You are browsing the archive for art.

50 Years of Political Puppets

7:01 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell


Massive Bain Capital Monster in Zuccotti Park

Bread & Puppet’s Bain Capital supervillain, complete with MiB guard, was a stunning sight in Zuccotti Park.

The Bread & Puppet Theater turned 50 years old in 2013. Democracy Now! spoke with the founder, Peter Schumann:

This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of this country’s most beloved theater companies. Founded in New York City in 1963, the Bread and Puppet Theater’s first productions ranged from puppet shows for children to pieces opposing poor housing conditions. The group’s processions, involving monstrous puppets, some about 20 feet high, became a fixture of protests against the Vietnam War. ‘We don’t have playwrights in the theater. Our playwright is the daily news, is this — all this horror that happens,’ says theater founder Peter Schumann. ‘And it’s not so much that we want to do it, but we continuously get obliged to do it, because the goddamn media don’t say it. They are — they live by omission, rather than by reporting.’ In the early 1970s, Bread and Puppet moved to Glover, Vermont, where they transformed a former hay barn into a museum of puppets. Today, Bread and Puppet remains one of the longest-running nonprofit, self-supporting theater companies in the United States. We spend the hour with Schumann, asking him how the theater addresses the most urgent political issues of our time, from nuclear weapons to mass domestic surveillance. Soon to celebrate his 80th birthday, Schumann also discusses why he refuses to retire and the place of older people in our society.

NPR’s Jon Kalish also visited with Bread & Puppet at their Vermont home in August:

The theater is based on a farm in northern Vermont, about 25 miles from the Canadian border. There’s a pine forest on the property with small, colorful huts that memorialize puppeteers who have passed, and a huge barn jammed with the company’s puppets, some of them nearly 20 feet tall.

The barn is used as a rehearsal space on a rainy summer afternoon. Outside there are old bathtubs full of clay dug from a nearby river. Bread and Puppet’s founder Peter Schumann uses it to sculpt his puppets and masks, then covers them with paper mache made from discarded cardboard.

‘It’s the freedom that you get when you can do things because of America’s garbage and the freedom of doing gigantic things for almost nothing, with just collaboration, with just people power,’ he says.

Schumann brought people power to New York’s Lower East Side when he founded the theater in 1963. He grew up in Germany as a refugee of World War II. His company’s name comes from the peasant bread his mother baked to survive. Schumann’s low-tech, home-made puppetry became part of New York’s thriving avant garde art scene, and early on Bread and Puppet put on free shows with inner city kids, including one called Chicken Little in Harlem.

I’ve loved Bread & Puppet Theater since Siun introduced them to me as a child. It was a real treat to see their Bain Capital monster cavorting in Zuccotti Park during the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, adding to the almost mythic atmosphere of the entire proceedings. The creature came with its own handler, a Man In Black. Do you have any Bread & Puppet stories to share?

Read the rest of this entry →

Saturday Art: Phoenix by Sebastian Miles (#ArtOutside)

5:02 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell


In late September of 2011, I remember camping with some friends. We were celebrating Burning Man, the massive festival in the Nevada desert, at a Central Texas campground since we couldn’t make it to the big event. On the last day, I remember the skies filling up with smoke. Most of us assumed there was a fire nearby.

A rustic cabin bird feeder sits atop a charred pine log.

Phoenix in the Art Outside art gallery.

In reality, the fire was much further away and much larger than we realized. As we traveled back, we heard the real news — and that the fire had cost a camp mate almost all her worldly possessions. The Bastrop County Wildfires of 2011 were the most destructive wildfires in the history of Texas. They destroyed over 1,500 homes and caused millions in damage, and affected the lives of almost everyone in the Central Texas region — if you live here and weren’t touched directly, you probably know someone who was.

Two years after the fires went out, one artist displayed a memorial to them at Art Outside.

Sebastian Miles created “Phoenix” to honor the memory of those fires and the rebirth that followed. The piece is a small bird feeder in the shape of a charred rustic cabin, which sits atop a tall, similarly charred stump of pine. The story of its creation is intimately linked to the fires.

Miles owned properties in the region, but getting to them was difficult because of fires that sometimes raged across highways. His first attempt to reach one of his sites was rebuffed by state officials. Undeterred, he donned a respirator and climbed aboard his dirt bike and set off into the burning woods. On his journey, he spotted a burning cabin alone but for a pile of firewood stacked nearby.

When the fires died down, he returned to the location and collected the remains of the cabin. He milled the logs down to return them to a clean, golden pine and then built a scale replica of the original cabin in the shape of a bird feeder.

Then, in honor of the fiery birth of the Phoenix rising from the ashes, he burnt the structure again.

Its charred state also acts like a natural weather proofing, meaning in the future it could be installed outdoors and used as a functional bird feeder.

Healing from an event like this takes time. My friend still, today, goes looking for some object and then realizes it’s burned away. But life begins to return quickly to damaged places. The death of old growth allows us to take new paths and begin new undertakings — now, my friend is working toward a graduate degree in mental health.


Phoenix on its charred stump.

Phoenix is a working bird feeder. The re-burnt would provides natural weatherproofing.

Miles made several pieces based on the Bastrop fires, some of which were previously displayed at Jennifer Chenowith’s Fisterra Studio and featured in the East Austin Studio Tour. He was a little cagey about what he’s working on now and just said that he has several works in progress that he looks forward to displaying at future events.

Phoenix shows how tragedy can inspire art, and how sometimes the most moving pieces are intimately tied to a time, an event, and a location. For many of us who remember the fires, it was one of the most memorable parts of this year’s Art Outside.

Saturday Art: Toxic Forest (#SXSWEco)

12:32 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Chris Jordan's Toxic Forest

Toxic Forest is an image constructed from photos of 139,000 cigarette butts. Click for larger view.

See more of Kit’s SXSW Coverage.

When a tanker runs aground or a pipeline spills, the mainstream media still attempts to cover the story. But other kinds of pollution have a less TV-friendly narrative because they are continuous ongoing issues. Legacy, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the health impact of smoking, commissioned Toxic Forest from artist Chris Jordan to help visualize one such problem.

Every 15 seconds, 139,000 cigarettes are smoked and discarded in the United States, many of them improperly. “They are the most discarded item on beaches, waterways and roadways,” Sarah Shank, a Senior Communications Manager at Legacy told an assembled audience while presenting the artwork at this year’s SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas.

Legacy initially focused on the prevention of childhood smoking and helping smokers give up their addictions. But recently, the organization added a new goal — finding a solution for the problem of cigarette waste. 360 billion cigarettes are smoked every year. and in one survey, three quarters of smokers admitted to disposing of cigarette butts on the ground or out a car window. Despite popular belief to the contrary, discarded cigarette butts do not biodegrade. They take years to break down and, when they finally do, merely break apart into smaller pieces of plastic. Anyone who has ever participated in a cleanup effort on a road, beach, or anywhere else will vividly remember picking up butt after butt — or the plasticy fluff they turn into with time. In 2010, the Ocean Conservancy reported collecting over a million butts in their annual cleanup efforts, over 31% of the total trash collected.

Toxic Forest shows a forest made of photocollaged butts.

Toxic Forest (Detail)

At a distance, Toxic Forest appears to be an attractive but unremarkable woodland scene. As the viewer approaches, it slowly resolves into a strange pattern of whites and darks, flecks of color mingling. At last, up close, one can see that this collage isn’t just meant to symbolize waste but actually constructed out of waste. Forest is literally made from 139,000 photographs of individual cigarette butts, collected as garbage in Austin and Seattle. Jordan then created the cunning photo collage that drew many visitors outside SXSW Eco’s trade show throughout the event.

Jordan is known for this technique of using photocollage to symbolize American consumerism and wastefulness. Most of his work is grouped into series like Running the Numbers, which mixes garbage with high finance and other images of the American Way. His Midway series depicts the death of baby albatrosses that are fed plastic by their mothers, and an accompanying film launches soon. Toxic Forest fits perfectly into this oeuvre. Gazing upon Toxic Forest, I imagined those moments in my life when I’d hiked into a wooded lot or forested state park and found myself in some place of almost intolerable natural beauty — only to have my reverie come crashing down upon the discovery of a crumpled beer can and a pile of discarded cigarette butts. More seriously, both animals and human infants have been known to consume butts with neurotoxic effects.

Legacy recently launched a scholarly journal, Tobacco Control, to bring scientific research to the issue of cigarette butts. It’s full of research papers with titles like “Toxicity of cigarette butts, and their chemical components, to marine and freshwater fish.” Since this is crucial but not especially approachable work for the average cigarette consumer, they’ve also partnered with the Leave No Trace Center to create a series of public service announcements. You can view one of them below.

Read the rest of this entry →

Saturday Art: Art Outside 2013 Preview

3:20 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Artwork by Judibeth Hunter

Art Outside’s new tea house features the artwork of Judibeth Hunter.

See Kit’s coverage of Art Outside 2012.

I return to Art Outside from October 18-21. This annual outdoor festival in Texas combines music with visual art and performance of many kinds.

Every year, artists from all over the world bring their works and their presence to Art Outside. From dancers to painters to new media makers – Art Outside is teeming with creativity of all forms.

Viewing artwork in nature changes our experience of both.

In addition to multiple music stages and daily classes and work shops, Art Outside creates an open air art gallery, complete with docents serving wine. There’s something unique, surreal and beautiful about camping but being able to step under a canopy into an elegant art gallery built beneath the sweeping branches of a tree. While we all have expectations about what ‘art’ means, experiencing it in this environment, mingled with live music and set in the midst of nature, forces the viewer to consider this form in a new way.

One addition to this year’s event is the Tea House, a relaxation space near the gallery. Hosted in a Bedouin tent made of wool, it features Saudi-style couches and rugs for lounging. Set apart from the vending and other spaces, it will be devoted to the comfort of Art Outside visitors.

Volunteers will offer tea service in the “Gongfu” style throughout the day. Tea House designer David McCully just returned from providing tea service in the Nevada desert at Burning Man, the massive outdoor arts gathering which is a major influence for Art Outside. The Tea House will feature the visionary artwork of Judibeth Hunter, whose liquid flowing lines and feminine forms should beautifully enhance the sensual, low-key atmosphere of this space.

Some other anticipated highlights of Art Outside 2013:

  • Stand-up comedy from the New Movement Theater, Austin’s popular improv conservatory.
  • Contributions from the artists at 18 Below, an organization devoted to cultivating the talents of teenagers.
  • Over 50 bands and musicians, including returning favorites like Katie Gray, Minor Mishap and Wino Vino.
  • A larger, longer festival running through Monday rather than ending on Sunday.

If you live in Texas or feel like experiencing some of the best creativity the state has to offer, check out Art Outside (also on Facebook) and be sure to say hello!

The Tea House in a Bedouin wool tent

Art Outside’s new Tea House, housed in a Bedouin tent. 

Read the rest of this entry →

#BurningMan and Paul Addis: The KDVS Interview (Part 2)

3:32 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

More on this topic: Burning Man, the Death of Paul Addis and Radical Activism, Part 1 of the KDVS Interview

On November 16, Richard Estes interviewed me on his KDVS program Speaking In Tongues about Burning Man and the recent suicide of Paul Addis. This is part 2 of the interview, in which we talk more about the effects of police and pranksters on countercultures and activist movements.

A cluster of NYPD arrests an activist on a night march

Arrests at Occupy Wall Street. The question of when and how to involve police in activist or countercultural movements is often a controversial one.

Speaking in Tongues: It might be useful for me to clarify or to be more specific about my intention with this question. One of the issues which emerged in relation to Occupy, and it occurred in Oakland, and I think Occupy Wall Street and Sacramento as well, was this question about assaultive behavior within the occupations, particularly as directed toward women. And so the issue of whether or not to report such crimes to the police — essentially whether to engage the police at all — was at times a controversial one. Was there a similar type of response initially in terms of seeking police assistance at Burning Man?

Kit O’Connell: I think the police have been involved when something like that happened. At the very beginning, there are stories of people taking it into their own hands and telling people to leave or things like that. But police have been called out for specific incidents. It’s something where the Organization does make that call from time to time.

But I also think the police to some extent arrived on their own, just suddenly becoming aware that there was this huge gathering happening in their midst every year and it was an opportunity — obviously there were safety issues but of course also an opportunity for revenue generation as far as giving out things like speeding tickets to people driving around in the desert. So I think there was a need for order at some point but also there was this sort of encroachment of the police into this separate space much like in Occupy where they weren’t always invited but they appeared anyway and had to be negotiated with one way or another.

SIT:  One of the impressions I’m getting from hearing you describe what transpired with Addis in Burning Man, it draws my attention to what has been sort of a — I don’t know if conflict is the right word, but competing social perspectives within anti-authoritarian movements whether you want to call them anarchist or whatever — between those who see such movements as an opportunity for individualization and celebrating the individual with the least amount of social constraints possible, and those who see autonomous communities within the tradition of someone like Colin Ward, who celebrated communal forms of social organization within the United Kingdom that often took extremely mundane forms like house squatting or organizing a sports league where people were acting nonhierarchically and were working autonomously outside of a capitalist relationship. That’s the type of tension that I perceive when I hear about this situation with Addis within Burning Man.

Read the rest of this entry →

#BurningMan & Paul Addis: The KDVS Interview (Part 1)

2:41 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

More on this topic: Burning Man, the Death of Paul Addis and Radical Activism

Remains of the burned Burning Man effigy.

The iconic Burning Man effigy after Paul Addis burned it in 2007.

On November 16, Richard Estes interviewed me on his KDVS program Speaking In Tongues about Burning Man and the recent suicide of Paul Addis. Burning Man centers around an annual festival in a temporary desert city that surrounds a human effigy. This effigy is ritually burned on Saturday night of the week-long event, but Addis was jailed for setting fire to it on the Monday before its scheduled destruction.

Here is a part one of the transcript of our conversation.

Speaking In Tongues: We are fortunate enough to have Kit O’Connell from Austin, Texas. I invited him on the air today to speak about an article he wrote which appeared on his website as well as Firedoglake about Paul Addis.

Paul Addis was someone who was involved with Burning Man and I believe he may have been involved with Occupy as well — I’ll be asking Kit about that momentarily — but his life I believe is one that raises a lot of significant questions about radical activism, the people involved with it and how it can be effectively pursued. Kit, welcome to Speaking In Tongues.

Kit O’Connell: Hi, thanks, it’s good to be here.

SIT: Let’s just start with — as you noted in your article Paul Addis committed suicide I believe on Saturday, October 27th.

KO: Right.

SIT: And he did so by jumping in front of BART train, certainly very evocative for a lot of people here because we ride BART and we’re very familiar with it. Who was he and why do you consider his death to be noteworthy?

KO: He was an artist and I think an activist, certainly in his own mind and very involved in the Bay Area in various ways especially in the art scene. He had also been part of Burning Man since even before it began as a member of the Cacophony Society, which is one of the groups that their culture and activities created an origin point for Burning Man. So he was with Burning Man before there was even a Burning Man and he stayed with it through its earliest years when it was a temporary frontier city and he became disillusioned with it as it became more and more organized, especially in the late 90s after some more rules were put in place due to some tragic accidental deaths on the playa.

So they started putting more rules in place, so he wanted– You know, it’s a classic frontier story of someone watching the city they helped create become more orderly than they want. Of not being a frontier anymore but instead being a metropolis.

SIT: Kit, can I just interject a moment.

KO: Sure.

Movie poster for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

SIT: Oddly enough, it sounds vaguely reminiscent of the John Ford film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

KO: I actually haven’t had a chance to see that, to my discredit, so I’ll have to take your word on that. But it’s the sort of story echoed in Westerns and literature as well.

SIT: Lee Marvin is Liberty Valance and Liberty Valance is the man who really created the city. … And then [James Stewart] plays the man who ends up being elected senator. In any event, Liberty Valance, despite his importance to the creation he becomes a sort of drag on the city going forward and eventually he is expelled.

KO: Burning Man always balances a frontier and sort of punk attitude mixed with a sort of loving chilled out hippie atmosphere and Burning Man is often a balancing act between those two personality types to a large extent. And he certainly fell more on that punk frontier aspect of it. As as watched the city become more orderly and more rules-driven he became disillusioned. Of course it’s a running joke that people go to Burning Man and say ‘well it was better last year,’ but he took that seriously.

And he took seriously the joke that people have told for years of let’s shake things up by burning the Man early and he went ahead and did that. He actually did burn the man early in 2007 on Monday night, the first night into Tuesday early morning I believe during a lunar eclipse so much of the city was watching that. All of a sudden they knew the Man was on fire. Paul Addis did it, he was actually charged with destruction of property for lighting the Man early and he served as a felon in jail as a result of that.

SIT: It seems to me that an implication of your article is that this is a serious foundational event in the transformation of Burning Man.

Read the rest of this entry →

Austin Overpass Light Brigade Faces Police Repression (#OATX)

3:04 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Austin Police insist that Occupy Austin is breaking the law when it holds lighted signs on highway overpasses.

I spoke with two occupiers, Corey Williams and Joe Cooper, about their experiences.

The Overpass Light Brigade began in Wisconsin during the “uprising” of 2011, and has since spread to at least 10 other locations. In this simple, nonviolent action, protesters hold lighted signs on the sidewalk of a freeway overpass while night time traffic passes underneath. One of the newest divisions is in Austin, Texas; it formed in early October during Occupy Austin birthday week. Though police drove by the first display, which proclaimed UNFRACK THE WORLD, occupiers successfully held signs for about an hour at an overpass on the south end of the city.

Lighted protest sign: LOVE > $$$

The new Occupy Austin Overpass Light Brigade at Tent City Rising, October 6 2012.

But police shut down a second attempt that week, and another more recent mobilization.  At the second Austin OLB the message began as LOVE > $$$. Police arrived as the group began to rearrange letters to make a repeat of the UNFRACK message. The officers refused to cite what laws were being broken, but expressed concern that signs could be dropped from the overpass railing on which the activists were holding the display. While regrouping, the Light Brigade consulted with long-time Austin activist Debbie Russell who referred to a previous consultation with Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo:

[Y]ou can’t have signs that when holding, are “over” the roadway–you have to hold them inside the railings such that if it was dropped, it falls on the sidewalk and not below on the freeway. Some officers know this, some don’t, but Acevedo has very specifically said this is the case and a few years ago … he gave this mandate to his officers so they’d know. They’re out of practice tho.

Another data point: one afternoon a month at 4:20pm, the Texas Hemp Campaign displays a cannabis legalization banner held on the sidewalk of a busy overpass. Though sometimes monitored closely by police, they allow the display to continue.

If the issue was the danger posed by signs, activists decided to try yet another approach. The third attempt occurred on Saturday, October 27. It was the closest Saturday to Halloween, a night when police are typically busy downtown patrolling the club district for drunken costumed revelers. It was on a similar busy weekend closest to Halloween in 2011 that police made dozens of arrests at Occupy Austin’s standing encampment. In keeping with the symbolism of this anniversary, approximately a half dozen squad cars were waiting.

The message on that night was to be LOVE > FEAR, a response to recent hate crimes against queer people and people of color. This time, the Overpass Light Brigade used an overpass at St. Johns on Interstate Highway 35. This location is across the street from the abandoned Home Depot we attempted to encamp during the occupation’s birthday. Most importantly, this overpass is completely fenced in. It would be impossible to drop signs onto traffic.

Immediately, officers arrived and attempted to shut them down but the display continued for about twenty minutes. While part of the group held the signs, others demanded police cite a specific law that was violated. As the perceived threat of arrest grew more immediate, the OLB took down their signs and waited as police returned to squad cars to look up the law. Eventually, with the help of a Texas Department of Transportation employee summoned to the scene, they cited a portion of the Texas Transportation Code which applies to SIGNS ON STATE HIGHWAY RIGHT-OF-WAY. This law, a class C misdemeanor when broken, says:

Read the rest of this entry →

Saturday Art: Flam Chen (#ArtOutside)

2:07 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Flam Chen is a ‘new circus’ troupe based out of Tucson, Arizona. They have their origins in Crash Worship, an anarchic performance troupe of the 80s and 90s which was heavily influential. Crash Worship inspired much of modern Burning Man culture and street performance groups like Extra-Action Marching Band, mentioned yesterday on myFDL. The new circus movement is booming right now, with aerial dance, burlesque, acrobatics (and ‘acro-yoga’), fire dancing and related arts more popular than they’ve been in decades.

Stilt-walking 'mantises' and two dancers around a fire

Flam Chen's Rites of Spring, Art Outside 2012 (Photo: Kit O'Connell)

Flam Chen combine modern dance, stilt walking, fire dancing, experimental theater and aerial dance with colorful costumes, modern projection technology and electronic music. They lead Tucson’s annual All Souls Procession, an annual participatory street festival. They expect 50,000 people to attend this year’s procession and 30,000 will participate in some way. This event trains new performers, then draws them into the streets for a weekend-long ‘Day of the Dead’ style festival.

New Stiltwalkers Take their First Steps

Flam Chen's Stiltwalking Workshop, Art Outside 2012 (Photo: Kit O'Connell)

The troupe performed twice at Art Outside 2012. On Friday night, they performed Rites Of Spring, which artistic director Nadia Hagen calls one of their seminal works. About every five years, the troupe revives and revises it for new audiences. This year’s combined fire, quadruped ‘stilt walkers’ dressed like insects, and even a gorgeous aerial silk performance. In keeping with their work at the Procession, they taught over 50 new stilt walkers their first steps during the course of the weekend.

A costumed stiltwalking woman in a balaclava

Flam Chen dancer at Art Outside 2012's Closing Ceremony (Photo: Kit O'Connell)

Flam Chen returned to close out Art Outside’s Sunday night. As the brilliant remixer Pumpkin finished a high-energy set, six members of Flam Chen appeared among the crowd wearing bright balaclavas, with the men’s woven masks looking like devils (or perhaps a Mexican Guy Fawkes). They cavorted, flipped, and danced then led the crowd into dancing with them. Finally, they encouraged the entire festival into a gigantic howling, ohm-chanting group hug.

Six colorful stiltwalkers in a circle

Flam Chen lead Art Outside 2012's Closing Ceremony (Photo: Kit O'Connell)

For more from Flam Chen, see

If you’re near Tucson, Arizona on November 2-4, be sure to check out the All Souls Procession.

Saturday Art: Web Of Wishes (#ArtOutside)

1:57 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Sarah Stollak with the Web of Wishes

Sarah Stollak and the Web Of Wishes (Photo: Kit O'Connell)

One of the interactive art installations at Art Outside this year is Sarah Stollak’s Web Of Wishes. This work is based on yarn and paper and uses the trees on site to create a web of interconnection between participants and the world at large.

The web between trees

Photo: Kit O'Connell

Sarah says her inspirations for this work include Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s landscape artwork and the work of Yoko Ono. It also recalls wishing trees which appeared at some Occupy encampments including Occupy Los Angeles.
Read the rest of this entry →