A strange thing happens when you live in a city: You find yourself carving out a tiny piece of the landscape and claiming it as your own. A bar or a corner market or a record store becomes your favorite simply because it serves as a backdrop to your life, the setting for those memories that make you you. But cities or, to put it more generally, communities don't work that way. No matter how much you identify a neighborhood or its hangouts as your own, it's as much a part of every other person who has touched it, from the regulars at your favorite bar to the old lady who lived in your apartment 100 years ago. Those relationships make up what Sam Gould of Portland-based arts collective Red76 is calling Ghosttown.
"Every action leaves a kind of ghost trail," he explains, "and all of these phantom relationships come into play to build a city."
Community is a topic that has long preoccupied Red76, which was founded in 2000. Through participatory events that more closely resemble house parties than anything you'd find in a gallery, Red76 has quietly asked big questions without spoiling the fun by being pretentious or pedantic. In 2004, its "New York Public Archive" project, held in New York City's Drawing Center, asked citizens to contribute drawings of what they saw, heard, and felt during that summer. The end result was an impressionistic collection of moments from more than 2,000 New Yorkers. A little more recently and closer to home, Red76 hosted a series of parties, called "Little Cities," in which guests literally made little cities out of cardboard, paint, and hot glue. All the while, they listened to music and drank beers. With "Little Cities," it was hard to tell if the community being created was the tiny cardboard buildings or simply the gathering of friends and strangers for the sake of a good time.
"The work we do as Red76 isn't about drawing conclusions or beating anyone over the head with a message," Gould explains. "It's much more about initiating dialogue with strangers and encouraging people to be aware of the space that they interact with every day."
To that end, Gould and erstwhile Red76 member Khris Soden are unveiling their latest project called Ghosttown, a sprawling, citywide, month-long event that's the product of a five-year-long conversation between the two. It includes a potluck-style restaurant in Southeast Portland, where the menu is determined by what diners bring in to share; a clothing exchange in Northwest, where you can take whatever you like as long as you leave something behind; movie screenings and intimate dinners held in homes across Portland; a week-long radio broadcast of Portland-centric music and miscellany; and, to help make sense of it all, a broadsheet newspaper that maps out every divergent tangent of the project.
With such an eclectic mix of activities and destinations, it can be a little challenging at first to decipher what exactly Ghosttown hopes to accomplish. But, according to the manifesto of sorts that introduces the Ghosttown newspaper, the project aims to "inspire questions about cities [and] about communities." Really, it's a modest goal: create situations for people to think about their surroundings and consider, as Soden put it, "What it means to be alive in a city."
At the heart of it all is the Ghosttown Clothing Exchange and Welcoming Center, located in an unused retail space near Oldtown. (For addresses, dates, and more, see our accompanying sidebar.) With its windows covered in sheets of white butcher paper that feature the Ghosttown emblem—a cartoonish line drawing of a child under a white bed sheet—the space itself appears ghostly from outside. But inside, racks and tables of clothes, a glass counter, and makeshift fitting rooms have transformed the space into a skeletal boutique.
Instead of listing prices, the tags on each item of clothing list the name of the previous owner and a brief description of its importance for that person. For example, you could take home Soden's bright orange Sunkist T-shirt—along with the knowledge that it may be cursed, which is the essence of the Clothing Exchange. It's a way to illustrate those unseen relationships or, as Gould might say, to make those ghost trails visible. And, of course, no prices mean that the clothes are essentially free. Visitors are invited to take part in the exchange of clothing—and personal history—by simply swapping one item for another.
Across the river in the loading dock of small A projects, one of the city's newest and most promising galleries is Open Kitchen. As Ghosttown's official restaurant, it is home to a similarly pure philosophy in which diners and chefs are one and the same, and daily specials are determined by what is brought in to share. As with the Clothing Exchange, those who provide food are encouraged to share any pertinent background that inspired them to prepare the meal on an 18-foot-long blackboard.
"We want Open Kitchen to be a meeting place where people can share their lives and stories through food," said Gould. "Basically, it uses meals as a conduit for conversation."
For a slightly more intimate version of Open Kitchen, Ghosttown will host a series of what it is calling Memory Dinners in homes across the city. There, hosts will serve a meal that holds a personal significance for them and, like at Open Kitchen, use it as a catalyst for talking about their lives. These dinners range from a kid-friendly night at the home of Stephanie Snyder, director of Reed's Cooley Gallery, in which she will prepare recipes she learned from her Greek grandmother, to a re-creation of the first ripe Family Supper with restaurateurs Michael and Naomi Hebberoy—provided they can arrange to hold a dinner with the current tenants of the rental house on NE Failing where it all started.
And while the Clothing Exchange, Open Kitchen, and the series of Memory Dinners portray a kind of fantasy version of community, the project itself was born of a similar collaboration between members of the local arts community and beyond. As Gould and Soden began to turn their idea into reality, they found that everyone they approached was willing to contribute to make it happen.
"I've been amazed that it's all come together," said Gould. "I don't think that anyone has said no."
That kind of collaboration is a compelling illustration of what Ghosttown is all about: an inclusive version of community in which the most daily activities, like eating and talking, can be works of art.
Getting to Ghosttown
Here are a few ways to participate in Red76's month-long haunting of your hometown. For a full calendar of times and locations, visit the Ghosttown events calendar at www.my.calendars.net/ghosttown.
Ghosttown Clothing Exchange and Welcoming Center, 338 NW 6th, Wed-Sun, noon-7 pm—This is your destination for all things Ghosttown. Stop in, swap clothes, pick up a newspaper, or sign up to attend a Memory Dinner or a screening at the Stay at Home Film Festival.
Open Kitchen, 1430 SE 3rd, Wed-Fri, noon-7 pm—Trade food and stories at this month-long restaurant in the loading dock of small A projects.
Memory Dinners—Enjoy a special meal and a little personal history in the homes of a diverse group of Portlanders.
Incident Report—Hear hometown stories from the people who lived them, right where they happened. Why doesn't Khris Soden ride TriMet? How did Sean Clair get that amazing scar? Incident Report will answer these and other questions.
DJ Parasite—With DJ Parasite, jukebox play lists become a form of personal expression. Who is DJ Parasite? Anyone who selects a set of songs as the soundtrack to their life, from a fourth grade fave to the song that was playing when you met that special someone. Join Red76 and friends at bars across Portland to celebrate the personal importance of music and, uh, drink.
Stay at Home Film Festival—Okay, not so much a festival as a chance to watch a few people's favorite films in the privacy of their own homes. They'll be intimate screenings where you can get to know your hosts through both the film they choose and the inside of their home. Seating is very limited.