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New YBCA art director strives for creative risks

Many creative types in the Bay Area, from writers to radio producers, performers and artists, are managing multiple jobs to feed themselves these days. It's a struggle for many, but for some, wearing different hats isn't a matter of survival – it's actually a way of being. Marc Bamuthi Joseph is one such man: He's a poet, scholar, dancer, educator, director, and performer. He helped found Youth Speaks and the Living Word Festival. He's also the new performing arts director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. KALW's Erica Mu sat down with Joseph on the stage of the Novellus Theater to learn more about the aesthetic future of the San Francisco arts institution.

ERICA MU: So, we're sitting on the stage here. And I'm curious because you're the new Arts Director for theYuerba Buena Center of the Arts. Who do you envision on the stage? Who do you envision in the audience? And where are you?

MARC BAMUTHI JOSEPH: I think that art is a conduit for social transformation, that art is an instrument for the making of culture. I don't think culture happens in a vacuum, or in any kind of homogenous way. I think that's the preservation of cultural and demographic ethic. I think culture happens in the mash up. So we'll have VJ Ire here, the jazz pianist, and Daniel Bernard Roumain here, working with the Twins, which is a hip hop group from Paris. So all these things – all these faces of humanity – are welcome. All exploring, I think, the core of our humanity: life, death, birth, love, hatred, austerity. These are things that impacts all, no matter what your politics or asthetic inclinations are. That's what I want this building to be because that's what the Bay Area is. That's who we are. We are high culture, low art, outside and inside, margin and core. That's the kind of performance and ethic and family that I want to grow here at Yerba Buena Center. Totally shifting, really divergent, always exciting, and accessing something higher – given room to grow.

MU: What is something higher and what does that mean?

JOSEPH: All our brand – as far as performance goes – really stretches to the outer limits of what we conceive of and consider to be high art. I believe in shifting points of reference. I talk about this because I realize that going home, not so long ago, listening to Pandora, that, growing up a kid born in 1975 in New York, the best writers in my life were all emcees. I read F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dostoyevsky, or Shakespeare, or all the people you're supposed to read. But I listened to Black Thought, Big Daddy Kane, KRS One, and Chuck D. Those were the writers I aspired to write like and sound like. That hasn't precluded me at all, or in any way, from reading Junot Diaz, or some of the great writers of today. I'm just shaped a little bit differently. So that variation in shape, I want to honor. These, the different things we read, the different music, various publics we are all accountable to… I want to continue to make ways through performance for different publics, different points of reference to find home here.

MU: It's interesting you said the brand is about artistic excellence, but, at the same time, you're trying to reach the outer limits. What's going to change for the Yerba Buena Center for the arts? What are you hoping will change?

JOSEPH: I would like to take Yerba Buena from presenting risk takers, which we do successfully, to also being the site of the risk. So I mentioned the program with the Twins and VJ Ire and Daniel Boumain – we're calling that night Classic Hip Hop. We're inviting the Footwork Kings from Chicago, Lil' Buck, who's a juke dancer from Memphis, some turf dancers, the Turf Fiends, from the Bay Area, and a hip hop crew from Jakarta, Indonesia. We're inviting them all here to perform pieces of music, but then to collaborate with these classically trained musicians to demonstrate the same movement vocabulary asStravinskyand Bach and Beethoven, with Coltrane and Davis inflections. So, really dynamic artists that pull together to try something different, to be the sight of the risk. There's an evening we're planning for June of 2013 called Respond React, where we bring five artists in from around the world and they are each given the front page of five different newspapers: New York Times, LA Times, Daily Telegraph, etc. Then they're given a week to base on the front page on the five global newspapers. That's the kind of ethic I want to instigate here. Not just the polished and sweet and sublime, but the messy, risky, and adventurous. I want an audience that responds to that – and artists that are hungry for that.

MU: You're also a curator – that's what it says on your office door. You have to curate art that is good. What does that mean?

JOSEPH: Who knows? That's totally subjective. For me, I'm inclined towards art that sweats and bleeds and cries. I like to think that I'm a smart guy, but I don't like art that's just in the head. I want art that pulls me by the hips, that hits me in the heart. And I don't just think in terms of good art. I think in terms of good opportunity, in terms of arts and good experience. So I really look at who's in the room, who's invited, who feels safe, who feels threatened. Is there risk happening? Do I get a since of emotional fluctuation? Are the artists moving towards the break? Are we writing towards the verse of our times? These are the composite things that you might put together to create some sort of rubric, but I don't think there's a checklist. I think that everybody responds to different stimulation in different ways. For me, then, it always goes back to animal intelligence. What strikes me at my marrow, at my core. Am I emotionally moved, or intellectually or spiritually moved to the left or to the right. If I'm going to a performance and feeling nothing about it, that was an unsuccessful experience. I could have been doing anything else. I want to be moved. That's what I lean towards. That's the performance I'd like to bring here to the Bay Area. Stuff that I can do more than just write about, or think about, or throw polysyllabic words at. I want art that leaves me struggling days and weeks after.

Erica Mu is a reporter and producer for the "Hear Here: A Pop-Up Radio Project" in conjunction with KALW and the Association of Independents in Radio. Mu has reported on the serious side of health and the quirky side of arts, and she's also helped KALW pioneer the digital frontier as the news team’s web strategist and editor. Mu has also organized and directed KALW’s live storytelling events.