Editors’ note: This is the first in a four-part series by the author exploring what it’s like to learn a place through the creation of a social-practice artwork.
OMAHA — Fourth of July, 2014. I am in America’s heartland and trying not to get romantic about it.
I’m in Omaha, Nebraska, for the summer, conducting my project “The Department of Local Affairs” for the Bemis Center. The project sets up a structure for engaging in what I call “reverse tourism” — taking in information about a city as opposed to giving it out — in an attempt to gather a sense of what it’s really like to use (i.e. working or living in) a particular place at a particular time. While I’m in Omaha doing both, the mission I’m on doesn’t allow my romance to cloud other people’s participation based on how they feel about the city. It’s an interesting thing, to be encouraging a very intimate view of a place with which I have no intimacy.
The Department of Local Affairs uses four blank templates to gather information from local residents and workers: a pamphlet, a map, and review and advice cards. These collected materials will be compiled into a guide to Omaha. It’s my hope that I receive highly personalized, non-replicable content: information that gives people a feel for the place but not necessarily a set of instructions for using it, as a way of gaining authenticity. The guide will only promise to serve as a (necessarily incomplete) documentation of what it was like to be here in this current moment.
While the project involves the public, it is not technically a public art project. Recent dilemmas with public art have been surfacing all over New York, as Jillian Steinhauer wrote recently for this site. I would sum up those challenges as follows: site specificity is not just a product of physical space; it is also a product of cultural and emotional space. Projects that fail to adequately investigate all three of these factors are doomed, in some sense, to a failure of incompleteness.
Keeping this in mind — and keeping in mind that I really know nothing about Omaha — I’m tackling my “rehearsal” process for the project in two streams. First, I am attempting to be mindful of where my inherent biases arise, and to make note of them. In getting towards my own understanding of Omaha, I’ve been shooting images with the intention of producing a postcard series (something I’ve done before, on a shared residency at Akademie Schloss Solitude). One way I think of cities is in terms of the systems that are used to sustain them; as such, I’ve made that the focus of my image making. This research has had some unintended results, like assuming incorrectly that all spaces in Omaha are pedestrian spaces, and discovering an encampment of rabbits under a huge overpass. Nothing quite like learning through danger and delight.
Second, I am developing metrics for talking about cities in intimate ways. The product of “The Department of Local Affairs” is not the specific content of the conversations I have with my participants, but rather the level of personal detail that those conversations produce. Therefore, the better the conversation is, the more idiosyncratic and reflective the resulting guidebook materials will be. If I am discussing the intimacies of daily life as a way of understanding a city, I must create an environment conducive to quiet, deep, yet aesthetically formalized participation.
Thus far, I have had visitors to my studio follow two prompts: without which not and if one thing only, which I detail more specifically on my own blog: “‘Without which not’ is the thing without which your city/neighborhood would no longer be your city/neighborhood. ‘If one thing only’ is a single thing that exemplifies your city/neighborhood to you, as you use it.” I want to keep these statements simple yet open to a wide range of answers, from the mundane to the miraculous.
Some things I’ve learned so far:
- It’s possible to walk from Nebraska to Iowa over pedestrian-specific infrastructure.
- It is not always possible to walk safely from one neighborhood in Omaha to another using pedestrian-specific infrastructure.
- The Saturday farmers’ market is as much a space for dog sighting as it is for tomato purchasing.
- Urban density is an exception, rather than a rule.
In the coming weeks I’ll be starting the public aspects of the project with Bemis’s Urban Design Lab students, all of whom are from the Omaha area. Having this expertise to shape my interactions with strangers will be invaluable. Stay posted for what I learn, and what that learning produces.