Walker Art Center

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Human and Natural Ecologies
Marc Bamuthi Joseph on Art, Community, and Politics

By Jesse Leaneagh

Marc Bamuthi Joseph doesn’t shy away from politics. During a March 7 interview, he brought up the Republican Party several times: its opposition to climate change remedies, the “crazy anti-intellectual fervor” he says is demonstrated in the GOP presidential primary race, the contrast between Newt Gingrich and the congressional members who represent his home in Oakland (Barbara Lee) and workplace at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (Nancy Pelosi). Fittingly, Joseph’s new performance work—the Walker-commissioned red, black & GREEN: a blues (rbGb)—draws together in beautiful nexus several matters rarely seen as central to the Republican platform: environmental justice, the lives and communities of lower-income people and people of color (what Joseph calls “urban America” and “multicultural America”), public space, and community. For an artist like Joseph, who operates under the umbrella of relational aesthetics, his medium is the very fabric of social relations currently being effaced by politicians such as Mitt Romney who believes “corporations are people.” In a moment where privatization is encroaching upon, displacing, and redefining the very notion of what it means to be a human being, Joseph’s work vitally speaks out against this threat.

One example is the Life is Living Festival, which the artist founded in 2008 and which unites contemporary art, performance, music, ecological initiatives, and community programs in a pop-up festival in inner-city parks in such locales as Oakland, San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, and New York. The festival includes a traveling environmental caucus and concert, an invitational Graffiti Battle, live-action sports, sustainable materials construction projects, and a “Speak Green” youth poetry event. Joseph has said that part of the “message” with Life is Living “is about creating a safe space for learning, which has been a problem for the Green movement.”

“If we compartmentalize the environmental question, the whole earth burns, so we might as well get everybody in any way that we can,” he says. Besides trying to “get everybody in” to a dialogue on ecology, Life is Living also expands the discussion about how to define that “environmental question.”

red, black & GREEN: a blues was inspired by the Life is Living Festival, and Joseph said that the creation process for the new work came from translating interviews, poems, films, and murals from Life is Living into text, choreography, and imagery “that express the challenge of living green where violent crime and poor education pose a more imminent danger than ecological crisis, and that reveal emerging definitions of environmentalism in these communities.”

During Joseph’s residency as part of the Walker’s Open Field last summer, attendees were asked to share their perspectives on some of these emerging definitions. “‘Sustainability’ and ‘community’ ultimately come down to people and relationships. That’s the bottom line,” says DeAnna Cummings, executive director of North Minneapolis’ Juxtaposition Arts.

Juxtaposition’s role in Minneapolis is special because of its daily investment in the same issues that motivate red, black & GREEN: a blues. That investment points out not only “emerging definitions of environmentalism,” but also emerging definitions of what art, and even an art center, should look and act like. Visual artist Theaster Gates—collaborator and performer with Joseph on rbGb—has said that “our professional practice may only be a vehicle through which we talk about things that are really important and urgent to us. And there might be moments where the work at hand isn’t to deliver a beautiful art object but to actually restore a neighborhood.”

The question for larger arts institutions such as the Walker is how to be a vehicle through which things can be talked about that are, as Gates says, really important and urgent. These are constant questions at the Walker, where multidisciplinary programming and a summerlong Open Field initiative take a lead in making the Walker a place that engages some of the same concerns as Joseph’s Life is Living Festival, especially the shared belief that “presenting can actually happen anywhere; we can take our ideologies and aesthetics and locate them where people are, without undermining the aesthetic quality of what we choose to present,” as Joseph says.

Joseph now hopes to take some of his focuses at Life is Living and share them at his new gig at Yerba Buena, where he’s director of performing arts. He’s hoping to create “intentional community environments” there and also institute a program that seeds arts projects in the Bay Area to make sure “the work that happens outside of our walls also gets supported: sometimes on small levels, sometimes on big levels.”

Despite all of his work outside of arts institutions, with the Life is Living Festival, his performance work with the Living Word Project, and also as artistic director at Youth Speaks—the nation’s largest spoken word organization for youth—he still believes in art institutions. “I still believe in the ritual of people gathering, in both well-lit and dark spaces, to share thoughts,” he says.

Chagrined that the top contenders for the Republican presidential candidate “refute the reality of climate change,” Joseph concluded his interview with the Walker by noting that the arts can address topics that sometimes aren’t considered elsewhere. “When you can come this close to being the most powerful person in the world and you deny the most basic and agreed-upon science, the most critical scientific issue of our time, then really there’s something about the world of ideas that needs nurturing and help,” he said. “And I think that’s what art centers do; they promote the creative intellect and the world of thought in a way that certainly isn’t being shared on the level of presidential discourse. So it has to happen somewhere.”

Marc Bamuthi Joseph

Photo: Umi Vaughan

Joseph in the Theaster Gates-designed set for red, black & GREEN: a blues

Photo: Bethanie Hines

Life Is Living Festival

Photo: Bethanie Hines

Joseph at the Living is Living Festival

Photo: Bethanie Hines