The First Act of Revolution

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Essay for the exhibition catalog On Procession: Art on Parade, Indianapolis Museum of Art, 2009 (Amazon)

“I always like a plaza where there are benches—but I like it more when people decide to sit on the steps, which is sort of like the first radical act. The first act of revolution: a bench has told me to sit down, so I’m not going to sit there, I’m going to sit where I will bother people walking up the stairs.”
—Vito Acconci

First a confession: I generally do not enjoy parades, nor do I go out of my way to watch them. I am uncomfortable with events or gatherings that are overly festive, where fun seems mandatory. “ENJOY YOURSELF NOW!” I don’t like fun delivered to me, I prefer to find it in more unexpected or unlikely places.

I do however like the idea of a parade, taking back the streets for a moment, disrupting the usual order of things, inserting a kink in typical patterns, changing the way we perceive where we live, questioning the system that we are embedded within, moving forward with a united purpose, a collective demonstration of something, the beginning of change?

We consider our streets public space, yet these pathways that form our city’s critical nervous system are made primarily for  cars, not people. Reclaiming even a part of this system for people, even for just a day, is meaningful. We feel what it is like to occupy the core of our neighborhood and our city. This is part of what a parade can do.

My background is in architecture, but lately I am less interested in making buildings and more interested in coming to terms with the ones we  already have. What  do we do with these places, spaces, buildings, and cities that we have collectively inherited? Generating alternate ways of occupying the spaces we have been given can at times be more potent than the one-off monument erected out of civic vanity or an architect’s pride.

Can a one-day event have a lasting effect on the lives of people, and the development of a city? It may be impossible to know. One moment of clarity, or even fantasy about the place that we live can spawn new ways of thinking, which may lead to new ways of living, or new ways of making the places where we live.

In American society today, we seem as divided as ever. Much has been made of red states and blue states. Physically, the car, computer, cellular phone remove the need for much face-to-face interaction. Within cities we are often divided and isolated along racial, religious, economic, and political lines. Perhaps it has never been more important to ask ourselves: What do we all have in common? What do we share equally? What do we all have a stake in? I say geography, like rivers, freeways, and streets. 

This River Is Our Parade

From 2005 to 2006 I was a visiting artist at California Institute of Arts in Valencia, California. I organized two separate but parallel series of classes focused on making work collaboratively outside, on campus and in the city, instead of alone and in the studio. In one seminar, The Fine Art of Radical Gardening, we investigated gardening as an artistic medium, and a potential form of political activism. This culminated in the creation of a community garden on campus. In the other seminar, Parades, Pageants, and Salons, we considered the various artful strategies for human gatherings. This lead to the production of an event out in the city the following term called This River Is Our Parade.

Valencia is the picture of sprawl, all big-box, strip mall, wide streets, no walking, and isolated housing developments colonizing one scrubby hillside after the other. One of the few things the residents all share is the river that runs through the middle of town. The Santa Clara River runs partially underground and is usually only visible after it has rained. It is the only natural river system remaining in Southern California, flowing approximately a hundred miles from its headwaters near Acton, California, to the Pacific Ocean. Many residents are not even aware of its existence.

For our event on May 14, 2006 we decided to focus on this shared piece of geography. We developed the idea of an inverted parade, where the audience would process 1.5 miles down the river encountering stationary projects by artists, performers, musicians, hobbyists, enthusiasts, advocacy groups, students, individuals, and organizations from Valencia, Los Angeles, and beyond. A newly formed dance troupe called Bodycity choreographed a vocabulary of simple movements inspired by the river. As we followed its the river’s flow, they led everyone in the movements. A morality play called Nature, This One’s for You by Audrey Chan and Elana Mann conveyed the tale of local creatures and their relationship to the fragile river. At the terminus of the  route we gathered under a freeway overpass and repurposed it into a grand amphitheater complete with raked seating, from which we watched various amateur performances.

The event was announced on a website, everyone was invited to participate:

Last-minute projects, performances and presentations are welcome! Bring your musical instruments, animal costumes, protest signs, magic props, environmental propaganda, dance steps, bored children, balloon tricks, face paints, sidewalk chalk, ecology stories, and river accoutrement.

The event had a scrappy DIY no-budget feel. People gathered to celebrate the river not mediated by machines, conventional technology, or elaborate staging. Since we were calling the river a parade, and not the procession, the title This River Is Our Parade was an attempt to circumvent preconceptions of what our event might be. It was not a parade in the conventional sense, but a linear mobile gathering nonetheless. It sought to bring people together, to collectively come to terms with the natural artery that we all share.

East Meets West Interchange Overpass Parade

On April 26, 2008 two parades became one on an Indianapolis interchange overpass. The parade was commissioned by the Indianapolis Museum of Art in conjunction with the exhibition  On Procession. The parade route along Virginia Avenue was evenly bisected by a massive interchange where Interstate 65 meets Interstate 70. The neighborhood street suddenly becomes a freeway overpass and then returns back to its role as neighborhood street on the other side. The freeway slices through the two neighborhoods and divides east from west.

Participants and viewers representing the EAST and WEST of Indianapolis, Indiana, the United States, and the world converged on each other visible to the speeding traffic below. The parade began as easterners and westerners assembled on either side and ended as they arrived at the other starting point, or gradually drifted away from the mash-up on the overpass.

The parade score:

1. A north-south line is struck where the Interstate 70 meets Interstate 65 at the Virginia Avenue overpass in Indianapolis.

2. All parade participants from the west side of that line will assemble at the intersection of East Street & Virginia Avenue.

3. All parade participants from the east side of that line will assemble at the intersection of Shelby Street & Virginia Avenue.

4. At noon on Saturday, April 26, the two parade groups will proceed on the right lane of Virginia Avenue heading toward each other.

5. As each parade passes, the assembled viewers along Virginia Avenue will fall in line behind.

6. The two parades will pass each other on either side of the overpass; the following viewers may assemble in the center of the overpass, or wherever they are comfortable.

7. The eastward marching west side parade (visible to cars on the northbound interstate) may make one full loop on the overpass, and then continue in the direction they were originally headed, to the beginning point of the other parade, or they may just dissolve into a mash-up of east and west.

8. The westward marching east side parade (visible to cars on the southbound interstate) may make one full loop on the overpass, and then continue in the direction they were originally headed, to the beginning point of the other parade, or they may just dissolve into a mash-up of east and west.

9. Folding in on itself parts of the two parades may pass each other, combine as one infinite circular parade, or collapse into one mass where the lines between east and west, performers and audience dissolves.

10. The parade will end gradually as participants, marchers, and audience slowly drift away and head back to the museum . . .

As a participating artist in the exhibition On Procession, I proposed this choreographic plan titled East Meets West Interchange Overpass Parade that the participants were invited to engage in while developing their independent projects. I also posed a series of questions to the participants about the parade and the experience of public space:

– We will move from neighborhood main street to freeway overpass. How can we engage both situations? Viewed by still pedestrians close up in the former and fast cars from a distance in the latter.

– Is there a particular sense of camaraderie or connectedness among those that come from the same side of the street, town, state, country, planet?

– We will move separately in straight lines, then together in a  loop, a mash-up with our audience and the opposing parade, are there other ways to terminate our movement on the overpass?

– Do we have an agenda beyond parade and art? How about convergence? Or meetings? Or trying for one day to stitch back together what the freeway ripped apart?

– Are we moving toward something or away from something? How do we begin and how do we end?

I wanted to create a very simple communal thought for the parade that would be strong enough to capture the imagination, but light enough to allow any sort of project to be welcome into the procession. By dividing the parade into two converging forces, all comers were still welcome, but the entire experience was bifurcated, cleft in two. You could only watch one parade begin, and you knew that on the other side another parade was also beginning at the same time.

Two large banners were made for the occasion. A brilliant green banner with the word “WEST” at the top was first used as a photo backdrop for portraits of each of the west side participants. The banner was dismounted and carried by six west siders to lead the parade eastward. The point at the bottom of the banner had the word “east” written in script, to indicate the direction of movement.

A rich golden banner with the word “EAST” at the top was first used as a photo backdrop for portraits of each of the east side participants. The banner was dismounted and carried by six east siders to lead the parade westward. The point at the bottom of the banner had the word “west” written in script, to indicate the direction of movement.

The identity that each side marched behind was a cardinal direction. An arbitrary geographic orientation had become a powerful symbol for both origin and destination.
As each side reached the freeway overpass, the other parade came into view. Was this to be a happy reunion or a hostile duel? Would the marchers pass through to the other side, or get lost in the mash-up? In developing the parade, I wanted a score that would welcome all possible outcomes, and a variety of reactions. But I did not anticipate the best thing that happened. Each parade became the audience for the other.

As the processions passed the other, the paraders cheered each other on, and were witnesses to the performance and spectacle of the other. I wish I could say I had anticipated this, but the truth is that I did not. Since most of the public audience had gathered at the neighborhood starting points (perhaps unaware of where the real action would happen) the freeway overpass was largely free of the passive audience. Upon meeting, the two parades became instantly both performer and audience, simultaneously passive witnesses and active performers. Everyone on that bridge was both giving and receiving in equal measure, and for just a moment, it was exactly the sort of city we all dream of.

– Fritz Haeg, 2008