Field of Vision

Conference introduces national organization to Portland through performance and discussion of pressing issues in Oregon arts

A group of prominent Portland artists sat around a table with representatives of some of Oregon’s heaviest hitting arts funders, and the conversation was growing tense. How do funders determine which artists receive support, one artist asked, especially individuals and small organizations that might lack resources and track record compared to better-funded and -staffed institutions? Why do funds seem to flow to the same organizations year after year, even though the art they pay for doesn’t reflect the diversity of the community the organizations and artists both purport to serve? 

Such questions have long troubled Oregon’s art scene as it evolves into a more diverse community. But we seldom hear them voiced aloud in a public event, especially with both donors and recipients present. It’s even rarer for the conversation to proceed beyond accusation to explanation and understanding.

But that’s what happened last spring when Portland’s New Expressive Works hosted the 2019 National Field Network Conference. Presented by staff members from the national organization Jennifer Wright Cook and Shawn René Graham, local Field office representatives Jen Mitas and Katherine Longstreth, and conference consultant Subashini Ganesan, the two-day event — which included performances, installation, and discussion– introduced the New York-based arts organization The Field to Portland, and offered about 200 Oregon artists and arts advocates the chance to participate in conversations about the work The Field is doing, and related issues arts organizations face here.

Pepper Pepper performed excerpts from the forthcoming ‘Noise/Data’ at The Field conference. Image: Karl Lind.

Along with putting artists and art funders around the same table for candid discussions, the first day events presented The Field’s history and explained its Fieldwork method for giving artists needed feedback on their work. The second day featured a panel of Northwest artists discussing the role of social media and digital media in their art practices, plus several performances of dance, music, installation and multimedia art — a welcome injection of actual art into the discussion of arts issues. The event raised some tough but necessary questions about Oregon’s art scene pertinent to artists, presenters, funders, and audiences.

This weekend, Portlanders can see some of the fruits of The Field PDX’s work as artists who’ve received feedback through its Fieldwork process show their work at New Expressive Works’s 12th Residency Performance, where they participated in a residency with Longstreth.

Day 1: Redressing Imbalances

Founded in 1985 by choreographer Wendy Lasica in a loft in SoHo, New York, The Field started as a performance space supporting risk and experimentation. Her successor, artist Steve Gross, spearheaded the Fieldwork program, “a technique for artists to share work in progress and give and receive feedback peer to peer,” according to the organization.

Since then, the organization has helped thousands of artists around the country, including 1,600 last year alone, from up-and-comers performing in church basements to big names playing at Brooklyn Academy of Music, with a comparable range of budgets. The Field serves independent artists through fiscal sponsorship, grant writing, and workshops of all sorts, including Fieldwork.

The Field deputy director Shawn René Graham

In her opening presentation at the Portland conference, Field deputy director Shawn René Graham described its original members as young postmodern dance and movement artists, mostly white women and gay men, whose work wasn’t popular with the tastemakers of the time. Graham, a dramaturg with a background in artist management, is literary director of Classical Theater of Harlem, which looks at classics through an African American lens

Beginning about eight years ago, “under new leadership, the organization made a conscious pivot toward racial inclusion: the next hard place in the arts, the next frontier to pioneer,” Field PDX Network Manager Katherine Longstreth told ArtsWatch. Not only were they trying to eliminate gatekeepers, they were actively reaching out beyond the gates to include artists who’d never felt welcome.  “Who has the time and resources to make dance?” Longstreth asked rhetorically about her own artistic field. “It’s not just who you’re letting in, it’s also who can choose to make work and be able to make a living.” 

Those economic realities often exclude non-white artists. The Field’s New York organizers found that while people of color comprised almost two-thirds of New York’s population, only a quarter occupied positions of artistic leadership.  To level the playing field that keeps low-income artists and artists of color from taking advantage of opportunities for exhibition, performance, grants, and so on, the Field’s “artivists” set up “peer-to-peer artist sharing in order to disrupt the gatekeepers that keep diverse artists out,” said Graham. 

Since then, The Field has promoted inclusivity in the arts by examining hiring processes (including the language used in job descriptions and emphasis on academic credentials instead of artistic and leadership skills and experience), instituting training practices, creating leadership development programs for artists. They looked for areas of unconscious bias resulting from viewing art from a narrow Western European perspective, such as the body types favored in ballet, and worked to make Fieldwork more inclusive. For example, they removed non-inclusive language in applications, and replaced references to modern dance and German experimental theatre director Bertolt Brecht in descriptions of Fieldwork with a larger range of aesthetic and cultural forms.

The organization has spread its Fieldwork practice beyond its New York origins, setting up activity sites where artists (some with institutional affiliations like universities, some independent) run Fieldwork workshops. The Field extends to nine US cities so far, including among others Boulder, Cleveland, Washington, and, for the last three years, Portland, with Rose City Fieldwork joining Mitas and Longstreth’s FieldPDX satellite in offering Fieldwork programs. 

Longstreth, who grew up in New York City, learned of The Field by participating in a Fieldwork workshop led by Steve Gross. She then became an intern, a Fieldwork facilitator and finally Executive Director in the mid-1990s. Mitas and Longstreth met in New York as they both facilitated for The Field and then collaborated on a project. When they both moved to Portland (where Mitas grew up) they re-connected and resolved to initiate a Field site in Portland which they did in 2016. Suba Ganesan had already incorporated Fieldwork into her NEW Residency program, which is currently in its 13th cycle.

Katherine Longstreth in “O Where.” Photo: Marv Johnson

 They resolved to expand Fieldwork in Portland, opening a satellite office in 2017. This year, the national organization chose Portland to host its biennial national conference in April. 

Fieldwork & Feedback

Longstreth’s eloquent conference presentation defined Fieldwork as “a process in which artists show their work and receive feedback on how it is coming across. The goal is for viewers to reflect back what they see in the work as clearly as possible, without directing the work.”  The process assumes that audience members bring their own experience to any performance. “This is the practice of Fieldwork,” Longstreth said in her conference talk, “to acknowledge that I cannot be a blank slate; implicit bias exists in me; it is one of my cracks; but I am actively resisting it. It takes intent and effort to scrape a smooth spot, but that is my goal when I sit down to watch art, to make room for the imprint of another’s vision.” 

That openness demands a diversity of feedback providers. She told a story about how a jazz dance choreographer’s work was unfairly dismissed by another choreographer, whose aesthetic preference was for the post-modern style that dominates so many dance programs led by white artists. “Diversity is important so that the feedback is informed by a wide range of perspectives, [and] so that the viewers are challenged not to sink deeper into their aesthetic slouches, but instead to sit up and let more in,” Longstreth said.

Traditionally taking two to three months, “the goal of Fieldwork is to give artists an accurate reflection of their work as it is developing,” according to The Field’s website. It also helps stimulate creativity by providing a deadline structure, a creative community of collaborators and colleagues, and a safe and respectful environment that welcomes artists of diverse backgrounds.  A Fieldwork workshop provides “a specific way of giving artists feedback,” that allows artists to take risks with their work, Longstreth explained in an interview. “You can say some honest things in a way they can really hear without getting defensive.”

In Portland, she and Mitas are adapting the process to Portland artists. For example, in New York, 10-12 week workshops are the norm, but in Portland they found that four-week workshops work better. They have also recently introduced a new version of Fieldwork, On Call, a roving, peer-to-peer forum for artists to show their work in process and receive feedback during their own rehearsal times and at their own rehearsal spaces. “It’s like having a group of on-call doctors for your artwork,” Mitas explained. “The facilitator is one of many giving feedback. They can diagnose your problem.” The On Call series has already worked with artists at Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater and Amaya Alvarado and Kate Law at Circus Project.

Day 1: The Long Table

Fieldwork is aimed at giving useful feedback to individual artists. But several of the public events at the conference seemed to channel The Field’s feedback philosophy in discussions of Portland’s arts scene as a whole.

“Because questions about equity and the arts are also pressing here in Portland, we saw it as a way to both introduce Fieldwork to the broader community in Portland — but also to bring The Field and their kind of reckoning with racial equity to bear on the conversation,” Mitas said.  “We were surprised to find that the [Fieldwork] format was incredibly useful. Talking about issues around equity and race can be difficult, especially when it’s mostly white people and few people of color. We discovered that the Fieldwork tool and format could be useful for larger conversations with people reflecting on social and political issues and content larger than their artwork. The Fieldwork structure we used was supportive and enabled people to be brave and honest.” 

For Friday’s  culminating event cited at the beginning of this story, Mitas and Longstreth adopted the model of the Long Table, defined as “a project that combines theatricality and public engagement by appropriating a dinner party format.” The panel included a rare mix of artists, presenters and funders: Ganesan, Graham, Native Arts + Culture Foundation’s Reuben Roqueñi, Risk/Reward Festival’s Katie Watkins and Jerry Tischleder (also representing Oregon Community Foundation), Portland arts philanthropist Ronnie Lacroute, and Sara Yada and Stephan Herrera from, respectively, the Collins and Miller Foundations.   Topics for discussion: how do they “reckon with and redress the legacy of racism, trauma and inequality” through their work with artists? How have their organizations addressed equity? How do their selection/curation processes respond to the communities they serve? What role does feedback play in their processes? 

Although it was a little awkward at first — no one really knew who was supposed to direct the conversation, which may have been part of the point — the Long Table did provide a fascinating glance into how art gets funded. Lacroute, for example, eschews formal applications for conversations in her living room. The funders were challenged on lack of transparency, such as how they determine which artists receive support, especially individuals and small organizations that might lack resources and track record compared to better-funded and -staffed institutions. “A program officer can often look like a loan officer,” Herrera acknowledged. Results are often judged on a short term basis that militates against building long-term visions, demonstrating a need for strategic funding, not just single-project support. 

Carla Rossi calls the Long Table to order

To keep all this from getting too heavy, the conference engaged Portland’s premier drag clown, Carla Rossi (looking divine in platinum wig, high-altitude spike heels, glittering silver ensemble and walking/smiting stick) to keep the conversation moving, and grace a post-table mixer.

Ganesan, who is also Portland’s Creative Laureate, noted that even large institutions that received major funding weren’t immune to failure (for example, Oregon Ballet Theatre had to sell its building in 2015  to stabilize its finances), yet keep getting funded, while funders are loath to risk grants to smaller organizations that actually do deliver the goods. 

The funders took the criticism with apparent good grace, sometimes pointing out structural obstacles like IRS requirements, relatively small annual funding ability (compared to endowment size), glacial cultural changes, and short funding cycles. Of course, each of these questions could dominate a whole conference, so specific solutions didn’t really arise (beyond generalities like “getting to know the community you’re serving”) before Carla loudly stretched, glared at the participants, noted the expiration of the allotted hour, thanked the sponsors and ushered everyone out to the lobby, wielding her fearsome stick. “Lobby! Lobby! Lobby!” she shrieked at lollygaggers. As usual with Carla, her barbed humor simultaneously helped defuse and yet sharpen some of the tensions that had arisen (politely — this is still passive-aggressive Portland) in the discussion.

The FieldPDX’s Jen Mitas

“It really surprised me how tricky it was to have a conversation across levels of institutional power,” Mitas mused later. “For all the artists there, it felt intimidating to put their visions on the line with these cultural gatekeepers. Our original intention was keeping this space of equal exchange, but it wound up reinforcing the existing power dynamic.”

Nevertheless, the discussion did identify serious concerns and obstacles to the seemingly mundane yet absolutely vital question of attaching dollars to the quest for equity. Clearly it was a vital first step — but what’s next?

“The long table opened this huge can of worms, and now what?” Longstreth said. “We realized, oh my god, we need to do like five of these.” Amen. These funders, even those who don’t use public funds (but do get tax breaks for donations), play a vital role in determining what we see and hear on Oregon stages, and that role demands scrutiny and constructive feedback from artists, arts lovers, and the rest of the community.

Beyond the conference’s public events, Mitas and Longstreth also conducted eight different closed door, private sessions with representatives from other Field network sites, one of which applied the Fieldwork method in discussions about the network itself.

Day 2: Community Connections

  • Social Media

Saturday’s social media panel explored how participants manuel arturo abreu (videoconferencing from Seattle), Sarah Brahim, Kaj-anne Pepper, and Crystal J. Sasaki used social media in their artistic practices. In contrast to the optimism I remember from similar talks a decade or two ago, the prevailing characterization was: for artists these days, social media is a necessary evil. 

Brahim praised Facebook and Instagram as a way to check out other artists who inspire her and to get the word out about her own work, to assemble fans who know her, to recommend other artists, find out about classes. “It’s affected my performance up till 10 minutes ago,” she noted. She worries that it’s used to “make you feel like you need to buy a beauty product or go on vacation.” But at the same time, artists and audiences “like seeing each other’s faces,” she said. “It makes us feel connected.”

Sasaki agreed, finding Facebook’s Events function “useful for community building, to help you see what’s going out outside your direct bubble, and to stay in touch with people all over the world,” she said. With Instagram, “there’s a collective aesthetic thing when you see other artists doing similar things.“

Abreu noted that most people don’t see work in person anymore. “Entire careers have been built on social media,” he said, while grumbling that it’s impossible to avoid the commodification the platforms encourage. Entire conversations happen first online and then manifest in “meatspace.” 

Pepper said most fans first encounter their drag persona Pepper Pepper on the internet, and lamented that while artists use social media to build an audience, that audience “becomes a targeted demographic for marketing,” selling ads, tracking etc. 

  • Equity

A barefoot man in jeans and t-shirt strolled over to a rectangle of white paper on the NEW dance floor to ambient electronic sounds from speakers. Eventually a growling beat emerged, with sampled voices. The dancer (for it became apparent that’s what he was) knelt before the rectangle, then began to move through a series of deliberate, stylized motions — eating, unleashing an arrow from a bow,  and more. 

Meshi Chavez at The Field Conference

The dancer, Meshi Chavez, provided a living demonstration of the value of NEW’s mission, which nurtured his work. It was a singular treat to attend a conference on arts issues that actually included examples of the arts being talked about. Ganesan identified several equity issues in Portland arts, beginning with this equation: Diversity + inclusion ≠ equity. While efforts to broaden arts access are valuable and commendable, taken alone, they don’t make the arts scene equitable. That’s a much bigger issue. “Equity isn’t a process, it’s a light switch,” Ganesan said. Until Portland arts achieves equity, no one should be content with merit badges for incremental progress.

But how to get there? Organizations have to “think beyond the equity statement,” Ganesan said, beyond “best practices.”  Presenters shouldn’t expect diverse communities to suddenly approach them when they’ve been excluded for long. Artists and presenters need to find bridge makers from those communities to connect artists to them, listen to them — and pay them for their work. 

“We cannot build relationships only in times of crisis,” Ganesan said. “We must build relationships no matter what. Then in times of crises, they can help us.”

  • Affordable Spaces

 Ganesan, Chavez and veteran Portland choreographer and Performance Works Northwest founder Linda Austin lamented Portland’s notorious decrease in affordable arts spaces, and urged organizations to find ways to share their spaces with other artists. Residency programs like those at NEW and PWNW have opened spaces for emerging artists like Chavez. NEW’s program has “not just created art and work,” Ganesan noted, “ but also created communities. And the artists involved have been able to leverage the work developed there into grants that produced more creations. She said more than 200 artists have created work through the program since its inception in 2012.

But the session was more devoted to raising crucial questions than providing answers. “How do we connect available spaces to artists who need it?” Ganesan asked. This seems like a role the city’s arts agency could facilitate. “How can I connect to communities I’m not personally connected to?” Austin wondered. “How do we get to the underlying issues that cause the inequity” that so many are seeking solutions for, Chavez asked. 

Portland Creative Laureate Subashini Ganesan. Photo: K.B. Dixon

“Portland has a lot of work to do because Portland thinks it’s so liberal,” Chavez said, in my favorite quote of the weekend. “I always say I like my racism to be explicit because then I know where it is.“ For their part, artists, too, have work to do, he noted, liking learning to ask for help.

Despite the necessary gloom involved in raising these vital issues, Ganesan did see a way forward — in events like this one. “One asset we have is that in Portland we do talk and come together and share solutions,” she said. The Field is providing an important place for that to happen.

Austin ended the session with more dance, accompanied by glitchy sounds over a slow, steady thumping beat, almost like scratchy old vinyl records. She moved frenetically, seemingly searching desperately through a room full of heavy hanging curtains. Sinking to the floor, she finally rose, continued making her way through the invisible obstacles, ending in a flamingo pose, balanced on one foot — a precarious posture that embodied the state of Portland arts in 2019.

Day 2: Art on Premises 

Unlike other arts-discussion gatherings, this one actually felt like it was designed by artists. Sure, there were talks and discussions — but also, well, art. 

Sarah Brahim’s turbulence part 1 mixed a half-dozen live dancers against a projected backdrop of a film by Vi Son Trinh showing a woman in a hijab dancing in front of an apartment building. The onstage dancers echoed some of her movements while uttering such condescending phrases as “your English is so good” and “you’re so articulate.” The dancers frequently bent, fell,  rested, and rose again, trying to make their way forward while buffeted by an invisible windstorm—a physical manifestation of the fatiguing necessity imposed on women of color to constantly explain themselves in a white-dominant society. Suddenly the screen scene shifted to a natural setting, with the dancers moving in unison and in sync with the woman on screen, with all finally curling into child’s pose. As the image dimmed and faded, a list of rules of engagement appeared. *get list from Jen*  “Creative disruption is useful,” read one, and I thought immediately of Carla Rossi. 

An “interactive musical story” co-created by Douglas Detrick (on banjo, trumpet, and electronics) and looper/violinist Joe Kye, The Bear in the Room used an interview Detrick recorded with his friend Ratnanjali Adhar about her experience working on a biological research project in Denali National Park. An unexpected encounter with a bear, combined with “her experience as a researcher, as an Indian woman, and as an immigrant all mixed together as she reevaluated her own views on conservation,” Detrick wrote. 

Sarah Brahim’s ‘turbulence part 1′. Image: Karl Lind.

The piece fit the theme of the conference by employing literal feedback: the effervescent Kye conducted audience sounds—rubbing hands, drumming fingers, shushes, giggles, grumbles etc.—which Detrick live-sampled and transformed into sound sources. I also appreciated the humor in Karen Polinsky’s installation CPU: Do You See Me? in the NEW lobby, which attendees could engage between programs. One part, a vintage 1964 primitive AI program called Eliza set up on a modern desktop computer, responded to typed questions (feedback, again) with a primitive algorithm that sounded like a cross between a Freudian psychoanalyst and one of those unavoidable, infuriating corporate voicemail runarounds (“all right, I see you want ‘delete white privilege.’ Let me help you with that.”) After Eliza replied “Does talking about this make you uncomfortable?” and “Tell me more about that” for the umpteenth time, I had to escape the feedback loop. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way in real life. Other between-session activities offered participants the chance to recline in a Freudian chaise longue, and to have a one on one session with a therapist on-site. 

Pepper also performed, offering fascinating excerpts from a work-in-progress featuring the text Disavowels by Claude Cahun. These artistic elements not only lent variety to the sometimes weighty subject matter, they also reminded us what all the talk was really, after all, about: making art.

Art & Equity: Continuing Conversation

The conference’s emphasis on viewing equity through a lens of white dominance of American arts struck a special chord with me, as my primary subject of coverage has been classical music. The form has long privileged a relatively narrow range of repertoire created by a demographically monochromatic slice of humanity: primarily white male composers from 18th and 19th century Central Europe. Why does some music, primarily written by long dead white European males, receive relatively abundant public support, and other music not so much? 

In the arts, questions of diversity and inclusion often manifest in dollars. Who gets how much and why? Millions in public subsidies (not just direct grants, but also venues and institutions limited to certain narrow musical expressions) have flowed to performances of music that admittedly appeals to more than just white Europeans, and seems to many of its fans, like me, to be a timeless and essential part of humanity’s legacy. 

Yet there’s a lot of other great music out there not created by white people or Europeans; I play and sing some of it myself. That music boasts legions of admirers, but  doesn’t receive comparable public support. Why not? 

This issue has long been discussed and lamented in classical music, and it’s happened for lots of reasons that don’t necessarily flow from racist intentions—the instruments (mostly developed centuries ago) institutionalized in orchestras, for example. Still, American classical music programming racism goes way back, and here in the diverse America of the 21st century, we — programmers, presenters, journalists, performers — need to examine the privilege, including subsidies, granted to this narrow slice of music, and work toward equity in public support of music. What might that look like in the context of orchestral and chamber music? Is it enough to perform token amounts of music written in a 19th century European tradition by composers of color? What if the performers themselves are neither white nor of European descent? Even audience behavior “rules” may stem from colonialist attitudes. So many more questions, and the answers aren’t simple.

As Longstreth noted, these questions of privilege transcend art forms and extend to who gets to participate in them. Discussions about affordability and sustainability of artistic communities go way back. But viewed through the lense of white dominance, as well as Oregon’s changing demographic character, they become about more than economics or aesthetics — they’re also about justice. 

Ultimately, moving toward equity is going to mean more resources going to those who have historically not had equal access to them, and that’s an inherently political issue that demands a political response. All the artists in Oregon talking to each other isn’t going to solve that problem. 

Kye and Detrick performed ‘The Bear in the Room’ at the conference. Image: Karl Lind.

After hearing some of Portland’s major obstacles to equitable art, and some of the Field’s past approaches to addressing them in New York and elsewhere, I wanted another discussion about how to apply the latter solutions to the former problem. Or any solutions, of whatever origin. Detrick, for example, did an admirable job of finding bridge makers in the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s From Maxville to Vanport project. I wish he’d had a chance to talk about it at the conference. Any chance to hear Pepper, whether in performance or discussion, is valuable, and I really appreciated the honesty, vulnerability and insights offered in the social media panel. But it made me wish for another forum that would give one of Oregon’s brightest artists to participate in solution-building, not just problem-raising. 

All that would have gone way beyond the scope of this event. You can’t solve a problem without first understanding it, though, and The Field conference spotlighted general and specific aspects of white-dominant cultural domination in the arts –setting the (long) table for further conversations and, I hope, action.

From Process to Progress

So, now what? Portland is notorious as a process town where everybody talks endlessly but little happens, and somehow, important underlying concerns of those left out of conversations never quite get addressed. Discussions of equity, inclusion, gentrification in arts are nothing new here. But somehow, hearing them raised in this format, with funders from foundations, and placed in the context of white dominance, lent a different kind of urgency. 

And also a sense of possibility. If an organization like The Field could, with the help of an artistic and not just policy perspective, examine itself and honestly see ecosystem’s shortcomings and its place in them, maybe a larger community like Portland could do the same. If there’s anything art can uniquely help us do, it’s see reality from different angles.

The Field’s approach could be valuable to an arts community that desperately needs honest feedback about what to do about historical inequity, lack of inclusion, and economic forces like gentrification that are exacerbating them. The organization has found a way to bring different voices and perspectives into this equity conversation, and to approach long-standing issues in a new way. By helping us see gentrification, inequality and lack of inclusion in our arts world as part of a much larger framework — white dominance — they promise to add a valuable new perspective to an enduring and increasingly urgent conversation.

“The skills that we practice in Fieldwork feel more important to me today than ever,” Longstreth said. “To listen harder, look deeper, perceive more, in order to engage another’s vision. Perhaps giving intensive and generous focus to one another is the most radical thing we can do today in our era of distractedness and half-focus. And perhaps this type of attention could lead to an expanded way of seeing altogether.”

ArtsWatch welcomes that discussion here. Tell us what you think: how should Oregon arts move toward greater equity? And specifically for us here at OAW, what kinds of arts equity-oriented stories should we be exploring here?

Fruits of Feedback

Along with this weekend’s NEW Expressive Works residency showcase (which includes Sunday’s Youth-Centered Residency Performance) other artists appearing at the Field Conference have shows happening this fall. 

  • Linda Austin’s Performance Works NW is having a fundraiser with performers including Pepper Pepper, Katherine Longstreth, and other top Portland movers and shakers  November 15-16.
  • Douglas Detrick has started a new podcast and ensemble that includes Joe Kye, and which includes discussion of social issues as well as music.

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