Local Artist and Performer Jodi Netzer of Conscious Collective and Tucson Arts Brigade is initiating a new festival tradition here, one that is grounded both in community and in the desert locale where this community makes its home. Though we far too often take it for granted –as we do with so many things of seemingly endless supply– water is one of the vital threads weaving our lives together. We come into being within water, we are made of water, we require water to sustain us. Water is a precious, essential thing, and we who live in the desert should perhaps hold water in especially sacred regard. Festival can be a time and place set apart from ordinary routines to rally our attention, capture our imaginations and galvanize our energies. Let’s listen to what Jodi has to say about her vision for the Water Festival, and learn what we can do to help make it a living reality that can benefit us all.
jhon: Tell me where the inspiration for the Water Festival came from.
Jodi: Well, I came here to Tucson after living in Philadelphia for 15 years, and as a performing artist and community artist I really always want to identify what are the key issues that can be addressed as a community and as a creative endeavor that has goals.
So I identified water as an important issue for this locale. I have this performance cycle that I tend to do one big thing a year, and so I felt, “okay, let’s do a performance about water issues”. And then I always have a tendency to want to build an event around that, so it became a festival as well as a performance.
For example in Philadelphia I did a performance where I locked myself in a box for three days straight that spoke to confinement in social, mental and emotional life. And then I did a stage piece as well with that, but I built a circus around it, and even brought Flam Chen out from Tucson to Philadelphia for it before I really knew who Flam Chen was to participate, as well as all these other local artists, puppeteers, theatre, dance, side-shows….
jhon: What was the name of that again?
Jodi: The Bumpin Big-Top. So we did that for two years during the Fringe Festival while I was also art director there. I tend to do a lot of things at the same time, I’m just that kind of ambitious person. And I love bringing people together. I can’t do it by myself and I don’t want to do it by myself. So it took awhile but I’ve been going around from organization to organization and city department and local people trying to bring them together on this issue, and to get people excited to come up with creative solutions.
And to put the arts in front, let the artists be at the table to help solve issues about water.
So we developed this process of these community brainstorm gatherings to collect information and see what creative ideas happen when you put artists together at the table with culture-workers and scientists and city planners and conservationists and politicians. What happens? New technologies can come out of that, new systems, new ways of doing things.
jhon: How does that fit together, because a lot of people would think of something like art and politics or science as being completely incongruous. People don’t normally think of arts connecting in any way with science for instance, so how would they work well together?
Jodi: I love to pull out the creative spirit in people that is already there. And in people’s daily work, they are thinking creatively about how to approach problems within their work. Add a specific art element to that and there you have a creative, communicative tool that would be able to be pulled out into the communities. So organizations and the city can come together on that. I think that when people get tapped in to their creative center, their whole world opens up. They start to come to ideas that they wouldn’t have otherwise, and when you bring people together on these cross-sector collaborations, that’s when the juicy richness of possibility comes forth. It’s through that creative element that is the synergy.
I don’t like to use the word “art” because people have preconceived notions of that. As far as dance goes, people can think ballet, or with a painting people think it has to be a Van Gogh. No. I think when people give themselves permission to be creative in their own right and their own way….I mean, to be a city planner, there’s creative elements to that, you know? Put that with ideas of conservation and a visual aesthetic that speaks to community and that a community decides on; that’s the real work. That’s the binding work that promotes stewardship.
And that’s what this festival intends to do, to provide education to motivate. To actually do something, to be inspired to examine one’s lifestyle or to come up with new solutions, systems, processes that work.
jhon: What people usually consider “art” I think you could call the playful side of creativity, and then the other side is that of problem-solving that’s employed by scientists, engineers, designers. You could say it’s just two sides of the same process.
Jodi: Yes, and actually I would say they both cross-pollinate each other. As far as arts go, when you’re creating a work of some kind there’s some problem-solving going on there; how do you create a composition, how do you make this material work, and how can it be applied to real-world situations? And from a scientist or city-planner or politician’s point-of-view, they are thinking of systems and ways to administer to make things efficient, and there is creativity that goes into that. But there is this sweet spot of where it all comes together and really essentially is the same thing. That’s where the work happens and where people really see the possibilities. And with those possibilities, then action can actually take place. As long as you can capture and hold on to that energy and push it forward into actual projects, then there’s that continuity that this work can thrive on. One of the goals for the Water Festival is that it doesn’t just end there at the festival, other projects come out of it so that it can flourish. Water is a metaphor also for flowing together.
One thing I want to mention about the Water Festival is that there’s something for everybody in there. If someone wants to have those facts and figures and hard information, they can go see the films or attend the panel discussions or the community breakout sessions. If people are looking for spectacle or fun or just to get a taste of the issues but not think too analytically about it, they can go to or participate in the performance, or see the art happenings or visit the booths. There’s also an after-party, where people are encouraged to dress up with a watery theme. And through the process too of developing the performance; you can build puppets, and there’s rehearsals for the dance and theatre. Also, for the intrinsic value aspects of this festival, there’s the Water Ritual at Sabino Canyon that’s also a part of the program to honor water as the precious resource.
jhon: Talk about the community element of all this. It seems that the way that you’ve planned this and the way that it’s coming together is a bit different from the way that the average festival is organized.
Jodi: I come from an artist/activist background. I first encountered large-scale puppets when I met Bread and Puppet at a demonstration against bio-technology and genetic engineering in ’98 or ’99. I went on to do the WTO/IMF demonstrations in D.C., and then also before the election in 2000 the GOP national convention in Philadelphia where I was the lead organizer of the huge puppet warehouse that was preemptively raided and shut down. That’s where I really examined that kind of methodology to get messages across, and I became jaded myself of the “that is bad, rah-rah-rah” go on the street and pooh-pooh this, you know? It didn’t address the positive and actual solutions. The positive things were that we took up the streets and we were drumming and doing puppets and creative expressions on the issue. That was positive, but it didn’t engage community in a way that is really necessary to actually make something happen.
And so I started to just create performances that involve community members with a mix of people who have never performed before along with people who are professional performers to learn from each other, on the skill level part, but also on the authentic level part of doing this work. Bringing the issues onto the stage or into the street in a different way, so that it’s not a bang-you-over-the-head protesting kind of thing, but it’s a process that’s more engaging and participatory.
jhon: A more dynamic approach, because it’s not just making a point or posing a question, it’s actually making an attempt to answer that question. And in multiple ways, not just one.
Jodi: Exactly. This work is so important to really bring people together. And if you just focus on spectacle, it ends there. It might live on in people’s memory to some extent, it might have some sort of afterlife, but if you anchor it with real-world concerns and working towards solutions, that exponentially makes the work that much better. And that’s where I say artists can be part of the solution, to make a creative economy, to uplift a culture.
jhon: And when you say “artists”, you’re not speaking of some select elite, you’re talking about anyone within the community-at-large with something to express who wants a way and a place to do that.
Jodi: Yes. There’s a distinction between “community” arts and the “fine” arts. Both have their place and purpose. Not all studio artists make good teachers for example, or like to engage in community. However, their work can be profound and it touches someone to motivate someone in a particular way, even if it’s posted on a gallery wall. Community artists really go into that civic dialogue, so that it’s almost like social work in some way, but the art is the focus, but the focus is also solution-based. That’s the work that (community mural artist) Michael Schwartz and I do, to engage people in community arts which bring people together and promote stewardship.
And that’s what is so needed. There’s like a starvation going on, that people don’t have access to this permission to be creative and to engage, or politics gets in the way. I want to see people at the same table because there is a common thread of a values system, whether it simply be “we love Tucson and we want to see it be fun and great”. That’s a starting point, and then from there we can get into nuances like, “okay, what does that mean?”, conservation of water resources, beautifying neighborhoods.
Collaboration is the way to go, it is so key and so crucial. With collaboration, that’s how we can lift everybody up. I invite anybody who wants to get involved with this to bring in their talents and expertise and also advice on how to steer the festival even.
jhon: And when you say anybody, you mean anybody.
Jodi: Yep. You don’t have to be a “professional”. If you’re enthusiastic or passionate about these issues, or if you simply have a talent and you want to apply it in a unique way, then yeah, bring it on.
jhon: And if you’re the sort of person who thinks you don’t have any talents, come anyway, because you may find talent in you that you’d never have imagined.
Jodi: Ohhh, yeah, that’s the juicy thing that I live for. I love that moment when someone opens up and sees something for the first time, even if it’s within themselves. That’s the energy that I thrive on, and that’s where the passion is.
And so maybe you’ve never drawn a picture before. Don’t worry, you can try it, or you don’t have to try it. Maybe you come to a movement workshop and you say, “hey, wow, this is something”. You never know until you try.
So I encourage anybody to come onboard, partner up, create something, offer ideas. And help also, there’s a lot of logistics that go into making a festival happen. Just being a support in that way is huge. So, yeah, bring it on!
The Water Festival is happening March 26th-28th.
To learn everything you’ll need to know about how to participate in The Water Festival, go to www.waterprojectfestival.org
For more information via email, write to Jodi at email@example.com