Feed on
Posts
Comments

Campus and Community Engagement Intern Michele Ko ’16 talks to Leila Buck ’99, Israa Saber ’17 and Casey Smith ’17 about “In/Between: Pieces in Progress.”

How do we balance the many roles we play, owning our identities and wanting to belong? How do we know what we think we know, see what we don’t, view ourselves and each other and engage in the spaces between? This Friday, April 17 and Saturday, April 18 at 8 pm in World Music Hall, Lebanese American writer, performer and teaching artist Leila Buck ’99 will explore these questions in “In/Between: Pieces in Progress,” a work-in-progress sharing of a collaborative theatrical work.

As part of Muslim Women’s Voices at Wesleyan, the piece reflects Buck’s semester-long engagement and collaboration with a tight-knit group of students. Throughout the spring semester, Buck met with two groups: one group of students who identify as being of Muslim heritage or culture in some way and another group of student allies interested in the topic of Muslim women. Meeting once or twice a week, Buck and the students created an informal space to talk about issues related to Muslim women, such as Charlie Hebdo and “Je Suis Charlie,” the recent shootings in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, representations of Muslims in mainstream media, feminist politics and personal experiences. Based on these conversations and interactions, Buck began crafting theatrical scenes, storytelling and playful improvisations that will be at the heart of the work-in-progress showing on April 17 and 18.

“It’s been a really wonderful opportunity to have a group of students who are so interested and engaged and coming from all these different backgrounds academically and personally and culturally, give me their thoughts and reflections on things that I’m investigating,” Buck said. “To be able to have a group where I could talk through my ideas and trust them to understand what it is I am trying to create and hear their responses and get their feedback, has just been enormously helpful in and has shaped the piece.”

The students who were involved joined the project for a variety of reasons. For Israa Saber, a sophomore majoring in Government with a Middle Eastern Studies certificate, contributing her own experience as a Muslim woman to the project was important to her.

“Finding out that this would be happening here and I could help in it and give my perspective, which isn’t really asked for very often, was something that I really wanted to do to make sure Muslim women’s voices are heard,” Saber said.

Students rehearse with Leila Buck in World Music Hall.

Students rehearse with Leila Buck in World Music Hall.

 

For Casey Smith, a sophomore majoring in CSS with certificates in Middle Eastern Studies and International Relations, the project was a continuation of her work with Leila the previous semester, when she audited Leila’s class, Beyond “the Veil”: Representations and Realities of Muslim Women in the U.S.. Smith had spent the summer before in Oman on a scholarship from the State Department to study Arabic and planned to engage with her experiences in Leila’s fall semester class and spring semester project. Once Smith began attending the meetings, her relationship to the project shifted as she found many connections to her academic studies.

“First I thought I was going to contribute like, ‘Oh, I’ve lived in the Middle East for a bit and met a lot of Muslim women’ and that was my first way in,” said Smith. “But for CSS and other classes I read a lot of political and social theory and the more academic perspective of things we’ve been talking about. I found myself being like ‘Oh, I’m going to email Leila my Middle Eastern Studies paper’ or ‘Oh, this is a paper I wrote last year in my Islam class about the historical context for representations of Muslim in the media.’ So I think my academic background has fit really nicely into this project and I’ve been able to contribute a lot of theory.”

Participating in Leila’s artistic process has also influenced the students’ perspectives on art and art production. For Smith, being involved in the project allowed her to reevaluate the connections between art, social change and academics.

“I had never really experienced using art as a mode of social commentary or advocating for awareness of social justice issues before this, so I think that’s been cool to interact with an issue I’m interested in academically in a way that is connected to the arts,” said Smith. “I’m a dancer, so I’ve done a lot of arts stuff, but I’ve never really combined my academic interests with arts.”

The project also allowed students to form bonds with each other and with Leila. The connections Saber formed through this project has impacted her relationship to Wesleyan.

“My town that I lived in and the communities I’ve always been a part of have been majority Muslim, specifically Egyptian Muslims, so coming to Wesleyan and finding no one, especially last year when I was the only person wearing a hijab, it was just very alienating. There was no one I could really connect to. I had thought of transferring out to a place with more Muslims that I could connect to especially because there was very limited activities with the Muslim Student Association and there wasn’t an Arab student group here,” Saber said. “But now, I guess this project was what convinced me to stay, honestly. I was like finally, I’ll have someone to connect to or someone who looks like me, grew up like me. I’m so happy this project happened. I really needed it.”

Smith developed a close relationship to Leila through being in her class last semester and engaging with this project.

“She’s the kind of person who’s very open and I am able to contact her about things that aren’t about this project,” Smith said, pointing to how she once made turkey chili with Leila at her house or how she called Leila after the Chapel Hill shootings. “She’s just really good at being there for her students as humans with feelings and not just as people to teach and then leave at the door,” Smith said.

The project has also influenced Saber and Smith’s reflections on their futures. Saber found inspiration in Leila’s work to work with Muslim communities.

“Meeting with Leila was kind of a ‘you can do what you love and still do it for the people that you identify with,” said Saber. “I’ve been feeling a lot of ‘what do I want to do with my life?’ because I also want to work with the Muslim- Middle Eastern community. So it was inspirational, sort of like, ‘you know what, I’ll just do it.’” Saber is interested in journalism and international law, particularly human rights law.

The project provided Smith, who is interested in working to address women’s rights in the Middle East, with new perspectives on social justice work. “Leila’s work has made me think a lot about how feminism, that’s kind of a Western movement, can overlap with cultures that aren’t Western and how can we find a way to reconcile those two things. It’s made me want to work with Muslim women and at organizations that aren’t just a bunch of Western people deciding what’s wrong with the rest of the world,” Smith said.

Looking towards this weekend’s performance, Buck reflected on the importance of the collaborative process. “Whatever happens on Friday or Saturday, this group and the process we’ve gone through together has been the greatest journey of this project for me,” Buck said. “That and the class I taught [in the fall] has been so profoundly meaningful and inspiring and has been by far the most important thing I feel I’ve done during my residence at Wesleyan. I hope very much that we are able to share our goals and that journey and invite the audience into it.”

Being on stage at Wesleyan this weekend will also have sentimental value for Buck, a Wes alumus.

“It’s been really meaningful to come back to the campus where I started to write and where I was formed as an artist,” said Buck. “I feel that Wesleyan students and professors that I’ve engaged with have such an ability to see the complexity and the gray area and the nuance of things and to look for it when it’s not being shared. They also are so open to self-reflection and recognizing the importance of putting yourself and your background in context. That has been so valuable to work with,” said Buck.

 

 

 

A Body in Fukushima

a-body-in-fukushima_event

 

Feet to the Fire Intern Rebecca Wilton discusses Eiko Otake and Bill Johnston’s “A Body in Fukushima.” 

Eiko Otake and Bill Johnston’s A Body in Fukushima overwhelms. Spread through three galleries, the sheer number of photographs and videos presented dominate the senses and in each space it takes a moment to get your bearings. When finally you are able to refocus and notice the prints individually, from gallery to gallery they continue to destabilize and confront the viewer with their fragility.

I sat in on an open workshop of Eiko’s course, Delicious Movement, where she challenged us to move uselessly, using our body as a landscape and the floor as a tool. When a student expressed frustration at her struggle to move this way, confused at the difficulty of trying to move with ease, intuitively, Eiko discussed the importance of struggle and difficulty in her work. Traveling to Fukushima, placing herself in danger of radiation poisoning, instead of fleeing the pain of the disaster, Eiko places herself at the center of it in an intimate embrace. And the photographs in the exhibition are not easy to look at – the bright swaths of blue sky in almost every print serve as a reminder of the life that used to inhabit these spaces. Eiko’s presence in the immense scenes of destruction highlights the lack; her body becomes a house of remembrance that holds the individuals still exiled from the contaminated communities.

In her workshop, Eiko returned again and again to the metaphor of regeneration to inspire our movements: “There are flowers growing all over your body – even if you crush one here [grabbing her chest], one may grow here [her back] or here [her leg] or here [her arm]!” The images in A Body in Fukushima that do show signs of life capture boundaries – edges of forests at abandoned subway stations, for example. Creeping in on the desolation, these shreds of verdant landscape cast a primordial aura over the post-nuclear, post-apocalyptic realm of Eiko’s Fukushima. The photographs evoke the tension of humankind’s existence on earth – after we have been undone by our own creations, what is left? Plants reclaim the space vacated temporarily by humans, negotiating a landscape traumatized by the push and pull between natural resources and those who use them.

Although the portions of the exhibition in the Davison Art Center and CFA South Gallery are now closed, Eiko and Bill’s video installations remain on display in the Center for East Asian Studies through May 24. And if you happen to be around during Reunion and Commencement, the South Gallery installation will be up for an encore presentation from May 21-24.

Campus and Community Engagement Intern Michele Ko ’16 discusses the CFA’s student engagement strategies. 

What if arts engagement programming was like an a la carte menu. What would you pick? A talk about an upcoming performance? A workshop with the artist? Maybe an intimate lunch or dinner followed by discussion? These are all ways that the Creative Campus Initiative at the CFA is experimenting with student engagement with the arts. One could think of it like a pyramid – a three-tiered strategy that gives participants an opportunity to pick the level they are comfortable in and have a variety of opportunities to choose from.

At the base of the pyramid is the beginner level, where engagement appeals to students who have little to no knowledge of the arts or CFA programming. These students might be attending a CFA event for the first time or seeking more informal ways to interact with art. Moving up the pyramid, the intermediate level attracts students who have a bit more comfortability with the arts; maybe they are enrolled in a related course or have previously expressed interest in a particular art form. At the top of the pyramid is the advanced level, which targets students who are very invested in the arts, such as studio art and art history majors or students who create art on campus or in collaboration with the CFA. The hope is that with the right programming, students will find an appealing entry point into the arts and may potentially move up the pyramid. At every level the main goal is to encourage students to invest in attending CFA programs.

Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental: '17 Borders Crossing'

Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental: ’17 Borders Crossing’ 

The easiest ways to engage students who are unfamiliar with the arts is through supporting course modules and co-taught courses, which emphasize a cross-disciplinary approach to teaching, learning and researching. Modules entail non-art faculty collaborating with an artist to teach two to four class sessions in an existing course. For this semester’s module, ENVS 255 Getting a Bigger Picture: Integrating Environmental History and Visual Studies, Associate Professor of History Jennifer Tucker is working with Amy Lipton, co-Director of the Eco Art Space. Co-taught courses are created and taught by two faculty members, one from the performing arts and one from a non-arts discipline. This semester, postdoctoral teaching fellow Helen Mills Poulos and choreographer Jill Sigman are teaching ENVS 201 Research Methods in Environmental Studies: River Encounters.

Other beginner-level events involve facilitating informal conversations about art, such as the “Artful Lunch Series,” where students and faculty discuss their favorite works in the Davison Art Center over bagged lunches. This semester’s series features presentations by Professor of History and Letters Laurie Nussdorfer, Assistant Professor of Art History Claire Grace and Lucas McLaughlin ’15.

Another way to engage beginner students is through social media platforms. As part of the “Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental: ‘17 Borders Crossing’ (Connecticut Premiere),”  the CFA invited students to participate in an essay writing contest on Facebook. By connecting to students on Facebook, the CFA reached students who may not normally engage with the CFA.

Tari Aceh! Music and Dance from Northern Sumatra

Tari Aceh! Music and Dance from Northern Sumatra

On the intermediate level, the CFA engages students who are more familiar with the arts and the CFA’s work. Some of these programs also open up opportunities for students to become more advanced engagers. In conjunction with “Tari Aceh! Music and Dance from Northern Sumatra,” for example, the CFA hosted a free dance workshop that allowed students to directly and physically engage with the performers, the dance form and Indonesian culture.

Dine/Dance/Discover events, which take place before and after Breaking Ground Dance series performances, seek to build a community of engaged students. The program enhances the experiences of students who are typically well acquainted with dance. The consistent set of programs also reinforces their engagement with the arts and the CFA.

Advanced engagers have a high comfort level with exploring topics through the arts and are often artistic producers or curators on campus or with the CFA. Engaging these students involves giving them the opportunities to embark on their own artistic projects or engage very deeply in the artistic process with a visiting artist.

Feet to the Fire, in collaboration with the COE and the Green Fund, gave three students the opportunity to develop their own multimedia project exploring the Coal River Valley of southern West Virginia. Rachel Lindy ’15, Rachel Weisenberg ’15 and Isaac Silk ’14 spent the summer living in the area, interviewing residents and taking photographs. The project was put on display in Zelnick Pavillion in February. By sharing their images and stories, they hope to encourage dialogue around fossil fuel consumption.

Betty Lou. Rachie Weisberg. August 2013

Betty Lou. Rachie Weisberg. August 2013

One major advanced level program is the “makers workshops,” where visiting artists help students create their own art related to the artist’s work, concepts or show. Last year, artist Evan Roth visited Wesleyan and participated in a makers workshop in association with his show “Evan Roth//Intellectual Property Donor.” Drawing on the show’s themes of open-source, activism and digital media, students identified systems and urban conditions ripe for hacking at Wesleyan and turned them into participant-driven art works. Later this semester, visiting singer/songwriter Omnia Hegazy will participate in a songwriting makers workshop on Thursday, March 26, with students interested in music and writing.

The new Design Digital Design studio, which opened in January 2015, provides a more ongoing, permanent space for art students to conceptualize and produce their own work in a meaningful way. Students interested in art, photographic, architecture, graphic design and more are encouraged to work on digital design projects in the space in conjunction with other students and faculty.

An illustrative way to see the pyramid strategy at work is by looking at how the programming of one visiting artist engages each level, such as Montreal-based Algerian singer-songwriter and rapper Meryem Saci’s visit last fall. Saci engaged beginner level students through numerous class visits as well as post-class lunches, which gave students the opportunity for intermediate engagement. Saci also engaged in informal, moderated conversation with Turath House residents. Saci even attended one of the the Rap Assembly’s cypher – a group of highly engaged Wesleyan rappers.

The CFA is not alone in its engagement strategy. Colleges across the country are experimenting with new and innovative ways to involve their student body in the arts. At colleges like MIT, Virginia Tech and the University of Michigan, engagement takes a number of forms, from arts-based entrepreneurship festivals to master classes with professional dancers to art-making events during Welcome Week for freshmen. Check out their events with these links: MIT, Virginia Tech and the University of Michigan. Where would you fall on the pyramid?

During the fall semester of 2014 students in the Writing About Dancing Seminar at Wesleyan University have been documenting and archiving Associate Professor of Dance Katja Kolcio’s Fall Faculty Dance performance To Not Forget Crimea: Uncertain Quiet of Indigenous Crimean Tatars and have created a Facebook page with photos, drawings and writing about the various talks and dances that were a part of the event.

To Not Forget Crimea: Uncertain Quiet of Indigenous Crimean Tatars was done in collaboration with New York Crimean Tatar Ensemble MusRocks in seaical Director Nariman Asanov and Yevshan Ukrainian Vocal Ensemble Conductor Alexander Kuzma. It explores issues of historical memory, cultural narrative, and the quest for human rights, as they relate to the history of Tatars, native inhabitants of Crimea, and their complex relationships with Ukraine and Russia. The performance  incorporated live music by the New York Crimean Tatar Ensemble directed by Nariman Asanov; the Yevshan Ukrainian Vocal Ensemble conducted by Alexander Kuzma and bandurists (plucked string folk instrumentalists) Olya Fryz, Larissa Krasij, Irene Kytasty Kuzma, Alina Kuzma, Joanna O’Flaherty, Luda Yurkevych, and Stefan Zaets; Julian Kytasty; the Wesleyan University student vocal group Slavei; and Wesleyan student dancers.

This project was co-sponsored by Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts, Dance Department, Government Department, Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life, and the Ukrainian Selfreliance New England Credit Union. Made possible in part by a grant from Wesleyan University’s Creative Campus Initiative, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

This event was also part of Muslim Women’s Voices at Wesleyan.

Campus and Community Engagement Intern Sharifa Lookman ’17 reflects on interviews with Creative Campus Fellow Faye Driscoll and DanceLink Fellow Chloe Jones’15 in an examination of the interdisciplinary and multifaceted role of dance in the course “Repertory and Performance: Thank You For Coming.”

Thank You For Coming.  Photo by Julie Lemberger.

Thank You For Coming.
Photo by Julie Lemberger.

I like to pretend that I know what art is and what it means to be “artsy”. Three years of arts high school where I learned the color wheel while taking AP classes and doing volunteer work misguided me into thinking that I also knew what it meant to be “interdisciplinary”. As the Campus and Community Engagement Intern my understanding of and exposure to interdisciplinary arts has been redefined. The mission of the Creative Campus Initiative at Wesleyan’s Center for the Arts is to create curricular and co-curricular activities in the arts that promote creativity and innovation both for students and faculty as well as artists. The Creative Campus Fellowship, which brings working artists into a university environment to accrue research for their project while teaching a class, adds new depths to the interdisciplinary understanding of the visual and performing arts.

I had the opportunity to sit down with choreographer, dancer, and Wesleyan University Creative Campus Fellow in Dance Faye Driscoll and her student DanceLink Fellow Chloe Jones ‘15. Through this fellowship Driscoll is researching and developing the project Thank You For Coming: Playin addition to teaching the course “Repertory and Performance: Thank You For Coming: Play”, an opportunity to gather research for her project. In addition to being given the inside scoop into the class, I had the opportunity to look into the minds of two artists who are seeking to re-define the field of dance performance, in the process re-conceptualizing their physical and emotional selves.

Speaking with Driscoll helped to create, what I find to be, a very helpful vocabulary for both defining dance and its integration with the other disciplines and further relating such study to a reconceptualization of our physical and emotional selves. Driscoll describes the title Thank You For Coming: Play as being emblematic of the project itself, despite its changing nature “its also directive in some sense, the word, or command, because I’m dealing with the act of make-believe and creating belief.”

Speaking with Driscoll about her childhood brought back memories of mine, both involving precocious kids with a penchant for creativity. Faye describes her younger self as “one of those kids who just knew that was what I wanted to do from like the age of four”. Illustrative of the type A, whirlwind of a child we knew, and envied, from our childhood, Driscoll would put on shows by herself, what she describes as being “often very political things that I knew or heard about going on in the world and would make a piece about it or perform a poem that I wrote about it.” Driscoll underlined her passion for the art form with this quick and nostalgic glimpse into her childhood fueled with naivety and creativity. With refocused eyes Driscoll said in earnest, “I think I just have this need to do it.”

This inherent need and passion inspired her to pursue dance, a practice that she quickly learned was not dependent solely on creativity, but rather the interconnectivity of creative expression and discipline and technique. Recalling this realization Driscoll said, “I think at one point my mom said, ‘if you do really want to do this, you have to actually go to class. And I loved dance class. It was the structure that fueled my creativity.”

Perhaps like many Wesleyan students Driscoll grew up in an environment that fostered creativity and expression. “I think that I really responded to this kind of structure and discipline that dance gave me. I think that those two things are in my work still – a lot of structure, a lot of layers, and a lot of detail. And then also this sense of irreverence, this sense that I can make whatever I want from whatever is closest, nearest, and whatever I want to grab from I can.”

The structure of Driscoll’s work incorporates this naivety and creativity integral to childhood and juxtaposes it with technical training. Integral to Driscoll’s work is a disintegration of the social and disciplinary constructs of dance in which technique is separate from creative expression. Dricoll argues a connectivity of these two factors, but additionally notes her desire to do anything but. Integral to Driscoll’s work is a sense of hybridization and a focus on the interdisciplinary relationships in the visual and performing arts. In speaking with Driscoll she noted the idea of the studio as a laboratory, almost bringing the field of dance into a realm likened to that of science. This vernacular adds an interesting, and yet unintentional, interdisciplinary element.

Inherent in her work is a passion and argument for reimagining the arts in addition to a defense for dance as a unique discipline that should be recognized as such.

“I want dance to be more central and I think that dance is a very radical art form that is often kicked down, kicked to the curb and seen as a lesser form. So I kind of like enjoying calling it all dance even though someone might see it and say that’s its not dance, y’know saying, ‘where’s the pirouette?’”

Driscoll asserts some very interesting points. The contemporary organization of the visual and performing arts is based on integration of the arts, but there is a fine line between integration and diffusion. Everything gets shaped into one conglomerate and they work together, but then at the same time the hierarchies between disciplines aren’t always broken down. This raises questions that we should consider at the Center for the Arts. In addition to fostering the interdisciplinary nature of the arts, they do need to be classified in some capacity.

The notion of interdisciplinary is fostered here at Wesleyan. This can be seen in the testimony of Chloe Jones, a Dance and Hispanic Literatures & Cultures major. Originally, however, she started out as a College of Letters major. Though she shifted her academic interests while abroad she continued to foster this interdisciplinary approach to her education and learning. She said “ I had a professor in the College of Letters tell me once that it isn’t really interdisciplinary, its multidisciplinary in the way that you get to draw from all of these different disciplines and then its up to you to integrate them. I think it’s something that has really stuck with me over the past few years is this idea of like drawing from lots of different disciplines and then your job as the student is to make those connections.”

Jones attended Driscoll’s initial lecture with a friend who is a COL major and were so taken by it that they both decided to take the class. This shows that, though rooted in dance, it is a topic and project that addresses issues of the self with so much universality that it appeals to all disciplines.

Jones described the lecture itself: “It was so rich, so much depth, so tangible and relatable and just like raw. And I felt like I could really see some of the ideas that she was bringing up in the talk: this broad idea of what is means to be a body in a world of Somebodies. And what does it mean to sort of be a co-creator of this narrative/reality that we are all living and how do we play with that reality/narrative and these social tropes that we are all living inside of.”

Driscoll’s class was composed of all different majors, about a quarter of them dance majors. This combination made for a diverse group of students that were willing to take risks and enact things using their different academic interests.

Both Jones and Driscoll described the activities they performed in class, contributing two different perspectives that illustrate the true complexity and brilliance of the project. One component specifically noted is that of dialogue and text and its incorporation with movement.

“One of the other assignments was to go around and find people to subtly imitate and become so we collected people from campus. So I might put those two things (eavesdropping and imitation) next to each other. The stolen people and the stolen dialogue,” Driscoll said.

One assignment that they had was a dialogue experiment comprised of three parts: 1.) To eavesdrop on a conversation for 15-20 minutes without taking any notes, only to have to sit down and rewrite the entire dialogue solely from memory 2.) To recall, without the assistance of diaries or the like, a dialogue from our personal memory, our personal lives 3.) To transcribe a dialogue from a movie or a play also from memory. All of these recorded dialogues were then brought in and shared with the class.

Through this exercise, and ones similar, students and Driscoll played a lot with voice, an area of performance not often addressed in dance.

“I think I come from a very choreographic way of thinking about things. I’m also very visually and aurally oriented. I’m interested in the body and all that it is and all that the human being is and all that our bodies contain in terms of our selfhood and our histories and the politics of them. The way that they’re kind of loaded,” Driscoll said.

This integration of voice with the body proved challenging to Jones, but also constructive.

“And for me its been a pretty huge challenge because, as a dancer, I’m accustomed to using my body and manipulating my body and expressing myself through my body, but when it comes to my voice there have been times in class when I have totally choked up and have felt very vulnerable using my voice.  At the same time I’ve felt really excited about this new possibility and this new kind of tool that I have to use.  It’s one that Faye is really exploring with us — how we can use our voices and how we can hone that skill. There is so much there. The voice truly is an instrument,” Jones said.

In addition to exploring the physical, whether the limbs or vocal chords, this course also explored the emotional. In describing this emotional component Jones repeatedly described it as “intense” but according to Jones, an intensity that “fed them”. In a sense this course became an examination of the self.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot about myself. I think we all have. And I think that’s one of the reasons I’m a dance major. In a lot of my non-dance classes I feel like I do my work, close my book, and leave. And with dance I feel like I walk out of the studio in my body, which is what I’ve been using to practice, to learn, to think. So it goes with me everywhere. So I get to carry it with me everywhere and translate it into other areas of my life, and that’s something that is really exciting and important to me. And that’s something that holds very much true to Faye’s class too,” Jones said.

I began this blog post with about ten pages of quotations. My conversations with Driscoll and Jones were both so rich and evocative that I had no idea where to go, what to analyze, and how to consolidate what are grand scale ideas. I sat on this post for far too long while other small seemingly pressing tasks took priority. I was nervous about articulating this weighty notion of examining oneself, so fully and creatively, through art. It’s such an abstract notion and with that comes fleeting temporality. One can revel in the process, but then the process has to end. And yet Jones still said that she is going to remember this experience forever, noting the power of memory. This idea, juxtaposed alongside Driscoll’s analysis of her project, Thank You for Coming as something that is not “wrapped up” attributes a sense of fluidity to the understanding of artistic practices and creative epiphanies. Maybe there is never an end to these creative moments or ideas. Like Jones said, “This course has never been about the final performance.” Perhaps I’m reading far too deep into what was simply a beautiful and fruitful creative exercise, but I can’t help but find a comparison to life’s journey: whether a life led creatively or not, the objective is not to end up with a nicely wrapped product, but rather to emerge with beautiful ideas, unanswered questions, and an experimental analysis of the self, all still dancing through one’s memories.

Muslim Women’s Voices at Wesleyan Documentation Intern Brittany Benham reflects on her behind the scenes experience with Muslim Women’s Voices.

IMG_5903

It was 9am on a Saturday and instead of being curled up in bed, I was running through the Usdan University Center, spilling coffee, scarfing down a croissant, and waving to other tired souls also awake at this hour. In my haste, something yanked me back and I embarrassingly had to unlatch my sweater from the door hinge and hurriedly tumble out onto the steps leading to the CFA. That morning I was not playing the role of the average college student, but putting on my hat as the Documentation Intern for Muslim Women’s Voices at Wesleyan.

Muslim Women’s Voices at Wesleyan is a year-long program at the Center for that Arts that is designed to expand awareness, knowledge, and understanding of Muslim cultures through the lens of performance. As the student intern with Muslim Women’s Voices (MWV), my job is to oversee the documentation of the performances, lectures, and residencies of the artists who have been chosen to be a part of the program. In the effort to create a series of mini-documentaries for each individual performer and a larger film that features all of the events included in the program, interviews are a prime resource for personal background information and greater context. In this particular morning’s rush, I was heading over to Crowell Concert Hall where the women who would perform later that night in Beckham Hall as part of the Planet Hip Hop Festival Concert were waiting to be directed towards their one-on-ones with the MWV program manager and journalists from the Islamic Monthly magazine.

Interviews can be awkward – do I look at the camera or at the interviewer? Is there something in my teeth? What happens if I can’t think of anything to say? These are the kinds of uncertainties that we as program leaders have to address to make sure our interviewees are comfortable and can focus on the questions that we ask. Usually, that means starting with easily answerable questions which can guide the interviewees to harder or more personal questions as the interview progresses.

Before we could begin, the camera needed to be set up in a favorable position and adjusted for changes in light and sound levels. Our videographer kindly asked me to sit in the interviewee chair so he could make the necessary arrangements and although I knew the camera was not rolling and questions about my childhood and my faith were not being aimed in my direction, I still felt a bit of unease. I was happy to hand the seat over to each performer when the time came and marveled at the confidence with which they carried themselves, something I had internally lacked while I was being put on the spot.

While the interviews were taking place, I was quietly seated off to the side listening to what each performer had to say – heard their stories, their triumphs and their failures, their histories – and I was inspired by their words. The ease with which these women were able to convey some of their most innate beliefs and intimate personal memories allowed me too see past their performance persona and into their lives. And although I knew that they were being taped for documentary purposes and I was specifically seeking out sound bytes that would be appropriate for our videos, I was also able to listen to the back-and-forth conversation between my program manager and the performer as if it were just that, a conversation.

I considered this idea – that how one presents oneself in a conversation could be drastically different from how one presents oneself knowing that whatever is said will be recorded – and realized that this must be how these women feel when they are performing. One woman was wearing neon trainers to her interview that morning then came out on stage later in the night in the most amazing zebra-print platform heels I have ever seen. Maybe we all do this, dichotomize our life in the form of multiple identities – our life in our trainers and our life in our stilettos.

Once the interviews were finished, the videographer prompted each performer to convey a series of emotions towards or away from the camera. “It feels really awkward but it comes out really beautiful” we all promised. And it did – in the final video, the emotion and sass and personality of these women seemed so effortlessly captured. Perhaps with a camera staring them in the face, the only thing that they could do was stare back, and in an infinite moment, something real was captured. It seemed amazing how an interaction with the vast darkness of a lens felt more invasive and scrutinizing than the gaze of hundreds of students at the final concert.

Our videographer calls these shots “moving portraits” and I would like to think that it is not the slow panning of the camera that he is referring to, but the reaction from an audience that views such an intimate and personal image. Somehow, the seconds of awkwardness and insecurity that inevitably arise as a consequence of this type of videography creates something only reserved for the world of fine art, a portrait.

As I considered the emotional intensity of the interviews and the off-camera personalities of these women I wondered, is identity a performance or a conversation? Maybe the performers, lecturers, and participants of Muslim Women’s Voices at Wesleyan can help us figure that out.

Erinn Roos-Brown, the CFA’s Campus and Community Engagement Manager, discusses hip hop artist Meryem Saci’s residency as part of the opening week of the Muslim Women’s Voices at Wesleyan program.

Last week, the Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University hosted the opening events for the Muslim Women’s Voices at Wesleyan program. There was an fantastic Islamophobia panel discussion on September 18 as well as hip hop workshops and a performance with three women who either identify as Muslim or are of Muslim heritage. One of those women, Algerian-born/Montreal-based Meryem Saci, was in residency at Wesleyan for the entire week. I had the great pleasure of getting to know her when I escorted her to her class visits, lunches and dinners with students and faculty, and interviewed her for the documentary we are creating around the project.

Meryem had a busy week. She visited two Arabic language classes and a French literature course, “Negotiating Gender in the Maghreb.” She watched and discussed the film Battle of Algiers in religion course, “Muslim/Western Engagements in Film and Performance,” and shared her story in “World Music”. She had dinner with students at the Turath House, Wesleyan’s program house for students who identify as Muslim or are of Arab descent, and she was invited by the students in Wesleyan’s RAP Assembly to be part of their weekly freestyle rap cipher.

Meryem Saci with students in Intermediate Arabic I with Arabic instructor Abderrahman Aissa.

Meryem Saci with students in Intermediate Arabic I with Arabic instructor Abderrahman Aissa.

Why do we ask artists to do such extensive residencies? At the CFA we believe in giving our campus community more opportunities to engage with artists and in turn giving artists opportunities to connect with new audiences. This is particularly important for the Muslim Women’s Voices program because we want to give people an opportunity to question what they really know and their stereotypes on Muslim women.

This is something that Meryem definitely did.

She speaks three languages. She writes her own songs. She was raised by a single mother in Algeria. She is working on releasing her first solo album. She’s a relator. She grew up during her country’s civil war. She can walk for blocks in three-inch wedges. Her high school in Montreal had over 80 ethnic groups in attendance. She sang Whitney Houston and Maria Carey songs as a teenager. She tried to write love songs in English as a child before she even knew the language.

This project also gave Meryem an opportunity to question her own stereotypes of college students in America. She was surprised to learn that American students are studying the Meghreb and told us that she never would have thought that Americans would ever be studying the part of the world where she grew up. At Wesleyan she found students who shared her interest in languages, hip hop and just learning itself. She asked them as many questions as they asked her and never hesitated to be her most authentic self.

By the time she took the stage on Saturday night in Beckham Hall she had a loyal following of Wesleyan students whom she had met throughout the week. In their excitement to see her they closed the gap in front of the stage and danced away. And I was right there with them. I think many of them, like me, no longer saw a woman who grew up in an Islamic state in North Africa, but instead saw an amazingly cool, talented and funny twenty-something sharing with us her creativity and contagious enthusiasm.

Matthew Chilton ’16 talks to Adjunct Professor of Music Jay Hoggard ’76 about the Oliver Lake Big Band, who will make their New England debut as part of the 13th annual Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra Weekend on Saturday, April 26, 2014 at 8pm in Crowell Concert Hall.

Oliver Lake. Photo by Yasmin Grogan.

Oliver Lake. Photo by Yasmin Grogan.

When spring hits Wesleyan, musical sounds flower in all corners of our campus. The outdoor concerts echo through the amphitheaters of fields and buildings, prompting us music majors to emerge from our sonic hibernation caves in the practice rooms. We wander up to our clusters of friends on Foss Hill, acoustic guitars in hand, content to strum the day away as we prepare for the next night of music.

Among these cherished rites of spring is the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra Weekend, when the school’s Jazz Orchestra [directed by Adjunct Professor of Music Jay Hoggard ’76] and Jazz Ensemble [directed by Jazz Ensemble Coach Noah Baerman] gather in Crowell Concert Hall to present the fruits of their creative collaborations. This Friday, April 25, 2014 at 8pm, the Jazz Orchestra and Jazz Ensemble come together for an evening-long concert of works that traverse the spectrum of American improvised music – from the large ensemble works of Duke Ellington to the harmolodics of Ornette Coleman.

The music continues on Saturday, April 26, 2014 at 8pm, as the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra opens an evening of music alongside this year’s visiting artist ensemble, the Oliver Lake Big Band. Fresh off the release of last year’s critically acclaimed album Wheels, composer, saxophonist, and bandleader Oliver Lake will lead the group through his challenging and stimulating compositional repertoire. You can expect a concert encompassing the history of African-American creative music, with elements of every aesthetic from swing to the avant-garde, all held together by the cohesion of Mr. Lake’s intuitive writing.

After our Jazz Orchestra rehearsal yesterday afternoon, I sat down with my teacher and ensemble director Jay Hoggard to reflect on his musical relationship with Oliver Lake and his works.

Jay, thanks for taking the time out for this interview. To start, how and when did you meet Oliver Lake? What was your working relationship like?

I’ve known Oliver since maybe 1975. I was in college [at Wesleyan] and I was playing different gigs in New York at times, and that was during the loft scene. So we were playing at [saxophonist, composer, sometime Wesleyan professor] Sam Rivers’ place, Studio Rivbea, [drummer, Coltrane sideman] Rashied Ali’s place Ali’s Alley, Lady’s Fort, which was singer Jolee Wilson’s place, and another place, a restaurant named Tin Palace. So I don’t remember where exactly I first got to know Oliver. It was somewhere in there, in all those places. After I graduated in 1976, moved to New Haven, and taught high school for a year, Pheeroan [AkLaff, drummer and Wesleyan Private Lesson Teacher] was playing with Oliver, and Pheeroan and I were playing in a band together. Maybe he [Lake] called me for a gig, I don’t exactly remember, but one night he and David Murray played a gig in New Haven, and stayed in my apartment.

Was it a gig by the World Saxophone Quartet, [Lake’s influential band with Murray, Julius Hemphill and Hamiet Bluiett]?

No, it was before World Saxophone Quartet. So then we played a few gigs together in that period, and I moved to New York in 1977. Some with [baritone saxophonist] Hamiet Bluiett’s group at the Public Theater, featuring a bunch of horns – Lake was on there, Baikida [Carroll, trumpeter] and [cornetist] Olu Dara, maybe [perussionist Famoudou Don] Moye, but it was a combination of the Art Ensemble [of Chicago] guys and the St. Louis [Black Artists Group] guys.

[These groups that Jay mentioned, the Art Ensemble of Chicago (affiliated with Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), and St. Louis’ Black Artists Group, which Oliver Lake was a co-founding member of, were vital to the development of creative music in the urban centers of the Midwest. Our beloved Emerita/us Faculty in Music Anthony Braxton was a member of Chicago’s A.A.C.M., and he and Lake came up as alto saxophonists in these environments that supported radical creativity.]

At a certain point, Lake had a reggae band called Jump Up that Pheeroan, [pianist] Geri Allen, [bassist] Jerome Harris, and [guitarist] Brandon Ross played in. We were doing something on the same label, so I produced a record for them [1983’s Plug It] that I always liked a lot. I had a copy of it, but it never made it to CD, maybe it did, in Japan. Then in the 1990s, we started working together and cut a record on Lake’s label [Passin’ Thru] called Talkin’ Stick [1997]. We did one of his tunes that he does with the big band, Maasai Moves.

So, speaking to that as someone who’s worked with Lake as both a musician and a producer, how have you seen his music evolve over the years?

I’ve always felt that Oliver was a great alto saxophonist. He plays soprano too, and flute, but I always felt that he had the Eric Dolphy thing, but also had this kind of sound of the alto saxophone. He doesn’t really come out of a Charlie Parker thing directly in terms of his lines, the way he plays changes is unique.

He’s kind of got a line that comes from a few different sources, so what I’ve enjoyed over the years is watching him create a lot of different recordings in different contexts, with different players. In doing that, he’s come up with “the Oliver Lake sound” in all these different kinds of settings. So the big band is a vehicle for the way he plays, and the writing has melodic, harmonic, improvisatory, and textural things.

You know, he’s a couple years older than Braxton and he’s got a different take than Braxton, and most other players on his instrument. He’s got a unique sound, and his writing mirrors that sound.

When I’ve listened to Lake’s music, I’ve enjoyed how he has the versatility to go from a specialized “avant-garde” scene in the 1970s and then explores everything along the way, to his reggae group Jump Up in the 80s and then his recent work with the Big Band today. How do you think this stylistic trajectory will come out in the work he’s presenting at Crowell Concert Hall this Saturday?

We try to do a range with the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra as well, and when I choose tunes I think about the educational part of it – how to technically get a certain kind of sound [like the Ellington sound] and how to understand where that sound is rooted – voicings and all that, and how to then apply the improvisational language. Understanding the groove internally and out, how to play in different mindsets. So that’s what Lake does, he’s got a range of writing that touches on a whole spectrum of styles. Ultimately, it’s very accessible – it’s both art for the artist, and for an audience. It doesn’t smash you with a particular way of thinking, and gives a range of thinking on the side of creativity and innovation.

This stylistic versatility, in harmony with the creative impulse, is what ties together both Oliver Lake’s work with his Big Band and our work with the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra. Presenting the musics side-by-side, we hope to tap into some of the sonic magic that has surrounded the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra Weekend since its beginnings over a dozen years ago.

Oliver Lake Big Band
New England Debut
Saturday, April 26, 2014 at 8pm
Crowell Concert Hall
$20 general public; $18 senior citizens, Wesleyan faculty/staff/alumni, non-Wesleyan students; $6 Wesleyan students.

Co-sponsored by the Center for African American Studies and the Office of Equity and Inclusion.

Wesleyan University Javanese Gamelan in the Center for the Arts' World Music Hall, 1975-1976. Image courtesy of the Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections & Archives, University Photographers Collection.

Wesleyan University Javanese Gamelan in the Center for the Arts’ World Music Hall, 1975-1976. Image courtesy of the Wesleyan University Library, Special Collections & Archives, University Photographers Collection.

Matthew Chilton ’16 discusses the history of the Center for the Arts’ World Music Hall, using research and ethnographic interviews with University Professor of Music Sumarsam and Winslow-Kaplan Professor of Music Mark Slobin conducted for his final project in ANTH101, “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology.”

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the Center for the Arts, I’m excited to explore and investigate the insides, outsides, and backgrounds of our enigmatic stone blocks of cultural activity. As a musician and student of anthropology, I believe that there is far more to these buildings than immediately meets the eye or ear. My combination of disciplines leads me to interrogate the spaces physically, in terms of their sonic characteristics and potential to inspire music, as well as culturally, reading their uses and significance within a larger cultural narrative.

The most fascinating space at Wesleyan to investigate from both of these angles is the World Music Hall: not just because of the large range of musics, dances, and other arts that students engage with there, but also because of the space’s revolutionary position at the forefront of the Western institutionalization of “world” musics. The World Music Hall is an exceptionally rich symbol of the complex adaptations and translations that global music traditions experience as they meet American institutions and education systems, not to be “corrupted” or consumed by modernism, but to be transformed into new, hybrid traditions.

When the World Music Hall was constructed with the rest of the CFA and opened in the fall of 1973, it was the first building on a Western university campus erected with the express purpose of housing a gamelan ensemble and global music traditions. The way the ensemble is laid out in the space, however, is distinctly non-traditional. Javanese gamelan ensembles are traditionally contained and played in a single-level complex, indoors but with no walls, whereas the Wesleyan gamelan is housed in the innovative architecture of the World Music Hall – which displays the gamelan on three tiers above a dance floor, and which has an innovative system of basement and side entry. Certain elements of the architecture, however, like the floor-to-ceiling side windows and open floor area, reference the traditional wall-less performance space as well as Indonesian home architecture. As a result, the “oriental-traditional” instruments seem paradoxically at home in the “occidental-modernist” architectural space – for the space itself references hybrid identities.

The tripartite performance area represents another cultural adaptation, as it displays the gamelan for performance and makes every instrument and player easily visible from the audience. This increase in visibility heightens the overall spectacle and intrigue of the ensemble, keeping the audience’s attention. The space’s emphasis on the gamelan’s visuality hearkens back to the fascinating yet problematic history of this particular set of instruments. Wesleyan’s first music department heads, Richard Winslow and David McAllester, purchased the gamelan directly from the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The gamelan’s three-tiered display scheme was first used at this World’s Fair’s Indonesian Pavilion, as a way of better displaying the crimson and gold opulence of this particular set of instruments. This situates Wesleyan’s gamelan within a narrative of culture-as-spectacle, orientalist fascinations, and one-sided cultural “exchange.”

However, Wesleyan’s approach to the gamelan helps distance the instruments from their problematic history by using the gamelan’s three-tiered organization as a learning tool, a visualization of the ensemble’s musical processes. The divisions of the ensemble imposed by the tiers lend transparency to the musical activity of the group, acting as a method of translation that demystifies the complex interweaving of sounds. The instruments on the highest tier, the large gong and large bonang bells, enforce the largest structural divisions of the melody. The middle tier’s large kenong bells and small kempul gongs demarcate smaller structural divisions while the xylophone-like peking, saron barung, and demung carry the basic melody. The instruments in the lowest, frontmost tier play the most complex melodic patterns, in the smallest divisions of the cycle that often equate to the Western eighth note. Though this description is by no means comprehensive, it highlights the way in which the non-traditional division of the performance area can serve as a tool for teaching and learning.

Core issues and problems of world music ensembles are embedded in the World Music Hall and Wesleyan’s gamelan. The format of the hall lends itself to problems of representation – mystifying the gamelan through display of the full visual spectacle – but also engages in helpful cultural translation by demystifying musical processes through division of the ensemble. The presentation may be “inauthentic,” but it makes clear the complex patchwork of cultural meanings inherent in the ensemble. The path of the gamelan and its transformations in configuration from Java to the 1964 World’s Fair, then finally to Wesleyan and the World Music Hall represent multiple processes of translation: from its traditional role as a locus of communal music activity, to a spectacle of Oriental exoticism, and finally to a hybrid identity of display, musical community, and intercultural learning.

And the history of the World Music Hall continues, perpetually being transformed as an ever-widening variety of classes, concerts, and performances take place between its window-walls. From Gamelan and Taiko courses to Javanese dance and puppetry, all the way to musically diverse senior theses, experimental sound installations like Christine Sun Kim’s Self Notary Public, and the performance art puppetry of Who’s Hungry, the World Music Hall and CFA at large perpetually demonstrate their flexibility to accommodate many worlds of music and art.

Creative Campus Intern Sewon Kang ’14 reflects on the Creative Campus course “Blood, Muscle, Bone: The Anatomy of Wealth and Poverty,” and the “Blood, Muscle, Bone” Performative Teach-In.

Creative Campus Intern Sewon Kang ’14 (right) during the “Blood, Muscle, Bone” Performative Teach-In on Monday, November 11, 2013 in Fayerweather Beckham Hall. Photo by Sandy Aldieri.

Amber Smith ’14 (left) and Creative Campus Intern Sewon Kang ’14 (right) during the “Blood, Muscle, Bone” Performative Teach-In on Monday, November 11, 2013 in Fayerweather Beckham Hall. Photo by Sandy Aldieri.

I’ve been thinking back on the course “Blood, Muscle, Bone: The Anatomy of Wealth and Poverty” and I must say that it was a total interruption in my squarely traditional education. Throughout the intensives, my fellow students and I explored difficult problems related to wealth distribution in the U.S. with our instructors, Liz Lerman and Jawole Zollar. In my prior post, I discussed my enthusiasm for the interdisciplinary nature of this course and the deep processing made possible through artistic exploration. Now that the class has ended, I want to share how it continues to impact my life.

Even though it was primarily a dance course, we explored the realities of disparity in a traditional, academic way—we learned facts and figures, read literature, and applied the knowledge by considering how it affects the Wesleyan community. What was unique was that once we had all of this information, we were given the freedom to respond to aspects that resonated with us. Our expressions then gave shape to the structure of the performative teach-in, the culminating event for the course. It was a truly collaborative outpouring and was the perfect way to end a process that is in reality constant and continuous. The teach-in allowed us to take some of what we learned and put it in a format that we could share with our fellow students and community—something that doesn’t happen in a typical classroom.

The night began with a talk by Anne Farrow, a journalist and author who studies enslavement in New England. She shared passages from her new book about the life of a slave trader who lived in Middletown. As performers, we listened to the lecture and responded with our bodies in ways that disrupted the usual speaker-listener dynamic. These interruptions continued during Professor William Arsenio’s lecture on economic disparity and recent psychological studies that examine how people understand wealth distribution in this country. We analyzed the facts and statistics he presented, reflected on our past experiences, and translated information visually. For the rest of the teach-in, we took numbers and words and made them tangible by sharing personal stories through song, spoken word, and movement.

This exploration was incredibly intense and was only made possible by an extraordinary willingness to participate in experimental learning—a leap that I’m grateful to my classmates for taking with me. Everyone was fully committed to the class, showing strong enthusiasm for the topic at hand and complete dedication to the process, even during times when everything was uncomfortably new. The class was a learning community so unlike any I have ever experienced.

One of the most challenging and exciting aspects for me was the act of performing. Throughout the course, Liz and Jawole expertly drew out flickers of performance from each of us and helped us develop strong structures that we could be proud of. Such in-class dynamics translated into powerfully moving moments of the teach-in, revealing how wealth and poverty touch everyone’s lives. During a discussion about white privilege, I was able to share my frustrations with other students of color in the class. Jawole and Keith Thompson, who assisted Liz and Jawole in the course, helped me eventually become comfortable with sharing my struggles with the audience at the teach-in. They taught me that vulnerability can be useful, and because I believed so strongly in the work that we were doing, I knew that my story needed to be shared.

This opened doors for me as a student who is used to articulating ideas through very specific structures, such as the five-paragraph analytic paper. What I learned is that like the academic paper, performing is a method of processing, albeit one that is less frequently encountered outside of certain circles. During “Blood, Muscle, Bone,” I was asked to perform my thoughts and became a student of a different kind of processing. For some of my classmates, it was liberating to engage in this alternative way of knowing because they had been searching for this kind of creative outlet.  Personally, I learned that this kind of communicating works for me because it’s an effective way for me to address problems in a constructive manner. Once I leaned into the discomfort of vulnerability, I could let the process of performing take over.

As I walk away from this course, I do so with more awareness of my position in the world. I understand better how I operate within the global structures of wealth and poverty. I know how profoundly unequal things are; it runs hot through my blood and weighs heavy on my muscles and bones. Whether I’m complicit or not, whether I’m an agent or a casualty, wherever I situate myself, what am I going to do about it? How am I going to use my voice? We, the participants of “Blood Muscle Bone,” move to declare ourselves as a group of people who will no longer abide by inequality. We establish ourselves as a group of people who are dedicated to bringing about change and invite others to join us in this stance.

Older Posts »

Log in