After his arrest at Occupy Seattle, a local actor and youth-homelessness worker corresponded with “AO” — a mysterious graffiti/street artist or artists who mailed him art-based “temporary solutions” to stave off despair. The result, “Awaiting Oblivion,” opens at On the Boards.
“The first step in resistance: Don’t kill yourself.”
That “instruction” was mailed in a cigar box last October by “AO,” an anonymous Seattle street artist and activist — who might be an individual art-vandal or might be a group. The box was sent to theater-maker and homeless-youth outreach worker Tim Smith-Stewart.
It wasn’t AO’s first communiqué. AO began mailing art-based instructions to Smith-Stewart in 2012, shortly after the peak of the Occupy Seattle movement. Smith-Stewart had camped in Westlake Park for several days as part of the demonstrations and was eventually arrested.
‘Awaiting Oblivion: Temporary Solutions for Surviving the Dystopian Future We Find Ourselves Within at Present’
By Tim Smith-Stewart and Jeffrey Azevedo. Feb. 23-26, On the Boards, 100 W. Roy St., Seattle; $12-$23 (206-217-9886 or ontheboards.org).
Because AO’s art is a crime, Smith-Stewart is cagey about saying when, where and how they first got in touch.
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However it started, Smith-Stewart has been receiving AO’s missives for years (occasionally responding, though it was mostly a one-way conversation) and has turned their correspondence into a performance piece: “Awaiting Oblivion: Temporary Solutions for Surviving the Dystopian Future We Find Ourselves Within at Present,” a world premiere at On the Boards that touches on art, crime, despair and the movie “Thelma and Louise.”
In the show, Smith-Stewart uses AO’s street art and instructions — delivered in letters, cassette tapes and graffiti in the style of neo-Dada art movement Fluxus — as source material and a center of gravity. “Tell the audience that this is a fiction,” AO instructs Smith-Stewart to say at the top of the show. Then he’s instructed to say: “I am real. AO is real.”
The full title of “Awaiting Oblivion” is long, but isn’t frivolous. The piece is built on AO’s instructions and “temporary solutions” for surviving suicidal despair in a world that sometimes seems broken beyond mending.
At a recent run-through of the multimedia show — written by Smith-Stewart and Jeffrey Azevedo — actors put on headphones attached to cassette players hooked to their pants, reciting AO’s words while performing gestures by the Italian-born, locally based choreographer Alice Gosti. Some looked like modern dance, some looked like urgent kinetic communications (phrases in American Sign Language or tapping out Morse code on their arms), some looked like morning calisthenics exercises you might see on a factory floor. Meanwhile, other actors posted notes on a board upstage and quickly flipped through images on an overhead projector to illustrate the text.
The show zigzags between ruminations on gentrification; queer identity; characters from Ibsen plays; suicidal ideation; and #ManInTree, which became a meme last March when police shut down traffic as negotiators tried to coax a man down from an 80-foot sequoia he’d climbed in downtown Seattle.
“Did you see the signs of the street kids?” AO asked Smith-Stewart (via one of the actors with headphones) about #ManInTree. Those signs, he explained, “were able to capture a profound political critique, one sign reading: ‘Let him stay.’ Another reading: ‘Trees are not owned, leave him alone.’ ” Then AO added an instruction for “worship” of “the tree king.” The performers rolled a piano onto the stage and sang, hymnlike: “Let your sickness be seen/Let your sickness be sung from the highest treetop/Let it halt an orderliness that believes the ground can be owned.”
That section, Smith-Stewart said during a rehearsal break, resonates with his street-outreach work. “It’s about the visibility of illness” among people who can’t hide it behind closed doors “and halting the daily parade of cars in a way that says: ‘Stop. Look.’ ”
Helping homeless youth
Smith-Stewart, originally from the Bay Area, began volunteering at YouthCare, a Seattle nonprofit that works with homeless youth, while studying at Cornish College of the Arts. He and some friends ran “Orion Out Loud,” producing staged versions of writing by homeless youth at the Orion Center. After five and a half years of volunteering, he said, “the outreach manager was like, ‘Do you want to just work here?’ So I stuck around.”
Smith-Stewart said both he and AO have struggled with suicidal feelings. AO has anti-capitalist politics, engages in protest and, according to the script, once walked to the edge of a bridge — in the show, the actors flash an image of the Aurora Bridge on the projector — before taking “three steps back” and deciding to live. (Three steps backward are another theme in Gosti’s “Oblivion” choreography.) Smith-Stewart does street outreach, trying to help “unhoused young folks,” as he puts it, in dire circumstances: opioid use, methamphetamine habits, risky sex work.
“When I’m working on the street,” Smith-Stewart said, “and I start to focus on hope (‘I’m going to hope for this person, I’m going to hope for this person’), that burns you out.” He knows that some of the young people he talks to won’t make it. “I’m learning to sit with hopelessness.”
So, in the face of a hopeless-looking world, what’s the point of doing anything: making art, working with homeless youth, continuing to breathe?
“Oblivion,” Smith-Stewart explained, “is about temporary solutions for surviving … I do believe, really strongly, that part of any journey toward finding hope requires, at least for me, increasing one’s capacity to hold hopelessness. That maybe sounds counterintuitive — but it’s something you learn real quickly when working with homeless populations.”
AO’s solutions vary from the concrete (getting a tattoo of the phone number for the King County Crisis Line, posting a love letter to “suicidal-ideated comrades”) to the poetic (the hymn to #ManInTree) to the mildly criminal (walking through a cemetery, stealing a sign advertising available grave plots, then scanning it to make street-art posters for teardowns around Capitol Hill).
“These temporary solutions are mine,” AO said to Smith-Stewart in one of her/his/its dispatches. “But you can have them if you want them.”
So who/what is AO?
“I’m sorry I haven’t been able to give you a good answer on this,” Smith-Stewart said after being asked several variations of that question. “We’re under strict instructions to not share any identifying information we may or may not know about AO.”
Homage to art crimes
One steady through-line in “Oblivion” is the value of art crimes. One section (in which Ibsen’s characters Hedda Gabler and Nora Helmer debate reasons to die and reasons to live) references some street-art handles that regular Seattle walkers may recognize: No Touching Ground (who made a memorably massive outdoor mural of homeless woodcarver John T. Williams, who was shot and killed by a Seattle police officer), Sissies Rule, Grrrl Army and, of course, AO, whose early work included spray-painted stencils on Capitol Hill sidewalks where tree roots bulge through the pavement.
AO’s graffiti: “TREE VS. SIDEWALK.”
“Oblivion” also features a paean to trans artist and activist Claude Cahun, who tried to undermine the morale of Nazi soldiers during World War II by wearing a military uniform, mingling with soldiers and Gestapo officers, and discreetly slipping bits of censored news broadcasts about Nazi war crimes — from the BBC, for example — into their pockets and bags.
It was a form of reverse: a crime of giving instead of taking. “She was convinced she could get into the minds of Nazi soldiers,” Smith-Stewart said. “I’m obsessed with her now — she was a total badass.”
Smith-Stewart said he is “maybe a little bit nervous” about putting real-life art crimes on stage, but that anonymous street artists show the world “a kind of magic in choosing an alternate identity — one that is perhaps braver than your own.”
Besides, he added with a chuckle, “if it’s not a little bit dangerous, why do it?”
But his correspondence with AO seems like a lifeline for both: AO being heard, Smith-Stewart responding and acting on AO’s instructions, the duo determined to challenge each other, collaborate on an artistic cri de coeur and keep living.
“Oblivion,” Smith-Stewart said, is a message in a bottle for others who are struggling. It came from an impulse to “examine suicidality from a systems perspective … It’s a reach-out to a lot of the incredible people I know who are trying to help people, trying to heal, but that sometimes involves this underlying hopelessness.” Theater and street-art, he said, seemed like the right medium for AO’s message because they’re as ephemeral as life itself: “Part of being able to move forward in this world is acceptance of its temporality: our bodies, this world, living in systems we didn’t choose.”
One “temporary solution” AO sent to Smith-Stewart: “This is temporary solution #9 … an invitation: to walk together, to march together, to run together, to riot together, to sit together, to dance together, side by side in our aloneness, in our grief, in our hopelessness … Thank you for listening. Sincerely, AO.”