The Guerrilla Art class at Curie High School is unusual. The curriculum focuses on student autonomy and student voice. We function as a collective of artists, where I am a facilitator. I give the students a place to start; techniques to develop concepts, process, craft, and reflection. It is important, however, that the students make all of the decisions—from the germ of the idea to the final stages of creation and reflection. This means that the lessons evolve and change day by day as students direct the planning. Another requirement of the class is that their artwork be curated outside of the building, physically out in the community and on our class blog.
Working with the MCA Partner School Initiative has been amazing, as it fit this class completely. We collaborated with Lee Blalock, who was the perfect artist-in-residence for us. She fit right into our organized chaos of morphing, working crews. She provided us with her expertise in performance, video, and sound and helped us expand past our technological and media boundaries. The David Bowie Is exhibit opened students’ minds to explore the concept of identity. David Bowie was the catalyst for the artistic experiment that resulted in our film—the culmination of our partnership—and its theme of weird versus conformity certainly describes his career.
Jackson Pollock, Number 1A, 1948, 1948. Oil and enamel paint on canvas. 68 x 104 in. (172.7 x 264.2 cm). Collection Museum of Modern Art, New York, 77.1950. © 2015 Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
While there aren’t hard and fast beginning and end dates for either movement, modern art is most often associated with the first part of the 20th century and contemporary art is, strictly speaking, made by living artists, but typically spans the past 40 or 50 years.
Modern artists typically rejected the past and showed an interest in urbanization, technology, and progress. Modern art is often nonrepresentational and focuses our attention on line, shape, color, space, and texture.
Contemporary artists frequently respond to images and ideas of popular culture while drawing from the past, creating artworks that are diverse in both style and content. Contemporary art often has a conceptual component, which prompts the viewer to think or act.
Contemporary artists often create works in response to current events, and because such subject matter can be unpleasant, these artworks aren’t always visually appealing. Sometimes artists reject the idea that beauty is important in an artwork, or an artist might reject the idea of art altogether and the result can be a work that is intentionally ugly. In other instances, artists deliberately use unflattering styles and techniques to provoke, challenge, or repulse us. If you have a strong negative reaction to an artwork (or a positive reaction, for that matter) it’s worth pausing to consider why the artist is eliciting such a response and what the artist may be trying to communicate through such an approach.
“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life”
As I was digging through the MCA’s archive for my second program of The Happenings, I discovered that the MCA has a rich history as a performance venue, hosting a variety of music and dance events at MCA Stage over the years. In response to this tradition, I decided to create a Happening honoring the history of dance and music at the MCA with a bit of a twist. For this event, I want the audience to become a part of the show by dancing with Chicago’s vibrant samba community, and I hope you will join me in the fun.
As an artist, I take inspiration from life’s moments as source material for my performances. I am interested in the various ways people celebrate through spontaneous dance. When people gather together to dance, beautiful and exciting moments are created in response to the music. I had the opportunity to experience this phenomenon while dancing samba in Chicago.
Samba is a Brazilian musical genre and dance style with origins in West Africa that is recognized around the world as the music of Carnival. Over the past several months, I visited various samba events around Chicago with my sister Nicole. She was my guide into the samba community. She introduced me to musicians, dancers, and enthusiasts on the scene. The dancing I observed at the clubs amazed me: People from all walks of life, dancing with fast footwork and slick moves to samba music; beautiful passistas performing quick step dances in colorful, feathered costumes. Passistas are key players in the samba school and one of their roles is to keep the party going, so they would leave the main stage to dance with the audience! As I watched the passistas engaging the crowd in dance, I thought samba was the perfect way to include the museum audience in a participatory performance experience at the MCA.
Anjalee Natasha Verma dancing with the Queen of Samba 2015. Photo courtesy of the author
One of my goals in art making is to allow the audience to participate in the development of a performance. Samba culture allows people to express themselves through communal dance and song. The audience joins the performers to create a joyous space for celebration and unity. Everyone is invited to participate in the dance. When I began my exploration into samba, I didn’t know any of the steps. I stood on the sidelines watching in awe as everyone danced. One of the wonderful aspects of dancing samba is that the community will teach you the dance so you can join in the fun. As time passed, the community pulled me onto the dance floor. They cheered me on as I danced and gave me a hug for joining the party. Even if you have two left feet, the most important thing in the samba community is that you’re “shaking your bunda” to the music and having a good time!
Tonight, Chicago-based samba group Bossa Tres, featuring artists Dill Costa and Marcos Oliveira, will be at the MCA with passista Tania Daley. We would love for you to join the party.
Looking forward to seeing you there!
Your friend in art,
TCA has been talking a lot about the recent events in Ferguson, the Black Lives Matter movement, and larger ideas of injustice. When the Doris Salcedo exhibition opened, we realized that she was exploring similar issues. To bring these conversations to a larger audience in the MCA, we teamed up with young artists and activists involved with groups like We Charge Genocide to design and lead the Living Room.
One of the ideas we explored as a group is looking back at the past to understand the present.
We decided to create a timeline that would run up and down the stairs of the MCA. Each floor of the museum represented a different period of black history; from precolonial to slavery, to civil rights, to modern times and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. TCA members stood at each point on the timeline, holding stickers with an image, fact, or question, such as:
“Radical simply means ‘grasping thing at the root.'” —Angela Davis
What do you associate with the word radical?
The US has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prison population. People of color make up about 30 percent of the US population but 60 percent of those imprisoned.”
How do these numbers make you feel?
The #BlackLivesMatter movement, which is founded in response to racially charged injustices, was created by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, three LGBTQ black women.
What makes your life valuable? Is everyone’s life significant?
Using those stickers as starting points, we engaged in a discussion with museum goers and then encouraged them to add their own ideas and personal responses to the timeline.
We closed out the event at the bottom of this staircase timeline by reflecting on the day.
Here are some of the powerful, thought-provoking responses that filled the timeline staircase by the end of the day:
Interested in these issues? We’ll be leading a follow-up on this particular Living Room, focusing on the present and the Black Lives Matter movement, on April 25, 2–4 pm. The next Living Room is this weekend, March 28; it focuses on the sensory experience of art.
“Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or to lose.”
—Lyndon Johnson, Thanksgiving 1963
I was trained as a historian, so one of the pleasures of serving as dramaturg for The Seldoms and their talented collaborators is to witness how they draw upon historical source material to create total environment, multimedia dance theater that addresses pressing social issues of today.
The ensemble’s new work, Power Goes, uses Lyndon Baines Johnson and his tumultuous time as president in the 1960s as a starting point to explore the relationship between power and social change. Gestures, movements, stances, and abstracted postures from the past inform Artistic Director Carrie Hanson’s choreography, which is at the core of the piece. This method also extends as well to costumes created by Jeff Hancock, the artwork of Sarah Krepp, and the lighting designs of Julie Ballard, but it is most apparent in the multimedia accompaniment created by video designers Bob Faust and his animation and technology partner Liviu Pasare, sound designer Mikhail Fiksel, and playwright Stuart Flack.
Faust and Pasare, Fiksel, and Flack begin, respectively, with photographs, audio recordings, and texts of speeches from Johnson’s time. These become springboards for setting the tone and context that surround the central dance elements of Power Goes.
Taking a closer look at (and giving a closer listen to) the ways the collaborators moved from historical artifacts to theatrical creations reveals how collaborative dance theater develops through interactions among different artists, each adopting a similar approach to a topic, but using different forms of expression to do so. They bring past and present into heightened interaction, unloosening history from sepia-tinged nostalgia and, simultaneously, reminding us that we act today under the influence of what has come before us. It is in this way, among others, that power goes in Power Goes.
Bob Faust works as a multifaceted designer for both commercial enterprises, museums, and artists. His videography for Power Goes, created in collaboration with Liviu Pasare, begins with iconic photographs of Johnson, a famously fierce politician, at his most fearsome.
Drawing upon the oozing styles of 1960s psychedelic light shows, Faust and Pasare turned these photos into animated assemblages.
But rather than present them in woozy, acid-rock Technicolor, they chose to stay in a stark palette of black and white, which to my eyes intensifies the angry edge of Johnson’s bulldog persona.
The spreading seepage of the ink-like video is richly suggestive of how power itself sometimes works: it sneaks up on you; you are not quite sure what you are experiencing; it threatens to envelop you and it might just bleed off the screen to push you around; then it crystallizes into a strong figure of intimidating leadership (or as other sections of Power Goes probe, collective action).
The Johnson Treatment appears near the beginning of Power Goes. It features longtime member of The Seldoms Christina Gonzalez-Gillett merging gestures from Johnson with a rather surreal dialogue about haircuts. The projection is shown against a backdrop of chairs that figure importantly later in the work. It makes for a strange, disorienting display of power: all at once she holds the spotlight but is overwhelmed by the media surrounding her. She throws her fist down and points to the sky. She sizes the crowd up before her, but in turn stands exposed before them. To my eyes, there is a kind of tug of war between dancer in the present and almost-ghostly photographs from the past. She seizes history and wields power, but there are moments too when history and power seem to wield her as their instrument.
If Faust and Pasare bring out the public persona of Johnson as pugnacious politician, then one example of the sound design for Power Goes by Mikhail Fiksel demonstrates the softer dimensions of how a figure such as LBJ wielded power: as a master storyteller.
Fiksel, who works both in theater and as a DJ, blends together archival recordings of Johnson telling tales—a more informal but essential dimension of how power works—into a sonic evocation of the power of the voice of LBJ as a narrator. His focus is less on the content of Johnson’s stories than the way in which Johnson disarmed listeners through the quality of his speaking, how he performed stories in service of wielding power. Listening to Fiskel’s treatments of LBJ’s storytelling recordings, we begin to understand that the President was not only the brusque, crude, intimidating leader, but also a caster of spells, a speaker who could exert control over audiences through enchantment.
Using the “raw” historical material of audio recordings that document Johnson telling stories, Fiksel produces a tone poem that is less about the content of Johnson’s storytelling than the mesmerizing timing and rhythm of his pacing, the skillful ways he uses timbre, intonation, volume, and pitch, the ways in which he is able to seize control and overwhelm at a sensorial rather than a semantic level.
Inspired by composers such as Steve Reich, he quite literally turned the cadence of Johnson’s voice into melodic guitar lines. An original Johnson recording
becomes a musical phrase
so that when you hear them together you begin to pay attention to the sonic qualities of LBJ’s storytelling style.
The achievement of mastery by this master storyteller emanates not so much from the actual details of his tales, but rather from his performance of vocal gesture and form. Like a dancer, in fact, but with sound.
Here are other examples of voice
and musical phrase,
and a combination of the two.
The final result is a musical composition that contains a dense web of multiple Johnsons telling tales. His voice leans in and backs away, coils itself around your shoulders and into your ears, then recedes into the vistas of the Texas Hill Country from which LBJ came. He plays the country bumpkin and the wise sage, the twinkle-eyed elder and the innocent naïve. He has audiences in the palm of his voice.
Fiksel chases his phrasing round and round with acoustic guitar phrases and percussive clicks that produce a compressed, hypnotic, musical evocation of a politician who was famous for his ability to win over audiences in face-to-face gatherings.
His current version of the fully developed design sounds like this:
The sound design created by Fiksel accompanies an extended sequence of dance in which The Seldoms themselves perform gestures of storytelling. As audience members, we do not know the contexts for these motions and movements, which encompass everything from the comical to the aggressive, the playful to the deadly serious, the informal to the official. What we receive instead of context is a density of references.
Overall, the combination of sound design and dance movement conveys how power works through whispers as well as screams. The Johnson Treatment, it turns out, was about far more than just aggressive bullying; it could work at more soothing, charming, and bewitching frequencies as well.
Playwright Stuart Flack contributes original dialogue spoken by the dancers in Power Goes. At key moments, he also collages historical materials of spoken word from the past into scripted accompaniment to the dance movement on stage. One of the most startlingly scenes in which he does this is a dialogue between Johnson and Barack Obama taken entirely from speeches made by the two presidents: Johnson’s famous 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech (sometimes called “The American Promise” speech) in the aftermath of the civil rights march on Selma, Alabama, and Obama’s 2008 “More Perfect Union” address on race that he delivered in the aftermath of the publicity over his former pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s controversial remarks.
LBJ’s speech is by a sitting president. He is responding to the grassroots pressure of civil rights protesters and the violent backlash against them. Obama’s is by a presidential candidate. He transforms a seeming scandal and liability into enormous political capital. Both are about the role of race in American life, both historically and in the moment the addresses were delivered. Flack skillfully uses collage to bring out where the two speeches—and the men who delivered them—converge and diverge, how they share certain kinds of charismatic forces as public speakers and also, crucially, where they wield power differently.
Here is Flack’s script:
Mikhail Fiksel then created a sound design from the speech excerpts that Flack compiled, chopped up, and rearranged into a new sequence.
After conducting research on music from the 1960s, Fiksel then added Dave Brubeck’s “Unsquare Dance” (recorded in 1961) to the mix. Written in 7/4 time, the composition is not only from the historic era in which LBJ rose to power, but also an off-kilter yet insistent accompaniment to the rhythm of the voices in the collage. Here is what it sounds like:
There is also a fabulously strange version of the song as accompaniment for un-square dancing on American television. (The Seldoms are not the first to dance to the song, but Power Goes certainly takes “Unsquare Dance” in a very different direction.)
Fiksel’s initial version of the sound design, taken from Flack’s collage tactics, brings voices and music together into a fully developed sound collage.
Then, Fiksel refined the sound design, tweaking the volume levels, timing, and pacing. The interplay of spoken word and music and other sound elements becomes a structure within which history and the present intersect.
Finally, Bob Faust added a typographically driven video treatment for the section, highlighting the key words in the speeches by giving them a large visual presence. The letters join the dance too.
Onstage, the resulting mix of dancing bodies, texts, sounds, songs, images, costumes, lighting, and more creates an intensification of both information and emotion. As viewers, we can receive, read, feel, perhaps even contemplate the references to the past, but my experience is that even as the material is rooted in the use of archival objects and historical frameworks, Power Goes does not send us back in time. Instead, it unleashes our imaginative facilities from present-day assumptions about the topic of power and social change.
“Tomorrow Is Ours To Win Or To Lose”
In Power Goes, The Seldoms and their collaborators use the past to reorient us to the present, in service of the future. They move history from the archives to the stage, from static source materials to something new. The transmogrification of historical artifacts into live theatrical action creates an ardency and an immediacy. It brings history to a boil. It generates an immersive space where bodies and media dance with each other, in time. Something is happening here. Or as Johnson himself put it in 1963, speaking as the leader of a nation shocked by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, “Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or to lose.”
“What I believe is always true about power is that power always reveals.”
— Robert Caro, Lyndon Baines Johnson biographer
Lyndon Baines Johnson was an imposing man. Six foot three, with a lust for domination and control that was legendary, he rose from the destitute but beautiful Hill Country region of Texas to Senate Majority Leader in 1955, to the vice presidency in 1960, and, finally, upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, to the presidency. Johnson’s career was tainted by controversy, questionable ethics, and backroom deals that epitomized the worst of insider Washington politics and corruption. Nonetheless, when he took office, Johnson also oversaw the passage and implementation of transformative civil rights legislation and social welfare initiatives with his Great Society programs. A man obsessed with accruing individual power, he sought to wield it in service of the collective good.
Johnson’s larger-than-life persona and the swirling tumult of the 1960s serve as the starting point for The Seldoms’ Power Goes.
This multimedia dance work is not merely a biographical study of LBJ, however. It uses Johnson to explore the concept of power and social change in American life from a much wider angle. It may seem unlikely to use dance to consider this issue, but the ways in which power and social change relate to the body, how physical movements parallel social movements, and the subtle and not-so-subtle effects of motion, stance, positioning, space, duration, performance, and interaction on public life—they all reveal dance to be one of the best forms for addressing this topic.
The Seldoms. Photo: William Frederking
LBJ’s political prowess and ability to make change was itself linked to his physical presence. He famously employed the “Johnson Treatment,” leaning into other politicians when seeking to intimidate, control, or cajole them. He also knew how to stay still: according to his celebrated biographer Robert Caro, when LBJ first came to Washington, he often sat silently in the chambers of Congress for long periods of time, taking in legislative protocols and rules.
He was a master of the tactile in all its dimensions, whether in the cloakrooms of insider politics or on the campaign trail. Incidentally, he also loved to dance.
Johnson was not the only one interested in power during his presidency. He was pushed to action by grassroots struggles, by civil rights freedom fighters, and others (the question of who deserves credit for the political breakthroughs of the 1960s remains contested, as demonstrated by the controversies over representations of Johnson in the film Selma). LBJ’s success in getting Congress to adopt his policies also helped to power the rise of the New Right, with its reactionary conservatism often rooted in a visceral loathing of Johnson’s Great Society programs. Far more tragically, LBJ chose to escalate American involvement in the Vietnam War, a trauma so damaging to his reputation that he did not run for reelection in 1968 even though he won his 1964 presidency by a landslide.
President Lyndon B. Johnson with civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, and James Farmer
As Robert Caro contends, Johnson’s story sheds light on broader questions of power. “I don’t think of my books as being biographies,” Caro explained in a 2012 interview. “My interest is in power. How power works.” It is this larger issue of power and how it works that pulsates through Power Goes.
Choreographer Carrie Hanson’s reading of Caro’s LBJ biography during 2012, an election year that saw Americans frustrated by what felt like the partisanship and stalemate of national politics in the United States, inspired the questions in Power Goes:
How is power wielded for social change—or for the blockage of substantive social transformation? What is power, exactly, and how does it course through our culture, our institutions, our interactions, our things, our very bodies?
At the center of Power Goes is movement. In some sections, Hanson’s dancers work against each other in duets and group pieces of opposition, manipulation, and conflict. In others, they organize into a cooperative assembly, marching in solidarity. Often, as in life, the dance mixes the two: contentiousness and concord mingle, with issues of control, intransigence, and change at stake. In all cases, the body—both individually and collectively, as a social entity—is the essential medium in Power Goes. Probing the relationship of power to persistence, hindrance, impasse, stamina, alteration, surprise, and transformation with dance allows The Seldoms to access levels of information and meaning that language cannot reach.
The Seldoms. Photo: William Frederking
“Put your body on the line!” That is what protesters insisted had to be done to oppose or change the policies of public figures like LBJ during the 1960s. Power Goes asks us to think about how embodiment mattered then, and continues to matter, to the workings of power. Looking back to the past to try to make sense of the present, The Seldoms put themselves on the line. They dance where history, giving us the Johnson Treatment, looms over our own time.
A version of this essay appeared in the MCA Stage program notes for The Seldoms.