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Public Art Project Begins Healing in Cleveland

5 August 2011 One Comment

There is a small experiment currently going on in Cleveland. It is part advocacy, part planning, part art, part urban therapy, and it’s called the W. 83rd St. Project.

It’s based on the notion that cities need to start attending to their emotional landscape via their physical landscape. Because a city building on top of its psychic junk expecting change is like the man who builds towers out of a need to cover some tunneling feeling inside.

The W. 83 St. Project is a neighborhood intervention meant to: (1) attend to the emotional landscape of Cleveland; (2) rework the idea of vacancy in a direct way at the local level; and (3) help a neighborhood heal after a devastating natural gas explosion. The process, in images, will be described below.

On January 25th, 2010, a natural gas explosion that was latered ruled arson rocked W. 83rd St. in Detroit Shoreway. Many families were displaced. Homes were destroyed. The neighborhood, in short, became a literal flashpoint to to the issues of abandonment.

A team of professionals thought this was a good place as any to try their urban therapy intervention. The project would be part urban art therapy, and part architectural reworking through deconstruction and sustainable reuse. First, working with the City and County Land Bank and the local CDC, site access was gained. Below is the house that was located. It was vacant, condemned b/c of the explosion and three parcels away from the explosion site.

The first part of the project–the urban art therapy–was to turn the house into an installation.  It was decided that the inside of the house would serve as the installation “vessel”. Architects Rob Donaldson and Jim Fish designed cut throughs in the house so that the inside of the installation could be seen. Chris Shimp, a designer and contractor, did the work.

Side views were cut as well for a side installation that could be viewed from the driveway. Notice the layering of the cuts. As well as the exposed studs (above). The idea, according Fish, was to “show the peeling of the layers of the house that would transition into the vacant space”.

For the actual installation, it was decided early that for it to be therapeutic–that is, for people to begin to process and express vacancy-related affects–that it had to be interactive. In other words, not only should the visual inside of the vacant house be symbolic, but it should be experiential. Myself and artist Melissa Daubert conceived of a two-part installation. The first part was held in a converted church. It was called Where is Home. Here, community members were brought in and asked either: Where is Home?, or–if one had a direct experience with the explosion–where were they when it happened. Folks silhouettes were then drawn with their responses hovering above their heads. Both were tied to balloons, with the balloon anchored to a shoe that was placed on a map of the area (the spot on the map was determined by where they physically were when the explosion happened).

Part 2 of the installation involved a few parts. One was the creation of an eye at the top of the house. The iris was made of cardboard as well as a windmill of sorts made of styrofoam plates. A fan would blow the windmill, thus spinning the iris while a light would shine from behind. The idea behind the eye was to put a face on the house. We often do this subconsciously by imbuing meaning into our surroundings, especially our homes.

The second part of the installation involved the side cuts off the drive-way. Here, a white rocking chair was mechanized in the foreground of one of the community art day responses by a little boy who wrote: “Home is where no one can get me”. The movement of the person-less chair was meant to strike recognition to the fact that the lifelessness of an abandoned  house is no joke.

The third part of the installation was where the experential component came in. More exactly, using the community responses from the community art day–as well as residents silhouettes–Daubert created a DVD movie of interchanging text and images that was projected from the inside of the house onto two white screens. The images and text were reversed so that the installation could be seen from the outside. The intent here was to “place” residents inside of vacancy, or to show movement with an inscribed meaning relating to the importance of home, or–in the case of Rust Belt Cities–the emotional effect of having so many homes where the heart is not.

Last week we held an opening reception. Over a hundred folks, the news.  The reception was not an accompaniment to the installation but a necessary corollary.  The site of the explosion is heavily disenfranchised.  Gathering folks from the street with members of the art community and number of city leaders to discuss issues like a city’s emotional needs was a powerful experience. My mom got pizza and pop. Kids ate brownies. Folks–black and white, old and young, rich and poor–drank wine in the front yards of two vacant houses.  The air around us was special. And it happened all on a scar in Cleveland’s landscape.

And people talked. They talked about the explosion. How it made them feel. I talked about the background of the project (I was project and concept lead), about how much I cared for the City, and that I grew up a few streets over. And about the power of memories and feelings and the importance of place. About how Clevelanders need to channel their attachment to their City in a way that is less about hanging on than it is about letting go. And the Councilman, Matt Zone, spoke. And so did a little boy. He talked about how his friend lost his house from the explosion and how sad both he and his friend were. The boy spoke with courage and in the silence there were few dry eyes.

Part two of the project involves deconstructing the house and using its parts for tables, benches, and a wood path to create a reading garden across from the library down the street.  Live again Cleveland. Live again Rust Belt

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A quick background. The emotional landscape of Rust Belt cities is largely defined by loss and abandonment: of jobs, of people, etc. This landscape has a physical corollary in the amount of vacant structures around us. Vacancy as a visual is inciting, not only serving as a reminder that all of us Rust Belt cities are “dying”, but that we—as individuals—are mortal.

People deal with vacancy by fleeing to the ‘burbs, fighting it (arson, mass demolitions), or becoming resigned. That said, a movement of transforming the reality of vacancy by changing how we perceive it has been underway for some time now. Ruin Porn, or the aestheticizing of abandonment, has been central in this regard. Still, while the national psyche has begun to romanticize the possibility of frontier in America’s heart of consequence (i.e., Rust Belt Chic), locally vacancy is often just that: emptied of dignity but not of vermin, crime, stink, and disrepair. This is but one project attempting to open up the possibility of vacancy to those actually living with it.

–Richey Piiparinen

Special thanks to Frank Lanza for the photos.