We are living during a time when many of us don’t feel like we have a whole lot of control over our world. To add to the constant life-and-death concerns that are part of our human inheritance but which generally we’re privileged enough to ignore, we must add to the list an overwhelming uncertainty as to where we are headed. The day-to-day includes health care, family, job loss; the big stuff includes the environment, civil liberties and world war. We’ve still got running water and credit cards to max out, so we remain on the edge of complacency. The really bad stuff is hitting the guy next to us, so we’re safe for now – pull the bedclothes tighter, don’t ask questions, for goodness sake, don’t do a Google search.
We can’t deal with everything, so where do we put our energies – do we march for reproductive rights, against war or for civil rights? Do we send our donation to Planned Parenthood, Doctors without Borders, People for the American Way, the ACLU, the Sierra Club...?
A lot of people out there are frustrated and with that frustration often comes paralysis. I needed to do something positive for a change. I joined the choir.
The Echoes of Peace Choir was started in 2002 as part of the first Art of Peace event in Duluth. The annual Art of Peace weekend is now celebrating its fifth anniversary. It was begun as a response to the events of 9/11 and it feels odd to think back on those days – what we were going through as a nation, how we were trying to heal and the outpouring of sympathy we received worldwide. Flash forward to 2006 – it’s frightening. What has happened to our society in four short years?
We have invaded and destroyed two sovereign nations looking for culprits that our government has yet to bring to justice. In doing so, in bullying our neighbors, we have sowed such ill will in the world that our friends dislike us almost as much as our enemies. In the meantime we have created an environment that breeds more distrust and hatred and certainly more terrorists, while allowing erosion of our own civil rights. How could it be that we are in a worse place in 2006 than we were, a country in despair, in 2002?
In a speech given by Cindy Sheehan last year, she noted that polls claim that 52% of Americans are against the Bush Administration’s policies and handling of the Iraq War. If 52% of the public were demonstrating, they would be holding the administration accountable – that means there are an awful lot of folks out there not pulling their weight.
Avant-garde choreographer Bill T. Jones, during a MPR interview, said he felt like a coward because what he did, even if it was pushing political buttons, was safe. His audiences knew what to expect, he wasn’t putting himself in any danger; he wouldn’t be arrested for making his artistic statements. He didn’t see himself as being on the front lines, but perhaps that is a misapprehension. Perhaps we are all on the front lines and it is just a matter of time before what statements we make, however quiet, put us in harm’s way or call us to the attention of the authorities – that’s how the silencing starts, doesn’t it?
Rachel Corrie was a young American woman killed in Gaza by an Israeli bulldozer. Her death did make headlines in 2003 – she was trying to protect the Palestinian family inside their home as it was about to be demolished. Her diaries have been edited to create a theatrical production about her life – to note and celebrate a woman who died for what she believed in. “My Name is Rachel Corrie” played in the UK to critical acclaim. The New York Theatre Workshop, however, pulled the plug on the US production, claiming that it is too politically charged. But isn’t that what art is for? To ask big, controversial questions? When art has become complacent and practices self-censorship, then we must look very closely at our society. Who will speak for us if we do not speak for ourselves?
One evening in late January I walked into a room of people singing. It was like Whoville on Christmas day – as people arrived the sound amplified. A friend had told me that the Echoes of Peace Choir welcomed all singers, however novice, and practiced every Tuesday for two hours at the Harbor City International School. That seemed like a long time after a hard day’s work, but just one session showed me that time compressed in that room – no one seemed too eager to leave at the end. Indeed, I am regularly keyed up after a session, the harmony running through my blood like oxygen. I feel powerful, like I can take on the world.
Saturday, March 11 started out disheartening. I had been to the Art of Peace exhibition opening the night before and heard two members of the Peacemaker Teams share stories of their experiences working for peace in Iraq. I was indignant at the folly of our government, yet hopeful for the positive change the event signified. The morning papers told me that Tom Fox had been killed, one of the Christian Peacemakers Team being held hostage in Iraq – I didn’t know this man, but I understood his mission. Like Rachel Corrie, he had put his life on the line in an attempt to bring about peaceful conflict resolution. Remorse flooded through me. Despair. I wondered if we would call off the Art of Peace event – I felt beaten. Simultaneously, I remembered that this is how we are silenced – through despair – but that in defiance we would be singing louder, with more heart, with more fight.
I spent the entire day in mourning and celebration, first attending the memorial service for one of Duluth’s most beloved citizens. Kamal Gindy let go of his fight with leukemia the previous Tuesday. An impassioned patron of the arts, an ardent social activist and the kindest of humans – Kamal is a hero, the kind we need more of – fearless in the face of love. If I entered the day sad, and wept for the loss of Kamal, I also cried with joy, that such a good man had been in the world, had lived a full life, of which I had a small part. Kamal Gindy, Tom Fox, Rachel Corrie: heroes, humans, reasons to keep hope alive.
Singing in a choir gives me a buzz that I had never imagined. Voices lifting up in harmony, you feel like you are floating, buoyed up by your companions. The irony is that you never hear yourself sing. You are inside the music, it buzzes through you, grabs hold of you when it is your turn to add to the collective. You feel like a ripple in a pond – that you are one of many drops of water caressing the surface of a deep pool. When I have practiced art I have been the studio-bound solitary artist. But out in the world, when I photograph, that’s when I find my form and connect with my subjects. I let go of myself and it is like music. Ceasing to exist, I am inside the images, lost in the moment and the art takes over. In the choir you must rely upon and connect with your neighbors, blend with their voices to make one. It is a perfect metaphor for political action.
So what’s the point? Why spend an evening every week singing about and for peace? And what’s an annual celebration going to accomplish – isn’t it preaching to the converted? Duluth’s Art of Peace event is equivalent to the annual May Day festival in the Twin Cities. It’s a time for likeminded people to come together for some much-needed nourishment in a spiritually impoverished world. Sure, there are a heck of a lot of churchgoers in this country, yet there is a noticeable dearth of spiritual community. Dogma supersedes compassion and tolerance. We can trace festival culture back through our earliest historical records. It was our first performance art, a time when communities would come together for ritual celebrations of the land, the changing seasons, life and death. Humans need these reminders that they are a vital part of the earth – especially now when the damage we are doing to the environment and to each other is so clear. Patty Smith sings, “People have the power,” and she is right. Individually we are many, together we are one.
The truth is, that whenever we speak up, it matters. Whether it is producing art, marching in the streets, singing in a choir, posting a sign on our lawn, our actions demonstrate to our neighbors that we are willing to work for positive change. We build community that way. We become powerful. What does this have to do with art? It’s simple. Art is life and life is politics. If we are all making noise we must be heard.
Do Art. Do Peace. Get it done.