Artist Assistant Tyler Thomas reports from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where she’s been supporting artist-in-residence Chloë Bass’ project, the Department of Local Affairs:
The things I learned whilst handing out flyers in Brooklyn…
It would appear that on Saturdays, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn is on and poppin’. Everyone and their mothers seemed to be out having a good time and—at least in the area I was in—I couldn’t walk a few blocks without hearing the sound of music blaring down the streets. l say all of this quite joyfully, as it only added to what was already an exceedingly pleasant experience. Moreover, I definitely think returning on a Saturday would be a good idea and that reaching people through block parties—a natural congregation of the “users” of the neighborhood—could be very effective! Plus, a good way to jam out to 90’s R&B classics while eating some barbecue.
When it comes to language barriers, the struggle is very much real. Our chosen laundromat, Mei Tai Laundromat, is owned by an Asian family with whom I had had two brief encounters prior to this particular check-in. As the parents don’t speak much English, their son is our primary translator. Even with his help, I received little confirmation beyond a head nod and a “yes” that I was actually being understood. In the beginning, this left me a little uneasy as to whether my efforts would actually yield the desired result. The issue of “Am I being understood?” was repeated a few more times as I stopped by a couple other places along DeKalb that, too, were owned by non-native English speakers. Many spoke Spanish, so fortunately I was able to speak with them for the most part, but not all. However, as time went on, I did notice that my confidence grew and my “spiel” grew tighter and clearer. This definitely made for better communication.
I should have brought tape. More times than I would have liked, I left an establishment wondering if the flyers I had handed out would ever see the light of day, let alone the eyes of a potentially interested participant. The female owner of the hair salon allowed me to put one up in their bathroom on my own (they provided the tape) and I think that many other places would have let me do something similar had I brought tape myself. That’s one way I think I can be more assertive the next time around. Perhaps that means opening with “Hi, could I put up these flyers for an art project I’m working on?” before introducing or explaining the project itself? Just things to think about.
Word of mouth might be more powerful. Throughout the experience, I increasingly felt more and more encouraged by the power of individual conversations to help spread the word about our project. During my 90 minute tour of the neighborhood, there were block parties galore—I stumbled across at least 3—and on more than one occasion, I was able to have a fruitful conversation with a stranger, explaining to them the plans and goals of our project. They were fruitful in the sense that I received nearly all positive feedback and felt a genuine sense of interest, on their parts, in the aspirations of the project itself. This isn’t to discount the use of hanging flyers, but it is to say that perhaps handing them out to individuals—an action which typically brings with it a deeper conversation about the project—may be a secret weapon in our publicizing efforts.
August 4, 2014—this post was sent to us from Omaha, NE, where Bed-Stuy artist-in-residence Chloë Bass has been conducting her project, Department of Local Affairs, at the Bemis Center. A big thank-you to guest contributor Sadé Ayorinde. Her post follows below:
My name is Sadé Ayorinde and I’ve spent the summer working as an educator at the Bemis Center of Contemporary Arts on a project called Urban Design Lab. Twenty teenagers are taking part in the lab, which is being led by Chloë Bass and Teal Gardner. The Bemis Center is an artist-centered organization with a renowned residency program that has been supporting contemporary artists from all over the world for over 30 years.
Bemis Center artist-in-residence Chloë Bass is collecting local information here in Omaha with the help of teenagers who are taking part in a program called Urban Design Lab (UDL). UDL brings Bass together with Omaha artist Teal Gardner and the teen researchers to “read the city” through field research, close looking and listening, and gathering and interpreting data. Bass is also using the researchers as agents in an ongoing project called Department of Local Affairs (DoLA). For three weeks, Bass worked alongside the teen researchers to solicit information from people who live and work in Omaha, asking for their opinions, personal stories, and advice. Information gathered will be turned into a guidebook that will marry the practical information with more personal and poetic reflections.
On the first day of UDL all of the teen researchers had the chance to share their impressions of Omaha with DoLA. The activity opened with a discussion of what people places or things make Omaha what it is. We listed Warren Buffet, University of Nebraska- Omaha and ConAgra’s Heartland of America Park. Everyone was urged to include as many personal details as they could with filling out DoLA worksheets. One researcher wrote a review of an intimate seafood restaurant he and his family have been frequenting for most of his life, another drew a map of the street where all of her aunts live. Earlier that day I tried to walk through the brick-paved Old Market streets in heels. I filled out an advice card warning others about the dangerously uneven conditions and suggested wearing flats to avoid breaking an ankle.
During the following two weeks DoLA was performed outside the Bemis Center in order to collect information from local residents in Omaha’s Old Market district and outside of the historic Carver Bank building in North Omaha.
July 22, 2014: I took a group of researchers out to coffee shops in the Old Market District to collect information from the locals. The teens were asked to find people willing to fill out a pamphlet, write a review, give advice, or draw a map. Some of the researchers were a little slow to start because they were nervous about approaching strangers, but people turned out to be friendly and enthusiastic about taking part in the project. Most participants chose to give advice or leave a review, giving information on restaurants and bars in the area. We were able to find one woman who had the time to draw a map of her neighborhood.
July 29, 2014: The last day for DoLA took place in the North Omaha neighborhood. The plan was to gather information from passersby as we walked through the neighborhood to visit a couple of cultural institutions near Carver Bank. The Carver Bank was the first African American-owned bank in Omaha. In 2012 The Bemis Center renovated the space in partnership with Theaster Gates and the Rebuild Foundation. Now Carver Bank exists as an exhibition gallery and provides studio space for the residency program offered to North Omaha artists or artist wanting to engage with the North Omaha community. (For more on Carver Bank, click here.)
Before starting out, the students were asked to take a second to write about their impressions of the neighborhood. Afterwards we had a lively discussion about their observations. Many of the teens had comments about how North Omaha seemed different from the Old Market area or other neighborhoods they were familiar with. We discussed how other neighborhoods are designed to be more user friendly, providing standard conveniences and places to socialize for their residents. North Omaha is full of people, but there are very few grocery stores, no movie theatres, and little public gathering space. Some of the teens who live in North Omaha talked about feeling very protective of the neighborhood. Omaha is a segregated city and North Omaha has a very large African American population, which often gets a bad rap. The teens said much of the discrimination they felt against the neighborhood came from people who had never visited. They described the area as being fun and alive with people and having a feeling of family and community. They wanted their peers to know it wasn’t as bad as stories they might have heard.
Once upon a time North Omaha was a buzzing entertainment district filled with music, food, thriving businesses, and affluent African American families. Some of the most famous jazz musicians and performers graced the stage at the Dreamland Ballroom, including Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. In the 1960s much of the North 24th Street area was destroyed by fires and looting during the race riots.
Our walk took us along 24th street first to Love’s Jazz & Art Center (a tribute to Omaha native and legendary jazz musician Preston Love) and then to the Union for Contemporary Art. Both art centers have strong ties to North Omaha and aim to help rejuvenate the neighborhood through education, community outreach and of course, culture and visual art! Doug, our tour guide at Love’s Jazz filled out a pamphlet with two of our teen researchers, Nia and Ta’Ri. Giving an honest critique of the current living conditions, he said, “a lot of people have lost the real culture of North Omaha. The gangs and violence have really changed North Omaha and its people. The education in North Omaha has become really low mainly in young men.” But he also spoke of change and growth pointing out the new streets and buildings under construction, the support from city leaders, the growing number of jobs, and increasing opportunities for teens and artists.
Though there was plenty of traffic on the street, the sidewalks were empty and we did not meet anyone along the way who we could ask to fill out a form. This has generally been my experience when walking along the main streets of 24th and Lake; there just aren’t very many places to go. Many of the buildings are run down or empty. There are very few flourishing businesses, and only a couple of restaurants, none of which are chains. It’s true that the construction going on right at the intersections of 24th and Lake has also had an impact. Some of the sidewalks have been removed and there’s lots of noise that may make walking around the area less pleasant. As a whole it seems most people are in their cars going outside of the neighborhood for many of their daily activities. I was excited about conducting DoLA in North Omaha because from an anthropological viewpoint I was curious about how the reviews and advice might differ from those of people in the Old Market. I wondered if residents in North Omaha would review the same places (North Omaha is geographically close to the Old Market) or if their input would be more neighborhood specific. Would people be as willing to participate? How many children would we get information from? How might their forms reflect feelings of discrimination and segregation from the rest of the city? In the end it turned out that what we didn’t get from North Omaha spoke volumes as well, as the lack of information collected told a story of a place and a community. Thanks to Chloë Bass for this insightful and engaging project!
Read more about the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts here.
Ryan Wong and I met a few weeks later at a cafe in Brooklyn. Having built a deep value in creating projects through the strength of partnerships, (an idea that was solidified for me by my mentors at The Laundromat Project), I began our meeting by asking Ryan his thoughts on additional programming for the exhibit. In response, he voiced an interest in more performance-based programming which serendipitously, aligned with my passion and work around interactive and/participatory theatre. We dialogued for a few hours that night, brainstorming various ideas and possibilities. Needless to say, the meeting went well and we left that evening having solidified a collaborative relationship and a joint intention to organize an additional, theatre-based program that would soon become Speech, Chant, and Manifesto: The Words of the Asian American Movement.
Mounted on March 4, 2014, SCM was an interactive theatrical reading of text selections that drew from transcribed interviews, manuscripts, manifestos, and other literature written for and about the Asian American movement. Joining me in the cast members was the strength of a broad range of active Asian American artists and/or activists whose gracious participation immensely deepened the entire experience for me. The cast was composed of myself, Sukjong Hong (writer/ activist), Daniel Lê (actor/ stand up comic), John Roque (actor), Suzu McConnell-Wood (theatre artist/ educator), Noel Shaw (filmmaker/ writer), and Betty Yu (community organizer / artist). Sukjong and Betty were acquaintances I contacted for The Laundromat Project family. Sukjong was in my cohort of LP Create Change Fellows, and Betty I’ve admired from a distance through seeing her work from LP newsletters and blogs. John, Noel, Suzu, and Dan were friends and past collaborators in the NYC Asian American arts scene whose talent I knew would layer the creative process. Together, their diverse backgrounds reflected my intention to build community through out the creation of SCM.
The cast of SCM (left to right): Noel Shaw, Sukjong Hong, Claro Que Sí, John Roque, Daniel Lê, Suzu McConnell-Wood
Each individual carried with them a different relationship to the material, which gave way to a number of immensely rich dialogues during our rehearsal/creation process and during our conversations with the attending audience members/participants the night of the event. Additionally, their individual trajectories as active Asian Americans helped pull audience members from varied spaces and it was quite moving for me to stand alongside them and share SCM with a crowd of friends, students, scholars, family members, community members, etc.
Epilogue: PASSING FORWARD
I reflect on SCM today immensely proud of the endeavor and the motives that inspired its creation. Since its staging in March 2014, the Asian American community has mourned the passing of Fred Ho and Yuri Kochiyama, two substantial figures in the Asian American movement whose legacies were specifically highlighted in SCM. As they now join the ancestors, their passing reminds me of the immediate importance of honoring the Asian American figures (many of whom are still among us) who have paved the way for the community today: Asian American figures whose contributions provide foundational maps for forward movement; Asian American figures whose victories and mistakes can inspire critical thinking and dialogue for today’s generation, and Asian American figures whose legacies deserve to be represented in the wider conversation of American history & culture.
The late Asian American activist Yuri Kochiyama
I write the closing of this blog post in Northern California’s Bay Area, an epicenter for Asian American history and culture. I am here with intentions to begin conversations about future bi-coastal projects similar to SCM. My hope is that the Asian American community will continue not only to actively engage with the lessons of the past, but to do so in solidarity with each other and the wider American culture.
My plan is to move forward in creating celebratory artworks intended to honor and engage with obscured legacies—art intended to share knowledge that challenges biased representations, art that facilitates critical dialogues and community collaboration, and art created with a deep value for inclusivity and accessibility to diverse audiences. Perhaps this is my contribution to the Asian American movement? Perhaps this is how I help push culture forward side by side with movement makers before me? Perhaps the words of the late Fred Ho, in his speech at San Francisco’s Kearny Street Workshop in 1985, articulate my intentions a bit more clearly:
“Revolutionary art must energize and humanize; not pacify, confuse, and desensitize. This is the liberating function of art, freeing the imagination and spirit, yet focusing us to our revolutionary potential.”
Presently, I can look back confidently at SCM knowing that my collaborators and I worked towards what Fred Ho defines as “Revolutionary Art”. Interference Archive’s Serve the People exhibit was itself a ‘movement’, and SCM was intentionally created to amplify its values. Through partnership, SCM was able to share a small section of a larger multicultural picture. There are many more stories to tell and many more lessons to learn from a largely obscured multicultural American history; now all we have to do is dig through archives and share… The ancestors will thank you for it.