For one month in 2007, under the moniker of the “CAlabama Peddlers”, marksearch rode a tandem bike towing a 4-foot billboard, in and around the small southern town of York, Alabama. Once a busy hub of the now defunct AT&N Railroad, York is an economically depressed town searching for its future. A 2005 University of Alabama initiative identified York as a potential eco-tourism destination, and at the time of the project York was searching for a new town slogan. The marksearch team developed bike uniforms based on historic town symbols, including distinctive jerseys, helmet appliqué and embroidered patches to promote the project on the street.
Their vibrant uniforms and distinctive signage inspired by the defunct railroad line made the Peddlers very visible eco-tourists on a mission to make connections within the community through shared stories, citing the common goal of selecting a new town slogan. The project name is derived from combining the state names “California” (abbreviated as CA) and “Alabama”, along with the mode of transportation (bicycle riding). The marksearch team is based in Oakland, California. The team, comprised of cultural researcher Sue Mark and engineer Bruce Douglas have been creating socially engaged projects in the United States and Europe since 2000. Their research-based explorations rely on daily life experience, weaving the needs and views of local agencies and the public with the specific qualities of local history, the built environment, and the ecosystem.
marksearch, by creating a traveling commons, aimed to creatively offer opportunities for all York residents to share their stories. In exchange for these stories, the Peddlers carried out environmentally positive service activities. This investigation of how ecotourism could manifest in rural Alabama touched on local socio-economics, including racial segregation and commercial globalization, environmental issues, such as watershed stewardship and land use for natural resources, as well as food security.
Cycling around nearly every street in York and the surrounding area, the Peddlers met with a large cross-section of the community for informal chats, interviews, sharing of poetry and memories. Using their travelling billboard, the Peddlers shared their slogan ideas generated by conversations with locals. The Peddlers delivered the slogan ideas to the Mayor and community organizations.
marksearch wanted to become an historically and conceptually relevant, colorful two-person parade with very local symbolism. Riding their tandem bike with a 4’ chalkboard-billboard on the rear, they would intentionally blur the distinction between ‘activity’ and ‘art’. marksearch presented the project to the local audience-participants not as an art experience, but as a service: neighborly visits to talk about and share printed materials from the 2005 ecotourism study of York.
In essence the project was about social activation and debate, community development, social inclusion, health and well-being. In order to gain a better appreciation for some of the issues facing a small, southern Black Belt town, the artists wanted to explore these questions:
Given its recent social and economic struggles, what is the future of this town?
How do people talk about the town’s history?
What stories are permitted to be shared publicly, and by whom?
How do people talk about history through a black or white racial lens?
How have people felt the impact of severe economic shifts?
What positive, impactful slogans could embody the ethos of these stories?
What is people’s connection to, or sense of, place?
CAlabama Peddlers was a demonstration of bicycling as an ecologically sound mode of transportation, which offers affordable, sustainable and accessible adventures for diverse communities.
By promoting ecotourism this project sought to encourage local thought and discussion of inclusive environmentally positive future concepts. York, and many areas of the rural south, may be economically challenged, but they are rich with environmental assets like waterways, woodlands, habitat and good air quality. Ecotourism as a plan for conscientious municipal and regional development can lead to corollary protection and restoration of these assets for their own sake and for recreational enjoyment.
The Peddlers wanted to create a cultural and social spark to ignite community dialogue and action toward envisioning a locally self-determined future for York as an ecotourist destination.
OUTCOMES & IMPACTS
Though York is a small, quiet town, it is impacted by complicated racial and economic issues. The team travelled over 200 miles to visit churches, schools, community organizations and people on their porches. marksearch collected stories of change, conflict, successes and failures as expressed by local residents. Residents shared stories about York’s history, the railroad, social life, environmental and political concerns, and of course, their yearnings for the town’s future. Based on these commentaries, marksearch generated and presented slogans designed to encourage the expression of local pride. Hundreds of York residents participated in this unique opportunity to share with often disconnected members of their own community; though unspoken, the town has clear racial delineations. Their stories became accessible to a wider audience through the Peddlers’ project website.
marksearch intentionally designed their public presence to function as a familiar though curious spectacle. In this rural area, casual and long-distance cyclists were a rare sight. Tandem cyclists, geared in bright yellow and red uniforms towing a 4-foot billboard, were impossible to ignore. Through daily rides, often repeatedly covering the same streets, locals greeted the Peddlers with a friendly wave and encouraged their neighbors to share stories. Because the team reached out across generations, school kids, who had met with the Peddlers, convinced their parents to also talk with the riders. In this way, over a relatively short period of time, the once strange outsiders became welcome visitors.
marksearch’s efforts were regrettably not utilized in the official quest for a slogan. Scheduling a meeting with the small town’s mayor (who was also a full-time nurse), was a significant challenge. The Peddlers spoke with her at the end of the project period; it became evident that a slogan had previously been chosen without public process or invitation of the town’s population to participate. The Peddlers were warned (by white residents) to avoid African American sections of town, but ignoring these opinions, they explored a welcoming community. Word of mouth spread quickly as they talked to people on the street, local business owners, school teachers, kids and seniors. After the second week in town, their stories preceded them.
From the collected stories, they created and displayed the following slogans serially on their traveling billboard:
- ‘We Come to York, Alabama’
- ‘The Place You Always Knew, York AL’
- ‘Come Home to York, Alabama’
- ‘The Once & Future York’
- ‘Switchin’ Tracks in York’
The graphic designs of the billboard messages were modeled after the many hand-made signs in town designed by a local sign-maker for local businesses and churches.
The Peddlers distributed and discussed with local residents hundreds of copies of the University of Alabama urban planning proposal, and discussed the proposal with local residents. This plan included a blueprint of the assets and opportunities for future advancement. This study had never been publicized and residents were quite curious about it, leading to some lively discussions.
The conversational modality of the project encouraged citizens to voice their opinions in an open and non-judgmental forum so that they felt that they could positively impact their own home. marksearch may have provided a seldom seen opportunity for African American residents of York to engage in positive planning visioning.
CAlabama Peddlers’ aim and product were restricted by the short time frame of the project and the lack of continuity in their relationship with the community. Continued collaboration with stakeholders on regional ecotourism and increased project scope to create permanent welcome signage and promotional materials for York would have amplified their efforts to foster economic regeneration through marketing York as a valuable place. The project’s temporary nature provided an ephemeral though broad-based and significant provocation for future action.
The team’s sound preparation one year prior to implementing the project, combined with a clear conceptual platform, allowed many possible manifestations of the project’s on-the-street activities. Thematically consistent but intentionally porous, the project unfolded in an organic and responsive way: What would a typical day look like? How would the team strategize the travel routes? How many slogans would they attempt to develop? How would the team reach the broadest range of audience/participants?
Continuity was a major challenge for this project. The project was conceptualized and vetted prior to the arrival of a new Executive Director at the Coleman Art Center. This transition impacted the project’s development prior to their on-site arrival. The most powerful lesson learned was that one month is too little time for outsiders to gain deep trust of and effectively interact with a community and produce a permanent product. marksearch would have liked to have left a permanent signage installation in York. Many of the artists’ ideas had to be curtailed or abbreviated, and the always present challenge of ephemeral performance is that once the project is over, it becomes a story and memory from only one point in time. However, years after the project’s on-site activity, the documentary web blog continued to be heavily used by area schools and universities.
The project was modified because tensions arose due to the Peddlers’ inclusive story gathering process. Since small town issues got amplified by the team’s outsider actions, they were asked to remove from the website certain stories that had been shared, but were considered “not for public consumption”. Even though everyone in town knew these embarrassing racism-tainted stories, members of the power class didn’t want them shared on the internet.
The Coleman Art Center sent out project press releases throughout the month and articles in local newspapers were published as the project unfolded. At the end of their stay, the team mounted their traveling billboard with slogans on a stand as a gift for the town. They sent out a friendly letter to over fifty churches, community organizations and schools explaining the project and sharing the slogans for public use.
IMPACTS OF ARTWORK PRODUCTION
Most materials for this project were reused: marksearch already owned the tandem bike (bought used) and had used it for a previous project. The team repainted the bike to brand it for CAlabama Peddlers. The billboard/chalkboard was created from salvaged materials including an old interior door. All travel during the project was by bike. The team wore their uniform daily and were on the job on the bike, even using it for longer journeys to explore the area and share the slogans around the county. The team had planned to ride the Amtrak train from California to Alabama, but the expense, time required, unpredictability, and lack of accommodation for oversized packages made the train unworkable for the time available for being on site.
Berger, Shana. Marksearch at Coleman Center for Arts http://colemanarts.org/2007/04/marksearch/ April 13, 2007 (accessed January 2, 2015).
Frey, Andrew. Culture Hall Online Curated Resource for Contemporary Art http://culturehall.com/artwork.html?page=26473 2012 (accessed January 2, 2015).
marksearch team. CAlabama Peddlers Blog. http://calabamapeddlers.org/ (accessed January 2, 2015).
marksearch team. CAlabama Peddlers Trailer Video. http://vimeo.com/41059617 2007 (accessed January 2, 2015).
marksearch team. Artists’ blog http://marksearch.org/ (accessed January 2, 2015).
Robbins, Gena. CAlabama Peddlers in York, Sumter County Record Journal, April 18, 2007.
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