On January 10th I had the pleasure to attend the opening and artist talk for Blaine Siegel’s community-developed site specific project “North Side Crossing.” Co-sponsored by the City of Asylum, Pittsburgh Art Coalition, and Art Place America, the project explores the physical gestures that make up some of the communal life of Pittsburgh’s North Side neighborhood. It follows a “River of Words” project, also sponsored by City of Asylum, wherein North Side residents chose words that resonated with them to display on the front of their houses.
Siegel has done several projects in the public realm since 2006, but is consistently invested in producing works that have a “strong sense of impermanence” recognizing that the world is in a constant state of flux. Moreover, for him, the “site is as important as traditional art making materials.” He uses film and video often, he noted, precisely because such mediums offer impermanent images in rapid succession. Earlier projects included a meditation on the visuality of closed-eye meditation, a trash vortex, a performance piece wherein he would lay in a bed of grass (attached to a car) for several hours in the middle of downtown. This piece made him think about the way in which the meaning of the piece came less from his artistic performance alone, and more from the interactions it engendered, which arose from the “fabric of the downtown.” To work in a public register, he learned, requires that one is above all else “flexible.” A more recent intervention was his work with No Generation Radio, and Dream Body. This last project involved his first use with slow motion cameras, a practice that is carried through to Northside Crossing.
Northside Crossing emerged out of a call for projects by City of Asylum and the Pittsburgh Art Council for works that 1) used language in an innovative way, and 2) worked with the community. As part of Siegel’s process he spent extensive amounts of time at the and the public park, listening to residents’ stories and then asking them if they would like to be part of the project. The catch is that such stories had to be told entirely with the body, not spoken language.
As such, Northside Crossing is fundamentally a site specific engagement with the everyday gestures that constitute the fabric of daily life in the neighborhood. Projected on screens of various sizes in three sites: at the public library, the now-closed Garden Theaters, and Allegheny City Market convenience store, the projects, which are in slow motion and black and white, call attention to the choreography of ordinary urban life.
|Video still of artist and Northside resident Thaddeus Mosley. Image courtesy of the artist.|
Featured prominently are two crossing guards, whose hand and arm movements orient and shift both pedestrian and automotive traffic. They are physical landmarks for the neighborhood as a site of transfer, and also the neighborhood as a space of return. Another character is a resident who is an opera singer, and we are greeted with her slowly raising arms, hands slightly curled, against a regal stone building. Such movements typically associated with the theater are resituated against the library exterior. The slow motion camera also carefully captures tremors in gestures that, to the ordinary eye, may seem fluid. Notable in this regard, is a vignette of a teenager who has her hands up, indexing the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” movement and memorializing Michael Brown. However, the slight shake and descent in the hands allows the viewer to understand the exhaustion, exertion, and endurance that is required in performing such a movement of solidarity.
|Video still. Image courtesy of the artist.|
The sites also activate complex meanings. A dance piece by two performers who bring their faces closer together, and then far away, projected within the closed down and empty Garden Theater points to a sense of loss and loneliness that reign in a building that used to be a vibrant social site.
Location helps shape the narrative the films tell, Siegel explained, with two central themes of “progression and passage,” where one can see the crossing guards as key figures.
This project is subtle and modest, it tells a story about the minor gestures that implicitly anchor and mark ordinary lives. However, in its modesty it also enables us to think about gesture as a means to generate attachment, investment, and narrative. The city is an ensemble of repeated gestures, and this project helps us understand this urban choreography in a series of microsites, an effect that is tremendous.
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