In order to study artists who take their work to the streets, local writer and filmmaker April Denée decided to do the same with hers. Denée is directing and producing an all-new, all-Charlotte documentary called BUSK!, which follows some of Q.C.’s most dedicated street performers. We talked with her to find out what drew her to her subjects and what she had to say about how Charlotte handles busking.
What made you want to focus on this subject in particular?
I was up at The Attic, where Prohibition is now. There was this older guy with glass bowls and cups and two wooden #2 pencils, and he was just going at it, playing glass percussion to the house music. I couldn’t stop wondering what he was doing, and why. I’d been looking for a subject for a short documentary, so I asked the bartender to give him my card. Within 24 hours, the guy called me. He played a lot on the street in uptown, so as I was filming him, I met other street performers (jugglers, singers, magicians) and realized there was a bigger story about street artists – and even bigger, about Charlotte’s relationship to them.
What was the event you hosted at a Light Rail station as part of your filming process?
Last November, I held an event called (en)Counter-Culture at the central station in uptown because in my research for BUSK!, I read some city council minutes about the light rail stations, where one gentleman said we should crack down on people who are (and I’m directly quoting here) “just there because they don’t have anything else to do – just hanging out viewing the art.” That blew me away because the art at each light rail station was commissioned by the city as part of the Art in Transit program. Within that same meeting, they said they didn’t want any busking. But what they really meant was they didn’t want any soliciting. Yes, many buskers “put a hat out,” but busking isn’t inextricably tied to tips and donations. So if you’re an artist out on the platform with a ticket and you’re not asking for money, no one should reasonably expect you not to take out your harmonica, or your pen and paper. They shouldn’t reasonably expect you not to strum your guitar. I found no rule or law that prohibits that.
So I got some artists together, gave them the LYNX Light Rail code of conduct because I like to play by the rules, bought them all tickets, and said, “Let’s go out there and do our thing until it’s time to get on the train.” Anthony Schrag, one of last year’s McColl Center artists-in-residence, brought a make-shift “advice booth” out there, where you give him advice and he gives you five cents. He was getting great crowds, and people were loving it – until some officers came up and told him he couldn’t set up a booth, which was really just a piece of cardboard with “Advice, 5 cents” written in permanent marker. Then they said he couldn’t solicit, but it was actually the opposite. He was giving away money. Still, within 30 minutes of being there, we got kicked out with 60 minutes left on our tickets. So we all packed up.
Now, I’ll say, the officers weren’t hostile. I don’t want to vilify them because they were just doing their jobs. I really think the missing piece is with the leadership, who just want to keep things quiet and move things along without considering ways to successfully work arts programming into the public landscape. Aside from the need to better support live public art forms, current arts initiatives also need more ongoing support. I mean, you can’t just put art out there, shoo people away from it, and expect culture to flourish.
Do the street performers see that kind of reception a lot?
One busker was told that his equipment had to be portable in order to use it on the street—of course, if you can move it, it’s portable, and as far as I know, there’s no portability ordinance to begin with. So, sometimes, buskers are hassled for illegitimate reasons, unfortunately. But the really committed buskers are resilient, and there are officers out there who get to know buskers and look out for them.
Sadly, there are a lot of former buskers and folks who’d like to try busking but won’t because they think it’s illegal or don’t want to be cited or fined for an ordinance they didn’t know about. And some of them just don’t like confrontation. They’re out there to create art for their own and the community’s enjoyment. So when someone’s hostile to them or treats them like criminals, it’s hard for some to take.
Have there been initiatives to help carve out a place for Charlotte buskers?
In 2004, there were actually auditions for busking licenses. If you didn’t make the cut, you couldn’t busk. But one of the problems was that law enforcement didn’t all know about these licenses. So suddenly, tons of people were doing “weird stuff” they’d never seen before, and because their mandate is to keep it quiet and move it along, some officers were kicking buskers off the street without just cause. So, within 3 or 4 months, many buskers just gave up.
I don’t think there’s a problem with busking licensure though. But I also don’t think there should be auditions. Those I’ve talked to who went through that process expressed a certain level of humiliation. But the licensure itself I think could be good because it’s kind of like getting a driver’s license. The city can get to know who you are and have peace of mind that you’re informed about the rules. In fact, a license could legitimize busking because you could say, “I’m not a panhandler or a beggar. I’m a busker.” And you’d know the city recognizes you for who you really are.
Now that you’ve had this experience, what do you think makes busking an important part of Charlotte culture?
There are so many important reasons to support busking. One is that you can provide access to art for people who wouldn’t readily seek it out. And it’s also a learning tool for a community that still thinks in terms of whitewashed, shrink-wrapped art. So, many won’t even make eye contact with buskers, assuming they’re up to no good and not understanding how busking is different from panhandling.
Yes, just like a hair stylist or masseuse, they hope for a gratuity if you stop and enjoy their art. But what they’re doing is also important to them as artists. They need to be able to go out on the street and see what people think of their work. Chris Hannibal, a long-time street magician, gets paid high dollar to work theater halls and international trade shows, so he likes to keep his skills sharp by doing street work. It’s like an open mic night for a comedian. You want to hone a piece before you take it into a big performance. And many well-known and celebrated artists of today started on the street themselves – take the entire Cirque de Soleil franchise for example. It’s a starting point and part of the creative process for a lot of artists.
Laws pertaining to busking are listed under panhandling and begging right now, so the city hasn’t really legitimized it yet – which, of course, affects law enforcement’s and the general population’s perceptions of busking. But I do think it’s a valid concern that if you put a new face on busking, everyone will want in, including some undesirable people who will cause trouble. That sort of thing will happen with any big change though. And when the troublemakers find they’re not getting any tips, they’ll eventually stop showing up. Meanwhile, buskers who are good artists will get tips and other positive reinforcements that help them continue creating more vibrant streets for us. Yes, there will be a bit of a shaking out period; dust will need to be stirred up and then allowed to settle. But the end result will be well worth it.
BUSK! is set to premiere at the end of 2011, if necessary finishing funds are raised within the year. There is also an associated street performance event, Buskapalooza, coming up this May; over 24 artists will busk the streets of uptown all in one evening. To watch the trailer and learn more about the movie or event, visit buskmovie.com