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Transcript of Introduction: Art and Activism Panel, Judson Memorial Church, July 9, 2016



by Konstantin Kulakov

summer - latin night -­ gay club ­- bodies - safe in sanctuary ­- bodies opened to dance - ­waiting in the bathroom ­ - bodies opened with bullets ­- queer bodies ­- Puerto Rican bodies - black bodies ­- sacred bodies ­ bodies heavy with guilt of living

Louisiana ­- Alton, the CD man ­- black body ­- ground -­ father -­ chest opened­ red -­ red shirt -­ “shots fired” -­ “shots fired” -­ the children ­- an arm moving -­ an arm becoming still - 

Minnesota ­- traffic stop -­ black bodies -­ boyfriend -­ black body -­ gun permit -­ child - ­backseat - father -­ police -­ bullet -­ metal -­ father -­ arm ­- child ­ “jesus please don’t let my boyfriend die"

Activist Mariame Kaba, who will join us during Part II of the panel wrote in the New Inquiry the Summer of 2015: “I dread summer. It’s the season of hyper­surveillance and even more aggressive policing of young people of color in my neighborhood... The urban summer criminalization merry­go­round...” I dread summer becoming a refrain throughout the article. After Pulse, after Sterling after Castile, this refrain is loud and getting louder. A tension, an unease I heard in the singing of Sekou, in the brush of Alfonse, in the words of Browning, in the visual culture of Natasha Johnson and Husains’s cinematography in the Martyr, and all the panelists here today.

We have come together from incredibly different backgrounds, experiences, privileges and disadvantages; still, we have come with the conviction that both art and activism are connected, that they are valuable, that the brushes and the spray paint, the pianos and the larynx, the words and the colors, the song, the dance and the movement must be connected to the suffering of the world, to social justice, to acting, to activism, to the vulnerable, to politicians, and profits. That there are tasks ahead to address the dominant cultural white supremacist lens: As the poet Claudia Rankine writes, “Because white men can’t police their imaginations, black men are dying.” And if we are activists, that in our legal advocacy, commentary, direct actions, civil disobedience, in our protests, boycotts, art is valuable and powerful and functions as activism. We have come to explore experiences and ideas together.

Since not all are artists are activists per se and not all activists are artists, we will devote two different PARTS to the panel, exploring the arts and activism from each perspective: Part I: the Arts (11 am to 12:00) and Part II: Activism (1:00 pm to 2:30 pm). Each part will be followed by your questions. Perhaps, the binary, the opposition of art and activism does not even have to exist, perhaps for some of us it should because our artistic process has no agendas and rises from the unconscious, but for different reasons... Maybe Peter Burger is right, (here summarized by poet Ben Lerner) “abolish art as a separate category from the rest of our experience.” And make it the “praxis of life.” But one thing we can agree on is this: our different bodies have given us completely different experiences and insight, and we must enter into respectful presence, listening and relationship to make a more whole world. 

I hope this panel can be that kind of event, an unfolding of a new way of being in the world. I trust that we will have the courage to balance sensitivity and productivity as we make this time and space meaningful in our encounter. Last night, Jeff Duda of the The Artistry of Democracy podcast reminded me that the event will be recorded and that press will be present. What we say will enter into an collective memory that can be used beyond itself. But before we begin, I want thank everyone who was key in organizing this event:

Judson Memorial Church, Micah Bucey, Michele Thompson, Toby Twining, Zach Mosely, Jane Truehold, my partner Sabrina Frometa, my mother and father. And I would like to thank you. In a time of what Donna Schaper calls “time famine,” our decision to volunteer our time is subversive. Finally, I would like to agree with a close mentor of mine, black liberation theologian, James Cone, there is never disembodied objectivity, and I have a responsibility to say who I am and my origins, as a Russian American immigrant poet who is also a white male.



Alton Sterling

After leaving the waters of Puerto Plata to arrive in New York, I watched how another human being, Alton Sterling, laid on the ground, moving his arm tragically, chest opened with bullets...for selling CD's. This is today; now. And the coldness of the police had nothing to say but "shots fired" as he breathed his last. I remembered Eric Garner placed in a banned choke-hold...for selling loose cigarettes. And the coldness of the police, the EMT's, and the justice department had nothing to offer him and his family, the human family but the steel of more guns.

After watching the trauma last night, I went to sleep to the warmth of my life-giving partner, embracing her beautiful skin and its blackness, asking: Is this white response a coldness, or emptiness of spirit: A society structured around fear, criminalization of black bodies, more guns, and a "law and order" that preserves white lives and property. Emptiness. This is emptiness. Because what is evil but the lack of love that can bind us towards moral responsibility, reparations, healing and wholeness.

We are not there, we do not want healing and wholeness, we want more "power" and "things," because we (and hear I speak of white people) have not even collectively admitted the danger of our disease. We may choose to deny it, but if we "love thy neighbor as ourselves," we are still in a hell where the painful shrieks of Sterling's son and mother rise-up. This "law and order" that preserves white privilege and property has an ugly underbelly. And this ugliness will rise up and swallow up everything if we do not ADMIT this and ACT.