AHA! A House for Arts


AHA! | 603

Learn about Rhett Russo’s evocative ceramic objects, Siena college English professor and author, Todd Snyder, discusses the poetry of Hip Hop, and singer/songwriter Julia Alsarraf performs her original work.

AIRED: February 26, 2020 | 0:26:46

(upbeat music)

- [Lara] Learn about Rhett Russo's

evocative ceramic objects.

Sienna College English Professor and author,

Todd Snyder discusses the poetry of Hip-Hop.

And a performance from Julia Alsarraf.

It's all ahead on this episode of AHA! A House for Arts.

- [Announcer] Funding for AHA!

has been provided by your contribution

and by contributions to the WMHT venture fund.

Contributors include

the Leo Cox Beach Philanthropic Foundation,

Chet and Karen Opalka,

Robert and Doris Fischer Malesardi,

The Alexander and Marjorie Hover Foundation,

and The Robison Family Foundation.

- At M&T Bank we understand that the vitality

of our communities is crucial

to our continued success.

That's why we take an active role in our community.

M&T Bank is pleased to support WMHT Programming

that highlights the arts,

and we invite you to do the same.

(upbeat music)

- Hi, I'm Lara Ayad, and this is AHA, A House for Arts

a place for all things creative.

Rhett Russo is a designer, educator, and maker of objects.

His unique work sits at the interception

of material behavior and digital technologies.

We took a trip to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

to learn more about Rhett's evocative ceramic pieces.

(soft techno music)

- [Rhett] My work is primarily focused on looking at ways

to bring ceramics into architecture.

I worked for about 20 years as an architect

and after that period of time

really became much more interested in materials

and my training, even though it was traditional

was also based in computation.

My educations sort of overlapped

in an interesting period of time

where architects were not being trained

with pencil and paper anymore,

but were really using the computer,

not only to kind of produce architectural projects

but to also become an instrument for design.

So that influenced a lot of what I do

from the standpoint of using the computer

almost as a collaborator,

and more and more over the years,

computation has become a kind of dialogue

between what materials can do,

or the ways that materials respond,

and the way that computation can take control

or participate in that relationship with materials.

It's always about a container, at least in liquid form

that one is pouring into a container, a liquid,

and coating the inside of that container

and at some point releasing the container as a form

and then the clay takes the shape of that container.

And the container is always there conceptually,

whether it's the thing you imagine as a container

as you're pressing the clay with your hands

or in the case of the work I do

with the granular material that,

it is a process of being contained by a surface,

and falling through a surface.

Or in the case of slip-casting

that you're literally pouring into a vessel

and pouring out the liquid.

The clay is actually being soaked into the surface

just enough to form a shell

and at some point that porcelain

becomes leather-hard, and you can handle it,

which is a really magical moment

to see it move from a pure liquid

to something that is sculptable

and can be formed, further refined.

The other way that I've began working

with the material, especially on larger objects,

is something called press molding.

And press molding is a process of producing,

again a vessel, a container, and pressing slabs of clay

that are pre-made, almost like sheets,

rolled with a rolling pin like you would roll flour.

And then the clay is pressed in

and the seams are taken out from the inside

so you're essentially building a lining inside of a vessel

and some of the larger work that I've done

you know, you're really working from the inside

and you're pushing your hands

up against the inside of the container

and building from the inside out.

I mean those are only kind of like a fraction

of the ways in which ceramicists work with the material.

Most of the work that I've done with the ceramics

have been produced in Holland

at the European Ceramic Work Center,

and I've worked there over several different work periods.

It's really the kind of premier place in Europe

to bring different disciplines together

to look at ceramics from a different perspective

and open up the dialogue about how the material

can be kind of re-imagined let's say,

but also looked at from really different view points.

So technology, looking at the different ways

of developing the recipes, and the qualities

and the diversity of things that can become part

of the ceramic recipe are really, really important to me.

While a lot of the work that I do

is produced digitally, partially,

there's always hand-work involved,

and I like that tension between trying

to keep things loose enough

that you can see where the hand-work is,

and digitally where the form has been designed

in the computer.

We like to think if we're working with materials

we have control over them,

one of the things you learn very quickly with ceramics

is you have no control,

it's a kind of false precept

but there is a dialogue there,

there are processes that I use computationally

to replicate the behavior

of what the ceramic would do

under it's own normal circumstances.

In particular, granular flow,

and a lot of my recent work

has been developed over the years

of using granular flow literally as a kind of algorithm.

It took many years but what I started to realize

is that the granular ceramic

has a very set of specific properties;

it will flow under a certain rate,

it will take certain shapes consistently, without any molds,

solely through the flow of gravity,

pulling it through a sieve, let's say.

That produces a certain kind of formal consistency,

but it's also something that with architectural tools

and code we can now replicate in the computer.

So, those rules that sort of govern the flow of the material

are also rules that can be scripted,

and they're rules that can be used

to generate the process entirely in a virtual environment.

I like the ability for the work to resonate differently

with different people.

The last thing I wanna do with the work I make

is project that there's a kind of ideal notion

of what the object represents,

or what it should be interpreted as.

Abstraction is a wonderful thing.

To teach students to be able

to see the world through abstraction

is one of the most satisfying things

that I've experienced as a teacher.

It takes a certain amount of willingness

to accept that we don't know

what everything is in the world

and I'd like to think, I hope to think

that there's a kind of technological touch

to the material that the virtuality introduces,

that fundamentally changes the way we think

about the material or we recognize it.

And that's always been a really interesting kind

of realization for me, that there are preconceptions

about the way things should appear.

There's just a kind of immensurate amount of variation

and potential in things

and I think computation and technology is one way

to actually bring that forward.

- Todd Snyder is an author

and English professor at Sienna College,

where he teaches a very popular course called

'Redericks of Hip-Hop Culture'.

How did this West Virginian end up

teaching a course on the poetry of Hip-Hop?

Let's find out.

Todd Snyder, welcome to the show

- Thank you, glad to be here

- Very glad to have you, so, Todd,

you're an associate professor of English

at Sienna College.

- That's right.

- In Loudonville, New York, right?

And you teach some really popular courses like

'Redericks of Hip-Hop',

you're also an author of several books,

they cover all different kinds of really fascinating topics.

I wanna enroll in your courses and read your books,

- Thank you. - Yeah, you cover topics

like Hip-Hop, Appalachian identity, manhood.

How did you become interested in these topics?

What was the journey kind of getting

to where you are now?

- I think with any writer you begin writing

about the things that you're interested in

or in love with,

and I think if I've been successful

at all in my career it's been my ability to write about

and work in the subjects that I love.

The two loves of my life were always Hip-Hop

as a young person growing up

and you know, growing up in Appalachian culture

I very much see myself a part of, you know,

that cultural background and as a young writer

I wanted to write about it, explore it,

and understand it better.

I've actually written pieces on Hip-Hop

in Appalachia actually.

I wrote a piece for Oxford University

called 'Rappalachia.' - Rappalachia.

- Yeah, Rappalachia that looks

at Appalachian artists who do Hip-Hop music

or fuse Bluegrass with Hip-Hop music.

- That's amazing.

- So I mean I think the sort of key to my success

in my career has been to write

about the things I love

and when you do that kind of thing

work doesn't feel like work.

- Yeah, well that's a really beautiful moment

when you realize those things right?

- For sure, right, took me a minute.

- Well do you think that there was any particular moment

in your past or maybe even in your early childhood

where you started to realize,

Oh wow, I really love Hip-Hop,

or I really see this connection

between Hip-Hop and that Appalachian culture.

- I was probably in the second grade

when I really fell in love with Hip-Hop.

I had an aunt who loved it and she was like my big sister

and at first it was probably a fad for her, maybe,

and you know, I just followed along,

but Hip-Hop was in some ways my literacy sponsor.

It made poetry cool, it made writing cool.

- Yeah. - It introduced me to a world

that was very different than the one around me

in rural Appalachia.

I grew up in a small coal-mining town called Cowen

in the central part of West Virginia.

And for me, Hip-Hop was this window

into another culture, it was also a window

into the world of literacy and in so many ways,

Hip-Hop was my gateway drug To poetry, into writing.

- Yeah. - And into the life

of being a writer and books being what I do.

When I go do book tours and readings

people often ask me about the authors

that influenced me, and I give them the generic answer

and I say famous well-known authors

but the truth is I would have to really say

Tupac, Biggie, Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, Jay-Z,

'cause those were the young poets

who inspired me as a kid

to wanna be a poet and a writer.

- Well I mean why would it be wrong to tell people

that you really are inspired by figures

like Tupac and Biggie?

- It's not wrong, it just takes more of an explanation

- Hmm, okay.

- So depends on your audience, for me,

I think we are in a place now

where it isn't that uncommon

that we teach classes on Hip-Hop

and we treat Hip-Hop in the same amount of respect

that we treat poetry,

Langston Hughes or Emily Dickinson

or whoever else. - Right.

- Really one of the biggest poetic movements

of our lifetime is the Hip-Hop movement.

So we are at a place now where courses like mine

are taught at other colleges,

I know they have one

at the University of Maryland and elsewhere,

but mine is the one that CNN,

sometimes students call me the Hip-Hop professor,

that's sort of my nickname on campus.

- Do you like that nickname?

- There's worse things they could call me so,

you know, I'll take it.


- Yeah there are certainly, and students can get

very creative with names. - That's the one

I know about, I don't know the other ones but.

- Yeah, yeah, well let's keep it the Hip-Hop professor then.

- Okay.

- So I'm actually curious to know, why is it important,

like, what do you tell your students, like,

why is it important to treat Hip-Hop lyrics

the same way you would treat, like, you know,

it's parts of the cannon of poetry

or literature like Jane Austin, or T.S. Elliot,

you mentioned Langston Hughes.

Why is it important to teach students

about an art form that is not part of that cannon?

- Look there's no doubt about

that the literary cannon is important,

we should teach it, we should preserve it,

we should add to it, but we know

that the literary cannon is often discriminatory,

sometimes it's mostly old, white guys,

so the Eurocentric view of what counts as good poetry.

Here in America, if you go from 1981 to 2020

there is no sub-culture that's impacted

American business, fashion, television, movies,

like Hip-Hop, Hip-Hop is born

out of a culture of poetry, street poetry.

I think it's very important that we pay attention

to those movements and learn where they come from,

and who the trendsetters were,

and how that rhetorical tradition

has changed over the years.

For me, it is just as important,

if not more important than the cannon.

- Yeah, so it sounds like you really

wanna take something that's a different approach

so rather than just the top-down approach, right?

- Well and here's the truth,

I can't teach my students Hip-Hop,

I tell them that on day one,

that I can't give it to you,

I don't own it, but I can teach you how to write,

and I can teach you how to analyze poetry,

I can teach you how to better understand metaphor

and simile, and one of the interesting things

that we find, is a lot of my students

who take the class who are Hip-Hop fans

often find out that they didn't understand the lyrics

as much as they thought they did,

'cause they had never taken the time

to print the lyrics out

and break down the metaphors

and look for double meaning,

and they enjoy it as much as the folks

who take the class and have very little understanding

of what counts as Hip-Hop.

- Yeah, yeah, so it's like, you know,

kind of delving in, digging,

finding some deeper meanings there, right?

- I mean we do history as well,

where we look at the history of the genre, you know,

we read Venomous Scholarship on Hip-Hop,

we read lot's of different sort of angles

that thinking about the culture

and it's impact on American society,

but we do a lot of lyrical analysis too,

the same type of thing you would do

in a poetry workshop.

- Right, right, so there's some elements of, like,

practitioner and also some like,

kind of intellectual, cerebral analysis too?

- Little bit of both, now sometimes

students take the class and they think

we're gonna learn, like, to break-dance

and I definitely can't teach them anything like that.

- You have to give like a disclaimer at the beginning

of the semester. - We can watch documentaries

and watch people do it, but yeah,

I do try to make it a cultural emersion course

so, we go on lot's of field trips,

we go to recording studios and watch people make music,

I bring in Graffiti artists, I bring in break-dancers,

I bring in local MC's,

and the course I've been teaching it for a couple years now

and it's grown into an event we call

'Sienna Hip-Hop Week'.

- Okay. - Where we have

a week-long celebration of the culture,

and on Monday of that week,

we bring in a famous Hip-Hop pioneer

to do a lecture that's open to the public.

In the past we've had Chuck D. from Public Enemy,

Grand Master Flash,

we've had Master Killer from the Wu-Tang clan,

really important folks

in Hip-Hop culture. - Yes, these are big names.

- Yeah legends, Rock'n'Roll Hall-of-Famer's.

- Yeah, yeah. - Who come and talk

about how Hip-Hop

has shaped their life, and it is so much fun

you know, for students to get to read about these figures,

and then to get to meet them.

- Right, this human face to. - So, we're now

in our seventh year

of Hip-Hop Week at Sienna, we do it every March,

so it's exciting that, - Fantastic.

- you know, it's not just a class,

it's something where they get to really,

immerse themselves in the culture,

and they always come away teaching me something

I didn't know either.

- Yeah, yeah, well it sounds like something

we're definitely gonna have to pay attention

for in March right?

- Yeah every March we bring in somebody, so.

- Absolutely, that sounds amazing.

Well I want to know a little more

about the books that you write,

- Sure. - and the writing process.

You know, I know you've written books in the past

about like, Appalachian manhood,

and if I'm pronouncing that right, Appalachian.

- You got it, you got it

- And you've also written books about Hip-Hop.

I'm kind of curious to know, you talked about like,

feminist writing about Hip-Hop,

do you ever explore topics like, you know,

say, manhood in Hip-Hop?

And that kind of topic, do you ever see any overlap

between what you've written about in the past

and more recently?

- I have to say, a key theme in my work as a writer

is the idea of manhood and where that comes from.

My first book was called

'The Rederick of Appalachian Identity'

and it was about me being

a first-generation college student,

grown up in extractive industry, Appalachia,

my father was a coal-miner.

So I grew up in a family of coal-miners,

where all the men in my family have done this hard,

manual labor work, that dictates your concept of manhood.

From that, my second book was called

'12 Rounds in Lo's Gym'.

That was sort of the other side of the coin

when my father wasn't a coal-miner

he was a boxing-trainer.

So I grew up around boxing gyms,

so you can imagine the, you know,

the constructs of manhood and masculinity

that were in my own.

- Digging coal, punching people out.

- Right, tough work either way you go.

- Yeah. - So from those two projects,

I think everything I come to as a teacher or a writer,

I'm thinking about manhood,

and how that shows up in Hip-Hop, identity performance,

how that shows up in, you know, economics,

or how that shows up in the performance

of self on the page.

It's very much a part of my muse is the idea

of manhood and where that comes from

and how that changes based on economics

or culture, geography.

- It seems like something that often times

we don't talk about enough, I think as an American society.

- Yeah I think in the Hip-Hop class in particular

it's a topic they're not used to as much,

they're ready to talk about some of the other things

that you would expect in Hip-Hop

but that's one of the sub-topics that I think

takes a little more work on my part

to get them to loosen up and be able

to talk about those things.

- Yeah. - It's not easy.

- Yeah, no it's not easy, but sometimes the hard things

are what you get the most out of right?

- Yeah and I think as a writer,

you should be pushing yourself,

you should have genuine questions

that aren't answered for you.

- Right. - And I think

that's sort of behind the scenes

in all my writing, there's always questions

that I haven't figured out yet.

- Right. - So you know, selfishly,

I'm following the things

that are fascinating to me.

- Right, right, but I think as writers,

that's what you should always do,

right? - Yeah right.

I mean, what's the point in writing

about something that you've already figured out right?

- Right, right.

- So, and for me growing up, and the type of background

I grew up in, manhood was very much, you know,

a topic that showed up in your everyday life

because of the way that the people had to work

and the way my life was shaping up

as a young man, wanting to be a writer

at a young age was not a popular decision

in that particular environment.

- Right - Or not a very

pragmatic profession to pick.

- Right, yeah. - So.

- So you had to think about that a lot more.

- I had to think about it in my life

and also as I looked back and wrote my memoir.

- Right. - And wrote about

my childhood.

- Right, so I'm kind of curious to know,

kind of stepping back a little bit,

what do you think that Hip-Hop

can teach us on a wider level?

Like when, and where do you see Hip-Hop studies

going in the next 10 to 15 years?

- I think Hip-Hop studies is as popular as it's ever been

but I do think there are research gaps

like in any field, we need to talk about issues

that affect folks who are in the LGBTQ community

in Hip-Hop, that scholarship is happening

Joan Morgan and some other scholars are doing that work

but we need to continue to look in that area.

We need to look at issues like feminism

and masculinity in Hip-Hop.

I think we also need to think about the ways

in which we can learn from the past, right.

Hip-Hop repeats a lot of mistakes

just like the rest of us.

- Everybody repeats a lot of mistakes right.

- Maybe that's human nature right?

- Yeah. - But I think

those are the topics that need

to be addressed right now.

- Well thank you so much for being on the show

it's an absolute pleasure to have you,

and I wanna enroll in all of your classes

and read all of your books.

- You can audit anything you want,

just come right over to Sienna you're not far away.

- That sounds good.

- It was a pleasure being on the show too,

thank you. - Thank you very much.

Performing her original work,

please welcome singer songwriter, Julia Alsarraf.

(folk music)

♪ If you want ♪

♪ I'll take you sailing ♪

♪ I'll show you waters ♪

♪ You've never seen ♪

♪ Don't be afraid ♪

♪ Come away with me ♪

♪ I'll be your sailor ♪

♪ You can be my sea ♪


♪ A few years gone ♪

♪ How the shoreline's changed ♪

♪ The lighthouse burnin' ♪

♪ I can't find my way ♪

♪ Through the darkness ♪

♪ And endless days ♪

♪ I'm just a sailor ♪

♪ Tossed by the waves ♪

♪ Oh the tides gettin' high ♪

♪ And I'm just not feelin' right ♪

♪ In my mind it is time ♪

♪ But I'm just not sure ♪

♪ Of anything ♪

♪ I'm never sure of anything ♪

♪ At all. ♪

♪ I push away ♪

♪ You make a scene ♪

♪ Wash all my sorrows ♪

♪ In a deep blue green ♪

♪ Waves crash down ♪

♪ You're drownin' me ♪

♪ Now I'm a sailor ♪

♪ Gone back to sea ♪

♪ I'm just a sailor ♪

♪ Gone back to sea ♪

- Thanks for joining us,

for more arts visit wmht.org/aha

and be sure to connect with WMHT on social.

I'm Lara Ayad, thanks for watching


♪ I'm travellin' the world I know ♪

♪ The places I've been ♪

♪ The places I'll go ♪

♪ I'm travellin' my own backyard ♪

♪ Racin' across in a plastic car ♪

♪ So won't you come with me ♪

♪ We'll make things right ♪

♪ We'll beat the darkness with the light ♪


♪ I'm travellin' the world ♪

♪ I've seen beautiful things ♪

♪ Like the morning fog and the Autumn leaves ♪

♪ I'm travellin' the world I've seen ♪

♪ Terrible things ♪

♪ One by land and two by sea ♪

♪ So won't you come with me ♪

♪ We'll make things right ♪

♪ We'll beat the darkness with the light ♪

♪ I'm travellin' with friends I know ♪

♪ Sisters and brothers from kindred souls ♪

♪ I'm travellin' the world by train ♪


♪ I'm travellin' the world I love ♪

♪ With the morning doves ♪

♪ Who are singin' their song I'm singin' along ♪


♪ So won't you come with me. ♪

- [Announcer] Funding for 'AHA!' has been provided

by your contribution, and by contributions

to the WMHT Venture Fund.

Contributors include

the Leo Cox Beach Philanthropic Foundation,

Chet and Karen Opalka,

Robert and Doris Fischer Malesardi,

the Alexander and Marjorie Hover Foundation,

and The Robison Family Foundation

- At M&T Bank we understand

that the vitality of our communities is crucial

to our continued success,

that's why we take an active role in our community.

M&T Bank is pleased to support WMHT Programming

that highlights the arts,

and we invite you to do the same.


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