Part of Walker Open Field
Marc Bamuthi Joseph, a veteran performing artist/activist dedicated to building creative ecosystems and spreading his belief in them, recently posed this question to 30 friends organizing a celebration for his 30th birthday: “If you were going to start a culture, who are the 30 people you’d want to be part of it? Bring three of them to my party.” Lately, he’s been raising a different question in communities across the country: “What sustains life in your city? What sustains life on your block?”
Some Walker visitors will recall Joseph from the break/s: a mixtape for the stage, his galvanizing 2008 piece co-commissioned by the Walker. He’s now developing a new Walker commission called red, black and GREEN: a blues (rbGb), a multimedia work premiering here in March 2012. This interdisciplinary collaboration with Chicago-based visual artist/activist Theaster Gates combines dance, text, and visuals in a new mode of kinetic performance.
Joseph—a National Poetry Slam champion, Broadway veteran, GOLDIE award winner, USA Fellow (an honor accorded annually to 50 of America’s finest artists), and 2011 Alpert Theater Award recipient—says the rbGb project grew out of his frustration with the lack of brown voices in the struggles over environmental justice, social ecology, sustainable energy, and climate change, and our collective responsibility for such issues. rbGb is meant to bring those voices into the dialogue; for raw material, Joseph is drawing on interviews, poems, films, and murals from Life Is Living, a series of eco and art festivals he launched in 2008 in urban parks nationwide, bringing together art, activism, and education. As he describes it, Life Is Living has evolved “from throwing a concert in the park to getting people to think about the environment as a model for organizing communities.”
This April, Bamuthi and his collaborator, artist and educator Brett Cook-Dizney, visited the Twin Cities to introduce the Life Is Living project and process. They met with a range of artists and community organizers including Bedlam Theatre, the Powderhorn/Phillips Cultural Wellness Center, Intermedia Arts, Imagining America, and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC). Walker staff and artist Seitu Jones took them on a winding urban journey, from the Frogtown and Rondo neighborhoods in the shadow of the St. Paul’s State Capitol to the wetlands surrounding Bassett Creek in North Minneapolis, to learn more firsthand about the history and current struggles that communities of color face in the Twin Cities. Heading south, they stopped at All My Relations Gallery for a conversation with Justin Heunneman, president of the Native American Community Development Institute; talked shop with Roger Cummings, artistic director of Juxtaposition Arts; and ate with spoken-word artists Tish Jones and Desdamona in Uptown. Out of these and other meetings grew ideas for ways to build on the existing “ecosystem” of local organizations in order to raise that question—“What sustains life in our community?”—this summer, in a range of Twin Cities neighborhoods and at the Walker’s Open Field.