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Just wrong enough: How swinging inside an ArtPrize house creates community

As a facilitator of volunteers and volunteer myself for Kate Gilmore's "Higher Ground," my turns on the swing brought a surprising combination of power dynamics, physical duress, intimacy with strangers, and even monotony.
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Let's swing

Volunteers are still needed to take a turn swinging to animate this piece.

Sign up for your turn at swinging in "Higher Ground" here.

/Henri Droski

In the past week I've had the curious experience of acting as a performer in Kate Gilmore's installation "Higher Ground", at SiTE:LAB's Rumsey Street Project. An entire house on the site of Rumsey Street has been transformed to accommodate a performance that can be seen throughout the duration of ArtPrize 7. The outside of the house is painted pink, and at night, the house glows as feet poke out the windows, back and forth from the women on swings inside.

There were few directions for the performers: wear the white dress and red shoes provided, do not engage with the viewers and swing at an easy gentle pace. She recommended shifts of one hour. Gilmore's age and demeanor do not give any sense of her extensive accomplishments. I thought it was remarkably generous of Gilmore to provide so few criteria, and trust that we'd execute the project according to her expectations. 

Kate Gilmore is a New York-based video, performance and installation artist whose video performances first gained notice around 2005. Gilmore’s Rumsey Street project includes some of the characteristic elements of her performance work, including identically dressed female performers engaged in repetitive activities. Typically the actions and costumes are informed by the particular history or context of the space in which the performance is staged. You may have seen "Love 'em, Leave 'em" at The Morton for ArtPrize 2014.

Based on feedback, adjustments were made to the swings, additional information was included for the volunteers in the staging area, and I was instructed to swing less emphatically. Swinging indoors is like jumping on the bed or putting a couch in the yard for a party. Just wrong enough. The truth is, it's hard to swing with abandon for a full hour. It requires more stamina than you'd expect, and indoors there's too much to crash into.

The first impromptu dress rehearsal took place at the opening arranged for the neighborhood residents. After watching for a while, a woman inquired if she could try, so I popped off the swing to let her in and run her through the rules as she got into the costume. As she left she indicated that she worked at a nearby medical clinic, and that she was going to encourage colleagues to participate. 

Friday night was the official opening party of the Rumsey Street Project, and we really wanted all swings to be full, particularly since the time-based juror was expected to visit the site. My daughter and I were scheduled for an hour, but started a little earlier. When several people from the next shift failed to appear, we continued, along with a few steadfast volunteers who had already put-in more time than anticipated. The live music, at first a relief from the tedium, drew people away from the house. It became dark, people came less frequently and seemed unaware we could hear what they were saying. After swinging for several hours, I started to feel ridiculous, grumpy, and vaguely nauseous. Also, the top of my thighs were getting sore, and my butt was getting numb. How could an activity that started-out fun turn into something so unpleasant? Although it broke with protocol, I decided to contact a friend I'd seen earlier from my perch.

"If you send relief swingers," I texted in desperation, "I'll clean your house."

Minutes later, a fleet of women appeared. Some were female SiTE:LAB volunteers, others persuaded to temporarily abandon the festivities, and my friend, with a friend in tow. There was hasty undressing, re-dressing, and barely time to express adequate gratitude before the fresh "Gilmore ladies" ran to occupy vacant swings just moments before the juror arrived. To my astonishment, friends and strangers cheerfully and graciously delivered.

Normally I'm almost irrational when it comes to asking for help, so I've been surprised at how assertively I've been recruiting volunteers, promoting the performance, and enforcing rules. I would never do this in the interest of my own art project. Admittedly, as a ploy to encourage students to participate, I emphasized Gilmore's status in the art world, but it seems that most people want to participate because it looks fun, and it is. 

There were many paradoxes presented in the undertaking of this performance piece. Involvement included revelations about power dynamics, boundaries, and community. For example, the artist relinquished control, but it was challenging to adhere to the limited rules she'd provided, either due to gaffs in communication with participants, or because of the physically taxing nature of the activity over time. Performers are not allowed to engage with anyone while visible, but there's a curious bonding and intimacy that occurs as the result of having engaged in the activity together. Propriety is necessarily crossed in some ways. Ignoring visiting friends seems rude, but then you find yourself disrobing in the company of strangers (or a student). Swinging inside a house is erratic and fun, but we're not supposed to look like we're having fun. The house invites attention with color and light, but viewers are not allowed inside. These many paradoxes contribute to the layered interpretation of Gilmore's piece. 

My second stint on the swing was more serene: it was daytime, I paced myself and found the movement accompanied by the creak of the ropes, almost meditative. Although the zen ethos eventually led to boredom, by that time my shift was over, and I soon forgot, however the experience of working with the community and contributing to such an engaging piece remained.

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