Discrimination permitted, Plamen Veltchev, Curate This, Art as an Engine

Real Talk

Art as an Engine

There is no such thing as art being too aggressive, or too depressing, or too dark. Art is just visual, realistic, contemporary observation, after all, based on everyday facts. We are currently experiencing modern conflicts that cannot be ignored, while issues such as social injustice and global warming are seen as platforms or tools for political gain instead of as failures that need an immediate attention. Art has always served as tool of documentation of a particular age or time. It has the power to make people think, even if only for seconds.

Art can be a constant, powerful graphic reminder that warfare and poverty continue to exist, that the lack of fairness in a government exists, that basic human rights are being denied and there is nobody to defend those affected.

In Philly there are many artists who do work which reflects on our contemporary distresses. I am drawn to the aggressiveness and the messages in the work of YOMI, DOOMED FUTURE, and Joe Boruchow, which is based on our everyday reality. There are also, of course, many people who are not themselves artists but contribute, and support and guide political messages. For example Robert Perry (owner of Tattooed mom) and Conrad Benner. This support from “outside” is now, as always, vital to artists’ work.

I created the “DENIED” project as a symbolic emblem that represents contemporary peril and global unrest, using symbolic elements and imagery to unify my messages. In some of my newest work I respond directly to our political environment. My work as DENIED responds to gun laws, immigration, global warming, and the prevalent lack of access to clean water and human rights.

 

Home Safe by Ernel Martinez and Shira Walinsky. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Real Talk

Disrupting the Narrative of the Struggling Artist

If you ever have daughters, you would want them to grow up to be like Jenni. Jenni is whip-smart and doesn’t hide it away. She is good at all the things she aspires to do, but doesn’t feel the pressure to pursue things she doesn’t want to. She is honest, and steadfast, and absolutely hilarious.

Granted, I might be biased because she was nice enough to come see Pirates of the Caribbean 5 with me, in theaters, and then make me mushroom risotto afterwards.

I’ve known her as an actor, a director, an LOTR fanatic, and a secret gourmet chef. She is also a writer, and an event planner, and sometimes a lobster murderer. Most importantly, she is a person with many good ideas, and good thoughts, which is why I asked her to write an article. So . . . you’re welcome. – Jenny Kessler, curator

I’ll confess, when asked to respond to the prompt “discuss a social issue that can be addressed by art” my first thought was “what social issue can’t be addressed by art?”

“Art” is an enormous, vague term that describes the emotional resonances generated via application of the human imagination to the physical world. Art is to communication as form is to function. Art is inherently social in that it requires a creator and a consumer, and by necessity, it reflects a point of view. We’re influenced by these distant authors all the time, from the art we choose to engage with—what we watch on Netflix, what book we borrow from a friend—to the art that enters our sphere on its own—advertising, the song playing at the bar.

In Philadelphia, I’ve seen art endeavor to lift people out of homelessness. I’ve seen it revitalize neighborhoods (Mural Arts, duh—one of my favorite things to brag about in my new city). I’ve seen how Philadelphia Young Playwrights helps kids learn how to express themselves and grow confident through storytelling. Even at the incredible Mike Nichols exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (go, now—seriously, stop reading this until you’ve seen it) I read about how his evocative photographs led to the protection of the African Megatransect.

What I have a harder time recalling is art that helps artists.

There is a crisis of perceived value in the arts. This is not news. It’s harder than ever to pay your bills by producing creative fare. But it strikes me as odd that this crisis is one that art itself has not been able to address. Now, I get it. Creating art about the value of art can feel like a kind of intellectual masturbation that leads to hyper-sentimental works. So how do we cross-pollinate? How do we, as artists, use our imaginations, our technical skills, to advocate for other artists?

Most, if not all, artists, buy into a whole sacred text of myths about how they are supposed to behave and look and act. It’s time to reject the idea that suffering equals good art. It’s time to reject the ridiculous purity test that true artists must be willing to live ascetic lives, and must sacrifice families, financial security, and mental and emotional health to prove their commitment. Artists do not have to be grateful for unpaid internships and no-pay-but-great-exposure gigs that require full-time work. Your day job doesn’t make you less of an artist. You don’t have to be an obsessive, unlikeable genius in a failed relationship to legitimize your work. There is no such thing as “making it” or “selling out.”

If artists can heal wounds and give hope and effect powerful change in communities, hearts, and governments, then certainly artists can create work that inspires other artists to think beyond the boundaries of what is defined as the creative life. “Art for artists” is a label often used to dismiss the obscure or the formally inventive, but what if “art for artists” could define work that breaks down the myths of the creative life? How might art address that issue?

Photo: Home Safe by Ernel Martinez and Shira Walinsky. Photo by Steve Weinik.

ociele hawkins, Obeah From Tomorrow, Curate This

Real Talk

Obeah from Tomorrow

With three cups of magic and a fist full of perseverance, ociele hawkins’ poetry and performance intertwines meditations on the search for and discovery of Black joy with profound reflections on perception, memory, and survival. ociele’s raw and fearless poetry is as profound as it is revelatory. Her words act as a serum expanding our notions of what’s possible, offering a rare glimpse into simultaneous deep pain and limitless joy. Her work often leaves me speechless and humbled, with a ceaseless sense that self-love is a necessary component of resistance.

ociele is a poor, working-class, queer Black nonbinary femme from Philadelphia. She is an organizer whose work has ranged from fighting gentrification to working with high school students in education justice. ociele is an unapologetic and brilliant college dropout, a survivor, and an artist shattering assumptions while building power for her people and approaching her work with ferocity. Preorder her forthcoming poetry book From the Dust We Rose at brightlikeblack.com, and help send her to Ghana at https://www.gofundme.com/send-ociele-and-omi-to-ghana. – Eva Wǒ, curator

Obeah From Tomorrow from Eva Wǒ on Vimeo.

If all the oppressions that marginalized me were gone how would I arrive? We had to go to the future to answer this question. In the year 2040 Obeah is in love with herself. This unselfish love was achieved through work; both the nonlinear journey of personal healing and the systemic work to dismantle capitalism through organizing. The piece takes place moments before a gala celebration of decades of labor and the 5-year anniversary of liberation; when she is in deep reflection of her journey. This video is a collaboration between ociele hawkins and Eva Wǒ, with additional support from Dana Nichols and Kris Keen.

The text of the poem featured in Obeah From Tomorrow

See that’s what oppression does to you—it’ll have you blaming yourself for the shit that ain’t got nothing to do with you.

This love was EARNED!

Shit! I feel like i’m still earning it. But you know what? Earn ain’t got nothing to do with this. This my, before I was even thought of or screeched my 1st cry, divine right. Every single goddamn day my body extends its contracts to inhale and exhale, I got the right to love me the way I do.

Allah has blessed me.

Because I choose to accept myself for who I am. I choose to no longer make excuses for who I am. Not to qualify or disclaim who I am. My life is to be lived for myself and not for the approval or appeasement of others.

That’s work. I’ve learned how to do my work: Be kind to myself. Have patience with myself. Give myself 2nd chances.

I choose to organize myself in favor of a flourishing life, denying the oppression’s that wanted me isolated, and afraid, and eventually dead. I chose to be happy.

Chris Munden, Sean Lynch, Curate This, Feed the Piranhas

Real Talk

Feed the Piranhas: A Poem by Sean Lynch

Of all the authors I’m curating this week, Sean Lynch is my most recent acquaintance. He appeared on a short-run podcast I co-hosted to promote his poetry collection Broad Street Line. I was struck by the way his verse was informed and infused by political awareness, while remaining grounded in the concrete details of the everyday people affected by elite political decisions. This focus on accessible, independent, politically informed work can also be seen in Whirlwind Magazine, which he edits. I asked Sean to submit a piece on the real issues that art can address, and he did, using his art.

—Christopher Munden, curator

The shooters are invisible from the artist’s point
of view, beyond those dunes firemen ignite
fuses that cause colorful explosions

because the sky seemed too blank
a canvas, bodies of gold light live
out their finite lives like fish that float

above the beach and boardwalk stuffed
with herds of tourists, sparks spread
in predicted paths toward the abstracted

as ash rains on wood and eyes aimed
in arcs traced thousands of miles east
through the ocean that separates minds.

A holy land erupts again.
Phosphorus clouds
hover above cages

where smoke pours in like blood brewed
in boiled over data. The artist is asked,
“what’s wrong?” There’s no easy answer

except that fireworks disturb too few
Americans without ptsd, everything out of context,
everyone commoditized. The artist glances

at young men in blue who holster death machines,
sport childish faces, pimples, and crew cuts
or even Mohawks in mockery of the extinguished natives.

These officers of the peace laugh at girls
wearing booty shorts stamped with male names.
This is the Wildwood boardwalk

where toys made by the enslaved a half a world away
sell as bounty won by local boys for lust,
where the feasting Gerasene swine arrest

a dreaded kid who stole some paltry item
and will be branded criminal for life.
They’ll shoot him if chance begets

the moment, but Jesus will not drive
this legion into the sea. No one
bears witness on the boardwalk.

And yet something doesn’t feel right
to the man commissioned to draw a child.
And the parents cajole the artist

as to why he can’t do his job
any faster; it’s just a caricature.
The artist is no longer immune to violence.

Close by in a makeshift
storefront aquarium more consumers
gather. A hooded boy dumps the contents

of a plastic cup
down a PVC pipe
as two young girls film

the scene with smart phones
waiting, gazing at the tank now
clouding under a sign that states:

“Feed the Piranhas
a live goldfish!!!
$3.00 each or 2 for $5.00.″

As sharp teeth turn yellow bodies into red clouds
and deafening explosions are cheered
by the crowd, the artist places final touches

on the piece – then turns the easel to show
a swarm of jets dropping bombs
over the naked child’s decapitated head

as the kid’s corpse is covered
in luxury goods: jewels, designer clothes,
electronic gadgets and the like.

The parents gasp and grab
passing authorities to nab the perverted
artist who sits in catatonic disassociation.

Then a smile appears as the officers
place handcuffs onto his wrists,
since the fireworks have finally subsided.

Steven Earl Weber, Veronica Cianfrano, Curate This

Real Talk

How Are Artists Implicated in the Class Divide?

We are squirming under the thumb of an economically and racially oppressive system headed by a horrible orange monster. Anyone who cares about their fellow human being is devastated. Chances are you already know about or are starting to be aware of the massive inequalities all around us in this country. Perhaps you’re living it every day. Race, gender, economic, you name it. They are all connected to the class divide. The city of Philadelphia is still segregated. According to census data, many of us still live in neighborhoods where a single racial group represents 75 percent or more of the population. In our country, 1% of the population holds 90% of the wealth. Our healthcare is in constant jeopardy. We have always lived in a system that punishes the poor, rewards the rich, and blames “the other” for society’s ills.

What is the artist’s role in inequality in America? Because we in the art world are responsible for noticing, learning, reflecting, and presenting the world through visual language, we play a key role in cultivating important conversations like these. The time period in American history that best illustrates the artist’s relationship with inequity and the uber wealthy is the Gilded Age. This was a time when a small quantity of wealthy families (the Rockefellers and Carnegies, for example) made large sums of money by exploiting the labor of African American and new immigrant laborers. The wealth disparity would have been visually striking at this time, with workers living in tenements and the elite living in the enormous mansions on the horizon. Artists and craftspeople made those mansions the iconic monuments to the broken ideology of the American dream. We gilded their foyers, painted their silk wallpaper, carved their cornices, and painted their portraits. The artists and the robber barons of yesteryear are intertwined because without artistry, no one would want to visit mansions (today, they’re all museums).

This is not to say that those artists were wrong for making a living wage. In fact, it’s a testament to our power as creators. From unassuming materials, we can make history. We have historically worked for the wealthy, giving them the trophies they need to display their social class. These American mansions represent a longer history of systemic practice of cultural appropriation, reliance on fiscal inequality, and the art object as private property to further the social standing of a few. They also represent the time period when Americans started worshiping the lifestyles of the rich, a symptom of a deeply flawed value system we are still saddled with today (*cough* Trump *cough*).

Art’s relationship with the wealthy elite during the Gilded Age also directly relates to the classist stigma in the arts. Jessie Clark and I started Champions of Empty Rooms (CHER) because we saw a need for exhibitions that are relevant and accessible to all people (outside the echo chamber). We saw this need because too many people feel that art galleries and museums feel sterile and uninviting (terms like highbrow and lowbrow refer directly to class). If you come from a working class family and are an artist, you know this stigma. We need heady, conceptual, art historically-self referential and philosophically geared exhibitions. We also need cookouts that double as a video art and independent film screening (Dinner and a Movie) and everything in between. You shouldn’t need a college degree to be invited to view artwork, but often, that’s how it feels.

An integral element of the solution to this classist stigma is to provide more opportunities to connect artists, curators, and art institutions with geographic communities without contributing to gentrification. Art spaces have the ability to connect communitie with art and artists. Unfortunately, permanent art spaces and institutions are often used by developers to spark real-estate investment and then gentrification by enticing a demographic of higher income people into neighborhoods to increase property value and thereby initiating the gentrification process, evicting the people of lower income, artists included! According to an Artnews article on the top 200 art collectors in the world, nearly 60% of the list consists of mostly white heterosexual couples or white males a vast majority of whom work in either the investment or consumer industry and likely are purchasing art just as they would purchase stock for trade or sales.

This is who drives the art market and this is the kind of demographic developers are shooting for when they gentrify. They may decide the monetary value of art, but they don’t get to decide its actual value: what art is for and who gets to be impacted by it.

More Stately Mansions, an exhibition and zine I’ve curated which opens at Kitchen Table Gallery on August 6th, provides the opportunity for discussion among artists and art viewers regarding these issues and stigmas that affect us all. Discussion, visual and verbal, inches us toward common ground through the most effective tool for communication and culture building, the arts.

My intention with CHER and the More Stately Mansions is to simply provide an avenue of discourse outside of the existing institutions and among a larger variety of people. I do not pretend to know any clear solution to the long-standing, complex, and deeply rooted problems we face with inequality in American society. I simply wish to take my small set of skills and do what I can with them. I am an artist and a teacher, I am always going to look to engaging in open communication in troubled times as a means of forming vital connections and empathising with what other people feel and think. This is the overarching purpose of the More Stately Mansions exhibition.

The title of this exhibition is an intentional homage to two famous works. The first is the Aaron Douglas painting, Building More Stately Mansions, which links the labor history of African American men and women with the foundation of great civilizations. The painting celebrates their artistic and intellectual contributions to society despite the perpetual imbalance of power throughout history. The second is The Chambered Nautilus, a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. that uses the imagery of the mansion to represent the “self” and the nautilus as a noble creature that symbolizes continual growth and therefore continual re-building of the “self.” The final stanza reads:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,

As the swift seasons roll!

Leave thy low-vaulted past!

Let each new temple, nobler than the last,

Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,

Till thou at length art free,

Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

(Holmes, Sr. 5. 1-7)

These two works are a jumping off point for two ideas. First, The United States owes their iconic structures, infrastructure, and heritage to the contributions of people who had little to no power in an imbalanced power structure just as many of the wealthy elite, particularly of the Gilded Age, owe their station in life to this same power structure. Second, those of us who create have an uncanny ability to create “something from nothing”. Since the nature of art making requires constant self examination and evolution of skill and concept, we are in many respects, a symbol for perpetual grown just as the nautilus is for Holmes.

In response to the discussion of the class divide that has been at the forefront of political debate, More Stately Mansions will harken back to a historical symbol of wealth inequality, the gilded age of the 1800s and 1900s. This was a time when great American mansions were built, largely on the backs of slave, non unionized, and/or new immigrant laborers. These mansions have continued to be glorified and highly valued in today’s society as beacons of the American Dream. Visitors pay admission to view their lavish interiors with guided tours that glaze over the subservient work and slave labor it took to create said building. The American mansion represents a systemic practice of cultural appropriation, reliance on fiscal inequality, and the art object as private property. Asking artists to transform the gallery space into a rendition of these iconic structures is a way of investigating the artist’s role in the class divide, the role of the class divide in the exclusionary stigma in the arts, and the unspoken elements of the value system in the American dream as represented by these places.

Veronica Cianfrano, Curate This, Zach Zecha

Real Talk

Nine Artists Explore Wealth Inequality in Philly

The More Stately Mansions exhibition features local artists who were selected by Champions of Empty Rooms (CHER) founder and curator Veronica Cianfrano to create work that discusses themes of wealth inequality, the class divide, and the notion of the American dream as it relates to both the art community and the community at large. The artists were asked to reference the time period of the American robber baron, the Gilded Age, using only recycled materials as a means to discuss the artist’s role in the class divide and the power of the artist to create value from “nothing.” The following is information on the exhibiting artists, and the work they are making for the exhibition.

POPc, Veronica Cianfrano, Curate This

POPc, Veronica Cianfrano, Curate This

Dena Shottenkirk is a philosopher and artist. Her project, Philosophers’ Ontological Party club (POPc), is the marriage of these two worlds. Her work encourages conversation and a free exchange of ideas in a personal and intimate way.

Her piece, POPc: Making Thought about Speech, will encourage discussion between viewers and the resident philosopher in an enclosed space.

I make work that involves both publishing philosophical writing (generally in book form) and making related artwork. After that input, I hold events within the framework of an organization, POPc. The most recent topic [of discussion] has been censorship and free speech. I then take those conversations and along with the original input of mine (book/artwork) I build an installation that gives the whole “conversation” about the topic. In addition, the artwork is never for sale; instead it is part of a related project called the Lending Library, where people borrow the artwork for approximately six months, and then do an interview about what they thought. That also is added to the “conversation.” This project is in keeping with the theme of [More Stately Mansions] as it is entirely against the role art has come to play in our society: decor for the wealthy. Instead, the project emphasizes experience and thought. The viewers who come into this gallery will be able to leave their thoughts behind as well as take physical pieces of the installation with them. – Dena Shottenkirk

Stephen Dobash, Veronica Cianfrano, Curate This, photo by Perry Melat
“The Joneses’ Sitting Room” by Stephan Dobosh. Photo by Perry Melat

Stephan Dobosh’s studio practice employs a careful consideration of Symbolist literary devices, automatic writing, and visual free association. He uses art creation as a physical documentation of his experiences and state of mind. Through the subconscious psychological connections between color, sound, text, and implied imagery, he wants to provide an entrance for the viewer to be able to free associate, transforming these elements from static objects to dynamic associations.

My installation “The Joneses’ Sitting Room” is a spectral fragment of the American suburban home, an “achievable” standard of wealth, made up of commonplace household items. Including a chair, a painting, a rug, and an end table are all spray painted gold. The installation stands as a satirical metaphor, an artifact documenting what “The Joneses” have achieved on their economic quest toward “The Mansion.” -Stephen Dobosh

Tiernan Alexander knows a lot about art as decor and social status. She holds an MFA in ceramics and a second Master’s degree in Material Culture from Winterthur, the DuPont mansion in Delaware (yes, those DuPonts).

Chandelier is a piece that juxtaposes refuse and the style of the chandeliers of the wealthy elite of the Gilded Age to illustrate extreme wealth.

The chandelier is one of the great examples of Gilded Age extravagance that was costly to make, used excessive resources, and required hired help to maintain. By building this one out of mostly garbage, equipping it with very moderate lighting resources, and providing a remote control, all of those historic conventions are inverted. The piece will also call on the history of using natural phenomena in an anti-contextual decorative fashion that lets the participant enjoy nature without any personal risk or worry about the destruction of nature. -Tiernan Alexander

Siri Langone, Veronica Cianfrano, Jess Flynn, Curate This
Trash Core by Siri Langone. Photo by Jess Flynn.

Siri Langone creates work that uses themes of repetition and time to draw connections between the banal objects of our daily lives and our impact on the world around us.

Siri’s piece, Trash Core, serves as a core sample of refuse. Each layer of the resin sculpture is a different discarded trash item organized by the time it takes for that material to break down, starting with glass on the bottom then maxi pads, fishing line, plastic, aluminum, and batteries. Each section is divided with dirt and neon layers that glow green when exposed to darkness. She states:

You have to look into the resin deeply in order to see what’s visible inside the different-colored layers. As familiar items appear, one can only wonder if each layer represents the time of decomposing. All materials were used for their purpose and then thrown away, possibly without any regard to where it may end up or what it will do to the environment. -Siri Langone

Jim Dessicino, Curate This, Veronica CIanfrano
Between the End and Where We Lie by Jim Dessicino.

Jim Dessicino is a fine artist and teacher at the University at the Arts. He creates sculptures that investigate the relationship between power and sculptural forms.

Though he typically deals with the portrait, More Stately Mansions has allowed him to expand the scope of his critique to architectural forms and luxury objects. Mining from his grandmother’s pole barn and Atlantic City’s self-cannibalization. In his piece, Between the End and Where We Lie, he presents us with objects that have fallen from luxury into a refugee state.

Harry Sanchez Jr.’s experience living in a border city has made him keenly aware of the boundaries everywhere. His work often serves as a response to this feeling of inaccessibility.

His piece will be a detailed recreation of typical dining room from the Gilded Age made of duct tape. The duality between material and environment is a reflection of the facade and falseness present in the setting of the lavish dinner party. The duct tape material is used as a reference to the working class who use it to fix that which is broken.

Veronica Cianfrano, Curate This, Zach Zecha
High Tea by Zach Zecha

Zach Zecha uses materials to show us how disjointed and chaotic language can be. His work shows us an urgent and somewhat futile need to understand and make sense of a cacophonous, hyperreal world.

His work, High Tea, will tackle this theme of wealth inequality and inaccessibility by creating a projection-based installation that taxonomically displays information regarding distribution of wealth in the United States. Accompanying this information is a table, set for tea, paint oozing out from the vessels as the excess flows from the capitalist structure that we live in. Chairs on either side of the table sit empty inviting one to sit. Yet even these are just projections, symbols of the illusion of power of the American individual.

Lauren McCarty, Curate This, Veronica Cianfrano
Window of Bewilderment by Lauren McCarty

Lauren McCarty embraces the opportunity to create work that is interactive. She often assumes the role of the keeper or collector in her work, emphasizing the preciousness of materials and found objects.

McCarty’s Window of Bewilderment employs imagery, materials, and architectural components from Camp Santanoni, an Adirondack “Great Camp” built in the 1890’s by an Albany banking family. Camp Santanoni was built in the style of rustic Adirondack log construction typical of Great Camps. The complex of buildings is unique in its evident Japanese design influence. While the buildings are grand, they are discreetly tucked into the landscape. Indoor and outdoor spaces are thoughtfully blended, blurring distinctions between the two.

This piece is a birch bark-paneled circular window. The painted figures seen through it, which are made of artist-produced charcoal and inks, are members of the privileged class enjoying the wild Adirondacks at the turn of the twentieth century. As the great American cities boomed, these newly affluent industrialists sought out refuge in the mountains. This refuge in the wild Adirondacks reflects the wealthy elite’s tempered and curated wilderness.

Steven Earl Weber, Veronica Cianfrano, Curate This
Regression to the Mean by Steven Earl Weber

Steven Earl Weber uses objects, images, and their arrangement to contemplate questions of subjective identity within the issues of class, religion, and politics. His work addresses personal identity and social commentary by fusing craftsmanship and concept in a variety of mediums.

Steven’s piece, Regression to the Mean will be a cross-section of a domestic scene of the wealthy elite presented to us from an outsider’s perspective with an emphasis on the imbalance in social status.

More Stately Mansions runs from August 6-25, with a performance night and zine launch on Saturday, August 19. Kitchen Table Gallery, 1853 N. Howard St.

100 philadelphia

Real Talk

The Audience Impact

Nick Stuccio is a founder and the current president and producing director of FringeArts, and curator of a significant portion of Philadelphia’s preeminent performing arts festival. It is fair to say that Fringe, with its 19-year history, has exerted a tremendous influence on the theatrical flavor of our city, and we were very excited to talk to Nick about how the organization is growing and changing past its teens, particularly in the realm of audience-building.

-Julius Ferraro, co-founder

CT: When I first mentioned Curate This to you, your first question was “Who’s the audience?” Why is knowing the audience on the top of your mind?

Nick Stuccio: Who are we making art for? That’s very important to us. What are our goals as a presenter?

We have to be careful about being too insular. I’ve been with FringeArts for twenty years, and I was a professional dancer for ten years before that, and there has never been an epoch of time in which the artist community is as broad, diverse, interesting, high-functioning, intelligent and talented. It’s a large and healthy community. Which means at any arts event, the audience is largely made up of artists.

The challenge is to find avenues and roads that lead to people who are outside that community. It’s a more diverse room when there are also people in the audience who are not artists. It’s certainly been a challenge at FringeArts, and it’s hard work.

And it’s not just about the dynamic between artists and non-artists. That’s just one example. We want to provoke conversation, and the conversation is richer and deeper when the audience demographics are representative of the city we live in.

Who are some of the artists you have curated who are actively reaching out to new audiences?

Rimini Protokoll’s 100% Philadelphia, which was performed by 100 Philadelphia citizens, entirely non-performers, representing the city’s specific demographics. Sylvain Emard with Le Grand Continental, which was another large-scale piece performed by people who are not performers in a group line-dance. Those are the big highlights. They were titanic, spectacle works. We had thousands show up.

Which I think has very interesting implications in terms of the relationship between social practice and artistic practice. Of course it’s interesting from an artistic perspective, but it’s also an opportunity to build to new audiences, to reach communities that we don’t often tap into.

What was the response to 100% Philadelphia, as you remember it?

It’s a very powerful piece, and the response was overwhelming. We had a lot of people go to Temple University’s campus to see it. Over half the cast were people of color, representing the demographics of our city. We intentionally did not put this show in Center City, because Center City is a historically white neighborhood. We put it on Temple’s campus, which is a more neutral ground between African American neighborhoods and non-African American neighborhoods, in the hope that we could attract a more diverse audience.

I was hoping for an audience that reflected the cast. That didn’t happen, entirely. But we gained enormous ground, considerably expanding the diversity of our audiences.

100% Philadelphia was a learning experience around outreach. You can curate an audience as well as the program. It’s hard work. We are always considering what will interest the public and how to engage the right people. On one level, filling seats is a win. But we are continually reflecting on what communities we have to reach to ensure that the show has the greatest possible impact.

I think it is fair to say that we all want an audience that reflects the city we are performing in, but when it comes to funding, is having diverse audiences a priority for funders?

I think that’s ultimately a question for funders.

Funders favor organizations that have clear goals and aspire to reach them. Our mission is to present contemporary, progressive performing art.

What’s underneath that mission? We believe in a deeply progressive world. And we believe that artists have a charge in creating that world. In order for these pieces to have an impact, to create the world we want to see, they need to be reaching the right people.

As a curator, how do you balance the concern of filling seats against FringeArts’ ongoing mission to bring cutting-edge work?

I’ll tell you, one of the most rewarding shows we’ve presented was Romeo Castellucci’s The Four Seasons Restaurant. That was a big risk. The show was very difficult conceptually—very dense and enigmatic. But people responded. The size of the audiences far exceeded our expectations.

When I go to one of our shows, I watch the stage about forty percent of the time, and I watch the house the other sixty percentlistening, feeling, watching faces. During that show I did not recognize the room. Which tells me there is a growing segment of our community that is hungry for sophisticated, complex, experimental art by the world’s very best art-makers.

Have we played a part in creating that appetite? I think so. But either way, we’re psyched about it.

What shows in this year’s Fringe Festival surprised you, in terms of audience?

Similarly to our experience with Castellucci, we had great success with our two masthead shows, Available Light and After the Rehearsal/Persona. Both were in hot, un-air conditioned venues, and they were dense and difficult pieces. But audiences came out for them in droves, and feedback was amazing.

The one that’s standing out for me is Underground Railroad Game. Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard worked on that for a long time, and we sold the crap out of it, even adding shows.

The piece was a great conversation starter about race. On one hand it was a big hit, but on the other, I wish we could have curated the audience differently. We’ve met with Scott and Jenn about bringing the show back to FringeArts, in part so we can work on continuing the conversation they started while aiming at a more diverse audience. We certainly need to partner with other organizations to help us find more networks of people that we’re not connected to.

But you know, we’re 19-year-olds, and . . . well, 19-year-olds are messes. I know I was. These are muscles we have to build.

Swoon 2 photo by Steve Weinik

Real Talk

Justice for Some

When Curate This was just an idea, one of the first people we knew we wanted to collaborate with was Jane Golden. Her mantra, “art ignites change,” has rung true throughout her long history with Mural Arts. Jane Golden is the Founder and Executive Director of the City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, which has created more than 3,800 works of public art in the city of Philadelphia. As a strong voice in Philadelphia’s art community, we are honored to have Jane contribute to Curate This.

-Amanda V. Wagner, co-founder

 

The National Institute of Justice states that across the country and within five years of release, 76 percent of former prisoners have been re-incarcerated. It’s called the recidivism rate, and it’s awful.

Coming out of prison and re-entering society is an immense challenge. Weaving back into the threads of a daily life, a life that has been interrupted for months or even years, is difficult, complex, ongoing work. It’s work that cries out for help with navigation, for compassionate voices to help explain and connect the journey.

It’s one of the areas in which artists could make a huge difference.

Artists are able to translate societal currents in a way that many of us cannot. Artists could explore the ways in which people emerge from the prison system and reconnect to the world at large. Artists could explore the ways in which systems work or fail for people who can’t always figure out how to navigate them. Artists could explore the human condition of separation and isolation, and the ways in which we all make our connection back into the world.

But artists aren’t doing so in a large scale way. And I think there’s room for artistic intervention in this society-wide epidemic of re-entry failure.

One of Mural Arts’ main programs is Restorative Justice. That phrase, restorative justice, references the process of gathering victims, offenders, and the community, and engaging in healing processes that strengthen our neighborhoods. Restorative justice flips our perceptions of former prisoners, explores the ways that they can make a positive difference within their community, and heals some of the hurt they caused through previous actions. It’s a process that connects well with our core belief, that art ignites change, as community members connect to each other through art, through creating something together, bridging the gap of hurt, confusion, and distrust in a way that words often cannot.

And I’m excited that we’re exploring these themes in a citywide fashion with Open Source, our month long, citywide public art exhibition. Three artists, Sam Durant, Shepard Fairey, and SWOON are taking a deep dive into how we connect back to society and how we can explore these themes through art making.

For Open Source, Sam Durant delved into Philadelphia’s prison system. He met with people in and outside of the prison system, gaining insight into how their lives had been affected. One man, a participant in the workshop, told Sam that going to prison was like getting lost in a maze of systems. The comment sparked an artistic product: Labyrinth, a chain-link fence maze, now installed in Thomas Paine Plaza, across from City Hall. The maze is transparent, but as visitors add objects representing their personal stories to the maze’s walls, it will become opaque, covered with powerful stories and images.

Shepard Fairey, the creator of OBEY Giant, looked at stories of strength after incarceration. He chose two images of people who have found a path back into society—a path that’s been meaningful, positive, and interesting for each of them. Creating murals of both people, Shepard is taking a look at how people who were incarcerated reconnect to the world and asks us if we as a society can forgive.

SWOON took a look at the subject of reconnection through the lens of mental health and trauma. After working with women in a halfway house, at Graterford SCI, and with Mural Arts’ Guild Program, SWOON developed intimate portraits of the people she met, telling their stories through compelling imagery and presentations throughout October.

I’m proud that Mural Arts is shining a light on this, and I think it’s time to see what artists around Philadelphia and the world can create and do to bring attention to restorative justice and our criminal justice system. I can’t wait to see what innovation and new ideas the creative response unlocks. As a city and a country we need to understand that artists are often the most creative thinkers in our society and by supporting them in their work we are helping to solve some of our more intractable problems.

Photo by Steve Weinik, © 2015, SWOON.

Group Motion, Manfred Fischbeck_small

Real Talk

The Daily Art of Dreaming

Manfred Fischbeck is a fierce champion for dance and embodied practice as a revolutionary force. He’s played a huge role in shaping Philadelphia’s experimental dance culture since his arrival on the scene in 1968, when he came from Berlin with co-directors Brigitta Herrmann and Hellmut Gottschild, and their young modern dance company Group Motion. Manfred has been the company’s sole director since 1989.

When I came to Philadelphia I joined the company right out of college, where I had studied dance in a conservatory program. Manfred’s mentorship helped me unlearn the conservative strictures that had bound my body during four years of classical training, while still encouraging physical virtuosity. His mentorship helps young dancers embrace a deeply investigative, often improvisational approach that results in making powerful artists, not just powerful dancers. Philadelphia’s dance climate would absolutely not be the same without his profound influence. I asked Manfred to choose which of the Curate This prompts to respond to. Because of his deeply philosophical engagement with dance as an art form, and his commitment to advocating for dance as a force for community empowerment, I had a hunch that he’d follow a prompt that led him into social commentary, and it turned out that my instinct was right.

– Curator Megan Bridge

When the Group Motion Company performed a site specific dance in public art sites along the Parkway in Philadelphia in 2009, the dancers wore the music of Phil Kline on their bodies, in the form of belts with iPods and speakers attached. The final piece, a structured improvisation, was performed in front of the LOVE sculpture on JFK Plaza. I carried a boombox playing the same music to boost the low tech iPod speakers. Next to me stood an about 14-year-old African American boy. He seemed excited. When the dance was over, he ran to the dancers, hugged them and told them “you changed my life.” This was one of the most meaningful outcomes of our project, which had attracted both intentional and incidental (passers by, “happening to run into it”) audiences. Incidentally, we did not make money with this performance because it happened in public space, which was a problem for one of our funders.

The social issue that this event illuminates for me and brings into my consciousness is the cultural segregation, exclusivity, and alienation which I find in most of the cultural and artistic happenings in this city (or this country) that I know of. It comes in the form of $75 ticket prices for shows on the so called “high art” level, but also in the form of the insider art “crowd” (if you can call it that) on the “experimental” level, or in the form of no art in public schools, or in the form of segregation of genres and neighborhoods.

From another perspective cultural segregation is about the capitalism of art, with making money as the primary intention; it is about the privilege of “winning” art competitions of all kinds, where the right access, connections, or popular and trendy ideas often move an artist to the top, while thousands if not millions of “talents” never even get a chance. This capitalism also comes in the form of having to be concerned with competing for “Artistic Excellence” (defined by whoever sits on the granting or funding panels); or the “My Work, My Voice” and “Becoming Rich and Famous” syndromes as primary concerns, when we put the criteria of finding our artistic niche or doing something “new” before the question of what we really want to say, or what is needed to be said for the good of all.

J.S. Bach, one of history’s great musical geniuses, wrote under each of his compositions “soli deo gloria” (only for the glory of God), while he was working hard as a cantor and school teacher, producing a cantata for every Sunday service at his church, as well as composing numerous masterworks in all musical genres. In doing so he revolutionized the field of music—and was practically unknown until he was discovered 100 years later. Remarkably, his music is still making full impact on cultures across the planet today.

Hopi legend has it that at the beginning of their history the tribe was living in a lush country environment with rich harvests. The elders, when noticing that some people wanted to have more than they needed, decided to move the tribe into the most desolate place in the desert of Arizona, where they still are today. Over time the Hopi developed one of the most artistic and peace loving cultures in Native America, where art and ritual became part of daily life.

The American (or Western) culture has put the real “dreaming” (as in daily art making, ritual and play, not competing or product selling) on the bottom of the priority list and out of schools, even though science and history have shown that when you take that kind of dreaming away from people (or cultures), they die.

So, crossing the lines of segregation, of the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots; moving art practice out into the open and away from of exclusivity, back into the streets, schools, and homes; making art motivated by compassion and empathy and not by the drive for success or money-making; creating space for daily dreaming-for-dreaming’s-sake on any level of social existence; these are my “dreams” for dealing with the social issue of cultural segregation (exclusivity and art capitalism). And I am calling on artists in all fields (and especially in dance, as it is humanity’s first and oldest art form and the art form available for Every Body at any time, in which the person IS the art) to wake up and take this matter into their own hands. It is the responsibility of art and artists to keep the dreaming alive for all people and to find ways to manifest it even if it goes against the grain of the market or industry. Ezra Pound defined the role of the artist as being the antenna of the culture into the future. I want to add that as the future “receivers” of the message sent by that antenna I see art-exposed, art-activated, art-engaged people in all sectors and all ages of society.

I went to my bank the other day to see if I could get a line of credit, sorely needed to deal with my debts and their high interests. I also wanted to wire some money to my daughter and her son, who is a dancer at age seven, performing with a contemporary dance company in France. While the banker was working on these projects she asked me about my daughter and her son and shared with me that she had wanted to be an artist all her life, but was talked out of the pursuit of that dream. While she appreciated having her job, she was not very happy doing it, and had recently taken up painting on her own account and had begun sharing her work on Instagram. This was what made her happy, and I could feel that happiness emanating from her, it was contagious and inspiring.

Riding the trolley to West Philadelphia, two young African American boys were practicing the art of rapping on their way home from school, and having a lot of fun. I felt lucky to have the gift of this experience of daily dreaming/art practice. I would not have had it driving my own car.