The Mayday Experiment: 48 Hours of Social Engagement

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From the beginning, the idea behind the Mayday Experiment was to try to change the conversation from being about whether or not climate change exists to how we can be more sustainable, regardless. Because whether you believe in climate change or are among the very few who still deny its existence, it’s hard to come up with a cogent argument for being wasteful or trashing the planet. Certain realities are undeniable, including the fact that no resource is limitless. We have lost our civility in these discussions, tossing links at one another like hand grenades. Inviting someone into your home for tea and conversation is so much more civilized, and the old-fashioned gesture might inspire the old-fashioned manners that made our society at least appear more kindly in the past.

And while many great conversations have occurred while I've been building the tiny house for the past year (Is it a year? How is that possible?!), they have been more about the building and less about the bigger picture — more practical than theoretical. There have been conversations on the street with passersby, online as a result of this blog, and with visitors at events, but until last week, I had yet to test out the thesis of this project: that sitting down and having one-on-one conversations would yield amazing results and capture a portrait of our attitudes in this time.

So I was thrilled to be invited to participate in RedLine's recent 48 Hours of Socially Engaged Art. Set up in tandem with the Creative Time Summit taking place as part of the Venice Biennale, the event was a packed two days of lectures, panel discussions, workshops and, yes, socially engaged art, a category in which the Mayday Experiment fits like the proverbial glove. The participants discussed the role of arts in the community and whether (and how) social change can be created through arts organizations and cultural investigations. Featuring members of dozens of organizations and three artists (myself, Ethan Bach and George Perez), it was a rousing and stimulating success.

Instead of just talking about the tiny house, as I opted to do at the Denver Art Museum, I saw this as a unique opportunity to test out the conversation part of this project, and so I made a sign-up sheet, put two chairs in tiny, and came up with a series of questions that I hoped not to reference (and I didn’t) in case there were awkward pauses.

But first, I had to get the tiny house there, a problem without Bertha. My initial thought, to simply rent a truck with a tow hitch, proved fruitless, as all of the trucks I found in town didn’t have the towing capacity to safely pull the tiny house, nor did they come equipped with trailer brakes. I finally reached out to Marcus Hyde, from Denver Homeless Out Loud, and he was kind enough to help out with his utility truck. This was a relief for more than one reason: While it takes me at least twenty minutes of back and forth to hitch up and properly park the tiny house with Bertha, thanks to both a horrible turning radius and my general lack of experience, Marcus is a pro. Not only can his setup accommodate several sizes of ball hitches, but his driving skills are amazing, and he is able to hitch up tiny in minutes and park it almost as quickly. I was so thankful for his help. (This, however, will be an ongoing problem: We had been moving the tiny house to level it to straddle the gutter on the street, but because of street sweeping, it can’t stay there, so I need to come up with a long-term solution, pronto.) 

Throughout the second day of the event, people visited me in the tiny house, and I turned on my camera (just a DSLR, nothing fancy…but it’s clear from this first take that an upgrade and a microphone will be a necessity), sat down with them, and we talked. We talked about what it meant to be sustainable, what it meant to be part of the problem of gentrification, what it meant to have a home, and the struggle to get off the grid. All of the conversations were free and surprisingly easy, with topics bouncing around like ping-pong balls in excited exchanges. I sat down with teachers, artists, tourists, arts administrators and a homeless man, Donald, who didn't stay on topic much but still engaged fully and enthusiastically in the conversation. 

There wasn’t much repetition of themes; each conversation was as different as the person it was with. But despite the diversity of topics, it felt as if I was gathering pieces of a puzzle — not sure yet what the shape or picture it makes will be, and not expecting to know anytime soon. As art is how we come to know the world, making anything takes its own shape and pulls you on a journey, but especially in a project this long-term. Each conversation, somewhat surprisingly, was uplifting, hopeful, positive – not nearly the depressing tone I had expected for such difficult topics. Perhaps this was because those conversations were at an art event where people were expecting to be “socially engaged”; I’m still wondering if someone’s Southern Baptist grandmother in a church parking lot will be as willing to engage with me, or what that conversation will hold. The more voices, and the more diversity of these voices, the more the puzzle will become complete.

Regardless of who I’m talking to, each person is enchanted with the tiny house. And the majority of visitors, when they step inside, exclaims, “it’s so much bigger inside than I thought it would be!” And in that same sense, I’m realizing that this big project, bigger than anything I’ve ever done, may also be bigger inside than it seemed from the outside. Each conversation is an opportunity for a new world to open. Each conversation is a stitch in the fabric of our present. Each conversation has the chance to be bigger and richer than the last.

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging out her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here or here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.

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