A Place Within A Place by sTo Len
Updated: Aug 14, 2020
MINNEAPOLIS - “I was born in Danville, Virginia,” I found myself saying to a group of mostly strangers. We were sitting in a circle on the floor of the gallery at Macalaster College in the middle of an exhibition entitled “kNOw Spaces” by the artist Jordan Weber. The installation we were in was created with conversation in mind; the plywood remnants that covered the
floor and walls were meant to pay homage to Resurrection City, the late 60s protest shanty town occupation of the National Mall in Washington DC. The old wood had various marker scrawlings from past meetings and its color provided a warmth in the otherwise cold, institutional feeling gallery space. So did the tea.
We were simultaneously participating in another artist’s work, a socially engaged tea party project called “Upstream" by Anna Metcalfe. I was holding a gorgeous ceramic mug she had made that featured a personal story about water by a past participant. I traced that person’s handwriting with my finger as I read their story aloud and then began to recount my own in between sips of tea.
Where the hell is Danville anyways? No one ever knows but Anna Metcalfe surprisingly did, having grown up in a nearby town (Floyd) in Virginia herself. I usually say I am from
Brooklyn, my residence of nearly 20 years, but I’m not really from NY. Or am I? When do you have the ability to claim a place and when does that place get to claim you? I have no real emotional ties to Danville and yet I was indeed born there and a real little me once upon a time ran around the Creek outside my house on our dead end street.
I hadn’t thought about that creek in a long time but all of a sudden the memories came flooding back during Metcalfe’s gathering. It was a combo of things: the tea, the tangible object, the banana bread, and creating a time and space for sharing in the name of art. Metcalfe is working in a lineage of artists’ strategies surrounding community and food (Gordon Matta Clark’s Food and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s tea ceremonies come to mind) and yet this premise never seems to grow old. We can always gain from taking a little more time to listen to each other’s stories and art can be used to successfully create those spaces. It is in those stories that a remapping of a place can begin in one’s mind, that an oral history can be documented to better help us understand a place. Metcalfe’s “Upstream” succeeds in creating a comforting feeling with the serving of tea while giving us direction by having a theme of water, which in turn creates an instant commonality between strangers’ stories.
Back in NY, I had experienced a similar strategy with an art collective I am a part of
and I had a studio there for the month of July. The difference between this and all of the other residencies that I have been a part of was that it was thematic and similarly focused on water. Our common thread provided such a rich dialogue in the house among artists of
varied disciplines. We were quickly collaborating, bouncing ideas around, and helping each other in the process of creating our own work. Transcending any one medium, this thematic way of working alongside one another strengthened our bond because it was also a subject near and dear to all of our hearts. A phrase we throw around is that “Water Art is the New Land Art” and while its admittedly a bold statement, I do see that water is a growing theme among a number of artists at this moment and why not? Its only one of the most essential things to all life on Earth. NBD.
The Water Bar here in Minneapolis is another fine example. In many ways, water artists could band together as a movement and become a cooperatively active presence all over the world in the same way that it worked at our residency house. Can we have a world-wide water-based residency? Can we work on a collaborative piece together?
I had this mini-revelation while sitting there on the floor in Metcalfe’s gathering inside of Weber’s exhibition. A space within a space, both of which were created to think about place. Water itself was a place of solace in my childhood and it is currently very much a part of my life in New York City too. In the creek as a child I remember feeling so free to live with the frogs and the fish. Now in NYC, I feel very much the same way when I am down at the Newtown Creek, even if it is a terribly polluted superfund site. To be able to be in a large, chaotic city and yet feel so far away from it all… floating, creating, thinking, in solitude….is pure bliss. I had been admiring the amount of green space and waterways in Minneapolis and I got a similar sense of longing for that same type of freedom from artist and activist Sean Connaughty.
A large, white concrete pod with moss growing inside sets the stage of his front yard while countless bags of color-coded trash lined his backyard. He had been picking up trash for the past several years at nearby Lake Hiawatha and it had turned into his art: maintaining the lake, organizing data and meticulously storing a lot of the garbage. Can collecting, cleaning,
walking, researching and boating all become one’s art? For Connaughty, it certainly was and as we walked along Hiawatha, the joy of being by the water easily overtook us too.
A light drizzle didn’t deter the fun as our group sprang into action and began collecting along the water’s edge, filling trash bags as we walked and talked with Sean. I enjoyed reading his thorough report about the massive cleanup activities he created but nothing beats going to the place and getting your hands dirty. While not nearly as polluted as some of the waterways I’m familiar with in NYC, it felt great to lend a helping hand while enjoying the lake and surrounding park. I was beginning to know Minneapolis by walking along its waters. Sean had picked up an impressive 4,500 pounds of trash along the 55 acre lake and had extensively documented what he found ( with gory details like fish suffocated with condoms, diapers, syringes, teeth toys, etc), giving concrete evidence to the local anthropogenic problems that are unfortunately familiar to many urban waterways.
Often I find myself in these damaged landscapes and it can be a lot to bear witness to. It reminded me of how in a recent episode of On Being, Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about feeling the grief and processing the past with an “awareness to our wounds to see the beauty.” I have experienced what she calls a “transformation of love to grief to even stronger love,” and I do think that can help us all enter into “reciprocity with the living world.” She provocatively asks, “Can the Earth love you back?” I do believe that if you think so (and I do), you will treat the planet very differently. Kimmerer speaks about “paying attention to the songs of the living world” and this really resonated with me.
As we walked along the water, my fresh eyes and ears were taking in the sights and sounds of Lake Hiawatha and I kept asking myself, “What is this place wanting to tell me? What is it showing me? What songs is it singing to me?” There are many elements of indigenous knowledge that engage our intuitive ways of knowing and I see direct connections to the teachings of pioneering composer Pauline Oliveros and her concept of deep listening as “ a way of hearing in which we are fully present with what is happening without trying to control it.” Letting go of control, of ego, and being fully present and perceptible is still a radical act and one to aspire to in art and in life. This idea of control - of land, water, resources, - is such a capitalist construct, that one can own it and therefore rape it and enslave it, is such a profit-based patriarchal point of view that must be continually challenged. As artists, we have a particular way of fighting this fallacy and learning more about Indigenous ways of being I feel politically and poetically aligned with their ideals in a very natural way.
This became readily apparent while going on the Bdote Memory Walk with Ramona Kitto Stately and Ethan Neerdaels. This walk completely remapped Minnesota into Dakota territory for me. It became, Mni Sota, the birthplace of the Dakota people and we walked the land of these exiled people with them as they shared their reality. It was a sobering entry into a new place that I think indelibly changed all of us who were there. We walked on sacred sites that were marked by condescending colonial signs which naturally left out the real truth of the genocide and displacement that has left the Indigenous without their land or their language. The Dakota way of life has been on the verge of extinction without their rightful
place and people like Ramona and Ethan were keeping it alive. We broke bread with them and ate Bison. We touched their territory with our feet, our hands, our hearts.
We walked among the burial mounds that had been looted of their ceremonial objects and sold for profit by the state. We visited the sacred cave where generations of mothers had birthed their children and which was now barred up like a prison, like a chastity belt, covered in graffiti and littered with trash. It was heartbreaking but it was necessary in framing this place we were dropped into all of a sudden. I thought of my own sense of place and how my cultural identity strengthened as I walked my mother’s homeland for the first time several
years ago. Walking on the memory walk brought back my own memories of truth seeking. As artists, we are inevitably truth seekers, right?
It can all be overwhelming at times but one cannot lose hope in the face of such real world monsters. Sometimes we need others to help get us through and Rebecca Solnit has always been one of those comforting voices for me. In Grounds For Hope, she speaks to this necessary optimism and says “Hope is not the belief that everything will be fine” but an “embrace of the unknown.” The idea that hope and grief can co-exist is something that I always have to remind myself in this age of Trump and trending fascism.
If we succumb to despair, “they” win and we simply cannot let that happen. Many times in the last 2 weeks I often thought, “What are we doing here?” As a Nomad MFA traveling artist practitioner, we are, to paraphrase Miwon Kwon, “reinventing site-specificity as a
performative aspect of an artist’s mode of operation.“ Perhaps it is a way to carry oneself while recognizing and engaging the embedded knowledge often disguised by the spectacle of a colonizer's curated history. We seek the truth with our fresh eyes, ears, and hearts. We come back to our collective worlds and begin processing those truths in to order to create anew.