Sometime this fall, its organizers expect, the “I Have a Home Here” art bus will be ready to cruise D.C. streets. But on June 10, the yellow former school bus was the immobile backdrop for a performance art piece at its current home, Dunbar High School in Shaw.
First, a group of people who have experienced homelessness, along with students from the school’s engineering academy, hid the bus under large sheets of brown paper. Then the three performers, veterans of workshops at the Street Sense Media Center, were also cloaked in paper. Finally, the enveloped artists burst through the wrapping and spray-painted messages on the still-bundled bus.
“The point was to bring out the fact that homeless and unhoused folks are normally and usually ignored,” said Bardia Saeedi, who leads interactive art workshops at Street Sense’s headquarters at the Church of the Epiphany near Metro Center. Street Sense works to highlight the issues of homelessness and poverty in the community, and to create “economic opportunities” for the homeless, according to the group’s Web site.
Saeedi’s workshop participants “came up with the idea of making the bus invisible,” he said. “And then, them invisible. And then through art and coming together, making them visible and impossible to ignore.”
The immediate inspiration for the piece was another performance the group did a few weeks ago, said Reginald Black, one of the three people who was briefly covered with paper.
“We had a piece called ‘One Step Away,’ and we tried to use it in tandem with another action going on” outside the John A. Wilson Building, he said. “But we kind of felt invisible.”
The point of the Dunbar performance, he continued, was “to highlight that point: We can’t continue to ignore people who are in plain sight.”
Angie Whitehurst, who was also covered with the brown paper, sells the Street Sense newspaper, which was the organization’s initial endeavor and remains its most visible project. She’s noticed that people are more attracted to public artists than street vendors.
“I think art is the best mechanism to communicate with people,” she said.
“When you’re doing theater, you’re doing art, people stop. They look. It catches their attention immediately. Because it’s not what they normally see.
“A lot of times, when you talk to them, they see you, they hear you,” she added. “They begin to feel and they have an understanding that they would have never gotten by buying a paper.”
Black and Whitehurst attend multiple workshops at the media center, whose offerings include theater, film, photography and writing as well as interactive art.
“It gives me a break, some peace, some happiness and feeling like I’m doing something really productive and good,” Whitehurst said.
When the bus is ready to go, Saeedi said, it will be “a rolling interactive art installation and gallery and a performance stage.
“The outside is going to change constantly, as we develop and as we come up with different events,” he continued. “It’s basically a blank canvas. And the rooftop deck is going to be a stage for poetry, for music and for theater.”
“We’re hoping this will tour the city and raise awareness about homelessness,” Saeedi said. “And hopefully we get enough momentum and tour the nation.”
“The whole bus is a holistic experience,” Black said. “And that’s one of the messages. That to deal with housing instability takes a holistic approach. You can’t just look at one thing.”
Students from Dunbar’s engineering academy are doing some of the work on the bus, and Saeedi said one of the project’s goals is to teach the kids marketable skills. The budget for the bus’s remodeling is $57,000, which organizers hope to raise through a crowd-funding campaign, at www.startsomegood.com/havehomehere.
“I am very interested in interactive art, and specifically in using interactive art as a communication tool,” said Saeedi, who described himself as “a former IT executive who . . . became an artist about five years ago.”
“I was not an activist before,” he said. “Homelessness was not my issue.” But he decided that an art bus was “a good model, as a communication platform, for all social justice issues.”
When he called Street Sense Media Center to offer his expertise to homeless people, Saeedi recalled, “one of my goals was to use art to inspire them.”
He surveyed the wrapped, spray-painted bus and the people who had transformed it. “But every day, as you can see, I’m inspired by them.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.