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Arts and Culture

Datebook: Experimental Sound Artist Brings McLean County's Black History To Life

Allen Moore

After the atrocities against people of color in 2020, Chicago-based experimental sound artist Allen Moore wanted to find a way to mark the moment.

“I think it’s important to make a statement and make work about what’s going on, what is happening during this pandemic,” he said.

Moore’s statement takes the form of a free sonic arts performance streaming live at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 24.

Moore said many people were forced to grapple with the reality of racism in 2020 -- something he was all too familiar with while growing up.

“I was talked to and told as a young man, before I was even 10, when I was really young, about the importance of my skin and what I’m doing and not doing,” he said. “Specifically I remember I had a toy gun and my aunt said, ‘You cannot walk around with that in public.’”

Moore’s previous works have featured speeches from historic Black activists like Malcom X. But the personal also is political, and this time Moore plans to draw on more than his own stories to illuminate the Black experience: Moore will sample the oral histories included in the McLean County Museum of History’s Black History Project.

Museum Director of Community Education Candace Summers said Black community members started the project in 1984 to preserve their unique history.

“There’s just such great information about our community, the struggles they endured like racism and segregation, non-equal opportunities in our community, and it really paints a picture of what it was like to be a person of color living in Bloomington-Normal in the turn of the century, and especially you know in the '50s and '60s when people are remembering these things and sharing their stories,” she said.

While anyone can access select transcripts on the museum’s website, Summers said Moore’s project will give viewers, herself included, a new way to experience those stories.

“A lot of these names and organizations they belong to and clubs and activities are familiar to me, but I’ve never heard these people’s own voices,” she said. “I mean, this stuff is in my museum, but it’s not like I can just go down there and listen on a computer or a tape recorder.”

Moore said his experience interacting with the tapes was an intimate one.

“It’s almost a little tough, because I’ve not only gone through the audio, but also holding these records and reading these...it echoes a lot of what I know internally, like my history and Black history and people of color’s history,” he said. “But no matter how much you think you know, when you’re going through that you’re hearing real voices, you’re reading real words from real people. For me, it’s an honor to do it, and there’s almost something otherworldly about it.”

Moore hopes viewers will have a similar reaction to his performance.

“I think the audio, the nature of it, some of it will be uncomfortable,” he said. “I want it to be a disruptive process in the sense of...I want people to get immersed. I want people to take this like, this sound ride and I want them to really understand, you know, the importance of...me being a Black person standing in front of these people performing. And hopefully that there’s a space you can find no matter who you are, for yourself with something that you hear or see in this performance. But ultimately like a statement of resiliency. I am here. We are here.”

The performance is the culmination of a year’s worth of work as an Artist in Residency at pt.fwd.

Eddie Breitweiser is founder and director of the Bloomington-based nonprofit dedicated to supporting contemporary music and sonic arts performances.

He said artists typically already have a work ready to perform when they approach a venue.

“But...we recognize that there is this really kind of fragile period where you’re trying to conceive of and get a new work up off the ground, where you need time and space and money in many instances to make that thing actually come into fruition,” he said.

Breitweiser said pt.fwd created the Artist in Residency program to not only eliminate the barriers to creating new works, but also provide a physical space to share those works.

Before the pandemic, that “place” was supposed to be the McLean County Museum of History in downtown Bloomington.

“The very geeky part of me who grew up in town here and used to go to the museum as a kid and stuff, I thought, ‘You could put anything in this building and it would sound cool,’” Breitweiser said. “It’s such an acoustically just unique space.”

Summers said the museum was equally excited to host live performances.

“Heck yeah, let’s do this! Let’s do more things like this that not only help fulfill our mission of serving the community and educating the community, but also can bring new culture and new sounds to Bloomington-Normal, and what better space than right in the heart of downtown where we have a lot of culture, arts and entertainment, and bring them to the museum,” Summers said.

Breitweiser agreed the partnership is about more than a unique venue.

“The arts are an important component of keeping us rooted in our history, and keeping history relevant and continuing to shed light on ways in which we’re living history day in and day out,” he said.

Allen Moore said that’s exactly why he chose to include the voices of the Black History Project in his performance.

“I think it’d be beneficial if more of us reached back in not only museum archives, but just like our own history, and to kind of learn,” Moore said. “It’s enraging to see the same things and to grow up and hear people saying that, ‘Oh things are getting better,’ but the same things that were happening in the past during civil rights are still happening now….And I think what has happened now is that it’s just revealed in the media the reality to the rest of the human population.”

Moore hopes his work will inspire viewers to keep engaging with history, lest the current “moment” remain just a moment. 

His performance will stream online at 7 p.m. April 24. For details on how to tune in, follow pt.fwd on Instagram and Facebook, or sign up for their mailing list.

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