Shirley in the Public Sphere

Monday, April 28, 2008

The City as a Palimpsest

Palimpsest FM

If these walls could talk, we assume they would tell us what they’ve heard. We assume that they would tell us the story of what a place has experienced, something that would give us insight into a place’s identity. If these walls could talk, we assume they would tell us a place’s narrative. With that concept in mind, I propose Palimpsest FM: a device that would record a specific place’s immediate past only to replay it at a later time.

There can be a few variations of Palimpsest FM, each one using a moderately different technique in different locations. One variation of Palimpsest FM may bring a single concept to light more obviously than another, but with each one the same issues are still addressed. Each device comprises of a hidden speaker that plays back the sounds of the same spot from an earlier time, anywhere from30 seconds before to a day before. The replayed recording serves as an audio version of a palimpsest, a proof of what had been there before. Using sound as my medium, I can create a nearly seamless overlapping of past and present when the sounds of today can’t be discerned from the sounds of the past. Like a palimpsest, it will be unclear where the past ends and the present begins, and idea that I think is best illustrated by v.1.0 of the device.

The notion of the city as a palimpsest is a characteristically New York way to experience the city. As a former professor of mine frequently said, you’ve become a New Yorker once you have the urge to point out a place and say “that used to be…” The physical urban environment changes so quickly in New York that this palimpsest, this rebuilding without being able to completely erase what came before it, becomes very obvious to anyone who has lived here long enough to call New York their home. The “that used to be…” that most every citizen expresses is part of the inerasable past that is being built on top of, it is an expression of memory of a piece of their home, and consequently a piece of their identities, that is gone but not forgotten. It is part of the neighborhood narrative that every citizen is writing a version of.

Bachelard speaks of centering oneself in stable surroundings, but if your surroundings are constantly in flux (and also incidentally not just your surroundings) like they are in New York, it is no wonder a sense of ontological anxiety can result. If one’s city, one’s home, is not within one’s control, one’s identity can stand on shaky ground. The urge to tell others what used to be is an attempt to reassert one’s identity and the home they had carved out of the city. This project serves as another means of describing the “that used to be.” But instead of subjectively telling the narrative of one person’s New York, it objectively captures what the place witnessed. Palimpsest FM serves as a reminder that there are many ways to remember what was and offers anyone who hears it not only a reminder of the importance of the palimpsest in the New Yorker’s experience, but also a comforting reminder that although the past may be gone, we can still keep it in mind it as it shapes our present.

The audio palimpsest played back in this project is to serve as a kind of memorial of what used to be in the immediate past. It stands to commemorate the same everyday New York that its citizens quietly mourn when it is torn down and built over. It memorializes the trivial happenings that many may overlook, but still plays an important role in writing a place’s narrative and consequently a person’s identity. It is also to serve as a more democratic memorial than your average city monument. By placing Palimpsest FM v.1.0 in Washington Square Park under the shadow of monuments such as the statue of Garibaldi and the Washington Arch, a comparison can be drawn between the monuments that commemorate the selective history of the victors to one that records and replays all voices of the city equally. The neighborhood narrative can then become more complete as it plays back everything it hears.

The notion of surveillance also comes into play in this project as people are secretly recorded without their permission. In Palimpsest FM v2.0, the fact that one is being overheard becomes instantly apparent as the recording plays itself back every 30 seconds, enough time for someone to say something and likely be in hearing range of the device when it replays. Even though one might be in a public place where they are constantly overheard, the desire to stabilize oneself, to feel at home even on the streets of New York can allow someone to put their guard down for a second only to be jarringly reminded that privacy is not guaranteed in the public sphere. Placed in a popular coffee shop that serves as many students’ temporary home away from home, Palimpsest FM v1.5 stresses once again that no matter how at home you may feel in a place, no matter how often you may frequent it or how large a role a place has played in your identity, it is still not just yours and consequently your privacy there is not guaranteed.

In the end, the project comes down to issues of control. By instigating this project, I have asserted my control over the places and people involved. I am reminding people who come across the project that they are not the only ones who influences and actions shape this place. I too have something to say about how this place should be remembered; I too have a neighborhood narrative I want to tell because although this is a public space, it is also a part of what I consider home.

This simple project can bring up many issues I’ve personally dealt with throughout the class. Issues such as identity shaped by surroundings, surveillance and privacy, the fine line between what is public and private, and individual control over a seemingly random mess of occurrences are always on my mind and no doubt had some play in this project’s development. I thought up the idea for this project on one of the first days of class and after thinking of the project in terms of concepts and ideas I have already been dealing with on my own, this class also offered me new perspectives and layers through which to see the project. The idea of the monumentality of the city and its architecture, the notion that the history that is being told through it as a selective one, is an issue that I had never given much thought to before. Looking at Palimpsest FM as mini-monuments that tell the story of all voices is something that I feel has been touched on by the project, but still can be more fully explored. I would like to continue pursuing this project, hopefully to see all versions realized and consequently to take these ideas as far as they can go.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Me as a New Yorker

After almost two years here in New York, I have narrowed down my list of regular places. The city doesn't seem so big and overwhelming now after I carved out my own little town, the map to which apparently looks like this.
That is the map to my New York and who I am as a New Yorker.
And to put it into context....

View Larger Map

If my little city can give someone a glimpse of who I am and how I relate to my environment, maybe getting to know two of my close friends cities would provide an even better picture of me.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

How to be me

An introduction on how to be me, by my friends