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Something to Talk About

(photos by Sarah Barry)

With Peep Show this Saturday, Squeaky Wheel’s new executive director tells us what she loves about her job

Like her predecessor as executive director at Squeaky Wheel, Dorothea Braemer—and like former executive directors such as Ghen Zando Dennis and Cheryl Jackson, among others—Jax Deluca is a practicing artist.

Deluca, who took up the post last summer, served as Squeaky’s progamming director for five years and as a volunteer for two years before that. In that time, she has made a mark locally and far afield with her sound and video and performance pieces. Her infatuation with electronic media began with sound, she says, when she was in high school. “I loved to record sound,” she says. “Whenever everyone was out of the house, I’d bring my little karaoke machine into my bathroom because the echo was so good.”

She longed for a four-track and a decent microphone, with which she aspired to record her own version of the Breeders’ “Cannonball.” Lacking those, she created long, experimental soundscapes. She continued extracurricular experiments with sound recording as a communications student at Alfred University; she recalls kneeling against her dorm room wall with a mic and a recording device, using two cups from the cafeteria to distort her voice. Finally, a friend directed her to the school’s art department and artist Andrew Deutsch, a faculty member who taught a class in the sonic arts. She sat in on Deutsch’s class, and before long, as her communications class began to explore the unsavory aspects of persuasive advertising, she changed trajectory: She created her own major, which she called “the aesthetics of communication through video and sound,” jumped to Deutsch’s department, and was soon exposed to a world of art and artists pursuing the same ideas that fascinated her.

“The most exciting thing was to realize that there were other people who were thinking like this and experimenting, going back 50 years, people who were really interested in engaging things in an unconventional way,” she says.

She knew that some of those people were at Squeaky Wheel, which has been a haven for trailblazing media artists since its founding in 1986, as well as a resource providing access to and training in new technologies to all comers. A native of Boston, she moved to Buffalo in part to join the scene that Squeaky Wheel has long engendered. She began as a volunteer; before long she was a curator. Last year, when Braemer announced she was leaving to dedicate more time to her work, Deluca was her natural successor.

This week, in advance of Squeaky Wheel’s big biennial fundraiser Peep Show, on Saturday at the Dnipro Ukrainian Center, we talked to Deluca about her new job.

AV: Talk about the differences between running an arts organization and being a working artist—or even being Squeaky’s director of programming, a job that is an artistic pursuit in itself.

Deluca: For me, it’s strangely satisfying to work with numbers, and work with systems, and work with grants. I see all that as very similar to playing Scrabble. I’m a very visual person, so when I start thinking about how programs fit together, and how numbers fit together, it is very much like putting together a very large art piece. It’s definitely hard to switch back and forth to being creative and productive in my own artistic form, but this is almost like a new form.

There’s this funny misconception about creative people—that being artistic means there’s no organization or form or theory or structure behind what you do. But this is a whole other art, and I think now more than ever artists are being recognized as really efficient leaders. And I think it’s because of the way we’re able to improvise and be flexible and be fluid. I don’t really see many things as having boundaries, and I think artists are really good at weaving things together.

Dorothea was a practicing artist, too, so Squeaky Wheel has had this nice lineage of artists running the place. We’ve been pegged as a grassroots, not-for-profit, artists-run organization, and I think that really gives us an advanatage because we’re able to keep our ear to the ground. At the Albright-Knox, for example—it’s not that they’re more professional; we’re professional, too. But we’re very determined to stay close to artists, and we can run on a shoe-string budget.

AV: The arts world is kind of a trickle-up economy that way, isn’t it—small institutions nurture young or groundbreaking artists, who eventually make their way to the big institutions.

Deluca: Right, and I think that’s happening everywhere with grassroots organizations: We’re no longer the underdog; we’re becoming triumphant and heralded for the work we can do, because we can do this quick change-over; we don’t have so much bureaucracy we need to go through to stay in tune. So we have a unique edge.

AV: Describe what Squeaky Wheel does.

Deluca: In a nutshell, I think what we do the best is we teach people how to use technology creatively. It seems like a lot of people come to us because they want to learn to use the technology they have, or we give access to technology to people who don’t have it. A lot of what we do is education-based, so we have a lot of workshops in things as simple as making your own website, to Flash animation, to video production. We have a lot of youth programs that are teaching these same skills.

AV: Are these people necessarily artists?

Deluca: It’s a little bit of both, actually. We try to teach everyone to think like an artist. I truly believe that everyone can be an artist, that everyone can think creatively, that everyone has the mental space to do that. And I think that when people are confronted with technology, for some reason, they think, “Oh, technical stuff.” But really there’s a lot of creativity that comes with working with technology, a lot of innovation, and really that’s where the most beautiful stuff happens. I think it’s a good mix of people.

We have artists teaching our workshops. We employ artists coming out of UB’s Media Studies program or Buffalo State’s Communications Department. These people have been immersed in using technology creatively, so people who are not artists are exposed to that side of video or sound editing.

A couple months ago we watched a video about Bjork—it was behind the scenes of making the “Mutual Core” music video. The graphics in it are just beautiful and delicious—there are a lot of things that are animated in it, and it’s very colorful. And it shows how they shot it. The people on the video production team talk about what it was like to work with Bjork, and you can see what the green screens look like behind her, and how they got the shots where she’s just an isolated head. So we turned that into a workshop for girls—this is part of our TechArts for Girls program, which is for at-risk girls or girls who don’t have access to computers; it’s a really low-cost program that we do on Saturdays here at Squeaky Wheel, and also in the community in different spots—and they’re doing a make your own music video workshop, in the manner of Bjork. They’re making a video to accompany work by Kyle Butler, who is our artist in residence.

AV: How do students find Squeaky Wheel?

Deluca: It works a few different ways. We have a website that gets a surprising amount of traffic. We have a Facebook page, where we share things. A lot of word-of-mouth. We have a lot of people who just stop in and then come back. We have a youth activities coordinator, Kate Ross, who sets up programs with schools and other organizations.

We don’t serve any particular audience. We do all ages and all skill levels. We try to get as many people as possible in our doors and interested in media art in some way, because our culture is so immersed in it. It’s impossible to ignore the saturation of media and technology now, so it makes us relevant.

AV: In addition to Squeaky’s education side, it has long been home to artists whose work does not always have a big, built-in audience. How do you reconcile the two sides?

Deluca: I think we do a lot of breeding audiences, of getting people primed for that sort of art. I think once people start taking our workshops and getting exposed to non-mainstream cinema, or non-mainstream media art, they become interested in what else is out there. You can go down wormholes of different subgenres of media arts. There are these tiers: You have big artists, and then another level, and then you have all these artists in your own city who are working in these media, and they’re very experimental and flexible. I think people really like turning over that stone; I think they get very curious. I think what we’re doing is satisfying that curiosity, picking that platter of what is out there and connecting it with people.

And that’s why I have a soft spot for Squeaky Wheel. That experience that Andrew Deutsch gave me at Alfred—teaching me that there was this whole background of people doing what I was interested in—it got me going. At Squeaky Wheel, we get to do that for people.

Giving people an unforgettable experience is the most incredible thing. It’s the best feeling when you can show somebody something they normally wouldn’t have found on their own, but they just have to trust that you’re going to give them something good. I want people to know when they come here that they’re definitely going to get something good, something interesting, something to talk about.

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