What do you think your community might look like in the future? If you were in charge, what plans would you put into effect? What’s something you’re worried might happen? These were some of the questions I asked residents of Somerville, Mass. a few years ago, as part of a community art project I ran.
The responses were far-ranging, and amazing. Personal goals. Concern for the environment, and creative ideas on how to fix it. Utopian ideas about an agrarian city where neighbors know each other and look after one another. Dark visions of a city of singletons, or of all-out class warfare. Whimsical plans for a fleet of food trucks with sound systems that host neighborhood parties. Practical suggestions about creating parking spaces for bikes.
And about creating new food spaces. “I think they should change the laws so people can sell food they make at home at a community store,” one person told me, while I was manning the project’s table at a street fair. A woman who’d been reading some of the project’s material looked up. “I’d love that. I’m a chef.” “We should talk,” the first person suggested.
“The history of Somerville, 2010-2100”
The project ran from February 2009 to January 2011, and was called The History of Somerville, 2010-2100. People wrote statements in the form of a prediction, which had to be tied to a specific year in the future. All ideas were welcome, no matter how believable they were. To round out the picture, I also included government plans and local think tank vision statements. In all, over 80 community members added their ideas, and I spoke to over 200 more people about what they thought about these ideas.
2014: Wind turbines disguised as sculptures appear around town.
One of the goals of the project was to get residents to think about what their community’s future might look like, if they had a say. Another goal was to get them to realize that they already do. A third was to let them see their ideas in the context of what others were thinking and hoping might happen.
The project focused on the future because people were generally concerned about the direction Somerville was moving in at the time. The city had seen some major changes in the previous decade; after the MBTA (Mass. Bay Transit Authority) had extended its Red Line through the western part of the city, that part of Somerville had seen some major gentrification, a shift that changed the fabric of the city in a major way. The MBTA was now planning another extension, this time running the Green Line through the eastern and central parts of Somerville. Would the same kind of things happen there, too?
Not surprisingly, many of the participants focused on either the Green Line extension, or on gentrification — or both. For instance, one resident added this statement:
“Somerville is totally gentrified. All the Victorian houses have been snapped up and renovated. Somerville is completely unaffordable for most.”
Another had this to say:
“More families will move to town. Although the Green Line will reduce car use by residents without children, the new families will still need cars to get around. The end result: the same amount of cars will be on the road.”
Giving a “future presentation” talk at a community event. Photo by R. Dorissa.
Reaching people and presenting ideas
The project took on a number of forms, each of which was designed to engage different types of people. Each form had its successes, and each had its drawbacks.
• Tables at local events
I had a table at a number of local events. People could write down their ideas, read other people’s ideas, or just stop and chat about the city’s future.
|This was an opportunity to talk with people about the project, and talk about other people’s predictions. These conversations were just as valuable as having people write down their ideas.||It was often hard to know when I was encouraging someone to participate, and when I was applying pressure without realizing it. This made it difficult to know who really wanted to share an idea, and who didn’t..|
|It was a friendly way to advertise the project, and reach more people, since these events drew hundreds of people.||It’s difficult to get tabling space for free. Many organizations didn’t want to give me space; and the ones that were interested in having an art project generally had events that only appeal to certain types of people. So it’s not necessarily a way to reach everyone in a community..|
|It was a way to reach people who were going to a range of events, which let me reach a broader audience..||Since people weren’t prepared, their statements generally were shorter and less thought-out.|
• Online participation
People could email their thoughts, which would then be added to the project. About half of the people who participated did so online.
|Since people who emailed had as much time as they wanted, their statements were generally more thoughtful and imaginative.||To reach people, I had to advertise the project and the website. This involved flyers, press releases and email announcements—all of which took time..|
|Only those who want to be part of it wrote in, so there was no need to worry that they’d been pressured into participating..||A website only lets you reach people who are online, and not everyone uses the internet on a regular basis.|
I gave a number of talks, which I called “future presentations.” The basic format was that I would show a history of the future, based on the ideas that people had shared. During the talks, I would show illustrations (mostly faked and altered photographs) as part of a power point presentation. I invited people to interrupt whenever they felt like it — to agree, disagree, criticize ideas, show support, or add ideas.
|This was a way of presenting a lot of information in a friendly way to a group of people. When people look at the website or the book, they skipped around. By giving a talk, I was able to give a coherent narrative, and show how different ideas related or clashed..||It was hard to get people to go to a talk like this, unless it was part of another event. The events I organized specifically for this project drew fewer people than the events that I piggy-backed on.|
|People said that they found the lectures both entertaining and informative, but no one ever interrupted to share their thoughts, and the Q&A sessions at the end tended to be short. This was true of both the talks I gave to small audiences at peoples’ homes, and at the more formal ones at community and art events..|
• Book and website
I created a book and website that listed all of the ideas that I’d gathered so far. Books were available at events and at a local store; the website was, of course, free.
|Both were a great way to present the ideas in a way that showed how they relate or clash.||Books only reach so many people, since not everyone stumbled across it at the library, or was interested in buying a copy themselves..|
|Books are permanent, and can be given to libraries and nonprofits, who will help share the ideas..||Not everyone is online, so a website doesn’t reach everyone.|
|Websites and books can be viewed at people’s leisure, which encourages a more thoughtful analysis of the ideas..|
• Interactive exhibition
To round out the project, I had an exhibition at a noncommercial gallery called The Nave. I put a timeline along the walls, showing people’s ideas. Visitors could add their own predictions. During the opening, a local futurist named Seth Itzkan led a visioning exercise. Afterwards, people were invited to share their thoughts about the future, open-mic style, as a part of something I called “Future-aoke.”
|This format allowed people to comment on other ideas, and add their own, in a public but potentially anonymous way..||Art galleries only draw certain types of people.|
|This was a more immediate way of interacting with the project. Participants could instantly see their ideas in the context of everyone else’s—as opposed to the other methods, which included a bit of a wait-time.||People had to go to the gallery specifically to see the show—whereas the other ways of presenting the information made it easier for viewers and participants (tables were at events that people were already going to for others reasons; people could participate online from home or work, whenever they felt like it)..|
• Talking to politicians and local public figures
I spoke with a number of local politicians and city officials, as well as citizens who are heavily-involved in local issues.
|This was a way of getting people who are very knowledgeable and invested in a local community to weigh in..||Public people were reluctant to be part of an art project.|
|By contacting them, I was also letting them know about the project. They then looked at the website, and read people’s ideas. This turned the project into a tool where private citizens could share their opinions with public figures..||When they did speak, they often give pat answers or general statements, instead of the heartfelt ideas that private citizens shared.|
One last note: The project’s image and legitimacy
Two related issues that kept coming up were the project’s image and its legitimacy in people’s minds. I’ll give two examples that both come from one of my favorite ways of evaluating a project: listening to what people have to say.
At one street festival where I had a table, an activist I recognized asked me if my project was “the real future project, or the other one?” (The city had launched its own visioning project six months after mine.) When I said mine was the art project, not the city project, this person abruptly walked away. This sort of thing happened a few times. The issue here seemed to be that my project wasn’t “official” — in that it was created and run by an artist, and not an organization. I decided that getting some sort of stamp of approval might help with this, so I applied for and got some money from the Somerville Arts Council, which is a well-respected community organization. (Note: Since wrapping this project up, I have become a board member of the Council, although I wasn’t during the duration of the project.) Everywhere I could, I mentioned that the project was partially funded by the Council. This seemed to quell some people’s doubts, but on the whole, people kept asking me who I was, and why was I doing what I was doing. If this project had been put together by a nonprofit or city agency, people may have been more interested in participating.
At another festival, I overheard someone trying to get a group of transit activists to add statements to the project; they said they didn’t want to be associated with it. This also happened a few times, and suggests that the project’s format didn’t seem legitimate to people who were serious about their community. One possible explanation is the whimsical presentation of the project. The format was a history of the future, and its logo was a map of the city with futuristic halos around it; at one event, I had an open mic where people could share their ideas, which I called “Future-aoke.” I’d done all of this to make the project more approachable and less academic — but this humor proved to be a double-edged sword: many people liked the playfulness of the project, while others seemed turned off by it.
Despite some issues, the project was successful. Surprisingly so. Originally I had planned on shutting it down at the end of December 2009, but people kept contacting me with their ideas about the future. Clearly, I’d created a forum that appealed to members of the community.
I find it helpful to hear what has worked with other people’s community-based projects. Most people are happy to share this type of information. Learning from other project’s difficulties, on the other hand, can be trickier, since people are more reluctant to share those kinds of details. I think that sort of openness could benefit us all. This article is my contribution in that direction.
Post by Tim Devin, an artist who lives and works in Somerville Massachusetts. His projects have involved community, public space, books, maps, walking tours, and giving things away for free. He is a member of the Rise Industries art group and is the board chair of the Somerville Arts Council.