August 22, 2013
August 22 is Chuck Brown Day in Washington, D.C., and tonight the American Art Museum fetes the late “godfather of go-go” in grand go-go style—with a party in the Kogod Courtyard. Brown, who died in July 2012, is credited with pioneering the genre of go-go music, a blend of funk, soul, jazz and Afro-Caribbean rhythms that emerged in Washington, D.C. in the 1970s. Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers concerts featured call-and-response and high-energy beats that kept the crowd going nonstop and became the signature sound of go-go.
“Musically [go-go] really put Washington, D.C. on the map,” says Gail Lowe, an historian at the Anacostia Community Museum. The museum has hosted several programs on go-go in recent years, including “Evolution of the Go-Go Beat” in 2011 and “Citified,” part of the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The Anacostia Community Museum is also a repository of Chuck Brown artifacts, holding photographs, signed concert posters and Brown’s famous blonde Gibson guitar.
Off stage, Chuck Brown was just as much of a fixture in the D.C. community. Brown, who was incarcerated in his 20s, inspired youth to pursue their dreams as he did. He mentored and sponsored young musicians throughout his career, often inviting them to open for him. According to Lowe, he was also notable for giving professional opportunities to female musicians, including Meshell Ndegeocello and Sweet Cherie Mitchell. “He always wanted to lift people up,” says Lowe.
Brown was something of a musical magpie. Although he made his name in funk, he was raised on Southern gospel, and his voice had a jazz timbre that comes through on albums like “The Other Side,” Brown’s soulful collaboration with local singer Eva Cassidy. “He brought all the musical genres to the table and said that even in music, we can all live together and make something beautiful out of it,” says Lowe. “He may not have been a major superstar in the United States, but practically everybody who knows music would know [his] name. . . . He transcended all sorts of boundaries.”
Go-go is the “only musical form indigenous to D.C.” as well as the “most geographically compact form of popular music,” according to the authors of The Beat! Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C.—but it also caught on internationally. Lowe says that at Brown’s concerts in Japan in the 1980s, “all the fans knew every single word in English.” Today, go-go is still performed in Washington, D.C.—along with a newer, younger incarnation called “bounce beat“—and its influence can be heard in the hip-hop and R&B music of artists including Nelly, Wale and Chrisette Michele.
Tonight’s birthday party in the Kogod Courtyard is free and open to the public. The local go-go band Vybe will perform, joined by one of Chuck Brown’s former bandmates.
August 7, 2013
The Phillips Collection in Washington has a new exhibition celebrating the centennial of the ground-breaking Armory Show, and a photograph at the beginning of the exhibition caught my eye. The photo is an image of the Armory’s entrance, with a large banner announcing the “International Exhibition of Modern Art.” Cars proudly parked at curbside were quintessential symbols of Modernism in 1913. (Editor’s note: This paragraph originally stated the cars in the photo above were Model T’s. Apologies for the error.) Today, the juxtaposition of these now-antique cars and the banner trumpeting Modern Art is a jarring reminder about how obsolescence yaps at the heels of every dazzling invention.
In 1913, newness propelled America. Speed seemed to define what was new: cars, planes, and subways rushed passengers to destinations; “moving pictures” were the new rage, and Mary Pickford and
Charlie Chaplin Florence Lawrence were inventing the new vogue for “movie stars”; the popular dance team Irene and Vernon Castle sparked a fad for social dancing, and people flocked to dance halls to master the staccato tempos of the fox trot and tango.
Life rattled with the roar of the Machine Age as mass technology hurtled people into the maelstrom of modern times. New York embodied the cult for the new, from its entertainment center along Broadway’s electrified “Great White Way” to the exclamation point proclaimed by the opening of the Woolworth Building—a skyscraper that was then the tallest building in the world. (For further reading on New York City in these years, I recommend William Leach’s Land of Desire (Vintage Books: NY, 1993.)
In the new book 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War, author Charles Emmerson quotes a French visitor’s amazed reaction at the electricity and elevated trains that made the city vibrate and crackle. Times Square was especially stunning: “Everywhere these multi-coloured lights, which sparkle and change. . . .sometimes, on top of an unlit skyscraper, the peak of which is invisible amongst the fog. . .a huge display lights up, as if suspended from the heavens, and hammers a name in electric red letters into your soul, only to dissolve as rapidly as it appeared.”
The emergence of New York City as the capital of Modernism fueled the drive to proclaim America’s arrival as a cultural force as well. Movie stars like Pickford and Chaplin and Broadway composers like Irving Berlin and George M. Cohan were giving American popular culture its first international success, but European artwork was still recognized as the High Culture benchmark.
The International Exhibition of Modern Art that opened in February 1913 at the Armory meant to change all that, focusing not on the staid styles of traditional European art but on a “modern” contemporary approach. The exhibition contained significant works by such European artists as Picasso, Matisse and Duchamp, with Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” causing the greatest controversy. This Cubist painting may have scandalized some viewers, but it also brilliantly epitomized the spirit of Modernism in its depiction of a body moving much as if it were being unspooled in a silent filmstrip.
Two-thirds of the 1,600 works were by American artists, including John Marin, Marsden Hartley, James McNeill Whistler and Mary Cassatt, and the show did mark a watershed in the recognition of American art. Former President Theodore Roosevelt reviewed the exhibition for Outlook and, while dismayed by the Cubist and Futurist works (“a lunatic fringe”), reported that the American art on view was “of the most interest in this collection.” He particularly relished that “There was not a touch of simpering, self-satisfied conventionality,” and that new directions were not obliged “to measure up or down to stereotyped and fossilized standards.” Overall, he was grateful that the exhibition “contained so much of extraordinary merit.”
To recognize this year’s centennial of the Armory Show, James Panero recently wrote in The New Criterion that the exhibition was “the event that delivered American culture, kicking and screaming, to the world stage.” It became a proclamation of America’s place in modern life, and “its most radical feature was the show itself,” which became a defining moment in the history of American art.
Along with the riot caused by Diaghilev’s dancers and Stravinsky’s music in the 1913 Paris premiere of The Rite of Spring, the Armory Show signaled the start of the 20th century. Even with the chaos of the Great War that followed, the search for the new soldiered on. Our media landscape and aesthetics today—our Facebook blogs, Tweets and Instagrams—are largely products of the Modernist belief that technology improves everyday life by connecting us. It also assumes that a century from now, the iPhone will be as antiquated as the Model T.
In addition to the Phillips Collection’s exhibition “History in the Making: 100 Years After the Armory Show” (August 1, 2013-January 5, 2014), The New-York Historical Society has organized a major exhibition called “The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution” (October 11, 2013-February 23, 2014); and the Portrait Gallery will be showcasing the Armory Show in its Early 20th Century gallery starting August 19th.
August 6, 2013
In today’s food truck-obsessed age, Korean tacos have come to symbolize Asian and Latino American cultural exchange. Since July, the Smithsonian Asian-Latino Festival has built off of that flavorful groundwork to examine the interaction of these communities through three lenses: Food, Art and Thought. This innovative collaboration between the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC) and the Smithsonian Latino Center recently concluded its “Gourmet Intersections” program and, this week, takes its show on the road for “Art Intersections,” a public art show popping up in Silver Spring, Maryland, on August 6 and 7. Works by Asian and Latino American artists will be projected onto Veterans Plaza, along with a soundscape of Asian-Latino fusion music. Both programs will feature different artworks: August 6 will explore the theme of migration, while August 7 will have a West Coast focus.
To learn more about the program and its origins, we spoke with three of the festival’s APAC-based organizers: Konrad Ng, director of APAC; Adriel Luis, curator of digital and emerging media; and Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, APAC initiative coordinator.
How did the Asian-Latino project come about?
Konrad Ng: This was the outcome of a conversation between the director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, Eduardo Díaz, and myself. We share the same hallway and the same space, and we feel that we share the same mission, just working with different communities. But through the course of just living and working together, we realized that we shared a lot more than just the mission. When you try to understand the American experience and the American story, you have to understand how different communities interact and form the cultural fabric, the cultural history and art of this nation. There is a great deal of intersection—and collision—between Asian Americans and Latino communities in the U.S. We have done a few public programs over the last few years, just to feel that out. . . .
That all came down to the Asian-Latino Festival, and we picked different ways to try to breathe life into this intersection. One is through food, which is a wonderful vehicle for understanding home and identity. It’s a point of contact for lots of people where it immediately brings out a reaction, some emotional reaction that is usually founded in memory. Art. . . captures kinds of expressions that we felt our communities were using. . . . And we also wanted an element of scholarship because this is a project that we want to bring to scale. We want to increase it. We feel that what we’re doing is important. It [contributes] to the civic culture of the United States by allowing us to understand ourselves in a deeper and more complete way. So we’ve invited scholars and artists from across the country, and also curators and researchers at the Smithsonian, to think about what this so-called field means. What could it look like? How could we create something here at the Smithsonian that would position the Smithsonian at the center of this conversation, of having these incredibly diverse, dynamic communities who have been part of the United States for generations? How can we bring them into the national fold at the world’s largest museum and research center?
What do Asian Americans and Latinos have in common at this particular moment?
Ng: Right now I think the United States recognizes there’s a demographic shift in terms of what our population will look like over the next 50 years. Asian Americans and Latino communities find that they will become in many ways part of the majority in places across the country. Certainly, in smaller communities, Latinos and Asian Americans are [already] close to the majority. So I think [we share] that idea that there will be a greater contribution or recognition of us being around, but also knowing that our histories aren’t represented as we feel we’ve lived them. That’s where we find that the United States is us and always has been us. . . . This project is meant to celebrate and show that, and be a point of departure for conversations and ways to envision America, as it’s lived by people across the country.
Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis: We come back to this idea of siloed thinking. Culture, cuisine, is impossible to understand in a single silo; they’re always intersectional. [At Gourmet Intersections] Pati Jinich was speaking about the Chinese influence in Mexico and how you can’t think about what Mexican cuisine means without thinking about the early Manila galleon trade and Chinese immigration to Mexico and how that influences what kind of ingredients and cooking techniques are used. There’s not this pure, distinct culture that’s separate; they’re always woven together and always changing over time.
Adriel Luis: With the Asian-Latino project, a lot of times the questions that people ask us are along the lines of “What do Latino and Asian American cultures have in common?” Through the process of developing this project, I think the question that has really come to surface has been more along the lines of “What do we not have in common?” I think in the beginning I was very tempted to answer, well, in L.A. there’s Korean tacos, and in Mexico City there’s a Chinatown, and things that were built with an intention of being a hybrid between Asian American and Latino culture. But we’re finding that a lot of the crossings between Asians and Latinos are not necessarily things that were intentionally mounted as a means of camaraderie. More so they are things that exist by circumstance, some of which date back to where we come from.
When we talk about common herbs and ingredients—chili peppers, adobo sauces, things like that—that’s something that through trade became so deeply embedded in our history that we don’t really think of that as an intersection, because it just happened so long ago that now it’s become a staple to our own individual cultures. And then there are things that I think are common to our communities that happened by circumstance of being in America. For example, Asian Americans and Latino Americans both have the experience of sitting in race conversations that kind of stick within the black and white binary, and not knowing where to belong in that conversation. Or immigration issues and having the fingers pointed at us as a people and as a community. The idea of family existing beyond just your town borders or your state borders or your country borders. And then, when we talk about technology, how have those dynamics, such as having family in other countries, shaped the ways that we use the telephone, the ways that we use Skype and the internet and things like that?
It has been as much exploring history as it has been tickling out the things that have been developed more recent[ly], but that haven’t really been capsuled by any institution or organization. What stories are being told right now that haven’t really been wrapped up and packaged? We’re trying to find those and place them in these conversations about food and art and scholarship.
What are the “collisions” between these two cultures—points of conflict or points of contact?
Ng: All of it. I think that what Eduardo and myself wanted to avoid was arriving at a narrative which was entirely smooth. I think that what’s interesting is textures and ambiguity—and tension. And I think that doesn’t necessarily have to mean it’s all negative. So the use of “collision” is to see things that might become “mashed” or “mashable”—communities colliding, then something emerging from that—but also tensions, whether that’s between communities or even within communities. Trying to see what you felt was your community through the perspective of another always opens up space to rethink who you are, and I think that’s a good thing.
Adriel, what was your role in Art Intersections?
Adriel Luis: My approach with Art Intersections is demonstrating that not everything has to be cut and dry, where either this piece of art is just Asian-American or it’s an Asian-American creating something for an Asian-Latino exhibition. Sometimes things just exist based on the circumstances and the environments in which they’re sprouted.
For example, one of the artists, Monica Ramos, is from Manila, went to Parsons and now lives in Brooklyn. [Her] set is called “Fat Tats”—it’s different food items tattooed. Some of the pieces use terminology from Filipino cuisine, but the same terminology is also used in Mexican cuisine. As a Filipino, you might look at that work and interpret something, and then as a Latino American, you might look at that work and interpret something similar, but still a bit more nuanced because of where that perspective is coming from.
Some of the work is a hybrid of Asian-Latino stuff. For example, one of the pieces is a rickshaw converted into a low rider. But I think the more interesting aspects of presenting this type of artwork has been stuff that was developed years ago but not in the frame of being an Asian-Latino hybrid. For example, the other curators [Eric Nakamura and Shizu Saldamando] are from L.A. and a lot of their work is from L.A. artists. So you have Los Angeles, which is influenced heavily by immigrant communities. You have street art that was sprouted in Latino neighborhoods. You have Mexican American artists who are influenced by anime. And you have conversations that are not necessarily in that vacuum. So even as an Asian American, this L.A.-based artist may not necessarily think about these pieces speaking directly just to that community. But if, for example, it is speaking to the L.A. community, then that encompasses so much of what we’re talking about here.
Again, the focus of this project—and I would even say of this festival—is. . . definitely not trying to contrive any types of connections, but demonstrating that more than what we assume exists as a connection is actually out there. And more than anything, the things that we typically tie to one culture and another actually don’t exist in these separate vacuums.
Why Silver Spring?
Davis: We thought, let’s go into Silver Spring as opposed to something in the Smithsonian. Let’s go out into a community, particularly a community that is so rich in cultural diversity and [whose] cultural landscape is fundamentally shaped by waves of immigration over the last 50 years. This is a street art and urban culture program, so we want to do something that engages that idea and is literally on top of the street.
Luis: In general, when you ask [the public] what the Smithsonian is, a lot of times they’ll say a museum. When I walk around the mall, people ask, “Where’s the Smithsonian?” So to go from that to a pair of units, Latino Center and Asian Pacific American Center, which exist within the Smithsonian but we don’t have a building—we’re a long way away from the person who thinks that Smithsonian is one museum. Part of us having this exhibition and calling it an exhibition in Silver Spring is not just to reach out to immigrant communities there but also to start expanding the idea of where the Smithsonian can exist and where it can pop up. If we just remain in the Mall, then [there's] a very small amount of outreach that we can do as a non-physical center. But on the other end of the spectrum, if we can train the community to look at the Smithsonian as something that can exist on their campus or in Hawaii or in Washington state—or something that you can even download and pop up yourself—then for a space like APAC, that gives us a nimbleness that allows us to move much faster than some of the other brick-and-mortar institutions. I think because we are awhile away from having a building and also because museums in general are moving towards digital, we’re also, by just moving a few train stops away, [taking] our first step towards creating a national and global presence.
August 2, 2013
By happy coincidence, the new American Art exhibition, “Landscapes in Passing,” is located down the hall from an 1868 painting by Albert Bierstadt—a lush, majestic panorama of the untouched American wilderness, and what most people have in mind when they hear the word “landscape.”
“Landscapes in Passing” brings together the work of three artists who challenged this canonical view in the 1970s. Inspired by the interstate highway system, photographers Elaine Mayes, Steve Fitch and Robbert Flick dared to look past the overweening grandeur of landscapes past, to explore the transient, auto-mediated way we see nature in the present.
The earliest series in the exhibition, Elaine Mayes’ Autolandscapes (1971), captures the view from a car window. Mayes drove from California to Massachusetts, snapping a photograph every time the landscape changed. From a moving car, the road, horizon line and variations of terrain are abstracted to bands of black, white and gray. “She wanted to capture her experience of moving through the space and how the landscape changes from urban to rural to somewhere in between,” says curator Lisa Hostetler. In the gallery, the series is displayed sequentially and unfolds like a zoetrope, with a strong horizontal through-line conveying speed and motion.
Steve Fitch’s Diesels and Dinosaurs (1976) focuses exclusively on the American West. The photographs narrate a collision between the prehistoric and the modern, the mythic and the mass-produced: A kitschy dinosaur sculpture looms over a gas station. An ersatz tipi advertises low motel rates. A neon sign glows like a beacon of salvation in the night. For Hostetler, the images reflect Fitch’s background in anthropology. “There’s a sense of studying people,” she says. “It makes me think, ‘What is this alien place where they build dinosaur sculptures and put them in the middle of nowhere?’” Seen through this new iconography, the West is a site of continuous activity and a habitat for frontiersmen and freak shows alike.
In Robbert Flick’s Sequential Views (1980), the process of making the landscape is as significant as the landscape itself. Flick, influenced by 1970s conceptual art, planned walking routes on a map and set out with rules to govern his photography, clicking the shutter at particular geographic or temporal intervals. To create SV009/80, Marina del Ray, 180 Degree Views, for example, Flick looked one way, took a picture, looked the opposite way, took a picture, moved forward, took a picture and so on. Each piece in Sequential Views contains 100 individual photographs assembled in a 10 by 10 grid using the analog graphic design process called stripping. In Marina del Ray, Flick arranged the photographs into alternating columns of beach and buildings, visualizing the camera’s movement back and forth.
According to Hostetler, this method reveals two principal things about our perception of landscape: 1) that it is often mediated by the automobile and the glimpses we catch in transit; and 2) that it is telegraphic, leaping from one spot to the next. Think about driving: you see a sign in front of you, you get closer to it, you pass it—and your gaze shifts to the next block. The brain fuses these glimpses into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Flick deconstructs this phenomenon in each photographic array, implicating the viewer in the creation of landscape.
All three artists approached landscape with, if not realism, a new frankness. They acknowledged that tract houses, drive-ins, motels and other roadside attractions were part of the American story—and that the concept of “landscape” is itself fraught with ambiguity. Landscape can mean a sublime and spectacular Bierstadt, but it can also mean nature, the environment generally or something more abstract. Asked to define the term, Hostetler hesitates. “That’s a hard question because I think of [landscape] as a genre of art,” she says. “But I also think of looking out at our surroundings. I guess when you’re looking at it, it becomes a landscape. The second you take it in as an image, it’s a landscape.”
Elaine Mayes, Steve Fitch and Robbert Flick will discuss their work at a panel discussion on September 12, 2013, at 7:00PM.
August 1, 2013
In the latest issue of Smithsonian Folkways Magazine, Boston-based musicologist Jeffrey Summit begins his essay on the Ugandan coffee cooperative Peace Kawomera with two tragedies: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the Boston Marathon bombing of April 15, 2013. Summit recorded the music of Peace Kawomera after the former and returned home in the aftermath of the latter. “In the wake of violence in my own city,” he writes, “I have been revisiting the music of this interfaith cooperative, and reflecting about the power and responsibility of each of us to create a climate of peace in our communities.”
Peace, the theme of the Spring/Summer issue, is of course a timeless ideal, but Summit’s words throw its current timeliness into stark relief. The issue takes an “international approach,” says managing editor Meredith Holmgren, “mak[ing] linkages of community peace around the world.”
The cover story, “Peace Songs of the 1960s,” brings the theme home to American readers and, in a Smithsonian Folkways first, compiles full versions of cited tracks in an embedded playlist. An essay by historian Ronald Cohen contextualizes these songs, including Bob Dylan’s “I Will Not Go Down Under the Ground” and Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” under the specter of nuclear proliferation and the Vietnam War. Also featured is a video interview with legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, whose songs were often made popular by other artists.
Former United Nations official Michael Cassandra discusses Nobel Voices for Disarmament: 1901-2001, a compilation of new and archival spoken-word recordings by notable proponents of peace. Michael Douglas, an Academy Award-winning actor and UN Messenger of Peace, narrates the album, which includes the voices of President Bill Clinton, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Progressive-era activist Jane Addams. The piece is accompanied by a multimedia lesson plan, which Holmgren says will become a recurring feature of the magazine.
In the Recording Spotlight is Peace Kawomera (Delicious Peace), the Fair Trade coffee co-op of Jewish, Christian and Muslim farmers—who happen to be excellent musicians as well. The collaboration, formed in response to 9/11, has proven both economically and artistically fruitful, underscoring the “importance of peace to economic prosperity,” says Holmgren. The article by Jeffrey Summit comes with photographs by Richard Sobol and video of a Peace Kawomera live performance.
This issue also marks the debut of “From the Field,” a Smithsonian Folkways Magazine partnership with the Society for Ethnomusicology which presents recent ethnomusicological field research to a general audience. The first installment, “Carnival of Memory: Songs of Protest and Remembrance in the Andes,” documents the music of Peruvian villages devastated by civil war in the 1980s. “People often seemed more willing to sing about the conflict than they were to talk about it,” writes ethnomusicologist Jonathan Ritter; their music helps them commemorate and come to grips with the violence. A photo slideshow and video recording situate these testimonial songs within the Andean carnival genre of pumpin. For Holmgren, the story exemplifies the difficult task of sustaining peace. “Peace isn’t something that happens,” she says. “It’s a process.”