Part I, Greencastle Shared Spaces
July 19-20: Getting to Greencastle
Here’s the short version: I arrived in Indiana exhausted from doing the LaGrange, Georgia Shared Spaces project, and - frankly - unsure of what I was actually going to accomplish during the residency. This was just 10 days after completing LaGrange, and all I knew was that I had two-weeks at Taleamor Park- a working farm with artist space in LaPorte (northwest Indiana). Residency contacts weren’t pushing me upfront for too many specifics, so I arrived in Indiana and began to explore.
I started chasing down the obvious cultural institutions in the area. This meant sending inquiries to any local museums, including the South Bend Museum of Art in South Bend, IN. The director at the Museum got right back to me, (Good!) informing me that they tended to schedule shows 1-2 years in advance, and that she would mention my proposal to the Board in a month or so. (Hmmm….) I did reach out to one of the Board members through a mutual friend, but clearly not much was going to get accomplished during the next two weeks.
Let’s backtrack: what about Indiana holds significance for my artistic practice, and to me personally? I wanted to expose myself to Farming America: tractors and corn and barns were something I’d driven past but had little direct experience of. It would be hard to understand America without spending time in farm country. And I’d wanted to at least visit Greencastle, Indiana – about three hours south of my residency, since four generations of my grandmothers had lived there. Wherever possible I’m trying to do Shared Spaces projects in places my ancestors have lived, a way however tenuously of connecting my urban coastal self to all these other American communities.
As always when setting up a project, I start with a local arts or cultural institution. There is a museum in Greencastle, but it covers local history, not art. Of course nearby DePauw University has great resources on the campus but like so many colleges, social practice art within the local community is not really aligned with their curatorial priorities (the university leans toward the international postmodern/conceptual). Plus as it was July, no one was on campus - to say nothing of the general ambivalence on both sides of the the town-gown relationship. So I wasn’t too optimistic, but since I had time and had wanted to see the town anyway, off I went.
On the way into Greencastle I passed the Putnam County Fairground, a small-sized facility compared to some in the state. I noticed activity and stopped in to look around. There was a buzz about: 4-H club members, students who participated in farming and agriculture activities, were unloading their goats (adorable!) and leading them into the stables. I noticed a “Commercial Tent” set in a gravel parking lot where local vendors and non-profits could book space. The fair opened in two days. A quick look on the website showed an application form for those spots, but a chart on the wall showed they were long-since filled. It also listed a cell phone of Gene, the coordinator, and I fired off a call and left my pitch. Gene called back next day and, as I had hoped, someone had canceled last minute for the first two days of the fair. Hooray for small town flexibility; I had my 10x10 space for the weekend – but now what? This was completely different than anything I’d contemplated before, with none of the support, institutional partnering, staff, or prior outreach. What might work?
I reasoned that if I made a mid-sized 18”x35” finished artwork from materials I’d brought to the residency that I would be able to move the piece around without a gantry - just with a little help from friendly neighbors. All I really needed, at the end of the day, was local people to participate in the creation - the “Voices and Choices” of the work. Where better to find local people than at a county fair? By spreading out objects related to American popular and commercial culture, mostly by scrambling around vintage stores looking for other “Indiana” related stuff like toy farm animals and a grain silo, I hoped I could get people to wander by and engage with the project. I would just have to be the Jack-of-all-Trades: handling the setup, explaining the project, taking photos and video and adding each piece to the final Shared Spaces flag. I raced the three hours back up to LaPorte, IN on beautiful country roads (straight lines through corn and soy fields with the occasional small town) stopping at every vintage and toy store along the way looking for Indiana-related objects. Then I moved all my stuff from my residency studio back into the car and scrambled back down to Greencastle. I set everything up just in time and prepared for the visitors.
Part II, Greencastle Fair + Shared Spaces
After the first day, everything seems to be working out. Greencastle is a low-key, tranquil place with a calm crowd. I am fitting in just fine. People have agreed to be filmed and they are making thoughtful choices for their contributions to the Shared Spaces sculpture. I’ve asked a lot of people to think about an object of their own in advance to bring in the next day, which I hope some will do, but even if they don’t they still have a few hundred objects to select from among. Things here seem to be progressing, albeit slowly.
I only have the space at the fair for the weekend, and from what I hear this fair only gets people showing up late - from 4:00 to 10:00 pm. I begin to think I will not cast the work here – instead I’ll just take the clay as is, on its board, back to the residency in La Porte and do the casting, cleaning, finishing, drying, tinting and other steps there. It will be a good way to work through the second week of the residency, and at the end of it I will have a new piece.
What I won’t have yet is an institution invested in the piece, nor any help making it, but based on the pictures and video I’ve gathered tonight I should have enough to plug into a potential exhibit on a national scale—Indiana is highly photogenic in an all-American. farm-culture sort of way. Between shots of other events and people at the fair, and atmospheric shots taken elsewhere on my travels around the state, I’m confident I’m able to give a feel for this community. Interviews with the participants also seem to be going well so far..!
I am meeting a cross-section of the community, spanning from small-town drug culture to biker dudes, religious families, farmers and farm kids to students and a diverse, burgeoning Asian community. I’m motivated by having these diverse voices contributing to this artwork.
In any case I’m having fun here! I find it really inspiring to see these young 4-H-ers who have so much responsibility for these animals, and I confess I like watching these old guys driving around on their vintage tractors. Everybody is calm and very matter-of-fact . Nobody else is even taking pictures. It’s just the way things are, and nobody has to make a big deal about anything… an unbelievably relaxed place.
It’s the second (and final) day of the fair, and as the flag has begun filling up! I sneaked away from the booth for a bit to go around to the other fair exhibits, watching the families with their animals, and attending the public events. I wandered, taking photos and videos of contest finalists walking their animals in front of the judges and even witnessing a Tractor Pull. Reviewing the footage, I captured some great stuff, and felt a bit like Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) at the rodeo, or as though I was part of a PBS documentary team. There were only a few non-born-and-raised-Indiana folks who stopped by today: for one, I had a nice chat with a Japanese exchange student whose host family brought him there for a crash course in the American Heartland.
What felt clear to me was that people here are pretty comfortable and deeply ensconced in who they are, and are not sitting around wishing they could be more like the “urban coastal elites”. Sometimes I suspect they know more about us than we do about them, bringing to mind the way Baldwin described black people who knew much more about white people than the other way around. Yet I understand the scenarios to be vastly different: in the case of rural populations, our media is brimming with stories about the lives of coastal and urban elites, but aside from Duck Dynasty and a few other shows, very little of rural, heartland culture makes it into the hearts and minds of urban elites via media programming.
Why should this be the case? There has long been potential for overlap: Drive just a few miles from any major city and you’re in pick-up truck country. It may not be the Bible Belt or even farmland, but it’s still working class and at least quasi-rural. City-dwelling “elites” who have country homes encounter this shift all the time - why haven’t the cultures more fully intertwined? It is as if the country were imagined as vast swathes of blankness, held up on a scaffolding of comfortably derisive narrative. It reminds me of something I learned while an expat in Tokyo: it was a well-known pitfall when expats found themselves dealing only with those Japanese who were good English speakers: The assumption was that one could know all that was needed about the department at hand, or even the Japanese people generally through dealings with this small sample of people, but these ‘cultural interpreters’ were themselves unusual or unique individuals, so generalizing from interactions with them, or relying on them for information about actual business issues or their Japanese peers was risky. Is there a cadre of cultural interpreters, perhaps the painters and tradesmen and such who supply services to second-homeowners, or who work in service industry jobs in the Jackson Holes and Hamptons of the world, who unreliably fill in for the great mass of Red Staters? Where are these ideas and impressions coming from, filling in the minds of our coastal and urban elites when they think about farmers and working class Americans?
What I do know, after a few days out here, is that I am privileged to have looked into an intricate, rich and fully-formed culture and community that has few if any points of contact with anything I have ever known or experienced. People who live here are just different from what I’m accustomed to. Their physiques and wardrobes are different, their interests are different, their cars are often different and their entertainment is vastly different. Their aspirations, definitions of success and failure, all line up differently than my own expectations: in fact, it turns out that Georgia was an ‘easy’ place to feel at home compared to the Greencastle County Fair!
One area of contention, naturally, was politics. For example, I quickly got someone who wanted to place the Republican elephant symbol in the piece, and we have a nice bit of video about that. But despite direct hints to some of the younger, hipper looking visitors, no one ever did place the Democrats’ donkey symbol in the piece. I just looked up the electoral map: Putnam County voted 73% for Trump, 5% for Gary Johnson and the remaining 22% went for Hillary in 2016. Still that means there was one Democrat voter for every 3 Trump voters, but I guess they weren’t at the Fair, or weren’t stepping forward if they were. Perhaps they were mostly in the college community - DePauw is in Greencastle, and I did hear more than one conversation about the great divide, even enmity between the college community and the other residents of Greencastle and the surrounding areas. Plus it was the middle of summer.
None of this is to suggest I didn’t have plenty of friendly interactions, even warm and emotional ones. All this transpired without any institutional door-opening relationships to ride along on -- just me and my ideas in the presence of the Public. But there were plenty of people who were closed-off, arms crossed, unable or unwilling to engage, and while many might simply have been bored or pre-occupied with other interests, I couldn’t help feeling that some of it involved suspicion of an outsider, a “New Yorker”, a person who might be in the process of setting up a trap for local folks to fall into. I was asking for a bit of their heart, and they knew it, and not everyone was going to let me have that. Folks from the area felt burned before and were twice shy as a result, and I can’t blame them. Having roots in the area did at least seem to assuage some of the inevitable disbelief for how someone like me would ever end up someplace like that.
It will take me lots of time to digest what I’ve experienced these past few days, and I don’t know that I will ever get anything definitive to say about it beyond its powerful effect on me. I do wish more “coastal elites”, more people like me, were spending more time in places like Greencastle. I’ll stop analyzing here now and let the ruminative stages begin. I will say seeing those kids with their animals was really inspiring: I remember feeling that if someone has had this much responsibility this early, it will likely always be hard for them to have a lot of sympathy for people later in life who come into difficulties as a result of their not taking responsible preparations. I’m guessing you grow up fast in a farming environment - all hands are needed, risks are being taken and must be managed, animals must be cared for, crops planted and tended and harvested on tight schedules, with financial ruin a real possibility each year for those who screw up. Parents, when I complimented them on their kids’ achievements with their animals, assured me that the kids also played video games and got up to nonsense, but one couldn’t help feeling it was blended in with plenty of tasks no suburban or urban kid ever had to tackle.