Listening to the street

In the design field and beyond, there’s a growing recognition that physical infrastructure alone can’t prepare cities for the tremendous challenges they will face in the coming decades: climate change, rapid urbanization, and more. Social systems are as critical to resilience as buildings and bridges.

The growing emphasis on collaborating with local stakeholders rather than dictating solutions holds tremendous potential for strengthening communities. With a reputation for being slow and frustrating, however, this kind of work is still something of a question mark for many professionals.

A recent project in Milwaukee provides a glimpse into the convergence of these practices in fields as different as contemporary art and community development. The result of a year-and-a-half-long investigation into a historic commercial corridor by artists Sonja Thomsen and Adam Carr, Listening to Mitchell provides a multisensory dive into Mitchell Street’s past and present through an audio installation (with systems designed by Arup), events, billboards, radio broadcasts, and more.

I spoke to Thomsen and Carr as they prepared to launch the exhibition earlier this summer.

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How did you work with people in the Mitchell Street area in developing this project?

Adam: We interviewed about 50 people through the course of 18 months. We met people through a variety of different channels — we spoke with business owners, we did an artists’ residency with a nearby elementary school, we interviewed politicians representing the area (who also happened to grow up around the street), we met people at an Indian wellness center.

Mitchell Street is a major main street in Milwaukee, so there are a huge number of people with connections to it. And no one person or group of people owns the definitive story of the street.

Needless to say, we collected an immense amount of content — stories, histories, opinions. From the perspective of radio production [Adam’s former job], it’s overwhelming to have so much stuff to work with! We were given so much by the street and the people we met. So the question was really, how can we use these interviews and experiences to create entry points for an audience?

No one person or group of people owns the definitive story of the street

Anywhere there’s artwork on the street, that was a relationship, that was some level of cultivation, from “We’ve known you for a year now” to a a shorter conversation. It’s a business corridor, it’s living, so we’re trying to be a part of it and not just say, “Hey, we need to put this in your window.”

The audio installation is a good example of this. It was vacant until recently, but most people know the storefront from when it was a furniture showroom and, more recently, a wholesaler. We approached the building’s current owner, Tom Chung, and explained to him that we wanted to do an audio installation in the space. He was like, “What? What do you want? Why?” He runs a discount store — he doesn’t run into audio installations every day. But over time, we explained the project little by little, kept coming back, even got his son-in-law involved in the conversation. Now, we’re at the point where we consider him a major partner.

Storefront space prior to audio installation

We had to get a temporary occupancy permit and he’s a good handyman, so he helped us do a ton of repairs and modifications to get the space up to code so we can have the public in. We’re having a multi-month event here, essentially, that he’s invested in. I love that part of it.

We totally recognize how divorced a general public can feel from the art world, how lofty it can feel, how hard it can feel to be part of something that’s “art.” But it doesn’t need to be that way.

Posters installed by Thomsen and Carr

Sonja: During the residency at Allen-Field [elementary school], we took the third grade students on a field trip along the street. We had already installed a few images, so it was about looking and listening carefully. They found some of the images and we played some audio for them to hear. But we also took them into all these different businesses that we’ve gotten to know. It felt great to connect the students to Mitchell Street in a more intimate way. It felt like we were in an episode of Mr. Rogers: “these are the people that you meet when you’re walking down the street.”

The gelling of community we were able to facilitate was powerful — this group of third graders went into Lopez Bakery and got a private tour of the bakery. The baker was telling him about how he uses fractions. It was all kind of impromptu, it wasn’t planned; the tour became immersive and connected communities that rarely intersect.

Lopez Bakery

And we hope that the artwork will do that — through the map, through the images, through this audio experience, through people exploring, they’ll start to connect places and people making new memories on Mitchell Street.

From your perspective, where does this project sits in terms of broader trends in the art world, or in other fields that deal with urban issues?

Adam: The term “placemaking” seems to be everywhere these days and, you know, whatever — everyone has an opinion about placemaking. It can be a useful term, but I don’t like that the word implies something’s being made that wasn’t there before. We’re trying to act as a conduit for an audience. So we’re not saying, “There’s nothing here and we’re creating something.” A lot of it’s getting an audience to be open to their own experience with what’s already here.

How do people mix? How do you sustain it? How do we consume things now? What’s the value of community and connection?

Sonja: There’s something interesting about this project being so specific to Mitchell Street, so specific to Milwaukee, but it also acts as a kind of a micro look at a lot of commercial corridors and main streets throughout the country that have a new wave of immigrants. So there’s a broader conversation that our work is trying to be a part of. How do people mix? How do you sustain it? How do we consume things now? What’s the value of community and connection?

And some of our funders were interested in how you can use art to engage and connect — especially with business people, rather than in a residential neighborhood where people are more likely to want to know their neighbors. You have an agenda in your business, you’re catering to a certain clientele, and you don’t really care what the person next door is doing.

Adam: We were almost reluctant to go to one of our funders, the Zilber Family Foundation, in the first place, because they fund straight-ahead community development in specific neighborhoods in Milwaukee. But we reached out to tell them about the project, just to explore any interest. Through our conversation, we found that they’ve done planning processes in three different neighborhoods in Milwaukee where they convened community members, listened, and then used those conversations to generate asset maps and community plans. They’ve been doing this for a while, and their work has started to really take shape in those neighborhoods.

When we looked at their process — talking with neighborhood stakeholders and then making something out of it — it felt remarkably similar to ours. As we read about their process, the parallels were striking.

Sonja: They go through the same kind of interview process and integration into place as we did, but we’re producing this art experience instead of an analytical report.

Adam: Even in terms of the language, where these different approaches come together is “engagement.” In Milwaukee, at least, the trend is toward engagement. As opposed to studying residents and then extrapolating what they want into plans, how do you involve people’s voice in everything from initial inquiry to the outcome? So that it’s not like, “You are the data set that we’re creating from,” but “How can we create something together?” Easier said than done, right?

That’s the approach we went for. We weren’t using a rigorous social science definition of “community engagement” or anything, but we were either intuitively or consciously, in some cases, taking that approach. So, in the end, the Zilber Family Foundation might look at our project and think, “Maybe there are some strategies and tactics that we can use on main streets in our neighborhood.”

This is the second project you’ve done dealing with a specific Milwaukee neighborhood, trying to help others understand the local conditions. You obviously can’t transfer the model directly, I guess, but are there any broad lessons that might also apply in London or Nairobi or Beijing?

Adam: It’s entirely about what you consider the model. If we went elsewhere and made pictures that look exactly like this and audio pieces that sound exactly like what we’ve created with Mitchell Street, that’s where the approach would be wrong.

The model is the process, right — how do we go about engaging people?

Sonja: The model is the process, right — how do we go about engaging people?

What I’m excited and encouraged about so far is how we’re this neutral entity that’s coming in and creating a campaign across this entire space that’s a different kind of unifier. Instead of being exclusive — like if you own versus rent, or if you pay to become a member of the business improvement district or not — this is a very inclusive way to connect spaces and people. I think that’s an exciting part of the model: to be as inclusive as possible, and grounded in the place itself.

The big thing is trying to figure out how many ways people can access the content, but also be confronted by it — especially because we’re working locally, we’re working in our city, we know this space, and many people in our audience will as well. A woman we interviewed told us this morning, “I’ve walked this street many times.”

When you go and experience a new place, on the other hand, you see it totally fresh and new, and it’s so amazing and vivid. So how can we actually disorient people enough to contradict their perception that they “understand” a place completely because they’ve walked the street before? How can that newness of awareness or perception of space be activated?

Interview condensed and edited.

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