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Character (2012)

When we talk of the character of neighborhoods in (this case) New York City, what are we referring to? If the object of distinction is an urban architectural landscape, what exactly are the constituent elements that combine to form this character? For this work, participants will walk and examine the differing material surfaces and structures they find, and draw from them the possibility of an inherent or imbued meaning in the materials. The group will record the way through photography, and these photos will exist as both a record of and an index to the material properties of the neighborhoods traversed.

I took two groups of participants on a walk around the East Village, NYC. On this walk, the participants were asked to bring a camera of any type. They were to take pictures along the route of whatever they wished. The group is given very minimal direction, but have been given a range of cues. For example, a black object is given to all participants. It is a cross between a speech bubble and a photographers’ framing device. Participants will use these quoting/framing devices within their photographs, any way they wish. The galleries below represent pictures taken in the process of making this work, and are an extension of the work itself. Please take some time to look through them.

It was not possible to make the work without participants. In making this work, I had decided that the work’s success would hinge upon not directing participants in their use of cameras, and in their foci throughout this process. I greatly value impetuousness, unpredictability and variety in the pictures participants have contributed here. Without direction, participants are able to claim some autonomy in the creation of the work. Whereas a factor for art is risk; for participation, it is reward. By participating we are producing something, presumably of value. But if the participant is spoken to in general terms, given a sketchy framework, and asked to be the actor, then this creates a risk that is good for art but sometimes defeating for participation. I wanted to make a work that operated in this area of participatory art practice.
I included the root activity of walking so that time and distance become factors in the work, and because wandering has become such a luxury. Walking also allowed me to take participants through several different types of neighborhoods. This work does not attempt to generate commentary upon gentrification, which has been done so eloquently elsewhere. Rather, I was interested in the idea that an area, neighborhood, city can be given a character, and this is made up of exactly those properties that perform in the background. The scale of the buildings; the prominence of certain materials; the use of local park areas, or not. Participants ultimately engaged in a process of data gathering, as you can see below, contributing to an investigation of an entirely ephemeral, subjective notion: Character.

This work is not an installation per se, but fits better into this category than any others.

In total, this project produced approximately 1500 images. I have selected a few for this documentation. I am currently compiling a book including these images and some of my writing about participation in art.

Thank you to Amy, Anna, Ben, Kay, Natalia, Olga, Pauline, Sebastien and Todd for participating in this work. This work was supported by the fantastic Elastic City under their “Ways” category, many thanks to them, Todd in particular. Please support them when you can.