Take a large glass storefront in a city neighborhood--any neighborhood, your neighborhood. Now set up a video screen and connect it to another city neighborhood, another storefront. Would you pick one across the planet? Across the country? Why not across town?
That was John Ewing's thought in creating Virtual Street Corners. He wanted to connect two Boston-area neighborhoods, Brookline and Roxbury, via video conferencing. Beginning in June, life-size screen images in local storefronts will enable 24/7 real-time communication between the residents of these two geographically-close yet culturally distant communities.
Ewing is a former mural painter who now works with digital media to create public art emphasizing community participation. He spoke with The Atlantic about his newest project.
Tell me about the Virtual Street Corner project. Which neighborhoods are involved?
It's taking place in two Boston neighborhoods. One is Coolidge Corner in Brookline, one is Dudley Square in Roxbury. They're about two and a half miles apart, and they're on the same bus line, the 66. But people don't travel from one neighborhood to the other. Brookline has a large Jewish population that migrated in the 60s from the Dudley area in Roxbury, so there's a historical connection. But Roxbury is now an African American neighborhood.
Both the street corners I've chosen are centers of their communities, they're hubs, so there's a lot of pedestrian traffic. What I've done is to transform a storefront window in each location into live video screens, so when you walk by and you look into one window, say in Dudley Square, you look out the other window in Coolidge Corner, and vice versa. People can talk to each other, they see each other 24/7.
And in addition to spontaneous conversations, we'll be setting up programmed ones for different politicians or educators or students, and other people will be able to chime in. And we'll also have three citizen journalists from each neighborhood doing a daily beat and coming to the screen everyday at the same time, sort of like the six o'clock news, to report on the neighborhood.
How did you come up with this idea?
I used to be a mural painter and did a lot of community projects in different neighborhoods around Boston. I would be painting a mural on the street corner day after day and all these people would come up to me and start talking to me and I would get all of this news and information about each neighborhood I was in.
And then when I went to the next neighborhood, they didn't seem to know anything about a neighborhood that was very close to them, like half a mile away. Boston's like that. The neighborhoods can be sort of isolated and segregated. I wanted to recreate that experience of being on the street corner and being able to talk to a lot of different people. Then I realized that if I'm doing this for communication and bringing people together, digital technology is so much better to work with than paint.
How does the technology involved work?
It's pretty straightforward. It's pretty much video-conferencing, but on a large scale with life-size screens. I've had to adapt it a little bit, because when you do video-conferencing you're usually in a very quiet boardroom, but here you're actually out on the street corner. You have the noises, the traffic and everything. So we've had to get better sound systems and isolate the sound. But the root of the technology is video-conferencing.
Has anything like this been done in other cities?
This type of technology is usually used to connect the U.S. to Japan or someplace you can't get to easily. Back in 1980. there was this project called "Hole in Space," which used satellite TV to connect L.A. and New York for a couple of days. But I'm not really trying to bridge distance. You can very easily go back and forth between these two neighborhoods--it's a 15 minute bus ride. The idea here is really more about bridging a social divide than it is about distance.
Obviously you could do this in many different neighborhoods. In Boston, a lot of people keep telling me, "Oh, you should do it here! You should do it there." People from New York will tell me, "There are these two great neighborhoods you should do it in." If this model works well, you could expand to a lot of other places and situations. Somebody said, "You should do it between Wall Street and an unemployment office."
How have the two communities reacted to the idea?
They're getting pretty excited. I did a pilot back in 2008 just to test it and see if people would respond. A lot of people were surprised. They'd been walking past this corner for months or years, however long they've lived there, and then all of a sudden, they're connected to this other neighborhood. I set up a conversation between Chuck Turner, who is a Roxbury City Councilor, and Rabbi Hillel Levine, who is in Brookline. They had this great conversation--this crowd started to form around them. And when they finished, other people picked up their conversation and kept it going.
What kinds of interactions do you hope citizens will have in June?
I hope they'll try to talk about perceptions other people have about their neighborhood and try to clarify those. Maybe they'll talk about city-wide or area-wide politics or issues of education. There's a budget coming up soon. Public schools are an issue, and in these areas they're pretty radically different. Coolidge Corner is in Brookline, which has its own very well funded school system. Roxbury is part of the Boston public school system and a lot of people have a problem with Boston public schools. I'd like to get a conversation going about what's happening in the city, in the neighborhood, what's good, what's bad.
What do you see as the role of public art?
Everybody else has a different view of what public art should be, but for me, it's about reclaiming public space for public dialogue. Most of my projects are about getting people to start talking to someone they might never run across in another situation. That's my view of what a commons should be.
Image credit: John Ewing