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Learning Greensboro: Records of Everydayness (Part 2)

Possibly the world's only historic plaque commemorating an event that never happened: Martin Luther King, Jr.'s missed visit to Greensboro. South Elm projects by Agustina Woodgate and Samara Smith also in view. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Possibly the world’s only historic plaque commemorating an event that never happened: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s missed visit to Greensboro. South Elm projects by Agustina Woodgate and Samara Smith also in view. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

GREENSBORO, NC — Since I last wrote, I’ve spent most of my time with the subjects of my soon-to-be fabricated plaques: local residents of Greensboro who have lived, worked, or in one case walked, along South Elm Street for the past 15 to 55 years. With one exception, all of my interviews are dual: I sit down with a pair of people (a parent and child, two long-term work colleagues, a formerly homeless man and the former director of the homeless resource center) and ask them the same questions about what it’s been like to share a particular location in Greensboro over time.

What I like about the dual interview format is that it breaks the dynamic of subject vs. object. As I start to ask two people about their shared experiences, they slowly settle into a conversation with each other, asking questions back and forth and in turn clarifying certain concerns with me. Two of my subjects, who are longtime friends and collaborators, spent the beginning of their interview just asking each other, “Do you remember … ?” This exchange of memories not only helped focus the partners on each other in an intimate yet publicly sharable way, but also pushed them past their concern about what I was “really” looking for. Anything, they saw, was fine. While it’s true that I never fully enter the conversation space this way, I do feel more honest as a listener — less directed, more engaged. There’s something magnetic about watching two people start to play, joking about how one was loved more as the first child or bantering about who in the pair is actually old.

This type of play lets me capture conversational dynamics as well as particular tales or facts. Because I’m asking for information about extremely everyday experiences (e.g. “what are some of the ways that you’ve used this building or space over time?”) there’s often no “there” there: people tell me about their mundane Wednesdays, which, if they even remember them, are often of zero interest to anybody else. But this is my point: it is the succession and accumulation of the mundane that make up most of history. Why not commemorate it? I am not after the condensed joy of a single moment, but rather the amazing wash of what happens over time. This is not a summation of the best moment, it’s a translation of everydayness. As I told George Scheer and Stephanie Sherman of Elsewhere during their interview: “Everything that you say to each other will be translated into 40 words and then made into a permanent plaque. In essence, any single sentence is gone.” Each day doesn’t matter. It’s the general tone and result of ongoing life and work that make the plaques meaningful. I believe this is the only way to make place: through being in it, wearing it down with regular interaction.

Working to find the familiar in the strange
Working to find the familiar in the strange

Yet my certainty about how history and place are intertwined can impact what I’m given by participants. I have to face the truth that, in many ways, I already know what I’m looking for: I want to capture the things we otherwise overlook. For me, the struggle is to transition from process to product when I’m asking for general, mundane stories rather than those regarding specific, noteworthy events. Part of that is being able to hear what repeats, either accidentally or intentionally, as people sift through their memories and experiences of a place. Interviewee Walter Jamison, for example, told me about the unwritten rules of being a young Black boy in the South — where he could or could not walk, where his mother was allowed to shop or not shop. There was no moment or story of conflict that he could particularly recall, yet these boundaries were real for him, and affect him even as an adult. Walter’s interview partner, Liz Seymour, clarified his stories by sharing the ways in which she (a white woman) and Walter (a Black man) will never have the same experiences walking down the street, even now.

In recording these moments, what do I hope to create? What will this work mean, both to my participants as I tell their stories and to the more random audiences who will interact with these plaques in public? It’s important that I don’t maintain the illusion that what I’m giving is a gift. All too often, people believe that public art has an automatic, positive impact on any given community. I think this is fundamentally untrue, or at best highly debatable, as history shows. Even more than that, what does it mean to work with “the community” when I am actually only talking in depth to eight people, who share nothing except the use, over many years, of a single street? The work is certainly public — I’ll be installing it openly on building façades for anyone to see — but it’s not “community based” in any way; rather, it required the participation, openness, and assistance of people.

An old postcard showing Elm Street in Greensboro (image via postcardroundup.com)
An old postcard showing Elm Street in Greensboro (image via postcardroundup.com)

At the end of each of my interviews, I asked my pairs of participants to tell me what it would mean for them to have a plaque expressing their story embedded into their chosen building. I’m actually delighted that the answers never include a banal expression of gratitude. Instead, most participants have focused on the idea of permanence. What does it mean to be on the record? How does it feel to visit a record of one’s own, now somewhat historicized, daily life? What does it mean if the record lasts longer than you do? Aluminum plaques are guaranteed to survive at least 50 years, and my oldest interview participant is either 73 or 74 (on the record, she couldn’t remember). How will her plaque carry her daily life and work forward into the future?

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