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May 18 2010

18:29

Virtual Street Corners Adds Journalists, Places Ads for Launch

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We are just two weeks out from the install date of Virtual Street Corners and our publicity campaign is gaining momentum. The project will connect two neighborhoods in Boston via live video connection in public places. We've been picked up a lot on the blogosphere, on CBC radio in Canada, and The Atlantic magazine came out today with a feature that put Virtual Street Corners on the front page of its website.

Within hours I had an email from Israel offering me money and assistance to set up the same project between Tel Aviv and the West Bank. That was interesting because I started with that concept years ago, and also because I had an offer to pull in a live feed from Gaza. So we are currently exploring the possibility of bringing in live feeds from international sources for a couple days during the course of our installation. On the one hand it could garner a lot of interest, but on the other hand it could be a distraction from the focus on local interaction/relationships in the Boston area.

By bringing the conflict in the Middle East into our project, I worry that we could exacerbate the existing tensions between Dudley and Coolidge, the two neighborhoods we're focused on connecting. There is a possibility things could get ugly, since people feel such passion about the issue. Yet the concept of using this technology to address social division and to allow people to represent themselves and be in direct communication is very much what Virtual Street Corners is about. It is interesting how such a hyper-local focused project is resonating nationally and internationally.

Advertising

Who am I to you?
Where do you get your news?
Everyone has an opinion.

Those are some of the taglines on the ads that I recently dropped off at the printer. We were donated space on city buses to advertise Virtual Street Corners, and they specifically gave us space on Route 66 because it connects the two neighborhoods where we will be putting our installation. If you are out and about in Boston hopefully you'll see a few of these roll by:

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Meet the Journalists

Citizen journalists are a backbone of the news-sharing aspect of our installation, and despite it being a short term and underpaid gig we have managed to get an array of qualified folks with strong roots in the neighborhoods.

Our journalists in Roxbury are lifelong residents. Yawu Miller is a freelance journalist and photographer. He is a former managing editor of the Bay State Banner, a weekly newspaper serving Boston's African American community. Miller was born in Boston and graduated from Dartmouth College in 1990.

Jamarhl Crawford has worked in all kinds of media, including print and radio as well as being a poet and performer. He has lectured at MIT, Harvard, Wellesley, Northeastern, Boston University, and Boston College; he's been on BBC and NPR and performed with Public Enemy, Dead Prez, Amiri Baraka, Gil-Scot Heron, Run-DMC and many others. Stand on a corner with Crawford in Dudley and you will quickly be introduced to six or seven people.

Our Brookline reporters include Emily Corwin who works at the Public Radio Exchange, hosts and produces "The Neighborhood" on WMBR in Cambridge and does freelance radio production in the Boston area. Her stories have aired on public radio stations across the country.

Also working in Brookline is Joanna Marinova, co-director of Press Pass TV, a non-profit organization that engages youth in advocacy journalism to tell the stories of those communities that work for change. And Sue Katz is an author, journalist, teacher and blogger who has lived on three continents and been widely published in each.

Something that will be both challenging and very interesting is seeing how the reporters negotiate this new media form. Some are planning to bring people directly to the portals, in order to interview them; others will upload video and photographs they have recorded; and others plan to recount stories and make commentary. Of course, each will be interacting with a live crowd on the other end. Hopefully they will be able to adapt in exciting ways.

The other element we have thrown in to help activate participation is to organize discussions between people in the two neighborhoods. Some examples: A city councillor from Roxbury will meet with their counterpart in Brookline; musicians will play together via video; Peace in Focus, a group that uses cameras and photography to teach peace to teens, will be taking photos and interviewing people from each location, and along the bus route that connects the neighborhoods. They will then show the photos and talk about their experience.

In addition, students from the local public high schools will compare their experiences and discuss education. The Imam from a mosque near Dudley Square will discuss religion and religious freedom with a Rabbi in Brookline. We have identified many more issues, and have many people in Roxbury eager to engage in the conversation, but we have less connections in Brookline and are still trying to find participants on that end.

Lastly, we are preparing to launch our website, which will have reports from our journalists, video clips of interesting conversations that have occurred, and ongoing commentary and discussions about the topics we are addressing.

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January 15 2010

18:35

Finding Common Ground Between Citizen Art and Citizen Journalism

Comparisons are rarely drawn between the fields of art and journalism. But most of last month's work on my Knight Challenge project, Virtual Street Corners, was spent networking and conducting research into these areas. Since I will be hiring several citizen journalists, I've been reading up on that topic, and thinking about the similarities with the art world, which is something I'm much more familiar with. I've been contemplating whether there are lessons that can be transferred from one to the other.

One of the most obvious connections between citizen journalism and community-based artists is the shared desire to create more expansive and inclusive viewpoints than those offered by larger corporate ventures. In going local (and now hyper-local), both these grassroots movements hope to reach a broader range of people by presenting news or art that is more relevant to the lives of their audience.

Creating an Informed Consumer/Participant

Chi-Town Daily News', a Knight-funded project in Chicago that developed a cadre of citizen reporters, reminded me of Wendy Ewald's art project where she handed out cameras to untrained artists, often kids, and asked them to take pictures, while also training them in the art of photography.

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Many of the resulting photos were compelling (like the one above), but Ewald put equal value on how the process affected the new artists. That is, tremendous importance was placed on the transformation occurring among the participants, and how their perceptions changed as they analyzed their environment through a lens. This shift was then transferred to family and community.

If we return to the analogy between Ewald and Chi-town's citizen journalists, it's clear the Chi-town project is doing much more than gathering news quickly and cheaply. The project cultivates a public which is more educated about, and invested in, the process of journalism, thus increasing their interest in journalism, and their ability to analyze and interpret the news.

I always marvel at how, despite the enormous amount of information at people's fingertips, we remain so uninformed. A solution requires more than just developing methods to produce better information -- it requires better ways for people to digest that information and relate it to their personal experience. Although some worry that the democratization of new media has lowered professional standards, increasing participation by "non-professionals" in the creation of news and art creates a more informed consumer (audience), and a higher demand for what we produce.

Dialogue Instead of Didactic

A similar point is made by Jon Pounds in the latest issue of Public Art Review, where he argues that we need to push art to be more like cooking than science. That is to say, we accept that many of us can dabble with and experiment with cooking, while still understanding a need for high quality chefs and food experts. They don't have to be at odds.

It seems to me that the relatively recent activity in the blogosphere, on Twitter and in other forums for non-journalists to delve into the journalistic realm causes us to now ask how journalism is defined. "What is journalism?" This similar tension between fine art and community art is not new. The question, "What is art?" is cliché. But like the new media journalist of today, community artists now believe that we can best reach our audience when we engage in dialogue instead of didactic.

It is for similar reasons that many community-based artists choose to show in public or alternative spaces. While at first it seems that museums and galleries serve the purpose of promoting the importance of art, the flip side is that these institutions help establish a separation between art and daily life. It's a type of ghettoization, if you will, that prevents a majority of the population from experiencing the work. With the purpose of overcoming that division, many community-based or "socially engaged artists" have adopted an approach of either merging their practice with other fields, or disguising their arts identity altogether. I think my foray into journalism/art with Virtual Street Corners harnesses that strategy.

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