Pulling Their Own Weight

Lugging around a 1989 GMC truck is public art with a purpose

What do you do when staring at Ohio's 7-percent

unemployment rate? Well, if you're an artist, you hire 200 people to haul eight tons 25 miles for a public critique of employment culture.

That is the ostensible aim of Pull!, a performance art piece happening this weekend masterminded by artist William Pope.L and SPACES. Between Friday and Sunday, crews of 15 will work two-hour shifts dragging a 1989 GMC truck through the city's streets, from Waterloo to Wade Oval (during Parade the Circle) to West 25th.  

Organizers hope that the public recognizes similarities to their own experience in the working world in their arduous project, and that that recognition leads to a critical examination of working stiffs.

"We push through and don't think of it. A lot of people are doing the same thing, working at a loss. A lot of people are working and feel things, time, is slipping away. Even people with a comfortable lifestyle feel there's a disconnect," says Pope.L.  

If they don't feel it already, Pope.L likely hopes to cultivate such a sense of unease. The Newark, N.J. native and associate professor at the University of Chicago achieved prominence for performance art staged on the busy streets of American metropolises—crawling along Manhattan's Broadway in a Superman costume as long as his elbows and knees could bear him, or traveling with the "Black Factory," wherein canned goods and bottled water were hawked alongside performers in blackface masks.  

Pope.L was first introduced to Cleveland via the Performance Arts Festival, a now-defunct symposium for body-based conceptual happenings celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The artist says that during his previous work in the city, he was attracted to its rich blue-collar history and ethos.

"It reminds me, in the best sense, of northern New Jersey," Pope.L says. "It's a working-class city, and like a lot of small cities like Portland...there have been a few strong industries in a golden age, but now there's rebuilding. It's an interesting story, and struck me. I wanted to do something with the city and its people."

Pull! has already cast a circle of influence around itself. Not just SPACES, but nonprofits like the Neighborhood Leadership Institute, Policy Matters Ohio, and Neighborhood Connection have made financial, logistical, or intellectual contributions to the project. On Thursday, May 30, the NLI and PMO hosted a community forum to have the exact sort of wide-scoped conversation on employment and unemployment issues Pull's organizers hope to cultivate. There's talk of more work workshops after the event, and video projects based on interviews conducted with volunteers and spectators during the pull.

Contributing advocacy groups hope the project will broadcast to a wider audience the issues they've been plugging away at for years.

"The symbolism is uncanny. It [Pull!] speaks to connectedness and the fact that in order to get to another place, we have to pull together," says Jacquie Gillon, director of community organization at the Neighborhood Leadership Institute.

Organizers reached out to 2100 Lakeside, the state's largest homeless shelter, and offered resident clients the opportunity to pull for a $30-per-shift stipend not offered to the other volunteers. Fourteen men took SPACES up on the offer.

Michael Sering, Lakeside's vice president of housing and shelter, said that the project aligned with the institution's commitment to art therapies and unemployment advocacy.

"For someone homeless, work and finding housing are two things that go hand in hand...It's not a lot of money, but it really makes a difference for people with no income," Sering said.

Michael Goss, a resident client of Lakeside for the last three weeks, said he appreciated the money, but he was also hopeful for the project's wider impact.

"Anything that could help make jobs in Ohio is good, period. It's bringing attention to people that need to hear about it," Goss said.

Contributors on all levels have invested much hope that Pull! will inspire serious examination. But will the public stay on topic, or will the spectacle of the event absorb popular attention? Organizers aren't worried.

Kate Sopko, SPACES' residency director, acknowledges discussion will be about both the art and the art's themes.

"I think it will be about both, but it's still work. It's symbolic, but it's work," Sopko says.

Pope.L says that it is unavoidable that discussions on symbolic cultural undertakings can get sidetracked, but says that the project has "mechanisms" in place to prevent that, such as Neighborhood Leadership's work forum and the temporary work for Lakeside's residents. He also says discussion of the project itself could be enlightening on the gap between hand-to-mouth living and the sort of lifestyle which affords time and resources for creativity.

"If you're working to earn your bread everyday, you don't have time to do art. Your heart goes out to them, and you have to ask what happens that makes it possible for people to do something like this," Pope.L says.

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