An Interview with e-Xplo about Dencity
conducted with cultural critic Steven Morton (December, 2000)
Steven: How does this project seek to fulfill the notion of Public Art? Or does it at all?
Rene: It engages public space and it takes place on a public platform, the road.
I think the term public art is itself a question. What do we hold to be Public Art? Who is the public in public art? I think these are very important questions. So I think first and foremost, this bus tour is more of a question mark in relation to the status of Public Art today. Its also a response to the growing privatization of public space, which is becoming more and more common in many cities. The tour for us, is an effective tool for engaging public space. It also presents a different strategy and response to the question of privacy vs. publicity.
Dencity also starts with some additional questions. How can artists still work with public space, without necessarily getting permits, approvals, and commissions? How can artists engage public space and create a public work without leaving an indelible mark (i.e., some permanent sculpture or installation or sign)? How can one foreground the question mark around an art practice that engages/represents/uses not only public space, but also the community that occupies that space?
In this case, we believe the act of touring can create interesting responses to all of these questions.
Steven: The word dencity denotes not only spatial density÷as in the density of urban planning -- but also embeds the noun Īdenā and perhaps a different notion of dwelling. I was wondering what different connotations the den within the city might imply? (M Websterās dictionary not only notes the sense of an animalās lair, but also a hideout, a center of secret activity and a squalid dwelling. How exactly do these alternative spatial meanings operate within the word Density/ Dencity and the project as you imagine it?
Heimo: We came up with the term by basically condensing some words, which we felt needed to have some play in our title. Intense, dense, city. We were really not thinking about den as such, but I think it raises new questions. I think the root operates underneath the word density. On the surface, but with additions, compliments of history and time.
Heimo: I think the question of dwelling is important from a number of perspectives. Each of us actually lives in this neighborhood (Williamsburg). We have also seen the neighborhood change dramatically over the time we have been here. Not too long ago its fame was based on pollution, empty warehouses and high crime. Today the scene has changed into a chic entertainment park with shopping malls and designer hangouts. Actually, it is not an accident that we start the tour from here. What used to be a typical industrial working class community turned after its fall into a harsh beauty before it got rediscovered and became what it is now.
One place we chose for this project for example is an area named Blissville. It borders an enormous toxic waste site, which is undermined by a huge oil lake. The size of the spill rivals what was set free in the big Alaska (Valdez) oil spill. In these streetscapes there is always the sensation of being underneath or between spaces. This place is without explicit function, simultaneously disordered, decaying and alive. Movement through the space is a flow within or through or over over-invested images.
Rene: This is an aspect of density, this idea of over-invested images. The entry point is not exclusively about a physical density or topographical one, but also a density that relates to its history and the relation of that history to the development of spaces such as this. There is a density that operates on a material level, oil underground, highway above, homes in between and then there is a metaphorical or less material density. I mean Blissville for example, is named after Neziah Bliss. A shipbuilder who is one of the key figures responsible for the existence of Greenpoint. So the name itself is dense. It carries, a history that then calls to the physical, social, economic, historical development of this area. Here I am speaking of a density that emerges in the intersection between space and time remaining contingent and constantly shifting.
Erin: Maspeth does not seem, at a glance, to be a social space where one encounters spontaneous meetings between people on the street. In fact, several of the sites we travel through are trafficked by trucks moving over enormous loading docks, warehouses with open/closed gates. Yet, inside these more or less industrial work environments, one sees that there are houses where domestic scenes are unfolding. Families having dinner, swing sets for children, TVās are being watched. Next door, warehouses, with few or no windows, not really derelict or defunct, many conducting some type of labor or activity. Not dissimilar from certain parts of Williamsburg or Greenpoint, but in terms of population-density they are dramatically different. So we hope that by taking people through these areas, a link does emerge about a relation that exists between them.
Steven: Why this intervention, why in this way. Why not walk people through.
Heimo: It would be possible to walk as well, but you wouldnāt get very far. (Laughter) No in all seriousness, driving with a bus adds many elements that you cannot have walking or say riding a bike or even taking a smaller car.
Erin: First of all we would not be able to make the links between these spaces in the span of an hour, that is essential. Second, we would lose this experience of voyeurism and surface which is also a big part of the experience. What I also like about our use of the bus for the tour is the way in which the physicality of the bus, its size, weight, etc. all of it is instrumental to the tour. So, we can ask the driver to drive over a curb heading for no where, just getting on and off the curb, and we will take you there, and youāll feel the road, the swaying of the bus, for a moment you are both simultaneously aware of the visuality of the road and also of its physicality. Itās simple, but effective.
Rene: I think what you describe there is a moment where someone may actually be jolted out of their "standard" experience of a tour. When they board the bus, they may feel a sense of familiarity with the form. Most people have taken a bus tour. They can enter the confines of the bus and they can reference their previous experiences, maybe even a party bus with DJās. And here they can establish another point of relation. We take the bus on a curb or drive it through a gas station to create some alienation or Verfremdung as Brecht would say. We invite the "touristā to question this very act of touring.
Heimo: Can you elaborate?
Well, for example, the act of touring is quite a violent act. Besides
the inherent voyeurism, there is a link to dismemberment. Dismembering
a space, a body, cutting it up into digestible pieces, to create a sort
of story or narrative. It is also a superficial act. In essence, the
tour is about surface. The best tours are aware of this.
Erin: We are foregrounding some of the tensions that arise as one sits on a bus and visits these locales , namely, the desire for more standard information, the desire to exit the bus and visit these sites, the desire to see more, etc....
Heimo: I think I can link back to this idea of violence Rene brings up. In a sense, going to all these obsolete sites, the gritty backstage of a city like New York for example, gratifies us in that we get something out of the collapse of things. Guess, that this is also a reason why one goes to visit obsolete civilizations.
Steven: If we get something out of the collapse of thingsā, what is this affective response, does it have any political content, and how can it be mobilized to think differently about the over determined spaces that we inhabit in our daily lives? Does the Īcollapse of thingsā signal nostalgia for an earlier phase of production and socio-spatial relationships? And by travelling to this impossible place, will it make any difference to the present conditions of the site itself?
Rene: I think there is a political content, particularly when you think of this moment in time in Williamsburg and New York City. We do not have enough space. Where will we get energy from? "Ok, build power barges near Williamsburg and the Bronx." Where will we dump our garbage? "Well, we canāt put it in the center of the city, letās take it to the periphery, letās take it to Williamsburg or Greenpoint." So the history of these spaces is ongoing, and what is underneath either resurfaces (as in the case of this toxic site we were speaking of) or it is covered up with new layers of desire, labor, greed, waste, hope etc· . So if we are to come back to our own, as you say "over-determined space" we have to engage further with these contingencies and questions of relationships between history/present, center/periphery, and an infinite number of other binaries ripe for deconstruction.
Heimo: Itās interesting to take on the part of a topographical agent. The city centers are a representation of wealth and at the same time make one feel secure. But they are also a visualization or manifestation of power. And the periphery represents exactly the contrary. In this formulation, center and periphery feed and depend on each other. It seems interesting to reverse things a bit and bring the center to the fringes and the other way around. Thatās kind of whatās happening in this case.
Steven: Can you develop the relation between your personal art practice and Dencity.
Erin: For as long as I have been making work in New York, I have sought out these industrial locations to play in, in my own visual and sound development. Maybe itās the detail of such places, which I find so interesting. Itās that there is a texture in the material itself, which does not necessarily lend itself readily to simple narration of events- as the layers are so dense. There is no centrality to the bus tour in terms of sound. It is a continuous streaming of fragments without working towards the construction of a dramatic or narrative resolution. There are concrete sounds that animate suggested events in such places as the waste management plant, Grand Street, schoolyards, and these sounds work against the syncing of sound to film image as I am playing with absence and presence of images/events and what you might expect to see but donāt. Also abstract sounds, noises which envelope locations, hoods, but it is this continual blurring of physical boundaries w/and the laying down of new ones that the sound/image work gets very exciting. There is a tension that remains on the surface of the narration as we continue to move through the streets and never disembark the bus.
Heimo: My installations, these spaces I opened up always became theatrical spaces. Inhabited by artists and musicians. The space in my approach is an entity of activities and these activities produce sound as well as social realities. The Dencity project is working on a similar level. The difference is that the sights are already there and that the sounds are already there as well. We just had to map the route and collect the sounds.
Erin: The grandness of the city is very seductive, if one street light burns out the entire street is viewed differently than when we saw it with all the lights on. Itās alive and we are moving within it, open to its occurrences and never able to assume it as a static piece.
Heimo: Itās like an eruption of different themes that potentially could be seen, connections that you could make, but you donāt have to, necessarily. Nothing is going on for very long. Episodes are disrupted every moment and superceded by the next. You find this fascination also in Richard Serraās films with the camera on the base of the bridge, the dimensions, change but there is almost nothing happening and it is rich with information. Or Yvonne Rainerās dance pieces, there are no grand sensations or gestures, and still this work is so wonderful, full of energy and never standing still.
I work often with video, so going from directing a camera to a bus is
quite a sensational experience. And there is a deep collaboration that
develops not only with Heimo and Erin·matching and playing with the
movement/pace of the bus in relation to the sound in real time·but also
a collaboration between the driver and myself· not dissimilar from a
relation between a cinematographer and a director.
try not to fall into idealizing or romanticizing or aestheticizing or
fetishizing these sites. This is a difficult task, because I think the
tour opens up to material as well as metaphorical possibilities...relations...questions.
Heimo: A bus, A sound system. A city. Simple.
Erin: But it is also terribly complicated. There is no place to put a speaker in a bus. (laughter)