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Open Thread - Blog


May 6th, 2009
Michael McParlane

weleski_photoThere’s a good chance you’ve already experienced native Pittsburgher Dawn Weleski’s work in and around the city. Whether you’ve read her newspaper in the South Side, chatted with her over a tasty meal served out of an RV, or stumbled upon an opera while waiting for the bus to arrive, Dawn’s work forces you to rethink everyday experience. Her public works can be seen as social and political stress tests that cause witnesses to question their typical social behaviors, as they disrupt the familiarity and comfort of the everyday experience.

I asked Dawn to speak about her current projects, as well as a little about the experience she has had living here in the Pittsburgh area. To learn more about Dawn and her art, you can check out the Bus Stop Opera homepage. In the meantime, be on the lookout, because you just might be surprised to one day yourself a participant in her work.

regular_weleski

OT Blog: You grew up just outside of Pittsburgh, I believe in Tarentum, before you became a student at Carnegie Mellon University, where you tried out several majors prior to landing in the School of Art. Since graduating this past December, you’ve decided to stay in the area, living in Regent Square. What is it about the city that keeps you here? What makes you a proud Pittsburgher?

Dawn Weleski: Yes, I’m from a town northeast of Tarentum called Natrona Heights. Tarentum was the first town in the mainland United States that struck oil, and Natrona was named from “Natrium,” the Latin word for salt. There is a huge salt mine near the mills that supplied the compound for the defense department’s creation of the first atomic bombs. The mills, mines, and industry in Natrona and Brackenridge employed all of my grandparents—and their parents—when they arrived from Poland. The women were employed in PPG (Pittsburgh Plate Glass) and ALCOA (Aluminum Company of America) factories. Even my dad paid his way through art school by working in night shifts in the mill after class. Living near this industry, hearing the stories of so many industry families, and being raised on the fruits of my ancestors’ labor with these materials makes me proud to be a Pittsburgher. It’s the positive, steady values of industry, though not the industry itself, that have sustained Pittsburgh and its people, especially in these tough economic times. Therefore, as a young professional, I can enjoy a low cost of living, burgeoning creative high and sub-cultures, decent employment opportunities, support for small for-profit and not-for-profit enterprises, and down-to-earth neighbors. Chicago, New York, and DC are only a drive away, as is some of the nation’s best hiking and camping.

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OT: This past year you were awarded a grant to fund the Bus Stop Opera, an interdisciplinary, public performance work. You managed to successfully coordinate a group of mostly student actors, musicians, singers, and writers to perform songs from the point of view of everyday bus riders at stops across the city. Can you explain a little about the process leading up to these performances as well as the objectives behind the project?

DW: Bus Stop Opera places investigations of the everyday within the realm of the extraordinary and sublime. The operas agitate the routine private space within one’s public transportation ride through conversation and transform the everyday public space of bus stops around Pittsburgh through operatic performance of the same conversations. Basically, we have conversations with folks on buses and at bus stops, which are then, almost verbatim, transcribed into libretto.  A composer then scores for the libretto, and, after a week of rehearsals, the songs are performed at Pittsburgh area bus stops with a full musical ensemble, including violin, cello, trombone, and bass. Once the 20 minute “operetta” is done, we hop on the next bus and re-perform the same songs at bus stops down the line, all throughout Pittsburgh. The operas accumulate mementos of the lives of Pittsburghers who utilize public transportation and frame the mundane as high art. The project is most successful when the public, engaged in conversation with our actors, are implicated as participants when the conversation begins to be sung. The public becomes part of the performance by meeting the gaze of the singers, and bus riders realize that they are on the “stage” and more readily relate and empathize with the narratives presented.

The project has several objectives: (1) to allow creative people from different disciplines to collaborate and, hopefully, create a richer product due to that collaboration; (2) to remind the public and art audiences alike that “Art” sometimes finds inspiration outside of one’s self, and, maybe, the product of that inspiration can be more relevant and successful if it’s placed back into the context from whence it came; (3) to question the notion of public and private, personal and general, at spaces, such as bus stops, that can be defined and are utilized as either. I’ve overheard so many cell phone conversations on the bus that maybe should have been kept private! Overall, we’ve performed along twenty different bus routes, written ten songs about ten distinct Pittsburghers, and engaged in hundreds of conversations with strangers. I’m most surprised when strangers, who normally wouldn’t speak to each other, bond over this odd experience happening within their space. We’ve had folks miss their buses to see the whole performance and nod or shout out in agreement upon hearing the song lyrics. Every part of the process is valuable, including the performance. When strangers become a part of a collective experience, the effect of the work is amplified.

rveatin_weleski-copyOT: Recent works like the Bus Stop Opera and RV Eatin’ [link to RV Eatin’ in PG] (a collaboration with Laura Miller [link to Laura’s blog post] and Claire Hoch, in which the three of you served homegrown, home-cooked meals out of an RV at various events and locations in Pittsburgh in the hopes of generating good conversation) rely immensely on the element of public interaction. With both of these works, the public plays a large role in their completion, and because of it, there is a natural evolution that occurs. Can you speak about this angle of change and randomness within the work, as well what it’s like to cede so much control to the public?

DW: I’m interested in creating artwork that lends agency to its audience. When I implicate my audience as a participant in the creation of the work, I’m lending them agency on the most basic level. Firstly, the can choose to participate.  Secondly, based on initial boundaries that I create, my audience lends life to the format I present to them, whether through a community newspaper (”Regular”), family meals, or conversations on public transportation. Thirdly, because the audience becomes part creator/owner of the work, the art tends to have greater longevity, scope, and relevance to a greater whole. In some instances, the art can live beyond the artist. I find work that exists within the context which inspires it, exists for the most appropriate time and audience, whether for a split second or generations. I don’t create all of my work under this auspice, as different messages and subjects require different methods and media. However, even ancient media, such as fresco and egg tempera, were created to convey messages to their audience that would educate and prescribe meaning. Historically, religious icons and altar pieces, as well as public murals depicting social controversy and historical events, qualified objects and images as conduits of dramaturgical and ritualistic metanoia. My work reasserts the necessity for the public to devise its own social penance and cultural transformations.

OT: What can OT Blog readers expect to see from you in the future?

DW: Starting May 8, Claire Hoch and I will have a piece in the Mattress Factory “Gestures” show. We’re building a 12 foot silo that will sit outside of the annex space that acts as a vending machine for capsulated native seeds and discusses the communal agricultural history of the area. The silo, accessible during non-gallery hours, encourages the public to reclaim the “Commons” of the North Side by planting in sidewalk areas zoned by the city for trees. Additionally, the public that enters the gallery space will have a chance to drop the capsules into the silo via a long pipe. The public will fill, and the public will vend. Later that month, Bus Stop Opera is traveling to New York City to perform as part of HomeBase [link: www.homebaseproject.com], a residency and exhibition exploring the notion of home. Hopefully, New York City’s bus riders are just as engaging as Pittsburgh’s. We’re excited to see what will come of the performances in a different city and are considering touring to cities around America.



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