CAM Raleigh’s live-in installation artist reconfigures his experience in the “Jungle” to start conversations

The area is eager for accessibility and for acceptance. It’s noticeable on an individual and organizational level. There is need for discussion.

With  great timing, CAM Raleigh’s live-in artist is echoing our area’s desperate desire for compassion and understanding. But for artist, Phil America, his way of starting conversations is through his artistic and ethnographic sources. He provokes this conversation through the lens of homelessness: “The Failure of the American Dream.”

He’s a performance artist but puts on no charade. Our conversation started and ended with divergent but rather unique realizations of similarities in our lifestyles. Walking away from the exhibit, I didn’t get answers to my questions I came with, like, how old he was when he lived in the “Jungle,” otherwise known as America’s largest homeless tent encampment. It’s a landmark in and of itself with more than 12,000 inhabitants and is shoulder to shoulder with Silicone Valley, a landmark in stark contrast with self-made millionaires.

amer2The installation is a mock-up of how America lived, which includes two projections of his footage taken during his time in the background, and wall of the “do’s and don’ts,” the foundational rules of the “Jungle” America quickly came to learn during his three weeks in the camp. A man named Indio was the leader and protector of the group, and had been “living in the slums for a number of years,” America says.

During a Ted Talk in his hometown of Sacramento, America describes the artistic intentions of his time spent across the world in homeless camps as “bringing about conversation, and to start a conversation of social change.” He further states, “To do that, we have to help each other. And we have to help Indio like he helps his people. The way his people helped me.”

America says you have to become your own source of understanding. “It’s necessary to erase what you’ve learned from the media, from the books, from the scholars [and] from the speakers,” he says. “You have to find your own understanding; you have to create your own understanding. And through that understanding comes compassion and through compassion comes the passion for change.”

Art galleries are becoming a place open to sharing stories about lives lived. There is undoubtedly a call in America’s quite literal “living” installation to “drop ourselves.” And like a performing artist, drop ourselves to become more open to surprise and acknowledge the likeness humanity shares.

You can see “Failure of the American Dream” through May 8 at CAM Raleigh.

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