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Jeff Chang on Revolutions in Seeing and Being


“From almost every kind of responsibility and tie from engagement and from faith. So the artist–our task is to move ourselves and the rest of us in the opposite direction. Toward more engagement, towards stronger ethics, toward a social that’s open and inclusive to all toward seeing each other in full, to challenge us to recognize the debts, and yes, the reparations that we owe to each other.” – Jeff Chang

Jeff Chang offers ideas to reinforce the importance of art and artists in today’s sociopolitical climate. Chang presented a keynote address for the Art and Race conference, that took place at Oakland Impact Hub earlier this year.

Special thanks to Ashara Ekundayo, Christina Orticke, and tech team Zochi and Shah.

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TRANSCRIPT –see below

Featuring:

  • Jeff Chang, Historian, Author of We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, Who We Be: The Colorization of America, and other books.

Credits:

  • Host: R.J. Lozada
  • Producers: Anita Johnson, Marie Choi, Monica Lopez, R.J. Lozada
  • Executive Director: Lisa Rudman
  • Audience Engagement Director/Web Editor: Sabine Blaizin
  • Development Associate: Vera Tykulsker

More Information:

TRANSCRIPT:

NARR: I’m R.J. Lozada and this is Making Contact…

J. CHANG: We believe in art because we believe in life in all its variations and all of its beauty. We’re here because we also believe that the ugliness, the violence of inhumanity can be transformed. We’re here today because we believe that art and culture change things, that cultural change might even precede, might even make political change

To believe in the arts is sometimes… having a kind of a faith, not necessarily a religious faith but very near to it… right…? That sometimes things are just going to be alright. Can’t tell you why… right? Can’t tell you how–it’s going to be all right though ..right? And yet we also know that throughout history, arts and culture have led to revolutions. And so we talk about the ways in which the arts and culture brought about revolutions of seeing and being.

We present historian, Jeff Chang and his keynote at the Art and Race Conference at Impact Hub in Oakland that took place earlier this summer…

Chang talks about the importance, and value, of creating art that provokes viewers from stasis…

…art that speaks to and responds to struggle… to encourage conversations and build empathy, and more importantly, drive communities into action…to create new realities that are inclusive, equitable, and just….

…and now, Jeff Chang.

<JEFF CHANG KEYNOTE> 26’05

Good morning. How’s everybody doing? So let’s begin by invoking those who came before us on whose shoulders we stand. And also those who are not yet here for whom we are working. All right….? We know that we live in a moment of crisis. We know that things feel as if they’re falling apart and yet here we all are together. And what we do is important. We’re living in serious times. Hatred has been given free reign against us, violence has been made acceptable, violence against us has been made acceptable. Provocateurs, they draped themselves in these flags of free speech, to come to our towns and mock our values of openness, of inclusion, to turn our towns at the spectacle of division from Portland to Maryland. The death toll seems to be rising. And so in this kind of a moment we can’t stand on the fence. We can’t sit on a fence. We have to take a stand. We can’t be bystanders. And in this moment, privilege shows up as disengagement. Right…? And the refusal to take a stand and the refusal to show up, as in ‘I refuse to see how anti-black racism gives me privilege.’ As in, ‘I refuse to see the inhumanity of a system that leaves so many homeless and unsheltered. As in, ‘I refuse to see the humanity of the refugee or the migrant.’ As in, ‘I refuse to acknowledge the ways that state violence is inflicted on blacks bodies, on women’s bodies, on queer bodies, or Muslim bodies, on poor bodies.’ As in, ‘I refuse to treat the bounty of the land. The air, the water as the kuleana (sp) of all…’ …right? ‘As the right and responsibility of all. But instead as a scarcity that I need to hoard for myself.’ As in, ‘I refused to join the rest of the world to stop global warming. But I might reserve the right to go see the glaciers before they’re gone. Or to visit the Pacific Highway before it’s under water…’ …right…? Privilege is the choice to isolate, to draw the line, and to build the wall. To say that all that matters is my solitary sovereignty and what I can accumulate before death claims me….right…?  And so as artists, as people in community we have to choose in this moment–art reflects the ways the infinite ways that we navigate through our lives. Right…? It’s about finding feelings in all of the ways that we experience ourselves, each other in our world. And so we choose, we choose to stand against the machines, of domination, of violence of death. Against the machines that breed isolation and division between us and among us, we choose to engage we choose to protect life, to shelter life, to embrace life. And we’re all here today because we believe in this… right..? We believe in art…. right..? We believe in art because we believe in life in all its variations and all of its beauty. We’re here because we also believe that the ugliness, the violence of inhumanity can be transformed. We’re here today because we believe that art and culture change things, that cultural change might even precede, might even make political change …right? We listen for the rhythm changes. In fact every day we wake up to make those rhythms change. Right…? And so we have our doubts. We have our doubts when we’re asked what are we actually doing to change things. Right…? Is it possible to describe the actual difference that you’re making? Can you quantify what you’ve done? Can you graph it? Can you chart it? Can you show how you actually moved hearts? Change the soul of community? To believe in the arts is sometimes… having a kind of a faith, not necessarily a religious faith but very near to it… right…? That sometimes things are just going to be alright. Can’t tell you why… right? Can’t tell you how–it’s going to be all right though ..right? And yet we also know that throughout history, arts and culture have led to revolutions. And so we talk about the ways in which the arts and culture brought about revolutions of seeing and being. And we can start at any point in history, for example. But let’s just start here. In the mid-1960s with the artist of Spyro. And this artist Norman Lewis. And these artists who are inspired by the civil rights movement to take a stand. And imagine new forms of consciousness that then lead to the creation of the Black Arts Movement which intersects and also helps to inspire the Chicano Arts Movement, the rise of the American Indian Movement the Asian-American movement. Women, queers, to begin to rethink their identities, their selves, their communities. And then it’s still the greatest story ever told… right…? How abandoned forgotten youths of African descent. African-American, Puerto Rican kids came together in the Bronx, in other neighborhoods in New York City built from the ruins of civil society, a cultural movement that still gives voice to millions and millions of people today. And at about the same time that hip hop is being born. The multiculturalism movement is being announced right here in the Bay Area by Ishmael Reid and his colleagues, the men and the women who make up the Yarber (sp?) collective who say that the U.S. has never been monocultural it’s never been white. James Baldwin said this as well right…? That has been shaped by all of its peoples, that this is in fact nothing to fear that it’s just a consciousness shift to be able to make. But if fear is what you must do. Then as Flavor Flav says, maybe a decade plus later right…. ‘Armageddon is already here, it’s already in effect, go get a late pass.’ So these are revolutions of being. And so by the end of the 1970s Toni Kebonbar (sp?) had coined a motto of sorts for the movement. She said, “The artist’s responsibility is to make the revolution, this revolution irresistible.” And there was another idea here, right…? One that’s become much more difficult to manifest. Now we still struggle with. The idea was simply that if we can learn to see each other we might develop empathy for each other and from that, we might move to a more just society. Learning to see difference might be the beginning of empathy, which itself produces the possibility of community. But as we get older, humans sometimes begin to attach meaning to difference which are not so neutral–notions of superiority and inferiority. Right….? And then we become aware of how difference has been sorted into these vast systems of freedom, of slavery of commitment, and neglect, of investment, and abandonment, of mobility, and containment. But then rather than confront those systems, some might choose to draw a veil over these systems, pretend that they don’t even exist. And so racism is supported by a specific kind of refusal. It’s a denial of empathy. It’s a mass willed blindness and this is how inequity comes to be reproduced in each generation. And in equity shows up in three ways. Right….? In representation, in access, and in power. So representation on the stage and in front of the camera. But also a seat at the table, access to institutions of power and advancement, but also access to the traditions and the ways and the practices that helped us over the generations to survive. Power to raise one’s voice yes, but also the power to make decisions. So representation, access, and power show up is distributed unequally and inequity remains with us, it hides within our scope of vision but too many remain blind to it. And so here’s where art may become a remedy, where it might allow us to be able to see again to close the gaps again. In its mimicry of life, great art helps us to close… the difference, close the distance between the self and the other, it helps us to come together. If there’s anything that we’ve been taught it’s that empathy is not enough. We also need to act. We need to react. And so these revolutions are being and seeing are incomplete. And if we take revolution not as an end but as a process…. right…? Maybe they always have to be incomplete. And yet what we know is we’re so far from where we need to be. And so we could start here with young Americans who demographers say are the most diverse generation that America has ever seen and yet they’ve come of age in a resegregating country. And we could talk about that happening right here in the Bay Area. Right….? One of the biggest discussions has been over gentrification. And where the ground zero for that. And what we’ve seen over the past two decades has been galloping inequality. And so here’s the racial income gap now. Between white and black median households. Displacement of course is a story behind those numbers but it’s more than just that right….? The people who are displaced have to go somewhere and so Oakland is now the fifth highest rental market in the country. In the country. Boston, D.C., San Francisco, New York, Oakland. Right…? And so people who are displaced to have to go somewhere. And the domino effect of this displacement keeps on going. And so folks are forced to move further and further out and so we’ve seen a lot of our neighbors our friends moved to Antioch, move to Oakley, move to Stockton, move to Tracy. Right…? Move out of the area. Right….? The number of those unsheltered in Oakland has grown 25 percent in the last year alone. And so that’s why the term gentrification is too small for this moment, gentrification centers the wealth that’s moving into the city, but it disappears the people who are moving and are forced out, who are displaced whether to under the highways or to the valley. And all of this boils down to the fundamental question of life expectancy. What we know is that a non-Hispanic black man can expect to live seven years less than the average American. This is why black lives matter. So again the questions arise what can art and culture do in this particular moment. In 1952, Ralph Ellison described the condition that black people face is one of invisibility, and this is what it’s been of course for people of color for marginalized folks for many, many years. But now in the years after Obama, it’s clear that we’ve also reached a point in history where people of color are hyper visible… right..? So Ellison was also prescient as well when he was writing these words in 1952. Right. He also wrote, ‘when they approached me, they see only my surroundings themselves are figments of their imagination. Indeed everything and anything except me.’ So the kinds of images that preceded Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown or Renisha McBride and Rekiah Boyd, Alex Nieto and so many more. When they approached me they see only my surroundings themselves are figments of… of their imagination. Indeed everything in anything except me. And so the movement for black lives has reminded us that the way out of this cycle of crisis, this historical cycle of crisis. Right. 1965 1992…to now, the way out of this is to be able to begin to see each other in our full humanity, to find and feel that we are all connected. To move beyond empathy to action, empathy is empty, empathy is empty without action.

BREAK

If you’re just tuning in you’re listening to Making Contact. We’re presenting a keynote by Jeff Chang at the Art and Race Conference in Oakland. If you’re interested in learning more about this broadcast and others in our archives please visit radioproject dot o r g. And now, historian Jeff Chang.

And so what can a piece of art do? Like our [indistinguishable] originals posters here… right? How do we measure what it is that art does? And so perhaps the way to start is by measuring what it means not to make art…right…? Not to engage in culture, to let the status quo continue, and to do that would be to let the systems that reproduce inequality and racism and sexism, and homophobia, that do the greatest harm to those least able to shield themselves up lie upon the violence to be able to sustain themselves. Right….? To let that go. And these are systems of accumulation and alienation that separate us from each other that take life not as something to be nurtured and protected but as a zero sum game in which the winners take all, and the losers get none. And so lately in the news there’s been a lot of talk about these doomsday bunkers right for the extremely rich. These are people who have accumulated so much wealth that they don’t know what to do for it.. with it that they wouldn’t know what to do with it except for the fear that they’ve also accumulated. Right…? For years they have said to themselves I made this without taking into account any of the other labor, all of the other labor that allow them to be able to do that. Right…? They don’t think that they owe anything to anybody. And so now they talk amongst themselves about these uprisings in which the people and it’s always those people, over there in which the people rise up against them and this massive act of vengeance and rage. And perhaps the saddest thing is what this way of thinking reveals about them. That they find it so hard to imagine generosity they can’t see it at all in the world. Right….? And so that’s probably what it’s meant when folks say, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world, than the end of capitalism. And so the obscenely wealthy have taken to take these missile silos and repurpose them into bunkers where they can protect themselves from society. Right….? It’s the ultimate escape hatch. It’s complete with simulated exterior windows. Right….? With pools with dog parks. It’s a logical conclusion of capitalism, a complete and total withdrawal from the social. From almost every kind of responsibility and tie from engagement and from faith. So the artist has… our task is to move ourselves and the rest of us in the opposite direction. Toward more engagement, towards stronger ethics, toward a social that’s open and inclusive to all toward seeing each other in full, to challenge us to recognize the debts, and yes, the reparations that we owe to each other. And how they need to be repaid… the artist needs to challenge the logic, of blind accumulation, to call out the way that race has been used as a wedge between communities and identities and also the way that race is now supporting the systems that divide us in the categories of those deemed worthy to live and those deemed unworthy to live. In recent years we’ve heard a lot about the role that artists have come to play, either willingly or naively in real estate development. Let’s talk about that a little bit. Right….? A lot of times the story is triumph, or it’s a victory for the creative class. Artists made the place cool and suddenly the area gets all the restaurants and grocery stores and Starbucks that it always wanted. Supposedly right….? Property values go up. And the conditions are right for the creative class to come in…. But all too often the result leaves the communities bereft of the people whose creativity…right, and collective effort formed and sustained and made those communities attractive in the first place. They had formed ways, they had told each other stories they had passed on traditions, they had cultural practices in that place. There was a creative community there already. The creative ecosystem was destroyed. And so these days it seems every city wants to become a creative city. Right….? One that celebrates its artists and culture makers when their features are rich and robust creative class…right? And neoliberalism fetishizes creativity. Even as it dictates that creativity is meant largely to entertain those who can afford it…right….? And so the cities have welcomed the arts welcome culture and buyers have taken notice and developers have taken notice. But it’s also increased pressures on the longstanding communities there, right…? and it’s happening across the country–from Miami’s Winwood (sp?) district to Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, where just as a neighborhood has become recognized as hubs of creativity, they’ve also seen the displacement of many of the long time residents, and so communities are complex living breathing things they’re built upon interdependence. They’re human ecosystems, diversity and difference actually increase a community’s sustainability their adaptability their creativity. What makes gentrification and resegregation so deadly is that it uproots these complex systems. It scatters the people who make them. And for those who are displaced Mindy Thompson (sp?) fully describes a sense of trauma that results. And she calls it root shock. It’s a loss of difference of connections of ways, or traditions of stories of practices that people form when they make and sustain a community. From the beginning of time, we as artists we’ve needed patronage. Right….? And yet especially in this moment it’s crucial for us to stay focused on the ethics of art making. We have a place. Where we stand between capitalists and community. And so we’re called upon to make choices to articulate clearly what our commitments are, what our engagements are going to be, what ends we’re working towards. And so in this era of rapid development, of rising homelessness, artists should be building projects that engage community in the ways that organizers have long engage them. With humility, with big ears, with bigger imagination–arts institutions should be orienting themselves away from being bastions of exclusivity and elitism and toward being catalytic engines for community building for community learning, for community celebration and we all should be insisting that local government and developers engage with the local communities, not merely to extract and exploit them but to provide more affordable housing more power to shape the transformation of their neighborhoods to the people who are in them. So I work at a university, a small university, in the South Bay. It’s why I’m wearing all blue today. It’s in the heart of Silicon Valley, and not far from there is a town that Anika (sp?) was talking about earlier–East Palo Alto, it’s a small city of 29,000 people. And the median income in East Palo Alto is half what it is in the surrounding Silicon Valley area. Right…? Its poverty rate is more than double. Some people look at this community and they say well it’s a cultural desert right…? There’s no concert halls there, there’s no symphonies there there’s no museum… but they be wrong. East Palo Alto has had a long proud history of arts and culture making. And there’s an organization there called the Mural, Music and Arts project that we’ve been working with for years. It started in 2001, that’s educated employed generations of young people in hip hop. In the arts, in mural making, and music, and dance and video. Back then there was a different kind of displacement that was going on. Drug dealers would come to East Palo Alto from other parts of the Bay Area to try to sell drugs in East Palo Alto’s parks but the youths decided to go into the parks and ask the dealers to leave. And then they put up these beautiful murals, and they transformed the parks back into places where kids can play and families can hang out again. And so their work has helped to stabilize thousands more youths over the years, and in extension, a community that’s been under pressure. So East Palo Alto looks today, like what some folks call a ‘naturally occurring cultural district.’ …right….? It has all the signs of a rich and wonderful and lively arts ecosystem. The downside as an Anika (sp?) was talking about, is that Facebook set it’s campus down not very far on the Menlo Park side of University Avenue… right…? And so now East Palo Alto is in big danger of being gentrified, and so we face the possibility of resegregation once again. But the other possibility could be the strengthening and transforming of community. So art leads to empathy, it inflames the imagination, and we need the imagination to be able to see through and past our blindness, we got to be able to see each other… right….? Imagine what we can do together to increase representation, access, and power–and this is the real beginning of transformation and community. And so this brings us back to the person who I always come back to… Grace Lee Boggs, and her thinking about the idea of revolution. And she argued, that revolution is not as we think of it as something to be won in bloodshed, in which there’s a replacing of one group in power with another group in power. She said that the next revolution might be better thought of as advancing humankind to a new stage of consciousness, creativity, and social political responsibility. And so her revolution will require us to move away from finding new ways to divide and rule, to consign some to death. And instead pivot all of us towards life. To honor and transform, our relationships to each other and ourselves. She insists that we rethink how we see each other, how we choose to be, and to be together. And so we have to move then beyond empathy towards mutuality, beyond relationships are about exploitation and extraction, towards relationships that are about exchange, and support and generosity and trust. That we start 00:28:09 from truly seeing each other and move towards acting for each other, past resistance into transformation. How does one measure the effectiveness of the arts or culture? For those of us who believe in justice, and equity, and freedom it’s always going to be our special burden to explore and advance new imaginations that arouse desires for change. Alright, We live in a country that’s haunted by a history, of racial injustice, inequality–the weight of history is always stacked against us. All of the forces of reaction have to do, all that the folks on the other side have to do is reappropriate our imaginations to reinforce the status quo and they’re doing that all the time. And so a constant struggle is to overcome that kind of stasis, and that requires us to move, to seduce, to inspire people to manifest ideas of a nation and a world that’s still yet to be, to make the revolution irresistible. And so luckily as artists..right. This is where we feel the most at home. Art as many people have said as a gift..right…? It’s something that works at the level of exchange, and it at its best it continues to give long after the act of making it and sharing it has passed. It’s the gift that continues to give. It’s the epitome of generosity, and no wonder its impact is so hard to measure. How do you fix a value on something whose exchange value multiplies across geographies and across generations? And so here’s the artist, the Bay Area artist, Ana Teresa Fernandez. She’s on the beach at the border in Tijuana right on the Mexico side, of the border that separates Tijuana from San Diego. And her gift allows us to see what can then be unseen, what cannot then be unseen. It offers us the possibility that we might find better ways to be and to be together. And so many all of our work do the same. May continue to multiply so that our revolution becomes the world’s. Thank you very much for listening today. [APPLAUSE]

NARR: And that’s it from Making Contact.

Special thanks to Ashara Ekunday, Christina Orticke at Oakland Impact Hub, and the tech team Zochi and Shah,

Do you make art? When you make your art, do you consider your politics, your ethics along with your colors, your lenses, your dance moves? Let us know at radio project dot o r g.

Lisa Rudman is our executive director, Marie Choi, Anita Johnson, Monica Lopez are our producers, Sabine Blaizin is our Audience Engagement Manager, and Vera Thykulsker is our development associate.

And, I’m RJ Lozada.  Thanks for listening to Making Contact.

PROMO

On the next Making Contact…

We present historian, Jeff Chang and his keynote at the Art and Race Conference at Impact Hub in Oakland that took place earlier this summer…

Chang talks about the importance, and value of creating art that provokes,

…art that speaks to and responds to struggle… to build empathy, and encourage communities into action…to create new realities that are inclusive, equitable, and just….

Author: Sabine Blaizin

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