BAY AREA NOW 7 Clinic: Object of Transformation: Power To The People
“Power to The People” was an exploration of YBCA and its relation to its visitors, as expressed in the built environment of the institution. I was offered the Room for Big Ideas gallery space at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, California. It was part of Bay Area Now 7. Finding the porous point of the museum- actual, intentional holes in the front windows, I explored things that could pass through.
It all started with holes in the windows
I was invited to be the lead artist and curator for one of four ‘clinics’ during the Bay Area Now 7 exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, through the Community Engagement department. This is the department that runs the gallery right off of the front patio. This gallery, called the Room for Big Ideas (recently renamed “The Front Door Gallery”) has an entire side of windows that straddle the front doors of the museum and the outside front patio. Those windows onto the patio form a curious zigzag, with overlapping glass that forms four little spaces large enough for a person to stand in each bay. Even more curious though, these zigzag windows have holes in them, approximately three feet off of the floor, right onto the patio. Having been a teacher for many years, one of the core principles that come to us from the schools of Reggio Emilia Italy is “environment is the third teacher”. What is meant is that after your parents, and then the classroom teacher, the space and place you are in shows you what you can and cannot do there. When we walk in someplace, we usually know pretty quickly how we are to behave, what we are expected to do. For instance, when you walk into a church or temple, we get clues that our behavior should be quiet, contemplative, reverent. Conversely, if we walk into a stadium, we get a different message. Finding these holes in the front windows opened up a whole new way of looking at the institution in relation to its visitors.
BAN 7 decentralizing the curatorial process
In the spirit of opening up the museum to ‘new voices’, new points of view, I saw these holes as the physical metaphor for the exhibition as a whole. This was the place that the institution was physically porous. If new voices were to be let in, this was a place they could actually get through. Most of us today live in such a world of simulacra, that we rarely have original experience. We spend our time exchanging symbols without really knowing the real experience they represent. I like to play with the physical experience, and in doing so compare it to the verbal idioms I’m so used to blindly exchanging every day.
The Reggio Approach in action
My approach, having worked with groups of small children for many years, is to let them explore the space. With children, “exploring” means experiencing it with the whole person, that is, with the body moving through the space, as the voice sounds out the limits, as the hands touch the surfaces, as the eyes look around the structures. But a hole in a thick glass window? An intentional hole, smoothed down, at a height that can be easily reached and through which a patio can be accessed- this is something really curious.
Sharing my find with the artists I was bringing in, we began to play. We stood on either side of the windows and tried to talk. We could see through the windows and pantomime a visible communication, while having just a tiny possibility of audible communication. Transparency is an important concept in Reggio work, because it presents a look inside something, or through something, and as such is a wonderful provocation for exploration. Perhaps things could fit through the holes. What could we pass through? We looked around and tried various things, string worked, coins were just a tiny bit too big, rolled paper might work. What else…powders? Liquids? How about things that pass through a cord- electricity? Maybe words are a form of liquid mind, that we pass out of ourselves, through the hole of reality and pour into those with whom we are communicating.
While we all had pre-approved projects for this show, I had to include this window hole provocation into my work. In early education we use the word ‘provocation’ because a situation like this provides an uncommon encounter, makes a person stop in their normal day, explore something. When students do this, as teachers we have a chance to see something of them, to learn something about their way of expressing, interacting, personality, character, and their way of playing. These set ups have a way of bringing people together around a shared experience, and offer opportunities for co-creation of something new. As our world becomes more human-crowded, capacities like the ability to co-create and co-operate have become increasingly prized.
I decided on using electric cords- I have a portable amplifier with a microphone. I also found that plug ends of electrical cords could be cut, the cords slipped through the window, then reattached on the other side of the window. An important note with provocations is that they are intentionally left open to a range of possible explorations. The planning doesn’t go into a pre-determined set of outcomes. There is no defined way of interacting with them. In this way, individuals can claim some ownership over their experience, and we as teachers learn something about how people are. It also gives us the opportunity to interact with the experience as well; it becomes a dialogue between provocation, visitor, and artist. I use these terms for more for clarity of communication than to define roles. Artist sets up provocation, visitor interacts with it, artist observes the interaction and then is provoked in his own right to interact, to adjust, to become part of the dialogue. It is important to note that this circle happens when and if the situation is of interest to all participating. Feigned interest in others interactions cannot be sustained for long, and never leads to a new understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.
Power to The People, a Patio Show
One of the provocations sounded like a good, poetic gesture, though it didn’t work out that way. I often see rather beautiful poetic gestures in museums, most often they sit quietly entombed in their gallery, rarely interrupted in their silence, however welcoming their signage is to ‘feel free to touch’. My provocation of promising gesture was to pass electrical cords through the windows holes, and leave the female end outside on the patio. In this way, people could literally tap into the power of the institution, plug in anything they might have to recharge, and take part in a basic, necessary form of sharing power. I would love to re-do this piece, though I doubt I’ll find another institution that has windows with holes on the front patio. Besides, this piece continues my interest in working with existing spaces and situations found there. Nonetheless, no one really plugged in. No one has to take anyone up on an offer, but it’s nice when they do. No more than a few people in the three-week run of the show plugged anything into to piece.
On the other hand, the invitation of a microphone was so immediately enticing to so many people, that I had lots of times to re-engage with this concept and structure. The original concept was that people would be able to pick up the mic out on the patio, and speak to the institution through the amplifier on the inside. The problem with this arrangement was that people couldn’t hear themselves, and so they soon moved on. Working it the other way around proved more interesting. People speaking within the institution could be heard outside on the patio, and passersby would turn their head to find who and what was speaking to them.
The Patio Show was born
It is important to note that the set up for this provocation involved maintaining a large corner seating bench angled to face the patio through the zigzag windows. This was a place people could linger and sit. We each brought books to keep there, and we had pillows for comfort and familiarity. If you want people to stick around, give them a place they can sit together. I would sit in this bench during the day working on my computer (my other work for the show “This is a Performance” required writing). With a range of books on the bench, people could read anything from theory to poetry, either silently or out onto the patio through the microphone.
With this arrangement, we began to play with the internet. The first game became what I called ‘theory-oke’. People were playing with the microphone, but few people were making longer statements.
We found that we could invitepeople to read a piece from our little library, and at the same time find a song on Youtube to play along. Everyone enjoyed hearing what people would read, and how it would move in and out of synch with their chosen music.
I started using Twitter to tweet these mash-ups, which became curious in its own right. Putting the idea of a song connected with a theorist’s writing created an interesting image-piece in the internet audience. With the suggestion of the helpful media manager at YBCA, we connected up to the museum’s live feed and began streaming the songs. The invitation to take the mic entices people with the opportunity to be heard; the idea of being streamed onto the internet adds another level of being on air, of being the star. Thus, the Power to the People Patio Show was born.
I found a dj voice inside me somewhere, and would announce the songs people would choose, their name, and where they were from. Not only could people be on the radio, they could also be broadcasting their song to the patio outside and to a certain extent, the surrounding park. Everybody likes their song, and wants to share it with everyone else who they imagine will like it too. This offered people a simple way to share something.
One thing I started to notice was the different reasons people were playing music, the different effects it was having on them, and what I began to call ‘music medicine’. Perhaps the most moving, on the last day of the show, a friend came by and played “Stairway to Heaven” for his brother who had died. He sat outside on a small bench we had put there, facing the patio and the city skyline beyond. He remembers his brother, who was a teenager in the 70’s, playing this song. On another occasion, an elderly woman came in on a late evening and found a song by texting her son for the name. She quietly danced to this native American song on the twilight patio.
Then there was the cagey, disheveled man that wandered inside silently alarming us with his presence. He appeared to be looking for something to steal as he picked things up on various workspaces, suspiciously looking around. He played a couple of Tupac songs at our re-direction, and marched around the patio alone, seemingly getting his power back. We had young men come inside in a group and find their own music on sound cloud. Sitting in the garden park adjacent to the patio they listened to their hiphop recordings blast out into the space. They were young kings for a moment, landlords of the park bench and owners of the sky. One man did an elaborate mating dance for his woman, including one handed pushups, jumps and spins, eventually picking her up and spinning her around on his body.
There were also unexpected connections made. A group of French tourists decided to play a song famous it would seem only to the French. The song is called San Francisco and was written by a French artist who had lived in a commune in the Castro in the ‘70’s. Of course, as visitors to this city, they probably had the song playing in their heads already. It is not uncommon to see groups of French tourists standing outside the famous ‘blue house’ on 18th’Street. After a minute or so, a French family wandered in to the museum, curious to hear the music and sure that there must be other French people inside. They joined us and we played other San Francisco and French songs.
Likewise, a pair of young Arabic women played a lovely ballad from their culture, and looking out the window, I could see them talking with some young men who I assumed were their boyfriends. When they came back inside with out them, I found out that they had just heard the music and knew that someone around was from their country too. This power of music to broadcast and bring together was so magical to watch on a first hand level.