“You made us feel like humans”… These are words uttered by Al—one of the dedicated kind hearted city workers of Middletown, with whom I spent months shadowing and building an artistic performance for Allison Orr’s class “Artist in the City”. These words deeply touched me in a “conflicted feelings” way. I say this because, it angers and saddens me that Al may have not felt like a human before. I wonder if the treatment he has received, or that the stereotypes imposed on him have been so inhumane and hence dismissive of his humanity. This utterance also reinforced many of the things we have learnt through other artists experiences working in communities: the lack of self worth that is often present in jobs such as those of the workers we came to know. I felt honored that I along with my two artist partners I could remind him, and provide a platform for him to remind himself, of his humanity and of the importance of the work he does for Middletown. I think that was one of the most rewarding aspects of this project: to hear how much they enjoyed the process, how it changed their perspectives of themselves and to some extent their work, but especially how it changed the way they viewed themselves and each other. It made me realize that this whole project wasn’t about the performance, rather it was about those little things we did every day, those private jokes that arose between student and employee, little interactions that happened on the daily, and the process of thinking creatively together to build our project, which ultimately broke the walls between us and them and allowed a beautiful connection to form.
In this respect, this project was about destruction and reconstruction. Destructing stereotypes and reconstructing an honest representation. Deconstructing hostilities between workers and reconstructing kinship between them through uniting them in an artistic performance space. Deconstructing the invisible and the unheard and reconstructing the visible and heard. Destructing the negative notions we may have held coming into the project and reconstructing our open perception of them and our own work through ethnography and building friendships with the city workers. Deconstructing our fear and doubt and reconstructing faith, appreciation, and courage through community art. These processes were life changing in their entirety. They served to change our perspectives, the city workers perspectives and that of the Middletown residents who saw the show.
This project and class had a profound impact for both city employees and us as students. Cultivating the skills including active listening, perseverance, community engagement, interviewing, within our fieldwork; gave the employees a chance to be listened to and to be seen, to share their stories, to appreciate themselves and their work in an environment where they could be healed through recognition and validation. As Vinnie told me:”I have never done or experienced anything like it… but it was so good… it was priceless.” And I share these feelings with Vinnie. I too felt a transformation and an appreciation. Not only did I grow to appreciate so much from the city workers and all they do for the town and our reciprocal relationship; but I learnt so much about a process and mechanism that I never imagined I could come to know and apply: both about sewage works and how to do community art. I am often conflicted about the lack of intersection of theory and practice, but this field has demonstrated before my eyes how theory and practice interact and how these build together to form projects such as these. The outcome was so positive for all those involved as participants and observers. I am so grateful and rewarded by this experience.