Category: art

Art, theory as “becoming”: the flows of possibility through our (never-)static realities

My advisor, Anna Stetsenko, published a book this year entitled The Transformative Mind: Expanding Vygotsky’s Approach to Development and Education. It illuminates her vision of the world as a place of possibility, conceptualized and made contingent again and again by our contributions to its ever-becoming – mattering – present, which always invokes the future while claiming the fruits of the past. Anna argues a great many things which I will touch on in upcoming posts, but this line encapsulates her philosophy, drawn from her experiences during the Cold War in the Soviet Union and during/after the fall of the Berlin Wall:

The lesson I was able (and lucky) to learn is that the future is actually always in the making now, in the present, and that big changes and shifts might be around the corner even as the present status quo still appears to be immutable and stable. (p. 18)

I love this idea, as it speaks to our ability to act as agents in our worlds, to embrace a view of collective social existence as one that only pretends to be static and given, which flows and changes constantly and awaits, even requires in its rhythms, the participation of all of us in its making.

Such a simple, yet monumental idea appeared in an artistic form in several pieces by Nancy Pantirer (check out her website here), who displayed several installations of her work at the Tribeca Open Artists Studio Tour this spring. She placed 8-10 paintings in a large loft space and set up a lighting display which over the course of a minute or so changed from light to dark, revealing the brilliant shift of different shapes from a recessed place to primary importance. Some of the images appeared humanlike, cloaked figures standing together, and others seemed like celestial bodies, flowing through otherworldly landscapes and spaces. I filmed (with the permission of the artist) several of these interactions of light and paint, feeling the amazing rush of knowing and coming to see images that were always there in the paint.

What a way to see our monolithic understandings of self, our assumptions about the day-to-day. Is it a miracle to come to understand what has always been the case: that the future is actually being made, in our hands, existing already and waiting for us to see it?

“Who are you?”: Art as disruptor, generator of public space

At a graduate student conference called Radical Democracy at The New School a couple of weeks ago, I attended a panel in which several students discussed art and artists who sought to disrupt the status quo about how information is shared and important social issues are discussed among the people of any society. Institutionalized processes of dissemination and control of discourse can constrain access, as well as the range of response, to these issues, making it a less a representation of all voices in the community and more inclusion by selective bias (which tends to benefit those closer to centers of power.

The artwork presented by one of the students in the panel offered an alternative vision. Pasha Cas, a brilliant young Kazakh student who has been creating public art in postsocialist Kazakhstan since he was 16 years old, calls himself a “street artist” and engages passersby with important social issues like nuclear waste, international conflict, and human alienation and loneliness in new forms of capitalist labor arrangement and extraction in the 21st century. The goal: to disrupt the ways in which people access such debates — which influence each and every one of us — and to generate public discourses that are fresh, dynamic, and immediate at the visual level of the passersby. Such an approach abdicates the power of intellectual and art-world elites to control the narrative and determine the direction and scope of public engagement with our daily struggles in shared spaces. This is activist in its generation of public space at a time when we are atomized by exhausting work schedules and other experiences of isolation, suspicion, and fear. He thrills us by asking, “Who are you?” in his latest video (link here), a quesitons that seems too rarely asked in a world that appears to be more interested in the individual as consumer and the community as basis for homgenization.


“we dance!” (2016) by Pasha Cas (Temiratu, Kazakhstan)

See more examples and a brief interview here. Pasha Cas’s manifest video, «This Is Silence», can be found here.

Hip hop dance as rupture, aesthetic rising

I’ve been obsessed with hip hop videos since 2014, when I discovered Tricia Miranda, LA-based choreographer for stars including Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Missy Elliott. I took one hip hop dance class in Boston and can barely shake it in salsa or bachata outings (#cudjatellimwhite), but that doesn’t seem to matter when I tune in on the newest gorgeous turnout by Lia Kim, Kyle Hanagami, or newcomers like Phil Wright. Most of the videos I watch (with the exception of Kim, who I believe is based in South Korea) are filmed at Millennium Dance Complex in LA. The dancers crush it in groups to the latest hits and encompass all bodies, all types, all interpretations of power and being. To say it embraces “diversity” is frankly a total disservice. It’s not about diversity. It’s about f**k yes, here it is, sit your a** down and watch this because any story you were telling about me before I started dancing is officially beat. Women stride and pop and lock, men wreath their limbs like snakes, heavy girls destroy it, skinny players jump in and get huge. It’s about owning that stage, that camera’s eye, and doing this in my way now, probably never the same, so know me the way I’m telling you, right now.


KATY PERRY – Bon Appétit ft. Migos | Kyle Hanagami Choreography

So yes, it is an indulgence. But there’s something bigger happening here, I think, and I want to suggest that we can look at this amazing work with a smarter, sharper lens. I’ve been reading about identity as a form of social performance, especially in the work of Butler, rather than as a fixed category that is applied upon birth. However, nowhere is the fluidity and transversality of Who I Am better enjoyed than in the presence and unfinished breathings of art. When we think about art as a means of rupturing a set of givens in our social realities, what Barone sees as a way of refusing a mandated status quo premised on master narratives, we can see what is possible, we can articulate it using given tools that we bend and bite on to make work for us, in the here and now. We are possible-izing what social scripts want to insist is impossible, we are making reality, bringing past presences and future openings into a unity drifting and glorious and indeterminate. Something about dance, too, adds the component of sociocultural thinking which says we can’t do this alone because there is no “we” in solitude, I am not seen nor see without the rest of us and me together, using these tools and making something new together. 

See the first performance (0:00-1:29) of Tinashe – Party Favors, choreographed by Tricia Miranda. The space this dancer, Diana, occupies, exudes ownership as she makes choices and employs a language that is fully hers. She is strong, baseball-capped, sharp-jawed, clad in black, dredded, tattooed, long-nailed, maroon-lipped, mid-driff-showing, reaching, stabbing, controlled, snaky, masculine, feminine, other-ine. She is a woman of color and urban, but even in this space there is something that luminesces beyond those terms. What and how she disrupts what is expected embodies a rising to a different level of aesthetics, where unity itself is only possible through fragmentation and reconstitution. The only way to know her is to watch, again and again, to see her meanings. I highly recommend doing so.

Migration is natural

On May 11th, PBS featured a fascinating story for its “Brief but Spectacular” segment that inspires thinking around (im)migration and identity. Jess X. Snow, a young first-generation Chinese-American artist illuminates her experiences as an immigrant, a child of immigrants, with force and insight:

Imagination is daring to love what is not in front of us. So what then, is immigration, if not imagination given a destination?

Jess describes the recounting of her family story as a young person with a stutter, an atypical way of being that produced unkind treatment by students around her. Jess found freedom in her poetry, in creating beauty in deep engagement with political philosophical questions related to what immigrant identity is under increasing surveillance as well as interrogating Westphalian notions of border drawing as “unnatural.” It’s not bravery that she exhibits, but rather honesty, loyalty to her family, her artistic community, and to her own vision, and the voice of a generation that asks important philosophical questions about political conservatism and nationalism through art and collective meaning-making.

Check out the artist’s work here.

Imagination, play and un-justification

Noam Chomsky, world-famous linguist and probably the best-known living public intellectual in the 21st century, said in an interview published in Truthout in 2013 entitled Noam Chomsky on Democracy and Education in the 21st Century and Beyond:

Kids don’t know how to play. They can’t go out and, you know, like when you were a kid or when I was a kid, you have a Saturday afternoon free. You go out to a field and you’re finding a bunch of other kids and play ball or something. You can’t do anything like that. It’s got to be organized by adults, or else you’re at home with your gadgets, your video games. But the idea of going out just to play with all the creative challenge, those insights: that’s gone. And it’s done consciously to trap children from infancy and then to turn them into consumer addicts.

I ran into Chomsky, actually, in Market Basket, an employee-owned in Cambridge, MA on Valentine’s Day this year. Probably the most exciting celebrity sighting of my life and certainly one that left me blathering. Chomsky debated philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault in 1971 and created the innatist theory of generative grammar, a theory of language learning which continues to be referenced in courses in language acquisition including the one I teach at Hunter College. He’s in his 80s now and it’s amazing to see him discuss modern geopolitical topics such as the political relationships between Israel and Palestine or Turkey and Kurdistan. Coming to the comment he made in the interview I excerpt above, I wonder what it is like to be a child nowadays, and whether what Chomsky is saying is true. It seems true, though it’s also true that parents are doing their best, and love their children, and defend their parenting decisions as being backed up by the best-informed and newest discussions of child development and health. The “it’s-just-the-way-things-are-now” trope is likewise bandied around, and I wonder if nostalgia isn’t the go-to for any generation past its own childhood years, glad not to return and yet wishing the now were somehow still for them.

However, I have to wonder…I didn’t have “play dates” as a kid. Granted, I grew up in a very rural town in a very wooded area, where there were no kids nearby and my single mother wasn’t there to shuttle us around to various social things. Still, I walked in the woods constantly, made up games with friends, sibling and/or cousins, explored and roamed alone, smelling moss, stroking tree trunks, listening. I wrote poetry. I breathed in the ripe body of a snowy midnight, blazing deep blue under a hoary moon, and didn’t rush back under my covers.

How to prove that was worth it, rather than what the newer generation does now, as its own normal? Is the lament for a loss of freedom, a lack of play unless structured (which might negate the term and replace it with “recreation”), a parsing of moments into qualified or “wasted” spending of time…Bourdieu said something about how before we labeled time according to consumption, to wage-oriented work, there was no such thing as “wasting time.” The student conference I attended included a smart student paper about the argument for being lazy, for fighting for the freedom from having to prove that we are either productive or consuming (or both) always. I saw a friend not long ago who, glazed yet somehow slightly self-righteous, stated that she was always tired, “so tired.” When I asked her about options for change, she showed no desire, or else ability to imagine things any other way, and told me more about how long her days were.

To be ambiguous…to be undefined…to be unjustified…even for a few moments. This must mean something. To be free…what is it to be free, to be a time spender, without having to make every moment productive? Enslaved by our fear of poverty, of losing our jobs and our stability, and maybe even of losing the top-down control over our lives which consumer society positions as a means of creating the illusion of safety, of membership. What then? What could we inspire, encourage, bring forth in our children?

Odilon_Redon_-_Der_Wagen_des_Apolls
Odilon Redon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Transculturation: a new culture of signs, new signs of culture

Cultural transformation and the movement of immigrants into, among, within, and across cultural repertoires is an idiom, un modismo, which requires a shift in thinking. Those of us whose realities are nested, in earlier contexts if not the current one, in mainstream thinking, being, and knowing must challenge our assumptions about what is truewhat is valid, and, in fact, what is, period. Ofelia García refers to Fernando Ortiz’s conceptualization of this disruption to cultural standards in Theorizing and Enacting Translanguaging for Social Justice as a process of transculturación, which she says “dissolves solid differences while creating new realities. We are not in the presence of a synthesis or even of a hybrid mixture. Rather, we are in a space that creates a new reality because not one part of the equation is seen as static or dominant, but rather operates within a dynamic network of cultural transformations.” While García’s discussion refers to the dynamic potential of translanguaging, a framework for theoretical and pedagogical change that prioritizes the voice of minoritzed language speakers in majority classrooms, the possibilities can be extended to many other spheres and intersects with different cultural practices. The “trans” mode of thinking serves to provide new ways of perceiving the education of immigrants; as people who have cultural ways of being and knowing that are pluripotential, iterative, dynamic, fluid, and anti-categorical (compared to American stock categories of race, ethnicity, ability, and even language use), they are different learners from those born and raised here. It could be argued, even, that disruption is less an act of political change and more of an uncovering, a challenging of fixed categories that perhaps never really describe any of us except to confer power to those who name, separate, and fix us into receiving postures.

Where else do we see transculturación, translanguaging, transculturing, and disruptions of meaning in spontaneous and heretofore unseen fashion? Many places, but one of my favorites is hip-hop as a dance form. I’m no expert, just enjoy watching the videos online. But considering how a hip-hop dancer becomes a spontaneous user of a cultural idiolectic by observing some traditions, dashing others, and creating new ones, there is a lot to be said for the new culture of signs, and new signs of culture, that occur in every dance. One of my recent favorites: Missy Elliott – WTF (Where They From) @_TriciaMiranda Choreography – Filmed by @TimMilgram I recommend watching all the way through, and again.