Imagine Otherwise: Anthony Romero on Sound and Socially Engaged Art

by | Aug 14, 2019

How can we bring socially engaged art into the classroom without losing its community focus? What are the possibilities and limitations of building art spaces beyond traditional institutions? How do the colonial histories of sonic criminalization shape the neighborhoods and lives of contemporary communities of color?

In episode 95 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews artist, writer, and educator Anthony Romero about bringing socially engaged art into the classroom, the politics of building Latinx artist retreats within and beyond institutions, and why intervening in the sonic color line is a key part of how Anthony imagines otherwise.

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Guest: Anthony Romero

Anthony Romero is an artist, writer, and organizer committed to documenting and supporting artists and communities of color. His solo and collaborative works have been performed and executed internationally.

He is a co-founder of the Latinx Artists Retreat and the Latinx Artist Visibility Award, built in collaboration with J. Soto and OxBow School of Art.

Anthony is a professor of the practice at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University and a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

We chatted about

  • Performance as a doing (01:37)
  • Founding the Latinx Artists Retreat (03:36)
  • Emphasizing the vast diversity within the Latinx diaspora (07:50)
  • How colonial histories of sonic criminalization shape the daily lives of communities of color today (11:12)
  • Imagining otherwise (17:36)
Anthony Romero wearing a black blazer, blue shirt, and black cap with "mestizo" written on it. Text reads: I have for many years been trying to understand the diversity of the Brown experience and our commonalities as Latinx peoples, as a kind of hemispheric sensibility. Is there a way we can unite ourselves, nbuild solidarity, coalitions, and collectivities across the breadth of our experiences?

Takeaways

The value of socially engaged art

How can policy be a kind of material? How can urban development be a material and how that might change the form of a city? When I think about the critical possibilities of socially engaged art, I think that in part we are translating our creative imagination to have effects in the world, to do something and to hopefully consolidate those effects in order to create living alternatives.

The Latinx Artists Retreat

The Latinx Artists Retreat is a self-organized effort, which attempts to provide Latinx cultural producers and administrators with a platform to share resources, insights, experiences, knowledge, etc. I became really interested in a project that supported Latinx cultural producers but that sat adjacent to institutional demands….We’re really a grassroots effort. So we need to partner with institutions. But my hope is that we’re able to do that in an ethical fashion that allows us to maintain control over the platform. So it’s kind of a complicated dance, but for me it’s important that we are self-organizing this effort and that we are being responsive to the communities that we are a part of.

Forging coalitions within the diverse Latinx disapora

I think I have for many years now been trying to understand the diversity of the Brown experience and of what it is to articulate something about our commonalities as Latinx peoples. This morning I was thinking about it almost as a kind of hemispheric sensibility. Is there a way in which we could unite ourselves, build solidarity, build coalitions and collectivities across the breadth of our experiences. It is certainly rooted in the things that make up so much of my own personal history, but is also deeply rooted in Indigenous histories of genocide and displacement, of mass migration and forced migration, of violence and imperialism and colonialism, all of this kind of stuff that articulates and refines each of our experiences across the hemisphere in very unique and specific ways.

Sonic criminalization as colonial and racial violence

My research is rooted in thinking about the criminalizing of Indigenous sound and music practices across the English colonies. So I’m thinking about the ways in which in South Asia, English colonizers instituted a number of laws that were meant to disband collective displays of prayer, which tend to be rooted in sound experiences of vocalizing or playing drums or instruments. And their logic was that they wanted to disband these groups because you can’t have groups of oppressed peoples gathered together for fear of inciting some kind of revolution….Those colonial practices of criminalization sow the seeds for the contemporary over-policing of communities of color through things like nuisance laws and sound ordinances and how the designation of noise, for example, becomes justification for the killing or arresting and incarcerating of people of color.

Imagining otherwise

More than anything, I want people to have the freedom to access the world fully for themselves. Perhaps another way to say it is that self-determination and self-liberation are at the heart of the kind of world that I want to see. I want the people that I love to love and be loved in the world and to not fear for their lives all the time. You know, I think that’s maybe the larger way of saying it. And then the smaller way would just be that I want to live in a world where people who look like me and my son are not locked in cages and forcibly medicated and detained forever without end. It’s all a way of understanding the world and in understanding that world, figuring out how we might make it better.

More from Anthony Romero

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

Transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:23] This is episode 95 and my guest today is Anthony Romero.

Anthony is an artist, writer, and organizer committed to documenting and supporting artists and communities of color. His solo and collaborative works have been performed and executed internationally.

He is a co-founder of the Latinx Artists Retreat and the Latinx Artist Visibility Award, built in collaboration with J. Soto and OxBow School of Art.

Anthony is a professor of the practice at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University and a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

In our interview, Anthony and I talk about bringing socially engaged art into the classroom, the politics of building Latinx artist retreats within and beyond institutions, and why intervening in the sonic color line is a key part of how Anthony imagines otherwise.

[To Anthony] Thanks so much for being with us today, Anthony.

Anthony Romero: Thank you for having me.

Cathy: So much of your work focuses on the critical possibilities of socially engaged art or art that’s rooted in and responsive to social justice movements. What draws you to this way of approaching aesthetics? And maybe conversely, what do you see art as bringing to social justice movements?

Anthony [01:37] I, like a lot of folks, can be preoccupied with questions of utility in art. So that being what is the art doing? And I think that’s why that’s in part why I naturally gravitated towards performance as my primary medium. It’s also what I teach at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. For me, performance is about the doing of something. So what do things do in the world? What kinds of effects do they have and how are those effects consolidated to form impressions of things?

So in class, for example, we might talk about the doing of things and what sort of effects we want our work to have on and in the world, both in the sense of to move the realities that we inhabit currently but also to produce or speculate on alternative realities. In the classroom, we’re simultaneously thinking about that as well as materials and forms.

[02:29] For me, these things come together in the sense that like in the case of painting, for example, we can think about the paint and the canvas as the material and we can think about the painting as a form. Similarly, in ceramics we would think about the clay as the material and the form as the vessel or the sculpture.

For me, that idea in regard to other forms of art or to socially engaged art specifically really gets extended by thinking about how policy can be a kind of material, how urban development can be a material, and how that might change the form of a city, for example. So when I think about the critical possibilities of socially engaged art, I think that in part we are translating our creative imagination to have effects in the world, to do something right and to hopefully consolidate those effects in order to create living alternatives.

Cathy [03:22]: As a way to explore these issues, I know you’re the cofounder of a really fantastic artist retreat specifically for Latinx artists. First of all, can you give our listeners a little bit of sense of what that retreat is and what got you excited about creating it?

Anthony [03:36]: Yeah, so the Latinx Artists Retreat is a self-organized effort, which attempts to provide Latinx cultural producers and administrators with a platform to share resources, insights, experiences, knowledge, etc.

I became really interested in a project that supported Latinx cultural producers but that sat adjacent to institutional demands. In my experience as a Latinx artist, we are called into institutions in a very piecemeal fashion. You know, we experience a lot of exceptionalism. So while there may be these kind of passing fashions around institutional investment in our communities, they tend to pigeonhole us around questions of immigration or certain craft traditions, to the exclusion of the many ways that we live our lives in intersections of gender, race, language, ability, or disability. You know, all of these kinds of things.

[04:42] So it’s important for me that the project, while it may collaborate with institutions from time to time, that it really be a project which is sitting adjacent to these kinds of institutions.

The project really came to life in Chicago I was looking at things like the Black Artists Retreat, the project that Theaster Gates and a number of other collaborators we’re doing for a few years in which they were inviting, similarly, Black cultural producers and administrators to come together to share their experiences.

By contrast to the the wealth of resources that a mega artist like Theaster Gates has, we’re really much more of a grassroots effort. So we need to partner with institutions. But my hope is that we’re able to do that in an ethical fashion that allows us to maintain control over the platform. So it’s kind of a complicated dance, but for me it’s important that we are self-organizing this effort and that we are being responsive to the communities that we are a part of.

Cathy [05:46]: In a lot of the work that you do at the retreat with your collaborators, you really emphasize the importance of an expansive understanding of the Latinx diaspora. It’s baked into how you structure the retreat and I’m curious about that process. Why was that such an important mission for you and your collaborators and how does that show up in some of the projects and the structures that you produce?

Anthony [06:13]: It’s a complicated question for me, which I think is in part answered by revealing some tidbits of my personal history.

I have a working-class background. I’m from a small rural town in the hill country of Texas. My family has lived in Texas for a couple of generations now. And they have a relationship to this working-class experience both in terms of what they did professionally but also in terms of what their parents did. One thing that I’ve been talking with my parents a lot about is that my parents both started working in the fields picking cotton when they were very small. My father started when he was seven and my mother similarly started as a child. This was a way for them to easily put some food on the table or to buy school supplies or to help support their families.

[07:00] Now it’s amazing the strides that my parents were able to make coming from that situation to owning their house and my father having a small business in AC repair and being able to have a child like myself who goes onto graduate school who then becomes a professor at a university. There are these leaps. But for us, that experience of Brownness is so particular to the geography of not only the borderlands but of Texas specifically.

It’s also really rooted in a Mexican origin experience. All of those things that I detailed around working in the fields and picking cotton, those all have implications in terms of language and in terms of culture that’s being produced, in terms of knowledges that are being spread through informal, social networks, all that kind of stuff. It’s all rooted in the ground, especially in a place like Texas, which was formerly Mexico. That experience is so specific to me and to the experience of lots of Mexican-origin folks in the borderlands.

[07:50] I traveled for graduate school to Chicago and then to Philadelphia and now to Boston. I think I have for many years now been trying to understand the diversity of the Brown experience and of what it is to articulate something about our commonalities as Latinx peoples. This morning I was thinking about it almost as a kind of hemispheric sensibility. Is there a way in which we could unite ourselves, build solidarity, build coalitions and collectivities across the breadth of our experiences.

It is certainly rooted in the things that make up so much of my own personal history, but is also deeply rooted in Indigenous histories of genocide and displacement, of mass migration and forced migration, of violence and imperialism and colonialism, all of this kind of stuff that articulates and refines each of our experiences across the hemisphere in very unique and specific ways.

[09:07] We are still essentialized within dominant culture inside of the US, so is there some part of that that is able to be mobilized to effect some kind of political change? I think of Gayatri Spivak’s idea of strategic essentialism. I don’t think that I would go that far in terms of a project like the retreat, but it’s certainly something that’s on my mind across a lot of my work in regards to a lot of our experience. It’s really this question of what are we? How do we describe and articulate ourselves as a people, which can sometimes register on an effective level.

In the room of the retreat, I feel some form of kinship or collectivity or community build up inside of those relationships. I can’t totally articulate or intellectualize that, or it become slippery to do so because to put language on it is already to allow it to slip away. Because I recognize the contradictions and the paradoxes inside of all of that.

[10:04] But as much as I recognize some sort of common feeling being built in those relationships, I also recognize that there’s a great deal of difference. I’m thinking about that a lot in Boston. In Boston, most Spanish-speaking peoples are from Caribbean populations, there’s a lot of Central Americans, and in each of those communities is so different from the kinds of Mexican-centered experiences that I had growing up.

Cathy: You mentioned Boston. Can we talk about your fabulous new fellowship position a little bit?

Anthony: Yeah. So in the fall, I’ll start as a Radcliffe Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Harvard, which I’m pretty excited about.

Cathy: Congratulations, first of all!

Anthony: Thank you.

Cathy: What are you hoping to work on during that fellowship?

Anthony [11:12] Yes, so for the fellowship I’ll be continuing a strain of research that I started I guess a little more than a year ago. It’s being built in collaboration with artists Matthew Joynt and Josh Rios. Both of them are in Chicago and we’ve developed a series of projects out of this line of thinking.

The research is rooted in thinking about the criminalizing of Indigenous sound and music practices across the English colonies. So I’m thinking about the ways in which in South Asia, English colonizers instituted a number of laws that were meant to disband collective displays of prayer, which tend to be rooted in sound experiences of vocalizing or playing drums or instruments. And their logic was that they wanted to disband these groups because you can’t have groups of oppressed peoples gathered together for fear of inciting some kind of revolution.

[12:10] But to disband that collective display of reverie is to not only shift the sonic landscape of those people, irreversibly, but also to fundamentally alter the worldview of that population. It’s to fundamentally change their faith and their belief system. There are these kinds of interlocking logics of dispersal and repression that manifest themselves in the sonic realm.

Part of the research is thinking about how those colonial practices of criminalization sow the seeds for the contemporary over-policing of communities of color through things like nuisance laws and sound ordinances and how the designation of noise, for example, becomes justification for the killing or arresting and incarcerating of people of color. The micro version of it would be calling the cops on your neighbor because they’re being too loud.

[13:10] In Philly one of the ways that you could see this play out is that in West Philly, you might have lots of Black neighbors who are having lots of block parties. And as those neighborhoods start to shift demographically through gentrification or the expansion of universities, and more young white folks move into those neighborhoods, then you have these instances where these young white folks are now calling the cops on their Black neighbors who may have been having these block parties for years and years. And now you’re instigating this conflict between these communities of color and state-sanctioned violence.

Jennifer Lynn Stoever is an author who wrote this book called The Sonic Color Line and one of the things that she talks about in the book is that silence is not accessible on either end for communities of color. For example, to be detained by the police and to be silent is seen as an act of aggression but to not be silent is also seen as an act of aggression. So there’s this way in which you are constrained both by silence as much as by noise.

Cathy [14:04]: In many ways, this project and your work more broadly is such a great example of what kind of really exciting work can happen when you bring together academia, art, and activism. In many ways your career is the embodiment of these things braiding together. This is something I talk about with all the guests on this show and is that the kind of premise of it. So what gets you excited about bringing those three realms together? Not everybody does and maybe not everybody needs to, that’s perfectly fine, but I find the richest projects sit at the intersection of these.

Anthony [14:42]: Yeah you know, I don’t think that I do it intentionally. I think that I am a very studious and academic person and there’s a certain way of articulating ideas that we define as academia or the academy. I gravitate towards that kind of language use and that way of stringing ideas together.

I don’t know that I would think of myself as an activist. That’s a word that I have a complicated relationship to. But I certainly do think of my work as being very collaborative. Very often my work involves collaborating with activists.

Maybe the distinction is that my work is really centered on the artistic experience, which sometimes includes working towards institutional change, both in terms of universities and sitting on committees, things like that. But also in terms of invitations from institutions and wanting to stretch those institutions to be more inclusive, to be more equitable. That’s certainly something that I’ve written a lot about.

[15:44] But I’m also someone who feels like the symbolic world can still have real effects, that it can still do something. So I think that all of those things get braided together. That kind of collaborative impulse, this belief in what art can do in the world and my dedication to it, and a discipline that I bring to that practice. And then this one particular way of braiding ideas together.

I think of it all as a kind of form of study. One thing that I felt like I was quoting very often is this moment from the The Undercommons by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney in which they describe their use of the word study as being that which you do with other people. So for them, playing in a band is a form of study, sitting on a porch and talking with people is a form of study, anything that we could think of as being a kind of social occasion constitutes a form of study. And I think that’s it for me. I want to understand the world and I want to have an effect on that world and I want to create platforms that gives agency to other people to do the same.

Cathy [17:03]: This brings me, I think very nicely, to my final question, which gets at that making it better, that world that you’re working towards when you collaborate with all the fellow folks that you produce work, when you teach your students, when you create your art, when you organize retreats and collective experiences. So I’ll ask you this giant question that I really like closing out each episode with because it gets at the kind of why behind all of the work that you do. So what kind of world do you want?

Anthony [17:36]: You know, I think more than anything I want people to have the freedom to access the world fully for themselves. Perhaps another way to say it is that self-determination and self-liberation are at the heart of the kind of world that I want to see.

I want the people that I love to love and be loved in the world and to not fear for their lives all the time. You know, I think that’s maybe the larger way of saying it. And then the smaller way would just be that I want to live in a world where people who look like me and my son are not locked in cages and forcibly medicated and detained forever without end. It’s all a way of understanding the world and in understanding that world, figuring out how we might make it better.

Cathy [18:29]: Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of the ways that you create and imagine otherwise.

Anthony [18:35]: Thank you so much, I appreciate it.

Cathy [18:42]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud and myself, Cathy Hannabach. You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net, where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.

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