Interviews with Paul Ramirez Jonas + Public Trust Performers

In full essay: To Be Is To Be Perceived: Inside Public Trust on BR&S
by Silvi Naci

“…the problem lies not whether to reach for either larger or more selective audiences, but rather in understanding for ourselves our own definitions of those groups we wish to speak to, and in making conscious steps to reach out to them in a constructive and methodical way”. (Art Scenes, The Social Scripts of The Art World, 2012, Pablo Helguera)

Public Trust table with promise made in Kendall Square.

Public Trust table with promise made in Kendall Square.

SN:  I recall you saying: as long as the work is meaningful, and has an impact, it doesn’t matter who calls it “art”. Can you speak a little about the individual authorship that is suppressed in favor of facilitating the creativity of the public? 

“The visual, conceptual and experiential accomplishments do the respective projects are sidelined in favour of a judgment of the artists’ relationship with their collaborations”. (Artificial Hells, Participatory Art and The Politics of Spectatorship, 2012, Claire Bishop)

PRJ: I started to notice this when I did Key to The City, there’s a thing that I say to myself all the time: “if a monument works no one cares who made it”. People don’t go to see the Statue of Liberty because it was made by the French sculptor (Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi), or see Mount Rushmore because of its author. Monuments almost cease to be artworks as we accept them as representing something communal. Their authorship peals away. When a monument works, when it is accepted into the culture, no one cares about who the artist is; that’s why I like monuments. 

SN: Can you talk about the discourse in participatory art and the models we create for a reciprocal exchange that allows us to think outside our own experience and establish more compassionate relationships with others? 

PRJ: The models that I find most useful are modernist or even not pre-modernist; but rather pre-modern. Even in the idea of modernity there is already separation. When I think of useful artworks to guide me as models, I think of the fountain, not the contemporary fountain that is an artistic component of our environment; but the functional fountain that used to give water to the city. There was a time when art was part of the architecture. I imagine that no one said: I am going to see the art, they said instead: I am going to the Temple of Zeus, or to fetch water in the square. The art experience was integrated into public life and public space. 

SN: I find public wells extremely fascinating. I think of all the conversations that would happen at various times of the day when women in the villages in Albania would go and fetch water for their homes. This structure build for survival needs, this monument that shifts the way of thinking and our understanding of what art is and how we interact with and around it, beyond our own individual experience and towards the discursive exchange that happens. 

RPJ: Yes, I have a fantasy of building a functional well inside a contemporary art building, and in this way expose the foundation of the building: reveal that if you go deep enough you will encounter water, and that this water is free. But this is a fantasy. 

SN: Right, I have similar fantasies, and unless you are Doris Salcedo (Shibboleth At Tate Modern, where she breaks open the floor of the museum, exposing a fracture in modernity itself) or Chris Burden (Exposing the foundation of the museum, LAMOCA) a curator won’t will let you dig into the foundation of their space.

As both artist and curator, I am interested to know where do you relinquish control?
In my own work I think a lot about what to keep and what to let go.

PRJ: It has to do with personality. For example, I have a hard time letting go of the mechanical things of this project; but I am more tolerant with the way each performer is speaking and the inflections in the conversation, and I like it. As a fellow long distant runner, you know you end up thinking in advance and pacing yourself. You correct small imperfections in your stride and the movement of your arms, making yourself more efficient but also more relaxed. It is both about exerting control but also about relaxing at the same time. It’s interesting and I think this loss of control, this relaxing into it, is the future of social practice and how we keep work alive. 

SN: It seems to be harder sometimes to collaborate with artists than say how musicians collaborate together in an album or song. There’s a lot of ego, and control that comes to play with visual artists, but it also has to do with different personalities coming together.

PRJ: I agree with you, and I have noticed when teaching that collaboration between students is difficult with the visual art students. Nate (Paul’s assistant) was telling me that there was an artist who came to the piece who was very critical of it, and was concerned with how each of the performers were contributing and if they were able to affect the piece in their own way. Only visual artists get caught up with this narrow understanding of collaboration; it wouldn’t be the same if we were working together on a play. Each of our roles would be considered a contribution. As visual artists we weren’t trained to work in groups or as collaborators. And yet, the idea of the artist working in the studio alone is a myth. During the Renaissance, studios would have someone working on hands or only on the faces, someone working on the background etc. In the contemporary art system now you have studios with multiple the assistants, the accountant, the administrator, the one mixing paint etc. There’s this great quote about Jackson Pollock, I think it comes from Mierle Laderman Ukeles and I am butchering it: “imagine Jackson Pollock the genius, but imagine the pyramid of support under him”. Why is this support structure not part of the work, or share in the authorship of the work? And how do you make work that shows these social contracts? I want to make them visible. 

SN: I love the moment when all of the sudden the roles switch. So far I have been working as a performer, and this morning I sat to make my promise and sat across from Deniz. My entire body shook and my heart felt so heavy. I knew I couldn’t escape this moment, I had witnesses and I would not back out of making this promise. It felt extremely powerful to switch roles, and have Deniz hold a safe space for me.

PRJ: : (mentioning Ebay and how you can be the seller and the buyer and switch back and fourth) I am interested in a mechanism that permit a switch in the role. If I could make a piece where you can make that switch, where that little girl (making a promise) takes Graham’s (performer taking the girls promise) place, that would be mind blowing. How do you create a pedagogical moment where the student becomes the teacher and the teacher becomes the student. Its the switch that is full of possibility.

My fantasy for this project is that someone who came, goes back home and puts the drawing up on the wall, and at some point they look at it, and say, “I made the drawing”. This is why, I have placed all the conventions of drawing on the able, yes, its their signature, it is their words, and on the paper there is everything that a drawing would have, and there’s no sign of us, it is mostly them. The magic will be when that switch happen, when they say, “I made the drawing”. 

SN: What makes an artwork successful for you? Having 500 people experience it, or having a handful of important interactions that change your life or perspective.

PRJ We know that art can change people’s lives. It changed mine. In this historical time, we are wedged between philanthropy and the market. We have to support ourselves from one or the other, and behind philanthropy and the market are essentially the same people. There must be a third door to making work, having an impact in culture and public, as well as supporting yourself. This is why I often think about Tania Bruguera’s piece Immigrant Movement International, and how it was conceived so the community takes over the work, and that is how it achieves sustainability. 

SN: For some of us that have really taken some of these stories to heart, do you have any advice to letting go or separating yourself from the stories? You seem to be so good at listening and being present and at the same time letting go and moving on?

PRJ: When you say that I don’t find it to be a strength, but that I’m a horrible person instead. Because I can compartmentalize it! but paradoxically I think that’s what makes me a good teacher as well. I can be present and there with you, sympathetic; but then I have the ability to disassociate, let go and move on to my own thing. In the beginning, I used to think about my student’s non-stop; but then I created the ability to let go. I often and ride my bike from work for an hour on my way home… that helps. 

Prticipant in front of her promise in Copley Square.

Prticipant in front of her promise in Copley Square.

SN: The power of this project for me lies in its structure and the context, which allows people to put down their guards and have an opened hearted conversation while making an oath to a stranger.

Can you share an impactful moment during your performance?

PRJ: I would like to say that they are all impactful, but that is not quite true. Some were more impactful that others. The problem is that having been there all the time they are all jumbled up. I remember the person who taught me their special handshake, and then he made the promise using the handshake. I remember the very old lady promising to remember “you are forgiven”. What did she mean? That she forgave someone? That someone forgave her? Or was she talking to all of us, that we are all forgiven? I remember the angry man in Dudley and the angry woman in Copley, first they screamed, then they left for two days, then they came back, then they calmly made a promise. His was sweet, hers was hateful. I noticed the similarities but slight variations of some of the promises. Some promises got to me in inexplicable ways, like the 19 year old man who promised that some day he would obtain freedom in his life. He as so young and so sad at the same time.

Will: Speaking to a young and impassioned Palestinian American woman I was caught in the electrically charged moment.  She spoke of 60 years of occupation and how so many don’t know the plight of the Palestinians.  I asked if she had heard of the book The Lemon Tree” telling the story of the occupied land through the eyes of Israeli and Palestinian occupants of one house.  We shared a moment of understanding and yet I knew that her depth of experience was much vaster than mine. Her Pledge: “I Promise to Stand for Palestine.” 

Later that afternoon a young bearded African American man came with his promised already formed.  He said: “I pledge to be the solution not the problem.”  Having the chance to asking what this meant to him and hear his response was profound.  He spoke gently of not having the answer to the ails of the world, but committing to work. Of what it means to be human, in a world fraught by so much violence and destruction and look for ways to make the world better and to make a difference.  Again, I felt lucky to have shared the moment and witnessed his pledge.

Zayde: The most significant and impactful moment for me occurred on the last day of the project (in Copley) while I was assisting Paul Ramirez Jonas at a promise table and he said to a participant: “You are inside of an artwork”. Just the way he said those words...spoke volumes to me.

SN: At times I felt like a conductor, and the participants were both the musicians and the spectator, in the end we were all making music together and I was simply guiding them. What other term would you use to describe our work as “performers”?

PRJ: Facilitator, Scribe, interlocutor, respondent. In Spanish: Escribano publico.

Lidia: Accoucheuse (midwife in French), a caretaker, a treasurer.

Deniz: Promi-sitter.

Jimena: Listener.

Zayde Buti:  Production worker.

Heather: I feel like promise development cannot be condensed into an easy phrase. We are going through a spelunking process with people. They feel strongly as if there is something they need to make a commitment to, but they can't put their finger on exactly what it is. Then we circle around it together like a bird or a plane looking for somewhere to land. I ask them questions, they blush and confess to things they wish for but have been scared to verbalize elsewhere. Sometimes I push them harder until they admit to a thing behind the thing they first said, which is even more difficult to say. It is a little like discovering the unique desires of a new lover – a process that I could never condense into a word.

SN: What made this process for the public alive is the vibrancy and transparency of words. The central motivation to listen, undivided attention and patience, is what fueled the model for this public platform. It circles back to the temporality of public programs, and the instant community as alternative space for the public to embrace more emphatically. 

Has this experience made you think differently about your own art practice, collaborations, and your audience? 

Heather: I've been especially moved by the thoughtfulness of Paul's rotation of our roles. Moving through what I think of as "The Stations of Public Trust" has felt like a ritualistic, meditative way to keep the magic of the piece alive for each of us over the course of each day.

Lidia: I felt like for the first time I sensed with all my senses, mind, body and heart, this connection with people who live or visit. I felt like art can really engage and respond to a certain hunger for values and for more true contact with others in a way that is independent from culture in a sense, from our background, ethnicity, heredity, education, age, etc.

Will: Being a part of Public Trust, has reaffirmed in a way the value of art that can give voice and opportunity to artists and non-artists. We hold each other up and allow a flowering that could not happen alone. 

Chanel: What continued to amaze me was seeing the change in body language and demeanor of each person who came to make a promise as we moved through different parts of the process.

Maria: I feel so lucky to have bonded with the communities at Dudley, Kendall, and Copley in such a unique way. I feel that understanding these communities will allow me to perform in a much more meaningful way - that I will be able to connect with the audience in a new way. The project has also allowed me to think more broadly and deeply about interactive public art. I am so inspired by Paul's focus on the one-on-one exchange, something that gets so lost on our society. Many times, I too get caught up in the fast pace, in the thought that "more is better." Public Trust is about the slow, methodical ritual of a personal conversation. It doesn't get much more beautiful than that. 

Deniz: I spoke with people face to face, then I would write their words, as if only their words mattered, then I would erase them regardless of their meaning, and finally, the clock; isolated from human connection, falling into the absurdist cycle of time, staring at the clock caring about every flying minute. Since these rotations were in the order above, the entire process for me was a gradual movement from human connection into isolation and mechanization of modern life.

“A public program lives a short and happy life, affirming the integrity and individuality of art and ideas, without the need to multiply or be given an artificial, extended, afterlife”. (Art Scenes, The Social Scripts of The Art World, 2012, Pablo Helguera)