Going the Extra Mile (Luis Insists on Hardcover)
“What would I be without everybody? Without my customers?
-Luis Orlando Beltran
I did the whole thing backwards. I could’ve picked a simple task, a task that required no money at all, and compensated the commissioned party with the full funds granted for this project as a means of valuing their labor. Instead, I went about it in a much clumsier way. I used it as a reason to hang out with Luis, the affable shopkeeper of my neighborhood thrift store, and decided to figure out exactly what I would pay him for…after the fact.
Every Tuesday and Thursday morning for the month of April, I walked the two blocks from my apartment in Ridgewood, Queens (a quiet residential nook of New York City) to Celene’s Thrift Shop—a clothing, housewares, and bric and brac store no bigger than a corner bodega—with my recorder in hand, and met with Luis to capture his ebullient philosophies on life. We knew the outcome would be some kind of “booklet,” as we called it, and when I tried (multiple times) to explain the part about paying him a hundred bucks, he waved the idea away with his hand and said, “No, no, no.” I tucked the topic away for a later day.
His automatic resistance to the money has to do with the fact that Luis is a man of God. Devoted to his church, Luis organizes bible retreats, goes on missionary trips, translates his pastor’s sermons into Spanish at Sunday service, and recently gave a motivational speech on the lesser known Christian disciple Barnabas, known as the “son of encouragement.” While I live a fairly secular existence and tread lightly with religion, I nonetheless feel warmed by Luis’ customary send off: God bless you, honey. That’s because he really means it.
His store, named after his wife of 44 years, is 182 square feet of fastidiously organized and artfully displayed secondhand items. One wall is devoted entirely to mugs and glasses, another to perfectly folded pairs of pants, each of which is labeled with handwritten tags denoting their size. Somehow, in this tiny shop are also records, gowns, candles, figurines, bedsheets, shoes, games, greeting cards, jewelry, coffee makers, DVD players, and a glass case full of perfumes, all arranged according to category, and often, by color. Luis accepts item donations, and therefore provides not one but two services: a place to acquire new things, and a place to let go of old things. I bring him my things not just because it’s a convenient way to get rid of them, but because I know his shop will consider them treasures, house them affectionately, and foster them until they find a new home. And so the shop exists as a kind of undeclared community general store, where each one of us that comes in is, to some degree, inadvertently exchanging goods with our neighbors by way of Luis’s stewardship. The effect is a feeling of generous flow, an abundance as reliable as the tides. You can pop in on any given day to see if he might have a clipboard, or a suitcase to sell you, because there is a legitimate chance that he does. This, combined with his infectious energy and genuine extroversion, makes Luis, in my estimation, the most popular guy on the block.
“Hiya, Bec!” Luis greeted me upon arrival for our first recorded interview. It was a seasonable Spring day, and I watched as he set up a cup of coffee, a bag of cookies, two oranges, and a knife on three plastic-upholstered dining room chairs he was selling out front. We settled into the spread and I joked that we were a living advertisement for the furniture. Not long after, a man walking by politely interrupted our conversation:
Customer: Hey, how much are these chairs?
Luis: These chairs? Will be fifty for three of them. And $25 for this table— $75.
Customer: Can I take a picture of this chair? I’m so sorry.
Becca: No worries.
Luis: Not a problem.
Becca: We were just saying, we’re an advertisement. [Laughter]
Customer: I’ll be back. I live around here. I bought stuff from you a couple of times. Remember the cage?
Customer: Well I’m gonna come back. I’m gonna see, I like them, that’s a good price.
Luis: Alright, brother.
Customer: It matches my table, too.
Luis: It matches your table?!
Customer: Yeah it matches my table too.
Luis: Ay, let’s do it man.
Over the course of our time together, especially since we were meeting outside, I came to expect these interruptions. The frequent “Good morning” from a passerby, and Luis’s “Buenos dias!” or “Good morning! How are you?” back. The shop sits at a residential intersection, so cars sometimes whizzed by with greetings like, “AY, LUIEEEE!” flying out of an open window. “AY!” Luis would shout back, explaining to me with a grin, “That’s my buddy.”
The chairs sold later that day, purchased by another, more swift-acting customer. So for our second meeting, Luis set up a fold-out card table on the sidewalk next to his minivan, with an overturned milk crate and a stool for us to sit on. This time, there was an additional cup of coffee—for me (“My wife makes me coffee every morning,” he said appreciatively), and again, two oranges and a knife. He peeled one for each of us as he told me about his life. He talked about moving to Brooklyn from his rural town in El Salvador when he was twelve, and learning English from his aunt and uncle’s Engelbert Humperdinck records. He told me about the impact that his first job in New York had on him, learning how to sort and package fruit for produce displays at a local grocery store. He described how his family taught him to dust, sweep, and mop, and tasked him with cleaning their apartment on Kosciuszko Street from top to bottom every day, the summer before he started school in the USA.
He also told me about his struggles with substance abuse, his failed Western Union franchise due to a bad contract and a bad cocaine habit, the day he spent in jail because of a misunderstanding, and how he eventually bottomed out and found his way to God as a means of survival.
I arrived at our sixth meeting with the proof of our book, a condensed and edited selection of his most compelling stories culled from hours of recordings. We sat down once again next to his minivan and together, read through what we had made. Luis seemed to delight in hearing his words read aloud to him, exclaiming, “True! So true,” after each story. He persisted in his resistance to the one hundred dollar financial support from school, and, as a person deeply energized by hard work and a big project, he wondered aloud how we could make it better. “Let’s do it the best we can,” he said, leaning in to ask: “Can we do hardcover?”
Becca Kauffman: So here’s what I’m thinking. Here’s a pen, you can mark it up however you want if you have any edits to make.
Luis Beltrán: Ok. I like this, this is nice.
Becca: So this is a really big version, but I’m imagining it will be about five inches by four inches, sort of like a photograph size. So you can hold it in your hand, and that way it will be thicker, too. But the text will still be big enough that you can read it. “Inside Celene’s: Store Stories” is a working title. I just chose it because it’s kind of what we’re talking about.
Becca: But I’m open to any ideas. It’s just the starting point.
Luis: I like that. I like that. It goes together, cause it catches the attention. Stories? Stories? What’s in there?
Becca: Yeah, so now we open up and find out what’s inside… So this is the same writing I gave you a copy of last week, but I just formatted it. I put this big text at the top, the quote, that sort of gets you started. And then here’s all the nitty gritty details of what you’ve said. So there’s ten of these. They’re kind of like chapters. We can read it together if you want. I can read it out loud, or you can read it out loud.
Luis: You can read it out loud. Go ahead.
Becca: Okay. Great. So: [Reading aloud]
“It’s amazing how this little place keeps you on your feet.
I love what I do. I’m here seven in the morning, eight in the morning. And I know what I got to do. One thing I gotta say is that I’m not tired of doing it. And health wise, God gives me the strength to carry on. And I’m going to do it until… I don’t know what’s gonna happen… It’s a fountain of energy. Yeah, in a different way I found my match. I’m the manager. I clean the toilets, I sweep, I mop, I organize, I take, I put away.
After we take everything out and we clean inside, I like to sweep even though it’s clean. And I mop. Clean and mop… Sometime during the day, I like to do it once. Like it bothers me I haven’t done that… When it’s the time, it’s the time. There’s a time for everything, like I said. So when it’s, Oh okay, everything was cleaned. It’s amazing how this little place keeps you on your feet. I got a lot of work to do. So that’s how it is.”
Luis: Yeah, that’s nice. It sounds better when you say it.
Becca: I disagree. I like it when YOU say it! But I think it’s an interesting experience to read what you said out loud on paper.
Luis: Because you’re a storyteller.
Becca: So are you!
Luis: But it sounds… No, I like to hear it.
Becca: So here’s the next quote: [Reading aloud]
“Whatever they give me, whatever life gives me, I take care of it.
I was twelve when I started doing produce, because my brother-in-law was a project manager for this Jewish chain of supermarket.”
Luis: That’s produce. Produce manager.
Becca: Ohhh, yeah. That makes sense. Here, cross it out and write “produce.” That’s helpful, thank you. [Reading aloud]
“…It was called Royal Farms in Brooklyn. We had like twenty two stores. In September, after school, my brother-in-law used to take me to work at the basement of that store. And he taught me how to select oranges from apples and all that and wrapped up, put six, six apples in a tray, wrap it up, put a price and all that. So I was like in heaven. So I worked. And through the years, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, eighteen, nineteen, I knew that trade. So every summer, I used to come to the company and they started giving me jobs. And I was a full time, I was a part time, and I was a manager. Managing became also part of that responsibility of leadership, so to speak, because then you have to do what you have to do to manage. Right. So like freshness, cleanliness, and all that. All those things that I learned, got me, I mean, to be the person I am, I think. Humbly I say it. Because I think those are the little qualities that you pick up in life that you bring with you in those years. And that’s how I, I don’t know, whatever they give me, whatever life gives me I take care of it. Because it’s an opportunity to me to do well, for me to serve the community, to serve somebody else. And so you see, it depends on what you got. If you got lemons, you got to learn how to do lemonade. Right? That’s how it is. That’s how I did it, I guess.”
Luis: [Starts to laugh] That’s the story. I can’t believe it, I’m thrilled. I’m hearing things that I, that we said.
Becca: Yeah! Do you remember them? Do they sound familiar?
Luis: Yes, now it’s coming back to me.
Becca: Here’s photographs of where we were sitting, with you peeling the oranges.
Luis: You’re not there, though!
Becca: I know. You know what we need to do? We need to get a photograph of the two of us.
Becca: Thank you for reminding me of that. Okay, now we’ve got: [Reading aloud]
“People are searching for something. Same thing here! Searching for something.…You listen, people come in need of something.
In church, there’s a principle that when someone comes near, for the first time, second time, we have to pay attention to that person. We have to, “Hi, how you doing today?” We have to like, “Hey, I see you again. Thanks for coming.” Because people are searching for something. Same thing here! It still has the same meaning.
I was in church when I opened this [shop] up. So the first thing I said to the pastor was, this space was a blessing, because it was a blessing. I said to myself, I want this place to be a blessing for people. I want this place to be, they could find something that they are looking for and need. And I said to him, “Do not let me get a hold of items. Do not let me get a hold on this. Let me be free to give it if they need it.” And it has happened. And people have come, people have come, and they come only to say hello, because of the relationship that we already had. I have had people coming back into the neighborhood [to visit] from LA, from Miami. And they come and say hello. “Hello Louie, I thought about you, I was in the neighborhood. And I came to say hello.” I say, “Thank you, thank you thank you.” And they do, they do, they come. Well, and this place, I have had people that come in, and they step in, and I say, “Hi, good morning, good afternoon. How you doing?” And they will start talking about different things. And we wind up healing the soul. Like I say, you listen, people come in need of something. And that’s when the Holy Spirit, I believe, Spirit touches you, and then you touch that person, and that person feels, Wow, I’m glad I came in, I don’t know how I got here—these are the words that they say-—I don’t know how I got here, but I’m happy that I came here, because I found…whatever, you know? They do that.”
Luis: True, true. I’m glad you put that in there. True story.
Becca: Yeah, that was a special one.
Luis: I’m here to say, Yes, it was true. You putting me way up there in my thoughts. This is not only—I’m glad you did this. I’m very glad. Because—
Luis: [To passerby] Good morning. [Back to me] I’m thinking about— I never thought I was gonna do this. The story of my last years. I’m not ready to go, but, this is something that I’m gonna leave behind. It’s great. It’s great, the thought of it. I want you to be there when you have to read it.
Becca: Oh my gosh, should we have a reading at the store?
Luis: Yeah! Okay keep on going, I don’t want to take your time.
Becca: Okay. [Reading aloud]
“Go the extra mile.
Through this place, I have had people that, they feel good. They come back. Some people, they come in and we sit down inside, we have coffee and we talk about religion, we talk about this. I’ve had people come with problems and they pour themselves out in tears. And sometimes I gone through the same things and I could share something with them. Last week it happened. And they come back and they call me later on, they say, “Luis, thank you for the comfort. For the comforting.” I say, “Don’t worry about it.” The idea of this place, like I said, I pray everyday, and when I pray, I say, Lord, find, get me people that I could talk to. Send me somebody in need, please. And He does. And He has also sent me people for my need. Because I also receive. I do not only give, I receive. Affection; I receive a word of encouragement. I receive, when I’m down, I’m struggling, my mind, I got too much work to do. And I have had people come and offer their help for free to do something for me, because it’s all a mess and all that. He listened to me. He knew me, he knew that I was bothered. So, you know, it’s like, it’s life. To me it’s God. To me it’s, I’m not the person I used to be. I’m a different person. You know, I stopped doing a lot of things that were not good to me or to the society. Change. We all change. Sooner or later, we all change. And the best that we could do is share that warmness, that careness, that ear, lending ear. Or, Listen, I’m looking for this bed frame that was there, and I want it, and let go, to not be greedy. I’m going to sell it to you. Listen, I’ll bring it to you in my car. You want it? It’s yours. Sure. For free? Yes. Take it. Take it, don’t worry about it, we take it in your car. Go the extra mile, go the extra mile. You never know when it’s going to be somebody coming for you for the extra mile.”
Luis: Nice. I remember that. I remember that story. It’s true.
Customer: [to Luis] How’s business today?
Luis: [to customer] Good! You the first customer that I greet with my smile. Bless your heart. Whatever you want— that smile pays for everything.
Luis: [to customer] Stop smiling, otherwise you take everything!
Becca: Okay, so here’s a photograph. You, gesturing, which is something you do, I’ve noticed. So on to the next story. This is one of my favorites. “There’s time for everything.”
Luis: Yes. A wise man said. Solomon.
Becca: [Reading aloud]
“If I was a guy [who] did not care much for anything, would I be here sitting with you? Telling you all this stuff?”
Luis: [Laughs] Come on! [Laughs]
“…Where I’ve made time to sit down? Is my life more like—I say to myself, right?— is my life more like, doing this business and all that? I try to live a life that is not too rush-y, because there’s time for everything. Sometimes I do get into the rumble, you know, and I rush, because I have to. But I realize that there’s time for everything. There’s time to cry. There’s time to laugh. There’s time to rest. There’s time to sleep.”
Luis: Mm, nice. Nice. It is. That’s a quote from the Bible.
Luis: Yes. Solomon, King Solomon. Ecclesiastes is a book in the Bible. And he says that there is time for everything in life and that nothing in life is new. Whatever has been, it’s always been. It’s like a cycle. You know? There’s nothing new in this world. Everything has been already done. In our lifetime, fire has always been fire. The rays of the sun, they always been there from the beginning, and they still are. Imagine, without a sun?
Becca: We wouldn’t survive.
Luis: We wouldn’t survive. And the distance is just right… I went to [a bible retreat in the country recently]. And I started walking in the open space, the birds. Not cement. But trees. No buildings, but grass. And I started to say, Wow, that peace, that complete peace—and I needed that peace—but at the same time, I feel lonely. Like I felt like I left everything behind. I missed this [gestures to the shop]. I don’t know, I missed communicating… My people, my customers, my helper [Ana Yris]. I said, Oh my god, what am I doing here? [laughs]. I feel lonely. But I didn’t know that my mind was taking other kind of oxygen. Not this oxygen. Nothing like this.
Becca: Yeah, I feel like being in nature has a tendency to do that. Because all of the stimuli of city life goes away and suddenly you’re like, What am I left with? Who am I without other people around?
Luis: I felt lonely. And I miss my wife. And I miss everything about New York. Oh my God, if I stay here, by myself, I’ll die. [Laughs] And that’s why, you see those people in the country? They live at their own pace, they got their own things. But not us. And what would I be without everybody? Without my customers? I felt like completely detached. Separate.
Luis: Have you told anybody else the story yet? You know, opinion-wise.
Becca: I showed my mom. I sent this to her last night. She loves it. She loves your stories. And oh, she actually had a different idea for the title. She suggested calling it, “Going the Extra Mile.”
Luis: That’s an option.
Becca: Because that’s a quote from one of the stories.
Luis: Yes. Well, we haven’t finished yet.
Becca: Okay. [Reading aloud]
“How do you know what you want? The need of other people is a start.
How do you know what you want? The need of other people, is one point, it’s a start, in this business, I understand. Or let’s go back forty years ago, people come in and say listen, I need this kind of oranges, size big or small, with seeds, without seeds, and you go and find it. Because your knowledge knows that the oranges, which one has seeds, which ones don’t have seeds. Because life teaches you a lot of things. So, I was an expert in fruit and vegetables. So how do I know? Because the need of other, the need of other is what I want. What I really, really want?—is different than in the business world. For example, there was a lady that is in the neighborhood. She wants earrings that have a little cross. And I had them, [but] I sold them all. I went to find them yesterday and there was none. But she asked me for it. And that’s my need. That’s what I need. I want to get those earrings for that lady. And I will not rest until I find it.”
Luis: She came.
Luis: She came and asked me, a young girl. And I’m gonna go to get them in Manhattan.
Becca: Yeah, that’s the next part! [Reading aloud]
“Even if I have to go Manhattan. [Both laugh]… And I want to see that. That’s all it takes. I want to do it, I want to have it.
It’s like a winning step up the ladder. You did that. Then after that? I don’t forget what I said. It’s done. The satisfaction is that few seconds of happiness of the person, that, Thank you, you know, or, Here, an extra dollar. I don’t need it, but she wants to compensate what I did. And I’ll take it.”
Luis: Life always gives you compensation. You never know when. For your good deeds. For that extra mile. That happens to everybody. Sometimes we don’t see it.
Becca: Final chapter. [Reading aloud]
“I see it as a gift.
I’m surprised that for ten years I’ve been doing this. And I’m still going with it. I’m still happy to do it. What else would I be doing? You know? And every morning is different. Somebody comes in with different things, even though it’s the same but it’s different, a gift, that they give me. I see it as a gift, you know? I see it as a blessing.”
Luis: It is.
Becca: [Showing the book’s last picture] I thought it was nice to end with the open door to the store.
Luis: Yes. And the blessing. That makes sense. Yes.
Becca: And then this would be the back cover. I wrote “Established 2011,” because you said you’d had the shop for ten years, but is that the right year?
Luis: I was gonna look for that. [Opens his wallet and unfolds a piece of paper] This is the certificate.
Becca: What! You carry this in your wallet? So cool.
Luis: Because when you go into business, some people, they ask you for the certificate. It’s a copy. And here, we have the date.
Becca: Which is… August 4, 2011.
Luis: So 2011 to 21. It is ten years.
Becca: So August 4th of this year is your ten year anniversary. Maybe that’s when the block party should happen!
Luis: Yes! So, very, very nice. I love it. I really, really love it. I’m so happy. I’m very, I’m very happy.
Becca: Well, it’s all you, you know, it’s your story.
Luis: I wouldn’t have done it without you.
Becca: It’s a good collaboration.
Luis: Yes, it is. It sounds so good. And so true. How can we make it better?
Becca: Okay, that’s the question. So now comes strategy about how the actual book will look. I think we have to think about, who do you want to share these stories with? And how can we make it accessible for those people?
Luis: Can we make copies?
Becca: Yeah, absolutely.
Luis: Can we make it like a real…
Luis: In like, hardcover? …Give me an estimate. Let’s do it the best we can.
Becca: Okay. So we have $100 to spend. This project, we call it the $100 Commission. The idea is that my institution gives me $100 to fund a project with somebody else. So I have this one hundred dollars to spend.
Becca: So it’s like, I’m an artist, but right now I’m kind of wearing the hat of a bookmaker or a publisher: I want to make a book.
Becca: And I want you and your stories to provide the content for that book.
Becca: So in a way, it’s like I’m commissioning you to share your stories, so that we can make this book together. And we can use the $100 for publishing materials to print it out. I can find out how much it will cost to do a hardcover. And to do color.
Becca: If there was anything left over, I would give it to you, donate it to the shop.
Luis: No. Let’s do something nice. Don’t worry about the price. Just find out. You know, give me the expense details.
Becca: Well, I don’t want you to pay for this.
Luis: But I do, I want to, because I want not only… I love the story, I love the point. For me, it’s very important. So that we could make a nice, real book. So that I could give it to my kids.
Luis: Alright. And also, I want you to present, because at one point, you’re going to present this to the school, right?
Becca: I will.
Luis: Well what do you want to do with it?
Becca: My wish is that other customers who come into your store could also obtain a copy.
Becca: So whether that means it’s available for free, and you throw it in with, you know, a purchase over $20, or maybe there’s some kind of cool little display, like a stand, that we could put the books on. And you could have a place in your store so that when people come in, and they’re like, “This is such a great shop, what’s the story here?,” you’re like: “Buy my book.”
Luis: [Laughs, applauds] That’s beautiful. Good idea, yes!
Becca: So in that case, especially if it’s a really nice object, then maybe you do sell them for a little bit of money. If we end up investing a little bit more in the quality of the book itself, it will make more sense to charge a couple dollars for it. What do you think?
Luis: Don’t worry about it, that’s not an issue, because I want… You see, there are people that come and are very interested and they love my shop. And it wouldn’t be fair for me to charge them for a book. I will give them with all my heart. You know?
Luis: “I’m glad you love my shop, I’m glad you love this store. This is us,” you know? And that book will travel and travel. Just the fact that we have a story about this, that’s my goal. And whatever it takes to make it a better story, we can work on it. If you have the time.
Becca: I do. In terms of the style of the book and how we present it, I want to design it around how you envision the exchange that you would have between someone who walks into the shop and loves it and wants to know more. Like, what kind of book would you feel comfortable saying, “Here, take this with you?” Do you have a picture of how big it is, what color it is, if it’s on display somewhere? And is this title something you feel like represents you and the store and how you want to be seen?
Luis: Okay. Is this gonna be like the front? No, that’s not going to be the—
Becca: This is a draft. It could be anything on the front.
Luis: We got to find something else. And the name, I like this name because it was first but I love your mother’s idea too.
Becca: “Going the Extra Mile?”
Luis: Yeah. Because it is an effort being accomplished. And you know what, it comes in a time of need, of the times that we are living. You know, it’s a business, but at the same time we are helping the community, right? We doing it for the community. And going the extra mile is helping people. Going the extra mile is providing for people. And the colors [points to the blue and yellow Celene’s Thrift sign on the building]. I would like to use those colors.
Becca: Oooh! Okay.
Luis: Because it has to go all according to the store… My son-in-law, he has a printer. We could get him involved. He prints t-shirts and hats.
Becca: Good to know for your ten year anniversary.
Luis: Yes! T-shirts.
Becca: I would definitely buy one of those.
Luis: Ten years anniversary and—
Becca: Ooh, a big sign!
Luis: A big sign! Now you got me going with this.
Becca: It’s good to think ahead. I mean, August isn’t even that far away. We could make these books before then, and make sure to have them there for your ten year anniversary. Maybe that’s the premiere of the book.
Luis: Everything. It comes along!
Becca: So it could be important to note on the back, like, “In honor of the ten year anniversary of Celene’s Thrift shop, this collection of stories.” And maybe that’s part of the reason why we publish it?
Luis: No, well, I’m doing this because I want you to, for your school, for your project.
Becca: But MY project is to facilitate and support YOUR project! [Both laugh] It would be perfect if there’s a ten year anniversary party, and then this book just fits right into that.
Luis: It would. We’re gonna do that. We’re gonna celebrate. We’re gonna put balloons, we’re gonna do something for everybody. We gotta announce it before. We could, you know, play some music. Celebrate. Make a celebration. I don’t see why not.
Becca: How many copies do you think? I can price stuff out, but I was hoping like, fifty?
Luis: Yes. Something like that.
Becca: Think that’s enough? We could always reprint it if it’s popular and they sell out and we want to keep going.
Luis: Let’s start with fifty. I want to take the funding. I want to fund it. I want to pay for it.
Luis: Yes. Because I love the story. It’s all about us. And it’s about you. But I want you to have some, and I want to have some. It’s not fair, that you, you came up with the idea, and I love the story, and everything is being created. And I want to fund it.
Becca: That’s very generous.
Luis: A hundred dollars isn’t gonna do.
Becca: Well, I know.
Luis: You know that!
Becca: I’m going to do as much as I can to fit it into a hundred dollar budget. I’m gonna do the best I can. And then yeah, I’ll let you know. I’ll ask around this week.
Luis: Ask around, take your time, and work on it, and let’s make something very nice. Okay?
Becca: Okay. Cool. Thank you!
Luis: Thank you, Becca.
Becca: It’s been so fun.
Luis: Oh, yes, it has. I’m happy.
Becca Kauffman (she/they) is an artist living a block away from Celene’s Thrift shop in Ridgewood, Queens. They are a first year in PSU’s Art and Social Practice MFA program currently investigating the voice as an artful and multifaceted communication device.
Luis Orlando Beltran (he/him) was born in El Salvador, Central America and moved to the United States in 1969. He went to high school in Brooklyn. He’s never written a book before, but has a lot of stories. He has worked as a produce manager, a vacuum and encyclopedia salesman, a chauffeur, a check-cashing clerk and franchise owner, and now runs his own thrift shop, where this story begins.
What Qualifies You to Do What You Do?
I invited my friend and classmate Brianna Ortega to have a conversation exploring the connections in the roots of our practices. We gathered to reflect and respond to the questions we are each individually asking within our work, how our work exists in the world, and the links that exist between our work. With Brianna sitting at the beach and me on a swing outside while Zooming, we dialogue on the ways we navigate the boundaries of systemic qualifications, power dynamics, and expectations.
Both of our practices include experience facilitating platforms or creating institutions that invite participation. Brianna created Sea Together, a global art project that celebrates, unites, and explores the women’s surf community through a print magazine, films, events, workshops, retreats, creative clothing, a podcast, and other participatory projects. Sea Together transcends the boundaries placed upon women surfers in the worldwide patriarchal surf culture. Projects of my own that emerge in our conversation are the People’s Plant Museum and Talking Tushies. The People’s Plant Museum works to preserve the history, stories, and relationships alive within the houseplants that people care for daily. The museum presents participatory projects, events, and collections of houseplants that are open for public contribution. Talking Tushies is a global art project that embroiders sexual violence statistics on patches for clothing items and invites survivors around the world to share their experiences with sexual misconduct.
In a society that values and better enables certain criteria or qualifications to manifest history, we are examining the ways that artists can expand barriers and limitations by honoring embodied experiences and lending them agency. In thinking about how grassroots organizations or movements relate to social practice art projects, Sea Together is an excellent representation of this interaction for the way the project was formed out of a void of representation. In this interview, we discuss the ways we have responded to personal experiences in our art practices and how we have formalized these personal discoveries into a wider platform for community connection.
Emma Duehr Mitchell: What do you think it means to be qualified to do something?
Brianna Ortega: The idea of being qualified is really interesting, because society sets up certain constructs for certain qualifications but not for other qualifications, like relationships or anything like that. A lot of things in society have nothing structured to support its knowledge. I was having a conversation with someone recently and we were talking about how to navigate one’s identity as a professor, and how some people will only see you as that one identity and not as a person as well. There’s no class to teach you how to navigate moving in and out of various roles and being a person at the same time.
Emma: I think the idea that one aspect of people’s identities creates a hierarchy over other aspects is based on social expectations of “fitting a mold.” This idea that having the qualification of being a professor or a teacher holds a higher value than other aspects of our identities. How can we switch what holds that value? Like if people in our society placed the same value or focus on qualifications acquired through relations or embodied experiences, then these social constraints wouldn’t feel so limiting and inaccessible.
Brianna: Yeah, I think we can look at other aspects of our identity, like our personal embodied history, and see how that gives us a road to be able to navigate different projects. I grew up moving a lot and I have a mixed race background, so there are all these different aspects that I can usually tap into to connect with people on some level. We can find something in common between us.
I like the idea of challenging what it means to be qualified, because everything I’ve done in the last three years has been self-initiated. Sea Together is an artist-run, self-initiated institution. I’d never had any experience with journalism or any experience interviewing people. I’d never had any experience with researching how to make a magazine. You know, some would say that’s bad, and that I should always research before working on a project to have a leg up or whatever. I think when you eliminate the feeling that you need to be qualified, or prioritize researching something before you do it, it puts a lens over your eyes of how society expects you to do something.
For Sea Together Magazine, everyone said they noticed there was a different feel to it because it didn’t have the same constraints as a magazine. All submissions are based in creative writing and normally you wouldn’t see creative writing in a mainstream surf magazine. People would not normally see amateur surfers or surfers of different life experiences in a surf magazine, either. And here they were seeing really casual interviews, instead of heavily edited, altered, and manipulated conversations. You don’t really need to be qualified by society to do something, and that’s what’s really cool about being an artist. By putting on this role of artist, you can literally enter into a field doing whatever you want and frame it as art.
In my work, I am exploring power and creating space for people to see the agency that they have. I am creating work that makes people think deeper about other things in their life. I am also creating space for myself, feeling like I haven’t belonged anywhere, besides surfing. By creating this platform I also in turn created a community that I could make relationships in. Before Sea Together, I had no woman surf friends. Now I have a bunch. Through the project, I am giving this agency to myself, too.
Emma: You describe Sea Together as a grassroots movement and I’ve kind of been thinking about how social practice and grassroots projects connect. Can you share how you began to describe the project in this way?
Brianna: Mainly because everyone else was calling it a movement and I kind of just accepted it. I was apprehensive to call it that due to it being a small part of a larger narrative of women writing about surfing or creating space to exist in surf culture, but the project has definitely influenced surf culture. People have varying levels of agency to take up space in the world, and in surf culture, that usually means that women aren’t as valid as men. Through Sea Together, people who have been told they don’t get space in surf culture are now a part of this political uprising happening. It’s also making other platforms question the way they are doing things. I am now part of a larger story, as I see how corporate surf magazines or other publications are featuring surfers that have been a part of Sea Together. How do you feel in terms of Talking Tushies? You could call that a movement if you wanted to.
Emma: I pulled up the definition. “A grassroots movement is one that uses the people in a given district, region, or community as the basis for a political or economic movement. Grassroots movements and organizations use collective action from the local level to effect change at the local, regional, national, or international level. Grassroots movements are associated with bottom-up, rather than top-down decision making, and are sometimes considered more natural or spontaneous than more traditional power structures.” I appreciate that you use “grassroots” to describe Sea Together because these projects focus on a very specific aspect of a larger story or history in collaboration with a group of people naturally invested in the issue.
I feel the same way with Talking Tushies. The project is a community that was formed by a group of people looking to address sexual violence. I really connect to describing them as “sometimes considered more natural or spontaneous than more traditional power structures” because I think that really connects to my practice as an artist responding to my experiences. It’s just my natural way of working with what was happening in my life at that point and reaching out to people during times of isolation. Being able to connect with other individuals at the beginning stages of the project really shaped what the project is today. Now I am really invested in creating work that amplifies embodied experiences and creating a space to gather and share people’s experiences with power imbalances.
Brianna: When you have a feeling about something, you can bet that there’s other people that who have gone through the same thing. Sometimes I’ll send out a message or something to see if people have thoughts on things so I can get a feel for where other people are at. Besides the Sea Together project, a lot of my work is just me having conversations with women surfers all the time. I was actually interviewed recently for a sociological research study about women in action sports, and in the moment, I realized that I was just quoting all these conference sessions and conversations I’ve had in the last four years of working on the project. It’s weird how that happens, when having so many conversations with people and it all just adds up. I asked myself, Why would I be the person to interview? There’s got to be other people. Then I realized I have this art project that I’ve been working on for like three years.
Emma: Yeah I love that. I think the relationship between research and the presented projects is really interesting. Sometimes there are many aspects of the idea that don’t have a framing yet and are projects in the works. Sometimes the research for the project turns out to be the project. Sometimes the project is research. I really like that projects can be platforms to facilitate collaborative research and have the flexibility to be changed by what is learned through the project. I think that’s why a lot of my projects are ongoing. What inspired you to create Sea Together?
Brianna: A few years before I started the project, I always thought about how there were no Black women surfers. I was like, There have to be Black woman surfers, but maybe the mainstream surf media just doesn’t cover them. It’s ingrained in white supremacy. Even Hawaiians are less covered by the surf industry, which makes no sense because they are the founders of surfing, and there are so many talented Hawaiian surfers in Hawaii that are on the world surf tour (professional surfing). It was just really strange to me. I’m mixed race, so also being marginalized as a surfer in the Pacific Northwest has been part of my experience. I was paddling out all the time and getting vibes from men expecting me to fail. They didn’t know me or how I surf, and they just expected me to fail.
I also had the experience of people asking where I went two months into winter, thinking that I had gone on vacation somewhere for two months because my skin was “tan” to them. I had not gone anywhere. On the Pacific Northwest coast, you lose your “local privilege” (access to surf spots) if you leave for a large amount of time in the winter, and they were making assumptions about me—that I had left—based on the shade of my skin, when in reality, I hadn’t gone anywhere. Not to mention I am so pale here in the winter, and I don’t even tan in Oregon year round. I had all these experiences of feeling isolated in my identity as a surfer. I wasn’t seeing representation of women in surf magazines and I wasn’t really seeing a place for all these people doing cool projects. There are all these people in our society that I didn’t know about because of what mainstream surf media was leaving out. I really wanted to start a feminist art surfing magazine, and then I just did it.
Emma: I think that is exactly what it’s all about. As artists, we are able to respond like, “Then I just did it.”
Brianna: All of us are human beings and we’re all connected in all these different ways, so if you just move from a place of love and wanting to connect with people, then I feel like you can really do anything that you want to do. I think there’s a culture right now in society, where everyone is kind of hating each other and people are saying, If this person doesn’t believe this or this or this or this, I can’t talk to them and I can’t be around them. It’s such a divisive and sad state, and it’s prevalent in this country.
For me, because of my experience moving so much when I was growing up, I’ve been friends with all different types of people—all different walks of life, all different spiritual beliefs and anti-spiritual beliefs, pro-religious beliefs and anti-religious beliefs. Whoever I’m with, I just try to be with that person, respect them, and honor them. They are a human being and it’s okay if they disagree with me. It’s not about converting them, it’s just about honoring that they have their own story of why they are the way they are, and why they live the way they live.
Emma: I’m thinking about qualifications as something that can honor a person’s existence and the experiences they’ve had in their lives. I grew up viewing qualifications as a socially-structured pre-paved path or checklist to complete for any career or professional inquiry. Those structures create limitations and barriers on what kind of knowledge is considered qualified and are not responsive to the individual. I believe that embodied experiences can be the qualification to do whatever people decide to pursue. In our society, there are these social structures that say you need to do this to be a journalist, and you need to do this to do this. I think we can work to bypass these structures, barriers, or expectations that are set up by creating our own systems by honoring embodied knowledge.
With Talking Tushies, I hold my experiences growing up female in the United States, experiencing sexual assault, and sexual harrassment. I do not need to study psychology or sociology to understand that there are more people like me that are looking for connections, supportive communities, and resources. I responded to this feeling during a time of isolation, where the Kavanagh hearings left me feeling defeated. I believed that there were other people feeling a similar way. I wanted that community connection so badly for myself, so I started a project to support that.
Brianna: You turned your pain basically into this political statement. We all have pain and, yes, the pain is bad, but what I like more is looking at what gives you pain and how you can transform that into something that connects with others and subverts the pain.
Emma: Yeah I love that. I think that’s a great question to think about for anybody starting projects.
Brianna With my project being a public platform or a big institution, I feel like there’s these expectations put upon me. I feel like people are trying to qualify me as something else.
Emma: I think when someone does something familiar yet a little differently, those systemic expectations are questioned or challenged. People can get uncomfortable or confused by that. I think as artists, we really work to push, expand, or challenge these deeply ingrained expectations.
Brianna: Yeah, because we’re using this framing for art projects that borrow from corporate institutions, so people assign those expectations to us and our platforms. But by using the framing of a magazine and what is expected of a magazine, I am playfully challenging the power dynamics embodied and perpetuated by corporate institutions.
Emma: That is something I am thinking a lot about in my work, specifically with the People’s Plant Museum, where I am creating a formal institution and working to adhere to these certain standards while keeping my conceptual twist clear and vivid: I’m formalizing my personal houseplant collection, which is inside my house, into a public museum. So, for Sea Together, you created your own magazine which references this long line of history in publishing and in surfing, etc. The choice to bring something new to this history is what is unconventional about it. Initiating these changes can bring up questions for people, and that’s why we’re doing it in the first place. People are familiar with surf magazines, though they are not familiar with surf magazines that feature women, people of color, and people who do not appear in mainstream publications. That was an artistic choice and with that comes other artistic approaches.
Brianna: Yeah, it’s accepted as a magazine or accepted as a museum, but at the same time we’re doing something just slightly different. They see certain expectations. It can be hard for me because some people think I’m a whole team of people running it or something, but no, it’s just me. I actually just handed off the instagram to someone else. I am in the process of handing over the blog as well for a couple months because I am stepping away from the project for a time.
Emma: Yeah, even in your description of the project, it’s “an artist-run project facilitated by Brianna Ortega.” Do you think being an artist is what qualifies the actions we take, without having institutional power or traditional qualifications?
Brianna: I think it does, but I don’t think society necessarily sees it like that. That’s where I really love our program (the Art & Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University). It’s really trying to push the idea of an artist and what an artist is in society. What do you think?
Emma: Yeah I mean I definitely think so. Being an artist has lended me so much agency to explore multiple subjects that I am interested in. That is why I decided to study art in undergrad, because I couldn’t decide on one subject to commit to for the rest of my life. I wanted to align my life in a field that is always changing, adapting, responding to the world and not stuck in one subject. My projects have been platforms to explore and research subjects I am really passionate about and interested in. I operate a plant museum because I have a really deep emotional relationship with plants; I don’t know nearly anything about the scientific end of it. I don’t feel like I need to be an expert in a field, because I’m an artist, which means my lens is different from these social expectations. A lot of my projects showcase, archive, and distribute the research obtained through my exploration. I am navigating the space between these social expectations and the agency within every individual. I think describing these decisions as an art project opens up a lot of possibilities to expand those expectations.
Brianna: Using the role of artist, I have been able to step into things that I typically wouldn’t have been able to. I just really love the questions: Who is qualified? What information is qualified to be a part of a space, or a global or local history? What are the things in place that prevent people from seeing their story or their voice as not important, or not valid, or not coming to the forefront of their consciousness? How can I create work that asks questions about power in spaces, so that ideas or people can shift in different ways in those spaces?
Emma Duehr Mitchell (she/her) is an artist, educator, and curator living and working in Portland, Oregon. Her work centers collaborative storytelling, care, and exchange while working within domestic practices such as gardening, craft, and mail. Exploring the intersection between public and private spaces, her work challenges social expectations. With an emphasis on accessibility and engagement, public environments such as neighborhoods, metropolitan surroundings, social media, and museums are a few spaces which her work occupies.
Brianna Ortega is an artist, educator, writer, and surfer based on the Pacific Northwest coast. Through embedding herself in surf culture, she uses art as a tool to explore the relationship between identity and place through questioning power in social constructs and physical spaces. She engages with topics of gender, race, Otherness, place, embodied and shared History, and the in-between spaces of identity. Her work is multidisciplinary, spanning performance, publishing, organizing, video and facilitation.
I Remember Well: Recreation and Spiritual Striving
By Nola Hanson
MRI WRIST WITHOUT IV CONTRAST LEFT ‐ Final result ﴾03/21/2019 11:36 AM EDT﴿
I’m in Waukesha, Wisconsin for my grandmother’s funeral. I’m playing basketball at the YMCA.
Older people walk in circles on the track above the court. A man stops, leans over the railing with his forearms and looks down at me.
I’m trying to hit a spot that hasn’t changed since the first time I aimed for it in the same gym,
at age five, when I looked like this:
My mom signed me up for basketball camp; she bought me a heather gray tank top to practice in; I remember the adhesive strip that ran down the right side of it.
I didn’t want to take it off, I thought it was part of the uniform.
MRI WRIST WITHOUT IV CONTRAST RIGHT ‐ Final result ﴾04/20/2018 1:08 PM EDT﴿
I remember the wood, nylon nets, the orange rims. The mesh jerseys we used for scrimmages. The silver whistle that hung from from a black braided rope on my coaches neck.
During games I’d stick my tongue out and lick; from the heel of my palm to the tip of my middle finger. I’d lift my feet up under me, and slide my hands over the rubber soles of my sneakers to remove the dust, so I could hear them squeak. I had to stop after a teammate saw me, and said that’s the same thing as licking the floor and I couldn’t tell her: I know.
At Sunday school when I asked what heaven is they said picture your favorite place;
it’s like going there and never having to leave. I imagined the court I’d seen at the Milwaukee Bucks game, but all of the people were gone except me.
I remember being six, sitting on a 5th graders lap in the auditorium. Everyone sat in the dark and faced the same direction, reading lyrics to Christmas songs that were printed on transparencies and projected onto a screen. When he found out I wasn’t male assigned at birth he screamed, pushed me off, and said he was scared of me.
“My body was given back to me, sprawled out, distorted, recolored, clad in mourning…” (Fanon, 259)
I felt like I lost a game I didn’t agree to play in the first place.
Recently, back home, my mom and I stood in my sisters kitchen. She asked did I remember what I said to her at the mall the day before my grandfather’s funeral?
No, I forgot.
She said, “You looked at me with tears in your eyes and said ‘What the fuck am I supposed to wear?’”
Which meant, of course “Who am I supposed to be?”
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” (Du Bois, 2)
My grandfather, Leif, was the star quarterback on his football team in college, and after that, a World War 2 bomber pilot.
He was the person who taught me how to dribble. I remember his sun spotted hands floating over my head in the driveway.
We would go to Swing Time Driving Range and hit balls together. One of the last times we went, he fell and hit his back, smack dab in the middle of a wooden divider that separated the squares of fake grass.
He died when I was sixteen, in his living room with his mouth open next to an American flag folded up in a glass case, and a model of a Boeing B-17 airplane.
MRI WRIST WITHOUT IV CONTRAST RIGHT ‐ Final result ﴾02/04/2017 12:45 PM EST﴿
My cousin Nels eats Mexican food out of a plastic rust colored container. His spoon has a molded rubber grip at the end of it, and he drinks his Coke out of a big cup with a straw and a lid that twists off.
He says he pictures me skipping rope. The rhythm of it, the sound like a rubber band under my feet. He says he remembers the feeling and when he thinks of me he feels it in his body.
He says the last time my grandmother came to see him, she didn’t even make it around the corner to look at him. She leaned over the back of his hospital bed and kissed him on the top of the head.
“The more one forgets himself… the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it.” (Frankl, 133)
I’m sitting at a table with Takahiro Yamamoto, and 10 undergraduate students.
He says, “Forgetting is important.”
MRI WRIST WITHOUT IV CONTRAST RIGHT ‐ Final result ﴾04/20/2018 1:08 PM EST﴿
While hitting the heavy bag at the New Bed Stuy Boxing Gym– home of former world champions Riddick Bowe and Mark Breland– I tear a ligament called the Triangular Fibrocartilage Complex. They call it the meniscus of the wrist. I get a cortisone injection and train on it for two years.
MRI WRIST WITHOUT IV CONTRAST RIGHT ‐ Final result ﴾02/04/2017 12:45 PM EST﴿
My friend and I are walking in Chinatown. We go into a Vietnamese restaurant. She swore there used to be fish tanks here, or is she going crazy? The waiter says yes, there were. They renovated a year ago and made room for more tables. When we order, the waiter calls her sir.
She says that when she started taking T blockers and estrogen, she had this feeling, like: oh, so this is what it’s like to be a person.
XR WRIST 3+ VW LEFT ﴾XR WRIST PA LATERAL AND OBLIQUE LEFT﴿ ‐ Final result ﴾02/07/2019 4:16 PM EST﴿
My new roommate tells me she saw her ex for the first time in 15 years: “She was such a cute dyke,” she says, “…now he’s just an old man.”
- Works cited:
- Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. Print.
- Du, Bois W. E. B, and Brent H. Edwards. The Souls of Black Folk. Oxford [England: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.
- Merton, Thomas. Zen and the Birds of Appetite. [New Directions], 1968. Print.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York : Grove Weidenfeld, 1991. Print.
Where I Play
By Roz Crews
I’m a “lonely only” and when I was a kid, I spent a lot of time by myself or with the neighbors. I knew that playtime meant I could choose to be alone floating through my thoughts or I could be with other kids, developing communication and negotiation skills. Both options were fun, but they required different kinds of mental energy. Playing together was difficult, and it felt like learning, which felt like work. Slow and painful, but then I grew three inches in one year.
I found freedom in privacy, and I frequently experienced self-doubt when I played in public space. All of the kids my age who lived in the neighborhood identified as boys, and they loved baseball, building stuff using power tools, video games, and skateboarding. Sometimes I ran alongside their skateboards pretending I was on a skateboard, but I preferred imagining doll weddings, catering fake events with real food, choreographing music videos for popular songs, searching for fossils in the creek, and narrating the lives of stuffed animals.
One of our greatest collaborations was called “House in the Trees,” and the project combined and benefited from our diverse interests: we built a series of structures between two small magnolia trees on the edge of our property, ate meals there, hosted group discussions, and used it as a backdrop for our life together. We barely left the neighborhood during playtime, and if we did go on an excursion, we usually went to a local park.
In the 1990s, Westside Park, the largest city-owned park in Gainesville, Florida had a few metal climbing structures including classics like a slide and a swing set, but it also had a really simple play object shaped like a spider. It was hard to climb up the metal spider legs, but if you could, you sat upon the spider’s back. Thinking about it now, I’m reminded of Louise Bourgeois’ spider sculptures:
“The spider—why the spider? Because my best friend was my mother and she was deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, indispensable, neat, and as useful as a spider.”
I felt insecure near the spider. I sat heavy at the juncture where its leg met the ground, and I felt incapable in contrast to my peers who could effortlessly slither up the slender metal limbs. This object stood in the park like a sculpture in a public garden, and I wanted to spend time with it by myself—to appreciate its beauty and persistently practice climbing its legs protected from the gaze of other people. I wish Louise Bourgeois was my grandma, and she could lift me atop the spider where she’d whisper into my ear: “You are patient and reasonable, dainty and subtle, completely indispensable.”
In 2009, the park was renamed Albert “Ray” Massey Westside Park and Recreation Center in recognition of a man who is known regionally as the “Grandfather of Recreation.” In a news article about the renaming, Massey is said to have made recreation possible in the city of Gainesville. This makes me wonder: What does it mean to recreate?
I hate the idea that a park or a playground or a structure or a person would be designed and designated as the facilitator of play.
If it were up to the spider, I’d be alone and crying, destined to a life in the mulch. Eventually, I would create a habitat beneath where I could tunnel into a crystal cavern in the Florida aquifer, but that would take years. At some point during my childhood, the spider was removed, and all the simple metal sculptures were replaced with plastic slides and coated metal walkways with pictures of frogs and pirate swords emblazoned on the ship facades. This type of aesthetics for a playground are pervasive. They function like dictators of play. When I was younger, I yearned for these brightly colored plastic playscapes because they were clean and bright and told me what to do.
In contrast to the plastic play utopias that started to appear all around me in the 1990s, there was an incredible, free-standing wooden world called Kidspace designed by famous playground architect Robert Leathers. On special occasions, I would drive fifteen minutes with the neighbors to visit the playground, stopping to get Subway sandwiches along the way. My neighbor’s mom seemed to like taking us there—maybe it was an escape from reality for her, too.
In 1987, parent volunteers from a local elementary school raised $48,000 to build Kidspace. After purchasing supplies and architectural plans, members of the community came together to build the playground in only four days. It covered 15,000 square feet of a formerly empty field behind the school, and it included “a haunted house, boardwalks leading to suspended networks of automobile tires, to rope catwalks, to parallel bars, to slides. There [was] an amphitheater with a stage, a wooden car, a rocket ship, even—something special for Gainesville kids—a big wooden alligator.” After school hours, the park was open to the public.
All of Leathers’ playgrounds are built by “community volunteers,” usually the parents of the kids who use them, and in this case, a representative from Leathers’ architectural firm in Ithaca, NY came to the site to collect ideas from students about what they wanted to see in their playground. The kids suggested: “pretend go-car shark car,” “a robot that talks,” and “a fish sumdareem (submarine) that goes underwater that kids can get in and see fish and sea animals with 5 windows.” None of those things made it into the finished park, but maybe the kids felt a sense of ownership anyway as a result of this process. After twenty years, the playground was dismantled when it was determined that the elaborate wooden structure was leaching arsenic into the soil.
Apparently, Robert Leathers used to wear a red T-shirt with the message, WE BUILT IT TOGETHER. When I think about the process the parents must have gone through to make this playground a reality, I’m impressed by the collaborative spirit and I see their smiling faces as they hammered the wood together, but I also think about the privilege they had to volunteer their time fundraising and building. I’m not aware of a project like this existing on the east side of Gainesville where the families at the time were mostly working class. When I traveled to Kidspace, I could tell this structure wasn’t just a sculpture, it was infused with community care and consideration, and it was a platform where we as kids could design our own ideas and experiences—an opportunity the ordinary, city-funded playgrounds didn’t afford.
When I was sixteen, a veil was lifted and I realized the amount of production adults require in fostering and maintaining play in plastic playground environments. I was hired as a “play leader” at O2B Kids, an Edutainment Company that offers programs for children 0 to 13 years old. As a play leader, I wore what all the play leaders wore: khaki pants and a branded purple t-shirt. I had a pixie haircut, and once a kid asked me, “If you’re a girl, why do you have short hair?” I said it was because I am a princess, and every real princess has short hair. News got around, and I reveled in my new “Neighborhood Time” identity. There were ways to subvert how Neighborhood Time was used, but ultimately, it was a commodified experience contrived by the company, as stated on the O2B Kids website:
Neighborhood Time is a time to give kids a choice of things to do – just as they would experience in a safe neighborhood of yester-year. Choices include a combination of program calendar classes, non-scripted inside and outside play, and counselor led activities. This provides crucial time for your child to explore, make choices, develop friendships and gain independence. Our Counselors are stationed in zones to facilitate safe play.
The entire playscape exists inside a building adjacent to a mall, and I really question the amount of agency children have to make choices in that space.
Everyday at the end of my shift, I crawled through the plastic play tubes, tediously cleaning the shiny interiors. While I wiped away germs, the tubes vibrated with the sounds of dance class (Lil Mama’s Lip Gloss was popping). Not only was I hired to facilitate “Safe Play,” but I was also required to make sure the environment remained sterile for all the kids who came through. I like to think of this place as a painting. All the colors swirl together to make the secure world we want to be in; where the neighborhood is inside and the birthday party is purchased as an all-inclusive deal. But, instead of a birthday party, it’s actually a cruise where you know everyone, even the strangers. The ocean clouds start melting onto everyone’s faces, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
I recently came across a photo of the Noguchi Playscape designed by Isamu Noguchi for Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Georgia. I thought it was a sculpture park, but then I read more about it: it is a playground that was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts as part of a project with the High Museum, completed in 1976. The Playscape reconceptualizes play equipment as sculpture, obscuring the divisions between fine art, real life, and playtime. Supposedly, Noguchi’s goal in designing playgrounds was to make sculptures a useful part of everyday life. At first, the sculptural quality of the playground made me feel excited because it looked like an enjoyable way to experience art, but later, I started to worry about the dangerous quality of how it might administer play. Noguchi calmed my worry with his vision:
“The playground, instead of telling the child what to do (swing here, climb there), becomes a place for endless exploration, of endless opportunity for changing play.”
When I saw the photo of the playground in Atlanta, I was transported back to a moment in 2012 when I visited the Isamu Noguchi Museum in Long Island, NY. During that visit, my friends and I intuitively began shaping our bodies to match the forms of the sculptures. We were freely playing in a very reserved, private yet public space. The photos of the playground got me thinking about my own necessary conditions for play, and I reflected on the publicness of the playground and the privateness of the museum. I searched for images of that trip to New York.
Now I work at an elementary school, and I wonder if the students feel permission to play there. My job at the school is to help organize programming for the King School Museum of Contemporary Art, a contemporary art museum operating inside a functioning K-5 public school. In the museum, there’s a confusing mix of public and private where anyone is invited to visit, but only during school hours and typically with permission of one of the museum administrators. When we invite artists to do workshops with the students, I see everyone playing. The adults are playing with expectations and materials, and the kids look delighted and surprised by what happens in the workshops. It seems like the intergenerational, playful environment is only possible through face-to-face collaboration and conversation. A very serious combination of whimsy and wisdom, freshness and perspective, listening and being heard. More often than not, our team takes cues from the kids about how to “facilitate play.”
Based on this research, I’d like to fill an entire neighborhood with sculptures of giant friendly spiders designed by the kids I work with. Each spider could have an escalator, or an elevator, or a soft sculpture ladder, or even a happy badger with wings that floats you to the spider’s peak if you’re scared. You would have to choose your own adventure, build your own platform, and you would definitely have to let the sculpture tell your story, instead of the other way around. Noguchi’s playgrounds are too beautiful, and they make me nervous—like art is going to take over the world. What I really want is for the world of a painting to spill into reality, and me and the neighbor’s mom could eat subs together in the pebbled floor where falling doesn’t hurt and the vending machine closet comes with unlimited quarters. The birthday party has no adults and kids are screaming and running until they hurt themselves on accident and everyone starts self-policing. If this could happen, WE BUILT IT TOGETHER.
The Radical Imagination Gymnasium
In the summer 2014, we came across the article Finance as Capital’s Imagination: Reimagining Value and Culture in an Age of Fiction, Capital, and Crisis by Max Haiven. An exploration of the politics of imagination under financialized capitalism, this article raised a lot of questions for us around the ways in which our individual imaginations are dictated by market logic. We’ve essentially lost the ability to value things that aren’t measured by the dollar or monetizable. Furthermore, our imaginations are put to use by developing new ways of capitalizing on resources and exploiting others, rather than resisting such systems and imagining new ways of being together based on mutuality, care, and cooperation.
Further reading brought us to the term radical imagination, which Haiven investigates in several of his books and in his collaborative action/research project, The Radical Imagination Project. In the book Crises of Imagination Crises of Power; Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons, Haiven loosely defines the radical imagination:
“The radical imagination is not a ‘thing’ that we, as individuals, ‘have’. It’s a shared landscape or a commons of possibility that we share as communities. The imagination does not exist purely in the individual mind; it also exists between people, as the result of their attempts to work out how to live and work together.”
That is, the radical imagination is not merely about thinking differently; rather, it is the messy and unorthodox process of thinking together. The concept of the radical imagination, as we use it and borrow from these folks, is largely aspirational; it is a placeholder for the possibilities of collectively reimagining ways of being together in the world.
We began to think of the radical imagination as a group of muscles, weak and underused.
A meeting with our friend and experienced yoga instructor Renee Sills deepened our understanding of anatomy. She explained that muscles only work in teams, and when one muscle is tight, its companion muscle is slack. When one muscle is overused, it causes imbalance and chronic stress. This tightened, overused muscle causes a path of least resistance which dictates movement in its direction. That is, the more you use it, the easier it becomes to use it, and the harder it becomes to reverse the pattern of usage.
Our guiding research question became: What would a workout plan for the ‘radical imagination’ look like? We set out to develop a workout plan for the gymnasium by inviting people to facilitate workshops whose practices already embody the kind of collective imagining that our research was pointing to. The first workout was facilitated by Walidah Imarisha and centered around collective visioning, world building, and science fiction writing on issues of social justice. We designed and facilitated the second workshop with Tamara Lynne, asking participants to collectively (and silently) act out 24 hours in Utopia. Carmen Papalia led the third workout titled “Bodies of Knowledge” exploring notions of radical accessibility and involved crafting a collective definition of open access. The last workout, titled “Yoga for Commonwealth”, was facilitated by Renee Sills and used the form of the yoga class to explore ideas of collective exchange and balance.
These workouts mostly took place in Project Grow’s Port City Gallery with an accompanying exhibition. The exhibition component of this project was accumulative and included influential research, workshop generated material and documentation, as well as staging and equipment for the workshops. Prominent design features included a large scale, vinyl line drawing of a gym floor spanning the wall and floor, standard size CrossFit plyometric boxes reimagined as seating, and a combination weight rack/book shelf.
(Re)create the Radical Imagination Gymnasium
Muscle imbalance continues to feel like an appropriate metaphor for the difficulties of challenging and changing a pattern of behavior or social structure. Within financialized capitalism, we have plenty of opportunities to be rewarded and punished as individuals. What we don’t have is ample opportunity, space, and time to collaborate in the creative process of imagining new ways of being together in the world. For a limited time the Radical Imagination Gymnasium offered space for this work.
We think the radical imagination can be strengthened in the same way that a body is conditioned through incremental exercise; starting small and increasing intensity over time. What if we dedicated two hours every week to collective imagining? Or two hours a day? Could a sustained routine build enough muscle memory to reverse the dominant tendencies of the imagination dictated by market logic? We offer these questions and the proposal to continue exercising the radical imagination.
Portland based Physical Education (P.E.) is comprised of dance and performance artists keyon gaskin, Allie Hankins, Lu Yim and Takahiro Yamamoto. P.E.’s vision is to offer performance audiences, artists of all mediums and curious individuals, immersive methods of engaging with dance and performance. The group sat down for a fun and enlightening conversations about the origins of P.E., and the role it plays in each of the dancers lives.
Spencer: So to begin, I’m curious to hear how PE started? What is the origin story for the collaboration?
Silence, then everyone bursts out laughing….
Allie: That is pretty much it in a nutshell.
Lu: It started out of conversations in 2013 about wanting and needing to engage with dance and performance more critically during a project that Taka, keyon and I were involved in. We decided to start a reading group and Physical Education was the first name that came up for it. And Allie was like, hey I want to come.
keyon: No, that’s not right. Because y’all met and then I was like, “hey I want to come.”
Lu: Oh yeah yeah, so we had decided to meet, and I think you (keyon) were out of town for the first one so you knew about it but you were out of town.
keyon: no it was maybe just you two (lu and taka) and then we joined.
Allie: And it was really like: would choose an essay to read and then another one. And we would get together and talk about them, and we would also drink and eat and go off on whatever tangents. Just let it go as long as it went. And then at some point we said “oh, what if this became an open public thing where people could just come and discuss?” There is no rigid sort of way to talk about these texts, and we can just be in a room with a bunch of people. Then we got the Precipice Fund and that’s when things went public.
keyon: At its core was this thing of “come as you are,” and all levels of engagement are valid, and it was really fun. That was a big part of it too, it was super social, amongst the four of us, and kind of like an alternative criticality where we could really be able to go deep. And that was the thing about keeping it small, at first, was to not have that kind of pressure to say the right thing. Really being able to be with friends and talk shit and recognize that “I don’t know how much farther the conversation can go when the structure is so lucid and social and always so layered.”
Spencer: Were you responding to the lack of something in Portland, or the lack of something in the dance community through its inception?
Taka: I think we liked the fact that we geeked out on Martha Graham.
Lu: I don’t know what you are talking about.
Taka: You don’t know what I’m talking about? We were talking about martha graham, and I didn’t know much about her, but for Light Noise we geeked out on it, and we read something. And we talked about how she was a force of presentation. Something like that. Right?
Lu: Yeah yeah we naturally started to talk about the research that was behind that project. And I don’t think that was something I had personally engaged with so much in other dance processes and that was exciting.
It wasn’t so much out of response to lack but it was more, “oh, this is nice, we need to keep this going.”
Yeah, I remember being really excited about the idea because I think many of us, when we make work, were reading a lot of material. That peripheral inspiration that comes into the picture when you’re making a thing, and just sort of just being able to process through the ways we got to different ideas. This associative thinking that often happens in making work, and often trying to read pretty heady texts around performance. And I don’t really consider myself an academic or anything like this, and so sometimes being like, “oh this is hard to read alone because I wanna try and talk through this with other people, but who can I do that with?” And this seemed like a really good opportunity to do it with people that I trust who I can ask questions around, and I don’t have to be the smartest person in the room or anything like this or already know the answers. And that’s what was exciting for me.
And keyon introduced the component about the video, not just the reading.
It was also nice to have a group of folks that were interested in be just working, everyone was kind of thinking in other ways and some of the texts that we were using were by architects, and it felt like a group where we could really push our understanding of performance and these sort of things to allow more space within that. I don’t really feel that it really felt like a lack of Portland, I also feel like it feels very of Portland in a way. Because I do feel like a lot of times there’s more crossover between disciplines and genres aren’t so important. There’s more room to play in between them and I feel like this group was generative for me for that.
Somebody said, “when we went public.” What led to PE going public and how did it change the nature of the group, do you think?
People were knockin’ on the door asking, “you have a reading group? How come I can’t come?” And we were like, “well, you can’t come because this is just something we do! ‘Cause if we let you come, then we’re gonna have to let everybody come and then we’re not gonna have this nice, intimate group anymore.” I can’t remember if Precipice Fund sort of came up and then we thought, “oh, actually, what we’re doing could really work with this grant.”
We changed it a lot. I mean, we haven’t had an intimate, just the four of us, reading group since then. I don’t think.
We had our beach week.
Oh we did. We had our beach week. Yeah, that was cute.
And I miss that dynamic a little bit. I mean, none of us are ever in town anymore anyway. It’s interesting thinking in terms of fun and leisure versus work, the way it’s gotten a bit muddy. One unspoken agreement that we’ve all had is, we’re not gonna do things if it’s not fun. But, that being said, it can sometimes be a little stressful or unwieldy because we’re like, “oh shit, this fucking deadline and I’m in New York and I’m in Stockholm and I’m in Japan and I’m in Minneapolis and who the fuck’s gonna do the Google Doc?” And it can kind of become this scramble which I think can be stressful but also it’s fine. We’re not professional. This is not a professional organization, we’re not a fuckin’ 501(c)(3), we’re not tryin’ to have this cohesive way of working. We’re just trying to make it work when it can. But sometimes it does feel like, “oh, I wish it could just be us in a room, drinking wine and talking about whatever… more… fun.”
I have this question around workshops in general and the idea of that form of the workshop or even the name of the group, Physical Education. Who’s teaching, who’s learning, and what has the project taught you over the years?
Well there was a class that I wanted to do, and then Physical Education was the perfect excuse to put it out in the world as something that could be associated with reading, performance, and artists lectures. That it can exist in the same sort of realm and programming as these other things and that a physical embodiment of whatever ideas that get presented in that workshop can then lead to a different type of understanding of the other events going on around it.
So a class might be like: have a conversation about some essay, and then we also hear Samantha Wall talk about her process and then we have this artist share and then we’re gonna go get really sweaty in an aerobics class, but then all of those ideas are carried with you through that class and maybe they’ll come up or maybe you’ll think about them differently after you’re sweaty and tired. You might take your own physical embodiment of ideas to a performance that weekend that you then watch and maybe all of these things kinda can get carried through those various experiences so you’re coming to a performance with new lenses. So that was TRANSCENDENTAEROBICOURAGE. But we’ve taught a lot of different workshops.
I’ve been thinking about the workshop versus the formal performance, too, and how those things might relate to each other, build off of each other or be in contrast…
I definitely feel like this group, I’ve been thinking about the name, and just over the years thinking about how things have shifted and changed, in my work, and especially in relationship with this group. I think for me, something that I’ve really been coming to a lot lately is less delineation between all of these things: between my living experience and my work, sales, and art. It’s also heinous that art, in this very Western way of looking at it, separates everyday living experience. It’s interesting to think hoow so much of what we look at are objects from the past are functional objects as well.
I think this group and Physical Education thinks about how our bodies are always teaching us and this way in which we can always be learning. Thoughtfulness and conceptuality and all of these things exist in the world that we’re in all of the time. It doesn’t have to be this kind of elite or separate kind of way of thinking about work and art in relationship to the body and embodiment and these practices. I don’t know, that’s kind of all over the place, but I do feel like this group has helped me… we talk about it as a support group sometimes. And I think there is space for all of that to kind of be in there and mix around and chew on.
It’s not just people asking me what is Physical Education, it’s the fact that I’m actually wearing a PE shirt as a form of my outfit (points to shirt). We sold 30 shirts last sale, which is kind of big but we are not making a lot of money off of it, so it’s more we’re having fun with the designs, and that’s actually what you kind of talked about?
I’m also thinking about something you (Lu) and I talked about when we were out one night. Something that happened in Amsterdam. Someone had brought you out to teach a workshop and you showed up and you did something very unconventional: you didn’t structure it like a typical workshop. And you showed up in a way that they kind of questioned you about it, like, “oh, but aren’t you going to teach them something? Aren’t you going to do something?”
We had this conversation around the notion of “you asked me to come engage with these people and I’m gonna do that and it’s not my fault that you wanted it to look like a lesson plan. I’m bringing myself and my experience to this room right now and so are they and we’re gonna go ahead and do that thing.” I don’t remember exactly how you phrased it, but something around that, which I’ve been thinking a lot about since Physical Education began. What is it to get hired to come and teach a workshop? What’s the responsibility in that? How have I been thinking about that responsibility? How have I been taking on so much… I get so stressed about the idea of teaching, because I’m like, “what if I’m not smart enough? What if they hate it? What if they don’t have a good time? I forget that just the act of showing up and bringing all of my years of experience in this field to the room with other people, there’s already so much there, there’s more than enough there, and to be able to be flexible in that environment instead of grasping on to some lesson plan for the sake of controlling the situation. I’m thinking a lot more about that in terms of teaching.
That idea of expectations is really rich. It’s something to play with too. And just challenging people’s expectations of anything, especially around teaching and the labor because so much of it an honorarium or whatever and it’s underpaid for what really is. I’m curious, how much space do you want PE to take up in the bigger picture of each of your lives? Where do you see it fitting?
I mean, it’s shifted a lot over the years. It’s different all the time. I was just watching this video montage of this performance that we did in 2014? thinking to myself, “aw, look, we’re babies!”
We were really actively working through ideas and trying things out and for all of us. Those things developed into what our next work was going to be. There’s something potent about that time we formed and when we started doing stuff together that has had such an effect on all of our practices that I think now when we get together it just feels different. We’re just, not so young anymore.
Hate to go there. Not that we’re old, but it is a different kind of support and a different kind of decision to come back together and keep doing things together then it was.
When I think back to that time I’m like, “Look! Think about the potential here. Physical Education is going to become this giant, wonderful sustainable thing that’s gonna support our work and support us as friends and it’s also gonna bring a bunch of people together, and it’s gonna be this vehicle for all these things to happen all the time. There’s a future here.” And then years go by and then all of the other things that have to happen in life start to happen and you’re just like, “oh, it’s just kinda gonna look like this for now. And oh, then it’s, oh, it’s gonna look like this today…”
This is the part about getting older?
I don’t have that much time or energy anymore, but I really like these people, so I’m gonna keep investing in it in whatever way feels reasonable. I was thinking about your question of how much space do I want this to take up and I think the answer to that for me is I want it to take up more space because I want to remember what that energy felt like. But I also sometimes need it to take up a whole lot less space. The administration that has to go on around it. I’ve never been good at that, and I forget that when I have these big dreams, I’m like, “oh no no, but I hate admin work.” Physical Education’s always somewhere around here, and then every once in awhile, I’m lucky enough to have it be the focus, but it has to be super flexy.
I love that about it. I feel like I never really had expectations at all of what it would become, although I’ve always been like, “oh, we’re doing this?! Yes! Sure!” It’s this fun, mad, flexy thing.
It feels like it does take up the amount of space that we have capacity for. So sometimes it is smaller, and it isn’t happening sometimes because we don’t have the capacity. But I like that, I think it is a different thing that keeps bringing us back together but I do really like these folks. I love the stuff we do and it still feels like a space that even though it’s a very different way of pushing back or doing things. Think about the works we did at Composition. How different, and similar. But it is still pushing, it’s still a generative ground. It still feels like a generative playground in that way.
Things always happen when we come and do these events and spend a substantial amount of time together in a space–it feels like a magic. Sometimes trouble comes through and we’re not quite sure what’s gonna happen. We better be ready. This time there better be a nurse practitioner in the audience-
Everybody knows that Physical Education is something that we do, but we are not of it. I was thinking about it. It’s like, “remember Allie of Physical Education?” And nobody’s gonna say that to us. So this entity is so interesting because the sense of belonging is so not, it is a part of our life.
I kinda like the idea that everybody’s in Physical Education, whoever is engaged with it. Maybe we’re the little nucleus or something that’s keeping it going or maybe the heart of the thing, but everybody engages, you’re always kind of a part of it.
Well and it’s definitely kind of a lens, I think, or a method of thinking that once someone understands a lens, they can then apply it whenever. It’s like that idea, there’s new ideas around exercises or it’s actually any steps or exercise or going up the stairs once is technically exercise, so you can kind of claim it in that practice and extending that to art I think is really empowering to say, “actually, this is performance, or this is an artist’s practice, even if it’s just sitting in a room and talking or something.”
Or microdosing on mushrooms on the coast in a cabin.
Yes. In a wetsuit.
Wearing a wetsuit.
Those fucking wetsuits.
Guns, Money, Mud, and Play
By Artists Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. and Katie Shook
Katie and Michael are both artists, and both have practices that involve working with children. So questions about what play is and how play in childhood transfers to adulthood, and to an art practice, are central themes for both of them. Does play in childhood inform one’s interests and pursuits as adults? Does making art for money make art less altruistic? Do violent toys lead to violent behaviours? Is the making of art inherently correlated to play?
Here are some ideas they gathered in response to these questions and others paired with photos drawn from their respective practices and beyond.
PLAY AND ARTMAKING
Children playing in the mud at the Adventure Play Garden, run by the non-profit Portland Free Play. Most people over thirty have memories from childhood of playing outside without adult intrusion. These days, kids don’t get as much time and room to roam, free from an adult agenda.
Artmaking really depends on the ability to take the time and space to get into a creative frame of mind. Everyone works differently, but for my practice, I find I need several hours uninterrupted to get anything constructive going. It’s harder for me to get to that place when I’m stressed and feeling under pressure. Creative thinking and the flow state are akin to play, resembling the mindframe that children get into when they are given unstructured play time.
Children deserve time for free play, just as adults have a right to pursue their own intellectual and creative interests.
It can sometimes be hard for adults to see a child’s play time as valuable, and not impose some expectation for learning or performance. There is inherent value in what a child wants to play at according to their own motivation, but the special secret about free play is that children are actually learning and developing on very complex and nuanced levels, often far beyond the outcome of a traditional classroom.
Adults who watch children at play sometimes interpret their actions and intentions inaccurately. We see children’s play through an adult lens, influenced by our history and adult motivations. One way to find out about what kids are playing at is to observe and listen. It can be intrusive to ask kids to explain themselves. And also, I think when kids are in a deep play trance, their experience can be outside of language and putting words to it.
Reflecting on my own experience of art making or being in a state of play, can I put that into words? Would others be able to understand my experience? Sometimes my most satisfying feelings while making art aren’t about ‘fun’ really, but about feeling a drive, or a sense of compulsion. Michael, you’ve used the word ‘compulsion’ in describing your artmaking.
Elijah and Michael open for business at the Totally Honest Bazaar during the Schemers, Scammers, and Subverters Symposium
In some of the work that I’ve done with Elijah for Well Made Toy’s㏇, and in other Imagination Academy projects, there’s this imaginary or imaginative premise that then gets actualized in a playful way. Where the rules can change and there’s feeling highs and lows, there’s discomfort with engaging strangers outside the game who’re being invited to play. However in Well Made Toy’s㏇ there’s the fun and exciting pay off to playing the game, actually selling a toy that was made for the game.
The socio economic dynamics that surround the exchange of goods for money are complicated, emotional, and hardcoded into our culture. These things are challenging to understand and navigate for adults, but through gamification of capitol exchange young people can participate and learn from a safe and constructive method of engagement.
PLAYING WITH MONEY
Joseph at the 2017 KSMoCA International Art Fair shows off an artwork to a patron that later resulted in a sale
Some recent research has found that kids behave more selfishly after playing with money, real or fake. (See the story in Pacific Standard magazine here: https://psmag.com/social-justice/handling-money-decreases-helpful-behavior-among-young-children ) The act of handling or playing with money results in a decrease in generosity and prosocial behavior.
What happens when we introduce the notion of selling artwork that children make – does the introduction of monetary exchange alter the creative experience for children? Does money change the act of creating for adult artists as well?
It’s curious to think that the materials we provide for children in play can actually prompt very different kinds of behaviors, emotional experiences, and levels of human connection or disconnect. Our choices in the environments we design for children may have greater implications than we anticipated.
Artwork by DeAndre at the KSMoCa International Art Fair
In the first KSMoCa International Art Fair, Michael, one of the youth participants, was paired with well known and renowned artist Christopher Johansen. Together they made a few drawings using a pastel color palette. They were listed at $200 a piece and began to sell quite quickly. Other KSMoCA participants saw this capital enterprise and became enthralled by this commercial exchange. They quickly started making drawings and listing them at 10, 20, 50, 200, and 500 dollars. One of the minimally vocal youth scrawled his pricing structure onto an amazing drawing of transformer characters, “20 or 15$ if transformer fan, 5$ I mean it!”
Elijah makes a sale of a Well Made Toy’s㏇ toy
When Elijah and I began setting up for this project I let Elijah know he could set the prices for the objects we were selling. All the toys were made by him and his peers, they were quite simple but elegant and had wonderful pops of color accentuating their preexisting features. I had spent quite a few hours making custom mounts for each toy from some beautiful reclaimed wood. Elijah said “let’s sell them for $7 each!” I was shocked as selling them at that price wouldn’t even cover the cost of materials much less labor. However the goal of the project was not an in depth understanding of economics, so I agreed. Later after making a few hard earned sales, a more confident youth from the Living School came over to Elijah and offered him a photo copied single page zine for $10. It Seemed Elijah contemplated this for less than second and agreed to pay the price. I was shocked again, the premise of material and labor value was totally subverted, the desire for exchange was greater than any other criteria. As the money was his, I pulled $10 out of my pocket and handed it over, and continued to look on with amazement as Elijah handed the money over much more easily than anyone had for him.
TOY GUNS AND COMBAT PLAY
“Toys” in Michael’s collection of objects poised for future projects
Children learn positive social skills through play fighting. In combat play, children learn negotiation, empathy, how to read complex facial expressions, and assess boundaries. This can be playing with swords, sticks, toy guns, and rough and tumble play. Dr Stuart Brown’s research has shown that this kind of play reduces violence in adulthood. It’s important for children to have access to all kinds of unstructured play time, including playing at fighting.
SOCIALLY CHALLENGING PLAY
O’Donnell proposes that working with children in the cultural industries in a manner that maintains a large space for their participation can be understood as a pilot for a vision of a very different role for young people in the world – one that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child considers a ‘new social contract.’
In any artmaking, but especially in socially engaged projects, there is the potential to push boundaries that begin to protrude awkwardly and ambiguously into the cultural contexts in which they occur. I often wonder what can we do playfully as adults that challenge societal structures, social norms, the status quo? Again, with any artwork, through viewing or participating one is being asked to understand a complex idea or set of ideas architected by the artist/maker. This form of expression is often attempting to create a dialogue between the work and those experiencing it. This is much like an invitation to play.
When this paradigm within art is extended into a social space, a simple subversion of an ordinary thing may cause participants to extend their comfort zone beyond the ranges in which they are currently held.
Preschoolers and gun play
Old fashioned play builds skills
Penny Holland research on gun play
An Interview with Jen Delos Reyes
So for the third issue, I’ve been interested in this idea of recreation. I’ve been thinking about projects that are recreational in certain ways either through using forms of play or relaxation or leisure in what they’re actually doing. From there, I got more into this idea of what does recreation actually mean to artists? Are artists, on some level, always doing both work and leisure? As an artist, the assumption is that you’re doing what you love.
I wanted to start there, thinking about your book I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song, and thinking about that idea of an artist’s life, and what that means. Maybe you would want to talk about the genesis of that book and how it came about?
Jen Delos Reyes:
For sure. In the intro to that book, I talk about hearing this song for the first time when I was in graduate school, which was written by Thomas Dorsey and performed very famously by Mahalia Jackson. She’s singing clearly from a voice which is her own, but a perspective which the listener could read as the space she occupies in her life. The song is about a gospel singer who is talking about the fact that in her work, her craft as a gospel singer, that she can’t sing these beautiful songs and then live a life that doesn’t feel like it actually upholds the art that she’s putting in the world. The refrain is that “I’m gonna live the life that I sing about in my song.” That felt like a complete revelation hearing that in grad school, and saying, “Yeah, actually 100%. I want the exact same thing. That what it is that I do in the world as an artist, I want it to be completely in line with my values, all my values. And my life practice.”
I guess it was at that point that it really felt like it was a goal. It felt like something almost impossible in some ways. It was definitely in my mind from that point on. I think it’s hard to disconnect that too, especially when, as an artist, a lot of the work you do is about lived practice, lived experience, and being with others in a lot of ways. I think that was really the first seed of that project, and I didn’t really realize it at the time, other than just having this general admiration for that way of living and working, and that connection to what you do in the world, especially as an artist. I also mean that for everyone. I don’t think it’s just for artists at all, to be able to live in that way.
Fast forward years later, half a decade later, and I’m invited to do a residency as the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago. I’ve been working with this great coordinator there, she’s fantastic. I’m actually really struggling with what I want to do at this residency, like what is the frame for it, what is the structure? At one point she asked me, “Well, what could you do, or what would you do if you could anything? If you could really do anything, what would you do?” My sincere almost immediate answer was that I just want to live. I meant it, but I meant it in this way that I was I want to live with intention and with value, in the vein of I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About in my Song. It ended up that I started using that residency, which I think was in 2013, on doing research into intentional living, intentional communities, and utopian impulses. Groups like the Shakers, for example. Other groups in the US, especially that were easier to research and very possible to even visit.
In particular, I wanted to connect those sorts of groups and impulses to artists who are clearly inspired by some of those radical approaches, or different ways of being in the world, and with each other. That came together in the form of the book. In a lot of ways, I feel like the book is a failure. It is an interesting series of cases studies of artists who I really feel do justice to that Mahalia Jackson song. They’re people whose work I admire greatly, I also admire them as people, and what they have set up is incredible and completely inspiration, and so different. The main people in the book were J Morgan Puett, and looking at Mildred’s Lane, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and looking at the work she did with the New York City Department of Sanitation as the official artist in residence. Then Ben Kinmont and his Antinomian Press, and his work as a bookseller. David Horvitz, and I just feel like everything in his practice is so just emergent from his personal life and relationships in this really beautiful way. And Fritz Haeg, and his embodied practice, but it’s also his communal practice and how he builds community, especially for artists.
All of these people were inspirational for me, and in very different ways. I showed a lot of examples of how an artist could be in the world. Basically everything I described in terms of their primary activity is not necessarily what most people think of as art: like running an art school in your home or starting a bookstore, or foraging for mushrooms, or whatever. All of these things aren’t necessarily the things that we think of when we think of artists, but they’ve been able to structure their lives in a way in which that is something that they get to do. I had hoped and intended that the book would serve as a roadmap for anyone to be able to take inspiration from that and do it, but the truth is, it doesn’t feel like that and it doesn’t read like that.
It’s fine, because in life, there are always more opportunities, and I feel like that to me, has then given birth to this new book that I’m working on that I actually feel will do that thing that I wanted it to do, that is about like, well how can we all live lives of meaning and value and look at our daily activities, and really keep them in connection to what is happening in the world, and not separate them because we are in a moment of social crisis, economic crisis, environmental crisis. We should all be crushed under the weight of how horrible things are in the world right now.
I’ve been reading your lecture What We Want is Not Free, which mentions all of the unpaid labor you put into Open Engagement. I think dovetailing with that, I’ve been thinking a lot about labor, and how normally we have to do stuff that we don’t want to do because it’s what pay the bills, or it’s what basically helps you survive. How do those two things relate to each other? There is this balance between precarity on the one hand, and utopian aspirational values on the other hand. Where do those two intersect, and how do we shift from one to the other?
Jen Delos Reyes:
What a big question. I feel like I have so much to say about that right now, that I’m a little bit like, “Well, where do I start?” One of the first things I’m thinking about is this idea that … and this is a little bit like some of the feedback I had gotten from the I’m Gonna Live the Life book, this idea that to be able to operate in the way that these artists operate from, is a privileged position. That not everyone gets to make these choices and to live in these ways. Which isn’t necessarily wrong, in a lot of these cases, there are instances in place or structures in their life that allowed them to do work for free. Here’s a great example: when I was talking to Mierle Laderman Ukeles, I asked her, “How were you able to be the unpaid artist-in-residence for 40 years?” The reality is that her husband, Jack, helped to support her and make that possible. I think that there’s just not enough transparency around economics, around the problematic structures especially in the art world, around class and privilege that people don’t talk about. This makes it possible for certain people to do unpaid labor, that then helps them to get better jobs within the system.
Let’s talk about unpaid internships. Those are very privileged positions, you can’t be someone from a struggling economic background and think that you can do an unpaid internship and live in London or live in New York or in LA doing this great internship with the Getty or something, and just be able to live. Think about the amount of privilege that one needs to have to be able to do that. When I would talk about, and this was actually with that same amazing residency coordinator, Megha Ralapati. That I was, “Talk about how I want everyone to be able to take inspiration and live these lives, like their lives, with integrity and with purpose and to have a life philosophy that guides what you do in the world.” She’s like, “That feels so privileged. What about the people who are working these jobs that they can barely pay their rent, there’s so many unpaid bills. There is a way in which some of the models, the case studies are not feasible for most people, but I think what is actually possible is that we can still make small and micro decisions within our lives that are within our value structures.
It might not just be on the same scale, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do that because I do believe it will still have an impact. For example, here’s one that I actually think works with this okay, well economic pressing matters of daily existence. Someone like Fritz Haeg is very critical of fast fashion and over consumption, and is someone who’s making and knitting their own clothes. That is not a thing that every single person can do. One, because maybe you might need to gain that skillset, you never learned how to sew, or you don’t have the hours and hours and hours it takes to be able to sew a garment, or knit something. But, you do have the ability to say, “Okay, I do not agree with the exploitative labor practices of fast fashion, and I don’t want to go into one of these chain stores and buy something that I know is basically made by someone who is not even paid close to a living wage, is essentially a slave in another country, and be a part of this chain.”
What can you do to actually stop that cycle? One, you could not buy new clothes. It would actually be cheaper for you to go to a thrift store, to go to a Goodwill, to buy clothes in that way. Everyone would be better served if they also had a better understanding of who they were as an individual and what they wanted to communicate in the world, and not be so seduced by advertising, honestly, and current trends because then you’re in this other cycle of trying to purchase things that will make you feel a certain way because it’s like you haven’t … this sounds so new-agey, but I think it is part of it, like that’s a lot of the inspiration behind some of these artists that I’ve been so enamored with in this book. It’s about actualization. It has a little bit to do with actual knowing yourself and what that means, and then your messaging. I actually think that it would be such a radical act if people took aesthetic control of their lives in the same ways that artists do, and would define what it is that they put out in the world in a daily, every day way.
I wanted to pull back for a second and go back to this question of how do we quantify the work we do as artists? I wonder how we cash in on this work we do just to survive in the first place.
Jen Delos Reyes:
Oh my God. Okay, thank you for bringing us back to this survival question ’cause it got lost in that storm of soap box passion.
I’ve been thinking about this book by Julie Rose called Free Time. I don’t know if you’ve read it, it’s pretty remarkable. Her position is just not one that I had ever heard before, but it made so much sense. She’s framing free time as a social justice issues. She’s says, “The same way we think about the distribution of wealth and resources, we need to think about the distribution of free time.” It gets very complex in terms of how she defines free time, and how that’s measured. It’s a beautiful book. I can’t recommend it enough.
Then it’s like, how do we think about our work as artists? I definitely want to answer that question. You already have a little bit of insight into where I’m at in terms of a position on free labor and needing that to shift. How do you even look at all the problems around being an artist and labor? One, I’ll say that in this country in particular, there is this expectation that artists will work for free. That we are not valued, like people are not valued who are artists, but art objects are. I’m like, “Can we get that to shift a little because if you don’t care for the people who make the work, then you don’t get those beautiful objects or experiences.” Part of caring for artists is actually being able to pay them a living wage.
I guess I don’t like the framing of how do we cash in, or capitalize? Because those reinforce problematic structures of capitalism that I wish we never had. I think it takes radical imagination to be able to think differently about what those governing structures are. Let’s not go into fantasy world. Although, I do think that science fiction and fantasy are very important because it does get us to exercise our muscles and think about other ways and other worlds, which I think we desperately need. We do live under capitalism, we do need to survive, so how can artists ensure that they are paid for their work?
Look, in our world right now, there are actually countries where this happens already. I am like, “Hi, I’m from Canada. We have CARFAC, artist run culture, artist led culture fought for this, and then it became government sanctioned.” Now this is the set regulation of how artists are paid for all their labor, and it’s incredible. It breaks down what an artist should be paid for a workshop, for an artist talk, for a group show, for a solo show, for a write up in a publication, for this, for this. It goes over all these different forms of labor, and then it says like what the percentage rate should be. Then the great thing is that it’s scalable, so it’s not just like an institution looks at it and they say like, “Oh, that’s a shame ’cause we don’t have $1,000 in our budget to be able to pay for a workshop.” It’s scalable in that what the artist is paid in based on what the annual operating budget is of the institution. If it’s a bigger institution, then you get paid more. Then also it’s a pay range based on if it’s a solo show, you get paid more than if it’s a group show. Just all these things that take into account how much labor is expended and how an artist should be compensated.
I think that we need a system that is more like that here. People need to operate in that way. There are amazing groups like Wage, who are advocating for those sorts of structures. I think it starts, also this goes back to this, “Oh well, it doesn’t matter. These systems are so strong, the institutions are so strong. I just have to do it.” I’m like, “No, actually, you don’t. You can bring up for yourself as an individual, as an artist, what your value is, and the fact that you can resist. If an institution is not going to pay you for you work, you can say, “thank you, but I actually have decided to make a choice in which I no longer give my time for free. This is not free.” I guess I’ve gotten to a place of deep frustration around that, and that has come out of years and years of free labor and being exploited, honestly, by large institutions and doing work that no one really told me that I shouldn’t be doing, or that should be only the work that a full time tenure track or tenured faculty does, that’s not your work, you don’t do that ’cause that’s not paid. You’re just adjunct, you’re responsibility is just that one class.
Then we get so, I don’t even know. I think that yeah, it begins with artists actually making demands and then resisting institutions, and calling out and calling in institutions to be able to join and to make this right. For me, part of how I’m making this right is that Open Engagement should actually be a model of sustainable artist led culture. I do not want to do any work anymore for Open Engagement in which like if we were to be transparent about it, and you were to see the inner workings, I want to feel good about it. I don’t want to feel like, “Wow, we really modeled a piece a shit.” No one needs to be working for free. That’s not what I want. Why would we model that? I want us to be an example, and I want us to show larger institutions that these changes actually can be made. Part of that change is valuing artists for their labor.
The other thing too, is like I don’t know, this like, “Oh, well, you could commodify the thing that you do in your life that brings you joy and does this thing, and sell it to an art institution.” Yeah, you could, but you could also just do it for yourself and for your life. I do a lot of these things that yeah, I guess I could do that as public programming somewhere, but I’ve just made that choice that it’s like, “No, I don’t frame it as ‘this is an art project.’” It’s just part of my life practice. I think that that is actually important for us to be able to do, that you don’t have to commodify everything in your life. You don’t have to make everything a project. I think that’s part of what we need to model, maybe as artists for other folk, is that it’s like we can just do these fun and creative things, and you don’t have to call it art. They can just be like what you do because it’s what you want to do in your life.
Yeah. It gets so confusing. Thinking about transparency around boundaries, too. The willingness to say that even if something looks like an art project, to say like, “This isn’t art. Or this is just part of my life practice, I’m not trying to think about this in terms of that bigger, that labor piece, or something.” And setting boundaries where you are able to not so much clock out, but check out from thinking about the thing … or check out from relating to the thing as labor because ideally you want it to be a source of strength, inspiration, resiliency, fun, any of these other things also.
Jen Delos Reyes:
Oh my God, yes. I’m happy to hear you say that because part of the definition of recreation is well, one, you can look at it as like re-creation too, to make a new, to do over. It’s like this practice that’s a constant re-creation. Then it also is supposed to be restorative and revive, that that is like it when you break down the definition. It’s from these words that mean those things. It’s like it is something that we need to do for ourselves to I think, be able to do the work better. It should not be seen as frivolous. I don’t think it’s frivolous. It’s like insert Audre Lorde quote here about self-care being a form of revolutionary practice. It’s guerrilla warfare in a way, because if we care for ourselves, we can do that important work in the world.
Yeah, and it’s only frivolous in the capitalist lens of the important thing is the work, and then the free time is where you get to mess around and do whatever you want. That speaks to a lack of intention, where you’re not thinking about either necessarily, in a very wholistic way.
Jen Delos Reyes:
I just had one last question. What do you like to do in your free time?
Jen Delos Reyes:
I wonder if part of this is about a mind shift, just that even to say like, “Okay, well there is a certain amount of time that is “free time”.” Maybe that’s not even the best way to look at it. I often think about this Annie Dillard quote that has been something that helps guide what I do on almost a daily basis, and was thinking about it even this morning walking to work. The quote is also so simple, you’re like, “Yeah, I know. That’s basic math in a way. That’s basic time math.” What Dillard says is that what you do every day, every hour, of course becomes how you live your life. To think about all time as being equally important and how your life is lived.
I do try to have everything feel values aligned for me, and part of that is why am I here at this job right now even? I’m here because I believe in this mission of urban public research university that it is a majority minority, and it is about access and the most affordable education possible. That that is important to be here and to support that. Or-
On spring break, no less.
Jen Delos Reyes:
Yeah, on spring break, no less. I don’t know, I guess I’m just trying to think of all time as so valuable. The other thing that I’ve often said, now I can’t think of who said it, is that time is the most valuable thing we have to give each other, and that that is so meaningful. I guess I try to think very intentionally about how I spend all my time, not just the time we like to think of as free time. I want to be able to look back on my life or have other people look back on it, and for there to feel like there was meaning and purpose and value in all of it, in all of the time that was spent here and with other people.
The Portland Museum of Art and Sports
The Portland Museum of Art & Sports was located at Portland State University’s Rec Center. An institution within an institution, the museum was founded in 2015 as a dynamic space dedicated to the exploration of two subjects that are rarely paired together: contemporary art and recreational sports. Through installations, events and programming that showcased local to international artists the museum explored unconventional situations for engagement to activate the spaces where art and sports intersect. Anke Schüttler and Lauren Moran, the founders and curators of the museum, reflect on the process of bridging divides, pitching art projects, and recreation in art.
Photos by Anke Schüttler
Lauren: We were talking about recreation.
Anke: Yes, I realized that both sports and art can be seen as a means of recreation.
Lauren: For most people, yeah.
Anke: It’s funny because when we were thinking about this museum we were saying sport and arts do not really go together so well or they are usually not seen together, though there is this connection that I actually have never thought about before. And also ironically when we were talking about doing this project at the rec center, we were both saying ‘I’m not exercising a lot at the moment and maybe that’ll get me into exercising more’ and then we actually never got to it really.
Lauren: Yeah, we were so busy working on all the projects and installing all the art and working with all the people at the rec center that we left out the recreation part.
Anke: The fun part… I mean it was also fun to do the project obviously. Earlier I was asking you about your relationship to art and if you would think that art is a form of recreation for you?
Lauren: When you said that it made me think of how it’s probably just as likely to be a famous artist as it is to be a pro sports athlete. They’re probably both as rare, but I’m sure athletes make more money.
Anke: And also probably they wouldn’t say “yes, I do sports for my recreation.”
Lauren: I would do art for my recreation. Right now I don’t think I would do social practice art for my recreation. My recreational art is making things out of clay.
Anke: Oh, yeah. Me, too. Thanks for reminding me!
Lauren: Forms of art I find relaxing are not the kind that I do for my work lately. It’s a little too much like a real job now. I actually started off this year thinking about this topic, maybe recreation or our discussion last year about what you would do for fun and how you could make it into a project? When I did the karaoke project here, or a walk in the woods, various things, sometimes it started to feel like work and I’ve been contemplating that. It was fun, it just felt like the expectations were different … And also I wasn’t consuming it. I was creating the experience, which is a lot more work.
Lauren: Anyway, exercise and sports is something I was always an observer of and that continued with our project. We were looking at it through this conceptual lens.
Anke: I really liked how this serendipitously came together, being offered the residency at the Rec Center. We went to have a look at what we could do there and while walking around you pointed out how this looks like a museum building-
Lauren: Right, it felt like a museum tour.
Anke: Yeah. I really liked that and ever since you said that I thought “for sure, there are so many aspects to that building that have a similarity to a museum.”
Anke: The concrete walls and all the coloring.
Lauren: I wonder if a sports person would go to an art museum and be like ‘oh, you could really play basketball in here.’
Anke: That’s such a funny idea, yeah.
Lauren: It’s interesting to come at non art things from that lens of everything is you know-
Anke: An art space.
Anke: I definitely have that lens a lot and I really love that.
Lauren: Me, too. So that’s how it started. We took the tour and we were like “Oh yeah, this is like a museum tour. What if we make it into a museum?” And then we-
Anke: Slowly took it over.
Lauren: Slowly developed these personas, right?
Anke: Yes, thinking about our role and deciding that we were both co-directors and co-curators for the museum. And when I started having that as my signature in my email people from Germany were like “What? You’re a director of a museum now? That’s so cool.’ I really love how that took this extra turn that I didn’t expect at all.
Lauren: I remember Harrell even saying, “you know, PSU doesn’t have a museum yet. Now it’s getting one, I guess.”
Lauren: So we were really asking what do we do as museum directors and curators … in this museum that we just decided was a museum?
Anke: Yeah, and finding all the artists was fun, thinking about the artists we know that work in that intersection between art and sports. It’s exciting how many things we found and so many different, very diverse works.
Lauren: Right, at first we thought these topics don’t have a lot of overlap, but then we found so many overlaps.
Anke: I really enjoyed when we were taking care of where the art would be, relating the art to the space. That’s a thing that you can’t do in a museum because the museum is just empty and without any personality before you put the art in, and I think that made this project so strong for me.
Lauren: Yeah, yeah.
Anke: Like putting the work that Adam Carlin did about lifting heavy things into the weight lifting room or –
Lauren: The videos with the ping pong balls with the ping pong table. That’s a good point. If it was just a regular museum we wouldn’t be able to make those connections at all.
Anke: And then some people got really into it even though they’re maybe usually not into art or wouldn’t go to a museum, but suddenly they got really excited about the work being at the rec center.
Lauren: I think that happened a lot. With the art and the context, I think it worked both ways. Sometimes we asked:’What can we fit into the space?’ and then sometimes we would find the artist and decide:’ this art would fit perfectly here’.
I think about how combining the two things or maybe inserting the art and deciding it was a museum in a non art space, when we gave the tour it just had this amazing sense of magical realism, you know? That was really special. I always try to seek that out in projects and that was one of the times I feel like it was really successful. Especially with the water dancers in the pool…
Anke: Or the runners…
Lauren: Yeah, with the treadmill pieces.
Anke: Yeah, the treadmill pieces were amazing.
Lauren: And just everyone being active in the space, doing their thing at the gym.
Anke: Activating it so nicely without the intention of activating it. That was very magical.
Lauren: There was definitely just a magic to that that I can’t quite put my finger on, but I feel like I learned a lot from.
Anke: I guess it goes both ways, right? Because it’s an already active space, the running would happen with or without the art, but it’s funny when then you have someone coming in for the art and wanting to look at the art, and they obviously also have to look at the runner in front of the art. Suddenly you end up with this combination of something that’s intended to be art and something that’s just an everyday life activity but in that context you cannot separate it from the rest. You cannot not see the runner in front of the art.
Lauren: So it just becomes all part of the experience.
Anke: It’s sort of like we were seeking out the side noise, which in more traditional art is usually excluded, right?
Lauren: That’s interesting because if all the stuff had just been in a blank space it would have been way less interesting. It needed the people around it to be fully experienced really. It just needed the place itself.
Lauren: This is a different topic, but something that I really liked about the project that I’ve thought about ever since is how we worked with really famous artists who are internationally recognized, like Hank Willis Thomas for example, and actually, officially got permission from him to recreate that exhibition. But then we also worked with local artists. We worked with students at PSU. We worked with people that we met in the Rec Center that happened to have some sort of connection to art or wanted to try something out. Like Konani with her body drawings. She just wanted to try that and we made it happen. We had this complete collapsing of art world hierarchies where we were mixing all these things together, which is something I always try to think about, too: collapsing the hierarchies or questioning hierarchies of cultural capital. Also the people looking at the art in the Rec Center who are there maybe they know about art, but maybe they saw it all as the same. Probably not that many people knew who Hank Willis Thomas was. That’s more of an art world context and in the Rec Center the artists were on a whole different playing field with a different audience. I appreciated that combination of a range of different artists being put on the same level.
Anke: Which probably not all artists would like or agree with, but I can relate to that idea and have been experimenting with that a lot in more recent projects, too. It wasn’t something that I was thinking about in that moment as much, but now that you point that out it becomes very clear to me that that’s maybe the first project where that just happened.
Lauren: Yeah, same. I don’t think we were doing it intentionally at the time. I think we were just trying to find whoever we could in all different capacities that was related to sports. Also wanting to work with the people in the space as part of the residency. It kind of just came all together naturally, which is cool.
Anke: Totally. Do you want to talk about how this project influenced you?
Lauren: I think it was one of the first times I had to pitch art to a non art institution and audience. Which is something I’ve engaged in since then and it’s always an interesting challenge to convey a conceptual art idea or to make sure it works on all the different entry points, of how people can access it. You can be an art person and appreciate it and you can not know anything about art and appreciate it. Navigating those conversations with all the people we worked with at the Rec Center, convincing them of certain things that maybe they didn’t fully understand or us just not thinking of things that were important to them in those negotiations was educational. When we had the Museum logo and they wanted to put the PSU logo on it and we had to say no. Or when we wanted to put all this controversial art in the lockers and they said ‘well, you know, you really gotta think about people just opening their locker and wanting to have a recreation moment and then maybe they don’t want to see really shocking art about racism’, which is fair.
Anke: Yeah, that was one of the first projects that we did while being in the program and you saying that makes me realize how much more I’ve been thinking about interaction with the people that I’m working with or working for in my projects since. I think we had a long phase of being on the nerves and frustrated, wondering how we could navigate the situation working with all these people or make everyone happy. We were less attuned to talk to a person and listen to what they want. Also somehow there was this clash between us being artists and them coming from the sports side and a funny misunderstanding about aesthetics. Having very, very different aesthetics often was problematic. We wanted things to look contemporary.
Lauren: We didn’t want it to look like an advertisement for the Rec Center. Even if there was a lot of crossover, I think we were still having different intentions within our institutions. Not in a bad way, just coming from different worlds.
Anke: We had another magical moment when we were doing this participatory piece where we were asking people to write notes about crying in sports and so many people were excited and responded to the prompt.
Lauren: Oh yeah, that was amazing.
Anke: Which seems so unusual, and made us realize: ‘Something that really works here are participatory projects.’
Lauren: There was always the question: ‘is it gonna work?’ The crying in sports project got us started. It was a very encouraging start because we got so many good submissions.
Lauren: What influenced you about the project?
Anke: I feel like I’ve done other projects a little bit like this before where I would be in a non art space, inserting art that’s related to the space. But I think it was the first project where that was really clear and really intentional. We’ve talked about this in the beginning. That was one of the parts that I enjoyed a lot and have been thinking more about since, it has been one of the main aspects of that project that worked well for me. And the activation part is interesting to me. I like that we had scores for people to activate and it really depends on the space whether you can do something like that or not.
Lauren: I liked the project when we asked people what reminded them of art. You could do that anywhere and it’d be great.
Anke: Yeah. It’s funny because it’s very related to us noticing that this space reminds us of a container for art.
Lauren: Right and actually it’s interesting because that was the last project we did so we really brought it back around.
Anke: Oh, I never thought about it that way.
Lauren: I didn’t either.
Anke: That’s a cool thought. Going for a loop.