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Thursday, July 9, 2020

Artists Reach Out: Michael Maag

Dear friends,

Welcome to Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation. I dreamed this series of interviews out of grief for my work both as a documenting arts writer and curator of live performance. In this time of social distancing, we are called to responsibly do all we can to safeguard ourselves and our neighbors. It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

But there's no distancing around what we still can share with one another--our experiences, thoughts, wisdom, humor, hearts and spirit. In some ways, there are more opportunities to do so as we pull back from everyday busyness out in the world and have time to honor the call of our inner lives.

So, let me introduce you to some artists I find interesting. I'm glad they're part of our beautiful community, and I'm eager to engage with them again (or for the first time) in years to come.

--Eva Yaa Asantewaa, InfiniteBody

Michael Maag

Michael Maag, a white man,
smiles at the camera with twinkling eyes.
He has white/blond hair with an impressive long beard,
glasses and a light complexion.
(photo: Jenny Graham)

Alice Sheppard, Laurel Lawson, and Michael Maag
sit side by side in their chairs, on gray marley and lit by stage lighting.
Alice is a light skinned Black woman with short curly hair,
Laurel is a white woman with very short silver hair,
and Michael is a white man with long blonde hair
and a flowing white/blonde beard.
They are wearing casual and rehearsal clothing,
and all three are grinning at someone in the audience.
(photo: Chris Cameron/MANCC)

Michael Maag is the video, projection, and lighting designer for Kinetic Light, a project-based ensemble working at the intersections of disability, dance, design, identity, and technology. Maag designs at the intersection of lighting, video, and projection for theater, dance, musicals, opera, and planetariums across the United States. He sculpts with light and shadow to create lighting environments that tell a story, believing that lighting in support of the performance is the key to unlocking our audience’s emotions. Maag has built custom optics for projections in theaters, museums and planetariums; he also designs and builds electronics and lighting for costumes and scenery.

As a wheelchair user, Maag is passionate about bringing the perspective of a disabled artist to technical theater and design. He is currently the Resident Lighting Designer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. His designs have been seen on the Festival’s stages for the last 20 years, as well as at Arena Stage, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Utah Shakespearean Festival, Florida Studio Theatre, and the Henry Hudson Planetary, Albany.

Alice Sheppard, a light-skinned Black woman,
and Laurel Lawson, a white woman, are both in their wheelchairs
with a vibrant multicolor sunset in the background.
Alice is crawling on her forearms with her knees in Laurel's footplate,
and Laurel is arching her back on the ground as she is dragged along the floor.
Alice is exerting effort, and Laurel is in surrender.
(photo: M A N C C / Chris Cameron)

Laurel Lawson, a white woman, is flying in the air
with arms spread wide, wheels spinning,
and supported by Alice Sheppard.
Alice, a light-skinned Black woman,
is lifting from the ground below.
Behind them appear a dark blue sky and mountainscape;
figures appear in the key, bursting with light.
(photo: Jay Newman/BRITT Festival)

Do you have a current or planned project whose progress is affected by the pandemic?

Yes. Like everyone in the entertainment industry, it seems like my work, my art, my life is on hold. I am a member of the project-based disability arts ensemble Kinetic Light and our residency work on a new piece, Wired, has been postponed as have the performance dates at The Shed, though some development and design work has continued remotely. Our piece DESCENT was supposed to perform in Hong Kong in February, and our US dates have been postponed. My work as the Resident Lighting Designer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is on pause, as is my mentoring practice with the FAIR Program.

Briefly, tell me about how you got involved in the arts and in your particular practice.

The Theater enticed me into the arts at a young age, and I became a Lighting Designer when I discovered that light communicates emotion directly to the subconscious of the audience. This happened the first time I touched a Lighting Control Panel. At that time, those were enormous panels of levers often labeled with the color of the gel in the lights. I had a dream that night in which the levers were labeled with the emotions the light conveyed. I have been living that dream ever since. My practice is to use light to tell the story, and to immerse the audience (all of them) in the emotional journey.

In a more specific way, what are you practicing? And what are you envisioning?

My practice is collaborative and inclusive. I work with choreographers, directors, scenic and costume designers to create meaningful art. As a disabled artist, I am particularly interested in working from a disabled perspective, with a focus on access. To me, this means two things: to create accessible work for the disabled community that speaks to and reflects their experience, and to welcome the able-bodied into our environment.

At Kinetic Light, we work at the intersection of disability, race and gender. The horrific ongoing systemic racism in this country must end. We must interrogate the origin, meaning and reasons for the societal contracts we have made or have been forced onto us. Those societal contracts that no longer serve must be dismantled. We can come up with a better way to run a “free” society than one that uses principles like democracy and capitalism to perpetuate injustice. It is our job as artists to provide vision, hope and guidance for our society. Most importantly, we must act in an anti-racist, anti-ableist, anti-sexist manner throughout our process.

I envision art that helps our society realize our failures to others and ourselves. I envision art that heals. I envision art that shines.

How does your practice and your visioning align with what you most care about?

I am on a journey, someplace on the road to an inclusive, fair and just practice. In that way I feel like I am in alignment with my dreams. I also feel like I am personally at the bottom of a steep hill and need to keep pushing my wheels up the road to completely inhabit the world I want to see.

My work as a mentor continues with many young lighting designers out in the world. I am embarking on a new fellowship through Kinetic Light to mentor a disabled lighting designer. Even in these pandemic times, we can connect and collaborate.

My practice includes continual learning. I am never bored. There is always something to learn about, or something to be better at.

How does your practice function within the world we have now?

By remotely collaborating, creating and even lighting from a distance, my art is becoming enhanced by better communication skills. At Kinetic Light, we managed to pull off one virtual, remote dance concert by “dancing in place” (you can view that event, hosted by the Rubin Foundation, on their website) and have another scheduled in July. I am spending time learning new tools and creating a library of visuals for Wired. So in a way it is not all that dissimilar to how I normally work; just a lot less time in Technical Rehearsals.

Briefly share one self-care tip that has special meaning to you now.

I’ve been meditating about the meaning of the Japanese word ma and its relevance now. The word means something like space, gap or interval. But, more deeply, it is an awareness of place, a concentration of vision between form and non-form. Here we are in the shadows between structured time. Without these shadows, there can be no awareness of light. Which I guess is a long way of saying pause, create ma, and meditate on something meaningful to you.


DISCLAIMER: In addition to my work on InfiniteBody, I serve, at Gibney, as Senior Director of Artist Development and Curation and Editorial Director. The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views, strategies or opinions of Gibney.


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1 comment:

  1. Ma! Space is the place. The space between...transition. Awesome article 🙇‍♂️