One of the most important things this class taught me is that community-based art making is as much about connection and relationships as it is about art. People like the Water and Sewer Department employees are rarely seen at all, and rarely seen by the public as anything more than city workers. Making space for them to be listened to, then, holds real power, as does the connection that emerges through that. As I think back over the work of this semester, the bulk of it has been cultivating skill as an engaged listener, and building relationships with the employees so that they trust us enough to put their creative minds to work. By cultivating rich relationships with the employees, we were able to collaborate more actively, take more risks together, and, I think, make it more likely that the audience at the show would feel a relationship with the employees through their performance, because we’d gotten to a point where the employees were sharing more of themselves as whole people.
It is this combination of shifts at both the individual and community level that excites me about community-based creative work. Giving the employees the opportunity to share their stories, to be listened to patiently and non-judgmentally, is a valuable way of making a little space for healing and change. At the same time, creating something out of that experience together to share with Middletown meant that the community had the opportunity to see the human beings who support the infrastructure of our daily lives, and to hear a little bit of their story as the community members gain a greater awareness of the work these guys do. The recognition and support that comes out of this exchange has, I think, real transformative potential. As Al said to us at our last visit, “you made us feel human.”
The employees and the audience aren’t the only ones who may feel change through this experience, though. As the so-called “artist” in this work, I was also transformed by this experience. Jan Cohen-Cruz calls reciprocity a key principle of community-based art making, and this was certainly true in my experience: I gained a lot. Before this project, I never thought much about waste water treatment, and certainly didn’t acknowledge that there were human beings who work with sewage water every single day. Not knowing much about it, I also, to be totally honest, might have felt sorry for the people who do that work. By getting to know Al, Pat, Robbie, and Vinny, I saw the value of their hard work and the meaning they make out of it. Their enthusiasm for this project was such a gift, and it was exciting for me to see them engage creatively in the planning process. They are artists and sewage workers, both.
For me, developing connections with them was the most rewarding experience. Feeling connected makes me happier and more hopeful about the world. Many days, I left the waste water treatment plant feeling lighter than when I walked in, because of the comfort and connections that we developed with Al, Pat, Robbie, and Vinny. That felt very powerful to me, and I’m very grateful for that experience this semester. I hope it felt as meaningful for the guys, too.