Guns And Consequences was a spoken word event I organized in conjunction with the exhibition UNLOADED, which is on view at Northern Illinois University’s Art Gallery through October 24. Sponsored by the Center for Black Studies, the event was scheduled for October 8, 2015. It was cancelled by an all-campus bomb threat.
Yesterday I travelled from Milwaukee to Chicago and from Chicago to DeKalb. Josephine Burke, the musuem director who had programmed the show, picked me up at the Elburn Metra station. Elburn’s like a big taxi stand with adjacent parking lot, in the middle of cornfields.
Jo apologized for being late, she’d gotten caught behind a harvester on her drive to the station, its bits and pieces of corn and hay or whatever scattering across the road. I asked how the show UNLOADED had been received. She talked about how some people had seen the show, some of the talks had been very well attended, and how some of the campus who live with PTSD from the 2008 shooting incident could not walk into the show yet.
She mentioned offhand how she designed the installation, how she pulled walls from the gallery so visitors could find the exit if they had a panic attack. Then she realized that “a person could walk in and strafe the whole show.”
There it is, that fear that comes up, again. While designing fliers to support my own appearances – the artist talk for ungun, the flier announcing the performance-basd installation where I listen to visitors tell me their stories about guns – the tension slick with fear. Make sure the send and receive flier is deeply inclusive. I want to hear their experiences. All of their experiences. I am not collecting stories to make an argument. This is art, not argument.
Later I was setting up cameras to document spoken word performances by Nikki Patin , Tara Betts, Reginald Eldridge, Billy Tuggle, Mojdeh Stoakley. A three-camera shoot, for once! With good tripods. Art people know what I mean, the luxury of time to set up documentation, to pick your shots. I was goofing with Reggie, who was going to use this amazing AV setup to do something with images and words together. The trustee’s boardroom includes a remote like a garage door opener that lifts a screen out of the furniture . . . And the security guard came in and asked us to leave, all the buildings are being evacuated.
Nikki arrived at the room as the security guard mentioned “bomb threat”. Really? Really? Later when we’re all huddled under a little cement hutch-thing we joked about how a group that’s majority brown people go to a mostly-white college campus to talk about gun violence and there’s a bomb threat.
Stephen, the gallery manager, snapped photos with his iPhone, risking water damage – the sky had opened up as well with a pounding rain. And as we puzzled it out, as we thought about Jo’s statement that NIU closed some smaller campuses over the summer and it’s probably someone who lost a job – the threat was directed at all the buildings on the NIU campus, it’s not about us – I thought about the white guy who called in bomb threats almost once a week to my high school. This was fall of my Senior Year. Is it bad that I remember his name? Or compassionate? He had so much hatred. He would smile and fake his niceness but the poison was there, controlling 1,000 high school kids from a distance, with his phone.
Eventually the bus bringing Billy Tuggle and one audience member from the Metra mades it. And Mojdeh drove in. She talked about the strangeness of driving to a place every car was fleeing from.
I had to get back into the building to collect my suitcase; Jo needed to lock up the camera equipment. I did the fastest teardown I could. Jo inadvertently alerted security to us being in the building by pulling down a shade in the window.
We were asked to leave again, this time by a gentle Hispanic security guard who said “We chose not to hit the alarms. That would be too much.” Instead they walked through every floor of every building. This is what you do when you have a bomb threat on a college campus that survived a thing.
I thanked him for that, profusely; the evacuation was triggering enough. He said, “I’m just glad I found you in there before the dogs came through. They wouldn’t have liked finding you.” He had a long night ahead. Bomb-sniffing dogs had to visit every building on campus.