I was both thrilled and stumped when Radhika Subramaniam and Margot Bouman asked me to contribute to “Masterpieces of Everyday New York: Objects as Story”, the exhibition now on view at Parsons Sheila Johnson Design Center. Why? Thrilled because I’m a New Yorker, born and bred, I live here now, teach students about cities, and generally have taken New York as a part of my being and birthright. Thrilled because I make photographic and urbanist projects that are all about objects and the emotional meanings vested in objects and buildings – like our Triangle Fire Open Archive and Open Museum, and my Guided Tours and SPURA projects. Thrilled because I loved the British Museum & BBC series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, which Radhika and Margot acknowledge as inspiration for this exhibition. But stumped too, because how could I possibly narrow down the number of objects in this city which have been meaningful to me – and the number I find to be important to tell the city’s own story as intertwined with my own? And of course, to be brutally honest, I wanted to pick something really good.
But what? And how to make it something that only I could really write about? I mulled it over and over, and then, clear as day it came to me. A photograph I had written about before in drafts of my dissertation, diaries, and other places, as the way I imagine New York in my mind’s eye, though daily experience often contradicts it. This photograph of my mother and I standing at a phone booth on Kenmare Street in the early 1980s was taken by my father, and long ago, taken by me out of our family collection and carried with me on trips far and away as a way of remembering home. In this way, my nomination of the phone booth was a double object – both the photograph and the once-ubiquitous phone booths of New York themselves. You can read my full contribution below.
The intertwining of 62 objects keenly felt by their nominators and observers can be seen at Parsons’ Sheila Johnson Design Center until September 4th, 2013.
This is a double object. It is both the phone booth pictured (the kind you now see on city streets denuded of their telephones) and it is the photograph itself.
This picture of my mother and me was taken by my father on the corner of Kenmare and Mulberry Streets in the early 1980s. And somehow, this picture has become my image of New York. It is not just the New York of my childhood, but rather this image persists as the way I think of New York now, though I live here still, and can see for myself that this reality is long gone. In my mind, New York is somewhat grey, Datsuns and Plymouths dot the streets, and the sidewalk is patterned with dropped chewing gum (this last may in fact be true.)
Looking at this photograph, I think of both the phone booth and the mother and child using it. Here, we are joined at the booth with our matching umbrellas, but as I got older, phone booths allowed me to stretch that distance between us. I remember my mother’s repeated refrain, as I traveled far to school on my own at age 11 : “Be sure you always have a quarter with you to call if you need me.”
This arrangement seems almost impossible to imagine now, when people give their children cell phones in elementary school. To suggest that a child might roam New York with but a quarter in her pocket as a way to call home (and with no way to call her!) would be unthinkable to many parents I now know.
As I became a teenager, the phone booth was less the way I called home, and more the way I called friends: beeping my first boyfriend from phone booths (so self-important, and so terribly high-tech at the time), and learning the special code (now long forgotten) one could use to find the unlisted phone booth’s number, so someone could call you back.
These ubiquitous booths weren’t beautiful, nor did they always work, but they provided a (sometimes false) sense of privacy in public for conversations, scribbling messages, drunkenness, exhaustion.
New York’s public phone booths waned as my own participation with the public world grew. Now, as an adult, out in the world, and thinking about how my young son will one day call me, these private little spaces from which to reach out to others in the midst of a public street are now only husks, replaced by devices in our pockets, which people imagine envelop them in privacy, but mostly create intersecting bubbles of sound and chatter as we walk down the street.
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The RFP for the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA) site has gone out, the bids from developers are coming in, and it is possible that new things will happen at the SPURA site. My article “Layered SPURA : Spurring Conversations through Visual Urbanism” featured in Radical History Review asks some questions about this process : What of the site’s history? What of the ongoing need for affordable housing? What of the need for thoughtful architecture in the building of all housing? Will these things be heeded in this process? How can thinking these through, and new ways of thinking about contested space, help inform the way we think about and plan for SPURA? “Layered SPURA” explores my four-year visual urbanist project on SPURA, a collaboration with students and community groups to use creative practice to ask complex questions and to reconsider the city.
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As we get ready to think about the next steps in the Triangle Fire Open Archive and Open Museum projects, I’m looking back at the article I published on Urban Omnibus last fall, “Making Meaning Together : The Triangle Fire Open Archive and Open Museum.”
The piece was about our projects, temporary and permanent memorials, and how to continue ephemeral work – and whether this is an oxymoron. Stay tuned for new and ongoing versions of this ephemeral-archival work.
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So as Dogen said, “Time goes from present to past.” This is not true in our logical mind, but it is in the actual experience of making past time present. There we have poetry, and there we have human life.”
– Shunryu Suzuki
A number of years ago I read a book called On Intelligence by Jeff Hakwkins, who is the inventor of the palm pilot among other things, and who turns out to be an avid amateur neuroscientist. The theory in his book which interested me most was that your neocortex (the layers of membrane that sit around your brain) are memory storage units and what you actually see when you use your eyes is a memory of what was there, or what you have seen before. Only if something drastic changes does your brain have to use some energy to look again.
This sounded like an interesting theory; how could your brain, something much slower than a modern computer chip in terms of processing electrical inputs, be able to do so many complex things so quickly? It’s powerful not to have to think every time you do something. Not having to think about the size, shape and feel of a cup reduces the amount of power required from your brain to pick it up. Once again, an elegant solution by your body and brain.
A quote from On Intelligence :
” Imagine you are about to have dinner in an unfamiliar restaurant and you want to wash your hands. Even though you have never been in this building before, your brain predicts that there will be a restroom somewhere in the restaurant with a basin suitable for hand washing. How dies know this? … You look for expected patterns that let you find the restroom quickly. This kind of behavior is a creative act; it is predicting the future by analogy to the past. We don’t normally think of this as being creative, but it very much is”
Recently I noticed a phenomenon in my own life which made this theory really come to life. I am a new parent, and one of the things that new parents do on a regular basis is to check that their precious new baby is still breathing.
This might sound simple : just look at the baby and see if his chest is moving up and down, right? Wrong. I found when I did this that at a glance I could not see any movement (worrying) but if I looked again much more closely engaging my brain more completely I could pick up the slight movements which showed that my new baby was indeed breathing. Very strange, until I thought of Jeff Hawkins’ theory. What was I really seeing when I glanced, just a memory? I think so, my brain was giving me the minimal amount of information to tell me that my baby still exsists and is sleeping on the bed but not wanting to use up more energy it skimmed over the vital information of the small movements of his chest which show me that he is breathing.
I really enjoy when theory comes into practice: when you see an idea that seems very abstract realize itself in reality. The next time you look at something, look again. There might be a whole world of detail you are missing.
Read On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins
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The CNN next list TV show and blog made a great video about our recent project Layered SPURA. The video talks about the history of the area and then visual urbanist approach taken by Buscada in creating dialogue between communities in the area.
Getting interviewed on a cold February morning by the CNN crew.
The Layered SPURA / City Studio project, headed by Gabrielle Bendiner-Viani, explores this complex site using a hybrid approach of pedagogy, art and research, and involves long-term collaborations between Lower East Side community organizations and students in Bendiner-Viani’s City Studio, a part of the New School’s Urban Programs. The Layered SPURA exhibition, a culmination of four years of student, faculty, and community collaboration which appeared at the New School’s Sheila Johnson Design Center in Winter 2012, does not suggest solutions for a place beleaguered by top-down planning, but rather hopes to spur new conversations amongst people with different points of view about SPURA’s past, present and future.
Find out more about this project : Layered SPURA
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Get a preview of the exhibition
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Please join us on October 7, 8 & 16th at our residency at Creative Time’s Living As Form, “a vast collection of documentation of 100 socially engaged projects from the last twenty years and from locations around the globe.”
Our residency features a new iteration of our ongoing work on the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA), in collaboration with Temporary Services’ MARKET.
More on the Buscada SPURA project
More on MARKET
You may know SPURA as the parking lots along Delancey Street. More than forty years ago, the area was razed for “slum clearance” and few renewal projects have been so contested. Very few of the originally-planned buildings were ever built, and many people were once displaced from the site, some now live on it, and many people live in the blocks around it. Many different communities claim SPURA, and imagine different futures for it.
Our work builds on Gabrielle’s City Studio class at the New School, and considers the past, present and future of this contested site, collaborating with community organizations, and using a visual urbanist approach to create a series of annual exhibitions to create space for dialogue.
On October 7th, 8th and 16th, in residence at MARKET, we continue to present and explore the multiple stories of SPURA. Please join us, and students from four years of City Studio us to tell your own SPURA stories, to talk with others at our booth, and to discuss the future of the neighborhood.
We will also be hosting a walking tour, on October 8th at 2pm, in collaboration with Dutch artists Bik Van der Pol, to explore the layered nature of SPURA, the hidden and intersecting voices behind the often perplexing physical, political and personal landscape of SPURA.
Sign up for our walking tour
Friday, October 7, Saturday October 8, Sunday October 16th, 12-8pm
Special guided tour on the complexities of SPURA : October 8, 2pm
the historic Essex Street Market, SE corner of Essex & Delancey Streets
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Join us this weekend at the Visible Evidence conference! We’ll be speaking on August 13, at the day-long workshop at Hunter College : The City and the Expanded Documentary.
It will be a great day, and we’re looking forward to our panel, “The Urban Documentary, New Forms for New Cities” in which we’ll be talking about the new ways that our recent project, The Triangle Fire Open Archive, explores new ways to know the city and its history – through unconventional archives, visual urbanist approaches, and creative forms of participation. In particular, we’ll be talking about some of the newest objects and stories about the 1982 Chinatown garment workers strike (one of these, above) – and the way gathering these objects in the context of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire tells a complex story about the city.
We’re looking forward to a compelling conversation with chair Martin Lucas and our co-participants, Lise Gantheret and Samara Smith.
9:30 AM – 11:00 AM, August 13
WORKSHOP: “The Urban Documentary, New Forms for New Cities”
Hunter College, Dept. of Integrated Media Arts / 544 Hunter North Bldg / E 68th & Lexington Ave.
The urban documentary has taken new life formally and socially as concepts move away from origins in ‘single channel’ form to a broad variety of new lives in locative media contexts, including GPS triggered audio and video, web-based media from issue-based blogs, to games, to social mapping. Sometimes these are projects initiated by filmmakers, at other times, they are framed by architects, urban planners and organizers. What do these new practices look like? What is their justification? What happens to documentary notions on these new platforms where the boundaries between subject, maker and location shift? This workshop is designed as an introduction to some of these practices in a form useful both to makers and theorists.
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Get a preview of the exhibition
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On March 25th, the 100th anniversary of the Triangle fire, we were honored to attend the centennial events on Washington Place – with the crowd filling the blocks from Washington Square Park all the way to Broadway. We were also excited to see objects from the Open Archive filling the jumbotron screen above the speakers on the platform. It was wild to see our good friend Amy Reddinger’s sign from the Madison, WI rallies (which she had contributed to the archive) beaming above the trees, while the inspiring Mary Bell from the Wisconsin Education Association Council was speaking. Finally, it was phenomenal to have stories and voices from the Open Archive featured on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show that morning.
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