Cardboard Castles and Other Amenities...

I am really interested in using different forms of cultural action to help build better communities. Communities are a vital social model, allowing us to tackle problems beyond the ability of individuals with the focus of a defined (usually relatively small) group of people. How do the arts and cultural work in general help communities grow more sustainable futures? If you have a cool website or project or your own ideas on these subjects please let me know.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Power of Stories

Over the last couple of weeks the universe has been saturating me in reminders of the importance of stories. Three nights ago I went to the International Day for Telling Life Stories presented at the Berkley Library by the Center for Digital Story Telling. The event started off with a powerful story by and about Erika Huggins, “… a former Black Panther, political prisoner, human rights activist, poet and teacher (From the program bio.)” Huggins, quite amazingly, was able to simultaneously own her story in a deeply personal and powerful way, while also underlining and encouraging the universal message inherent within. Namely that we all have individual stories with great power and worth. It was truly informative example an age-old artistic struggle to take something personal and make it universal without loosing the “human face” that comes with individual specificity.

If your having trouble seeing the importance of stories I offer this advertisement for the Mexican newspaper Milenio. The two complimentary cultural narratives of the apathetic idiot (Homer Simpson) and the lone un-nuanced violent “warrior” (John Wayne) lead to an uninterested, uninformed, and violent leader. In an era with a failing public school system and a world besought with potentially cataclysmic change (the rise of totalitarian authority, global warming, The global food crisis, to name a few) Homer Simpson has become an American hero. Like Wayne before him, he has become the safe standard. The depth of Homer’s stupidity and the extent of Wayne’s violence justify the slightly lesser ignorance and aggression prevalent in certain sectors of our country. By the way, I’m not talking about poor or working-class America, I’m talking about the people we accept to lead our country.

For another example we can look to (listen, actually) to an NPR story that ran on All Things Considered on May 16 titled Aid Efforts Stymied by China, Myanmar Tragedies. The story discusses the lack of stories and images about the devastation, which has resulted (in part) from Myanmar’s government not letting journalists and aid-workers into the country. According to the story, a professor at Colby College, Philip Brown, doing research (PDF) on the relationship between media coverage and donations around disasters found that 1 minute or 1 news story would raise the amount of donations by 13-18% that day. Comparing the amount of money raised for the South-East Asian Tsunami and the cyclone in Myanmar 10 days after the event found that the former had raised $7 million compared to only $600,000 for Myanmar. According to Brown’s research the amount of new coverage was not the only important factor, it also matters what kind’s of stories are being told. Another problem with the coverage of Myanmar is that it is almost devoid of personal stories of the tragedy.

The power of individual stories comes from the possibility for one person to relate to another’s situation even when their lives are (or seem) very different. The Global Lives Project is attempting to use technology to tell people’s stories from all over the world. The project is to shoot 10 24 consecutive-hour-videos of 10 different people’s lives from all over the world. Since not everyone can afford to travel around the world personally meeting people from different places, the Global Lives Project offers people a chance to see what one day might be like in different parts of the globe.

Personal stories are important not only in generating top down charitable giving, but in culturally empower (having the ability to affect one’s culture) those populations often excluded from traditional sources of cultural action (the news media, professional art venues, etc.) I recently had the honor of attending my friend Laura Hadden’s (check her out) Naming Ceremony for her class of the First Voices Apprenticeship Program at KPFA.

The mission of the First Voice Apprenticeship Program is to facilitate community building and creative empowerment through healing, creative expression, and the adaptation of information technology. The "First Voice" exists deep within ourselves, it is the consciousness or intuition that leads the way.

The Ceremony was a wonderful reaffirmation of the need for people and communities to tell and hear their own stories.

All this has lead me to seriously reexamine my own story. Chris Carlsson’s Nowtopia (review coming… when I finish it) has stimulated me to consider the connection between the Back to the Land Movement (which my parents were involved with for awhile) and the more resent permaculture and urban gardening movements. I am currently working on a audio documentary about a piece of land my parents bought with roughly 16 other people in 1971 and have considered fallowing the wider cultural threads to present day subcultures. It is good to be hearing so many stories lately. I hope you all are remembering to tell your story and to listen to others’.

Images: Center for Digital Story Telling, Eyeteeth

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Public Art Gets A Little Protection

Public artist, Kent Twitchell, just settled a lawsuit over the destruction of his mural of the artist Ed Ruscha. Twitchell sued under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), which is intended “to prevent any destruction of a work of recognized stature.” The settlement included the building’s owner and the Department of Labor, and was for 1.1 million dollars.

Although I am a huge fan of protecting public art and other forms of free expression, especially since we are often forced communicate with each other through private property or space. I think it is unfortunate how society defines “work of recognized stature.” It is sad that we continue to destroy certain forms of street art, which are produced without permission. The right to use public spaces for personal expression is a key issue. By label certain forms of public art “vandalism,” the government forces artists seeking public legitimacy to ask permission of the state in order to publicly express themselves. And how free is free-speech if you have to ask permission before you do it?

(Photo Credit: Walker Art Center)

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