Program Notes: Arts Blog |

Friday, November 26, 2010

Becky Slemmons and "Gatherings"

Posted By on Fri, Nov 26, 2010 at 5:17 PM


It's about 20 visits, 80 more to go for Becky Slemmons.

The local artist has set herself a challenge: to visit 100 places of worship in Pittsburgh, at least one each week. She started Sept. 5.

Her goals include exploring the role belief plays in society; "the similarities in differently labeled spiritual mythologies"; and "the conflict unfortunately perpetuated." She is also, she adds in a press release, "intrigued by people who don't need proof."

Moreover, "Gatherings" has taken Slemmons, who is unaffiliated with any particular faith, on a journey of artistic discovery.

She documents her visits through video, blogs ( and works in the more tangible medium of a sleeveless, gothic-style white dress. She wears the dress on each visit and alters it in response.

"From the beginning there was something about clothing that needed to happen and I felt like there needed to be one item that went to each service," she says in a phone interview. "Clothing becomes a relic when worn by people. I wanted people to have that as a reason to talk to me."

Every week, Slemmons contacts representatives of faith communities, explaining her project and requesting the opportunity to visit. She describes herself as shy and remembers being scared to make the first call. Still, she says, "I love doing things I'm afraid to do."

She's attended a variety of Christian and Judaic services (denominational and non-denominational), as well as Hindu, Islamic and Unitarian Universalist. These visits have included religious celebrations such as Diwali (Hindu), Taizé (Presbyterian), Sukkot, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

This Sun., Nov. 28, she'll attend both the 8 a.m. Good Samaritan Service involving East End Cooperative Ministry Men's Shelter, at East Liberty Presbyterian Church, and the 10:30 a.m. service at The Religious Society of Friends of Pittsburgh, in Shadyside.

Slemmons is intrigued by the way people use their body to worship. She saw a woman at a Hindu ceremony praying in "child's pose," the same way a Muslim does. "That was wonderful," she says.

So far, faith communities have responded positively to her, as well.

"It's been so supportive. I've met some really incredible people. I've had reverends call me after the visit and ask me how I felt about the visit," she says.

The entire process is reflected in Slemmons' dress. A patch from the Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community in South Side peeks out of a front pocket. Five tiny lines, barely visible beside a button, remind her that Muslims pray five times a day.

Still, religious dress codes apply. She added a head scarf for a visit to an Orthodox Judaic service, and sleeves for an Islamic service. At Hindu religious worship, women wear a "dupatta," a long scarf, so Slemmons added that, too.

She worries that someday, the dress will attract too much attention.

"Things will become more complicated when the dress becomes huge, and I don't want to distract people as they're worshipping," she said.

Indeed, Slemmons worries, "No matter how much I try to research [beforehand], it's hard for me to know if I'm surely not going to do something considered sacrilegious."

For much of her career as an artist, Slemmons says, she only painted and drew. Her work began to change during a two-year graduate program at The Maryland Institute College of Art. "I could see the idea of performance even in my still-lifes because my little objects seemed to be performing on a stage," she says.

But "Gatherings" is a leap for the internationally exhibited artist, who currently teaches at Pitt.

"This is the first project where I'm a visible performer," she says.

She hopes, ultimately, to expose the people she meets to "the possibility that making art may not always be that different from the act of attending service: both involving meditation, consideration and then response through life's actions."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Downtown's "Cell Phone Disco"

Posted By on Wed, Nov 24, 2010 at 9:32 PM

If I say the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's lastest public art installation looks better the further away you get, that's not an asthetic criticism.

"Cell Phone Disco," unveiled yesterday, consists of a large-scale aluminum frame mounted on the rear wall of the Benedum Center -- the brick wall bordering that alley (Tito Way) that runs from Crazy Mocha on Liberty Avenue toward the river.

It's lit by 2,304 individually activated LEDs, which glow red or go dark in response to the signals from nearby cell phones. The 16 antennae are mounted on the metal frame, but the call is coming from inside the building -- where the receiver and microprocessors are located.

The work grew from Dutch artists Ursula Lavrenčič and Auke Touwslager's fascination with mobile phones, and a desire to make visual the electromagnetic fields they create. A version -- credited to the pair as Informationlab -- was exhibited here a couple years ago, at nearby Wood Street Galleries.

At the unveiling, Wood Street curator Murrary Horne presented the installation as part of the Trust's ongoing plan to illuminate pedestrian pathways in the Cultural District using artworks. Others have included Erwin Redl's "Flow" (2004) -- those eight big vertical red bars on the Liberty Avenue face of Wood Street Galleries.

And indeed, the "Cell Phone" debut, held at 5 p.m., was puncuated by people leaving work and shortcutting to the bus stop or parking garage.

Up close, "Cell Phone Disco" doesn't look like much -- kind of like a malfunctioning LED readout, lights blinking in obscure patterns. The thing is 16 feet square, after all, and each point of light is quite distant from the next. From this vantage point, at dusk, the most interesting visual might be the funhouse-mirror reflection of the Federated building.

Meanwhile, you can't really see "Cell Phone" at all from Liberty Avenue, which runs only a half-block away.

To get the full effect, in the evening, retreat down Exchange Way, which dead-ends on Tito Way at the artwork and runs parallel to Liberty, toward 9th Street. I'd even suggest continuing across Ninth, about halfway to 10th Street.

Turn around, and with the nice perspective shifts created by the buildings, it's quite dramatic, sort of like a 2D electronic fountain, rippling up and down the Benedum's wall. At this distance, it should generate plenty of "what the heck is that?" from passersby -- even if to activate it AND watch at the same time from this spot, you'd have to send a buddy with a cell phone running to within range of the antennae.


Friday, November 19, 2010

National Book Award Winner Terrance Hayes

Posted By on Fri, Nov 19, 2010 at 5:38 PM

In researching a 2006 profile of the poet and Carnegie Mellon professor,  I learned that what seemed to impress people most was that there's no pigeonholing him, whether personally or artistically. Everybody likes him, but no one seems able to pin him down; and he seems capable of writing in any style, about any subject, while plainly remaining Terrance Hayes. (Here's the article:

Here's an excerpt from his "I Am a Bird Now":

After the vase is asleep with the taste
Of the bit flower its moodiness and lust

You know how I feel / submerged
In a clouded jar altered and alert

The mind light-headed and hawked
Run-down and cloaked in awkwardness

Beautiful lines, but they don't begin to give a sense of everything that's going on in Lighthead, the collection that won him this year's prestigious National Book Award for poetry. (Here's CP review:

There are also wild narratives, sensitively detailed poems about family, and drily comic flights of fancy. And while Hayes isn't a "political poet" in the conventional sense, his social commentary is no less potent for its slyness: "I realize that when you said 'Freedom,'" says one of his narrators in Lighthead, "you were talking about the meat we kill for, the head of the enemy leaking in the bushes, how all of it makes peace possible."

If Lighthead has a signature stroke, it's Hayes' use of the "pecha kucha" form, named for the trendy presentation format in which each of 20 images is accompanied by a brief talk. The stanzas of his "Coffin for Head of State," their titles based on song titles by African music legend Fela Kuti, constitute a sinister political prophecy: "I almost described the leaves shining on their bones / and the snakes roosting in their sheaths to the coffin." 

Hayes turns 39 this month -- quite young for a National Book Award. But Hayes, who's from South Carolina, got a jump out of the gate. In a world where many poets never get formally published at all, his very first collection, Muscular Music -- basically his master's thesis in Pitt's poetry program -- made it to shelves. Considering that he's now one of a handful of living poets on a big imprint like Penguin Books, the surprise isn't the National Book Award, but only how quickly he earned it.

Hayes is protean. In that 2006 profile, he includes Keats among his influences. The kinship is mostly stylistic, but Keats himself once seemed to describe Hayes' omnivorous approach to subject matter. "[T]he poetical Character," Keats wrote, "it is not itself ... it has no self ... it is everything and nothing ... It has no character ... it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated."

Or, as Hayes put it, "I'm schizophrenic, all over the place."

And as Hayes writes in Lighthead, a poet's job is to "root through noise like a termite / with a number on his back."

And now he's a termite with a National Book Award.

Terrance Hayes in 2006. - PHOTO BY HEATHER MULL.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Pillow Project's Paper Memory

Posted By on Wed, Nov 17, 2010 at 9:38 PM


Interesting things are happening with Pearlann Porter's six-year-old multimedia-oriented dance troupe. If early shows, like The Concept Album Tour, traded in spectacle, this latest production demonstrates how far Porter's come: Paper Memory feels visionary at times. Notwithstanding one complaint I'll get to in a minute, this show is one to catch before it closes this weekend.

The "performance installation" for three dancers is built around a deceptively slender romantic narrative. Dancer Taylor Knight portrays a writer, while Brent Luebbert and Breanna Short seem to be dancing the roles of the troubled couple he is writing about (with Luebbert, of course, a fictionalized version of the writer). The wistful, searching piece explores memory as it's transformed by regret, wishfulness and the very process of remembering.

While the dancers are good, Paper Memory might be most notable for its staging. In the loft-like confines of its Space Upstairs (atop Construction Junction), Porter has created a proscenium-style performance space several times larger than the seating area (which consists of three rows of chairs).

Meanwhile, the floor-level stage is nearly three times as deep as it is wide, permitting (to use a cinematic term) a kind of deep-focus staging in which we can at once clearly see action happening an arm's length away and stuff going on practically in the next neighborhood.

Porter uses this to full effect to open the show. Far away, at the rear of a pitch-black stage, a tiny light flashes -- a small LED light hand-held by Luebbert. This portends a solo, which Luebbert lights himself solely by flashing the light on and off, strobe fashion. The effect is very cool -- again, cinematic, the live equivalent of jump-cuts.

 Another breathtaking gambit finds the dancers interacting with animations projected on movable walls behind them. Knight sits at a desk composed of thick, hand-drawn lines that seem quiveringly alive. (It's actually a real chair and desk, outlines by the animation.) Luebbert stands against a wall, looking like he's part of a piece of scribbled-on paper -- until the paper (complete with sound effects) is crumpled by an unseen giant hand, as Luebbert folds up with it, only to uncrumple and repeat. And so on.

Porter also uses the stage well. Knight is usually in our face -- often at his desk, downstage to our left, while Luebbert and Short, the fictional characters in this meta-fiction, remain well outside our grasp. And a climactic scene emphasizes the stage's depth by "paving" it from mid-stage to upstage with a trail of writing paper, after which Knight vanishes in a compelling reprise of the strobe effect.

The show also features a terrific original score by P.J. Roduta, full of emotion, intriguing texture and beguiling rhythm.

I won't estimate how deep all this is intellectually or emotionally, but it was a wowzer to watch.

Except for one thing: The lights. Not those hand-held LEDs, which worked fine. And with one brief exception, the staging and the lighting design meshed much better than in "The Itch of the Key," a piece Porter choreographed last year for Dance Alloy, and whose lighting design too often kept us from seeing what we want to see: dancers in motion, full frame.

The trouble here was the spotlights that illuminated the rest of the show: They might as well have been summer-porch buglights. Over the past several years I've seen hundreds of stage shows, and this is the first one that gave me eye strain. I know the space needs to be dark for the projection sequences to come off, but a few higher-watt bulbs could make this evening even better.

Paper Memory concludes with two performances this weekend, at 8 p.m. Fri., Nov. 19, and 8 p.m. Sat., Nov. 20 ( The shows are at the Space Upstairs, 214 N. Lexington St., in Point Breeze. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Elder Hostages Staged Reading

Posted By on Fri, Nov 12, 2010 at 8:25 PM

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co. held a staged reading last night that drew a few times more people than could fit in its usual performance space.

Staged readings, of course, are typically intimate affairs. The actors, scripts in hand, don't really move around that much. The staged reading is a setup generally reserved for testing new works in front of small audiences, not for packing 'em in.

But for this special performance of playwright Ray Werner's Elder Hostages, Mark Southers' company moved from its loft-style Downtown space to the more commodious confines of the New Hazlett Theater. One reason is, Werner has a lot of friends: He spent years as a successful ad man, and has more recently spent his time playing Irish folk music, baking bread, and helping launch foodie-heaven Strip District farmers' market Farmers @ The Firehouse.

The second reason: The suite of three one-act plays was billed as the first time on stage together for two of Pittsburgh's most venerable actors, Tom Atkins and Bingo O'Malley.

The men, both in their 70s, had acted in the same film once. But it's safe to say My Bloody Valentine 3-D didn't call upon the full range of their talents.

Atkins, after all, has a long list of film credits (including The Fog and Escape from New York). He's best known on local stages for playing Art Rooney, Sr., in the Pittsburgh Public Theater's hit one-man show The Chief. (He's also regularly played Scrooge here in the CLO's A Musical Christmas Carol.)

O'Malley, meanwhile, has been a local stage legend since the 1970s, earning raves for everything from edgy new work to Death of a Salesman.

So Atkins-plus-O'Malley turned some people out. And the plays were pretty impressive, too.

In the opening two-hander, "Mum's the Word," the two men played aged shut-in brothers, one of whom (portrayed by O'Malley) is forever seeking to wrest their father's last words from the other. It's a dark comedy filled with explicit literary references, as the brothers play a hotly contested game in which they try to stump each other with "obscure quotes by famous authors." John Shepard directed.

"Night Song," directed by Southers, had Atkins as the husband of a woman (Susie McGregor-Laine) stricken with dementia, and painfully contemplating a way to end their mutual suffering. 

And "Wandering Angus," a comedy, teamed Atkins and O'Malley again, this time with Teri Bridgett, as three infirm elders at a Port Authority-forsaken bus stop. Marci Woodruff directed.

For my money, O'Malley stole "Mum's the Word"; even with script in hand, he not only made you believe every word spoken by his embittered character, but showed you what it cost him to keep his secrets.

"Night Song," meanwhile, was a tour-de-force for Atkins and McGregor-Laine. The subject matter risked tumbling into sentimentality, but ended up earning your broken heart. McGregor-Laine nearly did so all by herself, even with dialogue that consisted mostly of "be," "buh," "you" and "yes."

"Wandering Angus" added a nice note of off-kilter humor. It also further showcased Werner's ear for dialogue as spoken by quite different characters.

The evening was a fundraiser for a planned full production of Elder Hostages next season at Pittsburgh Playwrights. We'll be lucky if it comes off, and luckier still if the show can swing the same all-star cast (or even any part thereof).

Here's what you'll do this weekend

Posted By on Fri, Nov 12, 2010 at 8:19 PM

Hey all! Last-minute weekend advice blog post going on here. There's a lot of stuff to cover -- for as much stuff as made it into the music section and Short List this week, there's a bunch more that didn't. Here we go.

Tonight, in addition to the shows we covered in the paper, Howlers is home to Hero Destroyed, the local metal heros on Relapse who are leaving for a weeklong tour after tonight, and Club Cafe hosts a Beatles tribute show sponsored by AcoustiCafe; a bunch of local performers are getting into the spirit. Also, MH the Verb, of The BNVz, returns to Pittsburgh for a show called The Big Return, mixing hip hop with financial empowerment education. That’s at Shadow Lounge.

Tomorrow night is a doozy. Besides the sold-out Pharoah Sanders show at the August Wilson Center, we've got: Slim Cessna's Auto Club at Club Cafe, Wakey! Wakey! with Brooklyn-based Pittsburgh fave Jenny Owen Youngs opening at Brillobox, and more local metal courtesy of The Hitchcock Curse at Howlers. And just outside the city is a show I somehow blew listing -- and it's a good one, so I'm letting you know about it now. Boaz, one of the city's finest MCs, co-headlines a show with S. Money at the Sewickley American Legion (20 Chadwick St. in Sewickley). It's a long lineup that includes a number of other performers, and it starts at 9 p.m.; if you haven't seen Boaz, it behooves you do to so, quick.

Also, a quick shout-out to local acoustic guy T. Mitchell Bell, who sent an email earlier informing us he's going to be on a podcast put together by Mother Earth News, the back-to-the-land magazine. It plays tomorrow (Saturday) at noon, on Mother Earth News Radio.

Sunday night, do like me and catch up on your rest and watch football. Seriously, you can't go to shows every night of your life.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Electricity Fairy

Posted By on Thu, Nov 11, 2010 at 8:54 PM


If you know anyone who still doesn't understand that electricity costs more than what Duquesne Light bills you, take them to see this movie. It screens Sat., Nov. 20, as part of the Three Rivers Film Festival.

The fast-paced 52-minute documentary explores the impact of coal-mining in one place: Wise County, in southwest Virginia.

Over the years, one-quarter of the county's land has been strip-mined. The practice has polluted streams and destroyed old-growth forest. And, through mountaintop-removal mining, it's blown hundreds of feet off Appalachian peaks and deposited the rubble into stream valleys, all to get at the tasty coal inside.

Working with a wealth of old industrial films and other vintage footage, director Tom Hansell (of Kentucky's venerable arts nonprofit Appalshop) frames a case study in America's seemingly insatiable appetite for electricity.

The line of inquiry goes directly from a bombed mountain to your toaster: Coal accounts for nearly half of America's electricity. Yet the demand is fueled not only by consumerism but also the greed of coal companies and power companies. 

The film follows the controversy over energy giant Dominion Power's proposal to build a new $1.8 billion coal-fired power plant -- also raising for local residents the specter of additional airborne pollutants, like soot and mercury.

Hansell focuses on just a few talking heads. The most riveting is Kathy Selvage, a Wise County activist from a coal family who's seen firsthand the damage mining does the land.

"We could live without electricity," Selvage says at one point. "But could we live without clean air, clean water?"

Others interviewed include Dominion officials, a history professor and an attorney from an environmental group. 

The film is especially good at emphasizing that despite industry's promise of "good jobs," the coalfields invariably stay poor, and are left with a poisoned environment for their trouble. Hansell also effectively debunks industry hoo-ha about "clean coal."

Still think all this hasn't much to do with Pittsburgh? Well, federal estimates say we get about 80 percent of our electricity here from coal, well above the national average. And Hansel (in an e-mail) says much of the coal our power plants burn comes from Wise County, Va.

The Electricity Fairy screens at 7 p.m. Sat., Nov. 20, at Pittsburgh Filmmakers' Melwood Screening Room, 477 Melwood Ave., North Oakland ( Hansell will attend the screening.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Jovenes sin Nombres mural

Posted By on Wed, Nov 10, 2010 at 10:03 PM

  • Michal Friedman

Jovenes sin Nombres is a group of first-generation Latino youths with a dream: achievement. They'll unveil their collaborative mural called "Pintando Para un Sueno" ("Painting for a Dream") this Sat., Nov. 13, at the Ava Lounge in East Liberty.

The group ("Youth Without Names") formed in early 2009 when Michal Friedman and Argentinean artist Alfonso Barquera invited Latino youth to discuss immigration and immigrant rights at the Welcome Center for Immigrants and Internationals, a local social-services organization.

This initial meeting of Latino youth spurred a conversation that evolved into a safe space for the youth to discuss their experiences. "They came from schools, workplaces, and they were just very enthusiastic, really intelligent and wanted to keep meeting. It was pretty organic in that sense," says Friedman in a phone interview. 

Friedman is an Israeli-American who immigrated when she was 14. She has been interested in immigration issues since the late '70s, when as a young girl she witnessed the plight of many refugees to Israel from countries like Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, in the wake of brutal military dictatorships. She is currently completing doctoral work at Columbia University; starting in January, she'll teach courses on Spain and Latin America at Carnegie Mellon University.

Jovenes sin Nombres consists of about 25 members ages 15 to 24, originally from Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Argentina, Chile and Puerto Rico. There are also several non-Latino supporting members. The group is sponsored by CMU's Center for the Arts in Society, the Carnegie Museum of Art, ArtUp and the Hiawatha Project.

The youths are especially concerned with the difficulty of obtaining a higher education if neither they nor their parents had attained U.S. citizenship. Attaining citizenship can take up to ten years, and some youths are still completely undocumented by the time they graduate high school. Many are also misinformed about their rights to a higher education.

"The law is clear that federal aid is not given to those that aren't citizens. That's been a major obstacle to a lot of our students," Friedman says.

"The Dream Act," a piece of proposed federal legislation, would allow undocumented youth a six-year path toward citizenship provided that they earn a college degree or complete two years of military service. 

What to do as a Latin American youth faced with political adversity? Create a mural.

The mural is "something that's part of Latin America, that's a very Latin American cultural form of expressing all kinds of political or social ideas," says Friedman.

The final design took almost a year to complete. "We put a lot of thought into ... how we can create a mural that brings together the cultures and the countries that the youth are from, and Pittsburgh, their new home," says Friedman.

The mural is 4-feet-by-36-feet, and accompanied by two smaller panels. (The accompanying photo shows groups membrs and the work in progress.) The final design is being kept under wraps until the Nov. 13 unveiling, at East Liberty's Ava Lounge. On Nov. 18, the mural will be permanently installed on the storefront of the Latino Family Center, in Squirrel Hill.

Group member Ana, 18 and originally from Mexico, says that the local Latino population is growing. The mural is the members' opportunity to announce not only their presence in Pittsburgh but the importance of their struggle.

"We're talking here about 'the dream,' which is a very important thing to us as youth, because we don't have the chance for us to go to college and in this way it can demonstrate that ... we want to keep working," said Ana. (The group does not reveal members' last names for publication.)

The mural unveiling takes place 6-9 p.m. Sat., Nov. 13, at AVA Lounge, 126 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty. The evening includes dinner and music (

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Joseph-Beth Bookstore Closing

Posted By on Thu, Nov 4, 2010 at 7:37 PM

Just got the news that the SouthSide Works outlet, part of a nine-store Midwestern and Southern chain, is closing its doors.

The place opened six years ago this month.

According to a brief press release, the closing is effective "sometime in November," or whenver it draws down inventory enough.

"The continuing weak economy and resulting sales decline, coupled with economic forecasts for the first half of 2011, represent significant challenges to Joseph-Beth and the entire retail industry," said the release from the company.

If things are so bad everywhere, one wonders, why did the Cincinnati-based outfit just open a new store in Fredericksburg, Va., in May?

At least the Squirrel Hill Barnes & Noble waited till after Christmas last year to put up the butcher paper.

This is crappy news for the cultural scene.

Of course there are plenty of other places to get books these days, from the library and Amazon to used-book spots (two of the city's best being right down the street from Joseph-Beth).

But Joseph-Beth might have been the most active bookstore in the city proper for hosting readings, by both local and visiting writers. It also hosted book groups and such.

In other words, while the smaller J-B devoted proportionately more space to stuff like plush toys and candles, it still did the stuff you're supposed to do to engage the community. And it's going dark anyway.

Even its downsizing from a much larger, two-story SouthSide Works location earlier this year wasn't enough to save it from the slow economy and online retailing and whatever else is keeping people from buying new books in stores these days.

There are a few venues left for that activity -- the East Liberty Borders, Pitt's bookstore, the Barnes & Noble in Uptown, on Duquesne's campus. And Oakmont specialty store Mystery Lovers' Bookstore, which also hosts lots of authors, just celebrated its 20th anniversary and seems to be going strong.

But this leaves a big hole.


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