"Sanctuary for Independent Media a safe haven for creative minds"

Date published: 02/28/2010
Publication: Albany Times Union

By TOM KEYSER, Staff writer

When administrators at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute expelled an exhibition two years ago because of concerns it was connected to terrorists, the exhibition quickly found a home. The Sanctuary for Independent Media opened its arms.

Situated in an old church in Troy, the sanctuary found itself on the news pages, an unusual happenstance for an arts-and-media center that presents work that the traditional media usually won’t touch. It allowed the Iraqi-born artist Wafaa Bilal to display “Virtual Jihadi,” in which he cast himself as a suicide bomber on a mission to assassinate President Bush.

Protestors, supporters and reporters showed up. But then, the sanctuary slipped back out of the public eye. For many, that’s all they know about the place. We sat down with Steve Pierce, executive director, and Branda Miller, arts and education coordinator (and professor of media arts at RPI), to find out more.

The sanctuary is a project of the nonprofit New York Media Alliance. It has operated for five years, relies heavily on volunteers and presents music, films, exhibits, workshops, talks and plays. Its spring season has just started.

Q: How do you decide your season?

Miller: We really want it to be cutting-edge artistic practice. And we want to have an interdisciplinary range of work — music, writing, painting, media. What we’re trying to look at is art and its relationship to social change. Through creative practice, one can touch the heart and spirit of people and motivate them to make the world a little bit of a better place.

Pierce: It’s about representing ideas that are essential truths about life, some of which you can’t sell; you can’t sell the dialogue. Somebody’s got to be out there talking about the war, talking about the neighborhood, talking about all these things that are just outside the dialogue these days.

The last few seasons we’ve had works that look critically at issues that are caricatures in our pop and political culture. Suicide bombers? What does that mean? Let’s talk about that. Who are these people? What do they think? How is this possible? Let’s not just say, “You’re with us, or you’re with them.” That’s ridiculous. We go through our whole lives worrying about these things but not talking about them, not really thinking about them.

Q: Because of the headlines over “Virtual Jihadi,” do you think people consider the sanctuary controversial?

Pierce: People who aren’t familiar with the ideas might think we’re controversial. And I think some of the ideas are controversial. But I don’t want to be around ideas that aren’t in play all the time.

Miller: The moment that happened, when it came out that a person’s point of view was being stifled, it was amazing to see the outpouring of support that came to the sanctuary. That was a moment when we realized how much we are accepted in this community and how many people profoundly appreciate the work that’s being done here.

Q: What kind of audience do you attract?

Miller: You can come here for any given event, and there’s such a diversity of people — people who are old, people who are young, people from all different cultures, races, economic strata, and lots of kids. It very much feels like a community space.

There are always people here for the first time. They come because of that event. It might be “Addicted To Plastic” (a movie coming in May about the environment), because they’re concerned about that issue.

Pierce: Or it might be a jazz musician they’re interested in. They don’t know anything else about us. They don’t know that our curatorial approach is to present interesting, new and difficult ideas, whether music, video, stage, whatever.

Then they might come another night, and they’ll go, “What does this have to do with jazz?” And the only thing that it actually has to do with jazz is that it’s at a higher level, you know, people thinking creativity. …

Miller: And celebrating freedom of expression. …

Pierce: In a noncommercial form. … We’re not a club. We’re not a movie theater. We’re not a commercial venue. The people who stick with us, and the growing audience that I think we have, understand that it’s not commercial at all. It’s really a community thing. It’s all about exchanging ideas.

Q: It all sounds so serious. …

Pierce: There’s a thread of seriousness to the things we do. A lot of people are looking for a place to express themselves from the perspective that here we are, we’re Americans, we’re paying taxes, and a lot of that money’s going toward things that we really don’t support — and can’t do much about. I think people want to engage with these difficult ideas. But they also want to live their lives and have fun and listen to music and create art.

Miller: We think that art is for the privileged, right? We’ve lost our connection with the fact that we all are artists, that we’re born with art in us. I think people are hungry to let art into their lives.

Some people come here to learn how to create media. Some come to see something they couldn’t see elsewhere. Some come here to socialize. I’ve even heard it said that it’s a great place to find a girlfriend or boyfriend.

Tom Keyser can be reached at 454-5448 or by e-mail at tkeyser@timesunion.com.

 

The Sanctuary for Independent Media

Where: 3361 Sixth Ave., Troy

Info: 272-2390, http://www.mediasanctuary.org/

spring schedule Highlights

7 p.m. Tuesday: “Freeing Charles,” multimedia look at life of slave Charles Nalle, liberated in 1860 by Harriet Tubman and others in Troy; discussion with author Scott Christianson and illustrator Mark Priest

7 p.m. Wednesday, March 24: Bassekou Kouyate and his band Ngoni Ba, musical group from Mali in western Africa; Kouyate played on Bela Fleck’s 2010 Grammy-award-winning album.

7 p.m. Friday, April 16: Jeremy Scahill, author of “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army”

11 a.m to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, April 24, 25: “Bike! Bike! Northeast,” bicycle organizers meet to discuss all things bicycle

8 p.m. Saturday, May 8: “World War 3 Illustrated,” multimedia celebration of 30 years of cutting-edge art by the political comic book “World War 3 Illustrated”; its work is on display now at the sanctuary.

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