Sunday, May 4, 2008

Tracking the Postcards

So after convincing the lovely staff at the US Postal Service that I was not a crazy person they told me that basically the postcards on route to the East Coast would be traveling via truck. All other US bound destinations would travel by airplane as would the cards going to Taiwan and Portugal except for Portugal which may or may not go by boat, the woman did not know. All the cards are still currently in New York but as of tomorrow morning their adventure will begin.

Writing Postcards in Astor Place

Approaching New Yorkers with a clipboard and a smile......if New Yorkers have accomplished anything it's the art of ignoring the clipboard people! I became one of the clipboard people and got ignored, a lot! I approached New Yorkers as the worked, sat, talked with friends, waited for the walking man light, and drank coffee in Astor Place. My method was simple. I approached people who looked friendly, people who weren't carrying a lot of things and people who didn't look like they were in a rush.
My line: "Would you like to send a postcard to anyone in the world for free" I tired out a variety of opening lines and this was the one that got the most takers. I then went on to explain the project and that if they wanted to write a postcard I would drop it in the mail for them. I think I approached 100 people and got 45 postcards which I feel is pretty good. Of those who wrote cards they thought it was great and not to give myself too much credit, I think I made some peoples days. For those who said no, some were polite, others, well just downright mean. I got quite a few "No, I would NOT like to do that." Polite but also a bit harsh. Most of the postcards are staying in the country but one is going to Taiwan and the other is on its way to Portugal. A lot more people would have written internationally but they didn't know the address of the top of their head. These postcards are another 45 reasons why I love New York and the people who will stop for the clipboard people!

Where Are We Going? Where Have We Been?

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Postcards From New York

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Astor Place Manifesto

Postcards from New York: Past, Present, and Future

One hundred and fifty nine years ago 22 people were killed and at least 38 were injured on the corner of East 8th Street and Astor Place. In 1849, the Astor Place Riot was the deadliest civic disturbance between the poor and the upper class in the urban United States to date. This history was unknown to me. However, it fueled my thinking of the New York history that is buried beneath Starbucks’, parks, and glass condominiums. The opening line of Michel Foucault’s “Of Other Spaces (1967), Heterotopias” reads, “The great obsession of the nineteenth century was, as we know, history.”[i] That may have been the case in the 19th century, but in the 21st century, history seems to be nothing more than the past, a mere afterthought.

In 1847, the Astor Place Opera House (now home to a Starbucks and an upscale residential apartment building) opened to serve as an outlet for wealthy theatergoers who wanted to avoid the immigrant clientele of the East village and the “Five Points” section of lower Manhattan who frequented the Bowery Theater (located at Bowery between Canal and Hester). The new Astor Place Theater, with its high ticket prices and dress code, became a symbol of classism and Anglophila to many working class New Yorkers.

On May 10, 1849 a crowd of 20,000, predominantly Irish immigrants and working class first generation born Americans, crowded into the Astor Place streets to protest English actor William Macready’s appearance in Macbeth. The residents of the Bowery, the Five Points, and the East Village had their own leading actor in mind, American born, Edwin Forrest. Incensed by Macready’s appearance and the encroachment of the “upper class” into lower Manhattan and fueled by tensions between the Irish and English, the crowd of 20,000 stormed the Opera House. The police arrived but could not quell the riots so the National Guard was called in. The New York Tribune reported,the Opera House resembled a fortress besieged by an invading army rather than a place meant for the peaceful amusement of civilized community."[ii] The soldiers prepared to fire and when the rioters did not disperse, the order was given to fire directly into the crowd. The quote from the Tribune makes me question the roles we attach to certain physical spaces. And what happens when that role changes and becomes something else, how do we reckon with the new identity of the place? In the case of the Astor Place Theater, it closed six years later because the riot was unforgettable and the theatre went bankrupt. A place for art and drama had become a war zone and subsequently a graveyard.
Astor Place Riot: NYPL Digital Library

I came across this history while researching Astor Place as the location of my project. I was initially drawn to Astor Place because of its crossroads of streets and neighborhoods that predate Manhattan’s city grid. As road’s criss-cross each other, and traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian converge in a messy battle over who has the right-of-way, Astor Place, to me, has always been a place where one can truly get lost in the city. Geographically and architecturally, Astor Place represents the old and the new and both its 19th century and 21st century architecture have become monuments of the city. Astor Place is famous for its three Starbucks’ and it’s recently finished undulating glass apartment building designed by Charles Gwathmey.
But equally famous is the dingy opening to St. Marks Place, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art established in 1859, and the Astor Place subway station which, completed in 1904, is one of the original twenty-eight stations in the subway system.

Charles Gwathmery’s glass apartment building

Cooper Union

Astor Place is not as monumental in the same sense of Times Square or the Empire State building, locations recognizable to those outside of New York; however, Astor Place is a landmark to New Yorkers. As one walks through Astor Place, the buildings stand in opposition with each other as history is torn down with each new renovation, razing, and new construction. One’s senses are on overload as the visual mix of architecture and the converging streets and people bombard you. Men and women in business suits carrying Starbucks coffee cups collide with students carrying Mud coffee cups from the Mud truck dutifully parked on 4th Ave. and 8th Street. Skateboarders meet residents, and men selling pipes rub elbows with book sellers and artists while the smell of falafel coming from St. Marks and Halal street vendors makes your stomach growl. Car and taxi horns are used in abundance and cell phone conversations are heard in stereo from every direction. The vibrant crossroads of Astor Place give way to the collision of histories and identities; thus, allowing itself the opportunity for people to open a dialogue with their pasts.

History and identity have always gone hand-in-hand in my mind. As someone unsure of my own identity and history, I am drawn to places rich in history but where identities become muddled and histories collide. My first idea for a final project was to do something in my 125th St. neighborhood in Harlem. A historically rich African American neighborhood, the community continues to grow as West African immigrants move to New York and African hair braiding stores share walls with soul food restaurants. Krzysztof Wodiczko’s writing in Critical Vehicles had a strong influence on my desire to explore issues of the immigrant, identity, the voiceless, and history in New York. In “Designing for the City of Strangers” he writes about the immigrant experience in the urban city and the history of the “victors” and the “vanquished.” He writes, “The city is reconceived with each new immigrant, assuming that an open communication exists between the immigrant and all others.”[i] I began to think about what open communication truly means, what role the immigrant plays in shaping the city, and questions of authority. In Astor Place the working class immigrants, the “vanquished,” rioted against the upper class “victor.” The “vanquished” challenged authority and many were killed because of it. New York has many examples of authorities overstepping boundaries and literally opening fire on people inhabiting public spaces. How do people continue to interact with these spaces? Most of the time people don’t know the history of what has happened there. The protests of the “vanquished” communities in lower Manhattan led to the closure of the Astor Place Opera House. The “vanquished” protested and they won but not without a reminder of who still has the power. I wonder if the riot had not occurred, would the opera house still be in use today and how would the geography of Astor Place differ?

Later in his writings Wodiczko refers to specific “communicative instruments” that could be used to both heal the immigrant’s trauma of resettling as well as act as a conduit between the immigrant, “the vanquished,” and the “victor.” This hit a cord with me because this is exactly the thinking I am trying to work out as I teach photography and video to the “vanquished” and subsequently, the “voiceless.” Simply put, how do, and how can, people talk to each other?

As my thinking process continued and I decided on Astor Place for the location of my final project I began to question how I could relate these questions of history and immigrant identity to my Astor Place location. Researching the history of Astor Place informed me that it too is a neighborhood of immigrants and untold history. Wodiczko writes, “‘where are you from?,’ should never replace, ‘in what way can your past and present experience contribute to everybody’s well-being today and tomorrow?’”[ii] This led to questions I personally ask myself often: before I work with others to make their voices heard, I first need to know who I am, where I come from, how my past is contributing to today, and perhaps most importantly, where my voice is?

I thought, what if I gave people the opportunity to write to their past? To remind themselves where they came from in order to think about where they are going. With this question guiding me I began to question more and more the issues of communication: speaking, writing, the Internet, email, letters, postcards, telephones, webcams, and speakerphones. Issues of time, space, and place arose as I questioned the difference between writing and sending an email and writing and sending a letter. One can physically touch a letter, turn it over, feel it, and smell it. It is left with the marks of its travels, stamps, creases, ink smudges. While email is certainly faster by collapsing international time zones and the days it would normally take for a letter to cross the oceans, an email still remains intangible. As we write something it immediately becomes past, this sentence is now history. In an email you can get responses in seconds while in a letter it may take days. The history of a few minutes is far different than the history of a few days. While the Internet collapses time, “snail mail” extends it by allowing the present to be remembered days after.

I wonder how many of us have written a letter or a postcard in the last week, month, or year? With email this method of communication appears to be outdated and yet nothing quite compares to opening your mailbox and seeing a letter or postcard addressed to you. But I don’t mean to evoke a pre-Internet nostalgia, I for one could not say when the last time I used “snail mail;” however, I am interested in both the tangibility of the postcard and the ability for people to write postcards in the middle of the street.

My project consists of present day postcards of New York City. The postcards depict the immortalized monuments of the city: Central Park, The Statue of Liberty, The Empire State Building, Times Square, etc. Postcards are typically associated with vacation and tourism. They depict pictures of city monuments and landmarks and allow the writer a limited amount of space to write. My aim is to take the intangible, impersonal scale of “monumental New York” and bring it down to a tangible personal account, a message on a postcard. While tourists frequent Astor Place, I am interested in approaching residents of the city and asking them to write a postcard that I will then mail to wherever the address is in the world. Tourists are not excluded however. I want to give people the opportunity to write to their home town, the house they grew up in, or their parents. People can also write to old friends, old loved ones, or even to themselves. My definition of “old” is not limited. If people want to write to a friend they haven’t talked to in a day, a week, or a year, that’s fine. Ideally I would like the opportunity to be able to track the postcards and create a Google map indicating all the locations the postcards will travel to. I imagine a web forming as planes criss-cross each other delivering mail across the oceans. New York is a city of immigrants from places throughout the country and abroad. Not only will this map show where people are coming from but will also show all the places they could potentially go. By building an online map I am utilizing both “historic” methods of communication, handwritten postcards, and more present methods of communication, the Internet.

The writer can sign the postcards or they can be anonymous. The anonymity allows for people to share things that they might not share otherwise. As Wodiczko speaks of a communicative device to act between the “victor” and the “vanquished,” a postcard could serve as therapy, to get something out in the open, or simply a way to say hello.

Foucault writes, “We do not live inside a void that could be colored with diverse shades of light, we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another.”[iii] This resonated with me as we are products of our own pasts as well as the pasts of those around us and the actions of those who came before us and before them. We are products of what happened five minutes ago and what happened five years ago. As the postcards take a few days to reach their destination new history will have happened in that span of time and the postcard will become outdated.

Postcards, unlike sealed letters, are public. Not only will I be able to read the postcards but the post office staff will be able to as well. I can, if I so choose, to share particularly interesting postcards with friends or with the class. People who choose to write a postcard do so knowing that their privacy might not be upheld. Postcards however are still private. They are a letter from one person to another and people can choose to disclose what they want. The streets of New York are both public and private as well. People joke that New Yorkers don’t smile at each other or say hi to one another on the street. People are in their private spaces: headphones on, head down, eyes straight ahead. However, nothing is seemingly more public than the streets of New York. By engaging with my fellow New Yorkers and removing them from the privacy of their own thoughts and actions I am contributing to the democratic nature of New York streets where on any given day and on any given street corner you can be talked to, yelled at, given a leaflet, asked for money, spat upon, laughed at, or ignored.

In this project I am acting as a conduit between people in Astor Place and their pasts as well as their futures. Sometimes in New York it’s easy to get caught up in yourself, your work, and your daily interactions with the city. At most I want to give people the opportunity to take a moment and say hi to someone they haven’t talked to in a while. By tracking the postcards, the project will culminate in an online map of moving history as it travels throughout the world. As Foucault suggests, we don’t live in a void without history. By remembering our own history we are better prepared for the future.

Astor Place Mapping

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Yay history!!

Saturday, April 26, 2008

death of hard drive number 2

so this morning my computer decided to die. the end of sophomore year my hard drive died right before finals and today it seems only fitting that i have come full circle to have my hard drive die again right before the last finals of my educational career. the wonderful people at TechServe are replacing it so i'm holed up at the 3rd North computer lab amused by the wardrobe choices of our peers. i'm writing my manifesto and felt inclined to write a post since its been a while. hi gang!