City Council Mayhem: El desmadre de la política local
By: John Pluecker
Towards the end of City Council Meeting: Performed Participatory Democracy last night at Palm Center, a young boy behind me whined, “This is so weird.” I tend to agree. The emotional climax of the show was one of the most bizarre moments I’ve experienced in a while: a political consultant reading a surrealist think-piece on local politics on behalf of a local council member, interspersed with praise songs from the choir of the evangelical Iglesia de Ríos de Aceite, set in the courtroom of local African-American political powerhouse, Judge Zinetta Burney. All the while the directors of the show, flown in from New York to design and stage the performance, milled around helping to make sure things ran smoothly.
But let’s step back for a minute and get the context: “real” City Council meetings are already strange spaces, fraught with bureaucracy and bigotry, hope and ignorance, submission and jockeying for power. Last night in the performative City Council Meeting, we got to see all the intersecting hierarchies of power, all of the tedium and boredom, the vast array of insanity, inanity and absurdity that makes our city (and local art world) what it is.
In that sense, the directors of City Council Meeting reproduced a situation of real tension, and for that I congratulate them. These moments of unremarked, unexplored dominance and hierarchy are at the heart of local government: the lack of trust or communication, the sense that we all were thrown into this room together without a means to talk or debate or uncover hidden truths. Each one of us with our own set of experiences, our own strange agendas attempting to perform this bizarre thing called democracy together.
At the beginning of the performance, the “staffers” of the Council Meeting (who are the only people who have rehearsed, the only “actors” as you’d traditionally think of them) request volunteers for various roles: bystanders, participants, people to give testimony, council members, mayor, city attorney, etc.
Among the volunteers, it was remarkable to see just how many of them were white, and largely male. Also a sizable number of the volunteers were directors or staff members at local arts organizations (many sponsors of the event like Diverseworks and the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center). As this flood of mainly white dudes rushed past, I was left thinking about how people decide whether to participate, whether they are equipped or qualified to participate, what one needs to think and feel in order to participate. As volunteers were assigned their roles, I heard several people talking about their assignments. One said, “Oh, you have a Spanish name, you should use a Spanish accent.” A boy said, “I’m a woman, I’m a woman” with a volatile mixture of glee and dread.
Immediately as the process started, the meeting settled into bureaucratic language and gestures, the familiar, seemingly dead, ritualistic language of local democracy. The performance is divided up into sections, and each section is based on the actual minutes of a city council meeting in a different city: Bismark, San Antonio, Houston, Portland, Tempe, Oakland among them. In the first section, there was a ceremony to award a council member who had spent 30 years in service to local government and then that council member made a speech in thanks.
In the San Antonio section, a particularly awkward moment happened when all white volunteer “actors” read the testimonies of young African-Americans from the East Side in San Antonio. Since the scripts appropriate language from local meetings, they reflect the diversity of grammars and the circuitous and often tortured way most of us speak when in these formal environments. These speeches, removed from the bodies of their original speakers and put into the bodies of “random” actors from the audience, bordered on becoming a strange parody.
Probably a third of the audience at City Council Meeting last night was made up of members of the aforementioned choir from the Iglesia Ríos de Aceite, a Latino evangelical church. Tellingly, not one member of the church participated in the actual city council meeting proceedings (except for one young woman from the group) and every word uttered during the evening (besides the final songs) was in English. Talk about reproducing hierarchies.
Of course, it’s not just City Council Meeting the show that functions in this monolingual way. Hardly any local governments in the U.S. provide two-way interpretation at meetings; it’s a fact that English is dominant in public spaces across the U.S. in official settings (except Puerto Rico!). Spaces where bilingualism or multilingualism are able to flourish are few and far between; good interpretation to allow people to communicate with one another is hardly ever made a priority. (Full disclosure: Part of my own practice as an artist/activist is about creating multilingual spaces using interpreting and pirate radio technology through a language justice collaborative called Antena. So these are issues I think about quite a bit.)
As an observer of the proceedings on Thursday night, overall I was struck by the scriptedness of the performance. The script is tight; the performance does not invite (or really allow for) random opportunities for off-topic preaching or opinion-making from the audience. Often there are long speeches, tedious interludes, boring banter: all typical in local government. The creators of the piece, including Aaron Landsman, are using the rhythm of actual city council meetings in their performance, not changing it to make it more palatable or “dramatic.”
I was struck by how incapable I felt to intervene in the event, to speak out or question the flow of business as usual. I was reminded how disempowering these spaces feel: hostile in that fear-inducing bureaucratic way. We are invited to participate, yet not expected to deviate from the script; rather, there’s a sense we should acquiesce to our representation. At one point, a slogan to this effect played on the televisions at the front of the room, as the directors seem to wink at the audience in complicity.
After about an hour, the audience was invited to share their own concerns, resolutions, impossible dreams and burning thoughts on small slips of paper that were distributed in the room. We were invited to write what was left out of the meeting so far, what made us mad or what boiled our blood. These cards were collected by the “staffers.”
After a brief intermission, the public reentered the courtroom at Palm Center. As we reentered, Kathryn McNeil, a local political consultant, read out the concerns written on the cards. Tellingly, comments not received in English were not read.
Then McNeil read a statement from local engineer and Council Member Steve Costello, which was interrupted at several points by the choir from the local Iglesia de Ríos de Aceite as they sang Evangelical praise songs. The cameras were off at this point and uncomfortably, the choir was oriented away from the audience, towards the Judge’s bench (where the altar or cross would be in a church). As Costello’s speech digressed into a discussion of the empires of men who control society, the role of big corporations like Enron in our local politics, it reached a kind of crescendo with the line: “It’s hard to listen when you know what’s right.” That’s when I heard the young boy behind me say, “This is so weird.”
The clash of so many disparate forces within the performance highlighted for me the lack of communication that takes place both in government and social practice art/performance spaces. The way that City Council meetings and local government become this highly scripted space where our interactions are managed and channeled in socially acceptable ways. The performance of a lack of dialogue, the performance of a city that can’t quite bring itself to communicate.
As I left the room, my head spinning manically with thoughts and responses to the performances, I stopped and spoke en español with the women from the choir who were seated in the courtroom lobby. I asked what they had understood from the performance; two women explained that they felt it was about the need to speak out, the need to get involved in local politics. One woman smartly turned the tables back on me and asked: What did you think? I explained much of what I’ve written here in an abbreviated format. They responded that they had been asked to sing in Spanish, thinking my critique about the space not being bilingual was an attack on them for not singing in English. No, I told them, al contrario, my critique was about how the space didn’t allow for a substantive bilingualism, just like in the broader city we share. Both women recommended I speak with la Doctora, the director of the choir. When I mentioned to her my qualms about the possibility that non-bilingual members of the choir might have benefited from interpretation, the director cut me off and said: “No, no, todos entendieron el inglés; no porque son hispanos no van a entender.” No, no, she said, everyone understands English, just because they’re Hispanic doesn’t mean they wouldn’t understand.
On my card with my unread concern, I wrote: “Creo que todos tenemos el derecho de entender lo que está pasando en nuestro alrededor, y además que todos tenemos el derecho de hablar en el idioma que se nos hace más cómodo.” That is, “I think that we all have the right to understand what is going on around us, and in addition that we all have the right to speak in the language in which we feel most comfortable.” Impossible dreams, indeed.
Both in performance art and in local politics, we reproduce hierarchies whether we want to or not. No one person is guilty or innocent exactly, at fault or exempt from critique. If anything, I left the performance with a weird mix of exhilaration and frustration at this clash of the worlds of local politics with the demimonde of art and performance. Especially since the performance was just as messy, awkward, tense, tedious, enraging, dramatic and complicated as day-to-day life in our circa 2012, post-everything society.
Check it yourself and see what you think: tonight, 7:30 pm on Friday night at the El Dorado Ballroom in Third Ward at 2310 Elgin Street 77004 and Saturday night at the new Diverseworks in Midtown at 4102 Fannin Street 7704. Admission is FREE. Click here to learn more.