XXVIII.5 September - October 2021
Page: 16
Digital Citation

Confronting racial (in)justice: Charlie Levin’s immersive performance art approach

Elizabeth Churchill

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Racism is often talked about in terms of the actions of single individuals. However, racism is a collective, social phenomenon. A number of areas of research and practice take this as a starting point for intervention and change. One example, "social dreaming," takes a collective psychotherapeutic approach [1], working to uncover underlying anxieties through individual dreams as resonances of (sometimes unspoken) collective social value systems. Similarly, within the trauma treatment community, approaches to addressing collective trauma from systematic, sustained racial discrimination treat racism collectively rather than individually. It is from this starting point of the social and collective that I invited Charlie Levin, an accomplished UX designer, to talk about her provocative performance art piece The One Truthiness [2,3]. In this piece, she addresses racial bias and (in) justice as a community conversation.

back to top  Context

Inspired by Oakland's 2014 Black Lives Matter protests and continuing today, The One Truthiness "provides a space where conflicting truths coexist," addressing racial (in)justice through collective, immersive narrative and visual storytelling. More concretely, The One Truthiness is a participatory performance featuring a colored melted wax painting created in real time as quotes from the lived experiences of Black and white people are read by audience members from a book that is passed from one person to the next. As the text is read, Levin paints from behind a large clear panel. The series of painted scenes emerge as the text is read aloud. The audience sees these scenes, but Levin is creating something quite different on the other side of the glass. Her perspective is revealed at the end of the performance, when she turns the frame around. The final part of the event is a moderated discussion in which audience members discuss what they have experienced.

back to top  An Interview with Charlie Levin

Elizabeth Churchill: Can you describe the project?

Charlie Levin: I start with a clear glass panel as a metaphor for how we think we start with a blank slate. The wax is translucent and backlit. When backlit, the image is like stained glass. When lit from the front, the object looks like a traditional solid physical object. I was able to structure the painting such that the front light and back light reveal two completely different images.

Audience members read from a prepared text that is passed from one person to another. Each person reads one short passage, comment, or statement. People read from whatever page the book is at when it comes to them. Which means one person may voice something they haven't experienced or would never say or want to say. In reading, you inhabit someone else's shoes/experience. The text is designed to strip away the identity of the speaker, leading to self-awareness of our assumptions about who said it. An example could be "I no longer feel safe running in my neighborhood." Reading this out loud puts one in their shoes, makes one think, What circumstances would make me feel that? That particular statement was offered by a middle-aged Black man who has lived in his house for 20 years. He fears that his new white neighbors don't know him and might "call the cops."

As stories fill the mind and images fill the panel, a world is created together.

As the audience reads, I paint. The audience sees what is being painted and can follow the connection between the text that is passed around and the image, story by story, image upon image. Each image serves as a counterpoint to what came before. As stories fill the mind and images fill the panel, a world is created together. It is a portrait of a community. You think you know what you have seen and what you have heard. Yet, at the end, the panel is rotated to reveal an image that was seen only by me, the painter.

Altogether, it immerses the audience in a visceral experience that we never know everything. There is always a different perspective that is literally different—not just a different interpretation of commonly agreed-upon facts.

After the performance, the audience gathers to discuss what they experienced, moderated by my collaborator, Dr. Ayodele Nzinga. A multiracial community gets into a dynamic debate over what was literally in front of their eyes. Questions are posed: Was the reclining figure dead? Homeless? Or merely sleeping? Our assumptions and reference points become visible and shared in the group conversation.

EC: What inspired you to create this project?

CL: My artwork already centered around complexity and perspective—how differently things are experienced depending on one's frame of reference and perspective. How nothing is ever just what it first appears.

ins01.gif The One Truthiness portrays how we are all caught in layers of each other's truths, making a complex picture when you try to see all of them at once.

In 2014 I visited the binational community Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam—where Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs are living together consciously in conflict with all their differences being grappled with in-community. I returned to the U.S. just as the protests were rising after the courts decided not to prosecute police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. My Israel experience had shifted my perspective and heightened my awareness of in-community conflicting perspectives; I was hearing a dramatic range of responses from all sides in my own community of Oakland and on social media—people I knew. Activists were designing protests to block the highways. And then there were people who couldn't get home after work who didn't understand the point of it. There were people taking part in marches, but were very critical of property violence during the march. I heard statements like, "My heart breaks to live in a country that won't prosecute Darren Wilson, but breaking windows is not a valid form of protest. I hope they lock them all away." There were people asking, "Why are they protesting in Oakland? It didn't happen in Oakland."

It was so clear to me that in my own society, as a white person, it is hard to see what has "always been the way things are." What is "normal"? It was so much easier to chalk up stories of terrible things happening to Black people as outliers. There are a million ways to diminish and write people off. The more I realized that Black and white Americans were experiencing radically different realities across the board, the question "What is normal?" became an entry point. How did it become normal? Why is it normal? For whom is what normal?

I created The One Truthiness to create a virtual and focused experience of the coexistence of radically different perspectives living in parallel. I would like to do the project with an existing community with a past and a future together—how would this experience of visibility into the "in-group" conversation change the vision and practice for the larger community? Would it change their perception and acceptance of one another? Would it create more empathy for each other's logic and context and challenges? Can we come together to address what our varying realities look like?

EC: The reading was such a powerful part of the piece. Can you tell us more about the texts?

CL: I wanted to represent a more complex picture of community. I use interviewing as a technique routinely in my UX practice and interviewed people with widely varying attitudes and experiences. I took phrases I saw in social media. And I created texts. As the project was extended into a series produced by Lower Bottom Playaz in Oakland, my collaborator and producer, Ayodele, generously introduced me to people outside my own community. My interviews reached further from my own experience as she introduced me to others who conferred their trust in me to share their stories.

EC: What was the hardest part of designing this immersive experience?

CL: The trickiest part of The One Truthiness has been designing the post-show conversation. How do you create a context where people feel they can engage in public with each other about things that are usually—and for good reason—kept hidden within in-groups and are so filled with judgment and labels and polemics? I found that the text serves the role of being the brave person to first voice something. That leaves the audience participants free to respond or clarify or add to, instead of having to take the risk themselves.

ins02.gif In The One Truthiness, the audience reads the story while the artist paints in illuminated melted wax on glass. Live music weaves it all together.

I also had concerns about the comfort level of audience members' reading, so although the book and the text is passed from one audience member to the other, I worked hard to frame the reading as optional so that no one was put on the spot (looked at or asked to speak).

EC: As we wrap up our conversation, I wanted to bring us back to how you weave your work and your art together. We talk all the time in interaction design about designing the "call to action." Was this a form of call to action to address racial (in)justice?

CL: Ayodele and I have discussed the call to action at great length. There is a history of white people having conversations about race that feel transformative, yet never turn into actually changing the systems at work. Is it enough to raise consciousness? Does that lead to people perceiving the world differently? To notice injustice they didn't before? To believe people they didn't believe before? To recognize opportunities to behave differently as individuals and to impact systems? Many audience members reported that those things did happen. We are neither didactic nor directive. We illuminate options, put them in context, and let each viewer/participant take that into the world.

I am not sure if my UX background influenced the show or if this has always been how I create my artwork and that that led me to a career in UX. I look for patterns. Individuals are where the action is—I hold space for individuals to exist within patterns. I call this the tension between the pattern and the person. More concretely, stories are told from one perspective or another but the dominant-pattern culture stories are expected to apply to everyone. Other stories are marginalized; they are called "special interest." So I ask: Why is our dominant culture always defined excluding BIPOC folks? Let's address the social context in which individuals exist and acknowledge that multiple social contexts constantly coexist.

Can we design different interactions? I think so. The One Truthiness has been a testing zone. I tried to make a portrait that had room for multiple perspectives and points of engagement. A safe space to be brave—to interact with others in a different way and see them through a different lens. To help us see our own perspective and experience as just one of many, and not of greater or lesser value.

Back to UX, to make change you have to be able to imagine an alternative. Racial justice is all about how we interact, with each other and with the systems and structures in our lives, how they shape us and how we shape them. That is experience design. Design is all about inviting others to notice. I tried to create an immersive experience for people to notice themselves and engage "otherness," specifically in the context of race. I wanted to design an experience that invites noticing.

My work has certainly led me to action. I felt overwhelmed in the face of abstract systems and the vagueness of "racism." Now I see opportunities to engage everywhere. The One Truthiness for me has been a bridge from theory to practice. And isn't that what we do in UX every day?

Beginning as a one-night workshop production at Kinetech Arts in San Francisco, in collaboration with Dr. Ayodele Nzinga, The One Truthiness has since become six different scripts with companion paintings and been experienced by more than 800 people. It has been performed in person and through video conference. It is a book and a freestanding video available to book groups to self-lead.

back to top  References

1. Bermudez, G. The social dreaming matrix as a container for the processing of implicit racial bias and collective racial trauma. International Journal of Group Psychotherapy (Jun. 2018), 1–23. DOI: 10.1080/00207284.2018.1469957;


3. Hsiao, I. Waxing poetic: Charlie Levin's paintings as performance. SF Weekly. Dec. 15, 2014;

back to top  Author

Originally from the U.K., Elizabeth Churchill has been leading corporate research at top U.S. companies for over 20 years. Her research interests include designer and developer experiences, distributed collaboration, and ubiquitous/embedded computing applications. [email protected]

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