Art on the Edge
"Should federal funding of the arts be tied to content? My answer: Of course."
--Sen. Jesse Helms.
"It's the Job of Congress to Define What's Art,"
USA Today, September 8, 1989
THE times, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, have a'changed. In the six years since the opening salvos of the so-called culture war, Jesse Helms and his legislative ilk have mostly given up their attempts to define art. Instead, they're hoping to end public arts support altogether.
Is this the death of the arts? We don't think so. Most young artists take it as a given that they'll be picking up the tab for their own creative lives. Like the rest of the working and middle class, they're being forced in these craven political times to operate with less. And to judge from the Twin Cities artist profiles that follow, this is not exclusively diminishing art--in some cases, it's causing it to mutate in interesting ways. As the romantic ideal of the art-maker as disengaged loner becomes more untenable, artists and supporters are banding together (like Concrete Farm and No Name Exhibitions) to secure more economic clout--and finding creative benefits in the process. Global networks of fans and artists (see Chris Sattinger, E.F. Tapes, and the Universal Parliament of Hip-Hop) are producing and consuming art outside of conventional channels. And others (see Detour Press, Piotr Szyhalski, The Nomadic Press, Mary Worth Theater) are simply making art, to paraphrase Isak Dinesen, without expectations and without regrets, feeding mouths and muses as best as they can.
This is not to say that public support of the arts doesn't remain a critical part of our ostensibly democratic society, since class divisions and racism continue on as gatekeepers to certain channels of artistic development. Note, however, that the following portfolio doesn't represent every tribe within every art community; instead, we sought out artists who--either through process, product, or both--reflect a new sensibility in a time of diminished expectations. Look at them as a testament to creative tenacity, and as a sign of things to come.
--Will Hermes & Julie Caniglia
LIKE punk, techno is an American art form--in this case, born in the dance clubs of Detroit--that had to go abroad to get its due. But for the most part, it has yet to come home. Dance records produced in the Midwest (Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, and the Twin Cities) are among those most prized by international DJs, and nearly 80 percent of this local music is sold in Europe. That includes the records made by Minneapolis DJ/musician Chris Sattinger. "Oh, I'll sell maybe 30 copies of a record locally," he confesses over a cup of Japanese tea. "And a bunch of those might be to friends. But my last 12-inch sold 1300 copies overseas."
Talking shop amid the tangle of ancient and cutting-edge electronics he calls his "pod," Sattinger slaps one record after another onto his Technics 1200 turntables, praising the work of other artists and production teams: Detroit's Underground Resistance, Milwaukee's Drop Bass Network, and especially St. Paul's Woody McBride, a master of "classic acid" (one of techno's countless stylistic branches) who operates three thriving techno labels. The cuts Sattinger previews--stripped-down rhythm tracks with no lyrics and little, if any, melody--vary from harsh, rapid-fire electrobeats to warmer, more liquid grooves. "Techno is slowing down a bit, becoming more feminine," he points out. "It used to be the hardest acid beats were what got the most respect. But that's not the case anymore."
Sattinger's own work continues to evolve. He began cutting trance (slow techno) and ambient (really slow techno) tracks a couple of years ago, recording under the names Mothering Noise and Happy As Hell for the NYC-based Instinct Records, one-time home of techno godfather Moby (see the Plug In & Turn On and Trance Fusion: Techno Redefined collections). Sattinger's latest work falls somewhere between techno and house, techno's funkier Chicago-born cousin--it bubbles and swings like the soundtrack to a cyber-circus.
While he currently works part time as an engineer/producer for Rev-105, Sattinger says he's devoting most of his time to his own music, "trying to do the starving artist routine." But sometimes the arts get funded in backhanded ways--the late writer Raymond Carver, for example, completed a groundbreaking collection of short stories while drawing unemployment after a job layoff. For his part, Sattinger used to live in an apartment building on North First Street, until the city slated it for demolition to make room for the new Federal Reserve Building. The residents all received a small cash compensation from the city, which Sattinger parlayed into the small North Side house where he currently lives (with a roommate and a pair of cats, #13 Baby and Feedback Satan the Destroyer) and works.
To those who find techno monolithic and boring, Sattinger explains that the music "is a learned communication... Records get made with unchanging beats so DJs can mix them easily. It's all about subtle changes. On a dancefloor, at 130 decibels, even the slightest shift in volume can make for a great emotional shift." And while the music's appeal remains a mystery to many folks raised on straight rock & roll (techno's core fans are mainly in their teens and early 20s), the form is nevertheless in full flower: This year's Berlin Love Parade, Europe's carnaval of techno, drew 500,000 revelers.
"It's like those Magic Eye stereograms--you have to know how to look at it," Sattinger says of techno's hypnotic allure. "But once you see it, music will never look the same again."
WEB sites are such a new thing that there's no precise language to describe them--terms like "gallery," "theater," "billboard," "channel" don't really apply. But Piotr Szyhalski of Minneapolis says his never-for-profit web site, The Spleen (http://www.mcad.edu/home/faculty/szyhalski/Piotr) is "like standing on a busy street with a handful of flyers... when/if you manage to make eye contact, you might succeed with the delivery." He insists he likes this one-to-one interaction, adding that "audiences fulfill the promise of art, not artists."
However, attention has started to gather in the traditional media: Both the online HotWired and actual Wired magazine have pointed readers to Szyhalski's site. And for good reason. The Spleen wrestles with the elusive nature of public--and private--communication, demonstrating how thin the lines are between cheerleading, salesmanship, and more frightening forms of manipulation. A visitor first encounters an old medical illustration of this unexplainable (and usually dispensable) organ; clicking on "The Inward Vessels" leads to a number of areas, some of them narrative and tenderly memoir-like, some full of oblique exhortations. "The Will Power Clinic," for example, is a set of text instructions whose choices sound as much like New Age corporate training exercises as they do old-fashioned communist propaganda. "Electric Posters" is a set of images that evolve over time. A "poster" titled "Dawn" first shows a cozy bungalow at night; a new background descends with the familiar rosy clouds; then a third background reveals parachutists landing. Instead of a misty poem ("Release all the deep things of your heart") the poster becomes about lurking fears ("and listen! As the world comes alive at dawn").
A Polish native who came here over five years ago, Szyhalski says he is a teacher, not an artist. He admits that the propaganda allusions could trace their origins to his native land, where "everything is a political act." Yet he avoided Army training (art school students were not drafted), and he points out that whatever the country, there are scant differences among forms of "propaganda, indoctrination, and all sorts of social ills."
In addition to his semantic interests, he has a fresh command of the budding aesthetics of online communications. His pages and screens have "height" and "depth," and mere clicking isn't their only feature. Szyhalski's current gripe is with the "default aesthetics" of Netscape, which he feels limit artistic expression. And don't get him started on "cyber" or "virtual," because those are "precisely the terms that make people think of art as confined within objects, as art being the object." Some of Szyhalski's non-electronic works are included in the current Situation Ethics II gallery show at MCAD (through Dec. 17), and he's created a new web site to accompany his exhibit.
Szyhalski was interviewed entirely via email for this piece. He enjoys the "purity" of the experience. "I make an effort to send; you make an effort to receive," he writes. "We flex organs we didn't know we had... (the site) is the triumph of thought over matter: The artwork actually does not exist!"
Ralph X and Brent Sayers, with associate partner Derek X, successfully produced a year's worth of their Microphone Check Showcases at a time when hip-hop was being virtually boycotted by local clubs .
Universal Parliament of Hip-Hop
FOR almost a decade, local hip-hop artists have raced to be the first to break out of town and "put Minneapolis hip-hop on the map." Of course, those artists usually got lost before they hit the finish line. The Universal Parliament of Hip-Hop is taking a whole different direction--bringing a collective hip-hop consciousness and national networking power into Minneapolis.
Ralph X and Brent Sayers, along with partner Derek X, have just completed a year of Microphone Check Showcases featuring national hip-hop stars and local talent, moving between four major venues--Capri Theater, The Rogue, Cedar Cultural Centre and Glam Slam (now The Quest)--at a time when hip-hop shows were being virtually boycotted by local clubs. And with the recent debut of their own Underground Railroad cable video show, which features artists from around the country, UPOHH is making links with the greater hip-hop nation.
"To be honest, I don't even think from a local perspective," says Ralph, who worked in the New York record industry for two years. "Minneapolis is just one little part in a big machine that needs to be turned on and fine-tuned." The idea for Microphone Checks was born during Ralph's years at Virginia Union College in Richmond. After college he worked as a street promoter for Prime Time Promotions in New York, early representatives of the now-dominant Wu-Tang Clan. Upon returning to Minneapolis in 1993, Ralph saw the need for a spiritual assembly of hip-hop lovers that could work to overcome the isolation that stunted early TC rap artists and the scene as a whole.
But more than a tool for commercial acceptance, the Universal Parliament of Hip-Hop is continuing a centuries-old fight for the preservation of black culture and self-determination of its meanings and messages. "Before 1989," says Ralph, "hip-hop was like a big light that was beaming. Now the light's been shut off by the commercial forces. First they made it a fad to be all positive and wear African medallions; then they made it a fad to be evil. Hip-hop has always been a mirror of the battle between good and bad, but if we depend on others to reflect and report our culture, we're basically handing our dinner to someone."
Despite battling local skepticism, nightclub antagonism, and the lack of respect from national industry promoters, the Parliament--through its own alliances--brought such major artists as Biz Markie, Black Moon, and Showbiz and A.G. to anchor four Microphone Check Showcases. Following the UPOHH's lead, local groups such as Abstract Pack, Black Hohl and Phull Surkle have formed a coalition called Headshots to keep the music community working for the larger good.
In addition to Underground Railroad, UPOHH has also linked up with KFAI's crucial hip-hop show Strictly Butter (Saturday, 11 p.m.) and KMOJ to spread the word about the showcases. They recently hosted a showcase of graffiti works at Intermedia Arts, and the yearly UPOHH-sponsored basketball events show their dedication to the community to be more than one-note: After every high-school season, UPOHH spotlights scholastically successful senior athletes in a community game to increase the peace and nurture the next generation. (The Wolves' J.R. Rider was an underwriter and coach for last year's finale at Richard Green Gymnasium.) In 1996, UPOHH hopes to host a national convention of hip-hop artists and activists, "a meeting in the middle," to discuss cultural and political issues in the music and beyond. Says Sayers, "A lot of people don't understand that hip-hop is a culture, and a way of life. If all this work had been about just putting ourselves on the musical map or getting paid, we would've stopped a long time ago."
"WE'VE tried to quit smoking before," Marta Dieke nearly barks, directing her nic fit toward a nearby bag of sunflower seeds--one of various little remedy stations (hard candy, gum, licorice, etc.) set up around the tight one-bedroom on Grand in St. Paul where Marta and Gary Sullivan run their ambush operation. This is experimental writing Minnesota, ground zero--a site as much in the imagination as on the map, home to Detour Press and two thirtysomething West Coast transplants with enough obsessive-compulsive tendencies to keep the place jumping.
"We survived the '89 earthquake in San Francisco, we survived a '90 subway fire in New York, and in '91 we threw a dart at the map, hit the Twin Cities, and bolted out here," Marta says. "We thought we'd blow into town, stir the joint up about the avant-garde, wild writing, you know--guerrilla the place. We figured there was an experimental writing niche to be filled. And that we could fill it."
"Right," Gary fires back from the rocker. "It was like an escape from the Bay Area poetry Mafia, which is claustrophobia in the extreme. But we figured out fast that the same rules apply here, with the grant machine and the clamp hold the four major presses--Milkweed, Graywolf, Coffee House, New River--have on the literary scene." He stifles a yawn and reaches for a Twizzler. "If there's an avant-garde poetry diaspora out there--hello?--we haven't managed to get it off the fringe and happening yet."
What the two have managed to do is establish a new publishing enterprise, Detour Press, which has smuggled into print a brand of experimental prose and verse no big-name press would touch, including work by such national-caliber talent as Johanna Drucker and Eric Belgum. The work itself is tough to categorize, but New Yorker material it ain't--no conventional narratives, no in-praise-of-clipped lawns plotlines, no "poetry as a vessel for grief" aesthetics, no morality tales, none of the conflict-climax-denouement equations Americans learn to memorize in school. In an age saturated with commercial packaging and sound-bite linguistics, Detour's experimentalists insist on close readings and avid engagement.
Take, for instance, stories in Stephen-Paul Martin's Fear and Philosophy, which peel away a TV-and-synthetics surface to reveal, like a writhing snake pit, all the motives and malice beneath a couple's chance encounter at an art gallery. Sparks fly from the language: The man's face is likened to a tapeworm in a hologram, a rock star jerking off with the Book of Job in bed beside him, the latest set of Pentagon lies. The woman's voice is alternately described as a broken walkie-talkie in a graveyard near Manila, a urine test in Capetown, a bi-plane losing altitude in the Rockies. Miss a line and you've missed the point: The language itself, not as a means to meaning but for the pure sake of its descriptive, invigorating powers. As in all of Detour's offerings, the experimental aesthetic is embedded in the eccentric, blindsiding prose and poetic utterances--which is exactly what gives these writings their chest-thumping force. A cursory read of this work would be an absurd exercise, like scanning a Jackson Pollock painting for literal representation.
But Detour's editors are all too aware that the tag "experimental" has acquired unfortunate connotations in the current literary market. "It's somewhat ironic," Gary says, "that, while we bill ourselves as supportive of 'experimental' writing, what we publish is really only innovative by mainstream standards. Mainstream literature begins, essentially, with the so-called realism of Flaubert and Chekhov. But if you consider the whole 3,000 to 4,000 years of Western lit, what we're putting out is part of a much older tradition, that of imaginative literature. Readers might assume that experimental means a few loose quacks, but in history they're all over the place, a huge population of brilliant oddballs like Cervantes, Rabelais, Lawrence Sterne. All total fucking weirdos. That's the vein we're tapping into--it's hilarious, it's rich, it's all about complex language that doesn't numb out or mesmerize the brain."
With nearly a dozen books under their belts (mostly literary debuts--500 copies a run at $2000 per--all financed from their own pockets), Detour's editors are still caught in the love-hate tug between currying favor with grants-givers and wanting to stay outside its potentially stultifying reach. The operation, they admit, is at the crossroads, caught between doing the "suck up" dance with funders or dying the "sucked dry" death of so many other inspired forays into experimental writing. Erik Belgum's Star Fiction, funded by a project grant from the Jerome Foundation and slated for publication in December, does promise to buck up the couple's spirits a bit. But for now, they're sucking Life Savers--and holding fast.
No Name Exhibitions
THROUGHout its seven-year history of presenting visual and performance art, No Name Exhibitions has always managed to get by with less while paradoxically going for more. The nonprofit's recent purchase from the Pillsbury Foundation of a three-story industrial building on the Mississippi--for one dollar--is a perfect embodiment of that attitude. The building is quite the fixer-upper, to put it mildly: dead birds laying around, busted-out windows, and floors that, prior to receiving several power-washings, were covered with a smelly slime whose main ingredient was lard. But it also boasts a Mississippi riverfront location and a great city view, and most importantly, some 40,000 square feet of raw, open space. Now christened The Soap Factory, it's potentially one of the most impressive additions to the local arts scene in a long while.
Offering a venue for artists that lies somewhere in between the casual beneficence of coffee houses and the bottom-line demands of traditional galleries, No Name is the last and longest-lived noncommercial gallery in a scene that once included Rifle Sport, Artifex, and The Speedboat Gallery. Yet it's perhaps surprising that the organization would undertake such a project when, as Curatorial Director Christi Atkinson notes, "There's an impending sense of doom in the air for so many nonprofits." However, The Soap Factory is meant to provide a means of survival not just for No Name, but also for other endangered organizations, who are being recruited to rent space in the building at cost (so far, Northern Clay Center, Midwest Media Artists' Access Center, Interact Theater, the Origins Program, the Minnesota Crafts Council, and the Ethnic Dance Theatre have expressed serious interest).
It's an ambitious experiment, but also a downright practical one: Not only can resident organizations pool resources like office equipment, meeting rooms, and performance space, but in gathering under one roof as a kind of low-budget art mall, they collectively increase their profile as individual organizations. And with any luck, The Soap Factory could revive the moribund scene down the street at St. Anthony Main and Riverplace, in the same way that the arts have long sparked the development of areas previously viewed as marginal or undesirable.
While No Name's foray into real estate may have been a fluke, the real task lies ahead: A bare-bones renovation will cost some $750,000, cut back from an estimate at nearly double that. For an organization used to running on next to nothing (No Name currently has just one paid staffer working part-time), raising that kind of money is not without risks. Still, within a few months of closing on the building, the group had cleaned it up enough to hold a benefit and curate not one, but three shows (Soap Number One, running in conjunction with an off-site installation from the Walker's "Brilliant!" show, is on view through November 25).
"When you look at it on paper, an organization like No Name shouldn't be able to do this," says Board Chair Elizabeth Crawford. Which may be precisely the reason they should.
Mary Worth Theater Company
JOEL Sass, founder and artistic director of the Mary Worth Theater Company with actor/producer Jeff Towne, seems to have located an invisible audience with a loony adaptation of Jacqueline Susann's pulp masterpiece Valley of the Dolls, and a women's prison flick homage, Lunatic Cellmates. Employing that unholy aesthetic trinity, "irony, parody, and camp," Sass designs shiny, strangely scaled sets (think Barbarella) on a shoe-string budget, and lets his handpicked collection of offbeat performers (many of them stand-up comedians and other non-theater people) run wild. It's theater designed for the permanently media-damaged--in other words, for all of us.
Attracted to the forebears of current melodrama like Melrose Place or Central Park West, Mary Worth "picks through the refuse, the cultural leftovers of the last three or four decades, stuff our parents and grandparents exalted which we now find appalling," says Sass. In delivering this material, the company consciously eschews the tired naturalism of most Twin Cities' performances: According to Sass, "90 percent of the theater you see in this and any other city isn't theatrical anymore."
After three years of scenic design and production managing at Theatre de la Jeune Lune and other local stages, Sass, 28, currently holds down a job in a sleepy office in the IDS building. "This is basically the first time we've confessed that we're not full-time artists. Well, we are--but in order to really be that, you also have to do something else." Often, the alternative is feeding one's work through the complex machinery of arts grants, with an attendant concession to what Sass terms "socially edifying" theater--increasingly a necessity as the sun sets on the NEA, and foundations redirect funds to arts outfits posing as social programs.
Mary Worth's production budgets--raised through those undiscriminating grant-providers, Visa and Mastercard--average $3000, roughly the small-props allowance at the Guthrie. The operation can fairly claim organizational status as a labor of love; actors, producers and crew work for free, or in the case of the successful Valley of the Dolls, for $100 each. While Sass believes that the strange workings of the muse can endow even the most cash-strapped productions with a rare intimacy and ingenuity, he concedes that the company may encounter artistic limitations without a funds infusion (the long stretches between productions are the most obvious example). Sass and Co. imagine bringing their quirky theatricality to bear on Tennessee Williams or even Hamlet sometime down the line--projects he admits could be negotiated more easily with other people's money. "What I'm not interested in doing," he explains, "is going the way of a lot of other groups in town who become so addicted to grant money that theater for them becomes a hopscotch to get the nipple of the funding community, after which they just suck away."
Part of being shrewd is predicting which way the wind blows. Sass perceives that "we're getting more medieval... Things are getting a little more decadent; people are looking for more extreme entertainment." Accordingly, Mary Worth's next planned production, Fabulous Freddie's Homemade Freak Show, will feature elaborate costumes, grotesque pageantry, and Sass himself in a rare performing role. "If Hannibal Lechter and Pee-wee Herman were fused together," Sass riddles, "what would you get? If you fused them together, and then put them on a rickshaw drawn by a dancing hermaphrodite, what would you get?" Dunno, Joel--but we're expecting you'll have the answer for us soon.
E. F. Tapes
"NOISE is everywhere," says Emil Hagstrom, the soft-spoken co-founder of E.F. Tapes, a mail-order cassette music label he runs out of his Minneapolis apartment with collaborator John Vance. And so it is: Backgrounding our conversation in Jitters coffee shop on Nicollet Mall is the yammering of a dozen other conversations, the intermittent hissing of the espresso machine, a Portishead CD playing over the sound system, the clattering of cups and plates, the periodic roar of buses outside and, not least of all, John's 20-month-old daughter Eve, who at the moment is shouting at the top of her lungs and slapping her hands against the shop's plate-glass window.
Technically, there's all sorts of music to be found among the hundred-plus titles in the E.F. catalog: free jazz, experimental rock, ambient soundscapes. But the soul of the label is in, well, noise--or more precisely, noise improvisation: the collaborative spinning together of sounds and textures that may well elude certain people's concepts of "music." Sometimes the instruments are conventional (saxophones, guitars, drums, cheap synthesizers, voice), sometimes not (phonograph cartridges, baking racks, porcelain sinks, Radio Shack electronics). Sometimes there are suggestions of melody; rhythmic patterns will occasionally approach grooves; compositional structures may reveal themselves during the course of a work. But for the most part, E.F. projects drop listeners into the middle of a sonic jungle, and leave them to puzzle their way out.
The music has its roots: in John Cage's theories of random composition; in the post-bop quests of John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman; in the industrial post-punk of bands like Throbbing Gristle, Whitehouse, and Einsturzende Neubauten. And while you wouldn't know it from listening to radio, "alternative" or otherwise, E.F. are part of a sizable international network of like-minded, low-budget experimentalists. Hagstrom notes Scotland's prolific Chocolate Monk label, So Cal's Shrimper, Italy's Frigorifero, and the work of Japan's Masami Akita (a.k.a. Merzbow), who alone has released literally hundreds of recordings to date. In addition to myriad local projects, E.F. has released works from England, New Zealand, Italy, Norway, and Hawaii.
What's even more unusual than E.F.'s sound is their means of production. While some of the label's projects have wound up as 7-inch singles or as tracks on compilation CDs (see The Japanese-American Noise Treaty on Relapse Records), E.F. releases most of its music on that increasingly maligned medium, the audio cassette. "It's the most accessible format," says Vance. And the cheapest: E.F. releases go for a mere $2-$4 each (plus shipping), and since they are usually dubbed-to-order, you can request high-bias tape--or even eight-track--for a small additional charge. Also, in solidarity with the international lo-fi underground, E.F. accepts trades from other tapemakers as payment for any titles in their catalog.
Not surprisingly, no one connected with E.F. plans to quit their day jobs anytime soon. But the music continues to spew from a number of vehicles. Cock E.S.P. is an aggressive noise outfit featuring Hagstrom and Paul Hamerlick; Wrong is Vance, Hagstrom, and drummer Don Haight working in more of a free-jazz vein; The Amputease are a neo-primitive, construction-site percussion project supervised by Eric Hofferber (also an occasional member of Cock E.S.P.) and Hagstrom. Recently, local E.F. bands have begun playing gigs, some of them pretty high-profile: This year, Wrong opened First Avenue gigs for free-music legends Borbetomagus and for Sonic Youth--a band Hagstrom admits has been "a great inspiration."
But with alternative rock as the new mainstream, it only makes sense that musicians are exploring other ways to communicate. "As different types of music evolve, the style will always reach a point where it gets sort of stuck. I think that's where alternative rock is now" says Vance, hoisting his daughter up into his arms. "And then there's a transitional period that comes, when people break all the rules and try all sorts of strategies to try and get things moving again. That's kind of what we're trying to do." (E.F. products are available at Let It Be and Roadrunner Records in Minneapolis, or from E.F. Tapes, P.O. Box 14013, Mpls., MN 55414-0013.)
The Nomadic Press
KENT Aldrich's self-described vocation as "a hunter-gatherer of projects involving the Arts and the Book" is one that allows him to be his own boss while carrying on the dying art of letterpress printing--and yes, even make a living at it. He has a clean, well-lit storefront studio in a low-traffic St. Paul neighborhood where, eschewing typical careerist attitudes, he intends to remain "for the next 50 years or so," turning out elegant, one-of-a-kind books and special editions for clients, many of whom are high-powered corporations.
But the patient, old-timey artisan-for-hire is only a part of Aldrich's persona. Some may recall seeing a handsome letterpress handbill posted around the Twin Cities a while ago that read, "FUCK YOU. And thanks for supporting my right to say so." Aldrich rode his bike around foisting the broadsheets on people and tacking them to lightposts. As he recalls, they were all gone the next day; he reasoned that people either took them for their own use, or hated them enough to tear them down. Either result satisfies him, and he sees this sort of provocation art as part of the volatile history of his medium. One reason there are no surviving Gutenberg-era printing presses, he points out, is that so many were destroyed by those who took offense at what they were producing.
One of a number of political works he's done over the years, his free-speech handbill was prompted by the anti-NEA and censorship movements that started up a few years back. Anger is usually his motivating force for these kinds of projects. "I used to get inspired by stuff on TV," he says, "until we put a cinder block through it a few years back."
The personal, political, and commercial aspects of Aldrich's life are complexly intertwined in The Nomadic Press. He's made announcements about the theft of his and his wife's two-seater bike, as well as assorted protest pieces (though he never collaborates with activist groups on his work, having found that they tend to want to "make it into their propaganda"). There's a whole string of works about war and violence ("The U.S. spends nearly half its budget on defense. Isn't that offensive?"), censorship, and a more cryptic flyer, "The President doesn't read books!" made after learning that Ron and Nancy Reagan had refused an annual gift from the American Booksellers Association, a selection of the year's notable books to display in the White House. Then there was the little card he sent to catalog companies that read, "I will not purchase anything from an unsolicited catalog or brochure. Don't waste money and resources."
Aldrich's personal artworks have no identifying logos, nor are they signed and numbered, which sets them apart from most printed matter--especially artsy letterpress stuff (he notes that in many of the poetry broadsheets he's produced for hire over the years, the acknowledgements to various foundations and organizations sometimes run almost as long as the poem itself). He delivers his handouts anonymously, free, and without obligations, offering them in the belief that claiming credit for a piece or making it into a commodity will only detract from its actual message. That makes Aldrich's handbills, broadsheets, flyers, and cards notable in a culture where everything, it seems, has a sponsor, and nothing goes without a price. (Kent Aldrich's letterpress prints and other artworks are on view at the Coffee Gallery, 715 W. Franklin Ave., Mpls., through December 1.)
CONCRETE Farm are six women dancer/ choreographers--Susan Scalf, Winona Sorensen, Kelli Tennyson, Morgan Thorson, Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder--who have joined forces to shake the misery out of the current state of dance and pursue their individual development in a collective manner.
Sound like a throwback to '30s socialism or '60s idealism? Not entirely. In today's environment, even the most established choreographers are feeling the pinch, and modern dance companies nationwide are folding or reorganizing. By putting their eggs in one basket, the group realized a power and marketability that wouldn't be available to its members as individuals.
"I don't think this model is brand-new," says Scalf. "It's more of a survival technique for the six of us. We do what we have to in order to continue growing as artists. This seems like the most reasonable pathway."
Since many of the artists found themselves working together anyway, formalizing the arrangement seemed natural. Space for their first project was found at the Northstar Masonic Lodge in St. Cloud where, thanks to Tennyson's hometown connections, the collective spent eight weeks in residency this past summer, taking class, improvising and rehearsing new works. They also shared a house, which (unbeknownst to the landlord) became something of a grown-up dormitory for a summer dance camp.
Concrete Farm tries to combine the best aspects of a formal dance company with a setting that promotes each member's autonomy as an individual artist. Members are free to take outside gigs or to bring other dancers in to work on their own pieces. Hardly the types to cloister themselves in a quiet loft, the collective further distinguishes itself by opening its studios to the community on a regular basis, soliciting feedback and promoting a dialogue about dance.
Modern dance history is filled with young turks who broke from their teachers to find their own choreographic voices. Mostly in their 20s, with some college dance training, the women in Concrete Farm share a love of improvisation, a certain weightiness of movement, and often a delightful cleverness of concept or staging. Hard to describe categorically, their dance is a combination of Judson Church experimentation and a more traditional theatricality. Their movements vary from rough-and-tumble partnering that looks something like vertical wrestling, to the basic locomotion of pedestrian walking. From what I've seen on the cabaret circuit, audiences are engaged enough by the group's work to sit on the edges of their seats and to laugh out loud. And local critics are already singing their praises.
As Linda Shelton (who runs the Joyce Theater, one of New York City's premiere dance venues) recently noted in the New York Times, for modern dance to survive, the "solutions need to be as creative as the artists themselves." With a tough row ahead of them, artists like those in Concrete Farm are working toward those solutions, but are also reconfiguring their expectations. "I think that defining yourself as an artist doesn't mean that you don't have to work. I identify partly as an artist, partly as an office manager and partly as a DJ, because the reality is I have to be a part of the work force in some way," says Thorson. "The luxury of saying, 'I don't have to work and I can only create' is completely unrealistic. That fantasy has long been leveled for me."
Dance, as any serious practitioner will tell you, is a labor-intensive, time-and-space-consuming endeavor. But the St. Cloud residency did open new vistas and new possibilities for the Farm collective. The group's first major show is being produced by established choreographers Shawn McConneloug and Georgia Stephens of SpaceSpace. This summer, they hope to produce Concrete Farm on Tour, dancing around the state on that most populist of stages, a flatbed truck.
"You have to make it happen," Thorson says, as much to herself as to her countless artistic peers. "You have to make it happen." (Concrete Farm perform Fridays and Saturdays through November 25 at SpaceSpace, 609 S. 10th Street, Minneapolis. $5 suggested donation. For information call 788-4248.)
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.