A Visit to Spiral Q
by Kristina Centore
It’s easy for me to get lost in the Philadelphia of 2017, even after living here for the better part of a decade. The construction downtown creates new labyrinths each day, cordoning off familiar walking paths with scaffolding and yellow tape. Condos and luxury student housing developments are replacing West Philadelphia single-family homes at a rapid rate, creating looming precipices that box in the sky. Yet, as a city with over one-fourth of its residents living below the poverty line, Philadelphia seems at cross purposes with itself, a giant puppet with its strings being pulled in opposite directions that threaten to rip it apart.
Spiral Q is an organization that has been broadcasting these concerns for over 20 years by distilling them into the form of impossibly huge puppets that are paraded down the streets of Philadelphia. According to the organization’s website, Spiral Q was established in 1996, “to promote social and political change through giant puppetry, pageantry and direct action that told powerful stories and lifted up community voices.” A quick look at the organization’s history proves the point.: At its inception, Spiral Q worked alongside ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), helping to raise awareness of the AIDS crisis in particular. Perhaps the organization’s most notorious moment was when, in the year 2000, 75 Spiral Q “puppetistas” were arrested for creating puppets in protest of the Philadelphia RNC (the charges were later dismissed). Over the years, Spiral Q has solidified into official nonprofit status, and now hosts an array of workshops that benefit marginalized communities. Spiral Q also continues to hold its annual Peoplehood parade in West Philadelphia to celebrate community voices.
I attended a Spiral Q pop-up open house this past April and, while it was in a temporary gallery space and not in the warehouse that currently houses the puppet collection, it was a fascinating experience to see many examples of the puppeteers’ craft and learn firsthand about the organization and its work.
We saw “The Giant,” a puppet that takes a village to create and manipulate. The Giant holds a hammer that represents the force of all of the good things a community can create, and during a performance uses it to smash a boulder of repression.
There was also a larger-than life representation of the Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated in 2016 because of her work. The puppet, with outstretched arms and a thoughtful expression, honored her memory at protests following her death.
In addition to being works of art, the puppets are monuments to creative problem solving. Most of the puppets are made of materials that you could find for free, like cardboard, scraps of fabric, and bottle caps. But they also must be functional, and have complex armatures that are designed to find the right balance of sturdiness without being too heavy for performers to handle.
I also learned about Spiral Q’s “rent a puppet” program, which has allowed some of the puppets to be exhibited at institutions such as the Atwater Kent Museum, Temple Contemporary, and the Philadelphia International Airport. Spiral Q is aware of the need for preserving and conserving their unique collection and the organization is searching for a permanent home for its array of countless puppets that have accumulated over the years. Preserving a collection like this is a challenge, since the puppets themselves are performative creations that are meant to be moved by many hands, not kept hidden away or only displayed in a vitrine. But like many ancient relics that were once used ceremonially, there is still a need to preserve these objects and take note of their status as an important part of history.
Hopefully, the legacy of these puppets will continue to travel far and wide.