In conjunction with Boom for Real, their exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work on display until January, on Saturday 7th October the Barbican are hosting a day of free events, installations, and performances focusing on Basquiat’s creativity and encouraging young people’s interest in the arts. Titled Too Young for What?, the programme for the day is full of a variety of different events, from talks on graffiti and the enduring influence of Basquiat, to a polaroid manipulation workshop, to screenings of short films that juxtapose the New York of the 1980s against its present day reality. We here at culturised caught up with three people involved in Too Young for What? – Jasmine White from Poet in the City, multimedia performance artist Paula Varjack, and poet and artist Jacob Sam-La Rose – to find out more about their work and about the influence that Basquiat’s art has had on their lives and practices.
Jasmine White (Poet in the City)
Do you think that performance poetry’s recent rise to prominence through movements like Slam and Hip-Hop is having a positive effect on young people’s engagement with poetry more broadly?
I think Slam and Hip-Hop movements have had a really important role in broadening young people’s awareness of poetry, especially what the art form encompasses and the range of ways it can be experienced. Poets such as Kate Tempest and Akala, as well as the incredible number of grass roots poetry nights which programme both poets and rappers and the grime scene across the UK are a brilliant testimony to the ways in which these movements are bridging the divide between poetry and music. Poetry is being shown as an art form that is not just for the classroom and stuffy halls, but are bodies of work which are both relatable and relevant, and for everyone.
Poetry and music have always been inextricably linked and at Poet in the City, we have been increasingly exploring this relationship with our flagship festival: Poetry & Lyrics. Over two days, we open up Kings Place to musicians and poets from around the world spanning different genres to explore lyricism and poetry and putting them in conversation with each other. During the festival this year, our Producers, a group of sixteen – twenty-five year olds developing skills in live poetry producing, curated an event called Still I Rise: Hip Hop, Feminism and Poetry. The reception for this show was incredible with the Facebook event going viral and tickets selling out overnight. Examples such as this event highlights the buzz that is rapidly growing around poetry, with more and more individuals finding a space in this art form that speaks to them.
On your website it describes Poet in the City as an organisation that aims “to present poetry in a new way”, what do your events involve? How do you seek to achieve this?
At Poet in the City we aim to present poetry in new ways through immersing our audiences in the worlds of poets, both classical and contemporary and bringing to life their work through theatrical performances in spaces across the city. We use poetry as a platform for ideas in our events, where alongside dynamic and powerful poetry performances we incorporate anything from talks, music and dance to soundscapes and film to create experiences that push the ideas of the poet and their poetry to the fore. For example, earlier this year we curated an event on the poet Langston Hughes at Wilton’s Music Hall. We collaborated with choreographer Jade Hackett, East London Dance and Kinetika Bloco, a carnival jazz band from South London for the show. Through bringing poetry, music, and dance together we were able to bring the world of Hughes and his poetry to life, allowing our audiences to feel immersed in his words and gain a stronger sense of who he was.
Community also sits at the centre of our work, we have a strong and dedicated community of volunteers that feed into everything we do. We put our organisation in service to them, collaborating on work and supporting them to set up projects that feed into the organisation’s artistic programme. Our Producers scheme, a talent development programme for sixteen – twenty-five year olds has also had a significant impact on expanding and developing the way we present our work. They recently put together a Roundtable discussion event exploring the role of poetry and language in shifting the power dynamics in the media and an event exploring refugee experience and freedom of travel in St. Pancras International Station. Ultimately, it is through extending Poet in the City’s platforms to our community, and genuinely collaborating with them that we are able to consistently question our practice and develop new ways to present poetry that is for the people and by the people.
Why were you excited about curating an event on Basquiat?
With a mission to present poetry in new ways and make live poetry popular, at Poet in the City we are constantly challenging ourselves to push and subvert perceptions of poetry, what it sounds like, who creates it, who listens to it and how it can be experienced. It is in this sense that it felt like exploring the poetry of Basquiat was such an important and exciting project for us to do. The polymathic nature of the artist speaks so clearly to our work, from our collaborations with partners ranging from the Francis Crick Institute to St. Pauls Cathedral to our participation work that uses roundtable discussions to explore ideas deeply through poetry and debate, Basquiat’s practice of carving out new spaces for creativity is a narrative that can be found throughout our work. We are a poetry organisation with a key mission to sit outside the boundaries of poetry’s traditional setting and to challenge our audience to question their perceptions of the art form and what it means to them, so collaborating with the Barbican on Too Young For What? felt like the perfect fit.
For Too Young For What? you will be co-curating talks on Legacy, Mythology, and Text, and Music, why have you elected for these four topics?
We wanted to create an experience that explores the world of Jean-Michel Basquiat as poet. From his life as SAMO©, to his notebooks and text-filled canvasses, words and language, and their appropriation, were always at the heart of Basquiat’s creative process. Mythology, Text, and Music are three contexts that bring these ideas to the fore, where the language and poetry found in each enabled Basquiat to play around with boundaries, pushing and reshaping terms and narratives as he saw fit. In Mythology, we explore how the appropriation of ancient tales in modern contexts allowed Basquiat to defy the constraints of time to redefine and rewrite dominant political narratives. Text looks at the poetry in graffiti. Can graffiti be poetic? Does the space in which art is created alter and change its meaning? As Basquiat wandered the line of these questions time and again, we explore how this practice has become so pertinent today. Finally, we unearth the rhythm that slides through Basquiat’s work in Music, and ask why has this artist become such an important icon in Hip-Hop, Jazz and beyond?
Before arriving at Myth, Text, and Music the show first looks to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s legacy. As an artist considered to sit outside the art establishment, we wander into the world of 1980s downtown New York to explore why this context has become such a poignant factor to how the artist is perceived today. Poet Rachel Long also offers a personal exploration into Basquiat’s legacy in this section. As the leader of Octavia, a poetry collective for women of colour, Rachel looks at how the spirit of Basquiat, an artist that defied the artistic and social norms of his time, has contributed to carving out pathways for artists to establish new spaces for creativity today.
As an artist, your work spans various different mediums. Do you think that it is necessary not to limit oneself to one form of expression in the digital age in order to reach and get messages across to people?
I don’t think its necessary to work across mediums. I do it because my art has evolved through my experience in different art forms. But what I would say is I do this partly because I feel different ideas are expressed better in different mediums, or at least I like the themes to suggest the form. I like to go into an project not knowing what the end result will look like, and let the shape and form come from the process.
What influence has Basquiat had on your work?
My awareness of Basquiat as a teenager introduced to me the idea of a young artist living in the city amongst other younger artists. A kind of bold experimentation that I still feel inspired by. He’s the kind of artist that made me like the idea of being a young artist in the city, and a young artist’s lifestyle. The fact he went out and made a name for himself without formal training, through developing in underground scenes was and still is very exciting to me.
Your recent Edinburgh Fringe show, Show Me the Money, centred around exploring how artists manage to produce their work in spite of often incredibly limiting financial constraints. Do you see this as indicative of the importance of the arts and creativity to people’s lives?
Show Me the Money explores the human cost of the art we consume. I wanted to look at how we value art through our awareness and appreciation of the time effort and craft artists take to put art into the world. Money isn’t the only way to value art, but it is a value system that allows for access space and time, and all of this is necessary to make art.
What will you be displaying/performing at Too Young For What?
Inspired by the Maripol polaroids in the exhibition, that show Basquiat’s involvement in the downtown New York Scene, I have written a piece about moving to London at seventeen, and my relationship with the electro clash scene of the early noughties.
Jacob Sam-La Rose
You describe your work as spanning “poetry, literature in education, experiments with creative technology and community architecture”, how do all these aspects interact with each other? And with what aim(s)?
Poetry offers me a way to think and feel through different shapes, forms and perspectives. Facilitating lessons, seminars and workshops gives me the opportunity to create spaces for other people to do the same, to support them in developing a relationship with poetry as a valid and valuable form of creative expression and, where needed, support them in appreciating the value of their own voices. Much of my work is engaged with having a positive impact through poetry; whether through authoring poems that resonate or spark something in a reader or listener, or by helping someone else to appreciate that poetry as something they can be capable of. Community architecture is an extension of that drive for positive impact. I build communities of practice and programmes (like Barbican Young Poets) that bring people with common interests together to learn, support each other, challenge each other and grow.
I had an interest in digital media from very early on— I have a BA in English Literature with Information Technology, and when I started to build a career for myself, I built websites for literature agencies and dreamed of creating web art, while establishing myself as a writer and facilitator. I stopped building websites a long time ago, but the drive to explore the possibilities of creative technology remains. I recently released a Twitter bot that generates daily prompts for poems, and I’m interested in coding programs and tools that I can collaborate with as a way of using technology to challenge myself to find new avenues and methods for my writing.
William Carlos Williams described poetry as a machine of words— I think he was referring more to the notion of a lack of redundancy in its parts, but there’s also a way in which poetry resembles code and coded transactions, or negotiations with rules. Poetic forms establish rules for parcelling up the language and thinking that a poem consists of, for example. I’m experimenting with building rules for word machines that can have potentially unexpected but illuminating outcomes.
One aspect of your work appears to focus on using poetry in order to make people examine both themselves and the world around them, would you say this is poetry’s fundamental role?
I’d say that’s a part of poetry’s role. I’m very invested in the notion of a poetry that makes effort to examine and explore, a poetry pointed both inward and outward. A poetry that attempts to discover things, even if that discovery is simply concerned with a fresh, compelling way to communicate something we’re already familiar with, if that allows me to engage with that familiar notion in a way I’d never been able to before.
What influence has Basquiat had on your work?
I admire Basquiat’s work on a number of different fronts. From the panoply of references he draws from, points towards and makes comment on (akin to the “digging in the crates” mentality of the hip-hop producers I listened to at the time I first discovered him), through to the use and recasting of recognisable symbols and cultural iconography, the visceral quality of the painting, and the role text plays— some of his pieces are graphic poems, for me. There’s a bold, self-assured quality that I think I was attracted to when I first found his paintings. And there was a distinct voice. He presented a lot for me, as the young, emerging writer I was, to aspire to.
As part of Too Young For What you will be hosting a round table discussion around the boarder between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation. Do you think it is possible to come up with a hard-and-fast line between the two, or is it more important simply to get people thinking about where one might be drawn and to consider their actions in light of that?
I think it’s a matter of establishing an understanding of the relationship between a practice of acknowledgement and a practice of exploitation. It’s a given that we draw on other sources when we make “new” things, and we can celebrate cultural products that explore, extend and engage with other precedents, particularly with a manifest awareness of context. But we can also challenge and be sensitive to issues of privilege, misappropriation, and cultural colonialism.
Of course, every border is not just a hard-and-fast marker of separation, but a meeting point. I’m looking forward to hearing what people have to say when it comes to the round table.
Too Young for What is showing for one day only on Saturday 7th October. For more information and a full programme of events see here.