Tumblelog by Soup.io
Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

July 07 2010


Highlights and Pitfalls of Virtual Street Corners Project

We're just winding down my Knight News Challenge project, Virtual Street Corners, and haven't had time to sort through all the recorded materials and debrief the participants, but I wanted to share some initial thoughts and reactions.

The most encouraging takeaway from the project was the enthusiastic response it received. It seems to have struck a nerve and could be well worthy of further investigation. The piece is widely accessible without being overly simplistic, with the potential for opening up complex social interactions. On the other hand, there were also various aspects that fell short of my expectations.


The project aimed to connect the Boston neighborhoods of Brookline and Roxbury through citizen journalists' video newscasts that were projected on life-size screens to enable real-time interaction between citizens.

It seems funny in this era of technology, but people treated the idea of seeing another street corner across town appear in the window as something magical. They laughed and many people just found it very entertaining to connect in this way. I had many requests to set the installation up in other places -- including the MBTA, Boston's public transportation system -- and we attracted a wide range of willing participants. We also received excellent media attention, ranging from wide coverage in the blogosphere to substantial pieces in the Atlantic, the front page of the Boston Globe, CBC Radio, and WGBH (PBS) TV.


Local politicians -- from city councilors to former presidential nominee Michael Dukakis -- joined with artists, educators and activists to take part in street corner dialogues on a range of issues. Electricians, carpenters, web conferencing experts, community organizers and commercial designers all stepped up to donate services. However, one of my biggest lessons is that free is never completely free. As one person on our team was fond of saying, "Out of fast, cheap and good quality -- you can get two but never all three."


Tech Issues

In the end, I underestimated the amount of resources needed to carry out the project on the scale I had envisioned. My biggest pitfall occurred in the tech department. We went into the project with tremendous momentum -- an article on the front page of the Boston Globe on opening night, a great team of journalists, an exciting lineup of participants to carry out the street corner forums. I put the majority of my time and resources into community organizing, outreach and design, wanting to make sure that I moved the conversation from simple greetings into important and unique dialogues that this particular installation had the potential of achieving.

Having experimented with the installation before, I expected the tech piece to fall into place without too much difficulty. Getting a high-speed internet connection, videoconferencing and recording it all to a hard drive seemed like it should be pretty straightforward -- but that was not the case.

The combination of the various components, and getting them to operate for extended periods in environments other than what they were designed for, created endless problems. The issues were compounded by working in a community like Roxbury, which has a relatively underdeveloped infrastructure. Things as simple as acquiring high speed Internet became major hurdles. Comcast assured me that they could easily provide the connection but when they arrived for the installation told me it was impossible to do. So we actually had to spend three days rewiring a historic building to acquire Internet access.

I was donated a myriad of high-end equipment, which saved me a lot of money; but it also cost me dearly in time and functionality since I was not familiar enough to troubleshoot problems when they came up. We had many dropped calls and dropped audio, meaning the system was often not functioning.

Furthermore, as I was running the entire tech myself, I had to run back and forth to reset the audio and video each time it went down. This was obviously very frustrating, but the biggest problem was that it discouraged participation. Profound interactions, both planned and spontaneous, were interrupted repeatedly, or had to be rescheduled or cancelled.

Intense Committment Tough to Sustain

Tech problems also posed a major obstacle to the journalism piece of the installation. Our plan was that journalists from each neighborhood would file reports every day, and the reports would run simultaneously, allowing pedestrians to share the same experience and generate conversation between the communities. For a good part of the project, however, the videos would only show at one location or the other. So it was news to only half of the observers, and it interfered with my goal of a mutual experience. This was a huge disappointment and was very demoralizing for the journalists who worked so hard on their pieces.

The other significant problem we encountered was that our staff found it difficult to sustain such an intense commitment over a short period of time (one month). For example, the journalists were hired to file reports five days a week for three weeks. We had three people quit less than two weeks before we started because other longer term and higher paying jobs took priority. No matter how enthusiastic folks were when they were hired, we could not compete with full-time employment and family commitments.

Final Thoughts

We are excited by the potential of the project and how it was embraced by the communities where we installed it. We were also inspired by the relationships that were developed through the piece, and by the number of requests we had to install it permanently or set it up in other locations.

However, I would never again work with equipment I wasn't able to test extensively for months in advance, and would make sure I was able to pay enough money to retain skilled labor despite the length of the project.

Those are my inital impressions, and I'll share more thoughts soon.

May 18 2010


Virtual Street Corners Adds Journalists, Places Ads for Launch

VirtualCorner blog up-.jpg

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.


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:



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.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

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.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

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.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

January 15 2010


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.


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.

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!

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.
Get rid of the ads (sfw)

Don't be the product, buy the product!