Eboni Senai Hawkins is a recent transplant to Chicago and an intern in Performance Programs at the MCA.
red, black and GREEN: a blues (rbGb) was recently performed in Minneapolis at the Walker Art Center. While they were in town, Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Theaster Gates sat down for an interview with artist Susy Bielak to share the history of their intent, not only for rbGb, but throughout the timeline of their individual and interrelated disciplines. The conversation offers rare insight into how Theaster’s practice became embedded in the work of rbGb.
Bamuthi on Theaster:
[I]n the beginning, I knew Theaster as a craftsman who also had mad swag. That’s important. Of nine elements that I could name in hip-hop, style is paramount. He was someone who was classically trained and was revisiting all of these traditions in both performance and in materials—sometimes clay, sometimes paper, various textiles. I saw him as a person who was changing the trajectory and also inspiring other performers with how they get down. And I think what keeps us together are not only these shared interests, but Theaster’s particular leadership in pushing the whole art world more toward a holistic center that embodies all these different values, while also lifting up this style portion at the same time. It’s pretty extraordinary.
Theaster on activism:
I don’t use the word activism. My dad was kind of an anti-activist. He had nine children, so when people were protesting, he went to work. For him and the survival of his family, labor felt like the most active duty that he could participate in. I grew up thinking that my politics would be more in my hand and in my body and in labor. It was late that I came to the idea that a political voice could create change. These days, I’m trying to leverage both my hand and political voice, and gain an understanding of how systems and structures work and what’s needed. Is my hand needed more in this situation, or my voice?
“Creativity is such a valuable commodity and artists should use their creativity not only to create beautiful works of art but also to help solve some of the many problems our communities and country is [sic] facing.”
—Lucy, The Creative Agency member
As part of Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s advance visit to MCA Chicago to prepare his red, black and GREEN: a blues (rbGb) peformances, he spent time working with youth groups across the city, including our very own, The Creative Agency (TCA).
Participating in TCA over the course of a two-year commitment, a small group of Chicago teens meet and work together at the MCA. The teens are driven by their passion to use contemporary art as a lens to understand themselves and the world. They learn to look critically and speak publicly about art, and to participate as young ambassadors of the MCA. We encourage you to take a peek at the enriching experiences and dialogue percolating on their Tumblr blog. A recent post highlights their visit to Chicago artist and rbGb collaborator Theaster Gates’s Dorchester Projects on the South Side with their peers from Kuumba Lynx.
Afrika Bambaataa, a founding figure of hip-hop culture, outlined the four pillars of hip-hop: MCing, DJing, B-boying, and graffiti writing. Graffiti remains arguably the most controversial of the four, prompting strong reactions on both sides—epitomized on one hand by the success of the landmark 1984 publication Subway Art, and on the other hand the $9 million spent in Chicago for Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 2010 Graffiti Blasters initiative. American culture continues to struggle to find a place for graffiti within the history of art, free speech, and vandalism.
Through the creation of the Life is Living festivals, Marc Bamuthi Joseph found another way to frame the conversation around power, politics, and public space. The festivals, rich with collective energy, served as a means of conducting fieldwork for the text and design of red, black and GREEN: a blues (rbGb). One of the many axes of collaboration were the Estria Invitational Graffiti Battles hosted in Harlem, Chicago, and Oakland. Estria Miyashiro is a friend of Bamuthi and a veteran graffiti artist in the Bay Area art scene. Miyashiro and Bamuthi were motivated to collaborate by their shared desire to use their work in the hip-hop arts to empower local communities and encourage lasting systemic change.
Each battle challenged popular local graffiti artists to create work related to themes of sustainability. The theme for Chicago was “Earth,” and the murals created by the contestants were hung at different locations throughout the city with the hope of inspiring dialogue and imparting a sense of urgency around the importance of life in the midst of urban violence.
The picture below shows a portion of the group mural created at Chicago’s Clarendon Park. This highlights the opportunities for connection embedded in Bamuthi’s practice which, in turn, fed the creative process of rbGb.
This spring Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Theaster Gates collaborate to bring red, black and GREEN: a blues to MCA Stage. During his time in Chicago, Bamuthi is scheduled to hold sessions with local teachers and students exploring the issues of community and civic engagement that inform and inspire his work. In many ways, these performances and discussions are a continuation of the 2009 MCA presentation of Bamuthi’s the break/s: a mixtape for the stage, for which he collaborated with Young Chicago Authors.
As a youth-activated organization, Young Chicago Authors serves more than 2,500 teens a year through its education programs and reaches 30,000 people through its publications and live events. On April 14, they, along with the MCA’s teen program The Creative Agency, hip-hop-based teen arts organization Kuumba Lynx, and Chicago teen media program YOUmedia will work with Bamuthi to bring their collaborative artistic process to MCA Stage with SHareOUT.
In 2009, Marc Bamuthi Joseph brought the Life is Living festival to Chicago. The event, held at Clarendon Park, was the culmination of months of outreach and collaboration between 25 community partners. The photo below captures an exercise in remembrance organized by Kuumba Lynx and spurred by Bamuthi’s assertion that eco-movements should be “less about green and more about a shared value—life.” The signs, held high during a parade, symbolically rename streets and avenues in commemoration of the lives of 39 students claimed by violence in Chicago Public Schools.
Participate in the visual dialogue by uploading a photo to Flickr or Twitter responding to the question, “What sustains life in your community?” Tag your responses with lifeisliving.
Let them eat cake!
(And drink tea…)
Strangely enough (or maybe not so strange depending on who you are), Act II/The Tea of Liz Lerman’s The Matter of Origins depends on serving tea and cake. The ‘cake’ is chocolate and based on an original recipe served in Edith Warner’s tea house in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The staging of the ‘Tea’ is being evaluated by the National Science Foundation as a science-delivery system. For MCA’s production of The Matter of Origins, we had to find enthusiastic individuals who could collect measurements that assess the audience’s experience through the course of the evening, as well as perform alongside the members of the Dance Exchange.
We spent several weeks reaching out to universities and dance centers, Facebook fans, and Twitter followers. 19 people responded to the challenge:
Rachel Berg, Kaley Marissa Cross, Alyssa Diaz, Lara Ditkoff, Aundrea Frahm, Marta Juaniza, Motrya Kozbur, Susan Lyon, Donna Nails, Sabri Reed, Bonnie Romano, Selena Roque, Alicen Sonja Schade, Michelle Vasquez, Sasha Manuylenko, Dominique Boyd, Marie Janine Socha, Janet Schmidt
Watch the rehearsals below!
Provocateur (noun): an instigator and stimulator of dialogue surrounding difficult, deep, intriguing and awe-inspiring matters; a guide, a leader, and, when need be, a fly on the wall.
The Provocateurs in The Matter of Origins are artists, scientists, scholars, community members, and educators. As an integral part of Act II/The Tea, they are also cross-pollinators, collecting knowledge from multiple individuals to explore the seemingly disparate topics of art, science, and belief as presented in Act I.
The Matter of Origins has been previously presented by Arizona State University, Wesleyan University, and the University of Maryland, all institutions which had a captive academic community from which to source volunteers for both Provocateurs and Tea Servers. In this incarnation of The Matter of Origins, our partner, the Chicago Humanities Festival, extended invitations across several disciplines and multiple spheres of influence to recruit Provocateurs. The individuals who answered the call:
Leslie Baum, Amy Bretz, Marianna Buchwald, Kristen Cox, Amanda Denham, Deb Durham, Karen Faith, Cassie Hamrick, Axel Hoffman, Jackie Intres, Maggie Kast, David Lakein, Lisa Leszczewicz, Heather Lindahl, Onye Ozuzu, Barbara Pool, Chris Preissing, Elvia Rodriguez Ochoa, Ari Rudenko, Bryan Saner, Sarah Schnadt, Myah Shein, Annie Shuminas-Nelson, Tamara Silverleaf, Emily Stein, Gwen Terry, Lindsey Barlag Thornton, and Jacqui Ulrich.
We expect orderly chaos to ensue as each Provocateur challenges the audience and each other with questions pulled through layers of varied experiences. In preparation for the dress rehearsal, we asked three of the Provocateurs to share with us why they agreed to carve out time in their busy schedules to join us for this unique event:
“I danced with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange for a year-and-a-half about ten years ago. I am familiar with Liz’s great ability to interact with people from all walks of life, in all situations, including while they are being lifted and tossed around a stage. A few years ago I saw her piece on the genome project, and especially loved the parts where they reproduced her conversations with biologists as a soundtrack for the piece. Liz asked the scientists how they would choreograph a particular genetic structure, and they jumped in with suggestions. The dancers embodied the suggestions as the audience listened, and it was hilarious. I’m not sure there is any serious dichotomy between science and art, but I do believe that any area of cultural or ethnic conflict is likely to set off sparks that light fires of creativity. (Witness the dance theatre of bi-cultural Montreal). If science and art don’t collide next week, perhaps dance and tea will, and I hope we will all begin to glow.”
“Liz’s work has accompanied me through my dance journey from the beginning. My first significant mentor/teachers – Nia, and her father Ed Love — were from Washington DC and had worked with and carried stories, processes, and methodologies of Liz Lerman and the Dance Exchange into our work together. From the first time I participated in a Creative Response Process, early in my tenure as a professor of dance in the academy, I integrated it deeply into the way that I taught choreography, dance history, philosophy, and technique and into the way that I thought about artmaking, audience engagement, and dance administration. I just moved to Chicago and am coming into a significantly new chapter of my work as an artist. It seems timely and fitting that I see what Liz is up to. Her work has always navigated an important interspace for me — between an ancient sensibility of dance ritual and a contemporary and functioning tool of social and civic discourse facilitated by artists for the purpose of igniting the multiple complexes, polycentric sensitivities, and reflexive awareness of ‘the people.’”
“As I prepare to act as a Provocateur in The Matter of Origins, I find myself concerned with a question: why must our lives as humans be so limited by the finite? We can only see so far, hear so much, understand such a small fraction of the universe. And yet perhaps, the finite is the only lens through which we can even begin to understand the infinite reaches of our galactic and subatomic worlds. Our bodies are the most important tool we will ever have for experiencing the finite and through her choreography, Liz Lerman is inviting her audience to wrestle with the finite in order to penetrate the mysterious world of the infinite. I am so looking forward to the discussions that follow this performance as we spend some time sitting at tea with the biggest questions. Hopefully, our collective understanding of the infinite will be stretched and strengthened.”
Recently, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to a team of three scientists who discovered that our universe is accelerating by observing distant supernovae. What does that mean for those of us who don’t process things as quickly as the characters on the Big Bang Theory? What does that imply for my grandmother’s unshakable faith that the world started as described in Genesis? How can we feel secure that we have a place in the grand scheme of things?
In the midst of what could be philosophical chaos, we eagerly await the arrival of The Matter of Origins, the latest work by Liz Lerman and Dance Exchange. The Matter of Origins takes these questions, turns a kaleidoscope on the world, and crafts a story of our elemental beginnings. Dance Exchange – with dancers from a diverse range of ages and backgrounds — is steeped in the philosophy that dancers “comprehend action and make it real in thousands of variations.” Watch a preview of the work here. When you join us to see the full-length performance, you may be moved by the extensive parallels between art and science. The dancers’ actions may expand your experience. They may introduce new connections for you to see.
We are bringing this performance here to appeal to your robust imagination. We want your brilliant musings and your preconceived notions. We will instigate cohesive ramblings via our virtual roundtable on this blog and want your comments to flourish in an open forum. Through it all, don’t forget to find us on Facebook, Tweet us (#upclose), and watch us on YouTube. Let your questions beget more questions. Share them. Maybe we’ll find an answer together, maybe we won’t. This is a process, this is a beginning.