People’s Joy Parade: A Conversation with Sarah Paulsen

With Cherokee Street’s exciting mixture of Latino tiendas and taquerias, antique shops, vinyl record stores, and an expanding art studio and gallery scene, Cinco de Mayo is a neighborhood affair. My first interaction with Sarah Paulsen’s relational practice was in 2009 when I heard about an exciting sounding parade that was going to happen as part of these festivities. Sarah created The People’s Joy Parade as a street-wide happening that pulls disparate St. Louis communities together; and various artists, scooter gangs, quinceanera promenaders, bike clubbers, costumed performers, flat-bed breakdancers and even a high school marching band participated in that first year’s groundbreaking parade.

The People’s Joy Parade will soon have its third procession on May 7, 2011, at 1:11 pm.  Sarah has stepped aside and into the assistant’s role to make way for others with the desire to manifest community involvement in a grand exhibition of humanity and joy. Their Kickstarter campaign, ongoing through May 3, is raising funds for things like costume creation workshops for the parade’s participating kids.

One recent spring afternoon, Sarah and I sat down in my studio to talk about myth and storytelling, why parades are inspirational, the meaning of community art, and her new project about the Kirkwood Town Hall Shooting.

You can view more of Sarah’s artwork, animations and blog at

Lauren Adams: You’ve mentioned the influence Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (2007), has had on you. What attracts you to this book, and what effect has it had on your practice?
Sarah Paulsen: The book essentially puts the parade in a historical context as a form of communal gathering and ritual that involved dancing and celebrating. As time has gone on, institutions (government, church) set rules on the acceptability of these public rituals. During the Middle Ages, parades and public celebrations were a weekly occurrence.  Over time, certain days were dictated for public celebration. Yearly traditions, like the Feast of Fools, a festival of inversion where clergy members would run around in drag, was banned along with hundreds of other celebration days. Following the bans, permitted parades became less participatory and more of a spectacle. The military parade, not unlike a Fourth of July parade, is the sort of event where you’re either in the parade or watching it from the outside. There’s an innate humane desire to experience communitas, the feeling of community spirit. Presently, there aren’t as many public celebrations, but we might find communitas in the fans at sporting events or rocker concerts. So a question for me is how do people find community, how do people gather, how do we connect?

I am also interested in how these moments of communitas resurface, even after elimination. This has made me rethink my own experiences with parades as I’ve grown up. I didn’t always think of a parade as art but after reading this book, I saw the parade as a needed art form.

LA: What particular artists have inspired you who use the parade or procession?

SP: Francis Alys planned a procession when the Museum of Modern Art in New York moved. Kiki Smith was carried through the streets on a chair and participants held up icons of famous paintings. Also, the exhibit On Procession at the Indianapolis Museum of Art that featured the work of artists dealing with parade themes. As to costuming, I am interested in the performative quality of Nick Cave’s sound suits.

LA: Nick Cave makes me think of performing out joy or celebration — visualizing it. Like it’s stated in the People’s Joy Parade zine, parades can be contagious — you catch it when you see it!

SP: Our intention with People’s Joy Parade is that you can feasibly join in at any moment, so we don’t have street blockades and the audience can respond to this contagiousness. The parade that first inspired me with this experience was in South America, when I was a tourist watching the start of a parade. Some kids pulled me in and suddenly Cam [Cameron Fuller, Sarah’s collaborator and partner] and I were running through the streets holding hands with people and singing. I experienced this dissolve of self where I suddenly became part of this community.

LA: Can you tell me about how the People’s Joy Parade parade was conceived two years ago? And how has it changed?

SP: I had the idea after being in this Peruvian parade and I couldn’t capture the feeling in a painting. I thought, I have to recreate it and bring it to my community! I was talking with Lyndsey Scott and she said ‘Let’s do it.’ We both had a history of different projects on Cherokee [Street].

LA: Why do it during Cinco de Mayo?

SP: For a couple reasons. One, it’s not really a Mexican holiday! It’s an invented US holiday.
Also we had connections to Cinco de Mayo through coordinator Jason Deem.  For me it was also about defining the community. The People’s Joy Parade: It’s not a Mexican, African American, or Irish celebration. It’s not a national holiday or a patriotic thing. It’s an otherness. An art parade about anybody, any diverse factions, just purely to be together.

LA: How do you define its success or failure?

SP: Well, if we can get more youth collaborating and keep asking the question, “who’s not here?”  That makes it more meaningful. So how do I measure that? I guess by who shows up.

LA: How have the reception and expectations changed in this third year of the People’s Joy Parade?

SP: This year, I’m in the assistant role and Jenny Shriner is the Coordinator. It’s amazing to see other people step in with fresh ideas and ways of doing things. Continuing from last year are the kids’ workshops, open call for artists and participants, Kickstarter fundraiser, and CAMP partnership. It also signifies that the parade can keep going. It’s wonderful. The community takes ownership.

LA: This leads into questions about how to measure the efficacy of art. I’m thinking about the article from Modern Painters that you pointed me to in advance of this interview, about Katerina Seda’s work and Lars Bang Larsen’s notion of “Social Aesthetics.” Communication in art can be an end in and of itself. And the product of that moment is the hundreds or thousands of people in the street making the moment happen. We must acknowledge the viewer’s participation and the shared collective experience. Especially in the context of relational practice, when there aren’t necessarily measurable outcomes (like other social projects such as HIV awareness or job creation). We live in a world that is obsessed with productivity. My question to you is: What can we expect from art that positions itself as provoking change?

SP: The first thing that comes to mind for me, is that when I take on a project, I try to be clear about my goals and what I want to get out of it. With the People’s Joy Parade in 2010, we (Lyndsey and I) tried to extend the invitation and to expand the circles of people we’d worked with by using community connections. The first year I was more interested in artist participation.  Knowing these objectives helped me clarify my methods. So we went to Roosevelt High School, and tried to reach out to other neighborhood social organizations. By looking at who did and didn’t participate and the amount of people who showed up, I was able to view it as a success.   If you think about grant funding, they’re looking for those tangibles, so that’s not a bad thing for artists to examine. Do I believe that everything has to be measurable? Certainly not, some of the most interesting things are those that don’t have a record. My blog is one thing I like to use to document things that I see happening that are successes, like the costumes that my friends create or the self-proclaimed King of Cherokee.

LA: What you’re saying is that the blog is a kind of witnessing, and when people read that, and take it out into the world with them, maybe they’re affected — it’s a compound effect.

SP: The blog also is about breaking down my separation between the piece and the audience, a place to get real about my own struggles and insecurities as an artist. It’s a place people can go to learn more, but maybe not for everyone. But as far as provoking change, I don’t know that I make work that intentionally does that. I’ve had moments where I’ve been too didactic. I was criticised in grad school for a piece I made about undocumented workers [Que, Sera? Sera?].  People would say, “Why should we care?”

LA: Which is such a funny thing: As soon as someone is aware that you might be wanting to change their perspective, or inform them about something, it begins to challenge the audience’s relationship and investment. We don’t always have that same level of criticality about formal aesthetic issues in traditional painting and sculpture. It’s a curious situation.

SP: For me it’s been about positing questions or experiences that people then might try to understand themselves, then form their own opinions. Maybe my part of that dialogue has shifted them in some way.

LA: But do you really feel that way? If you’re going out of your way to engage new stakeholders, you are provoking change.

SP: I feel like a lot of times those people don’t even know they’re participating in art. Maybe they’re just playing along with me. Maybe en route they’ll realize they’re an artist or participating in creating an experience, and that’s beautiful. But I think that recognition or change comes more from them than from me. Maybe they take the dare. (laughs)

When I did the documentary [Que, Sera? Sera?], I did want to provoke change, I didn’t want these kids to have to go back to Mexico and I wanted to ‘solve their case,’ and I faced my own limitations on what my piece could do for them. All I could do was educate people about the multifaceted plight of the undocumented worker. It did start dialogue, but I don’t know that it changed anybody. . .

LA: It changed you. And the people you were making the piece about.

SP: I did change. Watching the family I realized that they did not get caught in a victim mindset. They endured the situation with dignity and familial solidarity. This goes to another question I have about art: to what extent can an artwork change an audience when inviting them to participate? When is a person a spectator, and when do they become a participant? How does a painting or a video invite participation?

LA: A following question: when people are involved in the creation of content, like the dissolving borders of a parade, and the street itself becomes the space, how does that change the content of the piece? Are people still the audience, how does it change the autonomy of the spectator?

SP: This is where I’m at in my own questioning. My original goal, communitas, would lead me to define the participant as someone in the parade. Although on some level if you’ve come out to watch it, then you are a part of it as a sensory experience. But it’s really about how you define the spectator. I’m questioning within a painting or video. If you’re asking someone to participate in, for instance, a painting, to unpack why certain things are obscured or not obscured or construct meaning from a series of signifiers, then is that an active participant?  Cam and I talk a lot about this idea, how we’re interested in people making up their own stories, taking ownership of the piece; that would make the audience a participant as well.

LA: Or creating a space that is so free. . .

SP: . . .that it opens up for that to happen.

LA: Which, as you know, from going to big sporting events or perhaps on Halloween, you have the permission to be that. But in some ways, not so much. Like if you were at a big game, and you were in a costume not related to the context, then all of a sudden you don’t have the freedom. You’re out of place.

I’m interested in the History of Parade paintings, can you describe their purpose?

History of Parades: MJ as Dionysus, 2010. 11″ x 14″

SP: That series for me is a visual timeline. I tend to be an illustrator and storyteller. Creating those paintings is a reflective and generative process for future projects. I can’t be parading in the streets all the time!

LA: But with the history of parades, you’re doing research, either through the work of others or on your own, independently gathering. There’s this one painting of Michael Jackson on the cover of a magazine. Did you find that, or did someone point that out to you? And what kind of parade is that, exactly?

SP: I found that image on a Time Magazine that I dumpstered. Michael Jackson looks like an Orpheus or Dionysus character. I am fascinated with this musician character that people are drawn to follow and emulate. When I was a child, I felt this fan relationship to MJ, I would try to dance and sing like him. To me, he’s like the pied piper parade leader. (laughs)

LA: Like a grand marshal? That is also like this painting, History of Parades, Napoleonic Procession.

SP: As to the grand marshal, during Napoleon’s reign, the parade became a sign of military power. The parade was a symbol of intimidation, or civic pride. This grand marshal was injured by his own pomp, a gust of wind made his giant hat into a sail and he flew off his horse.

History of Parades: Napoleonic Procession, 2010. 11″ x 14″

LA: What a great story!

As artists, we research for evidence of further content for our works. I see copying as a way to internalize, or through the copy, visualize and represent in a new way things that are already out in the world. Sam Durant or Mark Dion do this, for instance, by copying and amassing a new collection. How are you conceiving of the differences between your studio work as sole author and outside the studio, the work that is extra-artistic?

SP: I think my solo studio practice and my extra-artisitic practice are connected to my personality and questions about art. I am a maker and I love to push around paint and play with it. It’s meditative and grounding. I’m not always a social person and I struggle between two poles — a solo studio practice that I control that is material, contemplative, researching, and an extra artistic practice that is collaborative, of various media, and organic. When I can’t understand an idea through a traditional media, I’ve looked to collaborative or community based practices.

The lines between studio practice and extra-artistic are not clear to me. Lyndsey Scott and I have discussed this, for instance, when I meet a kid in the street and have a conversation with them and then suddenly I am getting them involved in the parade workshop, and they’re there making a costume with me — how is that not an artful experience? It feels like I’m breaking down normal separations in community, and the kid is moving into involvement with that project. The experience of a collaborative project is invigorating in a way that I don’t experience in my day-to-day painting. There’s a lot of learning for me in collaboration. With [my recent involvement with] the SGCI [Southern Graphics Council International] Conference, I’m not sure if it’s a project or if that was me working.

LA: What was your role?

SP:  Lisa Bulawsky [Printmaking faculty at Washington University and SGCI Conference Chair] hired me to be a coordinator for Cherokee events. I did it under the condition that there would be a community component, so that went beyond the school [Washington University] and connected with the Cherokee Street community. I thought that even if this is a printmaking conference, we have to find ways to negotiate and cross-collaborate with people in the community that are not printmakers. To foster these intentions, there were a series of organizing meetings, a call to entry for public art projects, door to door business talks, communications with the Hispanic restaurants, and the resulting months-long dialogue about all these pieces. The entire night for me was a giant art collaboration. I wanted to create a street space with an event on every block so that it was a completely pedestrian environment.

LA: You were curating an experience. But your question is: “Is that art”?

SP: I was just trying to put the pieces together and to connect people. I am inspired by Theaster Gates’s idea of ‘making sure you get the invitation out.’ To me, that’s an entire art piece right there — getting in touch with anyone connected to Cherokee Street. In some ways I was successful, and some ways I wanted to have more, such as art shows in the Mexican shops, more kids involved. That was a learning experience on street trust as well, because some people didn’t think the SGCI Conference was going to happen. Some restaurants were not prepared. I expected a good showing from Washington University because of the hired buses, but I did not expect as many St. Louisians to be there.

LA: How many people were in attendance that night?

SP: I thought it was upwards of 2,000. People were walking up and down the street all night. Now the question is, what’s the next thing?

LA: Right, now there are increased expectations!

SP: In talking with you, I’m calling SGCI on Cherokee an art piece. Cam says it’s not art, because I was getting paid. I think that’s bullshit, because that undervalues the work of the artist.  That’s something I really have a problem with now. Artists contribute in so many little ways. If you call a plumber over to look at your toilet, they’re going to charge you $70, you have an artist come over, you expect them to freely give ideas and do things. I’m just saying that if people want to keep seeing things like that happen, they have to invest in it.

LA: Where do you think this mentality of payment/non-payment comes from?

SP: The old notion that a sign of a true artist is if you do things out of obscurity, without an audience, without pay, and if you do it because you just have to make art.

LA: That seems so old-fashioned.

SP: I don’t think Cam really believes that either, but you know as an artist to some extent we all struggle with these ideas of self-worth. Does my practice have any value?; What  is that value?

LA: Right. You hardly ever hear artists talk about money. It’s such an invisible part of our world, yet a huge part of our economy. Especially when $1,000 to an artist can be so impacting, in the face of how much money gets spent on research and development in other fields.

SP: Monetary payment says ‘I value your time, and I like to be able to give you support, too.’

LA: I just think artists are doing ourselves such a huge disservice when we refuse to talk about money because it appears to be gauche or, you know, not grassroots or indie enough. We don’t have the luxury to not have to think about money. It affects ever thing we do.

SP: Yeah, I mean, my mom has to help me with health care!

LA: What was your experience with Washington University in the MFA program, and how did it affect your career as an artist?

SP: I really loved my group of classmates and the cross-dialogue that occurred. It was a sharing setting were people were open to exchange ideas. There was a group of faculty, like Kate Kuharic and Cindy Tower, who asked challenging questions and encouraged me to get my work out of St. Louis, and were supportive of me working in alternative spaces and collaboratively. In art school, a lot of emphasis is placed on the individual pursuit and not on the collaborative. That is something that I struggle with. In grad school, I really couldn’t do much community-based work. The format wasn’t there. In the end, you’re writing a thesis from one person. I also wish the St. Louis art scene would sometimes be more rigorous with itself.

LA: Can you explain what that means — what models are you most interested in?

SP: I wish there were more of a dialogue about the kind of art people are making. I would like that to happen at art shows instead of them just becoming parties were nobody looks at the art. Matt Strauss was on this panel a few years ago at the Contemporary [Art Museum St. Louis], called “Provincial Gallery Simulator,” where he called out galleries and it led to this general discussion about the art scene in St. Louis. SLAP [St. Louis Arts Project] is going to talk about ways to invigorate and support the St. Louis music and art scene. Chautauqua Art Lab is another upcoming exchange.  I guess I am interested in where there are forums to discuss the art scene.

LA: What you’re saying is that you wish there were more moments on the city/regional level for dialogue about artmaking, reflecting on community. . .

SP: . . . and actually following through and creating steps. For example, the RAC Convening [At the Crossroads: A Community Arts and Development Convening presented by the Community Arts Training (CAT) Institute at the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission (RAC) Cultural Resource Center] brought together international community arts practitioners who presented a variety of strategies to integrate community practice into practically any type of community. In Columbia, MO, there’s an alternative film house named the Ragtag Cinema Theater Cafe that is much more than just a theater, its a gallery, meeting space, and restaurant as well.

LA: Certainly we have film festivals, but maybe highlighting that kind of work through one-night events or modeling after Chicago’s platforms, or curated websites. . .

SP: Right, my friend Christy LeMaster runs the Nightingale in Chicago. It’s a theater in her house where she screens videos, old and new, that aren’t getting shown. She does an amazing job curating that space. We [St. Louis] can’t rely on academia to be the only source for serious questions and critique. I hope that artists in Saint Louis are asking themselves questions. When we have a dialogue about what kind of work is being made, then our art becomes more interesting.

LA: Yes. Can you tell me more about your new project about the Kirkwood Town Hall shooting?

SP: It might be called Elegy to Connie. This will be an animated documentary about Connie Karr who died during the Kirkwood Town Hall shooting. The interviews discuss her political vision, the political climate of the town prior to the shooting, the effects of the shooting on her close friends, and how they have made sense of the tragedy. After the shooting, there was an uproar about why this happened and some people thought that it was racism, that he was feeling oppressed, and some people thought it was complicated. For me it’s partially about the failure of communication and community and the way that politics can be put in between us instead of being a positive vehicle to resolve problems.

Ultimately, the broader connection for me is how mass shootings are very recent, since the 1960’s and this relates back to communitas, and our communal spirit, our relationships to other people. It’s very interesting that we have less parades and festivities, places where we forget ourselves and become other, and we have more of these kinds of public mass shootings.

Parade for Girls who Dream of Wild Horses, 2009. 4′ x 13′

LA: Yeah, there’s an unspoken connection. You’ve also mentioned how myth and storytelling from around the world affect your work. From Peru, to the Ozarks, and India, etc. As an American artist, what do you see as the role of myths and stories?

SP: I believe that one of my roles as an artist is to help tell these stories. I am a big fan of regionalism and I grew up loving Mark Twain, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. When I was a kid my cousins and I would reenact some of those stories. I like to look at mythology and it’s not necessarily an exoticism for me, but a fascination with the manner in which stories reoccur. The same stories are told in different places with changed details. Huck Finn is like Odysseus or Siddartha. Juliet is an indigenous princess in the Ozark Hills. . . Whether it’s a transformation or tragedy there are many incarnations of characters suffering similar circumstances.

LA: Do you have a mythical role you identify with?

SP: What’s my archetype? (laugh)

I like the mermaid. Caught between to different worlds. Teacher and artist, suburbia and city, painting and public work. She is also caught between participant and spectator. She is spectator from the sea and she wants to participate in life above ground. I don’t find stories here [in Missouri] boring at all. I guess I do like the idea that even something everyday and boring might have a little magic in it.  Like Tom Sawyer, there’s magic in the ideas of the river and the countryside and exploring the caves, however that magic might be.




Slideshow images are The People’s Joy Parade 2010 and
courtesy of the author.
All other images are courtesy of the artist.


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