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Activist Kelsey Daniels works to make open mics vital and safe, and Los Angeles-based artist Nancy Lupo brings a massive mouth to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
“People are coming into the space as artists, but also as whole humans. We’re really being intentional in trying to craft a brave space,” said Kelsey Daniels, creator of Check, Please!, a twice-monthly open mic night.
For Daniels, a poet, performer, advocate and activist, starting a new project involved figuring out the needs that weren’t being met by other events, not just on an individual level, but for the community.
“We talked about what are some things about open mics that we’ve seen that we wish maybe looked a little different,” she said of the group of colleagues, friends and family that she rallied to help dream up a new event.
Daniels started “Check, Please” this June. At its core, the event has the fundamentals of a standard open mic night: voluntary sign-ups, open to anyone, a broad range of performances — storytelling, poetry, spoken word, music … anything (even ballet once) — or just come to listen. But for Daniels, it’s the small ways the project is different and open to change that matter. For example, the group will sometimes take a “collective deep breath” after a performance or story. Rather than just clap and bring up the next performer, Daniels said that if there’s a need for a transition or audience response time, they’ll take the opportunity.
Another divergence from traditional open mics is declaring community conduct guidelines at the start, and having a spot for pronouns on the sign-up sheets, a step they took from the beginning to prevent misgendering. But Daniels said that she later learned that it could be uncomfortable for someone to share pronouns when they’re not ready, so she now ensures that pronoun sharing is an invitation, not mandatory. It’s an example of how the project is always evolving and listening.
Daniels wants to build community and amplify voices that aren’t readily sought out or fully heard. Inclusivity, awareness of marginalization and the creation of a safe space are paramount to Daniels, and this project feeds — and is fed by — her other advocacy work.
In addition to “Check, Please,” she helped plan March for Black Women San Diego the past two years, and is working on the third event for 2020. This Friday morning, she’ll speak at Creative Mornings, a monthly gathering and lecture series for entrepreneurs, artists and creatives. It’s a sign that the work she’s doing resonates with San Diego’s arts communities, which is full circle for the way Daniels established “Check, Please” in the first place: “I think everything about this was crowd sourced,” she said.
Daniels also credits You Belong Here — a coworking space, event venue and art gallery — and its founders Stacy Keck and Nic Roc for their commitment to a welcoming, energetic place to share and exchange art and ideas for the last year. (The City Heights space celebrates its first anniversary this Saturday with a birthday bash.)
The next “Check, Please!” is Thursday at 7 p.m. at You Belong Here.
What does it mean when public, outdoor art is brought indoors? At the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, they’re not sure yet. “Scripts for the Pageant” is a new solo exhibition of Los Angeles artist Nancy Lupo’s work, including her large-scale sculpture, “Open Mouth,” that was once situated outdoors in an L.A. public park.
The ambitious installation of three-fourths scale benches — modeled after benches at Rome’s Termini train station — placed in a large, gaping mouth-shaped oval. The benches, evocative of teeth in their shape, placement and color, invite viewers to sit. The smaller scale is noticeable and heady when seated, forcing audiences to consider the space, their own size and the act of sitting, said Anthony Graham, associate curator at MCASD.
Initially displayed — and developed for — CurrentLA, a public art festival, MCASD wanted to bring Lupo’s massive bench project into a different, more open space in the museum, but when Lupo visited, she was fascinated by the series of temporary gallery walls in the downtown museum’s Farrell Gallery.
The Museum of Contemporary Art’s La Jolla location has been closed for a major renovation project since 2017, and during the closure, the downtown space — often a place for experimental, large-scale works — also needs to accommodate a diversity of wall-based works, said Graham.
In order to break up the downtown space’s voluminous Farrell Gallery for a prior exhibition of wall-hung works, walls were placed in unique patterns throughout the floor. Graham referred to the walls as “false architecture,” and said that Lupo wanted to modify the installation to work with — or around — the walls, as they were.
It’s a big change from the great outdoors.
“That’s the big question: What is it going to mean to bring these benches indoors to the space of the gallery? And in particular Nancy wanted them to really be in dialogue with the architecture of the gallery,” said Graham. “So ‘Open Mouth,’ this open forum in a public park, now kind of winds through this odd installation of walls and really keys the viewer into the space of a museum, this architecture dividing up the room,” he said.
The title of the full exhibition, Lupo’s first solo show, “Scripts for the Pageant,” borrows from a James Merrill poem, part of an enormous three-volume work based on the options of a Ouija board. The occult aspect aside, it’s a statement about language, its vastness and limits, and the binary: “Scripts for the Pageant,” the final book, hinges on the Ouija’s options for “Yes” and “No.”
“Nancy’s project, the larger work, has this sensibility, this strict set of parameters that cast into relief what is in fact intuition,” said Graham. “Nancy is a really voracious reader, so there’s always all of these references at play, but often times she’ll use language as kind of another found object, even though it’s immaterial,” he said.
“Scripts for the Pageant” opens Thursday during the (free) Downtown at Sundown event at MCASD downtown, and runs through mid-March.