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March 30 2010


Contrasting Boston Neighborhoods for Virtual Street Corners

Things have started to kick into gear for Virtual Street Corners, my project that will connect the Boston towns of Brookline and Roxbury by live 24-hour video connection. At this point the most time-consuming task is community organizing as we create excitement for the project and identify groups who will use the installation to generate dialogue between the two neighborhoods. The project requires us to draw on the resources of each community as we solicit merchants for space, identify community groups who use the portal, introduce technology and plan the aesthetics of the installation itself.

virtual street corners grab.jpg

Dudley Square is a commercial hub in a predominantly black neighborhood lined with sub shops, check cashing stations and some chain retail stores. At its heart is the main bus terminal in the MBTA system and a police station. Finding a space here has been more challenging than in Brookline. The differences in community resources and income between the two neighborhoods are apparent. Firstly, most of the retailers in Dudley Square are part of large national chains who will not grant permission for a local project in their store. Most of the smaller businesses rent from corporate landlords with similar policies. Thus most of the decision makers who control use of space in the neighborhood are outside the community and have little direct contact with life in the area.

One of the organizers working with us is native to Roxbury and knows Dudley Square well. He approached an independent bookstore and convenience store about allowing us to use their storefront for the installation. This store is one of the focal points of the intersection and an ideal space for the project. He has known the owners for many years and expected that they would be glad to host the project. However he met considerable resistance, because they were suspicious about being used by "outsiders."

In contrast, Coolidge Corner has many local independent retailers who own their businesses. It is easier to meet face-to-face with someone able to give a decision right then and there. Brookline Booksmith, a local bookstore, will house the project in Coolidge Corner.

The number of community groups and organizers already working in the Dudley Square neighborhood has significantly enhanced our efforts for community organizing there. Activist, environmental and non-profit groups are present to improve access and conditions for a neighborhood with less economic resources. Many of the organizations have been excited to work with us and many have headquarters right in Dudley Square. Organizations here focus on equity, social justice, and job training. In contrast, Coolidge Corner is part of Brookline, which is a more affluent, and enfranchised, community. The civic organizations tend to be religious, charitable, merchant organizations with membership that extends well beyond Coolidge Corner. We have had more difficulty finding organizations interested in civic engagement and cross-cultural exchange in CC.

Installing Technology

Installing the technology is considerably easier and ironically much cheaper in Coolidge Corner. It is filled with bookstores and cafes which offer high speed Internet access. Whereas in Dudley Square, none of the major Internet providers service the area. It costs over $500 just to get a basic high speed connection, even though Dudley is in the heart of Boston. This raises another challenge in that there is considerably less foot traffic in Dudley Square. Despite being one of the major African-American hubs in the city, and home to a major bus depot, there is little pedestrian activity at night, as there are no coffee shops or restaurants, theaters or clubs to provide a social nightlife. Conversely, Coolidge Corner is a destination for shopping, dining, entertainment and a cinema.

Visual and audio interaction between the two neighborhoods is at the crux of what this project should achieve. It seems obvious that the actual street corners need to be conducive to this. Here too the contrast is evident. Sidewalks in CC are clean, well lit, and wide enough for a group to stand and passersby to continue on their way. Although there is heavy auto traffic, and a T stop, conversation is audible and there are rarely sounds loud enough to fill the space.

In contrast Dudley has sidewalks so narrow that a group only three people deep force passersby to step off the sidewalk to continue walking and it is difficult to create a comfortable distance between the video screen and the viewer. There are many signs to prevent loitering, or what is considered social interaction across town in Brookline. In Dudley, police are clearly threatened by the idea of groups on the corner and we have been asked to get a permit, even though our lawyers told us that legally it wasn't necessary.

Finally there is the challenge of the noise in DS. Loud sirens and the continuous hum of buses going in and out of the bus depot frequently interrupt conversations. The bus depot and the police station are what make this one of the city's centers and contribute to its vibrancy. However, this poses a technical challenge for us as we try to create public conversations from one street corner to the other.

Overall I am pleased with our efforts on getting the word out about the project and recruiting people to get involved. Hiring a community organizer in each location has been a successful approach. Last week we created a Virtual Street Corners page on Facebook, where we plan to get some early discussions about the issues in each community started. We also received notice that we have been donated 100 spaces for posters on the MBTA (subways and buses), and we have begun hiring our citizen journalists.

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March 08 2010


How Virtual Street Corners Fits with History of Art-Telecom Projects

Below is a guest post from George Fifield, director and founder of Boston Cyberarts Inc., an organization that is a fiscal sponsor of Virtual Street Corners. He and I are working closely together on the project, and here he helps contextualize Virtual Street Corners from a curator's perspective.

Fifield is a distinguished curator in new media, a writer about art and technology, and a teacher at Rhode Island School of Design and Massart. Read more about his work and view more of his writing here.

Art and Telecommunication

Throughout time, Artists have greeted new communications technologies with great enthusiasm. With the advent of telecommunication satellites, for example, artists sought to use these systems to create artistic communications.

In 1977 for the opening of the Documenta VI art survey in Kassel, Germany, Joseph Beuys, David Douglas, Nam June Paik and Charlette Moorman did a live telecast via satellite to over 30 countries. It was German TV's first live satellite transmission. They showed video art and three live performances, though the event was not interactive -- those on the receiving end were not part of the broadcast. But the hope for distance video communication was clearly there. The final performance was David Douglas' The Last Nine Minutes, in which he seems to try to break through the glass wall of the monitor in seeking to physically touch the viewer on the other side.

In 1980, Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz created Hole in Space, a life-size video display telecast over satellite of people in two distant locations: the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, and the Broadway department store in Los Angeles. There were no signs or sponsor logos to help people understand what was happening, just the sudden appearance of a giant window between the two cities that was sustained over three days.

On a much more intimate level, Telematic Dreaming by Paul Sermon in 1992 connected two beds that were hundreds of miles apart through an ISDN digital telephone network. One person lay down on one bed and another on the other. A video projection of each bed was projected on the other with no sound, and the two people were made to interact with each other by substituting the visual for touch. As Sermon put it, "In Telematic Dreaming the two users exchange their tactile senses and touch each other by replacing their hands with their eyes."

Virtual Street Corners

John Ewing's Virtual Street Corners builds on this history using now-ubiquitous videoconferencing technology. Rather than connecting two business offices, he is connecting two neighborhoods: Coolidge Corner in Brookline Mass. and Dudley Square in Boston. And unlike Hole in Space, which appeared without warning or explanation, Virtual Street Corners will engage the two communities in a constant civic dialogue about their similarities and differences.

Artists know that technology has a way of mediating communication that might otherwise not take place. If a person walking down the street were to suddenly turn to a stranger and start discussing the issues of the day, the general reaction would be one of concern and even self-protection. We do not suddenly engage strangers, except when a shared experience moves our relationship from isolation to community, even if only a little bit, as in a slow-moving line. The only people talking on an elevator are those who knew each other getting on.

But with a virtual public space, like Hole in Space and Virtual Street Corners, the technology breaks down the isolation of strangers, creating a tentative community. People start talking to each other.

At this point in the Virtual Street Corners project, there exists context but not yet content. Ewing and his team are building a month's worth of content to bring two separate and quite different neighborhoods together to address what it means to be a community. Through the use of curated discussions, neighborhood reporting teams, youth discussions and even using new technologies to capture and display Twitter feeds and SMS comments about the project, they are hoping to engage both communities in serious, friendly, thinking about themselves and others.

It will be the opposite of spectacle.

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