An Invitation

12.1 / In/With/For the Public

An Invitation

By Ellen Sebastian Chang January 26, 2020

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Before working with the public, let’s recognize that we are the public. We are not separate from “them.” If we are not separate from the public, what is this summons, calling or invite to create for the public? I ask myself: Does the public want or need my creative “intervening”? What am I longing for? What am I seeking? What captures my curiosity? My interests? How do I communicate the latter through theater, dance, radio, film, food, multimedia (all forms I have created in) to have a dialogue with others outside of the inner me? What forms of communication and dialogue does my public need and want?

Public Design? Public Control? Public vs. Private?


What does it mean for Black women to inhabit/activate/reclaim PUBLIC space when space has been historically relegated/restricted to private/domestic locations? How does the intangible assets of interiority, self- and world-care, gentle reflection, and joyfulness operate when shared in public communal, culturally affirmative public rituals?1

The design of my path was forged hundreds of years before I arrived. The circumstances that I would navigate were set in motion in August 1955 given that I was born one day after the murder of Emmett Till (in secret, to a “white” mother and a “Black” father) and one hundred and nine days before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I was quietly, indirectly, and directly taught that my path in the Public Sphere is designed, controlled, and legislated by Private Interests. 

Choosing a creative path for my life and livelihood became a form of survival and refuge, but most importantly a means to express the complex “story” of me.

Thus, I create from the foundation of who I aspire to be as human being. The technique and forms of my creative practice are informed and in service to my historically informed past, present, and future. Questions begin each day: How I am upholding the systems that place a supremacist value on my creativity? How do I collaborate with systems and institutions that may not have any depth of understanding or the willingness to labor towards that understanding of “curated” history outside of the values of supremacy? What is the difference between creation and invention? What choices did I make today that uphold the latter or chip away at its foundation?

I create from what I have come to understand and name “The Aesthetics of Circumstances” a.k.a. making a way out of no way, “stealing” from Peter to pay Paul, and stretching a dollar until it cries or it blesses me.

“I know you hear me. But one day you gon’ listen!”

—Rosetta Hicks


Be a generous human. Share your technical skills and knowledge. Be an adult. Admit what you don’t know, ask questions, be humble, don’t compete, collaborate, and don’t bullshit. Young people, they feel! Be responsible, and give them responsibility. Work towards trust through commitment, consistency and honesty. Have high expectations of yourself and them. Teach them to value who they are and what they bring. Pay them for their labor, or be honest in how sweat equity and volunteerism works.

My public radio work, G-O-to the D (1996-1997)2, was based upon the 1992 stage adaption of George Bernard Shaw’s The Adventures of the Black Girl in Search of God, working with the teenage girls of color to explore ideas of spirituality, death, and what happens after high school. This work was created from a series of interviews from the streets of Oakland, Cal Berkeley, neighbors, churches, high school parties, and protests. The teenagers were taught interview techniques and loaned high-end recording equipment through KPFA and Earwax Productions Studios. The piece was broadcast on NPR’s SOUND PRINT, KPFA, and KPFK.

respect: late Middle English: from Latin respectus, from the verb respicere ‘look back at, regard’, from re- ‘back’ + specere ‘look at’

Webster Dictionary


Around 2008-2009, Maya Gurantz and I started talking about collaborating on a project about Oakland, and how the city and history of a place change as an influx of people move in and impose their own histories. It's like that term “Columbus-ing” where the attitude of discovery has no regard or respect, nor sees the value of the inhabitants of the place. Maya suggested we recreate the 1980 video chat created by Kit Galloway and Sherry Rabinowitz, Hole in Space, which connected passersby in New York and LA.

In January 2015, we installed video “portals” between distinct Oakland neighborhoods that are close geographically but worlds apart socioeconomically.3 We connected Youth Employment Partnership (YEP) on International Boulevard in East Oakland, and Cole Hardware in Rockridge, with a third site for passive viewing at a restaurant located in industrial West Oakland. In East Oakland, one of the first questions was, “Are the police looking at this?” Maya recalls the counselors at YEP asking, “Do we have a lawyer? Because anything caught on these cameras, if it's illegal, the OPD could subpoena the footage.” In Rockridge, we received a number of bitterly phrased noise complaints. One person wrote us an email and said if we didn't lower the volume immediately he would shut our project down. A mother complained that her child slept at 7:30pm and did not care what kind of “art project” we were creating.

This is the privatized citizenship in conflict with the otherness of the public. And we were grateful when our invisible reach actually garnered curiosity, joy, and “you can see me?”s.

“We are the community and our real roles as lead artists are to understand our community’s needs in order to alchemize and distill them into public performance, as well as ritualize them into private actions of healthy change.”

—Ellen Sebastian Chang


House/Full of BlackWomen (2015-present) envisioned by Deep Waters Dance Theater Artistic Director Amara Tabor-Smith is my fifth collaboration with Amara and the most impactful work I have ever engaged with. The project was created as a series of site-specific Episodes in Oakland addressing the central theme, “How can we, as Black women and girls, find space to breathe and be well within a stable home?”

In 2016, five months after we received funding from Creative Capital, my family and I were evicted from our West Oakland home. I reside in Alameda with an ongoing focus on the creative public life of Oakland. It is challenging as a person not to feel bitter as I financially navigate the daily maintenance towards a stable affordable life adjacent to the city I pay creative homage to.

In 2018, Gloria (name changed) was fingerprinted and booked for “selling” small batch homemade ice cream. She served this organic ice cream as a treat during our twelfth Episode as an offering to “sweeten” the path for our audience. The House/Full program was used as evidence for her “wrongdoing.” Undercover officers came to her home under the pretense of buying ice cream. The report detailing elements of her life (the skin color of her husband, the orisha altar in her home, etc.) all listed for the unlawful making of ice cream, leading to court hearings and yearlong probation. Another House/Full member and I attended the court dates with her, both as support and for an education. We asked the public defender if had he ever experienced anything this excessive for a small batch of ice cream, and he admitted he had not. Her probation is now over. I do not know if her record has been expunged, as of this writing. These are warnings. These are white supremacist laws reminding us of the laws that we are unaware of until they are acted upon our unrecognized humanity.

The very nature of this work that is perceived as place-making, site-specific, devised, or conjure art is symbolic in its creation to understand what is public (available) and what is private (secret): We work with veils, masks, and masquerade—as sacred protection, respected privacy, and the art of the reveal. We cultivate the root definition of Apocalypse, which means “uncover.” We welcome uncovered truth. We walk with lanterns and mirrors to express the dual nature of all things. The lantern that represents the Lantern Laws of 1713 towards the enslaved Africans and Indigenous in the nighttime because we understand that we continue to be regulated and surveilled in public spaces. We walk with mirrors to reflect back the fears, misjudgments, and erroneous beliefs of the uneducated and ill-informed.

We create as a form of insistence rather than resistance. We, House/Full of BlackWomen, offer financial stipends, meals, and healing circles: This is "shadow work," quiet work, work that happens over time and space and in respectful service to the (un)recognized creative service and brilliance of countless unnamed Black women and girls who inhabit and fuel our global imaginations. Our work is a created conjured response to the ongoing designed and manufactured circumstances of a supremacist nation that has yet to truthfully credit, fully acknowledge, and financially compensate our contributions.

“Public Practice” is an invitation to develop an understanding of One and Other, through better questions, shared accountability as well as shared responsibility, acknowledging where control and gatekeeping resides in all aspects of the creative relationship. It is also an opportunity to advocate for time-based dialogues, the efforts of an open education without supremacy and towards collaborations that are activated by a shared loving excitement for imaginative creative change which takes time: real, slow, conscious time, but when the efforts of time are in perceived lack then humility, respect, and discernment should always be in great abundance. We are the public whether we know it or not, whether we understand it or pursue to define it. We are the Public.

Notes

  1. Investigate: Black Public Sphere Collective, eds., The Black Public Sphere (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 1995. https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/B/bo3625661.html
  2. Listen to G-O-to the D on SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/esc-the-escape-key/g-o-to-the-d.
  3. Watch documentation from A Hole in Space Redux: https://vimeo.com/140085251

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