In the month of April 2014, the Norman Arts Council in Norman, Oklahoma held stART Norman in a historical lumberyard established in the town’s beginning over 100 years ago. Artists were granted permission to temporarily reclaim the space to cultivate communal, cultural and creative “placemaking” before the yard’s demolition. Installations explored the idea of thresholds, which bring to mind new beginnings and places of sharing or exchange.
During stART, I offered a participatory performance that expanded on these concepts. People were given a map that led them to various locations in the yard, like a hay bail, the dilapidated barn, and a metal door reading “keep this door closed”. At each location, participants were asked to engage in writing or physical exercises that allowed them to orient themselves in and with the architecture and natural landscapes with conscious effectiveness.
Drawing on ideas of Fluxus’ do-it-yourself aesthetic and Yoko Ono’s Instruction Pieces, the participatory activities explored the concept of active presence—humans’ ability to physically and psychologically transform a place. This project fostered bodily, spatial, environmental, and operational awareness, as well as appreciation of our immediate surroundings. It was simultaneously playful and meditative, geared toward visitors of all ages. Holding this project in a historical site that will soon be demolished acted as a memorial to the potential and existing energies of the landscape, cityscape and structures. Members of the community who took part in the project brought their own stories and experiences to the gradual transformation.
Over time, participants’ traces marked the location’s possible futures and imagined histories. Their presence became an activator that anthropomorphized and activated an already decaying edifice. They gave story and life to the site.
At the beginning, participants were asked, “Choose something that you are willing to part with. Nail or tie it to something outside. This began the map. They were led to a wobbly set of wooden stairs that led to nothing and asked, what do you want to exist up these stairs?
In a corner where two different types of wood met, they encountered the question, what may have happened right here in the past? What could happen here in the future? Then, they were led to a permanently closed metal door with the words “Keep This Door Closed” painted on it long ago. The map sign read why is this door closed? Imagine what is on the other side.
At a bail of hay, the sign read Take a piece of hay. Put it somewhere else.
At a rusted old chair in the middle of a grassy field, the sign read Sit in this chair. Imagine where it came from, and where it will go. Try closing your eyes.
At a rusted toolbox in a dusty garage, the sign read Where did this box come from? Who touched it? Who were they?
Finally, participants were led to a large wooden barn full of wood scraps and tools and were instructed: Use these materials to build what you would like to be here. Add to the existing structures in the barn, or create your own. Participants spent an ample amount of time deconstructing and reconstructing the materials in the barn. A wire butterfly sits on a workbench; a triptych honoring the “everyman” employee of the lumber supply company hangs from the rafters, a wooden plywood horse stands just outside the barn.
Participants readily engaged in each activity, old and young alike. Whole families took part, even a mime. Speaking to the yard’s preserved essence, many people wrote stories about beloved hard-working grandparents, old proprietors, and Baptist Sunday School, perpetuating Norman’s memory and changing psyche. Up the stairs, they imagined “a telescope and a gin and tonic” and “stairs to the moon”. Behind the closed metal door “holds the things still gestating and it’s not time to reveal them yet” and “skeletons…this is my closet”.
Participants ultimately realized existing “thresholds” and created new ones, while fusing their own experiences with the lumberyard’s history. This event allowed the community to engage with the city’s forgotten place, a quiet stagnnt location almost smothered by the buzz of restaurants and shops emerging around it. By taking part in the activities, the community highlighted the relationship between old and new, land and city, and the ultimate definition of place.
Below are the participants’ written answers to the questions at each station on the map:
DARK BLUE sign: What may have happened right here in the past? What could happen here in the future? Share your thoughts on paper.
-In the past…Caught on fire
-In the future…build it up
-Time in the past
-Thinking the thoughts/thought some thoughts/se me thinking? Hear my thouhgts?
-Promises gatherings of these renewing future (word?) as awakre rises
-Lives of ordinary everyday people
-Some people havea a hard time suspending the reality they created. Where “rolling?” is possible outside their existence/ in this moment. Sometimes I am a little “towards?” them, but maybe they are onto something.
-People hung criminals it stands to remind us to be good to one another
-There was a roof. Stairs fell down. A fridge fell down. A toilet broke. (Otis—he binds this place a home).
-Teenagers having sex
-Murder most foul…
-The most epic game of cards against humanity
-Past: a barn; future: make a history museum~ (6-9 yr. olds)
-Future: children’s theatre
-A man yelling at a horse
-Envision a vibrant retail space for local artists
-A war, and maybe world peace
-I think think this was a lumberyard, I think they will build (fades out)
PINK sign: What do you want to exist up these stairs? Share your thoughts in the notebook.
-A telescope and a gin and tonic
-Shadows, whispers, light, echoes
-A very inimate night with whiskey
-A child waiting for a bedtime story
-Cabinets full of dreams
-Angles playing bocci ball
-The moon inhabited by unicorns
-A black door and bed –Otis
-Hopefully not tetanus
-Stairs to the moon!
-Stairs to heaven
-A wishing well
-The nature of life!
LIGHT BLUE sign: Why is this door closed? Imagine what is on the other side? Use the magnets to post your thoughts.
-Fear closed the door of metal and all that remains is ghost of the past
-A big jail
-An old beautiful chamber
-Fear of the unknown and the future lie behind the closed door
-Back door to a restaurant
-My sleeping bag
-The ocean she rests in. the mountains he forges. Home
-Skeletons…this is my closet
-There was never anything on the other side
-It holds the things still gestating and its not time to reveal them yet
-The future you!
-A dream ready to be awaked by those who have a vision and faith
-An evil genie bottle
-A new destiny!
-The pens that work
-Dreams and smoke
-Wonderland down the rabbit hole
-Hydraulic pressure failure
-A wicked witch
-Kitty cat. Kittens!
-The door is broke. There is a wall in the other side
-Space is on the other side. I know I peeked.
-Stairs to hell where Baal Diablo and Nephisto await for someone to open.
-MAGNET! Magnet! Mag-net! Mag…net! Magnet!
-Vulnerability and fear
-Something private: not meant for the public eye
PURPLE sign: Sit in this chair. Imagine where it came from, and where it will go. Record your thoughts. Try closing your eyes.
-This chair came from my Father’s workshop where he made banjos. His workshop was in the garage of an old military row house built in the Olbrich neighborhood right across the street rom Lake Bishop. He would make banjos from objects he found in the dumpsters behind the old habitat for humanity store. Every third Saturday at exactly 3:30 p.m., rain or shine, he would put this chair out on the lawn with six other chairs just like it, and begin to play one of the banjos. People would come to listen, take up a banjo, and play along with him as best as they could. He would also teach them how to play.
-(An Asian language I can’t transcribe!)
-from long ago found in a building
-This chair came from the back room.
-This chair has been outside for many years, it was for a long time in an auto graveyard. The proprietor “word” sat on it to fill out his make-shift receipt. When an owner of an old vehicle found a part to scavenge off of a moored vehicle. The chair had to be able to sit in rainy weather and remain usable, so its metal constriction was valued for this reason. It does not retain rainwater.
-It isn’t really important where the chair has been, but I can feel the center giving out after years of supporting the weight of too many people who hold too many troubles. Eventually every thing cracks.
-My grandparents house in the Ridge, on a summer night, waiting for the dark to bring the cool air through the door. Sitting sewing, stitching my day into colors and stillness.
-The chair belongs to serial killer and its going to a whorehouse
-This chair came from the musty basement of a Baptist church. The church burned. Only the metal chairs remained. This chair will go to a landfill and continue to rust away like its brethren.
Iron ore mined in Duluth, Minnesota turned into a mild steel in Pittsburgh. Used in a church for 20 years. Rusted outside for 15 scrapped to make new products in a year.
-This chair doesn’t know where it came from either. It’s too old to remember the little girl who sat on it in it or the teenage boy who tripped over it and broke his arm. This chair doesn’t know that the red rust on it will probably stain my blue jeans and it doesn’t know that I don’t care. This chair is too old to know that silly people are sitting on it one after another, trying to turn it into impossible metaphors. This chair is too young, still, to know. It doesn’t know any more that you do, or you it.
-The cultural hall full of tidy events and tidy people: “good” people engaging in appropriate things…sitting, and pondering the dark side of others.
-It came from Tulsa, In a historical museum
-It came from a church Sunday school class—back in the day! Going to the archives
-It probably came from star stuff since many of the elements that make up most things on earth wouldn’t exists without super nova since they weren’t created in the big bang. Yeay for dead start! Woot!
-Fireworks and not gunfire. Peace out.
YELLOW sign: Where did this box come from? Who touched it? Who were they? Share your thoughts in the notebook.
-The box came from West Virginia. It was a gift to a young woman who wanted to be an automobile mechanic. Her parents wouldn’t let her so she led a secret life as a carpenter instead.
-I knew I left my toolbox somewhere. The water did not swallow it, not the winds carry it.
-A random man gave it to me telling me he wants me to build something big that will inspire others then he disappeared. It’s for me to be an inspiration to others.
-My grandfather is the hardest working person I know. I like to imagine him with a box such as worn and used as this.
-A serial killer’s stash of weapons
-A father of two whom died of old age wanting no thing but to see his sons together like old times once again.
-The daughter of a girl named AL. She had to move a lot of his stuff
-The box came from workers. They were the ones that destroyed the house.
-Because they didn’t like it. –Otis.
-Grandpa’s shop, after the war projects started but forgotten, left in the dust
-Measure twice, cut once, measure twice, cut…
-Girl and family. vegetarian family worked