Though simple choreographed interactive gestures this video project pairs homeless residents with artists and arts professional who all closely share the Pioneer Square neighborhood. It is an exercise in seeing, an endeavor to shift contexts, create experiential moments of exchange, humanize polarities, and build new connections between individuals and communities.

I am grateful and proud to have been able to work with the 33 amazing souls who participated in this extraordinary experience and video project.

Following are stills from video footage and written essays and responses from participants.

WATCH the video here: US THEM WE

To learn more about SUCCESSION: The Exchange Project installation and process go to the main SUCCESSION menu


MARY, Artist and Curator: I am writing to thank you for including me in your project connecting the artists in Pioneer Square with the homeless community. When you first asked me I thought it might be an uncomfortable situation, and that this discomfort may be at the root of the piece. That in itself seemed intriguing, kind of a self reflective encounter with a stranger. What was actually intriguing about the experience was that it was about something so different than that.

Instead of differences, I found commonalities.  When you look into the eyes of another, you get past the clothing, and the hair, and the other superficial attributes that make up identity. What I saw was a window into another human. I felt a common bond. It was at times a bit uncomfortable, but knowing that we were there to look at each other gave us permission to cross a privacy line that is a rare experience. I felt a surprising comfort from that. It has lingered and impacted my experience of being in Pioneer Square. I’ve found that I am looking at and not past the homeless community on the street. It is a little embarrassing to say, but I feel like I am interacting with them in a more compassionate way. This has gotten me thinking about our assumptions. There are many threads to this project. It is these unexpected threads that has me considering this project still, weeks out from the experience. Thank you for that!

CHARLIE, Arts Administrator: When Michelle first told me she was going to do an art project in collaboration with the street people of our neighborhood I thought “good for HER”. When she asked ME to be a part of it I had to reluctantly agree. I did not expect to be so moved by this experience. Michelle’s genius is the clarity and simplicity of her approach. I found myself for the first time, in intimate contact with folks I would never even notice before. This experience has had a profound effect on my sense of humanity, and on myself.

SAVANNAH, Homeless Community Member:  Us & more….Loved it!….Looking forward to your next piece. Thanks again for letting me be a part of your project. You’ve made me feel worthy of being a member of the human race. Thanks friend…Signed,humbly….savannah (somebody).

ELLEN, Artist: Michelle’s ritualized movement process and clear direction led to a profound experience for me. I was able to gaze into the eyes of a stranger, a man, a homeless person, and see through these categorizations to another human being looking back. I was lucky to have a partner who, despite his nervousness and hesitance, looked deeply into my eyes as well. We agreed that we were both changed by this event. Brilliant. Thank you.

JEFF, Musician: Working with Michelle de La Vega on this video was disarming and eye opening. The amount of vulnerability in a simple touch of a stranger while looking them directly in the eyes is alarming. I did not expect to feel the amount of empathy and vulnerability as I did. There were points where both myself and the other subject where in tears. All of this welling up of emotion humanized this person, who is in a different life position and economic class than me, in a way that made it feel, for those moments, as if they were a member of my family. I had an instant connection in a very intimate way with someone I had never met. This project makes one reconsider the concept of “other”. I made a connection that gave my soul room and space for those different than me. It took away pre-tense and assumption in minutes. At times it was almost too much. I didn’t need to hear his story or even speak I just felt this connection that for any practical purpose could not be explained.

ANNA, Arts Administrator and Web Designer: I work at an arts organization in Pioneer Square, a neighborhood that is changing rapidly with the influx of tech companies and the upscale condos and restaurants they bring with them. This is a neighborhood that has a lot of social service organizations and shelters and therefore has a large homeless population. As someone who has worked in Pioneer Square for many years, I have walked by many of the same people on my way to and from work each day. It is an uncomfortable walk – not wanting to ignore people, but also not knowing what to do. When I volunteered for the project, Michelle had me stand next to a brick wall with Alfred Collar, a man about my age. She videotaped us while we stood face to face, just a foot or so apart and did a series of movements while staring into each other’s eyes. Movements like putting your hand on the other persons forearm, cupping each other’s ears, putting your hands together like you’re doing a high five. We held each pose for what seemed like a long time and took breaks in between. All the time staring into each other’s eyes. It never got totally comfortable but I had a powerful, human connection with someone that I share a neighborhood with. For me, (and I hope for him too) we each became more than a symbol of a type of person that inhabits this neighborhood. We became simply people having a shared experience. It was an invaluable experience. It propelled my latent desire to engage in more activities that involve interactions with people outside my “circle”.

TINA, Artist: When Michelle asked me to participate in her video project I was honored. I had recently found my brother on the streets of Seattle just outside the Union Gospel Mission. He had been accepted into their drug rehabilitation program. I have always walked the streets of Seattle as a way of knowing my city. I took in the good with the bad. The architecture….old and new, the sidewalks and the people. I try to walk in compassion even if I’m not taking direct action. I try to connect with a smile or warm gaze. Sometimes, the kindness of strangers are all we have.
When I was paired with my homeless person Calvin I really did try to connect with compassion, to understand this person’s road….their choices and how they may have ended up on the streets. He had suffered a stroke and we worked with his handicap the best we could to match the other gestures Michelle had set up. Our brief video session was a magical experience. In those moments I only saw beauty and grace. In some strange way….I know that I had given that gift or feeling back to him as well.
I did ask how the experience made him feel. Did he feel special??? He said, normally I’m never seen by anyone. I’m invisible. Calvin was special and I’ve thought of him often and about my experience.  I hope it was lasting for him too. Thank you Michelle de la Vega for your enormous compassion and incredible vision.

JOHN, Writer and Curator: The experience of connecting with Ashley was beautiful. I can’t think of too many other situations in which we would have met. When I met her through your project, I was blown away by her spirit and her obvious inner goodness. I thought about how easy is would have been, had she been just a passer-by, for her to fade into the background, as a homeless woman. But here, in your project, I was looking into the eyes of someone I would not have otherwise acknowledged, and I felt a wonderful connection with her.

HANNAH, Artist and Community Activist: I had the opportunity to assist in filming the shoot for US THEM WE. It was really exciting to hear about the vision for the video and then get to see it come alive. The goal in conducting Michelle’s vision is not to point a finger at people who don’t view homeless people with compassion, which I think is key to real change. Rather, the goal is to provide an experience for people that may change the way they view and interact with others, or to further strengthen it. The opportunity for participation was given, plain and simple. Those who chose to participate were surprised by how transformative the experience really was. Myself included.

I have been volunteering at the Union Gospel Mission for some time now, so I came into the experience feeling more comfortable than most who don’t have experience working with the homeless. Yet, the physical closeness of the choreography with another person was much more vulnerable than I expected it to be. The most challenging yet soul-reaching part for me was gazing into the other person’s eyes for a prolonged amount of time. Part of my job was to help teach each participant the choreography before they jumped into it with their filming partner. I remember my first experience I had with one of the participants. I was nervous and blushing a bit. There was a bright burst of sunshine coming from behind him, and I noticed how beautiful his blue eyes were. Yet, I felt the urge to look away as he was looking just as intently at mine with a kind smile. I wondered what he saw in me. It was a beautiful moment of peace and appreciation for the other person and whoever they may be. I think that is what was so transformative about the project. The choreography was eerily very bonding. After many of the shoots we were all laughing or hugging each other as though we were family. There was a sense of love and acceptance that transcended any prior distrust or negative feelings. It was humanizing to the artists and homeless alike. I am thankful I got to be a part of something so honoring to people and rewarding for all involved.


SUCCESSION Video: US THEM WE | 2015 | SUCCESSION: The Exchange Project