Times Union article, An Independent Wave

Times Union article, An Independent Wave

Date posted: 2006-11-06 13:45:00


 

TROY -- Visit the Sanctuary for Independent Media on almost any evening and you are bound to encounter something out of the ordinary. It could be anything from the Beehive Design Collective showing how to dismantle monoculture to an Australian-born Buddhist nun discussing her work with prison inmates to a presentation of Deep Dish TV's "Shocking and Awful: A Grassroots Response to War in Iraq."

While those who make partnerships with the Sanctuary have their own causes, their methods of reaching their goals are the same: They have delved into the possibilities of multimedia and are taking the reins to show off their work and in some cases, spread a message.

Since it opened last year, the Sanctuary has become a command post for an emerging community of artists, writers and educators finding its voice in independent media projects.

Other newcomers, such as the Capital District Federation of Ideas, the Wave Farm and the Grand Street Community Arts, have joined the ranks of existing institutions like the Arts Center of the Capital Region, Time & Space Limited and WRPI in the "global media reform movement."

"World media is headed toward more and more corporate consolidation, and there are fewer people deciding what gets seen and heard," said Steve Pierce, who founded the Sanctuary with his partner Branda Miller. "As we depend on media to express ourselves, people have to organize themselves."

Similar goals

On a recent night, as union activists prepared to hang photos of upstate New Yorkers at work, Zoeann Murphy talked about the importance of places like the Sanctuary for Independent Media, which is exhibiting the images as part of a series called "unseenamerica."

"Their goals are similar to ours: to create your own media and be the media," said Murphy, regional coordinator for the Bread and Roses Cultural Project, the cultural arm of the New York State AFL-CIO, 1199 SEIU and the Workforce Development Institute.

For filmmakers, musicians, painters, authors and assorted left-leaning activists, the evolving cultural and economic landscape means they need no longer depend on the mainstream mass media to produce, distribute and put a value on their work.

The new wave is mobilized by what its participants see as the proliferation of media giants that dispense dumbed-down entertainment and serve as the mouthpiece for conservative policies. At the same time, digital technology opens the way for anyone with a few dollars, a little technical know-how and ambition.

"There are different communities, but it is really so open that anyone in the general public can participate," said Kathy High, a bio-art pioneer. "If someone had an idea, they could approach the Wave Farm or Sanctuary and find support."

Stopping the brain drain

Pierce, Miller and High are professors at RPI, a wellspring for innovation in technology and culture. For years, economic development planners have tried to stop the brain drain of the region's university graduates. Participants in the local indie media scene say they have found the way to do just that.

When "talking about a healthy Tech Valley," said Miller, "it is important that we look at more than just the corporate models and look at the work of the citizenry."

It's not just happening here. Independent media is thriving in many cities across the nation. Last winter, director Robert Greenwald opted to distribute his latest documentary "Wal Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" through grass-roots channels, so it could be seen by consumers before the Christmas shopping season.

The film, which explores the impact of the retailing behemoth on local communities, small business and Third World workers, reached millions of viewers through packed screenings across the country, including Northeast Public Radio's WAMC's Linda Norris Auditorium in Albany.

Indie media artists live by a do-it-yourself ethos. "You can develop a community by helping them figure out how to use this technology on their own," said Linda Mussman, a driving force at Time & Space Limited, an arts space in Hudson that has been around for 25 years.

That openness and cooperation, on a local and national level, have spawned an abundance of work. "We are able to create a steady stream of programming. We wouldn't have been able to do that five years ago," Mussman said.

Donated space

Nobody is making big money on this front. Most of the creative people on the scene have day jobs. But their creativity doesn't cost too much either. The old church that houses the Sanctuary was donated by activist Russ Ziemba, president of Troy's Historic Action Network. Most of the work on the building and services are donated by members.

For the techno-rich Capital Region, using those resources to do something other than just support the corporate model is a no-brainer.

"Not only is there more independent and experimental work, but there are actually gathering spaces," said Karen Helmerson, electronic media and film program director at the New York State Council on the Arts. "People are starting to meet again."

Federation helps with sharing of ideas

Capital District Federation of Ideas, 383.5 Madison Ave., Albany. http://federationofideas.org

Years before there was the Capital District Federation of Ideas, there was the Amazing Plaid.

The Amazing Plaid, an experimental punk band that played around Albany at the beginning of the decade, was born of a shared aesthetic of some college kids with a taste for the unusual.

As the members of the band and their friends got older, some went to graduate school. Others got jobs. The name Amazing Plaid eventually went into disuse, but the friends never stopped working on music projects. And the members' sense of the absurd continued, fueled by their close-knit friendship and a growing sense of a social obligation.

They all decided that Albany was the place to be. So they formed the Capital District Federation of Ideas, a resource-sharing community aimed at giving artists and activists a platform to share ideas and launch projects.

"There are so many separate communities doing their own thing," said Kim Eisen, 23, who is a vice president of the group. "We want to bring people together and form a central point."

This spring, the federation began its University of Ideas, a monthly lecture series. It's a forum, soliciting presenters on the Internet and encouraging events to be as participatory as possible. "We want these to be interactive presentations," said CDFI secretary Thom Wilk, 24, "For people to just deliver a speech is pretty counter to what we are trying to do."

The lectures had been at the Howe Branch Library in Albany's South End. But in June, CDFI opened its own community center on Madison Avenue. Artists are encouraged to use the space for their own events and make use of the growing library and tool-share program.

"You don't need to wait until you save up tons of money to do something huge," said Wilk.

That was the main premise of CDFI's formation in the first place.

Media sanctuary has an activist vein

Sanctuary for Independent Media, 3361 6th Ave., Troy, 272-2390, www.thesanctuaryforindependentmedia.org

TROY -- A handful of people, from teenagers to those old enough to collect Social Security, listen attentively as Branda Miller shows how to edit a digital movie. Assembled in the basement of an old church, the students are not only interested in the process of making movies. They also want to use the skills. Each has a documentary project waiting in the wings.

Places like the Sanctuary for Independent Media wear their politics proudly, and many of the projects featured have a leftist slant and tap an activist vein.

"There is a growing awareness that whatever you are addressing, labor issues, civil rights, media has got to be your second issue," said Miller, a founding member of the Sanctuary, as she showed off the downstairs gallery, which is exhibiting "Claustrophobic Dream" by Melissa Mykal Batalin.

The Sanctuary has presented an array of events such as a documentary on Buddhist nun Robina Courtin, who stuck around afterward for a Q&A; University at Buffalo art professor Steve Kurtz, who was investigated on bioterrorism charges surrounding his Critical Art Ensemble; and Troy filmmaker Jim DeSeve, whose "Tying the Knot" is about same-sex marriage.

Other recent events have featured Middle Eastern scholar and former Iranian ambassador to the United Nations Mansour Farhoung and a performance of Afro-Cuban music by the Billy Bang Quartet.

The Sanctuary has a cafe and a library, largely stocked by volunteers and donations from places such as the Honest Weight Food Coop.

For Steve Pierce and Miller, opening the Sanctuary was a progression from projects they have been involved in over the past decade, including the Hudson Mohawk Indy Media Center, which disseminates news and uses the sanctuary for much of its operation.

As the momentum grows, more and more people with an activist bent will see they can make a difference, said Jim Welch, whose company provides servers to businesses and organizations, including the Sanctuary. "If we don't put in the effort, we are sure not to get a result."

Farm opening airwaves to creative performers

The Wave Farm, Route 23, Acra. http://www. free103point9.org/wavefarm.php

ACRA -- The revolution is not just happening in cities. free103point9, otherwise known as the Wave Farm, is a group of transmission artists who banded together in 2004 to cover the Republican National Convention in New York City via the Internet.

Last year, some members of the group migrated from New York City in search of a large, outdoor space to conduct festivals, workshops and sound experiments. They ended up on a 29-acre farm in Acra, Greene County, where they are currently building an indoor studio, library and performance space.

The Wave Farm holds specialized festivals in which musicians plug directly into soundboard mixers that are sent over radio waves, rather than through amplifiers. The audience is given a receptor and told which wave to tune to for each artist.

"We were looking for good land that could be used as a public venue," said Tom Roe, program director at the Wave Farm. "We are opening the public airwaves to creative uses. Because a lot of us don't think the public airways are being used very creatively."

Pushing limits in the name of art

TROY -- Jason Steven Murphy, aka skfl, is the kind of artist who likes to stick his big toe into almost any project that strikes his fancy.

In addition to being the project manager for the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at RPI, Murphy is also a part of Domeworks, a live video and music project at the Schenectady Planetatium and Impulse/Response, a concert series revolving around several local indie media artists. He also breaks out his live video skills at everything from the recent Trashion show to '80s dance nights at the Fuze Box nightclub.

Murphy, who does live video improvisation by melding computerized video images, is one of the new breed of Capital Region media-savvy artists who is pushing boundaries, leading toward a critical mass.

"When you all come together, there are a lot more possibilities," said Murphy, 29. "There is a lot more access to materials and intellectual capacity."

Those possibilities are helping to create shows such as Bubbles, a giant interactive playpen where the audience could manipulate projected bubbles.

At EMPAC, he's instrumental in bringing such anomalies as "Entre-Deux," to the area. The show, which took place earlier this month, was for one viewer at a time, lasted approximately 10 minutes and was performed exactly 160 times by kondition pluriel, a troupe from Montreal specializing in dance, video and interactive technology. The venue for "Entre-Deux" was a couple of mobile office units placed on the RPI campus specifically for this event. A special lounge for audience members has been set up inside the Folsom Library.

"I find it exciting that right now, people are dreaming up even wilder events to have here," he said.

Danielle Furfaro can be reached at 454-5097 or by e-mail at dfurfaro@timesunion.com.

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