Public / Participatory Art Post #4: What I did, it turns out (Part 2)

This post shows how I answered the practical questions I recommend asking yourself if you’re designing a project in the same spirit as this one; these answers deal with the first and longest round of booth sessions, which I feel were truest to what I wanted to do.

I set up my booth in Burnside Park, opposite Kennedy Plaza, the big bus station downtown. I walk or take the bus through KP on my way to and from my job, and I sometimes wait there for buses to places I go less frequently (I did this even more when I was adjunct-teaching six classes at four different colleges). It’s on a direct line between home and work for me, and I’m often there on foot.

I chose KP for my booth because a lot of other people are there on foot, too: people who work downtown walking home, or to the bus or their parking spots; kids on their way home from school; people who don’t have good or safe places to stay spending the day in the park; people waiting for the buses that will take them to New York or Boston.

From going through there most days, I had noted it as a place where a lot of the people who share Providence or Rhode Island with me — people whose circumstances and categories differ widely — pass by, and where people are sometimes waiting. And that was who I wanted to talk with — people who lived in or came through Providence for a variety of reasons, in a variety of ways, and were themselves various in circumstance and demographic categories like age, gender, race and ability.

I wanted to be visible to passersby but not in their path for two reasons: I wanted them to be able to decide to talk with me, and I didn’t want to get in the way of people who were, for example, in a hurry to make a bus transfer. So I set up in a kind of alcove in the fence made by the entrance to Burnside Park (you can sort of see it in the picture accompanying this article). People on the sidewalk and going into the park could both see me and pass me easily.

I took up that spot on the suggestion of Jen Smith at Greater Kennedy Plaza, who directs programming in the park and helped me get the permission I needed from the city departments in charge of the area. The person who used to have her job, whom I know a bit, put me in touch with her. You may have to sniff around a little bit to find the Jen Smith equivalent in your city or neighborhood, but good places to start are the Chamber of Commerce and the Parks Department. I may have more to say about this later on because it’s a topic with lots of sidebars and ramifications. No one wanted me to pay them any money to use this spot. (I did pay a space rental fee and insurance for my spot at the Washington County Fair, $300 total.)

I opted to be there in the late afternoon/early evening, 3-6 Tuesday-Friday and 3-5 Saturday, to catch people who were coming out of school and work, as well as people in the plaza or on the move for other reasons. I limited the times each day so that I would have time to do other things, and also so that I wouldn’t burn out emotionally. Physically, I am very mobile and fairly strong, so I made my booth fully portable for two reasons: I didn’t want to have to make a structure so sturdy that it would stand up to being left outside overnight, and I didn’t want to leave it out overnight anyway in case someone took against it and decided to wreck it.

The booth, designed by me with advice from James McShane, includes a small plywood table we found on the street during our first years in Providence; a kitchen stool whose origins I have forgotten; cardboard signs made from old cartons and painted, like the table, with house paint that came with our house; dowels and a beach umbrella from Benny’s; a big newsprint pad from RISD 2nd Life (for the map of RI, to put your worries on); markers from the Brown Bookstore (to draw on the map with); three bungee cords borrowed from my mom; three big metal clips, and two small ones, borrowed from James; a fancy box I had already; thin brown and blue cardboard, lined paper and a three-ring binder from RISD 2nd Life (later I also ransacked some yard-sale pads of lined paper); a plastic poncho left over from someone’s wedding; a handtruck left over from when we moved. I probably spent about $30 on materials that were solely for the booth, but of course I bought other things, like the handtruck, at other times.

The beach umbrella was meant to help me do the booth rain or shine, but what actually happened was that when it rained, I huddled under the umbrella trying to pull its edges to simultaneously cover me and the booth while keeping it from blowing away Mary Poppins-style. Rainy days were not busy days — not because people didn’t go by but because they didn’t want to stop. Setup in the rain was okay but takedown in the rain, which happened once or twice, was hideous, because I was wrapping wet things in other wet things, stacking wet things on top of other wet things, and I myself was wet, extremely so. Also, the route to and from the site was more complicated in the rain because I had to work around puddles and clogged storm drains. After a number of chilly days (it was a chilly May) I finally learned to dress properly for the weather, especially the wind.

I also learned not to drink water before my booth shifts. I really didn’t think the bathroom thing through at all — I don’t know where I would have gone in an emergency. The main risk to the booth if I left it would, I think, have been wind — the cardboard made it into a sail — and possible hostility, though as I’ve said many times, I encountered far less hostility than I expected. Occasionally I remembered to bring a snack, and a couple of times ministering angels named Darcie Dennigan and Deb Dormody, respectively, brought one to me.

To get people to know about it, I made this site, emailed people I know about it, and started posting here about a month before I started setting up the booth. I joined Twitter and Facebook. I approached writers at the Providence Journal and the Providence Phoenix to see if they wanted to come down and write about it (they did). I put up flyers around downtown, the East Side where I work, and the West Side where I live, and a few Brown students who work on climate change mitigation and climate justice helped put up flyers as well. A lot of people who knew me, including one of those students, did come by, some to participate and some just to keep me company. A couple of people have been willing to take shifts for me — one at the Washington County Fair, one tomorrow at Providence Parking Day — but no one did this downtown. I sat there every day, 3-6 or 3-5, with my shingle hung out: THE DOCTOR IS IN.

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