For the last year, we’ve been working with the public art project ALL RISE that’s taking place at the site of the upcoming Seattle City Light’s Denny electrical substation in the Cascade Neighborhood in Seattle, WA. This project, commissioned with Seattle City Light % for Art funds and administered by the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, has been comprised of a series of performances and temporary art installations that have animated the site for the last year. The overarching goal has been to maintain an awareness of the “place” of the Cascade Neighborhood and engage its past, present and future. The project curators, Meghan Atiyeh and Elizabeth Spavento, reached out to us early on in the project’s inception in 2013-2014 and invited us to apply some of the principles we speak of on the Incluseum blog to ALL RISE. In what follows, we review the process and questions that have lead to our installation called The Power of Place that opened 05/07/2015 on the ALL RISE Campus. We also offer critical reflection points that emerged as we carried out this project over this last year; things we are still thinking about and remain open-ended.
Based on the project’s stated goal, we began by asking ourselves: What is the “sense of place” in the Cascade Neighborhood? Which voices shape public understanding of the Cascade Neighborhood? Are there invisible/inaudible voices that may complicate our understanding of “place” in the Cascade neighborhood? As people who frequent, but do not live in Cascade, we observed great flux in the neighborhood, with the ALL RISE project being part of that sea of change.
As referenced by the title of our project, The Power of Place, we wanted to understand the depth of meanings associated with experiences of the neighborhood and how these meanings all play a role in constructing the story of the Cascade neighborhood. We have spent the last year talking with (and listening to) long-term and new residents, in addition to those who work, but might not reside, in the neighborhood. With the approval of those we spoke with, we decided these discussions would shape an on-site and digital installation that would illustrate a multivocal representation of the Cascade neighborhood. In concert with these conversations, we volunteered with a local organization and participated in neighborhood events to get a better sense of Cascade’s daily rhythms and realities. In the process, both of us have formed friendships with people we encountered that we hope will extend beyond the life of this specific project.
In our conversations with people associated with the neighborhood, we asked the following questions:
- How long have you lived here?
- What meaning does the the Cascade Neighborhood have for you?
- Where is the Cascade neighborhood?
- What are the geographic boundaries in your opinion?
- Do you have a favorite place in this neighborhood?
- What is it like to live/work here?
From the documented and transcribed answers, we selected short quotes from each conversation, which appear below. In addition, some of these quotes were printed on lawn signs and installed on the ALL RISE Campus.
1. What is The Incluseum
Through our work with the Incluseum, we seek to rethink how cultural spaces and artistic forums can connect to local communities, build trust and relationships that are lasting, and be accountable to the local sense of place as determined by many stakeholders and groups. Questions that permeate our work include: How might community-sourced knowledge be honored and valued within cultural spaces? How might the discussion about place be facilitated and represented in a way that invites community members of different backgrounds to convene and have their voices heard? These are the intentions and questions we bring with us to all our project, including The Power of Place.
2. Politics of Knowledge Production
We were humbled by people’s willingness to offer their voices to the project, and in turn, sought to treat these voices with utmost respect in how we decided to represent them. In our work with the Incluseum, we are deeply invested in exploring and exposing the politics of knowledge production in the context of museums and museum-like “things” like ALL RISE. As such, we think it’s important to make transparent that we participated in this project as two white women in their late 20’s-early 30’s who do not live and work in the Cascade neighborhood. We took time to forge relationships and participate in community events, but ultimately were outsiders. Our limited position and experience mean we can’t claim to speak for any one group, let alone an entire neighborhood of people from all manner of backgrounds.
The Cascade neighborhood is rich with knowledge, creativity, heritage, and people who are working to make their neighborhood vibrant. Our directive was to be listeners; learn about some experiences that are ongoing in the local community, then translate what we heard into an end product of value to the neighborhood and participants.
Our concern throughout this project was not simply to seek participation, but to problematize how the act of participation itself is conceived of and carried out, especially as it leads to representation. We:
- Began our project by becoming familiar with the different groups who reside and/or frequent this neighborhood for work, to access social services, etc.
- Used this knowledge to strategize different modes through which people could participate. We, for example, made ourselves available in person for conversations/”interview”, provided digital and physical interview templates for those who didn’t have time to meet, but wanted to participate, and worked with key locals who were connected to a network of residents and representatives who facilitated interviews on our behalf. Note that we also conceived of as participation flexibly; not all encounters had to lead to an interview to be meaningful. In other words, we sought to displace the centrality of the end product to value and celebrate the process and the people above all.
- Gave people the option to self-identify as they preferred (e.g., (no) name, pseudonyms, occupations, etc.) to resist imposed classification categories and labels that our collaborators might not privilege (e.g., homeless, retired, youth, business owner, etc.)
3. Multi Vocal Values and Representation
Through this project we wanted to somehow represent the multiplicity of lived experiences and stories that coexist in Cascade. What struck us from the outset is that everyone we came across had something to share, be it an opinion or a strongly felt story about the neighborhood. We were surprised by how often our expectations were off regarding who said what. This, of course, revealed an implicit, yet pervasive bias that certain experiences or observations are unique to or expected from certain people and not others. This made us reflect on how many museums offer programs that reify certain aspects of people’s identities or circumstances. This tendency could function to unnecessarily simplify the complexity and contradictions of people’s experiences. Like our own exercise in checking our assumptions, we encourage viewers of the installation to consider this reflection and challenge their assumptions about who a particular utterance might belong to.
We chose to present little identifying information about the project’s participants. Most statements are accompanied by the speaker’s name if it was given to us for use. Though we took great care to speak with and interview people of all backgrounds, we wanted the focus to be on each participant’s words and voice. We thought that a false dichotomy of “us vs. them” might be construed by qualifying statements with certain identity markers (e.g., resident, business-owner, etc.) and by reading short quotes taken out of larger conversational contexts. Each statement stands on its own, and yet is unified to others based on a shared geographical groundedness in the Cascade neighborhood. Our representational decisions and tactics might very well prove to be problematic. We haven’t resolved all the questions we have about representing these voices and the rifts and connections between them.
We’re thankful for the opportunity we had to work with the organizers of ALL RISE and to put some of our ideas into practice. We’re also thankful for the relationships we formed with people in Cascade in the process.