In her travels to Egypt, Tavia La Follette accidentally bookended a revolution. Starting last summer, the Pittsburgh-based performance artist, designer, puppeteer and curator set a modest goal with her new Firefly Tunnels project: to "build a language of peace through the actions of art." She first visited the city of Fayoum last summer. On March 17, she completed her second trip, having spent two more weeks participating in what she laughingly calls "an Outward Bound experience of performance and installation art" at the Fayoum Art Center.
Firefly Tunnels (www.fireflytunnels.net) are not physical tunnels, but collaborative online labs where Egyptian, and eventually Pittsburgh, artists can manipulate or add to each other's posted video, audio or images. But the project, through La Follette's group Artists Upstairs, begins with her in-person workshops, where artists learn to trust each other and to use the symbolic language that she believes can promote communication better than easily misconstrued rhetoric.
Things began with improv exercises. Her dozen young artists brought props and then interacted, first indoors then in various landscapes, from the desert to Cairo's famous Tahrir Square.
La Follette says the Egyptians are extremely proud. "The revolution changes everything about this project," she says. What was once supposed to be purely cultural became inescapably political. Artists who could once have been arrested for making revolutionary art can now explore it. In Egypt, things felt safe enough that La Follette brought her two young children, but she and her artists were still uncomfortable bringing a spirit-of-the-revolution-type puppet they crafted to Tahrir Square.
La Follette has issued a call for artists to participate in a similar workshop here shortly. The final part of this project, whose backers include the Heinz Endowments, will be an exhibition at the Mattress Factory. That show coincides with the 10th anniversary of 9/11, a moment La Follete was definitely aware of when she planned the project.
Over five months, starting in August, the Mattress Factory will show some of the collaborative online works -- mainly video, but also performance pieces, more workshops and online responses. But La Follette still won't be finished. "It's a lifetime project. My whole plan is to have a global network of these tunnels," she says. The U.S. and Mexico could be next. Or the U.S. and China. Then maybe India and Pakistan, North and South Korea.