Greetings from the final studio days of a mostly extra-studio project. I’m back in New York again, dwelling on the wrap-up of my work in Greensboro. The plaques have been placed (well, two of them; the other two are awaiting some final arrangements), the audio’s been edited, the map has been made. Yet I still find myself mulling over a few persistently lingering questions.
What does it mean when we, as artists who work with people, fall in love with our participants? Every time I do an ongoing project that requires social participation, I find myself falling into a wonderful listening place where everyone can be someone. I’m in love with each of my interviewees, at least temporarily, and I hold them with care in this way. But it extends further than that: I start looking at everyone, at least for a while, as someone with a fascinating story. In my regular life as a jaded New Yorker, it’s hard not to look at everyone and everything with a sense of skepticism and questioning; I often feel like this is the lens through which I’m being regarded as well. But in the throes of a project about history, something else happens: everything comes to seem like a fascinating and essential part of how a place is made. When talking to antiques expert Mary Wells, one of my participants in Greensboro, she emphasized the importance of touching furniture as a way of understanding how history comes together, noting that the feel of materials will teach you about time. I’m thinking much the same, except instead of touching objects, I’m listening to people.
This is beautiful, but it’s also difficult. The goal of the artist is not just to absorb, but also (to some extent) to edit and/or transform. I feel wary of making “creative interpretations” of other people’s words, lives, histories, or places, even as I do it. It’s my hope that my project serves as more of a delicate framing of a particular moment in time, rather than an inappropriate reinvention of already real and meaningful lives. As I see it, in presenting the final form of any socially engaged or social practice project, there are two guiding principles. First, how do you remain true to the intimate, direct experiences that were essential to the creation of the project? Second, how does the final format engage or remain open to outside viewers who did not participate on such an intimate level?
In the case of this work, I set out to create a concrete final product: four cast 12” x 15” aluminum historic plaques with bronze finish. Plaques, the blandest, most everyday form of sharing historic knowledge, can be an interesting format in which to present information that’s usually lost or kept secret. There’s something both totally normal and powerfully, weirdly beckoning about putting words on buildings in official form — even, or perhaps especially, if the content is not the “George Washington slept here” message that we’ve come to expect. The plaques I created for Greensboro will be viewed in a public context on South Elm Street. Their audience comprises two main groups: people who know about the project and are looking for it, and those who don’t: the incidental passersby who happen to read the walls.
The project’s most important audience, and the one that I hold closest, is the people who spent time sharing their stories with me. In an attempt to open up this more delicate, dialogic process with a larger audience (online passersby?), I’ve made audio recordings of the voices of Jerry, Jo, and Ramsay Leimenstoll, Mary Wells, Walter Jamison and Liz Seymour, and George Scheer and Stephanie Sherman. Rather than ending this written documentation process with my own words and some overly neat wrap-up thought, I think now it’s time to turn you over to my participants. Listen to their stories of Greensboro’s South Elm Street (thank you to Evan Leed for audio assistance). Give these stories, and their tellers, a little time.