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Breathing Life into the Bubble

May 25, 2012 | by SUSAN ROBB

I was six, it was the 1970s, and I lived in southeastern Connecticut. My world consisted of riding bikes, climbing things, swimming in the summer, skating in the winter and dancing to AM radio. I was bored.

I began creating unusual situations to amuse myself and my friends. The first arose from necessity. We needed chewing gum, and we needed it bad. I hatched a scheme for us to take turns knocking on strangers’ doors: “Hi, we’re on a scavenger hunt and the only thing left on our list is a stick of gum.”

Back then I was struggling to determine whether I was a tiger or an Indian brave. After some negotiation, I convinced my mom to sew me a tiger costume, which I was somehow allowed to wear to school—occasionally in combination with a feathered headdress and a bow and arrows I fashioned from sticks. My identity issues coincided with the bicentennial fervor that gripped Connecticut, one of the “13 original colonies.” Colonial Americana had taken over the curriculum of my grammar school and my class was instructed to sew either a bonnet (for the girls) or a tri-cornered hat (for the boys). Way too embarrassed to be seen in Pilgrim gear, there I was, the transgendered Native American tiger girl among 13 kids dressed in mid-1700s period costume.

A few years later, on one lazy, hazy day of the interminable New England summer, I raided my parents’ storage closet and my dad’s workbench, this time constructing cobwebs from electrical wire and making costumes of long wool winter coats, un-mated shoes, stuffed animals, enormous ’70s sunglasses and dust masks. Thus attired, my friend Rebecca and I went knocking on neighbors’ doors introducing ourselves as Which One and Which Two, and celebrating a new holiday, July-o-ween. This boredom-borne fun positively engaged my neighbors. The unscripted moment took people by surprise, activating the humid afternoon with genuine pleasure. People gave us popsicles, vegetables from their gardens, slices of pizza. They invited us inside—except for Mrs. Rosa, a 90-year-old woman who lived alone. She called the police.

My search for authentic moments went on. Prank calls (an easy way to reach out to strangers in the days before caller ID). Bands where the only instruments were kitchen gadgets. A radio show. Driving around after an ice storm. Driving around during a hurricane. A shaving cream pool party. (There’s a particular beauty produced from jumping off a diving board while squirting shaving cream in the air—and from your dad’s anger after you totally eff’d up the pool.)

These attempts to breathe life into the bubble of a suburban environment were my version of sketchbook drawings, the genesis of the art I make today. They were early forays into “relational aesthetics” or “socially engaged art”—a practice intent on creating a social environment for a shared activity, usually on a real scale, in real time.

These days I envision these shared environments as opportunities to create itinerant utopias in the fissures of the contemporary landscape. In late January’s ONN/OF “a light festival,” for example, the alienating glom of Seattle’s winter became an occasion to celebrate light, warmth and art in an unused sweater factory turned community space. In The Long Walk—a project where I lead 50 people on a four-day, 45-mile walk through the cities, suburbs, farmlands and forests of Western Washington—I repurpose the King County Trails System as studio and performance space. I facilitate a transformation of participants into a roving think tank as they discuss the meaning of home and the pace of contemporary life.

Unlike a traditional studio based practice, socially engaged art doesn’t depict something. It is what it is, “the country itself as its own map.” Unlike orthodox studio art, socially engaged work is made in public, involving others and exposing the artist in the process. Social practice is sometimes tied to Marxism and social praxis. For me, it’s more like a meditation or yoga practice; each work opens an opportunity for me to explore the contours of people, places and our search for a more perfect world.

But utopia can be a difficult, and risky, concept for a young artist to comprehend. The summer before junior year of high school, the monotony of cruising the half-mile boardwalk, aimlessly driving around, and watching punk rock shows at the VFW hall had deepened my teenage ennui. One night after some skeeball at the beach, I came up with a plan: My friend Katie and I would conduct an ocean-side séance. We called out to passers-by and soon attracted 13 willing participants to engage in the goth arts for $5 apiece.

We brought the group to the water’s edge. With the sound of lapping waves and screams of delight from a nearby amusement park, I instructed the coven to sit in a circle facing each other and close their eyes. I remained outside the circle and gave a series of improvised instructions and asked the group to remain still, with their eyes shut. I could sense their excitement and trust and I had no idea what to do next. I can’t recall whether I just hadn’t thought this part through, or what my intention was, but I only saw one way out: Exit. Now. I motioned to Katie, and while our circle was communing with the dead, we took off toward the car and drove, hell-bent and 65 bucks richer, to Pizzarama. And then, “Shit, what have I done?”

Then and there, I recoiled from art as outright theft. But the artist as trickster, born of that New England summer ennui, continued to use the magical, transformative powers of social practice as the key to an elusive utopia—only without the scam.

Susan Robb is an artist based in Seattle. She will lead The Long Walk July 26–29. Registration begins June 20.

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