Boston Creates

Boston Creates Artist-Ethnographer: Heather Kapplow

Reflections on the Evolution of “Driving Culture”

I walked into Boston Creates having no idea what form my engagement with the process was going to take. But many of my art projects are site-specific, meaning that they respond to and reflect the environment that they occur within, so I decided to develop a strategy for connecting with the Boston Creates process as if it were a site.

My initial methods sounded very odd when I first proposed them. During my first meeting with Team Leaders and the city’s new chief of arts and culture, Maria, Shaw Pong, Leo, and I introduced ourselves and described our planned first steps as “artist-ethnographers.” Others mentioned things that sounded perfectly reasonable. I was so nervous explaining that my planned starting point was to attend community engagement meetings barefoot and audio record the conversations in a manner not useful for documentation in any way!

My barefootness was inspired by exposure to professional musicians I’d seen play shoeless. I thought it would be a good method for testing whether I (or anyone) could feel truly comfortable, free to express myself, and feel accepted in these community discussions.

Technically, it was a symbolic and embodying action, in the tradition of performance art. The audio recording was meant to capture the energy and timbre of the meetings in a way that I could reflect back on while developing my final project—something tonal and intuitive to counter harder data I anticipated working with.

After that first meeting, the chief of arts and culture pulled me aside and made me promise that my project wouldn’t involve any public nudity. I hadn’t ruled out the possibility until then, but the moment foreshadowed a theme voiced repeatedly in community discussions (and which I hope I addressed by asking City employees to drive a slightly flamboyant vehicle): a culture of risk-aversion in Boston’s arts and political communities.

Participating in community meetings was complicated. I was there in an official capacity as an artist-ethnographer, but was unable to wholly set aside my opinions as an artist-citizen. What ended up anchoring me firmly in both roles simultaneously were my bare feet (which started friendly conversations in some contexts and drew unwanted attention, or possibly even caused offense, in others). These marked me as definitely not affiliated with any traditional institutional interest, despite my obvious recording and note taking.

I’m a native Bostonian, so I worked hard to split my time between meetings in communities where I had ties and communities where I was an outsider. Another key moment of the experience was being confronted about why a white artist was getting to interpret an Afro-Caribbean community meeting not conducted in English.

Being embedded in a civic process in your own city means you’re invested in the outcome in a very different way than an external consultant is. I have to live within the results of this cultural plan—they don’t—so the accountability level is different.

Being embedded in a civic process in your own city means you’re invested in the outcome in a very different way than an external consultant is. I have to live within the results of this cultural plan—they don’t—so the accountability level is different.

The consulting team designed a sophisticated data gathering process, but folks on the ground (including me) saw angles of it that they couldn’t see because of their distance from its application. I overheard (and captured elements of) many discussions about weaknesses in the survey structure and content. The survey process also had no method for showing off the incredible creativity and variation in terms of how it was deployed. Some community meetings I attended involved a straightforward reading of the questions plus discussion, but others turned the survey into role playing games, dance parties, potluck dinners, etc. The surveys were also not designed to capture negative experiences they evoked—stories about how exhausted, burned out and hopeless people were about getting their needs heard and addressed meaningfully enough. And with equity.

Though I’d originally imagined working with codified, averaged data from the study, it was the capturing over and over of this refrain that people participate in process after process, year after year and never really feel that their exact words are heard that pushed me to work with the more informal material gathered at these meetings: handwritten brainstorming notes expressing people’s dreams for the city’s arts and cultural programming in their own words. This process had to be different.

The main surprise for me from this experience was the final format my project took. I’m used to starting an investigation in one place and following my intuition to a totally different place, but the place where this project brought me was completely unexpected. It involved working in a way I never had before: developing a concept and having others execute it—for better or for worse.

It also took me outside of my usual community and comfort zone. I forged a relationship with the chief of arts and culture where she proved actually quite willing to take risks. I also forged relationships with the staff of an auto glass repair shop—a world I’d never had insider access to before—and with the City’s Department of Public Works, a crew who charmed me to my core and whom I would never have encountered otherwise.

Another important part of this was working with the other artist-ethnographers and the Department of Play. We didn’t have to work as a team, but organically we began to and it was so rewarding! Not only because we had each other to bounce ideas off of during the residency (as that’s what it felt like—that we were in a residency together,) but because this relationship continues. We’re still supporting each other’s work, brainstorming together and giving one another feedback. If I could make only one recommendation around involving artists in city or civic processes, it would be to do so in a way that strongly encourages artists to think collaboratively and support one another.

If I could make only one recommendation around involving artists in city or civic processes, it would be to do so in a way that strongly encourages artists to think collaboratively and support one another.

Finally, though I got a great deal out of the experience, I struggle with the question of how to determine whether I was successful in my role. I may have impacted the planning process itself by keeping the individuality of people’s voices equally as present in the study as anonymized, averaged data. But I don’t know if I served the broader community enough. I see the car on City Hall Plaza and it doesn’t feel spectacular enough. I’m not sure the people whose handwriting it captures even know about it. What gives me the most hope for a long-term impact is knowing that a text that I mounted in the car will be there to stimulate thought about the city’s cultural life even after the Boston Creates study is completed. The text is addressed to the car’s drivers—employees of the City—and encourages them to reflect while driving on how everyone in City Hall can help “shift” Boston’s cultural narrative.

Learn about Department of Play’s role in Boston Creates

Hear from Shaw Pong Liu, artist-ethnographer

Hear from Leonardo March, artist-ethnographer

Heather Kapplow, Boston Creates

Heather Kapplow

Guest Author · Multimedia Artist

Original

Boston Creates is a community-wide effort to harness Boston’s creativity and build a shared vision for arts and culture.