I explore media in transition. My research encompasses film, video, print, digital arts, and the web. I'm interested in what artists and writers are doing and in what critics and scholars are saying.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Performing Oral Histories: "Crossing the BLVD" and "Muscle Memory"

While I was at UC Berkeley a few weeks ago for the Advanced Oral History Summer Institute (see August 23rd post), I became interested in community-based projects that adapt oral narratives to creative formats. Crossing the BLVD: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens, in a New America exemplifies such an approach. Documentary artists Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan have created “a cross-media project that documents and portrays the largely invisible lives, images, sounds and stories of new immigrants and refugees who live in the borough of Queens, New York, the most ethnically diverse locality in the United States” (CTB Web). Lehrer and Sloan, who lived in Queens, decided to become travelers in their own backyard, so they spent three years collecting migration stories. Started in 1999 and continued through 2002, the process covered the transition from a pre- to a post-9/11 world. Lehrer and Sloan document their journey in a book of photographs and stories, an audio CD, a public radio series (on WNYC’s nationally syndicated program The Next Big Thing), a mobile story booth, a traveling exhibition of photographic prints, and a reading/performance. The multimedia Web site includes excerpts from the book, the CD (music complements oral commentaries), and the radio series (although links to the programs weren’t working when I tried to listen). In addition to these features, the Web site provides space for viewers to add their own crossing stories by answering in writing three questions:

“What was life like in your home country?”
“Why did you leave?”
“What has life been like for you here?”

Lehrer and Sloan are also artistic directors of EarSay, “an artist driven non-profit arts organization dedicated to uncovering and portraying stories of the uncelebrated.” Their projects “bridge the divide between documentary and expressive forms in books, exhibitions, on stage, in sound & electronic media.” (EarSay Web). I look forward to reading the book, listening to the CD, and maybe catching a live performance someday.

Another community-based project that has caught my attention recently is the LEGACY Oral History Program at the San Francisco Performing Arts Library & Museum, founded by choreographer and performer Jeff Friedman initially to document the stories of dancers in the Bay Area, especially those living with AIDS. This multifaceted project now covers all the performing arts and includes a production and training program and educational outreach activities. A component of LEGACY I found fascinating was the dance Muscle Memory that Friedman choreographed, based on interviews with two dancers from the oral history collection, an elderly woman and a young man with AIDS. Friedman, who has a PhD in dance history and now teaches at Rutgers, has performed the piece in several venues around the country; he has also published a detailed article about it in the anthology Art and the Performance of Memory: Sounds and Gestures of Recollection, edited by Richard Candida-Smith, director of the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) at UC Berkeley. Perhaps I may witness a live performance of Muscle Memory, too, or another piece choreographed according to a similar concept.

Now that I’m aware of the approaches to oral history that Lehrer and Sloan and Friedman have taken, I plan to explore their projects in greater depth and to discover a greater range of work that uses personal narratives in creative ways.

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  • At 11:31 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    i'd b e happy to discuss muscle memory with you in more detail. find me at

    jeff friedman


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