By Julie Potter

December 1, 2015, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

THE FIRST TIME I WORKED with the teens of YBCA’s Young Artists at Work program (YAAW), I watched them navigate Keith Hennessey’s Turbulence: A Dance About the Economy after discussing some components of the performance score. Later that season we crawled through the Topham Studio together with Nora Chipaumire, who was visiting for a run of Miriam.

A few years ago the YAAW program shifted its model from an afterschool arts program to a young artists’ residency, making the program a paid, year-long, multidisciplinary arts-as-activism curriculum for Bay Area high school youth. The program is currently under the leadership of Rebeka Rodriguez and Maya Vilaplana, and has developed over the past years with significant contributions from Jova Vargas, Kayla Terreson, Laurel Butler, Jose Navarette and Darren DeLeon.

The performance exchanges I led with the teens were part of an experimental staff participation model, piloted as part of an EMC Arts Innovation Lab for Museums. I primarily work on public programs for adult audiences. The staff engagements with YAAW were significant in how they inspired collaboration with the teens, diversified the curriculum and skills shared, and, more broadly, cultivated intergenerational relationships.

What is a practice of generating, navigating and trusting bodies of knowledge across generations? How can we value personal perspectives and legitimize learning economies outside formal educational institutions? How do young generations drive the future we make and how can we use our creativity across generations as fuel for grand gestures? Laura Carstensen, founder of Stanford’s Center on Longevity, is the author of A Long Bright Future, which analyzes social, biological and systemic implications of living longer lives. She champions intergenerational relationships on the social level as sound components of a healthy contemporary community. On the systemic level, for challenges that will take more than a lifetime to solve, investment and insight from younger generations is crucial.

Aligned with that thinking, as YBCA increasingly works at the intersection of cultural and social responsibility, the teens involved in YAAW play an important role in conversations regarding the future and civic engagement. One such collaboration is taking shape within a program called the Creative Ecosystem, composed of YBCA’s Community Think Tanks.

The Creative Ecosystem, catalyzed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, is an experiment in connecting diverse makers, thinkers, activists, professionals and citizens around urgent questions of our time. By participating in a process of inquiry, the participants aim to push the boundaries of what creative contributions look like to affect change. It’s a practice of call and response.

The Community Think Tanks are working groups designing social action through a lens of creativity. Each group works with a question, which is cultivated through a research process spanning months and shaped by artistic provocations. The process manifests as a day of community projects, installations and actions in the public sphere – a variety of creative responses to the initial question.

As this article goes to print, a handful of teens in the YAAW program are putting the final touches on projects and performances to be featured at the culminating research exhibition called the Field of Inquiry (November 7, 2015), in response to the question “What is the future of urban life?” Embedded in the working group was Palo Alto-based Institute For the Future, leading engagements and providing framework for the group. With guidance from Vilaplana, the teens shape their visions with a production manager and visual arts preparators, the same staff which works with seasoned career artists presented at YBCA.

“The youth artists were inspired by the opportunity to exhibit their artwork as part of a multi-generational show at YBCA. They saw this as a chance to branch out of the branding of “youth artists” into the league of professional artists. It is meaningful that we as an organization are integrating the art of our youth into our general programming. It provides exceptional learning opportunities to the YAAWs, and brings challenging and new perspectives to the questions that we are pushing ourselves to focus on. For this
reason, it is not just the insight and wisdom of the YAAWs, but their youth itself which makes their presence in the showcase essential.” Viliplana said.

One project, Future Free, by Jordan Brooks, Michaela Pecot, June Herreria and Keanu Velasquez asks, through performance and media, “What would happen if we knew and felt connection to our ancestry? Where would our society be if we untied the structural and internal oppression that binds us?” Herreria chose to perform her dance solo in a six foot by eight foot rectangle, the size of a prison cell, to illuminate the experience of physical incarceration.

Another project, Unified: A place for Mixed Race is a spoken word performance by Zora Rosenberg and Anjali Eichbaum, for which the artists have hand sewn gifts for the audience. These projects will be exhibited amongst the work of professional chefs, computer scientists, vocalists and even tap sensation Michelle Dorrence.

The third group of YAAW’s to tackle a vision for the future as part of the Field of Inquiry is composed of Imani Salter, Alasia Allah, Ariana Sellers with Rooted. Employing graffiti culture, this work explores notions of ugliness and beauty in a changing city with Bay Area-inspired photography and sculpture.

“As many YAAWs were wrapping up their projects, they felt rushed to finish their work, a challenge which their artist mentors assured them is one that they as professionals face regularly. Some are stretched under the pressure of high school stress: SAT tests looming, the harsh judgement of college admissions, homework, and more.” Viliplana noted. “As we reminded ourselves of the significance of our work, the stress of deadlines and self-imposed expectations faded to the background – making room for the emboldened sparkles in all of our eyes.”

If the teen spirit exhibited by young artists is, in fact, the future of urban life, I am confident in the possibilities that these tenacious bright individuals will manifest in the world. What are the conduits and barriers to intergenerational exchange? What other conditions cultivate intergenerational bodies of knowledge outside of formal educational institutions?

Viliplana reflects, “I am so glad that YBCA has carved out this space for the youth of our city to gather together, to empower themselves through creative and social exposure, to learn from some of the best artists in the nation, and to share their true selves with the world. As we create more space for them to flourish and shine, more hearts and minds will be affected by the messages that these youth have to share, and in that way we will be achieving our collective vision in the truest sense: we will be producing art that moves people.”

Julie Potter is a public practice specialist, performance curator and writer based in San Francisco. As the Director of ODC Theater, she provides artistic and administrative leadership including season programming, artist residencies and public engagement. Potter was previously the Creative Ecosystem Senior Program Manager at YBCA and completed her M.A. in 2016 at Wesleyan’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance.