“I think it’s a good time for us to be critically examining the relationship between the artist and the audience, that the boundaries between them are not traditionally as firm as what we think about them being, right? So I would encourage people who are coming to Northern Spark to not just be thinking about their experience as audience as opposed to being an artist, but as people who are trying to share ideas and experiences with each other.”
Northern Lights.mn’s Assistant Curator, Elle Thoni, sat down with Tony the Scribe to discuss his upcoming Northern Spark project, environmental injustice and the need for caffeine.
Elle: So, Tony, you’re known around the Twin Cities primarily as a rapper?
Tony: Yes, I think rapping is a really important art form and it’s one that I connect to really well. And increasingly I’ve realized that it’s such an inclusive art form as well. Hip hop is made for hybridization in a lot of ways, so you can do a lot of really interesting cross-genre, interdisciplinary stuff with it. That’s one of the reasons that I wanted to start pushing those boundaries a little bit and see what other mediums I can work in.
Elle: What enticed you to move in a public art direction?
Tony: I’ve always been fascinated by the way that physical space changes when art is made in it. Thinking about the times that I’ve performed music live and the way that a roomful of people moving feels. It feels different than sitting on the bus alone with your headphones in. And then I started thinking about performance art and rap and where they intersect. They both seek to transform physical space, right? So I wanted to figure out exactly what that looks like.
Elle: So what does that look like with your Northern Spark project?
Tony: just breathe is an installation that I’m collaborating on with Ananya Dance Theater. It is basically a project about environmental injustice in cities. Environmentalism traditionally has talked about a lot of problems like air pollution and water contamination – those sorts of things – but the lens that’s missing a lot of the time is talking about racism and the way that systemic racism functions within that, right? My experience is mostly doing political organizing work on the Northside. That area has the highest asthma hospitalization rates in the entire state. It has the highest lead contamination rates. The lack of thinking about sustainability and environmental justice in where we locate all of our infrastructure has resulted in literal death over there. And the same is true, by the way, over in Saint Paul. Highway 94, which Northern Spark runs parallel to this year, is infrastructure that was constructed so that people could move from the suburbs to downtown Saint Paul without ever having to pass through black neighborhoods. That’s why Rondo, which was the most prosperous black community in MN, was destroyed to build 94 through it. The effects of that and the pollution that comes from 94 still affects the community today. So, what we’re really trying to do with just breathe is take that ongoing violence and that ongoing trauma and put it in a physical context, for people to have to interface with people of color just trying to breathe. I don’t want to give too much away – but the installation is going to involve dancers trying to fix that unjust history in a physical space.
Elle: Very cool. And we’re excited because it’s the first year that we’re using McKnight Foundation funding to pair artists like yourself with climate-focused organizations in the Twin Cities that are doing really meaningful work in communities. And the organization that you’re partnered with is Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) so – how do you see your project and its themes intersecting with NOC’s work?
Tony: Yes. NOC is a really incredible and unique organization within the climate movement. NOC does some really powerful work around trying to really talk about how environmental injustice impacts our communities on a local level and not just on a global basis. And how it very specifically affects communities of color. And so I think one of the really cool things about collaborating with NOC is facilitating an ongoing engagement process, so that we’re actually talking to other people of color and to other black folks about environmental injustice, and talking about both the problems that exist here and possible solutions to them.
Looking at climate chaos can be very disorienting, right, to think of all the different levels on which climate chaos is happening – from rising sea levels and global temperatures all the way down to where a new factory gets built. I think one of the things that NOC does really well is take those big things and make them into local level things where people understand how climate chaos affects their lives.
Elle: With all the issues that artists could be investigating right now, why climate change?
Tony: Yeah, well, I think it’s not so much to the extent of why climate change to the exclusion of other things. Climate change is one dimension and one facet of all of these ongoing injustices that we have. And we need to be fighting all of these wars on all of these fronts at the same time. Take the educational inequality in Minneapolis, which is among the worst in the country. Well one of the reasons why that educational inequality – not the primary reason, but one of the reasons why that exists – is because kids are missing school because of asthma and other health problems that happen because of environmental injustice. And then, because there’s less educational inequality, it makes it more difficult for those people to go to school. And so then people who are from the communities where the most environmental injustice happens don’t get to participate in the conversation about environmental injustice at a higher level. And so I guess what I’m trying to say is that climate justice to me is not something that stands on its own. And I think Northern Spark is doing a great job of trying to focus energy on climate right now. We just have to dive into different things whenever we can and help people to understand that these are not one-off issues but that they’re connected all the time.
Elle: Absolutely. And that’s one of the advantages of having almost 70 artists projects at this years festival in that you get almost 70 different perspectives on what climate change looks like.
Tony: From the big to the small
Elle: Yes. Well, what have you learned about yourself as an artist? So far, during this process of making an interactive installation for Northern Spark?
Tony: Wow, I haven’t really thought that much about this yet. I’m sure I’ll think about this a lot more after the festival. But… the ideation is not that different in different mediums. A lot of the time I think we think of different mediums of art as being completely different as completely different skills that you have to learn, and to some extent that’s true, but what you really need is to have a good idea and then be willing to put the work in. So… three or four months ago, I didn’t know anything about power tools, for example.
Really if you have an idea and the will to execute it you can do anything, and you can work in any medium. Sometimes it might take you a lot longer, you have to learn how to gain the skills that you need to execute perfectly and you need to practice. And I’m really grateful to Northern Spark for believing in me as an artist and offering me the opportunity to really push myself and stretch myself and create something powerful.
Elle: So if a person were to say to you, “Tony, this is my first Northern Spark. How do I take maximum advantage of the festival?” What would you say to them?
Tony: But beyond that, I think it’s a good time for us to be critically examining the relationship between the artist and the audience, that the boundaries between them are not traditionally as firm as what we think about them being, right? So I would encourage people who are coming to Northern Spark to not just be thinking about their experience as audience as opposed to being an artist, but as people who are trying to share ideas and experiences with each other. I ultimately think that that’s what art is for, is to allow us to better communicate and also be in communion with one another.
Elle: Yeah, well that leads beautifully to my last question which is: again, touching back on the theme of Northern Spark 2017 which is a transformation of last year’s theme of Climate Chaos I Climate Rising, this year its Climate Chaos I People Rising and that’s largely in response to what we’ve seen and felt in the last six months leading up to the festival. So, what does “People Rising” look like to you, Tony?
Tony: People Rising to me looks like any number of different things. Anarchism has a concept called “diversity of tactics” which I think is really important. It’s the idea that there isn’t one issue or one way of attacking issues that is going to solve all of the problems that we’re facing, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s racism, whether its systemic disenfranchisement of poor people, whether it’s patriarchy, all of these are going to be encountered by and dealt with by people differently. And so what we need to do is not try to find the one way for us all to rise up and fix climate justice, but for everybody to find where their own skills intersect with the work that needs to be done. And for everybody to find their own place within a broader movement of people rising to keep our planet safe. And to keep each other safe. Which I think are the same thing ultimately. So yeah, I think there’s a real opportunity for people ask the question “what does resistance look like for me?” in a really dangerous time. And yeah, I think if there’s anything that climate chaos and the Trump presidency have done that’s good, it’s forcing us to more critically evaluate where we stand with each other and where we stand in relation to the world. And so I’m excited for Northern Spark and for just breathe to be just one way of doing that and hopefully start some really good conversations about what People Rising really looks like.
You can experience Tony’s project just breathe in the Rondo neighborhood on the night of Northern Spark: Saturday, June 10.
For more information, visit https://2017.northernspark.org