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You Are Here: Two Approaches to Site-Specific Storytelling

When the You Are Here team first starting talking about potential sites for our devices, we knew there were a few key features that any potential location would need to have.

Access, of course, was one of the most important: You Are Here is about the culture and experience of a particular place, so our locations needed to be ones that were freely accessible to all kinds of people, and where they could really stop and spend a while. For that same reason, we also wanted spaces with visual and physical interest: while it’s tough to find a truly boring street corner in New York, standing in one place and staring at a building facade didn’t offer the kind of interaction we were looking for; our listeners are meant to be contributors as well, so choosing sites they could actively explore was essential. Perhaps most crucially, though, we wanted to engage with spaces that had both character and community: locations that were significant to the people who used and moved through them, and even significant to the broader life of the city itself.

After discussing our options and evaluating our constraints (the devices would need both power and substantial protection from the weather), we eventually selected two iconic New York City parks: Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, and the High Line in Chelsea. We liked that while both parks met our baseline criteria, they also embodied an important contrast: Tompkins Square Park has been long been a fixture in the city’s political life – as a site of tent cities and (occasionally anarchic) political movements – while the much more recent High Line is a prime example of carefully executed and well-polished central planning. These contrasts also offered a great opportunity for us to explore distinct approaches to engaging our listeners.

Tompkins Square Park: Beyond a Bellwhether

A recent resurgence in the city’s homeless population has once again brought media attention to Tompkins Square Park, which is often treated as a bellwhether for housing issues in the city. But does homelessness really dominate the character of the park? For this piece, You Are Here team member Benjamen Walker worked with audio producer Hillary Brueck to construct a site specific audio tour of Tompkins Square using this issue as a starting point.

On the tour listeners meet current and former homeless individuals, and a local who has lived across from the park since 1988, creating a piece that that would both outlive a given news cycle but still provide listeners with an opportunity to participate in a timely conversation was a real challenge.

For everyone who works with site-specific audio, tying it to a temporal event is dangerous,” says Walker. “I feel like this was a nice challenge, and shows that it’s something that you shouldn’t just block off – especially for projects with a local community.”

Anchoring the audio to a topic like homelessness – which is temporal, but also politically charged – also required delicacy and balance.

“The challenge became how to branch out from it,” says Walker. In working with Brueck, Walker says, “I wanted her to look at the homeless issue, but not be limited by it.”

“There are so many different communities in this park, from parents to punk rockers to sun bathers. You see people with cameras – especially in the spring with the hawks.”

While it does capture many of these voices, in the end Brueck and Walker’s piece is really meant to be a jumping off point for listeners who contribute their own observations about the park, which we’re eager to hear when the installation goes live in a few weeks.

The High Line: Not Just for Tourists

On the far side of town, the High Line has been a major tourist destination since it first opened in 2009, attracting over 5 million visitors a year. Though not even a decade old it has been – and continues to be – a major influence on both the sensibility and direction of the neighborhood.

“It’s one of New York’s newest sites, and it’s gotten its reputation as being a tourist site,” says Walker. But as producer Dasha Lisitsina illustrates in her audio collage, there are “a lot of New York City residents who are drawn to this place, for reasons which are quite surprising,” says Walker.

Part of the uniqueness of the High Line is its actual topography: it is a relatively narrow walkway that stretches from Gansevoort street to west 34th street.

“Because it’s this long strip, it’s kind of hard to describe as a place,” says Walker.

To overcome the difficulty of picking a “where” within this beautiful – but ultimately transient – space, Lisitsina ultimately decided to focus on “who.”

There are not only a lot of artists and musicians who are camping out there and doing something, there are also quite a lot of New Yorkers who use it,” says Walker.

Lisitsina’s audio collage introduces listeners to artists working or performing on the High Line, as well as tourists who have come to participate and marvel. The highlight of this tour though, are the New Yorkers who all have different reasons for coming to the High Line, and embody some of the themes that emerged through the editing process.

A lot of people are looking for a place to be more contemplative in the crowd,” says Walker, which he also sees as meshing well with the audio piece itself. “If you were wearing headphones and people watching – which is what people do there – it would be kind of great,” he says.

“The other theme that I think comes out is how artists are using the space,” Walker continues. “They’re all battling for a little atmosphere to connect with audiences and not step on each other – which also feels very New York, the battle over space.”

These very New York stories are exactly what we hope to bring together through You Are Here, and we look forward to collecting and sharing more of them as our installations go live in the next few weeks. Keep an eye out for more details on the Tow website and at youarehere.network!