Blogs Field Guide

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: […]


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.


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.



YAMS Collective

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



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.



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.



J. Cole

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



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?”



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.



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.


FlyLo-Cover (1)

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.



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.”


2014: The Year According to LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from artist Korakrit Arunanondchai and curator Devrim Bayar to  filmmaker Sam Green—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   […]

Me Press Photo 2005

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs

To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from artist Korakrit Arunanondchai and curator Devrim Bayar to  filmmaker Sam Green—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                                 . 

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is a performer, poet, sound artist, and—as Shannon Gibney put it in her Walker  interview with Diggs last March—an “intercultural mestiza, at once an interloper and a translator, an authentic and an inauthentic voice of ‘the Other.”” A prolific producer, her projects range from the poetry volume TwERK (Belladonna, 2013) to chapbooks, including Ichi-Ban, Ni-Ban (MOH Press), to the album Televisíon. Diggs’s interdisciplinary performance work has been featured at The Kitchen, Brooklyn Museum, The Studio Museum in Harlem, the Museum of Modern Art, Minneapolis’s Pillsbury House + Theatre, and the Walker—where she performed a reading of TwERK in early 2014—among many others. A native of Harlem, Diggs is past poetry editor for the online arts journal exittheapple and founding editor (with writer Greg Tate) of YoYo/SO4 magazine. In October 2014, she shared her thoughts on her first encounter with artist Ben Patterson, whose work is included in the exhibition Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art, as well her own Fluxus-inspired scores.

What is the ideology behind an exhibition space,
a ”best of,” a poetry reading, a film festival,
a performing arts venue, an “according to”?


Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou dance at the The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou dancing, February 22, 1991. Baraka passed away on January 9 and Angelou on May 28, 2014. Photo: Chester Higgins

In memoriam: Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou

Their contributions to African-American and American literature are immense. To persons of color globally, there are simply not enough words. Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou at times appeared to contrast each other in perception. That said, the two of them shared common goals, loves and commitments. It is because of their friendship that we have that iconic photograph of the two performing an “African custom of ancestral return” at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Widely respected and adored by their readers, their works both touched upon racism and the Black experience. Their activist work placed them in rooms working alongside leaders in America as well as in Africa. Both wrote and collaborated with a number of artists in the visual and performing arts. It is daunting to imagine African American culture without their mark on a great many voices. We came to love and demand that our blackness be celebrated within our communities. We became phenomenal. We became fire.




Bishi @ The Kitchen, May 16, 2014

Singing in Bengali, English, Bulgarian, and Biblical Greek, multi-instrumentalist Bishi’s New York debut of Albion Voice was beyond what anyone witnessing her for the first time could have imagined. And then there were those eight or more costume changes that invoked Diana Ross, Bollywood, Grace Jones, and David Bowie. Not only was there a brown realness in front of you exploring “personal and national identity” through projected video animation and voice, but also this striking brown buoyancy tracing the evolution of English as the medieval mongrel tongue it once was to what it is today. And then she strapped on an electric sitar like a rocker and ran it through effects. Only a fellow sistren could admire such bombastic flair and be so utterly star-struck on a random street in Brooklyn months later. And then she had a wind machine. She brought the “black” back to The Kitchen.


Picture 100

Melvin Edwards, Rouie Rufisque, 2005–2012
Welded steel
16 x 13.25 x 6.5 in
Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York; Stephen Friedman Gallery, London
© 2014 Melvin Edwards / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Final Days: Melvin Edwards at Alexander Gray Associates

Between 1972 and 2002, the sculpture Melvin Edwards taught at Rutgers University. Of the classes he taught, one in particular took on a different approach when teaching/learning art history. To interrogate and explore art from a “third world” perspective meant expanding outside the textbook’s limitations, thus allowing broader themes and formal qualities from elsewhere into the work. To ponder upon this as pedagogy and personal mantra, what we see in Final Days is the evolution of such. The careful studies of abstraction and minimalism are not the only items exhibited here. Should we tap into our innate ability to cross-pollinate “between cultural and social realities,” experience here the stories and anecdotes Edwards has come to learn. Occupying both floors of the gallery, these interactions become a sort of engine. His on-going Lynch Fragments—the series of steel wall reliefs that Edwards began during the Civil Rights era—take on names from Wolof, Kimbundu, Serer, Islamic Senegalese, Yoruba, and Kikongo cultures, among others. They also connect to the history of labor and the African Diaspora. As a distinguishable spade reveals itself in an entanglement of mechanical debris in Rouie Rufisque, one feels the letter V shouting from a conjoined padlock. Edwards is in conversation with his fellow artists. He is equally with the farmer, construction worker, weaver, and superintendent. How the ax merges with horseshoe, nail, hoe, machete, and wrench is complicated by either gridded frames or the convexed side of spheres. I feel he wants us to recover something. In one piece, Diamnaidio (2004), we are asked to contemplate on the affect and meaning of roundness nestled under this beautiful explosive tension. In Homage to the Poet Léon Gontran Damas—an installation that has not been shown since 1993—serves as a meditative counterpoint to Lynch Fragments.  In this large scale piece, the use of shape, shadow and purpose are dictated by sunlight. Damas, by the way, was the cofounder of the Negritude Movement. And very dear to my heart is the single work on paper displayed: Untitled Portrait of Jayne (c. 1974). Utilizing spray paint and chains—a common source material in his Lynch Fragments—Edwards uses the silhouette of his late wife, the poet, activist, and artistic collaborator Jayne. A side note: This particular image of Cortez was also the cover art for her album Celebrations and Solitudes. For Edwards, one of the pioneers of African American contemporary art and sculpture, to stencil chains into the foreground creates a reaction near opposite its violent past. As the chains are disrupted by Cortez’s image, they become less weighted and their significance is radically transformed. In sum, much in the tradition of how a poet might use “words in poetry,” the sweetness of life and tribute are profoundly interwoven within the complexities of his work. His second retrospective, Melvin Edwards: Five Decades will open at The Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas Texas, January 2015. I need a plane ticket, folks. Hook me up.


4_Birds With Sky MirrorsBirds With Sky Mirrors. Photo: Sebastian Bolesch

Lemi Ponifasio / MAU’s Birds With Sky Mirrors @ BAM Next Wave Festival, November 22, 2014

The audience is haunted by the moving image of a pelican trapped in what appears to be an oil slick – an image that has become all too common of the impact of man’s destructive nature upon nature, of excess and consumption, of the loss of memory. Yet as we are continuously pulled away and abruptly hit with this image throughout the show, we are driven viscerally towards Ponifasio’s question: “What would the last dance on earth look like?” Behind this masterful blend of musculature shadows, ritual and community, the answer takes on an assortment of bodies and voices with an ensemble largely composed of men and three women. At times deliciously challenging and stunning, the choreography calls upon traditional Samoan, Kiribati (a Melanesian island that scientists report will disappear by the end of the century) and Maori song and movement to inform (or be informed by) Butoh. The effortless reversals of gender roles are trickster-like but service this illusive 90-minute performance luminously. In bare amber hues underscored by a transcendental sound composition, BWSM transformed the actual space into succulent yet defiant waves addressing us to contemplate upon our own humanity.


maria magdalena campos pon

Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons at “Carrie Mae Weems LIVE,” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Photo: Enid Alvarez. ©Guggenheim Foundation

María Magadalena Campos-Pon’s Habla La Madre at the Guggenheim performance, April 27, 2014

Presented as part of Carrie Mae Weems LIVE: Past Tense/Future Perfect, at exactly 11 am, a performance/procession called to everyone’s attention the forces of nature that aid in our paths and to whom we must ask for guidance. Joined by an ensemble of Afro-Cuban musicians—which included master percussionist Roman Diaz—under the direction of collaborator and composer Neil Leonard and seven women in blue dresses, the Cuban artist María Magadalena Campos-Pon literally gave the Guggenheim a spiritual cleansing. In honor of the orisha Yemanjá and Weems, a cake and blessed water was offered much to the worry of Guggenheim staff. The cake was placed carefully beside the pond. The water—which was poured into the pond—revealed live goldfish! The Guggenheim was not ready. The procession began outside and entered into the main lobby. Once inside, the seven women recited a poem (written by Mike Ladd). During the recitation, Magdalena announced her prayers for Yemanjá and Weems. In a dress that almost resembled the museum’s architecture, Campos-Pon led the procession up the ramp and into each of the floors where Weems’s three decades of photography was on exhibit. In unison, the women and Campos-Pon sang a traditional Lukumi song for the orisha who represents the ocean, the primordial waters and motherhood. This was life altering and, no, the Guggenheim was not ready.


5_Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts. Photo: Sonia Louise Davis

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

Two-thousand fourteen has been quite a year for the author of the acclaimed book Harlem Is Nowhere (2011). Her essays were everywhere they needed to be. “From the Desk of the Freedwomen’s Bureau” appeared in The Waiting Room Magazine (for Simone Leigh’s The Free People’s Medical Clinic). Another appeared in Creative Time Reports (as part of Funk God Jazz and Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn, co-curated by Rashida Bumbray). Then there was her essay “The Worth of Black Men, From Slavery to Ferguson” in the New York Times. All the while Rhodes-Pitts—partly inspired by Pig Foot Mary, an African American woman who became an entrepreneurial success by selling pigs’ feet out of a baby carriage, and by the history of Black independently run bookstores in Harlem—created BLACKNUSS: Books and Other Relics, a pop-up bookstore on the sidewalk of 133rd and Lenox Avenue. So what is it exactly? A site-specific installation? An example of situational aesthetics? How about Kujichagulia, one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa by way of shopping cart, travel suitcase, and camping table, ornamented with freshly picked cotton? What does she sell? Books. Some rare charms like a Bob Kaufman broadside. Essentials like luscious uncut shea butter from Uganda (which is now my special occasion shea butter … should I have a special occasion). Incentives for conversation and debates like special brewed teas and bean pies. She also does consignment.  Rhodes-Pitts’s charge for empowerment and self-sustainability (emblematic in the African American community) set up shop recently at Asian American Writer’s Workshop’s Counter Culturalists Series and at The Studio Museum in Harlem. At SMH, Rhodes-Pitts premiered Moor’s Head Press of BLACKNUSS with three pamphlets of essays by Arthur Jafa, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Sylvia Wynter.


6_Rashida BumbrayRashida Bumbray’s Little Red Rooster in a Red House

Rashida Bumbray’s Little Red Rooster in a Red House @ Harlem Stage, April 2014

What was so unadulterated about Rashida Bumbray’s piece is her ongoing homage to tradition. Even in the description, contemporary art curator and choreographer Bumbray credits her choreographic lineage: Margaret Christian, Syvilla Forte, and master improviser Adenike Sharpley, with whom she is featured in the performance. Tap and ring shot are evident. Also are the slender divides between the secular and sensual: the church lady and the juke joint fever pitch. Choreographed to Jimi Hendrix’s recording of “Red House” (1970), the performance was the amen-hallelujah-oh no she didn’t-get it girl moment of the evening. The brevity and complexity within the vocabularies Bumbray used signaled to the audience to do nothing else but combust into a flurry of call and response. It was an enduring blood memory; a repossession of identity and migration that without delay sang of good times. We were in the waters of William Henry Johnson’s I Baptize Thee. Presented as part of Harlem Stage’s EMoves, Little Red Rooster earned Bumbray a nomination for a 2014 Bessie for NY Dance and Performance Award for “Outstanding Emerging Choreographer.” Now we need to see this full scale. Bring her to the Walker Center for reals.


7_Marie-Wilcox Photo Credit Global Oneness Project)

Maria Wilcox. Photo: Global Oneness Project

Language, Politics, and Resistance
Or, why
Marie Wilcox is my latest hero

The 1996 Dover Thrift Edition of Native American Songs and Poems contains 15 “traditional” songs from 15 indigenous nations within the US. What are absent from this anthology are the actual languages these songs originate from. Could we therefore present this as a minor-yet-compelling argument for language revitalization? For many folks, the subject of Christopher Deschene, a presidential candidate for the Navaho (Diné) presidency and the issue of language fluency as an eligibility requirement in Navaho elections were introductions to the sociopolitical and cultural bearings associated with First Nations languages. This same year, Alaska became the second state (Hawai’i is the first) to officially recognize some 20 indigenous languages with the passing of House Bill 216. Included are the Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Alutiiq, Unanga, Dena’ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich’in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Hän, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian languages. And somewhere in between, a New York Times documentary about Marie Wilcox, the last fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language in California, seemed to flutter about in social media. In 2000, it was reported that of the “211 indigenous languages still extant throughout the United States and Canada, only 20 of them are spoken by the youngest generation of their communities.” And in 2014, another article stated “according to Unesco, more than 130 (other articles cite 175) of these languages are currently at risk, with 74 languages considered ‘critically endangered.’” Whether or not these numbers are accurate, perhaps it is time for Americans to care about this. The question one wonders is: Will other states follow Hawai’i and Alaska by officially acknowledging languages like Yurok and Wampanoag where, within these communities, First Nation peoples are working tirelessly to retrieve and retain their ancestral tongues?


Martha Redbone by Ebru Yildiz 300dpi[1]Martha Redbone. Photo: Ebru Yildiz

Martha Redbone & Aaron Whitby, A New Musical (a reading), Joe’s Pub’s New York Voices Series, December 2014

Receiving a last-minute invitation, I understood this to be a workshop. That said, what I experienced was enough for me to fight back tears as what was being witnessed had not before been told in this format or setting. Commissioned by Joe’s Pub and with direction by Roberta Uno, this latest endeavor marks Martha Redbone’s premiere musical theater production. Tracing back her lineage to the mining camps in the Appalachia and her African/Cherokee/Choctaw/European roots, the voices of her ancestors tell a deeply charged story of family struggles and triumphs. With just a sampling, the presentation situates the audience enough for what will be revealed later once the musical is complete. From North Carolina to Virginia to Kentucky to Oklahoma to Brooklyn, these already dazzling songs and storyline are profoundly emotional and are at times hysterical with slanted humor. Redbone and Whitby’s musical references are expansive. Bluegrass, gospel, R&B, traditional and contemporary Cherokee (Tsalagi) are mere hints, as are the renditions of “America (the beautiful)” and a starry-eyed reference to Nat King Cole. This is a story that has been missing from the popular American narrative, a narrative that the playwright William S. Yellow Robe, Jr. would be proud of. The project will be workshopped again for three nights at Joe’s Pub in February 2015.



9_Bilmo packs for Abu DhabiBilmo packs for Abu Dhabi. Photo: Jennifer Zelinger

Bill Bragin named executive artistic director of new performing arts center in Abu Dhabi. Bilmo follows.

At Lincoln Center, as director of public programming overseeing summer programs like “Lincoln Center Out of Doors” and “Midsummer Night Swing,” Bill Bragin (along with his team) brought some of the best performances to LC’s audiences for seven years. So when the announcement of his new position as executive artistic director of the New York University’s Performing Arts Centre in Abu Dhabi came out, Bragin’s Facebook page encountered the type of online traffic that could have eminently shut down the site. As vocalist Imani Uzuri joked about at his send-off party on November 24 at (le) poisson rouge—the night’s music was a collaborative Spotify playlist Bragin invited folks to submit their favorite song to—almost every musician, programmer, arts presenter, curator and DJ in attendance had worked with Mr. Bragin in some capacity. And as co-producer of Globalfest, an annual showcase of new and emerging international artists, Bill will remain an integral part of New York City’s live arts scene. But the picture of Bilmo, his most trusted confidant, packing a suitcase? This might be the biggest upset. Bilmo, by the way, is not a puppet. Bilmo, Bill’s illusive half-brother, adorns a puppet costume in order to conceal his immortal arresting allure. He’s always been a bit shy about his good looks. More importantly, Bilmo felt we common folk would then surely pay less attention to the programmer extraordinaire we know as Bill Bragin. Which explains the reason why Bilmo sat off in the far corner of the stage atop of a bass cabinet at the send-off. But Bilmo, we see you, bro. We see you.


10_Chris Ofili:NO WOMAN NO CRYChris Ofili, No Woman No Cry, 1998

Chris Ofili: Night and Day, When Shadows Were Shortest @ The New Museum 

In Trinidad and Tobago, the day length averages 12 hours, according to A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Trinidad & Tobago. With dawn and dusk occurring within an hour (6 am and 6 pm), it is no wonder how transition from light to dark with considerable layering of blue and silver may shift one’s perception of place. This much is embodied in Blue Riders Series, which occupies a portion of Night and Day, When Shadows Were Shortest, Ofili’s first major solo show in the United States. Known for his earlier paintings that utilized elephant dung, on display here are works ranging from painting to sculpture to drawings to costumes (on the fifth floor, you can see some the costumes and sets he designed for London’s National Gallery and the Royal Ballet). The visual samplings, collages that juxtapose cultural references (Australian aboriginal, hip-hop, expressionism) with religious beliefs and mythologies, are extraordinary. Perhaps my favorites are from the Afro Romantics Series, along with Blossom and his exploration of the margin through automatic drawing that nods to abstract expressionist Norman Lewis. But perhaps his most poignant work at this time is the painting of Doreen Delceita Lawrence, the mother of a black teen killed on the streets in South East London in 1993. Gazing at her tears and the small, almost deceptively miniscule images of her son, we are reminded once again of the problem of institutionalized racism. Just go see it.


11_The All-Nite Images : Flickr via Creative CommonsUnknown girl crying. Photo: The All-Nite Images, Flickr, used under Creative Commons license

Michael Brown, Amir Rice, Eric Garner; Palestine, 43 students abducted and found dead in Iguala, Mexico; 219 girls kidnapped in Nigeria;
1,000+ aboriginal women missing or murdered in Canada … I can’t breath … ana’akot noktiipa … inau teo aheahe …

How can one weigh in on the circumstances happening in this country and abroad? For me, it is troubling as any of these events, individually, could be deconstructed and pressed upon for months on end. What is equally disconcerting is that any person (and some have) can fall into the cracks and be forgotten. The underlying challenge here is emotional exhaustion: the feeling that one does not have enough breath for all that needs attention, that one must pick and choose in order to breath. In one breath, currently, Boko Haram militants have abducted more girls since April when they “kidnapped close to 300 from the Government Girls Secondary School” in Nigeria. Second breath: Do we know the names of the four Palestinian boys, between the ages of 9 and 11, who were killed during an Israeli naval and aerial attack on July 16? Third breath: Are we immune to the possibilities of loved ones being kidnapped, killed, and dismembered all because they wanted to protest cuts to their state-financed school in Iguala, Mexico this September? Four breaths: Remember, HR 347 was signed in 2012. Fifth: And how to comprehend the “systemic problems of gender-based violence facing the aboriginal communities” happening in Canada? Sixth: What is being acted upon or in solidarity when we bring attention to some 1,000+ missing and murdered First Nations, Métis, and Inuit women? Seventh: As reported from the neighborhoods of Ferguson, Staten Island, Oklahoma City—are we witnessing the evolution of mass lynchings? Eighth: Since the murder of Michael Brown, 14 black teens across the nation were killed by police officers. Ninth: Do we know the names of those Black women who were killed by law enforcement? Tenth: Is it time that we return to The Anti-Lynching Pamphlets of Ida B. Wells, 1892–1920 to begin reeducating ourselves? Eleventh: Something seems to be happening where, in social media, local concerns are becoming global matters and where we are witnessing and participating in mobilization more than we have in a dang long time. Twelfth: Can there be some form of connected resistance if we allow ourselves to bridge and resist invalidating one for the other? Twelfth: 141 dead in Pakistan. Thirteenth: I am losing my breath. 


12a_Madison Loves Books 1Madison. Photo: ‪Jeff Reidel, WKYC Channel 3

Madison Loves Books

In the midst of reports surrounding the murder of John Crawford III at the Beavercreek Wal-Mart and of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in the Cudell Recreation Center—both incidents occurring in Ohio, an open-carry state—a young girl named Madison reminded me why ”reading is fundamental.” Yes, Madison, the world needs books. It is like you said, books “fuel our minds like cars and gas.” You told us that when books first came into being, colors came. You told us that inventors were born and inventions were made. In your future, dear Madison, I sincerely hope we catch up to your radiance from reading more about others and ourselves. When we do, just maybe we will be able to expand our hearts. So let’s share an iddy-biddy suggested reading list of books that came out in 2014 and will drop in 2015:

Towards the Primeval Lightning Field, Will Alexander, Litmus Press

As We Know, Amaranth Borsuk, Subito Press

All Is Not Yet Lost, Betsy Fagin, Belladonna

As/Us Literary Journal, edited by Casandra Lopez and Tanaya Winder

LIFE IN A BOX IS A PRETTY LIFE, Dawn Lundy Martin, Nightboat Press

Four Electric Ghosts, Mendi + Keith Obadike, 1913 press

Big House/Disclosure, Mendi + Keith Obadike, 1913 press

Petition, Christina Olivares, YesYes Books

Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night, Morgan Parker, Switchback Books

Citizen, Claudia Rankine, Graywolf Press

Silent Anatomies, Monica Ong Reed, Kore Press

How to write a joke

This is not funny

This is not funny

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

“Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.” – George Carlin

Comedy, at its purest form, is about taking away as much as possible from an idea so that all that’s left is the joke. The highest praise a person who writes comedy can pay towards a joke or a piece of comedy is to say that there’s “no fat on it.” This honing of an idea down to its funniest and simplest form is where the artistry and craftsmanship of comedy meet. I believe that comedy in all of it’s forms; sketch, improv, stand-up, storytelling, physical, and some as-of-yet undiscovered mind-blowing form are all art as worthy of reverence and praise as any style of painting or school or architecture.

“I would have been a lot better off if I’d studied more when I was growing up, y’know. But you know where it all went wrong was the day they started the spelling bee. Because up until that day I was an idiot, but nobody else knew.” – Brian Regan

I see this idea of taking away everything but the joke present in how all art is made. There’s the certainly overused example of Michelangelo explaining how he know what to cut away in order to create the statue of David by saying, “It’s simple. I just remove everything that doesn’t look like David.” I have no idea if Michelangelo ever actually said those words. But I do like to imagine him saying this quote in a broad stereotypical Italian restaurant like Super Mario in an Olive Garden commercial.

Still not funny

Still not funny

“I like rice. Rice is great when you’re hungry and you want 2,000 of something.” – Mitch Hedberg

True or not, the reason this Michelangelo quote has been sited so often is because it gets at how the creative process really works. To make something good, you have to start with a lot of things that in the long run will reveal themselves to be not that good thing. Whether it be a block of marble, tubes full of acrylic paints, or a vague thought about how much rice constitutes a serving. Here’s how comedian Cameron Esposito describes the joke writing process: “All jokes start as crap. Some stay crappy. Some can be P90Xed into a set ready for TV.”

“I don’t care if you think I’m racist. I just want you to think I’m thin.” – Sarah Silverman

Because I make comedy and because I’m so interested in the process of making comedy, I can’t look at a painting or watch a film without quickly turning my thoughts to the process of making that thing. This focus on process can at times mean I don’t get to just purely enjoy a thing, I don’t get to always live inside the experience of something. But it also means my appreciation for art that can move and affect people is deep and filled with appreciation. And for me, that’s worth missing some of the pure joy of experiencing art.



You Must Get Back Up

banana fall

banana fall

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

Every second and fourth Tuesday of the month the Walker presents “Arty Pants,” activities and programs aimed at people aged 3 to 5 and their adults. On Tuesday, November 25th, I had the great privilege of working with a group of tiny artists, sharing an art form I love, falling down. I worked with an excited and hilarious group of children to help them make their own banana peels and then we went over how to do a proper physical comedy fall. And then all these 3, 4, and 5 years olds fell down and clapped for each other. It was one of the best things I’ve ever seen in a museum.

There was a moment early into the falling down part of my art activity with these youngsters when one of them fell down on my blue padded mat and everyone clapped and then he just laid there. He wasn’t hurt or anything, I think he was just enjoying laying down after having just gotten a round of applause. I’m a little embarrassed how well I can relate to that desire to bask in the applause. So, I helped him to his feet and then said to all the participants that I had left out one key part of doing physical comedy. I had forgotten to tell them what is needed in every comedy fall or physical comedy injury, you have to get back up.

It’s is a very grounding, human thing to laugh when someone trips and falls. One of my favorite things about physical comedy is that it doesn’t require everyone speak the same language or even share the same cultural touchstones. But, the laugh at a fall is quickly cut short if the “audience” thinks the person who fell is actually badly hurt. The biggest laughs, when it comes to physical comedy, require the at least assumed knowledge that no one is tragically hurt. Trust me, it’s not funny unless you get back up.

You want to know an amazing secret, though? This same principle applies to every fall or failure in life. If you get back up, you can always make something great out of what appears to be a fall.

History is littered with entrepreneurs who have had businesses collapse, scientists who have had experiments blow up in their faces, and artists who had work rejected time and again only to have them regain their footing and do things that change the way people think, create or do business. The successes and breakthroughs of a company like Apple with Steve Jobs at the helm after he had been forced out of the company makes everyone look back on his past work and reassess what appeared to be failures and view them as setups to an amazing punchline. I think you can see the same reassessment of one’s artistic past in the ups and downs of Robert Downey Jr’s acting career or the way Georgia O’Keefe’s early work as a commercial artist, although it was work she hated doing, is now viewed as informing what would become her unique views and approach to painting.

Almost any fall can be made a comedic success if you you aren’t so damaged from the landing that you aren’t able to get back up. And almost any metaphorical fall can be turned into a success if you can figure how to get back up and keep on moving. The only way we can turn our personal tragedies into triumphs is by letting everyone know the falls didn’t kills us. Heck, sometimes they’ll even applaud.

Talismanic Song: Gillian Conoley & Brian Laidlaw in Conversation

This Thursday, Rain Taxi will co-present Bay Area poet Gillian Conoley and local troubadour wunderkind Brian Laidlaw in a multimedia showcase, involving projected drawings of Henri Michaux, original and translated poetry and other texts, and composed and improvised music (let it here be known that Laidlaw on vox and guitar will be flanked by California’s […]

Brian Laidlaw. Photo: Ali Rogers

Brian Laidlaw. Photo: Ali Rogers

This Thursday, Rain Taxi will co-present Bay Area poet Gillian Conoley and local troubadour wunderkind Brian Laidlaw in a multimedia showcase, involving projected drawings of Henri Michaux, original and translated poetry and other texts, and composed and improvised music (let it here be known that Laidlaw on vox and guitar will be flanked by California’s Danny Vitali and Minnesota’s Bex Gaunt on multi-instrumental madness). The event celebrates the release of Conoley’s poetry collection Peace, as well as her translations of Michaux, Thousand Times Broken, and Laidlaw’s Amoratorium, a song-cycle about Bonnie and Clyde on vinyl with accompanying poetry chapbook.

Confused?  You won’t be as all these artists make magic together on stage. To whet our appetites, we asked the poets to riff a little on how the various disciplines they engage both dovetail and diverge.

Brian Laidlaw: Gillian, let’s get right down to it: What can poetry do that visual art and music can’t? And what can visual art and music do that poetry can’t?

Gillian Conoley: If we think of poetry or “the poetic” as being the ineffable, as something that can’t be said in any other way than in art, then poetry is in music and visual art. Music is certainly in poetry as in “if it ain’t got that swing, it don’t mean a thing” (thank you, Duke Ellington). Visual art has the gesture and movement of music, no? All I know is I couldn’t live without any of these arts and have a hard time separating them. Can you?

Laidlaw: Woof, who really can? I think of all these art forms as delivery systems for the same substance, and “the ineffable” is a great term for that substance. The delivery systems have their own logic and limitations: a song is fixed in time (its 3:38 duration), a drawing is fixed in space (its 12.5 x 9.5 inch area). Poems are special to me because, fundamentally, their content is timeless and spaceless; a poem reconstitutes itself in a reader’s mind.

When I first started writing, my songs and poems closely resembled one another: all metered and rhymed. That formalism is great for songwriting, but it severely limits the terrain in which a poem can roam. Encountering your work—Profane Halo and The Plot Genie were the first books of yours I read—was an absolute watershed moment for me. Your use of poetic form is virtuosic; it induces hallucinations, vertigo and enlightenment. How has your relationship to form changed over time? And (how) do music and visual art insinuate themselves into your poetic forms?

Conoley:  Always glad to induce a hallucination. Form: formal form, as in English form, metered and rhymed, I never could do it—I would write horrible things and it seemed like a math I couldn’t do, it almost made me want to cry. But I very much admire people who can do it and who make me forget it’s even there: I love Marianne Moore, for example. Even though I can’t do it I have studied prosody and still like to do so.

My relationship to form has changed a lot over time. When I first started to write, everything was justified left-hand margin, and I learned to break a line and make a stanza, and then I started to think about the page as a material in and of itself and how that might enter the poem—the page more as canvas or field or soundscape came into the writing. I’ve always written in black sketchbooks with no lines on them, where I make a big mess of words and images and phrases; I try to let everything in and not think about it or even think that I am writing a poem. I do this for pages and pages and then I wait for something to coalesce. I’ve learned (or I am still learning) how to wait, to work/trust in the materials. I also write lines I get just walking around into my cell phone–so much more trustworthy than scraps of paper I would lose!

Music has always been in my DNA because my dad and mom ran a small-town rural radio station thirty miles outside of Austin from the late 1940s to the 1980s: country western, soul, Mexican polka, Czech polka, rock ‘n’ roll. Johnny Cash, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex, Elvis, they all came to the station and played live in a little one-room studio lined with egg cartons for acoustics. I was really young, and not even born when Elvis came, so I only remember Joe Tex, but my older sister remembers James Brown. Painting I didn’t get a sense or love for until college, but it is life-long. If there were more time in the day and I didn’t have to work I would maybe try to learn to paint. I see things and write them down. I hear things, too, but my imagination runs more toward the visual than the auditory. I have a poet friend who says she doesn’t see ever, she only hears, so that’s interesting. Everyone has their own path.

I think artists have to be the most patient beings on earth. If you rush or strain, it shows. When do you know a line you get in your head is going to go in a poem or in a song? Or does it matter?

Laidlaw: There’s a Johnny Cash–encounter poem in Peace, and I wondered if it was a little autobiographical . . . what a wild time and place to have been running a radio station. I also love that you describe the pre-poem page as a canvas or field. It makes me think of Annie Dillard’s passages in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that describe how cataract patients, immediately after sight-restoring surgeries, first see the world as a patchwork of undifferentiated colors and shapes. Poems – particularly ones that treat the whole page as a visual field – have the capacity to depict the world in the same, frighteningly fresh, almost newborn way. It’s also in the presence of that fresh/frightening imagery that the most fresh/frightening insights happen; both as a writer and as a reader, those are the moments I live for.

When I’m writing, I’ve learned to dwell in a somewhat trance-like state where lines spontaneously form in my mind’s ear (it’s entirely aural, like your friend – not visual at all for me.) The process allows me to be surprised, even shocked, by the lines I’m writing.

I wanted to ask you one last question, to wrap things up: When audiences (students in particular) encounter unfamiliar music or visual art, they often seem comfortable letting the pieces wash over them, simply enjoying the new aesthetic experience, but when they’re encountering unfamiliar poetry, they seem likelier to resort to an “I don’t get it.” In your own work, how much do you worry about the reader “getting it”? Is there a specific “it” to get?

Conoley: The Johnny Cash encounter is autobiographical! When I was in my twenties I worked as a journalist both at Dallas Morning News and freelance and went on a B-movie film set where Cash was acting—really bad movie, I don’t even know if it ended up getting released. I didn’t, after all, write an article, so that part’s true, too.

The “I don’t get it,” the “it” there is to get: I think that has to do with a kind of default mode humans can go to when it comes to language. We have expectations of language that we don’t necessarily have when it comes to paint or sounds in music. Language, when we encounter it, we often think it is going to tell us something or give us information.  So the first step in reading poetry is to let go of that expectation, and to welcome in the other aspects of language: the sonic, the aural, its ability to trigger the visual in the mind.

This takes us back to the ineffable, where we began our conversation. Sometimes poetry is taught early on, say in elementary school, as though it is symbolic and there are symbols one must figure out: that’s the “get it” part. When really, if there is a symbol in a poem — and so many poems don’t even contain one — if there is a symbol, if the symbol is truly acting in its full-force, it is huge and associative and reaches us at an almost subliminal, subconscious level that one couldn’t even begin to paraphrase.

Having said that, though, it doesn’t mean that poetry is just this open art that is whatever the reader wishes to make of it. Of course there is intent, but what’s key for readers first coming to poetry is to open themselves up to what language can do when it isn’t busy just giving information. It’s a song, it’s talismanic; it reaches the intellect, the heart, and the body.

How Do You See the World?



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

Nearly 75 years ago, the Walker Art Center became a public art center. The Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections exhibition is part of the looking back through the years. If you visit the Walker you can also pick up a Walker Sketchbook. The sketchbook is built upon questions while also creating space for drawing, writing, and general on the page creativity.

I have an 8 year old daughter named Irene. She’s amazing and she’s the reason I went from writing and performing adult theater and comedy to making all-ages live theater and creating projects that connect with young people and families. Children have countless measurable and immeasurable impacts on the lives of their parents. I’m sure there are things in my life now that I’m not even aware are the result of my having and raising a child. So, it’s really exiting for me that so much of my creative work has been directly influenced by my parenthood.

I love questions. For me, questions are the best way to learn about other people and about ourselves. The Walker is a place built upon questions and, as the common wisdom goes, all good art raises more questions than it answers. So I was quite happy to my daughter light up when given a Walker Sketchbook last time she joined me at the Center. One of my favorite things about young people, although it can also be horribly frustrating, is their ability to think in wildly unpredictable ways. This week my daughter presented me with her completed Sketchbook. So I thought I would share some of the results here.

Q: What makes you Curious?

Worms? [coupled with a pencil drawing of a worm]

Q: What is a Dream?

A Sleeping imagination.

Q: Where does art take you?

It takes me to a whole nother world.

Q: How do we make art together?


Q: What is the story (of art)?


Q: What if there was no art?

My brain will melt.


I love these answers and can’t imagine I could give better answers. But I encourage you to get your own Walker Sketchbook and see where it takes you.


Fame Adjacent



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

As I was wandering through the Walker library this week, pretending I knew anything about most of the artists written about in the numerous shelves full of books, I started thinking about how important “fame” is to our understanding of art.

While it makes me feel a bit like a cliche, I’ll admit this thought hit me when I noticed that Andy Warhol had hundreds of books on him and his work. One of the first things a young person learns when exploring modern art is that Warhol said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

What struck me, though, was that there were so many more books on Warhol than all the other artists covered on the Walker shelves. Warhol’s work was and continues to be important and influential to art, artists, and popular culture. But, I think he has so many more books because he’s an art celebrity who transcended the art world and became and pop culture celebrity.

Much like how the people who win the wars are the ones who get to tell the stories of those wars, the people who become celebrities in their fields are ultimately the ones who make up the stories of those fields.  With the ease of finding a voice provided by online tools, there seems to be an increase in people seeking celebrity for celebrity sake without any real concern about making something worthwhile or being know for a skill or ability. This is troubling but perhaps inevitable as the people we hold up as important, even if they’re viewed as important because of what they accomplished, are celebrated as people. We almost always put the people first and then get into the actual accomplishments.

I don’t know that I have any conclusion for this post but I do have a question. Are you able to think about the art that you find compelling or that moves you without it impacting how you think about the artist who made that work? Should you be able to?

Strong, but not too strong, opening.


Untitled (Andromeda) spin-painting. Alfons Schilling.

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

The Walker Art Center was built on an ancient burial ground. Alright, as far as I know, that’s not true. But I bet that opening sentence would make you want to keep reading that story.

First sentences to stories can be perilous. Whether it’s meant to be read or being written for a live performance, the first sentence has the job of being interesting enough to pull the audience in but not so exciting as to over-promise or set-up the rest of the story for disappointment. As a writer and performer of comedy I know that if the first thing I say on stage is the funniest thing said in the entire performance the audience will walk away disappointed or at the very least underwhelmed by the overall experience. And if you see a popular band you’ll notice they will never play their biggest hit to open the show.

The same challenge exists for curators when staging a museum exhibition.

On October 16th, the Walker’s new “Art at the Center: 75 Years of Walker Collections” opened. In celebration of the Walker’s 75 years of public institution-hood, the new exhibit covers the past 75 years of acquisitions and exhibitions. This exhibition is laid out over three galleries with multiple entry points. There’s very little control over where a visitor first engages with the exhibition or how they consume the work.

At one of the entry points to “Art at the Center,” visitors are confronted by Alfons Schilling’s Untitled (Andromeda) spin-painting. Schilling’s piece spins at a rate of 3 revolutions per second which not only impacts how a visitor connects with the work but also sets a tone for experiencing the exhibit overall. The work actually moves, which immediately disrupts expectations of art hanging on a wall in a gallery. But it’s neutral in black and white colors and it manages to be fairly non-aggressive for a large spinning piece of art. The piece works to pull a visitor into the exhibition without being so overwhelming or even so compelling as to as stop visitors from wanting to move on or draining their energy.

It’s fun to think of how curators pace out an exhibition the same way I would think about putting together a comedy show or how a choreographer would put together a dance. You have to consider how the audience will feel from moment to moment and how each of the various parts can impact one another. And when a curator gets it right, just like in comedy, no one really notices the intentionality behind the staging.

Joke Telling and Fill In The Blanks

Walker fill in the blanks

Walker fill in the blanks

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

For the October First Free Saturday we put together a fun Fill-in-the-Blanks activity that lets folks create their own unique description of Art Expanded, 1958-1978. You can print your own Fill-in-the-Blank with this pdfWalker Fill In The Blanks – Art Expanded exhibition edition

Here’s how 8 year old Benjamin put together his description of the exhibit.

Walker fill in Benjamin

We also helped visitors write jokes and invited them to share some of their favorite jokes with us. Below is a video compiling some of those awesome jokes.

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