Archive for November, 2012

Passion in motion: Elizabeth Johnson and Socially Engaged Practice at the ASU Art Museum

Above: Elizabeth Johnson, second from left, takes part in the “Mother-Daughter Distance Dance” at the ASU Art Museum on April 2, 2011, as part of Gregory Sale’s exhibition It’s not just black and white.

Art is active. And for those like Elizabeth Johnson, it can move them in more ways than one.

As the Coordinator for Socially Engaged Practice at the museum, Johnson uses dance in order to organize collaborations, promote dialogue, and investigate pressing issues of our time.

Part of how she does this by harnessing people’s natural movement and putting shapes around questions that people then answer physically.

It’s not as abstract as you might think.

“We move to communicate all the time,” Johnson says. “We improvise every moment we have a conversation. We have an idea, we have a vision and we act on that vision or we don’t act on that vision. I just offer ways for people to show that. It’s a very fluid process.”

Before accepting this position, Johnson had never worked for a museum before. Having received her BFA in Dance from Connecticut College, Johnson traveled around the world organizing community engagement events and projects, as she says, in everyone’s community except her own.

Johnson explains working at the ASU Art Museum has made her rethink what a museum is — especially this museum: “I’ve never been a person who felt like I could concentrate with something still on the wall, as beautiful as it might be. Now that I’m in a museum, I’ve realized that a museum is a place that can hold ideas and is a place for the public, not just the people who know about art.”

Johnson’s work uses unique activities to connect with the community and have people think about artmaking and relationships formed through art. She bases her work on the idea that intangible social interactions can constitute the core of an artwork.

“That’s why I’m here,” she says.

When it comes to Socially Engaged Practice, Johnson explains she’s not just a planner but also a practitioner of the process: “There’s a lot of preparation that goes into collaborative events. I tend to set up things, but I also get involved with them. I facilitate and coordinate but I also practice and do. I get myself involved in a lot of interesting things.”

Through dance, Johnson creates meaningful cross-disciplinary collaborations and builds sustainable partnerships.

“What art can do is hold complexity,” she says. “And I kind of believe that when you bring your body into this, it brings out this human experience that we all have and gives us the capacity to have compassion in a way that’s different than if we just read a newspaper.”

Johnson is currently pursuing an MFA in Dance from ASU with her thesis focusing on exploring women and crime, a subject she became interested in after collaborating with Gregory Sale for It’s not just black and white in 2011.

“It really had me think what it’s like for me to be in Arizona and for me to be in a community that was my own.”

Above: Elizabeth Johnson, left, and Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Chief MaryEllen Sheppard talk with girls who participated in the “Mother-Daughter Distance Dance.”

Johnson considers curriculum integration the biggest and most important aspect of her job — how to create a program that trains the artists of the 21st century that gives them skills to not only hones their craft but apply it in multiple contexts.

Johnson currently instructs Socially Engaged Practice: Engagement and Community, but she is also in the process of designing a new program and curricula for a certificate in Socially Engaged Practice at the undergraduate and graduate level.

“I have a real passion for this kind of work and what happens when young people see how big art can be and how many possibilities there are,” Johnson says. “The actual engagement of young people is really interesting to me. And I thrive on it, which is why I’m in a university.”

Next semester she and the director of the ASU Art Museum Gordon Knox will teach the new class Socially Engaged Art, which will examine the role of the artist in society from an anthropological perspective. Knox and Johnson also plan to use the course to push students to think about how to use art to moderate conversations and assess the complexities of a given social situation.

Johnson explains she has learned more about socially engaged practice uses dance in a way to share, not perform.  “You combine your experience with somebody else’s and you see ‘Oh, it’s a more complicated picture,’” she says. “More interesting, more broad. [Working here] has definitely expanded what I know.”

Johnson’s intern Lindsay Henika, a senior studying Art Administration, has found her time at the museum to be an opportunity to learn about special event planning and media marketing. “It’s been so great to see how the museum works from the front row,” she says.

Johnson has her hand in many different projects, but her next upcoming event is At Home in the Desert: Youth Engagement and Place. The project partners the faculty and staff in ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts with community-based organizations, The Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan PhoenixThe Boys and Girls and Club of the East Valley, Girl ScoutsArizona Cactus-Pine Council, and South Mountain High School.

Johnson has been working with the Girl Scouts by studying the desert and making dances about what they find. The public event will take place on Dec. 1 at the Diane and Bruce Halle Skyspace Garden on the Tempe campus at 4:30 p.m.

To learn more about what the Socially Engaged Practice community is up to, check out its blog and Facebook.

Mary Richardson

November 27, 2012 at 7:17 pm 1 comment

Tales From A Distant, Not-So-Distant World

Click.  A photo of desert scenery. Click. Another photo of the desert. Is that the same one? Click. Oh, another! Have I seen this one already? Click. And another? This one’s probably different. Click. Is it? It is. Click.

The slide projector spins the wheel of slides. Each of the 50 some-odd photos are shots of the desert, a part of Miguel Palma’s latest exhibition, “Trajectory.”

The photos are projected onto a white wall by an old-fashioned slide projector set on a timer. The photos roll around, each a different photo of Arizona’s desert scenery.

Image

On the other side of the wall, there is an orange astronaut suit with one noticeable addition: several dozen small, black computer fans attached to the outside of the suit. Palma wore this suit as he traversed the desert, taking photos of the sights and scenery. The black computer fans were used to keep him cool during his expedition.

Click. Drip. Suddenly, I notice a new sound in the exhibit. Drip. Drip. Click. I realize that the sound of the projector isn’t alone. The sound is coming from a piece called “Bypass.”

“Bypass” is a device that Palma created. It takes water from a bucket, runs it up tubing into a chunk of wood, and then drips the water back down into the bucket. The natural and organic element of the wood and the water contrasts with the metal and silicone. There is a pump inside the bucket of water that looks like it was put there to bring water to the tree, but then the tubing and the metal cause the water to bypass the tree and return to the bucket. The manmade apparatus of tubing and silicone is depriving the tree of the water that it needs. The hunk of wood is supported in the air by metal and a hydraulic lift. The manmade system isn’t only depriving the tree of water, but it also supports the tree and holds it up. This brings up a question: is this what we’re doing to the desert? Are we trying our best to uphold it and support it, yet ultimately just depriving it of what it needs to survive? I arrive at more questions than I have answers. I have to move on.

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Along the northern and eastern wall, there is an absolute cascade of poster paper full of art and ideas. Each poster contains ideas about the desert and the culture of the people who live in it. Palma uses collages, images, drawings and commentary of our culture to show these ideas. As I walk and read each poster, I see themes connect and I begin to understand the corollaries between them. For example, Palma wrote about swimming pool shapes, and the purpose of each shape. He wrote about L-shaped pools. “The L-shape fits easily into a corner or around a house projection.” I see that phrase written multiple times around swimming pools and even around old desert photos where, presumably, a pool would eventually go. There are stories about the destruction of the desert, and how manmade tools changed the scenery into what we call Phoenix.

I notice one piece called “War Games.” It shows photos of the desert, with yellow dots painted over it. Each dot has a line pointing at a construction truck, many with Xs drawn over them. Palma seems to be trying to show that people are at war with the desert; our weapons are the tools we used to put ourselves into the desert with, like tools of construction, transportation and infrastructure. I have never thought of it like that. Are we at war with the desert?

Palma was a visitor to our desert, but it took me a while to connect the dots. He wasn’t just an explorer of the desert; he is implying that he is like an astronaut exploring unknown worlds with his space suit and his rover vehicle. It all became clear to me. His art is a tale of his exploration of the unknown territory, the Arizona desert. He charted our destruction of the desert as well; we have been using our war tools to build our L-shaped pools and destroy the beauty of the desert around us. Palma researched our history and recorded lives, not just our lives, but also the life of the desert itself.

But what does that make me, a desert-dweller observing Palma’s observations? I suppose I’m the Martian who lives on this strange planet of rock and cacti. I suppose we should all take a better look at the world outside our cities. It’s beautiful.

Image

“Miguel Palma: Trajectory” is on display at the ASU Art Museum until February 9, 2013

–Colton Robertson
ASU Art Museum Intern

Thanks to Sean Deckert and the Desert Initiative for use of their photographs.

November 2, 2012 at 11:33 pm Leave a comment


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