Nari Ward emigrated from Jamaica to Brooklyn at the age of twelve. His multimedia installation, Salvage Research Soul Training (2007), includes wheelchair puppeteers, an explorative video of movements conceived by dancer/choreographer Ralph Lemon and an oversized parrot puppet capable of reciting a litany of quotes, statistics, official pronouncements, and personalized reflections. Ward's piece explores notions of vulnerability, dependency, anticipation and resilience.
A Conversation with Nari Ward and Olu Oguibe
Olu Oguibe: A question about process. How did you determine the different elements that now constitute the Salvage Research Soul Training piece? How and at what point did you decide there would be a parrot diatribe piece, for instance, or that there would be wheelchairs and that those wheelchairs would levitate on stilts, or that there would be a performance element or ceremonial candles? How did you arrive at the formal and conceptual details of the piece?
Nari Ward: I am not sure how to answer this question since there are so many aspects to consider. There is the direct response which acknowledges the research of visiting the site, reading testimonials, press accounts, and speaking to individuals who worked at the facility. However there are other elements that have nothing to do with the site which I must discuss in order to give a fair account of the process. The one element, which I cannot explain but is essential to my process, is “faith”; the persistent belief that the choices and conditions I create will distill into an experience that is openhandedly poignant.
I believe that objects activate space through their physical presence as well as cultural references. Both of these states are malleable and susceptible to change over time but what that change evolves into is the subject. I chose certain materials because they are everyday objects slipping away through decay and or neglect yet have a history that seems to prompt questions. Such is the case of the wheel chairs which I recovered from the Mansfield Training School. They were each adapted for the needs of a particular handicapped individual and were left behind when those clients were relocated to group homes. I wanted these devices to be viewed as special so I decided to put them on stilts in order to give them an impressive throne like appearance. The John F. Kennedy Flame of Hope candles as well as the Diatribe Parrot came about as a result of my conversations with a former staff member, Arlene McNamara, who was generous to share with me her memories and scrap books of the Mansfield institution. The actual configuration of the installation with all the wheel chairs grouped together and facing the video monitor, was inspired by a question I asked Arlene regarding a particular sound or activity she remembered that would begin to capture the atmosphere of the various social spaces within the Training School. She immediately thought about the sound of the televisions constantly playing and patients positioned to view their screens.
Olu Oguibe: Following our conversation last evening, I was struck by a whole number of things, but I also thought a little longer about your title for the Sackler visiting artist project at UConn. Your work usually employs a salvage strategy, but we know that this has to do with what you've referred to as the "third world" element in your practice that is inspired by the retrieval culture in so-called third world societies. In the context of the Sackler project, however, it struck me that in its time the Mansfield Training School was not a salvage facility but a hold-all or stowaway for people whom society considered discards. It was an institution where people were put away so that no one in the community would see them, so that family and friends would not be embarrassed by their presence; a place where, albeit with much, [insert] certain individuals were put out of sight. In the Parrot Diatribe which is part of your piece, the bird repeats a particularly poignant line that says: you said you would get me out of here; it's been forty years and you never came. A very chilling line, indeed. How do you position your project as a "salvage" exercise, against this background?
Nari Ward: The Salvage aspect of my title is specific to the reuse of materials to construct meaning and indeed you are correct in aligning it with a “third world” strategy. However to be fair the original mandate of the Mansfield Training School was to offer opportunity or hope to individuals who were deemed mentally deficient. Unfortunately over time there was a lack of adequate resources to ensure such a result and it became a desperately debilitated environment. That same sense of failure or ambivalence is apparent in how the Mansfield Training School’s patient records have been neglected. Although the Training School is perceived as a significant social experiment no federal, state or local agency is willing to take responsibility for the personal information still sequestered inside the walls of its crumbling facility. In my mind the obvious oversight of this mentally handicapped population references past issues of neglected histories, exclusion, as well as deception which are essential points of inquiry and insight in my work. Thus the salvage discourse is intended to be one of empathy and a directive for conscientious social responsibility.