It takes a village to raise a city
Arthouse staffers weren't sure if people would actually show up for The 24 Hour Roman Reconstruction Project, a time-based installation/performance by Los Angeles artist Liz Glynn in which volunteers help build a model version of ancient Rome in a day. They needn't have worried. This is Austin, a city with DIY in its DNA, that loves to do and to make. And indeed, between midnight and midnight last Saturday, they came, they saw, they built. And at the end of the 24 hours, they trashed. Herewith, notes from that Day.
12:15am (741BC): Just a quarter-hour late meant missing the first dozen years of ancient Rome, including construction of the huts of Romulus and Remus. But I arrived in time to see volunteers paint the Tigris River across the Jones Center floor, where the seven Roman hills were marked out by name. A few simple buildings had been erected already, and among the 60 people present (and three dogs – stand-ins for the she-wolf that suckled Rome's founders), many were kneeling on the concrete, industriously cutting cardboard to add more. By 1am, when I left, another 20 people had joined in, with Glynn distributing laminated cards describing specific buildings for them to re-create. They pillaged stacks of cardboard and wood leaning against one wall; grabbed box-cutters, rulers, and tape; and started working. Friday-night revelers on Congress Avenue paused before the plate-glass window to watch. The air was buzzing.
9am (318BC): What a difference 423 years makes. During my eight hours away, some two dozen structures had sprung up, along with a foot-tall cardboard wall encircling the city. With few surviving images of Rome's earliest buildings to guide them, some participants approached their assignments fancifully – one had beer-bottle columns and a roof covered in lavender fur. Around 5am, the numbers had dwindled to 20 people (most from a high school Latin class from Houston), but now 80 strong, about a quarter of them younger than 12, were on hand building the Roman Republic. Here, the oval track of the Circus Maximus had been laid; there, a 5-foot-tall Colossus of Hercules set up, the flat cardboard suggesting a cheap standee for an old Steve Reeves sword-and-sandals movie.
4pm (AD23): The Republic has given way to the Empire, and the city has expanded almost to the edges of the gallery, bordered by a wall now knee-high. Stepping over it into the profusion of miniature temples offered the uncanny sensation of being Gulliver walking in Lilliput. Though the number of people was about the same as in the morning, the activity was much more intense. Fiddler Danny Levin serenaded the crowd, à la Nero, but these folks focused on building, and as this era's buildings are well-documented, the re-creations had grown more ambitious. The whine of power saws cut the air, blending nicely with Musique Concrete, William Meadows' electronic score, mixing music with tool sounds to mark concrete's widespread use after Rome's Great Fire. The scene was chaotic but a magnificent chaos born of creativity – all these different hands working independently but toward a common goal, this ephemeral end of re-creating an ancient city hastily and with poor materials that will be destroyed at the day's end. Banners touting Latin phrases ring the space, and one in particular speaks to me: "By united efforts." That's how this Rome is getting built.
11:30pm (AD386): The city has grown into a zoning commissioner's nightmare, buildings jammed higgledy-piggledy with little room among them, styles running the gamut from crude grade-school history project to polished grad-school architectural model. Still, having watched them be built, it's hard not to feel that they're all of a piece: all made in this space by people working together, and whether slapdash or slick, all projecting the same spirit of play. Glynn looked as serene as she had all day, an eye of calm in this vortex of anarchic activity. As the 24 hours wound down, the crowd – 100? 150? more? – began to anticipate the moment when they could play Visigoths and sack the Eternal City. Once the Waco Girls got all thrashy and loud, they cut loose, stomping, kicking, trampling everything in sight. It took only about a minute for the glory that was Rome to be history.
But even as Rome was being deconstructed, talk of reconstruction was in the air: Arthouse's, that is. Executive Director Sue Graze announced that the Jones Center's long-awaited expansion would commence in October. The capital campaign netted $5 million of its $6 million goal, and Austin's Structura Inc. has been hired as contractor, so Arthouse is ready to make the plans by architects Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis – creating new galleries, studios, a 90-seat community/screening room, a 5,500-square-foot rooftop space, and a new facade – a reality. Expect a year of construction and a grand reopening in October 2010. For more information, visit www.arthousetexas.org.