On the Level
If someone says they are being “on the level” with you, it means that they are being honest with you. The idiomatic expression implies more than mere honesty, however. It shows a kind of camaraderie. You can tell someone you’re on the level, you can ask if someone is on the level, and you can request someone to level with you: in each case you discard whatever differences there might be between the two of you and speak as equals. Apparently, the expression has its root in the Freemasons, an organization that takes the tools of the building trade for their symbols. In the Masonic Order, the level is a symbol for equality. Ironically, the Masons are known in popular culture for being secretive and conspiring for world domination. A parallel could be drawn between the Masons’ activities and the Arts Court redevelopment: the building is being engineered as an inclusive public space for cultural expression and yet the arts are often characterized as being esoteric and elitist. If arts organizations are seen to be operating in secret, it probably has more to do with their limited advertising budgets than with any orchestrated attempt to shut people out. The artists in the Cultural Engineering project have been steadfastly producing work that takes steps to demystify at least some of the goings on at the Arts Court.
The phrase “on the level” provides a lens through which to examine the contributions of the artists in Issue Six. Timothy Smith once again brings his incisive focus to bear on the site of the OAG expansion and the actions of the construction workers therein. The carefully composed and constructed image of Site + Sound shows the workers to be literally on the same or almost the same level as they raise the new construction floor by floor. There is a dark suggestion however, that there is another level at work, with Smith showing the puppet master’s strings.
Another new video by Meredith Snider goes behind the scenes at Arts Court to get some candid reflections on the impact of the Arts Court redevelopment on the lives of the people who work there. Her searching question prompts her respondents to level with her. As her video pans across and zooms in on the floorplans of the redevelopment, Snider subtly reinforces the fact that a few things might have been overlooked in the grand design.
And finally Guillermo Trejo, this issue’s guest artist, brings attention to level of a different kind, the balance scale of Justice. His video brings attention to a detail of the Arts Court complex leftover from its previous incarnation as a courthouse: a bas-relief of the mythic figure of Justice (blindfolded, holding a sword and a balance scale) that was added as ornamentation to an architectural expansion of the courthouse in 1964. With his video, Trejo also brings attention to an underdeveloped theme that resonates with this project: the relationship between art and social justice (which is not always clear cut). The figure of Justice is blindfolded in order to place everyone on the same level before being weighed in the balance. But if the blindfold is meant to account for difference it also has the potential to make the wearer ignorant of it.
Text by Michael Davidge