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November 30 2009


Virtual Street Corners Aims to Engage Public, Connect Neighbors

#5-Pedestrians in brookline.jpgOne of the primary challenges of any community art project is how to engage the audience. If no one is lured to participate, the dynamism of the piece is lost.

Virtual Street Corners, my Knight-funded community art project, benefits from the fact that there is an element of symbolism due to the respective histories of the two neighborhoods we are trying to connect. As I noted in my grant overview, "The Greater Boston neighborhoods of Brookline and Roxbury are 2.4 miles apart, yet there is little interaction between them because of divisions of race and class."

This helps create interest in the project. I have received quite a response from people just by invoking the idea of establishing a live 24-hour connection between these two community hubs. Many have said that just having people acknowledge or greet each other is a significant leap forward. For example, here's part of an email I received from a Brookline High School student:

"... I have been working for The Food Project near Dudley Square (Roxbury) for three years, taking the 66 [bus] all the time. It's a terrible cliche, but the Brookline and Roxbury have often felt worlds apart. One of the only other BHS students I've met who had even heard of Dudley Square, know it as "the end of the 66 you don't want to go to" or ask me "Aren't you scared you'll get shot?" So when I hear someone is doing something concrete and creative to try and bridge this gap, it makes me teary happy.... It makes me laugh to think that eighty years ago when Roxbury was more Irish than African American, my grandma went to barn dances under the same roof."

We recently set up a pilot project of Virtual Street Corners to test the concept, and this resulted in some fascinating interactions. It also exposed some potential drawbacks. One participant wrote to me about their experience:

"...there was an odd sense of safety in talking with someone I had never met, about anything. It's as if the virtuality of the whole thing emboldened us to say things we'd never say if we simply sat next to each other on a bus."

Geographically Close, But a World Apart

#1 -crowd gathers in Roxbury.jpg

Many people, after an initial greeting, were unsure where to go with the conversation. It is my goal in this second edition of the project to inspire or provoke people into having more involved conversations and exchanges. I'd even like to see people travel from one location to the other. Despite it being a 15-minute bus ride between these two neighborhoods, it is amazing how rarely this happens. To illustrate this point, I interviewed 25 people in each location. I asked them to draw the path they had traveled that day on a map. The results were even more dramatic than I had imagined. As you can see below, their the paths barely touch.

#9-Map showing paths of residents.jpg

The challenge is to get them to engage with each other and this project. There are two approaches I am focusing on: effective design and community organizing. I am also happy that a number of prominent academics in the field have agreed to advise me on the project. Francisco Ricardo, a media and contemporary art theorist and an advisor, outlined the challenge well during one of our discussions:

What is helpful is not to be too drawn into narrow/literalistic comparisons between your work and that of others -- the comparison should be conceptual above structural, and in that case, it compares with phenomenological works like Nauman's Live/Taped Video Corridor because what viewers are engaging is not dialogue/non-dialogue, but rather separateness/union. That is the first encounter in the experience, and dialogue happens next. But, alluding to an earlier concern I'd made, Nauman was aware of exactly how long the interaction was to last, and structured the corridor's curiosity factor for 1-2 minutes. Tuning an installation so that what it produces matches the amount of time one would likely spend in it is important in every work that hopes to elicit response. So the time factor depends on the built environment. The most realistic way to approach it is to "engineer" a plausible goal into the experience, some way for visitors to want to exclude external stimuli and distraction while trying to engage in the work.

Creating Visual Cues

During the next couple of months, I will be working with designers to figure out an effective way to use visual cues to draw people into the space, and also create an easily navigated interaction. In the pilot installation, I initially favored a more wide-open opportunity for people to talk about whatever they wished, as opposed to steering the conversation. However, this approach ended up leaving most people at a loss for what to say.

Caesar McDowell, CEO of Dropping Knowledge and professor at MIT, believes that the project creates a great opportunity to address specific issues and urged me to take an active role in facilitating the dialogue.

We talked of a number of possibilities, including posing questions, replaying previous clips of conversations, and providing historical information. McDowell also thought that rather than running the piece continuously, it might create more excitement to instill a periodic countdown along the lines of, "we will be live in X minutes." Another promising solution would be to install question-gathering booths two weeks before the start of the live screens. (This worked successfully for GhanaThinktank in Liverpool.) The idea is that this would get people acquainted with, and thinking about, the project. They could consider what conversations they might like to have, while also becoming familiarized with the screen and space.

Community Outreach

I will be dedicating the next two months to community organizing/outreach. I will be trying to discover the primary issues of important to each neighborhood, and to get people invested in using the project to further those goals. I am very open to tweaking the project to help accomplish the objectives that are revealed in that process.

The other challenge that I face is finding and hiring three "citizen reporters" for each neighborhood. They will bring back daily reports to share over the screen when Virtual Corners is implemented. I'd be grateful for any advice or recommendations you can provide in the comments about this process. I've never had to hire reporters before!

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