Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Messy Spaces

Live in Public: The Art of Engagement Conference takes us into the festival both lion and a lamb. The artists who have presented are as passionate as lions and gentle as lambs. We've had a complex day of diverse presenters who are willing to fight tooth and nail for the resources to do the sensitive, ethically responsible work they need to do. Let's face it--socially engaged art is a calling. The voices these artists speak to us with come from deep within themselves, allowing themselves to be vulnerable to make our society stronger and more deeply alive.

Cheryl (The Swallow) L'Hirondelle made us weep with the story of "The Strong Woman's Song". She explained how female prisoners used the song to create an invisible bubble of solidarity around themselves, a spiritual space that protected them from being violated during a prison riot. What a gift her voice is to us all.

M. Simon Levin Spoke eloquently of his desire to use the "messy spaces" between humans as the site for his site-specific work. At the end of his talk he showed us video footage of over-salinated land in Australia shot by his partner that resonated deeply within me because it reminded me so much of my home in Saskatchewan. That province is dealing with some of the same issues--farmland made infertile by modern farming practices. Judy McNaughton and Elwood Jimmy pointed out that in Saskatchewan there is also a distance between native culture and colonized definitions of prairie culture (which includes agriculture).

Ingrid Mayrhofer's work with immigrant farm workers in Ontario also struck a chord with me. I know in my bones what back-breaking work farming can be, and the photographs that she showed us the isolation and poor living and working conditions that these workers suffer through just so we can have strawberries on our dinner table. When I saw the pictures of the big golden tobacco leaves I wondered about the health of the workers. Farmers of tobacco crops are notorious for heavy pesticide use. By giving the farm workers cameras to snap their own photos, the artists helped the workers create evocative photo-essays that get right under the skin of their stories.

Finally, I was moved to tears a second time today by the song presented to us by Geoff McMurchy. He told us of the frustration of not being able to find consistent funding for the choir that produced this incredible opportunity for a woman without speech to express emotions within a rich choral context. She is a woman beyond words. Her voice breaks through the expectations of what music should be. Her name should be here too. She proved to us how artistic expectations can be shattered. Frankly, she stole the show.

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