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The Art of Change

REMAP Bay Area and Future Aesthetics

On Beginnings
It was unusually sunny and gorgeous on April 15 when I arrived at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco, about a block south of the city’s main commercial artery, Market Street. YBCA is many things to many people: its outdoor spaces include sprawling public lawns, generally dotted with people napping or reading; a manmade waterfall, usually being sketched by one or more artists; winding footpaths; and open plazas where groups of seniors meet to play chess, or to dance with fans and swords to recorded Chinese music. YBCA’s buildings also house a variety of spaces: art galleries and a screening room, meeting rooms, administrative offices, dressing rooms, rehearsal spaces, and the 755-seat Yerba Buena Theater. And on April 15 and 16, in conjunction with several other events, YBCA housed Arts in a Changing America’s REMAP Bay Area convening.

A project housed at California Institute of the Arts in southern California, Arts in a Changing America, or “ArtChangeUS,” is the brainchild of its director, Roberta Uno. Uno, a director and dramaturg, founded the culturally visionary New WORLD Theater at U. Mass. Amherst in 1979 and ran it for twenty-three years before she was recruited by the Ford Foundation to serve as a senior program officer for arts and culture, which she did until early 2015. (You can check out Polly Carl’s excellent one-on-one interview with Uno here.) In 2001, as part of New WORLD Theater’s activities, Uno launched what she called the Future Aesthetics Project, bringing together regional artists with audiences in discussions around the cultural aesthetics in their work, and with young adults already active in “youth performance culture” for mutual aesthetic exchange. When she came to Ford, she brought this evolving artist-exchange and youth culture-driven model with her, launching the Future Aesthetics grantmaking pilot as part of a larger Ford initiative called Imagine the Future: The Arts in a Changing America. For this iteration of Future Aesthetics, Uno sought out young leaders in hip-hop arts and activism, convened them, helped them expand their networks, and supported their work with grants. Among this initial cohort, in 2003, were some who would become core partners in ArtChangeUS: Marc Bamuthi Joseph, performer, teacher, and cofounder of YouthSpeaks, now the director of program and pedagogy at YBCA; Youth Speaks’ other cofounder, James Kass, now executive director of the twenty-year-old spoken word program; poet, author and teacher Chinaka Hodge, now also at YBCA as associate director of program and pedagogy; groundbreaking chronicler of hip-hop culture Jeff Chang, now the director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford; Clyde Valentin, director of the Arts and Urbanism Initiative at Southern Methodist University; musician/performer Carlton Turner, now executive director of Alternate ROOTS; and more. There are fifteen core partners in the ArtChangeUS universe (listed here). 

As we sat on a bench in a YBCA plaza while REMAP attendees began arriving, Jeff Chang described the years following that original 2003 convening this way:

[Roberta]’d say, “I trust you to be in this circle. Who do you trust to bring to this circle?” And the circles just got bigger and bigger, over fourteen years. Suddenly, we’re learning about indigenous arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest; we’re learning about women artists who are working on the [California/Mexico] border. We’re suddenly part of this larger dialogue, which was amazing. I mean, it was intergenerational, it was intercultural, it was interdisciplinary, it was inter-everything-you-could-possibly-imagine. All of these categories were really getting exploded before our eyes.

The network’s growth and momentum eventually demanded an outlet. Chang said that, over time, he and other core partners began to wonder, “OK, so what are we supposed to bring to this moment? What can we actually distribute to people to empower them, and have it be something that rises from the ground up?” 

One answer became the REMAP convenings. ArtChangeUS launched REMAP with a gathering in New York on October 26, 2015—a one-day event with nonstop workshops, talks, and panels from 9 a.m. to after 5 p.m. San Francisco (and YBCA in particular) was chosen for the second REMAP partially because so many core partners are local to the area, partially because the city is facing its own demographic and economic challenges, and partially because, fortuitously, YBCA would be presenting a number of exhibits and performances whose themes intersected with REMAP’s on the dates in question. 

It was striking to see how richly the organization’s driving purpose of inclusion permeated every level of interaction—a kind of vertical integrity that reached from the top all the way down—and how clear a difference it made. Even the coffee was all about community; it had been roasted and brewed by Red Bay Coffee, a small company in Oakland whose owners are connected to the ArtChangeUS group. Their motto: ‘Beautiful Coffee to the People.’

REMAP Bay Area
REMAP Bay Area had felt a bit different from other conferences the moment I arrived: relaxed, ebullient. It seemed like almost everyone knew each other already, and I overheard, more than once, colleagues greeting each other saying something like, “This feels like a family reunion!” A refreshing unpretentiousness seemed to be the order of the day; Chinaka Hodge—an ArtChangeUS core partner and VIP—was sporting a walkie-talkie, helping attendees find their breakout sessions, and Jeff Chang was gamely holding up several big signs directing folks to locations like “Dressing Room 1” and “Big Room.” The ArtChangeUS staffers (including Roberta Uno’s niece, Namiko, the organization’s program associate) who were checking in attendees were greeting everyone like friends they were delighted to see. Even the coffee was all about community; it had been roasted and brewed by Red Bay Coffee, a small company in Oakland whose owners are connected to the ArtChangeUS group. Their motto: “Beautiful Coffee to the People.” It was striking to see how richly the organization’s driving purpose of inclusion permeated every level of interaction—a kind of vertical integrity that reached from the top all the way down—and how clear a difference it made. 

A woman pointing
“Writing the Change Narrative” workshop. REMAP Bay Area 2015. Photo by Laura Brueckner

REMAP Bay Area was also different in its structure. By design, there was no morning plenary. Instead, in accordance with Uno’s and the core partners’ goal that each REMAP convening would lead with the art, the REMAP Bay Area day began at 10 a.m. with a dozen or so different participatory arts workshops, held in various spaces all over YBCA. Once they were checked in, venue maps in hand, REMAP-ers headed off in every direction to find their morning’s activity.

The workshops represented a strikingly broad range of topic and approach. Floating from room to room as an observer, I saw that Robert Farid Karimi’s workshop, titled “Food, Fools and Pools: Using Sensory Sparks to Expand Your Vision,” began around a table piled high with plates and bowls of veggies and aromatic herbs. Music was also on the menu; inside the YBCA Screening Room were the four musicians of Los Cenzontles—Emiliano, Eugene, and Lucina Rodriguez and Fabiola Trujillo—setting up all of their instruments, including a huge stand-up bass, as they chatted with the attendees who filed in for their workshop, “Crossing Internal Borders through Music.” Those seeking visual or verbal activation could choose from the “Social Justice Poster Making” workshop led by artist/activist Julio Salgado, who afterward displayed the participants’ posters in the lobby of the YBCA theatre; or a wordsmithing session, “Writing the Change Narrative,” where Youth Speaks veterans Sarah O’Neal and Michelle “Mush” Lee introduced participants to Youth Speaks’ Life as Primary Text pedagogy for creating performed stories from the tellers’ own lives. 

There was also a comedy workshop by D’Lo, a fiercely energetic gender-nonconforming Tamil American performer whose work uses laughter to dismantle constructs of ethnic and gender bigotry. Staying for a while in this last session, I watched as D’Lo began by instructing participants to pair up and exchange stories from their day so far with a partner—then asked each partner to take their first partner’s story and tell it to a new partner. While these new pairs were working, D’Lo explained to me the social equity principle undergirding the exercise: “We don’t understand the gravity of holding story,” D said of contemporary America. “This teaches you to understand what it means to: one, honor someone else’s story; and two, understand your own power as storyteller.” Meanwhile, the pairs of participants continued to share their stories intently, listen intently, eyes fixed on each other’s faces. The room felt quietly electric as I thanked D’Lo and slipped out. 

Participants in a movement piece
“FLEXn your Story: The Art of Social Justice” workshop. REMAP Bay Area 2016.
Photo by Laura Brueckner. 

Other morning sessions revolved around movement. One workshop took to the streets; photographers JJ “TechBoogie” Harris and Brittani Sensabaugh walked conveners through one of SF’s most underresourced and hardest-hit neighborhoods, the Tenderloin, to encounter its hidden beauty. In another session, Reggie “Regg Rock” Gray, a New York hip-hop choreographer, demonstrated ways to crystallize personal narrative in steps from a style of dance called “Flexn.” Overfilling the YBCA theatre lobby, this energetic circle of literal movers and shakers included Jeff Chang and Chinaka Hodge, plus about twenty more, all grinning as they danced for and with one another. 

In the building next door, Ananya Chatterjea, a Minneapolis-based choreographer and pioneer of contemporary Indian American dance, led a session titled “Choreographing Equity and Staging Social Justice.” Chatterjea seemed to be coaching her workshop students in expressing inner states and wishes through movement, encouraging each to find a movement that expressed their own current state or wish. Once each participant had solidified a movement, Chatterjea led the full group—gathered, like Regg Rock’s, in a circle—in linking all of the participants’ movements together into one immensely graceful dance. Seeing a circle of artists devote time, focus, and their own bodies to inhabiting and expressing the reality of each single member in turn, was deeply affecting. It also delivered a glimmer of the different kind of power that radical inclusion proposes: dynamic, solution-seeking, and reciprocal.

a poster
“Social Justice Poster Making” workshop. REMAP Bay Area 2016. Photo by Laura Brueckner.

 

people talking
“Tap into the Power: Using the Pyramid to Build Community Foundations through Photography” workshop. REMAP Bay Area 2016. Photo by  Laura Brueckner.

Suddenly—it felt sudden, anyway—it was time for lunch. The YBCA lobby and atrium filled with energized artists, fresh from their sessions, noshing box lunches and chatting animatedly. Hallway conversations crackled with ideas, as conveners shared about their current projects with new acquaintances and picked up the threads of old debates with longtime colleagues. Uno and the core partners had been right about “leading with the art”; in the space of an hour and a half, the morning’s art-making sessions had provided all 200 or so conference attendees with shared histories, however brief, of vulnerability and discovery, of individual and team success. 

This decision had other purposes as well. Chang had explained to me how breaking with the expected conference structure not only opens people up to different ways of thinking about its topics, it also gives attendees a more authentic way in to those topics as individuals: “Usually what happens at a convening is everybody gets into a room, people do a formal welcome, there’s a grand speech, and then people break up into these little workshops to be able to do their thing,” he said.

Well, Roberta’s like, “No. We’re going to focus on art-making and arts practice from the very beginning.” So people come in through the door that they want to come in through. If you’re a dancer, you’re going to go and study with Reggie Rock. If you’re a filmmaker, you’re going to go to the filmmaking workshop. You’re a street art person, you’re going to go to the lab now where they’re making posters. Right? So everyone comes in through their art. And then we get to meet each other at lunch, we eat together, and then we have the plenary. It’s amazing! And in some ways it models what this entire process has been.

Following lunch, we all filed into the YBCA theatre for the welcome address, given by YBCA CEO Deborah Cullinan, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and Roberta Uno. (You can watch the archived livestream here). Together, they articulated their shared vision of artists and arts institutions addressing the massive demographic shift currently underway in the United States—where white Americans will no longer be the majority of the population—through arts practice, conscious collaboration around large questions, shifts in language, and ensuring that more people of more different backgrounds were “in the room.” Between speakers, I scanned the audience for visible proof of this demographic shift, and got it—young artists, community elders, program officers, executive directors, of all skin colors, in a range of physical attitudes of attention and relaxation, wearing clothes occupying every space along the formality spectrum. It looked new, and pretty wonderful. 

This country is only gonna get gayer, blacker, browner, more Asian. —Journalist Jose Antonio Vargas

The “Call & Response” talks that followed (find the archived livestream here) centered on demographics, citizenship, belonging, and place. Each address was arresting, complex, and, true to the apparent emotional center of the REMAP project, ultimately hopeful; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas expounded on the US’s impending—and, in some places, current—“demographic earthquake,” asserting that “[t]his country is only gonna get gayer, blacker, browner, more Asian,” and daring artists to stay grounded, take care of each other, and strive to continually elevate the national conversation. San Francisco Arts Commission’s director of cultural affairs Tom DeCaigny discussed Bay Area’s “unprecedented economic shift and challenges,” including gentrification and region-wide displacement of arts communities, and gave examples of arts communities that had developed workable financial models; Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman called for a more inclusive understanding of citizenship, framing it as “the defining question of our age.” 

A performance by Dahlak Brathwaite rounded out the session; using a rolling cart bearing synthesizers, the actor set up rhythmic beats beneath his words, as he made trenchant comedy of the ten plus occasions where police officers had treated him like a criminal because of his skin color, including being stopped, being followed, and spending “the first hours of 2006” outside his own house, “lying face down, Oscar Grant style, under an infrared police gun.” As he spoke these words, he illustrated what he meant, lying down on the stage, with his hands behind his back. The effect, seen in the body of a performer who was so very much one of us, who’d already charmed us with his cleverness and warmth, was chilling. 

Everywhere I went there was the same grounded, welcoming-but-results-oriented feeling of smart people getting shit done.

Sometimes rapping, sometimes delivering his material with deep sincerity, Brathwaite addressed police harassment, the label of “felon,” his role as “good nigger” in white culture’s racist systems of sexual taboo and workplace tokenism, and more. Dextrous and cheerfully defiant, Brathwaite left the stage having demonstrated the real-life consequences for too many young American men of our country’s current systems of political inequity. Following his performance, the subsequent session on “Surveillance and the Police State” (livestreamed here) expanded and deepened the conversation about policing; watch the livestream to see presenter Chinyere Tutashinda, communications organizer for the Center for Media Justice, scare the pants off of the entire audience by showing them exactly how and where their iPhones keep track of where they go. Again, the effect was chilling. 

It wasn’t possible to attend everything, be everywhere at once, but everywhere I went there was the same grounded, welcoming-but-results-oriented feeling of smart people getting shit done. 

For the late afternoon round of sessions, collectively entitled “Future Conversations,” I chose to spend meaningful time in just two rooms instead of floating. The “Future Findings: Future Aesthetics” session was led by two Stanford grad students, “KK” Aoki Izu and Jakeya Caruthers, who described the study undertaken by the Institute for Diversity in the Arts to document the scope and impact of Roberta Uno’s Future Aesthetics program; Jeff Chang (director of the IDA) moderated the discussion. The livestreamed session “Artists Changing the Course of the River” was moderated by Roberta Uno and presented four artists of color who recounted how, when they found traditional channels closed to them, devised their own ways of getting their work into the world. Especially moving was Malesha Taylor’s work; Taylor, an opera singer (and author of a well-received HowlRound article) showed video clips of herself singing beautiful music for people on the city street, including a mother and daughter who stood spellbound by her voice. While it was angering that this phenomenally talented performer had had to struggle so hard against the monochromaticity of the opera world and ultimately innovate her practice just to be able to sing for people and make them happy, her innovations ended up being something so new and intelligent, not to mention generous, that I ended up grateful she kept fighting.

The evenings were less formally structured; attendees could choose to attend the activities or not. A number of presenters and participants were in the audience for Friday night’s performance of Grisha Coleman’s echo::system—treadmill dreamtime, running in place, a multimedia dance-driven narrative. The printed show program described the arc of the performance as the performers’ “vision quest to seek knowledge of the evolutionary future of their species”; new to Ms. Coleman’s work and to modern dance in general, I could only be awed by the dancers’ precision and the virtuosity with which they seemed to slip from one movement register to another: now flexed, now fluid; now balletic, now street, all playing out before a shifting video backdrop of a sere and unnourishing landscape. It seemed to add its own ominous note to the overall REMAP question of equity: if suffering, like luxury, is inequitably distributed between different populations, who will bear the brunt of the environmental upheaval that most scientific evidence says is coming? 

Saturday
On Saturday morning, I was able to catch up with Carlton Turner, ArtChangeUS core partner and executive director of Alternate ROOTS, a by-artists-for-artists activism collective in the American South. He recounted his history with Roberta Uno and described how his organization had received support from her programs over the years: “A lot of the work that I am engaged in now, and many factors of my life, can in some way be rooted back into the work she did at the Ford Foundation,” he said. “It was that impactful in bringing the right people together and connecting dots, because she could see the big picture. And I think that’s the same thing she’s doing here with REMAP.” He also emphasized REMAP’s immense value in bringing people together:

One of the main things I learned from Roberta was the importance of convening. It gives us this opportunity to see each other face to face, literally touch each other, be in the same space with each other. It’s an exchange that you can’t duplicate in a virtual space. And that it’s the responsibility of those of us that have the resources to make sure we can convene our people, because that’s how we continue to build movement. 

The bet we’re making is that we can activate how art influences the public imagination, that we can actually design a process whereby highly dynamic inquiry spawns culture—and culture precedes policy. —Marc Bamuthi Joseph

The official programming opened at 12:30 p.m. with Chinaka Hodge and Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s “Reframe” address (livestreamed here). Taking turns to speak, they described their own paths and how those paths had led them to where they now stood, with respect to the work that YBCA has undertaken to generate culture and REMAP to change culture. They articulated beautifully some of the questions that they were now facing as leaders (“Who gets to make the city in an era of resegregation,” Joseph asked, “and how?”) and infused those gathered with a sense of empowerment and responsibility to do the work ahead: “It is imperative” said Hodge, “imperative—that we work now, work thoughtfully, and build a model that allows us to pool the resources of our collective institutions and leverage that against a system designed, obviously, to kill us.” They also shared their vision for how supporting artists could lead to a changed world. “The bet we’re making,” Joseph said, “is that we can activate how art influences the public imagination, that we can actually design a process whereby highly dynamic inquiry spawns culture—and as Jeff Chang so eloquently distills: ‘Culture precedes policy.’”

Following
During the question-and-answer time that followed, Carlton Turner posed possibly the most trenchant question of the convening: What if, despite what we hope, lifting people up and inspiring them does not, in fact, lead to changes in policy? 

What if, despite what we hope, lifting people up and inspiring them does not, in fact, lead to changes in policy?

“What I have seen in my community in Mississippi,” Turner said,

is that even [when] that cultural shift happens, if we’re not working also to put people in positions of power and decision-making spaces, that the community can be rendered irrelevant in terms of the decisions that happen, that are not in connection to the culture of the community. So how does that also play into your “ecosystem”? 

Joseph drew his response from what he’d learned as a young teacher: that it ultimately can take years to know the real effect one’s work has on other people and the world. It was honest and felt true. But Turner’s question did spur me—and, I’m sure, others in the room—to try to picture what the actual mechanics of that truth might be, the concrete forms it might take.

It seemed that the REMAP model itself offers one possible path toward change. It represents a new kind of convening, existing in what was formerly a sort of soft spot or gray area between different types and levels of activism-focused artists. Now it has a form, stated goals, a work model, and a palpable velocity and momentum. With so many sectors finding real value in “hacking” and “design thinking” models for collective problem-solving, people are interested as possibly never before in inventing new kinds of cooperative action across formerly separate fields and disciplines. Sitting in the audience for the close of this conversation, it felt almost possible to envision policy-minded artists and allies designing yet more kinds of work groups, locating yet more soft spots and gray areas between arts practitioner collectives, community organizations, and policy groups, and crystallizing new kinds of collaborations within those spaces that increasingly directly integrate the full range of people involved in changing public policy.

As participants began to depart the YBCA campus for the day, I was able to circle up with Ananya Chatterjea, who had attended the October REMAP in New York. Comparing that first convening with REMAP Bay Area, she said, “It was a very different audience. [New York] was the first time, so the stakes were higher in some ways—but the stakes are very deep here. I think the expectation people brought to this was, ‘Ok, can we get to the next level now?’” 

Like Turner, Chatterjea was emphatic in affirming the value of convening:

[W]e have been so thirsty for so long, so parched for conversations like this, that for us it’s like drops of water on earth that is beginning to crack. It feels like, “OK, for a long time I can sustain from that one drop of water. I can go some more time.” So for us, for me, it feels like so much hope. And it’s not about money, it’s not about recognition. It’s about community. It’s to have these vital conversations so you don’t feel you’re alone and crazy.

Other attendees echoed Chatterjea’s sense of relief in their own words. Jax Gil, an attendee who’d traveled from Boston to California specifically for REMAP, said, We're asking questions [about inclusivity and social justice], but we feel like we're on an island. So we come out here to be inspired. Because here there’s urgency, there’s infrastructure; you don't have to convince anyone that this is important.”

Xxavier Edward Carter, a YBCA fellow and the head artist/engineer at Goldfish Dreams, an artist management concern that represents chiefly visual artists and writers, said of REMAP,

[It] really helped me in visualizing the broader community. Even running a global organization, the people you meet are all individuals, and seeing a group of individuals like this together that are all doing a similar thing to what I’m doing and have a good vision of the broader idea of connectivity in the arts, and making public changes through the arts and civic engagement…it’s really, really inspiring.

The magic moment REMAP aims for, of course, is when inspiration wells up and spills over into action. Gil said, “I am thinking about starting a QTPOC performance group, and I want to see how others are doing it intelligently, for adults.”And Marc Bamuthi Joseph said that the energy generated at REMAP Bay Area helped him finish his opera, “We Will Not Be Moved,” for Opera Philadelphia and the Apollo Theater in Harlem:

[T]he gathering was emboldening in many ways. I’d been struggling with the end—as I think we all kind of do—and I have to say that the new end of the opera was immediately triggered by the events of REMAP, in the sense that I felt a different sense of courage, to be honest…to be honest.

***

 

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