Do The Damn Thing

Poster, Sunset neighborhood, San Francisco, June 2017

Last April, Margaret Jenkins facilitated a conversation on the practices of resistance and activism, which have been rekindled in response to the current administration’s policies and discourse. The panel included artist Larry Arrington, performance artist Dohee Lee, dancer, writer, and equity analyst Tammy Johnson and Afro Futurist conjure artist Amara Tabor-Smith. All panelists agreed on the need for engaging in deep listening and sustaining “uncomfortable” conversations to address the current national divide.

Jenkins put the discussion into context by sharing some of her personal history. She recalled growing up in a communist family during the McCarthy era. In many ways, the policies and discourse of the current administration have brought back memories of having to conceal her family’s beliefs and values in order to be safe. “Early on I had to practice how to be an active participant in a culture that is complex,” Jenkins explained. She turned to the four panelists, asking them to explain how they were practicing activism and how the current administration’s policies (or the policies that are promised to be implemented) are affecting their communities.

“I don’t know where I am not practicing activism. It’s been the focus of my work for a very long time,” Tabor-Smith responded. “We are going through what I’d call a present traumatic disorder. In this country, we have this level of comfort that we are trying to protect. At the same time, everybody is extremely stressed. We have to slow down and start connecting to people, breathe, do art. We all have different levels of privilege that may afford us different ways of coping, escaping, or medicating. Underlying every issue is the issue of race, but it feels like the right moment to address and start to dismantle the system.” Johnson insisted on the need to be clear that people are resisting “ideologies and a system –hate, racism, sexism- not people. It is also about taking responsibility. There are things that are under our control to change.”

“I practice daily,” said Lee who prefers to use the word practice rather than activism. Words have a special significance for the South Korean born artist who mentioned that English is a second language and that at times she is still nervous to speak in front of an audience. “But I have to do it, it is my practice. It is so important for each one of us to speak up. Activism is not about big things, but about the little things that connect us to our heart. Running around the lake and thinking positively is activism too!” For Lee, there is also a need to practice the art of listening. “How deeply can we listen to each other?” she prompted.

The recent political upheaval has forced Arrington to look at what produced the moment we currently find ourselves in. “There’s an emotional component to the time –in the classes I teach students are exhausted or burst into tears. This time is making us aware of things we are not always in touch with. We need to wake up as relational people. The models in place ask us to separate. I think of action as church — inspiring and empowering.”

All panelists agreed on the need to redefine how to be together. “This time is forcing us to redefine what community is. Building relationships take time,” Johnson offered. Tabor-Smith is rethinking language around the expression “building community.” “Building are structures, they are static and stagnant. There is a lot of building that keeps us out. I choose to use the expression community cultivating, because it is something that needs tending, it’s an ongoing process. We need to go home and tend our own garden.”

Both Arrington and Tabor-Smith questioned where dance artists have taken the system into their body. “When dancers get together, the conversation often veers to funding. That’s the way the system has entered us,” Arrington proposed. “It is a disempowering system,” Tabor-Smith continued. “The reality is that we live in a capitalist society. How do we create alternative economies? I don’t have an answer to that question but everybody has the power to invoke.”

Jenkins intervened to acknowledge how the panelists were insisting on dialogue and openness, and remarked that this is something that she has integrated in her own artistic practice. “Since this new wave of fascism, I spend two hours every week sitting down and talking to the dancers. That starts to affect what we make together. It is so different from my experience of growing up and having to hide and not say who you are.”

Jenkins included audience members in the discussion and the last hour of the event was an exchange between audience members sharing their story or asking questions and the panelists responding. To an attendee who was inquiring whether artists should address, in their work, specific political decisions such as the threat on NEA funding, Johnson offered that for her the problem was not so much about specific policies but the inability for this society to address the bigger picture. She took the example of Meals on Wheels, a program that the current administration has threatened to stop subsidizing: “I am ok with it but can we have a discussion about ending poverty? The dreaming, the energy has to be bigger.” Lee proposed both a communal and individual effort to rethink what dreaming means and to “cultivate the dreaming.”

Ultimately, the conversation reinforced how more than ever, these times call for art. To a young artist who is juggling several paying gigs, has little time to do his art and is questioning the justification of art, Johnson advised: “No action is insignificant. Do your art. If it’s done in your living room, with five people in the audience, do the damn thing!”