Go Deeper

Notes on “Notes on the Emptying of a City”: An Interview with Ashley Hunt

Posted September 10th, 2012

You may have noticed that we’ve been spreading our wings a bit, and wrapping them around visual and performance art more than ever before. At the 2012 Live Arts Festival, Los Angeles-based artist, Ashley Hunt, will perform Notes on the Emptying of a City for one evening only, September 11th at 7:00 pm (tomorrow!) at the Broad Street Ministry. And it’s a free event. After the jump, Theresa Rose, our visual arts program director, talks to Ashley Hunt about the project.

Why is the show titled Notes on the Emptying of a City?
“Notes” because the piece is made up of sketches and snippets and remembrances, joined together through montage; “The Emptying of a City” because that’s what the piece is really about—an emptying of a city of people, memories, rights, homes, and of access to democratic political processes. It is an emptying that’s analogous to the state of many communities in the U.S. and beyond, in which people are dehumanized through poverty and racism; much of which stems from earlier “emptyings,” such as the mass inner city divestment that accompanied white flight in the decades following World War II, abandoning inner city economies, institutions and livelihoods.

What was the inspiration for this piece?
I remember arriving back in Los Angeles after being in post-Katrina New Orleans, moving from that traumatized, militarized space to a space of relative comfort; from a space of catastrophe to a space of insulation, and feeling the impossibility of communicating that contradiction to anyone. You might say that that was the first stirring of this performance—questioning how to negotiate that contradiction in myself, finding ways to talk about it to others, trying to pierce that separation, asking what the ethics and responsibilities of the situation were and what art could have to do with it. Before that however, the initial kernel of motivation came from watching Hurricane Katrina news coverage at home in Los Angeles, glued to my TV and the web, coverage that was as paralyzing as it was relentless. When I was then invited to join a delegation of activists and advocates who were traveling to New Orleans to see what had happened at the Orleans Parish Prison—which the Sheriff had refused to evacuate—it gave me a way to act, rather than just watch. But formally, the idea for a performance came much later, some time after having developed my material into an activist documentary as part of an amnesty campaign, and then trying to work that material into a format that would allow for more reflective experiences. Then during an artist talk I decided to experiment live with my materials—narration and images, approximating what a film would wind up looking like—and it was during that presentation that I realized how important that being live was to this work, realizing I had stumbled across the right form.

Being an activist and having worked directly and on a grassroots level for multiple causes, how is artistic activism different for you?
This might sound less off the cuff, perhaps because I teach full-time and talk about this a lot, but I see art and activism as activities that are much more tightly bound to each other and overlapping in their histories than some like to consider. There are formal disciplines that keep these activities separated out, with institutions and individuals who have investments in clarifying and policing the boundaries between them; but for me and growing numbers of socially engaged artists, art and activism are overlapping fields in which people assert their right to make and re-make the world, creating models that imagine what is possible other than what’s before us—where the point is less about disciplines and taxonomies, what is and isn’t art, and more about tool-sets, what that “making of the world” will consist of, and what a world-to-come will be. My approach to the subject matter of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans has been shaped by this thinking, where the first thing I produced was a short film that could addressed these urgencies (“I Won’t Drown on that Levee and You Ain’t Gonna’ Break My Back”), distributed for free and able to travel with ease in the midst of an activist campaign. “Notes on the Emptying of a City,” however, evolved to provide the kind of time for contemplation that wasn’t possible or really appropriate in that urgent moment, and it tries to reopen this history to the present—a present that has already forgotten much of what we started to learn during that time.

How did you choose the relatively neutral setting of a slideshow/narrative to tell these very personal stories?
I like the way that it looks like someone working at their desk and foregrounds the presence of writing, with the tools of a stripped down presentation—perhaps that of a documentarian, a journalist or an artist. More primary than what it looks like however is the structure of the piece and its use of time—which for me translates into a form of cinema or what I’ve been thinking of as a dismantled film. To me the piece is a documentary or essay film broken up into its bare parts, parts that are negotiated and edited together in real time. So the visual setting is also a minimal form of staging that allows that real-time presentation to take place, and with a formal understatement that I hope allows the weight of the material to be felt more deeply.

Is this a difficult piece to perform, emotionally?
I don’t find it difficult. As I said before, it’s a piece that’s born out of the need to communicate an incredibly layered and complicated experience to others, and in that way, I find it energizing. I’m incredibly grateful to the audiences that form around it, and that there are people to share this with. There’s a quiet but potentially powerful emotion to the piece, and when I feel that begin to affect an audience it feels empowering, like we’re charging our batteries for actions yet to come. This is also why the performance aspect of it is important, for it requires me to be present, accountable to that audience for my work and the challenging things I’m offering up. That said, the relevance of the piece may outlast my ability to travel it around, so I am also looking to how these values might be achieved without my presence, allowing the piece to live with something of this ethic intact.

How do audiences react?
Every time I perform this piece I make sure we have a substantial amount of time for conversation afterwards, in fact I consider this a part of the piece itself and insist upon this with its presenters—who I am glad to say have always been very supportive of this. In some ways, I consider this conversation the ultimate point of the performance, rather than something additional or ancillary to it. There are a lot of questions that people have after the performance, and there are questions that I have—specifically in terms of what local memories and histories are summoned by the stories I present, how these things change from place to place and how they might relate to one another.

Can you explain how your performance differs from city to city?
From city to city, the way that the performance differs is according to who shows up, what issues and experiences they bring along with them, and how the context of the local place shapes the meanings of the piece. This comes out most clearly during the discussion, through the kinds of things that the audience wants to talk about—highlighting how one place differs from another, but also revealing how the challenges from place to place translate from one place to another. For example, I just performed this piece in Turkey, and during the Q and A, people asked me to talk about gentrification in the U.S., because it is a huge issue in Istanbul, and from what they said, it seems to work in exactly the same way, despite the geographic and national differences. In terms of Philadelphia, I’m not sure what the response will be. But I do know that Philadelphia is a city that has had decades of vibrant responses to social inequalities and challenges, and has many problems that resonate with the same social conditions that precipitated the scale of Katrina’s disaster in New Orleans. So I hope we are able to have a good discussion about this and will see where people want to take it.

Your event will take place on September 11th at the Broad Street Ministry. Is the date and location significant for you?
In terms of location, I’m excited about the diverse group of people who make up the community of the Broad Street Ministry, a place that isn’t dedicated just to art, but which has a larger, committed social relationship to its surrounding communities. In this way, it’s important for me that the performance is presented in places that are accessible to as many walks of life as possible — meaning it’s a place that multiple communities see as a place for them and that the performance is free; and I’ve been lucky enough to have had incredibly supportive, sensitive and skillful people helping with the programming for this festival, so that this has become a the case.

As far as the date of September 11th is concerned, we chose this date specifically once we knew the festival would be around that time. This choice is significant to me because it has become a day where we reflect upon what it means to be American, what it means to be human, and what the role of government should be. The ways that the events of September 11, 2001 have changed our world over the last eleven years are profound, so much so that it continues to cast a shadow over these same foundational questions of how we live—how we want to live our lives and how we live with others, and how we define and pursue our ideas of freedom.

Hurricane Katrina was an event that spoke just as loudly however, and it complicated the post-9/11 narrative that, by that time, had become dominant. By 2005, what had been incredibly tragic, brave and noble about the events of September 11th and its unifying communitarian responses had been exploited politically and divided the country; we lost any critically minded relationship to what this history might mean and instead, it had become associated with the U.S. thinking it is above the law internationally, about abuses of power and a loss of moral authority, while a triumph at home masked many of the devastating inequities that continued to fester in so many of our communities. Katrina exposed these contradictions, casting a bright light on the persistence of racial and economic inequality, and how the narrow focus on security through force — through military solutions alone — can undermine our security socially, pulling resources away from the pillars of our social health and the infrastructure of our daily institutions and possibilities.

These questions are just as important today, as Hurricane Isaac bore down on Louisiana, where some infrastructural investment seems to be protecting much of New Orleans better, while some surrounding communities are clearly suffering from some of the same lack of infrastructure that had exacerbated Katrina’s effects; as well as the 2012 election coming up, where neither political party seems willing or able to speak one bit about poverty, the poor who make up growing numbers among us, or actual structural inequality. So whether the date of the performance puts people in a more reflective mood, or if the date comes up in a more direct manner during the discussion, I will be happy to see how we can indeed create a space for people to speak and reflect on these questions.

Notes on the Emptying of a City runs for one night only, September 11, at the Broad Street Ministry, 315 South Broad Street, Center City. 7:00 pm, free!

–Theresa Rose