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Sustainability, Community, Art: A Conversation with Marc Bamuthi Joseph

In mid-August, the multifaceted California artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph was in residency at the Walker Art Center, asking the question: “What sustains life in your community?” He asked this question of such local artists as Leah Cooper, Desdamona, Allison Herrera, Wing Young Huie, Marlina Gonzalez, Robert Farid Karimi, Rick Lowe, Leah Nelson, and Tish Jones to learn more about the intersections of artistic engagement, sustainability, and community in the Twin Cities.

Joseph and his collaborator, artist and educator Brett Cook-Dizney, also introduced members of the Twin Cities “ecosystem” of local organizations—including All My Relations Arts, Citizens for a Loring Park Community, Conway+Schulte Architects, Cultural Wellness Center, Intermedia Arts, Juxtaposition Arts, Kulture Klub, Line Break Media, the Minneapolis Parks Foundation--to their Life Is Living project, “a model for partnerships between diverse and under-resourced communities, green action agencies, and the contemporary arts world.”
An hour before Joseph joined Desdamona on the Walker’s Open Field as part of the Life is Living project’s Living Classroom, The Line talked with the National Poetry Slam champion, Broadway veteran and 2011 Alpert Theater Award recipient about his work. In March 2012, Joseph’s findings will be incorporated into a new dance, text, and visual work created with Chicago-based visual artist/activist Theaster Gates, red, black and GREEN: a blues, premiering at the Walker.

Camille LeFevre: You’ve innovated a number of initiatives that, in many ways, came together during your Living Classroom at the Walker earlier this month and will culminate in your March performance. How do they all fit together?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: Part of what I’m doing mirrors that the Walker does. I was here with [my performance] the break/s in 2008. I had performed the piece in the round and had to shift it to the proscenium here, so I got a chance to walk around the building and to work extensively with the Walker’s teen and education programs.

From Performance to Process

Through those experiences I got a sense of how one institution could work at a highly skillful level at the intersection of community engagement and visual arts and performing arts. Typically, with residencies, I’m here for one month, then later again, with no interaction in between. From an audience-development perspective, and an emotional standpoint for me, it feels fragmented and ephemeral. I wanted to make something that was revelatory in its process, where the end goal wasn’t to make a great object, but to create something that would sustain itself beyond the life of the object; to create an organizing model as arts practice, to champion a process of staying in community.

Camille LeFevre: So you’re keen on establishing a sense of continuity with the Walker.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: Absolutely. That continuity, that reciprocal invitation and conversation, locating the discourse inside of a place of energetic reciprocity--for me that’s where the best art is. I’m also interested in finding ways artistically to complicate the relationship between the performing arts and the visual arts. All of that is coming together here. Not just in Living Classroom, but in red, black and GREEN: a blues, where the community engagement principle is the reason for the piece itself. And the piece reflects the dynamics we engaged in doing the Life is Living model around the country.

Camille LeFevre: Why was the Walker’s Open Field a place in which you wanted to conduct your Life is Living project?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: The Walker, as brick and mortar and steel and glass as it is, is pliant enough in terms of the personnel to make it possible. I only want to do this with institutions and community partners that are also going to yield a little bit; not compromise, but engage in what we call the cultural commons. In Oakland, where I live, we drew out the model for a creative ecosystem, which is based on an interdisciplinary network of artists and organizations that have the same values but different methodologies. In a lot of ways, that’s the way the Walker operates.

So when they invited me to speak with the staff about what we were doing in March, we talked about the ethos of collaboration and what it looks like offstage, and how it might work between institution and community.

Meeting the Locals

Camille LeFevre: How did you find your collaborators and community partners?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: The Walker staff identified 25 different community representatives they thought were doing work along the periphery of what I’m getting at. Then I hung out with [veteran public artist] Seitu Jones for a day. Me and Seitu and Julie Voight and my collaborator Brent Cook-Dizney got in a car and looked at the Twin Cities through Seitu’s eyes: The relationship between the river, the mills and the Guthrie; the relationship between the State Capitol building and the park around the corner; the relationship between the light-rail line and its locations.

We got a sense of history, politics, geography, and cultural identity. Along the way, we stopped in North Minneapolis and engaged with Roger and Deanna Cummings at Juxtaposition Arts. Immediately, organically and intuitively, I gravitated toward them and the work they’re doing as reflective of all the ideas that we share. On this trip, Juxtaposition has been collaborative ground zero in asking critical questions.

Camille LeFevre: What has inspired the questions?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: In this country, but perhaps not as much in Minnesota, there’s a fractured political and economic relationships; a sense that "real America" doesn’t participate in the arts, which just isn’t true. We have to find a new vocabulary and ways of articulating these connections and part of the way is to reflect community in our arts practice and to make sure that the community contributes its vocabulary, its iconography in such a way that it sees itself reflected back.

A Tour with Seitu Jones

Camille LeFevre: What vocabulary and iconography specific to the Twin Cities came out of your collaborations?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: In one meeting in North Minneapolis we talked about reaction to the tornado. How there was a sense of urgency among groups and individuals that barely or rarely see each other to meet four or five times a day in response to healing. Somebody said, “But you know, if someone gets shot there isn’t that same kind of urgency.”

I thought about the urgency to heal, and the difference between an actual man-made disaster—I’m speaking in Rick Perry terms now—and a natural disaster. And socioeconomic disparities, and how they manifest in our educational and in our incarceration system, are a natural disaster. The scale of the effect is actually larger than most natural disasters anywhere. So you’d think there’d be the same level of urgency.

Tornadoes and Prisons: Ecological Disasters

So from an artistic perspective, I’ve been playing with that corollary between a tornado or a hurricane, and a prison system, for example. Both to me are ecological calamities. What is it about God striking that impels us to action in a way that man striking does not? That became a question I found myself in.

Camille LeFevre: You initiated the Living Classroom and your collaborations here with another question: “What sustains life in your community?” How have you found that question answered here?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: The answer is really the same everywhere. People sustain life. We tend to think about sustainability in terms of machines, like solar panels. But people conserve. People are responsible. And people have an interdependent relationship to one another. If every person on earth disappeared, evaporated X-Men style, all the buildings would still be here. The environmental question isn’t of things; it’s of people. This is what I found in the Twin Cities and around the country. So part of the practice of codifying that has been to frame and locate the question of environmentalism inside of arts practice, to frame it and reflect it in terms of people--mothers, farmers, teachers, homeless men. They are just as much a part of environmental discourse as rainforests and polar bears.

Intellectual Preserves

Camille LeFevre: Talk more about how you see the prismatic relationship between people, sustainability, art, and community?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: There’s big and small. I just mentioned Rick Perry tongue in cheek, because he’s a viable presidential candidate all of a sudden and he said he didn’t believe in man-made climate change. That it’s politically safe for him to say that means the political current is moving not only in an anti-intellectual direction, but in an anti-scientific direction that affects policy.

We need to preserve places that are hubs of creativity and exchange, like the Walker, schools and libraries, for no other reason than to maintain the rigor of intellectual activity. And who better to make visible the messages about interdependence and environmental accountability than artists? That’s what we do. We make people see things that are present and we prognosticate things that will happen. If someone can say they don’t believe in global warming, someone else has to present a compelling reason--as if a tornado isn’t enough--to pay attention.

How the "Language of Green" Falls Short

That’s one thing. Also, I just think the language of green compartmentalizes the question in ways that aren’t skillful or efficient.

Camille LeFevre: By taking people out of the question?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: By taking people out of the question. But also by using fifty-dollar words to address fifty issues.

Camille LeFevre: Such as?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: We keep talking about sustainability. Sus-tain-a-bil-i-ty [counts out syllables on his fingers]. Right? So instead, I talk about life. I say life is living. What sustains you in your community as opposed how to you practice sustainability? And I frame this work in questions, rather than making declarative statements, to invite anyone to enter into the conversation in a meaningful way. That’s the other thing art does, when it’s successful: It provokes further questions. And when you provoke questions, you’re more likely to provoke answers and action. So yeah, in terms of policy, everyday life and from an inspiration standpoint, I think art, environment, and sustainability are all connected.

Camille LeFevre's last article for The Line was a profile of green architect/inventor Kerrik Wessel, in our July 27, 2011 issue.

Images of Marc Bamuthi Joseph speaking with Camille LeFevre (and playing dominoes with his collaborators at the Walker Art Center) by Bill Kelley

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