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Introducing Los Solos: Q&A With Series Co-Curator Bonnie Jones

October 3, 2008
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Los Solos is a new monthly performance series featuring–you guessed it–solo performances. The twist here is that the series presents only women, pairing a local and an out-of-town artist on each bill. Pulling from the experimental undergrounds of dance, music, theater, and, video, Los Solos is programmed by curators-cum-artists Jackie Milad and Bonnie Jones. The series kicked off in September with electro-psych improv performances from Baltimore’s Whispers for Wolves and Philadelphia’s Fursaxa. This month’s outing showcases local video artist Kristen Anchor alongside Los Angeles-based experimental writer/lawyer Vanessa Place, author of Dies: A Sentence.

Noise caught up with Bonnie Jones, a gleefully interdisciplinary artist and co-founder of the anything-goes Transmodern Festival to discuss Friday’s performances, her curatorial process (like, giving herself grants), and why Baltimore is a scrappy arts city.

Noise: Why pair a local and out-of-town artist for every show?

Bonnie Jones: There is as much of a need to bring outside artists to Baltimore, to show outside artists that there is a real culture happening here, that it’s very unique and distinctive. It’s not Philly and it’s not D.C. It’s very much its own thing. At the same time there’s a very important need to let local people interact with people from out of town. There’s a lot of things that happen when you have a show or festival when you put people from out of town with your locals. They talk, they make connections. Those connections can lead to opportunities for both people involved.

Sometimes you go to other cities and see festivals [that are] all out-of-towners. There are few local community artists at all. Part of my curatorial vision is really involving the community, [including] minorities and women. Another part of my curatorial vision is, let’s always think about bringing Baltimore to the world and the world to Baltimore, always continuing that exchange.

It’s a nice contrast because any small community can get stuck in this idea that they are in a bubble. Baltimore, like any small community, sometimes forgets that there’s other stuff happening, and other stuff is relevant to what Baltimore is doing, too. I would never think, as a curator, I am the only one person who cares about these issues in performance art or who wants to present performance art. Even within Baltimore itself it’s been proven, because there are other people running series for performance art and there’s a lot of other activities now. %u2026 It’s always important to provide context. Where are you in your city and where are you in your state? Where are you in your world?

Noise: Why did you and Jackie decide to just focus on women? Obviously, it’s part of your mission statement, but you didn’t make a big deal, like: ‘Women need more exposure in Baltimore!’

I don’t think women necessarily need more exposure in Baltimore. Baltimore can be pretty egalitarian about who gets the opportunities that exist in the city. I think, systemically, in performance art–and this isn’t a performance-art series, per se. I’ve got all of the genres–dance, music, film, theater–maybe one person is doing a video piece. It’s not a performance-art series, I should clarify that. It’s performance in the sense that it happens on a stage.

Noise: Arts that are being performed.

Yes, arts that are performed. My own creative projects are music, improvised music, kind of like what the High Zero festival presents, and some level of sound and text performance stuff. So, when I go out into the world and see what kind of festivals are being together and what series are being run–and who’s running those series–obviously there’s no generalization that can capture [it] all, but it’s important to remember that sometimes a certain group of people needs to be embraced in a certain way. And a certain statement needs to be made, overt or subtle, that that group, being presented in that way, is clearly a surprise to people.

I gave the [Los Solos promotional] postcard to somebody. They looked at this postcard, through the names [of performers], and they went, “Oh! They’re all women!” And I was like, “Yeah, they all are women. It’s a series that only presents women.”

It’s not exclusivity, it’s not about some overt kind of political statement. It’s about an idea that in a world [where] I’ve seen an all-male festival, then there’s a counterpart to that. In the avant-garde art and experimental art, you do tend to see less representation of minorities and women. Sometimes it just happens that way. Sometimes you just don’t see it, it’s just not there.

It’s interesting because people think, Oh, I’m doing this radical work. I am part of this radical community, and sometimes they forget that maybe their radical community is still homogeneous. As an organizer and artist I want to say, “What the eff, guys? Are you just reiterating the dominant culture?” Are we having the same problems even though we all consider ourselves radical and politicized and tuned in?

Noise: That’s what I thought was interesting. Usually when people do an all-women thing they have a big statement, and I think that’s totally valuable. Like with Ladyfest, they made being a woman the central thing. What I find interesting is that you [said] this is a showcase for women artists, but that was it.

For this project, sometimes you don’t want the form to dictate what is the meaning of the program. Sometimes you don’t want the fact that it’s all women to provide what’s meaningful about the work itself. Here we have all these artists from very different backgrounds. So, I don’t want the form, all-women, to give anybody the idea that there’s a singular meaning to the work that is presented. It’s in and of itself created by very different people for different reasons. Some political, some not. Some feminist, some not. That’s what’s important here: individuals and their work.

Noise: How did you go about picking the artists? I’m really interested in why you paired certain people together.

Jackie and I had been doing a lot of organizing for a long time. She’s also the curator [at a student gallery] at the University of Maryland, College Park. The two of us are constantly looking at art that happens in town, thinking about programming this artist here or there. As a curator I like doing it enough that I stay pretty alert to what I’m seeing and what’s going on out there %u2026

When I came into [Los Solos] I knew I wanted to do all women, that I would have a local and an out-of-towner. I brought in Jackie to help me figure out the locals. We thought it would be really great to program people we had never programmed before, if we could present work that we hadn’t presented before in any other context. We weren’t 100 percent successful in that mission. But on the whole, when we look at that list–and when a lot of people in our community look at that list–in addition to being like, “Oh! It’s all women,” they are also like, “Oh, I don’t know a lot of these people.” A lot of these names, even the locals, are just not jumping out. I was pretty excited about this idea of curating the program with people that people might not know, [who] might be new to them and not part of their general orbit.

In terms of how we came up with the pairings, the first night [performers] were similarly matched, aesthetically. Two women who both employ certain levels of psych/drone. That was a no-brainer for me. I wanted to have a nice, big opening night for the series. This week is Kristen Anchor, who is the Creative Alliance’s filmmaker curator, and Vanessa Place, who is a writer from L.A. Kristen has programmed a 45-minute program of short video, of which four or five are her own. Kristen’s style, and the style of work she likes in video, borders on the edge of culty, cheeky with this heavy political kind of undercutting. Even if it’s housed in this poppy, cheeky, light kind of satire, there’s a lot of interesting politics, that covers a pretty broad spectrum of gender politics, sex politics, race politics. It’s across the board.

One of the pieces is “Let’s Get Out of Here,” by [City Paper contributor] Rahne Alexander. It’s clips of Hollywood movies, of moments when actors say, “Let’s get out of here!” She strung together several hundred of these little %u2026 clips. That’s image politics, how we perceive Hollywood. How we perceive celebrity. Which, I didn’t realize till now, is interesting coming to join with the person who is from Hollywood, who is Vanessa. She is a fairly radical and politicized writer. But she is a writer of a tradition that is not a monologue or stand-up. She’s working in a really obtuse form of writing. It’s a form of writing that is about programs and systems, restrictions on the writing. Putting limits on your writing in order to reveal new things.

Noise: Like her book [Dies: A Sentence] that is one giant sentence?

Right, the book that is the 150,000-word sentence. The thing with a form like that is that you can do really beautiful things. Like that book is about a dying solider in his last breath. That 150,000-word sentence is his last breath. That’s pretty special to be able to use fairly obtuse methods of writing to make strong political statements.

I’m thinking of this as the political night. Their work is infused with some politics.It doesn’t avoid it; in fact, it tends to be a centerpiece. They are both very well-versed in experimental forms as well as having good senses of humor and charismatic personalities.

Noise: The whole series is pretty multidisciplinary; even some of the artists themselves are. Was that something that came about naturally? Did you want to tap certain people and that’s how it came together? Or were you like, “We need a dance person %u2026 “

I think I was trying to represent as many genres as I could. It’s a nice project to put two people together who have their own unique aesthetic view and use the compare and contrast method. To introduce the idea of interdisciplinary. You have your dancer and your musician, and naturally your brain is going to start drawing these comparisons because they are stuck together. I was trying to have a broad mix of genre. I was almost thinking of this as a little Transmodern incubator–see what kind of work they do and think about them for other projects.

Many times events are specialized. People want to group things, at least by discipline. Though, in this town there are a lot of odd [music] show bills featuring different genres. This happens. But what you are doing, it’s not super-common.

In general people have the idea that they need to tap into a specific audience. Because more and more recently artists are becoming much more interdisciplinary, everything is moving to that. You know that a change is happening when they start putting that into grant applications or you start seeing interdisciplinary arts an MFA degree you can get.

I have a few theories about why that is. It kind of [relates] to certain forms of art [that] people are losing interest in. Like painting, sculpture, and poetry. They are getting a lot less play in the world than they maybe once did. Whereas video art and performance art, some music, definitely performance music. Like, I consider Dan Deacon pretty performance-based. Like a performance artist, he is doing more than just producing sounds.

Noise: Right, he is directing the audience to do certain movements.

Yes, he’s directing the audience. He’s getting in there as a player, as a performance artist. Part of the reason I think people are moving to that is stuff is that those more static forms–where it’s just you and the painting or you and the book, or in some cases, just you and the CD if you are living in the middle of nowhere and aren’t going to be seeing live bands–the internet has changed that. The idea of immediacy is really different now. Everything is immediate. Your engagement is different, the way you want to interact with things in the world. You want to be engaged. [You want] something that is mutable, that you can interact with because that’s the way the world is, kind of, changing.

There’s this other aspect because of the war and the politics, the current administration. There’s an urgency in artists to get a message out quicker. Paintings, books, and making CDs. Often the artists themselves don’t feel the urgency of those because it takes a while [to make]. Videos take quite a long time, but at least you have the internet as a medium to distribute, whereas a painting will go on a gallery’s wall.

From a very pragmatic organizer standpoint, let’s give a little bit of something for everybody. All of these artists have high aesthetic value, so let’s bring them together. Mix it up and let people choose what they want to see.

Noise: What’s coming up? Do you think you would continue this?

Yeah, particularly because in April the Transmodern Festival happens. I didn’t want to run into the next cycle of that. I just wanted to see how it went. Six months seems like a modest commitment. To the extent that I can, I am going to pay these people, you know? I am not going to expect them to do it for free or low-ball them like, “Oh I only got $10 at the door.” While that happens and that’s a part of how you get things going, these are artists who have been working for decades, some for longer than that. Susan Alcorn has been playing music for over 30 years.

After a certain point, as an artist and an organizer, if you have the means to do it, you just want to say, “Look I really want to be able to appreciate you. I want you to get some money out of it. I want you to put a level of commitment into it.” Usually, this is aided by saying, “This is a serious gig. I’m going to give you some money. I’m going to get a nice venue and work hard to promote it.” %u2026 It’s not in my politics that I need to get paid. I don’t have a diva feeling about it, but, boy, is it nice when you do!

This is not a festival. This is not some big Hopkins-backed or MICA-backed event. This is just a person who works a job and saves enough money to pay the people in her series.

Noise: So you are paying out of pocket?

I am paying partially out of pocket, depending on attendance. The admission always goes back to the artist, but they have set guarantees. So, if the door doesn’t make enough, I’ll pay the rest out of pocket.

It’s a strategy as an organizer and an artist that I’ve come up with. Which is: I’ll work this job. It affords me some money that I can put into my own creative stuff and that I can put into projects. So I give myself the “Bonnie Jones Grant.”

Noise: You’re giving yourself grants?

Yeah! My own grants. Bonnie Jones Grants! I did apply for a grant from Baltimore City, and we’ll see if I get that to cover the rest of the series. But, I don’t have any problem with that. I have an idea about a [term] that people use a lot, of the cultural worker. There’s this slightly Marxist ideology of the cultural worker, the person who just does this cultural work.

Noise: Like a curator?

Yeah, like a curator, an organizer, a person who runs a venue, a person who writes arts articles for little or no money! These are cultural workers, people who are not getting monetary gain. They might even be coming under fire, people getting pissed off at them for whatever they did or didn’t do. Whatever. They are exposing themselves, to a certain extent, to do this work. But, you know, there’s a certain level of commitment to it. You care about it. It’s a worthy job, a worthy thing to want to work for.

I have always maintained that I get a lot out of Baltimore. Every opportunity that I’ve had creatively, for my own career, has been the direct result of things I was turned onto when I came to Baltimore 10 years ago. I feel like I am willing to do a little public service, to put back into the community.

The difficult thing is, when you are an organizer or cultural worker, you have to negotiate your own ego. Negotiate how personally involved with your own project that you are, so that if it fails, are you a failure? If it succeeds, are you therefore a big, successful person? You have to negotiate these things when it’s your project because it gets personal. Especially if you aren’t getting paid, then it gets more personal. I don’t live or die by the Los Solos series. If it fails, that’s disappointing. I will work at making the next one better. If it succeeds, that’s great. The success of a series like this doesn’t come back to me. I want to maintain that it doesn’t have anything to do with me at all. The success of a series like this goes right back into Baltimore, you know what I mean? This is something the city can have.

Noise: How would you define success and failure? Is it strictly just how many people come in the door?

No. Does it activate people? Does it make people curious about other things that are going on in the city? Does it make people realize that there’s a forum? Does it make artists realize there’s a forum for particular kinds of work?

I think that’s something that all of the big projects in Baltimore have been great at, which is bringing other people into the city. Like, High Zero or Wham City, Transmodern or Creative Alliance, or any of these other events. Artscape, for that matter. [People] are thinking, Damn! There’s a lot of artists in this city. There’s a lot going on!

Noise: Right, it becomes an arts city.

Yeah, it becomes an arts city. It doesn’t necessarily become the BSO kind of city. It becomes a Providence [R.I.]. It becomes the interesting, scrappy city that has a really great, really full, really engaged arts community. To me, all of that is in the same spectrum. And my philosophy is definitely: The more you put in, the better. There can never be too many opportunities for people.

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