"For The Little Old Lady In Japan":
Documentation & Legacy

The June 11th, 2013 installment of the Wanderlust School of Transgressive Placemkaing focused on capturing places and the experiences created in them for a broader audience.
Speakers: Steve Dumcomb and Annie Coreal (jump to bios)

At Wanderlust, most of the experiences we create can only be shared with a small group of people. We’ve produced a one-time illicit retreat for six couples in an abandoned honeymoon hotel, and a speakeasy in a water tower that hosted a few hundred guests over seven weeks.

Our primary focus is creating that live experience. But we also spend a lot of time thinking about how to document our work for people who will never take part in a live event. “The little old lady in Japan” is our shorthand for imagining someone far removed from our live events in New York. How can we give her a sense of what we do? What will she appreciate?

We’re currently in residence at Atlas Obscura, a site that is putting together “compendium of the world’s wonders,” and this is a question that’s also crucial for them. How do you present places when you’re not in them? How do you convey the feeling of an exciting and unexpected event?

We asked journalist Annie Correal and activist and media scholar Stephen Duncombe to discuss their approaches to conveying live events to a secondary audience. How do you cater to this audience, and what should you expect from them?

Making the Invisible Visible

Duncombe, a professor of media, culture and communication at NYU, talked about the ways that activists stage protests for a broader, mass media audience. For a social movement, how you are portrayed to a larger world is crucial to your legacy. “Activism has always been a creative practice,” he said. The American civil rights movement, for instance, “consciously used images and documentation in novel, creative ways.”

Rosa Parks’ seemingly spontaneous refusal to give up her seat on a bus to a white man was actually a carefully staged event, performed by a seasoned activist. Nine months earlier, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin had also refused to give up her seat. But civil rights leaders decided that the young woman, who soon became pregnant, was not the right figurehead for a challenge to segregation. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.html?storyId=101719889 (The famous photo of Parks sitting at a bus window is, of course, also staged, with a white AP reporter sitting in the background “to give some sort of racial contrast,” Dumcombe said.)

In a similar way, the iconic photographs of the Birmingham Fire Department turning water hoses on peaceful protesters was not exactly a spontaneous act of brutality. “The entire thing was staged, not once, but twice,” Duncombe said. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s earlier protest in Augusta, Georgia, did not resonate because “the police rounded up people—civilly, politely—stuck, them in jail for four days, and left the about after the reporters had all left.” One reason the leaders chose Birmingham next was because of Bull Connor, the city’s police chief, an “out and out racist” and “belligerent in his policing.”

“They needed to provoke Bull Connor into revealing the brutality of Southern racism…They cast Bull Connor in his role as villain and he played it perfectly,” Duncombe said. Part of what a protest needs to achieve is “making the invisible visible, by dramatizing aspects of reality that are hard to see, that are hidden from the public sight.”

“To say these events were staged, with an astute eye for aesthetics, does not mean that they were lies,” he said. Instead, they were “dramatizing reality, making reality visible.”

While the words “protest” and “demonstration” are sometimes used interchangeably, the word “demonstration” has its own particular weight. A demonstration is different from a simple protest, Duncombe said. The lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina were “not just a protest against” segregation, “but a protest for something, about the way the world ought to be.”

A powerful form of demonstration is to “act as if” the world was different. What you want to document is that act of creation, that small example of the world “not as it is, but as it ought to be. You act as if it’s already there. You can bring our future into the present with this documentation. It gets a certain level of reality…It passes into our legacy.”

The documentation of an event that most people will see is often controlled by the press. One of the challenges in documenting activism is trying to shape how or whether journalists will cover what you do.

“The stuff that I work on is incredibly unsexy…stuff like income inequality,” Duncombe said. In order to get coverage, activists need a hook to attract journalists, an provide a photo opportunity that might make the front page.

“Billionaires for Bush” was the offshoot of a more conventional group that was trying to get people interested in economic justice—not an easy topic to dramatize. “Billionaires for Bush” with its tuxedo and evening-gown-clad demonstrators marching on April 15 “to thank normal Americans for paying more than their fair share” of taxes provided “a story that journalist needed to cover things that they really do care about,” and allowed them to “shoehorn those facts” about income inequality into the coverage of the theatrics.

When dealing with journalists, Duncombe said, “Everything you do is going to be spun and used against you…You have to think two or three steps ahead.” That means choosing a name that gets your point across, no matter how it’s mangled. (“Billionaires for Bush” does that job pretty well.)

It also means understanding the conventions of the mainstream media and using them in your favor. Every time activist Abbie Hoffman was interviewed by the mainstream media, “he was denigrated, quoted out of context,” Duncombe said. So he started swearing a lot in his interview, knowing that newspapers at the time would blank out his words—which would have the effect of “making everyone around the country think what he said was so much cooler than what was actually said.”

“Never trust journalists,” he said. Asked how to prepare for an interview with the press, he gave this advice:

“You think about what points you want to get across, how you want to get them across, think about how anything you can say can be misquoted ….The key is, try to figure out what the story is they want to tell, understand that enough, but also try to fit your story in there, as well, It’s not a collaborative relationship, ever, but it can be a cooperative relationship. Without you, they don’t have a story. Without them, you don’t have a mouthpiece.”

One of the challenges of an activist movement is balancing between the need to create an authentic experience that is meaningful for the participants, and the need to create a legible narrative for the broader public. That’s not an easy balance to strike.

As the avant garde, you want to be “acting as if there is a new world…while also speaking to the old one,” Duncombe said.

During Occupy Wall Street, “the very things that had a lot of meaning to the people inside the park,” like the General Assembly meetings, or having many different signs protesting many different issues, were the same things that “didn’t make sense to the people outside,” he said.

Finding a Guide into an Unseen World

Annie Correal is a journalist. Her work was recently featured on This American Life, and she’s the editor and co-founder of Cowbird, a site for visual storytelling.

The first rule of transgressive reporting is to find a guide, Correal said. This guide will take you deeper into an unexpected, unseen world. They’ll explain it to you as they go. And they’ll offer you the context you need.

After the hurricanes hit Oklahoma this spring, Correal went there, “not knowing anyone, not having a single source. All I knew was that two major tornadoes had hit, and there was bound to be a story there.”

She was fascinated by the idea of people who show up at storm sites to deal with the cleanup, this “economy of people who go from disaster to disaster.” She found, as her guide, one of these professional disaster chasers, a baby-faced demolition expert named Sol Saltzman. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/497/this-week?act=2

Correal got her start in journalism “like a lot of people used to: covering crime, covering breaking news.” In her mid-20s, she was the “legs” of the New York Times, “being sent out to see what happened whenever there was a criminally suspicious event.” The work gave her practice in literally following trails of blood spots through a building. In the process, she was dropped into totally different worlds within New York, worlds that operated parallel to her ordinary life and routines. After a trucker was found stabled to death in his semi under the Pulaski bridge, Correal located his friends and uncovered the story of an immigrant who worked so hard he slept in his truck—with his money—six nights a week. “He had been killed because he was keeping all of his cash in the truck,” Correal said. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/27/nyregion/27rooming.html?ref=nyregion

How do you find a guide to a very different world that you want to document? “Show up, hang out, and keep in touch,” Correal said. As a journalist, you also need to “have a frank conversation very close to the beginning of the relationship, in which you outline what your role is. You’re their friend, but also a reporter or documentarian. Anything they tell you, you may use, unless they make it clear they should not use it.”

Some of the most fascinating and revealing details that your guide tells you may also be the details that could get them in trouble. It’s important to talk them through this possibility. You need to “make your sources aware of the consequences they could face by going public,” Correal said. You also have to “make it clear as a journalist that you aren’t going to distort reality to protect them.”

Other tips: “Prepare for what it means to go into these shady worlds. Make a contingency plan. Bring a phone. Figure out what to do if you’re separated from your source of guide. Bring extra batteries.”

Correal, one of the founders of Radio Ambulante, http://transom.org/?p=19897 also highlighted the potential of audio as a form of documentation. “Work with the obstacles” of a hidden place, she said, “not against them. Audio is a fantastic way to capture a place when you don’t want to expose someone to unnecessary harm. Let them speak, let them use an alias (or just not use a name at all.)”

In reporting for her This American Life story, “Sol got so sick of me saying…”Describe what you’re seeing right now as if you were a blind person,” she said. (When they talk on the phone, he now demands that she “describe to me what you’re seeing as if you were a blind person walking around New York.”)

One of the challenges of documentation is capturing the nuances of an experience—not just the transgressive stuff. We asked Correal, “How do you find really good documentation, where people aren’t going for the flashy stuff, or going for the clicks?”

The key, Correal said, is remembering your own first experience of an event, remember “the moment where you went, ‘What? You did WHAT?’ The moments that really make a community come to life, make people prick up their ears.”

“You can’t forget that you are your own best compass of what is interesting,” Correal said. Also, when documenting: “try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

While journalists often focus on breaking news or the latest wrinkle in an unfolding story, you want your documentation to last, Correal said. “You want something with a shelf life, a story that is still interesting a year from now, or two years from now. You want to create a story that has its own human drama…You have to think about classic forms…that are beautiful and that people want to share.”

As much as possible, she said, documentation should recreate the experience, “not that you went up 421 stairs,” to reach a speakeasy in a water tower, “but the excitement and the wonder and the unknowing.”

“Give your audience a surprise,” she said, “and tell them more than what they would have known if they had been there.” (Like a piece of history from the space, that “someone was killed” on this floor.) Creating those moments of suspense and payoff, makes the documentation more interesting than “just, ‘I was there, it looked like this.”

Visual documentation creates its own challenges, as one audience member pointed out. Urban explorations comes with plenty of visual clichés. As Wanderlust’s Ida Benedetto put it, “I’m not trying to make lasting images of decaying places…[I want] still images of people doing unusual things, and discovering things that they didn’t expect because of that, and behaving in ways they would not otherwise.”

The process can be as simple as pairing the right kind of explanatory text with an image, as Correal does with Cowbird, a place that encourages people to share photographs and the stories that go with them. “How do you go beyond, ‘I was here’? The simple answer, after working with children and teenagers a lot…[is] Tell me something you know about that image that I don’t from looking at it,” she said.

About the Speakers:

Stephen Duncombe is a life-long political activist, working as an organizer for the NYC chapter of the international direct action group, Reclaim the Streets. He is an Associate Professor at the Gallatin School and the Department of Media, Culture and Communications of New York University. He is the author of six books including Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy and the Cultural Resistance Reader, and is co-director of the Center for Artistic Activism.

Annie Correal is a journalist and Co-founder of Cowbird, a storytelling platform that's building a public library of human experience. Annie has covered crime, courts and breaking news in New York City for The New York Times and El Diario. Her radio work has been featured on NPR, the CBC and This American Life, where she helped produce the 2013 Peabody Award winning documentary "What Happened at Dos Erres." She is currently on a fellowship from the French American Foundation, investigating the lives of disaster migrants, workers who trail natural and manmade disasters around the world.