Tuesday, June 10, 2014

harmony in the midst of dissonance

This past Saturday, our Artist in Residence, 18-year-old singer Jens Ibsen, unveiled his first happening for the Museum of Joy. I want to offer him & his singers my deepest thanks for their hard work, their talent, and for making this happening possible.  

The principle behind this piece is simple: we've been given this idea that there are places that art doesn't belong, that certain places are too loud, too ugly, too busy being functional for any kind of frippery like art. The determination to make art, even imperfectly, in a place that seems categorically unsuitable for it is a way to defy the maxim that art belongs only in a special kind of hallowed, consecrated, and basically elitist space.

Classical music, in particular, suffers from this kind of marble hall syndrome; opera and the symphony are the finest of fine arts, the most rarefied and expensive and inaccessible, the one we never seem to see anywhere but a fancy stage in a vast, clean, traditional sort of concert hall. People think it's boring because it is handed down as fancy, and there's so rarely a chance to come across it suddenly and marvelously, to discover it in all its glory.

There are a few exceptions to this, notably in the form of flashmobs in countries where the arts are better funded, like Austria's Carmina Burana - though the amount of confetti makes me feel bad for the janitors - and Spain's Ode to Joy. But the fact remains that most people don't go out of their way to see classical music, and classical music is not well-known for coming to the people. After all, classical music is something refined, something classy, something actively opposed to the noise, dirt, and stress of urban life, right? Doesn't it need to be done somewhere quiet? You're not supposed to do it in a noisy, dirty, ugly, dissonant place like, say, a train station.

To bring something wholly beautiful in a space we consider fundamentally improper for such things seems to me to be a simple way to protest the enforced ugliness of civic space and the accompanying implication that art is for those with the time, money, and leisure to go seek it out where it's supposed to live - in galleries and museums and theaters and other places with ticket prices. (That's why I suggested to Jens that we stage it at Civic Center station, incidentally - it's the station that serves the SF opera house, and I thought the contrast would make something of a point.)

But it's not just speaking up for the importance of accessibility that makes bringing something like this to a train platform a radical act. It's also, well, it's one thing to go into a shiny marble symphony hall built specifically to optimize the sound of a piece of music and hear a piece you knew perfectly well was going to sound amazing, and quite another thing to go into a space you generally loathe, a space that signifies boredom and grunge at best and misery at worst, and find that suddenly something extraordinary is happening there.

Because the train station is, in fact, an incredible venue in which to hear this music. The sounds of the trains arriving and departing turn out to be in strange and beautiful harmony with the voices singing. The echoey concrete box of the station has a kind of resonance all its own. And it's precisely because it's so improbable, so inappropriate, so radically unlike the space we think this music needs to be in order to sound good that it's so moving. It's not beautiful despite the noise and grime; the beauty and serenity of the piece are actively amplified by it.

BART stations really are unusually ugly, even for train stations (this 2013 report on art in the BART system makes that pathetically clear). Their apparent idea of art is something like the giant rope installation at Embarcadero Station - a thing you can stick in the corner and feel good about because Public Art!, then fail to maintain for forty years and take it down against the artist's protests because it got dirty. But they are also hostile spaces when it comes to art in other ways: try dancing on a BART car and you might end up like Nubia Bowe, the 19-year-old who was brutally beaten by police because she was misidentified as someone dancing on a train in Oakland. The fact that she was innocent - and that other passengers were corroborating the fact that it wasn't her - makes it worse, absolutely. But even if she hadn't been innocent, if in fact she had been dancing, she would have been no more deserving of violence or punishment. I've seen the kids dancing on trains in Oakland. Are they loud? Sure. Are they "disruptive"? Sure. Do they ask for money? Yes. They are, however, amazing dancers, and they rarely perform for more than one or two stops. The idea that somebody would want them arrested for it is appalling.

But it doesn't surprise me. Making art without permission is always an act of defiance, because it's a way of saying this is my place. And if you're not the kind of person who is seen as an arbiter of culture - if you're brown or Black, for example, or poor - then your desire to have your voice heard and your self-expression seen is a threat. And as forums for alternative expression shrink away in the white heat of the tech boom, there are fewer and fewer places to make yourself known. Galleries and community arts spaces all over the city are being evicted or priced out; the number of places you can go for art outside a museum is shrinking, not least because artists can no longer afford to live here. Access to a creative life is becoming a luxury in San Francisco, and as far as I'm concerned, that's why it's more important than ever to take art outdoors in protest.

To say that art belongs to everyone - even, or maybe especially, the hallowed fine arts like classical music - is still radical. If you're working two jobs to afford your apartment, you don't have money for a museum ticket or time to make art. If your kids go to an underfunded public school, chances are they don't get art classes. If you're worried about making ends meet, your creative life is going to get deprioritized. And as the economic gap widens, so does access to the time, leisure, and resources to spend on expressing yourself, experiencing beauty or meaning, and discovering what makes being human worthwhile in the first place.

And so bringing art into the places it's not supposed to be is desperately important. It's a way of claiming ownership, of refusing to let the soul wither despite the harshness of conditions. It's a way of saying I matter, and you matter, and we can make this place matter. It's a breaking of rules, both spoken and unspoken, that say you can't do that here. You know, a man came up to me after this performance almost in tears. "What was that?" he asked me. "Where did that come from? What kind of music is that? I've never heard anything like it." And maybe he hadn't. Or maybe it was just that he had never heard it here, in the last place he expected to hear something beautiful.

To experience delight and wonder just where it seems least likely, where it does not seem to belong, where we are farthest from it - that seems to be a fundamental human need. It's how we tell ourselves that things can be better than we had dared to hope for. It's the way we know the universe might have some gifts left to spare for us. Discovering something wonderful where you had not thought or dreamed or expected it could be - that's as good a definition of joy as any I can offer.

with love,

"While the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness."

- James Baldwin, "Sonny's Blues"

For more videos of this happening, including one from the 2nd performance at Embarcadero Station, visit the Museum's Vimeo page!

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Library of Joy: Reflections

Today is the last day to send in your memories to the Memorial Lanterns project! Which reminds me, I sort of, um, forgot to ever mention what happened with LAST month's happening.

Which is a shame, because the Library of Joy happening was marked by a particular fortuitousness, and I'm so happy with how it turned out. Thanks again, and a million, to the Awesome Foundation for the funding that made it possible! Getting the grant from them last fall was just the first lovely thing: when the time to actually produce the work rolled around, it turned out that the day I had picked for optimal distribution of shiny eggs containing tiny books throughout San Francisco's public libraries was also the last day of National Library Week. So in addition to being seasonally appropriate (it being the weekend of both Passover and Easter, two holidays in which eggs figure rather prominently), the project - apparently of its own volition - became a special sort of love poem for the library system.

The Richmond branch of the SFPL put this up on
their Facebook when they discovered the eggs.
I didn't mean for this happen, but I love that it did. I mean, libraries are a kind of museum of joy in and of themselves. They're highly publicly accessible, often beautiful, and filled with the compiled memories, dreams, imaginings, and experiences of humanity. And they're that rare thing, a place where you can walk in and get whatever fragment of beauty or meaning you want -- for FREE. I spent a lot of time in libraries as a kid. They're shelters for anyone who needs time to be in a world of their own -- as many kids (and adults) do. So I'm really glad it happened this way, and it made the creation of the books an extra joy (as if I needed more reasons).

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Memorial Lanterns: invitation to participate

UPDATE: Deadline to send in your memories EXTENDED through Sunday, May 25th!

On the last day of May, paper lanterns will be appearing in trees in Golden Gate Park, one of the most beautiful public spaces in San Francisco. These lanterns are a little bit special: they'll be made from memories. Every glowing light among the leaves will be the story of a moment of joy someone shared with a loved one who has since passed on.

I would like to invite you to add your words to our illuminated forest. If you have a memory of a moment you shared with a loved one that still lights you up inside, I would love to make it literally luminous by turning it into a lantern.

The How: Sending in your memory for lantern-ing is simple. You can write about a single memory of a moment of joy with someone you've lost, or multiple moments, or go wild with the concept and write whatever the heck feels like it matters. Use a quote from someone else if it fits your feelings better. It can be a friend, family, a partner, anyone who mattered to you, a recent loss or one from long ago. All that matters for this project is that you shared a moment with them that still glows inside you somewhere.

Send your words via email to memorial@themuseumofjoy.org. That's it! You can also send a picture (jpeg files only, please) and and a name and dates too if that feels important to you.

(If you'd like a visual on what the lanterns will look like, they'll be something like this.)

The When & Where:
Send in your words by May 20th, 2014. The lanterns will be hung the evening of May 31st, 2014 in a spot in Golden Gate Park to be disclosed closer to the actual date. Everyone who sends a memory will receive an email with the exact location.

We will be attempting to take photos worthy of your memories to create a virtual version of the illuminated grove of lanterns as well for anyone who can't actually be there in person.

The Who:
Memorial Lanterns is the May event for The Museum of Joy, a San Francisco-based arts organization that creates monthly art "happenings" to foster and celebrate joyous experience in public space.

The Why:
Because the moments of joy we share give us something to hang on to when we're in pain. Because our cities can always use a few more reminders of what makes us human. Because the people we love illuminate the dark times in our lives. Because we all need lights in the dark sometimes.

Please feel free to get in touch with any questions, and share the info with anyone you feel might like to participate. All are welcome. The more lanterns, the better.

with thanks & love,

Monday, March 31, 2014

April Happening: The Library of Joy

This post originally appeared on the March 21st edition of the Insatiable Booksluts blog

I’d like you to do something for me. Just real quick, I mean honestly-five-seconds fast. Open up a google image search in a new tab and type in miniature books. Glance at the results. Just a brief little browse. Then come back here. I’ll wait.

Okay, you’re back. Is your pulse raised? Is your heart full of longing? Do you feel covetous and greedy as a child with someone else’s shiny toys? I hope you do. Because if there’s one experience that seems to be common among readers, no matter how diverse their desires otherwise, it’s the throb of delight brought on by tiny books.

TINY BOOKS! Why are they so magical, exactly? My theory is that something happens when you take an object that is powerful in its own right and you shrink it down: somehow the amount of power in it doesn’t shrink with it, and so the tiny version is not only just as potent but somehow more so, because there’s this itty bitty thing containing all the vitality and energy of something much larger. That’s a kind of magic. Think of amulets in the shape of animals or human hands or hearts or eyes, like Zuni fetishes and milagros, versus a dollhouse miniature of a table and chair: the furniture might be cute, but tables and chairs don’t mean anything by themselves, so the small version isn’t something you’d carry around with you as a good luck charm or a talisman against evil. But a tiny silver heart, or a minute stone animal, has a special aura to it that comes from the liveliness of the thing it represents – both physically and spiritually, or at least metaphysically – being packed into something you can fit in a walnut shell.)*

Okay, sure, maybe, but whatever. TINY BOOKS ARE AWESOME, AMIRITE? Right. Okay, now do me another favor. Imagine you’re in your favorite bookstore. Or you’re at the library checking out a reference volume. Or you’re a kid at the laundromat picking through the faded, dog-eared romance novels on the one bedraggled take-a-book-leave-a-book shelf. You’re just browsing. Nothing’s leaping out.

And then you spot it. Tucked away on the shelf is an Easter egg. A bright, shiny, brand-new Easter egg.

An egg like this one!
By Brianjester (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ],
via Wikimedia Commons
You pick it up, of course. There’s definitely something in it. You open it up – and there’s a tiny book inside. The book, a little slip of paper informs you, is a volume in a series calledThe Library of Joy, and it’s the tale of someone’s singular, wild, honest, heartfelt, joyous experience. And it belongs, you lucky finder you, to you.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

March Happening: Mystery Dances

At 7:45 pm on March 28th, 29th, and 30th, something unexpected is going to happen in a neighborhood of San Francisco known and beloved for its many kinds of performance. Here's a little clue:

If you don't know where I'm standing, that's okay. This isn't the kind of performance you buy tickets to. It's something you stumble across, something you catch out of the the corner of your eye as you're leaving a theater or exiting a train...the kind of improbable event we all dream of seeing in a city and sometimes, if we're lucky, manage to glimpse. Cities are such strange and wonderful and brutal places, full of magic and suffering, and all my life I've loved the sense one gets (especially at night) that anything at all could happen; there's a door into a junkshop with an alchemist's kitchen in the back, a stairway up to a secret garden, a window from which spills the music of some forbidden, haunting instrument. In a city, if you look just right, you may see dancers, acrobats, or angels. This is why living in a city is worth the money and the dirt and the disenchantment: because sometimes, every so often, something senselessly beautiful actually happens.

The Museum of Joy, unsurprisingly, wants to get in on this. This is what the happenings we do are all about: the joy of an unexpected gift that you didn't do anything special to deserve but get to have anyway because sometimes life is like that. That's what Poemflowers was for; that's what our April event, the Library of Joy, is all about. And our March event, the Mystery Dance, is all about it too. Following in the tradition of West Side Story, in which the street itself becomes a glorious stage, our choreographer has created...well, I don't want to tell you too much, but it involves some rad hats. Keep your eyes open - maybe we'll see you there...

Monday, March 10, 2014

May Happening: Memorial

If there's anything the Museum loves, it's fortuitousness. That's why I was so delighted when the very fabulous Hunter Franks, founder of the Neighborhood Postcard Project, finagled me an introduction to the founder of the Hope Chronicles, an extremely cool project that asks the simple question "What do you hope for?" as a opening for compassion through conversation.

If you know me at all, you know that I struggle sometimes with words like "hope" and "compassion" and yes, "joy" too, and that one of my great fears in life is winding up misquoted on someone's inspirational Facebook page in Papyrus font (or worse, Comic Sans... *shudder*) on a picture of a flower or a girl jumping on a beach. You know, the kind of thing that shows up on Inspirational Quote Bingo cards. When I talk about the Museum, one of the first things I try to express is that what I mean by "joy" isn't double-plus happiness, it's the feeling of being broken open by something inexplicably wild and vast and painfully lovely. Joy is a transcendent feeling precisely because you can't fit it inside yourself, because it's too big for you and it spills over the edges, and that's where you get that sense of being part of something bigger - because it kinda breaks you, you crack open with the size of it (and yeah, that's how the light gets in, etc.) It's not necessarily a happy feeling, and it's not always a pretty or even a pleasant feeling; joy, as I define joy anyway, is bigger than that, dammit, it's overwhelming and a little frightening and glorious and revelatory and those things depend on a certain degree of unmanageability.

The Chapel of the Chimes is, as usual, my first thought on contemplating
the connection between loveliness and pain: it's one of the most beautiful
places in this country, and it's a columbarium, a storehouse for the ashes
of the dead. Picture by me. 
So it was really exciting to hear Sam Lundquist, the founder of the Hope Chronicles, use the word raw to talk about his conversations about hope. I like the word raw. I like it because words like raw point to exactly that unprettiness, that larger-and-more-deep-down-true feeling that hasn't had its edges polished off and its meaning wrapped up in a tidy package with a picture of a dandelion or perfectly tanned model jumping in a field with a big smile on it. I like the word raw because it's how every experience that really, really actually in-my-bones mattered to me actually felt. Bigger and wilder and stranger and scarier and more beautiful and usually painful, that particular piercing, almost bittersweet sensation we get when our hearts feel too big for our bodies. That hurts, yo.
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