Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"How Philly Moves": Unleashed Images, Community in Motion

Around 4pm JJ shakes the hand of a nervous woman, who just minutes before had been flinging her arms around her head, pulling her knees up to her chest, and moving her shoulders with such fluidity that I felt my own muscle tightness start to melt away, now standing with her arms crossed tight against her chest, says that she is not sure she will be any good. He says to her: “Anything you do will be perfect. The only person who can mess up is me, and I will, but I’ll also take some good pictures too.” The music starts, strong drum rhythms, and, she takes center stage, opens her eyes and explodes into motion, arms thrown out, knees bent, hands making circles like birds taking flight. JJ follows her around the stage, sitting, almost lying on the floor taking a low angled shot, and then on his knees keeping the camera in line with the rapidly moving dancer. While he continues moving, now walking around the dancer, he circles his left hand, like a catcher signals a pitcher, and the lights change to create a snowflake effect, magnifying the greens of the dancer’s shirt and the smile on her face. The person keeping records of who danced when, the even coordinator, and the sound technician shimmy in their seats. Myself and another runner dance and shout next to the risers. Four minutes later the music ends and we all are smiling.

Watching JJ Tiziou work I recall Ariella Azoulay’s writings on the civil contract of photography. She argues that we are not spectators, we are participants in a photographic situation, and that the subjects of a photo are also members of a civic sphere wherein they have the right to demand to be looked at. An open dance call in Old City Philadelphia certainly seems to have less overtly political stakes than the context that Azoulay writes about, ongoing violence in Israel/Palestine and the layers of gendered violence that emanates from a militarized public sphere, but its very ordinariness helps to lay bare the potential that photography, public photography, has to bring different people together.

Azoulay argues that photography finds notions of property and ownership “foreign,” (103) and that it is a vehicle for citizens to “actualize their duty toward other citizens as…a partnership of governed persons taking up their duty as citizens and utilizing their position for one another…” (104), it is a way to “rehabilitate one’s citizenship” (117) because we all have a duty to look, or rather, to watch (14), and such a duty has no end (137). In other words, taking a photo provides a way for viewers to acknowledge the lives and bodies of others, but it also provides a way for the photographed subject to revitalize their own capacity for public communication, even if it is mediated through the viewer. The photographer then does not own the photo but creates a public, collective scene of ongoing communication.

“How Philly Moves” was the brainchild of JJ who liked the idea of “public photography.” It began as a project that was supposed to be an installation in a subway station, but after it failed to get elected he continued working on it, and then proposed it for the Gateway project that the Philadelphia Department of Transportation and Philadelphia Mural Arts Program were working on. It was to be a large scale mural on the parking garage of the airport celebrating Philadelphia via images of Philadelphians—dancing. JJ said:

When I was putting together the proposal for Mural Arts, I started processing my work more in the public art realm and realizing that even though I didn’t have any solid installations on my resume a lot of the stuff I have done has fallen in that vein of celebrating communities through image making, and then sharing those images back with them directly, and sometimes that’s been in a temporary slideshow projection kind of digital installation and sometimes stuff through the web that ends up all over people’s facebook profiles and stuff like that. […]The photography realm has changed a lot with the transition to digital [media] and it has made it so much easier to share imagery. It’s a different model. I feel like there are so many people practicing photography as a public art without thinking about it that way. […] I make these images and I can share them straight with my audience. I don’t have to exhibit anywhere, I just upload them to the web. (Interview March 2011)

Often photography occurs in public, in advertisements, for purposes of surveillance and control, and in portraiture, but it is not always for and of a broader public. Current presumptions about ownership and copyright dictates that photographs are the domain of their producers, the photographers, not the photographed, or viewers that want to repurpose them. Unofficial laws about beauty and power dictate who can even be a photographic subject. For an art that has such a technical capacity to be used by nearly everyone, and the reach almost every corner of the globe, it is controlled, and represents a very few in the mass media public sphere. JJ explains:

Everyone photographs the same way you know like when they are comfortable when they are excited when you have that real smile at that real moment you can get beautiful images of them and it has nothing to do with what their background is nothing to do with what situation they are in and how much money they have and everything else if they are comfortable and they are happy you are going to get a good image of them. It has to be well lit and everything else but its definitely something where my eyes tell me that there is a sort of universal value to everyone, but, the media market tells me that some people are more valuable than others. And there’s a big disconnect there between some of my priorities and the mainstream media markets, and I find a lot of value in creating imagery about the communities that I respond to and that I value inherently and then in sharing those images directly with them. (Interview March 2011)

JJ’s comments illuminate the capacity that photography has to make things public by making them accessible, not just in terms of photographic subjects receiving their images over the web and then being able to share them, but also that everyone can be photographed and everyone can be photographed well. The medium of the photographic still also equalizes dancers by showing crucial moments, rather than letting viewers criticize their technical abilities as one would in a longer film sequence. Finally, JJ uses his own photography as an equalizing model by making “bad shots” available as well, opening up the editing process by breaking with the notion that the photographer (auteur) knows best and instead allowing for a larger set of people to apply their varied perspectives and investments in the photos by using and disseminating them on their own, via facebook and other social networking devices.

It is precisely the idea of community actualized at the level of emotional (affective) attachment that attracts me to this project. Even though it has received large scale publicity as a “Gateway” project, a new “postcard” for the city (How Philly Moves Mural Site) which seems to suggest that it communicates at an abstract, global level, it in fact works on the level of the “hyperlocal” (TIziou). As a project that has appeared on the 36th street storefront, on the Kimmel Center at the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, online, at Gallery East on 9th Street and Market, on the airport parking lot and in terminal B it is about different kinds of mobilities (how Philadelphia(ns) move). It also performs mobility in communication and emotional networking as well by having multiple potential sites of inscription and actualization, but all of these sites, across the city, link back to concrete bodies (of the dancers), experiences and memories that shape their movements that are incredibly intimate. However the content of these different dances condensed in the bodies of the performers and represented in JJ’s photos also testify to the way that this “hyperlocal” is also transnational at the same time—it demonstrates the multiple scales and spatialities that collide in any urban space and community.

Greeting dancers and then walking them up to the performance space at Christ Church Neighborhood House during the fourth photo shoot I saw tribal belly dancers, Moroccan belly dancers, Irish step dancers, West African dance, East African dance, rhythm tap, ballet, modern, a traditional Indian dancer, an Indonesian dance collective, hip hop that had a kind of west coast languid flavor, an eight yer old in a sequined go-go outfit doing the mashed potato and other 1950s sock hop moves, and free form club dancing. These different styles have a multiplicity of origins, and for some dancers tether them to homes that are elsewhere (India, Africa, Indonesia, Ireland), or to a certain vision of America (1950s bee bop, 1940s images of Uncle Sam and the Good War), or to a certain sense of themselves (learning about how their bodies feel different after disease, after age, after childbirth, all contained in a four minute dance).

What the airport mural, and other expositions of the photos offer, is not a neat picture of how to understand and consume Philadelphia, but a complicated, emotionally charged set of connections that spill outside Philadelphia’s borders, overlap in different ways within it, and create an image that is explosive, blurry, and constantly in motion. Asking JJ about whether he worried that “How Philly Moves” might turn into “How Philly’s Marketed” he noted:

I think its challenging because these things this project is trying to touch on is on the hyperlocal. Its on the level of the individual. And so much of what Philly has that’s amazing is its skill and its communities and its people and its hard to some that up in a glib advertising slogan. Sure, how Philly moves can be the next advertising slogan for the city and they could do billboards and ad campaigns and what not but its something where you know I think that when you are really trying to reach a broader audience through the mass media sometimes you have to simplify the message a little bit. Because I guess I haven’t looked a whole lot about how Philly is marketed, I know “Philly is more fun when you sleep over” and those “dear such and such letters” and… what I hear from a lot of friends like visitors is [go see the] Liberty Bell and [eat] cheese steaks-- that is what Philadelphia is. Those are both great but there is so much more …it is hard to go out and find out and hear about that stuff but its so worth because there is no lack of exciting things to get involved with and people who are actively working to make the city better, more livable, more just for all, more beautiful and safe. The thing is that if you like stay at home and kind of watch TV and don’t get out and get involved beyond main media campaigns its hard to access. You have to seek it out. (Interview March 2011)

JJ explains powerfully how communities are complex and can never be presented on a silver platter. What his comment also evinces is that one can never fully know or grasp the entirety of a city. In a sense, cities and their communities have a level of opacity, they are in motion and escape being pinned down or captured.

What the “How Philly Moves” photo shoots offer then is a civil contract that has no definite endpoint—they generate conversations, friendships, emotional connections, and lines of potential that run ahead of any neat advertising campaign. The photographer, photographic subject, and viewer occupy equal positions with respect to interpreting, creating, and disseminating the photography. Even though the mural that resulted from the first three photoshoots created a grand tableau that is technically fixed in space, the images themselves resist becoming static. Their blurred edges and sometimes obscured features (due both to the architectural impediments of the parking garage itself and rapid movement of the dancers and blurred faces as a result), along with the fact that it is a painting of a photographic still, not a film, leaves it up to the viewer to wonder what might happen next. The image does not try to show all. It is precisely this uncertainty, and wonder, that makes it possible, and necessary to continue the task of constructing and reconstructing community through image making.


Azoulay, Ariella. The Civil Contract of Photography. Zone Books, New York: 2008.

Tiziou, JJ. Interview with Caitlin Bruce, March, 2011.

Many thanks to JJ, Rachel Kantra Beal, and the other volunteers who let me share and learn at this event.

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