In this episode of The Detour, we're thinking about civic love: love for society, expressed through a commitment to the common good. This phrase, "civic love," comes from the people at the National Public Housing Museum, including our first guest, Lisa Yun Lee. We'll also hear from JR Rymut, of Enterprise, Oregon, who talks about Haunt Camp, a project that brings teenagers in Wallowa County together to create a community experience that's part art prank, part haunted house—and what this all might have to do with civic love.
- 36 Questions for Civic Love was created by Lisa Yun Lee and Tiff Beatty of the National Public Housing Museum with Sarah Pharaon of Diologic Consulting.
- Lisa Yun Lee quotes Toni Cade Bambara: "As a culture worker who belongs to an oppressed people my job is to make revolution irresistible." The quote can be found in Thabiti Lewis's book Conversations with Toni Cade Bambara.
- Lisa quotes Theodor Adorno's essay "Scientific Experiences of a European Scholar in America": "We become free human beings not by each of us realizing ourselves as individuals, but rather in that we go out of ourselves, enter into relation with others, and in a certain sense relinquish ourselves to them."
- Lisa mentions Claire Dederer's book Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma
- Lisa quotes Grace Lee Boggs quoting her husband, Jimmy Boggs, in her book The Next American Revolution: "As Jimmy Boggs used to remind us, revolutions are made out of love for people and for place. He often talked about loving America enough to change it. 'I love this country,' he used to say, 'not only because my ancestors' blood is in the soil but because of what I believe it can become.' Love isn't just something you feel. It's something you do everyday when you go out and pick the paper and bottles scattered the night before on the corner, when you stop and talk to a neighbor, when you argue passionately for what you believe in with whoever will listen, when you call a friend to see how they're doing, when you write a letter to the newspaper, when you give a speech and give 'em hell, when you never stop believing that we can all be more than what we are. In other words, Love isn't about what we did yesterday; it's about what we do today and tomorrow and the day after."
- Pedalpalooza is a summer-long festival of themed bicycle rides in Portland organized and led by volunteers. Oregon Humanities has organized several rides during the festival.
- Haunt Camp is made possible by the support of The Josephy Center for Arts & Culture in Wallowa County
- The Haunt Camp Hotline is at 213-699-9666
About Our Guests
Lisa Yun Lee is a cultural activist and the executive director of the National Public Housing Museum. She is also an associate professor in art history and gender and women's studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, teaching faculty with the Prison Neighborhood Art Project, and a member of the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials. Lisa served as a co-chair of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Arts & Culture Transition Team, and is currently on the Mayor's Committee for the evaluation of Monuments, Memorials and Historical Reckoning. She is writing a book for Teacher's College Press about Jane Addams, and serves on the boards of the Field Foundation, 3Arts, and the Illinois State Museum.
JR Rymut graduated from Rhode Island School of Design and has been a professional creative fabricator since 2014. She now splits her time between teaching art in rural Wallowa County and working in Los Angeles for museum exhibit, film set, and taxidermy studios. Her active professional connections provide a unique opportunity for youth to learn the latest, most relevant techniques being used in the industry today. She finds the thought of building an exhibit designed by teenagers extremely funny.
Lisa Yun Lee: The more that we know one another, the more that we understand our heart's desire, what we love, what we value, the better that we can actually engage in deep civic conversation.
Adam Davis: In this episode of The Detour, we're thinking about civic love. Civic love, you say? What's that strange thing? How exactly does civic go with love? And what might you mean, putting those two words together? Let me say first that it wasn't our creation or idea. The phrase “civic love” comes from people at the National Public Housing Museum, including Lisa Yun Lee.
Lisa talked with me in August of 2023 about where the phrase comes from and what it means to her. Lisa laughs a lot during this conversation, but you'll hear right away that she's serious about the effort to help people recognize how our public or civic lives and our personal or private lives are more connected and intertwined than we sometimes think. Also, how beauty and justice might be more connected than we think. And how what happens in our kitchen might be more connected to the public square than we think. It's these kinds of connections that lie underneath the National Public Housing Museum's open-source toolkit called 36 Questions for Civic Love, a toolkit that we at Oregon Humanities have used as part of two Pedalpalooza rides in Portland over the past two summers.
During the second of these rides, in 2023, we were joined by JR Rymut, who came in from Enterprise, Oregon, to ride along and talk about her own civic love project, Haunt Camp, which she calls an art prank. In the second half of this episode, you'll hear JR say that civic love is a totally new concept to her, but throughout the whole of her conversation with Rozzell Medina, which includes talk about community, responsibility, laughter, creativity, and play—and also some talk about the Barbie movie—you'll probably recognize in JR and Rozzell’s words a deep understanding of, and commitment to, civic love.
The term civic love may be new for most or even all of us, but if you're listening to this, then there's a good chance that civic love is not only familiar to you but also inside you, animating how you move about your kitchen, your community, and the world. Interspersed throughout this episode, you'll hear a number of different voices reading many of the 36 questions about civic love. These questions are being read by Oregon Humanities board members and friends who gathered in mid-October at our office in downtown Portland. We only asked that they read the questions, and we deliberately did not ask them to provide answers or responses. The responses, as usual, are on you. But let's see. Here's Lisa.
So thanks, Lisa, for joining us on the phone to talk for The Detour and to talk about civic love. I wanted to ask you right at the start, with the National Public Housing Museum, you helped develop these 36 questions about civic love, and I was thinking, should we talk about those questions and, about civic love, or should we engage in answering some of those questions? What do you think is a better way to...
Lisa Yun Lee: I love the question that you just asked. And if you know me, you know of course that we should always talk—instead of talking about stuff, we should actually do the thing, you know what I'm saying?
Adam Davis: Absolutely.
Lisa Yun Lee: So I think we should do the thing, and then also maybe, you know, theorize and think a little bit about it.
Adam Davis: Okay, great. So, uh, hey, Lisa, what's your favorite kitchen smell?
Lisa Yun Lee: It has to be the smell of a pot of rice. And ever since I was little, I just loved that smell. We always had a pot of rice going and, you know, that's my jam. What about you, Adam? What's your favorite kitchen smell?
Adam Davis: I think it's garlic right after it hits the oil. Which is the start of most dinners at our place. So, I think that's it. There are plenty of unfavorite kitchen smells that I don't want to talk about really, but that's the favorite.
Lisa Yun Lee: Ah. And Adam, let me ask you one, which is... When you wake up, what's the first sound that you hear?
Adam Davis: Yeah, usually it's—so we live in a part of Southeast Portland that's pretty quiet during the night, but it's usually some sort of car sound, whether it's a car door, or a car pulling out, or occasionally a beep. It's rarely our dog. It's usually a car that wakes me up. How about you?
Lisa Yun Lee: Well, when I am with my doggy, who is Portuguese Water Dog, who I love, it always is the dog, because he like sort of sits right up, he looks at me and he goes, “Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.” Because he wants me to wake up.
But when I'm not with my dog, it usually is my alarm, which happens to be a Lupe Fiasco song, which is really sad, because I love Lupe Fiasco, but now when I hear that song—it triggers me, and I don't, you know, I get all stressed out. So note to everyone in the world, never pick your favorite song to be your alarm.
Adam Davis: Yeah. It's a negative association. So we've just asked each other two of the 36 questions about civic love, and it's interesting, even thinking about these two, I want to follow your encouragement, not only to talk about the questions, but think about them a little because civic love, at least right off the bat, if I hadn't been through this before, I would think, “Okay, we're going to talk about civics.” And these first two questions we've talked about, kitchen smell and what wakes you up in the morning, those both sound pretty domestic. So can I just ask you, like, what do you think about the relation between these questions that seem anchored in the domestic or home experience and civic love?
Lisa Yun Lee: Yeah, well, that's a really good question. I mean, I definitely believe that the kind of binary between private and public, home and sort of civic space, is one that has been constructed, you know, through history. And at times that divide has been, I think, very liberatory and at other times it's been completely oppressive.
Like if we think about sort of the push of women into the so-called domestic space and sort of the valuation of reproductive labor in sort of domestic spaces versus “productive labor,” you know. And so I think there's a very intentional move to break down those barriers between the public and the private, because so much of our lives, our sense of self, is created first in our home spaces. And so in civic love, there's the effort for us to get to know one another deeply and truly and fully with a kind of capaciousness, which is not just, 'Hey, what do you think about gun control?' or 'Are you pro or against book banning?' But before I ask that question to you and engage in a truly civic conversation about book banning, I might actually really want to know, like, who was your third-grade teacher? And What is the first smell that you wake, you know, sound that you wake up to and it's really grounded in this notion That the more that we know one another the more that we understand Our sort of heart's desire, what we love, what we value, the better that we can actually engage in deep, civic conversation.
Adam Davis: That makes sense. I mean, it feels like it's even—what you just said feels like it's even in the phrase, civic love. Where it's putting together two words that often feel like they're not put together. Like civic doesn't feel very lovey most of the time. It feels kind of dry.
Lisa Yun Lee: Yeah. And you know, there, a lot of this is grounded in the humanities work of theater. I mean, there's a whole theory of radical generosity in the theater world, which is, you know, you don't sort of, you know, when you, and that theory is when you see a character on stage. I'm going to pick maybe the most despicable kind of character, like a Nazi, right? Or if you see somebody who is an immigration border patrol person. In truly great theater, that particular character is not just a caricature of those things that that person does, but you're trying to represent that character as a full human being, as a father, as well as somebody who was a son, as somebody who also, like, gets down to care as one, or whatever it may be. And this, um, idea of presenting people in radical generosity is where we really took civic love from, you know, like, I knew of this from, uh, kind of humanities reading that I had done, and thinking about, like, how would we apply that notion in theater to the work that we're doing at the National Public Housing Museum is actually how we really came up with civic love.
Adam Davis: So it's interesting to think—to go from something performative—not theater performative, but also kind of participatory performative, I think the kind of theater you're talking about—but to go to something that is really not about the spectator at all. It's about two people interacting with each other just for that interaction. Is that how I—am I understanding correctly the way you hope that the questions would be?
Lisa Yun Lee: Yeah, no, 100%.
Adam Davis: Can I ask, so this started early in the pandemic, we're now in many ways, at least we seem to think we're sort of out of the worst parts of the pandemic. How's the recipe looking now?
Lisa Yun Lee: Yeah. I mean, I think it's even more relevant and important now.
I mean, I think just because as a society, we've really just lost the skill of talking to one another. As opposed to talking at one another, it's a kind of civic muscle that we have not practiced because we don't also see it practice, whether it's in government or on television anymore, anywhere. I mean, it's just people screaming at each other and really digging their heels into their positions and sort of really ideologically.
You know, sort of pushing a position at someone rather than deeply engaging with one another, you know. And so this idea of how do you help us all develop a kind of muscle again to talk to one another and to listen. Because it's a really—it's a, as much as a talking tool, this is really a tool for active listening.
And you really aren't supposed to—one of the core principles of civic love is even if you want to, you're not supposed to, like, actually talk back to the other person, you know, like, you really are just listening, and then, um, sort of in the questions, there's a toolkit that you can sort of download off the, you know, our website, but you'll see, like, at every kind of 12 questions, there is a moment that you can sort of reflect, and it comes to a question, something like, ‘What do you notice that we have in common with one another?’ And it's sort of based solely on what we've talked about, but the amazing thing is like, you'll have two complete strangers, but you're talking and you realize there always are things that you really can find in common with one another.
And you know, something that you'll see with civic love is the questions they start to amplify and it moves into questions like, ‘What privilege do you know you have?’ and ‘When did you become aware of that privilege?’ Because there's so much of our conversation now around race and class and gender privilege. It’s something that we really need to be talking and thinking about as a society, but it's really hard to just bring people together and say like, ‘Hey, let's talk about white privilege.’ Right? But that's question 34.
And so before you've talked about that, you have talked about who your most memorable teacher was, what scares you, what if anything is too serious to be joked about. And so you really know a lot about somebody, and you also have told somebody a lot about yourself. And so this kind of these—a lot of the civic questions that you were talking about, that you were saying that are in the public sphere, that as a society we should be talking about whether it's social welfare state, housing insecurity, policing, public education, you know, social determinants of health, whatever they may be, in order for us to be talking about them, we have to be willing to be vulnerable with one another. And usually, we think about home and domestic spaces is the place that we can be vulnerable. And then you kind of put on your armor and you go out into this sort of world, you know? But I think in order for us to truly grapple with these big civic issues, we have to be willing to be vulnerable with one another.
And that's Something that this project is really also trying to help us develop and kind of, you know, build this kind of dialogic space, for lack of a better word, where we can be vulnerable with one another in order to really honestly and truly talk about these issues.
Adam Davis: Yeah. How are people—how have people over the last few years—like, who's encountering these questions and this experiment, and how are they coming to it?
Lisa Yun Lee: Well, first of all, we do our own programming, and so we use a lot of these questions at the beginning, and so, of our, of just our public programming, getting to know either people who are musicians—we're about to do a big concert in Millennium Park with public housing residents. The way that we have heard that it's been used is just really poignant, so for example, in a partnership with the Hawaii Humanities Council, they've used it actually in their work in prison for cellmates who first come together in order for them to get to know one another—you know, they actually have been using it there, which I think it's just a really beautiful way that it's been used, and also part of their work for decarceration and thinking about the humanity of people who are in prison, what it means and what are the needs of people there to also have meaningful dialogue and conversation with one another.
And so it's been used in a lot of different contexts now, and our joy to is to have the toolkit online, to ask people to download it and to use it in whatever way that they want to use it. And we've also heard that sometimes at what is called Thanksgiving—it's also Indigenous Peoples Day in the United States—people have used it at family gatherings because they're like, ‘We don't know what to talk about with our family that's meaningful.’ And so people sometimes have just done it in their home context too with their family.
Adam Davis: I was thinking about what you said about the early questions, especially our sort of let's just get to know each other as people, uh, and that they kind of build in intensity and maybe in that some of them might be tough to talk about right off the bat, but they're easier once you have connected a bit. And I wanted to ask you the question about disciplining a neighbor's child. So question 32, would you discipline a neighbor's child? You're laughing. I like the sound of that. Yeah.
Lisa Yun Lee: Yeah. That's a hard one. Let me ask you first. Would you discipline a neighbor's child?
Adam Davis: This might be, I don't know if this is fit for the air or not. My son, when he was about 14, had a couple of friends over and two of them had been in the bathroom and then they, at our place, and then they left right after that. And I happened to walk in there, and there was, uh, let's just say the seat was not clean. And so I said, Jacob, my son, which way did they go?
And I went out and I got them. And I brought them back. I brought the two of them into the bathroom and I said, ‘Hey, look at this. This is unacceptable. You do this. You got to clean it up. And it may feel strange to you right now, but you're going to thank me later. But you got to clean it up now. And, you know, can't let this happen again. And again, you're going to thank me later.’ And all three of them, I think, felt terrible. But I—that to me felt like disciplining a neighbor's child, and I still feel like it was, if strange, still the right thing to do.
Lisa Yun Lee: Oh yeah, and I'm sure whoever that kid encountered in the future is thanking you for that, Adam.
Adam Davis: Right, right.
Lisa Yun Lee: I promise you.
Adam Davis: It was—yeah, I did feel like an angry old guy. But how about you? Disciplining a neighbor's child.
Lisa Yun Lee: I feel like in my twenties, and maybe even in my thirties, I would never have done that. Because I would feel like, ‘That’s their job. That's not my job.’ But as I have grown as an activist, as a community organizer, I think my idea of who is my child, and who are our kind of chosen children, and how we should be caring for one another as a sort of larger family has made me more willing to feel like, ‘Oh, of course I would.’ Because not only the flip side of disciplining a neighbor's child is also like looking out and caring for them, you know, and I sort of feel like also in my twenties and thirties, I may not have been so eager and willing to care and reach out and to sort of be there for a stranger or someone who's not my child, but now definitely I would. I would have zero anxiety about it in both ways.
Would you discipline a neighbor's child?
Name three things we appear to have in common.
What do you keep in your cupboard that someone who raised you also kept in theirs?
Adam Davis: You know, a minute ago you used the word activist to describe yourself, and I was thinking about the relationship between that term activist or activism and civic love, and I guess, what do you mean when you say activist?
Lisa Yun Lee: Yeah. That's a really lovely question, Adam. I mean, I usually have a way that I answer it, and then you kind of threw me for a loop by thinking about how I would link it to civic love. Because usually I sort of talk about this great quote from Toni Cade Bambara, where she's a, you know, poet and philosopher, writer, and she said that, you know, the job of a cultural worker is to make the revolution irresistible. And I see sort of very much my work as a cultural worker in that way, which is, I try to bring as much collective joy and wonder and curiosity to whatever I'm making or producing or thinking about, or, you know, presenting as a public programmer. So that's the kind of, metric by which I work, you know? When I sort of talk about activism, I think it may be this way that I approach the world in that way of, you know, pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. Like, I really deeply believe that there should be a theoretical analysis to whatever we're doing. I mean, I think about like how I make my coffee with a kind of theoretical analysis of like an Adorno essay or whatever it may be, you know? But also that you have a deep, deep, overflowing optimism that our individual and collective actions can transform the world and make it a better place for all of us. And that kind of practice, which is another really important word for me, of where theory and action sort of come together is what I think is like the golden mean of activism.
Adam Davis: I like the emphasis on joy and that you're thinking about that. This idea of irresistibility is really great. I want to ask you a couple more questions as we move towards a close, and I want to do that in part with understanding in mind, and in part to just keep pushing a little bit. Question 19. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
Lisa Yun Lee: Yeah, that's one which is so touchy. It's a tough one, like you really, before you get to that, you kind of have to ask all the questions. But because we know one another, I'll answer it. I personally don't think there's anything that is off limits for joking, but because I come from the sort of Hull House tradition, and what that means is, like, this deep belief in humor and laughing as a root of things, I believe that there's certain jokes which are made with one another, so you're laughing with somebody, and then there's certain jokes that you're laughing at somebody. And so that's, like, the kind of difference, you know? But I do believe humor is a critical tool of active resistance, whether it was like after 9/11 and the improv group here, Second City, was like the first group to make a joke about it and to like break the ice so that people could actually collectively laugh with one another and sort of talk about this, you know, terrible, horrific thing that has happened. Too, black humor, which has always been also used as a tool of resistance against white supremacy. So I'm pretty good with everything as long as it's a good joke and that you're asking people to laugh with and not at. What about you?
Adam Davis: I think I agree that nothing is too serious to be joked about. I mean, I come from a tradition—so my background, culturally, religiously, is I come from a line of Jews who are, uh, you know, who are given to...
Lisa Yun Lee: Yeah, Jewish humor is a good one. Oh, I just interrupted you.
Adam Davis: No, which is good. I mean, I would say, though, that I... Thinking about this question actually pushes me back to where we started, which is the difference between the home and the civic, or the home and public, because I think if I'm being honest about where I really am comfortable laughing at anything and joking about anything, it's with the people I know best. And that the more I move towards a civic space or a public space, the more I'm sort of filtering. Can I joke about this here? Can I laugh about this here?
Lisa Yun Lee: Yeah, I mean, it's a kind of vulnerability. I agree.
Adam Davis: Um, so as we're sitting here thinking about laughter and vulnerability, maybe I can move towards a last question or two, but I also want to then invite you. I've been asking more questions than you, which I guess is the way these things shape up. And I have in mind the, the gradation of questions, the way they move across. So maybe I'll just ask the last one, the 36th question. And before asking that question, can I ask, like, why 36? As someone who was part of the team that worked on this, why 36 questions about civic love?
Lisa Yun Lee: I know. I mean, we've grappled with that now for a little bit. The 36 maybe is a little bit too much. But, I mean, we really borrowed the format, right, from that Arthur Aron, you know—it was actually vetted psychological study that, you know, had kind of, uh, not just a anecdotal, but there was actually a kind of clinical thing that he had tested. And so we're a little bit like, okay, well, since this exists already in our cultural sort of landscape as 36 questions for you to fall in love with somebody.
I don't know if you've ever done those questions, but they're sort of interesting too, you know, because it goes to the root of when two people live together. Like, it asks you to talk about finances, and how you would invest, and do you imagine having children, and all those kinds of things. There's 36 of those questions, so we just did 36.
And I just want to tell you that we have also done this project with less questions because there's less time or otherwise. But for real, if you do it the way you're supposed to do it, you should be able to answer all 36 in like 40 minutes or less, sometimes even 30 minutes. I mean, I just, sometimes we dwell and you start to go back and forth and you don't, you know, you start to like interrupt one another, like I just did. And then you end up like going forever and ever, and you can't get through the 36. I want to encourage people to just really do all 36 and to follow the kind of rules a little bit, like, and treat it in that way as a game. That's why it's 36.
Adam Davis: And better with a stranger than with someone, you know, when you encourage someone Do you mostly encourage people to do these with strangers?
Lisa Yun Lee: Yeah, but I think people do it sometimes in the workplace also, and you always learn really surprising things about people, you know. So I don't I don't think it has to be a stranger, and I think even when you start to talk to people that you know and love with these questions you realize also how much you don't know about them, you know what I'm saying?
Adam Davis: So that points to number 36. Number 36, which is name one thing you learned from this conversation that you want to carry into your life.
Lisa Yun Lee: Oh, yeah. When somebody asks questions about how something came about, I learned that there was a kind of mainstream narrative, which even when you're telling the truth, you sort of rely on. But if the question is asked a little differently, that it opens up a whole new world to like an infinite amount of stories of how things come to be. So I feel like the way that you ask the questions about where the 36 questions came from, it made me understand whole new ways of this project coming to being that I otherwise would never have thought of.
Adam Davis: The last thing I want to ask is not a question, it's an invitation. So we've been talking about these 36 questions. I've been asking questions. I wonder as you do this work, and when I say this work, I mean far beyond the 36 questions about civic love, but your work in the world, as you understand it, do you have, like, is there a question or a couple of questions that you feel like lately or in an ongoing way have just continued to live in your head?
Lisa Yun Lee: Hmm. I mean, I think that I am constantly thinking about love these days, what it means, how do we manifest it? And, um, I recently read a book by Claire Ditterer called Monster, and it's about sort of artists and writers who we love, who we think are monsters now, whether it's Woody Allen to Picasso, you know, all these people that we've learned about that, like Michael Jackson, and what does it mean for us to now treat them as monsters, and it's like about cancel culture and things like that. And it has made me reflect a lot about, like, what does it mean to love something in this world? And, of course, as a parent, you know, I have, you know, a 25-year-old and a 21-year-old who are so aggravating to me now sometimes, and who sometimes I don't even see very often. And it's like, what does it mean to be a parent and to love?
And what does it mean to be a daughter? And what does it mean for me? Like, do I love this nation or not? And what does it mean? And how would you manifest that love? And, you know, Grace Lee Boggs always said, ‘Of course I love the United States so much. That's why I want to change it, you know, why would I wouldn't be invested in changing this country if I didn't love it.’ You know, and so for me, this, um, deep notion that bell hooks and other people said, like, it was so surprising when bell hooks came out of the book about love after writing so much about what feminism and civil rights and other things.
And I think a lot of people turn to love—and I'll just maybe end with an Adorno quote, which I love so much, because he's my guy, you know, who I studied in school. And he says, ‘We become free human beings, not by each of us realizing ourselves as individuals. But rather in that we go out of ourselves, enter into relation with others, and in a certain sense, relinquish ourselves to them.’
Adam Davis: Dr. Lisa Yun Lee is the executive director of the National Public Housing Museum. She lives in Chicago.
What's your favorite kitchen smell?
Can you keep a plant alive?
What sound wakes you at the start of your day?
What's one thing that you've done for self-care recently?
Adam Davis: You're listening to The Detour with JR Rymut.
Rozzell Medina: Hi JR.
JR Rymut: Hi Rozzell.
Rozzell Medina: How's it going?
JR Rymut: Pretty good. Gorgeous day out in Wallowa County, Oregon.
Rozzell Medina: Nice. It's a beautiful fall day here in Portland, Oregon, and I'm so glad that we get to talk. Will you, will you just introduce yourself for the, the wonderful people who are listening?
JR Rymut: Yeah, absolutely. Um, my name is JR Rymut, and I live out in Enterprise, Oregon. It's a pretty small town, kind of as north and as east in Oregon as you can get. We have about 2,000 people in town, and I moved out here after living in a bunch of cities about seven years ago. And my heart has been poured into this project I've called Haunt Camp for the last few years, getting it off the ground.
Rozzell Medina: Haunt Camp. That sounds amazing. Can you tell us about Haunt Camp, please?
JR Rymut: Yeah, absolutely. There's a lot of ways to describe it. And they're all very sincere directions. And some of them are, are like a little bit more romantic than others. And those are the ones that I try to keep off the grant applications generally. But Haunt Camp is an art prank that I run with teenagers out here in this very rural setting.
And it's a design-build program where we design and build an Avant Garde haunted house for Halloween. We're in our third year of doing programming with high schoolers out here in the county and currently in our second year of creating a really surrealist installation. And when I say haunted house, that's kind of like, that's the billing that we're using to get people in the community to come see our production. But really it's a gigantic joke that we also hope is a little bit scary.
Rozzell Medina: Will you, for the people who are not fortunate enough to actually go to the haunted house that you do, to the wonderful art prank that you do out in Wallowa County, will you describe sort of what it was last year to give a sense of what it's like?
JR Rymut: Yeah, absolutely. So we're all about really collaborative design. That's what I find the most exciting about it. And so everything is collaboratively brainstormed with the kids. And I feel like it's my role to kind of pick out what are the best and funniest ideas. And with my career background, I'm also someone who knows how to put these ideas into practice, as I've spent many years building museum exhibits for large scale fabrication studios. So last year, our theme ended up being a riff on the Cheesecake Factory restaurant. There's also no Cheesecake Factory restaurant within hours of where we live. But we created an installation called the Cheesecake Laboratory. And it starts off in a very gaudy restaurant scene and quickly turns into a cheesecake nightmare.
You think that you're showing up for a cheesecake-eating contest, but it turns out it's not. It’s the cake that's trying to eat you. And so you open these rooms. We had a huge community production, lots of adult volunteers that were working alongside the kids acting in the haunted house. And we kind of go through the restaurant, through the kitchen, through a bathroom scene where things start to really go haywire, which leads to a secret tunnel into a cave sequence in which you actually meet the mad scientist of the laboratory. And then this huge mother monster who's—she's both made out of cheesecake and she's kind of the originator of all the cakes within the installation and also captive of the cheesecake laboratory. And to escape her you have to feed her a glow-in-the-dark foam cheesecake and then escape through.
Rozzell Medina: I love that there's no Cheesecake Factory anywhere near the small, wonderful town where you live and that the one Cheesecake Factory that's ever been there has been haunted by the dexterous minds of the youth in collaboration with you.
JR Rymut: I think aesthetically, even though there was only one—we did a brainstorming exercise to come up with our themes.
And I had the kids just come up with different places—and I was so happy that you were able to sit in on this brainstorming session for this year's installation as well, Rozzell—but I had asked the kids to—some of the prompts were, where have you gone on vacation? So I think we just had one student who went to Seattle to the Cheesecake Factory restaurant. But it's saying something about that franchise that it is so visually potent that everyone in our class got it and knew that it would be the funniest, most interesting one to do that year.
Rozzell Medina: Yes. The brainstorming session honestly has been a highlight of my year. I had the wonderful fortune of going out to Willowa County and being in the room and actually participating a bit in one of these brainstorming sessions.
There are these things that I feel like grownups stop doing, you know, we—as a friend of mine wrote recently in a thing that he's writing, we stop laughing at stuff that's not like explicitly funny, and in that process, we lose so much of the charm and the humor of life and of imagination and creativity, and being in that room talking about what could be haunted and by what and how was, uh, it was wonderful. It was so wonderful. And it's something that the listeners can try at home and think about what can be haunted by what and how.
JR Rymut: I am so fortunate that the group of kids who are our core like youth crew over here, they get it. They did not, like—I didn't need to explain to them that I'm actually more interested in it being humorous than it being like super frightening. They automatically took it and ran with those concepts, and they're just like a complete fountain of creativity, and it's one of the joys that my job out here is so funny. I mean, it's absolutely side-splitting.
Rozzell Medina: Yes, and I think just to provide a little bit of context about why we're having this conversation in this context as we're exploring the concept of civic love, um, you and I were talking a month ago about your work and also at the same time as I was working with you to plan this workshop to highlight and draw people into the work that you do and to celebrate the work that you do, um, I was also organizing this bike ride around civic love, which is a concept and a framework and I think part of a social movement that I love.
And as you were describing your work, I—you described your work earlier as an art prank, which I love—and I really, that really resonated with me when we were talking. When I was a teenager growing up in Oklahoma, pranks and thinking creatively around pranks legitimately 100 percent saved my life. If it weren't for the creativity and the sort of mischievousness and the sort of coyote trickster nature of my friends in Oklahoma, like, I just, I don't think I would be alive. We took a lot of, like, our—we took a lot of our angst and our frustrations with the world, and our sort of, and our, and also just our self-worth and silliness and we took it and we distilled it into like just creative pranks. I think I shared with you, we used to drive up to people and who were, you know, walking down the street and we used to ask them for directions to Parson Street, and when they said, “I don't know,” we would give them unsolicited directions. And as I was thinking about it, and as I've been thinking about this framework of civic love, I think that like our imagination and our creativity and our, to some extent, like, our mischievousness is a necessary part of civic love. You know, for me, civic love is more than just voting. It's more than just, you know, organizing our neighbors around issues.
It's also about, you know, it's also about celebrating just like the silliness and the weirdness and the wonderfulness of being alive and having an imagination. So I'm curious, like, when we were talking and we were planning this workshop, what did you think about the phrase civic love when we first talked about it?
JR Rymut: Well, I'll also just jump in and say that I remember that conversation about teenage pranks, and also my teenagerhood really informed me A) wanting to work with youth of that age and also a lot about Haunt Camp, too. And I remember, I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I had a really good group of very funny, very inventive, energetic friends who were really—I think that we were still kind of in this concept of play like a little bit longer than a lot of our other peers who seem to be kind of like emulating adulthood, going to parties on the weekend and having all these like really, you know, like similar stories that I didn't find attractive. And it was my group of friends that were crawling around in the storm drain system of this city, exploring the tunnels underneath and also just really running amok in this really cool city that I grew up in.
And I also—part of that, I remember the feeling of being a teenager and having ideas that I, that I really wanted to be taken seriously for. And I think I remember the times where I had been maybe dissuaded or not encouraged to pursue those things or written off as too young or idealistic. And rather I wish that I had kind of received a little bit more encouragement and mentorship. And that's really driven, like, kind of, like, a lifelong want to interact with kids who are kind of in that same age and place in life and really be of service to them.
But, going back to, to Civic Love, that was, that was a totally new concept to me when you talked about it. And it did, it also, likewise, was, was really resonant to me. I think I... I think a lot about the word community a lot and I think about being in service to community and civic love is just it's a little bit different than that to me and a little bit more specific one of the things I love about it is that it has it has the reason for it right in the name because it says that it's love, you know, and it's like thinking about what I do, what you do, what we do, within kind of like a framework of, of like, oh yeah, this is a labor of love. This is the reason why it's happening and why we're talking about this concept. That's really powerful to me. And kind of the civic aspect of it, I think there's a lot of, I have a lot of associations with how I think about community, but it's also to me, it's this word that feels kind of broader, perhaps kind of more like kind of relating to everybody in an area, sometimes the word community can feel maybe a little bit more specific or self-selecting. But more importantly, it's also it's place-based, and I love that because I came up to allow a county for a reason. And I feel like my work is really place-based. I could potentially try doing this project elsewhere, but there is a mix of potential and need out in these, like, in a place like Wallowa County, like this really rural hamlet, that I find, I find that combination, like, really exciting for, for wanting to go there and try to do something really unusual.
Rozzell Medina: Yeah. Another theme of one, of, one of our first conversations was responsibility. And one of the things that I do sometimes that I, that I haven't done enough, but that I'm excited to do more of is being of service to youth who are doing work around climate and about and around, you know, protecting our ecosystem that sustains us and everyone we love.
I was thinking a lot as you were talking that, you know, when I first heard about Haunt Camp, and as I heard you speak about it, I was thinking about the idea of responsibility, and the responsibility that we have to future generations, to younger generations. Um, and how we choose to act on that. And as you were talking—and for me that's a huge part of civic love, um, is not only thinking about the here and now, but thinking, you know, not, not having, you know, moving beyond a nihilistic worldview that there's no future and recognizing like, hey, there's, there's people counting on a future and counting on a, counting on a beautiful future and hoping for a beautiful future and thinking of ourselves as stewards of that future. And as you were talking about that, the first time we talked, and as I've sort of had the pleasure of becoming more familiar with your ideas and with your work on Haunt Camp, I've been thinking about how, like, how responsibility doesn't have to be a heavy thing.
It can be a fun, creative, weird, lighthearted thing. And I'm curious, like, first of all, what you think of that? But also, like, if you think, if you think that's true, and if you think that's good, which I think you do, but I'm excited to hear you talk about it, how do we do that? Like, what are some things you've learned in terms of, like, how can we simultaneously hold that sense of responsibility to the future, which can feel heavy, but do it in a way that, like, feeds us and nurtures us and lets us be, like, our, our weird, silly, absurd, creative selves, as well?
JR Rymut: Yeah, I think I am I'm totally on board with that. Very, very obviously. And I like what he said. Yeah, it doesn't have to feel heavy. And I think that, like for me, it doesn't feel heavy. For me, it feels like, it feels like the antidote to the kind of the growing pessimism that I've had in my life.
And I'm, I'm not all that old, I'm a millennial, so I'm kind of twice a teenager, but I, like I remember my ideals kind of as a teenager and maybe in college and as a young activist, you know, and then I can look back at myself and especially like, you know, my early 20s and feel I have gotten more cynical and, and I do feel like a little less hope than I did at that time.
And a lot of it was also kind of like working up against the culture that we have very resourced older generations. I mean, that's kind of the way that it goes, but also feeling like a young person who was in need of some of that flow in terms of resources and mentorship to be going down towards the younger generation.
I mean, I feel like that's ultimately, where the positivity lies is the younger generation. They're going to be the new originators of the ideas. They're going to be the ones who are inheriting this. They're the ones who I feel like as we gain experience and resources, we really need to be in service to them to help realize their potential.
I feel like culturally we're not, we're not doing that. And that's what feels like a really hopeless rut that we're stuck in. When I think of things such as climate, I think it's the, the old guard has been kind of misusing and hoarding resources. And I, and I really want my generation and the new ones to feel very much giving back to you who's coming next.
Rozzell Medina: Yeah, absolutely I want to bring something else into it because I think culture and storytelling for me are such an important part of this civic love framework, the civic love movement. So there's something that I know—there's a story that I know you were really excited about and actually I went—there's a film, and I went and saw it, and I was thinking about you a lot during the film and wondering, and kind of wishing that we could watch it together.
JR Rymut: It's the Barbie movie, right?
Rozzell Medina: And it's the Barbie movie. And I want to hear what—I want to hear, I was thinking about you and I was thinking about the work that we've done around like bringing imagination and into the civic love space. And I want to hear, is there, uh, is there a connection between the Barbie movie and civic love?
JR Rymut: Oh, you're being serious?
Rozzell Medina: Yeah.
JR Rymut: [Laughs] Oh my god. I was just making a joke. Um, yes! You know, there was, I did have this running joke through the summer when I, when I came back to Wallowa County, we also, I mean, you have to, you have to drive for hours to get to a movie theater out here. And part of this kind of frivolous summer fun was, like, I'm going to decide to be really excited about the Barbie movie all summer long. And it's not like, it's not like that was necessarily forced. Yeah, I'm not, I mean, I'm certainly not going to defend it as the best movie I've ever seen. It was more about the cultural fervor, but I really enjoyed what felt like, like so much fun excitement about something that was just like a little pervasive in these little ways. It was, um, it was centering a femininity, which like isn't necessarily celebrated. It was celebrating frivolity and beauty and fashion and the color pink. And, you know, I think about like, like beauty, aesthetics, color to me they're so important, and they're so necessary, and it doesn't mean that they're not insincere, and honestly, when I think about civic love, I, go in directions where I think about beauty, like, just beautifying the spaces that, that we occupy, um, it's, it's just really, it's, it's life giving to me, it's energizing to me. But yeah, to bring it back to the Barbie movie, there was, it was like this cultural moment, um, and I think it was also us like kind of coming out of pandemic isolation still, and yeah. I can't sum it up. It was, it was just like kind of a, a cultural fever that I could, that I could really get behind. And I mean, I was just really excited to see those sets, man. Those were, those were incredible sets.
Rozzell Medina: Yeah. And I felt like Michael Cera as, as Ken's friend deserves some sort of, some sort of award. I think I'm going to make one and send it to Michael Cera.
JR Rymut: Oh, that's a really good idea. I would not even count it among Greta Gerwig's best, but I will count it as, as incredibly memorable. And, uh, one of my dearest friends here still has freshly Bleach blonde dyed hair to be celebrating just the season of Barbie. So it lives on.
Rozzell Medina: Yeah. Well, I want one final question because I feel like this is something that's really interesting to me and I think that I'd love to hear what you have to say about it because of you know, you talked earlier about your work on Haunt Camp being place-based and you know being in the in the beautiful, you know, mountains of Eastern Oregon, a small town, a beautiful place, and having this haunted house camp out there.
And I think there is a connection with Barbie, because one of the—in the Barbie movie, one of the things that I loved as I was sitting there thinking, Wow, this movie that so many people are going to go see just because they think it's just about Barbie in a certain way, it's a, it's like a bit of a, like, I don't know, it's telling, it is subversive. It's telling people like, “Hey, it's okay to be your whole self. And until your whole, until you feel like, until you feel like you're free to be your whole self, like you're not going to show up in the best way you can for the world.” Right?
JR Rymut: I think also it was just about play. Like anytime there's kind of this cultural excitement about just doing something for the pure fun pleasure of it. I feel like that's a rarity and it's, and we need that levity. We just need to see more people dressing up in costumes, dressing up in hot pink, to like go to the movies and, uh, and experience this with other people. Like there was this very palpable sense of play around the entire release.
Rozzell Medina: Yes, yeah. You saw where I was trying to go with that, and I think you went somewhere interesting with, with, with play. And I think, you know, one of the things that Lisa Lee, who, with the National Public Housing Museum, who's been influential in cocreating the civic love framework.
It's really interesting, one of the things that Lisa talks about around civic love is pushing through and moving beyond binaries, you know, binaries that separate the idea of public and private, binaries that separate, you know, the, even, even that separate the body from the mind, you know, like where, what are these binaries that we hold and by pushing beyond them, how do we sort of open up and expand what our world can be? And so I think that one of the things that I find really beautiful about Haunt Camp is, is that, and I, and I saw this when I went out and visited, visited you and got to spend time, um, at the, the, the concept meeting was I just saw, I saw young people not only being told that it was okay to be their playful, absurd, weird creative selves. Not just that it was okay, but that it was part of like what the culture of that thing is. And I think that's wonderful. So the civic love framework as created by the National Public Housing Museum is many things, including this sort of open-source framework for helping people access and expand this concept and practice of civic love.
I wonder if you might open-source your work a little bit and for the people who are listening who might be thinking hey, “Yeah, I do want to like get into the more playful absurd silly wonderfulness aspect of this civic life experiment.” Can you give like five questions that people might consider when they're conceptualizing a haunted house?
JR Rymut: One of them, we were thinking about, um, how to kind of push expectations by what is the role of the visitor within the haunted house? Like, how can we give the visitor purpose? How can we make the experience less passive for them? Can we give them a role? Can we give them a prop? Can we kind of set them back on their heels a little bit by doing something more unusual than what they're expecting, which is to kind of tiptoe through an exhibit and then just have people pop out and scare them. So we kind of play with that. How do we how do we incorporate like props and games and a plot line into our into our haunted house? Other things that we were thinking of is, I mean, we just had so many prompts that were in very esoteric directions.
And I encourage anybody to do that as a brainstorming exercise. Just think of places and write down how you would go about haunting them. We had one student who, who really took it far afield. And I remember the inside of a bird's ear was one of the prompts that he wrote. Um, and I have to say I've never thought about that before, but I have been thinking about it for about a year and a half now.
Rozzell Medina: Yeah, I think those are good. Yeah. And I encourage people, sit down with your, sit down with your friends. Think of what, think of what could be haunted. Think of what, how you can, yeah, have fun in the, have fun in the world.
JR Rymut: If I can actually plug something for a second, if anybody out there has some bright ideas, we do have a Haunt Camp hotline, which you can call and leave us a voicemail.
If you have any haunt ideas or any jokes you want to tell, or if you just want to leave us whatever weird message is going through your head, the Haunt Camp hotline is open for you. That number is (213) 699 9666.
Adam Davis: JR Rymut is an exhibit fabricator, community organizer, and prankster with a career in building museum dioramas and film sets, and the creator of Haunt Camp. She lives in Enterprise, Oregon.
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