BISBEE — They say that history repeats itself, but when it comes to unforgettable events like the Bisbee Deportation, locals like Laurie McKenna are working in ways to make sure that doesn’t happen again. And with those intentions, The Arizona Commission of the Arts awarded the Double Adobe resident a $5,000 Artist Research and Development Grant in support of her work on a multimedia performance piece about the 1917 incident.
“I feel like we’re living in dangerous times right now because the country is split into two opposing positions and that’s what makes something like the deportation possible...the erosion of constitutional rights and not listening to each other,” McKenna said.
In anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the Bisbee Deportation, McKenna — the executive director of the Central School Project in Bisbee — began researching the historic incident in 2014. Through that research, the multidisciplinary artist cultivated an online presence surrounding the investigation and crafted a number of artistic projects, which ultimately became the “work-in-progress” multimedia creation of “The Undesirables.”
According to historical records, McKenna said, in July of 1917, two mining companies and the sheriff armed more than 1,000 locals known as the “Loyalty League” and rounded up 1,196 striking miners at gunpoint, marched them off to the baseball park — four miles away — loaded them into cattle cars and exiled them to the desert of New Mexico.
“The workers were accused of being subversive, anti-American Industrial Workers of the World (IWW),” she explained. “I really believe that a lot of labor history is lost to most of us and it’s not available to most of us. And there’s a lot to learn about the power of people coming together to make the change they want for their lives and for their country as workers. And because of the anniversary coming up, I wanted to do a project for the deportation — to really commemorate the workers that lost their place in Bisbee.”
With the grant, McKenna intends on expanding her research, experimentation and already-produced work to further the spoken-word portion, develop standalone sound and projection elements, and refine the overall presentation.
Back in July, on the 100th anniversary of deportation, McKenna presented the first iteration of the gallery installation and live performance with video at the Central School Project.
“For the premiere of The Undesirables, I stood at a Lecternette, a 1960s portable amplifier with microphone. It has a warm tube sound — a strangely nostalgic tone. Maybe the audience expected a Ted Talk, but it's not a lecture. I am a vulnerable person. Expertise is dangerous. Nostalgia is dangerous. I heed these thoughts,’ she wrote in her application to The Arizona Commission of the Arts. “What I deliver in The Undesirables is a personal, reflective, funny and tragic series of stories punctuated with biting text projections and videos. I turned my research into a rich reduction, like soup stock. I want to make The Undesirables better and tell more stories. ”
Included in the “work-in-progress” video vignette —viewable at rockpaperfence.com — McKenna said there is a section that uses antique pot metal figures as characters.
“There’s also a glimpse of a timed-projection loop that displays a series of words that are subtext to my monologue: ‘Are you loyal?’ and ‘think it over’,” she said. “(These) are two examples of about 30 words and phrases (included).”
McKenna is one of 18 applicants to receive an award of up to $5,000. According to Steve Wilcox, director of communications for The Arizona Commission of the Arts, the Artist Research and Development Grant awards funding to artists in the state as a way to not only assist in the development of artistic work and support the advancement of artistic research, but also to recognize the contributions individual artists make to Arizona’s communities.
“I think this program is one that I am personally and particularly fond of. On the part of the agency, we believe artists have a vital role to play in their communities and we want to highlight that role they can play and give them the tools they need,” he said.
McKenna has received an invitation from the IWW to bring her presentation to San Pedro, California and is in talks with PBS NewsHour about bringing her work to an even larger audience.
“I have a degree in filmmaking, so this project has brought me back to my roots in media and it was high time to return to that, return to media projects,” she said. “It’s a labor of love for the love of labor.”