Deborah Cullinan and Marc Bamuthi Joseph talk creative ecosystems and Young Jean Lee's 'Untitled Feminist Show'
Marc Bamuthi Joseph The day that this feature runs will be my second anniversary. My last work [red, black & GREEN: a blues] was commissioned here, and premiered here. I interviewed for this position three days after the premiere. That last work was built around an integrated, documentary process of asking public intellectuals, doers, activists of all stripes—and by activists I don't mean by vocation but in the purest sense of the word—to contemplate a question and create a physical response. The result, in terms of making art but also in terms of my personal relationships (the way that community might interact with an artistic process), was something that I essentially adapted and created here.
Our community engagement program is a curatorial department. It doesn't function as a traditional department in that it's not supplementary. They are agitators; they are intentional. They make space, as opposed to supplementing work. Their gig is not to cue up the Q&A after a play. [It's] ultimately about the cultivation of relationships.
So that's what the creative ecosystem is. It's an adjunct to my own artistic process; it's a scheme and structure that works within the infrastructure that we have at Yerba Buena Center. What we do is we curate small groups, somewhere between 30 and 50, around key questions that artists are driving. We bring these folks together in salon spaces to watch work together. So, for Young Jean Lee, the questions are: "What is on the other side of your body's joy?" and "What is on the other side of your body's shame?" The group has been together for about a year. And when we present the work, they'll create in our theater lobby physical responses — performative, immersive, antagonistic, and also very vulnerable responses to those questions of joy and shame in the body.
Having piloted a group already (which was contemplating futurity and soul), and now working with body politics, we're going to add a layer of the onion every year, so that in the coming years we'll have hundreds if not thousands of folks operating on our campus not just as audience members but as agents within artistic inquiry, so that while we're here it's a place of thinking and doing and not just watching.
SFBG Who makes up this group?
MBJ They come from all over the educational spectrum, and all over the vocational spectrum. That too is by design. We wanted at least 10 different practices in each of these groups. These groups aren't made up of artists exclusively, and ideally artists are in the minority. What we're creating is a platform by which an arts space might be a hub for diverse intellectual activity. It's art-framed, but it's not necessarily art-centered.
DC I'm excited to see us pursue not an either/or definition of what an arts center is — or what art is — but a both/and. What we're trying to suggest here is that the more we consider what the art is doing, who's gathering around it or who's making it, the more valuable that art itself is. The community engagement structure Marc talked about suggests that if you don't have an active curatorial arm asking, "Who's not here still?" and "What don't we know yet?" then the curatorial structure is static. I think putting things together in this way means it's much more of a circle, and it's much more inclusive.
SFBG Where does Young Jean Lee's Untitled Feminist Show come in?