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High Schoolers Turn to Art to Get Their Concerns Heard

By Sam Cholke | November 4, 2013 8:32am
 Students from the Hyde Park Art Center are turning to performance art to get their voices heard.
Public Address Art Project
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HYDE PARK — Teenagers at the Hyde Park Art Center have something to say and they’re becoming hard to ignore.

High school students in the Youth Art Board program at the art center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave., are testing the waters as performance artists on the streets of Hyde Park.

“I wanted to give them a platform to say what they want to say without filtration,” said Lamont Hamilton, who is schooling the 15 kids from Hyde Park, Kenwood and South Shore on performance art.

For the past two weeks the students have stood on corners on 53rd and 55th streets in Hyde Park with megaphones airing their concerns about the high expectations of beauty placed on them, the favoritism light-skinned African-Americans appear to receive and the capriciousness of violence.

“It gave me a feeling of power to talk and have people listen,” said Jordan Swanson, a 17-year-old senior at Kenwood Academy.

The students are speaking their mind in preparation for a performance Thursday at the University of Chicago’s Washington Park Arts Incubator, 301 E. Garfield Blvd.

Hamilton has been coaching Swanson and the others to use performance art in such way that they cannot be ignored.

“These kids have an element of confrontation in them because they don’t feel like they’ve been listened to,” Hamilton said.

He said it’s been a slow process to show them the difference between agitation and confrontation, and how just raising their voice to a yell can prompt harsh reactions rather than attention.

“It seemed like people would get really annoyed for no reason,” said Jada Washington, a senior at Kenwood, who found her first two experiences on the street with a megaphone unnerving.

Hamilton said the students are not saying anything offensive, but the idea of teenagers with megaphones remains unsettling, even in liberal Hyde Park.

“They got a very antagonistic interaction — they got into some confrontations with people yelling at them,” Hamilton said. “It wasn’t what they were saying, it was that they were there.”

Hamilton said those initial confrontations have built confidence in many of them for what he hopes will be a more accepting performance in Washington Park.

“They handled it pretty well,” Hamilton said. “They met the reproaches with questions.”

Hamilton, a photographer by trade, isn’t sending the kids in blind. He said he’s tried it himself and was unnerved himself hearing his own opinions projected through a megaphone.

He said for kids who have thought of art as a practice limited to painting or sculpture, the experience will break down walls about what are is and can be. He said he his students already seem comfortable with accepting something as ephemeral and temporary as slam poetry as art, and said he thinks the performance art will only pry that definition of art open even wider.

The students milled around the art center on Thursday bickering over seats on the one couch. But they also talked about their experiences in the way that an actor discusses an audience.

“The first time we did it there was a lot of energy,” Isaiah Benson said as the others jockeyed for a position on the couch.

Whether it was to get the message across or to avoid an unpleasant confrontation, all of the students hoped there would be a lot of energy at Thursday's performance.