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Student 'shanty' art piece aims to create
empathy for world's poor

RELEASED: Oct. 14, 2010

EAU CLAIRE — "Todos Somos Iguales. Todos Somos Diferentes."

Art student Cory Ploessl chose those Spanish words for "We Are All the Same. We Are All Different" as the title of a performance art piece he's created on the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire campus.

Cory Ploessl outside shanty
UW-Eau Claire art student Cory Ploessl has created a performance art piece on the UW-Eau Claire campus. In his portrayal of a living situation similar to that of many people in developing countries, he'll live in a shanty he constructed for seven days, leaving only to attend classes and use indoor bathroom facilities. His daily work consists of hauling rocks from the nearby Chippewa River bank. (Photos by UW-Eau Claire student Lee Wegener) Cory Ploessl loading rocks in wheelbarrow
Cory Ploessl inside shanty

Ploessl's art piece includes a hand-assembled shanty he constructed from purchased lumber and scavenged materials. Since noon Oct. 11, he's been living in the shanty, his only furnishings a wooden bed he constructed himself and a hinged wooden chest to store his supplies. A well-worn rocking chair and a camp stove sit just outside his temporary home, which is located on a campus green space between the Chippewa River and the Haas Fine Arts Center. A hammock stretches from the frame of the shanty to a nearby tree, and a wheelbarrow, which Ploessl uses to perform his daily labor of hauling rocks from the nearby river bank, sits a short distance away.

Ploessl, a senior art major from Deerfield, will live in the shanty — leaving only to attend classes, use indoor bathroom facilities, fetch water or haul rocks — for a full seven days. His intent is to create a sense of empathy and understanding in himself and in his viewers toward the millions of people around the globe, most of them in developing countries, who live in similar conditions.

Ploessl will live on $2 a day for the duration of the project — a budget he says places him in the World Bank's "moderate poverty" category. His diet consists primarily of rice and beans, with some additional fresh fruits and vegetables. He bathes, using water from the river, in a shower he constructed on the southeast corner of the shanty. To attempt to replicate the experience of those among the world's moderately poor, he walks to the farthest possible point on campus to fetch drinking and cooking water from a faucet — although he points out his water-fetching time of 45 minutes per day is short compared to the five hours spent on the task by many around the world. His daily work of hauling rocks and using them to construct a series of low walls around his shanty is similar to the type of manual, tedious labor done by people living in developing countries.

His own time spent in developing Latin American countries inspired Ploessl to create the performance piece — the culmination of a student-faculty collaborative research project with his faculty mentor, Jason Lanka, assistant professor of art & design. Ploessl studied abroad in Costa Rica and Nicaragua for a semester in 2006, and he took time off from his studies for a semester in 2009 to travel throughout Latin America.

As part of his 2006 study-abroad experience, Ploessl participated in a service project to build a greenhouse for the residents of El Fortín, Nicaragua, a small, impoverished village.

"On the surface, I didn't think I could be any more different from the people of El Fortín, and that was terrifying," Ploessl said, recalling how intimidated he felt at one point, surrounded by a family in their one-room house, unable to communicate much with them because of his limited knowledge of the Spanish language.

But the people of El Fortín were gracious hosts during the students' eight-day stay in their village, and Ploessl said the experience taught him important things.

"I found out that everybody wants the same things in life," Ploessl said. "The things that bond us are so much more important than the things that separate us, and I really wanted to create a project about that."

The character Ploessl assumes in his UW-Eau Claire performance piece is not intended to represent a specific individual from a single place, and he wears a white jumpsuit to disassociate himself from any particular group, according to his blog that documents the project. Likewise, the shanty he's constructed "has reference" to those he saw in Latin American communities, but "the materials scavenged (and sometimes purchased) definitely have a north woods feel," Ploessl's blog states.

Lanka said much of Ploessl's preparation work for "Todos Somos Iguales. Todos Somos Diferentes" involved learning what it means for an artist to work in the public sphere. One concern is ensuring that the work is in accordance with all applicable rules and regulations, such as building and sanitary codes, Lanka said, noting that Ploessl worked with campus administrators to ensure all rules were followed. Another concern is being aware that creating one's work in a public setting is different from creating art to be displayed in a gallery, where people make a conscious choice to view artists' works, he said.

"It's being aware that viewers don't have a choice about viewing your work," Lanka said. "You need to integrate yourself into their everyday life, while creating a language that brings them out of their regular, day-to-day patterns and into your work."

A piece like Ploessl's also makes art accessible to more people, Lanka said, noting that only about 5 percent of Americans go to art galleries.

"You break down some stereotypes," Lanka said. "You're re-inviting the viewers, sending the message that art is for everyone."

Audience participation has been a rewarding part of the project, said Ploessl, who estimated at the start of his third day in the shanty that 50 people had stopped to view his work or to discuss it with him.

"If they see the shanty and think 'poverty,' that's something," Ploessl said. "But if they come up and talk to me, they'll learn so much more."

To his surprise, in reaction to his work, some viewers have asked if they can donate money to a specific cause, Ploessl said. While he had not intended the work to be a fundraising effort, he now suggests to those who inquire that donations can be made to LA-SED (which stands for Latin American Sustainability, Education and Development), a group formed by UW-Eau Claire students who worked together on the 2006 El Fortín greenhouse project. The group continues to raise funds for service projects in Latin American countries.

Ploessl's project was completed with support from UW-Eau Claire's Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. His blog documenting the project can be viewed at http://shantyhome2010.blogspot.com/.

-30-

JP/JB

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