main: September 2008 Archives

jackson_mary_download_4_resized.jpgA native of Charleston and a descendant of the Gullah community has been chosen to receive one of the most prestigious prizes in America. Mary Jackson, a resident of Johns Island who grew up in Mt. Pleasant, is one of 25 winners of the MacArthur Foundation's annual "genius grant," a fellowship given to creative individuals distinguished by their efforts to push the boundaries of their respective fields. The grant is worth $500,000. Yes, that's right -- half a million dollars. "I'm kinda speechless," Jackson said. "I really don't know what to say. "When I got the call, it was astounding." For each of the next five years, Jackson will receive $100,000 with no strings attached, so that she can focus on an art form sprung from a tradition centuries old. Jackson is a renowned fiber artist whose intricately fashioned baskets -- made of sweetgrass, bulrush, and other Lowcountry plants -- are displayed in museums around the world. Some of these institutions include the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Museum of African American History in Detroit. Some of her baskets have sold for as much as $20,000. Jackson started learning to weave when she was four years old from her mother and her grandmother, who were themselves passing down a tradition that goes all the way back to slaves brought to South Carolina from West Africa and the Caribbean. Baskets were utilitarian at the time, serving to winnow rice and other grains. Jackson has expanded the craft's functional roots, creating finely designed and sculptural forms. She uses a variety of fiber to achieve an array of textures and colors. Her technique of coiling the fiber mirrors that of weavers currently working in Africa. "She's just extraordinary," says Dan Socolow, head of the MacArthur Foundation's fellowship program. "She turns a centuries-old art form into a 21st-century art form." Socolow said the fellowship is intended to aid recipients so they can be "a little bit freer and have a little bit more opportunity" as they continue to create and innovate. As a MacArthur fellow, Jackson is now among an elite group of people that includes scientists, doctors, engineers, social activists, journalists, novelists, and artists. Her award almost certainly ranks her among Charleston's elite artists. The "genius grant" is awarded every year to "creative individuals who inspire new heights in human achievement," said Jonathan Fanton, president of the foundation in a written statement. "With their boldness, courage, and uncommon energy, this new group of fellows ... exemplifies the boundless nature of the human spirit." There have been 781 fellows since the fellowship began in 1981. In the category of artists and writers, past recipients have included: pianist Stephen Hough, the surgeon and writer Atul Gawande, jazz violinist Regina Carter, novelist Thomas Pynchon, artist Kara Walker, journalist Katherine Boo, historian Jonathan Spence, choreographer Paul Taylor, art historian Kirk Varnedoe, filmmakers John Sayles and Errol Morris, and the late novelist David Foster Wallace.
September 23, 2008 5:35 AM | | Comments (1)
Wow. It's hard to get back into blogging after an unexpectedly long hiatus. But, since fall is a time of renewal (at least for me), I thought I'd jump back in. The first leaves are starting to turn red and gold here in the Great Lakes region and I'll admit it's hard to truly focus on the arts with the looming election and global economic crisis. But I'll give it a shot...

One of the biggest cultural happenings is the opening of a new George Segal exhibition at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA). The show, organized by MMoCA, heads to Dallas, Kansas City, Mo., and West Palm Beach, Fla., after its run here ends in December. The show represents quite a coup for MMoCA in that a cast of "Depression Bread Line," which Segal did for the FDR Memorial in Washington, will head back to Madison and join the museum's permanent collection after the show is over. For preview coverage, see Isthmus, 77 Square or the Wisconsin State Journal. My review will appear in Isthmus later this week. I've been told the show will also be covered by the Wall Street Journal and Art in America, but I'm not sure when those articles will appear.

Madison's only professional theater company, Madison Repertory Theatre, opens its season this week with Becky Mode's "Fully Committed." The Chicago actress Amy J. Carle, who has performed with Madison Rep before, stars. I'm looking forward to seeing her again, since she was one of the best things about Madison Rep's production of "The Diary of Anne Frank" this past January. "Fully Committed" looks like fluffy fun, but we'll see.

This 40th anniversary year is an important one for Madison Rep. Former artistic director Richard Corley's contract was not renewed near the end of last season. While it sounds as though he and the board made a mutual decision to part ways, I can't help but wonder--and this is my own personal musing here--if he was blamed for not getting enough butts in seats. Which begs the question, who really is getting enough audience members in these tough economic times? And how will Madison Rep's direction change under its interim artistic director? The season's choices seem pretty safe (including well-known fare like "Bus Stop," "True West" and "My Fair Lady"), but of course the proof will be in the pudding.

Under Corley's tenure, I saw a few shows that I'd file in my "all-time most memorable" category, such as "I Am My Own Wife" starring David Adkins and "Permanent Collection" with a more local cast, including UW-Madison professor Patrick Sims.

About 45 minutes west of Madison in Spring Green, classical repertory theater American Players Theatre is winding down its season. I had a chance to catch a Sunday evening show of George Bernard Shaw's "Widowers' Houses," which didn't knock my socks off but was still enjoyable (as far as Shaw goes, I preferred APT's production of "Misalliance" two summers ago). APT is an outdoor theater in the woods and, when the weather cooperates, it's fabulous. Other times, it's, um, challenging--as it was Sunday. Light rain started almost as soon as the show did and got heavier throughout the play. Luckily, I had a tacky-but-useful plastic poncho so the rain didn't faze me too much, but it did halt the show temporarily at one point. That, coupled with two intermissions, broke up the flow of the play, but there was a sort of camaraderie between the audience members who stuck it out and the actors. In its own weird way, it was a fitting and fun end-of-summer experience--rain, swooping bats and all.
September 16, 2008 3:10 PM |
52157girltalkalbum.jpg 06-no-pause.mp3 07-like-this.mp3 I love it when artists do something that, merely by an accident of fate, suddenly brings to focus a contemporary issue hanging in the ether but that thus far has not been dealt with. That's the case with a "musician" named DJ Girl Talk. He's covered in the New York Times a while back, because of his allegiance with the "pay what you want" movement and because of his recent coup, as a headliner of a big music festival in New Jersey last month. He's also a lightening rod in the raging copyright debate. You see, Girl Talk (his real name is Gregg Gillis) doesn't write his own songs. He doesn't even play an instrument (as far as I can tell). He merely stitches together bits and pieces of other people's music. His craft follows the tradition of pastiche artists of the mid-20th century and the early pioneers of hip-hop. But his aren't deep cuts, nor are they rearrangements of popular songs. He finds likenesses among them, syncing beats with melodies. The result is some pretty killer tracks that he's asking fans to pay for. His new CD is called Feed the Animals. It was released on a label called, um, Some say what he's doing is illegal, but Gillis claims protection under the "fair use" clause of U.S. copyright law, which allows snippets of intellectual property to be reproduced without penalty. Others say Gillis' opponents -- i.e., music industry VPs already scared to death by BitTorrent and LimeWire -- are part of the overall problem with copyright law. "Fair use," according to the Times piece, articulating the position of progressive legal scholars, "has become important to the thinking of [what is sometimes called] the "copyleft," who argue that copyright law has grown so restrictive that it impedes creativity [italics mine]. What the article doesn't address (not that it should have) is something beyond law. It's an issue raised back in the early 1990s by a composer named John Oswald (see this profile from Wired). Oswald is the creator of series of aural experiments generally called Plunderphonics. They are in the same spirit as Gillis Feed the Animals, but on a higher level of art and intellectual rigor. Best-known in this series is probably 1993's Plexure. It squeezes and mashes together thousands -- yes, thousands -- of artists from 1982-1992, the beginning of the digital era, into an 18-minute disc that was the musical equivalent of compressing a lump of coal for millennia until you have a rough diamond. jackolantern.jpgOswald, in an essay titled "Plunderstanding Ecophonomics: Strategies for the Transformation of Existing Music," appearing in the 2000 book Arcana: Musicians on Music, edited John Zorn, makes the following case. Most of pop music unoriginal and lacking in value that to even cite each and every source in Plexure, and Oswald's other works, would be giving more credence than the original works are due. (Oswald is keen on creating visual reflections of his music, as you can see to the left with "Jackoscan," the subject of the Wired profile linked above) The end, he said, resulted in something wholly original, "a radical transformation of familiar music," while making a political and artistic comment on the "original" sources -- that they weren't all that important, more of the same really, derivatives of each other. You may as well mix and match all their names. They're that distinct from each other. (In fact, Oswald does that here. Some examples: "Marianne Faith No Morrisey," "Blondie Sabbath," "Ozzie Osmond," "Cheap Pixie Peppers," "Beastie Shop Beach," "Lynyrd Lovett," "Cream Styx," "Jello Bellafonte," "Milli Fudge," and "Ozzy Loaf"). I tend to feel that most pop music is indeed just filler. With the ascent of single-song downloading, we are certainly more conscious of the fact that most albums, historically speaking, have been samey. Crap, even. Even with good songs, there are only small portions within that provide that pop of emotion, that snap to hook you. That's why they're hooks. I listened to DJ Girl Talk's new "music" and I discovered he was doing something similar to what Oswald does, using all the good stuff of very popular songs, everything from R&B to rock to thrash metal to hip-hop. Eventually, I had to wonder: Perhaps this is better than the originals. Gillis is taking the best and leaving the rest. Perhaps that's illegal, but it's far more interesting. [*Charleston City Paper*](
September 1, 2008 11:21 AM | | Comments (1)
Amid this slow death of monoculture, you'd think there wouldn't be any one song that everybody -- I mean, everybody -- would be blasting out the back of their furiously pimped-out rides. No, in the age of iTunes, Rhapsody, and BitTorrent, the long hot summer is no longer overshadowed by that one, catchy, sunny pop song. Here's a test: Go ahead and name one song this summer that's as powerful, invectious, and disposable as "Macarena." Even last summer had a ubiquitous hook (Rihanna's "Umbrella") that everyone was humming, even if they didn't know what it was or where it came from. The summer before that was accompanied by the cool soul of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." The New York Times sent critic Andrew Kuo to find 2008's Song of Summer, but didn't find what you'd expect. Of the eight tunes he heard most frequently blaring out of apartment windows, car stereos, and iPods (among them Lil Wayne's "A Milli" and Young Jeezy and Kanye West's "Put On"), the best one is a doing-the-dozens-like trash-talker from HotStylz, a Chicago hip-hop collective. The tune "Lookin' Boy" is, Kuo writes, "Good enough to hop out of bed and jam out to when a car drives by booming this at 4 a.m.!" So here it is, the 2008 Song of the Summer. lookin-boy-hotstylz-ft-yung-joc.mp3 [*Charleston City Paper*](
September 1, 2008 11:18 AM |
This is Michael Heller talking about his new book, called The Gridlock Economy: How Too Much Ownership Wrecks Markets, Stops Innovation, and Costs Lives. Basically, he argues that when too many people own too much of a thing, it doesn't work anymore and it actually hurts us all. There's much about science and technology, but he also discusses culture, especially the problems facing hip-hop artists and sound sampling. How can we innovate with this problem? What's the reward of being creative?

*[Charleston City Paper](*
September 1, 2008 11:16 AM |

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