People are talking a lot lately about socially engaged art. I recently attended a talk on the subject by Nato Thompson, the Chief Curator at Creative Time—the organization responsible for organizing numerous public art projects in the city. In anticipation of their upcoming Living as Form exhibition at the Essex Street Market in the Lower East Side, he discussed how art creates new forms, some of which suggest and even demonstrate new ways of living in the world.
It seemed like the perfect entry point not only for the Living as Form exhibition, but also for other activities happening around the city recently, where organizations and groups that have been creating and supporting socially engaged art for decades are trying to figure out how to talk to and engage with emerging artists who want to start everything fresh. Both the veterans and the newbies recognize the importance of finding ways of making tangible and sustainable change in the world, but they're still trying to figure out how to listen to and learn from one another.
The most interesting example of such an intergenerational mash-up is the Dream Up Festival, happening right now at the Theater for the New City (TNC). While this is only the second Dream Up Fest (through September 4), TNC's history of producing work that seeks to have a direct impact on its communities is long and well documented. Since 1971, TNC has done everything from founding the Village Halloween parade with Ralph Lee to starting a program aimed at children living in homeless shelters and helping to launch the careers of such artists as Maria-Irene Fornés, Richard Foreman, Jean-Claude van Itallie and Mabou Mines.
With Dream Up, TNC is responding to cuts in arts budgets, trying to offer a platform for artists in the city and beyond who are losing opportunities elsewhere. Participants all cite the theater's history as a major reason for their interest in joining the festival. The dancer and choreographer Jesse Phillips-Fein has been watching that history build over time: "I have been seeing work there since I was a kid in the late 80s and early 90s. Every year my family sees the annual Bread & Puppet theater production, one of my oldest inspirations for politically engaged art." Meanwhile Milos Sofrenovic, a Serbian performance artist and director based in Austria, only has the recorded history as his beacon, this being the first time he's ever presented work in the US.
The work being performed this year is promising, like Puerto Rican artist Aravind Enrique Adyanthaya's La Mano: Tales of the End of the World, which he said was inspired by the apocalypse, aging, and "living in Puerto Rico, where sometimes you feel that public policies are madness, that the sun engenders visceral violence, that the island is too small, and fluid reality is the only survival tool."
We interviewed a handful of the artists involved in the festival, as well as TNC's Executive Director Crystal Field and the Festival's Curator Michael Scott-Price. These brief thoughts will give you a picture of some of the realities the artists participating in the fest face as arts budgets continue to shrink, along with some insights into the work they are presenting.
How have budget cuts in the arts affected your work?
Crystal Field, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Theater for the New City: Budget cuts have forced TNC to "rent" to writers and artists whom we would have preferred to produce. We have also cut down budgets for the plays we do produce.
Aravind Enrique Adyanthaya, Writer, Director, and Founder of Casa Cruz de la Luna, presenting La Mano: Tales of the End of the World at the Fest: In our case, the cuts have mainly affected the creation of new work. In the past year, we have been mainly reworking pieces already in repertoire. Also, we are now trying to expand our reach through international touring.
Jesse Phillips-Fein, dancer and choreographer, presenting own, Owned: Studios have had to raise rehearsal rental rates, and there are fewer studios to rehearse at because many spaces have closed. It's been harder to raise individual contributions, people don't have the money to give or give as generously. And this isn't about arts funding, but the general situation in NYC—rent is so expensive, that my dancers have to less and less time to rehearse because they have to do more and more work to pay the bills.
Ardencie Hall-Karambé, Writer, Director, and Actor, presenting Ain't Nobody-A Civil Rights Musical: One thing that my company has found as a catch 22 in the funding game is that the producing organization has to show evidence of at least three years of consistent theatrical activity to even get funding, but if a company has no funding source they are unable to produce. In my case, the past three years of funding for my company has come out of my own pocket. Kaleidoscope Cultural Arts Collective is just now at a point in its existence where it can begin to apply for federal and private funding from governmental agencies and large corporations.
Steven Gridley (aka Leegrid Stevens), playwright, presenting Nine/Twelve Tapes: The end result is that there are fewer opportunities out there for emerging artists. Theaters are cutting back. Many high-profile programs still operating are swimming in applications. That's why festivals and opportunities like the Dream Up festival are so important.
Milos Sofrenovic, Serbian performance artist and director, presenting M.-Solo for Three Minds (Dialogues with Marcel Proust): Of course financial cuts in the arts have been huge in Europe recently. One of the most extreme examples at the moment is taking place in Holland. We know that through history artists have always depended on the generosity of either aristocratic families or more recently on the ability of each country's Ministry of Culture. However difficult the global financial situation is, art practice should never suffer too much, as it is a very important part, as we all know, of every single society, and a valuable document of each and every society…There are hard times, but there should never be impossible times for the arts.
Why is a festival format useful for you?
Steven Gridley: Many of us cannot afford the costs of renting a theatre and festivals are essential in my opinion to be able to test out your play.
Ardencie Hall-Karambé: So many artists have very little funding in which to get their work out there; there are not a lot of patrons waiting to give money to up-and-coming writers, lyricists, and musicians. Artists therefore often have to sacrifice a lot to get their work seen by the public in hopes of generating enough buzz to get the money people interested enough to fund their fledgling projects. Hence, festivals like this are vitally important for several reasons. They give new works and artists a venue to showcase their work on a larger scale than many of them could afford to do on their own, and they offer alternatives to theatergoers who might not be inclined to see new works because of the price of tickets.
Why was this specific opportunity exciting to you?
Jesse Phillips-Fein: It's somewhat unusual for theater venues to open themselves up to dance. I am really excited by cross-genre producing, creating a wider audience reach by bridging the gaps between theater, dance and music. It's ironic since there is a lot of hybrid and interdisciplinary work that questions the boundaries between genres. Even so, the dance world can be insular and this kind of producing breaks that open.
Milos Sofrenovis: New York still represents, in the eyes of us Europeans, an important artistic center in the world, a place where lot of fresh new ideas coming from different artistic fields can be experienced throughout the year. Therefore this is a huge honor for me—to contribute with my own work to that incredible diversity of the New York art scene.
What ideas does your work focus on, and how did you go about developing the work?
Ardencie Hall-Karambé: A few years ago, I was looking for project to do with some students and decided it would be interesting to do a project involving the Civil Rights Movement but trying to stay away from the typical players in the events, so that the dominant voices were not those that we had heard before but the unsung heroes…Once there was a script it became only natural to turn it into a musical, considering how much music played an important part in the Civil Rights Movement…Luckily being brought up in the Black church and having many years of music under my belt as a singer, songwriter, and musician, the music selections came somewhat easier than the script itself. It felt only natural to include traditional Negro spirituals that I would update, rhythmically and lyrically, and create original music that spoke to the mood and tone of a particular scene.
Jesse Phillips-Fein: My piece, "own,Owned" is a response to what I see as our political situation after Obama's election…It feels to me like a historical moment of deep despair, where the incredible momentum that gathered around Obama has been deflated, and his slogan of 'hope and change' feels like a hollow advertising gimmick. I am curious about the significance of both pleasure and desire in this "post-Hope" context: What do we find ourselves wanting and how is this shaped by the matrix of social/cultural/political forces? What makes us feel good and what does it mean to feel good when the situation is so bad? Is there a way in which we are empowered by daily acts of choice, like the music we listen to, the clothes we wear, the people we sleep with, the food we eat? Or do these choices become distractions from more meaningful political choices? Is there a way they can be both? And what sort of exploration of play, pleasure, desire, choice, could open up our political imaginations?
Steven Gridley: One of our company members had a bunch of old cassettes stuffed in the back of his closet. He told us that he thought they contained interviews conducted shortly after September 11th but that he hadn't listened to them and they'd been sitting in his closet for the better part of 10 years. A friend of his had conducted the interviews but didn't know what to do with them so he gave them to him. I took a couple of the tapes and started listening to them. The interviews were stunning. They immediately transported me back to that time in NY. They felt like a time capsule, perfectly preserved, with all the imperfections and rawness street interviews recorded on cassette would have. I got the idea to try and recreate these interviews just as they appear on the tapes, to recreate the audio imperfections, the background noise, the confusion and numbness that many of the subjects were feeling.
Why is this project important for you right now?
Steven Gridley: [These tapes] show us a side of ourselves as New Yorkers that may of us have forgotten in the ten years that have passed. They show people trying to make sense of the world, to reclaim lower Manhattan, to bridge the gap between differing ideologies not just between people and nations but between ones own heart.
Ardencie Hall-Karambé: It became important to show [my students] why they should participate fully in society…The project became more important to me, as well, as I began to look at not just civil rights but the dwindling of rights of all people in this country; especially, as we have moved into the age of terrorism and how that terrorism has slowly but surely eaten away at people's rights. Whether it was freedom of speech, freedom to marry, freedom to serve one's country, or freedom to gather, the war on terrorism and the war of the right began to constrict and confine American lives in various ways. Thus, I realized, the civil rights of people were still being violated. I also began to understand how the Civil Rights Movement gave birth to the rights movements that happened after 1968; although the play does not address those directly, I believe that the ideas of Civil Rights Movement extends to universal civil rights for all.
What else will you be doing while you're visiting New York?
Aravind Enrique Adyanthaya: Aside from the show at the Festival, we will take the opportunity to do impromptu performances throughout the city during the company´s stay, exploring urban spaces, the rhythms and textures of life that are so rich and particular to New York.
(Photo: Valena David)