On February 22nd I had the opportunity to speak with Robin Alexander, a former worker in the United Electrical workers union, who herself has helped organize an international mural project. her word is “Solidaridad,” “Solidarity.” River of Words was a complicated project, one that, for Robin, has been framed in the media as a critique of the Venezuelan government, a critique that she would have preferred not to have been a part of. However, she has reframed her word such that it continues to have an oppositional charge, to have meaning for her. She noted: “Solidaridad [was] ….a perfect fit given my work, and so that—you know, I was really happy initially, and then I was really upset, and then I was trying to decide how to think about it, how do I think about this because I do believe that art should be political, but I felt somewhat used because I would not have chosen to participate—so I had to decide what to do. And so what I did is I write a letter to the editor, I raised it with people, and it just happened that right at that period was when Israel attacked Gaza and so there was actually a demonstration in Oakland, I think it was the evening for the reception for the project, and I had been planning to come [to the reception] and express my concerns and instead I decided my time and energy were probably better spent participating in the demonstration, so I went to that, and the organizers were mostly young and they had created some wonderful signs. They were, sort of, heavy, not cardboard…and they had red hand-prints and the name and age of all of the children who had been killed in the bombing, so I got one of those signs, and at the end of the demonstration they said “If you are going to attend another demonstration or have another use for the sign you can keep it, otherwise please turn it back in” and I thought “Oh, well maybe I do have a use for the sign.” So I kept it and I took it home and I attached it under my Solidaridad word.”
|“Solidaridad.” Image courtesy of Robin Alexander.
CB: So I’m here with Robin Alexander, the date is February 22, 2015, as part of the River of Words Oral History project, so, thanks for being with me, Robin.
CB: I wanted to start by asking some basic demographic information, because one of the things I want to learn is about the diversity of folks involved in the project.
RA: Is this video or audio?
CB: Audio. So if we could start with your full name, address, age, marital status, race you identify with, and if you need reminding about the various categories, I’d be happy to remind you.
RA: Okay. My name is Robin Alexander, I live at 1926 Perrysville Avenue, which is sort of up the hill from here. I am sixty-one. I am single. And I am European-American.
CB: Okay. And how long have you lived in the North Side?
RA: About twenty-five years.
CB: And you mentioned earlier that you’ve lived in Pittsburgh for 30 years?
CB: Do you know if your house falls within the historic district?
RA: It does not, I live up the hill in a different neighborhood.
CB: So I wanted to turn to the River of Words project now and talk a bit about that. Can you tell me about how you became involved in the project, and the experience that you had?
RA: Yeah, I’ve attended a lot of the City of Asylum events, so at one of them someone asked if I would do this and I said ‘sure’ and then afterwards it occurred to me that this project actually might be used as a platform to criticize the Venezuelan government and I wasn’t interested in participating if that had been the case, so I’d asked both the City of Asylum and the arts funders if it would be used that way, and they said “Oh, no no no! that wasn’t in the proposal, that’s not the intent at all” so I said “Okay,” and then of course that it was!
RA: There were articles both in the City Paper and in the Post Gazette and I was pretty upset, actually, so I wound up actually writing and getting a letter to the editor published in the Post Gazette and I spoke to people afterwards.
CB: So I’m not super familiar with the content of all of the project I’ve been more talking to people word by word about what they picked and what it meant to them. So do you mind telling me what parts of the project were, to you, a critique of the Venezuelan government?
RA: Oh, that it was, there were, you know its been a long time now so I can’t tell you exactly but in one case there was an interview with one of the writers and in the other I think it was based on discussions that the person who wrote the article sort of used those discussions to say that Venezuela is a dictatorship and some other things.
CB: So kind of how the project was framed in the media?
RA: Yes. Okay, okay that’s helpful.
CB: So what word did you end up choosing?
CB: That makes sense, given your work with the union [international electrical workers].
RA: Well, it was a perfect fit given my work, and so that—you know, I was really happy initially, and then I was really upset, and then I was trying to decide how to think about it, how do I think about this because I do
believe that art should be political, but I felt somewhat used because I would not have chosen to participate—so I had to decide what to do. And so what I did is I write a letter to the editor, I raised it with people, and it just happened that right at that period was when Israel attacked Gaza and so there was actually a demonstration in Oakland, I think it was the evening for the reception for the project, and I had been planning to come [to the reception] and express my concerns and instead I decided my time and energy were probably better spent participating in the demonstration, so I went to that, and the organizers were mostly young and they had created some wonderful signs. They were, sort of, heavy, not cardboard, what do you call that stuff?
RA: No, they were heavy paper, I guess, and they had red hand-prints and the name and age of all of the children who had been killed in the bombing, so I got one of those signs, and at the end of the demonstration they said “If you are going to attend another demonstration or have another use for the sign you can keep it, otherwise please turn it back in” and I thought “Oh, well maybe I do have a use for the sign.” So I kept it and I took it home and I attached it under my Solidaridad
CB: What kinds of reactions or interactions did that inspire?
RA: Actually, the only one came from my neighbors who said “Cool.”
CB: That’s interesting. Also coming off of, on Pitt’s campus there is the Conflict Kitchen—
RA: This was before that, actually.
CB: Yeah, but its interesting when controversy happens, and when it doesn’t.
CB: Okay, and so six months later, can you tell me about the impact that displaying this word has had in your life? Has it changed in meaning for you? Has it caused any other interactions or anecdotes that you feel comfortable sharing?
RA: No, I mean, I’ve gotten a couple of inquiries about, “I’ve seen words sort of around in this neighborhood, why are they there?” but beyond that no one’s really commented. I live across the street from Triangle Tech so there are a lot of students who walk up and down my hill even though it’s a really quiet street and not many people live on the street, so I imagine a lot of people have actually seen it, but I haven’t had conversations with them about it.
CB: OK Cool. So I’m going to turn to the Historic Review Commission situation, so, are you aware of what is going on with the HRC, and if so, do you have any thoughts
about what should be done with the words?
RA: Well, I know that there was an issue about whether the people within the Mexican War Streets would be able to leave their words on their homes.
CB: Do you have any opinions on whether they should. Because the way I understand it is that they are seeking an exemption to allows the words to stay up indefinitely.
RA: Oh, I hadn’t realized that but I certainly would support that.
CB: Finally I want to ask about your thoughts more generally about public art, in the North Side and in Pittsburgh, if you could speculate on who it serves, and the general social function that it has?
RA: I think that public art is tremendously important. And at least here in Pittsburgh my impression is that the sprout fund had been raelly significant in helping to fund public art. There are murals throughout the city. I’ve traveled pretty extensively and so you see public art in other places much more than you generally do in this country. Who does it serve? Well, to some extent I think that depends on how its funded and who does the art, and we were talking a little bit before this interview about how in my work I had helped facilitate the creation of several murals and it was a really interesting experience because it was as a labor union, it was very very difficult to get funding for that kind of art even though the artists were fabulous and the products were really wonderful.
CB: Was it difficult to get funding because people didn’t want to give to labor unions?
CB: So just a general anxiety about labor unions, U.S. proclivities towards capitalism?
CB: That makes sense. So I’d like to circle back to your earlier discussion about how you felt a little bit frustrated by the framing of this project. Do you have any thoughts about what, maybe, should be involved in future instantiations of this project or in general in terms of making the process more transparent and more participatory?
RA: I’m not sure exactly what you are asking.
CB: I guess I am asking if you think there is a better way to have gone about the process of developing this project such that the media framing that you talked about would have been less possible. The framing you suggest that, even though this project could be read in a number of ways, the fact that it was prevalently pitched as a critique of the Venezuelan government. Do you think there was a better way to have gone about it to create a different end result?
RA: I’m not sure because I guess I think that artists should have the right to express themselves and their views. I guess my problem is that today in the United States I don’t think the problem is with what’s happening in Venezuela, its with how its being presented here in the U.S. and how our government is supporting the right-wing forces in Venezuela. And so, I think the issue is, is that the sort of project that we would want to have here? And, I don’t know. In a way, it wound up being sort of disguised as an innocent community project.
CB: That’s fascinating. Is there anything else you would like to say that I haven’t given you an opportunity to talk about?
RA: Well, in spite of all of this, I really do like the City of Asylum, and I think they have done some really fabulous programming and I’m going to continue to go to their events, but this has certainly made me think, perhaps more deeply,
about the role of public art, and who makes decisions, and I guess going back to your question, I don’t know how this project came about, or who decided to do it, or how it was to be done, but I guess, if I had been asked beforehand I certainly would’ve had a viewpoint to have expressed that perhaps wasn’t expressed, and I would’ve appreciated the opportunity to have contributed that.
CB: Alright, thanks so much.