In September, Durham artist Stacey L. Kirby drove a jam-packed fifteen-foot truck to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to install her interactive installation The Bureau of Personal Belonging at the annual ArtPrize festival. After having life-changing conversations with thousands of visitors, Kirby drove home three weeks later with a $200,000 check.
Uniting several of Kirby's projects, which open dialogues about community, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, and belonging, the installation took top honors among more than 1,400 artists from more than forty countries. Throughout the stations of the "bureau," which looks like a 1970s office, performers playing bureaucrats help visitors validate their identities by filling out custom forms.
For the first part of ArtPrize, local Kirby collaborators such as Heather Gordon, Harriet Hoover, and Warren Hicks performed in the work. But then, members and allies of the Grand Rapids-area LGBTQ community joined in. Kirby is donating a substantial portion of her prize money to Equality NC, a statewide organization that advocates for LGBTQ rights. We recently spoke with her about the overwhelming sense of community she feels in Bureau.
INDY: The Bureau of Personal Belonging combines several interactive installations. How did they come together at ArtPrize?
STACEY L. KIRBY: There were like twenty office spaces in my venue, and ArtPrize—which is an amazing organization—said I could use as many as I wanted. So I focused on the lobby area, a hallway, and four rooms for the individual projects. One was The Declaration Project, [in which participants "declare" their physical and conceptual possessions]. One was the Archives, where you file your cards and there are files from old projects, as well as things that people can interact with, like typewriters. And then there's the Civil Validation Office of VALIDnation [in which participants state their family and community memberships], and the Facility Permit Office of I AM [in which participants' identities are certified to use the restrooms]. There was also a "training room" that was an afterthought, a side thing—people could look through a little window into it, with a projection screen and some maps and chairs. And there was a "complaints bureau" that we came up with kind of on the spot, too.
What kinds of reactions did people have?
Harriet Hoover was at the front, greeting people and getting them to sign in with their name and the date and their identity. So people are just writing whatever word or phrase they want to use to identify themselves. Which sounds really easy, but some of the people attending ArtPrize had never thought about what their identity is. Harriet did a great job of setting the tone. If a participant didn't know what to write, she would ask questions and throw out examples: Are you a mother? A daughter? Are you a knitter? Do you do gymnastics? How do you navigate your life and who are you?
What kinds of responses did that elicit?
We found some patterns in people's responses—they would look at what the person before them wrote and write the same thing: "Christian," et cetera. I found this when I did this at CAM Raleigh, too. You look down the page and see the same words. And then you flip the page and whoever starts at the beginning sets the tone for a lot of the people signing in beneath them. What I want to do is make people sit in that uncomfortable space where they have to figure it out on their own but they're looking for cues.
What do you think visitors' takeaway was?
Well, it runs the whole gamut. The majority of people, I would say, leave feeling empowered and excited and validated. I issued restroom facility permits; they got a sticker that says "I am human," and they felt connected and supported. They felt heard. But there are also the people who felt frustrated. This was maybe five percent of the people who came through, but they are always the people that stick out, because you think something might shift or some difference might happen for them, and maybe they'll think about it later. That's why I really like things like ArtPrize and SPARKcon and other events where I'm out in the general public on the street. You get so many different types of people, and you have these moments where you see their lightbulb go on—or your own lightbulb.
Tell me about an interaction that stood out.
Heather helped a mother and daughter in the Civil Validation Office. I have a tree of rubber stamps with identity language that people have used over the years—queer, gaywad, lesbo, pansexual. These are all terms people have used to describe themselves. It's not name-calling.
This mother and daughter are stamping their cards and the daughter picks up the "Bi" stamp and stamps it on her card. And her mother is like, "Why did you stamp that? What does that mean?" The daughter says, "Bisexual." And her mother asks, "Why did you stamp it bisexual?" "Because I am bisexual." This girl came out to her mom right in front of Heather during that performance.
That's the kind of stuff I've been experiencing throughout my work for years. It's so—appropriately enough—validating to have other people experience it too, for them to realize that this is the kind of space that we're holding for everyone.
Bureau happened to fall in the heart of an incredibly contentious election season. Did that political climate provide you with any new insights about your work?
I think there are interesting avenues that this work could go to, and not just in an art context but in a civil rights context. We're so used to typical activism, like letter writing and phone calling. This is a different opening for the conversation around human rights in this country, and I love being a part of that.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Personal Space"