Saturday, May 29, 2010

An Almanac For Moderns: In Memory Of The Marshes

May Twenty-Eighth

Twilight by the marsh, and the full throated roaring of the bull frogs, very different from the first quavering of the little tree frogs in the earliest spring. A bittern somewhere, pumping, as it is usually said; to me the sound is more like a cart rattling over an old corduroy road. A sense of the passing away of spring; of the lengthening of the days to a point where the heart aches, surfeited with too much light. A feeling that all about one trees are rushing out their leaves to full maturity, the last spring flowers are bursting everywhere from spathe and scale and bud and bough, too numerous now to remember--not so sweet, so frail, so few as those first classic little blooms, bluet and harbinger-of-spring, and purple cardamine. Wild flags elegant in deep water. Little stridulations, pluckings on chitinous strings from the orthopteran insects, that remind one of summer, nay, of autumn itself. And in the trees tanagers, and black-billed cuckoos calling "scurrilous, scurrilous," in that sultry way of theirs. 

Already the room of life is too full for us to sort out its occupants. Before we learned anything about them the spring beauties have vanished; I stand where I picked them in March, and cannot find them. The bloodroot lifts its little seed pods up, above its leaf now grown great and thick and waxy. Tomorrow I may not find it. Everywhere, blooming and leafing, mating and spawning; already crying and death.

More information on our Almanac For Moderns project and the work of Donald Culross Peattie can be found here.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Idaho Dance Theatre

photograph by John Kelly

Much like The North Dakota Rural Arts Initiative we highlighted a few weeks ago, The Idaho Dance Theatre is a forward thinking arts organization that is not only operating out of its home theater in Boise, but also making a concerted effort to bring their work to rural regions of the state.

The IDT was formed in 1990 after dancers Fred and Marla Hansen (both former dancers with the American Festival Ballet) traveled to Jackson, Wyoming to perform with dancer/choreographer Carl Rowe. The warm reception generated by that performance and a second one in Boise inspired the three artists to begin the process of setting up shop in Idaho, and fulfilling a vital artistic and cultural need. Twenty years into their project, the IDT has become a beacon in the region's art scene. Here's how the Idaho Dance Theatre describes their current mission:
IDT creates and performs educational outreach and rural touring to introduce dance to a wide spectrum of people throughout the state of Idaho and in the Northwestern region of the US.  It is important to us that all people are introduced to dance as an art form, no matter where they live.  Creating dance audiences in the future is important to the survival of all performing arts groups, and part of our mission includes performing in the schools and communities where we live. 

Our goal is to have all people experience a dance concert in their lifetimes.  While not everyone may become a fan, we do believe that once they experience a performance they will become a better person for it.  We strive to maintain the most professional performance at the most reasonable price that we can.  Our performances are in an intimate theatre at Boise State University where we are in residence.  Our residency agreement affords us rehearsal and perfoming space, but no financial support.  Join our efforts by coming to our show - and bring someone new.  Introduce them to your local contemporary dance company...where local dancers are afforded the chance to perform at a professional level without leaving Idaho!
The Idaho Dance Theatre works in affiliation with Boise State University to offer new programs each season--and a visit to their dancers' bio page reveals one of the most beautiful facets of this groups success: many of the dancers are Idaho natives who have been given the opportunity to pursue their craft without having to leave their home state. This program stands as a stellar example of how a single arts organization can address and help correct--beyond the stage--many of the concerns native to rural america.

Below is one short clip of the Idaho Dance Theatre's work, but there is more to be found on Youtube.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Dell'Arte International

This is an artform from five-hundred years ago in Italy. How is that relevant now? It's relevant because we can create on stage, without the permission of television networks or movie studios. We can create stories that reflect the concerns, the desires and the pain of our audiences. We can reach out, without permission to tell stories we would not be able to tell in the major media. The theater is absolutely vital to the survival of free expression in America.
           - Tim Robbins, accepting Dell'Arte's 2009 Prize of Hope

The small town of Blue Lake, California is the homebase of the Dell'Arte International--a theatre company with a vision all to itself. Approaching its fortieth anniversay, Dell'Arte are "a committed community of artists who model and share in a sustained ensemble artistic practice," with a mission that is "international in scope, grounded in the natural living world [and] inspired by [their] non-urban setting." From that imperative, they both honor the commedia dell'arte tradition and renovate it for contemporary use, presenting a touring company, acting workshops and youth programs, as well as an impressive series of outreach projects in the surrounding community.

Though they offer a regular schedule of performances, their principles converge in dramatic fashion every summer during the Mad River Festival. Each year the local community is joined by theatre fans from around the globe, as Dell'Arte performs their work alongside troupes from a number of other countries. This year Klinke, a contemporary circus show from Italy, as well as Los Payasos Mendigos, will perform--though a visit to their site will reveal many more performances and events than a single paragraph here could condense.

The Festival will also highlight Blue Lake: The Opera, a piece conceived by Dell'Arte to celebrate the Blue Lake's centennial:
On the 100th aniversary of the founding of Blue Lake, Dell'Arte takes us back to the wild days of Blue Lake's birth in 1910. Hogs in the streets, rowdy logging camps, mysterious Odd Fellows, gunfights, fires, housewives and socialists--and three tired schoolteachers in charge of 190 students--how could love possibly survive in a place like this? But it did, even when the great fire of 1911 tragically and spectacularly took down the Odd Fellows Hall...
And so... we open the 20th Mad River Festival with Blue Lake: The Opera. Nearly every word will be sung in this story based on actual events--both lurid and lyrical--in the early life of Blue Lake. A ribald blending of styles and influences, as quirky as Blue Lake itself, mixing the earthy sounds of folk music with the full-throated coloratura of classical opera, and featuring some of the finest singers in Humboldt County, alongside sheep, chickens, pigs and a milk cow.

What was spawned 100 years ago has hatched into the "peaceable hamlet" we know and love today. The machine guns may be gone from city hall, the gambling palace has a new hotel, the sewer system is still working--but what new visions await us in the next 100 years, that we seed today? As Shakespeare said, "What's past is prologue, what to come in yours and my discharge..."
Though there hasn't been much video or photo stills released yet in conjunction with this project, Tim Gray, the opera's musical director, has made available streaming demos of the songs as well as pdfs of the sheet music, so you can learn "The Woodsmen's Chorus" or "The Bear's Lament" before attending the show.

For further investigation, included below is a video compilation of the various facets of Dell'Arte International:

Friday, May 21, 2010

Down Home Radio

 tin-type photograph of The Dust Busters by Bill Steber

Last week, in our coverage of The Black Banjo Gathering,  we mentioned the extraordinary Down Home Radio Show. With the weekend approaching, we thought it would be a good time to return to the Show and to the work of its founder Eli Smith. Grab a cool drink and get comfortable: you'll want to spend some time wading your feet in all this great music and all these resources. 

Like Nathan Salsburg and Lance Ledbetter, Mr. Smith is an integral part of a new generation of musicians and folklorists who are using twenty-first century technologies to both preserve traditions and to get the word out about artists who are carrying them forward. There's no better testament to how these tools can bring together urban and rural communities than Mr. Smith's Brooklyn Folk Festival, which is running all  this weekend at The Jalopy Theater. Featuring thirty-one artists over this long weekend, the Festival is covering an amazing gamut of musical forms, offering "old-time music, blues, pre-blues, jug band music, New Orleans jazz, folk style songwriting, Greek, African and Mexican folk music and dance with concerts, workshops, and a Sunday afternoon square dance."

Many of the artists on stage this weekend have already been introduced to audiences by The Down Home Radio Show, which can be downloaded for podcast or steamed online. It was founded in 2006 by Mr. Smith and, in the early episodes, was co-hosted by the late Henrietta Yurchenco, a visionary ethnomusicologist and broadcaster who brought the likes of Leadbelly, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie to audiences. This excerpt from the Show's introductory press release seems even more prescient today:
Down Home Radio will make this music, often drawn from obscure field recordings or other out of the way sources, readily accessible to the general public. “Listen at the roots, with a mind for detail. Given this information, you will no longer accept stereotypes of or fall for clich├ęs about our cultural past. Let this program be your introduction and a continuing guide to this trove of material. For musicians and fans of music alike you will find a fresh and clear perspective in your evolving appreciation and critique of music,” said Smith. 

In times of crisis such as the Great Depression of the 1930’s and the world revolutions of the 1960’s folk music, both as a mirror and a hammer, has come to the fore and played an important role in cultural movements and movements for social and political change. Today, as we are once again in an economic and political crisis, Down Home Radio hopes to offer traditional vernacular music as both a spring board for innovation and as a candid lens with which to view, appreciate and participate in our culture.
The lens metaphor has recently been applied literally, as Down Home TV has become a component of the Show's online presence. Below is one segment with Jerron "Blind Boy" Patton filmed by Chris Low:

There's almost five years worth of radio shows on the site. Mr. Smith's most recent conversations have been with George Gibson, a banjo player from Eastern Kentucky (see his recordings for June Appal and his contributions on Dust-to-Digital's amazing Art of Field Recording, Volume II) as well as with Clifton Hicks, an extraordinarily talented young banjo player from North Carolina. 

Aside from all of these projects, Eli Smith is also a member of The Dust Busters, an old-time string band that is "influenced and inspired by the direct fusion of Scots-Irish and African music that took place in Appalachia, the Western states and the Deep South from the earliest colonial times through the Second World War." Check out their myspace page for a generous selection of streaming songs. 

Here's a nice video that speaks to how the established generation of advocates for folk culture are engaging with the next: as The Dust Busters were rehearsing for an appearance on WNYC they were joined in Washington Square by John Cohen, of the legendary New Lost City Ramblers (also see our post/video on his participation in The Madison County Project). 

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Detroit, Its Future and Farming

illustration of John Nantz's project by Byran Christie

By Ian Halbert

My cousins all live outside of Detroit and it is not uncommon to hear from them horror stories of just how devastated and blighted the city has become. Surely, we are all familiar with Detroit’s economic problems and urban decay – it has been the butt of jokes for generations and after the onslaught of this most recent recession, the images and stories of just how it is in one of America’s former industrial powerhouses have been nothing short of astonishing. With an unemployment rate in Michigan at about 15% – 5% above the national average – and a housing market that has tanked, the area has become victim to all sorts of real estate speculation, as some homes cost as low as $5000. This blog seems to be a get-rich-quick-at-Detroit’s-expense scheme, while other – one would hope more responsible – outlets have pushed the same idea.  

The end result is that a great deal of Detroit land is embarrassingly cheap and thus easily repurposed. And this is potentially good news. As such, some bright lights have advocated remaking the city entire, in addition to rethinking the design and function of cities in general. Micro loans have become popular in the area and futurists like Jerry Paffendorf have applied such financial tools to more grand projects like “Loveland,” where anyone in the world can buy an inch of Detroit for a $1 with the aim of creating community owned and operated public spaces. (More on this not entirely comprehensible project here and here.) 

But perhaps the most exciting idea has been the serious proposal of expanded and extensive urban farming. The idea is controversial, as it would require converting large amounts of public and private land (currently there is over 40 miles of vacant city land) being converted to essentially farmland, graded, raised and laid out almost in the manner of Macchu Picchu to accommodate the urban terrains.  

John Nantz has the vision for such a project (see above), but the city and its constituents have been wary of putting so much public space in the hands of a single, corporate entity, rather than in the control of the community. 

While it is dangerous to be overconfident in the hopes for these grand urban farming ventures (see tip 6) in the face of such economic odds, these projects and ideas could potentially change how we think about not only our urban landscapes, but also our rural ones. One need only consider the immediate paradox that as we continue to industrialize the countryside and its crops, the cities would have access to fresh, local produce. Perhaps, in some strange irony of historical significance, from the ashes of the heart of American industrialism will come a return to the farm and the land.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Grass Roots

Lavinia Nelson's Basket Stand in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, 2006 by Brian Crockett

There's a whole history behind these baskets, it's not just a basket. You have this tradition that's been handed down from generation to generation in their families, which goes back over three hundred years. So it's more that just a basket. You have a whole culture, a whole family, a whole connection of Africa and South Carolina, a whole history behind it. 

Last week we discussed the Black Banjo Gathering, and how those musicians were reclaiming the banjo as an African instrument while also celebrating how its role in American musics. The National Endowment for the Humanities, and their NEH On The Road program, are offering an exhibit that also celebrates a transatlantic cultural exchange: Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art. The exhibit's next stop is the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. Here's an introduction:
Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art traces the parallel histories of coiled basketry in Africa and America, and explores the contemporary evolution of an ancient craft in a global economy.

Featuring baskets from the lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia, as well as from diverse regions of Africa including Senegal and South Africa, Grass Roots examines the origins of the African-American coiled basketry tradition on American shores, from the domestication of rice in Africa two millenia ago, through the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the Carolina rice plantation, and then into the present day. Organized by the Museum for African Art in New York City and co-curated by Enid Schildkrout (Chief Curator, Museum for African Art) and Dale Rosengarten (Curator and Historian, College of Charleston), Grass Roots highlights the remarkable beauty of coiled basketry and shows how a utilitarian object can become both a masterwork of fine craft and a container of memory and collective history.
Last week we also discussed The Mid-American Arts Alliance and their collaboration with Dave Loewenstein on The Mural Project, and lo and behold, they've also worked with the NEH On The Road program to produce the two videos below. In the first, Dr. Rosengarten offers context for the art and a narrative on the project's development; in the second clip, Nakia Wigfall discusses her personal connection to basket arts. She's a fifth-generation basket-maker from Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, and also the director of the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Preservation Society.

D Rosengarten Interview from Mid-America Arts Alliance on Vimeo.

Wigfall Interview from Mid-America Arts Alliance on Vimeo.

Friday, May 14, 2010

An Almanac For Moderns: The Question

May Tenth

Was it worthwhile for a mayfly to have been born, to have been a worm for weeks and a bride or a bridegroom for one day, only to perish? Such is not a question to which Nature will give the human mind an answer. She thrusts us all into life, and with her hand propels us like children through the role she has alloted for us. You may weep about it or you may smile; that matters only to yourself. The trees that live five hundred years, or five thousand, see us human mayflies grow and mate and die while they are adding a foot to their girth. Well might they ask themselves if it be not a slavish and ephemeral soft thing to be born a man.

More information on our Almanac For Moderns project and the work of Donald Culross Peattie can be found here.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

South Carolina Hash

painting by Richard Pillsbury

Folkstreams is currently featuring Carolina Hash, a recent film by Stan Woodward and his Woodward Studio Limited. Mr. Woodward has received much acclaim for his series of films, which use what he calls a "low-profile" method of documenting the people and culture of his native South Carolina. He's produced, filmed and edited an impressive body of work that has considered local food culture and the arts. To view this 2008 film, follow the link to Carolina Hash.

The documentary does fantastic work in considering the ideas and traditions contained in a pot of South Carolina Hash. It's a story about food, community and southern culture. For the uninitiated, here's an entry by Saddler Taylor of the McKissick Museum in Columbia, SC and Mr. Woodward on South Carolina Hash for the Foodways volume of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture:
In South Carolina, hash ("barbecue hash" in some places) takes the place of honor held by Brunswick stew in Georgia and Virginia and burgoo in Kentucky. Like both Brunswick stew and burgoo, South Carolina hash is widely regarded as an accompaniment to barbecue. Like other stews, hash has a long history and holds an important place as a food of congregation. By the colonial period, hash was a stew made from small pieces of roasted meat of any kind, cooked down with onions, herbs, and vinegar water.
Served over rice (or sometimes grits), hash varies in terms of specific ingredients from one cook to the next. Broadly speaking, there are three major hash types in South Carolina, corresponding to the state's primary geographic regions. Hash from the Lowcountry consists of several de-boned hogsheads, supplemented with organ meats like pork liver, cooked in a stock that favors tomato and ketchup. Vegetables can include onions, corn and potatoes. Hash from the midlands consists primarily of higher-quality cuts of pork, onions, and a mustard-based stock. Finally, Upcountry hash is largely beef-based, with no dominant ketchup, vinegar or mustard-based stock. This hash most resembles the camp stews or hunter's stews of the early 19th century. Its ingredients are normally limited to beef, onions, butter, and a variety of seasonings.
Any mention of stew ingredients yields opportunities to discuss issues of socioeconomic class, since most stew recipes ultimately come from rural folk traditions. The transformation of very common ingredients into exceptional stews is a theme integral to the story of hash making.
Though Mr. Woodward's film makes a persuasive argument for hash's South Carolina-centric identity, here's legendary North Caronlinian Charley Poole singing of visiting a "Hungry Hash House." It sounds like he rambled across the border:

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Dave Loewenstein's Mural Project

"Railroad Cisco of the Tonkawa Tribe describing the tribe's journey from Texas to Oklahoma in the 1880's, and the Land Run that followed in 1893," a mural sketch by Dave Loewenstein

Whether or not you're living in the center of the country, if you're interested in the arts--and how the arts engage with community life--I'd highly recommend visiting the Mid-America Arts Alliance. The Alliance works within both urban and rural communities and provides, by its estimation, "over 850 performances and exhibitions and some 6,000 related educational programs to over one million people annually." Here's how they describe their mission:
Mid-America Arts Alliance (M-AAA) was created to support and stimulate cultural activity in communities throughout Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. Based in the heartland, M-AAA now creates and manages regional, multi-regional, national, and international programs including traveling exhibitions, performing arts touring, and professional and community development.

Countless stories can be told about arts experiences in the communities that Mid-America Arts Alliance serves with performances, exhibitions, seminars, workshops, master classes, school tours, radio broadcasts, artist residencies, community projects, and lectures. For these communities the arts truly are a source of lifelong learning and renewal. 
These notions of storytelling and renewal are central to one of their current efforts: The Mural Project. From March through September, muralist Dave Loewenstein will be working with local artists and community members to conceptualize, design and paint mural projects throughout Oklahoma and Kansas. In the M-AAA's words, it's a "collaborative process driven by local people often with the guidance and technical assistance of professional artists;" thus, while the community becomes involved, Mr. Loewenstein will also be offering training and inspiration for a series of emerging mural artists who can continue the work of The Mural Project long past its conclusion in September. 

The Mid-America Arts Alliance have developed a brilliant and multifaceted program here--and it's reinforced by their idea to ask Mr. Loewenstein and his collaborators to blog about the process and experience of attempting this project. Dave Loewenstein's Mural Journal is currently featuring some posts that describe the research phase of a project in Tonkawa, Oklahoma. The collaborators have visited the town's archives for research and gone out to the local diners and gathering spots to learn more. Mr. Loewenstein's entry on speaking with Tonkawa Tribal President Don Patterson is a meaningful example of how these artists must grapple with the complicated history of the place--from its Native American legacy forward:
Over and over during our research we have heard that the land, how it's settled and the resources it provides are fundamental to the identity of Tonkawa. At our last mural design team meeting, residents reflected on the legacy of the oil boom & bust years, the coming and going of the railroad, memories of the Salt Fork and Chikaskia rivers, and the steadfastness of local farmers some of whom have passed their land on to descendants for more than a century. And although there was a certain sense of pride expressed in what had help establish Tonkawa, some on the design team wondered aloud if looking backward in time, the way many murals in the area do, was enough, especially in light of ongoing economic challenges facing both the tribe and town. A few folks suggested that the mural might be more meaningful to young people if it expressed an acknowledgment of present circumstances, cultural diversity, and a vision for the future in addition to references from the past.
The beauty of this blog is that we'll get to see how these artists work through the challenges of representing, and speaking to, these issues. To explore Tonkawa further, click here for a video update on The Mural Project. Mr. Loewstein's site also has a rich and various portfolio of murals, sketches an other visual work.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Update: Invisible Odysseys And The Work of B. Amore

a memory box from B. Amore's previous exhibit: An Italian American Odyssey

A few weeks ago we discussed how artists in Vermont are sharing the stories of the Mexican migrant farm workers who staff many of the local dairy farms. We highlighted The Golden Cage Project and The Vermont Folklife Center's new exhibition Invisible Odysseys: Art By and About Mexican Farm Workers in Vermont. This project, as the VFC describes it, centered around the artwork of local schoolchildren and also the migrant workers' own attempts to render their experiences into "memory boxes." This effort was lead by B. Amore:
Artist and writer B. Amore and brought paints, wooden boxes, and mixed media materials to Mexican workers so that they could engage in making three-dimensional representations of their personal journeys. Through participation in the project farm workers have told their own stories, in their own words, and through their own individual artistic expression.
The Wisconsin Public Radio program Here on Earth broadcast an hour-long discussion with B. Amore about the exhibition and her experiences working with this population--and it can be streamed from the show's site here. It's a wonderful discussion of how art can be used as a vehicle through which these migrant communities can tell a story that's much richer, and much more complicated, than the ways in which this issue has been framed in by politicans, pundits and larger media outlets.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Black Banjo Gathering

I recently visited the excellent Down Home Radio website and discovered, through Eli Smith's coverage of the event, The Black Banjo Gathering. It convened this year in late March at Appalachian State University, and featured five days of workshops, forums, and, of course, lots of banjo music. Most people associate the instrument entirely with rural, white musicians and traditions--and the gathering seeks to expand how we understand this instrument's legacy and its continuing cultural importance. As Tony Thomas writes on the Gathering's site:
The banjo is a product of Africa. Africans transported to the Caribbean and Latin America were reported playing banjos in the 17th and 18th centuries, before any banjo was reported in the Americas. Africans in the US were the predominant players of this instrument until the 1840s. Originally the banjos were made out of gourds and skins. The strings numbered between three and nine, with four- and five-string banjos being popular. A distinguishing feature was one or more short drone strings sounded with the thumb.
Banjo playing became an object of popular white culture in the US and later in Britain as a result of the Blackface Minstrel shows that became a popular form of entertainment in the 1830s and 1840s. Minstrels from the South who had actually learned real African-American music like Joel Sweeney popularized the banjo by introducing the clawhammer or frailing style that Blacks had brought from Africa. Commercial banjo makers later claimed that Sweeney invented the banjo in order to cover up its African origin. Sweeney did work with luthiers and drum makers to help perfect drum head banjos, the most common type, and is thought to have popularized the five-string banjo as opposed to the four-string banjo. Banjo playing became widely popular among working class and poor people both urban and rural. While African Americans continued their tradition with the instrument, whites also became fans, makers and manufacturers of the banjo.
The group encourages considering the heritage of the instrument, but also its future, and their numbers reflect this diversity of artistic approaches, as they include "African American banjoists who play old time music, classic banjo, blues, bluegrass, jazz and funk, as well as other banjoists, fiddlers, percussionists and scholars."

There's a wealth of material online about these musicians. One historical perspective to consider would be the Smithsonian Folkways' recording Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia and Gathering organizer CeCe Conway's book African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia. But this is just to begin to mention the wealth of material out there--look for future posts that expand on both black banjo artists and the instrument itself. Until then, here's video featuring the work of Gathering participants Otis Taylor and Carl Johnson:

Also: here's Ashley Melzer's write-up from The Independent Weekly.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

An Art Farm In Nebraska

We're cultivating culture here as a crop, and if you look around, you'll see the diversity of that crop.

The Art Farm of Marquette, Nebraska stands as one of those visionary projects that seems to acknowledge and integrate many of the concerns we have been exploring here lately: the rural-urban connection, how art can be a force for cultural and economic sustainability, and the role of younger generations in shaping rural america. Beginning in 1993, the Farm has offered over one hundred residencies to artists from all mediums; in exchange for contributing 12 hours a week to the everyday operations of the farm, these residents are given generous quarters in various rehabilitated historic barns and other structures and, most importantly, they are given the time and space to create art. 

A visit to their list of past residents (some with links to photos) is palpable evidence to how, as founder Ed Dadey tends the fields, these artists have left their own marks on this landscape. For instance, here are a few photographs of the Sculpture Pasture:

Above: Prairie Hive (clay, twine, wood, 48 x 16 x 120 inches); Mobile Home (inflated rubber, polyethylene, truck, 120 x 256 x 84, approx. inches); Worm Barn (wood, rubber, 48 x 54 x 600, inches)

Exploring the The Art Farm site allows the reader to put these various wonders into a coherent patchwork, there's also this well-done piece on the farm and some of its residents that captures the ethic and the aesthetic of the place quite nicely:

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Plains of Sweet Regret

installation photograph by Rik Sferra

Last week we discussed The North Dakota Museum of Art and their Rural Arts Initiative, and I'd like to return this week to another of the exhibits that has recently been touring the state--and also the nation. Mary Lucier's The Plains of Sweet Regret was commissioned by the NDMOA as part of its Emptying Out Of The Plains initiative that aims to look at the changing face of the northern plains.

Ms. Lucier's work engages with the rural-urban interchange yet, unlike many of the projects we've highlighted in these virtual pages, she is coming from the opposite side of the transom--as an urban artist looking to create honest and provocative video projects that speak to the challenges facing rural communities of North Dakota. Her collaborations with these communities already yielded 1998's Floodsongs, a video project that was a response to floods along the Red River in 1997. The piece opened at the NDMOA to great accolades and was later exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Here's Laurel Reuter, president of the NDMOA, writing in introduction to The Plains of Sweet Regret:
At the turn of the twenty-first century, Mary Lucier began to visit North Dakota, traveling across seasons and time, into the far northwest corner of the state. Seismic change has forced the people of the Northern plains to re-imagine their lives as family farms, small towns, and rural communities have shrunk to nothing. The land is now occupied by agribusiness; the lone farmer, the cowboy, migrant workers and field hands have gradually moved on. The remains dot the landscape like the skeletons of fish washed up on far distant shores.

Mary Lucier's eighteen-minute, five-channel video installation creates the experience of moving through the landscape, across the prairies and the plains, and into the West of the imagination–the West, which, if it ever existed, lies in ruins.

The Plains of Sweet Regret is part of the North Dakota Museum of Art’s much larger Emptying Out of the Plains initiative. Photographers, film makers, poets and essayists have been commissioned to create work that marks this moment in the history of this northern land. Their charge is difficult. Endless photographs and video footage of abandoned towns and farmsteads already exist—most overwhelmingly sentimental. How does an artist grapple with the essence of loss and then expose the ambiguity at its core? Mary Lucier wanders with her camera into these deserted places—empty, forlorn, littered with the remnants of human life. She films a doll, a school desk, a bowling trophy, cast aside, all stripped of their former usefulness. The churches and the schools and the homes, once filled with immigrants’ dreams, now house the wind. Only nature’s creatures come to call. The Plains of Sweet Regret is a lyrical ode to this lonely and desolate place, to a shifting in time, and to an untested future.

This video installation has been touring the country as well, and reviewers and audiences have noted how the out-migration in North Dakota expressing itself in the communities all throughout the western part of the United States. The Amon Carter Musuem in Fort Worth, Texas recently featured this exhibit, and, in part, framed the work along those lines. Here's Assistant Curator of Photographs Jessica May discussing the project with Ms. Lucier:

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

An Almanac For Moderns: He Fouls the Gulf, He Fouls the River

April Nineteenth

If progress is an increasing power to master and mold environment, then there is a strong current of progress in evolution. A one-celled flagellate certainly has but the dullest awareness of its environment as it bumps aimlessly about, but the redwinged blackbird hanging in its nest on the cattails and the muskrat digging crafty passages into and out of his home--these highly sentient, motile, instinctive and often intelligent creatures are a world and many ages beyond the blind and stupid flagellate. And last, in his majesty comes man, who if he does not like the marsh, will dig ditches and drain it off. In a year he will be turning a furrow there, sowing his domesticated crop, the obedient grain; he will drive out every animal and plant that does not bow down to him.

Man--man has the world in the hollow of his hand. He is a standing refutation of an old superstition like predestination--or a new one like determinism. His chances seem all but boundless, and boundless might be his optimism if he had not already thrown away so many of his opportunities. That very marsh was the home of waterfowl as valuable as they were beautiful. Now they must die, because in this world all breeding grounds are already crammed full. When he slays the birds, he lets loose their prey, and his worst enemy, the insects. He wastes his forests faster than he replaces them, and slaughters the mink and the beaver and the seal. He devours his limited coal supply ever faster; he fouls the rivers, invents poison gases and turns his destruction even on his own kind. And in the end he may present the spectacle of some Brobdingnagian spoiled baby, gulping down cake and howling for it too.

More information on our Almanac For Moderns project and the work of Donald Culross Peattie can be found here.