My conversation with climate artist Diane Burko has just been posted on Creative Disturbance, a podcasting platform for dialogue among artists and scientists on sustainability and environmental issues. We’re happy to join others on their Art & Earth Sciences channel, shining different lights on urgent issues relating to climate change—especially this week, as the international community gathers in Paris with the goal of reaching a universal agreement to slow global warming.
In the podcast, we talk about how Diane made the transition from painter of large-scale landscapes to an artist/advocate who has traveled to the Arctic and Antarctic, witnessing and documenting the loss of glaciers; and how she tries to convey the scale of climate change through her paintings and photographs, making her work a kind of bridge between scientists and the rest of us. In this painting, for instance, she has overlaid a sky-view image of the Eagle Glacier in Alaska with recession lines, brightly marking the retreat of the ice over 30-some years.
Jeanne Jaffe’s ambitious Elegy for Tesla is a high-tech, dreamlike and heartfelt meditation on Nikola Tesla, the legendary scientist and inventor. Jaffe’s multimedia installation fills the Rowan University Art Gallery with videos and sound, 3-D printed models of his iconic inventions, and animatronic, motion-activated figures of Tesla that move and, in some cases speak.
Tesla stands as an avatar of massive creativity, with his hundreds of patents, and basic breakthroughs in alternating current, radio, robotics, and even computer circuitry. Jaffe pays homage to his achievements, while embedding them in the medium of a life that had strangely mythic elements. She’s particularly sensitive to the poignancy of the older Tesla, the eccentric loner who fed and cared for pigeons, whose limitless imagination had run up against the limits of the public’s reception of his work.
This aspect of Tesla is part of what drew me to work with composer Jon Gibson on Violet Fire, an opera that tried to capture the inner life of Tesla in all its strangeness through music, movement and video. So I was delighted to be asked to write the catalogue essay for this exhibit. One part of the Tesla mythos is the white pigeon he befriended, and who triggered in him a vision of blinding light. Jaffe, who has cared for birds herself, surrounds Tesla with a flock of tenderly modeled pigeons; for me, they can be seen as carriers of his ongoing inspiration, and markers of his intense, intuitive connection with the natural world.
But Tesla, in the form of his motion-activated doppelgangers, steals this show. Curator Mary Salvante coordinated an NEA-funded collaboration between Jaffe and students and faculty in Rowan’s Engineering Department to create the systems that animate her sculptures. They stand, and move, in a perfect salute to Tesla as “magician” of wireless electricity.
I’ll be at the reception on Thursday – if you can’t make it, the show will be up through January 30.
Carolyn Healy and John Phillips have done it again: they’ve created an art installation piece that both transforms the space it’s housed in, and crystallizes some essence of the place.
This time they did it inside a one-room schoolhouse on the grounds of WheatonArts in Millville, New Jersey, a nationally known center for glass art. Their piece is part of Emanations: Art + Process, an ambitious exhibit bringing in eleven invited artists—some of them experienced glass artists, and others, like Phillips and Healy, who would encounter Wheaton’s impressive glassmaking studio for the first time.
The inside of the schoolhouse has become a kind of snow globe, documenting the history of glassmaking at Wheaton, once the epicenter of the American glass industry. The open room is filled with glass objects that Healy unearthed from the back rooms and storage bins of WheatonArts, from big bell jars and old pharmacy bottles to bear-shaped honey bottles. Light-filtering film on the windows, along with a few spotlights, makes for a singular atmosphere filled with odd sparkles and flashes, and reflections that seem to hover in midair. Suggestive videos on the wall and sound elements by Phillips, seemingly exploring the inner qualities of glass, somehow complete the transformation of the space into “a semi-transparent vessel itself, a crucible for contemplation,” as I wrote in the essay for a catalog to accompany the exhibit.
Most of the Emanations exhibit can be seen in the Museum of American Glass, and includes such standouts as Judy Pfaff’s exuberant and gaudy fantasia on a theme of chandeliers; Donald Lipski’s mischief-making interventions into lovely glass objects; Virgil Marti’s dizzying faux-collection of exquisitely hued vases; and the surreal “barnyard animal” forms of Paula Hayes.
Discovering this adventurous show at Wheaton, set in a shady pine grove on the sandy soil that made the glass industry possible, is like finding the sparkling innards of a geode. If you go, don’t forget to walk down the path to the little schoolhouse with the extraordinary interior, courtesy of Phillips and Healy.
EMANATIONS: ART + PROCESS Artists include Mark Dion, Paula Hayes, Carolyn Healy and John Phillips, Donald Lipski, Virgil Marti, Michael Oatman, Judy Pfaff, Jocelyne Prince, Rob Wynn and Mark Zirpel
Leah Stein, a master of site-specific choreography, is known for creating outdoor dances that work a kind of alchemy on the places where they happen. She proceeds inclusively, allowing her dancers, the audience, the place itself, and random elements including passersby and even the weather, to come together into a new kind of communal zone.
In TURBINE, the collaborative piece created with the Mendelssohn Club to mark the 200th anniversary of Philadelphia’s historic Fairmount Water Work’s complex, we in the audience followed the fifteen dancers and several dozen singers as they moved through the outdoor site, and sometimes surrounded us. Immersion was a fitting strategy for this place, once an early-industrial marvel that supplied clean water to the city, and now an eerily beautiful collection of open Greek-Revival structures, cliffs, trees and lawn set between the Philadelphia Museum and the Schuylkill River.
Beginning in a grove of trees, the dancers and singers appeared without fanfare among the audience, offering simple arcing gestures and short, overlapping musical phrases. We followed them as they moved across the grass, entered a riverside gazebo, and then made their way along a short palisade to a wide plaza. The dancers, in bright orange, and the singers in blue-green vests or scarves, seemed to be making a new map of the place while moving across the surface it described.
Writers including Charles Dickens and Mark Twain visited the renowned Water Works in their time, and composer Byron Au Yong culled haiku-like fragments from their descriptions to create flexible sonic modules. Au Yong, who has made site-based work before, allowed the singers some liberty in the timing of their own phrases, which interwove, sometimes fading in the air, sometimes resonating like depth charges. For the choir members of the Mendelssohn Club, who have worked with Stein before, the piece offered a uniquely challenging adventure, and we felt their bravery as they balanced walking and expressive gestures with outdoor singing. Meanwhile, the dancers held the space like sentries—moving, or often still; offered rituals of pouring water; and danced, all with never-flagging concentration.
As we attended to what was happening, the site came to life around the performers. Standing in the early evening light, I was struck by the uncommon gracefulness of this place, and simultaneously felt it as it is right now: a place ringed by parked cars and traffic noise, part of a living city.
Experiencing a work by Leah Stein, I’ve found, has aftereffects. Some good art does this—by destabilizing our perception, it makes us see differently. It may be partly the shock of displacement into an unexpected venue that intensifies our attention, pushing us into the present moment (like coming on a flash-mob performance, which may be a new folk form of site-specific dance). But her outdoor events, although large-scale, are anti-spectacles, inducing a sense of wonder through an almost hypnotic sense of heightened receptivity. After the last mingling of performers and audience on the plaza, we left transformed, released into the surroundings and suddenly seeing the colors of dusk as more saturated, the sounds more crisp, and every movement as a signal.
TURBINE was performed on June 28, 2015 at the Fairmount Water Works.
With all the great women’s roles in opera, from Aida to Norma to Tosca, bringing up the issue of increasing women’s role in opera could seem like begging the question. Or like the setup for a punch line—how many sopranos do you need to put on an opera? But at the recent Opera America conference, held earlier this month in Washington D.C., a session on Women in Arts Leadership drew about 100 people, most of them women, for an energetic discussion prompted by questions like: Why are there so few women leading opera companies? Why are most of the new operas produced still written by men? If more women could make decisions, would the subjects of new operas change somehow—maybe featuring more parts for women?
The all-women panel, including three opera company directors, was eager to move past such questions and start acting on solutions. One panelist suggested a goal of reaching thirty percent participation in each category of opera production, from directors to composers, set designers and more—a level that’s considered a tipping point after which further changes can begin to take care of themselves.
Opera America has already begun one strategic initiative: offering commissioning grants to women composers, and to opera companies willing to help produce their work. I was there at the conference with one of the seven recent grant winners, Kitty Brazelton, a fantastic composer and an old friend from college. We’re working together on a new opera project, and the grant she received will make possible a workshop performance this fall, in New York. We’ve both worked on opera projects before, with collaborators who happened to be men—although the first music project Kitty and I worked on, playing in a four-piece folk-rock band she organized in our freshman year, was also an all-women venture.
Will our project, called Art of Memory, be flavored differently somehow because of our gender? Since the subject is the struggles of two male saints—St. Augustine and St. Ambrose, who knew each other in Milan in the 4th century—it wouldn’t seem to be nudging any gender shift in subject matter. But Kitty is writing both leading parts to be sung by women. In fact, she plans to sing St. Ambrose herself, contrasting her rock-mezzo vocals with more traditional opera vocal style. Very cool!
Women have traditionally played some male roles, called “trouser roles,” often when the male character is young. Our project’s cross-casting is meant as a way to shake up the audience’s encrusted ideas about two long-revered saints. In my last opera project, Judgment of Midas, Kamran Ince rewrote the part of the god Pan for a soprano. Another composer, Melissa Dunphy, used a similar approach in her 2009 piece, The Gonzales Cantata, with music set to the transcribed testimony of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Dunphy neatly flipped the casting of the piece, so that the nearly all-male participants in the original hearings were all sung by sopranos; only Sen. Dianne Feinstein was sung by a man. In this case, the number of sopranos needed to put on an oratorio, at least, was fourteen.
Change is happening in opera, and we don’t know where it will lead. It’s exciting to be part of that.
During a hiatus from feline companionship last year, I daydreamed about naming our next cat Isis—after the goddess Isis so central to the religion of ancient Egypt, which is also known for its reverence for cats. Then came the news reports from Iraq and Syria about the horrifying actions of a terrorist militia calling itself by the acronym ISIS—or ISIL, or IS; but the first name seemed to stick. I silently shelved my thought, but couldn’t come up with a better name.
Ancient Egypt has fascinated me almost my whole life, and Isis makes an appearance in the novel I’m working on, which takes place partly in ancient Alexandria. Isis was worshiped in ancient Egypt as a kind of world-mother. The hieroglyph of her name includes the image of a throne, and it was believed that Isis was the source or “seat” of the Pharaoh’s power. Here’s a wonderful discussion of the meaning of her name. As the sister of Osiris and mother of Horus, Isis played the lead in the primal drama of Osiris’ death and resurrection. Her grief for her dead brother Osiris made her an emblem of deep feeling for others’ suffering, as her worship spread through the late Classical world.
Last summer, my husband Steve told me about a kitten he’d noticed at our local cat rescue: a beautiful, self-possessed little black cat, who might have some Siamese in her. And, he mentioned, her name was Isis. The woman who fostered her after she was found had given her the name. I knew we had found our next cat.
So Isis entered our lives with her name already bestowed. She wears it well: when she sits at attention, she’s the regal image of the Egyptian cat represented in statues, reliefs and paintings. Telling people her name leads to a variety of responses, often reflecting discomfort with the terrorist-militia association. I may answer with something like, “We’re trying to uphold the good feelings around her name.” The truth is, it pains me to think of the Goddess being overshadowed by a group that represents the most heinous actions of which humans are capable. Google doesn’t distinguish very well between the acronym and the ancient Goddess, and I’m afraid humans can get mixed up too.
On the other hand, I keep thinking that those who cover the news may have settled on the ISIS acronym out of the various choices, partly because of its lingering mythological resonance. We need our myths and ancient stories, as a storehouse of symbols to help us move forward. Maybe it’s a good thing that when people hear the next shocking news from that terrorist group, they feel the breath of Isis reminding them of something else.
Space is the Place—the wild space-fantasy film starring Sun Ra, the legendary experimental jazz artist—came out in 1974. It follows Sun Ra and his Arkestra as they travel to another planet, where they hope to create an off-earth home for African Americans. Back on Earth, they do battle with a pimp-overlord over the fate of their mission, and play some fantastic music.
This Friday, Bowerbird will screen a newly restored, digital version of this one-of-a-kind film at the Rotunda in Philadelphia. The event celebrates (just a little late) the movie’s 40th anniversary, and the centenary of Sun Ra’s “arrival,” as he called it, in 1914 in Alabama, as Herman Poole Blount. He settled in Philadelphia for the final chapter of a long and prolific career, “leaving” in 1993.
I saw Sun Ra and his Arkestra in the early 1970s, a little before Space is the Place premiered. I was a college freshman, and I’d never heard of him. A friend who was a musician took me to a little club in West Philadelphia that looked like a bar on the outside—maybe it was a bar. Crowded in at small tables, we sat just feet away from a phalanx of psychedelic Pharaohs: the members of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, dressed in shiny, many-colored robes, and headgear that included some tinfoil. They proceeded to blast me out of any thought I’d ever had about music and what it could be, building to a wailing, clanging, pounding wall of sound, even while the musicians seemed to know exactly what they were doing. That night the Arkestra played their guts out, making sounds that seemed devised to lift the club into earth orbit. Sun Ra may have intended to give black people a sense of transcendence and galactic-level freedom, but he also made room for someone like me, a white teenaged girl who’d studied classical music, to sense the far horizons he was aiming toward.
That night became a touchstone for me. Sun Ra’s joining of costumed spectacle and no-holds-barred playing made a kind of alchemy happen, and over the years I measured other experimental music and performance against it. No question, Sun Ra achieved serious regard in the jazz world, even as he influenced many other musicians, from George Clinton to Deep Purple to Phish. He may not have managed to transport his people to another planet, but he made music that suggested it was possible.
Space is the Place, screening as part of Bowerbird’s GATE @ The Rotunda
The Aurora Borealis—that mysterious shimmer of light appearing sometimes in the night sky—is a great thing to contemplate now during Hanukkah, our Festival of Lights, and so close to the Winter Solstice. You can’t even plan to see the Aurora, this huge, otherworldly phenomenon, one of the strangest of light events on earth. You just have to show up where it might be seen and hope one will reveal itself.
What is the Aurora Borealis, anyway? It was named for Aurora, the Roman goddess of dawn, and for Boreas, the north wind, in the 17th century, and often just called the Northern Lights.
Before scientists teased out the secrets of the Northern Lights, the Kwakiutl and Tlingit people of Alaska interpreted them as the dancing of human spirits. The Inuit people of Labrador identified them as the torches held by spirits from the true heavens beyond the sky, meant to lead newly arrived spirits on the right pathway. The Algonquin Indians said that they were the reflection of fires built by the Creator, who retired to the north after he finished his work, kept burning to remind the people that he still thinks of them.
The story told by scientists is just as incredible. Our sun throws off constant small storms of plasma—masses of electrified gas ejected out from its surface. These fly out in all directions on the solar wind. When they get near enough to the earth, they slide across our magnetosphere—the giant electromagnetic body that surrounds us, basically shielding us from getting too much radiation from the sun and the cosmos.
Some of the plasma is pulled in and sucked toward the north and south poles, where it interacts with elements in the stratosphere. Here’s a great animation showing this process.
This interaction of particles of sun and earth creates the Aurora Borealis, as well as the Aurora Australis in the southern hemisphere. A green light show, the most common, means that oxygen particles have been more excited by the flux of free electrons and positive ions, at an altitude of up to 150 miles. The rarely appearing red Aurora means it’s happening even higher than that. Blue or violet light shows reveal the involvement of nitrogen particles at a lower altitude. Sometimes the Aurora appears as undulating curtains, sometimes as swirling lines, or merely a soft allover glow. We now have numerous images, and even videos taken from space, showing how globe-spanning a single event can be.
Have you seen the northern lights? I haven’t, but I hope I’ll be lucky enough to see them with my own eyes someday. It will be a chance for an up-close encounter with an off-world astrophysical effect, without the need for filters or lenses—a direct experience of the vast electromagnetic environment around us as it briefly drops into the visible realm, to become a stunning spectacle of light in the darkness.
In the paintings of Charles Burchfield, the trees vibrate, the air pulses with rhythmic patterns, and birdsong takes on shape and color. Everything is alive, even a dead branch, even a house. At the major exhibit of Burchfield’s work at the Brandywine River Museum, up through November 16, you can see the early and later paintings in which he worked full-out to translate his visionary experience of the natural world.
Burchfield lived from 1893–1967, in Ohio and upstate New York, away from the centers of art-world activity. But he kept up with the currents of modern art. It’s possible that learning about the daring art of the 1913 Armory Show helped him make his own breakthrough work in 1915, when he first began to make connections between his own intense responses to nature and music, and his painted landscapes. In the 1930s he became known for sometimes brooding portrayals of small towns and industrial scenes. Then, in the midst of World War II, he returned to his earlier desire to convey the strange aliveness of nature.
Birds transforming into air currents, the sound of cicadas appearing like jagged leaves around a tree—was there some hallucinogenic stimulation involved here? Very unlikely. Nancy Weekly, who co-curated the Brandywine exhibit, has highlighted the idea that Burchfield had synesthesia—the ability to experience trans-sensory perceptions, such as sound as color or vice versa. It may be that I love his work so much because I have synesthesia too—along with many others in my family, from my father, my sister and brother through nieces and nephews. We have the most common type, seeing numbers and letters as specific colors. Although it’s relatively rare, at least one study has shown that synesthesia is more common among visual artists, and I suspect that may be true of poets, musicians and composers too.
Synesthesia runs strongly through early modern art: Kandinsky wrote about trying to achieve color-sound consonances through painting, and it can be seen as a motivator toward abstraction in his work and others, including artists of the Blue Rider school. Burchfield was aware of all this, yet he didn’t follow the path of pure abstraction. For him, those sensory correspondences were inextricably linked to the blooming, buzzing profusion of the natural world. He persisted in making pictures showing how, for him, everything around us vibrates along many interconnected spectrums—sound, color, energy.
Does any of this strike a chord? If so, what color is it?
I was one of the 300,000-plus people in the People’s Climate March in New York on September 21 – and like many others there, it had been a long time since I joined a march. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be part of a big crowd, all sharing a growing feeling of alarm over patterns of climate change, and deep dismay over patterns of denial among those who could and/or should know better.
The low clouds held back except for a brief spatter of rain, and the mood held too: a lovely parade buoyancy, and a palpable excitement at being part of a visible expression of something we all cared about. I went on one of dozens of buses from Philadelphia organized by 350.org, carrying my handmade sign, saying WAKEUP. My partner for the day was Diane Burko, an artist who has been making powerful paintings and photographs documenting the melting of glaciers and other effects of climate change. Diane has traveled to the Arctic Circle, Greenland, and Antarctica, and to scientific conferences to speak about her work.
The parade had seven thematic groupings, starting with FRONTLINESOFCRISIS, FOREFRONTOFCHANGE and ending with the inclusive TOCHANGEEVERYTHING, WENEEDEVERYONE. Diane and I joined the group behind the banner THEDEBATEISOVER, whose float was a giant rolling blackboard with drawings charting rising CO2 and ocean temperatures. We were surrounded by scientists—old and young, men and women, of many backgrounds, and many with their children—representing fields from geology to psychoanalysis.
Because the turnout was so much higher then expected – estimates had been around 100,000 beforehand – the street backed up with participants, and those of us in the back stood for several hours before actually marching. Pizzas were delivered, snacks and water were shared. Finally, we set off down Central Park West, walking with people who had lost homes to Katrina and Sandy, young activists, old activists, dignitaries, working people, stilt walkers, musicians, people representing Pacific island nations whose very land is in danger of disappearing under rising seas.
The parade ended at 11th Avenue, near the Hudson River. It’s not far from here, I realized, that a scene takes place toward the end of Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. In Egan’s brilliant vision of the ways we are changed by technology and other forces, climate change has become part of the background of city life: a few decades from now, on a warm day in February, a young family gathers with others on the ramparts of the giant sea wall that’s been built to keep the rising waters out of New York. Climbing up to watch the sunset from there has become a new tradition, since the view has been blocked out by the wall.
What will we have to face as a result of the climate change that has already been set in motion? People whose cities have the resources to build sea walls will be the lucky ones. We need to acknowledge what scientists are telling us, and we need help from artists and others to visualize what’s happening now, and to imagine what’s in store. We need to wake up.