Go Deeper

(Sur)reality, Environmental Justice And Discarded Materials: A Conversation With Artist And Activist Marc Bamuthi Joseph

Posted August 2nd, 2012

Everybody worries about the environment. Even people who don’t believe in global warming aren’t keen on littering, carbon emissions, and increased instances of tsunamis, earthquakes, and floods worldwide. After all, it’s 2012, the year that it’s all supposed to collapse and kill us—right? Artist and activist Marc Bamuthi Joseph turns distress into action with his now-nationwide Life is Living festivals, and with his show, red, black & GREEN: a blues, directed at and inspired by urban audiences. You can see rbGb September 21st and 22nd at the Annenberg Center for Performing Arts as part of this year’s Live Arts Festival, but we couldn’t wait that long. We caught up with Marc to learn more about how his work is changing the world.

Dancing in the streets at Life is Living

Live Arts: Why is the show title red, black & GREEN: a blues?

Marc Bamuthi Joseph: The show’s title is taken from Marcus Garvey’s vision of a Pan-African unity and an African American repatriation from the United States and the Caribbean to Liberia. In this vision, a nationalist flag was developed wherein the colors red, black and green were used, red signifying the blood of the African people, black representing their skin, and green symbolizing the verdant African land. Our show’s title puts the word “GREEN” in all caps to emphasize the double entendre of a cohesive, post-Garvey vision of African America and as well as the nomenclature of effective environmental thought and practice. The “blues” in the title refers to the musical and poetic form that LeRoi Jones posits as the structural backbone of African American cultural practice.

LA: Did any particular event or image inspire the initial creation of this work? 

MBJ: Topically, the work is inspired by the Life is Living festivals which are local environmental interventions in under-resourced parks around the country. The festivals themselves are produced in response to the lack of demographic diversity or diversity of aesthetic approach to “green” messaging in our country. Structurally, the work was inspired by both the festivals themselves and also by the increasing shift toward hybridity in our nation’s contemporary arts centers, houses of “high” art that welcome both visual and performance art in coincidence as our piece does.

The artist at the festival – LIFE, says the shirt

LA: What is the setting of this piece?

MBJ: The piece takes place in four U.S. cities: Oakland, CA; Chicago; Houston; and Harlem, NY. Within these literal spaces, the narrative exists in more poetic and ephemeral space, toggling between the realities of shotgun houses, subway cars, park benches, and father son conversations, to more figurative spaces of collective memory, hallucination, dream and lament. The materials we used to make these (sur)realities manifest are all pulled from discarded materials, 100% Chicago garbage as the designers say, all of which demonstrate the “something from nothingness” of both the African American cultural tradition of innovation and redemption, and the exhortation and demand for recycling and repurposing of the environmental movement.

LA: You have assembled an impressive array of artists spanning a range of artistic disciplines. How do you get not just the artists, but their various modes of artistic expression, communicating with one another?

MBJ: To foster trust, love, and authentic collaboration I choose strong-minded individuals that I am personally inspired by to invite into the creative process. I don’t dictate my personal wishes to any of these people, but try to encourage volition, and the strength of individual taste in a supportive environment. Against the backdrop of faith, love, and support, these individual voices come respectfully to the table to create a meta-aesthetic, the best of all sounds, harmonizing on a theme, in response to a critical question. Our synthesis is ultimately guided by my text, but is expertly shaped by our director, Michael John Garces, whose literary and spatial sensibilities and artistic accountability are the unseen indispensable elements that make the whole engine run.

Get on your feet!

LA: You site community input and voices as some of the source material for this work. How does this input manifests itself in the final show?

MBJ: The show is a performed documentary of the process of making Life is Living happen across African America. Each moment is a hyper dream or cold truth of this process. The performance and gallery experience of the piece is a reflection of mothers too wrapped in grieving to march, activists too steeped in self-righteousness to progress, children too focused on wonder to avoid celebrating.

Life is Living is a combination of talks, performances, visual art showcases, collaborative projects, and celebration.

LA: Clearly the subject matter of environmental justice, social ecology, and collective responsibility must strike a dramatic chord with you. What does performance allow you to express regarding these issues?

MBJ: Environmental justice is the great social and technological quandary of our time. Climate crisis won’t wait for politicians to figure out the corporate price point for inaction. Nor will it discriminate when the water levels rise and the food is scarce. Conversely, performance is a mechanism to create a sense of inclusion and empathy, striking an emotional chord in a sector that is very good at scientific observation, but not so great at heartfelt communication.

LA: How do you see audiences relating/connecting to rbGb?  And what do you hope people will discuss over drinks after the show?

What’s important is that you get motivated

MBJ: Our piece is built on a foundation of collective emotional implication and energetic reciprocity. My hope isn’t so much that folks will discuss environmental themes over drinks immediately afterwards, but dream about the piece in haunting and inspiring ways for weeks. My prayer is that the haunting will take human and compassionate forms, and lead folks to act in critical and sometimes invisible ways . . .

LA: What part of the work or the process has been your favorite so far?

MBJ: The best part of the process is the ongoing production of the Life is Living festivals. rbGb is more than cosmetic in tone and form, but the strength of the work is the substance of its real-time, real life inspiration: the building of creative ecosystems among entities that share values but vary in modalities throughout the country.

Red, black & GREEN: a blues runs September 21 at 7:30pm and September 22 at 8pm at The Annenberg Center for Performing Arts, 3680 Walnut Street. $35. 25-and-under tickets $18, student tickets $10.