On “Making…Things…and Making Things”

By David Melendez

Why do artists ask so many damn questions?

Gathered in a circle in the Red Eye Theatre on a Saturday morning, we listen as filmmaker Mtume Gant speaks about his approach to making art. He shows clips of various projects, including the short film, Whiteface, which will screen in its entirety later that evening. As he starts to talk about the work, he offers up a question— “How do we redefine dramatic narrative through experimentation with form and function?”

Mtume creates work that, among other things, challenges the market demand for People of Color victim narratives. In the film world, there is big money for triumphal stories where the [insert minority identity here] character overcomes ignorance and obstacles to be at last accepted by the people and/or institutions that wrongfully denied them.

There are tears.

The “human experience” prevails.

The AMERICAN DREAM is vindicated!

Another victory for making things that make people into things.

Mtume points to how these kinds of stories are being used more than ever to sell products through chic “woke” commercials. As an artist, he’s interested in how practicing his craft—filmmaking—can reveal ways that POC are absorbed into systems of capital in the very process of telling their stories. These stories are often standardized into cliché victimhood narratives that flatten the knowledge, experiences, and challenges that POC and others navigate in their own human journeys. Audiences are trained to expect and even demand this safe and well-worn flatness and reject those journeys that prove challenging to witness. Speaking about Whiteface, Mtume offers that POC “can be all kinds of nasty characters that you don’t really want to like.”

So how do we make room for POC and others to take a journey that speaks to the creative teams we assemble and the actors we cast? How do we allow characters and the creative team to fail, make bad choices, lash-out irrationally in moments of self-loathing, and not demand a resolution? Someone in the circle puts a question to Mtume: “How do you ensure that everyone you work with is able to thrive? How do we look for the talents and abilities that our collaborators bring with them?” Mtume sends the question back around and the group chews this question over for a while. We take some time to appreciate the enormity and stakes of making work with other people, and all I can think is, “Damn it feels good to be hanging with artists.”  

Mtume is insistent in centering how the system of capital marginalizes people and communities, turning their stories into ever-more effective instruments to deepen that marginalization. How do we train audiences to set aside their expectations and not impose their own market-saturated sensibilities on what they are supposed to “get” out of the work?

When we talk about art, are we talking about how it arrests our “attention,” or how it creates “a tension?” How do we activate both in the work we make? Mtume asks: “How do we deal with our own embrace of capitalism?” If indeed we can’t stand outside of that system, how can we make visible the conditions that make us reliant upon it in our own work at this very moment? If artists are trying to respond to the frames that systems of reality impose on how they move through the world, what does it mean to demand that an artist discuss work relative to and from within those very frames? I don’t want to condone anti-intellectualism and passive viewership, but the questions an audience asks should not leave the artist out of the very conversation that they offered by making the work. Recalling Mtume’s question, how do we get audiences to shift their focus beyond content so that we can talk about “experimentation with form and function?”

“Tell me what you want to make.”

Writer-performer, Jess Barbagallo, reads an excerpt from an amended version of a three-part lecture, “The Burden of Identity: I Prefer Not To.” Throughout the talk, Jess pulls us deeper and deeper into an interrogation of what it means to seek artists out by their identities without also giving them space to set the terms and boundaries between their self-ness and the work they make. Jess asks, “Are we talking about narcotic or homeopathic art here?” Do we create more problems than we solve when we try to “heal others” through the work we make?

Is the art we make in the service of feeding curiosity, validating “wokeness,” or nourishing our souls? Speaking on his own journey as an artist, Jess centers the power of loneliness and desire as forces that push him to make work—“…deep down, I just want to be loved.” How do we center the intimate desires that drive the process of making art? Is making art like making love? If so, how do we make love within a system of exploitation that demands that we market a brutalized selfness whose value can only be captured through “diversity” initiatives? Is it through love or “engagement” directives that drive institutions to “reward” trans-artists, among others, with space to perform their “exotic selfness?” Regardless of what drives artists or institutions, how can you feel loved if you can’t pay the rent?

Jess put forward powerful questions that we would do well to keep asking ourselves: What are the material and spiritual resources that we allocate to “particular interrogations in lieu of others?” What is the difference between work that is a gesture toward decolonization and work that is in essence a nod to being “woke?” Why is it that being a [insert marginalized identity here]-artist often makes the identity inside the parentheses more significant than the work itself, and who really benefits from this?

A lingering question that Mtume and Jess leave us with is: What do we do with opportunities that are at their core an effort to exploit our “exotic selfness?” How can we escape being instrumentalized? Jess asks if we might think about making work like rock-climbing—can we take audiences on a journey with us, where it’s not really safe for either of us, but we are all going somewhere? Can we feel good about just flirting with danger together?

Yeah, artists ask a lot of damn questions.

David Melendez is a scholar-maker-student in Theatre Arts and Dance at the University of Minnesota. He directs Saplings, a theatre facilitation project built from Public Health and Social Work research data derived from focus groups of African American grandmothers to stimulate generative dialogue around racialized suspension policies in Minneapolis-St. Paul K-12 public schools. He has been active in the Whose Diversity? (WD?), Differences Organized (DO!), and ¡Adelante! Twin Cities collectives at the University of Minnesota to challenge the university to consider which bodies matter, to what degree they matter, and how to better serve communities in the Twin Cities. In addition, he teaches classes on Chicanx music, art, and Barrio culture in the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies at the UMN, and at Penumbra Theatre Company, he teaches a class on Activism and Art with Summer Institute youth.

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