Once again I am confused by institutional affiliation. By extension, I am also confused about “grassroots” community affiliation. I realize I shy away from such “official” affiliations, and tend to migrate from organization to organization, picking up temporary stints in those various places, whether it’s Hyphen magazine, Kearny Street Workshop, Mills College, Small Press Traffic, my official time spent there is always brief.
I bring this up now because of yesterday evening’s gathering in honor of guest NY-based Fay Chiang at Eth-Noh-Tec, the home and performance space of gracious hosts, Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo and Nancy Wang. We were invited by local artist Nancy Hom. Also in attendance was Shizue Siegel whom I haven’t seen in a few years now. Throughout the course of the evening, we were engaged in discussions regarding the work of being an artist, of being public and promoting ourselves.
As for Robert, I’d met briefly, many years ago at a Filipinos for Affirmative Action (FAA) conference, during a round table session on Filipino Americans in the arts. I must have been about 20 or 21 year old at the time, a spoken word artist, and I hadn’t yet finished college. I’d only newly been exposed to Asian American writers and artists, and their presence alone was blowing my mind. that’s when I began envisioning possibilities for a vocation as a writer. Writing would not be my “hobby,” that thing I did on the side and on the sly, as I held down a sensible and lucrative and practical job. Sensible immigrant daughter.
Previously, this was the only way I could envision a life in the arts, if I could even envision a life in the arts. My very sensible parents, and the community in which I grew up didn’t entertain the idea of careers in the arts, though everybody I knew, everyone I am related to had something artistic at which they were extremely talented, some art that they absolutely loved doing.
What I remember about Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo from that FAA conference was this free flowing openness about the possibilities of art in effecting change. That is to say, how better to plant ideas deeply in people’s minds in such a way that they are open to discussion, and little increments of progressiveness but through music, through visual art, through storytelling.
So it was fitting that as community based artist and activist Fay Chiang came through the Bay Area, Eth-Noh-Tec would host her. Chiang is one of the founding members of the Asian American artists’ organization, the Basement Workshop, which was founded in the early 1970′s, about the same time as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Both spaces were created in generally the same part of New York City. As Oscar tells me, there’s an obvious parallel here, between the API and Latino literary scenes in New York, and on the West Coast, where Kearny Street Workshop and the Flor Y Canto were being birthed, also in the early 1970′s.
One of the pieces of her current manuscript which Chiang shared with us was a journal entry from the early 1970′s, in which she had just signed the lease to a space for the Basement Workshop artists to gather. She was 23, a bundle of nerves, and she called upon the aid of Bimbo Rivas and his crew to fix it up. In this piece, she and Rivas discuss the importance of having a space for your art and your community of artists, however unprofitable. What’s most important: (1) carving out that space with whatever resources you have, (2) that support network which results from having the space in which artists can come together, (3) artists being empowered, not only to create their art, but also to take control of the spaces and venues, (4) organizing events and happenings in which to present this art to the larger communities, and (5) encouraging new artists to do the same.
Here, Chiang states quite plainly, “If you can organize a birthday party, then you can organize an art event.”
Today, Chiang’s current project is a network of artists called Zero Capital, “making something out of nothing,” operating on the same principles outlined above. If you can, think about an entity, a body of artists that is not an institution. There are no official governing bodies, nor is there any singular model of art event, no singular mold into which artists must all conform.
Now think about how so many arts organizations currently look: Falling into programming which is modeled after what grant givers expect, given what happens to be trendy, falling into programming which highlights the individual artists who are “It,” whose CV items can likely impress the grant giving bodies, are a couple of the consequences of institutionalized art. Administration and/or administrative costs become the thing which eats up the funding, leaving little for the artists themselves, and the tools and supplies they need in order to make art. Aspiring, emerging artists can no longer be given a chance. And so then the art itself, the processes by which it is created, the content, its integrity, the potentially great ideas which come from so many other places, become secondary considerations, or they become non-factors.
So to me it sounds idealistic to not fall into institutionalized spaces. But I admire that idealism, in which the creation of art, the refinement or polishing of that art, the sharing of this art, and bringing in new artists are the priorities.
Now I am not in any way saying that the organizations with which I have previously worked are evil or ineffectual, nor am I saying that institutions are to be avoided completely. It’s just that I become very discontented with formalities, and the necessary negotiations which come with total institution. I just want to do what I want to do: write and publish, discuss poetry, poetics, politics, language in workshops and salon/happenings settings with other artists and aspiring artists who are also engaged in the ongoing process of reading, creating art, writing, and thinking about writing. I suppose this is another way of saying I don’t like my vision impeded. I don’t like my space restricted. Ultimately, I want to know that we can take our art to great places starting from the ground up.
Of course, I say all these things knowing how I do work within the Poetic Industrial Complex. I know I make negotiations; the manuscript submissions process, and the book contract process are negotiations. I willingly abide by these “rules,” so I realize I am being very contradictory. Back to Fay Chiang, she discusses the conditions under which we sacrifice making our art in order to live, and also in order to sustain our arts organizations and arts communities. That also is contradictory, don’t you think? Back to her journal entry which was the conversation she had with Bimbo Rivas. You have to have that space for your art, if it is that important to you. How do we balance our families, the institutions, our art, our communities into a sustainable system.
* * *
Last thing: Chiang also discussed the “spoken word artist,” who ages out by his/her mid-20′s. It seems many of these young spoken word artists have found a formula for their voices and messages, grappling with identity, with political indignation. Their performances become a sort of product branding in which the quality of the work doesn’t grow, and the content, the message remains the same. No wonder, she says, they age out as their art refuses to grow. Chiang asks whether there are mentors who can say it plain: grow your art, take theater workshops if you really want to be a performer. I’d add: take writing workshops, read and read and read if you really want to be a poet. Consider fine arts programs. Evolve.
There almost was a MFA versus not-MFA discussion that arose. But it came back to the main point which was using what you got in growing your art in the space that you carve out and cultivate for yourself and those coming up around you, and those who you see are emerging.
That said, Robert has invited me and Oscar back, to perform in an Eth-Noh-Tec salon in the very near future, and he also opened up the possiblity of us curating events there. So here we have another space for art and community. I’m excited.