Sunday, February 22, 2015

River of Words Oral History Project: Day 1

What happens when a community gets to pick the labels used to describe itself? How does having public, self-chosen words impact the kind of possible interactions that can take place? When are words not enough?

These are some of the questions that emerged during my first day of oral history interviews with River of Words hosts last Sunday.

The project, as I described earlier this week, is a participatory art project wherein guest artists picked an array of words in different fonts that they then distributed to neighborhood residents to display on their homes. This project, a spatialization of the 'neural connections' that enable thought, was a way to translate and visualize the kinds of networks that subtend social intimacy, as well as creating new pathways. It was opened at the end of July 2014, and is now in a period of limbo.

River of Words is not just about words. It is about identity. It is about connection. It is about mis-understanding. And it is about leaving a mark.

Yesterday I met with three North Side residents, talking to them in City of Asylum's beautiful office (they literally gave over a house for me to use, a really luxurious experience of quiet and stillness after five years of conducting interviews outside, in intense heat, wind and rain, trailing after graffiti writers, multimedia artists, and muralists as they try to finish their projects and answer my questions) over the course of two hours.

In the course of these meetings I learned a lot. I learned that the Historic Review Commission (HRC) controversy is not a singular event, but was prefaced in earlier debates about expanding the historic district to include Arch Street. Glenn Olcerst, lawyer, part-time artists, and galvanizing figure for the HRC appeal, explained that there were several heated meetings, and one of the main concerns brought up by residents from the potential expanded footprint, was about their ability to continue to make and host public art. I learned that, according to some residents, the HRC was unable to provide clear documentation about how they would approach the permitting of public art, and as a result, some felt that the HRC had engaged in dialogue with residents in bad faith, and the expansion did not take place. I also learned that two local organizations, along with City of Asylum, The Mexican War Street Society and the Allegheny Central Commission had generated a Master Plan for the Northside after over a dozen public meetings, one of the goals of which included a "Garden to Garden" art walk way. River of Words is a first step in such a walk way.

Already it is clear that there is great complexity in the practice of defining a neighborhood, for the multiple residents, and for outsiders. In the North Side there is tension between the neighborhood's historic identity, and its magnetizing effect as a hotspot for public art.

Moreover, the River of Words project also enabled some residents to address questions of racial tension, gentrification, and transformation. Paul Hluchan, artist and animation professor at Point Park, explained that he sensed some tension between the "bohemian intellectual, white" newcomers, and more working class African American longtime residents. Though the project cannot fully solve the tensions and inequalities exacerbated by gentrification, it allowed, according to him, for more dialogue to take place across identity categories. The intense visibility, and sometimes strange meaning of the words (he and his wife chose 'Hamlet') led to many simply asking: "What is that," and an opportunity would unfold for conversation, where word hosts would invite others to participate in the project. These everyday moments of interaction figure as moments of what Samuel Delany has theorized as contact, recurring interactive moments that create a foundation for future encounter, and even interdependency.

At the same time, the controversy surrounding the demand for an HRC exemption for River of Words also showcases some of the lines of inclusion and exclusion that are elided in debates about both public art and historic district status. Bill Steen. explained that to live in a historic district requires one to have a certain economic status: it is costly, and it requires time. There is a strange irony, he noted, in the fact that many of the people who pushed for a historic district now are pushing for an exemption, and were they to succeed, it might tell us more about class politics and privilege than free speech or a win for the "community." Though he fully supported the project, noting that he and his wife loved literature and it offered a reminder, in our increasingly visual and decreasingly literary culture, of the power of the word, these complexities are important to consider.

It would be unfair, however, to reduce the controversy to a petty exercise of outrage carried out by the upper classes. For many, River of Words is about more than aesthetics, it is about identity, belonging, and leaving a mark. In a follow-up email after our session Glenn explained that he had been diagnosed with several pancreatic tumors, and he had declined surgery in order to continue to pursue his art. This controversy, however, in which he felt obligated to represent those who do not have the money or time to go to HRC hearings, is a stressful experience, one that wears on him physically. This simple anecdote speaks volumes about the way that public art, though it may seem like "mere decoration" is, for many, at the center of what it means to survive and thrive, and after that, to leave positive mark in one's community.

It is unclear to what degree these values--the importance of public discourse about art; the need to have transparent standards to art permitting; the way in which public art creates spaces of encounter and contact that can bridge differences and promote understanding; or, more humbly, simply indexes the persistence of different kinds of exclusion; and provides a modus vivendi a form and force for life--will be legible to the HRC. These idioms of agonism, encounter, and endurance, are not fully commensurate with the language of objective history, origin, and architectural purity that seems to be the law of the land for the HRC. The hope, however, is that by collecting such stories, and making them public, some translation can start to take place.

** transcripts of interviews will be made available on this blog, as well as on the City of Asylum Website when they are completed.

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