Hi. I’m Monica, and I’m the TA for Allison’s class The Artist in the City. The class is designed to teach students how to make community based arts performance by having them engage with the sewage plant workers in the surrounding town, Middletown, and to eventually present a collaborative performance at the end of the year at the riverfront festival, Feet to the Fire. Over the course of the semester, my job has been to document this process, and so I held the interview below with some of my peers, Lizzy, Gretchen, and Sofia.
What challenges did you face coming into this process?
Lizzy: The timeline. Having so little time. This work, as we’ve learned, is so time-dependent. Time plays a huge role in the quality of product. It’s been a challenge to artificially expedite the process of getting to know the employees, and embedding yourself in the community which inherently takes a lot of time. If Allison were to do this again, I think it would be more successful to teach it across a year.
Gretchen: It’s a new process for me. For most of us I think and so it was a challenge to deal with my own uncertainty, and figuring out how this is going to work while also knowing this is a new thing for employees and out of their comfort zone. Making it easy and comfortable for them even though I don’t even know what I’m doing. But I feel like Allison has been a great resource, and the readings and discussions in class help to make me feel more prepared.
What solutions did you find from being in the field? Or when was a moment you felt something clicked?
Lizzy: Watching Claire’s performance gave me a way to explain the project to the workers to make it more accessible and less abstract and intimidating. That allowed them to envision and therefore see themselves there and gave them the agency to contribute to the process. As opposed to feeling like they are forced into it.
Sofia: In terms of solutions, the dynamics between the people that worked in the areas, seeing how workers communicate and work together gave me an idea of how I’m going to represent the teamwork.
Lizzie: They’re all related to each other and have similar backgrounds. Seeing the interactions really brings to light the intricacies of the relationships between people.
Sofia: Yeah, like I always thought that Al was kind of the “leader” of the group, but when Al started talking about Pat in the project, and how others would follow if Pat were on board, I realized Pat was actually the leader, even though he’s much younger than Al.
Lizzy: It’s like a passing of the torch. Pat’s going to take over in a couple years. But no one really knows what’s going to happen when the plant shuts down.
What are some striking things you’ve heard workers say?
Lizzy: I remember when Vinny said something along the lines of “I don’t know how I would survive if I weren’t in Middletown.”
Gretchen: Pat said to me, “I get paid by the city, but I work for the river.”
Sofia: Al said, “If you’re into the science, it’s a good job. It’s good going to bed at night knowing you’ve helped the river and you’ve kept three tons of waste from going into the river.”
Gretchen: We might think that their work is easy to learn, but Vinny says that “you have to be tuned into the plant, and if you pay attention, the plant will speak to you.”
Lizzy: Another thing is how much their work every day varies in response to external factors: like the weather–
Sofia: Oh yeah, they start the day watching the weather channel.
Lizzy: Holidays really affect what is stuck in the grate. Like, after Valentine’s Day, they find condoms everywhere. During autumn, they get a ton of leaves collecting in the sewers and go into the filtering system. I think it’s really interesting that they’re constantly having to respond and account for these variables that are often strangely personal, you know? Holidays are a very personal thing, and you get a sense of what Middletown was up to that day. There’s a tie dye shop that’s nearby, and the workers can always tell what color they use to tint the clothing batch because it taints the water.
Sofia: Al said, “The day the plant closes, that’s going to be a really hard day for me. I dream of it, but it’s going to be a really hard day.”
Gretchen: That makes sense. He’s been there the longest.