INTERVIEW WITH DOWN IN THE GROUND COLLABORATORS: Liza Wage Green, Will Orzo, Emily Rea, and Ligia Teixiera
What are your backgrounds as artists?
Liza Wade Green, Will Orzo, Lígia Tiexiera and Emily Rea are a collaborative team from the Performance & Interactive Media Arts MFA program at Brooklyn College CUNY. With backgrounds in writing, music, computing, physical theater and dance, these artists came together to create a performance and installation work integrating public practice, design, interactive programming, composition, and movement.
How did you come to work together?
Our assignment was to work in a small group and engage a community to help develop a performance project. It’s hard to recall exactly how the four of us came together; we were all attracted to working with communities who live or work with or near water.
What inspired Down In the Ground?
All four of us were interested in urban infrastructure and those who work to maintain the facilities that make daily life possible in New York City. Mierle Ukeles’s work with the Department of Sanitation was an early touchstone, as was our experience on a tour with Jim Pynn at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. What Ukeles brought to light with her work, and what Jim Pynn reinforced for us, is the kind of invisibility of much of what goes on to make NYC one of the largest and most successful urban centers in the world. Daily life/ the “everyday” are literally supported by forces that mostly go unseen.
Our research into the water systems of NYC led us to the Local 147 NYC Sandhogs and Water Tunnel No. 3, one of the largest infrastructure projects in the history of New York. Researching the Sandhogs led us to the work of photographer Gina LeVay, who was able to gain access to the then in-progress water tunnel in order to photograph it. That she was able to gain access inspired us to try and do the same. Meeting the Sandhogs at the Hog House (the above-ground coffee/break/locker room), and being welcomed with open arms suddenly opened the door, quite literally, to the underground. As we continued to meet more Sandhogs, MTA engineers, and workers, the stories, history, and significance of these individuals began to permeate all of our ideas for the performance and installation.
What are your influences?
Like our backgrounds, our influences for the work was varied. The dance portion of the piece grew around the architecture of the Visitors Center at the Wastewater Treatment Plant, which featured a beautiful fountain designed by Acconci Studios, as well as modern choreographic influences like Pina Bausch , as well as the flashlight signals that are used to communicate in the tunnels. Inspiration for the visual and interactive portions of the installation included mapmaking and urban cartography as well as diagrammatic images from historical texts on water infrastructure and the blueprints spread across the walls of the MTA construction offices at the East Side Access Project. Our largest influences, however, were the people that we met through the process. Scott Chessman, one of our main Sandhog contacts, has his PhD in geology and gave us detailed descriptions of the sublayers of Manhattan. Patty Barr and Jimmy McClusky told us endless stories of camaraderie and support in the Sandhog community. Joe Meyers of the FDNY explosive unit revealed the details and physics of the world of blasting and explosives. Finally, going down into the tunnels themselves opened up new worlds: sonic, visual, olfactory… The world of the underground was full of influential details: the sparkle of the mica in the Manhattan Schist, the spray-painted markings on rock indicating blasting sites, the innocuous black door that led us into the literal underbelly of Manhattan, the rumbles, hums and whirrs of large machinery…. Juxtaposing our experience in the tunnels with a heightened we awareness of everyday and the myths of daily life in New York City was what really brought the work together.
What was your process in creating the work?
The concept for the piece was really born in examining the notion and definition of the “public” and the systems of infrastructure that are in place in NYC. The immensity, breadth and history of civic, or “public” infrastructure permeates our lives, yet much of it goes unrecognized on a daily basis by the “general public”. Flush the toilet, take the train, turn on the tap… most people engage in these activities without any consciousness of the work and planning that makes them possible. Much of the infrastructure in NYC is underground or isolated in odd industrial corners of the city, yet the scale of the infrastructure projects taking place in NYC are astounding. This notion of invisibility of the forces behind civic infrastructure really started to influence how approached the piece. How could we create an experience where people wanted to uncover the unseen?
When you look for them, the clues and evidence of infrastructure are everywhere. We began hunting for evidence: noting and tracking down large construction projects, photographing water cover plates, researching where the water tunnel shafts were dug most recently–and mostly talking to people. Electrical workers in the subway gave us the first clue that underneath Grand Central Station is full of Sandhogs, they told us. And so we sniffed around, talking to more and more people, from Metro North customer service agents to security guards to MTA and DEP administrators. We contacted the MTA offices and were able to arrange an educational tour of the East Side Access (ESA) project, something that is usually reserved for civic and industrial engineering students. Weekly, we visited the hog house on 2nd Ave and befriended the Sandhogs there. Once we began meeting with the Sandhogs, we began to show them the kind of interactive technology that we were working with and asked them to help us collect media. We settled on the elements of the installation and dance through conversations with the Sandhogs and others that we interviewed and spent a lot of time sifting through the compiled sounds and images. The sounds alone were incredibly inspiring. As we did that, we continued to interview tons of people, met more and more members of the local unions and arranged interviews with the engineers and managers contracted by the MTA, trying to get a full view of the immensity of the human infrastructure of the ESA and 2nd Ave Subway construction projects. With both the technology and the movement components, we wanted the Sandhogs and other workers to be co-authors of the piece. They were constantly giving us ideas and it was a natural fit for them to be performers in the piece. At a point, we had to turn our attention to recruiting guys to be a part of the dance performance, which was no easy feat.
How did the piece evolve? What were the challenges? What were the surprises? How did the audience respond?
Due to the complexity of accessing sites and people, the piece took a while to gain momentum. Once it did, though, we had our work cut out for us. Maintaining relationships with the guys was crucial and once we decided on the basic elements of the installation we really needed to focus on the complexity of the programming aspects of the installation components. While we all have various skills, none of us are visual artists, so conceptualizing the look for the wall and the sink became a constant challenge.
The largest challenge and the biggest surprise came with the Sandhogs themselves. Finding them was tough, but once we had contacts, they were incredibly generous, helpful, and creative. Convincing them to participate in a dance performance took a lot of canvassing, but the three Hogs that participated were incredible. Their willingness to participate and their enjoyment of the experience was incredibly rewarding for both them and us. Their participation was special and the audience appreciated that.
Where do you see contemporary performance at and where do you see it going? What do you think the next generation is looking for in a performance?
I think we all see contemporary performance as something that is simultaneously hybridizing with technology and something that is moving towards public art and site-specific art movements, away from “venue” and technology. Contemporaneity, for us, is about shedding the skin of known quantities and engaging practices across disciplines–and not just artistic disciplines but other disciplines as well.
Traditional and literary performance practices will continue to have an audience for as long as people are telling stories, so there will always be a place for that. That said, the kinds of influence art can have when it is really made for “public consumption” are boundless, we think. It’s a philosophy of awareness as activism. With DIG, we were really trying to illuminate the complexities of people’s relationship to the city they live in. Working at the Visitors Center at Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, i.e., having a dance performance at a sewage plant, was a way to push outside of traditional performance venues and bring awareness to a place and systems most people would typically ignore.
What are your plans for the future?
We would love to do the project again for a longer run, and involve a larger number of Sandhogs and other workers. It would be great to include some of the MTA engineers and some of the FDNY experts in the performance itself. The hope is that the project can exist as a process model and can be done in other cities as well, investigating urban infrastructure around the US.