LUSH VALLEY – Artists-in-Residence Proposal for USCIS

Recognition of Problem:
Kristin Marting, Mahayana Landowne, & Tal Yarden

America was founded as a home for difference. Yet there currently is a disturbing trend towards intolerance, divisiveness, anger & exclusion. Recent reactionary changes in immigration laws, renewed attacks on the gay community, the ever-expanding schism between conservatives & liberals, & the foundering of the hope that Obama offered all have fueled us as artists to examine what it means to be American right now as individuals & as members of this diverse nation. We are trying to reconnect to a sense of shared purpose, to journey to a common ground & to reclaim a home for difference & mutual respect.

We have uncovered one root to these problems in our application process for US citizenship. The current process is alienating and fraught with miscommunication. Intrusive questions on the citizenship application (N400) send the wrong message to applicants and possibly poison their permanent relationship to our country once they become citizens. The Oath of Allegiance is militant and unwelcoming. Through our interactions with the general public in our ongoing LUSH VALLEY project, we have found that many US citizens are not comfortable answering the questions on the application nor taking the required Oath.  More importantly, they do not feel either the application or the Oath reflect their values as citizens of the United States. The Agency’s own language and mission illustrates that its intention is not to create this distancing and mismatch of outcomes.

Formulation of Solution:

As artists-in-residence, we propose to help the USCIS reform their application process to send intended messages and develop relationships with citizens that are healthy and encourage active cultural participation. We will do this through engagement practices with the general public, open source analysis of these activities and formulation of recommendations to the Agency for reform.  We believe that by taking the pulse of Americans as well as applicants, we can assist the Agency in truly representing the values of its citizens. This will in turn foster a country of more activated citizens, better able to participate and influence their communities.

We can help make things better. We propose to share data with the Agency from already planned activities conducted outside its system. If we are invited to collaborate with the Agency, we would develop additional activities and create opportunities for the Agency to collect data within its system utilizing our creative open source methods through think tanks, associative word clouds, online dialogue, art actions and public events.

Through this process, we will dig into the current variations of America and the American Dream in order to take the pulse of our contemporary culture. By fostering dialogue between artists, the general public and government, we aim to uncover an American Dream that people can embrace & rediscover that home for difference.

Our Suitability for this Project:

Over the last year and a half, we have interacted with about 1500 Americans, green-card holders and naturalized citizens through LUSH VALLEY, our art project of public events. These have included 8 think tanks (which use the Open Space Method to encourage public dialogue on different tenets of America), 4 public events (in each, we processed 60-80 general public for citizenship using existing N400 and USCIS procedures), and 1 art action inviting participation from 1000 individuals.

In the coming months, we plan a second art action inviting participation from 1000 members of the general public through voting, 1 think tank for 50-60 audience members, a series of 16 public events in NYC  (in each, we will process 80 audience members for citizenship). We also plan to visit other cities to stage more of these public events.

About Our Project:

LUSH VALLEY is a live-art participatory project that chases the elusive idea of the American Dream. Created with diverse collaborators and the general public, LUSH VALLEY uses dialogue, online technologies, music & video to explore how the Dream shapes our imaginations. LUSH VALLEY is interactive, bringing together artists & community members via interviews, online dialogue, think tanks, social-networking forums, public art actions, & live performance. The process began in April 2010 with our first think tank & continues through September 2011 with our premiere. Partners include HERE, Figment, NACL, NY America, Playwrights Center, Prelude, and Voice & Vision. This highly participatory, inclusive work will continue to grow & change nightly with each event at HERE & as we tour to other cities in 2012-13.

LUSH VALLEY will culminate in a 3-hour live-art participatory event premiering at HERE on September 11, in which the audience is cast as the central character. Ensemble members play immigration officers who process audience members for citizenship into Lush Valley, a metaphoric America. Potential citizens participate real-time thru citizenship interviews, demographic surveys, civics tests, live video interviews, texting, & Flickr. The audience will viscerally experience the core tenets of the American Dream thru threaded narratives of our officer characters – whether through intimate Camera’s Eyes monologues (1 actor to 1 audience member) or through an officer’s fantastical escape from office politics into the world of “The 99”, an Islamic superhero series.

Each night, audience applicants have the opportunity to cut offensive questions and add more appropriate ones in the citizenship interview process; to debate and rewrite the Oath of Allegiance; study and discuss the nightly community demographics; and to vote on key issues as a community. Their active participation will create a different outcome each evening.

LUSH VALLEY is being developed through open, public collaboration between eclectic active audiences and our diverse ensemble. Our artist collaborators are from varied backgrounds (African-American, Japanese, Filipino, Israeli, Romanian, Latino, Caucasian, Vietnamese, & Native American) & aesthetics (dance, theatre, visual art) to ensure that we include a multiplicity of perspectives. By using the personal stories of artists & audiences as source material, we create a vibrant patchwork that encompasses the breadth & complexity of what it is to be American in a deeply personal way.

The unusual fabric of LUSH VALLEY has developed through deep community engagement & long -term ensemble collaboration. This is a breakthrough project for us as artists with the thrill of mixing art & politics and democratic uncertainty of our audience’s nightly contribution. We are thrilled by the prospect of expanding this work through collaboration with USCIS, because of the enormous potential to engage locally with diverse communities about core American issues & catalyze meaningful conversations about civic engagement.