Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Interview: Light In Winter Founder Barbara Mink

Every January since 2004 Ithaca has been blessed with the presence of the Light in Winter Festival. Founded by Barbara Mink, the festival is a celebration of art and science—its intersections, overlaps, and sometimes separations. While the programs vary every year, there is a common thread: Light in Winter is always exciting and challenging. Also, it brings top tier performers to Ithaca in the cold of January, when we all need a bit of inspiration.

For the 2009 festival—as with every Light in Winter—there is far too much to list in a single article. Please visit for complete information. However, there are certainly some highlights. The highlight performance on Friday January 23 is illusionist Jeff McBride, who includes elements of Kabuki, pantomime, as well as other disciplines in his performances. In addition, PUSH, which features dancers from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology, is sure to be wonderful. There’s also a lecture on magic and the mind, a wine tasting seminar, a physicist who is also one of the leading origami practitioners in the world, and so much more. But for those who like to keep the festival going long into the night, head to Castaways at 9:30 on Saturday and check out The Future: Sounds and Images from the Next Dimension. This performance features Morgan Packard and Joshue Ott who use digital technology to create a visual and musical performance. Think of them as visual as well as musical DJs.

With all of this in mind, and the festival coming this weekend, the Tompkins Weekly was pleased to get a chance to ask Barbara Mink some questions about this years festival, the past, and more.

Dynamic Meter: Last year, Light in Winter had an overarching theme. Do you always have a theme?

Barbara Mink: Actually, last year was the only time we consciously programmed around a theme, “Identity;” but we decided not to do that again because it’s too limiting. Creating a synergy among music, art and science is a big enough challenge without complicating it further. That being said, it’s fun to look at how the weekend has shaped up and see what connections do emerge; after all, that’s what Light in Winter has always been about: finding connections. We try to have a range of art performances and science lectures, but sometimes music or dance will dominate depending on how things fall out, and people’s availability.

DM: Can you connect the elements of this year’s festival? It ranges from illusionist Jeff McBride to Wine Tasting, Origami, and PUSH Physical Theatre.

BM: Even though there is no over-arching theme, what unites everything this weekend is magic, whether it’s our delight in being tricked by illusions or the joy in figuring out how those illusions are created. For example, Alex Stone is a magician and physics grad student in NYC who is writing a book on how the brain processes magic. He and Jeff McBride will talk about how the brain is tricked by misdirection the day after our Las Vegas-style opening night. Or, when people see fantastic creations of origami shaped like birds or architectural wonders, it looks impossible; but Robert Lang will break the creation down into its mathematical formulae, and Mario Livio will reveal the mathematical underpinnings of the universe we’re not even aware of. PUSH physical theatre is exploring the way the body works, and how physical limitations can be transcended by creativity. To me, just about everything in the world around us is magical; how far we want to peek behind the curtain is what makes living so much fun.

DM: The nucleus of Light in Winter is the intersection of art and science. Had you explored this for a long time prior to launching the festival?

BM: No, I hadn’t. My original interest was in starting a summer chamber music festival here; but as we refined the idea over four years of discussion, issues of financial support, community needs, the complications of full academic calendars and so on went into the thought process. Former Cornell Concert Series Director Richard Riley suggested incorporating popular science in the mix. A feasibility study we commissioned suggested that it couldn’t be done on the shoestring budget we were looking at; but we decided to give it a try anyway by featuring local artists and scientists, and to grow from there. Now we have more than half the performers coming in from all over the country, which is thrilling, but I’d like to keep spotlighting the fantastic and generous intellectual and artistic resources in Ithaca that made Light in Winter possible in the first place, and which keeps it going.

DM: Has the way the festival is organized evolved over time? You've always been the artist director, correct?

BM: Yes, but it has evolved over time. First of all, the festival has a stellar Board of Directors, people who believe in the mission of Light in Winter and work so hard to make sure it’s realized. I’ve also had the privilege of working with some phenomenal people to bring the festival to fruition, many of whom went off the Board of Directors and then back on, keeping a sense of history and expertise. This year has been the biggest change, with Marie Sirakos, who had been the festival’s production coordinator, stepping into a new role of Executive Director, taking over the fundraising, operations, marketing, and overseeing production. She’s done a fantastic job, and it’s been wonderful working as a partner with her. I’ve been able to concentrate on what got me started on Light in Winter in the first place: bringing together performers and scientists to explore new and interesting ideas.

DM: Do you have any favorite performances from part Light in Winter Festivals?

BM: I know it’s a question you have to ask, but it’s actually very hard for me to single out performances. Whether it’s the fairly amazing headliners like Pilobolus, Laurie Anderson, Paul Winter, Kronos Quartet, or some of the smaller performances like Birdsong in Messiaen or Elegance of Motion or Who Are We or Einstein the Stage Show, or the big finales that brought music and science together like Forces of Nature, Sync, Dance of the Machines; whether we look at individual performances or the weekend as a whole, I think every year has brought something new to people who have attended that sparked their interest to learn more.

DM: Do does your work as a painter intersect with your other work, including Light in Winter?

BM: That’s an interesting question; I would have to say no, more competes than intersects. I don’t consciously try to bring together science and art in my work, though I have a lot of respect for those who do, people like Alexis Rockman. But I started painting around the same time that I first thought about Light in Winter, so there must have been some creative impulse trying to emerge. I think starting, developing, and running Light in Winter was really a cross between the creativity of painting and the skills I use in teaching Management Communication at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management.

DM: What creative minds are inspiring you now?

BM: In terms of current ideas, I’m very interested in the work of Michael Pollan, author of An Omnivore’s Dilemma, about the state of industrialized food production and consumption. I already tried to get him to come to Light in Winter next year, but he’s booked up. I would like to have something, though, contrasting the pros and cons of food science with the “locovore” and Community Supported Agriculture movements, maybe link that with a fun concert of music about food. There is also some interesting work going on with how the brain processes color and visual art, maybe linking that with the science of art authentication; and definitely another science play, whether for young people or older audiences. Maybe something on how the voice works, or questions of scale by looking at nanotechnology, or how babies are programmed to respond to music and how that changes as we age. Every day there are new articles and books being written that spark new ideas; the challenge is to keep them educational, accessible, and fun.


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