CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE
PETER A. CAMPBELL / LUISSA CHEKOWSKY
In January of 1916, 30-year-old John Coldren put an ad in the Pittsburgh Press looking for “a young lady … object matrimony.” Within a few days, he had received letters from Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas, as far away as Wheeling, West Virginia. While he did not end up marrying any of these women, he kept the letters and carefully pasted 60 of them into a scrapbook, sometimes writing in his own script what had been written on the backs of the letters and postcards.
I heard the phrase “Can’t Get There From Here” several times when doing research in Pittsburgh, a town with lots of hills and traversed by waterways and train tracks. This phrase probably originated in Maine, where it was a joke at the expense of a tourist. It’s funny because ultimately it isn’t true. It just points to a lack of imagination and knowledge.
Our own process of making this piece was likewise an attempt to get from the there of those letters to the here of our own experiences. During the installation, the letters were heard over speakers, having been previously recorded by 60 different women. The piece centered around a projected 60 minute video my partner Luissa and I shot while driving from the addresses where the letters originated to the house they were mailed to 100 years ago. This video was juxtaposed with a large projection of the letters themselves and a dozen live performers, young women who took turns writing letters, taping them to the walls, and moving around the space. Every 20 minutes, the letters were interrupted and the performers danced a version of the Charleston to Sleater-Kinney’s song “Modern Girl.” The duration of the piece was three hours.
When considering these letters as the source of a performance, I wanted to find a methodology that would prevent it from clinging to the psychological and potentially sentimental nature of the subject matter. I thought the letters could provide material to explore the process of representation and ideas about historical authenticity, especially as they relate to the creation of empathy and nostalgia. Instead of the recognition of the past in the present, Michel de Certeau’s historiographical methodology places the past and the present beside each other. I wanted to make this art work like a piece of historiography.