Monday, April 21, 2014

Dispatches from Urban Acrobatics Chicago: Day 4, Performing Evolution, and Risk

Yesterday marked the culminating performance for our week of Urban Acrobatics Chicago. Held at Alternatives, Inc., the show combined live graffiti, acrobatics, painting, clowning, and rapping, offering the audience a snapshot of what it would mean to inflect circus with a graffiti aesthetic, and put graffiti surfaces into spectacular motion.

A young audience member experiments with the hula hoops. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
The show was planned under compressed conditions. We had one day to run workshops to introduce youth to the fundamentals of graffiti and circus, a second day to discuss how to put these two art forms in conversation, and a third day to perform tentative relationships between the art genres.
Natalie Zombie applies a worm image to Werm's face. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

The resident face painting expert, Natalie Zombie, did some pre show face paintings to show the youth the possible images they could select. Our graffiti writer, Werm, chose to represent a worm on his face. Natalie's deep knowledge of color composition and graffiti style is evident in her rendering which is almost identical to Werm's throwup on the Alternatives lockers.
A worm on Werm. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Importantly, one of the largest challenges was communication. Writers and circus performers use and possess distinct idioms, frameworks for what collaboration, improvisation, and stylistic emphasis mean. Writers often divide the labor of a masterpiece spatially, giving one person a character to do, another the text, another the background. For circus artists, each body comprises an integral part of the landscape and such a division may be spatial, but it is also temporal. When a pyramid is formed creates an image that may enable other bodily movements or shapes to be layered onto it. Although illegal writing require speed the when of collaboration becomes less urgent in a legal context.

The birthday girl practicing the "human canvas" portion of the show. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Opening with sound clips from the panel discussion, the room was filled with the voices of circus artists, scholars, and graffiti artists and historians discussing the demonization of the above genres, as well as the potential inspirational power of these public art forms for the masses.

After hearing speech about graffiti and circus the audience was presented with another kind of visual noise: the persistent hiss of paint cans as Werm, Melon, Jae, and Kard began working on their walls. The word "evolve" took shape in turqouise against the black background of the temporary wall, evoking decades of conversations among graffiti communities about the inevitability, but also positive need for evolution. Evolution from, and towards what?
Evolve outline. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

In a sense, evolution to maintain its relationship to the present. Graffiti is threatened on the one side with negative stereotypes and a punitive legal environment, and on the other with commercialization and commodification that disarticulates it from its roots in urban youth protest, progressive hip hop based politics, and relationships to marginalized communities. To evolve then is to develop stylistically, implying increasing nuance and growth, but also to evolve to maintain relevance in changing times.

The show performed the various paths that evolution may take. First, the audience was presented with the development of a burner (an elaborate piece that involves characters in addition to complex enlarged lettering). Then, the burner became the background to moving bodies. Then, one of the six youth from Circ Esteem involved in the show took the stage, juggling three paint cans. I knew from rehearsal and planning that this youth was anxious about being alone on the stage, and about the scrutiny of the audience. Such anxieties echoed Roy Gomez-Cruz's earlier explanation that circus involves putting the body on the line, making it visible and thus susceptible to the scrutiny of one's peers for successful (or unsucessful) deployment of visual and physical syntaxes of circus art. The juggler, who I knew was one of the more advanced students, and had boasted of juggling knives, occasionally dropped one of the cans, but kept on going. They were a new medium to him, heavier and less aerodynamic than the balls, scarves, knives, or beanbags he was a accustomed to. His performance, which was not a virtuoso display of mastery, offered something different but equally important: an exhibition of the discomfort and hiccups involved in engaging with a new medium, and also, a different mode of physical comportment and relationship to his environment. Juggling the cans made the act of juggling, his particular niche in the circus world, strange.
Ben juggling paint cans. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
The young juggler was joined by his five other peers, who proceeded to make four different pyramid structures, and different formations of surfaces for Werm and Melon to paint on. Sometimes with their backs to the audience, sometimes facing forward, the writers tagged the circus artists with simple strokes: a star on the chest of the boy, and hearts across the torsos of the girls. They too where learning a new medium, that of interacting with moving, circus bodies.

Pyramid, two high. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit, Caitlin Bruce.

Pyramid, three high. Werm painting suits. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce.
Writers like Werm and Melon who learned to write in an illegal context possess amazing speed. They can write their names in a but a few seconds. However, adding in moving, wriggling, balancing bodies demands yet more dexterity and swiftness. The wall is no longer a given.

This experimentation with surface and implement continued further with Polly and Melon's duet where, while she was suspended off the ground by her fabric, he pushed her around as a make shift ink can, painting where he moved her body.

Polly as extension of paint can with Melon. Alternatives, Inc. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce.

Close up. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
"I realized as he was moving my body what he was trying [to get me] to write," Polly noted, but also acknowledged that it was "difficult to use the have a steady flow of ink." Can control emerged as a difficult terrain for the young circus artists, with cans misfiring or getting on hair, but then, becoming an exhilarating tool for marking up the space. Bodies were also placed in poses in front of the walls to provide surfaces that could "walk away," playing with the ephemerality of graffiti and the risk it always can leave (and reappear, ad infinitum).

"Walking," walls. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

"Walking," walls. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

The risk of failure (work being destroyed or gone over or dissed, or stumbling, falling, or otherwise not completing a combination) was performed and then made comedic in a balloon sequence. Each of the Circ Esteem youth had a white baloon, which they drew on with fabric markers. Polly made and ecstatic face at her simple drawing, and then Antoinette walked over, popped the balloon, and laughed (silently) riotously at Polly's distress. But the show must (and did) go on. 

Balloon sequence. Alternatives, Inc. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
Werm One then took the stage, doing four songs: Paint the Pain Away, 10 Graff Commandments, Wrong Side of the Tracks (Remix), and a new song. Urging the crowd to "Put your paint cans up!" he rapped about the pain and struggle he has faced, his search for redemption, and some of the stereotypes he is subjected to as an artist. "I'm not a vandal, I'm an artist!" he exclaimed at one point, eliciting cheers from the crowd. It was powerful to see the way that Werm uses two elements of hip hop: rapping and graffiti, together, as materials for both. Evolution, in his work, figures as a personal journey but also a complementary relationship between the spoken and the written (painted) word. 

Werm One rapping. Alternatives, Inc. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
Werm One. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
While Werm rapped, Melon continued to paint, and the young circus artists formed a line behind him, mimicking his movements. When he moved to a different section of the wall, they moved, when he raised his right arm and drew a curved line, they did as well. This infinity mirror of bodies helped throw into relief the centrality of movement in the making of graffiti as well as its resulting aesthetic.

Infinity mirror of performers following Melon's gestures. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Infinity mirror. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
The young circus artists then introduced movement into their painting, one hula hooping and painting, while the other held the canvas out for them. The resulting images were spectacular, astronomical arrays of paint splatters and partially completed names. It was difficult for the young circus artists to use the cans, since they were novices (toys), and so the images were choppy and incomplete, but nevertheless held traces of their movements.
Elizabeth and Vanessa working together. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Close up. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
The kids experienced (and performed) the joy of writing with aerosol paint for the first time, first cautiously writing their names of each others' paint suits, and then more ecstatically tagging the drop cloth, canvases, and each other.
Signatures. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Youth working on the drop cloth. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Polly and Melon preparing for their next duet. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

During the next sequence, Polly, Melon, and Werm, performed a group piece where Polly, on the silk fabric, assumed a series of poses that manipulated the fabric in different directions, creating an ever-changing canvass for Melon and Werm to paint on, the textural equivalent of an etch-a-sketch board. Painting with a new kind of paint (sugar paint, versus the Montana, Bubble, or Ironlak cans to which graffiti writers are more accustomed) on an uncertain and transforming surface, was difficult. Melon noted afterwards: "It was kind of frustrating, because I would write something, and then it would disappear." At the same time, he described the experience as "amazing, beautiful to watch [Polly] perform on the silks, and to try to be part of it." As the sequence progressed it became more collaborative, Melon passed paint cans up and down to Polly as she painted the fabric above her, also a difficult process for someone who has little experience with regulating pressure of the can to create a steady line of color. Natalie painted the youth's faces, and Polly's body in preparation for the sequence.

Polly having her body painted before the fabric manipulation sequence. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Polly, Werm, and Melon collaborating for the fabric manipulation sequence. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

A busy, but beautiful scene of circus/graffiti collaboration. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce 
Polly and Melon. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Polly and Melon. Passing paint cans. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Werm, Kard, and Jae hard at work. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Intense focus. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

The show concluded with the youth performing a movement sequence that they had developed in workshop on Thursday. Starting with an airplane pose, followed by a squat, then a calm standing pose, then a kneeling pose, and then a lunge, followed by yet more sequences, their faces and costumes were covered in paint, making them moving, living graffiti pieces. The show, which began with blank surfaces and quiet painting, concluded with the accumulation of color, movement, and a shared vocabulary for creation between circus and graffiti artists. It was, and is, an evolution that we hope to continue.

A profound thanks to Polly Solomon, my collaborator and childhood friend for her vision, hard work, talent, and the love she brought to this project. Thank you Carmen Curet, Andy Bellomo, Valerie, Steven, Tim, Israel and the rest of theAlternatives staff for trusting us with your space and your students, and your support, space, and positive energy. Thank you W. Keith Brown and Evanston Art Center for hosting us on Tuesday. Thank you Flash and Roy Gomez-Cruz for your brilliant insights. Thank you Werm One, Kard, and Jae (and Tommy) for your talented performances, and your logistical help throughout the week. Thank you Melon for your insights, energy, beautiful painting, and moral support. Thanks Natalie for your beautiful face painting and playful approach to the project. Thanks to Ben, Chantal, Elizabeth, Antoinette, Vanessa, and our new participant, whose name I didn't get, for your spirited performances and help throughout the week. Thanks to our audience members for coming through and showing us so much love. Finally, a thanks to Northwestern's Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Arts for the funding that made this project possible.
Face painting by Natalie Zombie on our young performer. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Natalie and Eden, post show. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Polly and Eden become one with the art. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Polly's uniform. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Melon James, Polly Solomon, Caitlin Bruce, Werm One. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Uncle Hek

"Evolve" by Wermelon. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Friday, April 18, 2014

Dispatches from Urban Acrobatics Chicago Day 3 Performance Planning: Bodies that Can Move

Today was a day for idea development, discussion, and imagination. I spent most of the afternoon prepping the new wall for live painting, while Polly, Natalie Zombie, Werm, and youth from Alternatives worked together to brainstorm what tomorrow's performance will bring.

Crowding in together at one of the cafeteria-style tables in the main area, we discussed the goals of the project, to create interaction and collaboration between circus and graffiti styles, and solicited ideas from our participants.
Planning session, serious business. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
The main conceit of the show is that everything starts out blank, either white or black, and gradually accumulates color and movement. Natalie does elaborate face-painting, and will painting performers' faces in an array of images including monster bunnies, monster chicks, and possibly a worm, among other animals and colors.
Young performers spellbound as Natalie describes potential face painting options. Alternatives, Inc. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
She suggested that as an extra challenge, she could do live face and body painting that will involve developing layers of spheres, splatters, and auras, color patterns that are evocative of 1980s old-school graffiti. She also offered to clown about, a comically obsessive graffiti clown, perhaps. Yesterday, Polly had led the youth in different human pyramid building exercises. I suggested that, similar to the formations used in Sao Paolo to make Pixaçoa style graffiti, performers could make a human ladder in order to life the top person to a higher plane of the temporary wall. Werm, who is also a rapper, will do live painting, rapping about graffiti, and also will collaborate with performers to create walls that run away, by painting on the costume of a performer as part of the canvas who will leave when done, leaving the wall partially exposed. Additionally, performers can play with the movement of graffiti writers to emphasize how graffiti is, in fact, a balletic composition between wall, writer body, and the paint.

Werm experimented a bit with circus equipment, helping us rig the fabric to the ceiling and climbing to the top, putting to use his writer skills of fearlessness in the face of great heights. He demonstrated some of the costume painting techniques on one of our young performer's plain black t-shirt.
Werm demonstrating his t-shirt painting skills. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
"Werm." Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Kard and Jae helped me to put together one of our cellophane surfaces, a concept that we got from French writers Astro and Kanos, cellograff. Cellograff enables writers to paint in places where they wouldn't otherwise be invited, it is low impact, and ephemeral.

While I finished priming the wooden wall, Polly led our young circus performers as well as the intrepid Natalie in a series of movement exercises. She challenged them to come up with four pyramid formations that involved all six participants. The resulting formations were dazzling:

Traditional pyramid, hands and knees. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Standing pyramid. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Modified pyramic with hand stands. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Interlocking limbs formation. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

With a traditional pyramid on hands and knees; a standing pyramid; a pyramid with enframing handstands; and a complex snowflake shaped formation of interlocking arms and legs our performers illuminated all the different ways in which bodies can move together to create images, team work and collaboration create shapes that are more than the sum of their parts.

You can see live painting, acrobatics, juggling, and rapping tomorrow at 4:00pm at Alternatives Inc. Come one, come all!

Dispatches from Urban Acrobatics Chicago Day 2: The Workshops

Yesterday we held back to back workshops at Alternatives, Inc. The first, a tagging workshop, was led by Werm. After a run to home depot with some of his family to pick up materials for the temporary wall for the show, which involved a discussion of what CAB stands for "Chrome and Black," among many other titles, and putting up a Werm on the already heavily tagged lockers in Alternatives, he wrote out an alphabet in his hand written style with upper-case and lower-case letters.

Wall-to-be. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
With waves of five to six youth arriving every twenty minutes, he broke down tagging into six steps. "First, you have to write your name in legible letters, spaced apart." He walked around checking on youth's work, helping them space and increase the size of their letters. 
Attentive students. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
"Next, you need to put an outline around them." "Like bubble letters?" a student asked. "It can be." He wrote WERM on the whiteboard in black marker. Some of the students picked up the form easily, writing large proud letters on their sheets of paper. Others had to go through several versions, first finding that when the letters are too small, they crowd together and an outline is not possible. After the outline stage Werm signaled the next step. "Now we make a three-d. You have to have short lines extend from the edges of the letters all in the same direction." 

Werm demonstrating making three dimensional letters. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
This step was harder to follow, some students with colliding lines creating multiple planes of movement. He walked around explaining how the shadow must fall, and pointing to the board. The final step was to connect the edges of the three-d shadow. Finally, students were directed to choose a lighter color for the inside, and a darker outline for the outside. 
A tagged by one of the more advanced students. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
Wrapping up, Werm demonstrated how one could draw an aura around the letter in the form of a cloud, shapes, shine, and so on. We concluded by describing the project to the students, and suggesting that in the circus exercises they should think about how they could integrate graffiti styles, or even the practice of painting. One of the more eager Circus students tried juggling paint cans, an object he had not juggled before.

Juggling paint cans. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
The tagging workshop was followed by some circus exercises, led by Polly. The first was a movement exercise where students were put in a circle and each had to imagine a movement that either positioned the body up in the air, a standing level, or low down. A movement level could not be repeated twice, so, for instance, if someone did a pose on the ground, the next pose had to be standing or up high. With eleven participants, the movements were repeated over and over to make, what one student described as a "weird dance," but a dance that was collectively written by the participants. Following the dance, the smaller group began working on making pyramids, and team-work exercise that requires clear communication and collective effort. "You can't just climb up on someone," Polly cautioned one of the smaller students who would be on the top of the pyramid, "You have to tell them, and make sure it's ok." 
Human Pyramid. Alternatives, Inc. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
After directing the students into making a vase-like shape with one level of the human statue facing in one direction, and upper level facing the opposite way, Polly suggested that the students find their own shape that includes every participant. What resulted was an elevated bridge-like structure that visually mimicked the shape of Chicago's bridges and overpasses connecting both sides of the river, surfaces that are important targets for tagging.
Teamwork, to make two bridges. Alternatives, Inc. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce

Today will begin the planning for Saturday's performance. We hope to see you soon!
Werm making his presence known at Alternatives. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce