Virtual Street Corners, our Knight-funded project, is scheduled to be installed in Boston between June 8th and June 30th of this year. We have formed an exciting collaboration with the Boston Cyberarts festival, which will be our fiscal sponsor. I thought I would use my first post on Idea Lab to describe the project and fill everyone in on the work and thinking that has already gone into the piece.

For those not familiar with the project, I’ll offer a quick description. Large glass storefronts in two Greater Boston area neighborhoods, Brookline and Roxbury, will be transformed into video screens, providing pedestrians of each neighborhood with a portal into each other’s worlds. Running 24/7, these life-size screen images and AV technology will enable real-time interaction between residents of the neighborhoods.

These portals will also act as media centers for news collection and dissemination. The viewing and sharing of news will be brought out of private spheres and into a public forum to create a kind of virtual town hall meeting. Though only 2.4 miles apart and connected by the Route 66 bus, people living in one of these two neighborhoods rarely visit the other. Using technology developed to bridge geographical distances, Virtual Street Corners instead traverses the social boundaries that separate two important cultural and transportation hubs with significant historical connections.

Citizen Journalists in Each Neighborhood

There will be both planned and spontaneous interactions. Three different citizen journalists from different parts of the neighborhood will be employed to deliver daily news reports about what is happening in their area at specified times each day. There will be a website with live feeds streaming from each location. Both storefronts are located next to a bus stop, and riders (or anyone else) will be able to download podcasts or videocasts.

Virtual Street Corners is closely related to a project that I created with Liz Canner called Symphony of a City, which premiered at the Boston Cyberarts Festival 2001. Symphony of a City used headcams, projections and streaming video to paint a portrait of Boston through the eyes of eight different residents.

Both pieces evolve out of earlier work I’ve done that aimed to create participatory community public art projects across Boston. While doing those projects, I was struck by the diversity of culture, as well as the segregation that still permeates Boston. Residents appear to treat the situation as normal, and little dialogue appears to take place around the issue. These works invite people to confront this reality, reflect and dialogue about it. It also allows them to experience the city in a new way outside their daily routines.

Art or Activism?

Virtual Street Corners first took shape in 2006 when I received a “Public Art Incubator” fellowship from the Berwick Research Institute in Dudley Square, Roxbury. This grant provided me with an opportunity to have a studio in the middle of Dudley Square, and feedback from two curators, Susan Sakash and Andi Sutton. I was able to test early models, which culminated in a one-day trial at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT.

During this process there were several issues that came up repeatedly and are worth mentioning. One is about how to classify the project. Is it art or activism? Journalism or humanities? In fact, it fits within several different fields of practice, and it is more important to me that it is engaging and useful, than whether or not it falls within one category or the other.

I think there is an evolving openness to cross-disciplinary projects. Nevertheless, it continues to be an issue I repeatedly confront from many sides, including funders and academics. Within the art world, it was brought to my attention that similar projects had taken place. Most frequently mentioned is Hole In Space by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz. Erkki Huhtamo has addressed this issue of originality in a way I find particularly insightful. What I take away from him is that it is more important to create good art than to come up with new and “groundbreaking” ideas. Ideas or works of art are not necessarily better because they are “new”; often, what we perceive as new is a restatement of an old idea. (He labels this a “Topoi.”) But capitalism and consumerism is driven by this idea of coming up with the latest hottest thing. Nevertheless my hats off to Galloway and Rabinowitz for their great work.

Just the fact that Virtual Street Corners will be seen by a completely different group of people, that it is executed in a different context and at a different time, makes it worthwhile. I hope it will add to the work of Galloway and Rabinowitz. I’m thinking of this as expansion rather than a competition. And that’s something I appreciate about the Knight Challenge — that it is centered on building and expanding ideas, rather than making them exclusive.