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

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