Art During Wartime

Seattle artists reflect on their roles and their relevance.

THE CLIMAX GOLDEN TWINS are an experimental sound collective whose sharp, dissonant collages can be heard on CD and accompanying dance and art shows. Robert Millis is a founding member.

Do you feel a responsibility as an artist to comment on current events?

There are no rules, and there is nothing special about artists[we have] no more or no less responsibility than other so-called humans. Though I might talk about it endlessly at a dinner party, I feel no compunction to comment directly on the war or current events with music. That said, however, a response is in the music somewhere, simply because the music and sounds we create are part of us.

How can art, made during a time of war, affect the larger culture?

I like to think that musicall artcan make people, or society as a whole, question and feel through melody, image, words, and laughter. Change or awarenessself-awarenesscan come through that. One has to make the connections oneself for it to really work. Thats the theory, anyway, but rarely do people think or feel that deeplyperhaps they do not let themselves. Throughout history there have been millions of exceptional artists, writers, and musicians, creating exquisite and timeless works, expressing, connecting, revealing, protesting, advancing our cultureand somehow we are still a violent, greedy, bigoted, and stupid race that needs more therapy than you can shake a stick at (if thats your idea of a good time). Of course, this war is awful and cynically perpetrated on innocents by a greedy and imperialistic and illegitimate government. But Dick Lon Cheney probably goes home and, while cracking open a fresh container of hearts, listens to Mozart just like the characters in A Clockwork Orange rob and kill while listening to Beethoven. We humans are ridiculously complex and conflicted beings, and I think our culture and society make us more and more so.

How does the chaos of the Climax Golden Twins relate to the chaos of war?

Our music is fairly abstract. Abstraction is the magic of music. It comes from chaos and goes toward chaos. As we all do. Our morals, our social constructs, our rationality, are flimsy tools for navigating this complexity, this chaos. Music might be a better tool, but it is one of those confusing tools with lots of tiny attachments, a lost power supply, and no manual. Laura Cassidy

I do believe artists must use every opportunity to speak out about perceived injustice. We will not be heard adequately via any corporate-controlled media, so every medium must be used to accomplish this: a rock show, an art gallery, bumper stickers, e-mails, protests, graffiti, political patches on clothing, whatever.

TYRONE BARNETT is a comedian from Tacoma who has been doing comedy since he got out of the Army in 1996. Earlier this year, he made it to the semifinals of Star Search on CBS.

Is the war affecting your routine?

Its not really affecting it, cause I dont really have any material on the war. I just do my set. I dont do anything hard-core about peoples belief systems, because apparently you cant do that without having your career in jeopardy. Performers are like, You cant say anything. They see what happened to the Dixie Chicks.

What about audiences? What are they expecting?

I just did a couple cities in the Midwest. The audiences, I find, they want to forget about the war. Its everywhereyou cant be in your house for 10 seconds without seeing something on it. I think when they come out, they just want to forget about whats going on in the world. The closest joke I did about the war was, Man, this war is actually the best thing to happen to America, violence is down. Gas prices are so high, the drive-by shootings have stopped.

You were in the military for six years. Do you do any material about that experience?

No, cause I didnt really find anything in it that was funny. The last few years were so miserable, I just wanted to get out. And now it wouldnt be p.c. to do jokes about it anyway. I dont want my career to be over before it starts. Mark D. Fefer

ARTHUR S. AUBRY translates the silent language of industry into brightly colored photographs of decay, erosion, and rust. He showed often at the former Esther Claybrook Gallery.

As an artist, do you feel a responsibility to respond to current events?

I walk around and interpret what I see through a camera. This does not give me any special insight as to what is going on. I will no doubt process and eventually internalize it, I will no doubt change, but the work kind of does its own thing. I dont exactly know why I shoot what I shoot. Its an itch I gotta scratch, thats all I know.

How are art and politics related?

I dont think theyre related, or rather, I dont think they should be.

During the previous war in the Middle East, I was included in a group show via Artist Trust. The letter from the head of the organization at the time compared the group of artists efforts to that of the troops over there. For some reason, this enraged me. I stormed down to the gallery and almost got myself arrested removing my photos. This was a purely intuitive reaction; I could not say why exactly I had to disassociate myself from that comparison. L.C.

A BIOGRAPHY OF FERNS is an art-influenced punk three-piece whose self-released debut album, Merchants of Sleep and Purpose, is distributed by K Records. Justin Hamacher is the bands singer/songwriter.

Do you feel a responsibility to respond publicly to the war?

I do believe artists must use every opportunity to speak out about perceived injustice. We will not be heard adequately via any corporate-controlled media, so every medium must be used to accomplish this: a rock show, an art gallery, bumper stickers, e-mails, protests, graffiti, political patches on clothing, whatever.

What is the best way to express ones opinions and ideas?

A volley of insults wont get anyone to open up to you. I have found the best route to getting someone to address the validity of their value system is through humor or exposing them to something that elicits compassion. I have been reading a ton of French surrealism lately. The poignancy of some of these writers working under a Nazi occupation and the themes they focused upon (liberty and love) are eerily apropos right now.

There are different levels of activism, from speaking up at your family reunion, even though youre greatly outnumbered by suddenly creepy war-supporting uncles, to graffiti on the back of a Safeway or chaining yourself to something at the Federal Building. I havent yet reached a conclusion as to Ghandis statement of violence against property being violence against person, but more and more I am agreeing. Peaceful mass demonstrations managed to get the British out of India. L.C.

LINDA PESCHONG is a visual artist and photographer who has exhibited at SOIL gallery and last years Lava 2002 show. Together with Jesse Paul Miller as Lepus Labs, she creates live collaged and manipulated film projects.

Do you feel a responsibility to respond to the war in Iraq?

I dont feel a responsibility to change the direction of what I create to directly respond to the war, but I do feel a really strong need to take part in the fight to retain our rights of self-expression. I fear that the seduction of marketing has succeeded in developing a passive acceptance of the war, because I see the lack of response to it every day.

How have you incorporated your political, sociopolitical, or personal views into your art in the past?

My artwork isnt necessarily a direct personal response to specific events. I dont see my art with an agenda or means to an end. I prefer to ask questions or challenge perceptions. A direct message is not my goal. When situations are as they are now, my impetus is not to stay in a studio working over a politically motivated piece but to take part in some kind of action. Any creative work I do right now is more of an escape from it all.

What is the role of the underground in times of injustice?

The underground has always taken the position of dispensing information and challenging truths. The underground, to me, seeks the grit of whats happening: unglossed and real. I look to it as the check for what we dont get in mainstream paths. Can it affect the amorphous status quo? I have real doubts about that. American culture is generally disinterested in that which challenges their spoon-fed popular beliefs. Here again, I dont think of it as a responsibility of the underground but more of an all-out desire to be heard; a desire to exercise our voices in whatever form. Whether the undergrounds noise will go down in history books, I dont think that should be a goalmaybe I am wrong here, thats just my gut reaction. People are pissed off about whats going on, and the underground has always embraced the spirit of expression, big or small. The ideals of D.I.Y. will never die; the more we participate in them, the more vital they are. We all know that apathy is the governments best friend. L.C.

PETER GIARDINA teaches music and fine arts to kids at Hillside Elementary School on the Fort Lewis Army base outside Tacoma.

Is the current war affecting how you teach art?

Im a little more careful about things that might be more emotional for the kids in some way or another. I have to be careful of some of the patriotic songs that I select. America (My Country Tis of Thee) is kind of one that the children are concerned about.

Why that one?

Well, just Land where my fathers died. That was the part that I think really upset some of the kids.

Do you feel like the war has made your work any more or less important?

Its taken on a more serious tone. When we are singing, we are thinking seriously about our families and the job they need to do, and of our jobs here, of what we need to do.

What role do you think art and culture play for your students right now?

I dont see it directly, but I think indirectly, they may tend to use it as a vehicle to perhaps calm their nerves. There are a couple of projects that [the school counselor] has them do which are art-based, to have them relax and put down their emotions on paper. Katie Millbauer

MEA CULPA is a rock band whose songs have titles like George Orwell Must Be Laughing His Ass Off, Massacre High, and Corporate Nation. Bill Bullock is the singer and guitarist.

Do you feel compelled to alter what you do in response to current events? Have you done so in the past?

Mea Culpa is and has been a socially and politically engaged band since its inception, so it would be strange for us not to comment on this somehow. I think the primary responsibility, though, is to respond honestly and intelligently. Its very easy to fall into the pitfall of bumper sticker politics, especially when youre trying to write a song which requires a hook and certain elements of song craft (rhyming, meter, etc.), and that can limit complexity in some ways. Lately Ive been trying to attain the kind of political songwriting that somebody like Leonard Cohen does with a song like The Future or Everybody Knows, where you evince all these feelings that situations like these bring with them (dread, anger, hope, helplessness, black humor, etc.), and you kind of cut open the underbelly of the situation with a very subtle scalpel, and you never name names or turn it into something dogmatic, like just a screed, but more of something about the universal things that drive us into horrible situations like this. And I think people still get thatthey get the point without hitting them in the face with it.

What are the potential pitfalls when you allow art and politics to intermingle?

I think, at a time like this, its even more important for an artist who wants to make a political statement to put even more time and effort into making it a really intelligent, well-thought-out statement, because the stakes are higher. If somebody just writes a song thats just Fuck war, fuck the president, I think it ends up just looking like opportunism or you dont know what youre talking about. Ive really pushed myself to be as complex and as articulate as possible in lyrics I write lately. L.C.

Pianist MINA MILLER heads Music of Remembrance, an organization devoted to Holocaust-related music.

How does your art relate to todays political scene?

Both sides in todays debate have laid claim to Holocaust history and imagery to make their case. For me, the clearest lesson [we] can bring from the Holocaust is on the danger of silence and on the courage of those who resisted. When we remember that the Holocaust depended on the silence of large numbers of ordinary citizens, then it becomes clear that all of us todayincluding those who criticize our government and question our countrys role in Iraqhave not only a right but a responsibility to speak loudly. If we allow criticism to be suppressed in the name of patriotism, or if we accept the denial of civil liberties to classes of citizens in the name of security, then we will truly have failed to learn from the Holocaust. Gavin Borchert

STEPHANIE ELLIS-SMITH is founder and executive director of the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas and a commissioner on the Washington State Arts Commission.

How much do you think the current political climate is affecting the cultural climate?

I think it affects it a great deal. Positively by people who see cultural activities as an outlet for their confusion and fear. Arts and culture can offer new perspectives and challenge us to think differently about ourselves and the world around us. It also has somewhat of a negative impact from the perspective of an arts producer who depends on advance ticket purchases and fund-raising. I believe that, like me, many people are waiting until the last moment to make decisions about activities outside the homeespecially those with a price tag attached. Also, raising money can be more challenging as well when people may be giving to relief organizations, political causes, or simply not at all because of our nations economic uncertainty.

Art, culture, and scholarship are what make for an informed citizenry, and that is the ultimate goal of the CD Forum and many of our peers as well. K.M.

PATRICK HOLDERFIELD is a sculptor and painter who manages to be both sophisticated and absurd. His two-headed animals have been shown at the James Harris Gallery.

Do you feel a responsibility to respond to the war in Iraq?

No. Unfortunately, this is a time when its clear that no one really pays attention to artists when they are thoughtful in what they are creating. The only time art gets political attention is when its blatantly offending someone.

My views on what is happening right now are mixed. I dont see it as the black-and-white issue we seem to be encouraged to [see], so it would be difficult for me to create work with the intent of affecting opinions. Besides, art that preaches is boring. I also believe that art made during times of war[art that] directly relates to itcan too easily be hijacked from the artist, misinterpreted, and forced into use as propaganda.

The undergrounds rumble often grows louder with political unrest (and with Republicans in the White House). Do you feel a need to comment simply because other artists have before you?

During the first Gulf War, I was in college, and I made a lot of work about what was going on. Afterwards, I felt most of what I did were simply reactionary superficial images. I was bending what I had been doing around a current event and coming up with disingenuous work. There are artists out there who base their entire bodies of work on political issues, and they have created some really potent images.

For me, now Id be more interested in the lasting psychological effects [that] war has on people. Its safe to say all of my anxieties about this will find their way into my work one way or another, at some point or another.

Should art and politics intersect? Or should they stay out of each others way?

Art is emotional. Politics (should be) rational. As with science and art, I believe one can benefit from aspects of the other, but one should never be confused for the other. We all seem to strive to be so inclusive as to what art is nowadays that I dont think anyone is really sure anymore.

We know politics can interfere with art. Can art interfere with politics?

Art shouldnt. Journalism should, documentary filmmaking should, well-written letters to the editor should. What art can do, however, is interfere with the regular ways people think about and understand their world. I think that is what leads to the tearing down of ineffectual systems. L.C.

JOHN RODERICK fronts the local rock band the Long Winters, whose latest record, when i pretend to fall, will be released May 6 on Barsuk Records.

Is the war affecting your work at all so far?

It doesnt seem to be. We were on tour when the war started and got to hear lots of unsolicited opinions across the Southwest, but even in Texas, people seemed to have pretty complex reactions. At least people in rock clubs.

Do you feel compelled to alter what you do in response to current events?

No way. Im always shooting for the opposite, trying to write in a way thats outside of current events.

Do you better serve your political beliefs by changing your art to address the political climate or by staying focused on whatever you usually do?

The latter. Dogmatic art just preaches to the converted. Even Picassos Guernica was journalism as much as art. I hope the war focuses me more on general human failing rather than falling into the trap of thinking that our despotic regime in Washington is somehow unique.

How much do you feel the current political climate affects the cultural climate in general?

The current political climate is as much the product of the cultural elite as of the fanatical right. For the last 20 years, the left has just rolled over while messianic Christians take over the government. While the various left groups argued about who was the more oppressed minority group, the right was consolidating power. Now theyre fighting a holy war, and we dont even have a coherent protest movement, let alone a resistance. So the agents of culture have their own inattention to blame.

Do you feel like your art can have an effect on the political scene?

I mean, I make indie rock. It may have a Butterfly Effect in the sense that it raises the general amount of cultural material that isnt violent, racist, or pornographic, but the typical indie-rock fan isnt a war-monger by definition.

Do you think theres a uniformity of political views among arts participants in Seattle?

Who knows? I think arts participants are afraid to speak their real opinions. They dont want to offend, and they never want to be challenged. So they make bland anti-war pronouncements that cant possibly reflect their actual opinions. Personally, I want to form an Army of Secular Justice and march to Washington. Whos with me? Leah Greenblatt

TONYA LOCKYER is co-director of the multimedia dance group VIA. Her new work, Engagement, an exploration of the nature of crisis, premieres this weekend as part of the Northwest New Works Festival at On the Boards.

Much of your choreography addresses cultural differences and borders. Why?

It really came from a desire to have a conversation and learn about other cultures and myselfto find out what we have in common and how we experience the world, but then you find out how different we really are. We are all foreign countries to each other. I can never know another personI can only pay attention and be respectful.

When you cross a border, youve lost a history, a voice. Theres a mythology that supposedly people coming to the U.S., the land of free, dont miss where they came from. Its odd that we would think that the Iraqis would dance for joy when someone else has stepped onto their territory.

Does this cultural awareness help you to understand the current situation?

From artists in Iran and Iraq I heard stories of childhood, and I thought I could understand them in some small way. But with 9/11, the visceral impact of that dayI didnt have a clue, I couldnt comprehend this experience no matter how I tried. I reject unwarranted pain inflicted by others. I cannot comprehend itnot just the citizens of Iraq but also our soldiers and others involved.

Do you consider your work political?

I dont think I work in the political so much as the social realm, between personal and political. Im not on a moral high ground making didactic statements . . . but if giving voice to people who are usually silent is a political act, then, yes, my work is political.

How has the current international situation been affecting you?

My current piece [Engagement] is more abstract. This period right now is not black and white. Its not truthful to make something without doubt.

The times have made me really look at the relationship between art and war. We use the same language: engagement in the art of war or the art of theater. I read [Sun Tzus] The Art of War. The soldier and the artist are seeking a similar place: They practice and practice to become an instrument in the hands of something unknown, with no thought outside the moment. Sandra Kurtz

One of the reliable pleasures of the fringe scene, actor JULIE RAWLEYwho recently stole the show vocalizing in Annexs The Changelinghas just completed a novel, Victory Garden, and is branching out as lead singer in a new band, StarHole 67.

Do you feel like youre approaching what you do more carefully? Is that even a responsibility?

Well, Ive been thinking ever since the war started, What is my role? What am I going to do? How can I be an activist? And nothing has come to me very clearly, except that its a time when we really need to think for ourselves. . . . The more that people can get out and be in theater where all of their senses are being provokedplus the fact that theyre surrounded by strangers[the more it] makes them open up and touch whats really hitting them inside, and it makes people really think for themselves.

Do you think its important to be doing war-themed art right now?

I do think its important that we have stories that are directly addressing whats happening, just to see how people react in a live setting. As many opportunities as we can give for people to be faced with the questions and to ask themselves, Am I going to respond to this? Do I have the courage to stand up and say something? I think is very important. But I also think that these issues can be addressed in non-war theater, in stories that have nothing to do with whats going on right now. Steve Wiecking

BARTLETT SHER is the artistic director of Intiman Theatre.

How much do you feel its your duty to plan a season according to political climate?

I see my role as helping people to have experiences that help them ask questions more deeply and with a greater openness. The biggest problem for me is that the whole thing becomes this yelling match between the right and the left. Theater is at its best if its provoking people to ask questions about their own lives and their own role as human beings very profoundly. We do six plays a yearsome of them will be exactly in their moment, and some wont.

Do you think theater should comfort and reassure people at all now?

Yes, absolutely, [but] it depends on the context. Its such a big forum that you cant monolithically say, It must now challenge everything, or, It must now only comfort and support the troops. Thats what I mean by asking the questions more deeply. If we only have those two answers, then we cant proceed. S.W.

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