US Social Forum and the arts: some analysis to think about ROOTS festival
Really wonderful is the opportunity to go to a Social Forum. The intensity of such an event can be compared to a world in action. And so many young people in their teens and 20’s are participating in it! This is so encouraging, I am sure, for anyone who has felt or encountered the weight of social despair or silence, of fear or hate.
For The Charleston Rhizome, and me this forum also provided an opportunity to assess our position as artists and educators, as much as review the place of the arts in the social struggle.
The Charleston Rhizome (SC) of Alternate ROOTS, an informal group of artists, educators and activists, rented a van for a group of ten to voyage to Detroit. Seven of us had gone to three other Social Forums: SESF in Durham NC, WSF in Nairobi Kenya and the first USSF in Atlanta GA. All along our journey through the forums, we have designed activities – even tools - which place us together in a working situation as much as generate a creative opportunity to communicate with others and to rethink together how to act upon the issues we are dealing with in our own various communities. Despite the different cultures we represent - from very religious to atheist, white and black, immigrant or local from day one, strong or broken families - we have developed a sort of loving trustful relationship. Three new young people have joined us this time.
Despite the fact that most of my income is not provided by my artistic practice, I describe myself as a professional visual artist and my art as community-based and collaborative in many ways, with other artists or non-artists as well as with other disciplines. One layer of my search is to question the place of the arts today as an agent of inclusiveness, as opposed to one of competition and divisiveness. Another one is to look at the way it is memorialized, memorized, remembered and passed on.
To see the way the visual and performative art programs were conceived at the USSF - totally separate from the various sessions or discussions - was a trauma for me. All my work – and I believe the one of Alternate ROOTS - tends to do the opposite. I was mad at myself for not having answered the call for participating in the USSF Culture workgroup. At the time, Detroit seemed so far away! Now, though, I know what not to do.
Visual Arts were presented in an underground, badly lit room under Hart Plaza. Experiencing the lower level of a concrete parking building with one or two lost souls looking for their car... or a gallery; comparing it to Cobo Hall, 2 minutes away, a gigantic aviary with its four open floors, rooms of all sizes and 15,000 people roaming around... says it all. Is anyone trying to say, “ANOTHER ART IS NOT POSSIBLE?” Performers, musicians or spoken word artists were not treated any better. All the work that was scheduled was offered as entertainment with a content, and mostly presented all day on the two stages – underground but open to the sky – of Hart Plaza. The smaller stage called “The Pyramid” – it may have been designed as a bottom up pyramid – was so isolated that it took a special effort to find it, hidden as it was from the larger one. None of them had great attendance. Every time I passed by there, I felt sorry for the artists on stage, the same way I always feel passing by an empty store, and not being able to get closer to a sad face in the shop-window! Quantity and quality of offerings are not in question, as participants to the US Social Forum were not here to be entertained. My feeling is that they were here to understand how their activism is working, to compare it with other practices, to feel strong, at ease and secure in their engagement, and to meet others. That is why I also felt at loss with the opening ceremony, which again was a show, separating the performances – although well conceived, starting with Native American voices - instead of including them to expose the mission, organization and possibilities of this forum. Yet, I must mention Will Copeland, the Detroit USSF Detroit organizer and a performer. He started his presentation with a poem. It electrified the audience as only art can. And he did it again in a workshop about the US Social Forum process with the same effect.
The Creativity Lab, organized by Alternate ROOTS, Animating Democracy, Art2Action, the Arts & Democracy Project, the Leftist Lounge/Culture Clash, MAG-Net, and the Movement Strategy Center/Art is Change, proved itself to be a necessity and a potential work of art. It provided space - so much space - for storage, practice or rehearsal of music and dance, or the making of signs, paintings or puppets. I could have helped more, yes and feel more engaged in that process. But I could not do much to engage my group. This time we had come to the Social Forum, for enlarging our common ground, finding answers in the dramatic challenges of poverty and the school system in Charleston or for individual personal wishes. We did not come to help others. And the way activity tables looked at the end of Friday, with abandoned or wasted paint, brushes and materials, generated very troubling remarks from teachers who have to fight, be accountable or even pay for any material they try to make available to their students. Actually it seems that all of us who came from Charleston do not act much as volunteers for charities, but thrive to create inclusive chains of learning exchanges within our work or job. Those were not put in place at the Creativity Lab, as it does need more than a few conference calls to establish them. Maybe I had foreseen the amount of necessary work and its impossibility from so far away, when I neglected to answer the call for participating in the USSF Culture workgroup.
The Charleston Rhizome had also come to Detroit for rethinking its art activities at previous forums - engaging others in conversations using film and batik techniques - Originally we did not want to present or have a workshop. But we were very lucky to host Akudo Ejelonu (USSF field organizer) and Jardyn Lake (USSF youth coordinator) when they visited Charleston. We discussed so many things then. Arianne King Comer left that meeting convinced that it was our duty to present our journey, a duty to ourselves, to The Charleston Rhizome, to Alternate ROOTS and to the Social Forum seen as a process. Our workshop was proposed as follows: “We will look at how the collective uses videos and batik techniques to capture and energize the journey of the social forums: Examples, discussions, hands on, the future? You Comin’? you goin’?...” Amazingly to us it was scheduled in a classroom of another totally isolated concrete basement at Wayne University’s Prentis building, 2 miles away this time. Was it so because we had asked for a table?
I had made two very special canvases for the Social Forum, each of them 16 inches by 20 feet. These were honoring the 40 people who had accepted to participate in our filmed conversations at the World Social Forum in Nairobi. Some were Americans. Maybe we will meet them again! Everything is possible! My original intent was to use a very flexible format, which could be wound around a pillar (maybe 30’ high) in Cobo Hall. In our application we described many possibilities and thought we would install the works ourselves. But as “selected” visual artist, The Charleston Rhizome was asked to mail all its works to reach Detroit no later than the Friday before the Social Forum started: two canvases, 4 batik fabrics 20’x7’ average each, and videos on a loop. To do so was an emergency challenge and more expenses. We did it. So, imagine our disappointment upon arriving on Tuesday after 16 hours of driving, visiting the depressing space of the Hart Plaza Gallery, and seeing that the work was just starting to be installed. One day later, rain had flooded the space. Two days later the two canvases I just described were not hung, despite previous discussions about their flexibility and capacity to be outdoor. I took one of them back for the workshop. By Saturday the space had been mostly abandoned, meaning the door was locked. After two unsuccessful attempts, we convinced a security guard to open the space for us and remove our works, as we needed to be on the road. The 16”x20’canvas had never been installed and was hard to find under cardboard boxes in an adjacent room. We never found the DVD’s and no player or projector had ever been part of the show. I wish we had not been selected. Then as artists- activists, we would not have accepted a verdict of exclusion. This is a social forum after all, with a clear specific mission. We would have found a place to include our work at Cobo Hall, indoor or outdoor. That said I enjoyed a few of the other works on the wall of the gallery.
Yes we have learnt what not to do or accept and the necessity to remain in charge for our artistic endeavors all the way. The arts are a social issue and may be a social change tool, by the way they are conceived, produced, exhibited and proposed in specific contexts. Thanks to Carlton Turner for understanding that and mentioning it in the workshop he led about “Arts to Facilitate Capacity Building within the Community of West Baltimore”. Let’s make sure though, that the same mistakes are not made for the Alternate ROOTS 35th anniversary there. This is a real challenge, as the practice of the visual arts in their larger sense is a social issue as much as an opener to other social issues. We do believe here that the arts define culture and culture defines policies. As human beings we have to resist the opposite: policies and politics defining culture, restricting the arts.
This is a complaining and critical report, but let us give all organizers and participants a huge thank you. There was some good, good, good. It took a huge amount of work and commitment to organize it and we love and respect dearly this engagement. For us, since art and culture are social issues, we need to expose their possibilities, as they are destroyed or channeled economically by our capitalist society to be consumed as entertainment or luxury items. Their consequences are silenced. Their diversity is not respected. Their capacity to enhance learning is denied.
Before leaving, our host in Detroit, a retired art and fashion teacher from Cass high school, encouraged us to see a neighborhood in Detroit, reactivated by an artist. She described it as a row of houses where artworks had been created. Looking for it, we crossed blocks and blocks of burnt houses before reaching the site. I was brought back to memories of my youth with pictures of leftover destructions from World War Two. I articulated the fact that there was or has been a civil war in Detroit within the last seventy years. Governments, planners, developers and economic agents share the responsibility of having erected, destroyed and let go a city at a scale that is not human. The enemy here is not a foreign terrorist.
Please watch the 4-minute long video to see one of many examples of the long journey a lone artist starts and keeps alive until a community and a city endorse it, although so damaged. For me this is where the professional – here an artist (Tyree Guyton) or a group of artists - with a vision meet the vernacular and generate access for all to the tools of the arts. A young woman student at Wayne University, originally from Guatemala, was there when we stopped by. She was clearing branches under a tree in a small adjacent lot with a sign reading “The Heidelberg Project”. Working with Tyree on the idea of an entrance to the neighborhood, she has created a large transparent glass panel with welcoming blue bottles. Her technique is elaborate. It requires a kiln. This gives even more sense to the work started by Tyree. The mass and quantity of his work, introduced by the transparency and permanency of her materials, reminded me that the space between a pound of feather and a pound of lead describes and generates a potentially beautiful world. Not one or the other but one, the other and the space in-between, quiet and windy.
Thank you for having read till here.
The Charleston Rhizome of Alternate ROOTS is having a USSF debriefing and gathering around food on Sunday July 11th at 6:30pm in Charleston. All welcome.
Gwylene Gallimard and The Charleston Rhizome
 “The US Social Forum (USSF) is a movement building process. It is not a conference but it is a space to come up with the peoples’solutions to the economic and ecological crisis. The USSF is the next most important step in our struggle to build a powerful multi-racial, multi-sectoral, inter-generational, diverse, inclusive, internationalist movement that transforms this country and changes history.
We must declare what we want our world to look like and we must start planning the path to get there. The USSF provides spaces to learn from each other’s experiences and struggles, share our analysis of the problems our communities face, build relationships, and align with our international brothers and sisters to strategize how to reclaim our world.”
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