought of that? She is a force in the Philadelphia poetry scene both because of the reading series she directs and because of her own rip-roaring work that delivers such unexpected pleasures.

– Lynn Levin, Curator

Anne-Adele Wight is the author of Sidestep Catapult and Opera House Arterial from BlazeVOX Books. Her work has appeared in American Writing, Philadelphia Poets, Apiary, Fairies in America, Jupiter 88, Luna Luna, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Bedfellows. Her poem “Nothing but Villas in Tuscany” was selected as the Editor’s Choice in the Sandy Crimmins Poetry Competition. In July she took part in a panel discussion of Pablo Neruda’s work, reading her own translation of one of his poems, for the live TV series Who Do You Love? She curates the monthly Jubilant Thicket performance series and lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two cats. Curate This spoke to Anne-Adele about her most recent book.

CT: Opera House Arterial is quite the inventive series. How did you turn a structure into a living creature with a trickster spirit?

A friend showed me a postcard from Quito, Ecuador. It showed the city in layers. There was a strip of city and then there was the opera house. Behind the opera house were the Andes rising up. I looked at that postcard and something happened in my brain. I felt the picture going deep in and wanting to become something. So I thought, “Oh, it wants to become a poem,” and at first it just didn’t work as a poem. So I put it away for a long, long time, and when it resurfaced I realized it hadn’t gone anywhere at first because it wanted to be 56 poems. I got so into it for a while that everything I wrote turned into an opera house poem.

And eventually that evolved into a mythology in 56 poems. You’ve clearly had a substantial career. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your relationship with the poetry scene in Philadelphia?

So, the series Poets & Prophets was in the city since 1983, and they now hold readings out in Media, Pennsylvania—near where the driving force, Bob Small, lives. I worked with Bob on Poets & Prophets for a long time, and was constantly finding myself running readings, so this is how I learned to do that.

I detached myself from Poets & Prophets three years ago, because I took over the series I now run, which is called Jubilant Thicket. It is a mixed-media series principally devoted to poetry. It was founded by my friend Debrah Morkun, who is an absolutely wonderful, very avant garde poet.

It has been passed onto me and I am doing my best to honor the multimedia aspect, but often we’ll have readings that are entirely poetry. Occasionally we will have a musician or a dancer. A few months ago we had a musician accompanying a dancer, which was quite an accomplishment because we read at Head House books in the children’s section, which is charming, but it is a very small space.

You’ve been in the Philadelphia poetry scene for a while, both working with Poets & Prophets and Jubilant Thicket, but you are not originally from Philly.

I’m originally from Massachusetts around the Boston area, but I’ve lived here for 37 years.

What do you think is specific to Philadelphia’s poetry scene?

The first thing that comes to mind is particular personalities. I think of Frank Sherlock, Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate; CAConrad, who created a whole new poetics and now teaches internationally; Larry Robin, who runs the wonderful Moonstone Arts collective; and people who really shape the way events are run. Another thing that is characteristic here is how many of the same people go to all the readings.

That’s interesting; do you view that as problematic?

No, I think that’s excellent. But one thing I try to do, and this is where it gets a little problematic, I look for readers for Jubilant Thicket who aren’t necessarily going to be people everybody else has heard. I try to find off the beaten track series and they are not always easy to find. I try to be ingenious.

Another thing that is very characteristic is how many events there are. There is something going on practically everyday. You often have to choose between events because you can’t be in two places at once.

So there’s a staple audience, and a plethora of events, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Philly attracts poets. From experience do you think Philadelphia, in fact, attracts poets?

Most definitely, I’ve heard people say they came here for the poetry and the people who don’t move here will often go to great lengths to give a reading.

How can people support local poets?

Go to a reading, buy somebody’s book, talk them up, and make sure you bring as many people as are willing to go to a poetry reading. Being a poet in the busy poetry scene it is easy to forget that not everybody is crazy for poetry. Sometimes you say to a more mainstream person, “Come to this poetry reading with me,” and they go green around the gills. Readings often are held at a bar or a place that serves food and drinks. Try to buy a drink and tip the bartender. The establishment is counting on bringing in some money during the event.

Also, support independent bookstores. They’re endangered and are more likely to host local poets than the larger establishments.

Photo by Héctor López