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Fluxus Club Retrospective

Over a four-month span of the darkest days of Minnesota winter, I worked with members of the Walker’s education department and the Walker’s librarian to develop a series of monthly workshops that drew inspiration from the work of Fluxus artists featured in the exhibition, Art Expanded, 1958–1978 and were a continuation of Fluxus-infused activities that […]

Fluxus Club in the Art Lab

Fluxus Club in the Art Lab

Over a four-month span of the darkest days of Minnesota winter, I worked with members of the Walker’s education department and the Walker’s librarian to develop a series of monthly workshops that drew inspiration from the work of Fluxus artists featured in the exhibition, Art Expanded, 1958–1978 and were a continuation of Fluxus-infused activities that took place in Open Field over the summer of 2014. The charge of the workshops was to offer a hands-on activity for visitors of all ages that made a connection with the Fluxus artworks on view in the galleries. My hope was to develop workshops that:

  • offered a contemporary take on Fluxus, inhabited the spirit of the original Fluxus, while also accommodating and reflecting the present.
  • connected the art lab with the resources of the institution—in particular, the collection, the galleries, and the library.
  • turned the art lab into an energetic, comfortable space with a sense of context, communal activity, and history.

 Fundamentally, we all wanted the workshops to be both fun and thoughtful. And, maybe most importantly, we really didn’t want to find ourselves trying to answer the question, “What is Fluxus?”

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Thinking in Series

The suggestion to offer a series of workshops—rather than a single, one-off event—sealed the deal for me. Designing multiple sessions meant we could work with the Fluxus collection in greater depth and develop multiple activities that responded to some of the diversity of Fluxus production. The structure naturally supported an iterative design process (develop, test, reflect, revise) and after each Fluxus Club, we met to talk about the previous event and finalize plans for the next one. All the workshops responded to a single, broad theme (and we sometimes even repeated successful activities) but each was differentiated:

  • November: Fluxus Poster Production Shop
  • December: Flux Newspaper
  • January: Art Into Life (New Art/New Year/New Life)
  • February: Flux Valentines

 Most importantly, however, a series meant we could adapt the workshops as we learned what worked well, and what fell flat. After the December workshop, for example, we realized we struggled to explain Fluxus when visitors asked for a definition: the workshops were about an invitation to actively participate, but when we switched to the role of “expert explainer” we shifted the dynamic of the space (and didn’t really clarify much about Fluxus.) We suggested visitors seek out Fluxus works in the gallery, but didn’t have a great way to get them there.

ecp2015flux-club-objects Fluxus Club items Objects created by museum visitors in Fluxus Club, a public program (ECP-Art Lab) that ran from November 2014-February 2015, part of the exhibition: Art Expanded.   The teaching artist for the Flux Production Shop in the Art Lab  was Margaret Pezalla-Granlund, although she did not create any of these works.  The works were photographed as documentation of the event, and for future blog use.  The works themselves are currently stored with the Education Department.

New Year’s art resolutions

In response, we rethought our strategy for the January event. We expanded our use of scores, writing them not just for individual activities , but for the event as a whole. On the giant chalkboard in the Walker’s lobby, we posted a score that invited visitors to take off their winter coats and directed them to the lab, library, and galleries. We worked with the gallery guides (who were great at talking with visitors about Fluxus), and provided them with envelopes of scores to give visitors, who could try them out in the gallery, then explore further in the art lab. Through the scores, the workshop expanded beyond the art lab, to the galleries, to the library, and to the lobby.

Fluxus Club chalkboard sign in the Walker lobby

Fluxus Club chalkboard sign in the Walker lobby

Detail of the poetry-generator activity in the Walker library

Detail of the poetry-generator activity in the Walker library

Connecting Spaces

One of our goals for the series was to make best use of the resources of the institution and to facilitate connections between the art lab, the library, and the galleries. The collaboration with Margit Wilson, the Walker’s librarian, was especially productive. The Walker library, beloved but relatively inaccessible (open to the public only by appointment), initially appealed because it made available a trove of Fluxus resources just a few steps from the art lab (the galleries are more distant from the lab space). During the first month’s program, Margit hosted an open house in the library, with an assortment of Fluxus publications and exhibition catalogues for browsing. As we reflected on that first event, however, it was clear that the library could be more than a space for browsing—it could be a making space as well. We developed activities and Flux-like scores to inspire visitors, that required only book-safe, dry media, and made use of library resources (books, photocopier, typewriters.) The making activities in the library and the lab complemented each other: visitors could make  chance poetry in the library, then add their poem to the Flux Newspaper (December) or Flux Valentine (February) in the art lab. The keys to the art lab/library collaboration: staffing (like the art lab, the library had to be staffed and visitors supervised during the event); a few rules (clean hands required in the library); and good signage (we posted scores that sent visitors to the library from the art lab.).

 

Detail of table with materials

Detail of table with materials

Fluxus-inspired installation in the art lab

Fluxus-inspired installation in the Art Lab

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Threaded Making

I hoped we could thread the ideas and spirit of Fluxus through all aspects of the workshop: the activities, the setup of the space, how we collaborated with the library and how we connected with the rest of the Walker. We began by thinking about the workshop space: the art lab is a great space for art activities, but is quite sterile: white floors and walls, bright lights, big tables covered with paper. To bring a bit more spirit to the space, we turned down the lights and decorated: we covered tables with mismatched, thrifted tablecloths, projected images of Fluxus artworks from the collection; wrote scores on the chalkboard and posted them on the walls; and, most importantly, filled the space with stuff we (and the visitors) made. We invited visitors to contribute to the space: they could add their posters to the wall, contribute a collage or poem to the Flux Newspaper, or add their New Year’s art resolution to our recreation of Ben’s Window (by Ben Vautier) as seen in the exhibition Art Expanded. And we saved all the material from month to month, so the space had a sense of history: by February, the space was filled with posters, signs, collage, and collaborative poems made during the previous sessions. Each month, the space got visually richer and less lab-like. (All this was possible because of the efforts of the program’s intern, Sheila Novak, who deinstalled and collected all of the materials at the end of each evening, then reinstalled them the following month.)

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Event score for the January Fluxus Club

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Score posted at the entrance to the Art Lab.

 

Perhaps our best tool for infusing the events with the spirit of Fluxus was the use of scores. We used scores to introduce visitors to the evening’s activities, to get people from space to space, and to pick up a brush or pen and make something. Because they were both concrete and open-ended, scores gave participants enough direction to feel comfortable diving into activities without being worried about getting it “right.” By January, even the informational sign in the lobby was part of the thread: we created a Flux-like meta score for the event, so the act of coming down to see what was going on in the art lab was a sort of performance. We weren’t explaining Fluxus; we were making opportunities for visitors to do their own Fluxus.

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What We Learned

As the artist leading the workshop, I appreciated the opportunity to work on this series: the chance to reflect and make revisions from month to month meant we had multiple chances to get things right and could explore the Fluxus collections in greater depth. It also gave us time to develop meaningful collaborations, especially between the art lab and the library. Because we “threaded” the Fluxus spirit through all aspects of the events (from wayfinding to the physical setup of the art lab), the series was time-intensive: scores had to be written, designed, printed and distributed; the space had to be recreated (with increasing amounts of stuff) then cleaned up each month; materials had to be saved and stored from month to month. But because this was a series, that staff time was well-spent: we were able to bring back successful activities and use what we learned to develop new, better strategies.

A Fluxus poetry project in the library

A Fluxus poetry project in the library

We could have done some things better: because we had trouble defining Fluxus in general and these workshops in particular, outreach and publicity were more difficult than it would have been if we’d been advertising just a single, concrete activity. Fluxus Club drew fairly small audiences (winter weather and competition with other museum events certainly contributed to the numbers.) On the other hand, smaller audiences made it practical for the library to host activities. Our best and most engaged audiences came the evening we partnered with the gallery guides who were posted in the galleries: they talked with visitors about Fluxus, handed out scores, and invited them to the activities in the art lab and library, where the staff there could engage them in the making activities. That one-on-one, personal interaction was key—and practical on a relatively quiet evening.

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Fluxus Club in the Art Lab

 

We may never have come up with a great response to “what is Fluxus,” but by inviting visitors to get involved—and by creating spaces that made it easy and inviting to dive in—we certainly inspired a kind of active and playful participation that celebrated the spirit of the Fluxus artists.

ecp2015flux-club-objects Fluxus Club items Objects created by museum visitors in Fluxus Club, a public program (ECP-Art Lab) that ran from November 2014-February 2015, part of the exhibition: Art Expanded.   The teaching artist for the Flux Production Shop in the Art Lab  was Margaret Pezalla-Granlund, although she did not create any of these works.  The works were photographed as documentation of the event, and for future blog use.  The works themselves are currently stored with the Education Department.

Flux valentines

 

I Love That Photo! Or, An Ode to Solitude

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as the coordinator of Coffee House Press’s In The Stacks program, which places writers and artists into residencies in libraries and archives around the country, it’s that you always start your visit to an archive by looking for the familiar. So, when asked to contribute to the Walker People’s Archive‘s series on the photos we love, […]

<i>Rothko and me</i>.  Submitted by Eric Mueller.

Rothko and Me. Submitted by Eric Mueller

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as the coordinator of Coffee House Press’s In The Stacks program, which places writers and artists into residencies in libraries and archives around the country, it’s that you always start your visit to an archive by looking for the familiar.

So, when asked to contribute to the Walker People’s Archive‘s series on the photos we love, I immediately went looking for museum-goers who, like me, prefer to visit the galleries alone. I found several photos of visitors (including many feral children) who appear to be alone, but who clearly had an unseen companion (the person behind the lens).

<i>Bluuue</i>.  Submitted by Amy Thompson

Bluuue. Submitted by Amy Thompson

Cora<i>Cora in Amazement</i> (2014).  Submitted by Robbie LaFleur

Cora in Amazement (2014). Submitted by Robbie LaFleur

Then I found Alycia Anderson’s submission, Blue BOOM! It’s impossible to tell for sure, but it appears that the young lady found herself a little alone time with the exhibition Yves Klein: With the Void, Full Powers. And, I have to say, I’m a bit jealous that she (a fellow Scandinavian, perhaps?) was able to enjoy Klein’s signature “fluid” and “consistent” blue unhindered by the visual clutter of other museum-goers, with their jackets and their hair and their purses and their brightly colored Walker pins.

<i>“Blue” BOOM!</i> (2010). Submitted by Alycia Anderson

“Blue” BOOM! (2010). Submitted by Alycia Anderson

In 2009, I was living three blocks from the Walker when light/space artist Robert Irwin recreated the scrim piece Slant/Light/Volume (1971) that was first installed at the opening of the Barnes Building in 1971. I tried several times to not only visit the museum alone, but to get the entire Irwin room to myself, as this lucky visitor did. But it never worked out. What would I have done there all alone? Dunno. But I was convinced the experience would be transformative. I had just read Lawrence Weschler’s engrossing biography of Irwin, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees (University of California Press, 2009), and I was completely taken with his work.

Those of us who visit galleries alone, are we truly looking for solitude? A bustling gallery on a Saturday afternoon rarely provides peace and quiet. But a Thursday morning at, say, 11am? Now you’re talking.

Or are we maybe just looking for love? My friend “T” was visiting the Walker alone recently and found the man of her dreams just waltzing through the galleries.

I think, rather, that we’re just not all equipped, in the moment at least, to fully process what’s before us and form an opinion of it. Especially with artists such as Yves Klein and Robert Irwin.

Against personal protocol, I recently visited both the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts with others. Technically, I arrived at Chris Schlichting’s dance performance Stripe Tease alonebut shortly before the program began, a friend arrived (also solo) and plopped down next to me. As the piece wrapped up and we walked toward the cafe for a cup of coffee, she turned to me and said: “You know, someday I hope to have the vocabulary to discuss dance. But right now, I’ve got absolutely nothing to say about that. Nothing!”

A short while later, I visited the MIA with a newish acquaintance to see the MAEP show of a mutual friend. As we passed through the various regional and period rooms en route to the exhibit, she paused, turned to me, and said: “Just so you know, I’m not ready to talk about art with you just yet.”

In both instances, I was happy to comply, happy to talk of simpler things. I was happy to have a companion, but happier yet to be alone with my thoughts, like Alycia in Klein’s sea of blue.

We’re asking folks to pick a favorite photo from the Walker People’s Archive and tell us what they love about it. Want to tell us about your favorite?  Contact WPA Project Manager Jennifer Stampe.

Walker People’s Archive: WPA Revue in Review

In October of last year, the Walker invited me to produce a stage companion to the Walker People’s Archive, the crowd-sourced photographic and anecdotal history launched on the museum’s website earlier that month. After looking over the archive, I met with Jennifer Stampe, project manager for the WPA, and Ashley Duffalo, coordinator of Public and […]

WPA3In October of last year, the Walker invited me to produce a stage companion to the Walker People’s Archive, the crowd-sourced photographic and anecdotal history launched on the museum’s website earlier that month. After looking over the archive, I met with Jennifer Stampe, project manager for the WPA, and Ashley Duffalo, coordinator of Public and Community Programs for the Walker, and we discussed our incipient ideas and settled on a performance date in mid-January. The commission was appealingly open-ended. Ideally, the show would represent, recontextualize, and have fun with the archive, but the means by which it did so was unfixed.

Imagining a variety show that would blend the authentic WPA material with a modest fictional element, I started working on scenes and songs and reached to out to a group of collaborators: actors and codirectors Lara Blackwood Avery, Jenny Adams Salmela, and Bill Schoppert; singer Jayanthi Kyle; and bassist Jeffrey Sugerman. In the end, “The WPA Revue” was composed of three interlaced parts: an emceed slide show of WPA photos and their accompanying text; a lounge act of sorts in which Jayanthi, Jeffrey, and I performed original songs and thematically apt covers while photos flashed by without commentary; and a playlet centered on a fictional Twin Cities family, the Heitkes, Walker patrons and barons of the typewriter industry who fell into embarrassed circumstances with the rise of the personal computer.

The archive itself is a mix of tones: some of the submissions are goofy, others poignant; some are snapshots, others carefully composed. My hope was that the show would echo this tonal mix, that it would be funny but sometimes openly sentimental, loose but considered, and that it would casually treat some of the ideas suggested by the photos.

For instance, the Walker owns or has displayed many pieces made up in part or entirely of reflective surfaces, sometimes both reflective and distorting ones. Not surprisingly, WPA submissions often take advantage of these surfaces toward a kind of funhouse metaphotography. The archive includes selfies taken in one of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s mirror paintings, Three Girls on a Balcony, in sculptor Dan Graham’s Two-Way Mirror Punched Steel Hedge Labyrinth, in a Morris Graves set piece for Merce Cunningham’s Inlets. These submissions in particular spurred thoughts about memory, photography, distortion, and point of view.

<i>Walker Reflections</i> (2014). Submitted by Marti Gudmundson.

Walker Reflections (2014). Submitted by Marti Gudmundson

<i>DiNino Father and Son Portrait in a Jim Hodges Piece </i>(2014). Submitted by Ben DiNino.

DiNino Father and Son Portrait in a Jim Hodges Piece (2014). Submitted by Ben DiNino

In the show, Lara played Jessica Heitke, an aspiring artist who’s working with a group of photographs found in an alley by her friend Emily. The project has led Jessica to research what psychologists have to say about memory perspective. “In field perspective,” she summarizes to Emily, “you picture the memory more or less as you actually experienced it: through your eyes, watching your hand shake someone else’s hand—you’re the subject. In observer perspective, you see your whole body in the scene, right? As if you’re in a movie or a photo.” (Maybe the vantage of every era and place resembles its signature entertainments: Don Quixote is the hero of novel who believes he’s the hero of a novel; we create online personas and sometimes feel as if we’re the stars of our own biopics.) Emily answers that all of her childhood memories are like photos. “But sometimes that’s because they are photos,” she says. “I don’t know whether I’m remembering the moment or the photo.”

Probably most of us have memories like this; they’re conflations of lived experience, photographic documentation, and the stories that attend the photos. The raw and the cooked blur: the photo might seem to provide evidence for a memory, which we understand to be fallible; or the photo might seem to have altered or created the memory. Now that many of us can easily photograph everything—our parking spaces, our children, our lunches, our outfits, our kegger antics—regular and photographed life are presumably blurring still further. It’s currently conventional to worry that our lives are so mediated that only documented and publicized personal events feel real. The ironies aren’t subtle. On holidays we take a break from our families to post on social media about the importance of spending time with one’s family. We use our phones to post a TV clip of Louis C.K. talking about how estranging current technology is, how it’s a defense against underlying sadness, and how he found an antidote when he stopped to weep over a Bruce Springsteen recording playing on his car radio. In other words, we see new technology as phony, impoverishing, defensive; old technology as authentic, enriching, cathartic. (I mean, I’m with the comedian to a point: I love the Boss and have resisted getting a cell phone, which is how I know how easy it is to get sentimental over this stuff.)

The last time I went to the Getty Museum, another visitor stepped in front of me to get an obstructed photo of—I don’t know, some painting. I kept an eye on this ludicrous man for a while and found that he was swiftly moving though the galleries, apparently photographing every piece of art the Getty then had on view. (If only I’d had a camera, I could have photographed him photographing art, à la Thomas Struth.) As I’ve already let on, I felt superior to this man shooting rather than seeing art, art that had already been professionally photographed and could in most cases be viewed on the Getty’s fine website. Then again, it wasn’t as if my viewing that day was terribly deep or concentrated: I can’t remember the painting the man stepped in front of, after all, and for several minutes he interested me far more than the art did. Who knows, maybe he’s not a compulsive collector of photographic souvenirs, but rather a postmodern aesthete who can only enjoy art at one remove. I count as favorites many paintings that I’ve only seen in reproduction, or that first caught my eye through a photo. Case in point: I had stood in front of Günther Uecker’s White Field before seeing Alycia Anderson’s WPA photo of it, but only her close-up made me a fan.

<i>Wondering at White Field</i> (2010). Submitted by Alycia Anderson.

Wondering at White Field (2010). Submitted by Alycia Anderson

When my mother-in-law was in hospice a few years ago, my wife posted a few old family photographs to Facebook. The moment I saw these photos (alone at my computer), I started to cry, more than I did, it turned out, at the funeral a week or so later. Partly I was responding to the outpouring of support for my wife and her sisters in the comments section, but also there was something about how the images looked on the screen. I thought immediately of the photos that turn up with the closing credits for based-on-a-true-story movies, those yellowing snapshots of the actual person whose life has just been dramatized. Those photos tend to prod tears as well, and I found myself in an ambivalent spot: I was having a profound, genuine emotional experience that was triggered in part by its association with kitschy, manipulative TV movies. To get to the real, I had to summon the fake.

Our show ended with Jessica and Emily sitting and talking in James Turrell’s Sky Pesher, a piece Jessica was originally wary of because she suspected, at second hand, “a certain coercive spirituality.” Her view has changed by the last scene, though, and she and Emily have a tender, perhaps transcendent, moment inside the piece, a moment of tenderness and transcendence that they self-consciously decide to preserve with simultaneous cell-phone snapshots. Then—I suppose I was thinking again of those TV movies—the selfies were projected on the Walker Cinema’s screen and (a recorded) Robert Smith, of the Cure, started singing, “I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you / that I almost believe that they’re real.”

Films for Families Matter

When most people see films about diving giraffes, walking houses and misfit toys they think silly and funny, these films also tell deep and profound stories. Each year in March, Free First Saturday hosts a Kids’ Film Festival featuring films from around the world. This is a once a year chance to expose families to […]

When most people see films about diving giraffes, walking houses and misfit toys they think silly and funny, these films also tell deep and profound stories. Each year in March, Free First Saturday hosts a Kids’ Film Festival featuring films from around the world. This is a once a year chance to expose families to different cultures and artists through short and feature films that are not widely accessible on a big screen.

Preparing for this event always begins with a visit to the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival. Last fall as I watched all types of children’s films in a screening room, I thought about connecting films to themes in art and exhibitions while also considering what kids and adults will enjoy. It is interesting how filmmakers are able to address identity, relationships, politics and the human condition in a way that is accessible to all. After watching over a hundred films I had the daunting task of selecting just a few to screen for families at the Walker.

I am really looking forward to sharing the films chosen and listening to the audience reactions. I hope you enjoy this year’s Kids’ Film Festival as much as I enjoyed creating it.

Short Films

5 Mètres, 80

A herd of giraffes launches into a sequence of acrobatic dives in a deserted swimming pool.

Directed by Nicolas Deveaux, France, 2012, 5 minutes.

 

Bear Story

An old bear goes out every day to a busy street corner, where he sets up and presents a special puppet show.

Directed by Gabriel Osorio, Chile, 2014, 10 minutes.

 

Copacao

In a fantastical story about the town of Copacao, an imaginary tree grows and grows to the point of taking over the whole planet.

Directed by Carciova Adrian, Romania, 2013, 3 minutes.

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Home Sweet Home

Tired of its neighborhood, a house in Detroit breaks free from its foundation and sets out on an adventure.

Directed by Alejandro Diaz, Pierre Clenet, Romain Mazevet, and Stéphane Paccolat, France, 2013, 10 minutes.

 

Lambs

Sheep parents are bewildered by their little lamb whose style sets it apart from the herd.

Directed by Gottfried Mentor, Germany, 2013, 5 minutes.

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Little Matryoshka

A matryoshka family, wary of strangers, takes shelter in solitude but the curiosity of its youngest member soon leads them on a life-changing adventure.

Directed by Serin Inan and Tolga Yildiz, Turkey, 2014, 9 minutes.

 

Macropolis

Two defective toys discarded from a factory go on a hunt to find a new home that appreciates them for their uniqueness.

Directed by Joel Simon, Northern Ireland, 2012, 7 minutes.

 

Mia

In her quest to help her mother, a little girl unlocks the hidden secrets that make the world turn.

Directed by Wouter Bongaerts, Belgium, 2013, 9 minutes.

 

The Dam Keeper

A small town’s survival is solely due to a large windmill that acts as a fan to keep out poisonous clouds. Its operator, Pig, works tirelessly to keep the sails spinning, despite bullying from classmates. When a new student joins his class, everything begins to change.

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.

Directed by Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutusmi, USA, 2013, 18 minutes.

The Numberlys

In a world where there is no alphabet and only numbers, a group of friends sets out to devise a new way to communicate.

Directed by William Joyce & Brandon Oldenburg, USA, 2013, 12 minutes.

 

Feature Film

Song of the Sea

From the creators of the Academy Award-nominated The Secret of Kells comes a hand-drawn masterpiece. Based on the Irish legend of the Selkies, Song of the Sea tells the story of a seal-child and her brother who go on an epic journey to save the world of magic.

Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Film.

Directed by Tomm Moore, Ireland/Luxembourg/Belgium/France/Denmark, 2014, 93 minutes.

 

Join us for an exciting day of kids’ films from around the world! Enjoy free gallery admission and family fun on March 7 from 10 am-3 pm. Activities designed for kids ages 6 to 12.

The Time Wanderers

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On January 3rd, 2015, I got to debut a brand new show at the Walker Art Center called ‘The Time Wanderers.” When I met with Frannie and Christina last June and they proposed that I make a show based on the Walker’s history I said, “yes!” Of course I said yes, because that’s what I say to interesting and intimidating opportunities. But I didn’t really know what the show would look like or how I would put it together.

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Somehow, many hours of reading and looking through old images turned into a 50 minute all-ages comedy show. I’d decided that the key to this show connecting with audience members as young as 1 or 2 and keeping them engage while actually covering some significant moments from the Walker’s history was that large chunks of the show be improvised and that we get as many young people down on the stage as possible.

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If you make a show with the idea that for much of the performance you’ll have anywhere from 2 to 20 young people on stage, you have to get comfortable with the idea of controlled chaos. That’s why I knew I needed to get live music on stage from Dietrich Poppen and perform the action on stage with one of the most naturally funny people I know who also happens to be gifted at staying calm while things seem slightly out of control on stage, Andy Kraft.

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With this small, solid performing team together, the amazing Doug in the tech booth, and some really solid show elements that would ensure no matter how far afield any one scene may go we would always have a clear way back to the core structure, I knew something good would happen on stage. But it’s never a certainty that things will go well or that an audience will be on board for new experiences.

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One of the great things about the families who show to First Free Saturday events at the Walker is that they walk in with the expectation to not only consume art but to participate in the making of art. The Education and Community Programs department has spent years making a promise to its audiences that they will be able to engage in creative acts when they show up and the result is rooms full of people who don’t need to be asked a second time to come on down to the stage. Because of this, we went from moments in the script that said things like, “hopefully one or two people come down to the stage and act out a scene,” to wondering how we were going to keep every single person in the audience from flooding the stage to closing the show by inviting everyone who was willing to come on down move their bodies in order to prove that dance was a legitimate art form.

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I’ve experienced a great many things on stages in front of audiences but there is no other experience on the planet like dancing on a stage with 40 young people who are all grinning ear to ear and then realizing they have gotten ahold of several roles of tinfoil and have now all decided I should be wrapped in that tin foil. There is still a long way to go towards convincing the world that comedy and improvisational theater are important and powerful art forms, but where I stand there is no deeper expression of the idea of Art than interacting on with those young people on the McGuire theater stage.

The Walker tricked me

Workshop circa 1968
Workshop circa 1968

Workshop circa 1968

*Levi Weinhagen is serving as Artist in Residence for Education and Community Programs from September 2014 through February 2015*

When I found out I would be an Artist in Residence for the Walker Art Center’s Education and Community Programs department I was really excited. Immediately, my mind started working on the question of what fun ideas could I try out with their audiences and what ways could I play in the Center’s spaces. The focus before my residency started was very much on “what can I bring to this place.”

The largest centerpiece of my residency is a live all-ages show to be performed on January 3rd as part of the First Free Saturday 75th Anniversary celebration. If you’ll check your calendars you’ll notice that date has passed and the show has been performed for two fantastic and energetic audiences. More on how those shows went in a post next week. But the run up to the show was several month of research in the Walker archives and the last few weeks before the show of turning historical facts into entertaining live theater.

1972 Education Workshop

1972 Education Workshop

A strange thing happened as I turned research into a comedy show, I learned way more than I ever thought I would know about the history of the Walker Art Center.

Did you know that in 1963 the Walker created the Center Opera Company which would later become the Minnesota Opera? I didn’t know that but now I totally do.

Can you list all five Directors who have led the Walker over their years along with the years of their directorships? That’s not something I ever thought I would need to know and somehow I built a live comedy show around those specific details. Seriously, I know when the directors where around and have a decent sense of how they wanted the Center to be viewed and engaged with by the community and by the greater art world.

These are things someone who writes and performs comedy for both young people and grown ups wouldn’t generally spend a lot of time learning. I can’t work in a bunch of 1970s and 80s Laurie Anderson (she performed at the Walker in 1978 with the St Paul Chamber Orchestra) jokes during a show about physical comedy and expect to get laughs from 7 year olds. Most of my audience typically doesn’t care that Georgia O’Keeffe’s Lake George Barns was acquired in 1954. Individually, these facts are that compelling to me, but taken as a whole, after hours of study all while looking for the funny (which is really the only way my brain gets excited to learn something) I found out that the story of this place is complex and interesting because it’s the story of people.

A child interprets Claes Oldenburg

A child interprets Claes Oldenburg

That’s how the Walker tricked me. They made me think I was bringing comedy and play to their family audiences when in reality I was learning the human stories that make up this place. I was learning how truly significant this institution has been to the arts and culture community of the Twin Cities that I hold so dear. The Walker and the artists, directors, staff and audiences who move in and out of it have been way more impactful on my personal and professional life than I ever would have imagined for way longer than I knew. So far, my residency hasn’t been about just getting to try new things, it’s been about learning where I fit in a lot of different people’s stories.

It’s also been about struggling to write a solid H. Harvard Arneson joke. I’ve still got nothing.

 

2014: The Year According to Jeff Chang

Jeff Chang. Photo: Bert Johnson To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from poet LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs and musician Grant Hart  to  artist Kalup Linzy and designer David Reinfurt—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014. See the entire series 2014: […]


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Jeff Chang. Photo: Bert Johnson

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from poet LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs and musician Grant Hart  to  artist Kalup Linzy and designer David Reinfurt—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014. See the entire series 2014: The Year According to                                 . 

Jeff Chang is a journalist, music critic, and the author of the American Book Award–winning Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and the just-released Who We Be: The Colorization of America, which “chronicles the rise and fall of multiculturalism through the lens of visual culture.” Executive director of Stanford’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts, Chang cofounded CultureStr/ke and ColorLines, as well as the indie record label SoleSides (now Quannum Projects), which helped launch the careers of artists including Blackalicious, DJ Shadow, and Lyrics Born. He visited the Walker in 2007 and 2008 for a panel discussion on Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop and for a discussion with Walker Teen Programs on the state of hip-hop and politics in America today.

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asubtletyHow did Americans see race in 2014?

All one needed to do was to spend an hour in Kara Walker’s summer installation in Brooklyn, entitled A Subtlety: or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.

There was nothing subtle about the work or the reactions it generated. Her sugar sculpture, an inflated take on 18th century British and French court decorations, inflated stereotypes to factory size—this was a handkerchief-headed mammy-esque sphinx, with Kardashian curves and outsized genitalia. Walker’s art has always meant to provoke, and in some ways this piece succeeded bigger than any of her previous works.

Viewers fell right into their roles. Many walked into the factory, mediating Walker’s art through their camera or phone lens. They posed for each other, grinning, as if they were tourists at their destination. Quite a few mimicked caressing the sphinx’s breasts and thrusting their hands toward her vulva. The whole air was a little too carnival-like.

What was really being exposed here? When it was revealed later that Walker had filmed the crowds it seemed to confirm that she was meant to make all that implicit bias and make it pretty damned explicit.

We live in an era in which multiculturalism has taught us what not to say. From that we have won a new kind of civility—what the reactionary trolls still call “political correctness,” if ever more shrilly each day. But the price for that civility may be an abiding silence about bias and inequity and violence—both the kind that allows cops to pull the trigger on Black women, men, and children, as well as the kind that causes people to snap public photos of themselves in mid-finger-fuck and then to post those images to social media.

A Subtlety broke that silence, loudly. It was the mirror that screamed.

The day I arrived, late in June, the sticky sweet molasses smell had curled into putridity. Rot had set in. Some of the smaller sculptures of attending children had melted and collapsed in the night, their heads rolling away from shards and ponds of molasses that were once supplicant bodies holding baskets. I heard onlookers tsk-tsk Walker’s supposed sloppiness. “It’s ruined,” I heard one woman complain. “I can’t even enjoy this.”

That weekend, a group led by women of color had mobilized a counter-space within the space as if to say, “Race, gender, class, history—anyone?” They passed out stickers to anyone uninterested in playing the Ugly American type. Their organizing would eventually spawn more teach-ins, meet-ups, and mobilization around issues of cultural equity. Those representational tags they handed out that day read, “We Are Here.”

It’s a sign of these terrible times that even when your president is Black, some people still need to be reminded.

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YAMS Collective

And so for all the above reasons, salute to the YAMS Collective!

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Damon Davis, All Hands On Deck

The tireless Damon Davis’s All Hands On Deck project felt like one of the most urgent. In the days after Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared martial law to mobilize the National Guard against expected protests before the grand jury decision—let’s ponder that for a second—Davis took pictures of the hands of community organizers and leaders, raised in the manner Michael Brown had when he was shot at least six times. He and a team of volunteers then wheat-pasted these large broadsides up and down West Florissant Avenue, Ferguson’s main thoroughfare, on the plywood boards that local businesses had put up in anticipation of rioting.

All Hands On Deck galvanized the local network of young organizers and community activists as they went about the hard work of putting together an infrastructure to organize peaceful demonstrations and create safe spaces for the community to deal with the expected non-indictment. It also made their work and their message visible, against a media hellbent whipping up a frenzy for teargas and fire.

In the hours after the verdict, the National Guard and the police abandoned West Florissant to protect their department, shopping malls, and government buildings. Predictably the fires started up. But many of Davis’s posters remained up, a visible testament to the community’s fight to live.

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Hank Willis Thomas, Raise Up, 2014

Hank Willis Thomas’s sculpture Raise Up was completed before Michael Brown was shot with his hands in the air. He had in fact made the piece for series of works called “History Don’t Laugh,” using South African apartheid-era photos. His sculpture was adapted from one by Ernest Cole depicting mineworkers subjected to a humiliating medical exam involving full body searches.

Of course in the past month, Hank’s sculpture gathered new layers of meaning. Art as prophecy, yet again. Raise Up echoes the same transformation that protestors across the country gave Brown’s final gesture of submission, changing it into a symbol of mass resistance.

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J. Cole

J. Cole: “All we want to do is break the chains off. All we want to is be free.”

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Photo: Phil Sears/AP

DREAMers and Dream Defenders

I’m continually awestruck by the young activists who dare now to speak in the language of dreams, particularly the DREAMers and the Dream Defenders. The DREAMers won an unexpected victory when Obama finally agreed late this year that he did actually have the power to be able to offer deferred action to millions of undocumented immigrants. Five million more are now a step closer to realizing their dream.

The activist organization the Dream Defenders have also been heralds of this national moment in which we have been called to reckon with racial injustice. They emerged in the wake of the George Zimmerman acquittal to occupy the Florida State Capitol for a month to call attention to the travesty that is Stand Your Ground. One of their early manifestoes read, “They expect us to riot; to torch cities and burn bridges. They expect us to disperse; to wait for the next ambulance. But we challenge you to build. Real Power.”

They did all this while wearing t-shirts that read, “Can we dream together?”

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Rebecca Solnit

I’m so thankful for Rebecca Solnit. From Men Explain Things To Me and The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness to her timely pieces in Harper’s, across the web, and on her Facebook page, she captured the shift in national consciousness around sexual assault and rape. It was gratifying to hear her tear down the specious, mansplaining rationalizations that have preserved the silence around these issues. It has been a historic year for feminism and Rebecca has been one of our truest guides.

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Claudia Rankine, Citizen

More than ever race is about the politics of seeing and being seen. Claudia Rankine’s quietly beautiful book, Citizen, begins with the internal terror that comes from daily acts of microaggression.

Someone says something or does something to you that cuts at the root of your identity. It comes from a favored teacher who mistakes you for the other Black girl, a new acquaintance who can’t get over the fact that affirmative action has prevented her son from attending the school you both work at but instead forced him to attend another elite institution, or even yourself—when you and your husband have unwittingly inflicted the surveillance of white cops upon a close friend.

The flood of doubt that pours forth never seems to subside. You drown in your own questions. Race becomes the constant rupture, the perpetual ache. In precise and beautiful prose, Rankine shows how microaggressions implode you from within.

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Flying Lotus, You’re Dead

In my personal life and in the world, death has surrounded us too much lately. But Flying Lotus’s album You’re Dead made me laugh, cry, shout, and just bug out. In other words, it did all those little big things that remind us why life matters, why Black lives matter, why each of us must fight so hard for all of us to live.

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James Baldwin. Photo: Ted Thai

James Baldwin

No words meant more to me this year than these from James Baldwin, who, perhaps in order to hold the despair at bay, modulated throughout his life from a precise, righteous rage to an unbound hope in the good of others. In a speech in November 1962 that came to be called “The Artist’s Struggle For Integrity,” he laid out an ethics of creativity, one that can apply as much to all of us, a blueprint for hopeful living. He begins by speaking about artists who, like all of us, are compelled to create because of a hurt or a trauma:

“You survive this (hurt or trauma) and in some terrible way, which I suppose no one can ever describe, you are compelled, you are corralled, you are bullwhipped into dealing with whatever it is that hurt you. And what’s crucial here is that if it hurt you, that’s not what’s important. Everybody’s hurt.

What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what drives you, torments you, is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive. This is all you have to do it with.

You must understand that your pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect with other people’s pain; and insofar as you can do that with your pain, you can be released from it, and then hopefully it works the other way around too; insofar as I can tell you what it is to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less.”

Amen.

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