During this past week’s "Meet the Loebs” events, new fellows LZ Nunn, Jim Lasko and Helen Marriage presented their work and plans for the upcoming year at the GSD. Working in cities at three different scales (Lowell, Chicago and London), these individuals demonstrate how creative and social capital can be leveraged to produce meaningful, unexpected and transformative interactions.
LZ Nunn was director of the Cultural Organization of Lowell - COOL - charged with creating a livelier city. In this small Massachusetts municipality 30 miles northwest of Boston, COOL’s year-round programming has revealed surprises. "Discover Lowell” activities plumb the rich cultural heritage of immigrants from nearly every continent. Events bridging the traditional and contemporary, such as a Cambodian rock opera, have drawn large audiences and produced revenue for the city. COOL has worked with with community groups to re-fashion underutilized public spaces, and has launched a "COOL bus” to sell locally-made products.
Why does Lowell matter? LZ Nunn points out that Lowell is similar to thousands of gateway cities that increasingly need to compete to survive. Nunn asks, "How can we pay homage to history and cultural assets, and also grow innovative capacity?”
At the GSD, Nunn plans to create a toolkit for creative city-making with best practices for arts and cultural policies. She then wants to tackle the role of "authenticity" in a city, a hard concept to pin down and define.
Jim Lasko, founding artistic director of Redmoon theater in Chicago, describes the inspiration for his life’s work: Greek theater. Ancient Athens would shut down for three days annually for a continuous program of theater. Art was fundamentally woven into the city.
Learning from the Greeks, Lasko launched his first large-scale outdoor spectacle along the Chicago River beneath an elevated train. His cast of twenty-five actors performed an original tragicomedy, while every time the train passed, the scene froze and the actors turned to face and wave to the train.
Lasko’s work pries away theater’s "fourth wall”—the transparent division between the audience and the performer. Performances occupy unexpected places, like the outside of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Redmoon transformed the façade into an interactive performance through the coordinated action of nearly a thousand artists.
While staging public theater, Redmoon also runs free children’s arts, a creative mentorship for girls and programming in two public schools to create an arts-integrated community. His fantastical characters and contraptions are in demand to hire for corporate events, providing a subsidy for Redmoon’s public benefit activities.
Redmoon has become increasingly mobile in order to infiltrate the public realm. Lasko’s recent urban intervention is a towering double forklift to bring performance into neighborhoods. He states that his works do not create real space or virtual space, but "emotional space. These shows are intended to decrease fear and increase care.”
Helen Marriage, co-director of Artichoke, is well known for staging "The Sultan’s Elephant”. Not to be outdone by ancient Athens, the performances shut down London for four days as a giant moving mechanical elephant and girl took over the streets.
Marriage states, "For 25 years I’ve worked to place artists and their work in the public domain in the most disruptive way I possibly can. The intention is to take people on a journey that allows them to believe that the world could be different.”
Marriage convinces cities to take risks. For "One & Other,” designed by artist Antony Gormley, Artichoke converted an empty plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square into a platform for performance. For 100 days, 2400 people - selected by lottery and representing every region of the U.K. - occupied the plinth for an hour each with a performance of their choice. They ran the gamut from street theater, pageantry, mime, to confessional and even wedding proposal. Marriage commented, "We transform landscapes in a temporary way, but the transformation is permanent.”
We eagerly wait to see how these 3 visionary Loeb fellows will respond to the raw material of Cambridge, Massachusetts. After the talk, I spoke with Joyce Rosenthal, assistant professor of urban planning. She commented, "These projects can, at the best of times, break through ossified expectations of what happens in public space, how we expect to find people behaving, and how we think our days will go, and in doing so, that surprise may be part of the way public space transforms public life."
The Dean’s Elephant, anyone?