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If you happened to stroll by the Wilson Building this morning, you may have stumbled upon a peculiar scene: Performance artist Sheldon Scott, sharply dressed in a chic suit, lying on the sidewalk, head propped up by a pillow with the words “REST EASY” scribbled across. Near his head, a tarp piled with 50 similar pillows.
No, this wasn’t a half-assed nap station, but rather the final performance of Fringe Art’s “Pillow Project.” Each week throughout the past month, Capital Fringe has dropped off 50 pillows at a specific location to “[highlight] issues of urban transformation that affect all citizens of D.C.”
So how exactly do pillows combat gentrification in D.C.? “A lot of times I think we have a lot of keyboard activists,” says Julianne Brienza, Fringe’s founder, president, and chief executive officer. She says she wanted to do something that’s more proactive than just complaining about gentrification on Facebook. “It’s about information,” she adds.
The idea for the Pillow Project came to her after Fringe’s Dance of the Cranes performance this summer, in which towering construction cranes “danced” in sync to musical cues. “During that time I just started thinking about how people talk about displacement and gentrification in the city,” Brienza tells Arts Desk.
She wanted to do some sort of art project that highlighted the issues of gentrification but couldn’t think of the right one—until she put her head on a pillow. “I actually went to bed one night and I was sleeping on a pillow and I sort of remember Freud‘s theory of displacement—where the unimportant is important,” she says. She applied Freud’s theory onto the urban development happening in the city. The pillows—strategically placed in areas of the city “that [have] undergone, or [are] about to undergo major development and change”—highlight how something so seemingly unimportant as a cushiony head rest is, in fact, vitally important to a lot of residents who’ve been displaced from their homes, she says.
The month-long project, which featured pillow-art by local artists Kelly Towles, Lisa Marie Thalhammer, Holly Bass, Rania Hassan, and Scott, were placed at the MLK Library, the Reeves Center, outside the Anacostia Metro station, and outside of the Goethe-Institut Washington in Chinatown, along with the Wilson Building. All the pillows—which displayed messages about displacement and gentrification—were given away to passersby, with the hopes that the message will get through to them and inspire them to connect with their local Advisory Neighborhood Commission or councilmember to address development issues.
Though the project doesn’t directly propose any ideas or solutions for how to help alleviate displacement, Brienza calls it a success, with Fringe gaining a whole heap of new Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram followers. But she knows that not everyone will get it. “Some people will get a free pillow and they think it will look pretty,” she says. And for those who didn’t get one, those pretty pillows are for sale, with profits going to pay for the project. A set of all five pillow cases dropped during the project—each signed by the artist—is available for a cool $200. Pillow included.
Photo by Matt Cohen