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Created: August 31, 2003
Latest Update: August 31, 2003

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How Shall I Know Thee?

How Shall I Know Thee?

How Shall I Know Thee?
From the Work Around Which My Life Is Constructed

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, August 2003.
"Fair use" encouraged.

This lecture is drawn from the text were going to use in the Sociology of "Knowing" in the Fall semester. So often we exclude Others from our circle of individual transactions because they are different in some way. Marty Pottenger took on a major art performance in New York City in which she sought to change the social interactions we have with construction workers. She focused on City Water Tunnel #3. And she designed an art project to make New Yorkers aware of the importance of the people who constructed City Water Tunel #3 to everyone in New York.

Art and the Workers of City Water Tunnel #3. Public Art Project by Marty Pottenger.

Then see City Water Tunnel # 3 based on a Chapter by Marty Pottenger in The Citizen Artist, The Critical Press, 1998. Since it's out of stock, we'll make do with my retelling of it.

Marty's biography, from the Chapter:

" Marty Pottenger is an artist, carpenter and contractor with more than 20 years experience in performance art and the construction business. Her New York City multimedia project City Water Tunnel # 3 tells the story of the planning, building and financing of the largest non-defense public-works project in the Western Hemisphere. Created in collaboration with the people and organizations who are building this five-billion-dollar tunnel project, Pottenger's artwork includes an Obie-winning solo theatrical production, gallery exhibitions, performance and video installation at the tunnel worksites, weekend fairs, story-swapping circles and water-tunnel-related activities for young people. City Water Tunnel # 3 arose from the stories of the people building the tunnel. As storyteller, interlocutor, reporter and guide, Pottenger wove together interviews with tunnel workers and her own distilled narrative, adding images, video, graphs, tunnel objects and ambient-sound recordings mixed with an original score by Steve Elson. High Performance asked Marty Pottenger to reveal the process of City Water Tunnel # 3 in all its grandeur, complexity and intimacy. The italicized sections are from the script. --Eds." Ibid. at p. 311.

Marty starts her piece off with this wonderful paragraph:

"The water man from Phoenix said: 'You have to recognize we're a closed system---the earth is a closed system---three-fourths of it is covered with water. Only a small percentage of that is drinkable. . .the rest brackish. The challenge is universal. Consequently, it being a closed system, we're drinking the same water that Napoleon drank. We're drinking the the same water that Archimedes drank. We're drinking the same water that Galileo drank. So you just have to recognize that, put it into that context, and realize you can only do so much with it.' It rained tonight on Galileo's tears boiled hot in my Maxwell House. Usually I hate instant, but this tasted different, richer, more . . . rebellious. Insistent instant. It had never crossed my mind that I could be sipping the sweat and salt from the Inquisition's nastiness over 300 years ago." At p. 311.

Marty's performance this day consisted of the telling of this story of water in our world:

"The performance had just ended when a young woman form the first row walked up to me, said, 'I'm John Cunningham's daughter,' and put her arms around me for a cry. A week later, her mother Pat came with her best friend from childhood, bringing with them a photo album filled with pictures of the same daughter's birth, and a phot of John laughting, looking very much alive---learning against a rail, arms flung round his daughter and his wife, with an ocean stretching out behind them. John was killed on the job four months back, bringing to 22 the number of people killed working on the third water tunnel since 1970 The performance was dedicated to him.

"After the performance, the three of us---Pat, who had divorced John and remarried years ago, her friend Toby, and a friend of mine---sat together for almost two hours listening to 'John' stories, sharing the photos one by one. John who left school in Ireland when he was 12 to work the farm after his father died, oldest of eight; John who worked for 18 years as a miner in NYC, going to night school at Fordham to get a master's in economics and political history; John who got his parish priest in Ireland to write Fordhham that the school John attended had burned down with all its records, so they'd just have to accept his word that John graduated from high school; John who 20 years agao ran against Local 147's union-backed slate on safety issues, lost and went to work for the Bureau of Land and Mines as a safety inspector for 20 years; John who had just retired (20-year pension) from BLM and decided to finish ot the two years left to 20 in Local 147 to get the tunnel worker's pension plus full benefits for silicosis (black-lung disease); John who died four months into that last two years at 19B, falling off the top of the Mole where he was changing a lightbulb overhead; John who 'loved mining,' a 'good man,' 'safety conscious,' 'loved to laugh,' 'kept to himself' and 'who never told much about his job' to his family.

"Pat thanked me for showing her more about John and his work than she had known, telling me that last Saturday her second husband was at his synagogue with the rabbi, who had just seen a performance of City Water Tunnel # 3. It was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which includes a ritual called Tashlik where one's sins are thrown into a body of water. In her sermon, she spoke about what the show had meant to her, about work, meaningful work, about people figuring out how to stick together. As the rabbi encouraged people to go see the performance, Pat's husband jumped up and said, 'Hey that show is about my wife's ex-husband's job.' Which is how pat heard about the performance." At pp..312-313.

Perhaps you can already begin to tell why I wanted you to have this text. Enough to try to summarize some of it here for you. I can imagine talking to Marty and hearing her speak of "Galileo's tears boiled hot in" her Maxwell House coffee. The images she draws of the "Inquisition's nastiness over 300 years ago" speak precisely to our predicament of a single stage, a closed system, on which we each perform in turn, and where the ghosts of past performances still dwell. We are more than the sum of our acts and words and thoughts. We are a part of all those acts and words and thoughts have played upon this stage.

And so I wanted you experience the kind of definition that Marty is giving identity here. Neither Marty nor I claim that her vision of community, of City Water Tunnel # 3 is "the" visions that speaks truth. But we are claiming that she has a vision, that that vision is born of an aesthetic process, and that the experiencing of the aesthetic product of her performance art can change the way New York relates to its City Water Tunnel # 3.

Humans are not only not passive. We are reflexive, and self-reflexive. We nurture an awareness of who we are, and we share and intermingle that awareness with others and who they are. Marty chose to share her awareness of the work and her co-workers on City Water Tunnel # 3 by bringing the New York community to awareness of every member who worked on this enormous project that brought water to New York, the water of Galileo's tears. She planned her project with directors and managers of all the agencies involved, listened to and told the stories of workers, and personally shook hands with every member of the enormous population (more than a thousand people) that worked on City Water Tunnel # 3. She performed their stories, for them, and for all who would join them.

Sugar Story:

"Roosevelt Island Valve Chamber, 170 feet down, pouring he east wall of the Main Chamber, huge mother fuc----oh----excuse me----concrete form. Bottom kicks out 'cause of the weight. Whole form---which is there to get the concrete to hold a shape until it dries----pulls away, concrete slumps down, 20 elephants worth, big elephants. Contractor has a shit fit, sens two guys to the only supermarket on Roosevelt Island, buying out all the sugar the store had----I still remember them racing back to the job with shopping carts filled with boxes, bags of sugar, all the men dumping it into the mix, shoveling with one hand, tearing open cartons with the other, throwing sugar everywhere. Sugar keeps concrete from setting. Keeps the load "love" longer, so the concrete can get scooped up and thrown out before it hardens, which would mean days and weeks of teeth-rattling, cost-overrunning, job-delaying jackhammering. Granulated, powdered, white, brown, confectioner's . . . sweetest job I ever worked on." At p. 314.

For those of you who would like to read more, I'll gladly lend you the book. But I hope that these brief excerpts have given you a sense of the power art can have in promoting the aesthetic process of answerability in creating community. This project was particularly noteworthy in that Marty included all who worked on the project at every level. She made a living performance of labor's principle that the work of each is essential to the accomplishment of the final product.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can building a tunnel produce an art work? And is it art?

    Consider: Bakhtin's dialogic answerability suggests that our creation of community, including both the work community and the broader community of the City of New York, depends on the interrelationships we form through utterance and the answer of the Other. Marty, as a practicing performance artist, and a practicing construction worker, realized that the construction performance work would lead the workers to create art if they were given the freedom to do so. Indeed, exhibits of several of the workers' photographic works were a part of the project. So the work project itself produces art. The artist must be there to interrelate with those workers and their art to recognize it as art and to discover ways of displaying it as such. The artist produces art through providing places and spaces and moments in which art can be seen as art. This alters the way we see. Is this art? Yes. For the best answer I know to this question look at In My House: A Short Essay About Art in Scotland, by Judith Findlay.

  2. Having skimmed this bit of Marty Pottenger's City Water Tunnel # 3, can you give a working definition of what we might mean by the phrase "the citizen artist?"

    Consider where art plays a role in our lives. Consider the kinds of art. And then consider how the long standing theoretical concern that the elevation of sociology as a science might have a detrimental effect on literature or vice versa. The conscious and objective doing and exhibiting of "fine art" can diminish our self-reflection as to the other roles art plays in our lives. These other roles interact more readily with our lived experiences, and we may want to focus more on their role in the meaning of social context. Notice that Marty uses narrative, stories, in different ways, with different relations to people. Does this move us closer to a community system of dialogic answerability, or to a hierarchical system of monologic non-answerability.

  3. What on earth does this have to do with knowing and knowingness?

    Consider: If Marty's art performance can change the self-awareness of New Yorkers to include an awareness of those who worked and sometimes gave their lives to bring them water, then learning occurs in non-traditional ways. Especially the goal that Marty set was an empathetic goal, and we have been singularly unsuccessful in teachin empathy and caring for the Other.

    Consider also that Marty does not presume to know what the project should include, how the workers will participate, what must be done. She is willing to let the workers make and participate in the making of the art. In doing so she enters into an aesthetic process with her co-workers. In taking the trouble to include New Yorkers more broadly she is extending that aesthetic process of answerability beyond the city water tunnel itself. Because this project has the opportunity of changing interrelationships, it has the possibility of producing a community that includes some of the product of the answerability and aesthetics that Marty has brought into it.