What makes a citizen? How do the complex, elusive, and multifarious definitions of what it means to be an American exert their presence in art? And as the veil between artistic expression and political expression grows thin, how can contemporary artists shape and imagine new ways of being American? In this free-form, one-night-only conversation, four artists meet for the first time on stage to share their work and engage in a discussion about the intersection of art and American identity.
This interdisciplinary evening of performance and discussion brings together performance artist NIC Kay, author Lisa Ko, photographer Philip Montgomery, and stage and film director Yara Travieso, joined by Alejandro Rodriguez, artistic director of ASTEP’s Artist as Citizen Conference.
In doing so, the conference asked the essential and age-old question: What do artists do? Undoubtedly, artists view the world in unique ways. And, through their artwork, help us confront our realities—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Thus, at the heart of this kind of work is the concept of “artistic citizenship” and being an “artist-as-citizen.”
Meet one artistic citizen: Helen Marriage. Director of “Artichoke,” Marriage stays clear of traditional “artistic spaces”— the gallery, concert hall, theater or dance studio—and instead transforms the streets, squares, gardens and coastlines of the public spaces around the UK.
At the heart of Marriage’s projects is accessibility and equity, and the notion that all people have the right to experience artwork for free.
One such project was Great Fire 350, dedicated to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the London fire of 1666.
While this project, one among many, speaks for itself, a few aspects deserve special mentioning. Throughout 2016, London marked a season of exhibitions, concerts, lectures, and tours. A festival, really, of the power of the arts to provoke the imagination, Great Fire 350 included an underwater performance art-work, a domino-esque sculpture that snaked throughout London’s streets, which outlined the various roadways of the 1666 fire, and ended with a live re-burning of a model of 1666 London on the Thames River. This grandiose festival implied numerous aspects about social life. Primarily, though, Great Fire 350 highlighted a beautiful and powerful resilience of a city and its peoples to be re-born.
How can art transform a landscape? And who have access to such transformation? The River Assembly Project not only confirms that art has the power to transform, but also declares that each and all should have access to art’s potentials.
Turning an industrial barge into The Floating Museum, Chicago’s local artists, with various arts and cultural organizations, came together to “create temporary, site-responsive museum spaces to activate sites of cultural potential throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods.”
According to the creators of the project, first it’s important to talk “with community leaders, organizations, and artists who are deeply invested in their neighborhood.” Then they “nurture new connections between communities, institutions, and the people these spaces serve.” The results of this process are “installations are platforms for engaging communities and celebrating the art and culture being produced by our neighborhoods.” In doing so, The River Assembly Project “bring[s] together the work of … dispersed locations in a traveling museum that celebrates the energy” of Chicago.
The Floating Museum showcases visual arts, media, and performances by more than 30 local and national artists, including:
Paula Vogel’s Indecent is a play about our past, present, and future; it is a play about the many ways society judges its people; it is a play about GLBT rights; it is a play about the good and bad of humanity; but it is also a love story—a love for theater and the transformative powers the theater holds for audiences and players alike.
Structured as a play within a play, Indecent retells the history of Sholem Asch’s 1907 Yiddish drama, God of Vengeance. After touring the world to critical acclaim, and at its Broadway debut at the Apollo Theater on 42nd Street, Asch’s work was shut down in 1923 for obscenity; all the actors were arrested given the drama’s exploration of same-sex love. Asch’s work is pinned against the backdrop of anti-Semitism—additionally, general anti-immigration sentiments—in the United States. So largely, Vogel’s Indecent illustrates the ways in which the oppressed maintain their identities and dignity when pushed to the margins.
Interestingly, Asch’s play is as relevant today as it was, then, when it toured the world. And so Vogel’s prism-view of God of Vengeance refracts the very essence of today with incredible clarity and precision. Vogel states:
I didn’t anticipate that Indecent would be as relevant today as it is; we are witnessing an upheaval of fear, xenophobia, homophobia, and, yes, anti-Semitism. We are in the midst of the strongest white nationalism since the 1920s when American borders were closed to immigrants. In this moment of time we must say that we are all Muslim. We must reclaim the importance of our arts and culture. We must remember where the closing of borders in the 20th century led nations around the globe.
willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, psychological violence, and emotional abuse. The frequency and severity of domestic violence can vary dramatically; however, the one constant component of domestic violence is one partner’s consistent efforts to maintain power and control over the other.
Domestic violence is an epidemic affecting individuals in every community, regardless of age, economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, or nationality. It is often accompanied by emotionally abusive and controlling behavior that is only a fraction of a systematic pattern of dominance and control. Domestic violence can result in physical injury, psychological trauma, and in severe cases, even death. The devastating physical, emotional, and psychological consequences of domestic violence can cross generations and last a lifetime.
In response to domestic violence, one letter to the editor of The New York Times asks: “Do we endorse this cruelty in silence? Or do we stand together to protect the most vulnerable among us?”
Artist Cat Del Buono is standing up and outwardly doing something about this. In one such project, Voices, funded by a grant from Baang + Burne Contemporary, Del Buono spent two years
interviewing domestic violence survivors at shelters in Miami, Hartford, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C. After filming only their mouths to keep the women anonymous, Del Buono created an installation of 20 small monitors with the lips of the survivors speaking of their personal experience. When viewers walk into the exhibit, the multiple voices create a symphony of unrecognizable words. Only when you approach an individual monitor do you hear their personal and traumatic stories and how they have gotten out of their situations. The necessity of this movement on the part of viewers acts as a metaphor: only when one gets close do they learn of the individual’s traumatic experiences. As a society, we must not allow the epidemic of domestic violence and those who are affected by it to remain an invisible, inaudible crowd of statistics.
Here is a sample of one of the video installations
Voices has travelled across the United States, and was recently exhibited at Blue Sky Gallery, Bronx Museum, Winthrop University, Art Palm Beach, and Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami where it was accompanied by a panel discussion open to the public. Local NPR radio host Bonnie Berman moderated the panel consisting of domestic abuse survivor, a local advocate, teen violence advocate, the museum’s director of international programs, and Del Buono.
Del Buono received a BA from Boston College, an MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and attended the graduate film program at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Trained as a photographer and filmmaker, Del Buono creates video installations and public happenings. She incorporates performance, interactive video, and humor as ways to engage and impact her viewers.
The heart of Artistic Citizenship asks artists of all kinds, whether amateur or professional and across all arts domains, to ask critically important questions, such as:
What responsibilities do artists have to engage in art work for social transformation?
One organization—or, “super PAC” as they call themselves—aptly named “For Freedoms,” not only interrogates this question, but also activates this question for those whom engage with their artistry. As Celia McGee writes:
Founded by Hank Willis Thomas, a photographer and conceptual artist, and Eric Gottesman, a video artist and activist, the super PAC is named after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” wartime address in 1941 — a call to safeguard the freedoms of speech and worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.
As the first artist-run super PAC, For Freedoms uses art to inspire deeper political engagement for citizens who want to have a greater impact on the American political landscape.
We believe that artists, and art, play an important role in galvanizing our society to do better. We are frustrated with a system in which money, divisiveness, and a general lack of truth-telling have stifled complex conversation. We created the first artist-run super Pac because we believe it’s time for artists to become more involved in the political process.
What can we learn about the role of art in politics from For Freedoms? We leave this up to you to decide. For now, we urge you to think-through today through the lens of the actions and activism of For Freedoms.
Founded in 2005, the Music Kitchen—whose motto is “Food for the Soul”—has been serving the homeless by providing what founder Kelly Hall-Tompkins calls “spiritual, uplifting help.” According to Hall-Tompkins, homeless populations are not “musically underserved,” they are “non-served.”
Over the past eleven years, NYC homeless persons have been treated to concerts at the men’s shelter at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and the Antonio G. Olivieri Drop-in Center for homeless women (both in Manhattan). Hall-Tompkins has also organized and performed Music Kitchen concerts at the Holy Apostle Soup Kitchen, the largest soup kitchen in New York City, serving 1200 meals everyday. Because of the venue, musicians play while the hungry come and go during the performances. As Hall-Tompkins says: “At any one time, I’m estimating that there are about 700-800 people who pass through listening to our concerts. It is terrific that we can share music with so many people…”
One person wrote: “I loved the singing. It was inspirational. And the singing keeps my hope and faith alive.”
Another wrote: “Please come back when you have the time.”
Yet another wrote: EVER SiNCE MY PARENTS passed, I can’t gEt my life together. BASKETball AND MUSIC has helped ME, but I still don’t KNOW where MY life is going. THANK YOU!
Importantly, The Music Kitchen serves not only those passing through the shelters, but also the musicians serving that population. As violist Brett Deubner said: “When we go there and play from our hearts, there’s a therapeutic back-and-forth for both the listener and performer. Both are being fed.” Albrecht Mayer, principal oboist for the Berlin Philharmonic, said: “Music feeds our soul and I’d wish that there would be many more places like Music Kitchen where musicians can offer their art to people in need of comfort and encouragement and, in return, get a unique feeling of what it means to share the sensation of music. The intense interaction of giving and receiving has been a very special experience for me and has moved me deeply.”
Aside from concerts being “delivered” to/for those at the shelters, there have been a few instances were homeless persons have participated. At one particular Music Kitchen concert, a program was performed by the Bach Vesper vocal soloists (singers who specialize in Renaissance and Baroque cantatas, motets, etc.). At this concert, Hall-Tompkins asked the audience if anyone had questions for the singers. The first question was “Can I sing, too?” As Hall-Tompkins states:
I often think to myself when people ask this: Is this going to work? Here was period (Renaissance/Baroque motets) music being sung in German. So, I thought: No way. This is not going to work. But I was wrong. And it really made me think that it doesn’t really matter what music it is, or what people’s prior experience has been, people gravitate towards all music. This young man, in his early 20s, did not have any prior “formal” experience with making music, and he certainly did not have any experience speaking German or reading music fluently, but he just looked over the director’s shoulder and did his best on one song, and sat down when finished. And he felt really good about himself. And satisfied. It was truly amazing that he felt so much a part of the concert experience that he had the desire to be even more connected to the music in this way.
In addition to this kind of participatory music making, Hall-Tompkins finds that music listening has a lasting, therapeutic component.
To bring top emerging and established professional musicians together in order to share the inspirational, therapeutic, and uplifting power of music with New York City’s disenfranchised homeless shelter population. I believe a shelter exists to provide not only physical but emotional and spiritual support to those who, for whatever reason, have lost the foundation of their homes and communities. I believe that music reaches the core of our being and can play a vital role in nourishing hope, love and strength, particularly when performed at an extremely high artistic level and in a friendly, relaxed setting.
More recently, the Music Kitchen has expanded its reach. It opened a new series in Los Angeles on December 4, 2014. The Los Angeles Branch of the Music Kitchen is presented in partnership with LAHSA, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.
The arts are hubs of social, emotional, personal, and worldly interactions. Any values we derive from or experience through the arts occur because we engage in and feel the results/benefits of art making and art experiencing. So, “we make it true” that one or more values happen in/to us when we participate with the arts.
What values are possible? The chapters within this book yield a multitude of possibilities. And artistic citizenship is the concept we employ that connects and extends such possibilities. From illuminating public places to visionary activism through art-making to creating art that examines a world that isn’t but could be, artistic citizenship shows itself in a variety of ways.
What worlds are possible? Can art take us there? What gets in our way to create such worlds? Hear from one of our authors, Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre: