O.K. is an ongoing project based around the history and lore of my hometown Kinderhook, New York. O.K. synthesizes and expands on Kinderhook’s mythology and attempts to construct a fresh overview of local history through the exposition of historical documents, videos, replicas, interpretive research, and collaborations with local students, craftspeople, filmmakers, and other community members. Central to the overall project is the creation of a community theatre musical which develops and expands through various exhibitions, performances and workshops internationally. The format of a theatre musical was chosen as an effective model for amateur participation and its flexibility in allowing complex narratives and research to be more easily reabsorbed into local lore by engaging with a wider swath of the public.
The project has thrived on collaboration and participation, featuring poster designs from elementary school students from Ichabod Crane and Berlin, as well as the efforts and talents from over 100 other adults and students in Berlin and Denmark who were involved in set creation and design, costumes, acting, singing, instrumentation, and countless other tasks.
The term “O.K.” has become one of the most universally used and understood words in the world. Its rise to prominence can be traced back to Martin Van Buren’s failed U.S. Presidential reelection campaign of 1840, for which the abbreviation of his hometown nickname “Old Kinderhook” was the rallying cry of his supporters. Oriented around the propagation of “O.K.” as a metaphor for the subtle permeation of small-town American idiosyncrasies into broader cultural forms, my project explores early cultural exports and anomalies originating in Van Buren’s (and my) birthplace as well as recent local developments there since post-industrialization.
The period of Van Buren’s political rise and fall, starting as a NY Senator in 1812, presidency from 1837-1841 and ending in his final failed presidential bid in 1848, was also a time of great historical activity and source of legend in the area around Kinderhook itself. These were the glory days of Old Kinderhook. Writer Washington Irving published The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 1819 whose protagonist Ichabod Crane was based on a local school teacher whom Irving met while living briefly in Kinderhook. Irving was a key figure in the burgeoning field of American literature, which was gaining legitimacy across the Atlantic. Irving’s tenuous relationship with Kinderhook has become an added source of local pride for the town, who named their incorporated public school system Ichabod Crane Central in 1954. The school’s logo and sports team mascot is alternately the figure of Ichabod Crane on his galloping horse, or the terrifying figure of the pumpkin-wielding Headless Horseman chasing him.
In the years of Van Buren’s presidency and later failures, the local Shakers at Mount Lebanon were going through their “Era of Manifestations” (1837-53), a high-point for the celibate and hard-working sect famous for their pioneering of gender equality, conscientious objection, convulsive dancing, and fine furniture design. Meanwhile nearby, landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church was becoming one of the first widely-celebrated American artists as the foremost member of the Hudson River School. But as years passed, the mills around Columbia County began to close down, and as the physical exports slowed, so did the cultural exports, both leading to stagnated growth until its rise as a ‘bedroom community’ for Albany, New York’s state capital. Since the 1970s rural upstate NY has become a permanent destination for those wanting to escape the hustle of New York City, attracting artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and famous whistle-blower Frank Serpico, as well as rich weekenders locally referred to as “cidiots”.
While Kinderhook’s history is unique, it is not atypical of other small towns in the northeastern U.S., or perhaps small towns all over the world that relish their small claims to fame and brushes with greatness. Van Buren remains a troubled source of pride for the town, and despite his not being a particularly admirable president (he set up the first political machines, led the country further into financial crisis, was against the abolition of slavery, intervened controversially in the Amistad incident, and executed the Indian Removal Act which lead to the Trail of Tears, amongst other crimes against humanity), he is something of a local hero. And so it is perhaps not ironic that the town’s most propagated cultural export is a word synonymous with ‘alright’, ‘fine’, ‘enough’, ‘unremarkable’, ‘mediocre’, a word to signify acknowledgement, assent, or acquiescence. O.K.