This article is a contribution from 2018-2019 LEIMAY Fellowship Artist Jeremy Goren. The LEIMAY Fellows are a group of local artists working individually throughout the year at the LEIMAY studio.
Five years ago this month we held the first meeting of the NYC Seed Group at West-Park Presbyterian Church on the Upper West Side. Instigated by Mario Biagini, director of the Open Program of the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards, the initial plan for the Seed Group, according to what Mario told me in one of our conversations during the planning time before the OP arrived from Italy in January 2014, was “to figure out what the Seed Group wants to be.”
In those first few meetings, held usually immediately after an Open Choir*, and sometimes including dozens of people seated in a circle in West-Park’s grand, old sanctuary, mostly we talked about why people had come and what they wanted. It was a conversation we had periodically with those who appeared during the OP’s residency and even after, when we had created a format of meeting once a week to sing together and to work on singing together, predominantly songs from the same family as those engaged by the Open Program in both the Open Choir and their more fixed, theatrical works — old songs of the African diaspora in the USA.
*[Open Choir: “The Open Choir is an exploration of what we consider a forgotten art form, which allows for fluid and active participation by all who attend. It is a free and open event, where everyone is gently invited to take part. This unique, non-sectarian meeting of people through songs of the African diaspora, carefully led by a trained core group of artists, allows people to come in contact with each other and with themselves through songs, dance, and interaction within a participatory context. Participants, coming from different backgrounds, co-create an artwork beyond cultural and social differences, catalyzing a shared space of meaningful recognition and interaction.” www.theworkcenter.org/open-choir]
Throughout those first few years, the group continued to speak about individual desire, even as some of us engaged in some kind of work towards mutual responsibility. Mario and I talked to each other about parameters and questions: how (and if) to work productively in the circumstances of a voluntary, once-a-week endeavor; what kinds of demands we wanted the people attending Seed Group to make of each other, if any; how we were not a performance group. (Despite the participation of some performers, there were non-performers, as well, and the group never espoused a goal of creating a performance.) I recall that we wanted to see what people needed and to see if we could do those things together — or at least facilitate them through mutual effort.
Early on, in response to my frustration about a lack of consistent attendance among my fellow Seed Groupers, Mario told me: “Seed Group is whoever appears that night”. It was up to each person’s individual desires to determine how much, how often, and in what ways we involved ourselves in the weekly sessions and the, usually, twice-annual residencies of the Open Program in NYC.
People came and went. Some folks appeared just occasionally to join in the singing. Some of us were deeply involved in the conception and execution of the various facets of the Open Program’s larger endeavor that became called the NYC Open Choir Movement. This included the nascent relationship with the community of St. Augustine Our Lady of Victory in the Bronx, particularly with members of the Catholic church’s gospel choir, later with the various groups around the Bronx’s Andrew Freedman Home and, even later, the latest center of community, The Peoples’ Forum in Midtown. One might have seen a progression growing towards more explicit social-political focus in the work of the Open Program and for some of us in the Seed Group.
During this time a question hung in the background for the Seed Group: Did our “members” want to be involved in these facets of the Open Choir Movement that required something different from us and perhaps answered to a different kind of call? Not only a following of our individual desires and needs or the growth of a small, insular community (which has, I think, gone in and out) but an engagement with other people and societal dynamics in ways that called for honest and rigorous work on the self in ways perhaps different from how most of us probably thought of “work on the self” in an acting context. How to evaluate this?
Since the beginning nothing had been mandated. Somehow, part of the point was to go ahead without expectation, as a way of working that was very anti-New York, in the sense of being completely without focus on goals, without ambition, without demands -- except maybe a quiet hope that not just our competency in singing these songs and singing them together (this topic requires much more writing) might grow, but also some amount of intangible cultural intelligence and subtle elements of community might appear. Some of us had looked to serve each other.
In the past year, another element emerged. As the more explicitly politically-oriented elements of the work developed — to and through organizing a conference about mass incarceration in the USA and its racist operations, along with the development of Will Be Heard, a performance engaging the same and related themes, created with Bronx artists — an invisible sort of interior pressure began to build and, this fall, resulted in the surge of a question that has long lingered around the edges of the Open Program’s work: What is owed to the traditions and living members of traditions of the songs they and we had been singing? How could this majority-white collection of non-performers and performers, the Seed Group, continue to sing African-American songs?
We had come together, in a sense, because of individual desires and for a variety of purposes, known and unknown to ourselves and each other. We were not creating performances or cutting albums; we made no money. It wasn't the usual scenario of cultural appropriation. But: What were our responsibilities to each other, to the songs and their creators — and to the black people of this country for whom these traditions are alive and vital? Could we continue in a way that could be justifiable ethically? If so, how?
We have adhered to the social-practice tenet of not jumping in and out of a community; the work has been fairly steady and long term. For some of us, relationships with members of the St. Augustine community have developed. Some are trying to pay with sweat the privilege of singing the songs we sing: the work to sing better (even as what “better” is complex); the work to support logistically what we do together; the work to continue building genuine relationships; to work to learn. But, is it enough? Are we doing it for real, or are we fulfilling a typical, white practice of doing just enough to make ourselves feel comfortable again after a disruption of conscience but without really changing anything or putting in enough work?
As our nation has moved into an era of more public (and, I’m assuming, private) reckonings, in certain ways, particularly around the past and continuing racism, visible and invisible, that wields devastating violence throughout our society, this question of following individual desire and refusing to make demands on each other with which the Seed Group began has slammed up against the responsibilities we owe each other in our group and our society and particularly what those of us who are not black owe to our black friends and neighbors and their ancestors, who over generations created some of the finest-wrought, most beautiful, most sophisticated, and most effective cultural constructions that exist in our society and with which we have the privilege to engage.
I think Seed Group has provided many of us who attend the Monday sessions something remarkable. And, I think we, in turn, have helped provide — for many others who have attended the events we’ve put on as the Seed Group and/or in support of the Open Program — what one Hatian-American participant called an “oasis” in the city. Members of the gospel choir at St. Augustine have visited to sing with us in Manhattan; one has joined the Seed Group as one of the most dedicated members. At the request of her friends, we put on a memorial service for a young participant who passed away. Some have visited St. Augustine friends at their homes and invited them to ours. Some are engaging in some degree of soul raking. Some sing “better" than we did. But the dynamics of white ignorance, white privilege and white fragility of the larger society -- of racism -- are still at work.
The last time I published in conectom, in May 2014, I wrote about a belief I held then in the importance, in art, of both passion and a type of ignorance, in intentionally doing certain things in the “wrong” ways — ways that eschew the priorities of Protestant productivity and wise career choices. (I probably still hold it.) At the time, I was trying to understand how to work from individual desire and pass beyond self-indulgence towards the goal of a kind of greater service — “emerging from my desire, reaching out to others.”
Writing now, it surprises me a bit to look back and see that I’m still wrestling with the same question — but with the added element of social responsibility and the complications of struggling for my own racial awareness and that of this Seed Group endeavor. I imagine many artists have spent a lot of time over the past few years re-examining why and how we make art. Here, we might ask: Is the Seed Group art? (We might also ask if that matters for the question at hand.) If some self-identified artists are involved but the endeavor might be defined as a kind of community group that doesn’t aim at artistic production, even if working with art elements and under the umbrella or at least the instigation of a distinctly artistic project, are the responsibilities different? Or, does this blurred line rather point us more directly towards what could be an advance in understanding for the white members of the group and also for something of society more at large, if only we have the guts — and the desire?
What are the responsibilities of artistry in this context? Of leadership? Of fellowship? How and why should the Seed Group continue past its fifth anniversary? Should it at all? And how did those of us who met the Open Program as actors in a theatre context find ourselves at this point, asking these questions of ourselves and our “acting” endeavors? What does this have to do with theatre? Why has this question of social and individual human responsibility gained a greater visibility over the past two years? Can we go ahead knowing that, regardless, we will likely fail at this endeavor as its stands now? …meaning, if we acknowledge that some of the basic parameters of what we do (meeting once/week, not requiring certain levels of work, etc.) will hold back real change for us in terms of social responsibility and individual needs?
In December 2018, at the end of the most recent Open Program residency in NYC, in which some members of the Seed Group had played roles in a performance of the Open Program/community members/artists (the new iteration of Will Be Heard), we had a Seed Group meeting with Mario. On the second-floor seating area of a Manhattan pay-by-the-pound cafe, with too bright fluorescent lights and a questionable bathroom, we talked less about our individual desires and more about rights and responsibilities, about seeing truth and competency and paying our debts. There were a lot fewer of us than in those first meetings in the West-Park sanctuary five years ago. It was a different place. I think we did question our desires now in the face of racial questions. Again we’re asking what the Seed Group wants to be.
Mario left us with a suggestion to work more on texts and to bring texts that spoke to what we were experiencing and talking about with each other, particularly around questions of race — to unquiet the soul and pursue that unquiet. He also acknowledged we might not have the mechanisms or circumstances to do this.
The other night, I was working on one of these texts with one of my fellow Seed Groupers, who does not consider herself a performer. She made something very clear for me, talking about choosing texts to bring into Seed Group: She distinguished between “what touches me" and “what — that matters — I want to communicate”. I wonder if that’s a leap the rest of us can and should make -- and what might come next.
Jeremy Goren is a performing artist, youth educator and a third-time LEIMAY Fellow. www.jeremygoren.com
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