This is a video installation work, in which an American field research scientist character performs experiments to prove the insubstantiality of political barriers from a natural law perspective. The video was produced on location at the fence on the closed border between Armenia and Turkey.
This video presenting the TREE SPA FOR URBAN FOREST HEALING was shot at Artspace CWOS, during the test run of the project in October, 2018.
This drawing from 2016 is an initial sketch proposal for the TREE SPA. The project is currently based in neglected Keney Park, in the North End of Hartford, Connecticut, a neighborhood with a poverty rate near 50%.
We started the Hartford Maple Syrup Club in 2017, an off-campus expansion of the maple syrup project that was previously operated by the Sculpture Club at Hartford Art School. HMSC has partnered with Herb Virgo of the Keney Park Sustainability Project, Lauren Little of Knox Parks, Real Art Ways, and Artspace New Haven‘s CWOS, to build the reach of social-engagement for this project.
In winter of 2017/2018 we built a mobile sugar shack, tapped trees in Keney park and at schools and residences in Hartford, and ran a series of tree-tapping workshops for area kids in collaboration with with Knox Parks. In addition, we did a series of discussions about decolonization and land connection with students from the University of Hartford and Real Art Ways.
We celebrated the maple syrup harvest with our third annual BYOBatter Pancake Festival, at the Keney Park Pond House, on March 10, 2018.
The newest extension of the TREE SPA re-uses the steam generated as a byproduct of the maple syrup evaporation process. Participants take the healing waters of the trees and discuss important matters affecting our communities, in the relaxing social space of a steamroom, while drinking tree juice and eating food steamed in the very same steam! This portion of the project began in earnest with a test-run as a commission of Artspace‘s CWOS in October of 2018, with additional funding from Macktez Summer Stipend. The TREE SPA will operate at Keney Park Sustainability Project this winter.
The following is a collection of images from my tree juice collecting and sharing research process from 2015-2017. I drink lots of tree juice every spring, and encourage others to do so. I’ve been toying with this idea ever since about 2010 when I wrote a piece called We Common. At the time I was living in New York City and covertly tapping trees in city parks, among many other foraged food sharing experiments.
Lately I’ve been experimenting with making and installing custom infrastructure for tree juice sharing in public spaces, like this bucket with a custom spigot and paper cup dispenser.
There are a lot of great things about the tree juice gathering lifestyle. One of the best is that you are active during the coldest time of the year, which is great for mental and physical health. It also means you get to experience magic like seeing the crocuses come up in your footprints where your body heat has literally melted the snow and warmed the Earth.
This image is from a parallel project I was doing at my workplace, the sculpture studio at Hartford Art School. I often put quotes from the book of work up on this chalkboard. Collecting and processing tree juice is a ton of work, but it’s so rewarding.
I have been working at tree juice gathering in earnest since 2013. I make, sell, and donate syrup from some of the juice I collect too. You can buy some in the Emporium of Real Things if you want.
I started out collecting and boiling tree juice with my brother and some friends (that’s Nick Brown in the picture) at the homestead we were working in Storrs, CT (see Building Buildings and Landing on Land). We had an old borrowed evaporator from Sweet Acre Farm and a plastic covered hut we slapped together from bamboo poles.
I made a rocket stove which has been useful for finishing and bottling the syrup. Rocket stoves are an incredible example of appropriate technology that allow you to boil water (or tree juice, or soup, or whatever you want) using a mere handful of twigs or scrap wood.
I first made the rocket stove as a visiting artist at Bennington College in 2014. I wanted to inspire the sculpture students to cook for themselves and boycott the corporate dining hall.
Then for awhile my rocket stove was at Hartford Art School, where we used it for soup, syrup, and socializing with the Sculpture Club. Now it is at Keney Park Sustainability Project, along with the rest of the Tree Spa.
We used to make the syrup in plein air, right under the old sculpture gantry, utilizing a 2′ x 6′ wood-fired evaporator I purchased used in 2016.
It was a good time, we got some publicity for the University too, which they of course loved, when the local TV news covered the story. We had a really fun BYOB (Bring Your Own Batter) pancake competition when the syrup was ready.
The following images and text are excerpted from a slide lecture I gave at Pecha Kucha, New Haven, in 2015, about my tree juice collecting practice.
That’s all for now, I leave you with another quote from the book of work…
On October 14, 2017, I did a project for Skowhegan Performs at Socrates Sculpture Park, in Queens. For this performance I gathered wild plants from the park and cooked them on a small homemade rocket stove I had brought with me, to produce a magic potion. I told participants that drinking this potion would aid in the decolonization process that we so desperately need to go through, and served it to them. The plants in the magic potion included mulberry leaf, pine needles, rose hips, rose petals, mint, sumac, and mugwort. It tasted pretty good too.
COLONIZATION is EATING US UP: a WILD TEA PARTY
A performance project using the edible wild plants growing around the park. I harvest them and explain to people what they are, as I prepare them and infuse them in water for tasting as WILD TEA. I make a brief speech about the colonization of indigenous lands by settler societies, and the historical justification of these morally bankrupt actions, through reference to the idea of finding a “promised land” for Christian people on this continent. Colonization has an etymological relation to digestion, which I draw upon in my speech, in order to make clear the truly hideous gluttony of our contemporary consumer society. I challenge participants to take on a practice of occasional fasting, to remind us viscerally of our decisive power to choose decolonization actions over remaining subdued by the restrictive potentialities of a worldview into which we have all been indoctrinated, known generally as western civilization. The goal of my performance is to disrupt the hegemonic complicity of the average person in the white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchal empire that we call “the beast,” in whose “belly” we are slowly being digested. After the conclusion of my speech, before each person tastes the WILD TEA offered them, I ask them to make an oath, speaking in unison, repeating after me:
“From this day forward I intend to do everything in my power to decolonize my mind, body, and spirit. I intend to think deeply about the possibility of radical land reform on the land that I occupy, as well as lands occupied by my family and friends, in the interests of respecting the sovereign rights of this land’s indigenous people, who were and are systematically dispossessed, enslaved, killed, assimilated, disappeared, and ignored. Moreover, I intend to stand up and protect lands raped by illegitimate governments, which extract resources for the benefit of false profiteers, which look to false prophets for their moral authority. I intend, by cooperating with my friends and neighbors of all kinds, to find a way to rip a gaping hole in the colon wall of the beast of empire that has us stewing in the digestive juices of its belly. As I take this WILD TEA into my insides, I also allow inside me the possibility of freeing myself, along with everyone else, from the bondage of civilized society, that I have complied with so meekly until now. This has been through no fault of my own, but rather out of a gripping fear for my safety, under the constant threat of a violent, military state that dominates and subdues us all. This WILD TEA is a MAGIC POTION, which reminds me of my wild animal soul, buried deep inside, that longs for me to unleash it upon the world. May this MAGIC POTION protect us all, and give us courage, in the endless struggle for justice, peace, and love that looms before us.”
After my 26 mile walking performance, Mapping the Audible Dominion of the Mission Church Bells, I began leading group walks of public spaces to think about the private property ownership structure we live within. Here are a few images from the first two walks, which were part of a “Day of Action” at Emmanuel College in October, 2017. We circled counterclockwise around the bell tower at the Catholic college where these young people study, performing three widening circumambulations and talking about evidence of the history of the colonization of this land (the homeland of the Massachusett Indigenous Peoples), as we encountered it along the way.
During these walks we carried sticks with which we banged on fences, making a kind of music, almost as though we were ringing bells of our own, as a form of permanent revolution against the control and legal structure of church & state represented by the church bells and the fences alike.
We also did some innocuous trespassing on posted private property, for the same reason; a simple transgression, but with great symbolic power in the individual imagination.Each of these Walks for Decolonization was two hours long, marked by bells ringing from the tower we orbited around at the start, middle, and end. I invited participants to react to the ringing of the bells however they liked. We knelt down for the first one, spun in circles for the middle, and played dead for the last, in honor of the ongoing genocide of indigenous peoples in this land.
Seven Widening Widdershins Circumambulations for Decolonization (How to Get to Know This Land)
On August 3rd and 4th, 2017, I performed a 26 mile walk, which I have mapped out here, circumambulating nine times counter-clockwise around the beautiful Mission Church in the present-day Mission Hill neighborhood of the traditional homeland of the Massachusett people (greater Boston, Massachusetts, USA). At the time I was living in the neighborhood, as a resident artist at Emmanuel College, a private Catholic liberal arts school. My idea was to map the sphere of influence of the church bells, which ring out over the neighborhood every 15 minutes. I got the idea because the bells would wake me up in the morning through my bedroom window, which was a pleasant enough alarm clock, if a little invasive. For this performance, I intended to widen my course with each loop around the church, never recrossing my path, until I circled it seven times, or until I could no longer hear the bells, whichever felt right. A summary of my research informing this project follows.
In English folklore, it was believed that to go around a church anti-clockwise or “widdershins,” as I did, was unlucky. For example, take the fairy tale of “Childe Rowland, where the protagonist and his sister are transported to Elfland after his sister runs widdershins round a church.” This superstition was bound up in the long history of the spread of a Christian worldview to people of other belief systems, including so-called pagan and animistic spiritualities. These terms come from the nowadays discredited social evolutionist discourse of early anthropology, which takes monotheism and science as the culmination of social evolution in so-called civilized societies, in contrast to the beliefs of so-called primitive societies. Our contemporary pop-culture notions of elves and fairies are remnants of belief systems that existed in Europe before conversion to Christianity happened, and remain important to some people. In Ireland’s traditional spirituality, for example, fairies are known as the aos sí or the Tuath(a) Dé Danann. Non-Abrahamic (Judeo/Christian/Muslim) belief systems are still vital for many indigenous peoples around the world, who have successfully survived centuries of genocidal and assimilationist policies, and maintain their commitment to practicing traditional cultural and spiritual beliefs.
Christendom’s specific role in the colonization of the Americas and the ongoing genocide of the indigenous inhabitants is indisputable, and tragic. The various Catholic Popes of the 1400s and 1500s issued numerous papal bulls (declarations) in support of colonial land claims by European royal powers, including the Spanish and Portuguese imperial projects, laying the foundation for the colonization, Christianization, enslavement, and genocide of the “new world,” as well as Africa. These papal bulls make up what is known in the U.S. judicial system as the Doctrine of Discovery, which has been cited in decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court as recently as 2005. The important precedent case of Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823) forms the basis of all Federal Indian law and settler property claims. This landmark case has been cited in numerous land disputes regarding treaty claims by Native American Nations ever since. These matters are thoroughly elaborated in the works of indigenous legal scholars Steven Newcomb and Robert J. Miller.
Additionally, the ongoing genocide of colonized native peoples has been carried out by individual settlers, by policies of settler governments, and by the assimilative drive of Christian churches, particularly in the history of residential boarding schools and missions work. Many progressive Christian groups have joined indigenous groups in calling for the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery in recent years. For instance, in 2014, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (which represents about 80% of Catholic nuns in the U.S.) passed a resolution stating, “We humbly and respectfully ask Pope Francis to lead us in formally repudiating the period of Christian history that used religion to justify political and personal violence against indigenous nations and peoples and their cultural, religious, and territorial identities.” However, in 2015 Pope Francis canonized the controversial Spanish Missionary Junipero Serra, to the dismay of many indigenous people of California, who view him as the architect of their peoples’ genocide, and the destruction of their languages and cultures; a far cry from saintly behavior indeed.
Despite the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the U.S. was one of only four countries to vote against, and much progress in the growing transnational indigenous rights movement, indigenous people remain among the most marginalized and ignored groups in many settler societies, including the U.S. and Canada. Indigenous cultures, ways of life, and sovereignty remain under constant threat from the culturally hegemonic neoliberal white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy, managed by the elites that rule our world. Additionally, the facts of the genocide of indigenous peoples remain painfully under-recognized by citizens and governments of settler societies. The decolonization of indigenous lands and peoples is an ongoing project of indigenous rights activists and allies around the world. These indigenous leaders dispute the claim that we live in a “post-colonial” era, following the deconstruction of European colonies in Asia and Africa in the mid-20th century. The fact is, colonialism is alive and well in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Russia, to name just a few of the biggest offenders, as evidenced in current dealings with indigenous peoples inside their borders.
My small action of walking against the direction of the clock is in solidarity with the Bolivian government’s 2014 adoption of a “decolonization clock” running counter-clockwise, as a sign of their commitment to the indigenous population of the nation, as well as upending Eurocentric northern-hemispheric domination. As Bolivia’s foreign minister, David Choquehuanca remarked, “Who said clocks always have to run the same way? Why do we always have to be obedient? Why can’t we be creative?”
I take this action in denial of normative hegemonic notions of property ownership, reflected in the legal structures of Federal, State, and local governments. I trespass frequently and with great enthusiasm on my walk.
Ultimately, I take this action with the deeply-felt intention of reversing the colonization of my mind, body, and spirit; as well as holding intention for decolonization of the land I walk, and of the people I meet along the way.
I imagine organizing and performing future group “Walks for Decolonization,” in the tradition of the Situationist dérive and in solidarity with Indigenous Walking Tours taking place today in Canada, embodying a commitment to unravelling the mess we’re in, through an active practice of looking, listening, and engaging in social discourse on these pressing matters.
With any luck, or rather unluck (in this uncivilizing process I embark upon, feeling it to be my uncivic duty as an uncitizen), I might even get to visit Elfland sometime soon :) …or at least, to begin to really know this land that I call home.
(2 hours 15 minutes)
(7 minute excerpt)
This was a two-channel video installation with additional objects, placed in a public hallway at Emmanuel College, a small Catholic liberal arts college in Boston, Massachusetts, after the action described above. The work includes the video documenting my decolonization walk and a playlist of youtube videos I curated of indigenous leaders and scholars as well as Christian allies working to undo the impacts of the Doctrine of Discovery. The space was set up as a lounge for students to hang out and watch the videos, while playing “We Are the 99% Chess,” for which I had redesigned the rules of chess and created a takeaway printed chessboard, as well as an assortment of scholarly reading materials related to the content of the videos.
I built a small weatherproofed shed and installed it in New Haven as part of A Lot in Our Lives in 2007. I made custom clapboards for the sides, little round windows, and a miniature orange door, and I put asphalt roofing on it. It was pretty sturdy.
Inside the shed was lined with bookshelves and had a parquet floor. I filled it with old books and made signs that explained people could borrow the books and put other books back, or return the ones they had borrowed. The books mostly seemed to go out and not come in that much. But I organized with a literacy advocacy group to restock the library with books throughout the summer. We ended up removing the door, because the staff at Artspace, who I was collaborating with, were concerned that a child could get trapped inside there with the door closed and not be able to get out.
At the end of the summer, I had to pack up everything I had installed in New Haven. But over the following winter I began doing some heavy organizing work to make it a big going concern in New York City. I had this great angle on it, using a loophole in public space regulation that allows the proliferation of newsracks everywhere. Why not a non-corporate version in the form of little public libraries? I mean I was writing grants, making models, planning budgets, talking to city agencies, recruiting librarians. I thought maybe I was going to create a non-profit organization or something and spend my life building miniature libraries all over the world. I got pretty worked up about it, I really did.
Well, it didn’t happen. The grants didn’t come through, and I moved on to some other projects for awhile that were more immediately accomplishable. But it stayed in the back of my mind over the years, and I kept struggling with the idea.
We made some more tests now and then, little temporary guerilla style libraries. Most of them were rapidly removed. One was burned. Yep, street library arsonists, they’re out there. Who knew?
That was kind of discouraging. But also kind of cool: at least we had gotten a rise out of somebody! I just couldn’t give this idea up though, it haunted me for years. For awhile I was even living in this imaginary utopian city, and I brought the library with me…
Eventually that first library I had built ended up back on the streets, in Brooklyn. Instead of making it fit into newsrack regulations, we put it on wheels and locked it up to a signpost, just as you would do with a bicycle. Gabriela Alva from Eyelevel BQE became co-librarian with me and we had it out by her spot in East Williamsburg for a year or two. This time we had a combination lock on it, and if you wanted to use it you just had to know the combo (B-O-O-K). That worked really well, people respected the contents much more than when it was wide open.
We have some good children’s books in there for all the kids. Plus some neat comics, artsy books, ‘zines, odds and ends. Gabriela documented the stuff for awhile and made a blog showing the collection. Last I knew, the library was still operational, although we had to move it again, to the corner of Bogart and Harrison, near the Morgan Avenue L station and NurtureArt, but I have to confess it’s been awhile since I visited it. Hunt it down if you’re interested. Anyway, that kind of got me back into doing the libraries guerilla style and figuring out other strategies for placing them on the sidewalk without getting permission. It’s a neat kind of mental chess game against the government regulations.
For example, this one is disguised as a bench attached to a tree guard. The city parks department actively encourages citizens to put up these tree guards and cultivate the soil in the street tree beds. The city doesn’t have the resources budgeted to do regular maintenance on all the street trees, so it’s left to the citizens to do a lot of it. That’s why you see so many different versions of tree guards around. Often when a building is renovated they will landscape the sidewalk in front of the building too, including planting new trees, and adding tree guards, mulch, etc. Sometimes outside coffee shops or other restaurants they will build a bench type tree guard like this to sort of expand their seating area out onto the sidewalk.
This one was built in Crown Heights, on Franklin Avenue and Park Place, outside of a community center called Launchpad. The guy who started Launchpad had planted the tree, and he was all for having a tree guard around it like this, so it worked out well. I gave the library a seed collection of books related to nature, gardening, and farming to go along with the tree theme. I also built it in part to say thanks for my inclusion in 5x5x5, a project started by Nora Herting and Ann Chen, in which they grew vegetable gardens in Nora’s Backyard in exchange for art work. Nora lived around the corner from the Launchpad site.
I also built these twin abandoned payphones into libraries. They were right next to Ann Chen’s parents’ place in lower Manhattan. I made plexiglass doors for them, and they were used for awhile. Then eventually the parking lot they were in got turned into something else, so they were removed.
This little one was in East Harlem for awhile, and was maintained by Christine Licata while she worked at el Taller Boricua. But then she changed jobs, so the library had to go. It was a planter with plants growing in it, that had a drawer where you could share recipe cards and seed packets.
I built this library onto a red wagon foundation, and had a nice long trek taking it from the woodshop at Smack Mellon in Dumbo, Brooklyn, where I built it, all the way to Word Up in Washington Heights. On the walk up there we ran into our dear friend Christin Ripley, a great artist and sailor. She was just going to work at the sailing school on the Hudson.
The Word Up Collective decorated it and used it for mobile book sharing and outreach for their local bookstore/community center hybrid. If you live uptown in Manhattan you really should hang out at Word Up, it’s a super cool place.
I have slowed down on the library project now, since moving back to rural Connecticut. I felt okay letting it go, especially knowing that another group, Little Free Libraries, was doing lots of organizing around pretty much exactly the same thing. They really have their stuff together. If you’re interested in making a micro-library in your community you should do it! It’s easy, can be made from scraps you’ll find lying around, and it’s a great way to use up some of your creative energy. There are lots of ideas on the Little Free Libraries site, and some strategies you might try on this site too. Hooray books!
Ted Efremoff organized a show called Insite/Out in June 2012 at Artspace, New Haven, CT. For two weeks I lived and worked in the gallery along with artists James Sham, James Holland, Rebecca Parker, andAriana Jacob. For me, this was a return to a neighborhood in which I had previously done a major project (A Lot in Our Lives). I had also grown up going to punk shows around the corner at a club called the Tune Inn that is no longer around. The neighborhood has been gentrifying and developing a lot since I’ve known it, due to its proximity to Yale and the downtown New Haven Business Improvement District.
I had been working on my Odd Jobs business card parody book around the time of these events, so I put a copy of it up in the window, along with some signs, trying to get hired, but nothing really panned out from that. So I ended up putting myself to work.
I worked on the street trees right outside the gallery where we were living. They all seemed to be dying, so I aerated their roots by removing the cobble stones that were crowding them, added some mulch, pruned off dead branches, and built little tree guard fences around them using the dead branches I had removed. I called it the Dead Branch Memorial Tree Guards.
Meanwhile, I was doing a lot of foraging for wild edible and medicinal herbs in the city parks around New Haven, continuing a practice of amateur botany I’ve developed over the years, (see also: MOBILIZE the Portable Pantry, We Common, and A Boat for Christine Periord). I dried the herbs and used the cobbles I had salvaged from the street tree beds to set up a table for having Wild Tea Parties with whoever happened to pass by.
This was the final phase of the Pulling Together / Legends of Willimantic project I organized with Ted Efremoff. During the intervening years the boat was stored under a tarp at my parents’ house. We used it once or twice at Alexander’s Lake, where we go every year for vacation, but mostly it just sat there. Then one time I recklessly left the boat tied out in a lake during a bad thunderstorm and it got wrecked pretty badly against some rocks. There was a huge split all along the bottom plank, by the keel. So we had to decide whether to fix it or do something else with it.
In the end, we installed it as a sculpture at the I-Park Foundation, an artist’s residency program, land-based sculpture park, and alternative cemetery in East Haddam, Connecticut. We named this iteration of the project Weighing Anchor. Ted and I worked with James Holland and Johnnie Walker to brand a text into the sides of the boat, explaining the adventures we’d had with it. Then, we cut away the bottom of the boat, and planted a white pine inside it, to symbolically replace the tree that had been cut and milled for the planking.
Finally, we landscaped the area around our boat to create a fire pit and stone field, trying to make the site inviting as a place to sit and share stories. An invitation to use the space for storytelling was also branded into the side of the boat. It is our hope that the site will be used by residents and visitors for years to come, as the tree matures and the boat gradually decays back into the landscape.
I made a new set of woodblock prints around the time we were working on installing the boat at I-Park, thinking about the life of a project, the many lives it touches and connects, and how it can be sad when it comes to an end. In the context of I-Park’s Thanatopolis, a proposed alternative cemetery, the leaving of the boat was like a burial rite for our project; a project that had been so much about action and adventure, now finally coming to rest. Later, I made a watercolor painting of the boat in the style of an illuminated manuscript, with a stylized tree for a mast, sailing over the ocean, with a varied crew of friends. I wrote the text with oak gall ink that I made myself, and gold leafed the tree trunk. This painting was part of my residency work at the Center for Book Arts and it was exhibited there in 2012.
In the winter of 2009-2010 I was working on how to collect Sycamore (London Plane) sap from all the street and park trees in New York, and boil it down for Sycamore syrup, which reportedly is like maple syrup, but a little more “mediocre.”
I documented that project along with some other related thoughts and experiences in a work called We Common, published by ISCP in an exhibition catalog called Out of the Blue, and online at the Center for Collective Wealth.
Cloud City is an imagined utopia somewhere out there… A collaboration with Huong Ngo and numerous participants…
1. Before the Revolution
In the days before our independence was won, people would wake up in the morning and look out the window or turn on the radio, and already they would know exactly what was going to happen that day. Everything was excruciatingly boring in those days. No surprises, no mysteries, no suspense. It was a vapid, mechanical way of life. Every day, we dressed appropriately. We brought an umbrella at 30%, we wore rubber boots at 70%, and at 100% we just stayed home. Our picnics and vacations were planned to the utmost detail, cancellations performed days if not weeks in advance. Weather reports ruled our lives.
Bit by bit, a small enclave of dissenters formed.
“No more!” said the little boy with silver hairs of lightning to his father who forced him to wear a raincoat.
“No more!” said the little girl with a heart of thunder to her mother, who insisted she stay indoors and play with her dolls.
The two brave souls ventured out, unintimidated by the slight possibility of a sudden thunderstorm with a chance of hail. They told the gentle man with a mustache of blue who ran the corner store, the little old lady with twinkly toes who tended her garden below, and even some local toughs stealing rainbows from the sky. No more would they endure the oppression of predictable weather patterns. The gentle man with a mustache of blue, the old woman with twinkly toes, and even the toughs with hearts in their eyes took to the streets, following the little boy and the little girl, and thus the revolution began.
2. The Commune
It started out harmlessly enough. A few puddle jumpings here and there, quietly, when no one was looking. But gradually these rebels were forced to adopt harsher tactics, in the face of rapidly increasing consistency. Rain dances quickly became blood baths. Umbrellas were booby-trapped and sunglasses outfitted with sophisticated tracking mechanisms. There were many such examples of grotesque terror – even suicidal monsoon missions that left many a father and mother weeping buckets.
The corner store on Eagle Street, run by the gentle man with the mustache of blue, became their regular meeting place. Under the cover of night, Lightning and Thunder (as the little boy and girl came to be called), clapped and banged at the back door of the shop, signaling their arrival. Every week, there were new recruits. One meeting in particular our elders still remember well. The forces were joined that night by Dew and Frost, who nearly disappeared in the heat of the glowing fire whilst removing their cloaks.
The girl with a heart of thunder spoke first. “You have all risked much to come here, but is it not adventure, excitement, life – real life – that we seek in our rebellion from our former boring existence?”
This gave the group pause. The little boy with lightning hairs spoke next:
“The rain can only touch those with fire in their hearts!”
The message was enigmatic, but effective. The room filled with applause. Committees formed and important goals were drawn:
We must vanquish Predictability!
We must defeat Boredom!
We must restore Impermanence!
We must replace all the ice cream bars in our host’s freezer case! We’ve eaten him clean out of stock what with all these planning meetings!
The growing band of guerilla revolutionaries, our esteemed forebears, became obsessed with their quest for spontaneity to be reintroduced to the lifeways of the earth. As their wills hardened, their organization grew denser and more cunning. An immense network of spies and informants spread out from the commune on Eagle Street that was the heart and soul of the project for a future of free floating. Eventually the web of dissent covered the entire globe like a dense fog, continuously shifting with the breezes and tides, adopting new sympathizers and strategies with the speed of an avalanche.
3. Civil War
At last, the leaders of the newly christened Organization For The Ideological Supremacy And Free Formation Of All Life As Clouds Floating In The Blue Sky (OFTISAFFOALACFITBS) declared all out war on the pervasive systems of attention to detail that subjected them to such intolerable exactness.
Alas, the revolutionary group quickly grew far too large, and it was plagued by incestuous bickering. New leaders had emerged through the complex process of global expansion, and any notion of the sanctity of life had long since ceased to concern them. Plus their acronym was pretty hard to remember.
Frost (along with Dewdrop, his squint-eyed lackey) was the leader of one extremist faction forging artificial glaciers across the entire Southern Hemisphere and even venturing into warm valleys elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Sunbeam the Wicked, as he was called, developed ever grimmer reflectivity technologies with which to terrorize the poles and mountaintops.
The two factions overlapped and undid each other’s work repeatedly in a farce of disgrace. The original ideals the revolutionaries had cherished so long were all but lost in the torrent of violence that pulled them forward with no end in sight.
But the little girl with the rumbling tummy and the little boy with flashing eyes never lost hope. This war was a terrible condition, but if they could just manage to pass through – beyond, across, over away, above – how great the reward must be. Thus they consoled themselves in the darkest hours, when even the flicker and spark of Lightning’s magic hair seemed to be fading.
The little girl fell asleep one night thinking, “Golly gee, if only we could get away from all this somehow. Have a fresh start.”
She had a prophetic dream that night, and in the dream a wise old blackbird with an Illinois accent told her about a place called Cloud City. “To get there all you have to do is clean out the fridge and throw a party to finish up all the leftovers,” croaked the blackbird. “Then sell everything you own, put the money in a ragbag, and go all the way to where the highway runs into the blue sky and then four hundred forty-four and one fourth ways beyond that. Give or take a mile.”
Knowing this the little girl named Thunder set off with the little boy, Lightning, followed by the faithful few: the store owner with the mustache of blue, the old lady with twinkly toes, and the band of toughs.
All of them had their money in ragbags to match their souls. Thunder had a loud rumbly one. Lightning’s was flashy and momentary. The store owner had a fuzzy blue ragbag that smelled of pipe tobacco. The old lady had pink polka dot sequins painted with nail polish on her ragbag. The toughs had plain black and blue ragbags hung on the end of a big stick.
Little Tough-Tough tired out first from swaggering too happily, so the old lady carried him on her belly back and the group moved on. They began to imagine what Cloud City must be like, and realized that each one had a different version!
Thunder saw bell towers clanging on every building and factories banging out drumsets and firecrackers. The streets were lined with balloons to pop as she strolled along.
Silver Lightning saw camera flashes, lines of string connecting person to person, with sparks from the bottom of their shoes that ignited at every step.
The blue mustachioed shopkeeper saw blind blues men with starry eyes on the corners and blue skies reflected in puddles of deep blue rainwater.
The little old lady saw nothing. She was in it solely for the adventure.
And the toughs saw misty dusks and dawns, perfect for ganging up on each other, lurking in alleys, and looking for trouble.
And so, clutching their visions close, they traveled to where the highway met the sky and on through, beyond, across, over away, above, until they came to Cloud City.
This was a wide-ranging project we did in 2009. At the core of it was growing a container garden on the roof of Huong Ngo’s studio.
It was part of an alternative pedagogy project she was organizing called Secret School. We started thinking about all the other secret gardens, the ones that you don’t even know are there, tucked away onto rooftops and hidden in backyards.
So we started organizing tours of the secret gardens. This was an especially cool one made by Brian Trzeciak. Later that summer his garden also hosted some great rooftop saunas that Anna Larson and I organized. Our goal with the tours was to build a community of secret gardeners, in which I’d say we were moderately successful.
We also made some mobile gardens, like this greenhouse built onto a tricycle. We left it locked up on the street and someone put a blue ribbon made out of masking tape on it. That made us very happy.
We made one on a red wagon too. Later on, we made the tricycle one nicer and it was part of a show called Bike Rides at the Aldrich Museum. After that it lived at the Red Shed Community Garden for awhile, and we used it for seed starting.
We were also working on seed saving, using these custom secret seed packets we made. We participated in a seed saving exchange organized by folks from the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, and also made an exhibition of seeds, along with other stuff from the project at NurtureArt, the local non-profit art space in our neighborhood.
Some of the seeds were from wild plants, which I have a special affection for. We made little origami boxes to display them in, and laid them out on a table. It looked like a cityscape. There was also soil in bags down below the table, our trust for the future, and other ephemera. Plus we made a twin watercolor drawing of some radishes we grew, and put that on the wall.
A related work was the Beeline Transit Map, a reimagining of the NYC subway map. It shows the routes that birds, bugs, and bees might take to get around the city, hopping from greenspace to greenspace, to point out how important those spaces are. We drew it by hand with watercolor and pencil.
We displayed a copy of it along with the seed saving stuff, but also had it at Smack Mellon for another art show. It was kind of funny, we hung it high up in the second story window, where it would be really hard for gallery visitors to look at, but easy for birds flying by. However, we did make a small nod to the flightless humans by providing binoculars. We also made a folding pocket-sized version of the map with folding binoculars, which you can buy at the Emporium.
Oh one more thing, there’s an anonymous article in an online magazine called the Highlights. It refers to our map as an example of “crapomimicry,” which apparently is a new word some crazy scientists were trying to get added to the dictionary. We wouldn’t know anything else about that, but if you click on the link and scroll down to “XII” you can read it for yourself.
I’ve been out riding my tricycle a lot. I found it back in 2004. It was in pieces. I fixed it up, added some bells and whistles, and started riding. I like it, it gets me moving. Doing it. You know, getting into it, active.
In these first few pictures, I’m projecting a film on my back while I’m riding. I call that MOBILIZE: The Moving Picture Show. I’ve projected a lot of Charlie Chaplin films. They’re perfect. No talking, just great spirited music and whacky sound effects. And everybody recognizes him. Sometimes cartoons are good too.
The first two pictures are from New York City, where I lived from 2006-2012. But I started showing movies this way back when I lived in eastern Connecticut, where I grew up. This one was at the Third Thursday Street Festival in Willimantic, CT. I made all these manifestoes on an offset press in the printshop at UConn, and I used to pass them out when I was out riding around. You can buy one in the Emporium if you want, there are still a few left over.
The project tends to be pretty eyecatching and people always ask me what I’m doing. So it’s a good way to break the ice and have a conversation with somebody, about anything, everything. Spontaneously like that. That’s the reason I’ve kept doing it from time to time. I enjoy it, other people enjoy it, and it seems to help bring us closer together.Later I started doing some daytime projects with the tricycle too, as the Moving Picture Show only works when it’s dark out, and frankly riding bikes is more fun during the day.
I built a set of different attachments for it. My friend likes to call them modules. One attachment is for the projector, film repair stuff, popcorn maker, etc. Everything I need for the Moving Picture Show. Another one is for collecting wild plants and cooking, out on the streets.
That’s MOBILIZE: The Portable Pantry. I used it to collect rosehips, crabapples, pine needles, holly leaves, chokeberries, bayberries, and a few other things growing in New York this past winter. I was learning how to identify plants, cook jams, preserve food, and prepare different teas, in order to throw Wild Tea Parties with people.
Sometimes it was a good excuse to climb the street trees, which I think is an underrated activity. This tree on 23rd Street near 8th Avenue had some very late crabapples that were still good in December. I made apple butter from them. Overcooked it a little.
Another attachment is MOBILIZE: The Wandering Workbench. This is a roll-out workshop with a bench vise, work surface, and storage for hand and power tools. I’ve been using it to work immediately on the street, finding material, making Public Domestications (term coined through conversations with Huong Ngo), and installing them on the sidewalks for public use. The Corner Libraries project is a Public Domestication too, as were a lot of the projects in A Lot in Our Lives.
Public Domestications are aimed at making public space more comfortable, more communicative, more equitable, more accessible, and less alienating. They are aimed at making public space ours.
So far, many of them have been about an exchange of some kind.
This is a found pirate costume installed on a coat rack on a construction wall: the yellow rose was contributed by the busker you can see in the background. He was a wizard on the pots and pans, plastic buckets and bits of broken glass, and seemed to be really supportive of my project, which is entirely mutual!
I brought MOBILIZE to the Bronx in the summer of 2008 to do some stuff up there. I had a parking place at the Bronx Museum during June and July for the AIM show.
This was a later phase of the Pulling Together project. Ted Efremoff and I made a concerted effort to reach out to the temporary community of boatbuilders that had formed around the boat initially, and to continue our adventures together in a voyage down the Connecticut river in the summer of 2008. Some folks were not available of course, but Fred Rivard, the historical reenactment enthusiast, and Pat Sold, the stencil t-shirt artist from New Jersey, came along. Johnnie Walker and his family, and my brother Brendan McMullan joined us for parts of the trip too. Despite some bad sunburns we had a great time, camping along the river, telling stories, and feeling free. We made a pretty lengthy video during and after our trip documenting some of the legends we made up, imagined alternative histories of Willimantic, and such. If you’d like to screen the video, let us know, we can arrange something. For the final phase of the project click on to Weighing Anchor.
This project in downtown New Haven, Connecticut, ran April through September of 2007. It consisted of a variety of activities centered around a public space called The Lot, sponsored by Artspace. I worked in collaboration with various people around the city who have some relationship to the space, to develop interactive projects to place there. The space is an empty lot that was converted by the city transit department and the local non-profit arts organization (Artspace) into a bus stop/public art exhibition space/public park hybrid. We kept asking ourselves, or at least I kept asking myself, what could we put in this space that would be of some use to the people that pass through this space day to day, waiting for the bus, or whatever. The projects included the following…
The Corner Library, a small lending library built in a waterproofed shed for sharing books and other information:
A small vegetable and herb garden, the Lot Garden Plot:
The Citizens’ Collection Cabinet, which was a shed for the public display of small objects:
A wall of homemade and found musical instruments called Elm City Sound Relief:
The Black and White Wall for Writing, which provided a legal site for graffiti:
The creation of A Lot in Our Lives included collaboration and input from many people. Frank Brescia, Robert Hurd, Henry Loomis, John Singer, Steve Tarquino and Kristina Zallinger co-produced the “Elm City Sound Relief” and collaborated on the design and production of the four hand-painted banners on display. Other artists from Artship of Fellowship Place were also involved in brainstorming and preliminary discussions. Frank Brescia, Henry Loomis and Kristina Zallinger also contributed their energies to “The Lot Garden Plot.” George Newman and I collaborated on “The Citizens’ Collection Cabinet,” which also received input from Huong Ngo and Ted Efremoff. George also worked on the freestanding black and white wall for writing, as did members of Artspace’s Teen Docents program. There have been other contributors who wished to remain anonymous, and many people who changed and added to the projects once they were installed whose names are unknown to me.
Thanks also to Artspace Staff, Carol Brown of the New Haven Free Public Library, Cathy Edwards from the Festival of Arts and Ideas, Cassandra Tucker and Sue Spight of Fellowship Place, and to Mario Luigi Ruggiero of the Artistic Salon on Chapel Street, for inspiration and consultation.
The New York Times wrote about the project, read it here: Steal that Book, Bash that Drum
This was a project I organized with Ted Efremoff. We built this boat in Willimantic, Connecticut, in three weeks. It is a wooden lapstrake canoe with a canvas sail. It was built with the help and participation of about 100 people from the local area.
Several people got so involved that it really became a team and community-building project. The guys in this picture (Sean, Pat and Fred) worked long days with us, contributed ideas and talents, and generally took group ownership over the work. It was unexpected for that to happen, and wonderful.
You see, we had set up the gallery as an open workshop. We got tools and materials together and established hours that anyone could come in off the street and help us figure out how to build this thing. The response was impressive, due in part to some excellent press coverage by Brenda Sullivan from the Broadcaster. We didn’t have any experience building boats before we started, but somehow through trial and error we figured it out together.
Our boat debuted at the local Third Thursday Street Festival on October 19. We had built a cart to haul it on, and a bunch of us pulled it through the street. After dark, there was a video projected on the sail of the Willimantic River. The river runs parallel to Main Street, where we were walking, and is seen by many as an important and underused feature of the town. Willimantic is a classic old New England mill town, down on its luck. Our project was in part striving to create a symbol and a focus for people to help build community and direct attention to the resources at hand.
Emmett, Brendan and Fred crewed the boat’s maiden water voyage on May 7, 2007, at Mansfield Hollow Lake.
At first, the boat was much too light and didn’t sit right in the water, so we filled the bottom with some rocks that happened to be ready and waiting for us there by the shore. This ballast corrected the problem beautifully and it made us feel like we were using the old ways.
Ted, Johnny and Sean look on here as the boys prepare to shove off.
After we saw that no one had drowned on the first trip, everyone wanted to take a spin. On the right of this picture you can see the steer-bar we built to direct the course of our craft.
Here are the six of us, the main shipwrights. From left: Pat, Johnny, Fred, Sean, Ted and Colin.
The wind was gusty and unpredictable, but a few of us couldn’t resist the temptation to test out the sail. We rigged the boat and tested the ropes while on shore.
As you can see, it worked just fine.
We took the boat on a trip down the Connecticut River in June of 2008, spreading Legends of Willimantic as we went.
One time I wheat pasted some signs up advertising to find collaborators. I had this idea that I wanted to get a group of strangers to work together on something and see what would happen.
So that was how I met Kim, Christine, and Freeland. They responded to the advertising, and we agreed on a day that we would spend working together. I had this temporary studio space at the time that was on ground level in lower Manhattan, provided by LMCC. So we got into this whole thing of trying to get people to come inside when they passed by the window.
I had previously made this phone outside the studio that allowed people passing by to talk to people on the inside – basically like an intercom. That studio was where I became friends with Huong Ngo too, we kind of made the phone together. So with Freeland, Kim and Christine, we sort of got into tying cookies and stuff onto the scaffolding outside the window and writing notes and telling people to take the food.
At the same time, we had collected all this junk that was being thrown out in the trash on the surrounding streets. So we used it to make a kind of fort/art installation/clubhouse/??? inside the studio space. When people took a cooie or whatever we would invite them to come back and visit us when the fort was done.
I don’t think anyone really came back, except maybe Kim’s friend, but it was pretty fun making it and playing together for the day.
Here is a video showing a version of the project performed in Somerville, MA, at a street festival, in 2006. Thanks to Jamie Rinaldi for the camerawork.
This project started as one aspect of my elaborate MFA thesis exhibition, A Work of Art, in 2005. It continued as a portable system for one-on-one collaborations with strangers for several years afterwards.
I made a kit of tools that resembled a shoeshine’s setup, which I used to make relief prints from wooden cubes that were carved and engraved on all six sides with images and text. Sometimes I set it up on the sidewalk in New York or Boston. Once I took it on the plane to Berlin, Germany for a performance art show.
Sometimes I did it as a mute, not speaking, but using gestures and images to communicate. Other times I would converse freely, and try to get people to tell me stories while we did the work together. There was an intimacy to the situation that made some people uncomfortable, while others seemed to be overjoyed at being served by an artist on his hands and knees. By creating the situation I was aligning my work as an artist with other working class occupations, in an attempt to critique the elitist pretensions of the art world, and reclaim the artist’s rightful place in solidarity with working class movements of resistance to labor exploitation.
This was a banner drop I did on a parking garage in 2003, trying to create a blank, neutral, unspecified, and therefore disturbing message. I was thinking about and documenting the way American flags were being displayed on overpasses, construction sites, homes, and gas stations around that time, as the Terror War was getting going after 9/11/01. I made a short super 8 film about it. This action of hanging the banner was an attempt to complicate the conversations that were going on, which seemed to be all about choosing sides. The phrase “These Colors Don’t Run” has been used as a patriotic slogan for many years, in reference to national integrity and pride as embodied in an enduring, bright flag. My flag was colorless, blank, white on white.
One time I custom made a couple of signs for an empty sign post that had been sitting there for years with nothing on it. It was in front of the human resources building at the University of Connecticut, and across the street from a prison. The signs sparked some discussion among university employees through an interesting misreading and coincidence of timing. It was placed on a Friday, one week after Thanksgiving. The previous week university staff had been given the day immediately after the holiday (Friday) off work, for the first time ever. So people were worried that the phrase “Today is a Work Day” might seem like a (rather absurd) authoritative admonishment to employees, something along the lines of, “You had last Friday off but that doesn’t mean you have every Friday off, make sure you are at work today.” My signs were removed and eventually, through my having drawn attention to it, so was the signpost.
I ran a life sized board game for a couple of days, working with some other people, back in 2001. The path was marked off with colored duct tape and we had these big dice. This was on my college campus when I was an undergraduate, and the idea of the project had to do with a critical attitude toward choosing a career and finding success in life. The game itself was all about being a kid. There were tasks you had to complete to advance along, things like making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in 10 seconds, or coloring in a coloring book. Doing this project I started thinking more seriously about engaging creatively in public life, and it was the first time I used the Emcee C.M. moniker. So for me personally it was about choosing that as my game (and by “that” I mean this: what I still do now and whatever this website is all about).
This was the first public action I ever organized, back in 2000, and it has stayed with me as an example of a successful project and influenced a lot of the other things I’ve done since. I made this wooden machine out of shipping crates and cable spools with a support frame. A group of friends and I pushed it around disrupting traffic, and then rode it down a big hill. There were no brakes to speak of, so we were worried about hitting something or somebody, but in the end it was fine, and actually that was a little disappointing!