In the spring of 1999, over a period of three months, dance artist Linda K. Johnson created a site-specific performance with the urban growth boundary (UGB) program in Portland, Oregon, as its subject.
The UGB sets an outer limit on spatial growth in an effort to prevent urban sprawl, making land value at the divide between urban and rural space high, due to the complicated land-use restrictions.
For her performance, entitled The View from Here, Johnson lived at six different sites, for thirty-six hours each, along the invisible boundary—or “line,” as she calls it—dividing the outskirts of Portland from farmland and forests. She created a fence-like enclosure that functioned as a modular dwelling where she ate and slept, which she could reconfigure to suit her needs at the various sites.
Based on her research, Johnson choreographed a performance complete with props (such as dishes and linens) and clothes that local inhabitants might wear (dresses, business suits, work overalls), and even prepared a sound track. However, once she actually began “living on the line,” she dispensed with the performance and most of the props.
While her choreographed material “was meant to provoke discussion,” Johnson said, “it kept people at a distance.” Residents and park users who inadvertently ran into her performing at the first location appeared wary and, as she put it, “immediately became observers.”
On her second day at the first site, Johnson dropped her choreographed performance altogether when she realized that her small, abstract dwelling at the border of the city was in itself a bridge between urban and rural space, and that her physical presence, her body, was the conduit for exchanges of ideas with people in this liminal zone.
Johnson originally conceived of the project as a way to gain a more thorough understanding of how the boundary works, but she said it spontaneously unfolded “into a series of impromptu dialogues about urban planning and individual freedom.”
These conversations not only made the edges of the boundary visible to participants in a new way but also expanded the boundaries of what art is.
While some in her audience were her social and cultural peers—urban dwellers and people from the art world who had read about the project in the press and came with what Johnson called “predetermined agendas about built versus unbuilt”—nearly half of her conversations were in-the-moment exchanges with “people who bumped into it raw.”
Living at the edge of the rural landscape for days at a time over a period of three months meant Johnson spoke with people she wouldn’t normally encounter. She documented her conversations with a mixed population that ranged from upper-middle class to working class, from urban planners and construction workers to families with school-age children.
The more time Johnson spent on the UGB, the more she came to understand that audiences experience art from a wide range of perspectives and that negotiating these was part of what her project was about. It was her intention as an artist to make an aperture big enough that no one felt excluded from entering the work.
Ultimately, her interactions with the participants expanded her own notion of what constitutes a powerful performance. What distinguishes The View From Here as a turn-of-the-century encounter with landscape is not only Johnson’s adaptive approach to her art but also, more importantly, her ability to call forth and negotiate multiple perspectives.