I think every artist, at some point, wonders "should I be doing something else with my life?" We spend all our time and energy in creating something for entertainment, and the Chinese upbringing in me thinks "with the time you spent in music school, you could be a doctor by now". "You could be helping people."
And I have argued with myself, over and over again, that making art does help people. That it serves the purpose of healing the soul.
So when the protests in Capitol Hill suddenly shifted into a community-care, non-policed, social experiment - my brain immediately thought: "What skills do I have that could help people in this movement?"
So I decided to make art.
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On June 13, 2020, I set up a table and a tent in Cal-Anderson park, next to/inside the CHAZ/CHOP. Myself, alongside artists Em Piro, Casey Middaugh, and Daniel Husser set up an interactive sound/art table. I should mention that I was the only POC out of the group.
The concept of the piece was simple. If you have an idea that you would like to amplify, write it on a label, and pick a bell, and attach it. If you would like to amplify someone else's idea, ring that bell. We hoped to gather as many thoughts as possible by the end.
Initial responses to our table was quite slow. The first person to come up to us was a young black man who listened to our idea, and then announced "Oh, so this is about you then" and walked away. Admittedly, we were disheartened from the get-go. The entire purpose of the table was to decenter our own ideas and raise the ideas of others. It felt like an attack, that maybe we deserved. Why should we put our non-black bodies in this space at all? Could non-black artists participate in this movement?
Slowly, but surely, people began coming up and asking "what is this? how can I participate?"
A few that stood out in my mind:
A young black hijabi woman came up and spent a great deal of time thinking of what she wanted to say. She carefully picked out the perfect bell for her idea - attached her message, and rang the bell. She thanked us - saying that she really needed this moment to think and reflect, that the entire concept was so beautiful.
Two black moms and three little black girls came up to the table - the girls wanted to ring EVERY bell. Once they knew what it was for, each one wanted to write multiple labels and pick out the perfect bell for each. The table was a site of excited giggles and spontaneous chimes.
A older white man came to the table with his wife, saying that he had heard Sean Hannity on the radio about the CHAZ and didn't know what to believe so he came to see it for himself. He was also going to tell his family (based in Alaska) about what he saw, which was community care, art, and compassion . He and his wife both wrote messages for the bells about peace and understanding.
An older black gentleman came to the table to talk to us for a while - and eventually exclaimed that we were doing it "exactly right" - he then dictated to us what he wanted on his bell, which is what he described our art as "Participating joyfully in the sorrows of this world".
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One young black man stood out in our experience in a slightly terrifying way. He approached the table while slightly swaying - his mind was not entirely there - and then he grabbed our sign and started to walk away. Daniel, and Em went to try to get him to bring it back. He became confrontational - flipping over the table next to ours (I was standing at our table to make sure he didn't flip ours as well), and started to single Daniel out. He yelled "hit me, hit me" while (weakly) hitting at Daniel and headbutting him. Daniel stayed beautifully calm, saying "I'm not gonna hit you, what's your name man, we're gonna keep this peaceful", but the man would not stop. He eventually started to try and knock Daniel over - at which point quite a crowd had gathered. Eventually, Daniel made the decision to let him do it.
Daniel went to the ground, the man on top of him, cursing at him and spitting in his face. He started to wrap his arm around his neck - and it was at this point that the crowd (which had been watching) jumped in to remove the man from the situation and pin him down. A medic appeared out of nowhere. Luckily, Daniel was fine, but we were all shocked and horrified.
Two hours later, the man came back - slightly more lucid than the first time. He tried (in sort of round-about sentences) to explain that he did not like the way our sign was worded. He then held up the purple bell (the first picture above) - and yelled "what good does this do anyway, what is this for!" I looked him in the eye and said "that bell was written by an 8 year old girl." And he stopped.
His eyes opened. He read the label ring for peace. And slowly, he asked "this is for the kids?" I explained yes - we're here to listen to everyone's thoughts. And his whole demeanor changed. He said that we needed to be listening to children - they hadn't been influenced yet, they have the imaginations for our future.
And then, he apologized to Daniel. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. Thank you for being security." He put his hand to his chest. "Thank you for being security for me, for keeping me safe." He shook Daniel's hand, took his forehead and placed it to Daniel's hand, and left.
Once again, we were all shocked.
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For the most part, I would say that about 75% of the people who approached the table were white. This may lie with optics - seeing 3 white people and one mixed person running an art tent at a protest site wasn't likely to bring in black people for discussion.
By the time we packed up, we had gathered around 36 bell labels (and many people came by to ring the bells without writing). The pictures above are therefore a very small sample of the total (if you would like to see them all, please let me know and I'll send you the link to the photos).
There were some errors in the setup of the work - a few people thought we were selling bells (and some were disappointed that we were not). A lot of people asked what organization we were from. A few asked if they could bring us anything/if they could donate (we did not accept donations).
I am not sure whether or not it was the right work for the space. Then again, I had never tried to make an art piece in the middle of a protest before. Most of my performances are within extremely privileged spaces - spaces where many of the viewers are experimental artists, spaces where viewers expect to see art for art's sake.
The particular situation in which Daniel's health was put in danger was enough for me to say that we would not be doing this particular experiment again in the CHOP (although I should mention that by the end of the day, Daniel fully expected us to do it again the following day and saw no reason why not). Additionally, I could not get the first man out of my mind. Should all art at this time be made by black artists?
In the end, I am glad that we did it. We were able to provide something good for the ones who thanked us, who told us that they needed this work, who took the time and effort to really think about what they wanted to amplify into the universe through the chime of a bell. And as an artist, I am exceptionally used to finding satisfaction in touching the minds and hearts of the few through art rather than the many. I am still processing what more we can do in the future, and how I might help amplify the voices of others in another way.