Sometimes we learn something about ourselves through an outsider's fresh-eyed perspective. This concept is being explored as part of a project by poet and performance artist Moheb Soliman, who is currently in the middle of a mission to trace the borderlands of the Great Lakes, documenting and digesting bits of interest along the way. Later this month, Rochester Contemporary will host him when he pops in on our town, and the artist is looking for suggestions about what to see and do.
"I've been in dialogue with him for about a year about his projects," says Rochester Contemporary director, Bleu Cease.
Soliman contacted Rochester Contemporary when his project -- for which he's received a fellowship with the Joyce Foundation -- was in the early planning stages. He describes his work as "exploring the place of nature in modernity, identity, and belonging."
Since departing his home base of Minneapolis on May 31, Soliman has been traveling around the perimeter of the lakes, making stops at art centers, preservation-minded organizations, and parks, becoming acquainted with people and places along the way. He documents and shares his journey through photographs, verse, and audio samples on his blog, A Great Lakes Vista.
Soliman worked to line up a lot of his itinerary in advance, "but it's also a road trip," Cease says. There is plenty of room for discovery. "It has some institutional structure to it, but it's also a big, personal documentary project. He's collecting stories, interviewing people. He's trying to understand Great Lakes identity."
One of the most unique things that Soliman is doing, Cease says, is asking residents of the places he visits to show him their home interaction with one of the lakes. Toward this end, he's asking Rochesterians to email RoCo to sign up for an excursion around Rochester with him on July 29.
"We're the outlier here," Cease says, because most of the stops on Soliman's journey have some affiliation with a lake. While our northern border does bump right up against Lake Ontario, "most people in Rochester don't really think of Rochester as a lake city," he says.
Even Western Ontario -- on the northern shore of Lake Ontario and bordering Lake Erie -- is like a whole other world, Cease says. "It's super flat, the landscape's totally different, and there's a discernable Midwestern accent. It's just such a different culture."
We are separated by more than bodies of water, but we also have commonalities -- not least of which the mutual and ongoing vigilance to protect the freshwater we share from the perpetual threat of shortsighted industry.
But Soliman isn't interested in straightforward storytelling; he exploits poetry's non-narrative form and ability to convey a rush of impressions and details in the way they are experienced. In his digital diary documentation and during his performances at each stop, fragments of imagery, history, and lived experience tumble back out of his mouth, turns of phrase jumbled and juxtaposed like the fabric in a quilt, or patchwork farmlands viewed from above.
Soliman is also disrupting the landscape a little. A subsection of the project is "Tidings: A Protocol of Circulation, Washing Up & Will," for which he continually takes, gathers, and re-disperses artifacts found on shores and from people around the region.
"In his quirky way, he's trying to put a label on it, or understand it more fully," Cease says.