A Leader-Full Movement: Open Spectrum Critical Dialogues at New York Live Arts

Open Spectrum Critical Dialogues is a new program of New York Live Arts that brings together artists and thought leaders for important conversations of the current moment that hope to incite dialogue and promote action planning. The first conversation, “Artist as Activist: Futuring the Face of Protest,” launched the series at Live Arts last month. This Sunday, the second event, “Creative Resistance: A Rising Economic Movement, will focus on the economics of the creative community and, more importantly, how that is viewed and understood through a feminist or trans identifying lens. The third event, “Post-White America: Can Art Deracialize the Nation?” will take place on April 26th.

These are conversations that feel increasingly pertinent to our everyday lives and Live Arts is making efforts to become a physical space where these dialogues have a home. Culturebot contributor Tara Sheena spoke to Jaamil Kosoko, Director of Education and Engagement Programs at Live Arts, on how he has spearheaded the initiative and what it means to house them in a cultural institution. Excerpts of their conversation are below.

Panelists from Open Spectrum Critical Dialogues, February 22, 2015. Pictured from L to R: Jaamil Kosoko, Syreeta McFadden, Piper Anderson, George Sanchez, Jenny Koons. Photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy of New York Live Arts.

Panelists from Open Spectrum Critical Dialogues, February 22, 2015. Pictured from L to R: Jaamil Kosoko, Syreeta McFadden, Piper Anderson, George Sanchez, Jenny Koons. Photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy of New York Live Arts.

Tara Sheena: Let’s retrace how all of this started. What was the initial seed for Open Spectrum and how did Live Arts come to be its home base?

Jaamil Kosoko: The series rose quite naturally and organically from a series of conversations I had with Bill T. Jones, our Artistic Director, and Tommy Kriegsmann, our Director of Programs, in thinking about how we, as an institution, can be more responsive to the topical issues of the moment. And, deal specifically with issues of social justice, artistic activism, and the like. So, after doing a bit of soul-searching, if you will, I proposed this series, Open Spectrum Critical Dialogues, as a possible outlet and a place where these issues can be talked about candidly, openly, and, ideally, in a safe environment where questions can be raised and possible solutions and action steps can be created as a community to really push forward. It’s a place for action-planning and that’s already happening but, so often, in these sorts of situations, people need to be in conversation to know what others are doing and know how to organize.

TS: The first dialogues event took place about a month ago. What has stuck with you from that initial conversation?

JK: What rose to the surface and has stuck with me the most is the understanding, more than thinking of the action steps that have been have been “leader-less,” that this movement is really “leader-full.” There are a number of legitimate voices that are stepping up to take action in their communities. We don’t have that one, singular voice of the people that we might’ve had during the Civil Rights Era, but we have a number of thought leaders that are thinking quite strategically and eloquently about the issues that are happening and are doing really important work. It’s not to diminish those voices in any way; it was nice to rethink how we’ve been languaging some of these concepts. That was really important for me: the notion of a “leader-full” movement.

TS: Everything in the first panel was very much tracing back to each panelist’s stake in their creative practice. I remember, especially, the point being made about the Millions March in NYC a few months ago and that it was organized by two choreographers — two people who had this inherent experience in organizing and planning already. I am curious how you come across the people you invite to speak — does it depend more on the ideas for the conversation or more on bringing specific voices together? Is Piper [Anderson, the moderator of Open Spectrum] giving input?

JK: Just to back up because what you mentioned about the Millions March made me think of the “Die Ins” that are happening and all of these public, performative actions that are happening across the board. I’ve been to a lot of poetry readings and live performances and every genre is thinking critically about these issues and creative works are being put forward. It’s happening in the streets but cultural institutions as well. It’s happening in the subways. It’s literally everywhere so I just wanted to point that out.

In thinking about the curatorial rationale in pushing these dialogues forward, I met Piper Anderson during our Live Ideas: James Baldwin This Time! festival last year. I am lucky to work in a place like this, I often come across very dynamic, exciting individuals. I met her and got to know her a little better. She seemed to have such an important voice as I was seeing her throughout the festival. I kept her card after that for several months and followed her on social media and became very aware with her work with social justice issues and the prison industrial complex. There is number of ways in which she is working through education and activism. So, I reached out to her and had a meeting and, from there, the rest of the series presented itself. I talked to a number of thought leaders that are my go-to team whenever I am curating a new project so, after a lot of discussion, it seems as if these three conversations [in the Open Spectrum series], they all seem to spill quite naturally into each other. They all seemed to be really topical. I am excited for the forthcoming conversation this Sunday, but even more excited for the conversation on Post-White America. I think there is a lot to be said about it. I just read a really interesting article on white fragility and what that means as a way to continue to go about languaging the psychology behind safety versus comfort when talking about issues of race. Oftentimes, these two are confused. People will mention, “I don’t feel safe in this conversation to discuss this issue,” and really what you’re saying is, “I don’t feel comfortable.”

TS: This Sunday’s conversation is “Creative Resistance: A Rising Economic Movement.” How did that idea come about? I noticed, in the description, a focus on feminist ideology. How does that tie in?

JK: I think at the core is this deep feminist ideology that is rising from each of the dialogues. As someone whose been the architect of these conversations, I guess what I’ve been missing is hearing what a female bodied and queer bodies individuals have to add to the larger conversation. With Laurie Anderson being at the core of this year’s Live Ideas festival, I think it’s so needed to have women at the core of these dialogues that are happening to offer an outlet against the more testosterone-heavy thinking. It can be quite menacing at times, I think we have to be honest about that– not in a malicious way, it can be compassionate and loving.

I really want to create a space that is literally an open spectrum, where various voices feel welcome to enter into a dialogue and where listening is at the core. Everyone that has assembled are all spectacular people in their own way [Okwui Okpokwasili, Laura Flanders, Joan Morgan, Seyi Adebanjo]; they are all really exciting, important voices in their communities and they are doing important work. I think it’ll be a great, dynamic conversation.

TS: It’s exciting to bring all of the voices together and say, “You have an equal say in this.” It feels that you are modeling those opportunities, however idealistic, that you want to materialize in real life.

JK: That’s exactly what’s happening. You set forth the world you want to live in. You are the change you want to see. I want to see more brown and black bodies be given opportunities to be heard. I want to see more women have the opportunity to be heard. I want more queer people to have the opportunity. So, this is how I chose to go about doing that work.

TS: What is a hopeful outcome of Open Spectrum? Is it a safe space? A new model? What do you view it as?

JK: I view it as an opportunity to mirror; to self educate; to in-reach as well as outreach. And, when I say that, my hope is that at some point the artistic leadership will come to the dialogues and maybe, as a result of that, it can affect programming.

When one is able to sit and meditate with one’s own practice, then that encourages a kind of change in moving forward. Whether it be through programming; whether it be through communication;  whether it be through new relationships that mature. Whatever the outcome is we have to think about the psychoanalytics behind the decisions that are being made. How do we go about putting certain works on the stage?

I think it’s an opportunity to really interrogate our own identity. That’s what I hope it is.

Jaamil Kosoko at Open Spectrum Critical Dialogues, February 22, 2015. Photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy of New York Live Arts.

Jaamil Kosoko at Open Spectrum Critical Dialogues, February 22, 2015. Photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy of New York Live Arts.

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