Oakland Winter Live Celebrates the Wild Possibilities of Artistic Collaboration
By Lou Fancher
Two unrelated incidents — an interview with Berkeley-based interdisciplinary artist Kim Anno and Dictionary.com’s announcement of “complicit” as 2017’s word of the year — collide to become one coherent thought. What would 2017 have been if “compromise” or “cooperation” or “civility” had been the year’s identifying moniker?
Maybe it would have been more like the energy of Oakland Winter Live, Anno’s two-night, Wild Projects production featuring six separate works that integrate live music, dance, theater, video, and other visual elements at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center in downtown Oakland. Anno extends her painter/photographer/filmmaker/curator/producer/director/actor wings with a wave of Bay Area artists joined by international theater artist Tony Miyambo from Johannesburg, South Africa.
The scale of talent and diverse multidisciplinary works are intentionally broad. Anno’s aim by including young and more seasoned artists is to stretch the lens of every person involved. From participating artists to audiences to Anno herself, Winter Live displays bravado. With hard-hitting content that more often than not involved compromise, cooperation, and civility to create, the performances demand that audiences bring similar energy. They will be complicit, in the best sense of the word, in a mutual celebration of the wild, wonderful, possibly even weird results of collaborative art.
Even in light of the freewheeling mindset, there’s tight, consistently applied criteria and close attention to high-level standards in the curation. “I wanted to find people who had done interdisciplinary work with a kind of rigor,” Anno says about the invited artists. “Even though there are improvisers involved, they’ve done this over time. Some have worked for a couple of years on the projects.”
Often conceived together but frequently with a “star” and “costars,” these projects strive to present film, video, live action, and sound on a level platform. No element is background to the others. “People forget that cinema began with silent movies accompanied by live musicians,” says Anno. When cinematography or animation are used well in interdisciplinary work, they strip away the dominant influences of today’s Hollywood blockbusters and return cinema to its roots. Although many of the artists involved have significant technology in their toolbox, there’s limited use of it as a wow factor. “There’s a reaction against too much synthesized or special effects, too much 3-D. It’s about having a balanced relationship between the digital and analog. I tell my students not to do only research online. Suddenly, their [expression] is much bigger because the human hand still has its place.”
Anno’s contribution to the program is Natural Arrangement, a video/music amalgamation focused on the fragility of nature and in part drawing from Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. Anno, whose work often centers on social and environmental justice, wrote the script. Working in collaboration with violinist/composer Kristina Dutton, and electro-improv duo Apartment D (Chinese pipa musician/composer Siyang [Sophia] Shen and Icelandic musician Ingibjörg Friðriksdóttir), she says not only did she gain insight into her writing, she began to understand opera and librettos.
“How important is the narrative? Should you push that, or should you have space? The text I wrote was too dense for the musicians to fully use. I said, “Ok, let’s empty it out.” The music has the potential to carry the narrative.”
Shen in an email contributes her thoughts on the cross-genre collaboration with Anno and Dutton. “One thing that we learn from our experience is that there are ways to make it work toward our shared artistic goal. [But only] if all of us collaborating from different areas are willing to communicate openly and equally, invest a lot of effort, and compromise our own needs for a better outcome.”
Dutton, in a separate interview, agrees that dealing with text and visual media that can be literal or abstract is complex. “As a musician, there was a challenge with the literal element, like images of fire or text with fire mentioned. How do we respond? Do we dramatize that, or create a subtle framework for a theatrical element that stands on its own?”
Dutton has been fascinated by science — by wind, water, air, fire, biology — from childhood. “I was focused on the rain forest as a child. I had my room covered with Sierra Club images, not musical or teen idol things. I read an article about Sting, the rock musician. I had a strong sense that I, like him, had to be an artist so I could use money to save the world and the environment.” Dutton’s early interest in biology waned when she realized being a scientist involved manipulating nature and living things. “The hard science didn’t feel compelling. I was interested in the way science is creative.”
Which informs her approach to compositions that combine imagery with music. “I like to give people something bizarre combined with beautiful images. Most people relate music to something visual all the time: they hear a classical or contemporary piece and relate it to a film or other things.” She gives as an example of a pop culture bizarre/beautiful combo: Star Wars’ Darth Vader. “The content is aggressive and jarring, but 5-year-olds are listening to it — because of the narrative, the compelling visuals, they can retain a striking melody. The music becomes integral. That’s where my interest in composing for film lies.”
After “getting outside” of her classical conservatory training to immerse herself in experimental projects, Dutton has become reinterested in lyricism. Reformatted into new contexts, standard harmonic movements patterned on different eras of classical music provide solid groundwork for effective contemporary narratives. Dutton says when the subject of whether or not classical music is dying comes up in conversation, her answer is unequivocal. “It’s not dying. There’ll always be people championing it. Take Bach chorales: a completed art form. It’s not something we can take now and reenvision. It doesn’t make sense to do that—but besides its being brilliant, his ability to communicate a story is incredible. In that way, it’s important to reference, to keep it alive.”
Similarly, literature stands to gain longevity and innovative application through projects like Miyambo’s one-man play, Red Peter's Way Out. Based on Ian Johnston's translation of Franz Kafka’s A Report To An Academy, the dynamic performer brings to Winter Live ideas about identity, physical appearance and race in postapartheid South Africa and America in 2017. “It’s a solo piece about human beings, instinct, what is reason, what is thinking, what is animal behavior,” says Anno. “Tony has made it about race. What is it like to be a black man? You don’t have to be didactic. He doesn’t add much language. It’s his movements. When you see a black man perform it, it brings you to conversations we’re having nationally, things like police violence against black men. In a certain way, these contemporary incidents are Kafka-esque.”
Touching on human sensory perceptions with sound, sights and a spirit of adventure, it’s accurate to say that Winter Live is orchestrated with civilized complicity while also including material of substance. “In downtown Oakland, with the Ghost Ship fire, with displacement of people, we wanted hard content,” agrees Anno. “Seeing it performed with energy that’s not just about angst and brutality but is about art — I wanted to bring the audience along. This is carefully crafted to show that audiences can accept different circumstances.”