Detroit Diary: show and tell

Last night, artist Alison Pebworth gave a talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit about her Beautiful Possibility project, an exploration of place-making, storytelling, and American history that led her all over the country. It began after years of painting, something she said she never really liked doing, but did anyway and was very good at. Painting seemed to hold her down and force her to be stationary; she wanted to be interacting with people, out in the world. But she had no idea what she wanted to be saying, or where, or how to begin.

She made a little booth, and set it up just off a highway in Death Valley, with a sign attempting to lure passersby by promising a “free” roadside attraction. But nobody came. Pebworth was glad, she said, because if someone had stopped she had no idea what she would have said to them. She had ventured out into “the world,” but almost unconsciously positioned herself in a no-place, where there was little hope of interaction with strangers. But it was a first step.

From there, Pebworth’s roadside attraction morphed and grew as she traveled from place to place, incorporating local elements into her efforts to make something she felt satisfied with, to find a way to “belong.” Much of this process was about Pebworth not feeling like she belonged anywhere. In each new place, she collaborated with local artists, asked people to bring in native plants to brew “elixers” to be drunk from a communal, blown-glass jug, and held “show and tell” sessions where people exchanged words, ideas, crafts. Sometimes Pebworth had trouble engaging people–or finding places to convene with them in public, particularly in places like North Dakota, which is apparently the “least visited state in the union,” Pebworth said.

There was one small town where no one was out and about because it was pouring down rain. By that point, Pebworth had developed a survey that evaluated people’s opinions about a mid-nineteenth century disease called “Americanitis“–whether they thought it still existed, essentially. The symptoms of Americanitis include intense anxiety, fear of the future, insomnia, and hypochondria. In the section on personal information, the survey asks whether you are a “brain-worker,” a “muscle-worker,” or both; it also asks you to determine to what extent you are “cash-poor” or “cash-rich” and “time-poor” and “time-rich.” In that rainy town, Pebworth found a smoked fish shop where people were sitting around, waiting for the sky to clear, and she had them fill out the survey.

On display at the MOCAD are some panels depicting moments in American history–battles between old time and contemporary “cowboys and Indians,” mostly–done in the nostalgic style of a nineteenth-century public information poster. Americans seem to want art to be didactic, Pebworth said–perhaps because of our overexposure to advertising; we want images to tell us what to do and think. So she made the panels in an attempt to work with, while pushing against, that desire. But the panels were not the main point of the Beautiful Possibility tour; they were simply Pebworth’s way of getting out into a world that she felt she couldn’t know by sitting in her studio and painting.

After the talk, I was chatting with one of the MOCAD’s curators. She asked me what I was doing in Detroit. I looked at Pebworth. I thought about her need to physically encounter American history, to interact with strangers through her craft, to uncover this illness called Americanitis and enlist people everywhere to evaluate its presence in our culture today.

“Well,” I said, nodding toward the artist. “I guess I’m doing just about the same thing that she’s been doing.”

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