“Contested Homes: Migrant Liberation Movement Suite” streams on June 30 through the UW-Madison Arts on Campus Facebook page.
A creature with a gruesome dripping jaw looks over a scorched landscape of smokestacks and barriers as poet Jackson Neal intones: “There are pipelines crossing nations as if oil is not weapon / I made everything a weapon / I am a language, a lineage / I am the holes in history, your money swirling through them.” Under the voice, Mitchell Dalzin’s guitar builds a tense but funky chord progression over Lily Finnegan and Henry Ptacek’s ominously rustling drums. Nightmarish visions of dinosaur skulls, oil extraction, and environmental ruin eventually give way to a completely different mix of visions: birds, the sky, animated figures hunching over as they literally carry the Americas on their backs, as Mauricio Garcia, aka MG Ricio, raps and sings over a plaintive beat by Maggie Cousin.
These moments come somewhere near the middle of Contested Homes: Migrant Liberation Movement Suite, a video work that combines music, animation, visual art, archival footage, dance, and poetry. It premieres on June 30 through a livestream on the UW-Madison Arts on Campus Facebook page. A group of UW-Madison students spent the spring semester working with faculty, visiting artists, and activists to explore the densely interconnected themes of resource extraction, racism, Indigenous heritage, imperialism—and perhaps most importantly, the empowerment of marginalized people around the globe.
Cellist/singer Gizelxanath Rodriguez and saxophonist Ben Barson—who treat musical their work as inseparable from their activism and co-founded the Afro Yaqui Music Collective—spent this past semester in Madison as artists-in-residence, and partnered with UW-Madison professor of dance and Asian-American studies Peggy Choy to lead a course in what they call “Artivism.” They initially planned to present Contested Homes in a series of live shows on campus. After the pandemic reached Wisconsin, they began combining the elements into the video piece. The final cut will run for about 34 minutes. Barson is also hoping to release an album of the music, a cosmic tumble of jazz, hip-hop, electronic music, avant-garde atmospheres, and sounds from the Afro-Latin tradition of capoeira.
“What I recall powerfully about the process of making this work is that, first, we broke up into groups and studied radical politics,” Rodriguez says. “We studied hard and had long discussions, from the history of the Black liberation movement to the Bhopal disaster in India in which capitalist greed killed and maimed thousands, to the history of the Bad River Ojibwe’s resistance against mining. Then we discussed what we wanted to do in the piece to express what we had learned and mixed it with people’s own stories of oppression and their concern for the environment.”
The course itself had 10 students, but all told about 30 people contributed to Contested Homes in one form or another, from the student players of UW-Madison’s Contemporary Jazz Ensemble to musician, poet, and former Black Panther Party member Charlotte Hill O’Neal. Also known as Mama C, O’Neal will be joining the livestream event from her longtime home base in Tanzania. Visual artists Kim Inthavong and Rodrigo Carapia drove much of the original art and animation in the piece. Multimedia artist Adam Cooper-Terán, based in Tucson, used the techniques of video art to fuse together those visuals, footage of musicians and dancers, and archival footage from a wide array of sources.
“There are several sequences in Contested Homes that end up riffing off other films, from documentary footage of the Black Panther Party during the 60s to Werner Herzog’s Lessons Of Darkness,” Cooper-Terán says. “The immediacy of new media is another source, so even as the final edits were coming together, there was opportunity to include content that reflects the current struggle for BIPOC Liberation. In a way, it’s using the same tactics that Big Media spins to create propaganda, but crafted with meaning and the hope it can wake people up. It should also be acknowledged the huge influence of hip hop’s sampling philosophy and the Copyleft Movement underlying this process.”
Everyone who commented for this piece acknowledged the challenge of adapting to the pandemic halfway through the project—suddenly having to remotely coordinate so many people and so many elements that rely on close communication and timing, especially dance and improvised music. But they also found the transition smoother and more rewarding than it might otherwise have been, because the participants were already so artistically and thematically enmeshed with each other.
“On a certain level, since the pandemic began, my role as an individual artist has mutated into more of a technical facilitator, trying to work within the parameters of story-telling and editing,” Cooper-Terán says. “In this way the work becomes the collective’s, and because it was made with everyone’s involvement the rewards are a shared experience.”
The music serves as the main foundation and through-line, Cooper-Terán explains. Still, the process as a whole varied from segment to segment, and on top of that the segments manage to flow continuously into each other. “Some sections had a very clear visual arc from the get-go while others had only one illustration to depict the idea of a suite of music, some of which runs over 10 minutes,” Cooper-Terán says. “I think the magic of video is that you have the variable of time to tinker and make a static image come alive, which also puts more responsibility on me to make it work in accordance with the story, and with respect to the image’s creator, including the samples or clips from other media I’m referencing.”
The multi-sourced imagery in Contested Homes connects political struggles across the generations. In a section called “Police Chase,” Cooper-Terán uses their deft grasp of archival footage to steer viewers from the heyday of the Black Panthers in the late 1960s to the nationwide protests against racist police violence in 2020. This section is built over music from Cousin, an accomplished young saxophonist and composer in their own right, with vocals from Mama C and hip-hop artist Nejma Nefertiti. Over the swirl of historic imagery, dancers act out the part of menacing cops and their terrified victims.
Students in the class—including drummer Finnegan, saxophonist Cousin, poet Neal, rapper/poet Garcia Nick Berkhout, Qiandai Wang, Erik Franze, and Henry Ptacek—have the bulk of the composition and lyric-writing credits on Contested Homes. Finnegan composed music for three of the piece’s segments, including “Mother Earth Mantra,” which taps into funk and the lush spiritual jazz of artists like Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders.
“I wanted it to be groovy and danceable, but also odd feeling and partially atonal. Like a weird mix where you can’t fully tell what’s happening,” Finnegan says of the track. “I then made a contrasting section which is just a simple groove and chord structure that gets vamped for a while.”
Both Finnegan and Cousin say that one of the biggest challenges of the project was composing for a larger ensemble.
“It was different than just writing a chart and so I took a lot of inspiration from film scoring,” Cousin says. “My piece definitely ended up changing a lot, largely because we couldn’t play in person. It was originally written out for a whole live band but some of the parts didn’t end up being recorded so I ended up adding a synth line and a lot of production elements to tie things together.”
Cousin also uses tense atonal elements in “Police Chase,” arranging the horns into taut but dissonant hooks. “I was trying to hone in on the overlap I see between the harmolodic fusion playing or Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time group and the atonal aspects of old school hip-hop production by the likes of The Bomb squad and RZA,” Cousin says.
I asked both Finnegan and Cousin how the course shaped their thinking about the intersection of music and political action.
“In terms of the final product here, I think the big thing we accomplished is that the music provides a backdrop for these issues and gives them recognizable social context,” Cousin says. “When you’re conscious of the connotations people assign to different things they hear you can use that to help construct a narrative. Also that this isn’t art for art’s sake. I’d say to anyone who feels connected or inspired by seeing the piece, now is the time to help us transform it into action and join an organization that’s fighting capitalism and that is independent from corporate politics. I’m a member of Socialist Alternative but there are many others as well.”
“I think it’s super important to know what you’re fighting for,” Finnegan says. “I think music and art are the outlet to express that. How can you try to imagine and possibly live your life the way you want the world to be? So music is definitely a process in that for me. In real time, imagining and creating. That definitely has to be in partnership with organizing and actions, but art is a necessary component too. I like the intergenerational aspect because I’ve seen how artists have been living their lives as radicals and also make fulfilling music. Learning how to sustain that lifestyle which can be hard. Maybe they are drawing insights from us from our new energy and ideas of music and activism. Maybe it’s inspiring too to see how we are ‘carrying the torch’ of radical music as well.”
Indeed, Mama C came away with the project profoundly heartened and inspired by the ingenuity of the young artists in the class and the activism young people are driving today around the world.
“I love the way it encompasses Black Lives Matter. It encompasses the fact that, as far as I’m concerned, this is the second age of enlightenment that I have lived through,” Mama C says. “The first one was when I was a teenager and I was a member of the Black Panther Party. It mirrors what’s happening now, the way young people came together. Of course, Vietnam is one of the things that brought us together back in the day, but now you all are having to deal with the deterioration of the environment, Black Lives Matter, women’s rights, LGBT rights, all of that. The thing that is bringing everybody together now is the youth. The youth are the ones who always make the revolution…When I see what the young people are doing, it keeps me inspired. It keeps me fired up. It lets me know that no matter that I’m going on 70, it does not stop.”
Choy, the lead faculty member on the project, has always been willing to push dance into new contexts. Her projects have included a site-specific piece at the gym where Muhammad Ali trained, for which Choy learned to box. One of the challenges she faced this time around was choreographing a cast of people with no dance background.
“I did not have anyone [in the class] that had any experience as a dancer,” Choy says. “I had to find a common ground with each student.” For some students, that meant drawing on their experiences with sports, or music, or protest movements, to figure out some way that the language of dance could translate.
One of Choy’s longtime collaborators, Lacouir Yancey, contributes both dance and the music of the berimbau, a stringed instrument used in capoeira. Choy points out that incorporating capoeira made perfect sense for Contested Homes, because capoeira as a tradition already combines elements of music, movement, and political resistance. Those varied points of connection, Choy says, “put us all in the frame of mind that we had to learn a lot from each other.”
That attitude makes it hard for the viewer to tidily pinpoint what’s going on at any given moment of the piece, and easy to get absorbed. “Interdisciplinary” is a buzzword in both art and academia, but throughout Contested Homes these 30-odd artists truly create a sense that each element is richly interacting with and responding to all the other elements. Carapia, for instance, made a couple of the images mentioned above—the “oil monster” and the indigenous woman carrying Latin America on her back—in response to Neal and Garcia’s words, which in turn respond to the music.
“This [oil monster] image represents the beast that creates enormous destruction on the environment, which mainly negatively affects vulnerable communities,” Carapia says. “I chose dark colors. I followed my instinct imagining music, because I created the image before listening to it.”
In creating the image of the Indigenous woman carrying the continent, Carapia was “trying to represent the constant resistance and to show the roots of the continent.”
Resistance and roots, as Carapia puts it, might be the most important through-lines amid this piece’s complex layers of artistic creation and political thought. Contested Landscapes touches on a great deal of darkness and violence throughout the ages, but also celebrates the ways in which oppressed people have repeatedly asserted their rights and the fullness of their humanity.
The piece concludes on an ecstatic note—flowers blooming, Mama C’s voice and the jazz ensemble’s horns building to crescendoes. Mama C says it’s important that Contested Homes leaves viewers with a note of hope and a reminder of the importance of loving both people and the environment: “That end piece, where the flowers were blossoming, where things were just coming together, and where my voice came on at the end and talks about this being the second age of enlightenment and everything, to me, that brought so much hope.”