Golan Levin: Welcome back to Shall Make, Shall Be. Our first speak­er this evening is Lexa Walsh, who makes projects, exhi­bi­tions, pub­li­ca­tions and objects, employ­ing social engage­ment, insti­tu­tion­al cri­tique, rad­i­cal hos­pi­tal­i­ty and community-building. Her upbring­ing as the youngest child of fif­teen informs her work, as does prac­tic­ing col­lec­tiv­i­ty while com­ing of age in the post-punk scene of the 1990s Bay Area. Embedded in her prac­tice, she works as an arts labor­er, orga­niz­er, cura­tor, and archivist. Walsh has found­ed or co-founded sev­er­al arts plat­forms includ­ing the Heinz Afterworld Lounge, an exper­i­men­tal music venue; Toychestra, an all-women, all-toy instru­ment ensem­ble; Oakland Stock, a branch of the Sunday Soup crowd­fund­ing net­work; and most recent­ly the Bay Area Contemporary Arts Archive, a plat­form for the preser­va­tion of arts ephemera. 

Walsh has also worked as an artist-in-residence and/or cura­tor at a vari­ety of arts insti­tu­tions, includ­ing a term as Social Practice Artist-in-Residence at the Portland Art Museum, and sev­er­al years as a cura­tor and admin­is­tra­tor at CESTA, a Czech art cen­ter. She holds an MFA from Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice pro­grams, and a BFA from California College of Arts and Crafts.

Friends, I’m pleased to intro­duce Lexa Walsh.

Lexa Walsh: Hi, thanks Golan. And thank you every­body for being here. I’m going to do a lit­tle screen share.

Okay. I’m Lexa and yes, I am the youngest of fif­teen chil­dren. We grew up out­side of Philadelphia, and I do feel that this fam­i­ly unit informed my prac­tice a lot. I’m the one with the pigtails. 

And then I grew up. And turned into a musi­cian and artist. Probably to the dis­may of my fam­i­ly. But I think that this band, Toychestra, that you heard about already for a sec­ond informs very much the way I approach my project for Shall Make, Shall Be. 

We are five women who played entire­ly toy instru­ments and small instru­ments. And these are most­ly ana­log or small elec­tron­ic instru­ments that we would plug into con­tact mics. And we toured all over the place, in Europe espe­cial­ly. Here’s an exam­ple of a song. 

[Plays open­ing of Nurse” by Toychestra]

So jump for­ward fif­teen years and I’d been play­ing in bands and doing par­tic­i­pa­to­ry art projects, and I did­n’t real­ly know how to talk about them so I decid­ed to go to grad­u­ate school and got an MFA in art and social practice. 

And came out with a way to col­lec­tive­ly describe my prac­tice, which is hos­pitable democ­ra­cy.” And I call it a plat­form for mul­ti­ple voic­es across pow­er struc­tures for peo­ple and objects.” The objects part is anoth­er dis­cus­sion entire­ly, but some of the plat­forms I use are the table, the com­mu­ni­ty cook­book, the muse­um and its pedestal, and some­times the thrift store, the pub­lic square, the archive, and a whole lot of col­lec­tive mak­ing of song and cheer and dance. 

So over the years I’ve done tons of projects, bring­ing peo­ple togeth­er to write jin­gles. Or songs about art. Or songs about work. Or protest songs. Or songs about cab­in fever. 

And in 2013 I was invit­ed to work with the Oakland Museum of California’s nat­ur­al his­to­ry audio archives. And with those and col­lect­ed sounds from the muse­um, I made basi­cal­ly a toy instru­ment called Sound Station. And this project I’m talk­ing about because my Shall Make, Shall Be project is very much based on this. 

So through­out the pro­gram (this was for a show called We/customize), the instru­ment and many oth­er peo­ple’s works were devel­oped and played and cus­tomized through­out the time that the show was on. And it had loops and accent sounds…

…and we banged our heads with it. [Plays an audio file of a bird screech­ing] That was the red-tailed hawk. And chil­dren of all ages came to play. One of the secu­ri­ty guards, Beverly, used to come in dur­ing her break.

So that project and how that was played basi­cal­ly informs my project for Shall Make, Shall Be. I am work­ing with the First Amendment: free­dom of reli­gion, speech, press, assem­bly, and peti­tion. Congress shall make no law respect­ing an estab­lish­ment of reli­gion, or pro­hibit­ing the free exer­cise there­of; or abridg­ing the free­dom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the peo­ple peace­ably to assem­ble, and to peti­tion the Government for a redress of grievances.

[Plays audio clip: what does free speech for us Americans mean? It means the gov­ern­ment can’t stop us from express­ing our­selves. It can’t silence us.]

So in my project, like in the Sound Station, I have loops of sounds that express edu­ca­tion about the First Amendment, peo­ple express­ing their First Amendment rights, sounds of reli­gion, sounds of protest, sounds of the press. And by play­ing this, you too are able to express your First Amendment rights. And I even express my own by Fair Use, by tak­ing samples. 

So this is the board that will be built. It’s being built in New York, which is why I don’t have a pic­ture of the actu­al thing. The com­po­nents are the board with sound, and there are images sim­i­lar to the ones from Oakland Museum. There are nine long play loops and sev­en­teen accents. And there’s going to be sig­nage about how to play. So you can play poly­phon­i­cal­ly. So you can play a loop and then play the accent sounds on top of the loop. And you can can­cel them…every time you hit the but­ton it starts the sound over and over again. And I’ll explain that in real life with a toy instru­ment when we’re done. 

There’s a web site with research and the full-length record­ings of the sam­ples, and also more sam­ples because I can only fit so much on the machine. And then you can take a deep­er dive into these sam­ples and what they rep­re­sent, legal cas­es about the First Amendment, and then con­tem­po­rary addi­tions. Because hon­est­ly since November when I fin­ished the sound ver­sion of this project every week there’s a new news sto­ry about the First Amendment being test­ed and inter­pret­ed. And then there’s gonna be a zine as a take­away, which will have a sort of punk rock aes­thet­ic but it’s a way to bring the project home and hope­ful­ly con­tin­ue the conversation. 

So I’ve tak­en these sam­ples and mixed them in GarageBand, very lo-fi. And this is what the back end looks like. It’s an I‑PAC with the sam­ples. And this is what the pro­gram looks like on the real backend. 

And so here are just a few exam­ples. Here’s an accent of Jimmy Swaggart. [“Jesus uttered these words 2,000 years ago.”] [Sample from a Baptist church ser­vice.] Damn your sil­i­cone!” That’s Lenny Bruce. 

And then I was inter­est­ed in how there’s some sort of pop cul­ture reimag­in­ings of the First Amendment like Scabby the Rat. And Scabby the Rat has become this kind of hero of First Amendment rights. [“Scabby, Scabby.”]

Or the curs­ing cheer­leader, Brandy Levy. [“I was a 14-year-old kid. I was upset, I was angry.”] 

Or, [echo­ing Bong hits for Jesus”]

And I have protests that I’ve been to. [Sound of protest crowd chant­i­ng Black Lives Matter.”] And protests I haven’t been to. [Sound of protest crowd yelling Stop the steal.”] 

[Then plays them overlapping.]

And I’m inter­est­ed in what hap­pens when you lis­ten to those togeth­er. Or side by side. Or com­bine three dif­fer­ent reli­gious sounds togeth­er. Like what con­ver­sa­tions can come out of jux­ta­pos­ing these dif­fer­ent sounds. 

So, if you want to hear more about Toychestra, there’s a great video, and you can just copy that link. And then more about my prac­tice is at lex​awalsh​.com and I will stop shar­ing. Thanks so much.

I just want to give you…

Levin: Are you gonna demon­strate some­thing, Lexa?

Walsh: Yeah. Very low-fi, but this is how you play a toy instrument.