MEDIA

A safe space for deep criticism of art

manuel arturo abreu discusses home school, a free pop-up art school in Portland, and its upcoming "field day," June 23

In a recent discussion with manuel arturo abreu (they/them) the co-founder of a Portland-based pop-up art school called home school, a fundamental question surfaced—a question that directly relates to the relevance of this very platform: Why would someone hate art?

For abreu, a poet and artist from the Bronx, the answer is ready and waiting: “Because art sucks. It’s really violent. It’s a violent colonial enterprise. How do we reclaim it?”

In the following discourse, which centers the labor and thinking of home school and its organizers, nothing is sacred. Readers with a love for art, academia, and many of the institutions and frameworks designed to support these, might find themselves set off—but please take that response as definitive sign to keep reading.

Image courtesy of home school and MoMA PS1

The way home school came to be is “a classic story” within the home school-community, said abreu. Victoria Anne Reis (she/her), who now runs home school with abreu, previously lived in New York City and studied at New York University, an institution infamously known for being inaccessible to many students without the aid of punishing loads of student debt.

In search of a different option than “the very marketized education that she was paying for,” Reis began taking classes with the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, an alternative arts education structure that self-identified as “a learning experiment” and “New York’s freest art school.”

BHQFU—which is now defunct—was started by several Cooper Union graduates who, initially, remained anonymous and who derived inspiration from German artist Joseph Beuys’ concept of social sculpture. “Rather than an artist working with paint or cardboard or noise or language, an artist is constructing an aesthetic experience from the social interactions of others,” an unnamed source from Bruce High Quality Foundation said of social sculpture in an interview with Social Text Journal.

Social sculpture is “sculpture where society and community is the medium for the art,” abreu explained.

As the story goes, Reis eventually had a child and moved back in with her parents in Boring, her childhood home, east of Portland. Upon settling in the Pacific Northwest, she reached back out to BHQFU to ask if resources were available that would allow her to continue studying remotely. The response was surprising.

According to abreu: “They kind of categorically shut it down, and were like: We don’t do that. We don’t have any distance learning. Remote learning is not part of our concept. The social raw material of the project is local. It’s in New York.”

The shutdown Reis experienced opened up an avenue for something different to emerge. Upon sharing her disappointment at BHQFU’s response with abreu, the two decided to collaborate on running what we now know as “home school.” This free pop-up art school offers a multimedia curriculum, including artist talks, exhibitions, classes, poetry readings, and physical education.

Of course, baked into its mission is an impetus toward distance learning. Now in its third year, home school is building an archive of material (see the website), and live streaming events, “so someone in New York could just click a link and feel like they’re in the room,” said abreu.

Home school has also created a “field day” series, riffing off the classic term, which takes place “in former and current educational institutions as a platform for questioning and reimagining the methods, purposes, and dynamics that connect art and education.” After organizing the first field day of the year at MoMA PS1 in New York City, home school is now bringing the series to Portland’s Reed College this Saturday for field day #2, organized in collaboration with Diné artist Kevin Holden and the Cooley Gallery, with support from black apotrope.

Image courtesy of home school and MoMA PS1

As evidenced by its programming, home school’s mission, curriculum, and pedagogy have been crafted with intentionality, criticality, and nuance. For example, abreu noted, the difference between certain other alternative education models and home school is that “We’re not art; home school is not art. It’s just an art school. There’s no social sculpture.”

In abreu’s view, pedagogical practice as performed by projects such as BHQFU is disingenuous. “They still can fail their students but be good art. In some cases the failure toward students is the goodness of the art—because it’s still a social sculpture. At the end of the day, the pedagogy subsumes under aesthetics. It becomes aesthetic.”

Something becomes aestheticized when it goes “from being normal life, to having the value that art has and operates within the market in the way that art does,” abreu explained. In this sense, alternative arts education models that invoke social sculpture or identify as a kind of larger artistic endeavor are still plausibly falling into the trend of marketization, which is all too familiar in American liberal arts education.

Because home school does not identify as social sculpture or an “art project,” so to speak, it also should not be construed as social practice art, a field with growing history, prominence, and currency in Portland.

“Let’s bring this all the way back to social practice,” said abreu when the subject arose, “That’s what we’re fighting against.” abreu’s inquiry raises the question: Under what circumstances should any kind of labor be defined or branded as art—and, when it is, who benefits from this? Moreover, whose labor is being capitalized upon? “There’s almost a market incentive to brand yourself that way, to even make that kind of work in the first place,” abreu mused about social practice art, continuing, “The dynamics are weird…They’re very white dynamics.”

Image courtesy of home school and MoMA PS1

Speaking of white dynamics, this comes to bear on the environment in which home school was conceived, and the fact that Portland is “whitest big city in America.” Abreu talked me through the mission of home school, which includes providing “welcoming contexts for critical engagement with contemporary art and its issues.” Part of home school’s mission stems from what abreu observed as a distinct lack of space for critique in Portland.

“We wanted to create a space for it, where someone could actually, earnestly, and semi-safely be like f*ck art, f*ck all this white shit, f*ck the PAM, f*ck Fourteen30 Contemporary, f*ck Elizabeth Leach [Gallery],” said abreu, adding, “You can’t say that here [in Portland]. You cannot. People are offended, and people are like, what do you mean? They’re cultural creators. They’re community resources. And I’m like, to what community? What resources?”

In actuality, critical engagement can be a form of generosity. “The fact that someone is paying attention to your work in a critical way is a gift, and it’s not a threat. It’s not toxic,” abreu reflected. “It’s actually generative and can form community.”

“A big part of the project for me has been just creating that cathartic space,” said abreu; and cultivating a welcoming and cathartic space has been an ongoing process that entails something of a paradox. “To actually truly be welcoming you have to be exclusionary,” abreu continued. “You have to consciously construct and facilitate a space that excludes toxic beliefs and behaviors—to not welcome racism, misogyny, ableism, queerphobia, all this stuff. The success of our work in that context is obviously up for debate. No space is safe. But we are committed to creating that context.”

Questions around power dynamics and censorship never cease to surface in any learning environment, which begs for careful consideration around who is being elevated through home school’s programming. Take, for example, the fact that no white man has given a talk at home school. “Very explicitly, we don’t want that,” said abreu, “They have other platforms. They’re good.” And while home school events are open to the public, the invitations are often very targeted to trusted circles of home school’s community who, presumably, are interested in engaging in critical discourse.

Abreu emphasized that the important artists who present work through home school—artists such as Demian DinéYazhi´, Melanie Stevens, and sidony o’neal, to name just a few—deserve a rigorous, critically engaged space and community where their work can exist and be experienced.

However, rigorous critical engagement also entails a level of reckoning with greater forces at play in our world.

As we moved on to discuss artistic medium and ephemeral work, abreu suggested: “If we accept that we can’t necessarily escape the market, we can [still] face up to it.” For abreu, this entails “taking, at face value, the claims of these tragic white art movements,” and facing up to the market by turning a critical lens toward art historical myths.

“When modernism, for example, or conceptualism talk about the political ramifications of themselves, you can take those claims at face value, take them seriously, but in a way that undermines the movements or kind of reveals their violence,” said abreu.

This might entail asking: What were the radical claims have been made by these art movements? What did these movements accomplish, and for whom, and, ultimately, to what end?

At this point in our conversation, I laughed and could not keep from remarking on the heartbreaking nature of it all. To this, abreu replied, “It’s only heartbreaking because we have a covert investment in it, and that’s exactly what I think needs to be drawn out.”

*****

You can support home school’s work by donating via Paypal to portland.home.school@gmail.com.

field day #2 is presented by home school, Diné artist Kevin Holden, and the Cooley Gallery, with support from black apotrope. field day #2 will take place 2-8 pm Saturday, June 23, at Reed College in the Psychology Building in rooms 102/103, and continuing throughout the day in the Psych building and Eliot 314. Schedule and rooms will be clearly posted.

field day #2 orients itself around medium-nonconforming, medium-agnostic, and medium-antagonistic gestures and practices in performance. For more information, visit the Cooley Gallery website.

the first and the last: An interview with kiki nicole and ariella tai

A new experimental film/video and new media arts project launches a series of programs by and for black femmes, women, and non-men

I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the barren one and many are my daughters. I am the silence you can not understand. I am the utterance of my name.

the first and the last, an experimental film/video and new media arts project germinating in Portland, takes its name from the epigraph above. It is spoken by the character Nana Peazant in the seminal film Daughters of the Dust, produced and directed by Julie Dash. In 1991, it became the first full-length film directed by a black, female-identifying director to be released in theaters across the nation.

Last week, I spoke with the first and the last curators, ariella tai (they/them) and kiki nicole (they/them), as they were gearing up for the Screening and Media Literacy Workshop with Melanie Stevens, taking place on April 19 and 20 at Ori Gallery. This will be the first of ten programs at various venues organized by the first and the last, including exhibitions and more screenings, skill shares, and workshops.

In a contemplative back-and-forth, tai and nicole—who are both black femme artists—articulated how the convergence of their experiences led them to create a series of programs by and for black femmes, women, and non-men in the context of the city of Portland, where the erasure of black communities and crisis of gentrification continue to propel dialogues and organizing efforts.

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“Tesla” lab report

Harmonic Laboratory's ambitious experimental multimedia performance produces mixed results

Introduction

Harmonic Laboratory’s most recent experiment investigated the question: Can a creative cooperative based in digital media, dance, and music successfully add a new theatrical element to its existing compound to produce an integrative, immersive multimedia experience? This lab report examines the results.

Preliminary Observations

Over the past decade, Eugene-based Harmonic Laboratory (HL) has racked up an impressive record of multimedia collaborations involving installations, dance, digital media. (Reference: “The Original Tesla,” Oregon ArtsWatch.) Its new production, Tesla: Light, Sound, Color, added a biographical element, a historical subject, and onstage science experiments to the mix.

Hypothesis

By adopting a recognizable subject that contains a built-in historical narrative, and adding onstage experiments to its newest performance, Harmonic Laboratory can broaden both its artistic scope and its audience.

Materials

  • Creative Heights grant from Oregon Community Foundation
  • Original music for string quartet and digital media by HL members Jeremy Schropp and John Bellona
  • Delgani String Quartet and other musicians from University of Oregon and OrchestraNext
  • Choreography, stage movement, costume, lighting & stage design by HL’s Brad Garner
  • Animation and projections by HL’s John Park
  • Guest animation work by Julia Oldham and Nathan Thomas
  • Dancers from Eugene Ballet and University of Oregon
  • University of Oregon Senior Physics Instructor Stanley Micklavzina and assistant Yohan Walter
  • Biographical facts from the life and work of American inventor Nikola Tesla
  • Performances in Eugene, Bend, and Portland.

Procedure

Tesla opened with a greeting from Garner, a brief overture, and a physics demonstration before actual stage action commenced: a Serbian roots group dance invoking Tesla’s southern European origins through an inward-facing, circular folk-dance like piece.

The next full dance number was inspired by Tesla’s invention of alternating current, followed by another physics demonstration. The first half closed with a bound-flow dance duet symbolically reflecting Tesla’s rivalry with Thomas Edison and a solo spotlighting Tesla’s showmanship, which helped him win support for his visionary ideas.

The second half began with animation inspired by energy field patterns and accompanied by Delgani Quartet’s performance of Schropp’s pulsating score. A pair of full company dances followed, one featuring projected white bird like animations recalling Tesla’s late in life affection for the pigeons who were often his only companions in the New York hotels he called home, and a second suggesting his ideas about wireless communication, some of which fueled the development of radio and later wi fi.

Another physics demonstration ensued before the show ended with a series of group dances accompanied by often dazzling, if sometimes predictable, animations and complementary music inspired by later chapters of Tesla’s life and the great inventor’s legacy.

Data

The experiment yielded useful data related to multimedia performance and context.

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Miss Anthology teaches the power of comics

Fueled by a Precipice Fund grant, Miss Anthology puts storytelling in the hands of diverse teens

By HANNAH KRAFCIK

Sequential art has a magical quality that is difficult to describe. The most beloved American comics seem to pique the imagination in particular way, with a perfect mix of narrative and imagery that keeps the comic book reader coming back and the graphic novella lover hungry for more. But for Melanie Stevens, one of the founders of the Miss Anthology project, there is far more potency to sequential art-making than meets the eye.

Stevens is originally from Atlanta, and she’s currently finishing her MFA in Visual Studies at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. This winter, she and her collaborators Emily Lewis and Mack Carlisle were awarded a grant via Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Precipice Fund to kick off Miss Anthology, a project that will enable racially and economically diverse female and genderqueer youth, ages 13-18, to create their own stories through sequential art (aka comics). Miss Anthology will offer a series of comic-making workshops, followed by the publication of an anthology of graphic work this fall.

I sat down with Stevens in early March to discuss Miss Anthology. She has a background in graphic novels and comics, a field she turned to when she could not afford art supplies and did not have access to an art studio space. The DIY nature of comics offered her a way to make narrative work and share it online, avoiding a slew of gatekeepers.

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‘Heart of a Forest’: Navigating environmental understanding

Multimedia 'acoustic portrait' of Cascade forest explores the experience of nature, deforestation and more

“Music is a mirror we hold up to society,” says Paul D. Miller. “It shows us things we didn’t think about or engage with enough.”

Better known as DJ Spooky, Miller’s new project Heart of a Forest, which he performs this week in Portland, Bend, and Newport, wants us to think more about, and engage with the forests we Oregonians cherish, yet may take for granted.

“People take a lot for granted right now,” he says. “That’s a tragedy at the beginning of 21st century. The issue for me isn’t about information. Now we get plenty of that stuff from politicians. Trump and politicians in the southern states are denying climate change. The [Republican] governor of Florida has forbidden state employees to use the words. We have too much information. The problem now is how to navigate it in a compelling way. ”

DJ Spooky performs 'Heart of a Forest' this week in Portland, Bend, and Newport.

DJ Spooky performs ‘Heart of a Forest’ this week in Portland, Bend, and Newport.

For more than two decades, the composer / turntablist / multimedia artist /author has been brilliantly remixing music, images, science, history and a wide range of interests into acclaimed projects like Re-Birth of a Nation with Kronos Quartet. Often seen at universities, festivals like the Venice and Whitney Biennales, venues including Carnegie Hall, TED Talks and more, lately the creative polymath been exploring the interaction of nature and art and information.

“It’s such a pleasure working with scientists,” he says. “Scientists in the Oregon state forestry department are concerned about the human impact on nature. Scientists are more important than ever. They really care about information. Information is one of the critical tools for thinking about the world around us. Art and information are reflections of each other, and science is the bridge.”

Representatives from Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature and the Written Word at Oregon State University reached out to Miller after learning about his National Geographic Explorer Award and similar projects he’d shown at the Sundance Film Festival. They offered him an artist residency at the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest in the Cascade Range under the project’s Long-Term Ecological Reflections program, which for a dozen years has invited writers and artists to interact with environmental scientists, explore the forest, and write or create art. Beginning in fall 2015, Miller visited the forest in each season to get a sense of how the environment changed throughout the year.

The result: Heart of a Forest, which Miller calls “a composer’s response to how art and music can interact with science and nature.

“I wanted to explore how to remix some of the ways we think about traditional forms of music versus digital interpretation of nature,” he wrote in his artist’s statement. “I am inspired by Thoreau and the collision of data, sound, and new ways to think of the absence of ‘origins’ – no one owns the forest and the sounds that it inspires.”

Its initial expression was a score for chamber orchestra performed last May in Corvallis’s LaSells Stewart Center by the OSU Wind Ensemble while Miller mixed electronic music and images of the forest. Inspired by Thoreau, the multimedia production draws on both classical (including a sly Vivaldi quote) and electronic music influences and incorporates video shot by drones floating over the forest, which Miller edited to complement his music score. This week’s performances will use only two to four musicians, with Miller mixing in samples from that score, loops and other electronic elements along with the projected video. It will be followed by an onstage conversation with a forest ecologist.

Which raises the question faced by other composers from Oregon and the Northwest and beyond: how do you turn a landscape — in this case a forest — into a composition?

“I think of these projects as ‘acoustic portraits,’” Miller told ArtsWatch. “Some people will go into the forest with a mike and record the crickets and that’s the piece. That’s cool, but that’s been a done a lot over the last 40 years, so for me it was important to try different paths.”

Given his fascination with information, Miller’s starting point was clear. “I look at data as sonic palette,” he explains. “So first I looked at patterns: not just natural patterns but the history of American forestry, the ratio deforestation to reforestation. Then how people have looked at issues facing the forest and how that bleeds back into peoples view of materials. [Musical] instruments are made from wood. Violins set the tone for a lot of classical music and they were made at a certain time from wood from forests in Europe starting in the Renaissance. Other instruments are made from more current materials.” His forest music skillfully employs both ancient acoustic instruments and modern electronics and digital sampling and loops.

I spoke to Miller the morning after a national election that will likely change the course of environmental protection, and therefore affect the fate of humanity. It makes this multimedia exploration of our precious Oregon forest even more urgent. Miller’s multimedia project may help us navigate that information through the musical lens  — make that the musical mirror — of some pertinent lessons from his time in the forest and other natural settings like the Antarctic.

“I just tend to think humanity has a deep arrogance about its relationship to power,” he says. “We still think we can control nature. We might be foolish, like lemmings rushing off a cliff. But when I was in the forest, I felt humbled. Nature is not sad or bad or good or evil. We’re part of it. That’s what I learned from the forest. We’re part of it.”

DJ Spooky Performs Heart of a Forest on at 7 p.m. November 9 at  Cheatham Hall at Portland’s World Forestry Center, on November 10 at Newport Performing Arts Center, 777 W. Olive Street, Newport, and on November 11 at High Desert Museum, 59800 South Hwy 97, Bend.

Want to read more about Oregon music? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!
Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

HBO’s ‘Divorce’: Over-dressed and underprepared

Sarah Jessica Parker's new HBO series has taken the safe route and that's a problem

By KOURTNEY PARANTEAU

Whenever actors portray characters of landmark importance, their subsequent roles carry the ghost of those past performance. Take any of the actors who’ve donned James Bond’s three-piece suit, Seann William Scott, or Sarah Michelle Gellar. An audience’s expectation can haunt the plausibility of an actor’s presence outside of the role they’ve become synonymous with.

Perhaps no one knows this better than Sarah Jessica Parker. Although already a success prior to appearing as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City (1998-2004), her legacy in Hollywood will always be sealed with a Cranberry Kiss and the click of Manolo Blahniks.

Carrie Bradshaw and her three best friends forever altered the face of television; unapologetically feminine and graphically sexual, Sex and the City proved there was a market for a female-dominated cable show. Since its airing, shows like Girls, Damages, Broad City, and many more of their ilk carry Carrie’s legacy. Now, over a decade after its finale, Divorce reunites Parker with HBO and teams them with Catastrophe co-creator, Sharon Horgan.

Sarah Jessica Parker in HBO's DIVORCE/Courtesy HBO

Sarah Jessica Parker in HBO’s DIVORCE/Courtesy HBO

Delivering on its title, Divorce tracks the crumbling marriage of a couple just past middle age. After settling into roles as professionals, parents and homeowners, the pair have grown out of their partnership and now live under a veil of passive aggression and resentment-laden antagonism.

Frances (Parker) and Robert (Thomas Hayden Church), while attending a birthday party, brush against their own mortality, and for Frances, the flash of crisis sobers her on the comfortable haze of her current life. She blindsides her husband with the request of divorce. Long disillusioned with her marriage, Frances maintains an affair with a granola-making, Peter Pan type, performs a job she empathetically coasts through, and harbors aspiration of opening an art gallery. The oppositions between Frances’s husband and her lover, her job and her passion, make her appear lost in the maze of “having it all” feminism that popular culture wants, maniacally, to believe exists.

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Music@Home: Desktops and devices are the new venues

Burgeoning availability of live streams gives Oregon contemporary and classical music lovers home access to concerts from around the world

Story and screenshots by GARY FERRINGTON

As I grow older, I find it more difficult to go out on those dark, wet and blustery Oregon evenings to enjoy a concert of classical or contemporary music. Although I’d prefer sitting in a venue enjoying a live performance, I know it won’t always be possible. So, it is with much personal pleasure that I’ve discovered Internet live-streaming and have spent the last couple of years exploring the availability of both statewide and worldwide concert performances.

Live From Beall: Otis Murphy (Saxophone) and Haruko Murphy (Piano) May 17, 2016.

Live From Beall: Otis Murphy (Saxophone) and Haruko Murphy (Piano) May 17, 2016.

With the click of a mouse or a tap on a trackpad or screen, music lovers can connect to streams of live music performances from most anywhere around the world on the internet. From major international festivals and concerts overseas to two Oregon colleges taking the lead in bringing live performances online, viewers and listeners who may seldom or never be able to experience distant concert events have the option to do so on their computers or mobile devices. The increasing availability of live streaming offers real benefits, beyond mere convenience, to composers, musicians, and music lovers in Oregon and beyond.

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