A System So Majestic

On the night of August 9th, I was driving north on Interstate-43 and saw “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” spelled out in lights above the highway on a pedestrian footbridge. When I got home I immediately Googled the short yet impactful phrase and discovered the tragic news of Mike Brown’s death that day in Ferguson, Missouri.

In the days that followed Mike Brown’s death, I listened constantly to the news on the radio about police militarization. I followed stories of Brown’s family and their reaction online, and watched live Tweets from angry citizens who were fed up on the ground and in the streets of Ferguson.

Looking back, it only makes sense that the highway delivered the news to me that Thursday night. During the last semester of my undergrad education, I dedicated myself to the creation of Highway Excursion Agency of the Midwest (HEAM). HEAM is a one-woman agency which I founded to warn drivers about the dangers of highway hypnosis and to encourage contemplation about the convenience of the Interstate Highway System of America.

As a recent graduate from Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, I’ve spent the last six months learning to adapt my art practice outside of the institutional context and into the real world. The adaptation has led me to reevaluate my role not only as an artist, but also as a community member. I feel responsible for making sure those ideas that originated in a one-building think tank are translatable to the outside world. And I continue to face the question of audience: is the white-box gallery my only destination?

I discovered my fascination with the mega-structure highway after realizing its extreme contradiction. Its purpose is to lay paths of connectivity, but in order to achieve this goal it does the opposite. The construction of Interstate-43, completed in 1981, eliminated 8,000 homes in Milwaukee’s thriving African American community known as Bronzeville.

I began to recognize the way city streets defined the surrounding neighborhoods: thriving restaurants at busy intersections, empty buildings with ornate architecture that hinted at a success lost, and bridges built over the Milwaukee River that created a geographical separation between the white and black communities. After growing up with the simplicity of country roads in rural Wisconsin, it took awhile to understand the complexity of the gridded road system that divides neighborhoods in Milwaukee. The further west from Lake Michigan one travels, a visible economic and racial gradient reveals itself. Interstate-43, running north and south-bound, is really just a gaping wound in Milwaukee’s predominantly black neighborhoods. The signs up and down North Avenue read, “Bronzeville Redevelopment Initiative”, reminding us what was taken away when the pavement was laid.

All built in the name of convenience, transporting suburban America into the city day in, and day out. A system so majestic that you would never have to drive through a city to get into it.

I wanted to challenge the status-quo that the Eisenhower Highway System suburban standards were built on. Through a series of projects and reflections, HEAM asked drivers to pull over, make frequent stops, and break up durational interstate travel, all in an attempt to avoid hypnosis (physically and metaphorically). Highway Excursion Agency of the Midwest became a cautionary advocate for the state of mind between departure and arrival that allows us to fall victim to hypnosis, captivated by the cruise control and the yellow dotted lines, moving past us as we move forward.

Since driving under that footbridge on August 9th, I have been in the streets instead of behind the wheel. In the immediate wake of Mike Brown’s death, the marches demonstrated Milwaukee’s solidarity with Ferguson. But as time went on, and the fight for justice intensified, the weight of local injustices illustrated impossible timetables and created more questions than answers. Milwaukee is filled with our own brothers and sisters whose lives were taken due to police brutality and families that wonder if they will ever receive justice in the Criminal Justice System.

Marching in the streets of downtown Milwaukee has challenged drivers’ perceptions in similar ways that HEAM aims to, transforming rush hour into marching hour, and disrupting traffic with civil unrest. Of course, there is an overwhelming sense of inconvenience and lack of control for the driver behind the wheel in a traffic jam. This loss of time, created by a human blockade on a freeway ramp, becomes symbolic. The lack of control experienced by the driver commuting home from work runs parallel to the lack of control felt by the hurting families who wait, and fight for justice.
Waiting to know if the officer’s name will be released publicly.
Waiting to know if charges will be pressed.
Waiting to begin the grieving process.

The seat behind the wheel is comfortable, controllable. Exiting the vehicle is confrontational, unpredictable. The abstraction of one’s time in a commute from the workplace to home is fragile. And when that fragility is tested, vulnerability in occupying that in-between space is real. And when that vulnerability creates discomfort, the autopilot tendencies of cruise control are deactivated. And when the autopilot tendencies are deactivated, we are pushed to make manual decisions. And when we make manual decisions, we are no longer comfortable in our convenience that has limited us, and instead are present in our continuous forward motion.

The politics that contribute to a present community, whether strong, weak, united, or divided ignited my interest in the Interstate Highway System of America. I recognized the metaphorical potential for how societies are soothed by convenience. But what has strengthened this metaphor, and has kept me active, is when I get out of the car, and take the streets by foot.

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