Art in the Park: 'American Dream'

It's the day for you to deliver MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech

Brent Hessler reciting the
Brent Hessler reciting the "I Have a Dream" speech (Photo by Robert Faires)

You've no doubt heard Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Maybe you've read the words as well. But have you ever spoken them yourself – allowed those righteous calls for justice to rumble in your chest and ring forth from your mouth? If not, you should, and you can today at Wooldridge Square, courtesy of The Contemporary Austin.

Until 4pm this afternoon, Andrea Mellard, the museum's director of public programs and community engagement, and a team from the institution, will be set up on the newly repainted gazebo of the recently refurbished park with Kurt Mueller’s American Dream, an interactive artwork that includes a transcript of the speech projected on a monitor screen, karaoke-style; the recorded responses of the crowd from its original delivery during the March on Washington a half-century ago; and a microphone connected to a speaker. The idea is for the public to have the opportunity to deliver that historic message, to let it resonate in their own bodies, and feel some of the power – and responsibility – that live in them.

It might sound like a set-up for failure to have Jane and John Q. Public step into the shoes – or at least utterances – of a mighty orator such as Dr. King. But as was proven when the work was exhibited in the museum's 2008 edition of "New Art in Austin" (when it was still the Austin Museum of Art), the work is actually a stirring example of civic participation. Hearing the speech through the voices of women and men, of people with skins of different shades, of those who can recall the speech when it was given and those who belong to the generations since, reaffirms Dr. King's call to all of society to shake off injustice and embrace equality. No one expects to hear those immortal phrases peal the way they did when Dr. King delivered them. They want to hear how it sounds coming from the people to whom Dr. King was speaking, the people charged with bringing that dream to reality.

It's a powerful thing. I arrived at Wooldridge shortly after the Contemporary team set up the installation at 10am, and a young man was working his way through the speech. He must have been born a good 25 years after the March on Washington, a world away from the dangers and battles of the Civil Rights Movement. He was white, and his anti-authority T-shirt and punkish haircut suggested that he wasn't the likeliest candidate for this particular experiment in social discourse. But he took it very seriously, and his commitment to honoring every word gave me pause. It made the words still vital, still meaningful. "They're still revolutionary," insisted Mellard when he was done, and I had to agree. And when I was asked to step up and do the same, I could hardly refuse.

They're big ideas to climb inside of – or to let climb inside you. To admire them from a distance, as we do when we watch videos of Dr. King deliver the speech, is one thing, but you really feel their size, the hugeness of the vision this man had for an America that lived up to all of its founding ideals, when you take his words into yourself and push them back out in your own voice. You have to work to keep pace with Dr. King's original tempo, and sometimes you're just fighting to get every word out, but those big ideas rattle and thrum in your chest and up your throat, and the experience will affect you. As Mellard has noted, it is "a little intimidating" and yet "powerfully rewarding." If you can get to Guadalupe and Ninth by 4, do so. For more information, visit www.thecontemporaryaustin.org/2013/art-installation-american-dream.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

The Contemporary Austin, Austin visual art, Kurt Mueller, American Dream, Andrea Mellard, Martin Luther King Jr., Austin Museum of Art

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