Friday, April 18, 2014

100 Strong: Connecting through the power of food

Artist and chef Maggie Lawson draws a clear distinction between ceremony and ritual. A ceremony is a way of formalizing an event in a community; a ritual can be inscribed within that ceremony, or it can be a mundane, everyday occurrence all its own. Ritual, so defined, is fundamental to Lawson’s practice: “Ritual is very important in my work. I like engaging with everyday rituals that have a lot of power.” Like eating. As a chef, this comes easy for Lawson: her recent project, The Takeout Window, was a huge success.  Staged in her North Oakland neighborhood, Lawson transformed her home-studio into a site for engaging passersby in the ritual of sharing food. Envisioned as a one-time event, it was such a success that she staged The Takeout Window a second time.

Food happens to be the catalyst in Lawson’s newest project, 100 Strong, a public performance with a meal at its center. The event will again be staged in Lawson’s neighborhood, a venue that she was inspired to re-use: “[The Takeout Window] made me feel like my whole neighborhood was my studio.” Lawson enjoys drawing on the resources nearest to her, and what better place to stage an art project than in your own backyard?

Maggie Lawson

When Lawson moved to Oakland in 2004 as an Americorps intern, the city had already undergone numerous demographic turns. These days the city’s longstanding African-American population is in transition. Thousands of transplants, many of them young, white locals from San Francisco, are moving to West Oakland for lower rents. Many fear not only that the white influx will displace traditional black residents but that amid all this change the vibrant history and the civic legacy— Oakland is the West Coast’s epicenter of African American civil rights —of the town will be forgotten.

Oakland’s history of demographic shifts goes back centuries. The indigenous Ohlone inhabited the region without interruption for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived in the 1770s, followed by an onslaught of Gold Rush immigrants and settlers in the 1840s. In the 1850s, jobs on the East Bay waterfront drew European, Asian, and African-American settlers; by the 1930s a vibrant African-American community had begun to take hold in Oakland—West Oakland, to be precise. That was one of the few places on the East Bay where African-Americans were permitted to own property; in 1966, black civil rights reached a new height on the West Coast with the formation of the Black Panther Party. Set against these decades, it is somewhat startling to see that in the last ten years, the number of white residents in some parts of Oakland has doubled, nearly equaling the number of African-Americans in certain traditionally black neighborhoods. (Lawson has observed a similar shift in her North Oakland neighborhood, which has not only affected black residents, but other racial minorities; Oakland is one of the country’s most racially diverse cities.) Oakland has a long history of displacement and revival, all viewable from multiples perspectives of identity.

The city’s rich population history seemed to beckon Lawson; it fortified her interest in “the sense of place that already exists and the new aesthetic that’s being laid over it.”  Lawson understood that she was part of this new aesthetic: “I’m coming at this as a white, low-income woman, but still with a fair amount of privilege. What’s my role as an artist and an entrepreneur in gentrification?” These thought processes are what gave birth to 100 Strong, a project that would provide a space to acknowledge the history of her neighborhood, to connect with it, and maybe even to reconcile with it. “With this piece I think we’re coming up against the more dramatic repercussions of gentrification…. No one likes to feel like they’re the gentrifier or the gentrified. This project explicitly intends to grapple with that…to look for some sort of healing around it, bring in this more sacred element to it, of ritual and transformation.”

Since the conversation will develop around a meal prepared by Lawson and her chef collaborators, the menu is important. Whatever they make will reflect the history of the neighborhood. They are still in the process of determining their method (the dinner is six months away), but they’ve been brainstorming: a few ideas include collecting recipes from neighbors, researching dining establishments in the neighborhood from the last two hundred years, and using ingredients from different cultural groups that have inhabited the area. The meal will tell a story of shifting populations, of identities in flux.

Other artists in the area have tackled gentrification, like photographer epli. For her project “Here. Before. Art in a Contested Space,” she lent cameras to five traditional residents in West Oakland (those whose families lived there for multiple generations) to capture their realities. epli’s goal was to stage an honest conversation about the subject, an intention that matches Lawson’s.

Gentrification has a sting to it. It is Lawson’s hope that 100 Strong will encourage people to confront the issue directly; she wants them to ask questions and to reflect on the history of their neighborhoods and their place within it. A paramount concern of Lawson’s is how the value of one’s labor impacts that place. For this reason she has done some financial restructuring since The Takeout Window. Previously, the contributing chefs (her neighbors) were asked to contribute small amounts for the cost of producing the piece; most earned their money back from donations. This time around, Lawson wants funding to be a part of the process, a gesture deeply wedded to the project’s concern with value. (As she asked, “How do we value what we create? What is the value of the social impact we make with our work?”) She wants her collaborators to feel that their contributions are not only appreciated, but valued. A group of community members are helping to raise the funds. So far they number four, among them a food blogger and a graphic designer and illustrator.

A collaboration

100 Strong is a collaborative project. Lawson’s left-hand women are chefs Ikeena Reed and Keri Keifer, both owners of catering businesses in Oakland. Reed has strong ties to North Oakland: her family has been in the neighborhood for four generations. Her mother was a teenager in the Black Panther heyday and participated in their Free Breakfast and Youth Apprentice programs. (Lawson lives just blocks away from the community college where the party’s founding members held their meetings.) Keifer has lived in Oakland for eleven years since leaving her home state of Illinois to join California’s farming and farm-to-table movements. Lawson is also from the Midwest, lured to the culinary mecca that is the Bay Area.

Ikeena Reed

When asked how Reed and Keifer’s backgrounds inform the project, Lawson grew animated: “They’re both spiritual, self-aware people, and we’re negotiating the same dynamic among the three of us that’s taking place out in the neighborhood. I’m really inspired by their work. They create really beautiful things that speak deeply to who they are culturally and to the other folks they’re serving.” All three women are concerned with issues of food justice, and Lawson sees 100 Strong as an opportunity for herself and her collaborators to pursue the creative parts of their craft while also making a social impact.

The other members of Team 100 Strong are fundraisers—the community members mentioned above—and filmmakers. 100 Strong is also a story, and so documentation is fundamental to ensuring access to the project. This includes recording the event itself, but also the process, which is no less important to Lawson. She plans to coordinate with a local filmmaking duo whose company, Radiologie, produces content for small businesses. Lawson says they are masterful storytellers. Aware that there are other ways to document a process besides using video and photography, Lawson is considering other formats: a recipe book, maybe; even the very words you are reading now.

Ultimately Lawson plans to stage an exhibition. This will be her first time strategizing how to use the elements from a community piece to tell a story in a museum or art institution. Her goal is to engage audiences who weren’t present at the performance, but of course she hopes the 100 Strong dining audience will also attend. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Life is a balancing act (Alexis Lago at Couturier Gallery)

Serene and surrealistic, Alexis Lago’s watercolors (and a few oil paintings) call to mind scenes from storybooks or fables, often casting man and nature at odds or in tandem. His exhibition, Possible Moves, is now on view at Couturier Gallery. Expect to be welcomed by a beaming, Klimt-esque oil painting from across the room, this flanked by a whimsical and equally contemplative ensemble of works.

Lago is a Cuban native whose gentle yet crisp strokes lend his work a distinct quality; the same goes for his sensitive treatment of marine animals, a relic of his background in biochemistry. In Penitente (Penitence), a stream of fish fall headlong from the sky like meteors, straight towards a patch of earth in which a man is buried. The man is Lago himself, his head protruding just above the surface, awaiting the inevitable. The painting’s verticality is not isolated; much of Lago’s work assumes this format, highlighting binaries like sky and earth, groundedness and flight. In Concilio de abajo y arriba (Council of Above and Below), a crane extends its neck from out of a sallow sky, looking down (perhaps) on a scene of clashing ships below. It strikes a contrast between the madness of man and the serenity of beasts. Maybe being a polar bear, a solitary creature, isn’t so bad after all.

Lago’s oil paintings are just as vivid. That Klimt-esque painting, Move of the Eraser Fish, is strikingly beautiful. Three men bear the weight of a monstrous fish laden with color, almost like a patchwork quilt. The heavy lifters are in motion, floating through a golden, ethereal space. It is a scene of struggle amidst celebration. The piece calls to mind a painting by the early twentieth-century artist Suzanne Valadon, Le Lancement du Filet (Casting of the Nets)—an imagined prequel to Move of the Eraser Fish.

Indeed Lago leaves much room for imagining. His own creativity encourages it, be it a centaur-portrait or a tree of human portraits in the form of what? acorns? They are whatever you want them to be.

Arbol de la ida y vuelta (Round Trip Tree), 2012
Watercolor on paper

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The aura of authenticity

The excitement of recognizing an original work of art has a distinct punch. Not only have you struck a personal connection ("That's on my refrigerator magnet!"; "I used that in my thesis!"), but its very reproducibility makes it all the more exciting. You are face-to-face with a celebrity.

Cultural theorist Walter Benjamin argued that the more an original is reproduced, the more its "aura" fades; the less powerful it becomes. (According to Benjamin, aura is a correlate of "authenticity," or originality.) With reproduction now at our fingertips, is the aura all but extinct?

This New Yorker illustration by Rose Blake creates a space for considering Benjamin's theory:

Rose Blake, Sketchbook, The New Yorker, April 14, 2014, p. 59

A museum visitor stands before a towering wall of artwork, the very piece above him displayed on his iPad. It seems absurd, even reprehensible, but it makes perfect sense: By pulling up a reproduction of the original, he's reified the glory of its originality. ("Is this it? ...Yes!") Now consider the position between himself and the artwork: Why remain distant from a work of art when you can hold a version of it in your hands?

Benjamin believed that distance was an affect of power: the more mystifying a work of art, the more powerless the viewer. Reproduction, therefore, is good: it dilutes mystery, it dilutes the "aura."

Aura is not sublimity. A work of art can still carry us away or ground us, even with hand-held technology (as long as the visitor looks up). What is more, today museums are much more conscious of visitor experience. This can have an inverse effect on the quality of exhibitions, but that's a discussion for another time. Concerns have radically shifted since Benjamin's seminal essay of 1936: visitors are a priority as much as artwork (and artists). If a viewer strikes a relationship with a work of art, the museum has succeeded. This isn't to say that museums always prefer proximity over distance. Illustrations like Blake's remind us of this.

I'm not pro-iPad; in fact I cringe at our reliance on hand-held technologies to guide us through experiences. But now that they've been adopted, I can't help but consider how they can also enhance experiences. Some art can be elusive, and a museum can't fill in every gap. Rose Blake's museum visitor, for all we know, might be Googling that painting on the upper right to find out more about it. He will walk away now, perhaps having discovered that even modern art can make sense after all.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Photography as an instrument in prison reform

This post is a continued conversation about SFMoMA's Bearing Witness symposium, March 16.
The irredeemable nature of our prison system can be considered a human rights emergency, and yet the issue is often cast beneath larger shadowsIn an effort to reverse this, freelance writer and curator Pete Brook considers photography’s game-changing role in prison reform. For many, prisoners carry a stigma of sub-humanity that is debilitating and merciless, a condition that, Brook shows us, activists have tackled through the power of photography. The project Tamms Year Ten, prompted by the horrendous treatment of inmates at the super-max prison in Illinois (now closed), invited prisoners—all of whom were in solitary confinement—to request a photograph of their choice to be sent to them. Here is an example of one such request:
A grey & white (mix) “Warmblood” horse(s) in an outdoor environment — shown in action, such as rearing up or jumping or climbing. I’d like the photo to convey freedom, strength, and the wisdom of nature.
Additional instructions: If possible, taken in a cold environment so that clouds of hot breath can be seen.
It’s hard not to liquefy after reading this; the prisoner’s sense of deprivation is so patent as to inspire a visceral awareness of things that we take for granted, like “clouds of hot breath.” The essential humanity of this prisoner is clear; he craves freedom and nature and movement.
Josh Begley, on the other hand, takes a macro approach to prison reform, using photography to capture the geography of incarceration in the United States. His project, Prison Map, culls together aerial photos of prisons, prompting us to consider the abundance of prisons in our country and, most importantly, ask: why so many?
Josh Begley, Prison Map (Facility 226). Google Image. Bearing Witness Symposium, SFMoMA, San Francisco.