” … an informative and inspiring how-to handbook of direct, confrontational social activism … “Dennis Hiebert, Geez magazine
From “red-lining” in the ’50s to busing in the ’70s and recent police harassment of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Boston has been a crucible of racial tension in America for decades. Typical of many large cities, segregation along ethnic and class lines still often determines where people live and how they navigate the city. It is common for people living in one neighborhood to know very little about, or to never have traveled to, adjacent areas of the city.
Coolidge Corner in Brookline and Dudley Square in Roxbury are hubs of their respective communities. Brookline has a large Jewish population that migrated in the 1960s from the Dudley area in Roxbury, so there’s a historical connection. Roxbury is now a black and Latino neighborhood. Despite being just over two miles apart and connected by a city bus, people living in these neighborhoods rarely visit the other.
Virtual Streetcorners was a public art installation inviting people to close that gap and experience the city in a new way. Using technology developed to bridge much larger geographical distances, the project instead traversed the social boundaries that separate two neighborhoods.
Throughout the month of June 2010, large glass storefronts in both neighborhoods were transformed into giant video screens providing pedestrians at each location a portal into the others’ world. Running 24/7, these life-size screen images and AV technology facilitated real-time interaction between residents of the two communities. A passerby could look into the window in one location and see out the window in the other, and be able to converse with whomever might be standing there.
In addition to spontaneous interactions, there were many programmed activities. Local politicians — from city councilors to former presidential nominee Michael Dukakis — joined artists, educators, activists and religious leaders in street corner dialogues on a range of issues. Citizen journalists were hired to come to the screens and deliver daily news reports about what was happening in each neighborhood.
The project generated a great deal of excitement and attracted a wide range of participants. Ironically in this era of technology, people treated it as something magical when it was simply a street corner from across town appearing in the window. Many found it entertaining to connect in this way. Others used the opportunity to tackle more philosophical or sociopolitical issues. “There was an odd sense of safety in talking with someone I had never met,” said one participant. “It’s as if the virtuality of the whole thing emboldened us to say things we’d never say if we simply sat next to each other on a bus.”
The piece touched a nerve and tackled an issue rarely addressed head-on. The concept was simple and easily understood — “connecting neighborhoods which are next to each other yet ‘worlds apart’ ” — but at the same time led to profound experiences. It invited people to participate in a solution ratherthan attacking them for being racist and classist. We hired community organizers in advance who worked for months laying the groundwork, and had strong coalitions with trusted local organizations bridging class and race lines. It worked on different levels, from simple commentary and observation to involved participation.
Public art is one of the few ways to have a large art project seen by tens of thousands of people without having to shoehorn your ideas into the art gallery system. One of the advantages of contemporary art is that it can include almost anything, including activism, education, science and community organizing. The project relied on audience participation to create its meaning, and was accessible to audiences that wouldn’t necessarily attend galleries.
Virtual Streetcorners spotlighted issues that are always in front of us but that we tend to ignore on a day-to-day basis. Passersby were brought face to face with people from a different class and race background, pointing up how lack of diversity, rather than diversity, is in fact the social norm.
The project concisely visualizes the problem but leaves an opening for people to respond based on their own experience. Statistics could convey a similar message, but the compelling narrative and reliance on community participation made the project more engaging than yet another opinion piece on Boston’s racial problems.
Virtual Streetcorners provided a medium and an underlying narrative, but then left it up to participants to determine their own experience. It facilitated a discussion rather than voicing an opinion.
On the face of things, the project was very simple — set up video conferencing between two street corners so people can talk to each other. In reality, however, it took years of background work: researching history, thinking through the interactive design and building relationships with residents and community organizations in both neighborhoods.