Our class this week had the great privilege of hosting San Francisco-based performance artist and activist Keith Hennessy. The universe of Keith’s work is difficult to classify, but the character of his thought behind it is distinct. Keith’s work is unsettling, provocative and poignant. He is a deeply political artist and freely explained that anger drives the bulk of his work.
The first work Keith shared with us was staged on the vacant site of a landlord-comitted arson in which several tenants were killed. Religare was more than a performance; it was a deeply contextual tribute to an urban space with painful memories, and an opportunity for communal healing amongst neighbors.
Other works employ a dark humor, such as Bear/Skin.
As a class, we also began the journey of our urban interventions with a rapid fire sketch proposal session of things to come. In the effort to avoid giving away too much now, suffice it to say the semester will end on an interesting note.
In moving forward from theory to practice, our class this week found a temporary home in a dance studio across campus for the evening. In a series of kinetic experiments led by Erika, students grappled with a range of interpretive performance exercises, explorations of the body and space.
This week’s class was brought to us in large part by PhD student Annie Danis, who helped us devise two exercises to generate cohesion in the final period of development in a definition and theory of public space. The first of these exercises was a network diagram, in which students were asked to bring a photo of a public space in the bay area and diagram the relationship of that space to key concepts we’d previously generated with yarn.
The second exercise might be called ‘definition by swarm’ in which all students anonymously and simultaneously edited a Google Doc to generate two definitions of public space; one descriptive and one aspirational.
This week we had the pleasure of hosting Ava Roy, director and producer at We Players, a Bay Area non-profit theatre group that blends traditional performance with the unconventional contexts of public space. Ava graciously gave us a look into her world of site specific performance and her appreciation of the unexpected moments of beauty that happen when a piece as timeless as Hamlet is molded into the unique landscape of Alcatraz and the immersive experience this can create for viewers and performers alike.
Another of We Player’s works of particular interest to our class was The Tempest at the Albany Bulb, which was warmly welcomed by the community there (we’d learned about this community three works earlier at SOMArts).
Despite Ava’s admittance to creating some level of discomfort for her audience, she also stressed the importance of providing food as a communal experience amidst the sometimes long and tiresome experience of the performance.
Over the last week, students explored and collected examples of heterotopias; places that approximate utopian conditions by intermingling and largely unrelated identities, spaces, times, etc. The idea as developed by Michel Foucault described these heterotopias as places of otherness.
Students collected reference photos of places from across the globe that they felt best respond to the definition heterotopias as places that allow for a full expression of personal identities without any constraints. The exposition of these places served as a catalyst for what we might formally call “The Conversation”.
In “The Conversation”, our conceptual rubber hits the structural pavement in which we begin to develop and articulate a theory (or theories) of public space. As a starting point of semantic convenience, predominant descriptive spectrums arose from conversation; public vs. private, free vs. constrained, physical vs. virtual, and so on. Though some of these axis appear parallel at a glance, the de facto laws governing many places suggest otherwise. An example discussed in-depth was CostCo, a legally private space and for-profit entity, yet a heterotopia in its own right with fewer constraints of access than many ‘actually’ public places in the city. In response to the ‘clearly’ constrained requirement of CostCo membership, Mia noted that even the most public spaces in cities are exclusive along the bounds of citizenship and immigration laws – that CostCo membership could be thought of as a nationality.
Each wall of the room was given a title for collecting thoughts via post-it notes:
“Moments of Searing Beauty”, which catalogued the more visceral moments of beauty that we stumbled upon.
“Performance Ideas”, which catalogued the sparks of creative thought that might be channeled into performance.
“Happy Accidents”, which catalogued moments of accidental elegance, convenient misinterpretations, or coincidences in thought.
“What The f*!#k Is Going On?”, which provided a forum for thoughts and ideas of confusion, rejection, or reactionary impulse in regard to the conversation.
This was an exercise borrowed from Erika’s world of performance, employed to compound and collect ideas as “The Conversation” moved onward. Togheter we churned through hypotheticals, metaphors, paradoxes and parallels in constructing a set of spectrums from which we then embarked on exploring in the medium of a book throughout the following week.
Over the past week, students have interviewed a person with a unique perspective on public space. Students then reinterpreted these interviews into 2-minute monologues for the class – monologues that ranged from socio-political explorations of public space across countries to the struggle of a child trying to grasp at the nebulous concept of public space. Some employed humor and rhythm, while others were sober and emotionally challenging.
A poignant theme has emerged through our discussions in this class–what is the role of personal identity as an artist or designer, and how might we reconcile this identity (which often represents privilege) when telling the stories of others. Do we even have the right to tell the stories of others, or is this practice too wrought with appropriation? To tackle this question from a place of personal experience, Ghigo and Erika both shared the philosophical struggles they face in their respective fields of urban design and performance.
Ghigo’s story pulls from the poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini during the Italian student protests of 1968. While the police represented oppression on the surface, the men behind the uniforms were of working class backgrounds, often doing their job with little say in the matter. While the students cried for revolution, they did so from a place of societal privilege and comparatively few obstacles ahead of them in life. Pasolini challenged the popular notions of who was the ‘power’ and who was the ‘people’ between the standoffs of police and students.
This is much like the challenge of the urban designer today. How does one improve the quality of the public realm – surely a noble and egalitarian cause – without assisting the rampant gentrification boiling in our major cities today? Surely the poor deserve just as high a quality of public space as the rich, but how do we create this without displacing those struggling to afford ever higher rents? San Francisco’s Parklets, a product of Ghigo’s work with local arts collective Rebar, are intended to give space back to people in the most ardently public manner, but what do we make of the eventual association with gentrification? We are left with more questions than answers.
Erika struggles with the difficult positions of identity and her art looking back at Chorus of the Stones, her performance piece inspired by the stories of North Korean refugees. A brief NPR piece about the training of North Korean journalists to sneak footage and information to counterparts in South Korea led to the journey that would take Erika to South Korea and into the lives of countless North Korean refugees. Even after the performance derived from these experiences came to be, Erika kept harboring questions of her right to these stories. Were they hers to tell? Was her art form the strongest way to tell this story? Would it have been better handled or had more impact in the hands of another artist? She grappled with her place of privilege, conscious of how her ability to hop on a plane to Seoul with such ease contrasted so starkly with the struggles of those she was flying to meet… But what if these stories were never told at all?
Like Ghigo, the philosophical paradoxes of Erika’s work leave her without conclusion or consolation. As artists and designers we have a responsibility for positive impact in the world, but this is not a cut and dry venture. Our work cannot be extricated from our identities, nor our identities from the politics of our work and those whose lives we work amongst.
Following student’s assignment to sit at and write down 100 questions about the Albany Bulb, we ventured together into San Francisco to visit SOMArts for the opening night of the Refuge in Refuse exhibition’s opening night. The evening was a multi-media exploration and documentation of the homeless community living on the Albany Bulb prior to the recent evictions by the City of Albany.
In an exercise of art amongst art, students were asked to catalog gestures and ‘moments’ witnessed of others in the gallery space for interpretive performance shared together afterwards.