I went to a workshop this afternoon at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke because I’m taking my kids there in a couple of weeks to see the exhibit called “The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl.” I have to say I was surprised at how many different ways vinyl records could be made into art beyond the recordings, album covers, and liner notes. Some of the art was about the record and some used the records to make the art.
One of the latter, Dario Robleto, spoke to the group of teachers gathered for our afternoon enlightenment. He said one of the things that informs his art is the “DJ culture,” as he called it, which, he said, has been around a long time. The “principle of Dj-ing,” as he called it, is to take the fragments of life you find around you, the shards of the past, and make a new thing.
He showed us pictures of his work from a collection called, “Sometimes Billie Is All That Holds Me Together.” He took pieces of clothing that he found – some by the side of the road – and repaired them, grinding and melting vinyl records of Billie Holiday songs to make the buttons. And then he took the refurbished clothing, or at least most of it, and put it back into circulation. Another was called “Shaker Apothecary.” This time, the title was quite literal: he built a Shaker apothecary cabinet. Playing off of the shaking of the Shakers down to the shaking of the dance crazes 0ver the years, he ground vinyl records of the dances and mixed them with “matiching” botanicals (“The Hustle” with Devil’s Claw Root and “Peppermint Twist” with Dandelion Root, to name a couple.), I suppose as the cure for what ails us.
Someone asked if he knew how to make buttons or cabinets before he got the ideas for the projects. “No,” he said. “When I decide what I want to do, I go learn how to do it.” I listened to him and thought, “He’s moving slow enough to pay attention so that he sees pieces to pick up the rest of us have walked by. – and he’s taking time to learn what he needs to learn to communicate.”
Monday morning I heard an interview with Lee Hamilton on NPR as I was driving to work. Hamilton has been involved with US foreign policy, both in and outside of government, for over forty years, going back to LBJ, and is now retiring from his position as head of the Woodrow Wilson Institute for Peace. During the Cold War, he was one of our negotiators with the Soviets. When asked about Iran, he leaned back in his memory to answer:
I think Iran is a much more complicated government than we think it is in this country. The hostilities between the two countries are very deep on all kinds of issues, not just the nuclear issue. And the big challenge we confront now is: How do you establish an authentic channel of communication, sustained over a period of time, to address these problems?
Let me go back a minute. I was in the Congress during the period the Soviet Union was in control. We used to have meetings with the Soviet parliamentarians. I’d get up and read a speech. They’d get up and read a speech. At the end of the speech, we’d toast each other with Vodka and say we were for peace in the world and prosperity for our grandchildren, and nothing would happen. And we kept doing that year after year after year after year.
Then something changed. And what changed was we put the speeches away and we began to talk with one another about the issues. That was the beginning of the thaw. It took us forty years to get there. The point is that – and it applies to Iran – the problems are exceedingly difficult, but you’ve got to keep trying to solve them, even though you’re not making much progress at the time.
He, too, was taking time to pick up chards of hope trampled into the dust of despair to see what new could be made. Robleto talked about setting his art free by taking it back to where he found it and then letting it do its thing. Hamilton did much the same thing when he allowed himself to humanize the people sitting across the table from him, rather than see them as Soviets. They listened to each other, they talked to each other, following the same dynamic as Robleto’s art installations: set it free and see what happens.
Art set free, whether manifested in a melted record or a thawed relationship, is fearless. Good art takes time; fear is always chasing a deadline. There’s no time to listen or look, much less create. You have to run scared, and unable to trust. I thought about the kids I’ll be bringing to the museum in a couple of weeks. Teaching is a lot like melting records to make buttons and talking to Russians for forty years because I have to put my art out there, if you will, and rarely get a chance to the impact, or to be around when those caught in the crossfire of being an American teenager find a better place. The fear that lurks is less about the kids and more about failure. Our standardized test culture, though perhaps well intentioned, feeds the fear: we only have time to pass the test.
As I walked through the exhibit this evening, I could already hear some of my kids whining about how boring the museum is and wondering in a poor stage whisper why they have to be there. But I will trust that one day long after both the exhibit and I have been replaced, someone with whom I share a classroom in these days will see shards of his or her own, the worn seeds of creativity and hope, and will take the time, outlasting the fear, to contribute a verse, a painting, a melody, or maybe just another button.