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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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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Brittany Nelson Upends Tradition By Misusing Dangerous Photographic Processes

Nowadays, photography is perhaps the one artistic medium with which literally everyone has some experience. And that’s what makes Brittany Nelson’s work so important. Her Creative Capital project, Alternative Process, opens November 5 at David Klein Gallery. Typical of her process, the work shows the various way in which Nelson has been able to playfully experiment with and trouble outdated photographic processes to create abstract work. Unlike other mediums, photography, in particular, has a long history of perpetuating tradition. By experimenting with processes, Nelson challenges these traditions, which, as she explains, is a white male dominated art form. We caught up with Brittany to find out more about her work.

Alex Teplitzky: Can you talk about the show at David Klein Gallery: what are the themes that tie the work together?

Brittany Nelson: My Creative Capital project has really been a series of solo exhibitions this year leading up to “Alternative Process.” It was perhaps an unusual situation because I have been showing the work as I develop it. Starting with “The Year I Make Contact” at Morgan Lehman in NYC, “Controller” at Patron in Chicago, and landing in Detroit in November at David Klein Gallery; all new work was created for every exhibition, and each show centered around its own sub-theme. “The Year I Make Contact” centered around themes of evolution. “Controller” focused on the idea of mirroring and movement with ties back to very early astronomical photography, and “Alternative Process” is being created around ideas of time (as a physical quantity).

All of these exhibitions and the body of work at large center around major themes of communication/transmissions, future artifacts, abstraction as the philosophical ideal, and of course the history of photography. Alternative Process features a collection of tintypes on brushed silver aluminum that contain various recreations and reinterpretations of science graphics. I have been flipping through a large quantity of books on astronomy and theoretical physics, specifically looking at the graphs and charts that have been created as an attempt to communicate very complex sets of knowledge as simply as possible. I have been very interested in these modes of communication by both how succinct they are, but in the ways in which they fail to cause a comprehensive understanding. This segues into the thoughts behind designing the Golden Record that went out on the Voyager spacecraft, and how you design something for a brain and logic system you can’t comprehend. I think of the tintypes this way: as an alien or future artifact. In this instance, though, the aliens I’m trying to communicate with are the gallery patrons.

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Complex Movements Honor Decentralized Networks and Resilience

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Complex Movements on stage

“How do we build movements where there are many leaders?” wonders Carlos Garcia in a recent interview. That’s just one question at the heart of Beware of the Dandelions by the Detroit-based collective Complex Movements. The Creative Capital-supported project is a traveling, video installation pod which is activated through community and audience engagement, hip hop and science fiction narrative that mutates depending on where it’s performed. The collaboration started out of a conversation that stemmed from dissatisfaction that live hip hop was limited to the usual on-stage performance. The group—made up of Invincible/ill Weaver, Waajeed, Wes Taylor and Carlos Garcia—decided to explore social injustice they experience in Detroit and critical theory they were reading about through a multi-disciplinary project. Beware of the Dandelions has traveled to Seattle and Dallas, among other cities, but it premieres Oct 6-31 at Talking Dolls, as part of a “homecoming” to their native Detroit. An album by the same name is also available for sale. To get a better idea of what the project as a whole is, we caught up with the group.

Alex Teplitzky: Beware of the Dandelions places audience members in the middle of a science fictional dystopia. You’re from Detroit, a city I have read a lot about but have only visited quickly. To outsiders, the connection between reality and science fiction doesn’t seem far off. Is that a misguided judgment on my part?

Complex Movements: Many of the story elements of the science fiction parable Beware of the Dandelions are based on recent stranger-than-fiction events in our city and state, such as mass land grabs by billionaires speculating hundreds of acres of land under the guise of apple orchards (and tree farms), water being shutoff and poisoned, state of the art surveillance systems run by corporate moguls, and life extension seeking cryogenics facilities to name a few.

One of our project’s inspirations, (Detroit philosopher and activist) Grace Lee Boggs used to say “Detroit is what the country has to look forward to” partly because many of racist/colonial capitalism’s practices were piloted here, and subsequently, many of the community led strategies to address the crises created by those practices were also ingeniously created and innovated here.

Detroit is also a science fiction mecca including techno legends Underground Resistance and Drexciya, authors like adrienne maree brown and Saladin AhmedIngrid Lafleur’s Afrotopia project, and beyond.

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Penny Lane’s Creative Capital Project is NUTS!

Penny Lane is a filmmaker who focuses on lesser-known histories as a means of reconsidering current issues. So, it’s no surprise that she took an interest in the little known tale of John Romulus Brinkley, a man who gained national fame and fortune after curing impotence in the early 1900s, inventing the informercial and dismissed his critics as “the establishment.” NUTS!, Penny’s Creative Capital-supported project, has already received accolades in film festivals like Sundance and Rotterdam. It premieres June 22 at Film Forum in New York, followed by a release in other major cities. We caught up with Penny to ask her a few questions about the project.

Alex Teplitzky: The Guardian calls the film’s plot “a story so odd you’ll wonder why you haven’t heard it before.” How did you come across it?

Penny Lane: Like all good things, I found the story of John Romulus Brinkley in a public library. I stumbled on Charlatan by Pope Brock—a really terrific book—and was hooked pretty much right away. As a nonfiction filmmaker I’m constantly scanning for stories, and in my case those stories almost always come from reading. (I suppose for some other filmmakers the stories come from traveling, or talking to people. I like to sit alone and read books; sue me).

And as I began telling friends about this amazing story, about “a guy who used to implant goat testicles into dudes to cure impotence,” I was amazed that a lot of people would ask, “Well… did it work?”

No, of course it didn’t! But I began to think about how much people want to believe in miracle cures. The weirder the better, really. How “one weird trick to melt belly fat” is way better click-bait than “eat less to lose weight.” Who doesn’t sometimes wish the world was more interesting, more magical, more colorful than it really is?

This is why the highest-rated Animal Planet program of all time was a fake documentary about mermaids. This is why Water Kirn falls for Clark Rockefeller. Why conspiracy theories are so compelling. And why we fall for quack doctors, time and time again: they sell us a story we want to believe. This insight became the core of the film that—a mere eight years later—is NUTS!

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“Approaching the Unknown”: Filmmaker Mark Elijah Rosenberg on the Agony and Joy of Making Art


Official trailer for “Approaching the Unknown”

On June 3, Mark Elijah Rosenberg’s Creative Capital-supported film, Approaching the Unknown, will be released theatrically in ten cities (see list at bottom of post), and available on-demand. The story follows Captain William D. Stanaforth (played by Mark Strong), an astronaut on a one-way solo mission: taking humanity’s first steps toward colonizing Mars. Although the entire world is watching him, he is completely alone in a dark and distant sea of stars. Stanaforth rockets bravely through space facing insurmountable odds, but as the journey takes a toll on his life-sustaining systems, he is forced to make impossible choices that threaten his sanity, mission and very existence.

Approaching the Unknown received the Creative Capital award in 2012. I connected with Mark to learn more about the evolution of this ambitious project and struggles encountered along the way.

Jenny Gill: Approaching the Unknown is (obviously) a work of fiction, but you mentioned in your presentation at the 2013 Creative Capital Artist Retreat that there are elements of your personal life experience and desires in the story. Can you talk about the balance between the personal and the imagined in your writing?

Mark Elijah Rosenberg: No, it’s not fiction—we really sent a man alone on a one-way mission in space! Or at least, that would’ve been easier and quicker.

Approaching the Unknown is about an astronaut on a journey to set up a colony on Mars. He knows he’s never coming back to Earth, and he’ll be alone for a while, but within a few years he’ll be joined by dozens then hundreds of other people. There are some lines of voice over that never made it into the film where Stanaforth, the astronaut, relates his experience to that of his grandfather, immigrating to America, and his ship being just like a boat sailing across the Atlantic. But is that the comforting story we tell ourselves so we can do something adventurous, or is it naive and hubristic to think any worthwhile adventure in life can ever be a cakewalk? That’s the line Stanaforth is walking, and it’s a line anyone with ambition has to balance upon. What’s brave and what’s stupid? To do anything amazing, you do need experience and knowledge and confidence. But at a certain point, you also need to push yourself into the new, the unknown, the frightening. Continue reading

Jen Bervin Mixes Poetry with Cutting-Edge Medical Technology


VIDEO: Jen Bervin’s Silk Poems

Visual artist and writer Jen Bervin’s Creative Capital-supported project, Silk Poems, premieres this month in the exhibition Explode Every Day: An Inquiry into the Phenomena of Wonder at MASS MoCA in North Adams, MA. The exhibition includes works by twenty-one international artists that solicit pure wonder, “a liminal state of being poised between knowing and not knowing, and defined by an experience of something truly new.”

Jen’s project and trajectory over the past few years offers a wonderful case study of how Creative Capital supports innovative artists. As an interdisciplinary visual artist and author of nine books, Jen applied to Creative Capital’s 2012 grant round in the Literature category. Her proposal for the Silk Poems merged poetry, textiles and science: she wanted to write a microscopic poem in the form of a silk biosensor.

Bervin was directly inspired by Fiorenzo Omenetto’s cutting-edge research with liquefied silk at Tufts University’s Bioengineering Department’s Silk Lab. Remarkably, the human immune system accepts silk on surfaces as sensitive as the brain.

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Janine Antoni Uses Movement to Look Back in “Ally”

anine Antoni in collaboration with Anna Halprin, Paper Dance, 2013. Photographed by: Pak Han at the Halprin Dance Deck. © Janine Antoni; Courtesy of the artist and The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

Janine Antoni in collaboration with Anna Halprin, Paper Dance, 2013. Photographed by: Pak Han at the Halprin Dance Deck. © Janine Antoni; Courtesy of the artist and The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

This month, Janine Antoni (2012 Visual Arts) premieres her Creative Capital-supported project, Ally, at The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia (opening April 21). Ally is an exhibition of art and dance conceived and performed by Antoni in collaboration with choreographer Stephen Petronio and movement artist Anna Halprin. Taking the form of performances, installation environments, videos and sculptures, Ally will occupy four floors of the museum for three months, with weekly live performances. A book will follow, edited by the British writer and performance scholar Adrian Heathfield.

Antoni writes, “I conceived of this project more than six years ago as a kind of retrospective of my art making, told through dance. It has evolved into a truly collaborative creation that allows us to find a way to continue making new work while looking back.”

Ally is comprised of four projects: Rope Dance, an improvised performance instigated by Halprin, who presented a rope to Antoni and Petronio to be used as a tool to connect their bodies and draw lines through space; Swallow, a complex installation based on a performance by Antoni and Petronio, who connected from the gut using a 10-foot strip of woven cloth; The Courtesan and the Crone, a dance of seduction originally created and performed by Halprin in 1999, reimagined here in a different gender and generational context as a solo performance by Petronio; and Paper Dance, an improvised performance by Antoni with rolls of brown paper in an environment that refers to both Antoni and Halprin’s artistic histories.

I connected with Janine to learn more about the development of Ally and her deeply collaborative process.

Jenny Gill: The works in Ally all sound incredibly complex and layered, but Paper Dance strikes me as particularly rich. Not only is it a weekly performance, but it is performed within a “set” of crated artworks from your artistic history. With each performance, you unpack and repack different artworks, so over the course of the 14 weeks of the show, a mini-retrospective of your past work emerges. Can you talk more about the role of these artworks in the performance and the exhibition?

Janine Antoni: When I first conceived of my project for Creative Capital, I wanted to make a retrospective of my work in dance. For me, it was a way to look back with the intention of moving forward. It was Anna Halprin’s idea to take a section of her work Parades and Changes (1965) as a score for me to do as a solo—she presented me with the rolls of paper she originally used to create that piece.

In the process of improvising movement with the paper, I started to notice how images from my past artworks were presenting themselves to me. It became clear that the lessons learned in the making and the conceptual concerns of my work have etched themselves into my psyche. In Paper Dance, there is a beautiful symmetry as both Anna and I are reconfiguring our pasts. Continue reading