I never played Dungeons and Dragons as a kid. However, when I learned later about the Dungeon Master’s role in setting up D & D play, I saw a fuzzy reflection of my role as co-curator of the Bumpkin Island Art Encampment.
Ultimately, the Bumpkin project is about conflict and play. There is constant tension that strings itself through the weekend; tension to produce, tension to create work that does not harm the island environment, tension between curator and artist, artist and place.
It is at these moments of conflict that I feel like I’m seeing the heart of the project, the part that rarely gets much play: that Bumpkin is about the issues surrounding the claiming of space and about repetitive human drama. In 2007, we chose the Homestead Act as an organizing metaphor because of the policy’s damage and progress. On one hand, it offered many marginalized people– women, people of color, the poor– an unprecedented opportunity to claim, work and improve their own land. On the other hand, Manifest Destiny, as we all know, was no picnic– people were displaced, ecologies forever altered. And you can’t deny that tension.
In the form of Bumpkin, the government (the National Park Service and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation) again offers an often marginalized group– artists– the opportunity to claim land. Yet Bumpkin is no blank slate, in any way. In addition to the island’s long history of people displacing/displaced people, there are people already “living” there, from campers to boaters to volunteers like Friends of the Boston Harbor volunteers. Artists often enter the island thinking only about claiming land, and sometimes neglect to work with the people and ecologies already there.
If you’re pretentious, the island’s human ecology will throw that pretension into stark relief. It’s this overall interplay that keeps me interested in a project that, frankly, does not always produce the most fully formed, captivating visual art (it’s hard to expect too much from artists who have only five days to make; it’s the process that counts). What is interesting is that this very basic human story of negotiating space and resources continues to play itself out in the microcosm of the Encampment year after year, all on an island with a very clear, 400-year recorded history of displacement (all the way down to the island’s formation out of rock transformed by glacial movement).
And, all the while, I continue to play the character/part of the “curator,” already a well-discussed, debunked, decried term. I approach the word in the sense of its etymology– that it comes from the Latin cura, to care. I take care of the storyline, who the actors are, what they eat, when they drink coffee. Talking about the project as a “human experiment” sounds patronizing and overstates my role. I also don’t talk about the Dungeon Master aspects of this because I don’t want to upset the delicate balance of the project. To reveal that the Encampment, to me, is a play– from the opening curtain of getting on the boat to the moment you step back onto the Boston or Hingham dock– would be like screaming that the Emperor has no clothes. I’m afraid that that type of denoument would keep visitors (and the artists) from having the truly earnest, sometimes life-changing experiences that can occur while on the island searching for “art” and negotiating their own preferences and boundaries.
At the same time, I wonder what would happen if I lifted the curtain and explained that this is all very simple and that the visitors are as much players in this process in the art– would that break the magic that allows these adults to play? Would visitors and artists just add another layer of irony to the project– “Oh, you mean like LARP-ing [live action role playing]?” Many LARPers are actually more self-aware and able to separate fantasy from reality– much more so, frankly, than the Encampment LARPers and our often self-aggrandizing notions of ourselves as artists or art consumers. But when done well, Bumpkin, and LARPing, can be very earnest. That’s why I love it; at the core, it is about 20 to 30 strangers coming together on an island to play with possibilities, try on new roles, get down and dirty.