Melissa Merli's Art Beat: Comic pays tribute to a major voice for equality

Melissa Merli's Art Beat: Comic pays tribute to a major voice for equality

The late John Lee Johnson was an uncompromising civil rights activist who could at times be a pain in the you know what.

But we needed someone like him to keep us honest and to move us forward in the area of racial equality.

I, as well as many other folks, miss him.

So I was delighted to see Mr. Johnson resurrected in a way in "A Place in Time: Two Paths to a Television Broadcast," a 24-page comic created by University of Illinois Associate Professor Kevin Hamilton.

In it, the professor of new media digs up a piece of little-known local history: a singular evening in 1968 when the "Public Broadcasting Lab," a short-lived TV program, came to the Illini Union to broadcast a town-hall type meeting on campus unrest.

Mr. Johnson, who was at the meeting, turned the focus from campus political unrest to a critical examination of race relations in Champaign and Urbana, particularly the north end.

Besides Mr. Johnson, one of the other primary players at the broadcast was then-UI Professor Heinz von Foerster, a physicist and philosopher who later helped create a cybernetics lab on campus.

Hamilton will discuss "A Place in Time" — a really cool project — at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Champaign County Historical Archives at the Urbana Free Library, 210 W. Green St. He did some of his research there; the project was funded by an Urbana Public Arts Grant.

Why a comic book on this subject?

"It really comes from just my life as an artist, the way we as artists not only like to see but see how we see," Hamilton told me in his studio in Noble Hall on campus. "History changes your perspective. That's how history is for me. When you know about the street you're walking on, you look at it differently."

Hamilton also loves comics and graphic novels. He said "A Place in Time" pays homage to that art for.

He opens it by asking "What happened here before you came along?" He gives a short history of the geography and settlement of Champaign County and tells of Vienna, Austria, where von Foerster grew up and listened in on his grandmother's salon of feminists and artists.

Hamilton drew the panels in the first half of the book. The panels in the second part are screen grabs from a DVD sent to him by the Library of Congress. The Library digitized for Hamilton — at a cost covered by the Urbana grant — an old tape of the "Public Broadcasting Lab" program.

In those, we see black and white photographs and word balloons of verbatim quotes from the program transcript. Among them is Mr. Johnson asking, "What about all the psychological napalm whites drop on blacks every day around here?"

At one point, an older white man, possibly a university official, asks, "Can we please get back on topic? I didn't come here to talk about problems in the north end of Champaign."

Eventually, Mr. Johnson and other blacks exit the room. Asked why they are leaving, Mr. Johnson replies, "We can't make any sense out of this thing here."

At the end of the book — and at the end of the broadcast — Mr. von Foerster has the last words: "Look, I lived through Nazi Germany. I can tell you that things here are not that bad. But they could become so. So I would like to make a suggestion. It is vital that you each develop your own powers of cognition so that you can truly see the problems and truly see who will be your man in helping solve them."

Hamilton theorizes that there was a convergence at the meeting of Mr. Johnson and Mr. von Foerster, that the latter was influenced by the civil rights activist and by what happened at the Illini Union that night. The next fall, von Foerster would begin teaching influential classes on science, art and activism.

On the back cover of his comic, Hamilton tells of the paths taken by four other people who were at the meeting, among them Mike Rossman, a key planner of University of California-Berkeley's historic Free Speech Movement in 1964. He died in 2008.

Mr. von Foerster died in 2002 in California; in his obituary, The New York Times called him a leader in the field of information theory, or cybernetics.

As for the makers of "Public Broadcasting Lab," which lasted one season, they went on to start "60 Minutes," one of the most influential and long-lasting news programs on television.

Hamilton, who came here 10 years ago from South Carolina, hopes "A Place in Time" encourages others to dig into local history.

You can get a free copy of "A Place in Time" (while supplies last) at various locations in Urbana and Champaign, among them the Douglass Branch of the Champaign Public Library, the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center and the Champaign County Historical Archives at the Urbana Free Library. Students at University and Urbana high schools may obtain copies at their school libraries.

To contact Hamilton, email him at His website is

A fun night

On Feb. 18, I went to Krannert Center for the Performing Arts to see (and hear) the Paul Dresher Ensemble production of "Schick Machine," a sort of theatrical event of new music created on bizarre instruments.

In the inventive and engaging 70-minute program, virtuoso percussionist Steven Schick portrays Laslo Klangfarben, a benign mad inventor obsessed with building the Schick Machine, a collection of odd instruments, some made from found objects.

Among them was a hula hoop-shaped metal ring that Schick set to spinning on an octagonal wood platform. The metal hoop sang as its rotations slowed and it finally came to rest on the platform.

There also was a row of temple blocks — wooden boxes in which golf balls rolled back and forth in a channel. There also were electric organ pipes arranged in a semi-circle, and at one point, a boiling tea kettle produced sound.

The set resembled a garage or laboratory. While a voiceover told of Klangfarben and his obsession over creating the Schick Machine, Schick, wearing an inventor's apron, moved about the stage, playing the instruments, at times along with layered electronically sampled loops.

A San Francisco Chronicle critic who saw "Schick Machine" in 2009 called it a "tissue-thin theatrical" work with "about half an hour of desultory music-making sprinkled throughout."

Maybe I'm less discerning. I enjoyed it. I also heard, behind me, a boy in the audience laugh with delight.

After the concert, we were all allowed to go on stage to look at and even play some of the instruments. Lots of people, including myself and my concert companion, took advantage of that.

"Schick Machine" is a collaboration among Dresher, Schick, director-writer Rinde Eckert, sound artist Matt Heckert and instrument inventor-builder Daniel Schmidt.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at

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