I can tell you about the first piece of art I saw that stuck in my memory. I was angry, confused and 16 and figured that “art” meant “painting” or “large obnoxious sculpture sitting in front of a high rise building.” Luckily, I had a caring art teacher who wanted to expose some of us to a bit more.
I walked into a room at the Philadelphia Art Museum and peered through 2 eye holes in a wooden wall and saw something I couldn’t explain. It was a landscape with flickering light, moving components, a figure, and what looked like an entrance into another world. Nothing in my ordinary life up to that point prepared me for that jarring moment when I realized that art wasn’t just one thing that took a specific form but could be a combination of elements that created an experience. The experience stayed with me. Years later in art school, I saw an image of Marcel Duchamp’s Etant Donnés (below left) and realized that it was the same piece.
As a person with little to no art education at the time, I was moved by a piece that incorporated numerous materials, media and concepts that was made before I was born, and by a man who supposedly abandoned art for chess. I always think of this when someone tells me that average people won’t appreciate conceptual or multimedia work. I was average but what made the work and the experience memorable was the very fact that it wasn’t what I expected art to be.
In Phoenix, when asked to give an example of a work of art, there is a tendency to mention a painting, photograph, or sculpture. There is also a tendency for some to preface the conversation with how they don’t know anything about art, and therefore didn’t really understand what they were looking at. The momentum of the Phoenix art scene has been going strong now for over 10 years but, more often than not, what we see are the three previously mentioned mediums. Interspersed amongst this work, artists have emerged with work that challenges these traditions.
The contemporary art world does not function solely as a group of painters. Multimedia works utilizing technology, audience involvement, interventions, and site-specificity are a pervasive and customary inclusion in most contemporary exhibits. Yet, what we typically see at exhibits in Phoenix are standard material-based work. This isn’t to slight those working in traditional materials, or to say that multimedia works are the answer to our conceptual prayers, but to emphasize the importance of diverse exhibit content.
Working in a realm that most people are unfamiliar with is a risk, but can also be a gateway to a different process of understanding creativity and aesthetic experience. By setting up an unexpected environment that utilizes creative tactics, an audience is caught off guard. They register an experience rather than confront whether or not they are viewing art.
Some members of our community regularly take this gamble.
- Chris Danowski’s cross-cultural, intermedia and collaborative 9 Muses project (unexpectedly brought to a pause due to a damaged laptop).
- The previously published art zine Join and Cast Guide created by then ASU undergrads Jennifer Campbell and Catherine Akins that blended original artist submissions, writing, page design and a comprehensive snapshot of what was happening in the Phoenix art scene at that time.
- The Desert Art Lab who attempts to re-desert-ify the desert by distributing numbered cactus for participants to plant.
- The wheat-pasting of impromptu messages and imagery focused on attacking the anti-immigrant stance our state has taken (above right).
- The Tempe or ASU-based UrbanStew who regularly blends technology, sound, movement and other media to conduct multi-media projects and events.
- The work of resident artists at Combine Studios through ASU’s Desert Initiative.
Just next door to us we have a gigantic university with an Intermedia program that supplies this city with a flow of diversified, conceptual multimedia work. In order to retain the artists emerging from this program, they need to be involved in exhibits that appreciate and support them before having to leave for more sophisticated venues.
What makes these works and these people different are their ability to shift your perception. Instead of focusing on material and the physical process of a work, you become aware of many pieces fitting together. They are not as concerned with a standard art show setup and instead look at something relevant and necessary for themselves and the community.
Phoenix is a ripe environment to try anything new, with few barriers to putting on any type of event in any location at any time. The literal openness of our environment makes it so experimentation is invited and not restricted. In other words: no one except ourselves is stopping us from trying something different.
After eight years as music director of The Phoenix Symphony, Michael Christie will step down at the end of this season. From Arizona he’ll be heading to the upper Midwest as music director of Minnesota Opera, a job he began this fall in tandem with his duties in Phoenix, and he’ll also continue to lead the Colorado Music Festival.
As Christie wraps up his tenure in the Valley, the Symphony seeks to fill his position by auditioning a series of possible successors in front of the orchestra’s musicians, administration, and audiences. Two candidates have already left their mark on the orchestra: Sarah Hicks from the Minnesota Orchestra, and Tito Muñoz of the Orchestre symphonique et lyrique de Nancy (the Symphony and Opera Orchestra of Nancy, France).
A third guest conductor leads performances tonight at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts and tomorrow at Symphony Hall. Born in Moscow in 1972, Ignat Solzhenitsyn studied both piano and conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music. He’s the son of the Nobel Prize-winning author and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich).
Ignat Solzhenitsyn divided his time between working at the keyboard with celebrated teacher Gary Graffman and studying the baton with Otto-Werner Mueller, an equally eminent professor whose influence can be traced through several generations of conductors. Solzhenitsyn also learned from cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, he says.
“Rostropovich really taught me how to think about music, how to project character and gesture in conducting; Mueller added his meticulous analytical sense and exacting technical training.” These characteristics must be combined for the best overall conducting technique, explains Solzhenitsyn. “The paradox of Mueller’s method might be distilled in two seemingly contradictory admonitions that ring in my ears to this day: ‘Don’t just beat time!’ but also: ‘One can never be too clear!’”
Solzhenitsyn goes on to describe how he studies new works. “Roughly speaking,” he explains, “there are two ways to study a score: vertically and horizontally. The vertical yields foundational knowledge – what happens in (each) bar? How are these bars linked?”
The “horizontal” way to study is more time-consuming, Solzhenitsyn says, but he elaborates on its importance. “In studying the various layers — which might be a single instrumental line, or dynamics, or articulation, or pitch range, or string muting, or transposition changes — one arrives at a more subtle and ultimately deeper understanding of the whole.”
Solzhenitsyn’s credentials are hard to top; he won an Avery Fisher Career Grant, a $25,000 prize awarded to musicians with great potential. It’s an esteemed honor for which the winners don’t even know they’re under consideration until they receive a congratulatory phone call.
Along with an ongoing touring schedule as a pianist, Solzhenitsyn is Conductor Laureate of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and Principal Guest Conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. He also serves on the piano faculty of the Curtis Institute.
This weekend, he conducts repertoire both familiar and challenging: Felix Mendelssohn’s lovely Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Béla Bartók’s Viola Concerto with guest artist Nokuthula Ngwenyama, and Igor Stravinsky’s music for the ballet Petrushka.
Solzhenitsyn doesn’t take his job lightly. “When conducting great music,” he says, “I always feel a deep sense of privilege and responsibility to the composer. Most of all, I try to share my love for a given piece of music with the musicians of the orchestra and, ultimately, with the audience.”
- Visit Ignat Solzhenitsyn’s website.
- Solzhenitsyn conducts Friday, November 9 at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts, and Saturday, November 10 at Symphony Hall in downtown Phoenix.
- Michael Christie returns to the stage the weekend of November 23-25 to lead Carl Orff’s epic favorite Carmina Burana, a huge secular choral work excerpted in countless movie soundtracks.
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Back by popular demand, the annual Historic Roosevelt Neighborhood TourFest by the Roosevelt Action Association has re-started. The Historic Roosevelt Neighborhood is a modern name for a series of neighborhoods that grew north of the city between 1893 and 1930 and it spans from McDowell to Van Buren and from Central Ave to 7th Avenue. TourFest offers a rare glimpse into the history and architecture of Phoenix’s earliest suburbs.
The tour takes place on Saturday, November 10th, from 10am to 4pm and will include classic cars on display and self-guided tours. Please bring your walking shoes as the tour is spread over the entire Roosevelt area. Limited tickets
are were available for a guided tour full of history and stories by the famous Phoenix historian Marshall Shore.
The Fest in TourFest is the Certified Local Fall Festival presented by Local First Arizona. The free annual festival has relocated to Portland Parkway, right in the heart of the Roosevelt Neighborhood. Enjoy the valley’s best food, live music, fun activities for kids and unique shopping from Arizona’s locally owned businesses.
Proceeds from TourFest support the work of the Roosevelt Action Association’s mission to preserve the neighborhood’s unique historic character. Tickets cost $12 per person for the TourFest. Please visit http://www.rooseveltneighborhood.org/ for advanced tickets and full details.
The Roosevelt neighborhood reflected the early efforts of Phoenicians to create a genteel society, the dusty frontier town emerging into the urban center of the Southwest. Today, the neighborhood is a mixed use urban neighborhood with restaurants, offices, hotels and multifamily incorporated throughout the historic character of the original neighborhood.
Currently, on any given First or Third Friday, you can venture into downtown Phoenix and find yourself a nice enough art exhibit, with a crowd of visitors. This wasn’t always the case. I remember rough times as a founding member of Eye Lounge when we were happy to see at least 25 people come through the door.
Now it’s over 10 years later and Phoenix has developed a steady stream of of people eager to see what’s happening. This is surely a sign of Phoenix’s cultural growth, but what is next? How does the downtown art scene evolve into something more significant? As an artist, I’ve always believed that we owe the our audience a challenge. We must create work that takes risks and makes our audience ask “what is this about?”
I moved to Phoenix in 1996 after having grown up around institutions like the Philadelphia Art Museum, the Carnegie Museum of Art and even the rich, cultural density of the small city of Reading, PA. I expected art and substance to be here, just waiting for me to access it. I quickly found that, like so many things in this city, you really have to dig into its layers and sometimes you have to work to create it.
The Phoenix art scene is at a pivotal point. At first, it was sufficient to put up a show—any show—and hope that people would come see it. Now there’s a sense that something more needs to happen to shift into the next gear. Do we continue to evolve and take our place among other culturally significant cities or risk idling into oblivion and diminishing all the hard work that’s gone into getting us to this point? The question is not is there an art exhibit anymore, the question must be what is it about?
In some ways, this transition has begun to happen. Independent curators such as Lara Taubman (now Wisniewski), Gina Cavallo Collins, Ted Decker and Modified directors Kim Larkin and Jeff Chabot have, in the past and present, designed shows centered around complex themes—presenting work that wasn’t guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser but which takes advantage of the captive audience and open venues to dive into headier subjects, such as immigration, the vacancy of space in Phoenix, the video game as art piece or the language and images of war taking many forms. In the area of performance art, The Phoenix Fringe Festival has taken on this challenge—giving a platform for odd, ephemeral and performance-based work. The success of the festival is based on our local art and performance community’s willingness to try something different and gamble on the results.
Although taking risks and exploring new forms of presentation, materials and venues doesn’t automatically generate substance, the process of thinking in this direction has the potential to create works that have more social and personal relevance. Failures are possible, but within them are the possibility to discover something new. Putting a thoughtfully selected group of artists together to address a common concept gives the audience a theme and common ground for engaging with the work; much like reading a collection of essays on sea exploration or watching Shark Week on TV— they get to see different angles of a singular idea.
All of the ingredients are here. We have a vibrant, proactive group of creative individuals that believe in community and support each other thoroughly. These individuals are intelligent, thoughtful, enterprising people who have managed to galvanize an area and develop an audience. Microcosms of artist groups have developed within this larger whole that express different perspectives and commonalities. These commonalities could be explored to generate exhibitions, performances, events, happenings, or interventions that would highlight the most compelling aspects of the artists at work in this city.
Phoenix should continue to expand on the groundwork that has been laid. Imagine Phoenix as a city known not just for the mobs of people clogging Roosevelt, offering free hugs and flyers, but for something deeper, more complex, strange, ridiculous, edgy or thoughtful. Let’s see and become artists who are pushing boundaries, creating work that compels audiences to ask themselves questions about what they’re seeing. Let us allow our audiences to be immersed in work that will make them think. Curiosity, confusion, wonder, anger, happiness, sadness. Taking Phoenix to the next cultural level is possible if we stop to think what this is all about.
Before you know it, the fangs and corsets will get tucked away for another year, vanishing with the final performance of Lisa Starry’s A Vampire Tale. Scorpius Dance Theatre finishes its run at Phoenix Theatre’s Little Theatre in the Phoenix Art Museum complex this weekend, offering shows through late Saturday night.
Inspired by movies like The Lost Boys, Interview With The Vampire, The Hunger, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the Underworld series, Starry created her original work nine years ago.
Sexy and modern but tinged with steampunk, A Vampire Tale follows Eve, The Innocent (played by Rianna Rhoads), as she becomes the focus of attraction and jealousy between a vampire queen and her king, danced by Nicole Olson and David Starry.
It’s not easy to keep vampires fresh and seductive, but Starry has succeeded by morphing costumes, casting, music, and choreography. “I always change the show,” she says. “This year I have a lot more skilled aerial dancers, so we decided to create a lot more challenging piece of work.”
The techno-rich music comes from local composer Kristofer Hill, with whom Starry’s worked for the past few years. “He knows that I like a classic goth rock kind of mix,” she says with a laugh, “so it can be very flashy at times, very scary-sounding.”
Starry continues, “Every time he works on a score for me, I’m always like, ‘Darker! Scarier! Sexier-sounding!’ and he’s like ‘Got it, got it.’” Hill’s music opens the show with a light show. “We’re kind of turning the whole space into a vampire room,” she says.
Over the years, the costumes have moved away from contemporary silks to designs by Alicia “A.K.” Klovenas of Culture Revolution Clothing. “I wanted to go with more of a ‘gothier’ feel,” explains Starry. “So we did this whole kind of steampunk circus goth theme with more corsets, cute little skirts for the girls…heavy material that was going to last for 15 shows a year.”
Surprisingly, a darkly comedic vein runs through the show (pun intended), provided by actor Dion Johnson. “It’s evolved through the character of The Strange Man,” says Starry. “He’s a crazy lunatic kind of Igor vampire assistant who has these very weird comedy moments with the audience and with the Innocent.”
Although she has a clear artistic vision, especially since she’s hoping to turn the show into a feature film, Starry gives her dancers a certain freedom of expression. “When we go into the rehearsal room it’s really hard for them to act like a vampire right away,” she explains. “So I give them a handful of movies, and they pick a vampire that they’re attracted to and they feel comfortable being.”
“For example,” Starry continues, “I have a vampire this year who has really long hair…she’s all about grabbing and pulling and tugging on her hair the whole time during the show.” She laughs. “It’s like a clan – they all have their individual ideas, and I let them know if it’s too much, or not enough.”
As Associate Head of School at Metro Arts, Starry founded Scorpius Dance Theatre in 1999, and she says that about 75% of her 24 dancers are professional. “The others are students in college, or getting more training under us.”
Scorpius performs several programs each season, and interrupted its local run of A Vampire Tale to perform at the Bram Stoker International Film Festival in England, an experience that’s encouraged Starry to consider touring in Europe.
“I have so many people that love the show and want to come back,” says Starry. “It’s an annual kind of excitement for me…I haven’t gotten tired of it.”