Interactive Writing Program Exhibition Asks, "Artists: What Do We Do Now?"

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In the weeks since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, politicians, pundits, thinkers, and entertainers—to say nothing of ordinary citizens—have been weighing in, often heatedly, on the meaning and possible ramifications of the business magnate’s victory. Here at Columbia’s School of the Arts, students and teachers have been engaging in these discussions, too, most notably through a recent interactive exhibition put on by students in the Writing Program called “Artists: What Do We Do Now?”

The exhibition takes the form of a wall in the lobby of Dodge, the School of the Arts’s main campus hub, where students and faculty members are invited to respond to the question, “What do we do now?” The exhibition launched with an event on Wednesday, November 16, wherein members of the School of the Arts community were invited to discuss the question in a conversation space over coffee and refreshments. The responses collected during that event comprised the beginning of the wall. Now, going forward, community members can add new responses by placing them in a receptacle near the exhibit.

“Artists: What Can We Do Now?” is the brainchild of students in the Writing Program—among them Heather Radke, Jane Marchant, and Irene Plax—and was made possible through the support of the Interdisciplinary Arts Council, the School of the Arts administration, and other students and faculty members.

Radke, a former curator at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago, said she was inspired to take action after discussing the role of the artist in times of political turbulence with fellow-classmates and friends. “What does it mean to be an artist when the world is on fire?” she asked herself. “Can it possibly matter if I write a beautiful poem or tell a good story when the President-elect is threatening to round up Muslims and make them register? Or when a right-wing Supreme Court might take away abortion rights or further dismantle voting rights?”

Marchant says that, when Radke asked her to participate, she was already thinking about a piece of politically motivated art, Maya Angelou's 2015 The Nation essay, “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear.” “I wanted to make something, to keep creating, but my own writing had been brief, hurt, and demanding,” Marchant says. “I found myself creating new rules for myself, and wondering how other writers and artists were faring.”

Radke points out that many famous artists throughout history have created politically charged work, from Frida Kahlo and Vaclav Havel to Theaster Gates and Ellen Gates Starr. “There are a lot of ways art can change the world, but it’s a conversation I think artists and writers need to actively engage in,” she says.

The responses to the question “What do we do now?”, written by SOA students and faculty members from across several departments, range from the humorous to the furious to the grief-stricken. They touch on widespread fears about how a Trump presidency will affect minorities, immigrants, free speech, and the criminal-justice system. Perhaps not surprisingly, many also touch on art.

“Empower working-class people [and] minorities to tell their own stories,” one reads, “instead of just telling stories for them.” Another reads: “Keep fighting even when you’re sure you can’t win.” Others include: “Make the work that matters to you”; “Organize the left”; “Forget your tribe”; “Don’t let the crazy be normalized”; ”Keep loving your neighbor.” One offers a lighter, though no less substantial, suggestion: “Party hard!”

Across the wall, a through-line emerges, one best summed up by yet another response: “Personal is political.” As Radke puts it, “Artists are people. And all people have an ethical responsibility to fight injustice wherever they see it.”

Speaking to the launch event on November 16, Marchant recalls: “Last Wednesday, a student waited outside 401 in Dodge as we set up the room. Seeing his eagerness to enter the space saddened me: we are hurting so much, we feel lost; but he came inside, and more students arrived, and throughout the day we made something together. We created a map for ourselves and other artists for how to make our way out of this mess, and although we have not solved anything, we have done what artists are meant to do: we have created something tangible for our world.”

“Artists: What Do We Do Now?” will remain installed in the lobby of Dodge through the end of the fall semester, after which time it will live on in its current online iteration, on Tumblr.

Columbia University does not support or oppose any political candidates. The views expressed are those of participating students. The Interdisciplinary Arts Council (IAC) is sponsoring this event.

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Columbia University School of the Arts offers MFA degrees in Film, Theatre, Visual Arts, and Writing, an MA degree in Film Studies, a joint JD/MFA degree in Theatre Management & Producing, a PhD degree in Theatre History, Literature, and Theory, and an interdisciplinary program in Sound Arts.