Interview with Sonia Louise Davis
Sonia Louise Davis 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 Davis about her experience working on Paths to Pier 42. Davis’ The People’s Poster Project refines the notion of a time capsule. Instead of burying something in the ground to be excavated thousands of years in the future, the project aims to activate a more reflective space that highlights individual stories of Lower East Side residents within public dialogue about the future of Pier 42. The People’s Poster Project consists of workshops and conversations about what matters most to Lower East Side community members. Working with a range of community groups, from youth to elders, Davis has been facilitating large format photographic portraits, inviting neighbors to pose with an object from their personal archive or in a significant place. Throughout the summer they have been creating and installing posters in local community spaces and businesses around the neighborhood, and on Pier 42, which will culminate in a completed outdoor exhibition at the Fall Festival on September 27th.
Special Thanks to: Deborah Altgilbers, Ruben An, Roxana Ancher, Mimi Bai, Karl Bastien, Sotero Bermudez, Beth Bingham, Kingsley Boafo, Katie Brennan, William Brower, Vista CRC, Kerri Culhane, Cathy Dang, Brielle Davie, Evan Davis, Kip Davis, Gaudhi de Sedas, Daisy Echevarria, Elisa Espiritu, Margot Finkel, Winston Ford, Ivan Forde, Ruth Franco, Aaron Gonzalez, Elizabeth Hamby, Jill Heller, Gloria Heller, Elaine Hoffman, Perri Hofmann, Trever Holland, Bora Kim, Joann Lee, Paul Lee, Kaitlynn Leung, Grace Mak, Jessica Martino, William Penrose, Wai Yee Poon, Linco Printing, Andy Pugh, Marc Richardson, Carlina Rivera, Kevin Session, Monique Smalls, Shaheeda Smith, Dan Tainow, Ms. Daisy Taylor, Michael Tsang, Mallika Vora, Betty Yu, Chi Yung
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?
SLD: I’ve made work in public before, and I’ve had projects where I’m photographing in small shop-like settings out on the street, but I’ve never exhibited my work in public before. So for this project I was excited about being able to build on creating work with neighbors in a community, and then being able to actually show the results of our labors. For people to really see and connect the dots of the work they put in – and then there it is: big, in public, in an exhibition. I’ve worked in the South Bronx and Harlem before at varying degrees of being a resident, and for this project what attracted me was knowing that there was already an embedded network of organizations and residents who wanted to have some say in what was going to happen to the future park. And I think that spoke to what level of engagement is already happening, and that maybe I could be a little more ambitious with what my take was going to be.
The themes of the whole Paths to Pier 42 project resonated with me and some of the past projects I’ve done in terms of working embedded in a community, and using that collective energy. I’m a big believer in: “You can do something as an individual, but you maximize your impact or reach if you’ve got more hands on deck and are using the resources that are already embedded in the neighborhood.” The ways that this project is like and is not like my other work are also really cool. First of all, I’ve never worked in print media before – so I’m immediately in love with that and want to make a zillion zines and use these printers every day! The idea that you can make something at one hand precious and at the other completely destructible is totally awesome to me, and I love working at that tension. I’ve done projects where it’s about the tension of private and public space, kind of like the bigger picture and the small immediate entry point for a family or an individual, and so that’s a theme that I think is always in my work. But it’s also always about site, and being really specific about geography and the community that you’re working in.
On the evolution of the project:
This project developed as it was going. It started out with this idea, right, because we were asked to submit a proposal of a thought that we were thinking of developing. So that got the wheels turning, and then once I started working it was making more and more sense to me – like I got my language after it was already happening, you know? And I was worried that that wouldn’t happen – because I had never worked on spec before, where I’m kind of describing what I intend to do. It was super process heavy, and in reality it was a really short time in which we were asked to do something. So it was like: hit the ground running, test out your thinking and your ideas really quickly and decide whether you can keep moving in that direction.
With this project I was thinking about the O.U.R. Waterfront Coalition and the documents that came out of those meetings, I was reading a lot about The People’s Plan, and all that forming and banding together to say “No.” And the idea of this dual threat – of the redevelopment that doesn’t have the community’s interest in mind, and the threat of increasingly scary super-storms, that are actually on the daily threatening. And the narrative – during Sandy we were hearing about Battery Park City so much more than we were hearing about the Lower East Side, while the damage I’m sure was similar, if not worse down here in terms of what people lost. I was thinking, “Okay, how can I do a project that’s talking about the people that live here and work here and make their lives here and then also about the bigger picture of what the neighborhood is endanger of?” And the material does that. The wheat paste, the newspaper that’s on the plywood on the fence – the rain takes it down. So it’s peeling at the edges and its yellowing and it speaks to its own destruction. And I love that that can just be something that happens symbolically and literally with how the work is presented, and then we can go back and put new ones up. I like that gesture of resilience in a very simple way in terms of an image and a portrait lasting.
Can you talk about time capsules?
That was my early initial thought, I wanted to do something about time capsules because I thought they were so interesting – that you take all of the regular day-to-day stuff, and you bury it, or you send it into space, what a wacky thing! This notion of documenting the present for the future – I think there’s a [Jacques] Derrida quote about archives not even being about the past; but their being about this need to collect and to preserve for the future, to ensure that you have a future. And I’m always interested in the power of an archive not from an institution, the power that an individual family photo album can hold for future generations who can picture themselves in those grandparents or great-grandparents. I always felt fortunate to have access to materials like that in my own family that were from far, far ago – times that I couldn’t imagine.
Specifically for the Lower East Side I was thinking about time capsules because of the idea that this is home, but that there are other homes too. Like, this is where I live now but this is where I’m from, or this is where my people are from, or where my family still lives. The intro exercise was to draw or describe something that’s meaningful to you. So that was the time capsule in the ways that it made its way into the workshops. The way that I designed the workshops was that part one is this postcard activity. Where we’re drawing and just talking and getting loose and wrapping our heads around this big idea of what matters and what do we hold important to us, and how does that impact the story of the neighborhood, and then what would we add to our time capsule. And then part two is going up to the camera and either getting the chance to pose with an object that’s significant that can be a symbol for all these things, or engaging ideas in a significant spot – in a place in the neighborhood that’s important to those themes.
The project grew into itself in the way that there was this metaphor of having something deliberately non-archival – how can we reinvigorate the idea of a time capsule without burying something? And how does that also speak to our investment in the future – because it shouldn’t be an investment in the future from the developer’s standpoint, it should be an investment in the future for all the people that currently live here. You shouldn’t get nice things in your neighborhood just because new people are moving in, you should get nice things in your neighborhood because you’ve lived there and you can tell the city what you need and they should meet those needs. And these perks and these benefits and these nice things that come with neighborhoods on the rise, shouldn’t only come once there’s a threat of people getting moved out. And I think if individual residents get the chance to participate more, even if it’s just in this little art project with this wacky artist who came from uptown for one summer, they come away with the sense that, “Oh I put that up there. I made that art happen, my voice can be heard in these other ways.”
What issues on Pier 42 and in the surrounding neighborhood most interested you? How do you feel like your work responds to those issues?
Something I was in tune to was how the Lower East Side is similar and different to my neighborhood in Harlem. I was thinking about who are the residents who have been here the longest, but not necessarily saying that those are the stories that are the truest. I think that the Lower East Side for a long time has been an arts friendly neighborhood as well as a site of creative resistance and home to a vibrant population. So I wanted to get an age spread of folks that could tell different stories of the neighborhood because I’m always trying to break that linear narrative of “This happened, then this happened,” and history being one-sided, and who gets to tell their story. I think if you have as many authors as possible you get a real range of the kind of truth that is there, so I’m always more interested in that kind of multi-layered story of a place.
Getting to know the neighborhood through the organizations who have a vested interest in the people that they serve – from whatever angle their mission is to serve – that was really cool. Initially I thought that the project would be much more about neighbors who show up to the events, or the people who are politically active and want the future of the park to be a certain way, but I think the reality is that it’s not yet a park that people go to regularly, so we’re in the beginning throes of trying to build that energy. I wanted to do structured workshops, but just calling together a group of neighbors wasn’t going to work in the same way. I thought initially I could maybe do portraits at Pier 42, and I quickly learned that might not be the smartest way to get people, because it can sometimes be a hike to get out there. So that was how the organizations were my strategy, and that’s how some of my other projects have gone well – recognizing that there’s already a whole contingency of people that are keyed into an organization for whatever reason. I’m always just trying to fit myself into whatever existing structures are there, versus calling someone up and saying “Can you plan this day for me?” I’m like, “What days do you have planned and can I show up?” So that’s at least how I’m able to kind of get in there.
Your project is happening at a time when the Lower East Side (like many NYC neighborhoods) is going through unprecedented rates of physical and demographic change, often with an alienating effect on the longer-term residents. Do you see your project as fitting into this larger conversation in any way?
Definitely. I’ve seen crazy amounts of change within my lifetime, but I’m not that old. So that’s always something that frames the work that I’m doing in my hometown: I feel like I have a certain amount of something to say about all this, and should not be discounted as a young person because I’ve actually seen it all happen where I grew up. Unrecognizable. I think that’s why I’m super interested in the local; and working on the ground in neighborhoods where this kind of change is happening really fast, because the tendency is to brush it over and talk about it on this grand scale of the evils of gentrification, when on the ground I think it’s much more nuanced. I think New York is struggling with the idea that we’re so vibrant as a community, and we’re the greatest city in the world, right? But what made that city? And what are we in danger of losing if we’re just catering to “Let’s build these developments, let’s get the tax breaks, who cares if they’re barely inhabited?” That kind of thing, the legacy of what Bloomberg did and didn’t do, is going to be felt. And I think in terms of the story for artists, and this being a city that is rapidly becoming unaffordable for working artists to live in and make families in and to stay put, you’ve got to align that conversation with working class people from all over. It’s a citywide discussion, it’s not about artists in a vacuum painting over here, it’s absolutely about collective organization and the unaffordability that is reaching a whole range of New Yorkers.
In terms of the Lower East Side, I feel like the bigger story is certainly what’s happening to New York City and how unaffordable it’s becoming. But a lot of the folks that live down here have been here for a long time and are at varying levels of state and city aid, and I think when someone else tells the story they wash over those details to their advantage. The position of my project and the work that I do in general is just making sure that people who don’t usually get to tell their stories are in charge. And so in some projects that has taken the shape of having people who are in the photographs actually take the picture of themselves, a self-portrait. I shoot with a large format camera, and there’s a cable release that fires the shutter, and so if you get a very long one, it can extend into the frame of the picture. So in that project I was switching places, and kind of doing this dance with people and standing in for family members to make sure we could frame the picture together, and then one of the family members in the picture actually presses the button and you see it in the frame of the picture. So if the photographer is just the person that pushes the button on the machine…I’m just kind of playing around with that.
With this project, you don’t see the picture happening that way, but something that you don’t see off frame is that I’m actually not taking the picture in most of these situations. And the reason that we work in small groups is so that we can talk about what’s happening, someone can do the light reading – it’s all analog so it’s all film, so every time before we make an exposure we’re looking at the lighting to make sure we’re getting our aperture right. And so I’ll give the light meter to someone and we’ll frame it, we’ll say “Okay do we like where we’re standing? Maybe we should have her back up,” or we ask “Is there something we should frame?” We’re kind of having a dialogue. And then usually I’m handing over the shutter to someone else who’s off camera with me. And we do a count together so we’re all on the same page. It’s actually much more collaborative maybe then it looks. The idea behind that was to make sure that within these sessions – with these organizations or whatever self-defined groups – while we may end up with only one printed poster, a lot of hands went into it. So that I think hopefully everyone takes ownership of something – if it’s not their portrait that’s up on the fence they can say “Oh! I took that picture,” or “I was there! I measured the lighting, I had a hand in that.”
Has working on this project changed the way you think about or might approach your work in the future?
I think this project was really good for learning how and how not I’d like to work in the future, because I like to work slowly, and in some situations that’s not always an option. And I really like the organic kind of building of relationships and remembering people, and stopping by, and it’s hard when you don’t live in the neighborhood you’re working in. That’s something that came up for me – noticing the days when I was reluctant to get on the subway, feeling like, “Oh, I’ve been sending too many emails, and how else do you connect with people?” But this was really a good lesson in terms of what can I get done in a time crunch, and still keep the intentionality of the project from the beginning. Which was to meet people and to not blast listservs, to do a two part workshop so that I’m a trusted figure who’s coming back to do something and to take an image, and to mediate that transaction better and more ethically in terms of the ways that I’m thinking about the production of the work.
This was a really awesome, big undertaking with all these moving parts and so many people, and I think it’s funny that at the end of the day towards the end of the project I’m really looking forward to working alone in my studio and making stuff by myself, just messing up, and not having any pressure to produce something finished and exciting and really awesome. I felt like an organization sometimes, and that was really cool but really intense too. I put my foot down pretty early on to myself and said that I didn’t want to use free labor, and was able to plan my budget out so that I could pay a designer and pay a photographer and pay an installation and design artist to help me, but maybe there is some way that I can pay people in other ways and get help with the things that are too massive. I can rethink ways to maximize my capacity instead of getting totally, totally drained because there are other ways to pay people.
Is there anything you’ve learned through working with the community here that you think should inform the long term plans for the park and surrounding neighborhood?
I’ve spent a lot of time on the waterfront, walking south to north down here from the studio on Wall St. to the Pier, and that’s been really interesting. Just experiential research gathering about how people use the waterfront, and I think there’s a real need to get access to it. And I think benches, more benches, that’s a start. There could totally be more little places where people can linger. The air quality off the river is exciting and beautiful, and on hot summer nights you see whole families with the kids in PJs out there – that’s how we used to go to Riverside Park uptown on a hot night when you didn’t have AC in your apartment and you were just trying to get cool. Being on the edge of the river is really exciting, it reminds you that you’re on an island. It’s pretty exposed so you’ve got to really think about who is going to use it and easy ways for them to get there from all ability levels. That would be one of the first things that I would have in mind, thinking about the demographics, because it’s an older neighborhood in some ways, so how are people actually going to get here? And when they get here what are they going to have? They’re going to want food and water and shade, and they’re going to want seating and all those kinds of things. I think with Pier 42, the overall park design is awesome because it thinks about all those needs and the future park has also got to respond to all of that. I think this project is a super good starting point to get people saying “I think that this should have this,” and to get local residents really on the table with that. And it’s not this outside force that is coming “in the name of good” but is going to do the same kind of stuff that the city agencies do where they make a change and don’t tell you about it until after it’s done and then you feel like, “Who said I wanted this?” So yeah, more things like this and chances for people to meet each other – you know, maybe you live three blocks away from somebody and you speak a different language and you’ve had no reason to interact until now!
“Making of Paths to Pier 42″ is a series of interviews with the artists and designers behind the creation of the Pier 42 park.