From the Annals of Activism

A Conversation on Art and Activism

Last week, an exhilarating yet casual, interactive community conversation around art and activism took place at Tennessee Justice Center, a nonprofit public interest law & advocacy firm serving families in need.

Organized by Intersection, an established contemporary music ensemble based in Nashville, the modest gathering was moderated by the artistic director of Intersection, Kelly Corcoran, also composer and member of Vanderbilt Music Cognition Lab and it featured sound and visual artist Rod McGaha who uses photography as a mechanism to tackle social issues, Robbie Lynn Hunsinger with a background in classical oboe,  visual arts, improvised music, composition and activism, working with technology, multimedia and sound reactive installations as well as composer Gary Powell Nash, professor of Music Theory and Technology at Fisk University and Conductor for the Fisk University Jazz Ensemble. The other participants of this gathering also came from various fields intersecting performance art, visual arts, even neuroscience with social activism.

Fjolla Hoxha, Rod McGaha, Robbie Lynn Hunsinger, Gary Powell Nash

To mark its 10th season and anniversary, Intersection has commissioned Gary Powell Nash, Robbie Lynn Hunsinger as well as composer Sungji Hong to create accessible works that open dialogue through contemporary music and connect people. Staggering and provocative photographs by musician and photographer Rod McGaha were present at the gathering room, thus expanding the context of what is possible within various artforms.

Intersection started with the idea of viewing contemporary music as a mechanism to bring people together, stipulate conversation and maybe break down some of the barriers of classical music and who can have access to it. Among others, Intersection has endorsed the Lullaby Project, a program of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute (WMI), pairing parents with professional artists to create and sing their own personal lullabies for their babies.

To orient the commissioned artists in their creative journey, Intersection has given them a broad prompt by asking ‘How would you use your music to promote social justice?.

Gary Powell Nash was interested to react in response to the tragic shootings at the Covenant School in Nashville, TN and Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI, both of which occurred around the same time in 2023. His composition is titled “Look for the Helpers” referring to and appreciating those who in the face of tragedies, mean to heal and are there to help. He also elaborated on his previous composition “Stop for Equity” (2021) wind quintet which is based on and inspired by Gary Powell Nash’s daughter Giovanna Diệu Huyền Nash’s response to the George Floyd murder.

In response to the current events in Palestine, Robbie Lynn Hunsinger composed  “Pavane for Palestine, Lachrimae”. Robbie Lynn shared the dilemma as an activist, having an urge to react, but instead choosing to respond through music. At the end of the discussion, Robbie Lynn led the attendees in an interactive music making experience using a Chinese oboe, the participants foot stomping and voices.

Intersection Director Kelly Corcoran

Rod McGaha’s photography comes to the forefront within Intersection’s initiative Photo Voice: a qualitative research method, giving a chance for community voices to come through photography. Intersection frames a prompt to which the community is invited to respond visually, to further share these photos with the city council decision makers and holders of positions of power. In his elaboration on photography as activism and his artistic language, Rod McGaha spoke of how art engages us in the questions and presents different perspectives to contribute to a conversation that may lead to a solution. This is where the collaboration with the decision makers comes to play. He also expressed his concern and critique with regards to the indigestible information intake through our screens that also take away from photography as art.

Vast questions such as: ‘How can we utilize art to make our voices more impactful?’ ‘What do we risk when speaking out about our social concerns and engaging our art in a social way?’, as well as the perspectives and concerns regarding AI were brought up and discussed during the one-hour conversation. Kelly Corcoran brought up the very sensitive topic on whether artists have the right to engage with the often tragic experiences of those in the margins who most of the time belong to other identities than those of the artists. In response, it was almost unanimously agreed that we all qualify as humans to care, empathize, thus voice the stories of those who have gone or are going through tragedies.

Many of the topics that were briefly touched upon are crucial preoccupations of socially engaged artists across the globe. Innumerous dissertations are written on the topic as well as conferences are held to discuss these themes more deeply every day. It is very promising to hear Kelly Corcoran say that ‘art for social change and the elevation of social conversations is in the Nashville art scene’s DNA’. I hope that more, deeper, and longer discussions on the topic follow and that the cultural and art institutions are able to recognize the remarkable importance of artists who utilize their artistic voice for social change and support them.

The world premieres of Gary Powell Nash: Look for the Helpers, Robbie Lynn Hunsinger: Pavane for Palestine, Lachrimae and Sungji Hong: Igerthi for Piano can be experienced within Intersection’s concert titled Thin Places, which will take place on March 23rd, starting at 7:30pm CDT at the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Hillsboro Pike Nashville, TN.


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