Power Play

Portland’s City Council inspires performance art.

By Roxanne Myslewski August 23, 2012

DURING a 2009 trip to Portland, New York performance artist Aaron Landsman did things you’d expect a member of the culturati to do: he hobnobbed with local scenesters and toured potential sites for an avant-garde performance. But then the most unusual thing happened. City Commissioner Nick Fish dragged Landsman to a city council meeting. And art was born.

“I didn’t want to go,” says Landsman. “But Fish said, ‘It’s going to be hot. We’re talking about zoning.’”

City Hall’s most loquacious commissioner prevailed, and Landsman found himself rapt for two hours as citizens bombarded the council on the potential effects of a proposed zoning change on litter and child health. The meeting’s climax arrived when an activist challenged the council to “live in the kid zone” as he dumped the contents of a plastic bag all over the table used for public comment. “We’re talking syringes, condoms, crack vials, dirty diapers ... the room just goes dead,” Landsman recalls. 

Landsman, struck by the moment’s theatricality, created City Council Meeting, a participatory performance that he plans to unveil in four cities (but not Portland) this year. Not so much a play as an interactive experience, City Council Meeting will evoke local government in all its glory, right down to the uncomfortable chairs. Meeting will mix actual actors with audience members, and use scripts based on real council meetings in Portland and other cities. 

Landsman hopes his “social sculpture” spawns plenty of awkward moments. “It’s better when people appear confused and uncomfortable,” he says. We may have to wait awhile to check out the piece, but those lacking entertainment should rest easy: the real Portland City Council meets nearly every Wednesday. 

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