Northwestern University performance studies professor and department chair Ramón H. Rivera-Servera has spearheaded an innovative outreach initiative to assist Puerto Rican artists in the aftermath of last fall’s devastating hurricanes. Article by Kerry Trotter and Cara Lockwood, originally appearing in Dialogue, a publication of Northwestern University.
The idea is to expand the set of resources and relationships that may further the outstanding creative practice and valuable contributions these artists are making in Puerto Rico.
When Hurricanes Maria and Irma hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, they left a massive humanitarian crisis in their wake. The Category 5 storms leveled towns, decimated businesses and natural landscapes, deprived thousands of their homes and jobs, and left the island and its 3.3 million residents without power for weeks and, in some areas, months—a cruel turn of events for a US territory that was already in an economic crisis. Ramón H. Rivera-Servera, chair of the department of performance studies and interim chair of the department of theatre at Northwestern University, waited in anguish at his home in Chicago for spotty dispatches from family on the island. When the calls came, they reported on the chaos, water shortages, and lack of medical help and electricity—reports that were unheeded by the federal government. With his mother and grandmother among his stranded relatives, Rivera-Servera departed Chicago for San Juan the first chance he got.
The disarray he found on the island broke his heart— but also inspired a movement. With a personal and professional foundation in performance and creation, Rivera-Servera homed in on that population: art makers and scholars who because of the storm were displaced, no longer able to work, or suddenly without the financial support that once sustained them. He decided to establish a residency and mentorship program for Puerto Rican artists to create, teach, and research on both the island and the mainland, with Northwestern as one of the program’s pedagogical nuclei. The artists could then return to Puerto Rico equipped with a project commission, a support structure, and a plan to activate spaces and energize communities affected by the storms and other calamities. And so the Northwestern Puerto Rican Arts Development Project was born.
The Plan and The Partnerships
Wasting no time, Rivera-Servera got right to work. “My response was to fundraise inside the University,” he recalls. He quickly secured seed funding through School of Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe and generous matching support from the Office of the Provost and the Office of the President, the dean of Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the departments of performance studies and African American Studies, the Black Arts Initiative, and the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities—a total of $100,000. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced that it would contribute an additional $500,000.
As the funding came in, Rivera-Servera and his doctoral candidates and collaborators, José Alvarez-Colón and Arnaldo Rodríguez-Bagué, identified two key San Juan partners for this initiative: La Espectacular, a highly regarded artist residency program, and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico. Both institutions had created poststorm lifelines for artists—including MACPR’s Regeneration of the Arts Ecosystem, providing psychological support, orientation, practical skill building (such as grant writing), and economic assistance to those affected by the hurricanes. La Espectacular had a particularly strong mentorship program. As these two established institutions were knowledgeable about Puerto Rican artists and keenly aware of the challenges they faced working on the island, Rivera-Servera saw them as fruitful partners. Northwestern could provide financial support for key MACPR and La Espectacular programming; those organizations in turn could help vet the artists and mentors most appropriate for this initial cohort. Additionally, MACPR would serve as base camp for the first phase of the rollout.
On August 1, ten early- to midcareer artists who work in performance and ephemeral arts (using the body as the primary creative tool) began what will be a two-year commission and professional development process. They collectively took part in an intensive monthlong professionalization training led by Rivera-Servera at MACPR. The artists worked on such tasks as writing artists’ statements, presenting lectures, facilitating workshops, assembling grant and fellowship proposals, and communicating with audiences about their work. Each of these artists will come to Northwestern for weeklong residencies—three this fall, three this winter, and four next spring. On campus the artists will each present a talk, lead a workshop, and participate in a public conversation with the University community about their work, the project they workshopped at MACPR, and their experience as working artists in poststorm Puerto Rico. In addition, they will take part in networking events with Chicago arts stakeholders.Photo courtesy of Northwestern University.
Following their residencies at Northwestern, the artists will spend another week at one of the universities that have expressed interest in the program; these include public and private institutions across the country. “The idea is to expand the set of resources and relationships that may in the long term further the outstanding creative practice and valuable contributions these artists are making to Puerto Rico and the specific communities they’re engaged in,” says Rivera-Servera.
The artists will then return to Puerto Rico, where they will work closely with ten designated mentors over the following year to execute and present their respective artistic projects. The development initiative will wrap up in August 2020 with a retreat to reflect on the experience and share work. By this point, the artists will have built energy and momentum for arts creation in communities throughout the island. This is what the partners believe will drive Puerto Rico’s reconstruction—in identity and, by extension, in infrastructure.
“The initiative will provide much-needed exposure to Puerto Rican artists, established and emergent, as well as critical insight and professional training for them to make the most of available opportunities and tools,” says Marianne Ramírez-Aponte, MACPR executive director and chief curator. “Through active and continuous joint efforts involving the museum, artists, educators, and community residents, the MAC is working to further contribute to the recovery and socioeconomic development of communities via cultural and volunteer tourism, our ongoing art exhibitions and commissioned projects, the activation of businesses in the communities, and alliances with the business sector.”
Artists on the island have grown accustomed to working amid economic and financial turmoil, but the hurricanes brought entirely new challenges.
“In Puerto Rico there is a precarious infrastructure for artistic production, especially in the performance field,” says dancer and choreographer Nibia Pastrana Santiago, co-director of La Espectacular. “The few venues and innovative projects from recent years have either come to an end or continue to struggle for survival. And when I say survival, it is exactly that. To be an independent artist or collective on an island that is threatened by debt and budget cuts in its educational and healthcare systems is a huge challenge. This of course was made more visible post hurricanes, and like the rest of the Puerto Rican community, artists were and still are affected by the political disaster following the storms.”
José Alvarez-Colón, one of the Northwestern doctoral candidates working on the project knows this all too well. Before moving to Chicago in 2016, he was a freelance artist in Puerto Rico, trying to eke out a living while reconciling the complicated relationship between the island and the mainland—something he sees as one of the bigger issues this cohort will tackle.
“I am convinced that this project will be helpful for asking broader questions regarding the role of performance with climate change, environmental crisis, and disaster capitalism,” he says. Additionally, it can help elevate Puerto Rico’s standing on the world stage, which would go beyond the US’s historical assessment of the island as a “colonial laboratory” for the pharmaceutical industry, military bases, and now, disaster recovery.
Each of the ten participating artists, alongside their assigned mentors, will find unique ways to approach these issues. The project’s first cohort was assembled to represent the island’s demographic and geographic diversity, which is essential to permeating the culture and positioning the artists as key voices at a critical moment in Puerto Rican economic, political, and cultural history. The ten mentors were selected in a similar fashion.
“The key to our strategy is an attempt to stabilize and strengthen networks of care and mentorship already central to sustaining the arts ecology in Puerto Rico, especially amongst artists whose primary instrument is their bodies,” says Rivera-Servera. “We have assembled a cohort of mentors, not selected by longevity necessarily but by their key roles sustaining the performance art scene, be it through their practice as teachers of embodied techniques, as scholars and critics, or as producers. All of these mentors are artists in their own right and equally struggling to sustain their practice.”
Although designed to be comprehensive, the two-year process is still a preliminary step toward self-sustainment and continued cultural ownership. These artists and mentors are accustomed to being nimble, resourceful creators. But with this development project, their work may sustain them and their peers.
“Support from the Mellon Foundation is allowing us to invest in artists whose work shares beauty and criticality with communities in great need of both pleasure and generous debate about how to intervene in this crisis,” says Rivera-Servera. “This is a kind of insistent utopianism that believes in what art can manifest as possible, not in a flight from the reality of this crisis but as a result of understanding the conditions upon which creative practice and life endure in contexts as challenging as this one.”
This article originally appeared in Dialogue, a publication of Northwestern University.
Photo courtesy of Northwestern University.
Alejandra Martorell is an experimental dancer and performer who teaches dance improvisation, technique, and appreciation at undergraduate programs in Puerto Rico.
Mickey Negrón is an interdisciplinary actor-creator, performance artist, dancer, educator, arts event organizer, and curator who turns the real into the theatrical in search of freedom.
Kairiana Nuñez-Santalíz is an actress, teacher, and performer who won a Special Jury Award at the 2018 International Film Festival of Mar del Plata for her role in Silence of the Wind.
Pó Rodil is a Caribbean trans/ multidisciplinary artist from Puerto Rico with training in body movement, body poetry, writing poetry, visual arts, and sound art training.
Edgardo Rodriguez is an actor, movement artist, theatre director, and teacher.
Awilda Rodriguez-Lora is a performer, choreographer, and cultural entrepreneur who works with movement, sound, and video as well as “economy of living” practices.
Felix Rodriguez-Rosa is a transdisciplinary artist who uses photography, video, and writing to document actions, performance interventions, and improvisations; his work occupies domestic abandoned and public spaces to explore ideas of habitat and memory in relation to the space’s intended purpose.
Llaima Suwani Sanfiorenzo is a humanist, filmmaker, and documentary show host for Puerto Rico’s public television network.
Noemi Segarra works collaboratively and crossdisciplinarily with movement improvisation, performance, public intervention, documentation, and the creation of online archives.
Lionel Villahermosa is a multidisciplinary artist and community activist working within the genres of visual and performing arts.Photo courtesy of Northwestern University.
Eduardo Alegría is a multidisciplinary artist who since the 1990s has been working in experimental theatre and dance as well as musical projects that merge post-pop music with electroacoustic sound.
Petra Brava is a Cuban choreographer and former dancer with the National Cuban Ballet (1960–68). In 1980 she became a founding member of Pisotón, Puerto Rico’s first experimental dance and theater group.
Teresa Hernández is a well-known Puerto Rican actress, dancer, and performer who writes, produces, and performs in works that are informed by her experiences as a Puerto Rican woman within the island’s specific cultural context.
Karen Langevin teaches awareness through movement. She has worked as a movement artist for over 30 years and an Alexander Technique teacher for 23. Her passion for the mind-body continuum infuses her art as dance improvisation.
Nibia Pastrana-Santiago is the co-director of LaEspectacular, an artist residency program, and a dancer and choreographer based in San Juan.
Chemi Rosado-Seijo is a painter and video, installation, construction, and performance artist, as well as a creator of interventions, the latest of which has tapped into skateboarding culture.
Gisela Rosario-Ramos is an award-winning filmmaker and musician who works and performs in Puerto Rico and New York.
Awilda Sterling-Duprey is a teacher, dancer, and choreographer who is an important figure in Puerto Rico’s traditional cultural arts scene.
Bernat Tort is a philosopher and performance artist as well as a professor in the philosophy department and women and gender studies program at the University of Puerto Rico’s Río Piedras campus.
Viveca Vázquez is a choreographer and dancer as well as a professor of humanities and experimental dance at the University of Puerto Rico.