13 December 2020

The Naked Truth

I posted a video today in honor of reaching 400 subscribers on YouTube. Usually, I just say thank you or talk about the projects I'm working on, but today I talked about traditions which fall into the category of performance.

The wife and I enjoy watching our fair share of YouTube videos. We watch a range of things, but many of them are videos from Kenyans or other Africans because, as you can imagine, it can feel a bit isolating to be living thousands of miles away from where you were born, raised, and spent (at this point) more than half your life. (That's Grace's situation; I live about 50 miles from where I grew up.) For me, these videos are a learning experience, whether they are specifically about Grace's culture or about another culture in Africa, and they also can remind me about my own experiences in Kenya.

We were watching videos of different tribes performing dances. Grace had found some Luo ones which, to my eye, were very theatrical in nature. Many of these performances are done by schools. It's great to see a culture passing on its traditions and societal knowledge through them. I don't necessarily understand what's going on, but that's not the point. These performances aren't for me, and my analysis of them is limited to my own understanding.

Our rabbit hole led us to a celebration dance by some Xhosa people in South Africa. YouTube had put a warning on this video because the content might be objectionable. I wondered what it could be. Would there be some cruel violence involved? No, it turns out. The “objectionable” content was that some of the performers were bare-chested.

Nudity is handled so strangely in America, isn't it? In our culture, we censor nudity in order to protect people. Who are we protecting? We all get naked at one point or another. And some of us even dance and perform naked. But in some places there are laws against it. In New York City, it is not illegal to be in public topless, yet people (mostly women) get stopped by the police about it.

In Xhosa and other cultures, there is no taboo about nudity. Creating a taboo about it might actually do more harm than good. When there is a taboo about something, it makes certain kinds of people want to indulge in it. When the indulgence in question is nudity, you find perversion. And all these people are trying to do is participate in their traditions.

A further search led me to discover Khaya la Bantu, a “cultural village” in South Africa. It seems like they (I presume colonists) set up a place where tourists can go to see how indigenous people live. It's sort of like what we call a restoration village here in America. I'm reminded of a book I read in middle school about a teenager who discovers she's been living in one and that there is a modern world outside, if only she can escape. At what point does the performance of tradition become a meaningless spectacle—thus erasing a society's cultural memory?

I refer to Paul Connerton's How Societies Remember when I say that. These traditions—rituals, dances, etc.—are a way for a culture to pass along vital memories and knowledge. Examples are found throughout the world, even here. I wonder if curating performance for a western gaze—stripping it down, or covering it up, as it were—dilutes the power of these traditions. Do we erase these people by putting a warning label on them?

I don't know enough about Xhosa traditions to know if the video we watched was “authentic”, or a true display of what a dance like that would be like. (Indeed, the performance seems to be part of an event hosted by the Port Elizabeth Heritage Society, which might be a colonial entity.) But seeing it accompanied with the warning gives me a feeling of weirdness. Are Grace and I voyeurs of some kind of cultural porn?

There are further problems to discuss here, including how a society like the Xhosa handles the few within their group who might have nefarious purposes, or even how they now have to handle the outside influence. I talk a bit about the Maasai in Kenya in the video I posted. But these are threads to pull on another day.

10 November 2020

An Artist? In This Economy?!

Some frequently asked questions (FAQs):

You say you're an artist, but you're not a painter. Why?

Good question. An artist is anyone who creates art, and art is much more than just paintings. Visual arts include painting, to be sure, but also sculpture, collage, design, and, in some cases, video installations. Performing arts include (traditionally) music, theatre, film/video, dance, and that nebulous thing called performance art. I won't go into too much of a philosophical discussion about the nature of performance, but it's enough to say that most art, if not all of it, “performs” in a certain sense; that art either performs itself, or it causes the audience/viewer to perform, or both.

As someone who has worked a lot professionally in musical theatre, I can tell you that the nature of musical theatre is multidisciplinary. That is to say, it encompasses several of these subcategories of art. There is music and theatre, obviously, but also dance, usually design (with painting, sculpture, and/or collage in the mix), and occasionally video.

But, as you can see, my work is not neatly defined as “musical theatre” in a traditional or even experimental sense. So, it's more correct to say that I am a multidisciplinary artist. I engage with many of these different areas of art, not all at the same time necessarily, in order to create art. I make videos which feel more documentary or educational in nature, where I also write and record the music and create graphic design elements. In an upcoming series, I create a character using my acting skills in order to talk about the nature of the city I call home, New York City.

When you create your profile, Patreon asks you to say what you are creating. “Joe is creating music.” “Imani is creating eye-popping designs.” I just changed mine to say “Kevin Story is creating.” And I think that's the most accurate way to put it.

Okay, so you're a “multidisciplinary artist.” Great. How do I buy your art? It's not like I can hang it on the wall.

It's really easy. Either join my Patreon to get unlimited access to everything I create (depending on your tier), buy my music on Bandcamp or Sheetmusicplus, contact me to commission work, or Venmo or PayPal me.

Now, some of it you can hang on your wall. I can do artsy versions of my sheet music, for example. (Ask me about my “Wedding Song.”) I also dabble in collage, graphic design, and photography. So don't just assume there's nothing to hang on your wall.

But, the bulk of my art, as I said before, is performance-based. I make art by doing it. So, when you buy my art, what are you buying?

If you're like Jay Sloat, the Congregational Church of South Glastonbury, Middle Island Presbyterian Church, or Mandarax Music Ensemble (to name a few), you ask me to write you some special music, just for you, one-of-a-kind, which I then painstakingly create for you—either by writing out the sheet music so others can perform it, performing it myself or with others, recording it, or any combination of these. This is true of theatre work, of videos... of anything, really. If I don't think I'm the right fit for a project, I will let you know who I think is. (For example, while I'm okay at graphic design and photography, I would probably send you to Phowzie to get the real deal.)

The most cost-effective way for you to support my work, though, is via Patreon, where you basically pay for a subscription. Everything becomes available to you, depending on if you are interested in my music, my videos, or my arts-in-education work.

Hold on, now. “Arts-in-education work”? How is that performance?

Studies have shown that when teachers perform more in their classrooms—something as simple as gesturing while teaching—their students perform better on assessments. I write curricula for arts educators, of course, but also for other subject areas to use in their classes to encourage better learning overall. That's what Rogue Pedagogy is all about—but perhaps that's a topic for another time.

Where do I find your art without paying for it?

Geez. Okay. Well, my YouTube channel is a good place to find most of what I'm doing these days. Do me a favor and subscribe. I have a goal of getting to 1,000 subscribers by January 2021.

I also have a Soundcloud. And you can see some of what I'm up to by following on Bandcamp and Patreon—free of charge! And, of course, social media is a good place to find me. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and (sometimes) Tumblr.

But I hope you like what you see and decide it's worth supporting this multidisciplinary artist. Even a dollar or two can go a long way!

17 October 2020

The Pandemic in the U.S. From an Artist's Point of View

America's relationship with its artists is very fickle. Many people don't even think being an artist is a valid profession. Yet, these same people will binge-watch shows on Netflix, visit amusement parks, and share memes on social media. They have favorite playlists on Spotify and favorite comedians, and they will complain if a restaurant they're visiting is poorly decorated. A small handful of artists are paid exorbitantly for their work. Most of us, however, just get the crumbs that fall from the table, it feels like.

Many artists, especially those in live performance work (theatre, etc.), are out of a job for a while. Broadway is closed until at least after Memorial Day, but very likely later. That's not just me being out of a job; that's an entire economy in trouble. That's actors, technicians, ushers, producers (but they'll be okay), musicians, costumers, painters, electricians, carpenters out of work for over a year. Residually, because those artists are out of work, adjacent industries suffer: restaurants, rehearsal studios, retailers, tourist shops, food carts. Times Square is a dead zone.

Your knee-jerk reaction might be, “well, they should get a new job,” but consider a few things. First of all, you're still doing all those things in the first paragraph. Artists are required to make those things—all the shows and movies you watch, all the music you listen to, all the cartoons and comic books you read. Not to mention, all the clothes you wear and places you eat and shop were and are designed by artists. Second of all, many of us are highly skilled in our field—but woefully unskilled in others. Our usual second jobs (restaurant work, retail, temping) are much more scarce. And it's not like we have the money to go back to school. (Or that the schools are open.) Third of all, during normal times it was hard enough getting work and having people treat us appropriately (decent pay, good working conditions, etc.), but now it's nearly impossible. Artists are known for their resilience throughout history. This pandemic may be a true test of that resilience.

Many artists were already living on a knife's edge before the pandemic: gig to gig, barely making rent, no money for health care. Now we are appealing directly to anyone who will listen. We are begging for people to pay us for the art we are making for them. For you. That just shouldn't happen, don't you think?

If anything I write or make or do inspires you to support this artist, please consider joining my Patreon. If you love someone's art, put your money where your heart is.

27 March 2020

Helping Each Other

An anecdote, with Mr. Rogers' “look for the helpers” quote in mind:

I flew into JFK from my painful Dubai departure yesterday afternoon. Numbly, I went through security and the necessary CDC check, claimed my bag and the bag of my absent spouse, and walked toward the taxi stand. Someone offered me a cab ride along the way, giving his price, but I knew I wouldn't be able to pay for it. I turned him down and trudged to the stand where the yellow cabs were. I didn't have enough money to take any cab, really, but I could put it on a credit card and worry about it next month. Anything to get into my bed and sleep for a bit and avoid the outbreak. I was put into a cab and we set off for the Bronx. Just outside the airport, the cabbie drove over a pothole and popped his front left tire. We crawled to the shoulder and he got out to look. I noticed he had trouble getting out, something with his back. I thought for a second about what to do... Should I call for another cab somehow? Would they pick me up on the side of the Van Wyck? But I was in no rush, and I could tell this guy needed a hand. He couldn't get a hold of anyone to come help him. He asked if I could help. I joked that he was lucky, I was one of the few New Yorkers who knew how to change a tire. I quickly found his spare and the jack, loosened the lug nuts, raised the car, switched the tires, and tightened everything up. By the time the cabbie got a hold of someone to come help, I was done. “It's okay,” he said into his phone. I was his gift from God.

And truly, it was all a gift from God. I got back home without being charged cab fare. And despite all the bad that happened to me over the last few days, there are these glimmers of hope. I am reaching out into the universe for so much help right now. But, I can be a help to someone else, too. I am also a helper.

So, sure, look for the helpers when you need help. But if you can, if you are able, be one of the helpers yourself.

21 February 2020

Visa Update

We finally got some good news (though, of course, it was bad news, but it gave us good news in the end). The State Department emailed us to say they had gloriously and fabulously lost our paperwork. Bad that they lost it, but good we finally heard from them! We rushed to fax the paperwork (it all having been saved on my computer) and within a week it was processed. The State Department gave Grace a Favorable Recommendation to have her two-year ban lifted. Now, on to USCIS, where they will make the final determination. With luck, this will not languish on and we will finally be able to move on with our lives.

In the meantime, we have been excitedly planning our exchange of vows in Kenya, scheduled for next month. Being out of the country for so long has me worried a bit about income and making ends meet, but I am hopeful that my various undertakings (writing, teaching, performing) will come through and we will be able to survive. If Grace can get her waiver, we will be on a fast track to both of us working again. She will undoubtedly work much more steadily than I, given her field (finance) and depth of education.

Anyway, I'll be sure to post again when we hear from the government next.

19 January 2020

Love Without Borders

Grace and I met in New York City in May 2018, and let me really begin by saying it was never Grace's intent to come to America to find someone to fall in love with. That just happened anyway. One of Grace's cousins suggested she get on one of the dating apps following a painful un-engagement just to move on more than anything. Meet some people. Have some fun. Then come back to Kenya and think about what you really want. Grace wasn't looking for me. But she found me.

And I found her. After years of living without feeling, of acting like I was feeling but really trying to sort out the pain from my own relationship trauma, I was finally feeling real feelings again. I was finishing up my master's and living in a city my heart beats in time with. I was ready to find someone like Grace.

This story isn't really about love, though. It is about love. But I really want to talk about immigration.

Grace was in America on a J-1 visa, which is a visa related to cultural exchange and learning. She, with her bachelor's and master's in finance, was working as a trainee accountant at the New York branch of BayernLB, a German bank. But what did I know about visas? I was in love! We clicked quickly, initially over music, because she said she liked classical music. She had lived in London for years; I've only been twice, but I appreciate British culture. We both like Indian food and taking long walks through the city. And coffee! How did I ever think I'd make a relationship work with someone who didn't like coffee? I don't know. Anyway. We clicked quickly, and Grace became the first romantic partner I took to Thanksgiving dinner in years. A month later, we were engaged.

It was around this time that I started to get interested in visas and immigration. Because, when you're about to marry a non-citizen, as a U.S. citizen, you start to wonder about these things. I learned that Grace's J-1 visa came with a two-year ban. This meant that, for a total of two years (cumulatively, not all at once), Grace would need to stay in Kenya before she could even apply for, say, a permanent residency (the so-called green card). Getting married wouldn't change that. So, I pressed Grace to apply for a waiver. There are several reasons you can have your two-year home requirement waived, the simplest being that there's no objection from your home government. The whole purpose of the two-year ban is to foster cultural exchange. The idea is that you come to America to learn a skill that you can then use in your home country to help them out. The thing is, according to Grace, there are accountants all over the place in Kenya. There's no reason for her to go back. She likely wouldn't even get a job as an accountant there, despite her experience and education.

The process of getting to even apply for the waiver took some time, mostly due to some foot-dragging on Grace's part, and also due to some brushing off from the sponsor of her visa. J-1 visas are generally sponsored by a third-party, a company whose mission is to foster some kind of cultural exchange. In Grace's case, her sponsor was the German-American Chamber of Commerce. Why German-Americans might be interested in cultural exchange between Kenya and the U.S., I do not know. All I know is they took their time putting a letter together, only after Grace sent an email expressing concern over the timeline. (If only we knew then how long we would be waiting, and still are waiting, to hear from the Department of State...) Their letter allowed us to get a no objection statement from the Kenyan Embassy in Washington, and we were able to send Grace's paperwork to the Department of State at the end of July 2019.

Some web searching and the J-1 visa waiver website indicate a timeline of about twelve to fourteen weeks to process the paperwork and forward a recommendation to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. But, we should see a status update on the website once the paperwork is in the system.

One month went by. Still no update on the website. There was no contact information other than an e-mail address, so Grace sent them an email.

Still no response, no update. I send an email. I also call one of the phone numbers sent back in the auto-response. The poor subcontractor on the other end of this call probably gets hundreds of these a day. J-1 visa waivers are the only thing this guy can't help with. He says to email the same email address.

Grace's visa expired in October, and she had one month to leave the country. What a daunting prospect! We had been living together since April, we were in the middle of planning an international wedding, already talking about kids and where to move next and all these things. And there was still silence from the government about her case.

I was worried about her reentry into the United States. The horror stories are abundant in the media. I got no sleep for three weeks, including the week of Thanksgiving, when I couldn't bear to be at the family table without her. I went to Connecticut instead. I kept hoping nothing would go wrong, that the customs agents wouldn't bring my darling fiancée into another room for further questioning, that they wouldn't question her about what her intentions were coming back into the U.S., that they wouldn't make her sign documents against her will. These things had happened to her brother only a year earlier; we still have no explanation or update on that situation.

And nothing happened. Grace got through security without a hitch. The customs agent did ask multiple times whether Grace was planning to work or not. (She was and is not until our paperwork comes through. She's not dumb. But, of course, she would like to be working, if only to give her something to do during the day and to help support our family.) But why should I have to bear all this anxiousness over it?

It's been about 25 weeks since we sent out the paperwork. Almost half a year. Last week I sent a letter to my senator asking if there's anything their office can do. We would like to get on with our lives. Wouldn't you?