This was an interdisciplinary performance and installation project that intertwined social practice, community folkloric studies, hispanic heritage, ecstatic dance, and a three month installation that utilized sound and steel to immerse audiences. The project "Sacred Voice of the Bayou," was mobilized by a $42,000 grant award that I received from the National Endowment of the Arts, and was ultimately unveiled through a community-wide festival that had roughly 500 attendees. I was the concept artist, director, and administrator of the project. In a separate post I have detailed my administrative approach to the project. Here I will discuss the inspirations of the work, the collaborative process and the artist "toolkit" that I engaged throughout the development of the piece.
As lead concept artist and director of the immersive and interdisciplinary project, I communicated to collaborators with sketches, mood boards, written scores, and through verbal discussions. Additionally, I often gave collaborators feedback through text message, e-mail and occasionally over messenger apps on Instagram and Facebook.
Below I am juxtaposing my early sketches, scores and notes with images from the final production to demonstrate the ultimate results.
Personal Connection & Conceptualization
"Bayou Trails" was an arts-in-communities granting process that had been developed by Houston Arts Alliance through support from the National Endowment of the Arts. The purpose of the grants were to invigorate selected communities through arts works that were specific to the interests and heritage of the locale. At the start of the process, groups from each selected neighborhood--which were Hermann Park, MacGregor Park, and Mason Park-- met to discuss their desires for an arts project's themes and outcome. The Mason Park Community identified heritage, ecology and community as primary emphases for thematics, with a desired resolution in the form of both a performance and installation. The community and a panel of arts experts would select finalists from the proposal submissions.
I learned of the proposal opportunity through a former mentor and decided to apply to Mason Park. Being a local myself, I physically visited the park several times while thinking of the kind of project I might conceive. One particular area of the park that intrigued me was the gazebo, as it was detached from the rest of the park and nearer to the area residential area. Its secluded position drew visitors that entered it to reflect quietly amongst themselves. It reminded me of a pagoda or shrine. I decided that any installation that might take place would occur within the gazebo
In conceiving the sound component for the project, I drew upon both my experiences as a performance practitioner and community organizer. It was paramount to me that I center the community in a direct way, through the utilization of their voices and personal narratives. I had worked with the leading Bayou folklorist Dr. Carl Lindahl at The University of Houston and reached out to him to request his consultation on my interview process, to ensure that my approach in speaking to the community would be informed by both practice and empiricism.
But it was also important to me that the project not be entirely beholden to the community's whims, so that myself and the other participating artists that I might select would still have space to develop unique works with artistic integrity. It was in that vein that I left much of my instructions on constructing the noise piece vague at the beginning, so that my future collaborators and I would have room to develop and change things during the rehearsal process later on.
To meet the scale of the community's desires for a public performance and installation, I decided to branch out and recruit other artists to join my project. [Curatorial process detailed in post below.] I eventually selected a crew and pitched my initial ideas to them, remaining receptive to their feedback.
I believe that artists should take great care to avoid being complicit with gentrification and neo-colonialism. With a strong background in intersectional feminist studies and activism, I was intent on leading a project that centered the local community we were working in through informed personal experiences and research. This was particularly important to me as I myself am a local of Mason Park. So I was sensitive to the fact that we would be creating a piece in a working class, majority Hispanic area that had recently been devastated by Hurricane Harvey.
At the onset of my project I took great care in seeking out artists who would themselves be a reflection of the community we were engaging with. As such, it was my goal to work solely with artists based in Houston, and to have a majority Latinx core group. Additionally, I specifically sought out artists who like me had a personal connection to Mason Park and Brays Bayou. I felt that by doing so, I would have a group that was more sensitive to local heritage, community concerns, and would be working with fellow creatives that would both value the ethos of my project as well as benefit from the opportunity to showcase their works at a local park. Ultimately, I selected projection artists INPUTOUTPUT, dancer Y.E. Torres, sculptor duo Julian Luna and Matt Fries, and sound artist Chris Stevens to work alongside me for "Sacred Voice of the Bayou." Five out of the seven collaborating artists were Hispanic, and five out of the seven had lived in Fifth Ward at some point in their lives. Dancer Y.E. Torres discussed her connection to the park and to the piece on her Instagram in a personal post:
Sound and Social Practice
Below are selected notes from the audio process for the live noise show that occurred as the score for the dance piece, in addition to being the sound bites utilized in the speakers that were installed into the gazebo:
The "Luchadores Amores" were a spin-off of a performance piece I had done at Experimental Action in 2017. "The Love Lucha," was a piece that sought to pose a performative alternative to machismo through demonstrations of love and kindness through dramatic physical gestures such as slow motion "hug outs" and compliment competitions. Similarly, the Luchadores Amores blew bubbles, interacted with children and used physicality to convey positive messages on our site. I cast four local performers to appear, and prepared them for the performance through two on-site rehearsals and a written document of instructions.
The Bayou Warrior, as performed by Y.E. Torres, was meant to recall Aztec and Mayan goddess imagery, and to honor the community's majority-Hispanic heritage. With the proximity to the Bayou, Mardi Gras was also an inspiration for the look. I was not interested in "authenticity" as much as I was in melding images from across cultures, since a city as diverse as Houston is reflective of a "melting pot" that is uniquely U.S. American. Hence, "The Bayou Warrior" wears Chachayote and Huichol, but also a bikini and false eyelashes.
Here Y.E. Torres was instructed to perform in close proximity to Brays Bayou. I instructed her to mimic the movements of local animals; snakes, birds and fish. The process of rehearsals was a guided series of structured improvisations.
I instructed Matt and Julian to build a piece that utilized the sound pieces I had constructed with Chris Stevens and the local community, that it have lights, levels, and that it be interactive. It was a tall order, and I even further instructed them that it must be placed in the park gazebo, because I felt that space was reminiscent of a shrine, and it was important to me to utilize it's structure so that the spiritual ethos of the concept translate to people. Over the course of several meetings, we talked over the fabrication of a contemporary art piece that would be both abstract and approachable.
Julian and Matt were highly independent in their fabrication process, though I did review their sketches, engineers stamp, accompanied them for large purchases and check in on them from time to time for progress updates and to offer support. As we neared the close of the project, I provided them with additional funding beyond the initial agreement from the project stipend so that they could hire additional helpers to install the sculpture in time for our publicized unveiling date. Matt and Julian utilized stainless steel, customized software, electric cables, outdoor speakers, and welding materials to accomplish the final vision of the "Bayou Shrine." While we had hoped to donate the piece to the park, it was ultimately de-installed after three months after we were advised that its presence could cause a spike in local property taxes.
This was one hell of a project and I feel honored to have taken part.
"There were people from many communities who attended this event and was enjoyed by all age groups. This project was made possible by the artists, Houston Arts Alliance, City of Houston, and the National Endowment for the Arts and others. East Lawndale Civic Association was grateful to all who were a part of this successful endeavor and we hope to see more of these types of projects introduced in our community." -Elisa Gonzalez, Mason Park local and Civic Association President.