DDI’s Public Space Project Is an Audacious, Inclusive New-Durham Turn for a Venerable Old-Durham Nonprofit | Theater | Indy Week
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DDI’s Public Space Project Is an Audacious, Inclusive New-Durham Turn for a Venerable Old-Durham Nonprofit 

Marcella Camara

Marcella Camara

In February, the Durham band Beauty World played a free show in Five Points Plaza. This was the brainchild of Rachel Wexler, the new special projects coordinator of the nonprofit Downtown Durham Inc., which contracts with the city and county to drive development: "Helping entrepreneurs get in spaces downtown and helping local businesses stay there," as Wexler puts it.

The performance's point was twofold, which homes in on the nexus of art and place where Wexler's vocation resides. For one, it showed off her first major DDI project, the installation of string lights on poles with standing-height tables to make Five Points Plaza more inviting. It was also a test run for DDI's ability to produce urban pop-ups more elaborate than the street performers it contracts through Sonic Pie Productions during Third Friday art walks.

Now that experiment has generated a pilot program, the Public Space Project, that will augment the next three Third Fridays with notably daring, imaginative outdoor events. They're rich with blurred genres and mediums, site-specific perambulations, audience interaction and social immersion, and other things local artists love. The series represents an old-Durham institution embracing a new-Durham model—not just aesthetically, but also structurally, with a process designed to include diverse artists, perspectives, audiences, and communities.

When it was founded, DDI's mission was to "serve as a catalyst for downtown revitalization." Twenty-five years later, you need only to look around to see that development now needs checks and balances more than it needs catalysis, and the creation of Wexler's position last year seems to acknowledge this shift.

"There was an identified need internally for someone in the art and placemaking realm, and then I sort of landed on the doorstep," Wexler says. She moved here from California in 2015 to earn a master's degree in city and regional planning at UNC-Chapel Hill, focusing on social justice issues at the intersection of art and economic development. She started at DDI last September.

Placemaking, a city-planning term of art, is central to Wexler's work.

"That could be street furniture, façade treatments, landscape architecture, murals, sculptures, lighting installations, temporary pop-up performances—anything that affects pedestrians' experience," she says. "And that is connected to economic development through upholding the identity and vibrancy of the city."

For her pilot program, Wexler found inspiration in a Chicago Loop Alliance project called "ACTIVATE," which helped local artists create pop-ups in neglected downtown nooks. The next step was to tailor it to Durham, mainly by handing as much power as possible to artists. Working independently in wildly diverse mediums, they still came up with a unifying theme of wellness and healing that speaks to the temper of our times, locally and nationally.

This Friday, from 6:00–9:00 p.m., the project debuts in two distinct, simultaneous parts. In Five Points Plaza, Marcella Camara—the curator of Young, Gifted, & Broke, a pop-up gallery focused on artists of color, wellness, and justice—presents Amethyst, Psalms & Florida Water, a visionary outpouring of creativity and wellness involving live artmaking, mental health counselors, art therapists, body workers, aromatherapy, spiritual offerings, and more, amounting to an altar that will remain for three days.

Meanwhile, in Five Points Alley (next to Vert & Vogue), Wendy Spitzer and Douglas Vuncannon will create Portraits in Common, a social performance in which passing strangers will be asked to figure out "the most unusual thing they have in common" and be photographed together with it written on a placard. Eventually, the project will result in a video featuring music composed by Spitzer, an indie musician who records and performs as Felix Obelix. These deeply personal and Durham-centric projects reflect the openness and care Wexler wanted to bring to the institutional structures they harness.

"We built it out by talking with Durham artists at every stage of the process, from the concept to the application and review," Wexler says. "We tried to reach artists who might be historically marginalized. We didn't require résumés or experience in public art. Artists were coached on their budgets to make sure they're paying themselves and people they're working with, because this is also about recirculating wealth to the folks who make Durham what it is."

September 21 will bring sculptor Ashley Swindoll and master puppeteer Tarish Pipkins, aka Jeghetto, to the Holland Street alley between the Google Fiber office and The Durham Hotel. The pair are collaborating on large-scale kinetic sculptures, transforming old musical instruments into fantastical abstract insects.

"The performance is around mental health awareness, recovering from trauma," Wexler says, adding that the puppets might remain in the alley as an art installation for a short time after the performance. "The committee tried to select projects that would have an impact on the community that was timely or would leave remnants or have a documentation component, and that were accessible to multiple communities in Durham."

October 19 features musician and songwriter Kamara Thomas, whose immersive multimedia performance SOAPBOX might be the most audacious of all.

"She is putting together an ensemble of between twenty and thirty people processing between various public spaces downtown," Wexler says. "Kamara will create twelve American archetypes, twelve orators on soapboxes expressing those viewpoints. There's an all-woman chorus in the round, cast members wearing masks, live music."

The project's heartful, inclusive, democratic spirit is a beacon of Durham values at their best—values that, with Wexler's help, DDI seems freshly primed to embody.

"We would love to see people coming to these performances who don't always feel comfortable or catered to downtown," Wexler says. "We want to see all kinds of people enjoying public space and feeling represented and seen and safe."

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