The Making of Paths to Pier 42: An Interview with Takashi Horisaki and Team

Interview with Takashi Horisaki and Project Team: Bethany Chan, Bianca Yee, Cole Tracy, Grace Shun, Jordan Delzell, Meredith Cristal, Nissim Ram, and Zoe Penina Baker

Takashi Horisaki is one of five commissioned artists in 2014 who, in collaboration with the project partners, advisory committee, volunteers and most importantly, local feedback and support, is transforming Pier 42 into a vibrant and accessible waterfront park for the community.

Hester Street Collaborative (HSC) had the opportunity to ask Horisaki and his team about their experience working on Paths to Pier 42. Horisaki’s project Social Dress LES – Material Memories focuses on the local history and potential futures of the Lower East Side community, seeking a self-driven representation of the neighborhood through the collaborative voices of its residents. This interactive project is based on a series of workshops, engaging longer-term residents of the housing complexes in the area through the casting of items of personal significance in thin latex, while encouraging participants to tell their personal stories.

Latex casting workshop at the Paths to Pier 42 Summer Launch Event, July 2014

Latex casting workshop at the Paths to Pier 42 Summer Launch Event, July 2014

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

Takashi: When LMCC asked me if I was interested in doing a community based project through Paths to Pier 42, I was not sure what it was. So I walked to Pier 42 in the middle of snowy December, and it looked, not really like a park, but almost like a storage unit next to the pier. It had the atmosphere of a rotted area, but I could see lots of signs of the artist projects from last year and bit by bit I understood – oh this is a little bit experimental, more like the feeling of Socrates Sculpture Park in the ‘80s. Then I got it, and when I got back home I found The People’s Plan, and I realized that the organizations were really reading and feeding off all the opinions of what the residents wanted out of a waterfront park.

But my initial feeling was that Pier 42 was actually really far away from where people lived, because the FDR highway really divides the park and the residential area. And because of the 45-50 years of NYCHA housing in the area there are very nice big trees in the middle of the buildings, a lot of shade, and those areas feel more like parks. So I felt like it would be tough to say that this (Pier 42) is going be the people’s park. So rather than forcing residents to come out to the pier to participate in the beginning, I thought, maybe we go into the neighborhoods and talk about our daily lives and experiences, and then bring the outcome to the park. That way people have an occasion to come out to the park and take a look, opening up the possibility for a more in-depth conversation with those few who actually have not heard of The People’s Plan yet.

The framework of the project is meeting with community members and organizations and providing workshops for people to bring memorable items that are important for them to share. Using latex as the art-making material is intended to make the process democratic. It is a relatively easy material to learn to use at a basic level, and so using it means that almost all participants can make something and be creative with the material in their own way, even within the short space of a workshop. Our team members assist people in how to cast their items in latex, and in the meantime ask them questions like, “So why did you bring this toy car? What’s the story behind it?” Whether or not there is a story, it doesn’t actually matter. But if you have something to with your hands, you can sort of escape from the actual conversation. Use this art as excuse to have a conversation. And I want to trigger more in-depth conversations about one’s life or family orientation. That way we hear an oral history not cast forth by someone else, but through really listening to the various different groups and people in the area at random. And then we have a better collection of stories, and the oral history of the area becomes polarized in a different way through the Social Dress workshop, rather than because “this area is predominantly Chinese American,” or because “that area is so and so.”

Social Dress LES - Material Memories workshop at the Tenement Museum

Latex cast of a horse lantern created by M.S. 131 students and originally been installed in Sara D. Roosevelt park to celebrate the Lunar New Year

How is this project similar or different from other instances of the Social Dress series?

Meredith: I worked with Takashi in St. Louis two years ago. To me, with this project there’s more of a clear goal to collect an oral history of the Lower East Side. In St. Louis the end result was an exhibit at the Contemporary so there were different goals and ways to get to those goals. I think this project is a lot more interesting because we get to help to do something with Pier 42, which has been unoccupied, and that’s just more interesting in general than an exhibit.

Takashi: There are many similarities among the various cities and towns in which I have organized Social Dress workshops, but each is also uniquely different. Sometimes the difference is subtle. In order to enhance and pick up individual voices, I always have a hard time determining what would be the best strategy or tool to use. My research includes anything from walking around and chatting with neighbors, to reading through the town history at a library or local city planner’s office. It takes time to reach the idea for the project’s final form, as I learn more about the community and see what we end up with physically.

To look through previous Social Dress Projects, visit Takashi Horisaki’s website.

Social Dress St. Louis, 2012

Social Dress St. Louis, 2012

In what ways did advisory committee meetings, planning meetings with artists and community build days contribute to your project?

Takashi: The Paths to Pier 42 project itself is very new. The artists all have a concept of what is fine art and social practice, while the local organizations’ focal point is usually to support residents very directly about specific issues. More like a direct task force. The organizations like art, and they know art can help deal with those issues. But they don’t necessarily know artists who are doing social practice, or how to work with them in a productive way. And so there was a little bit of a gap where we needed to learn from each other. How we can help each other is something I learned a lot about – it was very beneficial to understand how a community organization works for the community and how an artist can contribute to the residents through a community organization. And I think that’s very important, the key to bringing feasible projects to the residents is remembering that you are an artist, not a resident – you are not an insider, so your perspective is always as an outsider. That insider/outsider dynamic is very interesting to me, and that boundary is very unique because once you’re inside you’re always inside and think in the insider’s perspective.

What issues on Pier 42 and in the surrounding neighborhood most interested you? How does Social Dress LES – Material Memories deal with these issues?

Takashi: For me, many times I have encountered the rent issue. Or something related to the rent – like something’s not right about the contract, or someone was illegally evicted, or it was legal, or they are not sure – that kind of story I heard a lot. In fact, we were supposed to have a workshop recently with CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, but unfortunately they had to cancel because a serious tenant intimidation issue had come up and they had to focus on that. Usually the community organizations are very small, they don’t have an abundance of staff members, so if something comes up their space has to be designated to have that meeting discussion.

My project is not so much about finding the issues and responding, but rather bringing in the workshops and learning what’s happening in the neighborhood. That’s the point of intersection and the intern team is sort of outsider, sort of insider. The more you work with the residents, the more you get to know what’s happening.

What do you hope residents will take away from the workshops? How is participation in a group setting important to the process of the project?

Nissim: Most of the time when people see art it’s at a museum and it’s just them viewing it, they’re not really a part of it, and here the dynamic is different. It’s not just a teacher showing you how to do papier-mâché or something. We are learning from them, their stories and their experiences just as much as we’re teaching them how to make these pieces. And at the end of it we can both enjoy something equally.

Takashi: If you are strangers you’re not going to start talking about private life, but in the atmosphere of the group you may be more comfortable, especially if there are family and friends there as well. And in doing this then strangers can open up conversation because there is an atmosphere of community sensitivity.

Social Dress LES - Material Memories workshop at the Paths to Pier 42 Summer Launch Celebration, July 2014.

Social Dress LES – Material Memories workshop at the Paths to Pier 42 Summer Launch Celebration, July 2014.

Each Social Dress project you’ve done culminates in a different type of installation – how have this summer’s workshops shaped your plans for the final materialization of the project?

Takashi: We are collecting these conversations and transcribing them, and with these objects a third partner – a theater writer, will look at them and write a theater piece. The pieces are perhaps being used as theater props, or maybe as the backdrop. We went to the Rutgers Houses and Baruch Houses, and we cast a wall of the building, and that wall cast may become the backdrop of the theater.

Whether or not you feel that you’re an insider or outsider to the Lower East Side, it really doesn’t actually matter because similar things will always be happening elsewhere in the world as long as we are human beings. The bottom line is that we have similar issues and interests, so why not try to break down that insider/outsider boundary? How can we show the project in a way to make people think about taking down those boundaries? I think the theater is very interesting because once a story becomes theater, with a third person on the stage and other people watching, you can excuse someone’s creation as being an outsider’s view of the situation. But at the same time it can be like, “Wait a minute is that his story or is that Simon’s story? Oh wait a minute, that’s my story!” And then you can relate to it, so the weird insider/outsider and secondary insider/secondary outsider membranes are mixing together. That’s the ideal outcome, but it’s something I have to experiment with as we go on through this project. There are multiple ways of using and connecting the fictional world of theater with the non-fictional world of the workshops.

Casting a wall of the Baruch Houses, photo courtesy of Cole Tracy

Casting a wall of the Baruch Houses, photo courtesy of Cole Tracy

Is there anything you’ve learned in the process of this project that you think should inform the long term plans for Pier 42 and the surrounding area?

Takashi: Throughout such long term building of relationships, mostly by local social agencies, residents become comfortable with the staff members of the agencies. So if the staff recommends projects by artists/designers from outside of the community, residents feel more comfortable getting on board and are able to enjoy and utilize the opportunities they bring. And by sharing those experiences, residents build a tighter, stronger community so that when issues come up like the rent or developments that are currently happening, they can more easily meet up and work things out together.

In order to have something going on that the residents can use and also keep the discussion alive, the artists, designers and architects need to get to know what the residents actually want – instead of “I want to make this and put it here,” that’s actually just horrible public art history-wise. As a resident, you have to collaborate with the artist and architect about what you want, that way the architect understands what’s going on and what you and he/she can provide each other. One way communication is the problem. Creating two way communication is the hardest thing and so we have to experiment. And that’s something I’m always trying to do and something I hope everybody tries to do little by little.

For more photos and information on Social Dress LES – Material Memories, visit the Social Dress blog.

Social Dress LES - Material Memories pieces installed on Pier 42

Social Dress LES – Material Memories pieces installed on Pier 42

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