COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — When one has reason to think about the city of Colorado Springs, one of the most conservative cities in the US, that reason does not usually concern championing radical inclusion and experimental art. And yet, just like bombs are hidden somewhere in those thar mountains, a wellspring of innovative and “out-there” artists have been coming and coming back to this unprogressive mountain town to pursue button-pushing questions and develop work that bristles against the city’s rhetoric of election denial, Q-Anon susceptibility, and America First thinking. Has Colorado Springs’s conservatism become a cover for a burgeoning avant-garde?
Two institutions, one public, one private, are responsible for supporting and sustaining relationships with a growing roster of experimental and pioneering artists. Colorado College, a 148-year-old small liberal arts college of approximately 2,000 students situated in the center of the city, and the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS), a regional university near the Air Force Academy with around 12,000 students, have powerful art advocates in the guise of administrators and educators who initiate and nurture these relationships, creating spaces for artists to develop work and for students to directly engage with them as a part of the curriculum.
Artist residencies and teaching opportunities are two of the many strands in the web of making a successful and sustainable life for working artists — not only in compensation but also in space, resources, a testing audience, and oftentimes the opportunity to consider their work from new perspectives.
“Being able to teach saves my spirit,” choreographer Eiko Otake told Hyperallergic in an interview, “because otherwise how do I get up every morning in this terrible world? I had a student say to me, ‘Eiko, your class is your political work.’ And that is absolutely the case. Through teaching I learned how to speak up as an immigrant artist, to be more clear about my positionality to the world. I teach the students, but the teaching teaches me!”
Otake first came to the city for a performance at Colorado College when still performing in the duo Eiko and Koma in 2011. Since then, she began teaching every other year at Colorado College and has frequent workshops and teaching engagements with UCCS. A retrospective of her work, “I Invited Myself, Part II,” will be on display at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in the spring of 2023.
Given the city’s politics and hyper-conservatism, wouldn’t artists hesitate to make and perform work here? Why an artist residency in the mountain west, as opposed to an urban center elsewhere?
“I find the juxtaposition of all the kinds of forces at play in Colorado Spring truly fascinating,” said multimedia artist Janani Balasubramanian, who has had residencies at both institutions. “I’ve found my time in the Springs really moving; there’s just literally more space. A lot of my work is in collaboration with the sky. So actually being able to see the sky is a deeply significant and important thing.”
Starting off as a workshop collaboration between the Public Theater and UCCS, Balasubramanian was soon connected to astrophysicist Dr. Natalie Gosnell, who is faculty at Colorado College. Using techniques of experimental theater, Balasubramanian and Gosnell created “The Gift,” a multimedia project that explores Dr. Gosnell’s research on companion stars and how they physically transfer their matter to their companion at the end of their life before becoming a white dwarf. There will be a live performance of “The Gift” at the New York Public Library this December.
For Balasubramanian, another significant draw to working as an artist-in-residence at either of these institutions is the permission to play and explore.
“I feel that the Springs has been a cool place to do a kind of this-and-that research,” they said. “I want to work with some music. I want to work with some sound. I want to play around with some visuals, to just be able to experiment, and it almost sounds so simple. But it’s hard to pull off in a lot of places. Projects in big metropolitan centers become very production forward. They’re focused on ‘what is the outcome going to be?’ It’s hard to interject an experimental process into that. I’m not just a vending machine, and sometimes that’s how it feels. It’s like they want to put some money in you, and the art comes out.”
Kathryn Hamilton (of Sister Sylvester), another artist-in-residence at both institutions, had early preconceptions of the city subverted and supported:
“When I told friends in New York that I was going there, the first thing they would mention was Focus on the Family. It felt more like a left-leaning college town. Although one night walking back to the place I was staying right by the campus, I saw someone go into a 7-Eleven with a gun on each hip. That’s not something I had ever encountered outside of movies about America.”
Successful process-oriented play and exploration resulted in the world premiere at Colorado College this past spring of Boy mother/faceless bloom, a multimedia performance work by the group Juni One Set (consisting of Senga Nengudi, eddy kwon, Crow Nishimura, and Joshua Kohl). Boy mother explores transgender identity and the legacies of colonialism. Ryan Bañagale, music faculty and former Director of the Arts at Colorado College, worked with the group over the past three years over multiple residencies.
“They didn’t know when they started what they would end up making. Boy mother became about their personal myths, trying to understand who they are through their mythological, imaginative selves,” said Bañagale. “They also wanted to push themselves to do something they wouldn’t normally do. Senga was on stage and reading poetry, eddy is a musician, but they wanted to do movement, Crow is a dancer and wanted to do voice work. They felt supported by each other to explore those different forms.”
Likely the most radical performer to have developed a relationship to the Springs is choreographer Nora Chipaumire, who has had two residencies at Colorado College. In the first residency she developed the work “Portrait of Myself as My Father,” which considers African masculinity through the mixed legacies of capitalism, Christianity, and colonialism, with three dancers in a boxing ring. In her most recent residency with members of her company, she worked on “Nehanda,” a newly touring six-hour opera concerning the liberation struggles of Zimbabwe and the ancestral spirit of the powerful and fierce Nehanda, who inhabits the bodies of other women.
Kevin Landis, director of the theater and dance program at UCCS, sees a value for artists to come specifically to Colorado Springs to work on new pieces, as well as for the broader community of the city. “I want to find a middle ground so that we’re not just academics navel-gazing, but also in getting a community to trust us,” said Landis. “I think I’m seeing that on the edges. When we had 600 Highwaymen workshopping a new piece—that was not ready for prime time, and they knew it—and we brought them here and said: ‘This is exactly why you should come here. We’ll have an audience for you and they’ll tell you what they think.’ A friend of mine texted me afterwards and said, ‘I don’t know what that was, but can we talk about it?’ It was clear she hated it. But she wanted to engage in why she hated it. And that’s awesome. That’s the buy-in.”
While Colorado Springs has a reputation for single-handedly keeping this mountain state purple, it also clearly has people living in it invested in bringing the energy, ideas, and creative work of those who may not wish to live there but like to visit. May the odds be ever in their favor in keeping it that way.