Carolyn Norr and Bridget Barsotti are two ambitious artists and educators that put their beliefs where their bodies are. Mid-September, they armed themselves with art supplies, cameras and the dedication to listen to people, and left Ann Arbor, MI on their bikes, pulling all their gear on trailers behind them.
Carolyn and Bridget are the visionaries of UnderCurrent Events, a project to collect people’s personal stories regarding terms heard often in mainstream media, words like heroism, terror, and war. Then, using street theatre and visual art as the vehicle, they share those stories with a wider audience.
“We seek people’s personal stories that relate to topics in today’s news,” says Carolyn, who currently teaches art in the Oakland Public schools and sees her project as a popular education method. “When we watch the news, we are presented with stories and images of what is going on in the world today. But what is going on with each of us as individuals? We need an avenue to express our memories, fears, hopes, and visions for the present and future. UnderCurrent Events provides people with that opportunity. We welcome everyone’s story and honor everyone’s power in telling their own experience.”
Each day of their bike tour, Carolyn and Bridget wake up and start talking to people. On the outside, it’s a very simple concept. But they don’t just listen—they act as a net, by collecting stories and re-presenting them through a series of street performances and within their mobile-gallery. As they travel from town to town, their collection grows.
“In sharing our stories and hearing other people’s, we can see that we are not alone,” Carolyn says.
Before they embarked on their journey, Bridget and Carolyn prepared performances on themes like “Courage and Heroism,” “Walls and Borders,” “Loss,” and “Our People—Family, Community and Nation.” Performance pieces and poems were designed to leave space for later adding the voices and words of people that Carolyn and Bridget would come across on their ride.
“Each of these pieces includes a blend of our own performances (skits, spoken word poetry, movement and music) integrated with the reading of people’s responses to these themes. Some of the responses are pre-collected written responses and some are collected from the crowd, on the scene,” says Carolyn. “Something we’ve really worked on is allowing real people’s voices to come thru earnestly … both the stories we read and the spoken word pieces we perform.”
What is the first thing you think of when you hear the word “courage”? When was a time when someone faced a challenge? When was a time you encountered a barrier you wanted to overcome and how did you do it? What was a time you felt free? When do you set someone else free? These are the questions that prompt people to launch into their own stories. In the telling, common goals emerge.
“As this trip goes on I see through-lines between people,” says Bridget.
Bridget recounts a story of going into a nail-manicure shop in Ohio. There, she met a woman from Vietnam who had been in the States for almost a year. Bridget was able to explain the fundamentals of the project by asking the woman about a time that she was faced with a problem, and what she did to overcome it. The woman spoke about how customers were rude and treated her badly because she couldn’t speak English. “I pray to God that I will become better at doing nails,” the woman said. Bridget answered, “but those people are wrong for treating you that way.”
“She was all smiles,” Bridget remembers. “She couldn’t believe I was taking her side.” Bridget finds that people are excited to have their stories validated. “Every time we’re talking to someone, especially who has a perspective different from the media, they are appreciative that they’re being heard at all.”
A week into the trip and Carolyn and Bridget were just starting to get into a rhythm, finding that they had to amend some of their original ideas. One of the major adjustments is that they can’t perform street theatre to the extent that they had wanted because people are simply not out on the streets. They find that in many small towns, the place to congregate is church, and it is difficult to roll into town and expect to perform in places of worship.
In some towns, performance actually alienates them from the community.
“[Street theatre] is kind of a San Francisco thing,” Carolyn says, as she explains that some people unfamiliar with street performance treated her as though she were alien to them when she was onstage. The solution is to write down people’s stories—along with their pictures—on 4×6 cards. These cards have become part of a mobile gallery that travels with them and illustrate a myriad of voices.
Carolyn finds that, while performance art isn’t always a point of connection, “people are really excited about the interviews and want to see something happen with them … and people really are interested in other people’s stories.” Thus, the visual art is an effective way of sharing.
For the most part, those interested and receptive to street theatre already have some access to alternative media. After a show in front of a co-op at Oberlin College, people were moved to tears.
In order to bridge the gap between these students and the local community, Bridge and Carolyn decided to interview people from town and bring the stories back to campus. Says Bridget, “We’re crossing over.”
Biking 25-50 miles a day, in addition to conducting interviews, recording stories on cards, and performing, Carolyn and Bridget have their hands full. Fortunately, they’ve found that the small towns along their way are more than generous as they find places to stay and set up their project.
“People here seems to know each other, have a cohesiveness, so that as soon as two girls ride in with huge bob trailers asking about a place to stay, things spring into effect, calls are made, numbers are passed on, and instantly we have three options of places to stay and are eating salad in a sprawling homey-home,” says Carolyn.
The idea for UnderCurrent Events emerged within a small group of activists in the Bay Area interested in popular education. Sami Kitmitto, an early collaborator who helped brainstorm ideas for the trip, says, “The idea for me started last November after the elections. It seemed we were doing a bad job connecting with the rest of America and organizing around the Bay Area seemed a bit redundant to me.”
Like Carolyn, Sami was interested in questions of how to put popular education into practice. “I was teaching at City College and really wanted to mesh my ideas around pedagogy and activism … How to engage people and teach them without preaching to them. Deep down we all hold similar values … but why do we come to such different conclusions? I had this idea to disseminate information and get people to absorb the information critically with this fundamental belief that upon reflection people would want to join on into a movement … or I’d want to join theirs.”
Carolyn was also teaching in the Bay Area: “For the last few years I’ve been involved in “youth development,” which seems like a pretty common model of popular education that’s primarily done with urban U.S. youth, but what about the “mainstream”? I think we’re both trying to understand where those mythologized “red state” folks are coming from, and trying to develop a model of how to communicate without just projecting statements loudly into brick walls.”
“I was interested in finding out what is the voice of “Middle America,” says Bridget, who was working as a performance artist and holds a degree in Popular Theatre. “Growing up in the Bay Area I didn’t know what that was … There is news and then there’s what’s really going on … People don’t believe their own voice matters because they’re usually just told by the media what matters.”
For Carolyn, the unofficial goal of the project is to “look at each person as having a unique and valid experience … We hope to create a mini-reality where honesty and listening are not as feared as they are in mainstream news.”
“This is our trip,” Carolyn writes to a large group of supporters through email, “heavy, wet air and green trees sinking under the weight of their leaves, long roads stretching flat and potentially unpaved, American flags and Christian radio, truckers falling out of their cabs to point and yell to us, people taking care of us, giving us cantaloupe and tomatoes from the garden, bike pumps, life stories, 20 dollar bills and directions to the next location. People who are clearly suffering the ravages of racism, classism, sexism, empire, and environmental destruction … This is our trip too: traveling by the shoulder where we are showered with muddy water every time a semi passes, where we track the wildlife by road kill, where we count signs for ‘Midwest Agricultural Genetics’ in the cornfields and observe a sign that says, ‘No More Subdivisions, End the Madness.’ Where class divides—social and economic—hit as hard as the wind off a semi.”
She writes of an old couple who were pushed into a new home by developers and forced to collect water in empty two-liter soda bottles from their old farm after their well dried up. Some people in town blame the dryness of the county’s wells on mineral extraction, others blame it on Cabella’s, a giant sporting goods store and tourist destination that recently installed an artificial lake. According to the couple, the town has mixed feelings about Cabella’s because they made empty promises, like a shuttle service to downtown, and, as part of their contract, had the power to ban any grocery stores from opening.
“Most everyone has been friendly and wanting to talk,” says Carolyn, “but I feel here … the lingering sensation we are bearing this, not complaining, so don’t complain either. I think I see in people’s eyes the recognition of inequality: How are you biking across country when we are just trying to get by? [It’s] not only a monetary thing, it’s a sort of privilege of opportunities, availability of options and possibilities.”
The trip has provided both Carolyn and Bridget time to think about what it means to be an artist and how to use art to “break down walls and hierarchies rather than strengthen them, how to create something that does more than assert our own voices in a way that silences others, how to create openings, make art be something without distinct audiences and artists … because it’s so easy for “art” to be a luxury, a symbol or accessory of the leisure class.” Says Carolyn, “I feel good about being on the ground, grappling with that question directly and intensively.”
When they return to the Bay Area, Carolyn and Bridget hope to revamp their website (http://www.undercurrentevents.org) with the pictures and stories they’ve collected. They’ll continue to use the stories in performance.