Soapboxes and Mayflies
An article in three distinct yet overlapping acts that recall an absurdist exercise of First Amendment rights in the antiquated format of a soapbox speech.
Derived from the Greek word for mayfly—ephḗmeros, which roughly translates to “for one day”—the word “ephemeral” denotes something that flashes into being for only a moment, then disappears forever. But like the mayfly that leaves clouds of offspring behind, even something inherently transient can leave lingering traces. This past July, we at the Society of Smallness (SoS) took the opportunity to participate in something ephemeral at the Newberry Library’s annual Bughouse Square Debates, an absurdist exercise of First Amendment rights in the antiquated format of a soapbox speech.
This text presents our experience in three distinct yet overlapping acts. The first act gives a brief history of soapbox oratory in Chicago and recalls the mood at this year’s Debates as SoS members jockeyed for their turn on the soapbox. In the second act, we invite you to sit at our kitchen table to listen in on a private soapbox between two SoS members. And the final act contains the thought of an orator as she struggles to find the space and time for a small idea.
ACT I – Reinventing the Soapbox
Soapbox oratory had its golden age in Britain before the First World War. Predating radio and television, it provided a form of mass entertainment for the poor. The soapbox soon became an important tool to reach large numbers of workers in the heyday of labor organizing(1).
In the 1910s, Chicago was a hotbed of anarchists, socialists, and radical trade unionists. The area in Washington Square right in front of the Newberry Library was known as Bughouse Square for the flophouses that sprung there and the transients it attracted (“bughouse” is slang for mental health facility). This area was also a main hub of soapbox oratory where one could hear speeches about anything from politics to the corrupting influence of jazz(2).
That tradition continues, in a form, to this day. On July 26, nine members of the Society of Smallness made their way to Washington Square Park to participate in the Newberry Library’s Bughouse Square Debates, an event celebrating Chicago’s past as host to “the finest soapbox culture in U.S. history,” in the words of the late surrealist poet Franklin Rosemont(3). The SoS taps into such performance traditions as Dada and Surrealist games to upend the ordinary with small, poetic and often absurdist provocations. Using outmoded megaphones and manual typewriters, the SoS reinserts obsolete media into everyday situations to slow down the experience of time and work within means of tactile production(4). The humble and portable soapbox stage offers just the right amount of space, time, and distance from which to practice minor acts of disruption.
In the spectrum of political agitprop, soapbox oratory is as short-lived as a mayfly. Pamphlets, newspapers, and even staged performances have more permanence than an impromptu speech delivered on a makeshift platform in the public way. The soapbox is not only an ephemeral medium, it is also obsolete—stepping up on the soapbox is essentially stepping back in time. Yet, the mounting of the soapbox, the reliance on our bodies and our voice, and the importance of timing in effectively delivering a message makes it a strangely thrilling experience. There’s something raw and vulnerable, but also powerful, in the physicality of these actions. Our awareness sharpens with each provocation from the crowd. Subject to intense personal public scrutiny, we directly enact one of the greatest achievements of democracy: the right to free speech.
Amid public drunks, agitators, artists, hopeful aldermanic candidates, and political activists, the Society of Smallness ventured into this realm of revolutionary, poetic, and religionist public speech to disrupt the very notion of seriousness and grandiosity of the soapbox. Armed with mini-placards reading Undersize Now! and Less is Less members of the SoS mounted the soapbox to rail against injustice in the insect world and the modern society’s tyranny of convenience.
The most renowned soapbox orators of Chicago’s heyday were anything but amateurs. “They were persuasive reasoners, gifted storytellers, stand-up comedians with a knack for improvisation, and serious researchers,” said Rosemont. Many spent hours preparing at the Newberry Library before a speech. Among The SoS’s orators featured at this year’s Bughouse Square were Kevin L. Burrows, also known as the Mayor of Bucktown, and Jeff Michalski. Both are former members of Second City, well steeped in Chicago’s history of Hobohemia, and a major impetus for the SoS’s embrace of performance.
Burrows exhorted us to “Consider the Aphid,” describing how “ants, in their lustful quest for sugar” have subjugated the aphids into slavery. Hecklers cried out, “We don’t care! We don’t want to hear about that!” But he pressed on undeterred. “As an aphid, I would rather die in the clutches of a ladybug, than live as a pooping sugar slave to the Moloch Ants of Madness!”
Michalski’s largely improvised speech vexed and confounded a crowd used to the rhetoric of inequality, immigrant rights, and accessibility. From the soapbox lectern he howled an esoteric, nearly incomprehensible harangue.
“I’m telling you that there is life after death, but it’s exactly the same life you’re living right now! You have already left the planet. You are on a forensic mission to find out how you fucked up! I can tell you this because I’m making it up as I go along. I am spewing cosmic claptrap from your own universal pie hole because I AM YOU!”
Much of what we did that day was made up as we went along. It’s all you can hope for in the midst of a crowd vying for their 15 minutes of fame. In a way, each of us wants to mount the soapbox. The soapbox amplifies us—it allows us to emerge from our anonymity and defy our ephemeral nature.
ACT II –Kitchen Soapboxing
A conversation between Society of Smallness founders Georgina Valverde and Matt Stone.
GV: There’s this phrase in the Iliad, “kleos aphthiton,” which means un-wilting fame(5). The only way that a hero’s fame can be preserved is through the praises of a poet. In other words, people have to talk about you. That is how humans, as heroes, can live on and transcend their mortality. That idea of immortality through memory and imagination is foundational in Western thought. In contrast to the ephemeral, which is “a creature of a day,” the desire for un-wilting fame fuels some of our tendencies for largeness and permanence.
MS: Your voice has power and there’s significance in being in the public eye and submitting your inner thoughts and feelings. You put yourself out there and there’s an immediate response. You’re in the permanent record.
GV: Living in the permanent record is secondhand. The direct experience is not of fame but of doing. It’s about what an individual creates in the moment, in battle or a soapbox speech or whatever. There’s a bit of heroics in doing that, because you take your life or your reputation into your own hands. When Mario Savio made his speech at Berkeley, you know—“you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels”—that was heroic, and I don’t think he was thinking, “I want to live forever in the public record.”(6) That came afterward. And then the FBI tailed his ass for the next ten years even though the guy had moved on. He never posed any threat other than his act of speech. So that moment totally defined him. One fleeting moment.
MS: It’s whether it’s picked up, whether others grab it and agree that is has meaning.
GV: Right. All we can do is act but we never really have control or know at what point our fate changes. The moment you do something heroic or have a life-changing experience you are confronted with your mortality and the fact that nothing lasts. You want to hang on to it. You want to be defined by it and you want it to be permanent. You want to be big, not small. You want to be remembered. You don’t want to die.
MS: But small doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be forgotten. Small can nestle into people’s psyche. It addresses them personally rather than putting you on a giant pedestal as a hero. That’s why we don’t like Richard Serra… Large gets recognized; it’s undeniable. Small gets overlooked; it’s ephemeral. Does that always work? Does it ever work the other way?
GV: It’s more paradoxical. A small thing can have effects of tragic proportions. There’s that quote by Andy Warhol, “Sometimes the little times you don’t think are anything while they’re happening turn out to be what marks a whole period of your life.”(7) Last night I was thinking of two extremes. In one, you are like God—the solar system is just a cloud of insects in front of you. And the eons pass by like seconds, and the electric age comes and goes, civilizations blazing and expiring like fireflies…
MS: But you miss all the little things…
GV: Yeah, so now make yourself super tiny. You are a mayfly, the insect that lives for only a day, the very epitome of ephemeral. You know that you only have one day to live…
MS: You don’t know that! You’re just thinking, “I’ve got to get rid of this skin ‘cause I’m excited about what comes next!”
GV: Which is flying and fucking!
MS: But then you’re like, “I forgot about eating.”
GV: Well, you can’t eat; you have a vestigial mouth. All you’re thinking is you have to fuck and you have to put your eggs somewhere …
MS: Maybe on a highway…
GV: Yeah, and your swarm of billions cause a three-car pileup in Wisconsin that leaves one person in the hospital(8).
MS: And then, you die.
Act III – Stepping up
In preparation for my opportunity to step up on the soapbox, I sit on the grass with my ten-year old son in proximity(9) to the miniature stage. He is bundling random weeds from the ground into small packages. I am wearing a dress with my legs discretely tucked under so as to conceal my undergarments. We listen to each speech and watch the crowd grow larger. This position of curling up and carefully surveying the crowd allows us to monitor the public drunk, and the boisterous hecklers. We scoot into the background as the volume and crowd size increases. I consult my son. “I think you should stand next to me when I present to keep the crowd civilized.” He agrees to participate for a fee. The moderator of our tiny soapbox stage checks in with me to make sure I am ready to step forward. I uncurl from my position on the ground; legs numb from sitting for an hour. I brush embedded weeds off my leg and mount the stage. I step up because I am small. There is no other way to address the crowd with a body of my size. I receive the microphone and lean into the crowd. I begin.
“Within the gargantuan overwhelm of daily life one needs a small space for gathering themselves. Moving in and out of aggressive objects, determined bodies, overpowering sounds, suffocating smells, the tiniest spaces for collecting a thought are necessary.”
Murmurs and agitation, I lean forward again and ask, “Do you agree?” A voice yells back, “kind of.” I continue.
To counter these sensations of overwhelm, I have sought out people and places that can hold my sense of smallness. I’ve joined the Society of Smallness to remember what else is possible. I’ve started to drink my coffee very small, and squish into miniature closets.”
Constant interruption creates sensations of urgency. I speak at an accelerated pace and higher pitch, stumbling over my words. My brow furrows to emphasize the importance of the issue. Within a sea of unknown faces a voice provocatively asks me “what do you want me to do about it?” “Is this a plea for help?”
“What if the only space to grow is in the mind? Finding the places to grow small magnificent ideas is tricky. Hiding out in friends perfectly proportioned bedrooms, searching out intimacy could be a solution to the enormity of the problem.”
My fingers firmly clutch the white papers in my hand. I search out a word to hold my gaze. My voice ascertains that I have the right to speak amongst these strangers. Men with rounded bellies jeer and tease. My son hisses, calming the crowd. The moment of mayfly mass hatching has occurred. Everyone is entitled to be seen or heard. The crowd buzzes.
“People with small collections are just right for me. Please don’t offer me too much. It’s simply more than I can handle. I like what can be held within the palm of my hand. I like what I can wrap my fingers around. Give me a nook to have a thought and I promise it will grow.”
After it is over, I step down off the tiny wooden stage and feel immensely full, tingling with sensation. Is this what the mayfly feels as she lays her eggs and dissipates into the night?
1) Challinor, Raymond, The Origins of British Bolshevism (London: Croom Helm, 1977), 36.
2) Rosemont, Franklin, “Rexroth’s Chicago, Chicago’s Rexroth: Wobblies, Dil Picklers, and Windy City Dada.” Chicago Review, Vol. 52, No. 2/4, SIXTIETH-ANNIVERSARY ISSUE (AUTUMN 2006), 151.
3) Rosemont, “Rexroth’s Chicago, Chicago’s Rexroth: Wobblies, Dil Picklers, and Windy City Dada.”152.
4) Krauss, Rosalind E, “Reinventing the Medium.” Critical Inquiry 25.2 (1999): 290.
5) Vermeule, Emily, Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 23.
6) Savio, Mario. Free Speech Movement Rally. University of California, Sproul Hall, Berkeley, CA. 02 Dec. 1964.
7) Warhol, Andy. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
8) Anderson, Jim. “Massive Mayfly Swarm Blamed in 3-car Accident near Red Wing.” Star Tribune. N.p., 22 July 2014. Web. 20 Aug. 2014.
9) O’Donoghue, Donal. “‘The Otherness That Implicates the Self’: Towards an Understanding of Gendering from a Theory of Proximity.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 26.4 (2013): 400-13.
Georgina Valverde is an artist whose work encompasses sculpture, video, installation, performance, and writing. She is the founder of the Society of Smallness, an artist collective exploring the potential for small actions to generate creative opportunities for everyone.
Kate Thomas is a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia in art education. She works with teachers in Chicago to pedagogically explore, confront and question the possibilities of an art education.