Wednesday, July 3, 2013

making meaning

During the performance "The Trash Project" in Austin in 2009
“Art-making is an experiment in conjuring up the possibilities that are hidden in the habitual and the familiar.”

I thought of this line from Harvard’s 2008 report called “A Vision for the Arts” while watching the film “Trash Dance.”

A documentary directed by Andrew Garrison and featuring choreographer Allison Orr, “Trash Dance” takes its name from a project Orr created in 2009 featuring employees and vehicles from Austin’s Solid Waste Services Department. Orr spent a year with the men and women who collected garbage, dead animals, and recyclable material. She accompanied them on their routes, asked them questions about their lives, and learned about the multiple jobs they held and talents they possessed.  She wanted to both learn about the people “who pick up my trash” and make a performance that shed light on their unique lives, movements, and skills. Their show, called “The Trash Project,” happened only one time on an abandoned airport runway in Austin for an audience of a couple thousand people. Thanks to Garrison’s film, thousands more are now viewing highlights of that evening as well as the poignant and at times hilarious moments that led to its creation.

This is one way to describe the film I watched at the AFI Silver last week, but it fails to capture the many ideas and questions that it set in motion. Orr is both a gifted listener and a personable, charismatic leader, traits that enrich her process and her creations. One of the first scenes shows her interacting with the employees as she describes “The Trash Project” to a large group of men. Orr’s enthusiasm and sincerity pose a stark contrast to their suspicion and disbelief. As she perseveres, the men shift as well. Ultimately her cast consists of 24 men and women and 16 of their vehicles. Before we see their performance, Garrison’s cameras follow them through their routes as well as their daily lives: we see a single father raising a young girl, a woman’s passion for boxing, and Orr trying to explain to some employees what contemporary dance is after they ask if she dances ballet. Her reply is, “It’s done barefoot.” In a director’s statement Garrison writes: “Orr told me 90% of her job, at first, is to listen to people. Not just observing their movements, but hearing their concerns—about their family, about work and how they view the world. At this point I knew that if she actually did that, there would be a film.”
performers bow at the end of "The Trash Project"
“Trash Dance” is a stunning film, and the night in Silver Spring when I saw it, people in the theater spanned several generations. In some ways the crowd the film attracts can be as eclectic as the people in the movie itself. I started to wonder if this was one of Orr’s goals: to explore how a performance can open up different ways of getting to know one another, of listening to stories, and of fostering a sense of connection. As she writes in her choreographer’s statement: “I wanted to make a dance that offered a more fully human picture of the people who work as ‘trash men,’ and I wanted the audience and the performing employees to feel more connected to each other once the performance was over.”

There are moments in the performance that are breathtaking: a crane that emerges from a vehicle operated by Don Anderson rises like a snake emerging from a charmer’s basket. Anderson works the machinery with the grace and precision of an origami maker folding a sheet of paper. His duet with the vehicle transforms the apparatus into a flying crane, stunning and dramatic.  Another highlight of the performance is a solo by Anthony Phillips, a Litter Abatement employee whose dancing fuses Fred Astaire with Lil Buck.

Orr discovers workers’ talents that go far beyond physical dexterity: she incorporates a harmonica solo by Orange Jefferson that nearly stops the show. In each of these moments – by Anderson, Phillips, and Jefferson – I’m intrigued by the contrast between the strength of the men (the film shows them executing their professional duties) and the delicacy of these gems they perform in Orr’s event. As a choreographer, Orr brilliantly sheds light on the multifaceted nature of these people who perform with such virtuosity both on the job as they synchronize their routes and tasks, and off-duty when they pursue other forms of creative expression.

In one of the closing scenes of the film, after the performance has been seen by 2,000+ people, a truck drives through a neighborhood and we see one of the workers, a performer from Orr’s show, waving vigorously to some residents. Did the family recognize her from “The Trash Project” or is this an example of the deeper appreciation for all sanitation workers after attending Orr’s creation? Maybe the specific answer is not as important as considering the broader impact of and traces left by such a project. In fact one of the last songs on the soundtrack of the film is Graham Reynolds’ “We Left a Lasting Impression.”

What is a lasting impression?

Orr’s process challenges concepts of public art that tend towards discreet and tangible objects, like a beautiful sculpture placed in a neighborhood to uplift residents and visitors. Her project makes me think about Thomas Hirschhorn’s current “Gramsci Monument” in the Forest Houses development in the South Bronx. For a year Hirschhorn has worked closely with residents to build and enjoy a plywood structure that will serve as a platform for lectures, concerts, and art programs. In Sunday’s New York Times, Hirschhorn is quoted: “I tell them, ‘This is not to serve your community per se, but it is to serve art, and my reasons for wanting to do these things are purely personal artistic reasons.’ My goal or my dream is not so much about changing the situation of the people who help me, but about showing the power of art to make people think about issues they otherwise wouldn’t have thought about.”

Like Orr’s "Trash Project," Hirschhorn’s monuments rely on commitment from participants. For the “Gramsci Monument” these are residents of the South Bronx and the Times article traces their path from “suspicious bemusement to grudging recognition to near-wholesale emotional ownership of the project, even older residents who initially complained that it looked like a shanty rising in their yard.” A similar trajectory is seen in the film “Trash Dance,” from Orr’s initial description of the project to a room full of employees who appear non-committal at best to workers making suggestions about how she can choreograph certain scenes they will perform.

But Orr’s tactics make her performance quite different from Hirschhorn’s work (the “shanty” description is apt) or that of other social practice artists. Her performance is gorgeously presented, synchronized and harmonious, with performers making planned entrances and exits that offer visually elegant pictures. Aesthetically it is stunning, even if Orr says early on in the film that making a precise and wonderful dance is not her main goal. She is more interested in what this experience allows both performers and audiences to consider about the people who serve and sustain their communities. 

Unlike the performance, the film "Trash Dance" provides a glimpse into Orr’s process: indeterminate, patient, thoughtful, and deeply invested in her performers as people. We hear about and see the challenges they face: assumptions and stereotypes about their work being mindless, disgusting, or easy. These scenes made me think of other projects, like Living Dance Studio’s “Dance with Farm Workers” or Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s “Touch Sanitation” of 1978. Scholar Shannon Jackson describes in “Social Works” how Ukeles had conversations with sanitation workers and wrote down all the hateful names they had heard. She then transcribed these on “long panels of two-story glass windows,” and invited 190 guests “representing all sectors of society to wash the names off” as sanitation workers watched. Dr. Jackson writes that Ukeles’s role as an artist has blurred with “that of the engineer, the policy advocate, the cultural administrator, the educator, and the curator,” a list that could perhaps be applied to Orr as well.  While Ukeles’s tactics may be more direct, her project embodies ideas that are similar to Orr’s: to raise awareness and present a more human picture of labor and laborer. Jackson writes about social practice as a field:

“It is my contention that some socially engaged art can be distinguished from others by the degree to which they provoke reflection on the contingent systems that support the management of life.”

An artist’s ability to provoke reflection – whether through a magnificent performance by sanitation workers, a ramshackle building in a South Bronx development, or the act of washing away insults – is the factor that distinguishes public art from other projects. In “Artistic Citizenship” Randy Martin offers one definition for the term public art: “a vehicle of connection, a means to realize and recognize the commons, a medium for people to gather together to reflect on the very idea of being together. In a world where privacy is typically bound up with a sense of security and where going out in public is conventionally oriented toward commerce, art would treat civic activity, the desire to be critically engaged, as an end in itself.”

This seems to answer the question about lasting impressions: there are projects that not only recognize the past or the present but also allow us to think differently about the future. And this is what the Harvard Task Force on the Arts decided in its report: art-making is essential because it opens possibilities.

“Art-making is an experiment in conjuring up the possibilities that are hidden in the habitual and the familiar. The practice of art is for this reason akin to prophecy: however much it is embedded in the past, its rules and conventions and traditions, its deepest commitment is to the future.”


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. hi you all- re-writing my comment here because I had so many darn typos before! So- thank you! Thank you from the bottom of my heart. For taking the time to write this and for being so darn insightful and smart. I think this is some of the best writing I have seen about Trash Dance. I am very grateful- and learned more about my work reading your thoughts. I would love to learn more about who you are and what else you all do. So stay in touch and THANK YOU! much love, Allison