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Lost in the Stacks

There are currently 24 books sitting atop my bedside table. One on baseball, a chronicle of a Great Lakes storm in 1913, short story collections I’ve been told I must read (Phil Klay’s Redeployment and The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol), a meditation on the color blue. There’s a mess of novels in various states of progress–or […]

Thomas Allen, Teeter, 2004. Courtesy of the artist and Foley Gallery.

Thomas Allen, Teeter, 2004. Courtesy of the artist and Foley Gallery.

There are currently 24 books sitting atop my bedside table. One on baseball, a chronicle of a Great Lakes storm in 1913, short story collections I’ve been told I must read (Phil Klay’s Redeployment and The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol), a meditation on the color blue. There’s a mess of novels in various states of progress–or stagnation. The Field Guide to Fields from National Geographic is on the stack, too, and oddly thrilling in its very straightforward explanations of bramble and sugarcane coupled with bright, inviting art. I give this number not as a bookish type of braggadocio, but by way of offering some concrete example of a reading life that has overcome its presumed owner. The animals have, quite obviously, taken over this zoo.

Let me take a step back. Until somewhat recently I was a professional reader. Or, at least, I was a bookseller, and part of that duty included giving suggestions to lots of kinds of readers. In any given hour, I might have dealt with a woman buying a present for her thirteen-year-old niece she calls “smart, like, very bright. But her parents are pretty conservative, so let’s stay away from  the vampires and any bad language.” Next through the door, I’d get a regular whose taste in reading material has no discernible pattern – something that makes helping him both difficult and pleasurable in equal measure. He’s the sort who shoots down eight or nine possibilities before we find the exact right book. (By “we” I mean that he found it. That’s perfectly fine.)  Finally, I’d have a book club come in, looking for suggestions for the upcoming year. It’s important to come up with a mix of things, titles they’ve likely heard about as well as things they’d not otherwise run across. And again, our success rate with those suggestions will be pretty low. That is almost always the case.

So, given all that, for the past 15 years I’ve needed at my professional disposal an at least competent understanding of: picture books, YA/teen lit, obscure translations, the latest shocking memoir on the New York Times’ list and enough other of-the-moment bookish trivia to come up with a fair response to anything else that a customer might hit me up about. Or, you know, they might ask me for “that book with the orange cover that was sitting right here two weeks ago.”

At the end of January I decided I was done with bookselling for now. Once a civilian reader again, I very quickly realized that in the past few years I had become a grazer of books, reading mostly in snippets and bits. I read lots of reviews, both in print and online. I started (and stopped) a lot of books. I was always armed with a long list of “Things I Should Definitely Read Next” filled with suggestions from both customers and publishers’ sales representatives. I don’t mean to overstate the job-related stress — no one’s long-term health or wellness is on the line in bookselling — but still. The gig comes with some pressure.

I’d developed this coping strategy over the last few years, where I attempted to read from three different categories at one time: I would pick up an ‘older’ book (generally fiction, in the neighborhood of the 1920s to1950s), at the same time that I was reading from one newish title (current frontlist to three years back) and one advance reading copy of some forthcoming book. The third type, especially, was an ever-shifting category, heavily influenced by sheer caprice (and pleas from a favorite sales rep to finish something and get back to them with a response). I also joined a book-club a couple years ago, a very cool group of men whose tastes diverge from mine in ways that are challenging and exciting. But I have to admit, in the context of everything else, even that modest reading commitment represented a loss of personal choice that I mildly resented.

Now, here I am, three months removed from all that. The newfound liberation of my reading life has now come to resemble the kind of unstructured anarchy any reasonable government (or parent) fears. It turns out, being able to choose whatever I want, whenever I want, from the vast world of literature is as paralyzing as it is freeing. There is something to be said for a restaurant with a very short menu. I know well from experience that I can only really handle three or four books at once — beyond that, characters and plot start to jumble in my mind; I lose track of dates and narrative sequence, not to mention names. While I admire a certain aesthetic that involves books on furniture or even becoming furniture I also recognize this: two ragged piles of 24 books on a nightstand isn’t conducive to good reading. Trying to do so much at once is a fine way to get nothing done.

I know that sounds like a bad proverb or something out of fortune cookie, but it’s nonetheless true of my reading life.

Thomas Allen, Topple, 2005. Courtesy of the artist.

Thomas Allen, Topple, 2005. Courtesy of the artist.

So. With all those piles, am I actually reading anything? Somewhat recently I finished John McPhee’s The Survival of the Bark Canoe, which seems like it should be an elegy, but it’s not. I crashed through Walter Kirn’s latest book, about his bizarre relationship with a German national who claimed to be a Rockefeller. Blood Will Out is not the second coming of In Cold Blood, but it is a revealing glimpse into the sort of world a person can create when they act with certainty and a willingness to prey on the good faith of other people. Also read recently: Celeste Ng and Scott Cheshire both have debut novels out, and both escape the first-book trap of throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix, so that they satisfy on nearly all levels.

Mostly, though, I’ve savored the time lately spent with Pinckney Benedict’s dogs of god. Published in 1995, I have no idea where I bought this book. (Magers and Quinn? Sixth Chamber? Powell’s? Maybe a yard sale? All fair guesses.) And how had I even heard of this title? I doubt it was the cover that convinced me to pick it up. It certainly wasn’t the Joyce Carol Oates blurb calling Benedict “…one of the most distinctive voices of his generation.” Actually, this is a book that would fit nicely with a lot of the rough and tumble stuff being published to much praise right now. Think George Singleton, Frank Bill and Donald Ray Pollock. Or, if those names are a bit obscure you could look to most anything hailing from the Ozarks or Appalachia or West Virginia: authors like Chris Offutt and Daniel Woodrell. It seems inevitable to compare such a novel as Benedict’s with those of the high priest of all things dark, menacing, gothic or in any fashion ‘manly’ – Mr. Cormac McCarthy.

I’m about 50 pages from finishing Benedict’s book as I write this, and in most ways it doesn’t much matter to me how it ends. I’ve enjoyed the time spent in its pages plenty already. But more than that, you have to admire a book sufficiently compelling to push past all the flotsam to get even a scattershot reader like me to pay attention.

Hans Weyandt has worked at four independent bookstores In St. Paul/Minneapolis over the past 15 years. He is the former co-owner of Micawber’s Books and the editor of Read This! published by Coffee House Press. He currently works at Sea Salt Eatery, Moon Palace Books and Big Bell Ice Cream. 

Road Songs: New Orleans

I am told that joggers in New Orleans often choose to run in the ruts of the streetcars, in between the tracks. The slow streetcars are avoidable, whereas the rolling cracks of the sidewalks are inevitable ankle-twisters. And it is not just the cracks that are distracting; the shotgun houses, with floor-to-ceiling shutters, are intricate […]

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I am told that joggers in New Orleans often choose to run in the ruts of the streetcars, in between the tracks. The slow streetcars are avoidable, whereas the rolling cracks of the sidewalks are inevitable ankle-twisters. And it is not just the cracks that are distracting; the shotgun houses, with floor-to-ceiling shutters, are intricate like Polly Pockets. It is hard to watch one’s feet when the environs are so very eye-catching. The buildings reminded me of the Painted Ladies in San Francisco, but more French – Painted Mademoiselles, maybe. One storefront was dripping with gauzy, gaudy ribbon wrapped around its columns.

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I feel the need to saunter in New Orleans, to say hello to passersby; the porches, perfect for lazing about, beckon you to come sit a while. New Orleans has so many of genteel outdoor spaces—with ceiling fans, sloping floorboards, verdant topiaries; like the homes, they are painted colorfully and well-manicured. Cats slink from these porches, sparing a little sideways look in your direction as you pass.

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In one small store, I found several copies of the artful nudie mag, Momma Tried (a clever nod to Merle Haggard). The print magazine is playful eye candy. One review calls the magazine “non-heteronormative,” and the fanciful spreads indeed embrace all sorts of folks and all sorts of delights. I get the impression that New Orleans embraces the Mardi Gras-fueled aesthetic of drag, comfortable near-nudity and self-display in many contexts and times of the year. It is as if one could step out of Jem and the Holograms or some Victorian bodice-ripper, and saunter along with the rest of the city with ease.

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Momma Tried, Issue 1. From the website.

Photographer Erik Bookhardt’s Geopsychic Wonders (1979) famously captures and pulls together imagery of New Orleans’ mystique. Writing about the phenomenon of Mardi Gras as both a political and cultural event, curator Claire Tancons shares this Bookhardt quote: “Carnival almost always is an innately anarchic and psychodramatic event … that enables everyone to visualize how things can be different and make them different, at least for a day, and that in itself is an inherently valuable, liberating, and potentially revolutionary practice.”

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Big Freedia (a.k.a. Freddie Ross) is beloved in New Orleans, a hip hop artist famous for ordering people to dance, shake and bounce. To many, Big Freedia is a needed ambassador for self-expression in a town that clings to the relatively-traditional French and jazz roots that still soak the French Quarter.  (His new album is aptly called Just Be Free.)

We happened upon an open mic in which we previewed Cirque du Gras, a humorous and heavily-tattooed New Orleans circus troupe styled somewhere between street performance, Vaudeville and burlesque. They described themselves as “apocalyptic,” and sang hedonistic songs about seizing the day and searching for love. We rounded out our evening with Walter Craft, a folk-singer-activist who came to New Orleans in the sixties to pursue a troubadour lifestyle.

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I ate crawfish for the first time at an all-you-can-eat boil, grateful for for the vegetable sides (garlic, onion, celery). The thought of eating crawfish without such accompaniments was just too graphic. By the end, piles of crawfish were strewn everywhere on the lawn where we’d all gathered. It looked like a tiny army had rolled through, leaving piles of red body parts heaped up willy-nilly. It was a gory spectacle, but the mud bugs were delicious, nonetheless – spicy, peppery and soft.

In the dark of the evening, the air felt damp. A freshly-cut tree stump crawled with cockroaches and slugs, and the waxy-leafed tropical plants drooped over fence posts. The air seemed to buzz a little bit, hinting of full summer just around the corner.

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We headed North from New Orleans in the evening. It felt like we were leaving some Venice of the bayou – the trees next to the highway were immersed in water, as if wading in a strange, submerged landscape. I noticed an enormous form on the side of the highway, light in color and long. As we drove past, the indistinct figure resolved into view: an overturned, dead alligator, and a big one at that. I had never before seen an alligator besides Claude, the albino gator at the California Academy of Sciences.

We had to keep driving.

California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson. All photos taken by the author.

Cheatsheet to Northrop’s “Solid but Safe” 2014-2015 Season

Now that Northrop is ensconced in its shiny new home and is no longer just a dance series and house-for-hire (the jazz season is no more and the newly renovated building is also home to several university programs as a center for interdisciplinary study and collaboration), they recently announced the next performance season. Since joining […]

Martha Graham Dance Company, Errand Into the Maze. Photo: John Deane

Martha Graham Dance Company, Errand Into the Maze. Photo: John Deane

Now that Northrop is ensconced in its shiny new home and is no longer just a dance series and house-for-hire (the jazz season is no more and the newly renovated building is also home to several university programs as a center for interdisciplinary study and collaboration), they recently announced the next performance season. Since joining Northrop in August 2012, Christine Tschida, Northrop’s director, has been working in part with selections confirmed by her predecessor, Ben Johnson. He always scheduled at least one or two internationally renowned dance companies with highly intellectual content, innovative choreography and flawless presentation that, whether you’d seen them before or not, were palpably anticipated by audiences.

The 2014/15 season, “curated by Northrop Presents” as the website states, has a strong international lineup, some with marked cross-cultural influences. There’s a lot of ballet—to appeal to the core subscriber audience—a Canadian jazz-fusion company, and two heritage American modern dance companies. The verdict? Solid and safe.

Photo: Michel Cavalca

Centre Chorégraphique National de Créteil et du Val-de-Marne/Compagnie Käfig. Photo: Michel Cavalca

The international companies include Centre Chorégraphique National de Créteil et du Val-de-Marne/Compagnie Käfig. Created by Mourad Merzouki in 1996 in Créteil, France, the troupe is trained in a choreographic style that blends Merzouki’s training in circus skills, martial arts and hip hop (which is huge in France) with such street dance forms as capoeira. The all-male company, which includes Brazilian dancers with roots in the favelas, also looks to incorporate a strong visual element. The works on the program are Correria, Portuguese for “running,” and Agwa (“water”). Expect high-intensity physicality.

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker/Rosas. Photo: Herman Sorgeloos

Also crossing the seas from Brussels, for a program co-presented by the Walker Art Center, is the dance-theater company Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker/Rosas presenting the work that made De Keersmaeker infamous 30 years ago, Rosas Danst Rosas. The piece, with its much-imitated minimalist choreography, has become so much a part of popular culture even Beyonce was inspired by its costumes, set and movement; you can see the influence in her video for “Countdown.” Submit your own version here.

Eifman Ballet, Rodin. Photo: Nikolay Krusser

Eifman Ballet, Rodin. Photo: Nikolay Krusser

The highly theatrical Eifman Ballet, based in St. Petersburg, is known for its dramatic storytelling and has performed Red Giselle, Russian Hamlet, Anna Karenina and Eugene Onegin on Northrop seasons previously. More recently choreographer and artist director Boris Eifman has gotten his head out of the books and looked toward art for inspiration. The Guardian called his new work, Rodin, inspired by the life of the French sculptor, “visceral and extreme” for movement that tends to “bend and contort [the] dancers like choreographic Plasticine.” Rodin’s love affair with Camille Claudel is at the center of the ballet; so is his work as the piece includes Rodin in his studio “wrenching and pummelling a heap of nearly naked dancers into sculptural forms.” That’ll be something to see.

Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal. Photo: Gregory Batardon

Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal. Photo: Gregory Batardon

Hong Kong Ballet, on its first visit here, performs a Turandot by Australian choreographer Natalie Weir. Perhaps better known as an opera, this ballet version is indeed accompanied by Puccini’s original music. Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, often referred to as the “feel-good company,” makes its Minneapolis debut with three works that showcase the troupe’s fusion of dance styles and choreographic variety, including the duet Closer by Benjamin Millepied. The classicism continues with Suzanne Farrell Ballet, which showcases Balanchine repertoire. Dance Theatre of Harlem also returns with a ballet program. And then there’s the return of two modern-dance warhorses.

Paul Taylor Dance Company. Photo: Paul B. Goode

Paul Taylor Dance Company. Photo: Paul B. Goode

Paul Taylor Dance Company “sings the body electric” with Beloved Renegade, inspired by the life of Walt Whitman and set against Francis Poulenc’s “Gloria.” The New York Times called the work “one of the great achievements of Mr. Taylor’s long career and one of the most eloquently textured feats of his singular imagination.” That’s saying something, considering the other work on the program, Piazzola Caldera (which will include live music) is also considered a classic Taylor work for exploring the public and private domains (see Taylor’s autobiography) of the tango with “sensual, electric couplings.” A must-see.

In his early days as a dancer, Taylor was part of the Martha Graham Dance Company, making the two companies’ presence in the season an intriguing coupling. Northrop has scheduled two evenings of Graham’s works, which may sound like a dance-history lesson in the works. But viewing Graham is never old hat: Her work continues to be shocking, awe-inspiring and revealing as it was when first performed. Her 1935 social-protest work Panorama will include 24 University of Minnesota dance students. Classics works of mythological intensity, including Lamentation Variations, Maple Leaf Rag and Errand into the Maze will also be performed.

McKnight Dance Fellows. Photo: Tim Rummelhoff

McKnight Dance Fellows. Photo: Tim Rummelhoff

The season also goes local with an evening of six world-premieres by the winners of 2012 and 2013 McKnight Dancer Fellowships, performing works made for them by a choreographer of their choice:  Taryn Griggs, Stephen Schroeder, Ashwini Ramaswamy, Kari Mosel, Tamara Ober and Greg Waletski.

The Walker Art Center’s lineup for the 2014-2015 season is more super-charged and risky, especially with the return of Faustin Linyekula, Ralph Lemon, Tere O’Connor, and a Steve Paxton fest. Relative to that, Northrop has put together a conservative lineup befitting its new home, but it’s a season with plenty of opportunities for interdisciplinary interaction.

Camille LeFevre is a long-time dance writer in the Twin Cities and the editor of The Line, an online publication about the creative economy of the Twin Cities..

There Is No Required Reading

I’m not interested in writing reviews of books, not in the usual sense, at least. I’ll be writing about reading here, but I won’t spend much time telling you what to read or what not to read. My reading life is messy, as haphazard as anyone else’s. There is no a-then-b-and-c to my choice of […]

Hans Weyandt. Photo: Ben Weaver

Hans Weyandt. Photo: Ben Weaver

I’m not interested in writing reviews of books, not in the usual sense, at least. I’ll be writing about reading here, but I won’t spend much time telling you what to read or what not to read. My reading life is messy, as haphazard as anyone else’s. There is no a-then-b-and-c to my choice of books. (If there’s any sense to it at all – and sometimes, there isn’t – the logic looks a lot more like a-q-d-b-y-c.)

I read for armchair traveling; I love travel guides, atlases and maps. Books have taken me to Poland, World War II-era France, Japan, Mississippi, Canada, Vietnam, Boston, Dublin and small towns in states, counties, provinces and countries all over the world. I like cookbooks, too. I dip into genres like mystery and true-crime. I read to make sense of things and to get totally lost. I read because it makes sense and because it, frequently, does not. I’m an ecumenical reader – I read magazines and newspapers and books in all of their ever-changing forms.

It was not always this way. My gateway to words didn’t come in a classroom. I did not hide in my bed at night to finish just one more chapter. My mother, with a decent amount of shame, once admitted that I really learned to read from the backs of baseball cards. When I was a kid, I did not love books and I did not love reading. (That’s not quite true: I loved Sports Illustrated.) But I was surrounded by the written word. Both of my parents are avid readers and their house, then and now, is filled with books. Reluctant reader or not, I had no choice, really. Their appreciation inevitably seeped into me.

In the past year, I have read more books than most of you. That’s just a guess and not a challenge – I was a bookseller until recently, and reading a lot is just an occupational fact. I’ve read travel writing and Midwestern family histories, war reportage and poems. I’ve read about football and poker and Hurricane Katrina. I’ve read about suicide and mythology and Houdini. So far, I’ve gotten through about two-thirds of E.B. White’s Stuart Little with my sons, six and four-years-old. White is a tonic for the soul — his language is precise and basic and, on page after page, charmingly old-fashioned.

There’s usually no particular rhyme or reason to the sequence of things I pick up. I just read because I do. You can find plenty of help, lots of recommendations, but we all must find our own way in the world of books. In this space, you won’t hear me saying anything like: “I hope for this to be a dialogue between myself and the reader(s).” And yet, I very much do want to hear from you about what you are reading, and also what you think I should read. If nothing else, my wish for this as-yet-undetermined bookish thing is that it not just be a place where I blather into the electronic black hole.

So, what are you reading?

Hans Weyandt has worked at four independent bookstores In St. Paul/Minneapolis over the past 15 years. He is the former co-owner of Micawber’s Books and the editor of Read This! published by Coffee House Press. He currently works at Sea Salt Eatery, Moon Palace Books and Big Bell Ice Cream. 

TU at 10

Wow: All this for a local dance company. As we gazed, wide-eyed and stunned, at the nearly full house for TU Dance’s 10th anniversary concert in the Ordway Center last Saturday night, I asked my companions: Why, really, do you think TU Dance is so popular? Accessibility, openness, technique, humanity, authenticity were among the reasons. […]

Alanna Morris-Van Tassel in Hikari. Photo: Brandon Stengel

Alanna Morris-Van Tassel in Hikari. Photo: Brandon Stengel

Wow: All this for a local dance company. As we gazed, wide-eyed and stunned, at the nearly full house for TU Dance’s 10th anniversary concert in the Ordway Center last Saturday night, I asked my companions: Why, really, do you think TU Dance is so popular?

Accessibility, openness, technique, humanity, authenticity were among the reasons. The Knight Foundation has noticed, to the tune of $500,000, “to support the diversification of the dance community in St. Paul by expanding TU Dance’s capacity to cultivate donors and increase programming.”

We also agreed: It really does start at the top. Co-founders and co-artistic directors Toni Pierce-Sands and Uri Sands are beloved for legitimate reasons, among them the above-mentioned list of descriptors. After this weekend’s anniversary concert, a performance unlike any the company has previously put forth (and that alone says a lot of this tremendously accomplished group), let’s add one more. TU Dance is also aspirational, a rare quality; what’s more, the company is realizing its aspirations.

Meaning: the summer dance project Sands and Pierce-Sands started in 2003-2004 at the University of Minnesota—Space-TU-Embrace—has in one fast-paced decade grown to include a thriving dance school in St. Paul next to the Central Corridor’s soon-to-open Green Line light rail, in addition to a company that can fill nearly 1,900 seats with appreciative fans of smart, approachable dance. Simply put, those accomplishments are thrilling.

In a nod to their origin story, Pierce-Sands and Sands (former dancers with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater) opened the 10th anniversary show with the balletic “Twin Cities” duet from Alvin Ailey’s 1970 work The River. Performed by Sands and guest artist Laurel Keen, the piece overflowed with grace and was greeted, at its conclusion, with a roar from the audience.

The program also included the ever-popular Lady. Choreographed by Sands, the work was performed with impeccable technique and narrative nuance. With its delightful storytelling, rich depths of rhythm, (once again) tremendous sense of authenticity, and a Toni-Uri duet that plumbed the nuances of a relationship with real feeling, the work felt as fresh and relevant as it did during its 2003 debut.

One, which Sands originally created for Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company in honor of Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa cell, was a tantalizing mystery. (Lacks was an African-American tobacco farmer whose cancerous cells were taken without her permission in 1951 and used for such groundbreaking medical advancements as the polio vaccine and in-vitro fertilization.) Wearing gray dresses reminiscent of Martha Graham’s shrouds, the eight women dancers pulsated with robotic movements, opened their hips against the floor in Graham-like poses and, while painfully stooped over, extended quaking arms and tremulous hands. They could have been clones, or hard-working cells clustering and separating, or supplicants gesturing and genuflecting to the powers that be, until basking in a shower of silver confetti.

With the world premiere of Sands’ new work, Hikari, the company and its choreographer entered new artistic territory. Commissioned by the Ordway, the bold, breathtaking work was inspired by Hawaiian wood-block artist Hiroki Morinoue, whom Sands visited as he was creating the choreography.

The set consists of 14 of Morinoue’s gorgeous, floor-to-flyspace, semi-sheer, black-and-white fabric panels. Together, they establish an environment of biomorphic forms, grids and patterns that could be a forest, a solar system, or a painter’s canvas on which the company plays out the choreography’s abstract narrative. Wearing snappy white jackets and pants, and black socks, the dancers careen about the stage as if insects, or dabs and slashes of paint, or regiments of corporate drones. Alanna Morris-Van Tassel is the most fantastical of these creatures, writhing and beckoning from behind the scrims. At times, the dancers shed their jackets, now clad in crop tops or t-shirts that free their torsos and limbs. Enacting an embedded drama only they’re privy to and fascinating to observe, the performers of TU Dance animate Sands’ vision in a work that would be at home on any major stage in the world. Hikari catapults the choreographer and the company into a brave new world of dance and art making at once aspirational and achieved.

Camille LeFevre is a dance critic, arts journalist, and the editor of The Line, an online publication about the creative economy of the Twin Cities. 

The Value of Unrealized Projects

On June 26, five artists will take the stage in the Walker Art Center Cinema to give short pitches for projects they hope will become a reality. The event, called Pitch Night, is a collaboration between Walker,mnartists.org, and ArtPrize, a huge annual exhibition and competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan that awards artists $560,000 in prizes […]

Preparatory drawing for Temporary's Pursuit of Permanence, Alexander Hanson and Daniel Feinberg

Preparatory drawing for Temporary’s Pursuit of Permanence, Alexander Hanson and Daniel Feinberg

On June 26, five artists will take the stage in the Walker Art Center Cinema to give short pitches for projects they hope will become a reality. The event, called Pitch Night, is a collaboration between Walker,mnartists.org, and ArtPrize, a huge annual exhibition and competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan that awards artists $560,000 in prizes each fall. ArtPrize is open to any artist in the world, and each year more than 1500 installations occupy some 160 locations all over downtown. (Take note: applications to present your idea on Pitch Night-Minneapolis are due May 19.)

Pitch Night is a unique program within ArtPrize designed to give artists from outside Michigan extra funding for ambitious projects. For the second year, five Minnesota-based artists will give short pitches, in public, for the work they want to do — five slides and five minutes each before a live audience and a panel of five judges, about what they’d like to install on a prominent pedestrian bridge in the center of ArtPrize. After the artists’ elevator speeches, audience members and judges may then ask questions about their proposals, quizzing them on particulars both practical and conceptual. Then, after a short deliberation period, the judges will announce the winner of this year’s $5,000 grant. Last year’s Minneapolis Pitch NIght winners, Alexander Hanson and Daniel Feinberg, went on to be nominated for one of the juried awards during ArtPrize.

The obvious purpose of Pitch Night is to provide an artist with a grant of additional funds that will enable them to create and install work on a scale that might not otherwise be feasible. Equally important, though, are the four artists who don’t get a grant. Inviting artists to submit proposals, reviewing them and making notifications of grant awards via private communications (which ArtPrize also does!) is considerably easier and cheaper than staging an event like Pitch Night. So why do it?

We want to challenge artists to make their ideas public, even if those ideas aren’t fully ready for production. The act of forming an idea for a work into a concise presentation is itself valuable, both for the artist and the audience. For the artist, by way of its public articulation, their vision for a work takes a crucial step toward realization, one that’s free of the burdens of fabrication. For the audience, the artists’ pitches function as a show-and-tell showcase of creative ambition, a chance to see artists’ practices up close and to critically consider artwork in a developmental stage.

Installation view of last year's Pitch Night-winning project, which also earned a spot on the ArtPrize shortlist in the category "Use of Urban Space"

Installation view of last year’s Pitch Night-winning project, which also earned a spot on the ArtPrize shortlist in the category “Use of Urban Space”

Creative iteration is hugely valuable to artists, but it’s not always easy to achieve. Smaller, less expensive, less time-intensive work can be produced, exhibited, and critiqued via a pretty short feedback loop. This isn’t usually the case with large public projects. Conception of a project is typically followed by months (if not years) of planning, fabrication, and installation before any kind of public engagement and critical response can happen. A pitch presentation, like a drawing, is not the same as experiencing a fully realized work, but it’s still an important opportunity for display and critique.

When a work is intended to be developed for a public space, why not invite public participation early on, in the more formative stages? Articulating a vision for artwork publicly is something that should happen far more often than occasions for presenting a finished work.

Related event information:

Artists interested in throwing their hat in the ring at this year’s Pitch Night, take note: applications are due by May 19. The event itself, Pitch Night, is free and open to the public. It will happen Thursday, June 26 at 7 pm in the Walker Art Center Cinema. Find out more about the ArtPrize exhibition/competition on the website: http://www.artprize.org/

Kevin Buist has exhibited artwork in solo and group exhibitions in New York City and Grand Rapids, and has been featured in numerous print and online publications including the Art:21 blog, where he was a blogger-in-residence, as well as Solace Magazine, Art Hack, and SpoutBlog. At ArtPrize, Buist oversees exhibitions and cultural programming, and he also directs the ArtPrize juried awards, including selection of jurors. He programs a world-class speaker series that coincides with the event, that has included lively and provocative lectures by John Waters, Jerry Saltz, and Theaster Gates, among others.

The Columnest: Like is More Than a Feeling

What I’ve noticed lately: New leaves unfold on the edge of vision, palely green, barely attached to their branches, clouds of color floating in the woods. Then redbud burns through, its magenta flowers clustered close to the trunks. Then the greens grow brighter, more attached. My students fall back on “I feel like” to suture […]

Source: weheartit.com and the-black-pandaa

Source: weheartit.com and the-black-pandaa

What I’ve noticed lately:

  • New leaves unfold on the edge of vision, palely green, barely attached to their branches, clouds of color floating in the woods. Then redbud burns through, its magenta flowers clustered close to the trunks. Then the greens grow brighter, more attached.
  • My students fall back on “I feel like” to suture their thoughts together: “I feel like Le Guin is saying. . .” Unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t ban the word I outright, so I’m left trying to explain what’s wrong with this phrase. Is it the grammatical error of like? That is, our state of mind is not metaphorically similar to one in which Le Guin would mean whatever she means, our bodily or emotional condition—our feelings—do not suggest her meaning; we are not like an old man with a trick knee who can truly say he “feels like rain coming on.” Thus, we don’t feel like Le Guin means that we must move beyond our current ideas of happiness, we feel that Le Guin etc. But that’s hard to explain, a grammatical haze I don’t need; it reminds me of the despair I felt when one student asked me, “But why isn’t happy a verb?”

I’m not the only one to zero in on “I feel like.” In this Jezebel column, Katie J. M. Baker investigates the phrase’s rising use, especially among young women. She concludes that although it may suggest cringe-worthy weakness, it’s useful and respectful; her commenters trace it to therapy and office-speak, noting that “I feel like” is conflict-proof. Yes, and that’s exactly what bothers me: how “I feel like” replaces what could be an argument with a mere feeling. I may not “feel like” Peter Singer repeats himself, but if my students do, I can hardly say they’re wrong, because these are their feelings. And as for this phrase’s claim to superior respectfulness, we misunderstand the nature and purpose of argument if we think that a wash of interchangeable and equally valid “feelings” is preferable.

Maybe I should tell my students this. Feelings are not what we’re after; we want ideas backed up with evidence, we want proof. Or perhaps I should say that “I feel like” is clutter. Simply proceed with “Le Guin means. . .” Or perhaps this is a weak use of I. Your name is at the top of the page, I tell them; everyone knows this is what you think.

Any and all of these would be correct and appropriate answers for my college English students. But so far I haven’t addressed the matter at all, other than to highlight the offending words; I think—I feel like—there might be something more to it.

Travis Donovan, Illuminationem. Monofilament, light, motors, wood. 2010. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Travis Donovan, Illuminationem. Monofilament, light, motors, wood. 2010. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Recently, I sat on a bench in an art gallery (CAM Raleigh) in a dark and almost-vacant installation, waiting for art. Three spills of monofilament hung from the ceiling and pooled a little on the floor; dimly illuminated, they looked like ghost trees or the plaits of ancient giantesses. I had the sense the spills were moving, or perhaps changing color ever so slightly, from one pixie dust shade to another; I thought I could hear a faint whirr, like a moth’s wings by my ear. But when I tried to zero in on one change, kinetic, chromatic, or aural, it vanished—nothing but a wish or my pulse.

Later, I found out that the artwork—Illuminationem by Travis Donovan—is meant to gently wind and unwind to the rhythms of the sun, the moon, and the tides. When it works, it’s meditative, meditative and magic, as its three spinning strands fall into or out of sync, lag behind or race ahead. When I saw it, though, its finicky engines were on the fritz: thus that faint purr, fade, shift.

The other day I heard a professional say I feel like—a man being interviewed on NPR. He’d studied the number of deaths along a certain road leading into a remote American military base, and when the NPR host asked him what he was saying, whether the number meant something, instead of pulling out a statistical correlation—“the accident rate here is 5% higher than what we would expect for a similar group of people on a similar road” or something like that—he began, “I feel like. . .” and went on to give his feeling that something was wrong.

Now, when he said “I feel like,” you might think my hackles rose, but it wasn’t that; instead, my hair stood on end. It was as if the feeling was more important than the data could be—or as if what he was studying had turned out to be somehow occult, invisible to the usual points of proof.

What if cause and effect might sometimes come into being at the same time? What if, listening closely, you might hear the rustling of atoms split off by the forces of the future? Magical thinking. This morning I ran across this, in Lyn Hejinian’s The Cold of Poetry:

It is not the unknown but the imminence of the known that is mysterious, poetic, producing a state of heightened syntax.

And I noticed how the green I wasn’t sure a month ago I really saw now spreads over the woods: spring, unlikely and sure.

Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC. 

Always In Build Mode: Women In Publishing Talk Shop

What bookish teenaged girl didn’t fantasize about working in publishing? Maybe for one of those venerable companies with difficult-to-pronounce names: Knopf; Houghton Mifflin; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. It would require a move to New York City, of course, where you would read on the subway all the way to work from your cramped-yet-charming apartment. Sure, […]

Graywolf Press essay collections

Graywolf Press essay collections

What bookish teenaged girl didn’t fantasize about working in publishing? Maybe for one of those venerable companies with difficult-to-pronounce names: Knopf; Houghton Mifflin; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. It would require a move to New York City, of course, where you would read on the subway all the way to work from your cramped-yet-charming apartment. Sure, you might start out making photocopies, but perhaps you’d discover a promising author whose hit debut novel would make your career. You’d rack up thanks on acknowledgments pages like they were bowling league trophies.

Turns out you don’t need to move to New York to work in publishing. But you do need to put in the time making photocopies… or else take the scary step of striking out on your own. And you also need to work very, very hard, basically forever, as the audience of a “Women in Publishing panel hosted by the University of Minnesota’s literary magazine, dislocate, recently found out.

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MFA candidate Elizabeth O’Brien moderated the April 23 discussion, which included Fiona McCrae, head of Graywolf Press; Ann Regan, editor-in-chief of the Minnesota Historical Society Press; and Meghan Murphy and Jamie Millard, who created the literary magazine and press Paper Darts and co-founded the description-defying, arts community-meets-business online platform, Pollen.

As in the Knopf fantasy described above, McCrae and Regan started out in entry-level roles, McCrae at the storied London publishing house Faber and Faber “working for a bunch of men who couldn’t type” and taking dictation from Samuel Beckett’s editor. After working at Faber’s small Boston office, McCrae took the director position at Graywolf back when the press published only 6 to 8 books a year. Now it puts out 30, and to great acclaim: Graywolf poet Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections just won a Pulitzer, while Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine won the National Book Award for poetry last year.

Fiona McCrae. Photo: Erin Smith Photography

Fiona McCrae. Photo: Erin Smith Photography

Regan graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in history and Russian literature and said, “The only thing I really wanted to do was leave the state.” She got an internship at the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 1978 and “lightning struck” in the form of a big project coming down the pike and a crucial employee’s maternity leave. Regan was assigned to the project, and she stayed. In a neat six-degrees-of-separation twist, she recently edited a book by McCrae’s husband.

McCrae and Regan agreed that the important thing after getting a foot in the door is to “overperform,” even if it means “taking a manuscript home on the bus,” as McCrae put it. Regan said she still spends her days in meetings and answering emails and spends evenings and weekends working directly with manuscripts. No rest for the weary, particularly if the weary work at nonprofit presses, it seems.

Ann Regan. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Ann Regan. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press.

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Murphy explained that she and Millard studied literary magazines with Terri Sutton at the University of Minnesota and wanted to work in publishing, but they couldn’t seem to move past internships into permanent positions. Finally, they took matters in their own hands and founded Paper Darts; they have worked as a designer (Murphy) and in nonprofits (Millard) “to support our Paper Darts habit.” The two occupy a “weird Cinderella space,” said Murphy,with Terri Sutton and the Bush Foundation as their fairy godmothers: a year ago, Murphy and Millard received a grant to the tune of $1.5 million to turn their lit mag sideline into a full-time job. They still run Paper Darts but have since also taken over as co-CEOs of Pollen. “Our day-to-day right now is trying to build a system that will allow us to exist after the three-year grant expires,” Murphy went on. She described their schedule as follows: “We wake up, we work, we go to sleep, we wake up, we work…”

Ominously enough, McCrae said of operating a press, “It’s always in build mode.”

“Well, that’s scary,” Murphy replied.

Regan said, “It’s the definition of publish or perish.”

So, what’s so great about working in publishing, if it’s tough to get into and tough to stay afloat? Regan cited the constant exposure to new ideas and intriguing creative projects: “Every day I learn something from some passionate, crazy monomaniac who has decided to write a book.” Murphy and Millard talked about the pleasure of developing a readership through their digital presence, art and events and discovering what audience engagement looks like in the age of social media. It may all sound very seat-of-the-pants, but Millard said, “Meghan and I do our best work when we’re terrified.”

McCrae talked about the close, rewarding relationships an editor can develop with authors. “A perfect manuscript doesn’t need you,” she said, and one where every sentence needs work is a slog, but there’s a right balance that is lots of fun.

Murphy concluded with a note of realism: she was on a panel last year where a participant said that “if you love books enough, there’s a job for you. Not true,” she said. “You have to hustle. As women, you have to hustle even more.” She also had a word of advice for women writers. Often, she said, women want to wait to submit work until they judge it to be perfect, while male writers hit send more freely. She echoed the explanation many editors have given for VIDA scores showing male writers vastly outnumbering women and exhorted women writers to be “strong and confident” and, of course, to try, try again.

Guess I’d better hit “send.”

Road Songs: Camping

Not so far away, coyotes were howling and a frighteningly large cicada swirled around our lantern. The animals of Joshua Tree, California, were converging on us with fluttering wings and in small packs, both physically and through the airwaves. I had just finished Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time. I thought about Mrs. Whatsit wisely advising […]

Joshua Tree, California

Joshua Tree, California. Photos by the author.

Not so far away, coyotes were howling and a frighteningly large cicada swirled around our lantern. The animals of Joshua Tree, California, were converging on us with fluttering wings and in small packs, both physically and through the airwaves. I had just finished Madeleine L’Engle’s novel, A Wrinkle in Time. I thought about Mrs. Whatsit wisely advising her company to allow the protagonist, Meg, to brave the unknown, unprotected: “You are going to allow [her] the privilege of accepting this danger.”

Joshua Tree by night was fraught with something akin to that dangerous, but maybe momentous, unknown. Our tent was oddly filled with light (from the fire, the stars overhead, an alien power?). We were still camping novices at that point. (Actually, who am I kidding? I am still a camping novice.) We had to set up our tent after nightfall, and the darkness, especially shadowed by the strange rock formations all around us, and the sounds and movement of fauna, was altogether spooky.

Joshua Tree, California

Plaque explaining rock formation in Joshua Tree, California

By daylight, Joshua Tree’s bulbous rock formations, formed by magma, begged to be climbed. They looked like something that oozed out of the flat earth surface, like rough, melted and hardened blobs of sugar. Late one night, we saw two fellows make their way up one of these rocks – a formation that had a rounded enclave some twenty feet up – just to hang out in the darkness. They had red headlamps and, as they ascended, they looked like huge lightning bugs bobbing up the rock, then getting caught in a nook.

Illustration of several Southwestern plants by the author.

Illustration of several Southwestern plants by the author

Our first night camping, we stopped in Big Sur, California. Many of the trails were closed because of a recent forest fire. Mother Nature needs time to heal and cannot always accommodate visiting hikers and explorers. The first evening we spent there, we had the pleasure of partaking in a local Trivia Night.  A fellow trivia enthusiast, a man from Eastern Europe, competed as “Solo Team.” He did quite well.

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Watercolor of tent in Big Sur, California, by the author

In Arizona, I finally felt the triumph of camping: it had been four days. No grocery shopping, no electric light switches or running water. Arizona’s landscape was strange but beautiful. The most delicate wildflowers sprinkled the edges of the highway in colors that felt too bright. Orange! Purple!

After years of seeing it depicted in animated films and in graphic design patterns, the saguaro cactus looked absurd in real life. I kept thinking about the symmetrical saguaro, Joe Cactus, featured in Peanuts; Snoopy’s brother, Spike, is something of a desert-based philosopher who often confides in this plant. Spike offers these tender moments of almost delusional reflection, like a content but confused ascetic. “Living in the desert isn’t all bad. There’s beautiful scenery. And good conversation. Hi rock,” Spike once said. I felt similarly reflective amongst the organ pipe, enormous saguaro cactus, and cholla plants. Everything around us was potentially harmful, spiky. It makes a person mindful and attentive to one’s environs. arizona_plant_900 I wrote in my journal: “We have a lantern and ate macaroni for dinner. Tea for dessert. And crosswords.” I found I enjoyed preparing for the day’s adventures, the satisfying work of rationing out our food and entertainment. We were getting accustomed to a new, earlier sleep pattern: once the last ember sizzled from our campfire, we retired for the evening. The clock read 10:30 or so.

I am reminded now of a book my mother loved, Ram Dass’s Be Here Now (1971), which urges the reader to find peace in the present. I keep seeing this book, outside the context of our home library, and I find it timely still. It feels especially relevant when you are camping in a Martian-like landscape under the stars.

Camping is cool, man. And, outside, does feel like a privilege to accept the danger of what might be, what is, and to ultimately be here now.

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona

Organ Pipe National Monument, Arizona

California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson. All photos taken by the author.

The Dark Power of a Crowd Dancing as One

What ends do the repetition, unison and gestures performed by the almost 200 dancers, vocalists and community members in Vanessa Voskuil’s new work, The Student, serve? There were gorgeous, often-disturbing stage pictures, to be sure, during Thursday night’s performance at O’Shaughnessy. Floor-bound dancers wriggled themselves right off the stage like lemmings tumbling over a cliff. […]

The Student was presented as part of the Women of Substance Series by The O'Shaughnessy and Vanessa Voskuil Performance.

The Student was presented as part of the Women of Substance Series by The O’Shaughnessy and Vanessa Voskuil Performance April 3 and 4, 2014.

What ends do the repetition, unison and gestures performed by the almost 200 dancers, vocalists and community members in Vanessa Voskuil’s new work, The Student, serve? There were gorgeous, often-disturbing stage pictures, to be sure, during Thursday night’s performance at O’Shaughnessy. Floor-bound dancers wriggled themselves right off the stage like lemmings tumbling over a cliff. Two men—one extruding himself through painful contortions, another all extension and flow—bookended the masses. The ensemble sat in neat rows, each performer making frantic scribbling gestures, then scattering as a woman dove through them with a noose around her neck.

A German dance artist, Rudolf Laban, created the notion of “movement choirs” in the early 1900s. Using amateur and professional dancers, he choreographed these large masses of people sometimes as a form of personal or spiritual expression—until his work was co-opted by the Third Reich. I mention this because, only then, does that noose, the shifting swarming tableaux of hangings, the marching and the firing squad (with repeated gestures, en masse, of marching, cocking and shooting a rifle, with accompanying sound effects by artist/producer Jesse Whitney of A. Wolf & Her Claws) begin to make some sort of sense.

Or maybe not.

According to the program notes, the piece is ostensibly about learning, about the repetition that makes learning possible. Instead, the work gives rise to questions about the purposes of rote repetition, in unison, in large groups. Those purposes, historically, are usually to value and reinforce conformity over individuality, toward a single unified purpose, to forge a groupthink of totalitarian or otherwise dystopian varieties. There’s no denying a great deal of power can be found in hundreds of people moving simultaneously, but a dark underside seems at work here as well.

At the same time, a lot of verbal cogitation—thinking out loud about how, what and why you’re thinking—occurs in the work. With tremendous stamina and exactitude Paul Herwig and Chris Conry performed rapid-fire, repeating inquiries on: seeing, knowing and not knowing; the occurrence of now in space and time; whether the piece is ending or continuing. The effect is like drowning in the details of someone else’s obsessive-compulsive disorder or psychosis.

Other components of the piece included various choirs (Perpich Center for Arts Education Choral Ensemble, Hamline University Women’s Chorale, St. Catherine’s University Women’s Choir), which beautifully performed Janika Vandervelde’s religious choral music (with accompanying sonic booms and earthquake-aftershock rumblings). The performers, seemingly age 6 to 60, wore shirts, pants, skirts and tights in various neutrals, while Voskuil wore white. Was she the student or the teacher?

Amid the disparate parts—which also included church bells, Voskuil on camera as part of the audience–there was order: the quiet walking of performers backward down the aisles to the stage, later filing back out and forming a circle; lines of performers sinuously gliding across the stage. As a ritual of sorts, in which a teacher guides her willing acolytes, the work could be experienced as a meditation or endurance trial, in which many unknowns are threaded through.

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