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Introduction and Welcome to Requiem for W... Overture for O: Works of Conscience from 2000-2008

by Jesse Phillips-Fein

This is Requiem for W… Overture for O: Works of Conscience from 2000–2008. We're here to take a look at how artists in dance, music and spoken word made work that engaged with, responded to, criticized, grieved, humored, questioned, the policies of former President… former President, George Bush. I want to be clear — this is not just about hating on Bush, and loving President Obama. What I am interested in is how art, conscience and action come together. I chose the word conscience over the word resistance because, while resistance has definitely been a part of my struggle, our struggle, I've also had moments, for maybe the first time in my life in the past 3 months, where I experienced something other than the feeling and weight of the struggle. What an awesome feeling. It's possible, it's possible that we might not always need resistance. But we will always need conscience.

It's been quite a week. After the inauguration, I began to fear — is this night relevant? I think the answer is yes. The answer is yes, not just because there is more work to do to make our city, our county and our world more equitable and fair.

I think the answer is yes because it is important to understand, and honor, how artists make work about political and social issues. Art can help us feel and respond to overwhelming and sometimes incomprehensible situations. Not every artist feels compelled to make art about our social, political and cultural world. But I have, and I have been interested and fascinated by other artists who do. Tonight is a celebration of artistic response to these events, because I believe that responding creatively has helped us do more than survive, it has helped us thrive. And in a moment when the context is shifting for viewing these pieces, which work remains relevant? This week, President Obama bombed Pakistan this week, and also signed an order to close Guantanamo's detention facility. It also gives us a moment at this transition to reflect.

When I think about what we lived through in the past eight years, from a botched electoral process (twice!), the re-ignition of fighting between Palestinians and Israel from the 2000 Intifada to the current crisis, of course 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, torture and abuse of detainees, detainees held right here in Brooklyn and in Guantanamo, often without just cause, Hurricanes Katrina & Rita and the continuing failure to help people return to their homes, legislative assault on the rights of gay people to legally marry, and now an economic crisis with the highest unemployment numbers in over 50 years. It's a lot to think about. It's a lot to live with.

Those of us in this room have lived through this, we have survived the past eight years. But many did not. From our neighbors at the World Trade Center, to the uncounted (600,000, 1 million? It's hard to get a definite number) Iraqis, Afghanis, over 4,000 American soldiers, thousands of New Orleans citizens unable to evacuate. I want to remember those lives lost; it's very important to me. Remembering might be all I can do for them. The video playing as you entered, "Powers of Bush" by Matt Bucy, uses 10,000 images collected from the Internet and television to paint portraits of President Bush. Each segment features different aspects of the United States war on Iraq: the administration that ordered it, the soldiers who have died in it, the equipment used to wage it, Iraqis injured, killed and tortured in it, and scenes of its aftermath. It is part of the act of remembering those lost.

I also hope that these works can inspire us to take action, outside of what we can do and see with art. I feel very strongly that we cannot sit back now that Bush is no longer in office. We must participate and hold Obama accountable for the change he has promised us. I also believe that every shred of justice we currently have, was won through a struggle. The fact that we can be here, together, tonight, freely, is not a guarantee and was earned through the work of many people, over many years. And I don't mean soldiers fought to defend these freedoms. I mean ordinary folks, extraordinary ordinary folks who organized, sat-in, marched, did direct action, wrote letters, stopped traffic, were imprisoned, gave up their lives or had them stolen. All those folks.

I hope that each one of us in this room, will leave this room and contribute to this work for justice in some way, big or small. The work is larger than us, it preceded us and will continue after us, but what we have to give is a valuable piece of it. To that end, there is a helpful zine… remember zines? So 1990s and pre-blogging… in your program, with some information about mostly local and not local groups working on issues, some of which are represented in the art we'll see tonight. Don't let me see those left behind!

Finally, thank you to the artists, Madelaine and BRIC, the contributors who helped fund the evening, and especially to my family, and my mother, who is here and I want to shout out. The organization she helped start in 1984, Brooklyn For Peace, endorsed this event and has a table at the back where you can find out how to get involved with them, (and buy buttons, Palestinian olive oil). BFP has done a tremendous amount in the past 25 years on a range of issues, from opposing the nuclear homeport that was going to be built on Staten Island in the 80s, to marching faithfully every weekend to the Detention Center in Sunset Park where detainees were held after 9/11. Part of her reason for staring the group was to inspire me and my sister to feel more hopeful, by seeing our parents in action. I hope I am showing her that she has succeeded.

The last thing I want to say is that we do not have to agree. You do not have to agree with what I say, or what any artist has to say here tonight. In fact, I know that your fabulous Emcee Shante and I disagree. I welcome these disagreements, even if they become arguments. I hope we can listen to each other, allow our own minds to be flexible, and allow each other to be different.