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!
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