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Joel Tauber: “Every art project is unique”

We all need to make a living and there can be all kinds of significant logistical hurdles for any project, but I think it’s best to focus on the ideological and conceptual goals for the work before thinking too much about whatever financial and logistical realities are in play. As a part of our series about […]

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We all need to make a living and there can be all kinds of significant logistical hurdles for any project, but I think it’s best to focus on the ideological and conceptual goals for the work before thinking too much about whatever financial and logistical realities are in play.


As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Joel Tauber.

Activist. Artist. Filmmaker. Wake Forest University Associate Professor Joel Tauber sparks discourse and facilitates change via direct actions and interventions, video installations, films, photographs, public art, podcasts, and written stories. Recently, Tauber made a 40-day pilgrimage (October 29 — December 7, 2019) along the U.S. — Mexico border; walking, repeatedly, from the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in San Diego, along the Border Wall, to the Otay Mesa Detention Center — and back. His movie, Border-Ball, which chronicles his journey and shares stories of people he met along the way, screens on the ArtCenter DTLA website January 15–16 as part of a multi-phase exhibition of the project. https://joeltauber.com


Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

I come from a long line of rabbis, and I spent 12 years studying Jewish philosophy and religion in Hebrew and ancient Aramaic at the Maimonides School in Boston. We talked about ethics all the time, and we were taught that nothing was more important than trying to be a good person. When I left the Yeshiva, other cultural voices loomed larger, asserting more materialistic and selfish values. I became more aware of the cruelties and injustices of our world, and they felt like they were both innumerable and everywhere. I was troubled and confused, and I didn’t know how to proceed. Then, during my studies at Yale, I stumbled upon a sculpture class; taught by the brilliant critic, art historian, and conceptual artist Ronald Jones; who showed me the potential art has to generate discourse and facilitate change. Suddenly, I knew my calling. The problems engulfing me felt vast, but I didn’t have to stand idly by. I could raise awareness and open dialog via activist, art, and film projects. I could foreground the ideologies of ethics, environmentalism, and responsibility. And I could try to cultivate change.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

I often use humor in my work. It’s a specific kind of humor that arises out of unexpected juxtapositions and unconventional — or perhaps, one might say, quixotic — convictions. Humor that leads to questions about our assumptions and ways of doing things. For example, in Searching For The Impossible: The Flying Project, I become convinced that the secret of flight is metaphysical and that I might be able to fly, if I pray properly, if I believe. I jump off rocks, repeatedly, as I try different mental preparations and flapping strategies. But I keep failing, and I’m forced to make adjustments. I build a musical flying machine and place myself in a harness with bagpipes, a large horn, and forty-six giant helium balloons. I pray, I breath, and I play my bagpipes. And then I fly. One hundred and fifty feet over the desert for an hour and a half.

There is an eccentric kind of humor in Sick-Amour as well, and it is this eccentricity that defamiliarizes and furthers its environmental and ecological critiques. The project focuses on a forlorn Tree that is stuck in the middle of a giant parking lot at the Rose Bowl Stadium. The Tree is ignored and neglected. Hit by cars, starved for water and oxygen, and attacked by pathogens and pollutants. I become quite attached to the beautiful and lonely Tree, and I’m outraged by the indignities the Tree is forced to endure. So, I devote myself to improving Its life: watering It with giant water bags, installing tree guards to protect It from cars, building giant earrings to celebrate Its beauty, lobbying to remove the asphalt beneath Its canopy and to protect It with a ring of boulders, and helping the Tree reproduce.

A similar kind of unconventionality — and activism — is in play in my recent project Border-Ball: a 40-day pilgrimage (October 29 — December 7, 2019) along the U.S. — Mexico border. Unexpected juxtapositions add humor and offer entry points for people to engage in conversation and contemplate whether we are acting ethically in our treatment of immigrants and refugees. I walk repeatedly, from the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in San Diego, along the Border Wall, to the Otay Mesa Detention Center — and back. I wear a blue, white, and red baseball uniform; as I declare, in English as well as some Spanish, an adaptation of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”:

Walk with me along the border. Play catch with me in front of the Wall. I don’t care what part of the world you’re from. Let’s root, root, root for teamwork. If we don’t find some, it’s a shame. For it’s one, two, three strikes, we’re out at the old ball game.

I also proclaim, as an adaptation of “The Star-Spangled Banner”:

Oh, say, can you see, our country’s gorgeous dream: an endless field of green, where everyone can live and play? Our star-spangled banner yet waves, over the land of immigrants and the home of us all!

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I’ve met so many fascinating people over the course of my art and film career. It’s been riveting to connect with people from so many disciplines and walks of life. Most recently, on my pilgrimage, many people (fifty-six on camera and many more off camera) walked with me; played catch with me; and shared their thoughts and stories about the border, the Port of Entry, the Wall, and the Detention Center. I heard some happy stories, but far too many others that were marked by cruelty, hardship, and trauma. Uriel Vicona Guzman talked about the difficulties of living in the U.S. as an illegal immigrant before he got his Green Card, and how he couldn’t see his mother very much growing up because he didn’t have the right documentation. Maggie Gonzalez told me about how her grandmother, who worked as a maid in Texas, was left in a field with a machete in her head by the father who tried to kill her; and how she managed, despite that, to flee with the baby to Mexico. And Alam Martinez shared how upsetting it is to see his brother locked up at the Detention Center and how much he misses him.

I learned a lot from their stories and from the stories of the many other people I met on my pilgrimage. And even though we often talked about quite sad things, it always felt beautiful to talk with them and to play catch afterwards. We were connecting, as equals, both verbally and through each toss of the ball. We stood at the border — a place marked by division — but we were forming relationships and building community.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m in the research phase of a new project that grapples with pollution in our oceans. This comes on the heels of another recent project, UNDERWATER: An Operatic Disco, where I sing about pollution and global warming like a Jewish cantor on the Day Of Atonement.

I continue to feel deeply about our relationship and responsibility to the environment, while I also focus on the border and our responsibilities to each other. Recently, I finished editing the twenty-minute movie, Border-Ball, about the border project I’ve been describing. It chronicles my pilgrimage and shares stories of people I met along the way. And I’m currently wrapping up the post-production work on the nine-channel video installation version of the project, which will offer people the opportunity to experience Border-Ball in a more sculptural and participatory way.

The next screening of the Border-Ball film is happening January 15–16 on the ArtCenter DTLA website, as part of a multi-phase exhibition of the project. The first, virtual phase, through January 16 on the ArtCenter DTLA website, features select images from Border-Ball, including a map of my route and baseball card images of some of the people I met. The second, physical phase of the show is happening at the ArtCenter DTLA 3200 square foot exhibition space in downtown Los Angeles from May 21 — August 22 (current dates). The physical show will include the nine-channel video installation, a series of photos, and an opportunity for people to play catch with each other inside the exhibition space.

The nine-channel video installation will also be on display at the Adamski Gallery in Berlin, and there are a number of film festival screenings of the movie coming up as well.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

I often turn to history for inspiration when developing projects and when thinking about how to best live my life. When I was working on The Flying Project, I was drawn to Eilmer, The Flying Monk; who thought that prayer was the secret of flight; and who, in the year 1010, leapt from the top of Malmesbury Abbey, with his prayers and his makeshift hang glider. Eilmer succeeded in flying for more than a furlong — before he crashed — and his example helped me conceptualize and actualize my bagpipe-balloon powered flight.

I thought a lot about the Persian emperor Xerxes when I began Sick-Amour. Xerxes loved a sycamore tree too, and he protected it with a royal bodyguard and adorned it with golden ornaments. I didn’t have the resources available to me that Xerxes had, but I loved the Tree at least as much as he did; and I was inspired to follow Xerxes’ lead and do everything I possibly could for the Tree.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my grandparents survived the Holocaust and how my grandfather’s brother died in a slave labor camp. I know what can happen if we stand idly by when people we label as “other” are terrorized. So, I embarked on my pilgrimage. To bear witness to the horrors we’re committing to immigrants and refugees. To open dialog. And to hopefully facilitate some change.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

I look at the world from an ethical lens that has grown out of my religious background. Whatever successes I’ve had are intertwined with my continued focus on ethics. Right now, I’m dedicated to raising awareness about how we’re treating immigrants and refugees. Immigrants and refugees are locked up in detention centers all over the United States — not just at the border. And many of the people we’re locking up are subjected to physical and sexual abuse, as well as forced labor.

We’re capable of acting so much better than this. Sometimes, we just need a bit of a jolt to remember our values. So, I created Border-Ball, with the hope that it might provide at least some of the cultural jolt that we so desperately need.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

Each of my projects has been born from an “Aha Moment” when I conceive of a way to address a problem that we face. Most recently, the march in Charlottesville in August 2017 was definitely an “Aha Moment” for me. Klansmen without hoods shouting openly about killing Jews and African Americans. I felt that the ideologies of diversity, immigration, and acceptance were under direct attack; and I had a civic duty to try to do something about it.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

On one of the first days of my pilgrimage, when I was feeling particularly physically and emotionally exhausted; I sat down in front of the Detention Center to rest. A car with a family of four pulled up, and the mother asked if I was okay. They had come to visit her brother in the Detention Center, and they were worried about not having proper papers and getting locked up themselves. But they were offering me, a total stranger, help anyway. We talked for a long time, off camera, and their offers of help only increased when they learned what I was doing there. Their generosity and sense of communitarianism — true citizenship! — go beyond any official papers, and I just hope that things will get easier for them and all other families wronged by our immigration policies.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

We need to close all of our detention centers and start treating immigrants and refugees with the respect that they deserve. For this to happen, there’s educational and cultural work as well as advocacy and legal work to be done. I invite everyone to participate in this process.

• Learn more about how we’re treating immigrants.

• Share your thoughts and stories about immigration and borders.

• Do what you can to help.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I had many wonderful teachers who taught me so much, including the 5 things I’m going to list below; but I’m not sure I understood them fully until they were made more real for me by experiencing them over time.

1. Everyone puts ideas out into the world all the time, with every conversation and with every action — not just through films and other art projects. There is an ethical and political dimension to all that we do, so it is always important for us to be mindful of that.

2. There is a lot that an artist can control when making a film or another kind of art project, but there is a lot that is beyond anyone’s control. I spend a lot of time constructing projects as thoughtfully as I can, so that I can foreground specific ideas and facilitate conversations; but I have very little control of how those conversations will unfold.

3. Every art project is unique. It has its own logic, and the way it looks and is put together (it’s form and structure) should come out of its particular story and goals.

4. We all need to make a living and there can be all kinds of significant logistical hurdles for any project, but I think it’s best to focus on the ideological and conceptual goals for the work before thinking too much about whatever financial and logistical realities are in play.

5. Relationships are important, in art and film — just like in all other aspects of life. I think it’s useful to think about that when interacting with people, both when making a film and also when working to get it out into the world.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

We’re all connected. If someone is suffering inside a detention center; at some level, we’re all suffering with them. We can only be liberated, we can only be free, if we face our social and environmental challenges; and do what we can to address them. Or, as The Kabbalah puts it: if we do what we can to repair the world. Tikkun Olam.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

I’m impressed by the activism of Greta Thunberg, Boyan Slat, Malala Yousafzai, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Pope Francis. They’re all taking action and getting things done. We need more people like them. I would love the opportunity to meet them and potentially collaborate as well.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

As I’ve been working on Border-Ball, I’ve been thinking about the line in the Bible that tells us “you shall have one law for the stranger and the citizen alike” (Leviticus 24:22) and wondering when we will get to the point where we all recognize that we’re all on the same team.

How can our readers follow you online?

My website https://joeltauber.com introduces projects and links to specific project websites like https://borderball.net. It provides information about upcoming exhibitions and movie screenings; as well as where to see films on streaming platforms (Sick-Amour, for example, is streaming on Amazon Prime / Instant Video; as well as on Kanopy and Green Planet Stream); where to read my writing; and where to hear my podcasts. I’m on Twitter @joeltauber and Instagram @joel.tauber.

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

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