Learning Omaha: The Impossibility of Place (Part 4)

(all images courtesy Chloë Bass)
(all images courtesy Chloë Bass)

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 parts 1, 2, and 3.

I’m home in Brooklyn now — I’ve been back for about three weeks, after nine weeks in Omaha. As the Department of Local Affairs starts up in Bed-Stuy, where I’m the artist in residence for the Laundromat Project, I’ve been thinking about different ways to frame and understand my summer. How can I use my experiences from a working in a totally new place (I’d never been to Omaha before I started the project there, which was the premise of this social practice diary series) when applying the project to my home place?

First, I should say that I am no closer to understanding what Omaha is really like. However, I do have a particular fondness for it. Perhaps there’s a kind of love you can have for a place that can only come from learning it at random. I’ll never be able to think of Omaha without thinking of it as a place where a bag of bagels will wind up on your porch if you’re nice to your elderly neighbors, or where hub spaces in the downtown area can be seen as a kind of blue-green spiral, as one of my participants drew on his map. These are not metaphors for knowledge: they are data specifically linked to the place and how its inhabitants and workers were encouraged to talk about it.

When I think about it, this kind of personally specified yet semi-random learning is not so different from the way we learn home: incidentally, and a little bit at a time. The only real change is that in this case, the learning process was actively selected and constrained. When we learn home, we don’t even know that we’re learning it; we simply find that we have come to know it.

DoLAI initially conceived of the project as a kind of reverse tourism, focusing my mind on undoing some of the commercial formats that we use to share our home places with visitors from elsewhere: i.e. that everything is related to buying something, from a meal to a dress to an experience. Much of the meaning of a place is illustrated not by patterns of consumption but by patterns of use. I wanted to find a way to reveal that meaning. I realize now, though, that the Department of Local Affairs also serves a second reverse function: by taking information in, rather than giving it out, both participants and audiences start to learn place through abstract connections instead of pre-planned itineraries. The mapping format of the project comes through the associations we make.

What I know about Omaha now is very little, maybe even less than I’d anticipated. The Department of Local Affairs necessarily slows learning down. There is no real replacement for simply living somewhere. If this sounds like a lame conclusion, perhaps it is. One of the most interesting aspects of a project that really intends to focus on the social is that it never ends. As with social life, we take it with us and learn — even when we’re not aware that we’re learning — to apply previous moments to current and, hypothetically, future situations. A good social practice project, then, is not encapsulated by the requirements of physical site specificity, but rather a kind of mental site specificity: the work is working to the extent that we’re able to “call it up” and continue to relate.

(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

This prompts a discussion of the value of the artist looking back on a social practice project as an essential aspect of good practice. The postmortem conversation is something that I’ve experienced both in the theater and in various day jobs, but I rarely encounter it in the art world except as a form of historicizing. That is to say: the art world postmortem generally already contains a kind of critical or framing perspective. It isn’t, or doesn’t have room to be, a rawness of remembering by those who were there and participated in the work. In synthesizing my experiences here without necessarily prescribing them as best practices, I wanted to maintain a bit of that rawness, at least from my own perspective. I hope that is a valuable tool for relation to the work from where you sit. Thanks for following along.

The Department of Local Affairs will take place as part of the Laundromat Project’s Bed-Stuy Field Day on September 21, 12–5pm, at the Mei Tai Laundromat (886 DeKalb Avenue, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn). The exhibition at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts (724 South 12th Street, Omaha, Nebraska) has been extended through November 1.

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