Joy and Transgression: Reflections on "Slideshow"

The following post was written and contributed to our blog by artist and space maker Elisa H. Hamilton reflecting on her inspiration for and experience during Slideshow, her October 2017 project with N+T and HUBWeek

I'm so excited to release this series of podcasts documenting the voices and stories of the ten brave women featured in Slideshow.  If you didn't get to experience Slideshow this past October at Boston City Hall Plaza, I hope that these audio presentations and conversations will allow you to experience the boldness of these women and the richness of their stories.  If you were able to join us at HUBweek, I hope that these podcasts will remind you of that experience and allow you to, once again, tap into the power of our ordinary lives as a vehicle for sharing, connecting, listening, and learning.

As we look at the immense challenges that our society faces at present, I'm more and more convinced that art – especially art in public places – can bring us closer to solutions for the social ills that plague our city and our world.  I think it’s going to be voices like the women of Slideshow that help turn the tide of our future.

Ten years ago, I never would have imagined that I'd be creating the work I am making now. Sometimes people ask me what connects the many kinds of media that I utilize – the through line for me has always been joy.  When I first began exploring joy in my work, I thought of it as the deepest kind of happiness, the kind that comes with experiencing something powerful and wonderful and beautiful. This exploration began in a winding journey of paintings and drawings that documented the vibrancy of our ordinary moments, especially in our habitual environments.  Eventually, that journey broke away from the wall: onto sidewalks, into dancing, and towards sharing objects we can hold with our hands in spaces that make us wonder, look more closely, and connect to one another.

As my work has evolved, so has my emphasis on joy.  In the past year in particular, I find that it is not necessarily joy that I hope to evoke with my work, but something more than that.  What I want to offer to others is not just a feeling, but a course of action – that action is generosity.  Generosity within ourselves and to one another; generosity in our daily lives and in moments of struggle; generosity as a force of positive change.

Sabrina Dorsainvil presents a slide talk in the Slideshow shipping container at HUBweek. Photo by Jean Hangarter

Sabrina Dorsainvil presents a slide talk in the Slideshow shipping container at HUBweek. Photo by Jean Hangarter

In my work, and in the world, I think a lot about cycles of generosity and how to create them. I did an interview with Nathan Frontiero of Take Magazine in which we talked about many aspects of Slideshow, but his biggest takeaway from our conversation was this idea of generous lives.  When I told people about Slideshow – before, during, and after the project – one of the most common questions was always, “how did you choose the women?”  My top criterion, among many, was that they were in some way leading generous lives; offering something of themselves to the world, to their communities, without expecting a return.

When we launched at HUBweek, the response from the public was incredibly positive.  What was the public reacting to in Slideshow?  What was so powerful about these ten women showing us their day-to-day lives so honestly in the format of analog slides?  Authenticity, sincerity, courage, vulnerability, and so much more.  These ten women were being generous with their stories, and with themselves.  Slideshow allowed the public to see the object as a symbol of a moment, to piece together a story, and to identify their own lives in these day to day, human moments.  It may not actually be possible, but it’s my goal as an artist to create work that can move everyone in a different way; art so universal that every person can have their own genuine experiences with it, no matter what walks of life they come from.  I believe that art rooted in the kind of brave vulnerability that the women of Slideshow put forth is one way to do that; art that brings into vivid focus the authentic complexities and triumphs of our honest lives is something that we can all understand.

Visitors peer at slides through loupes on the lighttable. Photo by Sylvia Stagg-Giuliano

Visitors peer at slides through loupes on the lighttable. Photo by Sylvia Stagg-Giuliano

I grew up in the Boston area and have lived here pretty much all my life.  Over the years my relationship with this city has become increasingly complex.  As a biracial person, I used to feel at home in Boston-  but in recent years, when I go places, I often find myself wondering whether I'm welcome.  At the behest of a friend, I worked my way through the Boston Globe's Spotlight series on racism in Boston.  The truths presented are deeply disturbing.  That we have made so little progress on overcoming racism in this city is unacceptable.  The Spotlight Team’s investigations compounded many of the things I already feel here in Boston, and brought to light statistics that were even worse than I could have imagined.  Feeling that I don’t belong here in my hometown is one of the things that has pushed me harder to make work that isn't just "accessible," but inclusive and welcoming.  I want the public to see my work and say, "I’m not sure what’s happening over there, but I know that it’s for me.”

Viewers inside and outside of the Slideshow shipping container await a slide talk. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Viewers inside and outside of the Slideshow shipping container await a slide talk. Photo courtesy of the artist.

That unexpected moment of discovery is one of public art’s greatest strengths. In my creations, I strive to heighten the possibility that people can have an unexpectedly positive interaction with each other. That possibility always exists, but it’s my job to call attention to it and set the stage with an accessible means to that connection.  It is not always easy, but I find that if I can win someone over, there's a greater chance that they will be more open to possibilities for connection in the future.  In the development stages of Slideshow, I worried that an all-female project might feel exclusive, but the end result was an inclusive exhibition.  Much like how the Women’s March movement has grown from a force of women to a women-led force that includes many beyond those identifying as female, Slideshow offered an entry point for all to share in this exploration of personal narratives.

On the communal light table at Slideshow, the women’s individual slide collections would become mixed up quickly: different women’s images were intermingled on the table, a beautiful mish-mash of life stories. On the Friday night of HUBweek, I started suggesting to folks that if they could find all of the slides made by one woman in particular, then they could start to piece together her story. This became a game: people around the table started collecting all the images from one woman.  One couple would be collecting Rissa’s images, and another man across the table would be collecting Nina’s, and then suddenly they would be helping one another to find the full 25 slides in each other’s collections.  This kind of social connection around the light table was exactly what I had hoped for!  When visitors had put together all 25 images, I would ask them what they could discern about the woman’s story.  This search-and-discover process went on for hours with different visitors.

Visitors explore slides together in the Slideshow container at HUBweek.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

Visitors explore slides together in the Slideshow container at HUBweek.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

How do we become more comfortable with people who are not like us?  An entry point for connection, a shared goal that identifies commonalities, and a meaningful interaction.  Art can provide those portals in a way that allows us to wade in gently.  We are looking at a thing, and then we are holding it, then we are giving it to someone else, and then we are having a conversation together.  Research has found that meaningful contact between people of different backgrounds consistently diminishes prejudice and builds empathy.  This includes folks from different racial or ethnic groups, people in same-sex relationships, those with disabilities and those with mental illness (Weir).  I believe that art can succeed where traditional dialogue seems to be failing us today, by being a conduit for connections such as these.

A little over a year ago, at an artists’ gathering I attended, we played a game where each one of us took home a different word, which would be a concept for us to embrace in future creations.  I was charged to in some way adopt the word "transgressive” in my artwork.  As much as I wanted to bring this intent to fruition, I admit that I thought it was unlikely.  I’m a person who tries to play by the rules.  As a teenager, I once got kicked out of the mall for running up the escalator the wrong way, and I was so ashamed that I didn't go back to that mall for years.  Even today when I visit that mall, I have moments of concern: evading the gaze of the mall cops, afraid that 20 years later they'll recognize me, remember my offense, and kick me out again.

Photo courtesy of the artist

Photo courtesy of the artist

But our world is changing, and so am I.  There's a Huffington Post piece that I think a lot about these days. The article talks about a lack of empathy in our current political and human climate.  It grapples with the difficulty of explaining in words why it's important to think beyond one’s own needs, and convey to people that they need to consider the needs of others for the good of our collective society.  Our current federal administration seems to subscribe to a philosophy of “take what you can for yourself, and don't worry about anyone else, now or in the future.”  They have set a standard of intolerance, falsehood and selfishness.

I’ve never considered my artwork to be political, much less transgressive, but our current political powers have made the concepts of kindness and inclusion into radical notions.  One of the things that the women of Slideshow have taught me is that there are big ways and small ways to be brave, they are all acts of courage; pushing our own limits is what's most important.  I now know how I will embrace my charge to be transgressive, how I will push my own boundaries further in my work and in my life: joy as an act of resistance.  Authenticity as an expression of defiance.  Generosity as a force of change.

Lolita Parker, Jr. and Elisa Hamilton embrace after a slide talk; Elisa clutches garden seeds gifted to her by Lolita.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

Lolita Parker, Jr. and Elisa Hamilton embrace after a slide talk; Elisa clutches garden seeds gifted to her by Lolita.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

Works Cited

●      Chadwick, Kayla. “I Don’t Know How to Explain to You that You Should Care About Other People” Huffington Post. June 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/i-dont-know-how-to-explain-to-you-that-you-should_us_59519811e4b0f078efd98440. Accessed Jan. 24, 2018.

●      Frontiero, Nathan. “Honoring Generous Lives” Take Magazine. Oct. 2017.  https://thetakemagazine.com/elisa-h-hamilton-artist/. Accessed Jan. 24, 2018.

●      The Spotlight Team. “Boston. Racism. Image. Reality” The Boston Globe. Dec. 2017. http://apps.bostonglobe.com/spotlight/boston-racism-image-reality/. Accessed Jan. 24, 2018.

●      Weir, Kirsten. “Dismantling Hate” Monitor on Psychology. American Psychological Association, Jan. 2018. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2018/01/dismantling-hate.aspx. Accessed Jan. 24, 2018.

Elisa H. Hamilton is a multimedia artist and a proud product of public education; she attended Arlington Public Schools, and went on to earn her BFA in Painting at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. She continues her practice at her studio at Boston Center for the Arts.

To hear the women's experiences of Slideshow click the links below.