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Climbing Over Waterfalls: The wild and invigorating process of collaboration

On the final day of our lab experience in Jordan, participants, C-Hub + IDare staff, and I tromped up cascading waterfalls in Wadi Mujib. It was our final experience together - a capstone in embodied research, and most memorably, a really fun field trip. Wadi Mujib is a canyon with a river flowing through it that empties out into the Dead Sea. The water is sacred, and the site has been developed into a well-run tourist operation, yet one still feels wild exploring the twists and turns of the canyon and the crystal blue-green water that flows down over red rocks.

Participants celebrating under the waterfall at Wadi Mujib
Participants celebrating under the waterfall at Wadi Mujib. Photo by Isabel Beavers.

For many of the participants on our trip, it was the first time they had experienced this sort of outdoor adventure. It was my first time at Wadi Mujib as well, making it novel for us all. There are moments during the kilometers-long ascent up to the waterfall that are peaceful; you can float, belly up, gazing at the towering red rocks above you, reflections of the water shimmering like a mirage.

Raghad and Ala make their way up the canyon
Raghad and Ala make their way up the canyon. Photo by Isabel Beavers.

There are also moments that are treacherous; fighting your way up the crashing weight of a waterfall over slippery rocks when a strange hand appears from above, pulling you over the ledge. You climb up, exasperated. In the end, all thirteen of us made it all the way up to the waterfall and back down. It was wild, but invigorating.

Nawal after finishing the climb
Nawal after finishing the climb. Photo by Isabel Beavers.
Ahmad Ameen discusses work in the Re-Rooting exhibition at Darat al Funun
Ahmad Ameen discusses work in the ‘Re-Rooting’ exhibition at Darat al Funun. Photo by Isabel Beavers.

This might be a great way to describe the entire experience of Creative Impact Lab Amman: wild yet invigorating. Our workshop was full of research: we visited Darat al Funun, a contemporary art center in Amman, to see the exhibition Re-rooting. This exhibition was certainly wild, with live plant works, installations including jars of water, and tumbling orange crates.

Hussein Alazaaat's piece Jordanian Food Stickers
Hussein Alazaaat, ‘Jordanian Food Stickers’, 2022. Photo by Isabel Beavers

The exhibition was poignant and central to our research on water sustainability in Jordan. In Re-rooting “the constellation of works presented attempts to untangle the complex histories that make up the current crisis of economy and ecology, not only in an effort to denunciate them but also to showcase hacks, diversions, and solutions. They look at forms of self-determination and autonomy performed by local communities as a rejection of normalized exploitative and colonial models.” This exhibition became central in our thinking around the issues present in the region that relate to water sustainability: it is all rooted in the land, in autonomy over the land, and agency in one’s own future. 

Eman Haram's piece Mother of Oranges, Jaffa
Eman Haram, Mother of Oranges, Jaffa, 2022. Photo by Isabel Beavers

Our learnings from an activity with CEWAS Middle East were equally as inspiring for participant projects. Aline Bussman led us through a workshop on the water system in Jordan. We were able to understand the complex web of inputs and outputs, and the lens of cultural + social perspectives of water, that make sustainability so challenging. It is not neat, it is not straightforward. The aquifers that supply Jordan with water are being emptied, and unlike surface water, aquifers cannot be refilled. Leaky transportation pipes and public perceptions against recycled water all present challenges to creating more sustainable processes for water consumption in the area. 

Participants talk through the water system in Jordan and its challenges in a workshop led by Aline Bussman of CEWAS Middle East
Participants talk through the water system in Jordan and its challenges in a workshop led by Aline Bussman (CEWAS Middle East). Photo by Mohammad Saradeeh.

Through their projects, participants turned their inspirations into projection mapping + sculptural artworks using video, sound, and sculpture. The projects reflected metaphorically on our condition in relation to water: Nasser + Abdullah’s project ‘Love Drops’ likening the human race to a fish out of water, flopping in panic. They also ruminated on our intrinsic linkages: Seem and Sanya’s Fishbowl, and Salam and Maha’s Sea Waves Speak reflect on the ways in which humans and fish are tied in our wellbeing. Afnan’s SoS considers the relationships between the human body and health, and the environmental body and health. Some even took more direct inspiration from Re-Rooting: Hiba’s project The Orange Tree comments personally on the Palestinian struggle to reclaim the Jaffa tree production, using the symbolic orange and home-grown orange plants as a moment of personal activism.

Project prototype Sea Waves Speak
Salam Rizik Marji Alkotaifan and Maha Atallah Moahmoud Alkalaileh, Sea Waves Speak, 2022. Photo by Mohammad Saradeeh.

 

Installation view of The Uncertainty of Rain
Installation view of ‘The Uncertainty of Rain’: L to R: Nawal Almasoud, ‘The Water Tank’; Hiba Kraiwish, ‘The Orange Tree’; Nasser Alabdallah and Abdullah Alnatour, ‘Love Drops’. Photo by Mohammad Saradeeh.

Maryam and Raghad’s project Valley of Color reflects on pollution and the impact it has on the integrity of revered water sources like Wadi Mujib. Nawal’s animation visualizes the errors in water transportation and leaky infrastructure.

Raghad Mohammad Mahmou al Malkawi and Maryam Ibrahim Hasan Hallas' piece Valley of Color
Raghad Mohammad Mahmou al Malkawi and Maryam Ibrahim Hasan Hallas, ‘Valley of Color’, 2022. Photo by Mohammad Saradeeh.
Project prototype SoS Save our Souls
Afnan Hammad, ‘SoS (Save our Souls)’, 2022. Photo by Mohammad Saradeeh.

The constellation of works is moving. It is forward thinking, yet also reflective on regional traditions and the unique history of the many people who call Jordan home. Creating these works, like our ascent up the Wadi Mujib, was wild. We encountered many technical challenges, and learned quite a few skills in a short period of time. At times, the language barrier was frustrating, but we found ways to communicate when translation was challenging.

Sanya, Nasser and Seem testing out MadMapper
Sanya, Nasser and Seem testing out MadMapper projection mapping software during our projection mapping demo in the C-Hub. Photo by Isabel Beavers.

Participants learned from each other, assisting one another with projection mapping, ideas for fabrication of their final projects, and hanging the exhibition. This sort of exchange makes learning together rich; when students become teachers, and the typical hierarchy of knowledge production shifts. We all learned from one another, through skill sharing, story telling, and creative production. We all helped each other climb up and over the waterfall.

Nasser Alabdullah and Abdullah Alnatour's piece Love Drops
Nasser Alabdullah and Abdullah Alnatour, ‘Love Drops’, 2022. Photo by Mohammad Saradeeh.
Test prototype of projection mapping on lasercut board
We created this projection mapping prototype by combining videos created by CIL Amman participants during our in-person workshop at the C-Hub. Photo by Isabel Beavers.

The spirit of our cohort and team at IDare and C-Hub allowed us to push forward through this wild process of collaborative creative production, and in the end create something invigorating. The projects were all exhibited together for the public and virtual guests. What is hidden behind them, is the strong bonds we all formed in moving through process:  in learning together, in having new experiences together, in our meals and Google Translate conversations, and quiet moments looking at art.

Two people view artwork at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts
Layth Almyjeb, C-Hub Manager, and Raghad Mohammad Mahmoud Al Malkawi at the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts during an elective field trip. Photo by Isabel Beavers.

The participants presented their projects during an in-person final event at the C-Hub in Amman, Jordan. Shamsher Virk (ZERO1), SaraNoa Mark (guest artist + critic) and I joined in remotely. It was disheartening to experience the projects only virtually, but even at a distance, the pride both participants and our team at C-Hub took in the presentation of these ambitious works was palpable. The works are installed in a classroom modified to become a temporary gallery at the C-Hub, and project presentations took place in the makerspace adjacent to the artworks.

Sanya Qumuq presenting
Sanya Qumuq presenting her final project ‘Fishbowl’ (made in collaboration with Seem Alsayeh) during the CIL Amman Final Event at C-Hub. Photo by Mohammad Saradeeh.

Participants shared the concepts, materials, and process of their pieces, as well as future plans for expanding upon these ideas or their creative practice.

Raghad Mohammad Mahmoud Al Malkawi prepares to present
Raghad Mohammad Mahmoud Al Malkawi prepares to present during the CIL Amman final event. Her project was titled ‘Valley of Color’. Photo by Mohammad Saradeeh.
Salam Rizik Marji Alkotaifan before presenting
Salam Rizik Marji Alkotaifan before presenting. Photo by Mohammad Saradeeh.
Guests applaud participant presentations during the final event
Guests applaud participant presentations during the final event. Photo by Mohammad Saradeeh.

Guests to the C-Hub were able to share in this final and critical step of the artist's journey: public presentation. It is clear that the ideas and experiences we had together will live on, and many participants have been planning ways to continue and expand upon their projects. Hiba hopes to host her work in conjunction with a local symphony, Seem and Sanya hope to apply to an art exhibition with the piece. Raghad hopes to make a new work considering concepts around water sustainability. It is my personal hope that the collaborative relationships borne of this exchange will also live on, and that this was the beginning of something wild and invigorating, rather than a predictable end. The spirit of this exchange is what we can hope for in the face of global climate resilience: determination, follow-through, and invigorating collaboration.

Two people holding each other with the other arm outstretched in front of a waterfall in the Wadi Mujib canyon
Peace out! Photo by Isabel Beavers.

 

Feature image credit: Fishbowl, Sanya Qumuq and Seem Alsayeh. Photograph by Mohammad Saradeeh.

From researching underwater adventures in the Red Sea, to learning about the historic sites in the Wadi Rum, the research and preparation phase of the Creative Impact Lab Amman has been exciting and enlightening. The topic for the Lab is sustainability, and given my own recent work on ocean health, I feel compelled to explore water as a cultural and ecological resource in Jordan. Like parts of California (where I currently live), Jordan is stressed for water, while facing additional challenges from the climate crisis and population growth. Aquifers that supply Jordanians with clean water are running dry, impacting both the daily available water for urban dwellers, and the ability for agriculturalists in rural areas to maintain sustainable livelihoods.

I want to raise this as a topic of discussion with the workshop participants and learn about their own relationships to water. How do they feel about the climate crisis in Jordan? In what ways does water show up in their lives — in cultural and historic art and references, in pop culture, in their daily conversations with friends and family? How do they envision the future of water? We will explore these questions through a two-week intensive hosted by IDare for Sustainable Development in the capital city, Amman.

Photogrammetry model of an underwater sponge colony
Still from Submerged Meadow, featuring a photogrammetry model of an underwater sponge colony. Image Courtesy of Isabel Beavers.

Water is both a collective and highly personal resource, so I want our multimedia project to explore methods of collective resilience and collaboration. In my past work facilitating collaborative groups with Mountain Time Arts in Bozeman, Montana, and in my home city of Los Angeles, I have found that the challenges of collaboration bring huge rewards. I hope that as a team we can all learn to work together and generate new ideas and dialogues through the process of co-creating — a skill set that is essential for climate adaptation.

Blue and orange gradients projected onto 10 egg-shaped hanging sculptures
Submerged Meadow at the Seattle Aquarium (2022). Photo by Chris Scarborough.

In reviewing the applications for the Lab, I am excited to see how many participants are passionate about sustainability and water issues in Jordan, while also being excited to incorporate art and technology for creating responses to ecological issues. Our team will include architects, designers, teachers, artists, water experts and more. My hope is that we will all learn from one another, and our collective installation will emerge from the structures of collaboration.

Three collaborators posing for a group photo in front of the dance set with projection coloring them
Collaborative team for The Aquarium (2022). L to R: Joan P. Fricke, Isabel Beavers, Rachael Lovinger. Photo by Rush Varela.

For our collaborative project, we will develop a multimedia installation using sculpture, video, sound, and projection mapping. We will weave influences into the work that are pulled from local art galleries and museums, as well as the participants' own cultural inspirations, research and knowledge. This exchange of ideas, skills, time, meals, and creative production becomes a meaningful part of the process of making. While some of the details regarding the final form of the multimedia installation are to be determined, I am excited to continue creating a structure for our collaboration.

Warm colors are projected onto over a dozen hanging sculptures
Submerged Meadow process shot (2021). Courtesy of Isabel Beavers.

 

Feature image credit: The Aquarium at Heidi Duckler Dance, 2022. Photo by Rush Varela.

Landing a role at ZERO1 almost five years ago to help manage American Arts Incubator, our flagship creative exchange program at the time, was my entry point into working in the arts.

I’d always held a deep appreciation for the value of cultural exchange, having been raised in a binational and bilingual household, majoring in Hispanic Studies during my undergraduate studies, and spending close to a year working at an educational institution in Bangalore in my early 20s.

However, the learning curve from engaging in cultural exchange to being the bearer and molder of this kind of container, while simultaneously deepening my understanding of the media arts field, was a steep one. I’m glad I was able to do so within an organizational culture like ZERO1’s, which focuses deeply on process and encourages taking a critical approach to the tools we use in our work.

Lead Artist Orientation for American Arts Incubator.

I've grappled with many interesting and challenging questions over the last several years: How does one surface and mitigate power dynamics in the context of exchange? How does one approach sensitive social issues in a variety of cultural contexts? What can be bridged through co-creative art making as a vehicle versus another medium, like language? (Also, how does one get an artist to hand in their deliverables on time?).

I’m grateful to have been able to work in collaboration with many artists who also engage with complex questions themselves through their practice, and for being able to craft spaces for them to be in dialogue with each other. I have always been passionate about creating containers and facilitating experiences for others to grow and connect, both personally and professionally.

One of the objectives of our exchange programs is to build mutual understanding between creative communities around the world. To prepare for and contextualize each exchange we facilitate, I’ve delved deeper into a wide variety of topics from the effects of pollution in Alexandria, Egypt to the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine to the Brumadinho Dam Disaster in Minas Gerais, Brazil. On the research trips I’ve made to these locations, after visiting historical sites and conversing with affected communities, I am reminded time and again of the shift from an intellectual understanding to a relational, lived understanding of an issue, rooted in place.

In a time of increased political polarization and isolation due to the pandemic, I feel that exchange through person-to-person connection has taken on an increased urgency. Personally, I have found that the experiences I’ve mentioned above have allowed me to more gracefully toggle between interpersonal relating and awareness of one’s position in larger socioeconomic and political systems while engaging with difficult topics. I often think of Glenn Harris’ words during Race Forward’s annual conference in 2020, “We need to be hard on systems and soft on each other.”

Presenting during a research trip for a creative exchange in Alexandria, Egypt.

In addition, when thinking about community-engaged artists as civic leaders, I’m reminded of Cristobal Martinez’s conceptualization of “artists as ears” — listening deeply before synthesizing, creating, and amplifying. I’ve also seen this style of leadership modeled by my colleague, Shamsher Virk, whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with for my entire tenure at ZERO1. As ZERO1 has evolved over the past five years, he has deftly led the strategic charge. He is a skillful facilitator, inclusive community-builder, and arts administrator extraordinaire; I’ve deeply enjoyed our professional partnership.

Working with a transdisciplinary approach in the arts has allowed me to take a step back and critically re-examine my beliefs about knowledge production in a way that has been liberating — opening up avenues to new ways of understanding myself and the world around us.

This job also opened the door for me to explore and better understand the Bay Area arts scene, which has been a life-enriching opportunity that has exposed me to new experiences, perspectives, and ways of living and being that I could not have imagined when I first arrived in San Francisco.

The War in Ukraine

On a guided tour by researcher Yevgenij Safarians about the Maidan Revolution.

I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the current situation in Ukraine in this post. Over the course of my time at ZERO1, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the country twice for our creative exchange programming. My first work trip for American Arts Incubator was to Kyiv in 2017, with a subsequent trip in the fall of 2019. I had the opportunity to work closely with the fantastic staff at IZOLYATSIA, an arts organization that had experienced internal displacement in Ukraine from their site in Donetsk in 2014. I visited many galleries, museums, and cultural sites, as well as engaged in conversations with artists, curators, and other knowledge- and culture-bearers within the creatively prolific country.

One reason I am passionate about exchange is that it challenges the myth of the Other. It is a continuous, visceral reminder that people are people everywhere — deserving of peace and basic human rights. It collapses the distance between here and “elsewhere” when tragedies and war happen. Olia, who participated in our 2020 virtual exchange, is sheltering from missiles in a bunker in Kharkhiv, and many of the artists who participated in our programming remain in Kyiv, which has been withstanding Russian attacks since February 25.

As a parting call, I ask that you support fellow artists, curators and cultural workers of Ukraine through the Ukrainian Emergency Art Fund and by getting further informed on the war in Ukraine.

What’s Next?

After my departure from ZERO1, I will be spending some time with my family in Japan. I hope to take some time to switch modes from “doing” to “being,” and see what might arise for me in that space. As an arts administrator, I often get asked whether I have a creative practice myself. I’m much more of a dabbler (over the past seven years, I’ve taken poetry workshops, oral storytelling classes, beginner’s contemporary dance, and more), but am curious to see whether I’m drawn toward any form of creative expression in the coming period. I hope to eventually transition to a full-time communications role. If you’d like to stay in touch, please connect with me on LinkedIn!

Sincerely,

Maya Holm
ZERO1 Program and Communications Manager (2017-22)

 

At Inhotim in Brumadinho, Brazil — one of the largest outdoor art centers in Latin America.

Work has begun with Tahuna Normal Intermediate on the Dunedin Youth Map.  The aim of this project is to link the project into the Year 7 curriculum.  Room 15 who were part of the initial programme have been working on locating reference points for the map. The school art teacher is primed and ready to go with the creation of the map and the students have worked on their own icons.  A refinement of the icons since the presentation in August has begun. The students have been compiling the websites and information for their areas they are focused on and have shared with their class teacher as Google Docs.  Debate has begun over whether to include names and addresses of restaurants because Dunedin has a large number of eateries.

The project has been halted at present due to the school receiving funding for a digital technology project which is in conjunction with a local secondary school and primary school. This project focuses on the students building and monitoring moisture in their homes and properties in South Dunedin. The development of the map might form part of the six tech option next year as it links into our climate change unit and the project the school has been funded for. The other reason the project has been halted is that the DCC liaison person said the term "green" might have negative connotations so we are unsure whether to proceed using the green map icons or stick with our own.

Aim for next year:

  • In conjunction with the school's climate change and sustainability units, have the students complete the map.
  • Art teacher to create the map and icon development.
  • Tech time to develop the spreadsheet of source information.
  • Completion date ready to take to DCC for publication or to the Green Map by July 1st, 2017.

Come meet this year’s American Arts Incubator artists and learn about the program on Wednesday, January 11th from 6:00pm-8:00pm at CounterPulse in San Francisco.

Enjoy refreshments and light hor d'oeuvre while getting to know Elaine Cheung, Scott Kildall, Michael Kuetemeyer, Nathan Ober, and Balam Soto. Learn about each artist's practice, exchange location and social issue to be addressed, the artist's proposed approach and project concepts, and more about the American Arts Incubator program.

The deadline to apply for the 2017-18 American Arts Incubator is Sunday, January 15th. For more information about the open call, visit the ZERO1 Request for Qualifications page.

American Arts Incubator is an international arts exchange program developed by ZERO1 in partnership with the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The program uses digital and new media to promote cross-cultural collaboration, increase awareness, and provide innovative solutions to pressing social and environmental challenges. These artists will travel to their assigned countries for four weeks to develop public art projects. During such time the artists will lead workshops to teach specific skills, develop project ideas with community participants, and execute a small grant program to fund the development of community driven art projects.

Learn More: americanartsincubator.org

DATE: January 11, 2017
TIME: 6:00pm-8:00pm Drinks & Networking

WHERE: CounterPulse, 80 Turk Street, San Francisco

This event is free and open to the public, but we'd love to know you are coming. Please RSVP on Eventbrite.

Calling innovative new media and digital artists who have a love of travel and passion for community-driven art.

Apply to participate in the 2016-17 American Arts Incubator.

We are excited to open the next round of applications for the following participating overseas locations: Ecuador, Egypt, India, Morocco, Poland, and Ukraine. One artist will be selected for each location and will be responsible for creating a public art project, leading a workshop, and overseeing a unique small grants program that funds local participant teams to create community-driven art that addresses a social or environmental challenge relevant to their community.
 The deadline to apply is: Sunday, January 15, 2017, 11:59pm Pacific Standard Time.



Learn more about criteria and application requirements on the Request for Qualifications guidelines page.

American Arts Incubator is an international arts exchange program developed in partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. This program sends artists abroad to collaborate with youth and underserved populations on community-based digital and new media projects that bolster local economies, address a local social issue, and further social innovation. Artists will be working directly with ZERO1, U.S. embassy officials, and overseas partners to realize a series of public art projects that cultivate individual and community engagement and citizenship internationally.

APPLY TODAY

This past weekend marked the end of our workshops and the distribution of our community small grants. On Saturday, at the Otago Museum, we heard from community groups about local issues ranging from sea level rise, to erosion, to neighborhood resiliency, to light pollution, to geologic time scales of climate change.

Shedding some light

"Shedding Some Light" dark skies community project presentation. Photo by Beth Ferguson.

Four project proposals were selected to receive small grants and be developed further in the next two weeks. All project concepts are relevant to climate issues facing Dunedin and the surrounding Otago region. All four of the projects have larger communities and experts that they are drawing on for resources, ideas, and longevity plans. We were impressed with their grasp of the short- and long-term plans for the project. We’re excited to see the projects take shape for the exhibition. The four projects are:

  • Bones and Stones: a “field guide” for New Zealand geology, including two enlarged “core samples” showing the geologic long-view of the environment.

  • Shedding Some Light: a project that examines the proposed lighting solutions for high-efficiency street lighting and “dark skies” proposals for the town to be able to enjoy the Aurora Australis by limiting light pollution.

  • Youth Community Map: focusing on climate change resiliency and vulnerable sites near the Tahuna School in South Dunedin.

  • Living Map: a data-enabled relief map of the Dunedin area for community conversation about the past, present, and future geography of this vulnerable coastal city.

The projects will be exhibited, along with the work we produced during our time in Dunedin, at the Otago Museum August 5-22.

This weekend we started a series of community workshops at Otago Museum. Yesterday we kicked things off by discussing and mapping the various climate resources and threats in the Dunedin area. We learned a lot from the community about the bay, its estuaries, and mining history as we located areas of preservation and vulnerability. Dunedin is a fascinating convergence of urban and natural forces, in a picturesque setting. It was exciting for us to learn more about the historical context of a city that has taken shape over the last 200 years.

Workshop LED

Workshop participants working with LEDs. Photo courtesy of Beth Ferguson.

We will continue to conduct public workshops over the next six days with community members, university students, and museum guests that will look at the city through various climate lenses, including environmental sensing, aerial photography, coastal mapping, and iconography.

Workshop whiteboard

Brainstorming data sources and visualization types. Photo courtesy of Beth Ferguson.

Meanwhile, we are learning so much about the local animal life and natural setting from the staff of the museum. We were given a tour of their collection of New Zealand land birds, including the extinct Moa, during which they explained the changing understanding of the bird’s stature over the last hundred years, from that of an upright ostrich to that of a kiwi with a low stance. Discussing science as an evolving understanding of the past is helpful for us as we think about how to work in the changing environmental conditions of the present.

To learn more, we recommend checking out the New Zealand Ministry of Environment’s Climate Change Projections for the Otago Region.

We are headed to New Zealand and have a huge week of events ahead of us in the wonderful South Island city of Dunedin. We are joining the Dunedin community in the midst of the country’s annual science festival (SciFest), in which we will be participating through two presentations and our ZERO1 American Arts Incubator workshop series. The festival this year is appropriately focused on Climate Change and Women in Technology. It’ll be a great way for us to learn about the local community's interests and concerns in climate science. We are looking forward to an educational and fun week as we hit the ground for our month-long cultural exchange.

Wednesday, July 13th we will be presenting an introduction to our work at a PechaKucha-style event, “What Inspires Me: Women in Science”. And Thursday we are giving a public artist talk “Tools and Fieldwork in the face of Climate Change." These two presentations, along with our access to other talks and events through SciFest, will be invaluable tools for us as we head into our community workshop this weekend.

Alongside the SciFest, we are also busy this week setting up our studio space in Gallery 1877 in Otago Museum, where we will be conducting our workshops and working this month in preparation for our Climate Kit exhibit. The staff of the museum already have been invaluable in orienting us to the community and region. We are thrilled to settle-in there.

We are honored to be included in this festival, to learn from so many scientists and educators working on these topics, and to be hosted by such an amazing institution as the Otago Museum. And we can't wait to update you on how it's all developing in coming days!

Guest blog post by project photographer, Yen Nguyen.

Over dinner one evening, I talked to my husband and our two sons about an LGBTQ art project I was about to engage in. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) are terms we all are familiar with, even for our boys aged 15 and 11, however we couldn't work out a definition of “queer."

More Than Love on the Horizon is the art project originated by Vietnamese American artist Erin O’Brien, who identifies herself as queer. The project aims to increase the visibility of the Vietnamese LGBTQ community through the use of digital media art. Prior to this project, I didn’t even know that the “Q” had become the fifth initial and an integral part of the community.

In Erin’s artist talk, the first project activity, she explained her queer identity and what's Really Queer or Queerly Real about her art, which is mostly performance based and dedicated to enhance social justice for the LGBTQ community. As the project’s other activities unfolded, it was clear that she wanted to experiment using these art practices with members of the LGBTQ community in Ha Noi.

Erin O'Brien gives an artist talk. Photo by Yen Nguyen.

Erin O'Brien gives her artist talk at Nha San Collective. Photo by Yen Nguyen.

I was amazed by Erin’s energy and ability to engage the young participants in different activities - from a creative workshop, to shooting hologram videos, to proposing their own projects. Her ‘craziness’ is contagious. She managed to get them doing many things, like running around, shouting, laughing, posing, dancing and acting, some of which they are not used to or probably never been exposed to.

Video shoot

Hologram video shoot. Photo by Yen Nguyen.

Comedy on set

Laughter erupts on set. Photo by Yen Nguyen.

Erin needed translation while doing the activities. She admitted she can understand words in Vietnamese as long as they are related to food because of years eating Vietnamese food which, by the way, she can cook, too. She could cook for a family several weeks in a row without repeating any dishes, and apparently, she cooks for her dogs back home in LA. Before coming to Vietnam to work on this project, she filled the freezer with her homemade food; enough for her dog to eat for all the weeks she is away. Erin also expresses her art in the culinary realm by creating her own artisanal sausages with recipes inspired by her family and friends’ stories, under the brand "Meat My Friends."

Despite her limitation in Vietnamese comprehension, I saw that Erin could understand LGBTQ stories before they were even translated, particularly while we were shooting for the holograms. She laughed, she cheered, and she cried as individuals shared with her their emotional stories. Stories that demonstrated the clear need for Erin’s work, even when there have been remarkable recent achievements in increasing LGBTQ visibility in Vietnam.

After just a few days of working with her on her project, I began to understand Erin's queerness. I felt comfortable explaining to our sons: “Queer is simply being different, and it is okay to call people queer."

I write this from the plane en route to Hanoi to kick off the Vietnam Arts Incubator program. As with all pre-production, just when you think you have everything together, some things fall apart. I have the most amazing producer on the ground handling the details, like securing translators, a production assistant, a director of photography, and location scouting. Some things fell apart before I got on the plane but, when I land, I know everything will all fall together.

My carry-on handbag is full of electronics — iPads, tablets, iPhones, Androids, and a couple Kindles. I spent the past few days driving around Los Angeles trading 2 gallons of homemade kombucha, sea salt caramels, and my goodwill for the use of these electronics for our exhibition at Nha San Collective at the end of the month.

Tablets, iPhones, iPads, and Androids, 2016. Photo by G. E. O'Brien.

Electronics, 2016. Photo by G. E. O'Brien.

I’m excited to put these to use in the exhibition as displays for the holograms we will create. Gallery visitors also will be able to pull up the hologram videos on their own devices from our website. The DIY hologram projectors convert smartphones and tablets into mini hologram projectors, making visible the Vietnamese LGBTQ community in Hanoi.

Before I left Los Angeles, I prototyped a smaller, lighter DIY hologram projector for the project. These new prototypes are made with overhead transparency paper and can be cut more precisely and faster using scissors instead fighting the CD case plastic with an exacto blade. This new DIY hologram projector is lighter, pliable, and portable and can be made in less than 5 minutes.

DIY hologram projector instructional video, 2016. Photo by G. E. O'Brien.

As soon as I touch down, I will have to start running. The enthusiasm for the Vietnam Arts Incubator project has been demonstrable. I’m beside myself knowing that there are over 40 LGBTQ participants registered for the workshops I will be facilitating. Glancing through the registrations there are gays, lesbians, queer identified, and a few transgender participants. I’m learning new terms and surprised how many folks identify as queer.

Gay - Đồng tính nam

Lesbian - Đồng tính nữ

Bisexual - Song tính

Transgender - Người chuyển giới

Queer – Queer

Participant breakdown

Workshop participant response to a question about how they identify.

I am hoping that the workshops will be not only engaging and transformative for the participants but also generative. Out of this week of workshops, participants will develop projects that creatively engage LGBTQ visibility and equality in Vietnam using a digital media platform. Four of these proposals will be the recipients of small grants to carry out their own projects.

Meanwhile, I will be filming participants and community members to create holograms. We have to do this all very quickly because, as it turns out, in order to put all the work in the April 22nd exhibition we have to get all the finished projects submitted to government censors a week before they’re made public.

Update: I have landed in Hanoi and would you believe, unbeknownst to me, the apartment we are staying at is called “Rainbow Building.” Serendipity!

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