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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.

Broadside: Alec Soth and Brian Beatty

FAR AFIELD Like a scarecrow with its missing eye up to a telescope   in the wee hours of another starless night   I fooled myself into believing I’d seen all I needed   of life — as if lightning isn’t always about to   flash/strike somewhere along the horizon. *** Brian Beatty’s writing has […]

Alec Soth, Untitled, 2011.

Alec Soth, Untitled, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

FAR AFIELD

Like a scarecrow

with its missing eye

up to a telescope

 

in the wee hours

of another starless night

 

I fooled myself

into believing I’d seen

all I needed

 

of life — as if lightning

isn’t always about to

 

flash/strike

somewhere along

the horizon.

***

Brian Beatty’s writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications. His column of one-liners, “Jokes by Brian Beatty,” originated at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and wound up in the gutters of the front spreads of METRO Magazine, which also once rated him among the funniest people in the Twin Cities.

Alec Soth is a photographer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota and proprietor of Little Brown Mushroom. He has received fellowships from the McKnight, Bush, and Jerome Foundations and was the recipient of the 2003 Santa Fe Prize for Photography. His photographs are represented in major public and private collections, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Walker Art Center. His work has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including the 2004 Whitney Biennial and a career survey at the Jeu de Paume in 2008. His first monograph, Sleeping by the Mississippi, was published by Steidl in 2004 to critical acclaim.  Since then Soth has published NIAGARA (Steidl, 2006),  Dog Days, Bogotá (Steidl, 2007) Fashion Magazine: Paris/Minnesota (2007), Last Days of W. (2008), Broken Manual (2010) and Siren (2012), and several limited-edition installments in his LBM Dispatch series created with writer Brad Zellar. He is represented by the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York and the Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis.

A retrospective of his work, Alec Soth: Until Now, is on view at Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis, March 21 through May 10, 2014.

For mnartists.org’s occasional Broadside, artists are presented with a selection of written works and asked to respond in kind to a text of their choosing, with an image drawn from their own body of work. The text and visual art are presented on equal footing, neither one merely accompaniment or illustration for the other, more like artist-driven, mixed-media call and response.

Field Notes: Scott Nedrelow’s Afterlight

Consider: Scott Nedrelow – Afterlight Location: David Petersen Gallery, Minneapolis. Items: Six paintings, on Epson “premium luster” photo paper, measuring 60” wide x 90” high, or 92” when inside their beveled, white, glassless frames. This is good, as the paintings are given room to breathe and are not constrained by unnecessary boundary. Paintings are broken […]

Scott Nedrelow, Untitled. Installation photos courtesy of David Petersen Gallery.

Scott Nedrelow, Untitled. Installation photos courtesy of David Petersen Gallery.

Consider: Scott Nedrelow – Afterlight

Location: David Petersen Gallery, Minneapolis.

Items: Six paintings, on Epson “premium luster” photo paper, measuring 60” wide x 90” high, or 92” when inside their beveled, white, glassless frames. This is good, as the paintings are given room to breathe and are not constrained by unnecessary boundary. Paintings are broken into groups of three, two and one.

Scott Nedrelow, Afterlight. Installation view courtesy of the gallery.

Scott Nedrelow, Afterlight. Installation view courtesy of the gallery.

Items: Two videos play on HD screens placed side by side and leaned vertically against a wall in a dark, curtained backroom of the gallery. Each video records a Florida beach near Nedrelow’s parents’ home and is focused on the horizon line. One screen begins in darkness, the other in light, and as the horizon moves in each, the process inverts during the 45-minute piece.

Observations: Observable investigations in Nedrelow’s presented works seem to fall into two categories: LIGHT: post-photographic process, printing, day and night, “after” dark (which is actually during dark). These investigations connect neatly into questions of TIME: the rotation of the earth, physics in relation to process of orienting oneself, the act of seeing, any action which requires the slowing of time.

Scott Nedrelow, Untitled. Installation view courtesy of the gallery.

Scott Nedrelow, Untitled. Installation view courtesy of the gallery.

Notes: Regarding the paintings, from series titled Untitled (Afterlight)During a studio visit with the artist, Nedrelow shows me how these paintings are made, and the process used to achieve the subtle coloring. Paint is applied using an airbrush to manually spray CMYK (Cyan – Magenta – Yellow – blacK) colors used by desktop printers. The large-format photographic paper is rolled into itself from both sides, fastened into a tighter version of the capital of an Ionic column, and stood on its end. In regards to a distinctive sort of “medium is the message” process, in regards to the airbrushing of the surface, Nedrelow says, “It is important that the paper itself is being the leader of the image…”

The application of these inks becomes a physical manifestation of the shape of the paper turned in on itself, with two broader bars of color located outside the untouched center, echoed by smaller lines of the same color closer to the border. Subtle mixing is achieved when pure color is laid on top of pure color, in a pattern similar to chiasmus (diagram), where an arrangement of colors are related to one another in an ‘X’ fashion. Nedrelow explains this system, “It gives me something similar to a structure…to give the whole body of work, even if not hung together, they have a pair, and a direct relationship to process.”

Thoughts:

  • Work is best viewed from a distance, in this case, against furthest respective wall in gallery. Ink is almost imperceptible when viewed up close, as are differentiations in color from top to bottom.
  • Photographic process -> dependent on light <- vision dependent on light. The changing perspective from both near and far becomes an investigation into of the act of seeing.
  • Press release mentions that the title of the exhibition “…alludes to shadows and the idea of an afterimage. An afterimage is the compensation of the eye’s retina after the original visual stimulus.” Italics in the above quote are mine, by way of noting the unique phenomenal experience of vision, the way the human eye copes with and physically processes information, to such a degree that an image remains seen even after it is removed from sight.

Additional thoughts:

After the separation of the image from the eye, what remains? And where?

On how separating the self brings the artist closer to the core: Nedrelow, while firmly in control of both concept and production of his works, often separates himself from establishing narrative focus. Specific representational elements resulting from the work he also usually leaves to the determination of some outside agency. “I don’t have to be compositionally responsible for the content, it is related to the material”, explained Nedrelow, “When folded, the paper almost becomes a stencil on itself”.

On time as vehicle: Nedrelow’s video piece, Earthrise/Earthset, also investigates the movement of light and the idea of stepping back to see a greater whole. The piece is not a time-lapse, but rather a documentation of a specific experience of time, capturing both the setting and rising sun. The poetry lies in the use of the camera, which was attached to an astrological mount which slowly moves. Though this camera basically appears motionless, the mount’s shifting gears allow the recording of the slow, imperceptible movements of the earth’s rotation.  When asked if the focus is the light itself, or rather the time needed to comprehend light, Nedrelow responds, “It’s both I think— but as a way of telling a story in art, light that accumulates or changes imperceptibly is best.”

Scott Nedrelow, Untitled. Installation view courtesy of the gallery.

Scott Nedrelow, Untitled. Installation view courtesy of the gallery.

Et cetera:  Two notes, written during a studio visit with the artist. The first, which I later discovered to be from Buckminster Fuller, is used in the texts associated with Afterlight:

The most important thing to teach your children is that the sun does not rise and set. It is the Earth that revolves around the sun. Then teach them the concepts of North, South, East and West, and that they relate to where they happen to be on the planet’s surface at that time. Everything else will follow.

The second note is unattributed, either my own observation or a quote from the artist: “There is a physical correlation between how you relate to the world, and physics explains this”. Once understood, it is either easier, or more difficult, to face the forces of the universe.

Related exhibition information:

Scott Nedrelow – Afterlight is on view now through April 5, 2014, at David Petersen Gallery. The gallery, located at 2018 Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis, is open Wednesday through Saturday, 11-6, or by appointment.

Artists are Vulnerable

Every few weeks, that TED talk by Brene Brown about the power of vulnerability makes its way across my social media feed, and for a moment I find myself thinking, “Yes, vulnerability! We need more of that around here.” But vulnerability is like failure and innovation, one of those neat ideas that catches like wildfire, sweeping through […]

Artwork by Timothy Cronin of Husbands Printmaking Studio

Artwork by Timothy Cronin of Husbands Printmaking Studio

Every few weeks, that TED talk by Brene Brown about the power of vulnerability makes its way across my social media feed, and for a moment I find myself thinking, “Yes, vulnerability! We need more of that around here.”

But vulnerability is like failure and innovation, one of those neat ideas that catches like wildfire, sweeping through leadership seminars and association conferences. For a moment we all profess to know what it means, and to see the value in it. We hurry to detail the ways in which we and our work exemplify the concept. We’re vulnerable. We’re innovative. We fail, and because we’re doing it right, we learn from our failures.

Then some time passes. We forget the wise words of Brene Brown and the other TED prophets, and we go back to business as usual.

In the business I’m in — socially engaged art and design—business as usual means competing for resources and recognition, even as we profess our collective community spirit. It involves putting a positive spin on even our most disappointing programs and projects, as we trumpet the virtues of failure. It means keeping an ear to the ground for opportunity, and working like expert operators to position ourselves to receive, even as we call ourselves advocates for others. It means working around the clock and professing to love our jobs, even though we’re tired and overworked and under-compensated. It means keeping our guard up against anything and anyone that might challenge our approach, even though we celebrate vulnerability.

This past week, a friend called me from a parking ramp. She was in tears, trying to regain her composure after meeting with an aggressive collaborator who has power over her work. She wondered out loud how she could continue working in what had become a toxic environment. She also wondered how she could stop working. The project in question was one she had conceived over many months of intense thinking and delicate relationship-building. She felt attached to it, and rightfully so. Not to mention that like so many others, my friend’s financial situation is precarious. She literally cannot afford to bail on the project, though she confessed to me that she hasn’t been happy in months, and isn’t making her best work as a result.

My friend is an artist, and she’s not unique in this experience, or in feeling this way about it. I’ve had countless conversations of this kind over the past months with peers: artists and other independent creative producers who work on what claim to be “artist-led” collaborative projects for the benefit of artists and communities, but which in practice seem to be business-as-usual non-profit programs.

Artists are vulnerable, and not in the Brene Brown sense of that word. When we collaborate with non-profit organizations or other groups, we have to navigate complex political and social landscapes, often without the insider knowledge that can keep one from inadvertently stepping in landmines. This kind of learning takes time. We go to lots of meetings, and we’re not paid for most of them. We share our creative thinking up the food chain, with good intentions and the expectation that we can trust those who claim to have our interests at heart. Once in awhile this results in a paid opportunity to create meaningful artwork, but often we see our ideas emerge watered-down or with strings attached. In the worst cases, we see our ideas or words emerge unattributed in the shiny new initiative of an organization that has little regard for us or our goals.

When we do create work, we usually do so with limited resources. This leaves almost no time for the important steps of synthesis and reflection, or for telling our own story of what transpired. Instead, we read about our projects and see photos of our work used instrumentally in the communications of non-profit organizations and funders, often without any consultation or consent.

I hear it expressed quietly all the time, that feeling that we have little power or authority over the conditions of our work, even as our work is used to gain larger grants and more recognition for leaders in our field. Meanwhile, we live with fear of retribution should we speak publicly about our concerns.

My friend, the one who left the parking ramp—she did what I’ve done many times in the past. She took a deep breath and went back to creating artistic projects, trying to stay true to her own values, vowing to do things differently should she ever be in a position of power. She said the hardest thing for her is the realization that as artists, we seem to have no one in our corner. Lots of people are champions for the arts, especially now that it seems more people recognize the important contributions of art to our lives and communities; but when it comes to standing up for artists, she didn’t know who to turn to except her peers.

I think there’s power in that realization, though it’s hard to know just what to do with it. Yes, we are vulnerable, and we’re not alone.

Republished from Medium with permission of the author. 

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