Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Sarod and Kathak Concert, December 15

My kathak teacher Gretchen Hayden and her husband, sarodist, George Ruckert, will be performing a concert this Saturday, December 15th at 7:30pm at MIT's Kresge Auditorium. They will be joined by Pandit Ramesh Misra on sarangi and Aditya Kalyanpur on tabla.

Judging from the last Saturday night concert she gave I expect that come Sunday morning, Gretchenji will push us to our very limits during class.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Twelve in Boston Phoenix

This week's Boston Phoenix ran a feature story on the film Twelve. Twelve is an anthology film made up of a dozen short pieces, one for every month of the year, each by a different filmmaker.

I had a small role in the September segment directed by Joan Meister. We shot in Copley Square in the Back Bay of Boston-- perhaps my favorite site of architectural contrast in Boston: The neo-classicism of the Boston Public Library, Richardson Romanesque of Trinity Church, and the high modernism of the John Hancock building all facing one another -- the entire cast had to recite the same line of poetry to the camera in close-up, and mill about the plaza.

During the downtime in between my shots, I was often revising my play script by hand, which, taken literally, means my writing may have appeared on film-- though certainly not in a manner that would make me eligible for WGA membership.

Gretchen Hayden profiled in Boston Globe

This past Saturday, the Boston Globe profiled my kathak teacher, Gretchen Hayden who was performing a concert with the band Natraj that night. While Gretchenji had many a time told us stories about her own training with Chitresh Das, I had never known how it was that she came to kathak dance. Hopefully, the publicity will bring good things to Gretchenji and Chhandika, the school she founded.

Natraj is a Boston-based group that fuses jazz with both Indian classical music and West African traditional repertoire, and includes percussionist Jerry Leake who last month came to our Kathak intensive to discuss the role of tabla and of bols in Hindustani music.

The band takes its name from Shiva's incarnation as the cosmic dancer or "King of the Dance", and so the concert began with an invocation to Shiva, danced and mimed by Gretchenji. Gretchenji returned to the stage to perform with Natraj when they played Hindustani and Hindustani-inspired repertoire, including a comical tale of the young Krishna as a sweet butter thief (which I had seen Gretchenji perform in 2003 before I had become a student one of her students-- indeed a similar story of Krishna by another dancer had been my introduction to the storytelling and mimetic aspects of Indian classical dance.) The concert ended with a complex call and response, in which Gretchenji and Jerry Leake exchanged bols (the verbal notation of rhythmic motifs) whereupon Gretchenji translated these bols into the percussive footwork for which kathak is known and the musicians each responded with improvisations based on these phrases.

The next day, perhaps energized by the concert the night before, Gretchenji presented a more challenging than usual Sunday class. Particularly memorable were the 32 spins or chakkars we had to execute just as we were coming out of a ta thei tata thei a thei tata thei motif. I must be improving as I managed to get somewhere past my 24th chakkar before losing count and finding the momentum had was actually making it difficult stop. Once we did I was far less dizzy than expected. I resolved that I had more bols to recite and memorize before the next class. This week my project has been dha tere kita taka tuna kat dha tere kita taka tuna kat.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Feedback and Redrafting

While visiting family for the Thanksgiving holidays I slipped away to the local coffeehouse for a macchiatto and a few hours of revision work on the manuscript of my play.

Back in April, I submitted the play for a series of open readings so to workshop it into a finished draft. The play was not selected this time around, but I did receive some useful feedback from the reviewer, playwright Lisa Burdick, while while a couple of weeks prior, a trusted friend, Bernard Sheehan, (and creator of the webcomic, Brainfries) who had read the same draft also weighed in.

Without going into details, I realized that most of the problems with the script had not been solved by the set of revisions I wrote about previously. One matter that was pointed out to me was that it was not economically possible for most professional companies to stage a show with such a large cast of characters. Once upon a time, in a far away land, when theatre had far less competition from forms of entertainment and actors could live on nothing but air and applause, such a thing could have been possible. Today, theatre is neither film nor television, where an actor can be hired for a role that requires a single day of shooting or where a supporting character can appear again and again without any indication they might have a pivotal role to play.

While some of the problem can be solved with simply having some of the supporting characters be played by the same actor (as I sometimes do) the feedback I received also indicated that a couple of the characters simply did not work and they introduced subplots that distracted from and confused the resolution of the main story lines. Interestingly enough, both readers had problems with the same characters. While my first impulse was to defend my rationale for creating these characters, I came to realize that if I had to defend the presence of a character to two readers who otherwise found the story interesting then the fault was with the characters that I had written, not with the readers' understanding. In the end, I decided to give four characters the axe, taking with them most of their respective plot points. However, since some of those story elements needed to be saved I had to grafted them onto the remaining characters. In one case, that resulted in what had previously been two supporting characters becoming one who was far more central, in fact, I might even say that as this new draft is taking shape, that it has a whole new protagonist, whose motives are far more apparent than either of her predecessors.

The other consequence of this smaller cast of characters is that different things happen at different times for different reasons so at times it seems as if, rather than reshaping the storyline, I am discovering the storyline as it reshapes itself. It's an exciting and joyful process to make such discovers. The central issues still remain, but the story that is emerging is now very different from the actual events that first inspired me to write this tale.

Circuit Wraps

Filming for Circuit, a feature film in which I appear, wrapped last month and is currently in post production. In September of 2006 I wrote of my evening on the set:

Originally, I had auditioned for one of the lead roles in an attempt to extend my horizons as a performer. When Ben [Woodard, one of the writers] called me back a week later, he explained that while he and Andrew [Landauro, the director and co-writer] did not think that my interpretation was anything like what they had envisioned for the character of Doug, they had decided to write a new character for me. It’s a small role, but the dialogue was well written, the location was the neon-lit exterior of the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, MA, and I had the important props of a top hat, a baguette, and a grocery bag. Throw in some good actors with whom to share the scene and what more can you ask for?

Owing to the financial difficulty of being first time filmmakers, it took a long time for Andrew and Ben to get this piece done. Almost a year and a half passed between auditioning for a role and my being placed in front of the cameras and then it still took a little more than a year to finish filming. Kudos are in order.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Kathak Intensive

Last weekend was the third weekend intensive I have attended since I began studying kathak at Chhandika under the tutelage of Gretchen Hayden. It has been a great undertaking to attempt to learn one of the classical dance forms of India, but what worthy undertaking is not difficult? In the past year, while I am still in the level I classes, I have attained some small amount of technique, confidence, and knowledge. The advantage of the weekend intensives is that it is a way of broadening one's understanding of kathak, often touching on subjects and exercises for which we have little time in our regular Sunday classes.

At one point Gretchenji had us dance tatkar in tintal (a sixteen beat cycle) in a circle, as one by one, one of us had to enter the circle and improvise a rhythmic motif and then return to the tatkar-- it was a circle where I was the only level I student in a room of level II and III students and having far less mastery over far fewer bols than my classmates left me anxious about an exercise that was difficult for many more advanced students, but when pushed to let go of my anxiety, Gretchenji pointed out that the important thing was that I attacked the improvisation with intensity even if my technique has far less developed. Again she taught me the same lesson when the more advanced students had to do a particularly difficult series of chakkars (spins on the heel of the foot-- different from the ballet pirouette which is done on the toe or ball of the foot) while traveling in a straight line across the studio space (difficult even for some advanced students) when it seemed impossible for me, she had me walk the line that the others danced, and I delivered the intensity that has come from my years as a mime. The lesson I took was do not let my awareness of what I don't know prevent me from dancing in the moment.

Later, when joined by some other level I students, we were assigned to develop our own tihais a dance phrase built on the same rhythmic motif or palla repeated three times in this case, a seventeen beat motif created from three five beat phrases with two one beat pauses in between. We had to create, rehearse, and perform our tihai -- again, a challenge to which we were unaccustomed in the level I classes.

Through the weekend we also had the chance to attempt more advanced repertoire like the storytelling from which my interest in Indian classical dance in general, and kathak in particular, first emerged. Appropriately, our intensive being on the taking place during the festival of Diwali (my friend from the blogosphere, Sindhu has posted a piece on Diwali on her blog) one of those stories we worked on was the defeat of the prideful Lord Indra by when Krishna lifted Govardhan hill to shelter the cowherds and their cows and again I realized, that for all my shortcomings with my footwork, I enjoy acting the part of Indra.

The intensive was also an opportunity to have musicians give extended presentations on how tabla, vocal music, and poetry relate to our dance studies, ultimately leading me to better understand how the rhythmic elements of the music relate to movement. Now the matter is getting my feet to learn what my mind is beginning to grasp.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Wall has Two Sides in Burlington

I was naîve to assume the story of the controversy surrounding the exhibition of Peter Schumann's "Independence Paintings" had come to an end, as I just ran across some more references to it.

I'm not sure how this escaped my notice for over a month but my letter to the editor was published in Seven Days, in it I comment on journalist Ken Picard's article, "Over the Wall" (some of my comments appeared in an earlier blog entry.) In the interim, Picard and I had a civil email exchange where we discussed our differing views on how stories of this complexity should be ideally covered. Ultimately, I think our biggest differences owed to his being concerned with his being a working journalist who has to worry about deadlines and space constraints, while I am a blogger and an artist who doesn't think of such things as often.

Other responses to the story can be read here. That said, I do think his follow-up story, "The Wall has Two Sides" is a very well done story that juxtaposes the reactions of two Vermonters, one of Jewish, and one of Palestinian Arab descent to the exhibition.


While Ken Picard’s story, “Over the Wall,” was the most comprehensive story to appear in the Burlington press regarding the controversy surrounding Peter Schumann’s “Independence Paintings” at this year’s Art Hop, it failed to address the key issues of the debate.

The three most vocal critics of the piece and its exhibition — Rabbi Joshua Chasan, Ric Kasini Kadour and I — have never stated any opposition to art representing the Palestinian plight, nor have we advocated censorship. Our position was that the work, by appropriating imagery of the Holocaust in a manner that we found intellectually dishonest, amounted to soft-core Holocaust denial (in terms of minimalizing or trivializing the genocide) and thus, anti-Semitism.

Mr. Kadour’s essay asked that the work be presented in a context where that would be clear. Rabbi Chasan’s letters to Art Hop’s organizers were to ask them to consider the ethical implications of the exhibit, and his letter to his fellow clergy was to ask them to speak their consciences (Rabbi Chasan’s letters have been published on my blog). My own writings explained in explicit detail why the work should be regarded as anti-Semitic. I do not charge anti-Semitism on a whim.

At no point did any of us advocate censorship. We have only attempted to follow bad speech with good speech. While it is sad that would-be censors, unable to articulate their own criticism, attempt to co-opt a cause that does not call for censorship, it is worse when those who court controversy misrepresent all of their critics as censors. I encourage members of the community to work with Art Hop organizers to evaluate what went wrong so that trust can be re-established.

That said, the issue of Holocaust denial is barely addressed in the article, and opinions that have little basis in fact are given equal footing with those that are well researched and well thought out.

Furthermore, Bob Greene and Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel (VTJP) can deny that they advocate anti-Semitism or Holocaust denial all they wish, but, as Chasan, Kadour and I have all pointed out, a simple visit to their website contradicts such denials. Picard could have and should have visited the website and reported on what he saw there, as I did. A libel is only a libel if it has no basis in fact. Labeling me a “motherfucker,” as Greene has done, does not change that.

That Schumann and VTJP have chosen to confuse issues by injecting false analogies with the Holocaust into any discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict shows that they lack the moral seriousness to discuss the facts of the conflict, the causes, their history, and any possible solutions in an honest and thoughtful manner. They simply have no regard for historical truth.

The reports of the September 8 presentation make an unambiguous case that civil discussion has broken down, and, while there are guilty parties of varying political affiliations, the fault originates with those who inject divisiveness and dishonesty when there should be truthful reasoned dialogue. Ugly statements breed ugly statements.

Ian Thal

Monday, October 29, 2007

Meredith Garniss Interview

I do so digg an interview where I am the answer to the question. The interviewer was Pagan Kennedy and the interviewee was Meredith Garniss, painter, puppeteer, engineer and head honcho of Willoughby & Baltic, an automata and art gallery and marionette theatre where I performed this past July and where the ill-fated production of Macbeth rehearsed.

In the Ideas Section of The Boston Sunday Globe, Kennedy asks Garniss:

I hear you also became the home to one of the world's only "talking mimes."

To which Garniss responds:

The talking mime [who] performed in the gallery this summer was Ian Thal. He's multitalented and does mime, dance, poetry, and puppetry. I think it's OK if the mime talks as long as he leaves the audience speechless.

Garniss has a lot to say about running an art space, combining engineering with art, and working with artists of many media.

I already covered the issue of "talking mimes" with my students in Gloucester but I take issue with the idea that I am "one of the world's only"-- there are plenty of mimes whose work is against the stereotype-- and most of us are chatterboxes off-stage.

Willoughby & Baltic is hosting the Dorkbot Haunted Parlor this Halloween week at 195g Elm Street, Somerville, MA in Davis Square.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

That other Macbeth

As mentioned previously, the Macbeth production I had been in was cancelled, so when I attended previews for the Actors' Shakespeare Project's production of the "Scottish Play" as an usher, I could not help but compare the two productions in my mind.

First of all, ASP's Macbeth is excellent. Much of the scuttlebutt about the Boston scene was about the decision to use an all female cast. However, rather than creating some campy Macbeth in drag, they delivered a striking production that involved some first rate actors in roles that they normally would not be allowed to play. After all, if a director can choose to cast (in my case) an male Ashkenazi Jew as a multitude of Scotsmen, why not women (of any ethnicity) as Scotsmen?

As an audience member, I was particularly excited by Marya Lowry's powerful Macbeth, and Bobbie Steinbach's strength and versatility as Duncan, the Porter, Warlike Siward, and one of the witches (this trio of witches, in their second appearance, use some physical comedy to make a vulgar pun that gives some credence to Alan K. Farrar's intuition that in the original production the witches were performed by the comedians in the troupe.) There was one actor (whom I will leave unnamed because the performance was a preview and I have confidence that subsequent performances will be improved upon) who has shown great comedic skills in other plays, but seemed to introduce a sarcastic or ironic tone of voice into what was supposed to be a tragic scene-- but that was the only false note of the show-- and it was a mistake that only someone of talent could make.

As said earlier, I was curious to see how other actors were going to attack roles for which I had rehearsed this past summer. Denise Cormier's version of the Bloody Captain was a fine version, but simply not how I imagined the role-- the joy of a classical repertoire is that roles are constantly being reinterpreted. As I developed the role, my Captain had become more stylized and inspired more by Odissi dancer Sonali Mishra's interpretation of Devi Mahakali (better known in the Anglophone world as the goddess Kālī) and a Samurai puppet piece I had seen twice performed by Paul Vincent Davis; hers was more naturalistic. She was clearly in a situation where she had to put more imaginative work into her more central role as a witch.

To my disappointment, the role of the Old Man, Ross' father, was dropped from this production but did not injure the story. The practice of cutting or rearranging lines, scenes, or characters is actually not uncommon when performing Shakespeare, either due to the length of the play, or due to the logistics of casting. I miss the character and his lines, but I must admit, he is not essential to the plot. The scene between Lennox and the unnamed Lord, from Act III was a joy and I savoured the reading of the Lord's lines even more so because it had been shifted to Act IV, which meant that during intermission I had fretted that the scene had been dropped entirely. In Act V, Cormier now had the role of Seyton, and performed much as I had during rehearsals with the Lollygagging Players which only made me more envious of her costume.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Bizarre Protest Sign Awards

Adam Holland has nominated a photograph I took at the October 7th, Dream for Darfur rally fo his "Bizarre Protest Sign Awards".

Monday, October 22, 2007

Mime Workshop in Gloucester

A couple of weeks ago, I went up to Gloucester to teach a mime workshop for the local high school's drama club. They were rehearsing Jonathan Rand's play Check, Please. I was unfamiliar with the play but have since discovered that it is one of the most popular contemporary plays performed by high school theatre troupes in the United States. The play included mime-character in one of the scenes who engages in a number of the cliché moves often associated with mime, such as "being trapped in an invisible box" and "pulling on a rope." However, the company, which is very much guided by the students' interests, also wanted some grounding in basic mime technique for the sake of developing some choreographed stage business.

Arriving at the Gloucester train station at about 11:20, I did what I always do when my artistic career takes me to another town, which is to play tourist. I had last been to Gloucester the summer before to perform at the now defunct Fishtown Artspace and so knew my way around.

Artifacts of a counter culture: Signs on telephone poles marking outside the original location of the now defunct Fishtown Artspace.

Ever a bibliophile, I took advantage of the sale on used books at Mystery Train Records, and came out with perhaps as many theatre books as I wanted to lug around that day at a cost that I would normally expect to pay for a single book at a used store in Boston, Cambridge or Somerville. A walk on the beach was particularly interesting when I noticed that due to the low tide, the wet sand would sink two or three inches under my boot-steps.

After my lunch, I strolled maybe a mile-and-a-half and arrived at the school shortly before the dismissal bell and squared away the business issues with the drama teacher before being led to the auditorium where the drama club was beginning to gather. I took off my shoes, introduced myself, and briefly explained my view of mime's relationship to everyday body language as poetry's relationship to everyday verbal language-- reciting Shakespeare's 28th sonnet as an example. I then invited the student actors onto the proscenium stage.

The student techies and production staff alternated between attending to their own business and observing as I introduced the actors to the corporeal mime scale, in all three dimensions (lateral, depth, and rotation.) Mime is a difficult form to learn, and even a two-hour workshop is only sufficient to give the most skeletal of introductions, but the students were enthusiastic and willing to learn. They also had the advantage of being a bit older than my students at Open Air Circus, and so have more developed nervous systems and were better able to imitate my isolation work, as well as articulate their interpretations of the meaning of some of the isolations and sequences (the way a lateral translation of the head might represent listening, while a forward translation of the head is more representative of looking.)

After our isolation exercises, I was ready to teach them their first illusion: "the wall." The methodology I have developed is to have the students place their hands on a genuine wall, so that they can experience the flatness and verticality of the wall's plane, and then experience each isolation (including relevés and pliés) of the body with their hands fixed on the wall, asking them to make observations about the focus of their eyes and the compensations they need to make in order to keep their hands fixed to the wall. I also asked them to observe how their hand automatically relaxes when pulled away from the wall. I noted that as with Aristotle's note that the "soul (psuche) is analogous to the hand; for as the hand is a tool of tools, so thought is the form of forms" (On The Soul, III 8 432a1) the hand in it's ability to grasp forms" that in mime theatre, the hand is analogous to the mind, in that it takes the form of the character's thoughts. I then had them experience taking steps along the wall so they could feel just how far they could go before needing to release their grasp of the wall. After several minutes of these experiments, meant to demonstrate that a mime's craft relies heavily on naturalistic observation, I invited them back to the stage, both to demonstrate that with this new found knowledge of walls and an ability to move the whole body in an articulate matter, one sells the reality of the imaginary wall far more than one would with a simple hand gesture, and gave them several minutes to experiment on their own, as I walked amongst them making minor corrections.

Being inquisitive students, they asked me questions in between exercises:

Q: What is the relationship between mime and European clown traditions?

A: In the European context, mime and clown are close cousins, with a common ancestor in commedia dell'arte.

Q: Is there a rule that mimes have to perform silently?

A: No. Many perform silently in observance of mime's independent standing as an art form much as painting and sculpture are independent of one another, but there is no reason why one cannot speak and mime simultaneously. I performed some of my first mime pieces with poetic recitation.

Q: Do mimes always perform with white makeup?

A: No. If a mime chooses to wear makeup, it can be any color, or alternately, the mime can perform without makeup, or with masks. All such things are acceptable.

All this allowed for digressions on the history of mime, allowing me to discuss Charlie Chaplin, Étienne Decroux, Jean Louis-Barrault and Marcel Marceau.

Our next set of exercises were in rope pulling (both horizontally and vertically) and a tug 'o war exercise (a favorite with younger kids, who seem to find walls too abstract) to emphasize ensemble work, as well as to demonstrate the principles of oppositional and sequential movement. After a brief break (due to the techies noting that I had kept the actors working for an hour and a half straight through) explored the extremes of rhythmic dynamics: shock, fondue, and immobility and spent the last few minutes creating tableaux with some of the skills we covered over the previous two hours.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Macbeth Cancelled

It's been a few weeks since I heard word, but I had neglected to blog about it.

The Macbeth production, for which I had been rehearsing, has now been cancelled. The actor playing Banquo had work commitments that conflicted with the rehearsal schedule and had to pull out just weeks before opening night and so the production had to be postponed. The actor playing Macbeth was from Los Angeles and so was only in Massachusetts for the summer, so both roles had to be recast, with an indefinite postponement. Eventually, with the change of schedule, there were no venues available and the show was cancelled.

Nonetheless, despite my disappointment, I must confess, my first Shakespeare production was a rewarding one, as it was my first experience of real intimacy with the Bard's writings and gotten me more involved in the community of Shakespeare bloggers like Alan K. Farrar, David Blixt and Duane Morin.

On the other hand, the Actors' Shakespeare Project are staging their own production of Macbeth which I am looking forward to seeing when I usher for them next week.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Hecklers Abuse Genocide Survivors, October 7, 2007, Part 2

After a number of other blogs picked up the story I reported regarding the attempt to disrupt the October 7th Dream for Darfur rally at Boston City Hall Plaza, more information has turned up.

It appears that I was mistaken to assume that the group that came to heckle the genocide survivors who came to speak were only tangentially connected with either the national or state Green Party. I have since learned that they were more closely affiliated with the Massachusetts Green-Rainbow Party than I has suspectedd. I had assumed that the GRP was being unfairly dragged through the mud by Boston Anti-Zionist Action, as extremist fringe groups often falsely claim affiliations with more respectable groups. However as reported by Adam Holland, Solomonia, and Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub the "rotund bespectacled man" whom I photographed and spoke to at the rally was David Rolde. Rolde is not merely a registered member of the Green-Rainbow Party, but the former party secretary and a currently serving member of the GRP State Committee representing Middlesex County. The committee's job includes "[f]ormulating and disseminating statements of Party policy and platform".

I find it disturbing that an elected officer of any political party whose "Ten Key Values" includes nonviolence, respect for diversity, personal and global responsibility, would also have a leadership role in an organization whose actions include attempts harass and intimidate genocide survivors for talking about their experiences in a public forum, disseminate anti-Semitic propaganda on their website, and hold signs proclaiming support for Hezbollah, an armed paramilitary that initiated an unprovoked war in 2006 by attacking civilian targets in Israel.

Back in the 1990s, I was allied with the Greens, because they were talking electoral reform, feminism, and sustainable ecology and had Ralph Nader as their candidate during a period when Bill Clinton and Bob Dole's differences seemed slight. I started having some differences with the Greens on foreign policy when I found myself supporting Clinton's military interventions in Kosova to stop the massive human rights violations the Serbian government was visiting upon the Kosovar Albanians, and eventually drifted back to the Democrats when I noted a renewal of commitment to the social issues I cared about as well as with the necessity of having a progressive movement with strong foreign policy and counter-terrorism experience.

I have never been surprised by Republican politicians having connections with hate-groups (Trent Lott's connection with the CCC is an obvious example) however, I never expected virulent hateful bigot in the leadership of the Green Party.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Look Ma! I'm part of the Curriculum!

While glancing at technorati, (a search engine for the blogosphere for those of you who are new to blogs) I discovered that my earlier entry, "Breaking with Bread and Puppet" is being read by a class in the Department of Drama and Theatre, Royal Holloway, University of London. The class, which has set up its own blog is investigating the techniques and history of Bread and Puppet Theater with the aim of having students attempt to use similar methods to create their own work over the course of the semester. The professors are Nesreen Hussein and Matthew Cohen.

Despite my misgivings with what I view as Peter Schumann's forays into antisemitism and trivialization of the Holocaust, I have always thought there was great artistic value to his better works, both in techniques and content-- and I certainly see a legitimate need for theatre artists in training to become familiar with this sort of work. Had I not, I would not have worked with the troupe for as long as I did. I will be curious about how the class reacts to my criticism of the work they are attempting to emulate.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Hecklers Abuse Genocide Survivors, October 7, 2007

This past Sunday, I went down to the plaza outside Boston City Hall to attend a rally protesting the targeting of the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massaleit ethnic groups by the Sudanese military and Janjaweed militias that receive weapons from the Sudanese government and with whom they often coordinate attacks. Though the United Nations has yet to do so, this human rights disaster, which has taken between 200,000 and 450,000 lives depending on who is doing the counting, is recognized by the United States and other governments and NGOs as genocide,.

The rally, organized by a coalition of groups including Dream for Darfur and Save Darfur was one of those few instances of an event that made my normally cynical self feel hope for humanity. The main part of the rally included speakers representing genocide survivors ranging from a 95 year old Armenian man, to Rosian Zerner, (a Holocaust survivor whom I have mentioned elsewhere), to a survivor of the Khmer Rouge's Killing Fields, to a young Bosnian Muslim survivor of the Srebrenica massacre, to a Tutsi survivor of the Rwandan genocide, to a Darfurian refugee currently attending Brandeis University, each passing a torch to one another and finally lighting an eternal flame for Darfur to bring to the 2008 Chinese Olympics to protest the People's Republic's financial, diplomatic and military backing of the Sudanese government.

However, every one of the speakers had to endure heckling from a tiny group of counter-protesters on the fringe of the rally. This group was identified by the
Boston Globe representing Boston Anti-Zionist Action and the Troops Out Now Coalition. These hecklers spouted verbal abuse at the survivors regardless of the survivors' native lands, skin colors, mother tongue, or religious belief. A quick check of the Boston Anti-Zionist Action blog shows them misrepresenting a protest that was calling for non-violent action as "a racist pro-war rally against Sudan organized by the [...] Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston." Leaving aside the general anti-Semitic tone of the slur, this sort of disinformation leads one to wonder how much else on their blog is false-- including which groups they are allied with. Does the Green party really want to be identified with people who abuse survivors of genocide? I suspect not-- but BAZA clearly wants to identify with the Green Party.

Needless to say, the six survivors on stage were unfazed, they had suffered and survived far worse than crypto-fascists posing as hippies, shouting slogans like "from Kabul to Jenin, victory to the mujahideen" and "From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free!"

BAZA protesting the Dream for Darfur rally on October 7, 2007. Note the anti-Semitic cartoon claiming Israel engineered the attacks on the World Trade Center.

At one point I noticed a young man standing to the right of the BAZA activists with a sign that read "<--- I'M w/ STUPID" and later a young woman walk up to them with a sign that read "Zionism is not murder." After signing a petition to the Chinese government and having my photo taken I approached the young woman and told her that the BAZA activists were likely a lost cause for persuasion.

Banner held by BAZA activists supporting the Sudanese government's atrocities in Sudan. Note the horrible grammar and the absurd claim that the United Nations is Zionist-- which it is only in the sense that it established a Jewish homeland in 1948.

One of the BAZA activists, a rotund bespectacled man with a sign reading "DIVEST FROM ISRAEL NOT SUDAN" yelled at me, "Stop denying the Zionist genocide!"

I responded with, "What Zionist genocide?"

"The one against the Palestinians!"

"For something to be a genocide, a people must be decimated. Where are the corpses?"

I started loudly talking to the young woman so that the BAZA activist could hear us, "Genocide is a clearly defined crime under international law and so there needs to be evidence before charges are brought."

The woman smiled and asked rhetorically "Oh, you mean that 'Genocide' is a word with an actual definition?"

"Yes!" so I turned to the BAZA activist, "So what evidence have you? Did you know that the GDP of the West Bank has increased since the building of the West Bank Wall? Did you listen to the speakers? Did it sound like their annual income increased while they were suffering?"

The BAZA people shut their traps, and I noted to my new friend, "These people live in an alternate reality where facts are trifles."

More seriously: falsely charging genocide is almost as trivializing of the crime as genocide denial and it abuses real victims of genocide. The BAZA activists could not accuse Israel of wrong-doing without compulsively attempting to denigrate every survivor who stepped to the podium, whether he or she was a European, an Asian, or an African, whether he or she was a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, or an Animist

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Independence Paintings in Burlington, Vermont: The End?

Frequent readers of this blog will have noticed the attention I have been giving to a controversy in Burlington, Vermont regarding the exhibition of Independence Paintings: Inspired by Four Stories, mural sized collage of painting and text by Bread and Puppet Theater founder, Peter Schumann. My involvement with the story began with my writing an account of my own break with Bread and Puppet over the exhibition of just that particular work.

The story, at least in Burlington, seems to have drawn itself to a close though there are a few developments that I feel the need to comment upon.

Sally Pollak, in an article in the Burlington Free Press provided both an account of how the piece had come to be exhibited and of the fallout in Burlington. The exhibition was brokered by Marc Estrin (whose defense of the exhibition as "appropriate" I responded to here) working with Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel, a group that hosts anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial material on their website.

I have, like both Chasan and Kadour already noted the anti-Israeli and Holocaust denial material on the VTJP website, to which Bob Greene, a spokesperson for representatives VTJP has stated to Ken Picard in Seven Days:

“We’ve been called a thinly disguised hate group and anti-Semites, despite the fact that a quarter of our regularly attending members are Jewish, including one who escaped Hitler, [....] These are dangerous, ugly libels. If we were a group that had money or made money, we’d sue these motherfuckers.”

Greene and VTJP can deny that they advocate antisemitism or Holocaust denial all they wish, but as Chasan, Kadour, and I have all pointed out, a simple visit to their website contradicts such denials. A libel is only a libel if it has no basis in fact. Labeling me a "motherfucker," as Greene has done, does not change that.

While the September 19 Seven Days piece by Ken Picard, framed the story as one between political art and censorship (despite the fact that many of the most vocal critics of the exhibit, Rabbi Joshua Chasan, Ric Kasini Kadour, and I never called for censorship) Pollak's piece was far more nuanced, identifying the problem as the fact that a group with no connection to the arts community, sponsoring an exhibition for political purposes, to quote Yoram Samets in the Pollak article:

"It is our understanding that the Art Hop is an open community opportunity for artists to display their work and for the community to get involved, [...] In this case, Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel hijacked the venue for their political agenda. What we have here for the first time is the Art Hop being used by a political organization to further their point of view."

However, despite this, rather than discuss ways to prevent Art Hop from being hijacked in the future by a political organization, State Senator Hinda Miller, as reported Picard, has assembled a coalition to "go after" Art Hop's funding (the Pollak piece describes it as a petition "to overhaul policies and procedures at the annual arts celebration.") The artists, including those highly critical of Schumann's work have reason for concern: art festivals, like the larger Open Studios weekends we have in the Boston metropolitan area thrive on free expression-- and indeed, a review process unless highly streamlined, is cost prohibitive due to need for staffing. The fear that any potentially controversial artwork could be dropped from Art Hop is a real one that must be addressed. At the same time, statements by Carlos Hasse, Executive Director of the South End Arts and Business Association, which sponsors Art Hop are clear that there is a willingness to reevaluate its processes and listen to community concerns. The question is: can this be done without endangering artistic freedom in Burlington, Vermont?

If we value freedom of speech, we must oppose censorship, but rather than grit our teeth when ideas with which we disagree are given voice, we should instead explain why those ideas are wrong and why ours are better. This is the practice, not of censorship, but of following bad speech with good, and this is what I have attempted to do in my own critique of Schumann's work and of his apologists.

That said, my critique of press coverage of this event is over the most central issue: what is the truth-value of the art in question? Journalism, which by nature, reports on current events, is often at a failure to account for historical context. Both Picard and Pollak do a good job of identifying the participants in the controversy and what they have to say about one another's positions, but not about the truthfulness of the claims. After all, is not the value of political art the ability to tell truth to power?

Schumann and VTJP have chosen to confuse issues by injecting false analogies with the Holocaust into any discussion of the
Arab-Israeli conflict shows that they lack the moral seriousness to discuss the facts of the conflict, the causes, their history, and any possible solutions in an honest and thoughtful manner-- they simply have no regard for historical truth. The reports of the September 8th presentation make an unambiguous case that civil discussion has broken down, and while there are guilty parties of varying political affiliations, the fault originates with those who inject divisiveness and dishonesty when there should be truthful, reasoned, dialogue. Ugly statements breed ugly statements.

Schumann chose to juxtapose the Warsaw Ghetto with the West Bank Wall in a single piece of art (note that this was not a decision made by the Palestinian artists with whom he worked in Beit Sahour) and it seems to be understood by both his supporters and his critics (nearly everyone except for him) as a statement of near equivalence. The system of ghettos Germany established in the General Government of Poland killed five- to six-hundred-thousand Jews through engineered concentration, overcrowding and famine over a period of two years. A statement of equivalence is either to falsely charge Israel with genocide in the West Bank (where is the evidence?) or to claim that the Warsaw Ghetto was merely a place of high unemployment and humiliating checkpoints (as Schumann described the West Bank in his February presentation at the Boston Center for the Arts.) The Warsaw Ghetto killed over one-hundred thousand, the West Bank Wall, despite some of its worst effects, has prevented terrorist attacks on Israel, eliminated the need for IDF reprisals-- it has saved lives, both Israeli and Palestinian and permitted rebuilding in Palestinian communities-- but neither Schumann nor VTJP are concerned about that.

In the meantime I should note that Pollak did not repeat Picard's erroneous report that Schumann's family were refugees from the Nazis. I have mentioned this issue with Picard via email, and as Picard did not state he was in error when I brought it to his attention, I have to assume that this was an instance of Schumann misrepresenting himself in order to deflect criticism.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Marcel Marceau, 1923-2007

This morning I received word that one of world's great theatrical artists, and a personal hero of mine, Marcel Marceau, had died at the age of 84. In memory I am reposting a blog entry I wrote some three years ago shortly after I saw him for what would be the first and only time outside his film and television appearances. Marceau was a giant in the field of mime, so much so, that anyone working in the form had to define their work in relation to him. The following entry is slightly modified from its previous appearance.

Meeting Marcel Marceau

Friday, September 17th 2004:

Earlier this year I had the time to participate in a mime workshop given at MIT as part of their January session. It was mostly for newbies, but I learned a few new illusions, offered some fruits of my own knowledge and experience, and had some fun. I stayed in touch with a number of the participants and so when the opportunity came to go as a group to see Marcel Marceau and La Nouvelle Compagnie de Mimodrame at the American Repertory Theatre, I joined them again.

I had never seen Marceau live before this. I had seen brief film clips of performances and many photographs-- mostly from Ben Martin's Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime taken from the late 1960s and early 1970s. These had allowed me to study his form very intently-- even the photographs allowed me to closely observe his immobilities, isolations, and use of fixed points.

After what sounded like a heavy wooden staff being banged upon the stage from behind the curtain, the curtain rose to one of Marceau's students in a fanciful costume and a banner announcing the first act: "The Creation of the World." The lights lowered and she disappeared. When the lights rose again, the 81 year old Marceau was in plié, his hands crossed, his mouth held open like a mask from ancient Greek drama, frozen and eternal like the face of God as his hands enacted the seven days of creation as described in chapter one of Genesis. Then he told the tale of Adam, Eve, the Serpent and their expulsion from Eden in the second chapter. I had seen parts of it reinterpreted by Axel Jodorowsky in Alejandro Jodorowsky's film Santa Sangre (both Jodorowskys had worked with Marceau.) Seated in the second row, I could see every subtlety of Marceau's technique. I could also see that his movements, while graceful and controlled were also that of an old man. However, his age gave this piece even more power. I had seen a similar intense focus and power in the movements of an aged body when working with Bill Barnum, only two years Marceau's junior, the seeming contradiction seemed fitting.

Marceau performed nearly an hour's worth of solo material with just short breaks as the members of his company unfurled banners announcing each piece. The Bip pieces were, of course, very influenced by Charlie Chaplin's Tramp character-- but there is a huge different between a mime on film, interacting with props, a set, and other actors and a mime on stage who creates the illusion of all these things.

After an intermission, La Nouvelle Compagnie de Mimodrame took the stage for three ensemble pieces. The first, "The Wandering Monk", is based on a Japanese ghost story, and the story telling conventions were a little obscure to me but the movements were wonderful and evoked both the corporeal work of Étienne Decroux as well as karate kata. "The Masquerade Ball" was pretty straight forward plot-wise and contained some balletic and acrobatic moments, but my favorite was "The Tiger" which was based on a Chinese tale-- it has comic and dramatic elements represented in mime and Chinese martial arts-- perhaps less corporeal in the sense of Decroux-- but wonderful none the less. The evening's show ended with perhaps five curtain calls and the audience emptied out.

Thanks to one of my MIMEtype friends (what else would mime troupe at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology call itself?) we had arrangements to meet Marceau after the show. Since there were too many of us to visit his dressing room so we were reseated in the first two rows of the theater as Marceau emerged from behind the curtain, still dressed as Bip. After thanking us, he told us how glad he was that we saw the Compagnie, as he wished people to know that the world of mime is something far more than white face, Marcel Marceau, and Bip. He spoke of his debt to his "Master", Étienne Decroux, as well as to his own gifts. He then outlined the eclectic training of his students at his school in mime, acting, dance, and fencing. After taking another bow, he returned to the dressing room. We slipped to one of the side lobbies to talk about the show we just saw, the technique, etc. After an hour or so, Marceau emerged, dressed in tweed and argyle, his once dark curly hair turned blond with age (I had noticed that he was wearing a stylized wig, meant to affect the locks of his younger years.) Though he asked that we take no photographs he was happy to spend a few minutes with us, shaking hands with us one by one, as he asked us our names and signed our programs or anything else we had with us-- always with a short note-- sometimes asking for the spelling. When he reached me, I pulled out my copy of the Ben Martin book. Marceau smiled and flipped through it, asking if it is still in print. I told him that I didn't know as I had found mine at a used bookstore-- I have built up a small library on mime by scouring the used stores. I mentioned that my teachers had been students of Decroux as well. He smiled again, asked me my name and signed with a little illustration of a flower on the title page:

to Ian
in Heartful

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Seven Days on the Burlington Controversy

Seven Days, a Burlington, Vermont based alternative weekly, has run the most comprehensive story to date on the controversy surrounding the exhibition of Peter Schumann's Independence Paintings that I have been following on this blog.

Read Ken Picard's article, "Over the Wall: Censorship or anti-semitism [sic]? Inside the furor over an Art Hop exhibit" for more.

I have some issues with the article, but I am saving most of them for a letter to the editor, however, I cannot refrain from immediately taking issue with Picard's description of Schumann as someone whose family fled Nazi Germany when he was ten years old. In a 2006 interview he stated that he had been a refugee because the Allied powers had decided to give all of Silesia, which had been part of the Nazi state, to Poland. His family fled from Soviets and Poles further into Germany. His refugee status was an unintended consequence of aggression that his nation initiated, but never in the interview was there an acknowledgement of the Jewish Silesians who were exterminated or the Polish Silesians who had spent the war years in slave labor camps, only the German Silesians who were humiliated by the collapse of the Third Reich were worth mentioning. We must never blame an adult for the crimes committed by the government of their childhood, but when the history is being misrepresented, questions are in order.

Is Schumann changing his story, or did Picard just get the story wrong?

Nota Bene: My response to Ken Picard's article appears here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Independence Paintings in Burlington, Vermont, Part 3

I have been following the dispute over the exhibition of Peter Schumann's Independence Paintings in Burlington, Vermont, from my desk in Somerville, Massachusetts, so I am often forced to wait for and digest reports as they come in.

For those of you who have just joined me, the reason I am following a dispute over a collage being exhibited so far away from me is that for a number of years, I had performed with Bread and Puppet Theater, of which Schumann is founder and artistic director, in their Boston-area shows. It was when this painting was exhibited in conjunction with a Bread and Puppet show at the Boston Center for the Arts that I determined that I could not in good conscience continue with the troupe. I wrote about that event here.

For the past few days I have been digesting reports of the events on Saturday, September 8. That morning Peter Schumann gave a presentation regarding Independence Paintings which was inspired by his experience working with a group of Palestinian performers during a visit he made to the West Bank last year. WCAX reporter Andy Potter wrote an account entitled "Art Exhibit Draws Fire" describing "a flare-up of emotion."

The cause of this "flare-up" was the structure of the work, which, assuming that it was the same piece I saw at the Boston Center for the Arts, comprises of paintings of pained figures, clearly portrayed as Jews juxtaposed with text describing Israeli Defense Force counter-terrorist operations in the West Bank as described by the Palestinian performers. Schumann, in his talk on February 12th, 2007 described these Jewish figures as inmates of the Warsaw Ghetto. During the question and answer segment of the February presentation, he was called to explain why he felt it necessary to make a juxtaposition between the Warsaw Ghetto, an instrument of the Holocaust, and the West Bank, noting that juxtaposition implied an equivalence between the death by engineered starvation, and overcrowding, of one-fifth of Poland's Jewish population and the high unemployment rates on the West Bank. Schumann denied he was making any such comparison, but offered no other explanation as to why the West Bank and the Warsaw Ghetto appeared in the same piece other than the fact that he had chosen to read John Hersey's 1950 book, The Wall on the trip. Vocal critics saw this as a false accusation of genocide against Israel. Vocal defenders of Schumann at the same event, when they were not trying to shout down the critics, saw it as a true accusation.

I have already noted that there is no evidence supporting such comparisons and like a number of other critics, I viewed the work as "soft-core" Holocaust denial and thus, anti-Semitic propaganda.

Based on the reports I have received concerning the event on September 8th, a similar emotional dynamic appears to have been at work, however a key difference is that some in Burlington had read reports of the event in Boston, while the Boston audience had known only that the work was inspired by Schumann's work with Palestinian artists.

As noted before, WCAX reported a "flare-up." A personal email sent to me on September 8th at 11:55pm by Marc Awodey (who was not in attendance) related events as described by people he met that day: "a well orchestrated cadre of about 40 [...] protesters [...] waving [I]sraeli flags, yelling, plugging their ears when [S]chumann tried to speak." Note that Ken Picard's article dated September 12th in Seven Days estimated that the number of disruptive protesters amounted to "about a dozen of the 100 or so people in attendance." One of Awodey's sources reported that at least one of the protesters loudly made racist statements regarding Palestinians.

An email sent by Rabbi Joshua Chasan to local Christian clergy on September 9th (and published here at his request) gave this account:

Unfortunately, some of those hurt [by comparisons between the West Bank Wall and the Warsaw Ghetto] were as rude and hostile as supporters of Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel at the Saturday morning talk by Peter and the fellow he invited, Joe Koval. This issue pushes a lot of buttons.

Awodey forwarded me a piece by Marc Estrin, author with Richard T. Simon of Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater entitled "Concerning the Hubbub at the Schumann Exhibit, and Why the Sponsorship and Speaker were Appropriate" which described the following:

[A] contingent [...] leafleting the audience, posting flyers [...] and generally trying to disrupt Kovel’s talk with aggressive muttering, badgering, shouting and flag-waving throughout, and starting a political campaign to get individuals and businesses to withdraw sponsorship from the Art Hop.

Without a transcript of what was said, it is hard to determine whether the "badgering" of Kovel's talk was disruptive heckling and how much was simply a reasonable inquiry from someone who questioned either Koval's or Schumann's positions. There is little doubt from the given reports that some element of the dissent voiced at the presentation was intended to disrupt and silence, however, it is also likely that at least part of the group of dissenters were there to engage in a civil manner.

Clearly, there has been a break down in civil debate in Burlington around the exhibition of Independence Paintings but before I offer an interpretation of what this break down represents and examine its causes, I would like to attend to the rest of Estrin's essay for the light it sheds:

[P]olitical art is political by definition, that is, it addresses the polis about urgent issues affecting the life of people, and Israel/Palestine is an urgent issue. The back room of 696 [Pine Street] is devoted for the month to a show of political art. That it should be accompanied by related speakers, films and community discussion – and even controversy -- sharing its universe of discourse is a legitimate dimension to such work.

Art and artists certainly do have a role in the political life of a democracy, just as journalism and journalists, and history and historians. The most outspoken critics of the exhibition of Independence Paintings: Joshua Chasan, Ric Kasini Kadour, and myself do not deny the value of art in political sphere, and this is a point missed by Marc Estrin when the only critique he permits Schumann's critics is "This is politics [...] It doesn’t belong here."

The point is also missed by Ken Picard when he wrote "political art [...] creates controversy only when it’s done right."

The point on which Chasan, Kadour, and I all agree is that Independence Paintings is not done right, and sadly, very little of the reportage in the Burlington press has either described the content of the work.

What Estrin and Picard miss in discussing political art is the relationship between art and truth. I do not write of "truth" as a transcendent absolute found in speculative metaphysics, or the articles of faith of a given theological tradition, or even the truth understood the ideology of a given state or political movement. I make far more modest claims for truth: an interpretation of events or phenomena supported by a preponderance of evidence.

History is never just whatever somebody declares to have happened in the past, journalism is never just what somebody declares to have happened recently or currently happening. Were either so, we would have no means of distinguishing between history, pseudo history and myth; we would have no means of distinguishing between good journalism, sloppy journalism, and propaganda. Historians assemble a great many pieces of evidence to determine what happened in the past, and its significance. Journalists must rely on multiple sources to assemble a description of what is happening. What does this have to do with political art? Do we not expect artists to take liberties, to use hyperbole, satire, allegory, analogy, and symbolism?

A society becomes dysfunctional when journalists no longer make the attempt to be truthful, when history texts no longer have any relationship to the evidence that the past has left for us. Art is not held to the same rules of evidence of journalism or history, nor should it. However, political art ceases to have a value to the polis when it is no longer truthful, when it lies. At that point the aesthetic life of a society becomes sick and dysfunctional. If we do not acknowledge that art can lie, then we lose the ability to distinguish between the post World War I work of Otto Dix and the propaganda posters approved by the regime that banned so much of his work.

As mentioned before, Schumann juxtaposed images of the Holocaust with a narrative of Palestinian views of the West Bank Wall and IDF counter-terrorist activities in the same piece. The message was taken by both Schumann critic and Schumann defender alike that either a.) Israel is committing genocide in the construction of the West Bank Wall, just as Germany committed genocide in the construction, administration, and destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, or b.) that the Warsaw Ghetto was only as bad as the high unemployment rates and humiliation of going through an IDF security checkpoint. The evidence supports neither claim. The first interpretation is a false charge of genocide against the people and government of Israel and is antisemitism and "soft-core" Holocaust denial. The latter interpretation is very close to "hard-core" Holocaust denial and is unquestionably anti-Semitic. The act of juxtaposition has made a lie.

If we go back to Picard's aphorism "political art [...] creates controversy only when it’s done right" we see that this line of thought does not apply here. Good political art (such as that of Otto Dix) does create controversy, insight, or gives voice to thoughts that the audience simply has not found the means to articulate. But the controversy here has nothing to do with the quality of the art. The intensity of this controversy over how to interpret this piece, whether the piece should be exhibited or in what context it should be exhibited is a product of two factors: the degree to which Independence Paintings is untruthful and the degree to which the artist is a celebrity.

To further underline the untruthfulness of the work, let us examine Schumann's own statements:

Andy Potter reports that on September 8th,

Schumann explicitly disavowed any connection between his work and the Holocaust. "It wasn't the case, and if you think of it logically it simply doesn't hold up,"

Except that Schumann uses imagery that he admitted on February 12 in Boston was derived from his view of the events of the Warsaw Ghetto. Why would an artist knowingly create and exhibit something that does not logically hold up to the most basic scrutiny?

Schumann also stated at the September 8 talk that "I asked [the Palestinian artists] for the sake of creating this piece to tell me recent and local stories and then wrote these down." The methodology is sound but when compared with this statement from the September 4 article by Jack Thurston, "Schumann says his work is not anti-Semitic, it merely reflects a viewpoint many Palestinians really hold" several questions pose themselves. Can the work be free of antisemitism solely because it reflects viewpoints of "many Palestinians"? Why are the images of Independence Paintings not of life on the West Bank? Did the Palestinian artists suggest the use of the Warsaw Ghetto imagery?

The answer to the last question, appears to be "no." During the February 12 talk, Schumann was explicit that the inspiration to use images of the Holocaust came not from the Palestinians he met, but from the book he brought along with him on his trip, John Hersey's The Wall. The decision to juxtapose the West Bank with Warsaw was Schumann's and may have had little to do with anything said by the Palestinians he met. Indeed, if we consider that he stated that he had brought the book with him, the decision to juxtapose the two walls may have been made before he ever arrived in Palestine.

The break down of civil discourse in the wake of Independence Paintings is precisely because civil discourse must be rooted in truthfulness, and the work entered the political realm without ever having been truthful.

This is particularly disappointing when I consider Schumann's other works, some of which I have performed in, such as Oratorio of the Possibilitarians or World on Fire, which contained rich imagery, wit, sophisticated staging, and most importantly, truth.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Rabbi Joshua Chasan on Peter Schumann's "Independence Paintings"

Recent readers of my blog will note that I have been paying close attention to the events revolving around the exhibition in Burlington, Vermont of Independence Paintings, a collage of painting and text by Bread and Puppet Theater founder and artistic director, Peter Schumann. It was the content of this painting that caused me, someone who for a number of years had performed in Bread and Puppet's Boston area shows, to terminate my relationship with the group when it showed at the Boston Center for the Arts in February of this year. Rabbi Joshua Chasan, of the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, as reported earlier, has been a public critic of the exhibition. Due to the on going nature of the dispute, and his lack of familiarity with blogging, Rabbi Chasan asked me to share the letters he has written to the community as the situation has been developing.

I have made minor editorial glosses for purposes of aiding readability on the web, mostly in terms of providing links to relevant web pages and clarifying the identify of the speakers. I have made one note in bracketed italics that references a report by Ric Kasani Kadour.

Ian Thal

Three Emails from a Rabbi in Vermont to Christian Colleagues Including an Email Exchange Between the Executive Director of the South End Art and Business Association and the Rabbi

By Rabbi Joshua Chasan

On Saturday morning, September 8, 2007, the South End Art & Business Association of Burlington, Vermont featured a presentation of a mural by Peter Schumann, founder of the Bread and Puppet Theater. The mural was created after a nine day visit by the artist to Palestine, a journey from Vermont on which he took along John Hersey's The Wall, a novel about the Warsaw Ghetto. The exhibit and talk by both the artist and his guest, Joseph Koval, author of Overcoming Zion, was sponsored by a local organization that broke away from the tri-partite sister-city program of Bethlehem, Arad, and Burlington, in order to be able to advocate exclusively on behalf of Palestinians. The program on that Saturday morning was attended by Vermonters with a variety of viewpoints, and it was not a civil exchange.

Email from Rabbi to Christian Colleagues, August 31st, 2007:

Shalom Chavayrim,

Chavayrim--remember President Clinton saying "shalom chavair" it at Yitzhak Rabin's funeral--chavayrim (the plural) has the sense of being members of each other's shared spiritual vision. I write to you about a deep concern amongst members of our Jewish community about an exhibit of paintings with accompanying talk by Peter Schumann.

A review of these paintings appeared in the Boston Phoenix (see link below).

Whatever your opinion of the fence/wall (it disrupts Palestinian lives; it saves Israeli lives; both), I would urge you to go see the paintings and listen to the talk by Peter Schumann, whose work many of us have respected for decades. I plan to look at the paintings and will go to hear Peter if he is talking at any time other than Shabbat morning when I plan to be in synagogue. I believe the talk will be on Saturday, September 8. You can contact the Art Hop for more information. I will place at the end of this email some links you may want to look at.

I urge you to experience the exhibit and consider why many of us Jews (not all by any means, but certainly many of us, including me and board member of Vermont Interfaith Action, Jeff Potash) are deeply troubled by what Deborah E. Lipstadt has called "'soft-core denial" of the Holocaust "which, rather than deny the Holocaust, equate[s] Israel's policies with those of the Third Reich, labeling Israelis as Nazis." (Lipstadt, History on Trial, p. 25)

I and many others in the Jewish community are ardent civil libertarians. Ideas artistically expressed need to be challenged in the public square. So I write to ask you to consider the possible consequences of this exhibit being seen by people of all ages. Perhaps you will feel moved to speak out about what this exhibit evidences of our community's acceptance of ideas which are essentially anti-Semitic.

I readily accept that not every criticism of the polices of the State of Israel is anti-Semitism. But attempts to de-legitimate the existence of a Jewish State within living memory of the Holocaust send shivers down the spine of many of us Jews who know that, for all the problems that we have with specific Israeli policies, we know in the sinews of our souls that we still live in the lifeboat that the State of Israel provided for the Jewish people in 1948. Clearly, with pronouncements such as those of the President of Iran and the anti-Semitism in the textbooks and media of many Arab countries, the waters about us still are not safe.

I ask for your support at this time.

With hope for just peace,


P.S. I suggest also going to the following web sites:

Vermonters for a Just Peace (VTJP)'s affiliation with Al-Awda:

Frank Levine's Letter to the Boston Phoenix about Schumann's Exhibit
(scroll down to "Imitating life?")

The original Boston Phoenix article:

I don't know if it is still up after complaints [weeks later it was], but the following cartoon comparing the Israelis' building the
fence/wall and an iconic image of Auschwitz was on the web site of Vermonters for a Just Peace in Israel/Palestine earlier this week:, with the caption, "This political cartoon by Moroccan artist Abdullah Dourkawi won first prize in the Holocaust cartoon contest at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts," sponsored by the State of Iran.

Email from Rabbi to Christian Colleagues, September 7, 2007:

You may recall my email of August 31st (see below) Here is correspondence from and to the director of the South End Art and
Business Association. Some have called for SEABA to pull the one offending painting and to cancel the connected talk and film. I have been careful not to. My position I think speaks for itself below. We in the Jewish community are hopeful that our Christian sisters and brothers will see this for what it is-a hijacking of the Art Hop by Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel who are one-sided in their support for Palestinians and hatred for Israel. See the cartoon below at the end of my first email. It is still on their web site as of five minutes ago. As you know, I am not afraid to criticize Israeli policies and have been side by side with Palestinians during a home destruction by the Israelis and protecting olive farmers near Nablus.

This is not about Israeli policies. This is about hatred for Israel the State which bleeds directly into hatred for Israel the people. The standard of public discourse in Burlington is being lowered. Please speak out publicly and to your members. This kind of hatred spreads easily.

Carlos Haase, Executive Director of the South End Art & Business Association to rabbi and representative of the Israel Center of Vermont with permission of the Executive Director, September 5, 2007:

I want to start off by thanking you for the very constructive phone conversations we've been able to have. Although the conversations have taken place at two different times in this process, both conversations have been very productive.

Below my signature, I am sharing with you our organization's immediate response to the controversy surrounding the Art Hop. I am also attaching it as a PDF.

From our conversations I conclude we have a lot of points in common. That in turn, provides us with the strength and common ground to pursue dialogue, discussion and understanding of this situation.

On that note, on behalf of SEABA, I want to be the first to let you know that we look forward to public response (your opinions of course, included), in order to assess how we can create a dialogue and safe space for discussion to take place in the near future, in whatever shape or that could be. For that, I look forward to directly working with you.

We have a great community here in Burlington. I wholeheartedly hope this whole experience and the dialogue to come from it will only strengthen us as a community.

Respectfully yours,

Carlos Haase,
Executive Director
South End Art & Business Association

The South End Arts and Business Association (SEABA), and by extension, the South End Art Hop, are strongly committed to Artistic Freedom of Expression. We don't pass judgment on any artwork, that is, we neither condone nor condemn any work. We encourage everyone to see the artwork on display and come to their own conclusions about the material. If any questions arise, we also encourage viewers to ask questions of the artist(s) who created the work. The Art Hop is a unique opportunity for creators and viewers to come together and create further dialogue, which furthers understanding. We at SEABA hope that you share our desires for intellectual inquiry and Artistic Freedom of Expression. We hope to see you at the Hop!

Rabbi to Executive Director of Arts and Business Association, September 5, 2007:


I tried to reach you by phone as you suggested.

I have to say that the statement that SEABA issued leaves me bewildered. In our previous conversation, I had assumed that the leadership of SEABA understood the dimensions of the mistake made in allowing Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel to use your organization for blatant political purposes. I had thought that you would be grappling with this problem. Instead, I heard you now using what happened to SEABA to define a policy of moral neutrality about expressions of hatred. If it were African-Americans or homosexuals who were victims of such abuse, I do not think you would be issuing statements of neutrality. I hear no soul-searching at SEABA about the risk created by allowing an expression of hatred. And recently I learned that the showing of Occupation 101 is also on your program. Carlos, it appears to me that SEABA has opened the door of mainstream Burlington culture to the expression of hatred. I fear for my community.


Rabbi Joshua Chasan

[Editor's note: Ric Kasini Kadour has noted that Art Hop organizers, while unwilling to withdraw any work due to content, had agreed to present Independence Paintings in a context that addressed the anti-Semitic nature of the work, but later "reneged" on this agreement.]

Email from Rabbi to Christian Colleagues, September 9, 2007:

Shalom again. You must be wondering how I have time to write these emails when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are approaching. The answer is that you are part of my soul searching at this time of year. I value your opinions, treasure our years of working together and, I suppose, I am triumphalist enough (God forbid!) to hope you join me in the soul searching of the first ten days of the Jewish year, beginning this Wednesday evening.

I realize I am missing some names, and have neglected to send these emails to all of our colleagues. I missed Gary Kowalski. I'm sorry. If you see a name missing, please pass this along. A deep hurt remains for many of us in the Jewish community and others about this expression of hatred.

Unfortunately, some of those hurt were as rude and hostile as supporters of Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel at the Saturday morning talk by Peter and the fellow he invited, Joe Koval. This issue pushes a lot of buttons.

I write now to ask those of you who attended the Saturday morning program and/or saw the mural about the Warsaw Ghetto/Palestine, to send me your thoughts. Not everyone sees hatred, animus, in this work. Perhaps you didn't. Or you did. Either way, I want to create a conversation about this issue. Many of us in the Jewish community, with perspectives on Israel/Palestine which range across the spectrum, feel a little less safe in this community than we did before we got word of what we continue to believe was a hijacking of the Art Hop by Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel which has associated itself on its web site with the State of Iran's Holocaust Cartoon Contest.

I hope together we can up the ante for a movement for peace which recognizes the threats to democracy from both within and without the United States; and sees the struggle of Israelis and Palestinians in the context of international relations over the past two hundred years. The world is in chaos now and we must examine carefully rhetoric about a just peace to see if its practitioners really want peace, or they are driving a hard bargain for one side or the other.

As clergy, we know that God knows no sides; God is beyond sides. Yet we also know that the level of violence in our world today--State-sponsored violence and violence sponsored by the ideologues of triumphalism, whether it be religious or national--the level of violence in our world today must be an affront to our conscience that calls us into action.

I ask you to join in conversations, public and private, that begin with honest, calm talk about issues of justice and peace in the Middle East. Once again, just as with Vietnam (at least in my opinion), the peace movement as constituted, has some but limited effect. Just as on other social issues--for example, abortion--our moral influence is limited by our differences of opinion, so too this can become a problem about differing takes about Israel and Palestine.

For the sake of helping to create an effective movement to end the violence, as well as for the sake of those of us Jews who feel threatened by a weakening of moral resolve in the world to protect the independent sovereignty of the State of Israel, can we talk to each other about these issues? Will those of you who resonate to our vulnerability as Jews speak out the public about this issue?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Independence Paintings in Burlington, Vermont, Part 2

As reported previously, some controversy arose when it was announced that the Burlington Art Hop would include an exhibition of Peter Schumann's Independence Paintings, the work that contributed to my decision to part ways with Bread and Puppet Theater.

I learned more when Marc Awodey, a poet, painter, art critic, and conspiracy theory-debunker based in Burlington, posted a lengthy comment to the initial entry regarding how the controversy was developing within Burlington's art community.

Awodey pointed me towards an article by Ric Kasini Kadour entitled "Art Hop Exhibition Takes on Palestinian/Israeli Conflict: Wades into Anti-Semitism & Holocaust Denial" in Art Map Burlington. Kadour's article was written before Independence Paintings was shown the general public in Vermont and relied greatly on reportage from the Boston showing such as Frank Levine's letter in The Boston Phoenix and this blog. Kadour and I are in basic agreement that the act of equating the West Bank wall with the Warsaw Ghetto constituted what Deborah Lipstadt calls "soft-core Holocaust denial", an attempt to trivialize or minimize the Holocaust, often with the aim of hurting or maligning the Jewish community. He and I are also in agreement as to Schumann's deserved stature as an artist.

Kadour, however provides far greater background as to how Independence Paintings has come to be shown at Art Hop, why it is being shown, and who is responsible for the exhibition than one would get from the article by Jack Thurston (which being the transcript of a television broadcast, simply cannot go into as much detail.) The exhibition of Independence Paintings is not sponsored by an arts organization, but by an activist organization, Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel.

Though the webmaster does point out a disclaimer "The views expressed in the material posted on this site are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the webmaster or Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel" it leaves one to question just what are VTJP's views, given the inclusion of anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial material, notably Abdullah Dourkawi's winning entry in International Holocaust Cartoon Competition sponsored by the Iranian newspaper, Hamshahri, which appears to be comparing the West Bank wall to the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and repeating the canard that Israel intends to destroy the Al-Asqa Mosque. As I always ask this brand of soft-core Holocaust deniers: if Israel is repeating the crimes of the Nazis as you claim, where are the death camps? In all those years I have yet to get an answer.

Also revealing is at the very top of the VTJP website's homepage is the very first link one sees is "What if Israel invaded Vermont?" which leaving aside the absurdity of the scenario, does tell us something of VTJP's agenda. The accompanying text has too many historical omissions, and inaccuracies for me to get into here, but to address the analogy: If Israel were to invade Vermont, from where would they invade? Western Massachusetts? Upstate New York? New Hampshire? Quebec? No: The map portrays Israel's hypothetical invasion of Vermont to be from within Vermont itself. Can one invade a land where one is already present? The paradox reveals the very clear message: that a "just peace" means "no Israel"; Jews have no right to live anywhere in that land. The justification? The British Mandate's borders as the Ottaman Empire gave up the territory to Britain after WW I. This is all very disconcerting to those of us who are concerned with understanding the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and who believe that a just peace involves two democratic states with a secure border.

[Still, imagine the topsy-turvy alternate reality VTJP proposes where in 1948 Israeli-Vermont would have had to have fought off invasions from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Quebec, with additional support from Pennsylvania and New Brunswick, with the Grand Mufti of Montpelier declaring "we will drive the Jews into Upstate New York's wine country!"]

In a personal email from Awodey sent late in the evening of September 7th, after returning from the anxiously anticipated exhibition of Independence Paintings, he described the work to me as "just ragged cardboard lining the walls of a badly lit garage. [T]he scrawled text was virtually unreadable. [I]t seems to have gotten tattered and damaged in [its] travels - and just looked shabby." The work I had seen had been recently painted one and displayed in the beautifully lit Boston Center for the Arts' Cyclorama in Boston in February. I suspect that VTJP, like many political organizations I have observed, having a natural disdain for the arts, can never be bothered to present artwork in an appropriate setting when they do work with artists. Tattered and damaged, it loses much of its propaganda power and Awodey expressed doubts that there would be further press coverage of controversy with the work displayed under such conditions, but again, as something of a living legend, Schumann can get more attention exhibiting something shabby than most artists can garner exhibiting their best works. Either way, Schumann is making, and VTJP is sponsoring, a message of Holocaust denial.

Is this the end of this story?