Press Record; Walk Away, Listen to at a Later Date.
As a child Michelle Swinehart would take a Fisher Price tape recorder, press play, then leave the room while family members would unknowingly have their conversations recorded. Although, at the time (as you can imagine), this caused some family feuding, the seed for her practice as a documentary artist was sewn.
Swinehart is currently a MFA candidate in Social Practice at Portland State University. She has a background in documentary work through New York non-profit StoryCorps and film work through studies at Ohio University. Swinehart draws from many literary sources and real world experiences to find meaning and focus for her current social practice project Ridgefield Residents.
StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind. It is a digital archive of more than 30,000 personal stories from the lives of Americans. Swinehart’s art is undeniably influenced by time spent working for this organization (from 2006-2008). While at StoryCorps she helped conduct and edit sound interviews in which pairs of people would respond to a set list of questions with sometimes funny, other times painfully sad elements from their life histories. Deciding to take these skills in the direction of art making, Swinehart has continued the practice of cataloguing human experience through shared personal stories. The heart of Swinehart’s art practice lies in listening. The body of her work is archiving and preserving life stories as a collection of cultural heritage for posterity and education.
Swinehart lives on a section of eleven acres of beautiful partly wooded land that her parents own in Ridgefield, Washington. Ridgefield (population 4,409 from the 2009 census) is like many American landscapes, part forest and farmland, part housing developments each uncomfortably vying for rites to exist. She moved there after a discussion she and her husband, Danny Percich (a professional farmer) had with her parents about wanting to start a small farm of their own. A year later she was living about half an acre down a dirt driveway from her parents’ house in a mobile home she and her husband bought on Craig’s List for $3,500. I neglected to mention, the current site of their mobile home is the exact spot that her parents’ mobile home was years ago when their house was under construction, the same spot Swinehart was born.
Ridgefield Residents is a project about coming home. It is about learning to understand a place and the people that live there. It is intrinsically a personal project. It is about living on land that straddles rural and suburb, growing her own produce, meeting her neighbors and staying close with her family. How is this an art project and not just a coming home story? It is the context. And how is the context established? Through documentation.
Ridgefield Residents will be presented in the form of images and recordings on Swinehart’s Website, RidgefieldResidents.virb.com, for all to access as well as in a diorama format, which will be exhibited in the town library in Ridgefield, Washington along with Portland State University in the summer of 2011.
Above is the podcast interview I conducted with Michelle Swinehart in her mobile home in Ridgefield on February, 21st. I had never been to Ridgefield before. It’s about a forty minute drive North of Portland. It was nice to get out of the city for a few hours. Although Ridgefield is still a confusing mix of developments and rural land, when you get on the windy side roads and come across pastures with goats, cows and gardens the environment feels more unified. On Michelle’s parents’ land there are chickens, and if you listen carefully you can hear owls up in the tall pine trees. During our walk from her parent’s house to her (in progress) mobile home, Swinehart even told me about her experiences sharing the land with a family of small foxes. Ridgefield seems like the perfect location to be making art and, simultaneously, reflecting on the process.