I have been creating artwork that directly engages the community for over fifteen years, most recently honing performance-making processes through OutLook Theater Project. OutLook’s ensemble experimented with many different ways of generating material, including story circles, interviews, and online surveys. The interview strategies we are using for #WhereDoYouBelong are inspired by, and iterate on, that work. A central goal of the project is to create a “data bank” of interview documentation that artists can use as material for works of art that reflect on the complexities of belonging.
Belonging in Transition was conceived as a installation piece that would incorporate the perspectives and creativity of transition-aged youth, in particular exploring how belonging is shifting as they move from youth to adulthood. I created a two-phase workshop process to develop the piece: in June 2015, I facilitated a workshop with participants in CHALK's Youth Funding Youth Ideas program, utilizing theater, visual arts, and writing. My goal was to have them generate visual metaphors for belonging that I could draw upon to create the overall form of the installation. Participants visualized places of belonging in their past, present, and future, and created short performance pieces that charted their journey between the three points.
I am used to working with youth over a longer period of time to make performance, which allows me to build trust and comfort; so I was worried that they would feel self-conscious doing this work. However, the pieces, which were created so quickly, turned out to be profound. They reflected stops and starts, places of despair and hope, hesitations and overcoming of barriers, and the sheer will often required to keep moving through life. As I thought about the fact that transition is never a straightforward, linear process, one of the participants put forward the metaphor of belonging as a tree. Branches don't grow in straight lines: they split and curve and stop and sometimes have to be cut in order to keep the tree healthy. I chose to make the tree out of a material that evoked both a continuous journey and referenced childhood: wooden toy train tracks.
I wanted the final piece to both incorporate artwork made by youth themselves as well as by people who came to see the exhibit, and was inspired by memory trees, which are decorated with tags that capture bits and pieces of lived experience. So I went back to CHALK and did a second workshop with YFYI youth, in which they each created a personal collage piece about belonging on wooden tags--a visual “memory.” These pieces are now attached to the tree; if you come to the exhibit you will have the chance to make your own collage and attach it as well.
In the coming year (and beyond), expect more "creative interventions" like this one, where an artist works with a specific community and gathers community reflections on belonging, then creates a participatory work of art. It's an exciting way of working; I can't wait to see how it unfolds.