In the year 130 AD, Claudius Ptolemy noted that “when the Earth is delineated on a sphere, it has a shape like its own, without need of altering,” but attempting to translate that shape to a flat surface requires “a certain adjustment.” Accordingly, he devised the first cartographic projection, a series of adjacent pointed ovals much like a flattened orange peel, which influenced how people envisioned the world for the next 1,400 years. In 1569, Gerardus Mercator created a map intended to facilitate navigation by sea. The inevitable distortion of the Earth’s true geography which Ptolemy referred to is particularly evident in the Mercator projection, increasing as one moves away from the equator, so that countries toward the poles appear larger and thus more dominant than they really are. Mercator’s view shaped how I learned geography and how I learned to see the world. Maps lie, but they also organize how we see.
Photographers and filmmakers contend with similar questions when they attempt to represent reality through images. Even when making a “documentary,” the filmmaker chooses a series of shots recorded from a particular point of view. Continuity editing was developed to translate the space of the real world into the sequential space of the film world so that films appear seamless across cuts. Consequently, viewers are supposed to feel so immersed in the film’s narrative that they forget about the reality of their surroundings. The audience begins to identify with the camera’s eye and take on its perspective as their own. Though a convention of illusion, the world of the moving image also constructs how we see.
The perception of the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx, like many other economically marginalized urban neighborhoods, has been adversely affected by sensationalized imagery of violence, drugs, and prostitution used to represent the neighborhood in commercial media. Many New Yorkers have never been to the Bronx, and most Bronx residents won’t go to Hunts Point, often referring to outdated or lurid depictions — such as the contested 2002 HBO documentary Hookers at The Point — that dramatize poverty and crime at the expense of reality.
Surrounded on three sides by the East and Bronx Rivers and cut off from the rest of the borough by the forbidding Bruckner Expressway, Hunts Point functions as its own ecosystem. It is unfortunately no stranger to institutions of control, discrepancies of power, and cycles of economic overturn. In addition to the former homes of wealthy land owners (Tiffany) and a recently discovered slave burial ground, the area is also home to a floating prison (the Vernon C. Bain Center), a shuttered juvenile detention center (Spofford), and a number of industrial and waste management plants (Hunts Point Water Treatment) causing a range of environmental problems (asbestos poisoning, asthma). Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the area supports substantial creativity and cultural production. It is home to many artists, poets, and arts organizations. It is a convergence of opposites, a portrait in contrast.
In collaboration with fifteen poets and community activists from StartUp Box South Bronx, I recently created Memories of the Future, a location-based cinema project viewed on mobile phones. The group experimented with spoken word poetry, site specific performance, and on-site spectatorship to reframe the predominant view of Hunts Point and speak about possibilities for its future from a position of power. We also aimed to capture a moment common in post-industrial urban neighborhoods that is seldom represented: the period just before proposed redevelopment leads to purported renewal. The South Bronx’s stock of relatively inexpensive residential and industrial buildings has proven attractive to developers, though results are mixed: Fresh Direct headquarters and Metro-North extensions are under discussion, while pending redevelopment of the notorious Spofford Juvenile Detention Center is not. The poets and I wanted to bear witness to the history of the Point and connect its stories, both positive and negative, to locations in the landscape so that they might be experienced on site, regardless of what is eventually built there.
Poetry, with its economy of language and vivid metaphors, is well suited for capturing the fragmented nature of memory. Performative poetry also has strong ties to the South Bronx: hip hop was born there, and many poets, including several of the project participants, continue to live and perform there. The group wrote spoken word poetry from the point of view of various locations in Hunts Point, as if the place had “witnessed” significant events in their lives. When describing a place, landmarks become psychological anchors, signposts for planes of experience that have shaped the lives of those residing nearby. In the writings, detention facilities, ubiquitous waste management plants, empty lots, and strip bars not only became backdrops for adversity but also offered the possibility of reinvention.
We wanted to challenge traditional roles of spectatorship and contest sensationalized stories about the Point by bringing viewers, especially those unfamiliar with the area, on site to experience the discrepancy between media representations and their own perceptions of the built environment. We did so by designing for a situated technology, a tool that fluidly relates to space: mobile phones. We recorded performances on location, augmented them with visual effects that compliment the text, and made the vignettes accessible through an application for iOS and Android phones. A map interface allows those on site to see their location in relation to story nodes, which can be selected to access text and video of the related performance. For those outside the neighborhood, a list format lets users view the performances as well. Another mode allows the public to submit and geo-locate their poetry, adding a new node to the map.
Location-based cinema projects viewed on mobile devices offer new modes of embodied spectatorship, facilitating identification and empathy. Giving audience members the agency to view a film in the series of locations where it was shot has the opposite effect of continuity editing: doing so actually makes viewers more aware of their surroundings. Projects like Memories can also shift the balance of power, where under-represented local communities become what the philosopher Jacques Ranciere described as a “community of narrators and translators.” Here, poets act as experts, proposing a framework for modeling responses to their immediate community, as well as interlocutors, to translate and facilitate dialog about the issues of concern with a larger public.
The app is also useful for engaging local communities in a larger conversation about urban spatial justice by providing a “third space,” an intermediary design tool that residents can use to prompt conversation with visitors on site. To test this, we hosted a poet-led, public cinema walk with the Bronx Museum, prompting Bronx residents, elected officials, and many New Yorkers who had never visited the neighborhood to discuss how to address issues raised in the project, such as the school-to-prison pipeline and environmental injustice.
Bertold Brecht spoke of “making strange” — the process whereby an art work makes the real world seem unusual enough to be questioned — as the necessary first step in changing a cultural norm. As viewers experience the juxtaposition between the cinematic representation of the place on their screens and their perception of the physical environment, the understanding of each plane mutually affects the other: the video no longer seems quite so flat, and the surrounding world is humanized and open to multiple interpretations. Seeing in this sense is not simply a visual process; it is the organization of stimuli leading to cognition. It is the structuring of worlds. In English when we say “I see,” we also mean “I understand” (Tuan, 1977).