Public speech

During the months of isolation beginning in March 2020, the internet—my connection to people outside my house, most days—was full of immediate and continuous speech. We were afraid; we were angry; we were often alone; we didn’t know what would happen to us. Despire claims of “all being in this together” (which proved almost immediately untrue, as the pandemic took its toll on the lives and livelihoods of more vulnerable people first and most), little of the speech on the internet gave me a sense of being part of a net of solidarity; the distance in much of that speech made me despair.

Many things felt and continue to feel urgent and immense: the speed and frequency of deaths from the virus; the ongoing revolutionary protests in my hometown; the total and continuous failure of the US and state governments to provide care for residents. How to care for one another when we are so far apart?

On the corner of our street, nailed to a telephone pole, there is a yellow plastic placard on which someone has written END FAMILY SEPARATION. I have seen this sign on my walks nearly every day since August. The END FAMILY SEPARATION sign is a slower kind of speech than the speech on the internet; it is the tempo of walking. It remains with me. It does not pass by. It has become an accompaniment and a presence I can return to.

The sign reminds me that a person had thought, and then written, those words. It reminds me that although the atomization and isolation are real—and not only the isolation of the Covid-19 lockdowns, but of white-dominant US culture, neoliberalism, capitalism—while these are real, we are nevertheless still here, together. Although I live in a country where public goods—education, clean water, healthcare, public bathrooms, transit—have been replaced by corporations; although our most common spaces, like libraries, are provided less and less, we are still here. How can my speaking be a way of asserting our solidarity with and our presence to one another, the way that sign reminds me, every time I see it, not only of its maker but of the fact of the people being held in dangerous government facilities on our southern border? How can I speak in a way that affirms that we are here, together? Where can I (can we) speak that is truly public, rather than proprietary?

I began to keep a list of slogans in my phone. I wrote what I valued, hoped for, rejoiced over, grieved; I admonished myself to adhere to principles I believed in; I asserted what I believed to be common to us—our rights, our responsibilities. These little texts felt eminently public to me, but I found myself averse to putting them in the shared spaces of the internet, proprietary spaces that only appear to be public ones.

In the fall, I began to make signs like the END FAMILY SEPARATION one on our street. The work of the British artist Peter Liversidge was one of my guides. Like Liversidge, I hope to install these signs of my ongoing thinking on what it means to have a common life in a public place—a sincerely public and shared place; not a mall, not a gallery, not a proprietary app; a place from which no one can be shooed away.

A first performance of some of Public speech took place as part of The Clock Tells The Hour (online, 31 March 2021).