Very Young Composer of the New York Philharmonic in South Korea Conference and Workshops
Of all the affiliates of the Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers worldwide, the Koreans are outstanding and special: The Korean VYC, or Gomah Jakoka, has a national presence (as does Finland). Korea’s program is roughly three times the size of our home operations here in New York, and serves a comparable number of students, employing many more Teaching Artists, and has about three times the size of our NY budget. There are VYC programs in ten Korean cities: Besides Seoul, there are programs in Uijeongbu, Seongdong, Yeonsu, Hanam, Gunpo, Yongjin, Sori, Gimhae (Busan) and Tongyeong.
Our relationship dates back to 2009 when we established ties with the Dream Orchestra (associated with El Sistema Korea). Since then, we have exchanged frequent visits, conference calls and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of musical manuscripts and performances of children’s music. Our exchanges are primarily with KACES (the Korean Arts and Cultural Education Services) but have also included the Contemporary Gugak Orchestra and numerous regional orchestras, schools and ensembles. Virtually all the expenses of our visits and exchanges thus far have been borne by the Koreans themselves.
We were also involved in an exchange of Musical Postcards particularly on the subject of the Ferryboat disaster of 2014, including a performance of Korean and American children’s works on the main stage of Geffen Hall.
One of the first Korean Bridge students, Taehyun Won, was featured on a live simulcast during the VYC 20th anniversary concert during the NYPhil Biennial of 2016. (He is now a TA Intern!)
△ Jon Deak, Founder and Artistic Director, VYC
The Koreans were also the first among us to use VYC composing techniques with orphans, special needs children and families suffering PTSD, including families who had lost a child in the Ferryboat Disaster mentioned above.
In spite of the persistence of a rather rigid traditional social structure, there is a growing feeling among more progressive educators who wish their children to grow up with the ability to problem-solve and to think for themselves; in short, to be ready to take leadership of their lives. We feel that this is a major reason that Korean educators have shown a marked interest in the VYC. They fully grasp that, although the VYC is labor-intensive compared to other educational programs, its example and influence spread far beyond its numerical boundaries. And the fact that they still wish to exchange information and techniques with us and look to us for partnership in this program, makes us feel proud not only to be part of the NYPhilharmonic team, but proud to be an American.
It was in this cultural climate that Angélica and I boarded a plane for Seoul on September 10th of this year.
For this visit, I particularly wanted to work with the Korean Teaching Artists who are involved with more advanced kids – that is, the ‘Composers Bridge,’ serving kids 10-14 years of age. I was and am most interested in encouraging them to partner with local and national orchestras, both Western, and traditional (Gugak). We also wished to open the possibility of exchanging Musical Postcards with the very musically accomplished children of North Korea
△Seminar/Workshops at Dobong
Seminar/Workshops at Dobong, Days 1 and 2.
In order to provide a relaxed and quiet atmosphere for the workshops, our sponsors secured a lovely space at Dobong, a small town near the entrance of Bukhansan National Park, about a 90-minute drive from Seoul.
A long day of meetings and activities began with several introductory warmups which Angélica and I led, followed by warmups led by the local TA’s. Not only were we pleased with the Koreans’ take on opening activities, but all together we did the trick of breaking the ice and establishing a fun atmosphere.
Angélica and I will provide a detailed summary of the activities under separate cover, but some of the main points discussed were:
A thorough overview of the philosophy and development of the VYC, as requested by the Koreans. This was a powerpoint assembled by Angélica, Jessica and myself, and which I narrated, mostly, and opened as a discussion. It is surprising how prominently the Korean VYC figures in our history.
The bulk of the day’s workshops ranged from administrative details to classroom management, from parents to post-grads, from special needs to scribing.
I was so pleased to hear TA’s taking active leadership, extending ideas, and following through with the process of creation. Sujeong, Anna, Hara, Thomas, Jung-ji, Sungeun, Yon-su and so many others gave presentations and led activities.
Particularly interesting was to hear about some classroom rituals to invoke creativity – the ringing of a bell, drawing of a line in the floor (“If you cross this line, you are a composer!”) . . a ‘listening mask’ to encourage focus, the use of sign language to reduce the chatter, using a percussion mallet as an imaginary mike to indicate attention to the speaker . . so many useful ideas.
Ceremony and ritual, the use of choreography, song, and cross-arts . .
Bringing parents in as participants in the first session as being quite successful . .
We also had a presentation on the continuing programs for families – a particularly insightful and successful invention of the Koreans. One parent’s touching quote:
“I originally thought of my son as a slow learner and rather dull. But now as a result of the Gomah Jakoka classes and our concert, I see so many beautiful things in him.”
Even though most kids learn music notation and basic Solfege in public schools, the Koreans love to use graphic notation to free-up the compositional process. Ofttimes in the process of communicating to performers via a graphic score, a child will hum, sing or act out the squiggles and depictions with the performer(s) adding notational details right in the score. I can’t emphasize enough how effective this can be.
Angélica split up the participants into small gatherings of 4 or 5 to produce group improvised compositions based on some of the graphic notations. This was a variation on what we usually do in the U.S, and seemed quite successful. She also created a variation of Justin Hines’ “Music Machine,” using electronic prompts for kids to create a gesture based upon a sound, then combining sounds and gestures. Kids love this kind of kinetic activity.
I was especially pleased to see Sujeong So and Soo-yeon Lim (Thomas) take leadership initiative during the seminar. They have been dedicated to this program since the very beginning of our partnership. (Later in the day, I very much enjoyed climbing one of the mountains in Bukhansan Park with Thomas - Beautiful Foliage and Rock faces all around!)
I led several discussions and demos of the “Ear Fantasy” games, enabling kids to attach feelings to particular intervals, triads, and made-up chords.
Jung-ji and Anna presented a delightful ‘rhythm cube’ and a large floor score which I believe will be an enormous help in aiding the reading and performing of rhythms and pitches.
To end the final day, we had a free-ranging discussion encouraging reactions, questions and problems. We got a roomful of all three and then some!
A prominent concern was the role of parents, and we could see that this subject had been approached much more comprehensively than we have dealt with in New York. However, I did feel I had advice on how to deal with parents who overly-intervene in the child’s work.
We also discussed in depth some techniques of getting overly shy and special needs kids to open up and get their stuff out, in a safe and supportive atmosphere.
Found-sounds, cellphone voice recordings, storylines, the avoidance of “good” and “bad” judgments of music, TA self-criticism, sound-colors . . all these topics and more were brought forth.
How would these concerns be brought to evidence in the actual classroom?
We were to find out!
△Seminar/Workshops at Hanam
Hanam is a large town just East of Seoul. In the morning we observed (and partook in) an elementary VYC class, and in the afternoon, a Bridge class.
So many impressions!
(Once again, Grace, our interpreter, has the almost magical ability to listen in one language and simultaneously translate into the other. Amazing!)
First of all, classes are 3 hours each, with a substantial break midway. About 15 children attend, with a team of 3 TA’s leading.
In the warmups, it was evident that one of the boys was unable to control his actions and his voice. One of the TA’s, a young man named Han Mook, took him in hand, gently enveloping him from behind, but keeping him available to the circle of other kids. So effective. Angélica and I noticed repeatedly how the TA’s were able to be physically relaxed in touching, leading and even hugging the students. In the U.S. we are far too uptight with regulations about touching students, but that’s a long discussion for another time.
The next order of business were the instrument interviews: Flute, Clarinet, Horn. To prepare the kids, the TA, Sujeong, asked for examples from their prepared questions.
Student: “Which instrument has the highest sound?”
TA: “What do you all think?”
Other students, variously disagreeing . .
TA: “So then, let’s see!”
- This is an excellent example of the Inquiry method of teaching! The TA, instead of asking the question in the first place, then answering “correctly,”
allows the students to form their own questions as well as their own answers.
TA: Where is our first musician? Let’s call her. Louder - She can’t hear you!
Let’s make sure she feels welcome!”
Flutist enters, to applause.
She plays “Twinkle . .” with variations and embellishments. Sweet.
TA: “What words would you use to describe her sounds?”
Kids: “Fluffy! Squishy! Soft! Squeaky! Hard! Air-pop! Yummy! . .”
TA: “What about THIS sound?”
Kids: “Ooh, scary sound. Like a ghost!”
TA: “Let’s look around, and see if there’s a ghost . . maybe back over there, behind you!”
Kids: “I want raindrop sounds.”
(Flutist plays key clicks)
Kids: “Bird sounds!” “Water sounds!” “K-pop sounds!” “Scream sounds!”
TA: “Who has a (graphic) score for her to read?”
Kid: “Here’s mine! It’s about chasing somebody.”
TA: “What would that sound like?” (Flutist improvises)
Through all this, I’m in Heaven. The Flutist, obviously enjoying herself, says hardly a word. This is the classic ‘Instrument Interview,’ where the instrument actually becomes a living personage, the idea worked out originally by Doc Wallace and myself years ago - but these TA’s are doing it SO effectively and joyfully!
Now for the Clarinettist, who is summoned in a similarly enthusiastic manner: “What does it look like?” “It looks . . Premium!”
“What does that sound like?” “Like an Owl!”
“It sounds like a beautiful typhoon.”
“It’s high, and scary.”
“No, it’s lower than the Flute!”
“It’s a crazy Sponge-Bob!”
“It sounds like a wind-story I heard this morning.”
TA: “What was that like? Go up to the board and draw the story.”
(student draws, Cl plays, student corrects, etc)
“How long can you hold a sound?” (Cl plays a long, soft note, kids all counting)
And finally, the French Horn.
Enters, to lots of oohs and ahhs.
Plays melody from Swan Lake.
“Smooth.” “Somebody crying.” “Outer Space.”
Horn player shows right hand in bell.
“Open.” “Gs – (something?)” - Grace, trying to translate, doesn’t understand the word – and this is the ONLY word that ever confuses her – “Gestopft!” I tell her. “Ges – what?” “It’s just German!” We laugh.
Kids: “How does the air go?”
Ah! He’s all ready for THIS question: He has one of the TA’s to pull out a long garden hose, with a mouthpiece on the end!
“This is what the Horn would look like if it were stretched out.” He asks a student to try to play a note on the hose, using the mouthpiece. Several can’t, but one student gets it. “Oh!! That’s how you do it! Here, let me try again!” And magically, they seem to learn from each other, each one managing to get at least some kind of sound on the hose. Again, in America, we’d be too concerned about germs.
Musician pulls out a really, really tiny Horn, and plays it.
“It sounds like the big Horn, just softer!”
Musician: “Here – try to play it!”
Kid: (Actually makes a sound) “Wow! I did it!” “What are these things?”
“Those are Valves. They change the pitch of the sound.”
(Kid, pressing the valves, seems to learn the idea an about 10 seconds.)
I’m shaking my head in disbelief.
“OK, that’s enough for now. Let’s thank our musicians!” (Cheers.)
“Time for Break. Line up next to Han Mook.”
- and they are given actual Hot Dogs and juice. Some snack! And wow, do they deserve it.
After the break, the musicians gather, all three, and play through some chords that Jung-ji has written out: CMaj, Fmin, G-aug, Unison high, then low. I’ve had some trouble taking this approach to Ear Fantasy, because the different Timbres can be confusing . .but this seems to excite the kids:
“Sky.” “Sea.” “Starting Train.” “Alarm.” “Angry.” “Thin-clean.” “Low, muddy.”
In the following group improv session, the kids are encouraged to use these chords. This does work, though, hmm. It’s a bit too like ‘paint-by-numbers” for my liking. But there’s no perfect solution for any of this.
The kids come up with a little story or image, put it in a box-template, and the instruments play the results. Marvelous musicians. How is it they are so attuned to this process?
AHA! They also go to Professional Development (PD) sessions along with the TA’s! No wonder. What a fantastic idea.
I’m almost dizzy and exhausted with all the ideas. – and this is only the first-year VYC kids!
After lunch, comes the Bridge class, and the musicians all stay. A long day for them, but they seem animated and totally involved.
△Bridge open class at Hanam
△Open class at Gunpo
This is a class of 12 kids, who seem just as diminutive as the first years.
The difference is the level of knowledge (I hate to say ‘sophisticated’)
Anyway, the Three musicians are called to come on, as before, only that all three come on at the same time.
They each play something, a fragment, then something together.
The questions are more toward extended techniques – playing and humming, multiphonics, glissandi, different types of Horns, history, mixtures of sounds and timbres, and even transpositions.
The difference between trills, tremolos and fluttertongue. “Sounds like something is stuck in your throat!”
What do we do when kids want to hear “Starwars,” or “Jaws?” Good lord, you can’t escape these films anywhere. For later discussion.
Then the musicians each retreat to a corner of the stage (we are on the main stage at the Hunam Arts Center). The students split into 3 groups, taking turns interviewing each instrument in considerable depth. The students have been given rubrics, or ‘Mission Cards” to fill out for each instrument, divided into Features, Feeling of Sound, Special Techniques, and Registers. Terrific!
Then the similar idea of graphic-score improvs. The results are wonderful, atmospheric.
After the class, we gather with the TA’s and Ji-yun and Dauer. We discover that a number of Bridge post-grads are now playing in the Hanam Youth Orchestra. Cool. I suggest ‘Summer Commissions’ to keep them going between the yearly classes.
Angélica is amazed that the kids can focus and concentrate for three hours!
She also likes the use of the body for describing sound registers, especially for the younger kids: the Flute – from shoulders up to above the head, the Clarinet from waist to head, the Horn, from chest to knees, etc.
We discussed a broadening of the listening list of children, not just the European classics, but contemporary music, Korean traditional Gugak, and pop music of various sorts. It’s their future, and music is too fundamental and direct to be able to dictate ‘recommended’ styles or idioms.
As for the “Jaws- Starwars” phenomenon, let’s recognize the kids’ desires, but get them to think further: “We want to hear what YOU think a shark sounds like!”
Gunpo, Sunday, Sept 16
An incredible day it’s been, and only matched by the following day in Gunpo. Another town South of Seoul.
Oh my. So many ideas discovered there, too! And not all the same as we encountered in Hanam, either.
For now, suffice it to say, the instrument interviews (Violin, Cello, Horn) were equally brilliant in their own way, the questions and improvisations equally compelling and thought-provoking, and the group compositions outstanding.
I will just illustrate one example: One of the stories created by the small groups (this time only 2 per group) was about a boy who had been hit by a car, brought to the hospital, and despite efforts by doctors, dies.
Besides the unusually serious nature of this story, it was graphically set down in quite a bit of detail.
When the musicians played all the sounds, there was, yes, a very effective array of effects, but it was still disjunct, not a performance as such. Even though we were running out of time, I wanted the musicians to tie the sounds together into a coherent whole, without actually changing any basic substance of the score. I talked about how musicians can actually make a score come alive, even more than a composer imagined. (This has happened to ME countless times in my own composing career.)
So the musicians discussed several points in the score, always asking the two composers about their intent.
And sure enough. At the second hearing a small but distinct miracle happened: The story unmistakably came alive. – or rather, the boy’s death in the story became truly imaginable. There was actually a hush in the room for a moment.
This is music-making. This is our Art.
The post-class discussion with the students sitting in a circle, ranged far and wide. Anna’s class wrap-up was praised: “What was the Rose you got from the class today? What was a thorn?”
Angélica was very moved by the reply of one girl sitting next to me: “I’m so thankful that you brought this program to us.” Other answers: “I want to meet the instruments again!” “Where are you and miss Angélica from?” “You go all over the world!”
*Posted by Jon Deak(Founder and Artistic Director, VYC)
ITAC4, The Fourth International Teaching Artist Conference: The Global Workforce of Creative Instigators.
any conferences are good; they meet the expectations of attendees. Many conferences are … less than good; they don’t. And sometimes those expectations start low. Many conferences must adhere to a formula that a membership expects; the content must vary (somewhat), but the structure must feel the same, and the pleasure of such conferences is the in-between times with colleagues in casual and intentional meetings. I have been to a few overtly bad conferences, and only one that was truly hateful—that’s a story for another essay. Those who were there, you know which one I am talking about.
A few conferences are great. They exceed expectations, even when expectations were high. ITAC4, the Fourth International Teaching Artist Conference, was one of those. Only 241 delegates were selected from the 600+ who applied, half from the host country, the U.S., and half from 28 other countries—a total of 300 attended counting presenters and staff. The first ITAC in the U.S. Space limitations kept it small, in our conference home, Carnegie Hall. With the two other New York co-hosts, Lincoln Center Education and DreamYard, their Planning Committee worked for a year to design a three-day gathering (with four optional pre-conference daylong workshops that delved into the work of a particular New York program) to craft a sequence of experiences that embodied the ways good teaching artists learn; indeed, most of the planners were teaching artists. Let’s repeat that—a conference for teaching artists by teaching artists. Only at ITAC.
Why was ITAC4 so strong? Why did many proclaim it was the most powerful
convening they had ever attended? The answer is good luck, good planning, and a
△Eric Booth(Co-founder of ITAC)
The main piece of luck was that Carnegie Hall was able to co-host the conference in their space. The world’s most famous brand name in the high arts welcomed teaching artists into its embrace—the sheer power of this metaphor radiated through the days. Delegates who work in the direst slums, in tense refugee camps, in remote forest villages, as well in less stressed communities but with different
goals and cultural norms, and in other U.S. cities, were treated with genuine respect, with honor and gratitude, with eager curiosity, as fully equal colleagues. The temple of high arts opened its doors to generously house and celebrate the widest possible gathering of agents of universal artistic capacity at grassroots levels. Because Carnegie Hall has such deep commitments to community work (you may not realize that they have, in my view, the most pioneering education program among major arts institutions in the U.S.), the welcome felt celebratory, even grateful, with no
taint of condescension or “noblesse oblige.” This embrace embodied the vision of a possible future in which the privileged arts fully recognize and join a wider definition of “the arts” that includes the participatory activities in communities and
schools. There may be no righter place on the planet to make this statement right now than Carnegie Hall—the home of ITAC4.
The other two hosts rounded out this message. Lincoln Center Education is
known as the founding place of teaching artistry, offers enormous programs, and is pioneering the most advanced teaching artist training in the world with its Teaching Artist Development Labs. And DreamYard, based in the South Bronx (the economically-poorest Congressional district in the U.S.), has created an extraordinary community-informed creative learning center with social justice infusing every aspect of its DNA. For ITAC4, the hosting was the message.
We were lucky in the quality of those who applied, leading to a selection of delegates so experienced and dedicated that any of them could have led a strong workshop—the 69 selected to present did lead great sessions, and the rest of the delegates shared their knowledge and experience abundantly in all the in-between session time. So there was no innate hierarchy of “the special ones” who were invited to present, but rather a clear sense of a community of equals who were sharing in sessions and outside of sessions and all the time.
In an ironic way, ITAC4 was lucky in its timing. The rawness of the political and social issues in the U.S. was so evident that those concerns and priorities had to be addressed, amplifying the sense of the conference’s relevance and consequence. In easier status-quo times, the conference would not have had such an urgent sense of social change in its atmosphere. The issues of racism, sexism, social inequity,
xenophobia and violence that U.S. teaching artists deal with every day were palpably present, enabling the U.S. delegation to show its grit and guts—the best in us was available to share, because we are forced to address the worst of us.
Let’s note where these good planning choices came from. An ITAC4 Planning Committee was gathered with representatives from the three co-hosting organizations. It was mostly made of younger people; it was diverse; and it was mostly made of teaching artists. It is idiotically rare that teaching artists get to design a conference—the very workforce relied upon for their expertise in designing and guiding learning experiences. They got to design this one, and their
feel for the shape, flow, and content contributed profoundly to the experience within it. To get a sense of the many sessions and the flow of the days, look here(http://www.itac-conference.com/conference/itac4/digital- conference/?mc_cid=098b535c33&mc_eid=e9afab89de)
The theme they selected—artist as instigator—caught the right feel and
became a reference point that arose frequently throughout each day. The presentations selected adhered to the ITAC 50-50 principle (50% of the delegates and the presentations come from the host country, and 50% from other countries).
The artworks presented emphasized the key themes. Nick Demeris
surprised the conference at the very beginning with a whole-conference improvised
musical composition. Spoken-word artist Lemon Anderson performed pieces that rang with the realities of New York life, and Samantha Spies (Associate Artistic Director) from Urban Bushwomen danced the story of one of the nation’s most influential social justice arts organizations.
hadn’t appeared at previous ITACs:
Livestream: much of the conference was livestreamed on the Internet (including videography by students who were trained at DreamYard), with hundreds joining from far away, including from viewing parties. To get a sense of one such event, created by a delegate from Ghana whose visa was refused at the last minute, for no reason, by the U.S. embassy, watch this short video he made: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtJM3_b0Xe8
Preconferences: Four options were offered to delegates, different possible ways to spend the day before the conference in a one-day intensive that shared the best of a particular body of work. This deeper dive balanced the speedy horizontal nature of the conference itself, and helped delegates get to know a group of colleagues before the conference began, which made for a sense of connection from the beginning of the big conference.
Collective project: Teaching artist Yazmany Arboleda led a collaborative art making project that many delegates cited as their most meaningful memory. Delegates were asked to bring a piece of fabric that had a connection to a community they come from, and a handwritten statement about the cloth and its
origin. During the conference days, the delegates sewed these fabric swatches into a
giant ITAC flag that was presented at the final session, and will grow and travel to many countries, adding community voices from around the world, before it appears at ITAC5.
The Global Timeline Project: The first ITAC Global Project is an online gathering of our collective history as a field. Events that mark advances for teaching artistry in various localities are all posted to one timeline, so we can see our history as it has been unfolding around the world. (http://www.itac-conference.com/the-global-history-timeline-project)
The ITAC Collaborative: ITAC will now be more than a conference every two years; it will go all year round. The new Collaborative was announced along with an invitation offering ways people can join in forming its initiatives, and in proposing projects that will be funded. During the conference, delegates were exploring
natural partnerships that might launch a project the ITAC Collaborative could support with funding; this added the energy of extending the connectedness of the conference long beyond the brief days in New York.
And there were some mysteries that added to the success of ITAC4.
One was the pent-up readiness of this field to come together. I noticed this
around the semantic issues concerning the term “teaching artist”; because a range of different terms are used in different countries, there has always been a gap in our coming together, creating some sense of separateness between the delegations from
the semantic separations were gone. The different terms were used, but the labels didn’t create separation. I was able to state in the opening session, “Never again will we let superficial labels keep us from identifying as the one global community we are.” The ITAC4 timing was somehow right to shed the old shells of separate identity, and stand as one. The how and why of this timing is an interesting subject for speculation, but there was clearly a sense of hunger to start joining hands across boundaries.
Another mystery was the way people related to one another. Usually, when colleagues from within a country meet together, there is an inevitable element of status negotiation. It can look like egotism, or it can look like competitiveness, but it is a natural human habit, even in a field as generous and benign as teaching artistry. But this doesn’t happen at ITAC. I theorize a couple of reasons for this. Given the breadth of the backgrounds present, connecting with people becomes the predominant energy, and issues of status fall low in priority. The complexity of cultural status doesn’t translate across cultures—how many fancy professional development workshops a U.S. teaching artist has given doesn’t hold meaning for a teaching artist who works in New Guinea rainforests or with a survival-focused Palestinian community. With the armor of ego diminished, and the culturally- defined structures of status set aside, professionals meet as people, as artists, who share life priorities, and that makes for powerful connecting and meaningful exchange.
The biggest mystery for me was the sense of accrued learning from previous ITACs. It seemed clear that this ITAC built on the successes and learning of the previous three. The quality of the conversations, the speed of getting started, the sense of picking up where we left off seemed clear to all those who had been to all the previous ITACs—but that’s only about eight people. How does this happen when so few repeat attendance, yet the momentum of the conference seems to steadily build, now over seven years? Each of the ITAC conferences has asked a fundamental question; here is how I have seen the ITAC inquiry build:
ITAC1 (Osl0 2012) = Do artists who work in community and education settings around the world, and who label their work by different names, have enough in common to think of themselves as a single global field? The answer was a clear yes, accompanied by a kind of astonished recognition of a something hidden in plain
sight becoming evident. Read thisessayto find out more:[http://ericbooth.net/the- worlds-first-international-teaching-artist-conference]
ITAC2 (Brisbane 2014) = Do these artists want to connect and work together? What might we do together if we could? The answer exploded forth with a burst of imagined projects—17 on the last day—that artists hungered to begin with one another across boundaries.
ITAC3 (Edinburgh 2016) = How far does our practice reach? How radical can our practice be? The answer surfaced a breadth of courageous commitments that
permanently expanded our own understanding of the size, scope and ambition of our field.
ITAC4 (New York 2018) = What do we instigate? Where and how do we choose to create change? The etymological meaning of instigate is to penetrate—what status quo, what unacceptable social norm, do we puncture by creatively activating others? The answers came from open wounds of our current social struggles in the U.S. and those in other countries, and from the courageous belief that the intolerable brings opportunity rather than despair.
In reflection, delegates don’t agree on which features of the conference had the greatest impact. I asked about twenty, and found no consensus. Some found their biggest impact in the peaceful sewing project, sitting side by side with others from around the world sharing the stories of their work. Others found their gems in particular workshops that affirmed and/or extended the work that they do. Many cited particular keynote speeches as their highlight, and interestingly, the three keynotes had about equal numbers of enthusiasts. More than a few told me that just being inside this professional community, engaging with so many inspiring people from so many places so intensively, and finding connections everywhere, was their resonant take-away.
The three keynote speeches crystallized, at least for me, the message of
teaching artistry at this time in the U.S.. These keynotes are available to view online—go to http://www.itac-conference.com/conference/itac4/digital-conference/and scroll down to the video records that list the timings of the speeches. These will be edited into stand-alone videos soon. I will distill the core message of each that jumped out to me, that boldly presented our cultural wounds and our artists’ response. Please watch the whole recordings of them, since I will be missing so much of the richness they shared.
The Day 1 keynote was given by Aaron Huey, the National Geographic photographer and Internet activist and entrepreneur. His talk came right after I had kicked off the conference, reminding the delegates that they are part of a global field of artists who expand their artistry to engage directly with people in educational and community settings. I compared us to leaves on an aspen tree amid a gigantic global aspen forest. Aspens are actually just separate trunks emerging from a shared root system—just as teaching artistry across the world manifests as different practices but shares values, practices, and even spirit. I was able to announce our first global project (a global timeline of the history of our field) and the Collaborative that will fund international project work by delegates—so we began with a sense of agency and opportunity.
Aaron began by sharing about his eight years documenting the lives and realities of the Oglala Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation South Dakota, which Huey refers to as Prisoner of War Camp #344. What began as a magazine reporting assignment became a passion as he lived with and became family with them. He came to realize that by telling their story in mass media, even telling it faithfully and well, he was part of the problem of a system that has disempowered, dominated and
decimated their nation. He reconceived his role as an artist serving to report the truths of a community, and created a transparent platform where their stories, unfiltered, could be embedded in major media. This expansion of his artistic mission and his identity as an artist struck me hard, as it did many others. How do artists who have grown in circumstances of privilege and gained purchase in major media use that power to amplify the unheard voices of communities, rather than interpret and put them on display? This is exactly the teaching artist’s ethical challenge—how do we use our artist’s skills to give authentic voice to those who
have not had it? In the early years of teaching artistry in the U.S., teaching artists did not reliably serve in that capacity. There was egotism and condescension in the
work of many, which was generally not present in the work of those called
“community artists.” Over decades, this understanding of service, and the use of one’s art-self in direct work with participants in schools and communities, has evolved for teaching artists; it makes sense that the semantic distinction between labels of “teaching artist,” “community artist,” “social practice artist” and more, now do not divide but instead clarify different areas of expertise within the same vocation.
Huey then introduced his work with Amplifier(https://amplifier.org), where he and his initial collaborator Shepard Fairey have distributed millions copies of protest artwork (“We the People” is the most famous) that has appeared in resistance movements around the world; they have now expanded the site to invite community artists to present their protest artwork on a platform that shares it widely. Amplifier allows the traditions of art designed by the “talented” and “celebrated” few (we were in Carnegie Hall, after all, where the very fewest are presented) to become art designed by the many. Teaching artists take that idea and multiply it more than anyone else. They are the designated work force to do that, to enter the places where people live, particularly places where people are structurally disempowered, and they activate the artistic potential. In my writing, I always state that the job of an artist may be to make stuff that speaks with strength, but the number one job of a teaching artist is to activate the artistry of others.
Amplifier’s newest project, called WetheFuture(https://amplifier.org/campaigns/we-the-future), recently launched as a social justice curriculum in 20,000 K-12 classrooms in the U.S. It celebrates the stories of young leaders ages 14-28 who have started their own social justice programs and have created eloquent images and text to tell their stories.
Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Chief of Program and Pedagogy at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco, delivered the Day 2 keynote speech. Joseph called forth the instigator and activist in each delegate. He asked us speak aloud the names of our teachers
and then our students, urging a sense of lineage in the slow “choreography” of achieving social and racial justice. He shared key ideas from his own work, inseparable as artist, teacher and activist, in “liberatory pedagogy”—“using your words to get free.” He asked, “Can we design freedom? Can you will love into being through the force of your creative life or practice?” He challenged these teaching artists who had come from around the world to gut-check the courage in their work: “On a scale of zero to Harriet Tubman, where does your work fall?” Quoting
architect/urban plannerTeddy Cruz, he made an unequivocal demand of the field: “To stay neutral is to be complicit with the institutions that have perpetrated what is ethically and morally wrong. Today more than ever, we as artists and educators need to take a political position against what is ethically and morally wrong…Where is our public imagination?” Not only artists but also institutions must take a
political position. He challenged our fierce investment in aesthetics (“What a people think is good, beautiful, and true”) and in drawing forth the aesthetic expression of others.
Liz Lerman, Day 3’s keynote speaker, named many things we knew but had never seen with such clarity. She spoke of the long journey of her work from the high arts perspective to discovery of the richness of art making in community. She has lived the ways these separate endeavors feel negated by the other, and how unwilling the “high” arts are to live on a horizontal continuum in which institutionally celebrated art and community art are both valued and even connected. She strives to bring them together in a humane, ethical, fair, just exchange. In the current culture, Art with a capital A is good, and community art is not really good or important. This leads to an “Arts” industry separate from joyful participation in the disciplines that the vast majority of people have competent expression within. In addition, Lerman believes it leads to extraordinarily lazy ideas of excellence in the high Arts sector. Looking across an art form’s continuum, in the perspective that includes the “Arts” and the community arts, she sees three things that matter, whatever the context, in determining value. 1. People are totally committed to what they are doing. 2.
People know why they are doing what they are doing. 3. Something is revealed. The
artist must make sure others understand that something significant is going on— and might even have to explain something, even though that is not what modern art likes to do. “On this question of revelation,” she said, “we have to find more strategies to get more and more people to participate.”
Finally, Lerman challenged teaching artists to think ethically. She and Marc
Bamuthi Joseph bring four quadrants of considerations to their work: aesthetics; individual accountability; social responsibility to our circle of contact and influence; and the institutions and systems we work within. They believe in a values chain among those four quadrants of influence, holding the ethical perspective that we wouldn’t raise one to the disadvantage of the others—wouldn’t, that is, leave one of the four behind as we create change in another. Lerman identified a time recently when she had failed to keep this balance, and said she regretted her ethical mistake. Many people told me that her admission of a failure was one of the most empowering things they had ever heard in a speech. Her courage brought forth our courage to champion a culture that honors, ethically, the creative work of all individuals, and celebrates the creative brilliance of the community and of the masters of a discipline.
Each of the previous three ITACs has concluded with an unresolved final chord. All the energy and sprouting of new connections ended without any structured way to keep it going. The farewell tears were those of gratitude but also of loss, the sense
this brief global utopia was going to evaporate. Not so with ITAC4. ITAC4 ended with construction materials and plans to build across the two years to ITAC5 in Seoul, South Korea.
There will be a flag. The collective creative project of making a large ITAC4 flag culminated in its presentation to the delegates in the last session. But the flag will live on. A portion of it will travel to many countries, like the Olympic flame, to gain their passport stamps of new swatches, and will be raised at ITAC5. The flag- hosting countries will also create their own community flags, each patch of personally-significant material added to comprise a big flag of their local teaching artist community. These many large flags will be shipped to Seoul to be assembled at ITAC5, a world flag of teaching artistry.
Perhaps most promising, the ITAC Collaborative is underway. Led by Collaborative Manager Madeleine McGirk, the Collaborative will build a communications network for the global field. It will support two funded projects that connect ITAC4 and ITAC5, and will be presented at ITAC5. As of this writing, 18 teaching artists from eight countries have committed to serve as Catalysts, to
actively build the global field. If you have read this far into a long essay, you are probably realizing that you too are part of this emergent community, and that you want to become a member of the ITAC Collaborative, to stay informed about activities and news. To do so, contact Madeleine at: email@example.com.
At ITAC4, Marc Bamuthi Joseph asked, “Where is our public imagination?” You
know the answer. It is rising in you, now. It is conjured in the work you do with participants. It is in the work of instigators like us around the world who embody and bring forth the possible. Shakespeare describes the artistic power of our workforce—the power to build communities, as well as the power we now gather to build a global workforce of artist-instigators under the name of ITAC:
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.