The Making of Paths to Pier 42: An Interview with Chat Travieso

Interview with Chat Travieso, Resident Artist at Pier 42

Chat Travieso was one of five commissioned artist in 2013 who, in collaboration with graphic designer Yeju Choi, the project team, advisory committee, volunteers and most importantly, local feedback and support, transformed Pier 42 into a vibrant and accessible waterfront park for the community. This summer, Chat will expand upon his 2013 project as a resident artist for the 2014 season of Paths to Pier 42.

Hester Street Collaborative (HSC) had the opportunity to ask Chat Travieso about his experience working on the Paths to Pier 42 project. Chat’s project “On A Fence” transforms the fence surrounding the park into an interactive structure that incorporates seating, signage and play areas. The project seeks to invert the function and meaning of the fence from a physical barrier to a place of inclusion.

One of the play areas of

One of the play areas of “On A Fence”

HSC: What was your initial approach to the Paths to Pier 42 project? How is the project connected to past projects and the values that motivate your work?

CT: The initial approach to this project came from my interest in this fence, because I saw this fence as a symbol of people not being able to access this space, and this space being abandoned for years. I figured, why not transform the fence and turn it into something positive? Taking this fence from something that was negative, something that was a physical barrier, into something that was positive. So the idea at the beginning was thinking about how this fence could have other functions besides just acting as this barrier. My initial, initial idea, and this isn’t what I ended up doing, was to use the fence as the support structure. I found out the fence was not structurally stable and so that wasn’t the best approach; but by creating a piece that bridges over it, we are alluding to the fence without actually depending on it, by both masking it and also making it more obvious.

I’m expanding the project this year, and I like the idea of this linear approach to the piece – it’s something that can constantly be added on to. I’ve had an ongoing interest in my practice in thinking about the everyday built environment as a resource that can be repurposed and can be adapted to respond to everyday needs. I’m interested in thinking about how people are already using space and how a space or object can somehow be a bit more flexible and have multiple functions to accommodate those needs.

What issues on site most interested you? What strategies did you use to maximize time, space, materials and community participation? 

This site is really special because its right next to the water and you have this beautiful view of Brooklyn, but I thought that even with all that stuff people can’t enjoy it unless they know that it’s here. So that was one of the things that I was most interested in initially, the fact that it was kind of a hidden little space and how we can make people aware that there’s actually this public park here for everyone to use. So using the fence as a kind of signage, something that would attract people, make people stop and say, “Hey what’s going on here? This is different.” I brought on Yeju Choi, graphic designer, to help out with the signage and the environmental graphics in order to make something that both had a purpose in terms of way-finding and leading people towards the entrance, but also beautified the fence and made it something that’s more attractive than just a chain-link fence.

Way-finding signage on the outside of the fence

Way-finding signage on the outside of the fence

It was really helpful to have the scaffolding planks. Build It Green donated all this scaffolding plank to not only my piece, but to the whole Paths to Pier 42 project. Without that I would not have been able to build as much. I knew my project was a little ambitious, but once I heard about the scaffolding, I was like, “Give me 300!” And they did. So that was really helpful. In a lot of my work in the past I’ve used reclaimed material, so it was really great that there was that resource. I also had an assistant, Eduardo M. Llinás-Meseguer , who helped out last year, and he was amazing – he was always here, on time, working and without him this project wouldn’t have happened. But of course there were always volunteers, there was actually this one guy named Ken Murphy, who was walking by one day and he saw me working and said “What’s going on, what are you guys doing?” and I was like “We’re building this park, this a public art project.” And he goes, “Do you need help?” And I said, “Yeah, sure,” and he said “Okay I’ll come back tomorrow at 11am.” He came back and helped out for three days straight! He wasn’t even from New York, he was just visiting from Virginia. And then he says, “I’ve got to go but I’ll be back in New York in a couple of days.” And then he came back and helped out a few days later – he basically helped out for a whole week, and without him a lot of this wouldn’t have been possible. For example, he built the sandbox. That guy was awesome.

In what days did advisory committee meeting, planning meetings with artists and community build days contribute to your 2013 installation? Is that process different this year? 

Well since last year was the first year, I thought it was helpful to have the advisory committee meetings, both in terms of refining the design, and trying to figure out what kinds of objects, programs and functions I could put into the project. I also had a joint intergenerational workshop with youth from Grand Street Settlement and seniors from GOLES Healthy Aging Program, GHAP. That was really helpful because I learned that a lot of people wanted places to sit and places to relax, but the younger people also had a lot of suggestions. For example; I would have never thought about putting a sandbox in the piece, but I just kept hearing it from the kids, so I put it in! The advisory committee meetings were also helpful in getting people more interested in the whole project. So I think that, and also getting to hear what the other artists were doing was good. During the construction process that was really cool, getting to interact with Mary [Mattingly] and Jennifer [Wen Ma], and seeing their projects come along. The process was just a lot of fun, and I’m really looking forward to that again this year.

This year it has been a bit different, a little more independent – most of my outreach has been contacting very specific organizations and people, rather than more of a general thing. Last year GOLES was my designated organization and they were great; it was good to have one organization to focus on, but this year I get to curate a little more. Like, I’ve talked to Gaudhi De Sedas and staff from Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center in the advisory committee, trying to find volunteers that live in this neighborhood, who could not only have a role in building this, but also help connect with the local community that’s here.

Children play in the sandbox

Children play in the sandbox

How has your project has evolved since last year? Were there any unexpected functions or reactions to your project that you wanted to explore further?

The one thing that I’ve enjoyed the most has been the chalkboard wall – the messages people write are so positive and always so nice! “RESPECT” and stuff like that. I’ve been very happily surprised that the chalkboard wall has worked so well. So I might want to incorporate, not necessarily another chalkboard wall, but some other kind of interactive element to the piece. Yeju and I have talked about putting something that’s actually outside the fence that’s a little more interactive. Another thing that was really cool was the bleacher seating. GOLES had their summer festival here last August, and the park was packed. There were easily over 200 people, maybe more. They just had shuttles that brought people here and set up all these tents, and the bleacher seating was so packed – full of teenagers sitting in every single nook. So I’m thinking about incorporating more communal type seating, kind of like the diner style seating towards the back. Possibly U-shaped seating, I’m just thinking about ways the seating could be a little more communal or social. There needs to be more attention given to the waterfront and how we can draw more people to the water, but one thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of kids tend to hang out in the areas that wouldn’t work as well by the water, play areas like the sandbox and chalkboard. By the water you want to be a little more passive, but on the fence you can be a little more active, which also connects back to the greenway where everyone is jogging and biking.

Visitors filled the bleacher seating during the GOLES Summerfest in August, 2013

Visitors filled the bleacher seating during the GOLES Summerfest in August, 2013

Is there anything you’ve learned through this project that you think should inform to the long term plans for the park?

I think if the park incorporates programming that connects to the local neighborhoods and communities that would be a really positive thing. I think some of the best things about Paths to Pier 42 have been like, when GOLES had their Summerfest here, or when Two Bridges invited these puppet show people from upstate NY to do a puppet show all about where we get our water from. Events like that are really great and really positive by both connecting to the local community, and providing activities for young people and older residents to enjoy. Also maybe there could be some volunteer opportunities when they start building. The building will be a lot more intense, but the community build day model could work once they start doing a lot of the planting or landscaping for the project, and I think that would really reinforce the connection to the community. You just need moments like that where you try to be as friendly and open as possible. The great thing about Paths to Pier 42 and the final project is that from the beginning it’s been seen and promoted as this park for the people. It’s important to keep that spirit alive, and I think Paths to Pier 42 has been great in establishing that phase.

How do you think the experience of this collaboration with the residents and other artists might inform your work moving forward? 

It already has informed my work! I’ve had this ongoing interest in using existing structures to influence the work, and last year when I built this, which is the largest project I’ve done independently, it was a real experience in learning how long things take in the construction process, working with volunteers and with assistants, and also just refining my process. Both in terms of the design process, with the workshops and community engagement, and also in terms of the construction. So last year’s experience has definitely informed my approach to projects now in that I’m trying to think of different more fun ways to engage people, so that it’s not just a design charette. For example, one thing we did last year was build models of what people would like to see along the fence with popsicle sticks, or this year for the Picnic On The Pier we had an activity where visitors came and wrote their ideas for what they wanted to see on balloons and tied them to the fence. So definitely a little more whimsical, more fun and not so much like just drawing on a plan, which has very specific connotations that aren’t always positive – many times when people look at a plan they don’t think of it as a positive thing. So that’s one approach, and I want to just continue doing this sort of work. I enjoy it!

Yeju Choi speaks to local residents about their ideas for the 2014 expansion of

Yeju Choi speaks to local residents about their ideas for the 2014 expansion of “On A Fence”

Is there a favorite moment or anecdote from the project that you’d like to share?

Sure, let’s see. Here’s one that’s not my favorite but that I thought was pretty great: One day I was building, I had some volunteers, Yeju was here too, and one of the volunteers goes, “Chat, there’s someone at the fence who’s asking questions about the project – can you talk to him?” So I go up and it turns out it’s Jesse Eisenberg, the actor from the Social Network, who was just jogging, and he’s like “So, what are you guys working on?” and I just say “Oh you know we’re working on this community project,” – acting like I totally didn’t know who he was. I wouldn’t say that was my favorite but that was a pretty funny moment. It’s just amazing how many people actually walk by here, how many different people too that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. And then also for me the chalkboard wall has been the most fun thing – because there’s always something new on there, and I get to read whatever it is people are writing, and people responding to other people on the chalkboard. That’s actually been one of my favorite things about the whole project and it’s made me realize that if you put a chalkboard wall somewhere, people will fill it up really quickly! And usually with nice comments, it’s pretty self-regulated. People have respect for the chalkboard. There’s not even a prompt!

“This fence is eggcelent!” The chalkboard wall full of positive messages

“Making of Paths to Pier 42″ is a series of interviews with the artists and designers behind the creation of the Pier 42 park.