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Episode 32: Robert Farid Karimi - BUILDING BRIDGES (WOW!)
Episode 3222nd September 2021 • Change the Story / Change the World • Bill Cleveland
00:00:00 00:52:11

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Robert Farid Karimi

The "inbetween" is often ignored. It is also the juicy territory that this week’s guest, comedian, chef, poet, educator, and activist Robert Farid Karimi has been investigating over the last couple of decades. like many of our guests Robert, who is also known as Mero Cocinero, Farid Mercury, the Peoples Chef, and even in some quarters, Betty Crocker's radical heir apparent, Robert is not easily pegged. In the conversation that follows we explore some of the stories, ideas, and questions that animate his work. How can humor become a bridge in a conflict-ridden community? What is the role of the fool and gossip in the post truth era? What can community organizers learn from Mel Brooks and Cheech and Chong. Along the way we hear great stories and have a little fun.

Delicious Quotes

I feel for people who feel that they themselves are bridges because this, it's not easy work to hold, two sides of earth so that others can cross. A lot of times people they're not appreciating everything it took to keep everybody up.

…we say in Spanish, "chesme", gossip. And talking about how immigrants, how we transmit the information, especially when you come from cultures, where the official news is being controlled like Iran and Guatemala, like gossip is powerful. Chesme is powerful. So, I became this bridge by valuing the words of others as truth,

Humor to me was never about insulting or bringing others down. Humor for me was always, "How can you lift up the room? We've had a bad day. Why you gotta be a downer?" And I think growing up, that's why I valued it so much. That's why it became part of my toolkit.

They brought me in to General Mills, …and had me cooking where the Betty Crocker kitchen ladies cook. They stayed. The women who had worked all day stayed because they wanted to have a good time and laugh. My mother still says that's my best gig I've ever had cause I'm at the home of freaking Betty Crocker.

I changed Acting One so that it would incorporate play. I want them to start seeing their bodies as this thing, that's taking it all in and that they are not just actors. They are not just performers they are in the in-between. They are storytellers. And to make these stories, they need to understand their relationship to the system of life. And the final of the classes, they get to make fun of the class. They get to use all the skills to make fun of anything I've done, because the rationale is for me, humor is a great way to show that because you got to know what you know, to make fun of it.

I couldn't just walk into a community and go, “I'm going to save you all because I'm a person of color. Who's funny.” No. I had to go back to the kid that was listening, ...to the folks in the community. ..Then I could see how I could be of service.

Notable Mentions

Mero Cocinero, Farid Mercury, the Peoples Chef: Just three of Mr. Karimi's many alter egos.

Change the Story / Change the World: This podcast, a Chronicle of Art & Community Transformation

lAfrika Bambaataa: Lance Taylor (born in April 17, 1957), also known as Afrika Bambaataa (/ˌæfrɪkə bæmˈbɑːtə/),[2][3] is an American DJ, rapper, and producer from the South Bronx, New York.[4][3] He is notable for releasing a series of genre-defining electro tracks in the 1980s that influenced the development of hip hop culture.[5] Afrika Bambaataa is one of the originators of breakbeat DJing.[1

Out North :Out North advances contemporary art in Anchorage supports underrepresented voices, and promotes cultural dialogue.

House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday[WC1] . [WC1]House Made of Dawn is a 1968 novel by N. Scott Momaday, widely credited as leading the way for the breakthrough of Native American literature into the mainstream. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969, and has also been noted for its significance in Native American anthropology.[2]

Galleria de la Raza: Founded in 1970, Galería de la Raza | Studio 24 is a non-profit dedicated to promoting Xicanx/Latinx art and culture. Our "creative place keeping" ethos is rooted in social inclusion and justice, where community arts are central to navigating the complex intersection of urban development, social inequality, affordable housing, and the historical-cultural legacies of communities of color.

Cornerstone.Theater: Cornerstone Theater Company collaborates with communities. Our work reflects complexity, disrupts assumptions, welcomes difference, and amplifies joy. We aim to advance a more compassionate, equitable, and just world.

"rasquache.": Rasquache is a term of Mesoamerican Nahuatl origin which initially had a negative connotation in Mexico as being an attitude that was lower class, impoverished and having bad taste. This definition was later redefined by Mexican and Chicano art movement, Rasquachismo, transforming social and economic instabilities into a style and a positive creative attitude.

Creative Capital:Creative Capital is a nonprofit organization that has awarded more than $50 million to artists for the creation of groundbreaking new work in the visual arts, performing arts, literature, film, technology, and multidisciplinary practices, including socially-engaged work in all forms. We also provide professional development programs, networking opportunities, and educational resources for arts communities around the world.

Diabetes of Democracy: Awarded the 2011 Arts and Humanities Seed Grant funded jointly by the Institute for Humanities Research  and the Herberger Institute Research Center in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts Diabetes for Democracy in South Phoenix examines the efficacy of the arts—specifically theatrical performance—in changing the dietary attitudes and behaviors of young people at higher risk for chronic diseases like diabetes.

Suzanne Lacy: Suzanne Lacy is renowned as a pioneer in socially engaged and public performance art. Her installations, videos, and performances deal with sexual violence, rural and urban poverty, incarceration, labor and aging. Lacy’s large-scale projects span the globe, including England, Colombia, Ecuador, Spain, Ireland and the U.S. 

Comic Relief[WC1] , [WC1]Comic Relief is a major charity based in the UK, with a vision of a just world, free from poverty.The organization's mission is to drive positive change through the power of entertainment.

Up in Smoke: Up in Smoke is a 1978 American buddy stoner comedy film directed by Lou Adler and starring Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong, Edie Adams, Strother Martin, Stacy Keach, and Tom Skerritt. It is Cheech & Chong's first feature-length film. While negatively received upon its release, Up in Smoke grossed over $104 million, is credited with establishing the stoner film genre, and is now considered a cult classic.

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Bridges Translations and Change: Art as Infrastructure in 21st Century America.: (1992) The essay was presented as a plea to America’s cultural community to get off the sidelines and join the fray. Atthattime,I(along with many others) asserted that what some were calling a “new world order” was in fact anew world condition--- that the recent spate of tumultuous events was not an unusual spike on the Richter scale of human affairs, but rather, a natural symptom of a globe that was in a perpetual state of accelerating change

Transcripts

Robert Farid Karimi – Building Bridges

[:

H: Hello

B: Hey

H: Hey, What's up?

B: How about dinner tonight?

H: Cool, Where?

B: Actually, its dinner and a show

H: Super cool, what are you thinking, sushi, Thai, Mexican.? God it’s been ages

B: Well, it's not exactly a restaurant, and…

H: Great! A pop-up. I love pop-ups; where? And what movie?

B: As a matter of fact, it's at the Aquatic Center.

H: Oh, Are you sure? I think that place is just a pool, a sauna, and a lot of wrinkly people.

B: Yeah, that's true and, in fact, there's no movie either, it's a show, sort of, you know, a live thing

H: Wait! You're asking me out to dinner and show at a swimming pool. What is this, water ballet or something? What are we going to do eat popcorn, and watch people swim laps?

B: Well, not exactly.

H: What do you mean, "not exactly."

B: OK, look there's this guy, that I sort of know, who can't swim who is going to try and…

H: And what, we're going to have a picnic while we watch some guy drown? Come on!

B: Well, I guess that's a possibility.

H: What, the drowning, or the picnic

B Look I don't think he'll really drown, but I guess you should know that we are probably going to be doing some of the cooking too.

H: All right, all right, I get it. This is a joke, right? Wow, you really got me going there. Chuckles, It is a joke, right?

B: Well, yes, and no. The guy in the pool is a comedian, and a chef, and most definitely a non-swimmer, and if he makes it there's going to be a fun party with music, and dancing and really great food…

H: …that we're going to cook.

B: Yeah, but not just us. Look, I know this sounds weird, but this is going to be great. You've got to trust me on this.

H: Trust you, with this insane water opera

B: Yeah, it is a little crazy but please, think of it as an evening of adventure. I promise, you’ll love it, I mean it, you won't be sorry. Please?

H: Well, I can tell you really want to do this, so I guess. Should I bring my bathing suit.

B: Hmmm. No, but, they did ask that folks bring plastic garbage bags for poncho's in case there's splashing.

H: Jezzzz, Sorry I asked.

You might be asking yourself what the heck was that. Some kind of a neighborhood water festival, a pandemic healing ritual, new idea for a theme restaurant. Well, like the guy in our little story says, the answer is yes, and no, AND a lot of in-between. Which is the juicy territory that this week’s guest, comedian, chef, poet, educator, and activist Robert Farid Karimi has been investigating over the last couple of decades. like many of our guests Robert, who is also known as mero Cocinero, Farid Mercury, the People Chef, and even in some quarters, Betty Crocker's radical heir apparent, Robert is not easily pegged. In the conversation that follows we explore some of the stories, ideas, and questions that animate his work. How can humor become a bridge in a conflict-ridden community? What is the role of the fool and gossip in the post truth era? What can community organizers learn from Mel Brooks and Cheech and Chong. Along the way we hear great stories and have a little fun.

This is Change the Story / Change the World, a chronicle of art and community transformation.

[:

[00:03:20] Part one. Tu Eres Mi Otro

[:

[00:03:44] BC: If you had a street name and maybe you do, what would it be?

[:

But I think bridge is what it is. because if I'm telling a story, if I'm performing, if I'm consulting with a foundation or if I'm just working on teaching, no matter what I'm doing, I'm constantly in that role of bridge that I feel started with my role as translator for my parents, because the Iranian dad and the Guatemalan mom here in the bay area, in the seventies.

And I'm the one that the English is my first language. I'm always the one having to talk to people. I remember telling my friends, I did, I thought everyone did this. We would take the voting guide in English, and I would read it with them I'm always the first one did go to school, go to proms, understand this thing called the United States.

So, for me, this bridge thing works. And then when I started reading about various community folks like Africa, Bambada in learning about the person that goes to different gang areas and walks around. That's who I was here. I would end up in different neighborhoods, the bay area, because this is my hometown, the entire bay, because that bridge making that, that connection, is very important to me.

But also, I understand that it's hard to hold two pieces of earth. I really feel for bridges. I feel for people who feel that they themselves are bridges because. This, it's not easy work to hold, to sit two sides of earth so that others can cross a lot of times people they're not appreciating everything it took to keep everybody up.

[:

[00:05:52] RK: That's why I don't open with it usually because as an artist in the United States or in the world, a bridge is more metaphoric is less legible within capitalism and art. However, for the work that needs to be done, the bridges are usually the first one we call.

[:

[00:06:14] RK: And I feel so blessed because all the good things that have happened in my life is because I've been a bridge and people like the idea of “tu eres mi otro yo,” or “En La Kesh,” you are my other eye recognizing the bridge and me. And when others, I recognize the bridge in them, even to whatever percentage they, they have consciousness of that, that creates art, that creates connection. That creates work, that creates ideas, visioning all. That's a part of my practice.

And my very first time in Seattle This was in 98, I was the, yes, the first person at this slam to speak Spanish in the nightclub. And I get heckled and booed and everything and “Speak English.” Cause I did a bilingual poem and whoa, this is real, but this is usually what I was doing. I was usually performing in places that there was no traditional Iranian/Guatemalan center out there. I would end up in places like, for example, up in Alaska, working in what was identified as a queer theater, but working with native youth, doing spoken word because the artistic director there thought, oh yeah, this guy's perfect. He gets them and they'll get him.

[:

[00:07:39] RK: that is Out North.

Yeah. And I was like, you're crazy, no way this is going to work. And sure enough, he was right. Those people were in that in between as well.

[:

[00:07:51] RK: Even hanging out with the Hmong community in Minneapolis. There's a certain moment in every group. That folks want to be able to assert themselves as themselves. I have been very privileged and lucky to be around when that happens. So, you can't see this in radio. I am circling my hands. As people start circling almost like a mosh pit, creating energy and conjuring. Yes. Even as a mosh pit, as these folks create energy, I've been lucky to help be a part of that spark.

[:

All those things, trickster artists, Commedia, performer, healer celebration list, big-C little-C culture bearer. All of that is the work. And what’s happened recently, is that a certain point in history there was this thing: “Let's make it precious and put it in a box and turn it into a scarce commodity.”

[:

And he keeps asking the congregation, what's the most important thing? Is it the encounter or is it the religion that gets created? And he talks about his grandmother and that her words were medicine, and she didn't waste them. I remember that quote very well because that's what was taught to me, this idea that when words go from medicine to this corporate religion, whatever it may be.

Yeah. It can happen in any sector. And what's really interesting is you're what you're hitting for me is we are still hungry for the medicine people. And so, for me, as I'm growing, I start really holding on to the concept of the Artist Plus is this person that empathy is central to them. And it's not that they don't care about making money. It's not about, they don't care about creating a life for themselves within their practice. It's also that they understand and that they are part of a system and that their artistic production is in relation to that system.

This idea of Artists Plus helps me to think about every time I go into a city or I go into a community to work, I'm always thinking about how I can be a symbol of change. So for example, when I do my cooking show, I'm thinking, how can I hire people? How can the funding that I'm getting go to a place that will deal with the community?

So, when I leave the community, yeah, two to $3,000 extra for them to buy refrigerator, buy equipment. These are things that took a long time before. I never thought that way. I just thought, oh, I'm going to do a show, right? I'm a show I'm going to make you laugh. That's enough. No, I can do more. Artists Plus one of the things you asked was about impact.

I started realizing everywhere. We did my cooking show. I toured with, with the cooking show called Karimi and Comrades. I toured with that for five years and I realized everywhere we went, the fundraising for the institution went up.

[:

So, now let me take you. You have made numerous references. So, the listener is going, “What the hell is he talking about with this cooking?” Yes. So can you do the Robert Karimi, Cooking 101 story.

[:

I just didn't. And then my mom would learn the Betty Crocker recipes. And this is how she taught me to be. From the United States. I built this, installation we built it in San Francisco at Galleria de la Raza. And then I decided that I would be this character named Mero Cocinero, a progressive chef that's trying to change the world through cooking, but he's a total bumbler.

And I would make food on Saturday at two o'clock. KQBD had cooking shows all the way till two. And so, my mom and I used to watch cooking shows every weekend, every Saturday. And so, I wanted to pretend that this was the last KQBD show, but it was live, and people came, and they knew the only thing they had to do was listen to the story that I told and they would get free food. So, it would start with five people. Well, 10, 20, and then it became hundreds. Yeah. And because people heard there was free food is there to come in.

And then I worked at a theater company in LA called Cornerstone. And I was their marketing person, audience development person. It was an internship, and I couldn't get anybody to come to their shows. It was a bridge show, that went to five communities. And the best way, I was in this Filipino community and Eagle Rock. And they're like, it was in a Druze center, the show. And they're like, we never been there. Why should we come?

And the guy goes, the barber, I'll never forget. He goes "Is there going to be food?" I'm like, “Yeah,” “Of course, I'll come. I'll bring the kids. Can we bring the kids because we'll do you feed them too?” “Yeah.” “Cool. I need a feed people after work.” “Okay, great.” Nobody cared about the play. Oh, nobody cared about credit. Stone's history, legacy, their politics. They just cared about that food. And that when the cooking show I started, I started doing it and then people said, oh, food and theater now, never going to work. I was like, okay, no one likes it.

Then I go to Chicago, and I make a cooking show and it just takes off. Like people start coming. This character now has a story. We bring, other characters. I combined the aesthetics of Pee-wee Herman with a political comedy show. I think the episode we did was it was the anniversary of the CIA and they're going into Guatemala and Iran. So that was the recipes. And it was just, I could be irreverent. I could bring all those things I talked about into it, and I had this crazy chef that could never get it right.

So, we always had to ask the audience to help him finish or the characters to help him finish or someone to help him finish. So it became participatory. And then, I started doing it against the Iraq war. We did war against indigestion. We took it off-Broadway. We started taking it everywhere because we could talk about anything because as long as people got fed.

The absolutely.

BC: Let me get, I want to say. Yeah, there's a kitchen onstage.

RK: There is two counters on stage. There's two tables. It's Mero Cucinero's aesthetic. Okay. Mero Cucinero in English means the best cook, but it also implies a Mexican Spanish, Mero means "the best" in air quotes, cook.

So, they know he's your friendly neighborhood cook. He's cool. But he might not be that good. Oh, so there's two tables. Usually, we would get local posters. So, for example, in Minnesota, we had Ricardo Levins Morales gave us posters, or we bought posters, Fabiana Rodriguez. We bought posters from her when we did it in the bag.

So, we had various artists because it was supposed to be a term by Tomas Ybarra Fausto, and Amalia Mesa Bains the idea was supposed to be "rasquache." it was supposed to be looking like you got it from various places to create the set, because that was the metaphor of cooking. "You get it from everywhere, a little bit of this, a little bit of that." So even the set looked that way.

I'd make these fictional recipes And we did everything from, we did “hummus con chile de arbol,” which, you know, had spice to protect you just in case a tank came. If you were on Palestinian land, the hummus would make you feel better. This is where the politics of it all came. Like we had a “lumpia campesina,” which was supposed to be the lumpia, the Filipino egg roll that united Latino and Filipino farm workers. Like there was always an extra thing underneath, because this was the sly way to talk about food history and honor our ancestors. And it never was just about the food. Never. It was the way to get you in the room.

And then out of that in:

And could I honor the wisdom and the power of those communities by just listening. By just featuring them by using these characters that were totally like Disney land, very interactive characters, but they were full.

“Oh, I can't finish. Can you finish? Ma'am oh, what's your recipe. Hey, let's honor her the show's about her.”

And then I would go and do workshops. So, in Texas, they took me to a place where there was these women in a halfway house where they were an abused relationships and they were separated from their families. And so, this home was their first time back with their children, but they were noticing that they weren't eating balanced. So, I went in and we did a happy cooking thing. Their kids made mats with the artists that brought the host organization and we made food and we dance and everything. And the kids and the workers were saying, “We haven't seen these women smile the entire time.”

And this woman came up to me and told me a story. That's still with me. She said, “I'm Mexican. And my doctor told me that's why I have diabetes. And that's, what's killing me is being Mexican.” And this was the racist shit that I was hearing on the road. And this is what we were trying to counter.

[:

[00:18:58] RK: I don't make this way, if not for a retreat we had an Alameda in 09. This is where the resources you're helpful. Getting these resources. I bring a group of people and our nutritionist. Yeah. April Greenberg says,

“Oh, you can't, you're just going to do a play and just go down a 10 on I'm out. I'm out. If you're not going to be in the community for three months, six months, nine months. Really think about being there for time. Nah, this ain't going to work. You're just going to be like everybody else.”

And I was like, “Wait, I make theater. Oh no, we don't stay for six months. Where are we going to get the money for that?”

And that's where I was first going. But then that was what was so brilliant because having that time got me to go to a funder and go, “Hey, this is what we need.” It got me to go to intermedia back in the day in Minneapolis and go “Hi, can I sit there for two years and make a residency in that piece of the area you're not using.” I want to do that. It made Kresge foundation come to me and go, “Hey, we want to make artists like you. What did you do? Can you work with us so that we can make a grant?” And they were like, “We want to give people money for a year.

I go, no, give them money for 3, 4, 5. It takes you so long in this space to make things happen. So look, this one thing happens, all this work happens, and this is where I realized like the cooking show. That's why it's hard to even describe. Yes. It's a performance. Yes. It's an installation. Yes. It's a community engagement space.

es. Did I think about that in:

Now I am so blessed because the show is just a piece of this huge thing. And this is why I say it's Artists Plus. I don't need everybody to go through my long, journey. And as a matter of fact, I don't wish it on everybody. It's like if someone wants to make music, make plays, do that! That's great, please. We need it. But this type of work, I'm talking about this idea of making a show, and making an engagement concept, and making a methodology, and working with doctors and nurses and all that stuff. That's a whole different way of thinking.

Part three. Chesme, Cheech and Chong

[:

What is the story? And then how will it manifest? And for most of human history, that was a given, what is the story? There are so many mysteries out here it's going to drive me crazy. So, give me some answers. And then as we started to organize ourselves and we had bigger questions, we recognized that there are processes that we had to engage in order to make the story, share the story, spread the story, and integrate the story into everyday life.

Okay. So that's one thing. So now back to your journey, you weren't born as a bridge. My question is a pretty simple one. How'd you get that way?

[:

I had to learn it as a survival technique. I had to learn to listen and right away, I had to learn to be quiet in the room because rules were being made for me every minute, every day. And I couldn't go to my parents for answers because they weren't born here. So, like my mother and father would be surprised when I would come home and I would know all the Motown or all the seventies, funk music that was coming out of the bay area.

And they were like, shocked. Where did you get this? Because I'd be walking somewhere. I'd be looking because I became so hungry as I became a student of culture. It was really funny because when I first moved back to LA, a few years ago, I was in grad school at a very older age. And Suzanne Lacy was like, you know what to do when you come to a new community. And when she said that, I'm like, “Yeah,” because I've been doing it since I was little, because every community is a new community. Every community is a place where you got to learn the rules. Listen, it's one of the reasons why I look away.

I think now that I'm just talking to you, I look away a lot to really hear because all my life we say in Spanish, "chesme", gossip, a lot of times for folks, gossip's a bad thing. But to me, it's where you learn the street. It's the story, right?

BC: It's the story.

RK: But you also learn the codes now we've commercialized it and called it Yelp and Google, but, and Twitter. That's gossip. It's what we value. And talking about how immigrants, how we transmit the information, especially when you come from cultures, where the official news is being controlled like Iran and Guatemala, like gossip is powerful. Chesme is powerful. So, I became this bridge by valuing the words of others as truth, they could be lies. It could be a lot of things.

I started to value humor. We'd go to a barbershop. People laughing, tell a story, the person who could tell the good story in my house at the dinner table, and make people laugh, they were valued. So, to me, if you could talk about politics, if you could talk about religion, if you could talk about all the taboo things and make people laugh, you were valued.

People talk about boundaries now. It wasn't necessarily boundaries. It was, I liked to use the word limits. It was more about you push too far. Oh, you pissed off mom. Oh, you're not getting dinner now, but you tried, you did it. My cousins used to tell the most horrible jokes. This was family. This is what we did. When you went outside family and you told that same joke and it got you in trouble. You had to learn, that way.

Humor to me was never about insulting or bringing others down. Humor for me was always, "How can you lift up the room? We've had a bad day. Why you gotta be a downer?" And I think growing up, that's why I valued it so much. That's why it became part of my toolkit.

The other thing was I started realizing that it was the bridges that helped my parents here in this country. Like, A very good friend of the family, Roberto his mom Beatrice Bedoya was one of those folks that always looked out for us. She worked in the union. Everyone knew that if something went down in our neighborhood, go to her and she knew somebody to talk to somebody to talk to somebody else. She was just that bridge person. And that's how this bridge kid starts.

[:

[00:26:47] RK: It's all Richard Pryor. George Carlin, Red Fox Lily Tomlin Woopie Goldberg. I loved comedy. I had a Mork and Mindy, Robin Williams, lunch pail. Comedy taught me everything about being in the United States a United Statesian because that's where I could learn the gossip. Because if you didn't get the joke, you had to learn the joke.

And then going back to artists, plus Billy crystal, Robin Williams will be Goldberg. They did Comic Relief, that idea of activism, comedy. And even as I got further down the line and older learning about Cheech Marin and his activism with the new farm workers movement. So, to me, I was starting to get attracted to these complicated human beings. People. We're funny and their humor activated me to go learn more like they were, they became their own hyperlinks.

Chappelle talks about humorists that want to be musicians and musicians that want to be Humorists. There was something about that and then find it within poetry and spoken word was an easy marriage for me, because for me. I was attracted to the poets. That could be funny, but I was attracted to the poet that we're a A U R A L, aural, the ones that were playing with the language of the "era's "and the "ena's" and playing with the Spanglish.

Those were like, oh my God, that's me. For me, they were the ones that really got me going. And why that's so important to me is it got me to think about something I couldn't name until I listened to Up in Smoke's director comments. Up in Smoke is Cheech and Chong's first movie.

And so, Cheech Marin in talks about why they did what they did. And this is central to a lot of the characters I create in my performance work. How I’m thinking about activism, how I'm thinking about playing playfulness in my socially engaged work. He talks about wanting to make magic characters, Cheech, and Chong.

People are like, oh, they're smoking dope. They're stupid, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But he's talking about it in the tradition of the fool. And talking about how they're above the law and almost ethereal. So that way they can make fun of everything. They're not tied in. They're not like on my political activism, which is cool. That's a road, but I'm interested in Cheech and Chong because they're like, “Whoa, we just subverted the system. We just made fun of it. We just made the cops a fool. We just made the politician a fool. We did that by living up here and being light.” And that is what Mel Brooks did.

And that is why I started connecting to the comedians because: What are you a bridge to? What are you a bridge for? What is that to that magic place? That activation of wonder, because for me, why my work went from a show to installation, to residencies, to all these various different iterations. I'm performing in front of people to activate that magic so that they can realize that they can be like Cheech and Chong too. Without the THC,

Part Four: The Fool at General Mills.

[:

And not only is that a moment of serendipitous, genius and silliness at the same time, it is also an invitation to come with us and be in this together. You and I are humans on a journey that is both profound and quirky as hell. And when you realize, “Oh wait, okay, the person up there has lost themselves in what's going on. And now we're actually all on the same place together.”

[:

Cause of the game, the mechanics of the game is supposed to be the most offensive, racist, sexist, homophobic game ever. That's what they made. Okay. And so now how do I subvert that system in order to create a critique about the other system? And now how do we make another system where we can be around each other and look each other in the eye when it happens rather than happen down the street.

And then what's the next system. After that, this goes back to you. The story we tell from the experience we had. This is why I say I'm a narrative designer and producer of play. I'm interested in that piece too, because that is as much the activation for me. It's the chesme again. That's as much part of it as what I used to do only.

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And in, in some ways it says we live in a society that says this moment of humor, or a wonder, or awe is just episodic. It comes in, it goes, and then you just go off and do whatever. And the fool understands he does have magic. Okay. And it can be wielded delicately. It can be wielded dangerously, and it can be wheeled in a way that heals. And, if in fact, all those three things are true, then you, your accountability, you you're in touch with something that is profound enough to get, people hurt and you in trouble.

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They brought me in to General Mills, for example, and had me cooking where the Betty Crocker kitchen ladies cook. They stayed. The women who had worked all day stayed because they wanted to have a good time and laugh. My mother still says that's my best gig I've ever had cause I'm at the home of freaking Betty Crocker. I'm like, I made it like I'm at Betty Crocker, but those ladies were like, so excited, excited to laugh at work. They did not have to stay. General Mills puts the kitchen in the middle of the building so that everyone remembers this is why we do what we do. It's the food

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And there's windows and it's all glass. And you can look into it at any moment. So think about that. You brought joy. So now what's at center now, not just food joy. And within that moment, the fool comes in and has changed your corporation. Now it's not just Centre into food, but into joy. And now how does that feel? What's interesting is with a company like General Mills, for example, they're already thinking about engagement, culture and all that stuff to sell stuff to people. They have a whole division dedicated to it, right?

BC: It's called marketing,

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How would that change? My argument is a lot. And that's why for me, rather than just hiring me as a comedian for their workers. What about if your comedian is part of your whole system. And why I'm thinking about that is it's a kind of what happened with the industrial revolution and leisure anyways. The industrial revolution,compartmentalized leisure so that we would only do it over the weekend.

How about what has happened to play in playfulness and laughing and humor in our society? It has become compartmentalized, but if we brought that into, “Oh, wait, you mean at Silicon Valley, they're having Innovation Labs. Oh wow. at Stanford. They're talking about play.” All these people know that this is going to happen, but when are they going to call the Artists' Pluses into the room to be a part of that?

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[00:36:26] RK: I'm constantly thinking about that. Impact's important to me because when I was doing the type two diabetes work with the Diabetes of Democracy Project, I couldn't just walk into a company immunity and go, “I'm going to save you all because I'm a person of color. Who's funny.” No. I had to go back to the kid that was listening. I had to go back and listen to the folks in the community. And when I did that, then I could see how I could be of service.

BC:So, when I first started the Center for the Study of Art and Community., I wrote a manifesto it's called. Bridges Translations and Change: Art as Infrastructure in 21st Century America. A mouthful. Uh, but when you talk about infrastructure, you're talking about basics, roads, bridges, electricity, healthcare, the social safety net, and yeah, in my book, art and culture in the streets and institutions. Things that are constanttThat everyone needs and benefits from. So. On the cultural front, the difference between an art event and art as infrastructure, is at the end of the day, the event comes and goes and the infrastructure is maintained.

Now of course most folks these days don't see a comedian engaging the workers at General Mills or addressing diabetes as infrastructure. But, when I thought about you, The fool on stage cooking away and the people there, salivating and listening, right? The combination of the brain getting provoked the heart, getting tickled and the taste buds getting primed well. This is as primal as it gets. I think these are the kinds of connections we need to stimulate. Uh, new ways of seeing the world new definitions of what constitutes a healthy, productive life. New definitions of what constitutes infrastructure.

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But to cut the onions needed a person before it got heated. And so we would bring somebody up to cut the onions and we even did this on Green Bay television does shtick and we had half an onion. You'd come, you'd cut with Mero Cocinero. I picked some random person in the audience and greet them.

They come up, we put an apron on them. and this is all scripted, right? The piece that's not scripted as the interaction between us two. They would take a knife and I would teach them nice safety. So, the knife safety one was I'd asked them which hand they were. Are they leftist? Are they right this week? We welcome every hand. And then I'd ask them to get down because you've got to get grounded because you're dealing with the white onion and got to watch out for the white onion, and I teach them how to cut and swivel and chop it.

And I go, do you notice? And they'd be like, because they are there. their face is away from the onion meat. I purposely put them away. I go, “Do you see what happened? They say, “What?’ I go ,”The white onion didn't make you cry. You were able to cut the white onion and it did not oppress you.”

And people get that. Oh yeah, they get the language. Right. And we did this on live TV in Green Bay. So, I almost got in trouble. But the thing that, that was a trip was they got knife training, we talked politics and then they helped make the first dish.

So, all of these different political things were embedded in this one thing. And I think I look back at that. I look back at that and I'm like, wow, this is the kind of art I want to make. This is the kind of stuff I want to be a part of. And that onion. That smell is an invitation,

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[00:40:39] RK: Yes. I'm playing playfulness. The idea of playing a well-played game. And that concept hit me because --- why do we go to the theater? We want to play a well-played game with the performers. The performers want to play a well-played game with each other. You don't necessarily need to win.

What kind of community do I want when I'm saying “Black lives matter?” What do I want, black lives to win? Do I want white lives to win? No, I want us all to play well. That is to me, and in my language is “nourishment.” That to me is what we're after. And where does that come from? It comes from fun. It comes from a playful spirit, but just, this is what the brain scientists and other folks have talked about. you know, like Maslow's triangle, you don't have the security, you don't have the food, you don't have the play.

How can you have a playful spirit and why are they getting rid of playgrounds? Okay. Those are the physical manifestations, but if I'm always making you not feel the magic, if I'm always getting rid of your wonder, if I'm always doing that systematically, when are you ever going to want to play? And if that's the role of industrial revolution and capitalism to destroy the play and playfulness out of us, for me, artistically speaking, that's what I want to counter.

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BC: So, as you work to counter those really powerful forces what happens when those playful spirits and that sense of wonder crosses paths with the desire and fear that fuels the predatory capitalism that you've described.

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[00:42:46] BC: And you're going to spill shit

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I could not go into a pool for years. I’m very scared of water still, but I said, “I have to learn how to swim and I'm going to make a piece about it”. And I started learning that the same communities, this is not direct relation, the same communities that are at risk for type two diabetes are most likely to drown in America.

And, and there are studies that show that the reason why primarily, like African Americans, native Americans, indigenous folks, or LatinX, Latino, Latino folks, don't swim. Usually, mom can't swim. So, there's a direct correlation of mom. Doesn't want to take them to swim or mom or grandma or great grandma. And then I learned that my mom didn't know how to swim, Grandmother didn't know how to swim. They are all Mayans by the way. But there was a moment in my, in history where everybody swam. So, what happened. It was like, whoa. So, I did this work. I took lessons and I made what was called Swimming Pool Party, because I asked the question, wouldn't it be great if you took on your greatest trauma, your greatest fear.

And at the end, if you succeeded, you had a party of community people celebrating you to do that. So we took up a room at USC multilevel. People had to solve puzzles, Harry Waters Jr. As I think, you know, was the host of this futuristic revolutionary swimming Institute because in the future, swimming is illegal and you could only learn it clandestinely.

And so the audience 250. had to solve puzzles and then help the most difficult student get in the pool. And this is all true. This is my first time ever going from the nine foot to the four-foot part of the pool in front around 200 folks. And I had never, I'd done it once in tech and no one really got that. I really didn't know how to, swim well yet until tech. And I'm like ,and Harry's looking at my eyes, everyone's looking, we had a water doula there that was there to help me and all these different folks and everyone's, “Oh my God, you really, this is your first time doing this.” I go, yeah.” And I'm like, “ahhhhhh”, like I, but I had taken lessons for 15 weeks and, and the people go through with Harry, and it didn't solve the puzzles.

The puzzles are based on my three greatest fears about water. Segregation. Alan Kurdi, the boy from Syria that escaped and drowned in Greece. And then third, waterboarding because when that started happening in 9/11 I thought they were going to take me and do that. So, they had to solve puzzles within those three worlds and then I would swim.

So I go, and there's a certain moment in the nine foot and I go to eight, seven and I struggle. And at that moment, imagine right. Entire crowd thinks, oh, this is funny, he’s such a good actor. This is so good acting. This is so great. The head of administrative facilities has decided t o come in and be up and police it. And they think he's a character, but he's actually decided to come and police it surprise, even though we have it all… and he's coming in. And the world in this futuristic world, the world is divided by rocks and floaters are those that are allowed to swim and rocks are not, and they think he's a floater louder, get away floater.

And he doesn't know what that is going on because he thinks he's doing a job. And he's being a real, not nice human being right now. What are you guys doing? Get all right. And he's the character. And around sthe ix foot part. Yeah, I'm flailing. I hold the side and everyone gets at that moment. I can't swim. And this is my first time I'm not making this shit up and there's a gap.

And then all of a sudden, it's, I'm going. And then Harry grabs my hand and he says the line that he's supposed to say, if I do it, “He had swam ,”and the 20 piece Samba band goes off, and everybody starts singing. There’s shakers, there's everything. And they go up to the party, with a Filipina DJ and food, and video, and the Samba band.

Those kinds of ceremonies performances, there's what I'm interested in here. We have play, we have agency, I learned a lot about this is who I want to be. And this is where the work's going is they get agency, they get to play. I get to play with them in a hopefully respectful way. And we get to party at the end and play together. Cause we just went through an experience.

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[00:47:28] RK: Yes, they are. I am making new classes right now. They let me do it. I changed acting one so that it would incorporate play. For example, they have to read an essay by John Stilgoe, environmental studies professor at Harvard, one of the most popular classes he teaches. He, has a book and the first section is about walking and getting to know your neighborhood and really just observing it, and I give it to them because I want them to start seeing their bodies as this thing, that's taking it all in and that they are not just actors.

They are not just performers they are in the in-between. They are storytellers. And to make these stories, they need to understand their relationship to the system of life. And the final of the classes, they get to make fun of the class. They get to use all the skills to make fun of anything I've done, because the rationale is for me, humor is a great way to show that because you got to know what you know, to make fun of it.

BC: Absolutely.

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[00:48:42] RK: And it was amazing to watch how they do it. I just love watching them. And then the other class I did I'm working on is a one on interactivity and engagement.

I want to see if I can make a whole slew of classes around those ideas, because either working with another discipline or multiple disciplines, because almost every department at Arizona state is dealing with those two words. And yet the performer is not in the room talking to them

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