I am a mother of a 20 year old twin daughters. I’m a 53 year old woman. I’ve been married to my favorite human for 32 years. I’m a daughter, a sister. I’m a young women’s leader. I am a faith filled member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints. I am a teacher. I reside in the western United States at the base of a beautiful mountain range. Additionally, I’m an academic who thinks and writes about youth and digital media and performance.
Truthfully, I have less time to think about adolescence and performance these days because I’m also an administrator at this university where I spend much of my time leading college meetings and completing university paperwork. These sentences only describe some of me. I’m also a part of a civic community, a religious community and academic community, a theater community, a hiking community and so on. It’s from all of these contacts that I’ve read and reread. Communications scholar Amy Correo Rose essays.
One of these says, The sites of our belonging constitute how we see the world, what we value, who we are becoming. She also says the meaning of self is never individual, but instead is the shifting set of relations that we move in and out of. Often without reflection. The scholar confides in readers that she has often resided in spaces where she has shifted and changed as a part of the environment and the people within it. However, she notes that she is still thought of herself as singular, despite adaptations to environments and people.
Don’t we all do that? Koraro describes this mode as ineffective in our contemporary moment. She makes the point that we can no longer live alone and adjacent to each other. Instead, she invites us to see our relationships to others as more visible and intertwined. In this way, our being is constituted not first through the self but in its longings to be with. What matters then is where we place our bodies and with whom we build our effective ties.
I recognize these are ideas, ideas from our faith tradition. When we say phrases like standing in holy places and loving our neighbor, words that invoke proximity and presence. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what her ideas teach me about my own belongings and our collective belongings and how carefully thinking about the sights of our belonging might impact how we engage with each other in our lives, spaces and in our digital world today. I’m going to share my personal stories, stories from my arts education classrooms and stories that other artists created in my sharing of arts ideas, practices and processes.
I hope that we can all get a better sense of how we might expand our own sites of belonging and increase our desires to build effective ties with others that we may not have included in our previous circles. Our interactions in digital worlds often expand our sense of fitting in. I’m an arts educator, as I’ve said, I think I write and teach about the ways that digital media influences us. My work is grounded in theories that support digital learning and acknowledge young people’s persistent access to and affinity for digital technologies.
In that context, I explore how young people come to understand, practice and perform their identities within digital and social media spaces. I investigate the ways that educators might help young people to develop and then practice critical and creative approaches to consuming art and making art using digital media. I really value the ways that young people use media by applying its associated ideas, beliefs and methods. I also deeply care about the ways that young people do media by assimilating its understandings, procedures and affectivity.
Like many of you, I actively consume and create content within digital and social media world. My goal in digital settings is to access useful knowledge, encourage my own curiosities and to identify beauty in the world I am currently and with a lot of anxiety, trying to figure out Tick-Tock. I’ve become a pretty OK zoom teacher. I’m obsessed with watching YouTube cooking videos made by millennials. I’ll tell you, it’s a niche market. My Netflix account is kind of a disaster.
I’m never without a book on audible. I use Instagram to stay in contact with people that I care about. I particularly enjoy seeing the things that people make. For example, my colleague and visual arts educator Luis Vega uses TV to introduce his students at Linwood High School to visual arts principals and to showcase the work of Gustus. My neighbor D’Wayne call captures beautiful images of the natural world near our homes. His vision of Utah County makes me proud to call it my home.
The artist Sunny Taylor shares her paintings in progress. Her post laid bare her art making processes in ways that truly make me happy. I also use digital media to build and maintain ties with people that I love. I use Google duo and Facebook Messenger for weekly chats with my twin daughters, Lilly and Lauren. Both women are serving missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints and are across the country from one another. Digital technologies help me to hear their lovely voices and see their beautiful faces in true mom’s style.
I get to ask them, Are you safe? Are you happy? Did you eat some vegetables? And then I see their responses, which is usually a lovingly crafted I roll. Marco Polo helps me to overcome geographic distance to connect with my mom, my sisters and their children. Across this year, my sister Mary has shared intense and informative tutorials on using an electric toothbrush. She’s a dental hygienist and so her tutorials are serious business and very useful.
People of all ages have done the splits for the camera, and we have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how we can fast forward through the videos without purchasing the upgrade. Mostly, we have repeatedly asked to see more of my niece, Emily’s baby girl, Cora Jane.
She has her first tooth coming in, so she’s been a little bit grumpy, right, that too bad.
To me, these are all worthy endeavors in the digital world. In contrast, I have I have to admit that sometimes my digital media consumption becomes imbalanced and no longer serves me. There have been times in this last year where the record shows that I picked up my phone more than 100 times in a day during a particularly dark time. I found myself actively imagining slights from my friends and family. As I scroll through my social media feeds, I chose to consume words and images that feed my fear and anger.
I clicked through news reports and memes and tweets that actively supported my persistently narrowing point of view, each time further commodifying the opinions of others through my own likes and followers. I wasn’t actively helping those that I felt were marginalized or in danger. Instead, I had let algorithms paralyze me. As a young media scholar, I learned about and valued the notion that media could be made and viewed in charitable ways. My teacher, the BYU film historian Dean Duncan, asserted that film viewing is a vicarious experience in which we begin to understand another’s efforts through sympathetic participation at their side.
Viewing films in this way allows us to practice truly seeing others as God sees them. Trianon Duncan’s concept of a charitable cinema. The film theorist Sharon Swenson writes, Seeing the acts and choices of others from inside the characters or through a sympathetic narrator’s eyes can increase our understanding of the choices of others. The concept of charitable cinema applies to digital and social media, to media artifacts charitably made or viewed offer us the opportunity to experience other people, to see the reasons they make choices and to experience the consequences of those choices alongside them.
When I actively sought to employ the precepts of a charitable cinema into my digital media consumption and creation, I was better able to consider and more fully appreciate the lives of others. For me, the antidote to my own despair was treating my digital interactions as a reciprocal experience with other human beings, no matter how much I love the digital world and the work associated. I know that our physical bodies and souls associated matter more than any tool. I know that God, in his infinite wisdom, invites, invites us to first love him and then to love our neighbor.
My experiences in the arts have taught me over and over that our bodies matter here and now and in the eternities. I regular regularly hike on the trails near my home. But last summer, as my worries about the pandemic increased and I narrowed my movement to the I narrowed my movement to the shoreline trail. Each morning my dog and I would head south on the trail and then move up towards Lake Canyon. We were often alone, but we also regularly encountered trail friends.
We passed one group nearly every day, an older man, his wife and their three amiable dogs. At first, I just nodded as we shifted around each other. But eventually I smiled and waved as we came upon the group. Occasionally, we briefly chatted with six feet, with six feet between us. We didn’t know each other’s names, but I was really cheered by our encounters. I recognized them as my neighbors. One day, much later in the year, I was hurrying along the trail calling to dot to move faster.
When we came upon four of them, one of the dogs was missing. I could tell that something had happened and so I asked if everything was OK. The woman whispered to me from across the path that one of their beloved dogs had passed away. Her face indicated that this was a great loss for them and that her heart was broken and mine broke to tears, ran down my face as I reached out to put my arms around her, and then remembering myself and the confines of the pandemic.
I pulled my arms back into my own body and I mouthed, I’m sorry, I’m so very sorry. And she replied, I know. I know this was a small moment, but I haven’t stopped thinking about how much our bodies encountering and then responding to each other on that trail mattered to me for a moment. I was proxima with my neighbor. Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, taught us in another BYU forum that proximity allows us to see and hear things that we wouldn’t otherwise see or hear.
He reminded us as we that as we intentionally cultivate immediacy with others, our knowledge increases and we are better able to problem solve. Ravi Rajan, the president of the California Institute of the Arts, extends this notion to arts making and receiving. He suggests that the act of creation fosters new proximity to problems, to history and to the everyday circumstances we might not think about. He calls on artists to meet this particular moment of distance and division by making art that shows us how we got here.
Art that reveals us, art that binds us together. When I hear this charge, I immediately think about the public school theater and English classrooms where I taught for most of my 20s. Teaching and learning with those young people changed me politically, socially, intellectually and spiritually. I also think of the secondary classrooms where pre service, theater and media and English teachers here at BYU will find their teacher voices and find their teacher moves. For me, arts classrooms and especially performing arts classrooms are sacred spaces where you have talent, where we have countless opportunities to become proximate and feel the natural inclination to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those in need of comfort.
A few years ago, a drama teacher and scholar, Jo Beth Gonzales, shared a story about her own intentional community building within a drama classroom. This story, and the teacher who shared it, influenced my artistic and pedagogical practice daily. I wanted to give you a tangible example of how arts classrooms invite proximity and present. So with Joe Beth’s permission, I invited a group of BYU artists, educators and students to create an invocation of that story. Here it is.
One Friday afternoon, a student for my introductory theater class, Sue, died in a car accident. Monday, the first day of classes after the accident, I expected students to be upset because Sue had been close to several of them. And what class began, I said that Sue was always a lively presence in class and that we knew she would not be back to sit in her seat again. I recognized that we could feel her loss, but claimed that her memory would remain with us throughout the semester.
We paused in silence for a while. And I asked if anyone would like to say anything, no one spoke. I asked if they would like a little time to reflect either silently or in words or movement, and someone quietly offered that movement would be nice. My student, teacher and I taped a long piece of brown paper across the blackboard. I pulled out a container of colored sharpies and explained that anyone could get up at any time as often as they wanted to draw a picture or a thought they had, or they could write a few words to sue herself or in tribute or in the memory of her.
They could even respond to each other. I began by drawing a picture and added a couple of words. And students, one by one stepped up to the wall at times, four or five students stood along the brown paper. We ebbed and flowed like this for 15 minutes or so. Eventually, I suggested that everyone read the wall since they had collectively made it. A student asked if we could give the brown paper mural to Sue’s mom. I agreed and the student offered to take it to her.
Silently, my student, teacher and I took it down and folded the long sheet in half, I said to the class, fold it like a stage backdrop. So I made a crease after each fold and aligned the sides. After folding, the brown paper was a small 12 by five inch package, I placed a piece of the red duct tape across the back, turned it over and wrote. To Sue’s family. From intro to drama and said to the class.
That’s all, sign it. Everyone passed the package around, and after the last person signed it, I handed it to Sue’s friend, who put it in her backpack. Later, my student teacher noted that the class that day felt spiritual. He said that the time I took to fold the paper. The care I took with each crease. Was the process of packing up Sue’s life in our class? With meaningful attention.
As Joe Beth’s story illustrates, arts classrooms can provide space where young people and their teachers practice the proximity that Bryan Stevenson describes, spaces where their presence and the presence of others matter, where their bodies matter, where their very souls matter. Our bodies, our souls need practice in critical thinking and creating critical thinking and creating is vital to our agency, the very element we are all here to develop. The violinist and BYU professor Alexander Woods says, my creative practice is the work of translation.
I have always resonated with music. I love how music is vibrations. In other words, for Alex, music is primarily a physical thing, he continues. These vibrations pass through each of us in a unique way. As I translate a piece of music, I hope to be true to how the music affects me and I hope to affect my listeners in the same way. Practice provides a set a part time to connect mind and body. In this space, I’m free to find the truth about my playing.
I can begin to answer questions such as Am I getting enough sound? Am I getting the sound I want when my interpretation have its intended impact on the audience? This is a time of mindful inquiry. Is this time of mindful inquiry is something I truly enjoy in my classes. We call what Alex describes critical creativity. Critical creativity necessitates both critical thinking or the active participation in disciplinary discourses, methodologies and interpretive frames and creativity, which involves imaginative explorations that lead to authentic ideas and original work by your visual arts education.
Professor Daniel Tea Party describes a critical creative approach. In this way, he says, artists move between concepts, play with possibilities, problem find as opposed to problem solve and tinker with available understandings, objects, relations and representations in my digital media class pre service theater to preserve his teachers, study the photography and video works of Nina Khatchadourian. We do this as an example of critical creativity. Her ongoing series Seat Assignment consists of photographs, video and sound works that have all been made while flying on an airplane.
The project began unexpectedly with an international flight in 2010 and is ongoing. Khatchadourian sets her own constraints for her work. For example, she begins and completes the project during the course of the flight. She only uses a camera, phone and materials that are readily available around the seat that she’s assigned on the airplane or materials that she finds in the airplane bathroom. She has generated artistic work and on almost 200 flights in the last 11 years. She describes the project in this way, she says, seat assignment is born from an investment and thinking on your feet from optimism about the artistic potential that lurks within the mundane and from the curiosity and from curiosity about the productive tension between freedom and constraint.
Here are three images from this series. She entitled this part of the series Lavatory Self Portraits in the Flemish Style. She describes her process for making these saying, I spontaneously put a tissue paper toilet seat cover over my head and I took a picture in the mirror using my cell phone. The image to me evoked 15th century Flemish portraiture. I decided to add more images. I decided to add more image and made it in this mode and plan to take advantage on the long haul flight from San Francisco to Auckland.
I made several forays to the bathroom from my aisle seat, and by the time we landed, I had a large group of new photographs. At first glance, one might not find value in her work as children. My daughters describe contemporary art like this as the freaky stuff that mom loves. And it’s true. I am a fan girl of Khatchadourian work. Here’s why she is curious about the world around her. She imaginatively explores the resources within her reach.
She works to understand complex and competing histories within her discipline and actively practicing critical and creative approaches. She asserts her own educated ideas into arts conversation. She practices proximity to the ideas that interest her by engaging her mind and body, and I would add her very soul to develop these understandings. Art making and viewing teaches us that where we place our bodies matters, the holy ground we create in physical and digital spaces matter. Context matters while making art, we often learn that the circumstances that impact our own bodies as well as the souls of others must be carefully and generously considered.
Art experiences help us to better understand the background, situations and circumstances that make up the souls that we encounter. Collaborating with other artists, we learn that individuals bring their own unique skills and beliefs and experiences to any creative endeavor. Intentionally making or viewing art with others perspectives in mind helps us to arrive at informed choices that are consistent with our own values while welcoming and appreciating the perspectives of others. Benjamin Tamminen, a media literacy professor on this campus, invites us to think about perspective taking when we view art, he says there’s no single, authoritative meaning inherent in a work of art.
Rather, there always exists the possibility of multiple meanings, determined both by the characteristics of that work and the diverse experiences, perspectives and associations the audience brings. The work of choreographer and BYU dance education professor Cary Wakamatsu exemplifies the arts thinking that values context. Cary developed the choreography for the contemporary dance, The Burden of Nonsense in the fall of 2020. It was then performed by the BYU Contemporary Dance Theater in 2021. Like many of us, Cary often felt confounded by the pressures and insecurities that rose in 2020.
She felt the weight of the pandemic and also deeply feared increased racial violence against minority populations within the United States. In her artist’s statement about the work, she says, in addition to global turmoil, it was a time of grief and struggle for my family. Attempts to find clarity or sound reasoning often led to nonsensical meanderings through her own creative processes, modes of inquiry and inspiration. She developed a choreographic intent that reflected that weight, she says. The rice bag props were inspired by hoarding trends.
Scarcity of toilet paper was amusing at times. But when I could not find rice for my family, the realities of the pandemic hit me with heaviness. There was something unsettling and ironic about the inability to find rice for my Asian-American family while Asian-Americans were simultaneously being persecuted across the country. My husband’s family, she says, uses a colloquial term for the United States states, which roughly translates to rice country or in other words, land of plenty. Visually, the rice bags represent weight and physical items carry metaphorical meanings of burden and overload, as we see here in segments of the performance.
Importantly, Corey also invited the student dancers to commit their skills and ideas to the development process. She describes their collaborative work, saying, We experimented with movement inspired by a long list of words that included confusion upside down, discombobulation, blur, pause, shift, break and nonsensical. During the final rehearsals, we discussed how dancers could artistically convey ideas of burden and nonsense. They encouraged the performers to find motivation in the fact that everyone has burdens, whether they are a parent or not, and that the pandemic exacerbated the bewildering effects of turbulence in viewing this piece.
Professor Wakamatsu context matters. Her dancers context matter, but are reaching out to her with our own context. That also matters. Arts making provides the ways and means for us to recognize and appreciate one another. Several years ago, Dr. Ronnie Jo Draper and I, along with a group of arts education colleagues, set out to write a scholarly book. This book was about arts education and literacies and arts education and the literacy literacies required to teach and learn authentically within the arts, while the others in the group are practicing artists and arts educators.
Ronnie Joe was a literacy educator who had taught mathematics in a secondary setting and was currently teaching multicultural education classes at BYU. We began the book by asserting that education as an endeavor provides opportunities for human beings to practice the skills and create the associations necessary to actively engage in the world. We emphasize that preparing human beings with the intellectual and principled habits necessary to wholeheartedly participate in the world required conversation in the introduction to the book we wrote. While conversation may result in the exchange of information, inquiry, persuasion, discovery or the improvement of the human condition.
Certainly needed. Rather, conversation simply allows humans to acknowledge and enjoy one another. Preparing to write the book, Ronnie Joe took this notion of conversation seriously to better understand the processes, text and literacies associated with the arts. She took classes and workshops here at BYU. She sang in the university corral led by one of our collaborators, Paul Broomhead. She studied art making processes with Dan Barny and his visual arts education students. Pam Muscle taught her to move with other beginning dancers, and she engaged in performance practices alongside my theater educators in my classroom.
She sought out opportunities to understand and made efforts to belong in sharing our experiences, stories, tools and processes. She came to see herself as an art maker, as a creator. By viewing our arts, making processes and participating in artistic efforts, she became a part of our communities of practice. Anyone that knows Ronnie, Joe knows that this is only part of her story. She’s an avid knitter, a film producer, a mother, a grandmother and LGBTQ advocate, a teacher, a scholar and an indigenous woman.
At her core, she is a learner. She gathers useful knowledge and experiences and then actively applies them in her efforts to acknowledge, enjoy, advocate for and embrace others. She embodies the university charge set forth in the aims of a BYU education to continually develop faith, intellect and character in order to bless her family, her community, her church and the larger society. To demonstrate how intentional acts of creation can lead to a sense of belonging, I asked her how she marshals her knowledge and experiences to identify and create good things in the world.
Here is one of her stories.
My great grandmother, Lucinda. Was a basket maker and she was a master basket maker, her baskets. We’re on display for many, many years in the San Francisco Natural History Museum as examples of your basketry. And so basket making is important to the New York people. And it was important to her. It was clearly part of my I felt like my inheritance, that I needed to continue somehow. I didn’t know how to do it. And I wanted Lucinda to teach me how to make baskets, which would be impossible.
She passed away just within months after I was born. So we were only on the earth together for a very, very short time. But I had this had this feeling that I that this is something I could learn to do. And that would be like a way of continuing her work. I have a cousin who has. Return to basket making. And so when I went to the reservation, I spent a lot of time with my cousin and learning how to gather, learning how to weave, and even in some ways for us teaching each other, you know, my first degree is in mathematics.
And, you know, my cousin was saying, I just don’t know, like how to go about doing this pattern, how to how to think through the pattern. And I said, well, you know, we’ve got to think about how many weaves, how many sticks do you have up? And let’s sort of divide that out. And then she brightened her face up and she just said, this is what we needed. We needed you to bring back this map knowledge like.
Yeah, like being a geometry teacher in this moment is the one of the ideal situations to be able to figure out how to put the pattern on the basket. And my father had always told me, like your great grandma Lucinda was excellent at mathematics. She could she could just figure it out. She didn’t have patterns sitting next to her. She just do how many like how many sticks were up, how many, what pattern could go into that basket.
And so I was very interested in learning that. And I felt sad in a way that that Lucinda wasn’t there to help me. But then I found myself. Being on the land and being in the spaces, I knew that that she had been and. I could imagine that. Because this is just the truth, I knew, like I’m carrying her DNA, her DNA is in me, I, I imagine that I can look at my hands and there’s a resemblance of her hands that I can look at my face and there’s a resemblance of her face.
There’s something it’s not just it’s not just a shadow, like it’s a physical presence of her in me. And then when I would stand on the land, I would know, like that’s where she stood. That’s where people have stood for thousands of years. That’s where we understand the creator placed us. I was the beginning of the world. And then when I would reach out and gather. Maybe willow roots or willow sticks or or Hazel or whatever.
I can imagine that that plant had the same DNA. Of the plants that Lucinda touched, like time and space, it didn’t matter so much like we were we were together in that moment. I was carrying her. She was guiding my hands. And I was observing the plants that she had observed that she had attended. And now I was tending them. And it was it was truly glorious, it was. I don’t know, I think that’s I think I think it was heaven, I think it was such a beautiful way for us to be together.
We live in a digital world, we use digital media every day, we do digital and social media so regularly that it’s infused into nearly all of the ways that we engage with others. I began today with a call for us to actively consider where we place our bodies, where we send our souls, and with whom we build our effective ties in both our physical and in our digital world. We should learn to create proximity and immediacy rather than distance and division.
Koraro proposes that we long for a world that is more inclusive and representative of the whole of who we should be. She imagines individuals leaning and tipping towards others, just making a little effort to close the distance between people that sometimes feels overwhelming. We should all practice leaning and tipping towards charitable interpretations of others, we should practice purposefully placing our bodies, carefully orienting our souls in order to create holy ground where our own souls can expand and the worth of other souls can be perceived.
And I’m not have The Book of Mormon, we’re told, to offer our whole souls as an offering. What matters then is where we place our bodies, where we take our souls and with whom we build our effective ties, we can, in fact no longer live alone and adjacent to each other. We must see our relationships to others is more visible and intertwined. And education in the arts has taught me that we should carefully practice seeing all people as sharing the same trails.
Where joy is transmitted in simple gestures and pain can be comforted through pure empathy and understanding. These are the gifts of proximity and presence. These are the blessings of loving our neighbors. This is the holy ground we can create in all of the spaces we inhabit. This this is the sacred classroom we can all share. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.