On the corner of North University and State sat a Hare Krishna monk chanting the 16-word Maha Mantra his movement holds so dear. On the opposite corner, the “you’re going to Hell” folks were setting up their soapbox for an afternoon of fire spitting. I found the moment enjoyable, but noticed a few faces around me stricken with — oh, I don’t know — horror? Perplexity, in the least? They looked unsettled.
Individually, these groups present their own — what I assume are to some minds surprising — facts: Yes, asceticism persists even in our highly modernized society, and yes, people still say such hateful words with complete and utter conviction. Together, however, I feel as if something different elicited those horrified looks. Pardon me for hazarding a guess (I can’t know what these people felt), but perhaps the loud reminder of a thing called “public space,” a space that a conflicting chorus of voices calls home, surprised them the most.
This idea, especially recently, has become a rather contentious area of debate. France, through its legislation banning face-covering clothing, is discovering just how complicated the notion of “public space” can be. For now, within certain limits, we have it, and Ann Arbor, with its particular urban design, presents a few spaces that are ideal for anyone looking for an audience. While the (relatively) untamed presence of the public space terrified me initially, I have come to realize that not only should we preserve public space at all costs but that it also has a lot of untapped creative potential.
I am a child of suburban sprawl. Public space, for the most part, consisted in the walkways in between the shopping malls — areas whose usage would indicate lack of personal transport and therefore class status. To many among the comfortable classes, these areas were feared. Since most of these walkways in my town weren’t actual sidewalks but instead the shoulder of the road, the fear was propped up by the recurring proof of pedestrian deaths in these areas. On one occasion, one of my favorite local bands had made plans to perform in a park pavilion in my hometown after their other show had been canceled. Halfway through the performance, the police arrived and kicked them out because they had not been allowed to perform there. True, my town had public parks, but parks stand far away from everyday life and regulation by private ownership quells the spontaneous performances and political gestures that happen all the time in a place like Ann Arbor.
When I arrived in Ann Arbor, public space had that unsettling effect upon me that I thought I saw in the people viewing the monks and the firebrands. I wasn’t used to such a forum; life had become regulated and routinized; transit and travel were merely a means to the next part of the schedule. If anyone ever thought of these in-between spaces, they probably did so with contempt. But in Ann Arbor, the walkways congest traffic and slow down movement. This space between destinations (class and the coffee shop, the house and the shop) becomes a site of activity itself. This is all obvious stuff. Various organizations and clubs use it to their advantage daily. My amazement, no doubt, is due in part to where I grew up.
But let’s dwell on the creative possibilities that these spaces offer. What responses do you think people have had to the guitar players and blues singers in the West Hall arch? Is it silly? Intruding? Pointless or sad, because “they must have nothing better to do”? Or is it viewed favorably? Could it even be viewed as a blessing?
While Oscar season has us all trying to pick and choose “the best” films and performances, I offer up a call to action for its antithesis. The context of public space doesn’t presuppose quality, nor is there an institution behind the performances, planning, binding and timing. And even if people can get “spotted,” the space doesn’t offer an item for a resume. Anyone can partake, the novice and the virtuoso, the professional and the non-professional, at any time. This is not to say that we should not build our resumes nor that the performances at Hill Auditorium or the like are necessarily wrong. I’m writing this because I want to raise up public space as another possibility, a site with a unique set of qualities and opportunities.
Ann Arbor has a great deal of public performers: the Violin Monster, Jack and the Bear, Brian Woolridge who dances to Michael Jackson in graffiti alley or Tom Goss playing the harmonica and washboard in the DIAG. I personally have found these performances the most enjoyable, and not on any grounds of good or bad art, but simply because they always catch me off guard.