A huge papier-mache mask dangles over the center of Passport Project’s main studio space. Streams of black plastic spew from its mouth, a kind of vinyl ectoplasm.
He’s not the first thing you see walking into the space, though. That would be dozens of newspaper clippings and trial testimony dating from the riots that rocked Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood in the late 1960s, and century-old Census tallies grouping people into the categories of “White,” “Colored,” “Civilized Indian,” “Chinese” or “Japanese.” All are tacked to the inside walls of a claustrophobic black tunnel.
There are sounds, too: The click-clack of an old-fashioned typewriter and - from somewhere in the bowels of the space - a quiet conversation.
It all adds up to an invitation from artist Daniel McNamara to consider the topic of race in Cleveland and America. The title of his installation is “Race in America: Biological Fiction - Social Fact,” and it explores the way we categorize ourselves and each other into race labels that have no basis in genetics - but that very much contribute to (or detract from) our life experiences.
“I wanted people to read these documents in the dark, confined tunnel when they first come in, and then emerge into an open area where they could get a bigger perspective,” he says.
In that open area, behind the mask, people can type their responses to what they’ve seen, draw pictures or join a discussion group organized around a table of snacks.
For those who choose to type responses, they can either laminate those responses and post them on the wall as sentiments to be remembered, or drop them in a metal trash can labeled “Forget.”
David Smeltz, founder of the nonprofit transitional housing center Clean House Inc., taps out a paragraph about growing up near Buckeye Road in the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, the neighborhood was still mostly white. He’d come to buy alcohol from one of the liquor stores, some of which sold to minors.
“I remember the feeling of alienation and not being too welcome in the area,” he writes. That was alleviated once he made some Hungarian friends and he was able to “more freely” walk down Buckeye. Today, by contrast, “my Hungarian friends wouldn’t walk down the street without me!”
He laminates his passage and tapes it to the wall.
Another laminated piece is an anonymous poem, part typed and part handwritten, that reads: “I affirm that humanity is one / that beneath all the many differences / only apparent differences.”
Hung across the top of the wall, a colorful, flower-filled banner proclaims “We are all in the same boat.”
Whether or not that’s true is something else McNamara wants people to consider. “We are in the same boat in some ways, but also different people get different opportunities,” he says.
The installation is now mostly down to make room for future resident-led arts events. But visitors can continue to type their reflections in a small corner space.
Responses will be displayed during a closing event on Friday, August 28 at 5 p.m.