10:57 am. A Saturday. I've just ushered two stilt walkers and a brass band onto Tremont Street, right in front of the Cyclorama at the BCA. "We have three minutes," a police officer tells me, which is how I know the time exactly. At 11am, Boston's first-ever JOY Parade kicked off its three-mile procession from the South End to Upham's corner, ushering Nick Cave's inflatable sculptures to its next location, 555 Columbia Road. Conceived as a jubilant cavalcade of local performers, artists, and everyday Bostonians, the JOY Parade not only transported the sculptures but was, in and of itself, an artwork. A performance activating Nick's work and the artistry others, it also engaged a framework of social infrastructure, police included.
By 11 am it was was in full swing: somehow, in three minutes, we shepherded about 300 people in their most joyful attire onto Tremont Street. A flatbed truck bearing one of the sculptures followed the stilt walkers and band; it was followed by jugglers, bubble-blowers, Fine Art Superheros, students giving away flowers, dancers, costumed revelers, 20 butterfly dancers, and others. A second truck with another sculpture brought up the rear. As we passed through Mass Ave toward Melnea Cass Blvd and then on to Dudley Square, people on bikes and passersby on the sidewalks fell in to walk and dance with us. People came onto their stoops or leaned out of their windows, to watch and wave. Somehow, everyone (performers, walkers, spectators, tow truck drivers, police) just knew what to do, and how to react to, a parade. Before I knew it, the time was 12:45 pm, and we had reached our destination of Upham's Corner.
Though the parade itself was only about two hours long, in reality, its duration was almost a year. When I joined N+T in January, plans for Augment were beginning to coalesce. We knew that Cave wanted to create massive, jumbled-up inflatables that remixed a variety of traditions into one jubilant cloud. The sculptures would unite and encourage people to meet others where they are, and for that reason, curatorially, we would place the sculptures in two discrete sites, ultimately the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts and 555 Columbia Road. From that idea, another started to talk shape, one just as gathered, exuberant, and immersive as the sculptures themselves: a parade between the South End and Upham's Corner.
Parades bring people together, typically in streets, to share an experience. It's a particular form of public cooperation that seems to transcend social strata through the aesthetic of public celebration. For parades, we feel just fine about dressing up in costume, donning face paint or headdress; in parades, we feel okay dancing to the beat of a marching band's drum (or our own). For that reason, a parade is a form that’s been particularly enticing to contemporary artists over the last few decades.
For instance, in 2003 Pierre Huyghe created Streamside Day, a new, public celebration for a planned and recently built town in Streamside, New York complete with a parade, music, speeches, and picnics. Huyge's project explored the constructs of American life, the parade being one, that allows residents from different neighborhoods to unify into a singular, shared town pride. Such socially-engaged practices informed Boston-based art historian Rachel Uchill's On Procession, a 2008 exhibition and catalogue exploring art and parades since the year 2000. Noting that artists have used walks or processions as a medium for temporal, site-driven performative artworks to explore a variety of themes, Uchill also points to the many artists who have, in recent years, employed the parade as both a thematic and aesthetic. For the latter, artists such as Jeremy Deller have staged a variety of processions and parades — notably A Social Parade (2004) — researching the necessary controls and variables in orchestrating such a public performance. "Deller spent months meeting and recruiting local groups and produced innumerable lists, diagrams, and color-coded charts to define the sequence of procession," Uchill writes, describing the attention to social order and relationships that inform parades. My personal favorite of Deller's parade-driven works is 2009's Procession, in which he gathered everyday people doing everyday things in Manchester, England, and organized them to parade down a city street. Organized by type — buskers, newspaper sellers, cafe dwellers — Procession collected and celebrated ordinariness, reflecting on the aesthetic of a particular moment and place.
In Boston, we know what to do with parades, as I experienced on September 14. Here, parades incorporating many artistic disciplines (be they costumes, floats, dance, etc) have been a mainstay of local culture for decades. While planning the JOY Parade, we heard the name "First Night" many, many times; just as often we heard of the Carribean Festival, the People's Sculpture Race, or the Lowell Kinetic Sculpture Race. Of course, we can't say "parade" and "Boston" without also invoking the many sports teams that routinely shut down our streets to celebrate (another) victory.
Perhaps it might come as a surprise, then, that no fewer than nine (9!) City departments were involved (and instrumental) in making the JOY Parade happen. From the Mayor's Office of Arts and Culture, to Special Events, Police, Transportation, and Permitting, many, many hands touched and were involved in shaping the JOY Parade. Pulling off something as ebullient and playful as a parade takes steadfast attention to detail, careful planning, and hard work to communicate between many different people and personalities. As an event, the JOY Parade moved through several different neighborhoods, assembling performers and walkers in shared joy to bring artworks from one place to another over three hours and about three miles. As an artwork in and of itself, it's in conversation with a decade of parade practices that use the social gesture as a form to understand our relationships to place, time, and each other. Durational in many senses of the word, the JOY Parade expanded across workflows and systems, hopefully bringing a sense of togetherness that will last much longer than a few hours.