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Bridget Bartolini & Art Jones

December 12, 2013

Each year, our artist development program, Create Change, supports 15 to 20 artists developing their socially engaged creative practice through our Fellowship, Residency, and Commissions program. In 2012, we began asking our Create Change artists to pair up for Creative Conversations: open-ended creative exchanges to be published on our blog. Read on to meet our Create Change alumni.

 

Bridget

I’m excited to do a creative conversation with you because we both deal with telling stories, and we’ve both been very influenced by growing up in NYC.

 

Art

Growing up in the Bronx, so many stories are not deemed “important,” although the Bronx has a particularly rich history. I want to be part of making it possible for those stories to be heard.

 

Art

How’d you start doing your art?

 

Bridget

Well, I don’t consider myself an “artist” per se. I create opportunities for New Yorkers connect with our neighbors and our neighborhoods through storytelling events. I have an initiative called the Five Boro Story Project, and we travel to different neighborhoods, inviting people to come together for public events that celebrate the neighborhood. I get people to tell their stories and share music, poetry, film, and artwork that’s inspired by the neighborhood.

 

Art

It sounds like you’re a curator.

 

Bridget

Well, I don’t think of myself as a curator, either. My background’s in community education.

 

Art

How did you get into that?

 

Bridget

I’m a third-generation New Yorker, and I grew up in Queens, in the same neighborhood where both my parents were born and raised, in the same house where my grandparents used to live. So I grew up hearing a lot of stories about how New York has changed. It seems like in so many ways things are getting worse and worse here, and it’s becoming a more difficult place for people who are not wealthy to live. I went to college in Ohio for four years, then worked in Japan for three years, and when I came back to New York, one of the first things my friends did was take me to First Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum. And I discovered there were so many cool, fun, free things going on at museums, and in parks, and even in libraries. They didn’t offer all these public programs when I was a kid. It was really exciting to see all these enriching opportunities being offered – and for free! So this stood out to me as a way that quality of life is improving in NYC, and I wanted to be a part of creating these public programs. So, I went to Teachers College and got my Masters in Community Education.

 

Art

[asks about Bridget's educational background.]

 

Bridget

I went to my zoned public school, and I had a typical NYC experience – overcrowded classrooms, concrete schoolyard littered with crack vials. Some of my happiest memories are from my elementary school, P.S. 108. Then I went to Stuyvesant High School. I never even heard of Stuyvesant before a teacher recommended that I take the entrance exam. But when I got there, I found some of my classmates had been preparing their whole lives. I was put in remedial math classes and remedial Spanish classes, because I never took a foreign language class. And almost all of my peers had. I had never been in a lab and didn’t know what a Bunsen Burner was; of course my classmates did. They had been groomed for a different track. And the building—it had escalators, it had air conditioners. It just opened my eyes to the inequity in NYC. I didn’t think about it so much then, but it stuck with me, how resources are so unevenly allocated, and people are offered different opportunities.

 

Art

Right. Your elementary school and high school were both public schools, right?

 

Bridget

Yeah, but completely different environments. One a typical public school, one a magnet school. But because Stuyvesant attracts people from all over the city, going to that school also was my first chance to meet people from different neighborhoods. I began to branch out beyond my own neighborhood. My best friends in high school were from Flushing and Parkchester. I met people from Staten Island for the first time.

 

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Art

How was that?

 

Bridget

It was cool! It was so great befriending people from all over the city. Where I grew up, I had a long train ride. I took the A train to Lefferts, to the second to last stop, and if you consider that the A train splits into three routes at the end of the line – to Lefferts, Rockaway Park and Far Rockaway – when I’m on my way home there’s only a 33% probability that I’ll be able to take the next A train that’s coming in to the station. Sometimes you have a long wait, and it would take me a really long time to get to and from places, but nevertheless I always felt like the city was so connected. It’s so easy to get around. My friends lived in far-flung neighborhoods, but despite these commutes, we would traverse the boroughs to hang out with each other, and get exposure to new neighborhoods when we’d go to each other’s houses.

 

Art

Yeah, it’s hard to imagine how different it would be growing up in New York without the subway system. The subway system forms you.

 

Bridget

Yeah, it really does. Especially since we start commuting so young. It’s so much a part of your life, and you see so much on the subway.

 

Art

I know! Things that no ten year old should see. But I saw it anyway!

 

Bridget

Yeah, definitely. Which is bad… but there are some good things about growing up fast.

 

Art

Right.

 

Bridget

I always had a lot of love for New York, but I didn’t fully appreciate it until I left. I lived in Tokyo, which is another huge city that has a lot going on and is a lot of fun, but it has a very different energy from New York. New York just felt so free and unreserved compared to Tokyo. So when I came back, I was really happy to be home, and felt like I had a new-found appreciation for New York City. There are opportunities for fun and cultural enrichment around every corner. I also discovered that after high school it’s really hard to meet other native New Yorkers. You know, before high school, everyone you know is a New Yorker. Even if you weren’t born here, we’re all growing up here and sharing formative experiences. But after college, when you enter the working world, it seems everyone you meet has come here from somewhere else. You do see native New Yorkers in the menial jobs. The people working at McDonald’s and working in retail – you find native New Yorkers there. The best and the brightest from all over the country are congregating here, and it’s a hyper competitive job market, and if you’re not a competitive person, you can get pushed into the margins. But I find a lot of people who come here see what New York is now, and just accept, “OK, this is New York City.” And they don’t have awareness of the way that things used to be, or how it’s been changing. And you hear people who have been here for two years or three years saying, “New York has changed so much!” And it’s just like, “Wow, you have no idea!”

 

Art

Right, it has changed so much. I hear people living in Williamsburg saying, “Man, I’ve been here six years, and it’s changing so much.” And I’m like, “You know what? Really? Don’t talk to me about Williamsburg changing.”

 

Bridget

Yes. A lot of people are just really unaware when it comes to how much New York has been through. I feel like when you have a sense of the rapid transformations in this city and the propensity for change, then it’s easier to imagine how things could be different in the future. With Wall Street being seen as too big to fail and the idea that we need the banks in order to function – maybe we don’t. It wasn’t always that way.

 

Art

Exactly. That’s a very specific, subjective idea that has nothing to do with reality.

 

Bridget

Yes, and you have to be able to imagine alternatives. That’s a reason why I think it’s very important to have an awareness of history and not take the present condition as something immutable. I grew up with family stories from a family that lived in the same neighborhood for three generations, and I heard about change, how our neighborhood transformed, and how there’s a constant wave of immigrants and people from different places bringing new influences. I was saying how in New York there are so many fun events and great public programs going on, and I really loved that, and I felt like I wanted to be a part of it, and at the same time I wanted to do something that honors New York’s history, heritage, and culture, and to educate people about that. You may not have a grandma telling you stories, but you can come to a community storytelling event, get together with neighbors, and hear about your neighborhood. Also, I feel like native New Yorkers’ stories are marginalized, and I was motivated to do something to counteract that. Sometimes I feel like our voices count for less, which is a class thing. The majority of New Yorkers are working class. But somehow the dominant image in the media is the elite, and the bright-eyed transplant coming here to find themselves.

 

Art

That’s true. And no one really talks about the fact that in a way native New Yorkers are often not the face of our own city. That to me was what was interesting about musical forms like hip hop and things that were actually generated in the city and reflect something essential about the character of New York, including the incredible way the city’s cultural landscape is formed by different immigrant groups. That’s it, as opposed to this idea of New York as this – I feel like a lot of people who move to New York, their idea of what the city can and can’t be is informed by very bad mainstream Hollywood films.

 

Bridget

Uh huh! And that’s why it’s so important to have alternate media that’s challenging these mainstream images. That’s why I wanted to do programs to create more spaces for regular people to tell their own stories. I do emphasize having natives tell their stories, but there wouldn’t be balance without stories from transplants, too. Something about newcomers is that they have a different perspective, and they notice things that people who grew up here don’t notice. I had friends visit from Iowa and Kansas, and seeing things about New York through their eyes also helped me appreciate it. And I like to bring together natives and newcomers at storytelling events because a lot of times these groups don’t have meaningful interactions. My adviser in grad school does work on family stories and studies how we learn from them. I learned from her about how stories create a basis for empathy because they change the lens through which you view other people, and it makes the “other” relatable.

 

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Art

Yeah, and that definitely is such a fundamental truth to doing documentary practice. Part of the goal is, at least for what I do, kind of imagining an audience that’s beyond the audience. I always feel like I’m making a documentary for the people that I have in my films. Then there’s this awareness of an audience that’s actually going to be like, “What the hell? I had no idea!” about things that you might think are very obvious or very ordinary. But you’re presenting that to other people. That is important. I mean, I don’t think enough, maybe, about the value of that because I’m like, “I’m not teaching anybody shit.” I’m telling an interesting story that I otherwise would not hear. So it’s very self-interested: I want to hear your story. But there’s great value just in what you said, that stories are humanizing people. It’s a sad thing to have to do.

 

Bridget

Interesting how you said that you feel like you don’t have to educate people. But do you feel like there’s an educational aspect to documentaries?

 

Art

So, I started teaching in the late nineties, and I decided that what I wanted to do was enable people to tell their own stories in interesting ways, as far as filmmaking is concerned, or go out and find stories that are interesting to them. That process involved an interior process – Why am I interested in this? What do I want to tell the world? How am I adding to a conversation? If there have been a million documentaries about this particular topic, why make another one? Something that one of my film professors once said is that the world doesn’t need any more filmmakers; so why are you doing what you do? And it was great, because we stopped and asked, “Why am I doing what I do?” You can approach each project that way. But dealing with students and teaching them media, I’m more interested in them finding these reasons and them showing me something I haven’t seen, rather than me teaching them about the world as I see it. Because how many bad documentaries on poor, destitute, victimized people in Haiti can you make? Probably 80 a year, because that’s how many documentaries they seem to make. And I’ve seen most of these, and it’s just like, “Another wack documentary on Haiti. Yeah, we know. They’re so poor; they’re eating dirt; yeah, of course.” What happens is, not only is the form rigid, but the mode of address and the perspective is rigid as well. But people don’t know it, because often very well-meaning, progressive people are making these documentaries, but the problem is, for me to try to, say, make a film about an aspect of the New York underground hardcore hip hop scene, they’re either going to think that they understand it now that they’ve seen a documentary on it. And meanwhile I’ve just shown an aspect that I’ve been interested in, with maybe three or four people involved in it, and that also has my particular agenda – for example, it’s really about the shifting economy and how artists do their thing more than it is about musicians per se. So there’s that danger, that people will think, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen it, and I don’t need to even think about it further, because now there’s been some definitive statement” — until the next definitive statement comes out about it. It discourages people from taking a deeper exploration. The best thing a film could do is begin a process for people who find themselves interested in the subject of the film, to start exploring it themselves, maybe picking up a camera themselves and start recording stories, or find an analog in their own communities to what they saw in this film. So I’d like to explore that.

 

Bridget

When you’re making a documentary, do you feel a burden to represent a complete picture?

 

Art

None whatsoever, because I’m selfishly making it for me. Maybe they’d get seen more if I did think about that. But no, I have no burden. I work with this media collective and we produce a public access show called Not Channel Zero: The Revolution Televised. And I think that was really designed as a counter-media project. We were very aware that we were doing things that would present more accurate representations than what we were seeing in mainstream media. I feel much less of a burden to do that now. I feel that the best work you can do as an artist is present a subjectively true portrait.

 

Bridget

Yeah, cause even if you try not to, ultimately that’s all you can do, right?

 

Art

It is. My biggest critique of the documentary is the pretense of objectivity. This assumption of truth or even a search for truth. I’m certainly not seeking any kind of objective truth. Even though I do like to present facts that may not be well known to counter the commonly perceived information. I like to make films for the people that are the subjects and hope that they might like it. I mean, I like the kids to like it. And of course you want the granting agencies to like it, too. I’m kidding. I want anyone who gives me money to like it. But no, I don’t feel that kind of burden, because I realize it’s an impossible burden. And often the people who you think you’ve made the film for may not like it. That has to be okay, too.

 

Bridget

Has that happened with you?

 

Art

I made a film about Public Enemy, and they saw it, and they were like, “Woah, this is really experimental and way out.” And I was like, “You guys are experimental and way out. You should like this stuff!” And they were like, “Ok, it’s interesting…” So you never know. But again, I think that’s the choice of pushing the form rather than doing something more visually conventional. For me, I just really like to pay attention to the particular content. It’s not possible to have a totally unique approach to each subject. But doing something about hip hop, I think it should look like hip hop, rather than just be about hip hop.

 

Bridget

To what degree do you feel like you’re documenting, and to what degree curating the stories that you present, and the people whose stories you choose to tell?

 

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Art

I guess built into the editing process is a huge process of curation. But I always thought of it more as architecture, because you have all these materials and you just need to narrow it down. What are the windows gonna be made out of? What are the floors gonna be to best make the statement or build the argument? And this is definitely an aspect that I do feel, that I’m curating these stories, and I’m aware of how totally subjective – some might say arbitrary – it is. But I do start with a strong argument, and then I gather material and left that wash over me, and see what works, and then the argument becomes more nuanced, and you see aspects you never thought of. So, I think I feel more like an essayist. I like to have a point of view that is really clear, which maybe the people whose stories I’m collecting may not agree on. But I don’t think I manipulate their perspectives. Sometimes their perspective clearly exists counter to the argument that I’m trying to present. But that is their perspective. I’ve never had anyone say, “You misrepresented me” or “I feel that you didn’t represent me fairly.” I’ve had people say, “I disagree with the argument of your film, and I’m in it!” And I’m like, “Great. That’s fine.” But I guess that’s why I never went to journalism school. I like the way you can stretch the notion of documentary towards becoming art, becoming a very subjective activity, something that you don’t think about when you think about capturing actuality.

 

Bridget

Interesting. With the storytelling events that I do, I kind of am grappling with this question of curation.

 

Art

But that is what you’re doing, because you’re really gathering all this material. Do you think constantly about organizing it around themes?

 

Bridget

Basically, the neighborhood is the theme. I started with a series of storytelling shows at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, which were about the Bronx. Since I established the Five Boro Story Project, it’s become even more localized, focusing not only on a borough but a particular neighborhood within the borough. I’ve only done one show that dealt with more than one neighborhood, which was I Heart Bx/Bk, examining the relationship and the old rivalry between Brooklyn and the Bronx. But I’ve had to ask myself, how much do I want to make these community events something that’s hip, that has storytellers, artists, and poets who are notable people who might attract an audience, and how much do I want to make it just normal New Yorkers who don’t have other avenues to tell their stories in public spaces?

 

Art

Where is the emphasis on that? Are you doing, say, superstars of the Bronx?

 

Bridget

My original idea was just to create spaces for people to tell their stories, kind of more like story circles. Then the Bronx Museum asked me to create a public program and produce events, and the pressure was on to attract an audience. So I had people who are in some way notable – for example, La Bruja and Isaiah Sheffer hosted events. And I’ve had those kinds of “superstar” people tell stories as featured artists, or headliners, followed by an open mic where anyone can tell a story. But it’s not the same kind of recognition and affirmation given to people telling a short story in the open mic vs. as a featured artist. I wanted everyone to have the chance to be a feature. So I put out sign-up sheets, where people who wanted to tell a longer story could sign up, and I’d contact them and find out what kind of story they had to tell. There were a lot of poets who wanted to be featured, but I found some Bronxites with great stories deeply rooted in the borough. So in that way I invited some non-professional, inexperienced people to tell their stories as featured storytellers, alongside a more well-known host, and we had some great stories come out.

 

Art

So that does add to the curation.

 

Bridget

Yeah. Although I feel when I was doing the regular series in the Bronx, people curated their own life stories. But if it’s not an ongoing process, or a regular program, but a one-time event, it’s harder to get community members really involved in it. So then it becomes entirely curation, doesn’t it?

 

Art

Is that bad?

 

Bridget

I don’t know. I hope not, because that’s more what I’m doing now. Since I’ve been doing the Five Boro Story Project, we don’t have a home base; we travel from one neighborhood to another. And although we still do an open forum and collaborate with local organizations and strive to get local residents telling stories publicly for the first time, it’s been more curated, with featured storytellers who I select, and less people electing themselves to tell a story.

 

Art

I think these things have to grow. They have to grow beyond the allotted time of a particular project. You’re starting something that then might become a storytelling institution. And it can exist in the official form, with the official storytellers, but then people find out, and you can do another version. It’s amazingly tough to get regular people to do stuff. It’s extremely difficult. You have to do it — the way I’m approaching the laundromat project residency, every day, every day. And out of a thousand people you contact, you’re lucky if you get twenty people. You’re constantly rescaling the project. So I think that’s the way it is. Unless you create some kind of spectacle, or a spectacular installation around storytelling, like a public recording booth that looks really cool.

 

Bridget

Well, that’s kind of what you’re doing, right?

 

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Art

Well, that is kind of what I’m trying to do. I’m doing the super [inaudible] approach to all this. Something I’m also trying to do in Hunt’s Point is walk around and go up to people and say, “Hey, listen, I see that you’re working in this store at these hours. I’m gonna come back next week with a zoom recorder and ask you to tell me a story about what it’s like to work here.” And that’s it. But it’s tough because you have to become a de facto part of the neighborhood and really be there. But you can’t do projects like that all the time, because you don’t have the financial resources, and you never have the time resources. So finding the superstars is a good idea, because you’re kind of creating an event. And these have to be institution-specific. An open mic might be the best way to do that, as opposed to doing a grant specifically to do a public art project that’s about capturing stories. So I think a tactical approach makes sense, in terms of who you’re working with, who your partners are, and what their agenda is – for the case of the museum, it may be to get butts in seats. And you did that. And the mission continues, and the means to the mission shifts depending on what you have available.

 

Bridget

Yeah, and I think with both of our projects we’re trying to get so-called “regular” people to be producers of content, telling their stories –

 

Art

And thinking about themselves as such.

 

Bridget

But you can’t turn everyone into a producer. Not everyone wants to do that.

 

Art

You can’t! People may be initially suspicious for lots of reasons. So it’s kind of natural that I’m going to have a lot of kids for this particular project. But the kids teach the parents in way. I’ve made the decision that I was going to be around the neighborhood, and I just know I’m going to end up moving to Hunt’s Point. I used to play there (inaudible), and the only way I could really do a project like this where I want to continue it is to be in that community all the time.

 

Bridget

Yeah! I’m curious to hear more about how you feel about doing art projects in a neighborhood that’s not your own. I also think about that.

 

Art

It’s interesting. I definitely feel more like the artist, and less like someone who’s in the community. At the same time it’s really familiar to me, but I feel like my relationship to this neighborhood is usually just walking around, (inaudible) taking pictures, just being a regular person. And now I’m here to facilitate your creative stuff!

 

Bridget

We’re out of time. It was so nice talking to you! And you helped me realize that “curator” is also one of my roles.

 

About the Artists

BTawkinBridget Bartolini produces public programs that bring New Yorkers together through stories and art inspired by the neighborhoods of New York City with her initiative the Five Boro Story Project. Bridget holds a MA in Community Education from Columbia University Teachers College. She has produced community events in all five boroughs, and created the series “Bronx Stories” to challenge stereotypes about the Bronx; “I Heart Bx/Bk” to examine interborough relationships; and “I’m Tawkin’ Here: Storytelling with a New Yawk Accent” to promote the culture—and accents—of each borough.

 

9938792486_2b38ded9d3_zArt Jones works with film, digital video, audio, and hybrid media. His films/videos, live audio/video mixes, and installations often concern the interrelationships between popular music, visual culture, history, and power. He has collaborated with musicians and artists including Soundlab, DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, Philipp Virus with Alec Empire, Teleseen, Amiri Baraka, Femmes with Fatal Breaks, and Anti-Pop Consortium. He has been doing public and community-based projects and engaging with diverse audiences in many places, including New York, New Orleans, Osnabruck, Hong Kong, and Karachi.