RFK in EKY proved to be a good idea, because of the way it resonated in the community. Kennedys visit was a vivid memory for many people in Eastern Kentucky. He was the first figure of national political importance to visit eastern Kentucky and the people of eastern Kentucky believed in the sincerity of his concern for them and the areas poverty. The visit made a great impression on a great variety of people because it was compelling on different levels.
The purpose of the visit was to address difficult policy issues. But, the visit was also a celebrity visit. Kennedy himself was surprised by the attention the visit received in the press. Today, RFKs visit is also regarded as part of the local cultural heritage.
The multi-dimensionality of the original event, mandated a recreation that was itself multi-dimensional. An artistically challenging, and satisfying aspect of the project, was to find forms for project events, that evoked the multi-dimensional emotional and intellectual pull of the original. In Sept 03, a year before the performance, I decided to integrate / scramble the different types of events: Rather than re-creating every event on RFKs itinerary, different modalities were employed; including installation and temporary, site specific, public art; public conversation, including reminiscences, discussions of public policy, and site visits to places of relevance to the discussed public policies (i.e., visit to an active strip mine). The, in process, decision to structure the event in this way generated variegated, and quickly changing emotional and intellectual responses, that more closely captured the multi-dimensionality of the original event, and was a significant improvement over the idea of sustaining a recreation throughout and then book ending the recreation with issues events and public conversations.
In the resulting event, participants went from pancake breakfasts and styling parties (where they dressed in retro 60s outfits), to the re-creation of RFKs official field hearings (which focused on hunger, economic stagnation and the environment), to an installation that recreated the interior of a one room school house visited in 68, to a community reminiscence in that school, to meetings with policy makers, local office holders , to a site visit to an active strip mine and conversation with the owner of the mine. This all took place in day one of RFK in EKY, which concluded with a recreation of RFK speaking to the student body of Alice Lloyd College about environmental degradation and the need for a negotiated end to the Vietnam. Uncannily, RFKs comments on the war in Vietnam were as relevant to the current day tragedy unfolding in Iraq, as his comments on the continued environmental degradation in eastern Kentucky.
At its very best, RFK in EKY generated different modalities of experience at each event site: The visit to the one room schoolhouse in Barwick became a combination installation and site for community reminiscence among former attendees of the 1986 event. ). The physical interior of the one room clapboard structure was given a cosmetic re-creation so that the vision of the active school. In 1968 was superimposed on the deteriorating, but still extant and structurally sound school. Archival footage of RFK in the school was projected on the front wall of the schoolroom. And the ensuing conversation included Bonnie Jean Carroll, the schoolteacher in 1968, her cook, and some of the former students and their family members (in some cases, both their parents and their children were there, i.e., 3 generations). Also in attendance and participating in the conversation was Peter Edelman, who was present in 68 as the aide who organized the trip for RFK. The conversation and audience questions ranged from, What did you have to eat as a typical lunch? to Are there still hungry children in the community today, and why?
A gratifying part of the entire project was the important contribution of the most frivolous and seemingly inconsequential aspects of the work. The time spent traveling from sight to sight, was used by audience members to share rides and conversations, and to meet new people by riding in a different car, and to have discussions about what theyd witnessed with each new group. The styling of the audience (often coupled with pancakes) also played a significant role in realizing the conception of the piece. The styling parties / pancake breakfasts drew lots of people in including a local beauty school--, provided further space for extended audience interaction and discussion and most importantly created a visual spectacle. The performance landscape, at each site, included not only the performers, but also the retro-garbed members of the audience--- of which there were many. But NOT ALL: which was conceptually perfect; because (as with the cosmetically re-created Barwick school interior) the two moments 1968 and 2004 were then both visually present. This visually fulfilled the core aesthetic concern of the project: to put an historical mirror up to the present moment.