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Shaw Pong Liu
CLOSING THE GAP: ARTS

Shaw Pong Liu

Violinist

YOU HAVE CREATED SPACES FOR MULTIDISCIPLINARY ARTISTS TO WORK TOGETHER. TELL ME ABOUT ONE PROJECT THAT REACHED THE GOALS YOU HAD SET FOR IT.

One of the most significant projects both in scope and in staying power is the Code Listen Project, which started in 2017 and continued through 2020. That was a project that began when I was an artist in residence with the City of Boston. So, it was an officially sanctioned, six-month project through the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture and the Boston Police Department, and a couple of community organizations, including Teen Empowerment, which is an organization that trains youth as community organizers, and a couple of organizations that support homicide survivors, so people who lost family members to homicide: Legacy Lives On and the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute.  I did that project while I was the Artist in Residence with the city and then through a LAB grant through the Boston Foundation. That project had two components that eventually merged into one. It involved members of the Boston Police Department who are musicians and artists and some moms and sibling survivors from Legacy Lives On. That group was about coming together through music-making and dialogue to try to build very direct, person-to-person relationships between folks who don’t always get a chance to do that kind of relationship building.

I ended up being really surprised by the conversations I had with the Boston Police Department. They were pretty open to dialogue, which I was impressed with. We wanted to do some work around gun violence. And that was work that was extremely important to me then as it is now. In the process, I met an officer who works with gun violence survivors. Her specific role is to liaison with survivor families and she also organizes events to support the survivor community after a tragedy has been experienced. She connected me with survivors and I suddenly dropped into a community that I had no previous connection with and it was a learning process. I worked especially closely with Legacy Lives On and the founder, Clarissa Turner, who has become a really important mentor and friend to me over the years. So, I discovered, through a learning process with this world of people who are homicide survivors and began to find a way to try to make purpose out of pain. 

I didn’t want the project to be just a positive, image-building for the police department without some space for dialogue and critique. Already, Michael Brown’s murder had happened the year before and there were initial waves around police brutality. And it was important to me to engage in that conversation, which is how the music ensemble came about, which involved both music and dialogue. So the first year, we had members of the BPD and youth artists from Teen Empowerment. From the second year on, we were joined by homicide survivors from Legacy Lives On. And alongside that ensemble building process, I was organizing annual memorials for loved ones lost to homicide in conjunction with the Mothers Walk for Peace with photo memorials along the route of the walk, and then also we had a few memorials at City Hall. 

Eventually, we brought both parts of the project into one big event as part of Homicide Survivors Awareness Month at the Gardner Museum. That was a memorial project that involved the ensemble along with professional musicians from the Boston area and a theater director to weave storytelling into the process, as well as first-hand narratives and music. We even had a chance to travel to D.C. as part of the Millennium Stage Series at the Kennedy Center, which was a special and beautiful experience for us. I was part of a Kennedy Center Citizen Artists Fellowship and was able to bring the ensemble to D.C. 

SO, WHAT LED YOU TO THIS WORK? YOU HAD YOUR OWN ART TO FOCUS ON. WHAT COMPELLED YOU TO MOVE BEYOND YOUR OWN ART AN DD THIS KIND OF FORMATIVE WORK?

I’m really interested in the power of listening as an actual skill that we need in music as well as a social societal skill for communication and listening and how those two things can support each other. Storytelling alongside music and how those two things intersect.

I’ve been interested for a long time in how music can contribute to social and community impact. I’m interested in community building and what is possible when people come together and the possibility of collaboration and especially the unknown potential of a group of people who all bring their talent and their skills and their life experiences and what can be created when there is enough time and space together. In terms of understanding the relationships and also the art that is possible—in settings with professionally trained artists and a more direct understanding of art and humanity that aren’t so divided by professional status. I really see that it is part of being a human being to connect through music and stories and movement. I think it’s amazing and beautiful that some parts of society can really focus on that and become so specialized and profoundly skillful and then I think there is a positive net gain for everybody who has some capacity or opportunity to feel, express, and participate in forms of what we call “art making,” whether it’s music or theater or dance or painting.

WAS THIS SOMETHING YOU WERE INTERESTED IN SINCE YOU WERE YOUNG?

Yes. I got really excited about music in high school and I think it was my junior year that I decided that I wanted to pursue music as a life path. And in college, I realized that I didn’t want to be a classical musician in the usual sense. I wanted to have an impact beyond the tiny subsector of people who go to the concert hall. I was exploring multidisciplinary projects in the years between college and the Artist in Residency opportunity, but definitely through the Code Listen work I developed a strong belief in the value of an artistic space for all people. I was given a lot of access to the Mattapan Police Department and I would try not to annoy them, but I would play for them and if they wanted to hear something I didn’t know, I would listen to it and try to play it for them. So, I was meeting a lot of people who were from all different walks of life, but they could all get excited about music. And they were looking for more opportunities for themselves or their children to be able to be part of making music. So, if anyone’s wondering, there is a need! It became so evident to me and also the beautiful experiences we had in our rehearsal spaces. It was amazing to see what music could do for a group of people who were initially strangers. To have someone share a poem or a song or work together to create a song—the alchemy of that and how it could really charge a space and also allow everyone to connect in a different way and be a part of a whole thing together, which we usually don’t get the opportunity to do with our compartmentalized lives. We’re given our roles or our jobs or our schools and there isn’t a lot of wiggle room to move beyond that.

SO YOU FOUND SOME MUSICIANS TO WORK WITH FROM THE POLICE DEPARTMENT. 

Yes, that was also a surprise. I didn’t plan to start a band, but people came out of the woodwork when the memo went out about my project and I did recruit a couple of people who did become the mainstays of the project. I ended up getting contacted by so many people who were so excited about being in involved in community building through music and who really believed in music as a pathway to that. And it just happened that we ended up with a drummer, a bass player, a guitar player and a singer and a rapper. So, we ended up playing for Porchfest because we had the right assortment of people to do this! And that became a platform for all of the songwriting that came later with the teens and the moms.

Shaw Pong Liu

DO YOU THINK THE ARTS HAVE A SPECIAL POWER TO BRING PEOPLE TOGETHER?

Absolutely. I think this applies to all of the art forms in slightly different ways, but I can speak specifically about music. Music creates a space for a whole-body experience. You need all of your physicality and your emotionality and your intellect to participate and come together around a common groove, a common harmony, a common knowledge… It requires both your individuality and your surrender to the group. I think some of the spaces where music exists are so cerebral that it’s all talk-based and word-based… But we’re standing when we sing and play our instruments and we’re dancing and moving around and feeling things with our whole body. So, I think that can support certain kinds of listening that can lead to certain kinds of change and transformation, given enough time and space. So, yes, the arts have a lot of power.

YOU WERE ALSO A BROTHER THOMAS FELLOW. 

Yes, I have intersected with the Boston Foundation in many positive ways. 

IN ADDITION TO SUPPORT THORUGH PROGRAMS LIKE TBF’S LIVE ARTS BOSTON GRANTS AND BROTHER THOMAS FELLOWSHIPS, WHAT OTHER KINDS OF SUPPORT DO YOU THINK ARTISTS NEED, ESPECIALLY ARTISTS OF COLOR? 

I think a big threat to artists being able to survive in Boston, particularly artists of color, but really all artists, is very basic public infrastructure, such as affordable housing, affordable space to do your work in. Different types of artists need different types of spaces, but it’s a big challenge to be able to live and be able to work. I know there are groups working on those issues, but that to me is fundamental infrastructure. 

I think it’s especially important to support Boston-based artists of color, especially people who grew up in the city. There is so much more that can be done when it comes to economic investment in communities of color, such as education, job supports… We live in such a segregated city—segregated by race and income. Most of the survivors of violence are Black and Brown families in Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan. Some people who live in Boston have never been impacted by homicide and then you have others who know multiple family members who have been lost. And I think when there is that level of disruption, of loss, of insecurity… And then we see how our public schools are unable to provide an equitable education to all students. I just think those are fundamental things.

If you want to support artists who grew up in this city, then all of that infrastructure needs to be improved. It’s all connected.

WHAT ABOUT PROGRAMS, SUCH AS LIVE ARTS BOSTON, WHERE ARTISTS ACTUALLY GET MONEY?

Yes, individual artist grants are ideal. For years, the only way you could get funding was through sponsorship or partnering with a nonprofit arts group—and all of those things are so removed when you’re trying to develop a new piece. So, definitely individual artist grants that have some flexibility and are open to different kinds of experiences.

The bigger question, though, is how does anyone survive as an artist in this society? You can get a grant here and there and that’s hugely important in building your experience and your portfolio, but at the end of the day, what I see is a lot of people who choose to go into the arts often have some kind of financial stability or a family network that they can fall back on. So, I do think it’s important to have grants to individual artists, but greater economic equity across the board could totally change the landscape—if more people had a little more stability.

One way to encourage artists of color is to have more people of color in decision-making positions in foundations and businesses and government. Another idea that could really help all people of color is a guaranteed, basic, livable income.

YES, PEOPLE ARE TALKING ABOUT THIS A LOT NOW. IT’S SOMETHING THAT MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. PROMOTED WHEN HE WAS ALIVE. 

ON ANOTHER TOPIC, HAVE YOU PLAYED IN ORCHESTRAS? HOW DID YOU CATCH THE EYE OF THE CITY WHEN THEY OFFERED YOU THE ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE POSITION?

After I finished grad school, I was freelancing as a professional violinist in the area and I’m also a composer, so I had been composing for commissions. So, I’ve played with a lot of local ensembles over the years. I also work with the Silk Road Ensemble as a performer and teaching artist. I was inhabiting that world more fully when I was right out of grad school.

The first public art projects I participated in—and that led me to Code Listen—were both partially supported by the Boston Foundation. One was called Water Graffiti for Peace with the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center as part of gathering community feedback for a composition I was writing. It was a collaboration with five teen artists. We created these public art installations in Chinatown over five weekends in the summer of 2014, where we invited members of the community to write Chinese characters on the ground; these giant calligraphy installations that were dipped in water. So, you write something and it immediately evaporates, so there’s no attempt at perfection. And also inviting people to create their own characters for peace based on posters we had all over the plaza of these Chinese characters. That conversation was part of a piece I wrote for an ensemble called the Borderline Ensemble that was called “Peace is a Woman in a House,” based on the old Chinese character for peace, which is a roof over a woman. So, we were inviting members of the public to try writing Chinese characters by combining two different characters, and then we would interview them, and those interviews contributed to the peace. That project was funded by the Boston Foundation for special summer programming.

IT SEEMS THAT BEING AN ARTIST IN RESIDENCE WAS OBVIOUSLY A VERY RICH EXPERIENCE FOR YOU. COULD BUSINESSES HAVE ARTISTS IN RESIDENCE? IS THAT A WAY TO SUPPORT THE ARTS—TO EMBED ARTISTS IN DIFFERENT KINDS OF SETTINGS?

It really depends on the partnership and the kind of appetite they have for working out of the usual norm and allowing somebody else in. That would be hard when so many businesses seem to feel so strapped in terms of time.

But I do think there’s a lot of opportunity around space that isn’t utilized. And that might require some openness about city regulations or some kind of logistical approach. But one thing artists need is just space—space to rehearse, space to perform, space to make your work in… I think that’s untapped. Businesses don’t use their spaces at all hours. It’s been hard to do it with schools, I've heard partially because restrictions with custodial contracts that make sharing space difficult. But it seems like there should be a way to make it work for everyone—if there were people who were really invested in trying to make it happen. 

As a musician, I see a continual closure of venues for live music in Boston in the 14 years I’ve been here. And it’s really discouraging because there hasn’t been a commensurate growth of new venues. So there are fewer and fewer opportunities for music to be shared in community settings. There might be creative solutions that haven’t been explored yet.

ARE YOU AWARE OF THE RECORD COMPANY?

Yes, they are an amazing organization. In the first year of Code Listen, we did some rehearsals there. Teen Empowerment was already partnering with them. And they raised a lot of money for performing artists during COVID

I’ve spent a lot of energy over the last few years railing against the classical music establishment for being so narrowly focused and lacking in self-reflection around issues of racism and white supremacy that are embedded into European-based music. It’s systemic, but it’s very slowly starting to have some attention paid to it. 

I see tremendous potential in the opportunities for collaboration. The arts are transformative. They offer different kinds of spaces where the outcomes are not predetermined.