Thursday, April 10, 2008


At my group critique last monday I presented some research I had done on the word and song “Kumbaya” which means “come by me”.

I became interested in this because of a comment made about us when we were in New York. Someone said in response to our sitting in a circle on the floor that we were very “West Coast” and they wondered if we would start singing “Kumbaya”?

When I heard about this later my immediate response was, we should send them a video of us sitting in a circle singing kumbaya! The person making the comment was certainly not being complementary, however my initial response wasn't meant to be vindictive. Rather I think I thought it was funny and a way to open a dialogue, or at least cause some thought.

Some interesting things I learned about the song were first that it is credited to a Portlander see wikipedia entry (there is some dispute around this.) I also found a lot of recent editorials where the word kumbaya is being used as an adjective, and a slam. It is invoked to denote weakness generally and more specifically a weak grasp of serious realities. This reminds me of the (not so) old days when politicians would accuse each other of being communist and thus effectively hijack the trajectory of the conversation, as the accused then spent all his or her rhetorical skill denying the claim.

After looking at this research it seemed to me that I could happily accept the label of “kumbaya”, I would be interested to hear why it is a bad thing to exhibit a belief in possibility and unity. I say this even though I am not religious so “some ones crying my lord -come by me” might seem an odd sentiment for me to embrace, however I see it as a call for strength and wisdom generally. I guess that is why it is considered weak; it is admits that one doesn't have all the answers or that one lacks the total personal power necessary to effect change alone (unilaterally).

I also put together this collage of other people's utube videos of the song being sung. I think this video shows how diverse are the relationships that people have to this song. I personally don't think any of these clips are trying to be ironic. Some come from and understanding of the song as a spiritual prayer, some from growing up with it at camp, some simply as a song that everyone knows, and some almost documentary about pain in the world. As I assembled these clips I was struck by the cacophony created by layering so many performances of this one song, and also by the randomly occurring unity that emerged in some moments.
Listen carefully to the opening audio clip, it is Katherine Hepburn from "The Lion in Winter."

Kumbaya from sanone on Vimeo.

After my presentation and my request that we make a movie, there was a very lively discussion. What I had seen in the various utube videos was actually reflected in the opinions we all had. I mean by this that there was a huge range of interpretation. We did sing the song together, but I will not be submitting anything to anyone just yet. This is mainly for two reasons. First it was pointed out that unless we could send it to exactly the person who made the comment it would have no resonance what so ever, and in fact might seem so odd as to reinforce the stereotype of the west coast, and secondly it was suggested that it might be perceived by some as offensive or racist because the word kumbaya was imported/appropriated from Africa. Also, it now seems a project worth investigating with a lot more thought.

Thanks to everyone who participated for making this a really great and though provoking critique.
It was really fortunate that Storm Tharp was our visiting artist, he had a similar experience in Seattle, and the word kumbaya was used pejoratively then as well. I am really interested in questions around sincerity, hipness, and authenticity to mention a few, that this topic brought up. I never dreamed that kumbaya would be so contentious!

I am looking forward to further dialog about this, and it may end up that I do a project that is inspired by the overheard comment in New York, yet is not a direct response to it.

Type rest of the post here


Private showing at the Armory

I ended up going to the Armory by myself in New York, as I was really slow going through the whitney and then stopped by NPR to participate in the radio show that Katy organized.

A couple of people told me that I should definitely see the video of the trees falling down, so I kept searching for it. When finally it seemed I had looked into every room, even some that were not meant to be looked in I was about to give up. Then I saw another staircase at the end of the hall and I assumed that their must be more on the floors above. I started up the stairs and met a couple of other people coming down, these people seemed to work there and in retrospect I think felt encouraged that I was headed in the right direction since they didn't seem to see a problem with me going up the stairs.

I went all the way up, as I came through the doors onto the 5th floor I was struck by the bright florescent
lighting and the dingy white walls. This was a big contrast to the dark mystery of the first two floors. But it seemed fitting as there were 5 or 6 big empty canvas laundry hampers on wheels lined up on the middle of the floor in front of me. Directly behind them there was an open door leading into a room that looked like a large break room, or a small cafeteria. there was a wall covered in posters to my right, it was a mix of informational, community type flyers, and art announcements. The one that stood out immediately was a day glow orange advertisement for employment as a telephone market researcher. The only activity in the room was a large TV playing news at the far end and a woman sitting too close in front of it watching.

I took this one photo and then went out of the room to another long long empty hall. At the very end of the hall there was one of those old fashioned full length mirrors, the kind that is shaped like a cameo and rotates on a pin through the middle. It was angled perfectly in the corner so that it reflected that same day glow advertisement posted on a wall around the corner. I ventured down the hall really intrigued and thinking that this was a hugely ambitious project. as I turned the corner I found that it was the very same poster, and turning completely around I saw two fairly large institutional style swinging doors (the kind with the little porthole windows) One of them was propped wide open giving me a clear view of what seemed to be an ocean of cubicles all about 4 and a half feet high. I thought this must be the calling center, then I noticed that the two cubes open towards me had platforms filled with cloth, but when I looked closer I realized they were beds with large women wearing many layers of clothing laying on them. Exactly as I was trying to make sense of this and recoiling with thoughts of slave labor and exploitation, a woman who was talking on long sprung corded wall phone mounted just inside the doors came around the corner and saw me. She didn't even say hang on a minute to the person she was talking to, she just barked at me “what do you want!” I said I thought i was in the wrong place, she then said “I can't be responsible for what happens to you here.” I started to leave, but then came back to look at the poster again to see if I could get a clue to what was going on. She saw me again and repeated “I can't be responsible for what happens to you.”
I asked her what this place was, and she said it was a women's shelter.

Feeling a little shaken I headed back to the stairs I was going to the 4th floor, I knew for a fact that there was an event taking place there the next evening so I figured maybe that's where I could find the trees falling down. (please see the read more section for more about trees falling down) I went though the doors and the space was half way between the institutionality of the 5th floor and the grand decay of those below. there was a long dark wood bar lining the left side of the large hall, and on the right a long dark bench. On the bench very close to me were two women, one of them with official looking tags around her neck. She asked me I wanted, and not in the friendliest tone, I lied and told her I was looking for the calling center. She softened very slightly and told me to ask the people down stairs. I asked her if this were part of the women's shelter and she said it was.

At this point I was feeling pretty confused, what had I seen, how was it that the first floors of this grand building hosted a rotating schedule of high class art events, and just up above were living all these destitute women, what kind of shelter was this, were these battered women? If so why did they have them staying in a place where the public could roam around and a batterer could easily get at them? Or if they were dangerous (as the woman with the phone seemed to imply) why were they not being helped more, why were they being warehoused in this freakish place?

As I went down the stairs I was met by about 20 older african american women coming up both sides of the split staircase. The stairs were very steep and some of them were having a hard time and taking a break every few steps. It was really uncomfortable because most of them seemed so tired as to be completely out of it, almost like zombies they didn't even see me. And those few that did glared at me as though they still hadn't forgiven some awful act of betrayal I had committed.

This was the most intense experience I had in New York, and for a lot of reasons. I thought I was experiencing an installation long after I should have understood that this was real life. I also feel like I had an experience that was even more intense because of this confusion on my part. I still haven't sorted this all out, but It raises many questions for me.

I asked at the front desk about the women's shelter and they said that it had been there for a long time and was run by Lennox Hospital, but they didn't know what the reasons were that these women needed shelter.

I have since found out that the shelter is run by Lennox Hill, which is a charity, and these women are homeless.

Even though I never did find the video, I did come across several trees that had fallen down while in New York, and I didn't hear any of them.