Aaliyah Christina contributed to We Series's "health" theme with a dance centering around mental health and the healing of the Black American femme. Credit: courtesy we series

The pandemic has encouraged folks to be experimental in all forms of life. It doesn’t always have to be something monumental—some people are just trying a new spice in the kitchen. Nevertheless, that experimental flair that 2020 introduced is coming to fruition in 2021. There’s a freedom of letting go of our typical routines, especially right now when everything is so unpredictable.

It makes sense, then, that the performance event We Series is getting experimental with Chicago artists and writers in 2021. We Series was started by Lia Kohl and Bethany Younge in 2017 and then Deidre Huckabay and Kohl began curating together in 2018. Huckabay is a performer, composer, writer, photographer, and record producer, as well as the co-owner of Parlour Tapes+, an experimental cassette tape label, and a composer-performer in the collective Mocrep. Kohl is a cellist and multidisciplinary artist who makes work focused on sound, video, movement, theatre, and sculptural objects. Typically—in the before times—We Series is an in-person performance event at Elastic Arts. Huckabay and Kohl, working with the new conditions, decided to go virtual in 2021.

Kohl says that because of the pandemic, artists aren’t able to “gather and share space and energy,” so curating the series this year was a unique challenge. Instead of canceling the series or mourning the limitations, the curators decided to head to livestream with the help of Elastic Arts. Kohl says, “We felt that presenting videos and writing together would create a holistic way of interacting with the series, as well as opportunities for more kinds of artists to participate.”

With the limitations of the pandemic, the component of writing was introduced. We Series has been teaming up with Sixty Inches From Center, an arts platform, which opens up the floor to experimental writing. Huckabay says that “it can be hard to find support for experimental things,” and with We Series encouraging the artists that the “weirder the better,” they needed a platform that would mirror this mantra.

The artists in the series come from all types of backgrounds. They are performers, playwrights, musicians, even a baker and self-described spirit guide. Huckabay and Kohl e-mailed a select group of folks to be in the show and then paired them up. Kohl says that it was a wonderful feeling to e-mail folks and say, “You can write literally anything you want!” then seeing what people came up with.

Kohl says that in earlier versions of the We Series, they didn’t choose themes, but this year they decided to choose the themes of “food,” “sleep,” “health,” and “screens” in response to pandemic life.

Last week’s theme was “health,” fitting into the current situation we are living in. Artists were invited to create new works for the event or rework older pieces. Kohl says that they also let some artists choose which theme spoke to them and their work. “With others we asked them to contribute to a specific theme because of a focus in their work—Aaliyah Christina, for example, who creates dances that center mental health and healing of the Black American femme,” contributed to the “health” theme.

Huckabay says that during the pandemic, physical items like records, books, and posters have become essential. She describes getting packages and items in the mail as a “joy.” Because of this simple kind of pleasure, Huckabay and Kohl decided that they wanted to make a zine to go along with this year’s series. Huckabay says, “The zine-making process is extremely DIY. We expect to run a limited series of 50 or so at a copy shop and sell it on a word-of-mouth basis. They’re free or pay-what-you-can, and we’ll mail them to you. Just e-mail me or Lia to request a copy.” Kohl adds, “We’re thinking about the zine as a version of performance ephemera: something physical that people can have after the series is done to say ‘Yes! This really happened!’”

Christina, the artistic coordinator at Links Hall and founder of Catalyst Movmnt, focuses her work on growing up in Louisiana and Maryland, as well as the mental health and stigmas within the Black community. “I push narratives specifically coming from Black femmes of the African diaspora. A lot of the work I create and the spaces I curate tap into the vulnerability of both the artist and the audience. I have my own struggle with clinical depression so I try to create open spaces where folx feel comfortable to let loose and dive in without any qualms of self-consciousness or fear. Right now, I am focusing on silence, stillness, and ritual. Meditation,” she says.

During last week’s livestream, Christina’s work was streamed first. Her piece featured the artist in a room, where she rolled on the floor and pounded on a wall, her voice talking over the piece. There was an overlay of an image of a fire pit. Christina’s piece looked at health and how the spirit can connect with the mental. “It focuses on prayer and reflection,” she explains. “It’s directly connected to the relationship I have/had with my mother, but it can also touch a lot on how we connect with ourselves externally and internally. I try to minimize sounds aside from my voice to bring a sense of calm even though what I may be saying might feel heavy or ‘serious.’”

Still from Kim Alpert's "Homunculus"
Still from Kim Alpert’s “Homunculus”Credit: courtesy We Series

What I find so special about live events during the pandemic is the socializing that happens within the chat—the rush of people complimenting the piece or chatting amongst one another. It’s almost easier than chatting IRL. After Christina’s piece came to a close, folks in the chat congratulated her, thanked her, and complimented the video. Up next was Kim Alpert’s timelapse video, “Homunculus,” which took place in the snow. The improvisational movement in the video was inspired by the self-healing practice that she has implemented in her life to reduce the pain of fibroid tumors, chronic pain, and cysts brought on by endometriosis. Alpert describes her health being her personal life focus. Growing up with complicated health issues, suffering a nervous breakdown, and experiencing a colitic incident, this particular piece celebrated the work and dedication to natural healing practices like nutrition, acupuncture, meditation, and supplements.

Alpert says, “A tumor was discovered growing into my uterus wall along with two larger ovarian cysts in 2019. This piece comes at the anniversary of meeting a surgeon to discuss my options and choosing to retrain my body.” Utilizing dance in her pieces, she says she’s brought this type of movement into her treatment plan during the pandemic. “I have a sticker on my laptop: ‘Sitting is the new smoking,’ which is the damn truth. Fighting my sedentary lifestyle has been an endless battle for as long as I can remember,” says Alpert.

Still from Sam Scranton's piece
Still from Sam Scranton’s pieceCredit: courtesy We series

Closing the livestream show was composer and musician Sam Scranton, whose piece began by asking the audience how they were doing. A blue background with white text scrolled along my laptop screen as Scranton read the text out loud to us. He brought up racial tensions, environmental urgencies, and the plague-like world we have found ourselves living in. One commenter in the chat said that they teared up during Scranton’s piece. The honesty of the spoken word and the simplicity of the visuals hit me hard too. The words “I miss you” scrolled along the screen, reminding me what it’s like to be in an arts space—to view art—to really take it in and feel something alongside the crowd of 20 or so people.

While the event series looks different in 2021, Huckabay says the beauty of this type of event is the “everlasting nature.” While the videos were streamed and could be viewed live, they are also archived. “What does ‘live’ mean when most things on the Internet are eternal?” she says.   v

The next We Series event is themed “screens,” Tuesday, January 26, 7 PM, live on Twitch, twitch.tv/elasticartschicago, $10 donation.