Words in Place is an ongoing, roving, collaborative project that was featured at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle in Summer 2014.
In the early spring of 2021, it will focus the recent devastating fires in the Pacific Northwest, telling the stories of those impacted by the fires through temporary, site-specific installations on burnt public lands. This portion of the project is supported by a grant from South East Arts.
Words in Place is a collaborative project that creatively disrupts passive cultural attitudes towards public space through emplaced poetry and story, activating public spaces with language referencing those spaces. The project affirms that language not only reflects, but actually creates the world around us.
There are several steps in this collaborative project:
1 – The person being interviewed chooses a public place that is important to them.
2 – I interview the person in their chosen place.
3 – The person writes a poem or creates some other response to the place and our conversation.
4 – The entire interaction is transformed into a temporary visual/verbal artwork in the public place.
“Poetry makes nothing happen.” – W. H. Auden
One of art’s defining features, according to many contemporary theorists, is its very uselessness, its lack of practical or political utility. One consequence of this understanding of art is its sequestration within galleries and museums, buffered from the world and its mess of causation. It is treated as a static thing, a consumer commodity, rather than a social force.
The educator and activist Paulo Freire asserted, “There is no true word that is not at the same time a praxis [practice informed by theory]. Thus, to speak a true word is to transform the world.” Freire believed strongly that language does not simply reflect the world — it creates the world.
“What if, rather than in a book, a poem were lodged in public space?” Jules Boykoff and Kaia Sand pose this question in their book Landscapes of Dissent: Guerrilla Poetry and Public Space. What if, indeed?
How would the space shift?
How would the poem shift?
How would the behavior of people and others in that public space shift?
Might the poem, or the space, become itself a praxis, a union of idea and action?
Our commercialized, surveilled, and individually atomized public spaces are an affront to the commons — that which is held not individually but together, by social contract. Our culture desperately needs more commons, in order to support the reality that we all held by each other, we are all in common.
It is clear that place influences people, their lives and their art. This project investigates how that equation might be upended — how people and their art might influence place.
You will find on this website interviews with poets and other people, poems, and photographs of place-based interventions.
I am deeply grateful to all of the poets who participated in this project. I am also indebted to Liliya Drubetskaya for her help transcribing interviews and to Bradley Cohen.