Reflections on the recent Spring 2023 Teaching Tour, retreats, references, rainbows, and more
Dear friends, collaborators, loved ones,
The summer’s swelter is nearly halfway through. It’s when many folks try to shed layers and get away if they can.
I’ve already been away. The first part of the year was spent on the Department of Transformation’s Spring 2023 Teaching Tour. Spanning ten cities, it started with talks in Portland and Minneapolis (where my lecture at the Walker Art Center outlined the D🌏T’s core strategies and kicked off some karaoke with Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy”). The tour officially finished with a workshop for Triple Canopy’s Publication Intensive (followed by a ritual shearing to Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My [Beard]”). Along the way, we shared workshops, conversations, seminars, meals, and walks with over 600 people.
Did you encounter the tour in any of its iterations or locations? If so, I’d love to hear your feedback. Please reply to this note: What worked, what would you do differently, what would you like to see more of next time? How are you integrating the D🌍T’s frameworks and strategies into your work and life (apart from hopefully enjoying even more karaoke)?
The counterpoint to the tour’s intensity followed directly afterwards: a five day retreat in the Appalachian mountains organized by MacArthur Fellow Mel Chin and SOURCE Studio. A generous gathering, it brought together an inspiring cohort of artists, thinkers, and community organizers to critically examine art as an active response to the conditions of our world. The retreat was filled with conversations, sound baths, nature walks, storytelling, and embodied practices, all in the spirit of intimacy, openness, and learning. Nate Mullen’s skillful facilitation held the gathering together and taught me a trick or several. Plus, we learned how to carve wooden spoons! The event gave me a sense of shared purpose; it will feed my soul for a while.
The D🌎T tour and SOURCE Studio retreat bookend a buzz of activity over the past months—from performing in Asad Raza’s six-hour Mangrove Sunset at Gropius Bau, Berlin; participating in the Centre Pompidou’s expansive “Platform for New Assemblies” symposium; moderating the conference “Fluxus global / divers” at Museum Ostwall, Dortmund; conducting a timely conversation on triennials with curator Zippora Elders for Counterpublic 2023 in St. Louis; deepening my engagement with KADIST as a North American curatorial advisor; celebrating that my book On Letters just received an AIGA 50 Books | 50 Covers award; contributing texts to several forthcoming publications; working on projects with my design partner Chris Wu and Wkshps; and occasionally practicing archery at Jäger und Sammler in Berlin-Lankwitz.
Last week also marks exactly a year since FRONT International 2022, Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows—the largest project I’ve ever led—opened across Northeast Ohio. It was a major milestone in my life. There have been a lot of changes since. Processing this period is one reason why I’ve gone mostly quiet on social media and large-scale communications. Think of a caterpillar who disappears into its chrysalis, digesting itself in order to transform.
As I’m letting go of past skins, I’d like to share a handful of exhibitions, podcasts, books, and music that have been teaching me new things:
Mythical Celestial Bodies: White Hole by Cassie Thornton at Mehringplatz 20
This brilliantly twisted apartment show in Berlin included a cascading chandelier of fake $100 notes hanging over the bed, where viewers could lie down to practice breathing; a vinyl bar graph on the window visualizing the inevitable collision of personal ease and global crisis; and a toilet installation addressing crushing student debt. The show connects to The Hologram, Cassie’s feminist, peer-to-peer model for healthcare used by thousands of people around the world. There's an intimate scale and personal impact to an exhibition like this, one that many museums and galleries miss entirely.
“Ten Sessions” by Jaime Lowe
My dear artist-turned-clinical-psychologist-friend Tamara Sussman recommended this short episode of This American Life last fall. It follows the writer through CPT (Cognitive Processing Therapy), a short-term therapeutic modality for addressing the aftermath of complex trauma. CPT is rooted in systematically rewriting core “stuck points”—exaggerated “all-or-nothing” beliefs that generate negative emotions. I find CPT’s framework compelling because it feels both effective and scalable: the treatment is so clearly structured that people with minimal training might be able to facilitate it. Perhaps it could even be self administered, which would be a game changer. If more people had better tools to address the widespread symptoms of PTSD, what might the world look like?
Ain’t I A Woman by Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter at the Brooklyn Museum
How can the violence inflicted upon Black women by systems of imprisonment, patriarchy, and abuse begin to be righted? Mary, an artist, advocate, and educator whom I had the privilege to meet at the SOURCE Studio retreat, recently walked me through her powerful Brooklyn Museum solo show, which addresses such questions from both contemporary and historical perspectives. A three-part music video, narrated through rap rhymes and cross cuts, recounts her journey into motherhood while incarcerated, the anguish of being forced to give birth in shackles, and the path towards finding new purpose on the other side. This story is juxtaposed with Mary’s ongoing work to reconsider the legacy of lauded Philadelphia artist and known sexual predator Thomas Eakins. I’m impressed by Mary’s articulate approach and look forward to seeing what she develops next.
Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice by Judith Herman
I’m halfway through the audiobook of Judith Herman’s long-awaited follow up to the now classic Trauma and Recovery (1992). Her focus here moves beyond individual responses to trauma, and into the realm of the larger structural changes that would be needed for reparative justice to take place. Dr. Lisa Koby, a friend and conversational partner who used to work with Herman, has been recommending that I read her for a while. It’s good to have a quieter moment to follow up on this.
Sick Metal by Harry Gould Harvey IV at PPOW Gallery
This show of painstakingly crafted, materially-charged artworks at New York’s PPOW Gallery made a strong impression upon me. Harvey constructs exquisite, otherworldly drawings that incorporate poetry and collaged images; these works then live inside hand-built wooden frames, which he repurposes from the wood of destroyed mansions, dilapidated factories, fallen trees, and gutted churches. His artworks bear the aura of devotional objects—invoking the possibility of belief and transcendence amid social and ecological collapse. A recent Art21 conversation with him offers insights into his working methods and Fall River Museum of Contemporary Art, a small-scale institution that he helped establish in his post-industrial hometown.
travel invisibly by Martin Beck
As those who know me know, my primary musical diet consists of artist Martin Beck’s occasional MP3 playlists. The arrival of a new one is like an unexpected, God-given gift. Like every one of Martin’s many playlists, travel invisibly represents a winding path through multiple musical styles, genres, and eras. I’ve got a lot more listening to do.
Let me end this long letter with gratitude and love: to everyone whom I have encountered in this past year, for sharing, for teaching, for lending support on this sometimes-bumpy journey. My given name, “Prem”, means “love” in Sanskrit—so it’s always close to my heart. Here is a section from Kae Tempest’s song “Grace” that resonates with me right now:
Make love, let me be love
Let me be loving
Let me give love, receive love, and be nothing but love
In love and for love and with love
In love and for love and with love