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Grand Central Art Center Curator John Spiak on 'Vireo'

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Witches. Wisdom. Wonder. Vireo is an opera created for TV and online broadcast that considers the usage of "female hysteria" throughout the decades. The multi-episode production was composed by Lisa Bielawa on a libretto by Erik Ehn and directed by Charles Otte. "Vireo" is the winner of the 2015 ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Multimedia Award.

After 17 years as a curator at Arizona State University Art Museum, John Spiak became the director and chief curator of Cal State Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center, which was an essential player in the production of "Vireo." Artbound recently caught up with Spiak to discuss the GCAC's role in "Vireo" and the conception of the project.

On the ethos of the Grand Central Art Center

Grand Central Art Center is a beautiful collaboration between the city of Santa Ana and Cal State Fullerton. It's a 45,000 sq. foot facility that has three exhibition spaces,a black box theater, classroom spaces, and apartments upstairs. It has 28 apartments. Twenty-six of the apartments are currently MFA students in Cal State Fullerton's College of the Arts, specifically dance, theater and visual arts. And there are studio spaces on the ground floor. Two of those are an international artists-in-residency programs.

At Grand Central Art Center, I've really been focused on contemporary exhibitions. Artists that are doing installation based works and solo shows to emphasize one artist's vision. And with the residency program were trying to take down the walls of the institution and bring it out to the communities. We've been doing a lot of socially-based and socially engaged practices around Orange County, and the city of Santa Ana. And we're dealing with issues arise in the community. We deal with issues of gentrification, wage fairness, and as a whole, issues of inequity.

On Vireo composer Lisa Bielawa and her artist-in-residency at GCAC

Artist Lisa Bielawa came to residence about two or three years ago when I first arrived. She is an artist that I met at a creative capital retreat in New York. She had been working on this project called Chance Encounter, where she would eavesdrop on a street. And from these eavesdrop stories she would create an opera. And then she would show up randomly on that street and on one side of the street would be herself and musicians would be on the other side. She would connect that street to the stories she heard on that street. So when I brought her to Grand Central Art Center, I said "come here explore this area and see if there's projects you want to do." We started traveling around Orange County. We went to old military air bases like El Toro, running around in the Santa Ana riverbed, going to the Yost Theater, going to the Orange County School for the Arts. We we're just exploring possibilities and resources. And through conversations, "Vireo" came about.

On how Vireo fits into his curatorial vision

"Vireo" is really about community. How do you bring community together for creative process? And, Lisa was able to do that. Our partners are diverse in this project from Orange County School for the Arts, to the Yost Theater, to bringing Kronos down-- the San Francisco Girls Choir. We're bringing the emphasis of what Santa Ana is, because Santa Ana before had a reputation of being a this place where people don't visit. It was a dangerous place and it's a myth. It's far from the truth that Santa Ana is a dangerous place. It was listed by Forbes as one of the four safest cities in the United States. It's a great community and there is culture everywhere. So why not be a hub where culture is created at the highest of levels? And that is what we're trying to emphasize through Grand Central Art Center on all different types of art: visual arts, performing arts, music, dance, theater. We cross the boundaries because we are a unit of the College of the Arts.

On how the community of Santa Ana received his work and "Vireo"

The community has been extremely supportive of our work. Our partners in Santa Ana include the Santa Ana Public Library. We've partnered with affordable housing access which has 500 unit affordable housing complexes and through their collaboration we've been able to put artists-in-residence into those communities to work with the neighbors to build sustainable gardens. We've worked with the restaurant association in downtown which is fabulous and they've been really supportive of our programming. We've worked with El Centro for projects. We're very open to the collaborative process, but also the community is very open to collaborating with us. And they've been 100 percent supportive of what we've been doing.

Kronos Quartet and San Francisco Girls Chorus. | Photo: Remsen Allard

On the community's response to the taping sessions of the opera

We had a really great turnout. And since the first two tapings we've had very positive responses from the live audience. It's been nothing but positive from our point of view. It seems like it's new music and more contemporary, it also has its root in opera, which is a very classical medium. And I think that's what is really interesting about it that people left saying "we want to watch this show." We had grips and sound people on the set that were amazed at what was happening. They're in the Hollywood industry and I was asking them what they thought and they said "we would watch this." And, it's Opera, and they would say "we know nothing about Opera." I think that's what it is about, trying to explore new ways of thinking about medium and output of visual and performance culture. The end result going to be performance art piece, a video art piece, a sound piece. Everything that Grand Central Art Center is about.

On the history of the Yost Theater

When Lisa was out during one of the visits. I walked around town and we walked through the Yost Theater and she fell in love with the space. She fell in love with the acoustics of the space. She walked the space and was singing through the space to listen to the way the sound bounced. Immediately she said, I want to do a project in here. We introduced her to Dennis Lluy, who is one of the owners of the Yost and it was a match made in heaven. It is a theater that was built in 1912 and made for Vaudeville. And individuals like Fatty Arbuckle and Ike and Tina Turner have performed there. It has a really deep history and within the last four years it's been renovated. Not to look brand new but to look like a theater that has been used since 1912, that's been kept up and maintained, but not in a sterile, pristine way. So it has this beautiful aesthetic that works well with Vireo. And the owners of the actual building, the Chases, have been extremely supportive of the project as well and have even contributed support to the project. So we're very fortunate that it was not only an incredible space but we've had the support of everyone involved in the theater.

On the current uses of the Yost Theater

The Yost Theater in Orange County is known for DJ events and dance clubs. But the day before we got into the space to start up the setup and staging, they had a cage match fight that afternoon and a great Mexican rock band that evening. They took that down and BOOM, we moved in the next morning so it's a diverse program there. They host proms and a little bit of everything it's a go-to space. But I know their vision to do high-end art, theater, performance, opera, and music.

The Yost Theater, during Vireo taping. | Photo: Remsen Allard

On the arts' connection to the community of Santa Ana

Santa Ana is this fourth generation Hispanic shopping district. It's really amazing. Fourth Street itself has an incredible gathering of stores and 28 quinceañera shops. And so we're trying to be very careful to respect but also encourage the culture to stay and maintain and not become completely gentrified. A lot of the projects we've been doing with our artists-in-residence are dealing with those issues of gentrification. We have Cog"¢nate Collective in right now. Amy Sanchez and Misael Diaz, who are doing a project that is about the red line tour. So for a semester long project with Cal State Fullerton's Anthropology 350 [class], students from that program and students from the community worked on the history. They went out and investigated and did archaeological excavation in the downtown area and through that developed a red line tour of downtown. It took place on a first Saturday and with this you can jump on a trolley and learn the history of Santa Ana, but also the current state of downtown Santa Ana. To think about it culturally and think about the heritage that exists there. That is what makes Santa Ana the most interesting part, I believe, it is not the artist village. It's 4th Street and what's going on there. There's culture, there's heritage, new immigrants, first generation. That's what makes it alive.

On "Vireo's" connection to the Santa Ana community

It's hopefully providing an opportunity for local individuals. We cast locally. We cast out of the Orange County High School for the Arts which is three blocks away from Grand Central Art Center. We are trying to keep the cultural elements alive. By staging "Vireo" in the Yost, in the heart of downtown Santa Ana, we were able to bring not only patrons that are involved in the opera in Orange County, an older generation often times, but also younger generations. So it was a nice mix of kind of the old and new generations of Orange County, but meeting in the heart of Santa Ana. And keeping that theater alive in a way that can hopefully move it forward in progressive ways and not just be a dance hall or a place where people gather to party. But a place where high-end culture can exist as well.

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