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Welcome, Omar Offendum

For the upcoming season, UMS is excited to welcome Omar Offendum, a Syrian American rapper, poet, hip hop artist and activist, as the 2018-2019 Education and Community Engagement Research Residency Artist.

Interview by Allie Taylor
Omar Offendum

Offendum, who is also a Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow — one of just five nominated throughout the country — plans to use his time with UMS to develop a project that aims to help Arab Americans better understand their identity in the U.S., and inform people about the refugee crisis, immigration, and what it means to be Arab American. He plans to present the project he will be working on during his residency at the Kennedy Center next year.

Offendum, who was born in Saudi Arabia, grew up in Washington, D.C. He attended an Arab school which combined curricula from the Middle East for Arab and Islamic studies with the local U.S. curriculum for other subjects. His studies included Arabic poetry, which served as a preliminary inspiration for his own work.

“(Arabic poetry) is what many people describe to be the backbone of the Arabic language,” Offendum said. “Poetry is a very integral part of our culture. As is music.”

Offendum studied architecture at the University of Virginia. During his time there, he began to experiment with making beats and songwriting, and found his true passion in artistic expression through music. As a Syrian-American, Offendum has much to say regarding his experience in America with a hybridized identity, and aims to explain exactly who he is and why he’s proud of the cherished culture he comes from.

A year and a half after graduating from college, Offendum moved to Los Angeles to work for an architecture firm for 10 years. While working as an architect, he was also working as a musician, building his platform and social media following and moonlighting as a performer/rapper. “I love architecture and always will, but I moved toward the aspect of artistic expression that I was most drawn to at the time: music, rapping, and performing. I get a great sense of gratification from performing that has driven my career.” Offendum, who describes hip-hop as being the “sonic upbringing of his youth”, hopes to build bridges culturally, lyrically, and musically with his work.

What do you hope to achieve during your time at UMS as this season’s Research Residency Artist?

“I’m really excited about my time at UMS. I’ve got a couple projects that I’d like to work on, but one in particular is kind of like the next phase of my performance. I’ve been moving further into the direction of theatrical, live music performances. When I started out initially I was rapping with a DJ, which is awesome and I’ll continue to do that, but I’ve been incorporating a lot more live music into my performances these days, namely Arabic instrumentation, blending and fusing it with Western music and instrumentation.”

Offendum is pulling from a number of well known Arabic stories and aspects of culture to use as a lens through which he can examine his ideas.

“In my music and in my performances, I have been working to help Arab Americans better understand their story, to help immigrants understand immigration here in the U.S., to help Americans better understand America in more cohesive way, and to help inform a lot of what is happening today in terms of the refugee crisis and immigration in America. Hopefully by the end of my time, I’ll have some semblance of a foundation to be able to perform it for people. Being in Michigan is really great because first, it’s Michigan, but also, the proximity to Dearborn and being able to work with all the incredible Arab musicians who live in Dearborn will be a great asset. Also, all the resources at the University that are at my disposal will definitely be very helpful, from Arabic professors, to people working in the realm of hip hop, and Arab American studies. And then there’s Detroit, where there’s this incredibly rich heritage — from Motown to J. Dilla. So, I look forward to being able to tap into all of those things, and being inspired to get this project going. I already know it’s a labor of love, so what folks see and hear in March might not resemble at all what the final manifestation might be, but I’m excited for this to be the first step and stab at that.

I’m really grateful that I have this opportunity with UMS to be able to flesh it out and work on it, so that when I present it in Washington D.C. the following month, it can just be that much more awesome.”

Do you consider your art to have political motivation? How would you say your art has changed in the past 5 years? In the current political climate?

“I hate to be described as a “political rapper”. That’s not how I approach my work. I try to write and speak to my experience as thoughtfully, honestly and articulately as I can. It just so happens that I am from Syria, and I am living in the U.S. in 2018 with a Muslim background and an immigrant story, so that by nature becomes a political act every time I get on stage. It’s something that I’ve maintained for well over a decade. Halfway through my college career 9/11 happened, and I quickly saw I could use this art and music and poetry as a way to bridge these seemingly opposed sides of my identity together in a way that was meaningful to me, and to people who were having a difficult time understanding what was going on with the U.S./Middle East politics and relations.

At the end of the day, it’s not about telling people what I’m not. It’s about bridge building. It’s meeting people where they’re at. I’m not afraid to reach out and introduce people to my culture in a way that is digestible and relatable. But also in that, to not dumb it down in any way, because I think it can easily happen. I don’t want to fetishize and romanticize and give people some sort of exotic experience. I just want to tell people exactly what it is what I do, and where I’m from, and why I love it. And in that, there’s also the ability to speak to this “new” experience of being an Arab American. It’s really not that new, it’s been around for over a hundred years, so it’s important for people to understand that even what they might think of as “American” is a lot more diverse and has always been. That, in fact, is what America is. America has always been much bigger of an idea and of a place and of something to strive for, and i just try to remind people of that.”

You’re going to be doing a talk on Thursday October 18, called “Syrianamerican: A Nation State of Mind”. What can people expect from the event?

“SyrianAmericana is the name of my first solo album. It very much who I am and what my work embodies: building bridges with these two/multiple communities I am a part of and have the honor of representing around the world. It is an experience that seeks to connect a lot of things that, sadly, because of the state of affairs between the U.S. and the Middle East these days, have been disconnected by the media for various reasons — to justify wars, or immigration policies — but my work tries to push back on that.

What I will be talking about in the class is giving people a backstory on me and the work that I do and why I do what I do (using examples from artists who’ve inspired me over the years). I’ll also be reciting verses that I’ve written along the way that speak to different points in my career, and performing songs. It’ll be equal parts presentation and conversation. I look forward to having folks engage, ask questions, and tell me what they think. I know that I have a particular perspective(s) on what it means to be Arab American, but I also know that for folks in Dearborn and Detroit, and that’s also something that is unique in itself too, so I look forward to hearing from the students and teachers about that as well.”

What is your ultimate goal with your art? What is the ultimate message you are trying to send?

“My goals are embedded in the themes and ideas of my work and how I approach my work. At the end of the day, if I’m able to just make people happy, comfortable, and more at ease, then I’ve done my job. And certainly within that there’s this desire to “break down misconceptions” about Arabs and Muslims and Syrians, but it’s not on the nose like that. It’s much more the fact that the medium is the message, that people see me as this confident, immigrant Muslim male, who can rap and who can pull from Arab poetry and do all this stuff. In that there is a message that obviously counters what they’re used to hearing about people who might have this background, and I think that’s important.

But also, most importantly, I’m indebted to hip hop culture, and with that, clearly, African American culture. There’s no separating one from the other, so I very much want to make sure that people from those communities appreciate my voice and my perspective, and know that I’m not doing it in a way that is parasitic or disingenuous. I recognize always that this is an African American artform that I am drawing inspiration from and that I’m speaking my experience through, so that’s also very important to me for people to recognize. And at the same time, you have to understand that it’s bigger than hip hop. Hip hop is the manifestation of something that has been happening for a very long time. Trying to build those bridges across time, and across communities is very important to me, and I think it’s becoming more and more apparent in my work, in the projects I embark upon, and in the spaces I perform in.”

What would you say is your greatest strength as an artist?

“Performing and connecting with audiences in a deep way while I’m on stage is really important to me, but also is the reason why I don’t necessarily love performing for gigantic audiences. I don’t really have those meaningful connections that I get to have when it’s several hundred people in an auditorium, a classroom, a coffee shop, etc. And that has a lot to do with the nature of what I do, which is engaging people in this way, with storytelling. It’s a lot more intimate than what most big festival shows maybe can be, and I enjoy that. I enjoy being able to look into people’s eyes. I like being in settings where I’m able to go back and forth with people, and be asked questions, and speak to a lot of these things that I talk about in my music but in a deeper way.

I code and bury a lot of ideas and symbols and imagery and iconography and messages in my lyrics, that could easily go over people’s heads if they don’t get a chance to really dig deeper into them. That’s why I enjoy doing things in classrooms, where we get to talk about them, and talk about the bigger inspirations and ideas behind them. You find comfort in your own voice and your own strengths and that’s really what I’ve been leaning on for quite some time now. It’s important for the next generation of Arab, Syrian and Muslim kids here to have that example. As I mature as an artist, I try to still approach my work with a sense of humility and remind people that there is still a lot to learn and there is always room for growth.”

The UMS ECE Research Residency is a competitive program that provides time and resources for an early career artist to spend an extended period of time in Ann Arbor developing a new work while sharing their practice with the U-M and southeastern Michigan communities.

Announcing 2017-18 UMS Artists in Residence

UMS is pleased to announce the fourth installment of our Artists in Residence program. As part of the program, we’re asking area artists to take “residence” at our performances. The goal of the residency is to inspire artists through UMS performances, using these experiences as a resource to support the creation of new work or to fuel an artistic journey.

We’re proud to announce this season’s artists.

Meet the 2017-18 UMS Artists in Residence

Sherrine Azab – Performing Arts

Sherrine Azab is the Co-Director of Detroit-based theater company A Host of People with a focus on creating devised and original theater. In addition to directing she’s also a producer, performance curator, and educator. Her artistic work has been seen in Seattle, New York, Berlin, Detroit, San Francisco, Cleveland, Chicago, and New Orleans. She holds a BFA from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle where she founded the critically acclaimed company Strike Anywhere Productions before moving to New York City. In NYC she presented work in spaces such as The Kitchen, The Ohio Theatre, HERE Arts Center, Dixon Place, and the Bushwick Starr. Sherrine also served as the Associate Producer for The Foundry Theatre (NYC) during their 2011 and 2012 seasons and is a proud Associated Artist with Target Margin Theater (NYC). She holds a postgraduate certificate from the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance at Wesleyan University and was a member of the 2008 Lincoln Center Director’s Lab. In addition to the five full length new works and numerous smaller projects produced by AHOP since moving to Detroit five years ago, Sherrine also directed the world premiere of agua de luna (psalms for the rouge) by Caridad Svich at Matrix Theatre Company. She is on staff for the Network of Ensemble Theaters.

Morgan Breon – Performing Arts/Literary Arts

Morgan Breon kick-started her theater career playing 15 of the 16 characters featured in Nilaja Sun’s, “No Child” at Matrix Theatre Company. Morgan is an ensemble member of Shakespeare in Detroit and has played the following roles: Lord/ Lady Capulet (Romeo and Juliet), Ariel (The Tempest), Marc Antony (Julius Caesar), and Shylock (Merchant of Venice). In 2015, Morgan played Oriel in the world premiere of “A Kiss of the Sun for Pardon” at the Detroit Repertory Theater. She is an alumnus of Mosaic Youth Theater in Detroit, University of Michigan’s CRLT Players, and the U-M Educational Theater Company. At 13, Morgan wrote “Portrait of A Wise Woman,” in honor of her late grandmother, Janie Withrow. Upon reprising the play 13 years later, it won “Audience Favorite” in the 2015 Two Muses Women’s Playwriting Festival. Her stage play, “Waking Up Alive” won the “Jury Award” at the 2015 Detroit Fringe Festival and she was a 2017 Mitten Lab Fellow for Playwriting, where her stage play was performed by students at Interlochen Center for the Arts. Morgan received a dual Bachelor of Arts and dual Masters from the University of Michigan, none of which are in theatre. Her degrees reflect her passion for youth, social justice, as well as individual and community healing. These principles influence Morgan’s work as an artist, and guide her use of the arts to impact community. Morgan honors her late Auntie Margaret for investing in her artistic nature as a young girl. Morgan credits Jesus Christ with her gift of anything creative.

Aja Salakastar Dier – Multi-disciplinary performance arts

Aja Salakastar Dier is a multi-disciplinary performance artist. She began her training in her hometown of Detroit, Michigan and went on to earn her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Acting at the State University of New York at Purchase College. Upon moving back to Detroit, she began exploring experimental performance through theatre and music. She is currently an ensemble member at A Host of People, a Detroit based theatre company, where she is a performer and co-collaborator. She is also a member of Video7, a Detroit based music and arts collective. She is currently working on her debut EP and will be premiering a new play with A Host of People, Neither There, Nor Here, at the Light Box Detroit in January 2018. Follow her journey on Instagram @shestoopstoconquer.

Clarisse Baleja Saïdi – Literary Arts

Clarisse Baleja Saïdi was born and raised in Côte d’Ivoire and is of Rwandese and Congolese descent. She earned her MFA from The Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, where she was awarded Hopwood awards, a John Wagner prize and the Theodore Roethke award for her fiction, poetry, drama, and nonfiction works in progress. She is the recipient of scholarships from Hedgebrook, Callaloo, and the Napa Valley Conference, among others. She is at work on a first novel.

Veniece Session – Performing Arts/Music

Veniece Session is a native Detroiter and international thinker who is committed to introducing new ideas and uplifting creative communities. On the home front, Veniece collaborates with local artists and organizations to design sounds for in-person cultural experiences and learning opportunities. On a 2015 trip to Berlin, Veniece noticed parallels with her hometown of Detroit – both were industrialized cities with a rich cultural impact and a pulsing population of expressive artists. Fast forward one year and Veniece’s insatiable curiosity and commitment has created opportunities from Detroit to Berlin and back again. Most notably through Be-troit Exchange, a two-phase inventive partnership between Detroit and Berlin artists which included panel discussions, song recording, music video production, and a documentary. She has exhibited work at the MOCAD, Baltimore Gallery, Goethe Institut, Butler University, and University of Illinois. Veneice Session earned her BS in Sound Engineering with a focus in Performing Arts Technology (PAT) and a Minor in Performing Arts Management from the University of Michigan School of Music.

Watch for more from these artists in residence on this blog and on UMS Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Applications Closed: 2017-18 Artists in Residence

2017-18 UMS Artists in Residence Program

UMS is pleased to announce the fourth installment of our Artists in Residence program. As part of the program, we’re asking area artists to take “residence” at our performances. The goal of the residency is to inspire area artists through UMS performances, using these experiences as a resource to support the creation of new work or to fuel an artistic journey.

Four artists will be selected. Visual, literary, and performing artists can apply. The deadline to apply has passed.

Who should apply

We’re looking for four residents to participate in this program. We welcome artists from across disciplines including visual, literary, and performing arts. Applicants should be at least 22 years old and must be based regionally to be able to attend performances.

Residents will receive

Complimentary UMS performance tickets to:

  • Two Renegade performances of their choosing.
  • Two performance from our “No Safety Net” theater events, which the artists will attend together (January and early February dates to be determined).
  • One additional performance of the resident artist’s choosing from the second half of the UMS season.
  • Performances should support an artistic journey (more on that in the application guidelines section below). Some ticket restrictions may apply.
  • Opportunities for special behind-the-scenes access to UMS and artists, based on artist availability and interest.
  • Access to gatherings with other residents and visiting artists throughout the course of the season and opportunities to share thoughts, experiences, and process.
  • $500 stipend, payable in January 2018

UMS will

  • Interview artists prior to the program’s start and at the end of the program to document residents’ journeys. Interviews and other documentation of the residency experience will appear on our blog.
  • Ask artists to submit two short posts over the course of the semester for our blog; the content of these posts is flexible and will be determined by UMS and artists together.
  • Ask artists to participate in a week-long takeover on our Instagram account; the content of these posts is flexible, too.
  • Offer opportunities to showcase creative work in conjunction with UMS events when possible. Rights to the work remain wholly with the residents; UMS simply requests permission to share work in a manner agreed-upon with the residents.

How to apply

Submit the following materials via Google Form below by Friday, October 13.

  • Statement of intent. In 500 words, tell us about the three performances you would choose to attend (in addition to the two required No Safety Net theater performances). Explain how experiencing these performances might support your creative work. What do you hope to produce as a result of the residency?
  • CV. 1-2 page CV highlighting your artistic work.
  • Portfolio. Samples of your work. If your portfolio is available online, please send a link (or links) to your portfolio. Writers should submit 5-10 pages of work. Visual artists should submit 3-4 photo representations of different works. Performing artists should submit 2-3 visual representations of different works (in the case of musicians, submit 3-4 musical selections). Interdisciplinary work welcome. If your portfolio is not accessible online, send your portfolio to us via email attachment or link to Dropbox to ums-lobby@umich.edu. Please use subject line “UMS Artist in Residence Application: [Your Name].

Questions? Ask them in the comments below or email ums-lobby@umich.edu. We welcome your feedback.

Find out about our growing cohort of UMS Artist in Residence alumni.

In this video, 2014-15 residents chat about what they loved about and learned through the program.

Members of the media interested in more information about the program should contact Anna Prushinskaya, manager of digital media, at annavp@umich.edu.

Artist in Residence Spotlight: Vulnerability of Spirit, a reflection by Ash Arder

ash arderThis post is a part of a series of posts from UMS Artists in Residence. Artists come from various disciples and attend several UMS performances throughout the season as another source of inspiration for their work.

Ash Arder, the author of this post, is a Detroit-based artist who creates installations and sculptural objects using a combination of found and self-made materials. Through both process and output, this work investigates the relationship between people, objects, and place in order to understand use patterns and value attribution at macro and micro scales. Ash’s work is primarily rooted in urban culture.

Instructions for becoming a black African man:

Fight
Run
Fuck
Die

What happens after death? What is step 5? Step 6? Step 142?

Nora Chipaumire’s portrait of myself as my father took place in a dark room. A boxing gym in Detroit to be exact. I was with two others: an art critic specializing in the presentation of counter narratives within the contemporary art world, and an artist/curator exploring black mentifact.

Nora Chipaumire
Photo: Moment in Nora Chipaumire’s portrait of myself as my father. Photo by Chris Cameron.

We sat, dark skin, in this dark room in Detroit – a Black city. I was mostly comfortable. The spotlights would get under my skin eventually. Not when they orbited toward the section where we were seated, but when they exposed the audience. The white, white audience perched uncomfortably on bleachers in the round.

Chipaumire’s presence alongside that of two male dancers, in the middle of a boxing ring surrounded by white faces made me self-conscious. The rhythms and vibrations I felt in my gut and in my heart throughout the evening made me vulnerable. Vulnerability produced by comfort and familiarity. A vulnerability of the spirit. A vulnerability accustomed to roaming free when it is called upon. In this space, my spirit wanted to dance but could not. Too distracting were the spirits of others, scrambling to find safety and shelter where there was none. Rather, my vulnerabilities transformed into beacons of redemption. A strange humor arose out of watching this particular group respond, perhaps for the first time, to a story I already knew so intimately. The moment when the choir and the preacher simultaneously direct their energy outward.

With choreographer Nora Chipaumire at Detroit's Downtown Boxing Gym.
Photo: Choreographer Nora Chipaumire at Downtown Boxing Gym. Photo by Peter Smith.

Chipaumire’s voice sounded like pain and love. Her movement’s resembled life and death. She and the other two performers literally held in their hands the stage lights, positioning and re-positioning them in the ring to conceal and reveal themselves and us in the audience. Snarling black bodies leaped from the stage into the audience from time to time. Sweat and spit flying through the air upon jerks and cracks of the bones and backs and hips and hair of Chipaumire and the other performers. Spotlights blinding spectators on one side of the room, while those on the other side search their painfully exposed faces for meaning or comfort or simply a sign that we were going to be OK. That the experience was the good kind of uncomfortable, right? The kind that would eventually go away until we decided to remember them, of course filtering out the parts that might disturb our spirit. The tension in the room made me smile. I thought of my father and his life and smiled harder. I thought of my brother and almost laughed out loud.

Fight. Run. Fuck. Die. This was what I already knew. What black people already lived. For further instructions, go to the place where your spirit is most vulnerable. Where it can dance.

Follow this blog for more updates from Ash throughout this season. Learn more about Renegade this season.

Artist in Residence Spotlight: Inspiration in the Unusual

barbara tozierThis post is a part of a series of posts from UMS Artists in Residence. Artist in Residence Barbara Tozier works in photography with forays into video and multimedia. Born in Ohio, she settled in Michigan in 1997 after an engineering career that took her to Pennsylvania and the Netherlands. She currently works and lives in Ann Arbor. She shares her sources of inspiration in the post below.

 

Photo Credit: Barbara Tozier, UMS 2016-17 Artist in Residence

At the skatepark. Photo Credit: Barbara Tozier, UMS 2016-17 Artist in Residence.

Inspiration comes from seeing people doing what they enjoy.

On the surface, the kickoff to the UMS Renegade series, Falling Up and Getting Down was a weird juxtaposition. While skateboarding and improvisational jazz are not usually considered analogous, they definitely are. Knowing your instrument. Knowing your tools. Knowing your capabilities, but not being limited by them. Willingness to experiment, to fall down, to play a wrong note… traditionally we’re expected to learn in private and only perform or share the “final” or “best” product of our learning. Yet improvisation is all about discovering what is “best” at the moment you’re doing the thing, and the joy of the experience. These shared traits made for a fascinating performance on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. This surprised me, as I’m not normally a fan of skating nor jazz.

It was also a perfect way for me to start this Residency. I applied because in my own work I explore genre-bending ideas, I experiment, and I like to think of new ways to approach the practice of photography. I expect that the upcoming performances in the Renegade series, such as Idiot-Syncrasy, The Encounter, and Music for 18 Musicians will also be positively surprising. I already know that these pieces speak to the notion that unusual work can be appreciated and celebrated, which is exciting to me as an artist. I’m proud that I can be a part of it and look forward to learning more.

I have a small problem, though. The plan for this post was to describe what inspires my art, and maybe could inspire you too. However, as a person without traditional art-school training (the wonderful WCC program in Photography is technical), I find it difficult to explain my work and why I make the pieces that I do. That said, I am willing to make the attempt to explain myself.

My art is about making things for me, and for exploring aspects of myself that I cannot uncover any other way. My art is about experimenting, failing, adapting, and learning. My art is about the joy of doing, exactly like the skaters enjoyed nailing those tricks.

When I’m asked “who’s your favorite photographer?” I usually respond with, “I don’t have one.” This tends to confuse people. I like looking at photographs for their aesthetic value, and as I’ve learned more about technique I can better appreciate the efforts of the photographer to make the image, but I’m not particularly interested in emulating any particular photographer. For me, inspiration comes from seeing something beautiful and wondering how I can express that beauty with photography. Inspiration comes from picking up a random bit of film and wondering what I can make with it. Inspiration comes from thinking about how to present photographs outside of a screen or a wall.

My inspiration comes from wanting to be part of the unusual, it comes from wanting to know more about how things work, it comes from within. Sometimes it comes from just sitting down and doing the work. Doing the work makes the improvisation possible.

Artist in Residence Spotlight: Why Renegade?

ash arderThis post is a part of a series of posts from UMS Artists in Residence. Ash Arder, the author of this post, is a Detroit-based artist who creates installations and sculptural objects using a combination of found and self-made materials. Through both process and output, this work investigates the relationship between people, objects, and place in order to understand use patterns and value attribution at macro and micro scales. Ash’s work is primarily rooted in urban culture.

Nora Chipaumire
Photo: Choreographer Nora Chipaumire in portrait of myself as my father, part of Renegade and playing in Detroit November 17-20. Photo by Elise Fitten.

According to our trusty friend Merriam [Webster], a renegade is someone who “rejects lawful or conventional behavior.”

To be unbounded by laws is to posses a sense of freedom. To be free is to move throughout space and time according to one’s own urges and desires. The boldness of a program called “renegade” is what drew me into exploring the artists and performers in this year’s line up. The audacity of the UMS, an institution I associated with more conventional and conservative programming, to name a program Renegade was intriguing to me. This audacity felt like a direct challenge to my understanding of what UMS is or does, a challenge I am grateful to accept and confront as an Artist in Residence.

My work is inspired by the relationships between people, objects, and place. I am interested in the way people use objects, and in the way that use is shared with the public.

I think of objects as artifacts, with politics and lives of their own. How can existing objects be used to understand societal conditions? How can new objects be created in a way that rejects (or supports) societal conditions?

Place roots my thinking about people and objects. It frames my understanding of people’s relationships with objects. I think of place as the environment where people and objects live and engage with one another. To be clear, I understand objects to be as small as paper clips and as large as buildings. Environments can be controlled, like during performances on a stage or in a specific venue. I am also interested in naturally occurring environments. Those that have no agenda other than to be what and where they are.

In the case of controlled environments, like stages, I am inspired by narratives that push up against the status quo. Narratives that embed radical concepts into seemingly mundane events. In my own artistic practice, I attempt to expose counter narratives through normalizing elements of their existence. I am inspired by works that require intellectual effort on behalf of the audience. Works that are simple in practice but complex in theory and vice versa.

In naturally occurring environments, I am inspired by ritualistic behavior. Quiet observations of people and things in a space reveal countless narratives about their relationship to and value of one another. I use these revelations as motivation for new objects and experiences in my work.

I understand that in my use of the word “living” in relation to inanimate objects, I perhaps straddle the line of conventional and unconventional thinking. It has been my goal to operate in a space of lawlessness in my creative work. To freely express my thoughts.

It is with this goal in mind, that I was attracted to UMS’ Renegade programming. I hope to investigate the properties of each performance to understand how and why certain elements of these controlled environments play a role in the success of the piece as a whole.

Follow this blog for more updates from Ash throughout this season. Learn more about Renegade this season.

Applications Closed: 2016-17 UMS Artists in Residence

Applications are now closed. We’ll announce artists in August 2016.

2016-17 UMS Artists in Residence Program

UMS is pleased to announce the third installment of our artists in “residence” program. Why “residence” in quotes? Because instead of a traditional artist residence, during which artists quite literally live and work at the place where the artist residency is located, we’re asking area artists to take residence at our performances.

Five artists (including visual, literary, and performing artists) will be selected to take “residence” at UMS performances, using these experiences as a resource to support the creation of new work or to fuel an artistic journey.  

In 2016-17 season, our residency’s theme is renegade art-making and art-makers. Artists in residence can choose performances from our Renegade events.

Who should apply

We’re looking for five residents to participate in this program. We welcome artists from across disciplines including visual arts, literary arts, and performing arts. Applicants should be at least 18 years of age and should be based regionally to be able to attend performances.

Residents will receive

  • Complimentary UMS performance tickets to
    • Two to three 2016-17 Renegade performances of their choosing
    • One performance that’s not a Renegade series performance of their choosing (choose from rest of season)
    • Two “required” performances that all UMS artists in residence will attend together: a special kick-off performance on Sunday, September 11 (details to be announced) and Igor and Moreno’s Idiot-Syncrasy (January 12-14, date to be determined).
    • Performances should support an artistic journey (more on that in the application guidelines section below). Some ticket restrictions may apply.
  • Opportunities for special behind-the-scenes access to UMS and artists, based on artist availability and interest.
  • Access to gatherings with other residents and visiting artists throughout the course of the season and opportunities to share thoughts, experiences, and process.
  • $500 stipend

UMS will

  • Interview artists prior to the program’s start and at the end of the program to document residents’ journeys. Interviews and other documentation of the residency experience will appear here on our blog.
  • Ask artists to submit two short posts over the course of the year for our blog; the content of these posts is open-ended and will be determined by UMS and artists together.
  • Engage residents in selected education and community engagement activities with university and community.
  • Offer opportunities to showcase creative work in conjunction with UMS events when possible. Rights to the work remain wholly with the residents; UMS simply requests permission to share work in a manner agreed-upon with the residents.

How to apply

Submit the following materials by Friday, June 17.

  • Statement of intent. In 500 words, tell us about 3-4 UMS performances you would like to attend and explain how experiencing Renegade series performances might support your creative work. What do you hope to produce as a result of the residency?
  • CV. 1-2 page CV highlighting your artistic work.
  • Portfolio. Samples of your work. If your portfolio is available online, please send a link (or links) to your portfolio. Writers should submit 5-10 pages of work. Visual artists should submit 3-4 photo representations of different works. Performing artists should submit 2-3 visual representations of different works (in the case of musicians, submit 3-4 musical selections). Interdisciplinary work welcome. If your portfolio is not accessible online, send your portfolio to us via email attachment or link to Dropbox to ums-lobby@umich.edu. Please use subject line “Community AiR Application: [Your Name].

Questions? Ask them in the comments below or email ums-lobby@umich.edu. We welcome your feedback.

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Find out about our growing cohort of UMS Artist in Residence alumni.

In this video, 2014-15 residents chat about what they loved about and learned through the program.

Members of the media interested in more information about the program should contact Anna Prushinskaya, manager of digital media, at annavp@umich.edu.

Artist in Residence Update: Grensis

Editor’s note: Ben Willis is a musician and composer and one of our 2015-2016 artists in residence. As part of this program, artists in residence attend UMS performances to inspire new thinking and creative work within their own art forms.

Here, Ben is in conversation with Lester Crespum, an intuitive design specialist, explorer, and specious theorist.

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Ben Willis: While I know I’m at risk of injecting my own biases and suppositions into this discussion, I’d like to talk to you about how you feel about being a multidisciplinarian, the expectations and challenges thereof, and also about this looming thing called the future, which all of us understand exists, but few of us really acknowledge.

Lester Crepsum: I’d like to begin with your second point.

BW: The future.

LC: Yes.

BW: Go ahead.

LC:  (silence)

BW: Are you still there?

LC: Yes, I apologize, I was merely engaging with inevitability. I find that most claims are best reached when mediated by silence. In the case of the future, whose even existence is debatable – yet, inevitable, the question is more a case of the why than the what.

BW: Isn’t that always the case?

LC: I actually find the opposite to be true. I find myself asking “What?” and “What is that?” about pretty much everything. I also have an extremely poor short-term and long-term memory, requiring me to rely heavily on bionic augmentation.

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BW: Technology?

LC: I’m currently in the process of developing, along with a team of technologists, a series of sensory augmentation ports that I could permanently inject into my spinal column.

BW: This will improve your memory?

LC: Better, it will be incredibly painful, which will serve as a constant reminder that I am alive. So often, when just sitting, or even in situations when I am being engaged, like now, I slip into an automatic mode of existence – of relying upon my own brain. While I know that I exist entirely within my own brain, and yes, since solipsisms (once radical, now boring!) are a thing, YOU, and EVERYTHING ELSE could very well (and probably do) exist entirely within my brain, it helps to be reminded that I’ve chosen to believe otherwise. These sensory augmentation ports in my spinal column would serve as nodes of interaction with the outside world, hyperventilated and fabricated pituita serving as divine access to the noumenal. (And by noumenal, I mean anything that isn’t me, of course, or at least everything that isn’t me and also isn’t my brain, which could very well be nothing. Thankfully, there’s so much more nothing than there is something! That’s where those questions “What?” and “What is that?” come in handy. Most of the time, the answer is “I don’t know!” or, even more aggravating, “What?”)

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BW: Let’s talk about that parenthetical. You find the answer is often the question, “What?”

LC: What?

BW: I see.

LC: The future is mostly a realm of expectation. It will be or it won’t. Where do you think we will be in five years?

BW: What?

LC: Exactly! When I was embedded with the Zintook tribe in southern Smibwenbia, one of the most useful things I learned was a form of greeting. Between men, this was enacted by taking each others’ hands, making direct eye contact, and very slowly bringing your tongues to touch. The rest of the men would form a circle around you making a falsetto “Lululu” sound, in imitation mockery. Between a man and a woman, the greeters would lightly take each others’ hands, and then the woman would smack the man in the face, backhand, and then laugh. Between two women, they would just make eye contact, wink at each other, and then smile impishly. If there were other genders present, or gender fluid individuals, they would just pick one of these actions and perform it. Which was kind of more fun for the other person, if they didn’t know what was going to happen, like if a man starts going for the tongue thing, and then gets backhanded in the face! I’ve never laughed so hard.

BW: I’ve never heard of this tribe.

LC: Yes, sadly, they are largely decimated by now. And those left mostly act as weapon runners.

BW: It’s a cruel world.

LC: Business is booming for cruel people.

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Interested in more? Follow the adventures and process of other UMS Artists in Residence.

Artist in Residence Update: Being Weird in Flint

Editor’s note: Andrew Morton is a theater maker and one of our 2015-2016 artists in residence. As part of this program, artists in residence attend UMS performances to inspire new thinking and creative work within their own art forms. Andrew saw Taylor Mac’s performance. Below is his response to the show and to an artist-led workshop with his students at Flint Youth Theatre.

flint youth theatre students with machine dazzle
Flint Youth Theatre students with their creations, also with Andrew Morton and Machine Dazzle. Photo by Annick Odom.

While Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music was in Ann Arbor earlier this month, Machine Dazzle (Taylor Mac’s Costume Designer) came to do a workshop with some of my students at the Flint Youth Theatre. In preparation for the workshop with Machine, the students and I watched a couple of videos of excerpts from the 24-Decade project. During one of the videos, I was struck by what Taylor said about his interest in “imperfection fostering community.” Since the workshop with Machine and after seeing Act VII of the 24-Decade project a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of imperfection.

When I first heard these words, naturally I immediately connected them to what is still happening in Flint with the ongoing saga of our water crisis.

Yes, we have some severe challenges ahead of us, but once again the resilience of this incredibly “imperfect” community continues to inspire me.

When Machine and some of the UMS team came to Flint to work with my students, it was just a couple of days after Snoop Dogg was handing out water in my friend’s neighborhood. The day before the workshop, I had a call from a friend who had just received a call from Macklemore’s people. They were looking for a space as he was also coming to Flint and wanted to meet with some young people. Now I hear Beyoncé is raising money for Flint during her next tour. That’s great. We need money, and a lot of it. But that’s not all we need.

Machine didn’t hand out water (or money) to the kids in my class, and we didn’t really talk about how the water crisis is affecting them. It is, and we already do talk about it, a lot. Instead, we made beautifully weird and wonderful costume pieces together. We talked about what inspired us to create, and how we can use our personal stories and experiences to create a piece of art.

Being weird

One of the things I love most about working at a place like Flint Youth Theatre is that it’s one of those places that attract the weird kids, the kids who probably have a horrible time at school and feel like they don’t have many places where they can truly be themselves. At our theatre, being weird is not something to be ashamed of. It’s something to be embraced. For the two hours Machine worked with us, we were reminded of how great it is to be weird, and how it’s even better when you have a community of people to be weird with, and to create with.

Later that week I attended Taylor Mac’s performance of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: 1956-1986. I was already familiar with judy’s work (judy is Taylor’s preferred gender pronoun), but this was the first time I was able to see judy perform live, and I certainly hope it won’t be the last.

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Taylor Mac performs. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I had been looking forward to this performance since late last year when I saw a production of judy’s play Hir at Playwrights Horizon in New York, arguably one of the best productions I saw in 2015. While very much a traditional play in its structure and form, it was unlike anything I had seen in a long time. The play celebrated the shift that is happening (albeit it very slowly) as we move away from the old world order (straight, conservative, hetero-normative) to a new one that is increasingly queer, progressive, and gender-fluid. Hir was about “smashing the patriarchy” and celebrating the formation of new communities based on shared ideas and experiences, and in many ways the 24-Decade project is doing the same thing. While I experienced Hir much like we experience the majority of western theater (as a mostly passive audience member sitting in the dark) the 24-Decade performance created an entirely different experience for its audience.

At the start of the evening, judy made it pretty clear that it was no surprise that a large portion of the audience was made up of people presumed to be mostly wealthy, privileged “Ann-Arbor types.” Judy even made some of those types stand up and move to either side of the theater, in an attempt to demonstrate the concept of white-flight. In a welcome act of solidarity with the community of Flint, judy also made a point to mention the water crisis and encouraged people to tweet or email our “tough nerd” governor about it. Naturally I did this with glee, and was pleased to see the reaction of many in the audience echoed mine.

Smashing patriarchy

Despite notable differences in the audience (the queers and the straights, the Flint or Detroit types and the Ann Arbor types, the rich and the not-so rich), community was formed during the shared experience that Taylor curated over those three fabulous hours. There was laughter, joy, probably a lot of confusion, and perhaps embarrassment on the part of some members of the audience who were roped into participating. I however was more than willing to help carry out a fellow audience member who represented a dead Judy Garland as Taylor sang Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

I’m impressed by the ambitious nature of the 24 Decade project, and how judy is using performance and storytelling to build a new community, and to “smash the patriarchy” in American theater and in our culture at large.

This experience was a welcome reminder of how important it is to encourage weirdness, embrace imperfection, and help create community, and I’m thankful I get to do all of these things in a wonderfully weird and imperfect place like Flint.

Interested in more? Follow the adventures and process of other UMS Artists in Residence.

UMS Artist in Residence Update: Tanya Tagaq and the Poetry of Ecojustice

Editor’s note: Russell Brakefield is a poet and one of our 2015-2016 artists in residence. As part of this program, artists in residence attend UMS performances to inspire new thinking and creative work within their own art forms. Russell attended UMS Night School: Constructing Identity, featuring Taylor Mac and Tanya Tagaq, as well as Tanya Tagaq’s performance with Nanook of the North. Below is his response to the class and performance:

In her conversation as part of the UMS Night School’s series Constructing Identity it became apparent to me that Tanya Tagaq, in addition to being a well-renowned Inuk throat singer, is also a poet. Her work, she said, is interested in better representing the intense relationship her people share with the land. “The land eats us the way the city eats you,” she said. “Even our thread comes from sinew. We have a diet of souls.” What language, I thought. What voice! What purpose!

UMS Night School Session 3

Pictured from Left to Right: Clare Croft, Taylor Mac, Tanya Tagaq, Jim Leija at UMS Night School.

The first issue of Poetry Magazine in 2016 carries with it the enigmatic theme of Ecojustice. In the introduction to the issue Melissa Tuckey writes that Ecojustice poetry “lives at the intersection of culture, social justice, and the environment. Aligned with environmental justice activism and thought, Ecojustice poetry defines environment as the place in which we work, live, play, and worship.  It is poetry born of deep cultural attachment to the land and poetry born of crisis. It is poetry of interconnection.” This then—it seems to me—is the poetry of now, art that is essential, art that is necessary. Or perhaps this is the poetry of the perpetual now, evoked over and again in the ever-changing rush of violations against the environment, against marginalized peoples, the coupled plague there.

No matter the exact definition or the flourish of devastations that necessitates a genre such as Ecojustice, I’d like to place Tanya Tagaq and her breathtaking Nanook of the North performance squarely under this distinction. And her performance clarifies something else that I believe is crucial for art using this term—this performance was not only important but also transformative. It asked of its audience to feel as much as it asked of its audience to know. During her conversation for the UMS Night School Tagaq discussed her interest in inviting her audience to breathe, to leave the theater breathing in the experience of her people. She discussed her hope that this bodily reaction to her work would juxtapose with what the audience saw on the screen and disrupt what they knew already about the film Nanook of the North.

Tanya Tagaq 5 by Pedro UsabiagaPhoto: Tanya Tagaq. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The 1922 documentary is a spectacular work of art on its own, but it is also deeply afflicted with the stereotypes of its time. The film follows an Inuk man through his daily life in the Canadian Arctic. Often thought of as the first full-length documentary, the film was the source of an influx of dramatic ethnographic documentaries in the twentieth century. A New York Times review of the film from the year of its release praises filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty’s skill and innovation, which allows Nanook’s life to be “filled out, humanized, touched with the humor and other high points of a recognizably human existence. Thus there is body, as well as dramatic vitality, to Nanook’s story.”

But despite these groundbreaking cinematic achievements, this film also serves as a lasting reminder of the sneaky hand of history, the way people and places were routinely misrepresented or exploited in the name of art and entertainment by a dominating class of public artists. As a lasting and widely disseminated piece of art, the film perpetuates cultural insensitivity in the way that much popular culture of certain time periods does. Even as an effort of recording the practices of a people on the edge of displacement, the film raises questions for the artist and the archivist that harken back to the earliest conflicts with anthropological involvement.

Tanya Tagaq’s performance responds to both the positive impressions of the film and the negative. She embrace’s Nanook of the North for its representation of the hardships of life for her people. She draws connections between the landscape that is depicted so vividly in the film and the rich heritage and power of her people. But she also calls attention to the way the movie wrongly depicts Inuit culture, the stereotypes represented there, the omissions made out on the ice.

Her Nanook of the North performance combines traditional throat singing with other vocal textures, breath work, and movement. Tagaq’s performance is visceral, athletic, and jarring. And the performance does something the film cannot do by itself. She is not simply saying, look at this thing that is both beautiful and deeply flawed. She provides, in her accompaniment, a filter that accounts for cultural context. She provides a filter for our renewed sense of duty towards people, landscapes, and the relationships between the two. She makes art that ruptures the intellectual response to colonial fallout and instead invites audiences to re-read and re-feel the film. She invites us to breathe.

tanya tagaqPhoto: Tanya Tagaq. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I’m drawn to the idea of Ecojustice in part because it attempts to collapse the gulf between intellectual and emotional response. It also attempts to collapse the gap between social issues and issues of ecology. It is about connectivity. Somewhere amidst the heartbeat of Tagaq’s performance— drummer Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot add a wild soundscape to the piece—I found my attention divided between the music and the film. I was drawn back and forth between the film and Tagaq’s winding, dramatic performance. I felt myself giving over to her incredible vocal work and at times needed to close my eyes. Tagaq was representing everything at once— the beauty and hardship of her people, the injustices there, the wreck of the land, her own place in the history of all this.

This performance made me thankful for the poets I read in my youth, poets like Wendell Berry and, more recently, poets like C.D. Wright. These poets, like Tagaq, showed me the potential of art to speak to the mistakes of history and the troubles of now. This type of work offers artists an opportunity to reclaim the past and unwind it, unfold it.

All art is a form of translation and all translation is a form of theft. And yet here Tanya Tagaq translates the miswritten story of the past and reaches into future, into the violent landscape of possibility we call innovation.

Interested in more? Follow the adventures and process of other UMS Artists in Residence.

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