The catalyst for my public art work “Stephen Foster Karaoke” stems from my interest in exploring roles of the overlooked and invisible. Much of my work as a composer creates a space for the listener to explore common and repetitious sounds, and engages the performer through minute variations in repetition and task, often making what appears simple or banal to the audience, difficult for the performer. In this artwork, I will re-activate the buried history of the statue and utilize it for current examinations of race through the task of attempts at performing Foster’s familiar and unfamiliar tunes and, at-times, controversial lyrics.
Giuseppe Moretti’s 1900 sculpture of Stephen Foster, the Pittsburgh-born composer particularly known for his minstrel music, once prominently stood in the city’s Highland Park but has since become obscured. After being repeatedly vandalized, the sculpture was moved to Oakland’s Schenley Plaza near the University of Pittsburgh’s busy Forbes avenue. The statue has stirred public debate with its depiction of an educated and gentlemanly Stephen Foster with a raggedly dressed slave, “Uncle Ned”, at Foster’s feet. Ned is exhibited playing banjo while Foster has pen-in-hand. Although placed in a well-lit and prominent area outside the Carnegie Music Hall and Schenley Plaza, the statue is surrounded by bushes obscuring its view from Forbes avenue. In comparison, Dippy, a life-size sculpture of a Diplodocus dinosaur prominently towers feet from it. The concealment of the statue has led to its invisibility with many students, faculty, library patrons, and tourists walking by without acknowledging or knowing of its existence. By illuminating the statue with colorful lights and constructing a public display of Foster’s minstrel music through participant-based karaoke, the public will re-activate this purposely obscured statue, not as a celebration of Foster, but as an exploration of Pittsburgh’s marked history with race and an examination of current race relations in Pittsburgh.
While attempting to sing both familiar and unfamiliar Foster tunes, participants reactions will be videotaped by fellow Race-ing the Museum participant and Studio Arts faculty member Aaron Henderson. Adding to the chance-like nature of the work, much of Foster’s minstrel lyrics appear in their original form: an absurdly constructed slave dialect. The reactions of the Karaoke participants and their attempts to linguistically navigate these lyrics will be documented. Informally taped, recorded, and written interviews will be held with observers and participants regarding their experience with the installation, knowledge of the statue and its history, and thoughts about current race relations in their community.
Jeff Weston, Music, University of Pittsburgh
Aaron Henderson, Studio Arts, University of Pittsburgh