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An interview with performance artist and teacher
Robbie McCauley

Part 1 - People's Sense of Place

Interview by Nic Paget-Clarke
Pennington Gap, Virginia

The following interview with Robbie McCauley is part of a series of interviews with some of the members of a group of 25 artists from around the U.S. and Canada who went to Kentucky and Virginia to participate in the initial stages of a multi-year, multi-site community art project sponsored by the American Festival Project. The American Festival Project is based in Whitesburg, Kentucky with Appalshop, a regional community arts center. Also see: Fred Campbell, Rodrigo Duarte Clark, Harrell Fletcher, Shannon Hummel, Stephanie Juno, Suzanne Lacy, John Malpede, Nobuko Miyamoto.

People’s sense of place

Robbie McCauley: I’m Robbie McCauley and I’m from New York. I say that as familiarly as I can because I’ve been living there for about the last thirty years, however I originated in the southern part of the United States in Virginia, Georgia, and Washington, D.C. I was born in Virginia but moved to New York as a young woman. I say I’m from New York but I carry so many other places.

In Motion Magazine: What do you do?

Robbie McCauley: I’m a performance artist and a teacher. In fact, right now I’m working and living sometimes in Hartford, Connecticut. But I’ve only been there for about a year. The performance craft that I use is theater. I’m interested in the subject matter of the people I work with in communities and how people survive in the United States, especially African Americans within this system of government and economics.

In Motion Magazine: How does your art relate to the community?

Robbie McCauley: The question of art in community is a little hard for me because as I said I move a lot and I carry with me stories, sensibilities, feelings, and impressions that I then try to give back in my performance work.

How does my work relate to community? I feel that I’m always speaking from the African American, Black community -- and I use both those terms -- because that’s how I see things ... from that view, from that perspective. From that experience. I’ve lived in many places and I’m thinking of community as so many different things.

Being here in this area, in Appalachia, I see place as essential to this community. I’m so impressed and moved by people’s sense of place here. And yet, in a conversation that we were having today, there was that old awful political definition of place as people having or not having a place within a community. Those kinds of ways of seeing things and talking about things and living among people are what feed me in my art work.

In Motion Magazine: Could you speak a little more of your work?

Robbie McCauley: For many years, I did stories of my family which I feel in many ways is a typical family in this country, working people who have done the work that was most available and made the best of it. In many ways, our survival had to do with being able to do that. My family on my father’s side were mainly military and on my mother’s side they were mainly teachers and government workers. I was privileged enough to have been supported by a hard-working family and I have now been able to ask questions that many times families are not able to. I can spend time worrying about how the system can be better. Starting from my family’s experience just gives me images, it gives me stories, it gives me ways to relate to other people who are dealing with similar issues of personal stories, bigger stories, and politics and economics.

In Motion Magazine: What did you think you were bringing to this experience here in Appalachia?

Robbie McCauley: This time I hope I am able to listen more than talk. What I like most about this experience, as I was telling you earlier, is that it’s set up in such a way that there’s no pressured agenda, although things are well planned, so that we can have many experiences with many different people and many different places. I think watching and listening and being able to give back my impressions to people who want to know is what is strongest for me in this experience so far.

In Motion Magazine: How’s it going as far you talking with the different community members? What are you learning from that?

Robbie McCauley: The question that I think is asked most is “do you understand?” “What are you seeing that helps you to understand a little bit more about us?”

In Motion Magazine: That’s what they are saying to you?

Robbie McCauley: Yes, that’s the question, though I wouldn’t say it’s put literally like that. Rather, people say “So, what is your experience that helps you relate to me?” Or, “Do you see what I mean by having my family worked in the mine, or having someone in my family having to make a decision to work in the prisons that are coming here”.

I think that what I share with people here and other places is that how you are and who you are is often misinterpreted. This came up in a discussion today. People can invisiblize you, can stereotype you, can talk about you in ways that are not true, that minimize you, that don’t tell your whole story. I think that by being able to listen and look, we can reflect some impressions that help people see that they are seen as whole, regular, and extraordinary as we all are.

Nobuko Miyamoto and Robbie McCauley (center) and Sister Mary Beth, at the African American Historical Culture Center in Pennington Gap, Virginia. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Nobuko Miyamoto and Robbie McCauley (center) and Sister Mary Beth, at the Appalachian African American Culture Center in Pennington Gap, Virginia. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
A familiarity of the story

In Motion Magazine: Coming from a big city, what kind of differences do you see in how art can play a role in identifying problems?

Robbie McCauley: I was having a conversation with Elia (Arce), one of the other artists, just last night about why I thought I was a more urban person. As beautiful as it is here and as satisfying as it is to be among the people here, and as much as I don’t like to admit it, what I habitually have enjoyed, for myself, is a kind of quickness -- images that are made and shaped for consumption. That’s what my experience has been. Here, what I learn from and what I appreciate is the culture of telling stories, of taking time to share experiences. The kind of roundabout way that people have of producing imagery. There is a kind of familiarity of the story but at the same time people want to hear it in different voices in the community over and over again. Stories are passed down. They are told by different people. And that is something that I admire. It helps me to recognize that that kind of human quality is basic to art.

In Motion Magazine: That particular description is a rural thing you feel?

Robbie McCauley: Well, I feel it here. It probably is a more rural thing than a city thing. Of course there’s been so many changes in every community all over the world with the media and so forth, and I’m sure that there’s been an effect here, but I think what is maintained here, and I think it’s probably in danger, is the idea of people maintaining that connection to the human story, the tradition. The fact, for instance, that there are family burial lands, or plots, or areas all over. One of the things you see when you move through here is the liveliness of the family, even for those who have gone on. How people talk very easily about reunions and the attention to the people in the families who have passed on. And meetings in the cemeteries.

(Interview stops temporarily as Sister Mary Beth comes up to our car)

Sister Mary Beth: We were just showing where the out-of-state landfill was going to be with the waste coming from the industrial north. This landfill goes for miles and miles on strip-mined land. They cover it. This is a camouflage here. In winter, if you look, you will see for miles and miles and miles. Everything is gone. The whole mountain is gone. That’s where they were going to put in one of the out-of-state landfills.

Robbie McCauley: But you fought it and won.

In Motion Magazine: You want to get out and look?

Robbie McCauley: Yes.

Five minutes passes.

Economic survival

Robbie McCauley: From what we just saw, that landfill and then Sister Beth saying that this was something that threatened the community and they fought it and won -- one thing that I’m interested in my work is how culture and politics can connect.

I think that that relating to one another, the having a common history in terms of their economic survival, can allow the kind of organizing and politics, the getting of some power in order to get things done. That interests me and impresses me. Of course, there’s the other side of how the people here have a history of being manipulated by large companies often find it difficult to overcome that power.

I think that the culture of knowing each other, of making an effort to know each other, helps in politics. It has certainly helped African American people, both locally in our various communities. But even if you don’t look at community like that, if you look at the African American community as a people, when we’ve made most progress is when we’ve shared our commonness with each other.

In Motion Magazine: One of the things that I had been thinking of the difference between cities and rural communities is there’s a financial superstructure in the cities which doesn’t exist in the rural areas. But from what you are saying, in the cities it’s only a certain part of the city that gets that financial superstructure?

Robbie McCauley: Yes. Absolutely. During the era of the sixties, when so much was going on to make changes for African Americans, when people bonded together around their common purpose, they found out that they get support from other people who recognize that particular struggle.

Differences do exist between urban and rural, but for the African American people most of us who were in urban cultures had a history in our families of either a rural existence, slavery, or some kind of victimization, in terms of racism. So the people that we are was what made us connect.

People in the North understood during the Voting Rights era that even though we had the right to vote in the North there were all kinds of ways of keeping us out of the voting by districting certain places, by not having people able to run for office because of districting, of invisiblizing us, of us working so damned hard that, “Who had the time?” Things like that. Our commonness across rural and urban borders made a big difference.

Published in In Motion Magazine October 10, 2000