For a few hours, I was in Obamaspace. In contrast to the stadium I inhabited the week before, this was a space of constraints. It was an odd and difficult space, but at least I did not have to perform, and at least I had my picture taken with The Man.
The space in front of our Cincinnati Art Museum was a logical place to hold an election rally. It is a small amphitheater with steep hills on two sides, its rear defined by a road that rides the crest of a short ridge. Our building, with only a few windows, is the only one to overlook it. Closing off the park only inconvenienced us (and it was Monday, when we are closed to the public). Moreover, pressing the crowd together all around the President would make for a scene that would appear dense and intense.
The secret service certainly intensified our space. Not only did they begin on Sunday demarcating zones within the bowl and the road around it with fences and tents, but by Monday morning they had the whole area sealed off. Between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., nobody could come in or out of the art museum, or be by a window. Instead of a saddle in a range of hills, our front yard had become an exclusionary zone.
Once I headed into the actual arena, the space became even more sectioned off: There were areas for the general public, the VIPs, the press, and then the high rollers behind the stage. I dutifully lined up in a tent and shuffled towards my split-second encounter with the President, then was hustled out stage left to find a place in the scrum.
What I was used to seeing as a dip in a rolling park landscape had become a moment of focus. Filled with people, described by lights, and surveyed by all-too-visible and very serious security personnel, we had all become part of the stage set. When POTUS strode onto the stage itself, he looked bigger than life—which was the point.
It matters what he said, or how the crowd reacted. What interested me was the manner in which political stagecraft used a natural setting, the necessity for security, and every focusing trick in its book to its full advantage. We were suddenly in what might as well have been a building, so defined were the limits and the differentiations in the space. Even the sky, which we knew had been emptied of anything that might pose a threat, seemed to be a roof.
Except that it turned out that they could not control the whole space. If this event, one of so many in this and every political season, received any notice, it was because the cameras caught a man on the hillside behind the President, where there was nobody because there were no sight lines, urinating against the hill. No doubt he was frustrated by the same system that kept us penned in this space for three hours, but, given the fact that everything in this arena gained significance, his act was open to interpretation. Only later did reports emerge that he was actually a secret service agent engaged in legitimate activities.
After the President left, the barriers opened up, the tents disappeared, and the temporary arena became part of open space again. I will never be able to see it without its constraints and focus again.