Thursday, September 30, 2010

More on Cross/Walking

I'm still working on the best way to share video documentation of my recent performance, Cross/Walking.  But until then, here are a few stills from the recent production. I begin the performance with a brief introduction of themes about place and space and the practice of place-making while "rappelling" along the stage edge.  This piece is titled "Enter/Cross/Exit," and ends with me off stage and a vibrating rope stretched across the liminal space between audience and stage -- "a trace of a crossing from entrance to exit."

The logic of the show as titled suggested taking on Christian faith and what it might say about environmental advocacy.  I walk a fine line in honoring Christian faith without proselytizing.  My point is that the cross, as symbol, is something we all share -- believers and non-believers alike.  The idea of carrying it, literally or symbolically, as a pilgrimage of sorts resonates as a way of, well, "walking one's talk."  I use this particular meditation to explore ideas often expressed as "Creation Care," a deliberate attempt to challenge belief among some evangelicals that to be Christian is to be anti-environmentalist or that environmentalists are only pagan, nature-worshipers.  As I've posted elsewhere on this blog, my own faith skews more toward agnostic or interfaith than Christian (I was raised Unitarian).  So my goal in this section of the performance is to try to speak to Christians within a discourse they value about the lessons in their faith tradition to be good stewards of the earth.

That said, I am also aware that a lot of bad things have been done in Christ's name, and that the symbol of the cross has too often been used as a weapon more than a symbol of love.  I don't shy away from that fact in this monologue.  How could I?  But since the show is about process-oriented rather than object/product-oriented thnking, I am more interested in what people do with their faith and symbols.  This leads me to do some things with the symbol that create some, well, challenging images.  But lest we think this is only a provocative image, my partner informed me about a practice by a military contractor to inscribe the cross in gun sights, including codes referencing Biblical verses. 

Following this section of the performance, I transform the cross into an easel and do a section titled "Trip/Tychs."  There is an embedded pun on "trip" in this section as I travel between images, telling and sometimes improvising prose-poem stories that connect the images.  I also link to the idea of the triptych as an altar piece.  The power of three images together is their interrelationship.  So, I use the triptych to explore connection, as well as to interact with the audience. 

I follow this piece with a mock lecture by a character named Dr. Nathan Jogary.  He describes an expedition to an "impossible mountain," using and referencing slides that have nothing to do with what he is talking about.  Or, well, in a kind of chance aesthetic, the relationship between what he says and what he shows is abstract enough to allow audiences the productive, imaginative space to make their own connections.  The images in this faux-lecture are digital artworks I have made for abstract comics and asemic writing.

Finally, I end with a meditation with the audience about connection while passing out a rope that slithers through them, hand to hand, like a snake in the grass, like a winding path.  I use the same rope that I used in the opening monologue not only to neatly tie up the performance, but also to untie the performance and rupture the exit.  The last moment of the performance involves me exiting through the theatre entrance, dragging the rope with me, creating a kind of path to the outside world.  The last line (which trails away as I walk away): "It exits and becomes an entrance which becomes an exit which becomes an entrance which becomes an exit which becomes..."

[As I noted before, I designed this show to be portable.  If you are reading this and would like to bring this show or my earlier piece, "Trail Mix," to your community, contact me at jmgray32(at)gmail(dot)com.  I am deeply committed to using performance to spark dialogue about environmental issues.  I can couple this performance with a lecture or series of workshops on performance and environmental advocacy.]

Note: Special thanks to Christi Saindon for the photo-documentation of this performance.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

"Cross/Walking" Opens Tonight

This image is the program cover for my newest solo performance, "Cross/Walking."  I'm sitting here waiting to go to the theatre to get warmed up and set up and ready to go.  I want to be in the right performance head-space, but I am also getting bored out of my mind waiting.  So.  Why not blog a little about it?

This show is a mash-up of interests particularly near and dear to me.  First, I am a scholar of communication with particular interests in rhetorical studies and performance studies.  For me, performance is both a mode of sharing and a mode of exploring.  So, a lot of my work actually involves creating public events where I (alone or with others) share performance work exploring a wide variety of topics.  But I also teach classes and run workshops where we use performance to explore phenomenon using a variety of protocols -- sometimes called "experiential learning" or "performative pedagogy."

I also have a strong interest in visual communication, with a particular interest in comics.  I think there is a natural connection between some of the ways performance works with images and words and the ways comics do.  I am also "drawn" (ha!) to the idea that comics are a particular kind of literature -- images in sequence bearing a closer relationship to literature than, say, film.  But as comics theorists (they exist!) note, there is something going on in that space between illustrated panels ("the gutter," so to speak).  A comics artist works creatively with that empty space so that the reader does interesting work in making the connection across panels.

Finally, I specialize in scholarship about environmental communication, including how we engage in public discourse about the ecological systems that support us.  In environmental communication, we note that how we talk about nature, ecosystems, etc. is just as important if not more so than what environmental science usually tells about the same.  I am drawn particularly to the role visual messages (from 19th Century landscape painting to pictures of the Earth from space, from films to activists' "image event" protests) play in shaping our understanding of environmental issues and motivating our action.

"Cross/Walking" deals with the intersection of all of these interests.  The central thesis of the show is that we, in the US particularly, tend to be object- or product-oriented.  We focus on things, objects, commodities, etc. I believe a positive shift in environmental awareness requires us to be more aware of processes and relationships.  Using that idea of the "gutter" in comic strips as a staged visual metaphor, I encourage the audience to do the work of making meaning between images.  In one piece in the show, this involves me telling stories between random illustrations of everyday objects, taking cues from the audience as to what images to use and how to combine them.  In another, I give a mock lecture about an exploration of an "impossible mountain" that includes slides -- that have nothing to do with what I am talking about (I use a lot of my abstract comics in this slide show).  At one point, I pass a rope out and through the audience so that we are literally connected by a material object.

Another theme of this performance is how difficult it is to talk about particular experiences (in nature, in performance, in our everyday lives) without relying on common and shared experiences.  But, I argue, this also robs the experience of its particularity.  So, recognizing that we transform spaces (pre-existing territories) into places (particular sites of personal meaning and experience) through our actions and communicative operations there, I encourage the audience to be less concerned about the difficulty of sharing particular connections to particular places than with the practice of place-making.

And if all that sounds too heady, then consider this: I rappel across the stage edge, I improvise narratives at the audience's direction, I carry a cross on a pilgrimage, I transform that cross into a gun, I amuse with puns and jokes, and I wrap it all up with images that echo and transform.  And all in a little under an hour.

Should be fun.  Let's see how the opening night audience likes it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Checking in on Poemics

A Poemic in the style of Satu Kaikkonen
It's been a while since I've shared some of my poemic work on this blog.  When I am not doodling political cartoons and commentary over at Black Magpie Theory, I also noodle around with experimental comics forms, including poemics, abstract comics, and asemic writing.  "Poemics" is a term coined in 1991 by Alvaro de Sa, a Brazillian poet who considered poemics a "metalanguage of poetry."  While this origin locates poemics as an outgrowth of visual poetry ("vispos") and concrete poetry, contemporary poemic artists explore a variety of hybrid possibilities between poetry and comics.

When I stumbled across Piotr Szreniawski's poemicstrip blog a little over a year ago, I recognized a literary/art form I had already been exploring with a local arts collective, BAR Corporation, as we made conceptual art comics for the SIUC student newspaper.  Working with Piotr and other poemic artists, I've contributed work to collaborative artist book projects, an up-coming issue of Xerolage, a forthcoming essay on connections between experimental comics and performance art for the Polish comics journal, Zeszytow Komiksowych, and had a multi-page graphic poem accepted in the journal, Palooka.  And all that more or less just in the last year. Whew!

All of which is simply to say that poemics and experimental comics have been very good to me.  I encourage you to check out the work being done at some of the blogs in the list over there on the right, or to follow the hyperlinks in this post.  Copied below is some of the work I've been contributing to the poemicstrip blog.  Enjoy.

In response to a prompt about "visual technologies"

Working with asemic writing

In response to a prompt on "fashion"

An homage to the collaboration of e.e. cummings and Krazy Kat

A poemic haiku

A love poemic for Valentines Day

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Cross/Walking" Performance

When I am not doodling about on the internet, I am constructing and critiquing environmental messages, often through live performance.  Next weekend (9/23-9/25/2010) my current solo-show, "Cross/Walking," will be part of a double bill of solo performance in the Kleinau Theatre on the SIUC campus in Carbondale, IL.  I am happy to share the evening with Hunter Fine's media-immersive installation performance about urban nomadic practices. Together, both shows deal with movement and sojourning as important cultural and meaning-maiking practices.

My show, "Cross/Walking," is heavily influenced by my study and production of comics.  I am particularly interested in the work readers do to make connections between panels, filling in the "gutter," so to speak.  The deeper environmental message of the show is that we live in a culture more focused on objects than their relationship, more interested in products than processes.  Utilizing a variety of performance experiments, I contemplate how we might shift our consciousness to focus more on systems of interrelationship than objects in isolation.  My previous solo show, "Trail Mix", had a similar concept -- that, using backpacking as a metaphor, we might find connections and coalitions between different progressive issues- and identity-politics, demonstrating particularly links between LGBT/Q and environmental concerns.  Building on that show, "Cross/Walking" addresses a more abstract but perhaps more foundational concern in how we, particularly in the West and specifically in the US, perceive our relationship to the world and each other.

If you are in the area or ever wanted to come to Southern Illinois, consider dropping by for the show.  Or, if you have access to an arts community that can bring in performing artists, I have carefully created "Cross/Walking" so that it can easily travel.  I also still have "Trail Mix" in my repertoire. And, with either, I am happy to provide an accompanying lecture and/or workshop on the ways art and particularly performance intersect with environmental advocacy and concerns.  I keep the cost of this work low and am happy to do it for little more than the expense (travel, lodging, some tech, etc.) of bringing it to you, or even a charitable donation in kind to an agreed upon local environmental or LGBT/Q charity.  If interested, contact me at jmgray(at)gmail(dot)com.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

On Being Industrious

We've outsourced and 
crowdsourced our output
but we still think there is an away 
out there
out of sight and 
out of mind.

And I'm trying to stay productive
in the mash of obligation
meets innervation
meets innovation
in a tired nation
bent on its own alienation
from itself.

Because a moratorium is arbitrary
even after a slick summer of tar
and chemical rainbows on the gulf?

Because safety is a secondary concern
when there's a bottom line?

Because the economy's in the tank
when the gas that goes there
costs too much?

America, the bottom line
is not the only line.
You'll realize that 
when you have to stand in one.
You'll see that 
when we've crossed yet another.

It's a picket or a battle,
I think?
No wait.
I forgot my lines.
I went up.
And I'm running out
of resources
to draw from.

But I'm still drawing.
We share that, right?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Buy a Quran on 9/11

Yes, I admit it.  I am sickened by the plan of certain Florida pastors to burn a pile of Qurans on 9/11.  I certainly think it is their right to do so, and I don't want to get in the way of that right.  I think it is wrong; I think it confirms for the rest of the world (but particularly much of the Islamic world) that we are not the country of religious freedom and tolerance we sometimes like to claim that we are.  But, of course, part of religious freedom is allowing others to do stupid things in the name of their convictions.  I suppose if zealots will content themselves to burn books and flags and dolls instead of shooting people or setting off bombs where people pray, maybe that's a better way to act out their frustration.

But I still want a way to register my disdain for those who would rather confront the world with hate, and for those who would justify their hate by claiming it is a legitimate response for the acts of others' hate.  I want a symbolic gesture of my own that resists perpetuating cycles of violence and revenge.

So my plan on Saturday is to purchase a Quran at my local bookstore, to carry it with me that day, and to read it in public.  I do so because I am not afraid of a book.  I am not afraid of a religious tradition.  Yes, I know that that book has condemning things to say about my queer sexuality.  So what?  I live in a culture saturated with another book and its followers that believe similar things about my difference. 

I've heard too many complain that no moderate Muslims spoke out against the 9/11 attacks.  This claim is patently false.  That you did not hear them doesn't mean that they didn't speak out.  That people persist in believing an absence of voices crying to be heard is more a sign of their willful deafness than confirmation of their beliefs.  But the real question in the near future may be, where were the allies of persecuted Muslims when this country started putting exemptions on the First Amendment?  Where were the outspoken non-Muslim Americans who acknowledge and support their fellow citizens who are Muslim?

For sure, there are a few visible and outspoken citizens -- NYC Mayor Bloomberg foremost among them, perhaps.  At one time even President George W. Bush acknowledged the plurality of faiths in this country and resisted making the War on Terror one on Islam.  Our current President offers his patented "for them in principle, maybe" garbled stance, for what that's worth.  And in this little backwater on the internet, there is also me.  I will not stop the pastors with their bonfire.  But I will stand up and be counted as someone who does something a little more brave with a book in public -- read it!

And should that offend someone, either in the abstract or in situ, so be it.  Welcome to America where, for at least a little while longer, we are still free.   

[Note: I credit my good friend and artist, Amanda Grove, for telling me about "National Buy a Quran Day" on 9/11.  She credits Tyler Melchior with the idea.  Share it if you like.]

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Rush to Belief

On a camping trip earlier this year, a friend turned to me and somewhat incredulously said, "You believe in aliens and UFOs, don't you?"

"Well no, not exactly, " I answered. 

What followed was a nuanced discussion on the nature of "belief."  And while we were talking about UFOs, the same arguments apply to what might be called "my religious beliefs," as well.  But let's stick with those aliens first.

It is more accurate to say I would like to believe that UFOs are extraterrestrials visiting our planet.  But I don't have any evidence that confirms that such is the case.  And so for me, it is an open question.

I grant that most of the so-called evidence for alien visitation is thin on the ground.  I admit that many of the "believers" are very lacking in credibility. But an absence of credible evidence is not proof of an assertion, either way.

I also think that some of the skeptic's arguments against alien visitation are kind of skewed, too.  Consider two of the leading arguments against.

1) The great void of space would make interstellar travel highly unlikely if not impossible.

Forgetting for the moment that theoretical physics has begun to consider how to overcome such an impediment, let the skeptics acknowledge for a moment that we mere humans perhaps don't know everything.  The hypothesis of alien visitation posits a more advanced being than we are.  To assume that space is too big to travel through is not unlike Native Americans in the 15th Century imagining that no humans could cross the Atlantic Ocean (or whatever they called it) because it can't be done in a canoe.

2) Even aliens would be a natural phenomenon, and so there should be physical evidence of their presence.

Without participating in a false binary between "intelligent" and "natural," again what this argument glosses over is that the hypothesis posits a superior intelligence.  We humans are very proud of our covert operations.  We increasingly espouse an ethic of "leave no trace" in our own explorations of nature.  Why is it so hard to consider that a more advanced species might work very hard and with a high degree of success to hide evidence of its visits?  Add to this consideration our inability to necessarily recognize or collectively accept that physical evidence should we find it.  I think these points offer at least a reasonable amount of doubt for this skeptic's position, and I haven't even turned to conspiracy theories. 

For me, the best position on this issue is to leave it an open question.  I do not know that aliens are visiting the planet.  I do not believe that they are, either.  I do not know that UFOs are aliens -- I accept that they are, as the acronym says, "unidentified."  I would be thrilled to learn that the 5% of UFO sightings that cannot be currently explained turned out to be something other than aliens (see Leslie Kean's recent book on the topic).

There are questions and wonders that science has not yet explained.  That's kind of what makes it science.  But I also think there are aspects of the human experience and the nature of the universe that science (at least as we currently do it) cannot answer.  Put in academic terms, there are some epistemological limits on science.

For similar reasons, I've always been more comfortable calling myself an agnostic than an atheist.  In too many atheist's positions I see, ultimately, a "leap of faith" in the assertion that "there is no god."  I am more sympathetic to atheists who claim "I see no evidence for the existence of God."  And I have little patience for those who cannot see the difference between those two claims.  An agnostic, on the other hand, leads with "I don't know."  And I don't.

A lot of harm is done in this country and on this planet by folks asserting the superiority of their beliefs, the exclusive rightness of their particular religion.  To me, though, the real crime is the assertion of certainty in order to fill an uncomfortable void of uncertainty.  For many, the unknown is just too scary.

But does it have to be?  I try very mindfully to be at peace with the unknown, to accept and acknowledge uncertainty. Whether the existence of god or aliens, I just don't know.  I imagine at some point in the future the population of this planet will hopefully figure out what those other 5% of UFO sightings are.  We may also learn interesting things about extraterrestrial life. Maybe we'll even answer with definitive proof the god question.  I guess I'll get my answer on that day that I die.  In some ways, the possibility of finally knowing makes me look forward (but not in a way that makes me want to hasten it) my death: a void, a white light, a tunnel filled with dead relatives, St. Peter, reincarnation, a flaming lake of fire, or something no one ever really imagined?

Meanwhile, I think I'll keep looking up.  What can it hurt?