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Exuberant activism

BY JUSTUS FLAIR | MARCH 13, 2014 5:00 AM

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Some activists in Iowa City are fracking angry.

Exuberant Politics, an international group focusing on the combination of art and activism, has used handmade signs, dancing, and vibrant ensembles to bring awareness to ethnic and environmental issues and stereotypes. Photos on its website show ballerinas in Laundromats, children holding crayon-inscribed signs begging humans to stop destroying their planet, and stills from films devoted to making prejudice visible around the world.

The group's latest target is fracking (hydraulic fracturing), a way of extracting oil and natural gas from rock structures in the United States and elsewhere.

"Protect Our Parks, Pass It On," an event devoted to raising awareness of fracking and protesting its use, will be held at 7 p.m. Friday at at Public Space One, 120 N. Dubuque St.

Fracking has pushed the United States to the top of natural-gas/oil production, but it has been controversial among environmentalists, who question if it is worth the destruction of parks and environments.

Jennifer Myers, a University of Iowa alumna and Pittsburgh-based artist, designed the event after listening to testimonies given during Pittsburgh's "Protect Our Parks" campaign.

"It is a collection of the 10-most-powerful testimonies," Myers said. "They are the public comments that give voice to the public's deep and immediate concerns against fracking in the county parks, something that has been proposed to begin in 2014 by the county executive in Pittsburgh."

The testimonies, Myers feels, go far beyond just fracking in Pennsylvania.

"During this re-performance, the public will hear that the struggle in Pittsburgh is indeed a universal one — shared by all and in accord with the whole human race," Myers said. "Though some details may differ, what is really being presented are testimonies for the future of this planet and what's at stake if we don't pursue renewable energy today and get off fossil fuel now."

The struggle in Pittsburgh affects Iowa's Allamakee County. Though the county Board of Supervisors issued a moratorium to stop mining a silica sand used in fracking just over a year ago, the hiatus will soon end, and the mining may begin again despite the protests of the Allamakee County Protectors.

An Iowa City group, 100 Grannies, is also protesting fracking in an effort to preserve natural resources and help in "promoting solutions to end activities destructive to Mother Earth," according to its website. Several of the performers in "Protect Our Parks, Pass It On" are members of 100 Grannies.

"The big goal of 100 Grannies is to save the planet, but we have been around long enough to know that the smart thing to do is to do what we can, where we are, and with what we have," said Grannie member Janet Stephan. "We have concerns about what the use of fossil fuel is doing to our planet and the future for our grandchildren, not to mention fracking and sand fracking in northern Iowa and the XL pipeline and GMOs and water pollution ... the list goes on. Our purpose is to educate, advocate, and agitate for a better future."

Agitation may seem an odd goal for a group with "exuberant" in its name, but Sarah Kanouse, one of the founders, agrees with agitating people into action.

"We are looking at an approach to art and activism as a feeling that can be a celebratory feeling or another strong feeling," she said. "I think a lot of times, people feel that political art is sort of dry and didactic, and we certainly have art that is about teaching people stuff, but we tried to put together a show that will capture the imagination and the intellect as well. We're looking for something that is energetic, engaging, and exuberant, as the title says."

Kanouse said the live performance is especially appealing to members of Exuberant Politics, because theater invites the audience to empathize with a point of view that is not their own.

The performance also attracted Stephan.

"There are statistics and numbers and graphs and charts that are frightening," she said, referring to research done on the negative consequences of fracking.

The biggest complaint is that in removing oil and natural gas, fracking destroys natural rock formations and displaces wildlife, not to mention in Pennsylvania, residents have complained about water quality in areas of fracking.

"These things appeal to the brain part of our functioning, but a play is art, and it appeals to the heart," she said. "We are aiming for a heartfelt message. It is another path to get the message out that we need to stand together and do something to save the Earth."

The performers' enthusiasm and passion were crucial to keeping the performance upbeat, Myers said.

"Having it performed by regular citizens based in Iowa City and Coralville was always important, and [Willie Barbour, director of the performance] has been able to make that happen," Myers said. "I think by including the general public as the performers, you get a chance to stay light and playful while also being effective."

The location in Iowa City, Myers said, was also very important to her and other organizers.

"[Iowa City] is a crossroads at the heart of the country, where people from all over the world converge," Myers said. "It is a small little miracle that exists in the middle of our country, and I think it's a great place to host this symposium. Iowa has always been known for being part of the artistic avant-garde of the U.S., and I think that is still true."

Because they view Iowa City as a meeting place for a wide variety of people, event organizers are hopeful that staging the event here will help spread the message and stir interest.

"I am very opposed to the destruction of our economy, the working class, the environment, and our political system at the hands of capitalism," Barbour said. "As a 58-year-old, I have watched the corporations slowly change and corrupt our/my way of life. The only way to effect change is to have a larger voice in having a multitude of voices joined to combat the multitudes spent by the corporations. If we can all see the truth and speak as one, the better off we are as a whole."

This deeper understanding and unity will lead to a brighter future, Myers hopes.

"We are speaking not only to our local issue of fracking the county parks, but more broadly to the universal struggle of trying to survive on this planet through this period of intense climate change," Myers said. "Our dependency on fossil fuels only corrodes further any chance of long-term survival we may have on this planet, so it is indeed a universal cry for common sense and decency."


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