By the time the federal government shutdown was made official, most people already knew it was going to happen. I was dreading it – it meant that 70 x 7 The Meal, act XXXIV, which I was working on with Philly’s outrageously well-known Mural Arts Program, wouldn’t be able to happen.
A 900-person meal featuring food designed by Philly’s top chef Marc Vetri, it was to be the 34th in a series of massive, all-inclusive, community-oriented dining experiences formulated by Paris-based artists Lucy + Jorge Orta; the coming-together of so many people, and the discussion focusing on specific issues important to Philadelphia’s community, is a work of art in and of itself. The plates and the table runner were designed specifically for this event, and everyone who sat at the table was to be part of a piece of visual and performative art. But it was meant to be set at Philly’s historic Independence Hall National Park – a manicured lawn spanning more than two blocks in front of Independence Hall, and also a federal park.
Luckily, at very much the last minute, a relocation was green-lighted: to the Thomas Paine Plaza at the Municipal Services Building overlooking City Hall. Few Philadelphians know the name of the space, but everyone knows the space, with its oversized statue of Frank Rizzo tripping down the stairs, and its even more memorable (and massive) Monopoly hat and wheelbarrow, Sorry pieces, toppling dominos, and bingo tokens scattered about. An odd space clustered somewhat fecklessly with public art gone to rust (beside the graffitied game pieces and Rizzo, there’s also an oddly-proportioned Ben Franklin at a Gutenberg press, as well as the blubbery Covenant of the People), it’s at least as eye-catching and Philly-centric as Love Park across the street, if less famous and well-loved.
Honestly, the Thomas Paine Plaza is the kind of space I adore: I have no idea how it was every green-lighted, it’s bizarrely accessible and yet not. It also makes for a pretty fantastic setting for a dinner on a sunny day:
My role in the project was to coordinate RSVPs and oversee recruitment and training of the 130 volunteers needed to make things run smoothly. All told, a successful event. Everyone seemed pretty pleased, and because of the considerable amount of support I had in that role, the volunteers were well-oriented and knew what they were doing.
The tables took some time to fill up. They never did, not completely. Though every seat was RSVPed for, some didn’t show.
Which was cool, because that meant that we got to invite the general public in – people who otherwise would never have heard about the event, despite Mural Arts’ publicizing it pretty broadly, or may never have thought of themselves as the kinds of people who would sign up for it.
Volunteers, too, all got to take places at the table and enjoy the beautiful food.
And some people who wanted a more intimate dining experience could have it.
When the tables filled up, they made for gorgeous images.
In some cases, we were very successful:
Then everyone went home, and City Hall presided over the breakdown:
Coolest project I’ve worked on in a while. My bosses were talented and dedicated, my volunteers, particularly those from the staff at Mural Arts, were devoted, creative and straightforward about performing their tasks. Our partners were wonderful to work with. And as much as The Meal would have been gorgeous at Independence Mall, the gritty inner city setting, not to mention the last-minute scramble, added an extra layer of meaning which I would have been absent otherwise. After all, as a space that’s normally clustered with Philly’s homeless community, it was the site of a public memorial for homeless citizens last winter, and in 2011 was the site of a minor scuffle between police and Occupy Philadelphia.
Also, my girlfriend came in at the last minute and worked for nearly twenty hours on the project as a sort of Chief Volunteer, making mine and a lot of other people’s jobs a hell of a lot easier. So go her.