Re/Generating a National Movement:
Artists, Visionaries, What Might We Unleash?
by Andrea Assaf
Intersection IV: Re/Generations took place April 7-9, 2006, at New WORLD Theater, on the campus of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. For more information, visit www.newworldtheater.org
In her keynote speech at the National Exchange on Art and Civic Dialogue, convened by Animating Democracy in October 2003, Grace Lee Boggs posited that substantive social and political change can only come about if the change agents of a society -- namely artists, organizers, and educators -- work together as equal partners. Late that night, in the hotel lobby, Grace (who is now 90 years old) turned to John ONeal and said something like, you know, I think the Civil Rights generation is all washed up! By which she meant, we need radical new methods of creating sustainable, progressive change in politically regressive times. That challenge sparked a passionate discussion that continued throughout the convening, each time drawing more listeners and participants, demonstrating the sense of urgency we all felt around questions of art and protest, impact and intervention, and how to make a difference in the age of media conglomeration and global capitalism. On the last day, a self-formed organizing committee issued a call for an independent, grassroots gathering: The National Convergence of Artists, Educators and Organizers, which was held in New Orleans in January 2004. (1)
While the National Convergence encountered the challenges of intentional diversity, it also generated tremendous energy, and a sense of rejuvenation and hope among participants. Moira Brennan of Creative Capital wrote: DESPITE OUR DIFFERENCES, we were beginning to feel the contours of a real, organic, urgent consensus...The fact is that activists, educators and artists have been laying the groundwork for this moment for decades. It's here now. The moment is here now. Artist and organizer Andres Cruz similarly described his experience: I left with the impression and the belief that a challenge came out to all of us. I define that challenge as the capacity, and the obligation, we all have to transform ourselves toward a revolutionary promise. I describe the term revolutionary as the continuous search and commitment to impact and radically seek extraordinary change. (2)
Two years later, the challenges facing artists, organizers and educators working for justice are increasingly intense. As the Iraq war rages on, the political climate stifles action and dissent, putting progressive artists and cultural workers under attack (such as Critical Art Ensembles Steve Kurtz, who, because of suspicious materials used in his performance, has been charged with terrorism under the PATRIOT Act (3)). The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has revealed with painful explicitness the scope of systemic racism in this country, and endangered one of our most treasured centers of cultural practice and production. Continuing fallout from the culture wars weakens and divides progressive forces (for example, by driving a wedge between LGBTQ communities and communities of color over the issue of gay marriage). Field indicators such as the recent cuts in multicultural programs at the Mark Taper Forum and the distressing number of African-American theaters that have closed in recent years show disturbing signs that we are losing ground in the struggle for diverse representation. These challenges are exacerbated by the generational shifts and leadership transitions that many organizations are undergoing, which are linked both to the declining national economy and to the wave of retirements of founders whose organizations were created in the boom of Great Society social programs 30 years ago. The situation as a whole underlines the urgent need for increased focus on field-wide communications and the necessity to collectively address issues of cultural survival, justice and equity.
I recount all this to say that I believe it is important to maintain a continuity of dialogue, peer learning and exchange in order to build momentum, and the capacity to re/generate movement that can have impact on a national scale. I envision New WORLD Theaters upcoming Intersection conference, subtitled Re/Generations, as a next step -- one of many -- in a series of convenings, one that will then link to the first U.S. Social Forum (modeled on the annual World Social Forum), currently in the planning.
Intersection is New WORLD Theater's biennial conference and festival examining new work practices by artists of color. Begun in 1998, it offers a periodic investigation of practice at the intersection of NWTs three primary areas of work: artistic production and presenting, scholarship and education (as a theater based at a university), and community engagement and activism. The last Intersection, Future Aesthetics, focused on the burgeoning growth and influence of the performance form known as Hip-Hop Theater, which has emerged as perhaps the most important site for cultural pluralism in contemporary performing arts -- a reflection of the demographic shifts that are changing the racial and cultural profile of the United States.
Intersection IV: Re/Generations will be a truly intergenerational, broadly cross-cultural gathering, designed and led by people of color. Three full days of creative, cross-disciplinary dialogue will provide a multi-dimensional stage for engaging urgent national issues, and their impact on global realities. A series of intergenerational sessions on "Bridging the Centuries of Art & Activism" will examine aesthetic and organizing strategies created by previous generations of practitioners and the development of new models by an emerging generation of creators and change agents. In tandem, we will investigate the language and contemporary relevance of multiculturalism, in relation to globalization and shifting demographics in the U.S., and identify new directions and self-definitions. For organizational leaders, we will convene conversations on the generational shifts in leadership that are occurring in arts and activist organizations, and how to build impact and sustainability through transitional times.
Re/Generations will begin with a Youth Convergence on Friday, April 7, for youth and artists, activists and educators who work with youth, hosted by NWT's Project 2050. Keynote addresses for will be given by New Orleans organizer Curtis Muhammad and Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad. Performances will include Project 2050s On the Frontlines: Sex, War and Lies; the premier of Junebug Productions Trying to Find My Way Back Home, featuring William O'Neal; an Indigenous Artists Showcase in collaboration with the Dr. Josephine White Eagle Cultural Center, featuring FOMMA of Chiapas, Mexico, and Philippine dance troupe Kinding Sindaw; and Continuity and MOVEment: A Future Aesthetics Showcase, featuring Mango Tribe, Baba and Steve Ben Israel, and olive Dance Theatre in collaboration with Paula Larke.
Through fostering intergenerational exchange and collectively envisioning new approaches to creative intervention, we can identify and fashion methods that respond to current challenges in community organizing -- some of which utilize the new aesthetic forms, such as Hip Hop theater, that are revolutionizing the American stage and engaging audiences around the world. We intend to create a space for reflection, planning, analysis and action; a space for articulation, documentation, and dissemination of new directions in multiculturalism and movement building, expressed in mini-manifestos, next steps, and commissioned articles. We aim to support coalitional thinking among participants from diverse geographic, cultural, aesthetic and interdisciplinary spheres; and to support the strengthening, expansion and connection of existing networks by bringing people together in a shared spirit of inquiry and purpose.
As the title suggests, coming together in solidarity at this historical moment can help us re/generate the hope and energy needed to meaningfully impact our immediate future, and the 21st century. As artists, performers, activists and educators, we are the producers of alternative media. We must come together, not only as responsible partners, but also as leaders and visionaries in doing the hard work of developing coalitional strategies, and living the questions even as we try to create answers. As artists and cultural workers living and working in the United States, this globally dominant and abusive superpower, we cannot abdicate our responsibility to create change from within. We must step up. We must.
I dont know yet the impact that Re/Generations might have, but I know it is the next step in my commitment, my continuous search, my burning desire for extraordinary change. As Moira Brennan wrote following the National Convergence, I'm encouraged and relieved that a national momentum is building. One that intends to organize itself along the principle of inclusion. It feels like the thing to do is to offer our passion to it ... I think we'll be surprised by what that might unleash.
- Talvin Wilks, then the Interim Artistic Director for New WORLD Theater, and I both served on that committee, along with John ONeal, Lisa Mount, MK Wegman, Matthew Schartzman, and many other dedicated ROOTS members and colleagues.
- These statements can be found in Reflections on New Orleans in the Community Arts Network Reading Room, at http://www.communityarts.net/readingroom/archivefiles/2004/02/reflections_on.php
- To find out more about this case, visit the Critical Art Ensemble Defense Fund website at http://www.caedefensefund.org
Published in In Motion Magazine February 13, 2006