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art and spirituality

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.



Where Excavating the Sky Came From

Where Excavating the Sky Came From

Irrationnal Geometrics digital art installation 2008 by  Pascal Dombis . Public Domain. Wikimedia. 

Irrationnal Geometrics digital art installation 2008 by Pascal Dombis. Public Domain. Wikimedia. 


In a technoscientific age of near-cyborg-existence and capitalist social structure, we find ourselves pitted against each other and our own inner experience: whatever is not material, profitable, or logical is at best, distrusted, and at worst, banished: a very one-dimensional way to live. This has led to the abandonment of what spirituality is (derived from the Latin spiritus, to breathe)  and what it means to be human; and this abandonment is not only outside religion, but within it: the impulse to impose an absolute truth on diverse human experiences. Audre Lorde observed this when she alluded to post-Enlightenment thought on the world: “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The black goddess within each of us - the poet - whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.”

For me, spirituality begins in the body and includes all inner (or “subjective”) experience, on its own terms. And at its healthiest, to be spiritual is to be open and in healthy tension to all experience: for example, it would view the findings of natural science, the Church Fathers, or the rituals of Haitian Vodou not as an opposition, not as a hierarchy of truth, but as different, different and equally legitimate dimensions. It may not be a dimension I enter or understand, but instead of being destroyed, it must be honored as still-unexplored and unknown. On this plane, the before-irrelevant beauty, wonder, hope, and love are able to emerge and continue to persist. Poetry, an embodied art because it is rooted in sensory perception and emotion, honores inner experience. As I write in the title poem of the book, "Excavating the Sky"

                                 In my room,
I punch in letters, mixing words

to bring-out sparks. And it is You, Yahweh. 

For me, poetry is spirituality and spirituality is poetry. Excavating the Sky is a spiritual experience and as such it is living and invites the reader to participate and shape that experience. 


Wikimedia. 9th-century photo of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra in Kiev, Russian Empire (now Ukraine). 

Wikimedia. 9th-century photo of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra in Kiev, Russian Empire (now Ukraine). 

Born into a Russian family, tongue, and country, beauty and curiosity as a spiritual sensibility seems implanted in me. My parents often remind of my first time attending an Eastern Orthodox Church service and the way I was transfixed by the dizzying chanting, candles, luminous icons, and incense. It was not until I read my Professor Mckguckin’s book Standing in God's Holy Fire The Byzantine Tradition: “The synonymity of beauty and holiness is something that resonates throughout all Byzantine religious philosophy, emerging time and time again, even into the present Orthodox world. Prince Myshkin's exclamation in Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot catches the idea exactly: 'Beauty will save the World!'” Those sentences alone pushed me to claim my Russian identity and its spiritual sensibilities with dignity, a sensibility I had repressed in order to blend in, or what I now think was "assimilate" into the United States at all costs. I remember that only now, after coming to New York, did I begin to claim my Russian identity completely in all spheres. 

In the first poem of Excavating the Sky, “Perestroika” you get a glimpse of my roots for the beautiful, the seemingly different and sensual. Amidst the sterile and muddy economic rubble of the Soviet Union, I remember what would become my first retrievable memory of existence, an experience ushered-in by my mother in the poem "Perestroika," a word I heard often signaling Gorbachev's reforms. After the first line reads "In the sterile-white room, I would look-out / the window and lose count in the snow," I my mother finally arrives, bringing a colorful fruit that I did not see in an store-empty Russia:

She would carry a small aluminum can
and set it on the white table.

Slowly, she would tear open the metal.
Inside: a mango cut in halves, aglow (p. 12)


A description of my book, Excavating the Sky, reads that it seeks to “relate the inner spirituality of [my] Russian background to the fragmentation of a market-driven New World.” Living in an information age, experience is uprooted from its holistic, present-focus in order to fit systems of power and control. These systems of power and control (multinational corporate capitalism, white supremacy, anthropocentrism, patriarchy) have no concern of the whole and thus betray the spirituality, betray the breath, and betray all of life. The fragmentation created a tension that existed in and between religions, between the city and the country, and between races. 

A significant portion of the poems in Excavating the Sky were written during a very difficult spiritual crisis (“Excavating the Sky”) where everything I thought or every decision I made was subjected to the supreme authority of “natural” science and “secular reason.” This experience is dramatized in the poem of the same name as the book title, Excavating the Sky. Here, there is an emptiness and silence that is "absurd as wreckage" almost in a Camus-like manner:

Each morning, I rise like the
wrestling Jacob, running

through parking lots. I pray,
“Break open my counting brain;

make me your holiest fool.”
What blessed psych ward

must they leadeth me to


Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, Adrienne Rich

Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, Adrienne Rich

From my wandering childhood starting in Russia, moving to the US, moving back to Russia, then to England, back to Russia, and multiple regions in the US, I have experienced exclusion. Thus, for me, beauty is connected to my commitment to heal chasms and put opposing forces into relation. During my now-failed Muslim-Christian relationship, I was able to survive through new ways of seeing because seeing leads to acting. Again, Audre Lorde's words are fitting: "For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action." This opens up an important topic: the relationship between art and activism that I will explore in other posts. 

The fragmentation I lived under turned out to be ultimately destructive and you can feel these tensions in many of the poems. However, it was poetry, specifically the poetry of Excavating the Sky that honored, unearthed, and charged me; I touched the integrity of beauty. For me, just like Van Gogh's Starry Sky painting is a reflection of what Van Gogh felt, Excavating the Sky is an affirmation of my inner experience. But not only so, it is an experience that is participatory. In other words, it is there to be experienced and shaped by you:

There, above Qur’an and Bible, two different heavens

rise-up and conjoin: it is rivers of milk, streets of gold,
hairless companions, and pearly gates.

I leave these thin wishes as words on a page. Here,
at my bedside, the Qur’an lies not far from the Bible.