The Dallas Symphony’s Soluna Festival ends with a rousing finish this Sunday – a free concert in Klyde Warren Park. The concert will mark Memorial Day with patriotic and inspiring music and a dash of fireworks. It’ll also display short videos about immigrants and refugees, about why people come to America. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports the videos were compiled by an artist who actually left America.
Monte Laster says what he does now as an artist originated more than 30 years ago in the strict Bible classes he had as a child in Fort Worth. Never feeling as if he belonged here, Laster used the church’s youth missionary program to get to Paris and then to Belgium. When the 19-year-old arrived at the Gare du Nord (the famous train station) in Paris, he felt different.
He felt at home.
In Belgium, Laster found what he wanted to do: “I worked mostly with Vietnamese kids that were refugees there. And there were lots of elderly widows from Poland that had come there during World War II. So yeah, it was something I loved to do because I could do creative work — we did puppet shows and all kinds of things — to link the two generations together. So that set me up for the kind of work I do now.”
What Laster does now is get people to exchange experiences, share backgrounds. It’s often called social sculpture, a theory developed by the Fluxus-Conceptual artist Joseph Beuys who wished to fuse his political utopianism with his artistic practices. Social sculpture uses different art forms – any human process, really, music, videos, painting, food, dancing, sewing – to draw attention to a public cause like economic inequality. Or to spark urban development. Or it does what Laster does: foster collaborations and conversations across cultures, social classes, generations.
But it took Laster a while to get to that. In 1981, he returned to North Texas just to earn the money to go back and live in Paris. He worked with a cousin in upscale landscaping. “My first landscaping job was working for the Mansion on Turtle Creek,” he recalls. And some of his other gardening efforts appeared on the TV show, Dallas. Ironically, as a child growing up in Texas, Laster’s only artistic outlet had been moving rocks around the family yard.
In 1989, Laster moved back to Paris — to the suburb, Le Courneuve. He found a condemned, old watermill, the Moulin Fayvon, and moved in — without water, without windows, with little electricity. He renovated it into a studio — and in the process, discovered that the abandoned mill’s history stretched back to the 12th century and the famous Abbot Suger. An ex-pat Texan was teaching the French something about the man who promoted the Gothic style of architecture in building the great Cathedral Saint-Denis.
But what truly made Laster known in Paris were his efforts with the nearby La cite des 4000 (The City of 4000) — a mammoth, notorious, low-income housing project outside Paris slated for demolition, its inhabitants largely stigmatized. In short, a concrete, high-rise ghetto, the French version of Cabrini Green. Laster worked with residents to chronicle its destruction — and to unite the community around various interventions: poetry readings, concerts. He became celebrated for working with the stigmatized inhabitants of a nearby, giant, low-income housing project. In 1991, Laster created FACE – the French/American Creative Exchange. He’s brought French rappers to Harlem, and American rappers to Paris. He’s created workshops, think tanks, even dinner debates.
All of this is why Laster was commissioned to work with Booker T. Washington High School students to create short videos for Soluna. The festival’s theme this year is Destination America: From the trans-Atlantic trajectory of conductor Jaap van Zweden’s own career to the European composers whose music is performed by Asian-American musicians, Soluna has made a stab at encompassing the bastardized, wide-ranging, multi-national nature of American culture. Laster is creating and compiling videos for Soluna’s closing concert – videos about fear and freedom, about why people have traditionally fled here or transplanted themselves here. Five videos will come from Paris artists, five Laster will make with Oral Fixation about immigrant Dallasites choosing relevant artworks from the Dallas Museum of Art — and five will come from teams of Booker T students, all of them working on themes of displacement, of the desire to better oneself.
“Create something so beautiful, people will go home and Google Soluna to find out where it came from,” Laster told them in April. “But keep the film three to five minutes maximum,” he adds. “That’s what we’ve agreed on.” Over the past three months, the students have had personal conferences with Laster, cross-country emails and online editing sessions. Laster plans on posting their videos online on his own site — he’s also hoping all this with the DSO, the DMA and Booker T will be the start of a new beachhead in America for future projects for FACE.
The students are jazzed about working with him. Dance junior Margaret Canady: “Monte gave us a lot of freedom. He was definitely a very inspirational guy to work with. He has big ideas.”
The idea that their short videos will be seen by thousands on giant screens in Klyde Warren, accompanied by the Dallas Symphony, even broadcast on the Armed Services Network – that’s a big idea. Theater junior Alexis D’Elena is part of a foursome who worked on one video: “That’s nerve-wracking to say the least, that our art is going to be in front of so many people. But also very exciting.”
But no artist may be feeling quite what Laster will. He has family in Weatherby he’s visited over the years, but he hadn’t seen Dallas in 25 years. He never felt at home here. Now he has a homecoming.
“It’s incredible to come back and to work with Booker T. Washington, Oral Fixation, the Dallas Symphony and the Dallas Museum of Art,” he says, “and to see that this place that I felt so alien from in fact now, not only welcomes me back but helps me to see … ” his voice stops. He tries to compose himself; he’s near tears. “Sorry, it’s gonna take me a minute to sorta get myself together.” Another long pause as he takes a deep breath and lets it out.
“It helps me to see to what extent we all change. And also the context changes. For many years, I felt I couldn’t come back here because I didn’t feel connected. Y’know, to come back and to feel so connected – and not only on a personal level but now on a very public level — it’s proof that anything’s possible.”
That has been one of the hopes America offers.