An update from the field, with CounterPulse executive director, Tomás Riley.
With support from the James Irvine Foundation’s Exploring Engagement Fund CounterPulse recently celebrated the stage premier of Como la Tierra/Like the Earth in Salinas, CA. Presented in collaboration with the Alisal Center for the Fine Arts (ACFA), local artist collective Artists Ink and renowned performance artist Violeta Luna, the piece represented 8-weeks of intensive co-creation inspired by the provocative challenge inherent in bridging the perceived geographic and cultural distance between urban San Francisco and rural Salinas. More importantly we wanted to test the assumption that “distance” as a construct is a barrier to community building. Through carefully curated partnerships we are confident we buried that myth.
Over the past few months we have worked with Luna as she envisions her next project El Piso 35/The 35th Floor, based on the life of Cuban-American performance artist Ana Mendieta. Artists Ink founder Emily Morales initiated theater workshops to explore the themes of women communing with nature and their connection to the earth. Originally this communion was imagined as an opportunity to work with women in the agricultural industry, but response from women actually working in the fields was limited at best given their intense work schedules and often irregular availability. We redirected our focus toward the next generation of Salinas artists and developed a cadre of 8-12 participants in a series of workshops investigating the themes above especially as they related to Luna’s work in progress. Actual participation represents an inter-generational age range primarily comprised of Latina women inclusive of participants ages 22-60. Participants successfully completed the series and worked in consort with Luna as the master artist who visited their workshop space at the ACFA to conduct performance training exercises and advised them on the final performance as a way of showcasing their learning throughout the workshop. To execute the final performance Luna recruited the production support from dramaturg Roberto Varea, musician and sound designer David Molina and visual artist Lauren Elder advised on set design. Como la Tierra/Like the Earth now exists in dialogue with Luna’s El Piso 35/The 35th Floor effectively blurring the line between participant and audience member.
A project long in the works
The Salinas project the culminates our more than two year exploration of innovative community engagement efforts. During that time, CounterPulse presented three performances by artists at the Catholic Charities, CYO (CCCYO) residences on our block. Each performance took place in a different public space in their facility. Joti Singh performed Bhangra at the Independence Day BBQ in the outdoor courtyard that bridges the two residential units, Dohee Lee performed contemporary Korean dance theater during the Thanksgiving Luncheon in the community room of the Edith Witt Senior Community, and Muisi-kongo Malonga performed Kongolese song and dance during Thanksgiving Dinner in the community room of 10th and Mission Family Housing.
Support from the Exploring Engagement Fund guided CounterPulse’s work in a variety of public settings that provided ample space to give shape to our experiment in program design. Initially we viewed the project we would undertake as an effort to generate a replicable model with a high probability for success in the broadest spectrum of community environments. In refining our process measuring community feedback against the observable program outcomes it has also demanded we challenge our own assumptions and hold generative conversations around deepening our impact. Through this work CounterPulse has developed the organizational experience to re-imagine community engagement and the manner in which we define participation in the arts.
From passive appreciation to engaged action
In its most traditional sense, arts participation has taken the form of a very passive experience. Audience members watch a performance. Gallery goers look at piece of visual art. This paradigm when applied in the community setting has similarly degenerative results. Community participants very often become receivers, and the art-making becomes service oriented. The conversation then turns away from art making toward program delivery. While CounterPulse has always inherently known this to be true, our experience over the course of the grant period has allowed this notion to surface in a different way and provided us the opportunity to call out one of our own best practices. Going forward we will hold ourselves accountable to program design that challenges deeply ingrained assumptions about the communities we engage as passive and/or recipients of “art,” and will strive toward co-creation.
All part of our future
This understanding is particularly timely as we prepare to relocate to one of San Francisco’s most challenged neighborhoods. When we open our doors at 80 Turk Street in the Tenderloin this fall we plan to do so as a community asset. The neighborhood is home to the highest concentration of children and families in the city and is also disproportionately impacted by San Francisco’s inequitable distribution of wealth. Conversely, our new space also sits on theedge of the rapidly changing Central Market Street technology corridor. Our best takeaways from our Exploring Engagement work leave us with the conviction that CounterPulse can serve as the connecting force that overcomes the resource disparity and cultural disconnect between those two communities to create art experiences that are engaging, accessible and relevant as we work toward social change.