A Reason to Leave the House

11.2 / In/With/For the Public

A Reason to Leave the House

By Constance Hockaday January 15, 2020

In/With/For the Public is supported by the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, a private family foundation dedicated to enhancing quality of life by championing and sustaining the arts, promoting early childhood literacy, and supporting research to cure chronic disease.


Constance Hockaday speaks on what it means to take risks in public art practice and how our desires can dictate the world's infrastructure. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

Most of my work with the public has been on the water. The water is our largest public space—you know that, right? The waterways are public property, just like the streets. I found that, as an artist, I could take up a lot of space on the water in ways that I couldn’t afford to on land. Not only was there a lot of space, there was something magical about being able to create ways for people to access the water. Let’s be real: Boats and boating are usually associated with the yachting class and maritime industry. Creating ways for regular people to get on the water really felt like I was cracking the lock off some current cultural norm. Besides all that, the water is an intensely spiritual place with a lot of power. I see it as an exceptional wilderness that can run right alongside an urban area and bring attention to all kinds of things that are happening on the land.

What has surprised me in my work with the public is that people really are willing to take risks. They are usually more willing to travel outside of their comfort zones than most people think. They are down to look at a difficult subject or participate in an experience where there is still a lot of unknown. With most of my projects, I have tried to leave room for real stakes. I haven’t always known if the systems I am building will hold up in the face of an audience. The audience can feel those stakes too, and I am grateful for their willingness to be a part of something that is unknown, unfinished without their presence so to speak. It’s an important part of the work for me.

Constance Hockaday. Boatel, 2011; interactive/performative installation moored outside of New York City in Jamaica Bay Queens. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Tod Seelie

And, it's important to share this because I've come up against a lot of nay-saying, especially from producing partners—not all of them. Some of my producing partners have been incredible. I would love to shout out Courtney Fink and Valerie Imus for their work with Southern Exposure—huge risk takers and beautiful supporters of the arts. Not everyone is as brave or as flexible. From other presenters, producers, curators, and even some collaborators, there can be some nay-saying about what is acceptable to require of an audience member for their participation in a piece of art.

For example, people will shy away from even tiny risks, like if the location of your project is too far away, if it's outside of socially acceptable places for convening, or if it's out of the way from the gallery or whatever scene it is that you're a part of, people will often think that that is too great of a risk—that it's too much to ask of an audience member to travel off their well-worn paths; or, asking somebody to take off their shoes and get their feet wet and ride in a tiny boat to a floating performance structure out in the middle of the San Francisco Bay at night when it's foggy—some people might consider that to be a deterrent.

Constance Hockaday. Your Make A Better Wall Than a Window: The Tour, 2015; a guerilla performance aboard a San Francisco Bay public ferry. Photo: SoEx.

But I have actually been surprised to find that if you give an audience, the public, your friends, and your community an opportunity to experience something that is outside of what they normally get to experience—outside of what the Situationists might call a "representational reality"—something that truly does have stakes in it, even MORE people will show up than if you had offered them some pedestrian experience. For example, I built this floating hotel in Jamaica Bay, Queens outside of New York City. This was during a period of time when the Far Rockaways weren't as popular as they are now. It was an hour-ish ride on the A train, at the end of the A line. It was a risk. It was way out of the way. And I was putting a bunch of money on my credit card in order to refurbish all of these boats and make the thing happen. I was asking people to come and sleep inside of my art project, which was made out of literal junk and found materials. I was a little nervous. I felt the need, for example, to preface the work and say, this is not your normal hotel experience; this is an adventure, at best. I was totally surprised though because not only did people come, but five thousand people came. It sold out every time the tickets went online, and I had to keep extending the project over the whole rest of the summer.

People were being asked to travel outside of their normal lives into this other realm, and they did it because there were stakes there for them. I think we live in a world with a lot of handrails. We live in urban areas that are overly planned—housing developments and whole areas of cities are hyper-planned. We don't really get to organically live in places, or through our living, get to create the architectures that dictate those spaces. I have this very, very strong belief that the infrastructures of our cities inform our most intimate ideas about ourselves or our most intimate ideas about what we can or what we think we can and can't do with our bodies.

Constance Hockaday. You Make A Better Wall Than a Window: The Billboard, 2016; a 20-foot neon sign navigating the Port of Oakland. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Neal Strickberger

When I think about the waterfront in New York City or the waterfront in San Francisco, there's not a lot of public access to those spaces. There’s not a lot of infrastructure, like stairways, that go from the city straight into the water that would suggest to a human body that those are spaces for their bodies to inhabit. This is a very different thing, for instance, in Santa Cruz; there are staircases that go straight into the Pacific Ocean where the waves are crashing, and tiny children are jumping into the water with a surfboard. That kind of infrastructure, if it doesn't exist in the place where we live, we have to take the risk to create it for ourselves. We can’t let infrastructure dictate our desires. We have to let the things that we want dictate the infrastructure that creates the world around us.

Anytime I’ve given people and myself a chance to take that kind of risk, even if it feels slightly borderline illegal, the audience becomes implicated in that investigation—like the boat hotel, let’s say, where nobody could really decide whose responsibility it was to regulate my art project/boat/hotel. I’m calling this a durational performance piece where we are sleeping in these boats. Is that something that a hotel would come and regulate? Not really. Or, when I did the floating peep show in the San Francisco Bay, was it illegal to sell tickets to people to take a tiny boat out to a group of other boats in the middle of the Bay and have them watch drag shows and live sex shows? I mean, who’s to say? Was it a boat charter? Was I hosting an event in my private boat space? I didn’t get approached by the coast guard probably because they weren’t aware of what was happening, but even if I did, I would have found it to be an interesting negotiation to have in front of my audience.

Constance Hockaday. All these Darlings And Now Us, 2014. Floating peepshow moored in the San Francisco Bay.  Photo: SoEx.

So yeah, it’s my rule to not play it too safe, to not ask for permission, and rather to stay focused on the story that I am trying to make or to tell. It's my rule to be extraordinary, or go overboard. As long as you are respecting your collaborators and anyone that's being represented in the work, it is important to be bold and to trust that a lot of people are really hungry for life, are hungry to live, are hungry to connect, are hungry to step outside of this predictable daily routine that we all carry out every single day in our urban areas. There are people who don't want to go gentle into the night.

I don't think you can make this kind of work if you are overly committed to the practical or socially acceptable. Yes, making work that is accessible by public transportation is important, but that doesn’t mean that you should shy away from inviting people to go on a journey to your work. Honestly, sometimes the adventure in travelling to the work is an incredibly valuable piece of the work itself. If your site is deep in the suburbs, or somewhere in the Sacramento Delta, or in some obscure borough in New Jersey, I think that it's important to trust that the audience will follow you there. If you give them a compelling enough reason to go, not only will they follow you there, but they will be very, very hungry for it. And in that journey, they will become a more committed, more open, more implicated participant. That's all I can really hope for, is to be present with a group of people who want to live life—live more life.

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