Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen Document the Real Power of Art

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Spettacolo by Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen

What can art do in a time of turmoil? Documentary filmmakers Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen have made a career of showing how individuals and communities use art to work through personal, political and public issues. Their 2010 documentary Marwencol, which won numerous awards, documents how Mark Hogancamp uses photography and story-making to deal with a traumatic brain injury. A new film called Spettacolo–their Creative Capital project, premiering at SXSW in Austin, TX, on March 11–explores how villagers in a small Italian farming town preserve their heritage and confront community issues by turning their lives into an annual play. We spoke to Chris and Jeff about shooting Spettacolo ahead of the premiere at SXSW.

Alex Teplitzky: Did you happen upon the theme of using art to deal with real life problems accidentally or was it intentional?

Jeff Malmberg: We ran into this story completely by accident. We were on a vacation in the middle of making Marwencol when we bumped into this strange little town with a theater. So it just sort of hit us in the face. That said, I think we’re both attracted to stories about people who use art to deal with their issues. It’s not like they are making art as a means of self-expresion–they’re making art to try to solve an actual problem.

For me, those stories always manage to get at the real “power of art” that people like to talk about in ways that other art stories just can’t. That “power of art” idea is usually so abstract–the power to do what exactly? In both these cases, the creation of art is granting these people the power to actually transform their lives and understand themselves.

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Avoid “Artspeak”: Kirby Tepper On Talking Straight

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Kirby Tepper leading a workshop for Creative Capital’s Professional Development Program.

Kirby Tepper is a man of many talents: actor and educator are just a few of the hats he wears beyond the confines of his day job as a licensed psychotherapist. The same interpersonal expertise that makes him valuable to the clients in his practice also serves to empower his artist peers. Though he particularly enjoys working with artists, Kirby has helped people from many backgrounds, including doctors, writers and lawyers, find a more confident, direct communications style. On February 27, Kirby will be giving a webinar on Effective Negotiation For Artists, where participants will learn how to ask for what they deserve with confidence. We asked him about his theatrical inspirations and the do’s and don’ts of artist communication. 

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The Black Lunch Table Helps Give Exposure to Black Artists Through Wikipedia

Heather Hart assists a volunteer during the Black Lunch Table's Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon at Project Row Houses in Dallas, TX, in 2016

Heather Hart assists a volunteer during the Black Lunch Table’s Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon at Project Row Houses in Dallas, TX, in 2016

If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about an artist, chances are a Google search led you to their biography on Wikipedia. What happens if the artist you wanted to learn about isn’t on Wikipedia? Who is and isn’t on Wikipedia has more to do with gender and race than one might think. With this in mind, Heather Hart and Jina Valentine—working collectively as the Black Lunch Table—have launched an initiative through their practice to help black artists get on Wikipedia and fill in more of the details of their pages. It’s a seminal step in helping art history become more inclusive. On Feb 27, Creative Capital is hosting a Black Lunch Table Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon. You can RSVP here! We asked Heather some questions about the practice before the event.

Alex Teplitzky: Tell me about the Wikipedia edit-a-thons you’ve been hosting. What a great idea to help get artists online recognition!

Heather Hart: Yes! When Jina and I were in school, there was very little coverage of visual artists of the African Diaspora, especially notable contemporary people. Whether we like it or not, Wikipedia is used by 374 million unique visitors every month, more than your average encyclopedia has ever had. So this was a perfect fit for our over all Black Lunch Table project. We have the power to create a discursive site to fill gaps in the (art) historical record.

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Kenya (Robinson) Challenges the Imagination to Remold Privilege

CHEEKY LaSHAE by Kenya (Robinson)

CHEEKY LaSHAE by Kenya (Robinson)

If Kenya (Robinson) has a superpower, it would be to say more in the span of a minute than most people say in an hour. Recently, her podcast collaborative art work with artist Doreen Garner, was described in the New Yorker as ranging from “intensive critique to self-help strategies to playful slander to free-association wordplay, and back again.” Kenya’s Creative Capital project, CHEEKY LaSHAE: Karaoke Universal, likewise, promises no shortage of material. Inspired by the way karaoke allows the audience to become the performer and vice versa, CHEEKY LaSHAE—Kenya’s avatar that can be embodied by a revolving cast of characters—presents Karaoke Universal as a course where the students can become the professor. In an upcoming iteration, called Privilege as Plastic Material, the six-part course will be offered at Pioneer Works starting Feb 21 to March 28.

Hillary Bonhomme and I sat down with Kenya to understand more about the project.

Alex Teplitzky: Ok, so the Privilege as Plastic Material course at Pioneer Works is coming up. What is it?

Kenya (Robinson): I knew when Barack Obama first got elected as president of the United States that part of my tears that came had to do with joy. That was like, 15%. And then 85% was shame because I didn’t think it was going to happen at all. I was like, “wait a minute. That’s dangerous because that has to do with my imagination.” That is something I can nurture. In spite of anything else that might be happening in our world, I can imagine things. And especially as an artist, you have to nurture that muscle.

Once I got into art school and started interacting with other artists, I became familiar with this term, “the plastic arts.” The plastic arts has the attributes of plastic in that it can exist in different forms, it has flexibilty, but it can be treated to be rigid, it can be reconstituted, it can do a lot of different things. So, I was like, I need something as—at least what’s been taught to us—as fundamentally oppressive as privilege, I need to think of that with a lot more flexibility and imagination: it’s got to be able to change forms. Like I say all the time, it can’t be the exclusive property of whiteness, everybody should be able to access and utilize it. If you are alive and have an opportunity to exist as a human being, that’s a huge privilege. You can create memories, you can think about the past, you can imagine the future, you can even find ways to engage in the present. But it’s all about this kind of stretching and pulling and snapping back. The only other place I felt that was when I was making objects and sculpture.

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Lessons in Sustainability: Five Questions for Sharon Louden

Sharon teaching at Chautauqua

Sharon Louden teaches at the Chautauqua Institution.

Sharon Louden needs no introduction. A successful artist, editor, author and advocate for artists, Sharon’s transparent and earnest approach to sustaining professional connections has made her four-part webinar, How to Approach and Engage with the Gatekeepers of the Art World, one of Creative Capital Professional Development Program’s most sought-out offerings. Back by popular demand, Sharon will be leading her series starting January 31st.

We were lucky enough to sit down with Sharon Louden and ask her five questions about how she manages to sustain her own practice, and what she’s learned along the way. If you want to learn more about how to communicate and build relationships with art world professionals, don’t forget to register for Sharon’s webinar.

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Travis Wilkerson Explores Contemporary Politics By Investigating a 1940s Murder

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Filmmaker Travis Wilkerson (2015 Moving Image) has made a career out of creating works dedicated to anti-oppression causes, so when he learned that his own great-grandfather played a role in murdering a black man in rural Alabama, he was devastated. As he set out to unravel the story of the murder, he only encountered further obstacles. Using archival footage, documentary and a live performance, Wilkerson explores the way the past continues to haunt us today. His Creative Capital project around the tale, entitled Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, premieres at Jan 20 & 22 at Sundance Film Festival as part of their New Frontier series. We spoke to Wilkerson about the project.

Alex Teplitzky: Can you tell us more about the film and how it unfolds? How does it relate to the performance you’re preparing for?

Travis Wilkerson: The story basically circles around an incident involving my family in the 1940s. My great grandfather, S.E. Branch, was charged with first degree murder of a black man. The charges disappeared somehow. It’s really just a family legend at this point. I wanted to try and sort out what actually happened all those years ago. What documents still existed, perhaps any living witnesses or relatives (of the victim or the perpetrator). It just seemed like a story of this time in this world and I wanted to find a way to make it live here and now.

Of course, it’s all so incredibly fraught. My family is the family of the murderer. My relative was a racist. A thug really. I’m a white male college professor. All these things are really troubling and complex to navigate. So, how to do it?

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Through Many Platforms, Yara Travieso Interprets Medea as Infinite

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Medea is the Greek mythological character who kills her own children. Hers is a storyline that has so resonated with us that nearly every generation has had its own adaptation or interpretation of her. In her adaptation of the myth, Yara Travieso (2016 Performing Arts), does not provide the audience with one version, but a multiplicity of interpretations simultaneously. Her Creative Capital project, La Medea, premieres this weekend as part of PS122’s 2017 COIL Festival. True to the concept of multiplicity, there are a number of ways to experience the work: either live at BRIC on January 20-22, where the audience will watch and also take part in the making of the film;  livestreamed online; or, eventually as a film produced by Dance Films Association. Amid preparing for the performance, Yara joined us at our offices to talk more about the project.

Alex Teplitzky: Ok, start with a run down of the project. What is La Medea?

Yara Travieso: La Medea is essentially a made-for-camera, Latin-disco, pop musical that is simultaneously a show, and a livestream feature film. It’s based on Euripides’ Greek tragedy of Medea. I’ve readapted, rewritten the work to fit inside a musical composed by Sam Crawford and to exist as a live-television special tell-all, all surrounding this one myth-character Medea. It’s a portrait of her more than anything else, and it takes on many forms: it’s a musical, it’s a dance-theater work, it’s a feature film, it’s a live-television special, it’s a concert. It takes on many lives.

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Rule Your Universe: Dread Scott on Marketing Your Work

Dread Scott's "Burning the US Constitution."

Dread Scott’s “Burning the US Constitution.”

We all know that an artist’s work doesn’t end with her time at the studio. Artists are their own creators, and also their own cheerleaders. It is their passion for their art making that can get other people—be it viewers, curators, critics, or collectors—involved and interested in their practice.

Artist Dread Scott knows this better than most. The revolutionary potential of his own work—including installations, performances, and paintings—feeds off of the attention and participation of his community. On January 19th, he leads Creating a Marketing Strategy, our upcoming webinar that covers all aspects of marketing your work, including defining your goals, developing effective communication tactics, and building your support community. We asked Dread what artists need to know about MailChimp and how we can be rulers of our own universe. RSVP today!

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Wakka Wakka’s ‘MADE IN CHINA’ at home in the USA

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A scene from “Saga,” from Wakka Wakka Productions and the Nordland Visual Theater. Credit Jim Baldassare

These people may be geniuses. –The New York Times 

The Obie and Drama Desk-winning performance group Wakka Wakka produces puppet shows. The company tackles relevant social and political issues like climate change, financial crisis, consumerism and human rights. Creative Producer, Gabrielle Brechner, answered a few questions about the evolution of Wakka Wakka since its founding in 2001 and the development of MADE IN CHINA.

Baby pandas, dancing appliances and romping middle-aged lovers populate Wakka Wakka’s universe of tiny-to-huge puppets, belting out original songs. As with climate change in Baby Universe (2010) and the global financial crisis in Saga (2013), the company spins issues of our times into a vastly entertaining tale with surreal dimensions, lots of laughs and powerful take-aways.

MADE IN CHINA features 30 puppets, seven puppeteers, music inspired by both American and Chinese traditions, and animated video. MADE IN CHINA premieres Off-Broadway in January 2017 at 59E59.

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In Examining Catastrophe, Jeff Becker Creates a Spectacular Performance

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Poster for “Sea of Common Catastrophe.” Photo by Melisa Cardona.

Jeff Becker is a director, designer and sculptor based in New Orleans—a fact important to note before reading about his Creative Capital project Sea of Common Catastrophe. The performance follows four companions as they wander through a continually changing landscape of upscale living and chic restaurants built upon the fragments of their own displaced communities. It’s not inspired by fantasy, but by Jeff’s own experiences and observations as he lived through Hurricane Katrina. The performance premieres in New Orleans in January and in February at 7 Stages in Atlanta, Georgia. We caught up with Jeff just as he was preparing to launch the performance.

Alex Teplitzky: Setting seems to be a huge inspiration for Sea of Common Catastrophe. Can you describe the setting of New Orleans and the personal state of mind you were in when you began creating this work?

Jeff Becker: New Orleans after Katrina was surreal in the truest sense of the word. Parts of the city clearly showed the devastation caused by the storm: cars haphazardly deposited on top of houses that had floated off their foundations and butted up against other homes in a bizarre traffic jam; people’s belongings were hanging in trees deposited there by the flood waters. In other parts of town where the water rose slowly, the effects were less pronounced; houses seemed intact, only displaying this ominous brown line at the same height that marked the level the flood waters.

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