Editors’ note: This is the second in a four-part series by the author exploring what it’s like to learn a place through the creation of a social-practice artwork. Read part 1 here.
OMAHA — Both teaching and social practice ask a leader (artist, teacher, organizer) to codify and articulate a set of steps that are then acted out by a group. There’s a place for uncertainty, but it should be strategically applied: by choice, not default. It’s been two weeks since the Urban Design Lab students have arrived at the Bemis Center to work with me. All I can say for sure at this point is that I understand far less about Omaha than I’d hoped — and that this actually excites me.
To backtrack a bit, the students are teenage researchers working with me on my project “The Department of Local Affairs,” a critical investigation of how we talk about place that asks local residents and workers to share subjective information about their city. During week one, the teenagers made maps, designed pamphlets, wrote reviews, and left advice about how they themselves use Omaha in their daily lives. During week two, the teens went to public and/or community-friendly places (the library, a coffee shop, the sidewalks) to ask other Omaha residents and workers to engage with the same template materials. The collected materials will be used to make a guidebook to Omaha that captures ephemeral, normal daily activities — things that often go unremarked upon, yet make up the flavor of a place in a profound way — rather than “objective” tourism-based information.
I’ve always thought of “The Department of Local Affairs” as a process meant not for me, but for others. This is not pure altruism; as an artist, even an artist who rarely makes object-based work, I’m not without attachment to the self-aggrandizing purity of my ideas and their results. However, my desire to collect intimate information, as much of it as possible, surpasses my need to own the process of this particular piece. “The Department of Local Affairs” should be — and will be — clear enough to be packaged into a kit, disseminated to any available taker, and implemented in as many places as possible. Not only can’t I do this alone, but I shouldn’t; it would become rote, boring. Intimate conversations are best when they are true and fresh. Even with a change of locale, my own freshness would fade over time, reducing my approach from nervous excitement and a desire for connection (let’s call that the “first-date phase”) to something a bit more clinical (let’s call that nursing — a true intimacy that also requires some detachment and an ethical script).
Using teenage researchers as a conduit for intimate conversations poses some interesting dilemmas. As with all people, some teenagers seem more agreeable than others, based on either personality or external, often problematic assumptions. One teenager faced a challenge when he approached a potential participant in a coffee shop: Because the teen was holding a clipboard, the man assumed (incorrectly) that he was going to ask for a signature for something. However, rather than politely declining or avoiding the interaction, as an adult might do with another adult, the potential participant took the opportunity to publicly reprimand the student. Teenage researchers bring a level of vulnerability to the project that I believe can make outside participation more honest. These kinds of interactions are neither part of the project nor isolated from it: in this case, it was helpful to learn where I need to be more careful about the performative function of objects.
What’s more, teenagers are both uniquely passionate about subjects they’re interested in and uniquely awkward about anything that makes them uncomfortable. I find this really charming — it’s honest, and it lacks the veneer of using performers more adept at masking their own emotions for the sake of a smooth interaction. This week taught me that “The Department of Local Affairs” is interesting not only for myself and the contributors, but also for the teens. Returning back to the Bemis Center after asking strangers for information, the group was chattier and more outgoing than usual. This suggests to me that the process of doing this work informs social dynamics galvanized by the shared act of participation.
There’s also the way that the teens understand urban space. A visit this week to Omaha’s City Planning Department taught me that there was no official urban design here until 2007. All public master planning has occurred in the past seven years. This makes for some striking incompatibilities between what’s considered urban here and what I, as a New Yorker, consider as such. Omaha teens seem to see gathering space primarily as places where they can buy things. It’s true that commercial areas are generally more walkable here, but that’s a quality I tend to think of as suburban, not urban at all. This may result in a need to modify “The Department of Local Affairs.” More on that in the next episode from here!